Joseph Smith in Hermeneutical Crisis

By Smith, Christopher C. | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Joseph Smith in Hermeneutical Crisis


Smith, Christopher C., Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Marvin Hill argued in 1989 that the fundamental problem early Mormonism was designed to address was the problem of pluralism. Pluralism, according to Hill, caused a situation of social disintegration and insecurity to which Mormons hoped to bring stability and uniformity.1Hill's analysis is insightful in its attention to the institutional and political issues but does not fully engage the religious dimensions of the problem.2 This omission is serious, especially since many of the political and institutional divisions in the early Republic were themselves deeply rooted in religious divisions. These religious divisions, in turn, arose largely from divergent readings of the Bible.

Although Joseph Smith did endeavor to create political and institutional unity, his more fundamental project was to create religious unity. Most American Protestants of Smith's day believed the Bible was "perspicuous," or clear and self-interpreting. Religious divisions were blamed on the interference of creeds and authorities with the common sense reading of the Bible. Many believed that, if interpretation could be democratized, Christian unity would be the natural result. Actually, however, in the highly democratic environment of the early nineteenth century, interpretations of the Bible only multiplied, and new denominations only proliferated. The religious foundation of Protestant America turned out to be somuch shifting sand, and the viability of the nation itself seemed threatened. Joseph Smith's project can be understood, in part, as an effort to shore up this foundation and to satisfy his frustrated longing for religious unity in his family and nation.

Put another way, early nineteenth-century Protestant America was a nation in hermeneutical crisis. The bewildering diversity of the nation's religious marketplace meant that interpreters approached the Bible with vastly different presuppositions and therefore interpreted it in vastly different ways. More frightening still was the challenge posed by rationalism, which threatened to do away with biblical authority altogether. Joseph Smith addressed such concerns by an appeal to special revelation, by which he authoritatively clarified and interpreted the Bible for a nineteenth- century audience, with special attention to resolving contradictions and to creating continuity in salvation history. He sought, in short, to restore the Bible's perspicuity and to place its interpretation within the reach of common sense.

The Smiths Confront the Crisis

When Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805, it was not to a virgin; there were no portents in the stars to let the world know that a prophet had been born. But if the fates did not move the heavens for the infant prophet, it may be because they were too busy moving the earth. Fawn Brodie, one of Joseph's biographers, has said of the early nineteenth century, "These pentecostal years . . . were themost fertile in history for the sprouting of prophets."3 This was an age of remarkable religious ferment: the Second Great Awakening was in full swing, and many Americans were abandoning mainline religious denominations to join upstart sects that promised, among other things, a more democratic, charismatic, and biblical faith.4

For Joseph Smith religious dissent was not merely a cultural phenomenon; both sides of his family had long made it a way of life.5 His paternal grandfather Asael Smith was a Universalist. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, had spent most of his life as an atheist. Mack's wife raised their children, including Joseph Smith's mother Lucy, without formal church affiliation. Joseph's father, Joseph Sr., was also incubated largely apart from organized religion.6 A Universalist like Asael, he showed greater interest in folk religious practices like divination than in the activities of local evangelical churches.7

But if the Prophet's parents were not regular church attenders, neither were they irreligious; they simply believed that no true church existed on the earth. …

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