Saturday, March 12, 2011

Joseph Smith's Responsiveness to Provincial Opinions

Mormonism, noted Gordon Wood in his inaugural Tanner Lecture for the Mormon History Association. “was born at a peculiar moment in the history of the United States, and it bears the marks of that birth. Only the culture of early-nineteenth century evangelical America could have produced it.”

Similarly, Fawn M. Brodie has suggested that The Book of Mormon, “can best be explained, not by Joseph’s ignorance nor by his delusions, but by his responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time.” Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d ed. (New York, 1971),

What these scholars are driving at is the often overlooked reality that Joseph Smith was not a spiritual innovator. He was merely a conduit of all the prejudices and provincial opinions already present in 19th century New England. Smith's skill was his ability to repackage presupposition to which the popular religious culture already subscribed, often without even knowing it. He harnessed the assumptions, aspirations and popular religious themes of his day to make his otherwise incredible story fit within the plausibility structures of the time. Like the false prophets described in the Bible, he preached what the itching ears of the masses wanted to hear. To learn more about this aspect, read my article "Joseph Smith: Profile of a False Prophet."


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