I met Joseph out of all Mormon context. I met him between Emerson and the Beatles, between the American Revolution and the sixties, between the conservative New England tilt ofmy education and the ecstatic, destabilizing, boundary-busting, prolonged years of anti-authoritarian protest against the U.S. government. I met Joseph roaming the corridors of American history in Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History, portrayed as a genius who would be comfortable at the same table with P. T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and Norman Mailer-to name a few of the wildly imaginative national characters I had been pitching for documentaries.
Somehow I had reachedmy forties without ever having met a single Mormon and knowing almost nothing about our homegrown prophet. I encountered Joseph amid the smoking ruins of Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon's impeachment, and the country's return to our primal dream of avarice. By that time, "my" priests were Martin Luther King and the Berrigan brothers, men who broke the law for a higher good. Fawn Brodie's Joseph was this kind of man. But the social activist priests always seemed more moral than faithful. Amid their good works, their contradictions and ironies somehow suggested that politics was what we had in a world from which God had withdrawn. In Brodie's biography, when Joseph broke the law for a higher good, I felt he did so as a modern man of faith.
Brodie meant to debunk, and some questioning Mormons are rumored to have left the Church because of No Man Knows My History. But for me, her Joseph reawakened religious feelings I thought I'd lost forever. As a child in Providence, Rhode Island, I was a believer.My older brother and sister grumbled when my parents sent us off to church and Sunday School. But I loved coloring pictures of the burning bush and thinking hard about the nun's claim that God was always with each and every one of us. I believed it was true-but how!? I was intrigued by the mystery. When we moved to Washington, D.C., and my parents no longer enforced church going, I was still ardent. I was eight.
On Sundays, while the rest of my family read newspapers around the breakfast table, I traveled from Georgetown to St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House by taxi. I soon felt like the odd man out. Daddy had come home from WorldWar II and joined the State Department. I didn't want to miss one of his anti-Communist riffs while I was off at church. How could I save America if I didn't know what challenges the free world faced? I won a Bible for memorizing verses in Sunday School, but I felt it was success for success's sake. God wasn't in my words.
The taxi said it all. I had become an uprooted pilgrim, paying strangers to drive me around in search of a place I might really belong. I'd stepped into the particle accelerator in which new energies are constantly released by our atoms colliding at the speed of light. I've come to realize that this is the perpetual shattering modern people call home. I've often felt it's like living in a huge lost-and-found, of doubling and tripling our lives and even our bodies, of trying incarnations that end up in a heap in "unclaimed baggage" centers. There is no rest, only perpetual disintegration and renewal. As a member of the holy order of disappearing sacred cows, I didn't exactly lose interest in God. I just never heard about a God who didn't take himself very, very seriously. . . . Enter Joseph Smith.
He was born in 1805, on a boundary line between rooted traditions and the age of the particle accelerator. The post-revolutionary world was coming unstuck all around him; and strange, new electrical impulses were flying off in every direction. Smith's family on both sides had already been broken into many kinds of energetic nonconformity. They were religious seekers, adventurers, writers, utopians, large-minded, large-hearted men and women trying to get their hands on the meaning of life. They were just the sort of …