“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS—H 1:33).
So said the angel Moroni to the young Joseph Smith more than 170 years ago, on 21 September 1823. It was part of a chain of events that led to the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and the establishment and dynamic worldwide growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The building of temples and chapels, the Church’s welfare efforts in many parts of the world, and the Church’s leadership in moral issues also have all helped establish the name of the Church and hence the name of Joseph Smith worldwide.
Today, the expanding missionary program, the activities and examples of faithful Saints, and the media have further helped make the name of Joseph Smith known throughout the world. As prophesied by Moroni, the Prophet’s name has indeed been had for good and evil. For decades his detractors have played the same themes over and over, and they will undoubtedly continue to do so. But in recent years there have been some scholars who have attempted to more fairly weigh Joseph Smith and his work.
Thus Harold Bloom, a Yale humanities professor, looked at what Joseph Smith accomplished and called him, in a 1993 book, an “authentic religious genius.” 1 And in the mid-1980s, Finnish theologian Heikki Raisanen, writing in a German publication, asserted that theologians must take the teachings of Joseph Smith seriously, since the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had recognized and dealt with problems that have puzzled Christian theologians for generations. 2
This kind of commentary is in line with a trend noted by a researcher at Ball State University in the early 1970s. Raymond Dale Roberson commented in his master’s thesis that in the twentieth century, non-LDS writings have tended to become more respectful of the Prophet. 3 Even critics who reject Joseph Smith’s account of how the Book of Mormon came forth generally do so now with intellectual arguments rather than by simply calling Joseph a plagiarist. 4
Others honor Joseph Smith in effect as they recognize the fruits of the Restoration. For example, sociologist Robert N. Bellah, after living three months in a Latter-day Saint community in New Mexico, wrote that “the religious vision of a loving community [is] perhaps put into practice in some respects more closely by Mormons than most other communities in America.” Looking at society in general, he warned that “unless that notion of a loving community can be revivified today, it seems to me that our future is not very promising.” 5
A very recent study by sociologist Rodney Stark of the Micro-Case Corporation recognizes the great religious movement that the Church has become in our day. He projects that based on past growth in membership, membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will reach 265 million by the end of 2080. 6 He writes: “We are observing an extraordinarily rare event. After a hiatus of fourteen hundred years, in our time a new world faith seems to be stirring.” 7
Harold Bloom recognized that the work of Joseph the Prophet was a key to this phenomenon. “As a Jewish Gnostic, I am in no position to judge Joseph Smith as a revelator, but as a student of the American imagination, I observe that his achievement as national prophet and seer is clearly unique. … Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman were great writers, Jonathan Edwards and Horace Bushnell major theologians, William James a superb psychologist, and all these are crucial figures in the spiritual history of [the United States]. Joseph Smith did not excel as a writer or as a theologian, let alone as psychologist and philosopher. But he was an authentic religious genius.” 8
Theologians and religious historians have also been among those speaking positively about the Prophet’s religious ideas in recent years. John Dillenberger, a distinguished scholar and student of the Reformation, has made comparisons between the teachings of Joseph Smith and Martin Luther on grace and works. He wrote in part:
“Joseph Smith faced the bewildering Protestant sectarianism of his time in terms of fresh vision, which led to a new scripture and the formation of a church based on archetypes and parallels more ancient than those the historic Christian church had claimed. Luther looked to the word of God, disclosed through a scripture interpreted in the church, as the constant source of continuity. What was new was what already also had been perceived. Joseph Smith, also finding all that was around him inadequate, was led through visions to the new realities and perceptions available through revelations, freed from their historic props and given credibility in their own right. Indeed, the stress on new revelations meant that, in principle, such new sources were to be honored in the emerging tradition.” 9
In his book Churches in North America: An Introduction, Jesuit scholar Gustave Weigel wrote of Joseph Smith: “His productivity marks him as a man of genius. He had very little schooling, possessing only the knowledge of the three R’s, and yet he was a combination of practical wisdom, great daring and rich imagination. He was clearly a leader of men, with a great confidence in himself which repeated failures could not destroy.” 10
Douglas F. Tobler, a professor of European history at BYU, points out that over the past several years some scholars in Europe, too, have begun to examine the teachings of Joseph Smith objectively. The late Ernst Wilhelm Benz, for example, a longtime professor of church history and dogma at the University of Marburg in Germany, told his fellow scholars that it was high time for theologians to give up traditional prejudices and begin to take American theology and theologians—including Joseph Smith—seriously. 11
Joseph’s major contribution, Professor Benz argued, was that he offered a complete reinterpretation of the orthodox Christian concept of the nature of God. “One thing is certain: Joseph Smith’s anthropology is closer to the concept of man of the original church than that of the protagonists of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, who considered the idea of such a fundamental and corporeal [wesenhaftes] relationship as the quintessential heresy.” 12
Professor Benz concluded in his closely reasoned essay that the idea of humans being in the literal image of God does not lead, contrary to some expectations, to an unworthy exaltation of self, but represents the key to keeping the two great commandments, to love God and to love our fellow human beings. 13
Heikki Raisanen commented on the Prophet’s work in his 1984 article, whose title is translated as “Joseph Smith and the Bible: The Achievement of the Mormon Prophet in a New Light.” The article pointed out that Joseph’s teachings provide solutions for most, if not all, of the genuine problems and contradictions of the Bible with which scholars have wrestled for generations. Mr. Raisanen said Joseph did not just harmonize conflicting interpretations, as most scholars have tried to do, but rather “improved the Biblical text.” 14
Mr. Raisanen credited Joseph Smith with “putting his finger on a real, theological problem,” namely, the “delicate point” of the unity and consistency of God’s plan of salvation throughout the whole Bible. Brother Tobler explains that without knowledge restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, theologians relying solely on their own interpretations of the Bible face difficult questions of faith like the following, raised by Raisanen: How can we say that God has an eternal plan of salvation when, according to traditional Christian theology, Jesus Christ brought a new way of salvation which the ancients did not know? Did earlier generations actually know the divine plan of salvation, or did God mislead them by giving them a law that was both preparatory and transitory? If, however, the ancients could, in fact, be saved by the law they knew, what was the need for Jesus Christ? Did God think of a better plan after his first one failed?
Mr. Raisanen wrote that the Prophet Joseph Smith’s answer to these questions—that Jesus Christ carried out a single divine plan of salvation, a plan known by the ancient prophets—was to him a thing of “pure logic and downright beauty.” In addition, he noted that these views of Joseph Smith are remarkably similar to those expressed in First Clemens’s letter, as well as in the writings of the Pseudepigrapha. 15
The Finnish theologian concluded with a plea for scholars no longer to dismiss Joseph Smith’s statements out of hand, but to study them on the basis of “objective, scholarly considerations.” He suggested that a serious reading of the Prophet’s writings would be rewarding for a broad range of theological scholars and argued that a “fair” scholar can no longer simply disdain and dismiss the value of these “new interpretations of the religious tradition,” which are meaningful “in their time and place.” 16
Despite the favorable things that scholars or other observers might say about the Prophet Joseph Smith, however, there are countless good people who continue to be skeptical or puzzled about him—about the history he related and about the doctrines the Latter-day Saints received through revelation. For these people and for faithful Church members who would like to persuade friends and relatives of the authenticity of the Prophet’s calling, the following insight of religious historian Martin E. Marty may be helpful:
“It is impossible for historians to prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and improbable that they will prove him a fraud. … Similarly, historians cannot prove that the Book of Mormon was translated from golden plates and have not proven that it was simply a fiction of Joseph Smith. Instead they seek to understand its revelatory appeal, the claims it makes, and why it discloses modes of living and of believing that millions of Saints would otherwise not entertain.” 17
It is as countless Church members have learned through more than a century and a half: some truths are not to be discovered by scholarly endeavor alone. Scholars may enlighten us about the life and times of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but they are unable to reveal the transcendent truth and beauty of the Restoration or the spiritual dimensions of the Prophet’s achievements. Each of us, with the help of the Spirit, must study out these things for ourselves and must “ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true. …
Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 82.
Heikki Raisanen, “Joseph Smith und die Bibel: Die Leistung des mormonischen Propheten in neuer Beleuchtung,” Theologische Literaturzeitung, Feb. 1984, pp. 83–92; translated into English for this article by Douglas F. Tobler of the Department of History, Brigham Young University.
Raymond Dale Roberson, Joseph Smith in Historical Perspective, master’s thesis, Ball State University, 1972, p. 177.
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 503.
Robert N. Bellah, “American Society and the Mormon Community,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), p. 10.
See Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 4:1520.
Rodney Stark, “Modernization and Mormon Growth,” in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Marie Cornwall et al. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois, 1994).
Harold Bloom, The American Religion, pp. 96–97.
John Dillenberger, “Grace and Works in Martin Luther and Joseph Smith,” Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, pp. 177–78.
Gustave Weigel, Churches in North America: An Introduction (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 90.
The article “Der Mensch als Imago Dei” (“Man in the Image of God”) was first published in 1971 in the scholarly German journal Eranos Jahrbuch and later republished in a collection of Professor Benz’s essays entitled Urbild und Abbild: Der Mensch und die Mythische Welt (Archetype and Image: Man and the Mythical World, Leyden: E. J. Brill, 1974). Selected passages of the latter work were translated into English by Douglas F. Tobler of BYU for this article.
Ernst Wilhelm Benz, Archetype and Image: Man and the Mythical World, p. 326.
Ibid., p. 324.
Heikki Raisanen, “Joseph Smith und die Bibel,” p. 84.
Ibid., p. 86.
Ibid., p. 90.
Martin E. Marty, Religion and Republic: the American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), p. 324.