“Liar,” “Fraud,” “Adulterer,” “Charlatan,” “Pedophile,” “Con-man,” “Blasphemer,” “Anti-Christian.” These are just some of the negative epithets that Joseph Smith’s critics use in describing him. The Latin phrase reductio ad absurdum means literally “reduction to the absurd.” But it also means “disproof of a proposition by showing an absurdity to which it leads when carried to its logical conclusion.” In this brief note, I intend both meanings. In terms of the first, “reduction to the absurd,” one need only list one-word epithets of Joseph Smith that contradict the above list to show how reductionist any single epithet is: “Prophet,” “Visionary,” “Genius,” “Revolutionary,” “Saint,” “Martyr.” This makes me think how easily anyone in the world can be reduced to one word and how any single label—negative or positive—fails to capture the fullness of that person, no matter, on the one hand, how intelligent, spiritual, or gifted he or she may be or, on the other, how limited he or she might be in talent, intelligence and personality. Every person in the world can be reduced to a single word, but all the words in the world can never hope to describe adequately or characterize any single person.

In terms of the second meaning—to disprove a proposition [or one-word epithet suggesting a proposition] by revealing its absurdity, those who negatively label Joseph Smith forget (or simply refuse to admit) that he is regarded by historians as one of the most influential Americans in our history. That he is also one of the most complex, paradoxical and controversial figures only emphasizes how absurd it is to categorize him in any kind of limited way. The prophet himself recognized the impossibility of capturing the multi-dimensional, many layered aspects of his personality when he exclaimed, “No man knows my history.” For all of the attempts in the more than two centuries since his birth, including Faun Brodie’s provocative biography, No Man Knows My History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1945) and Richard Bushman’s definitive prizewinning biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), no one has yet, nor likely ever will, get the complete Joseph between the covers of a book.

Few people in American or world history have accomplished as much as Joseph Smith did in such a short lifespan (thirty-nine years), especially given the fact, as he wrote in his history, that he began life as “an obscure boy . . . of no consequence in the world.”i Essentially Smith’s major accomplishments took place during the last decade and a half of his short life. Mormon scholar Kathleen Flake summarizes these last years: “Smith was twenty-four years old when, in 1830, he published the Book of Mormon and formally organized his followers into a church. Fourteen years, many thousands of believers, multiple wives, three cities, two temples, and one presidential campaign later, Smith was murdered in Illinois. Likewise, his theological concepts, including as they did plural marriage, premortal existence, and deification, to name a few, differed enough from Western Christian tradition to warrant attention. Ultimately, however, neither Smith’s life nor his speculative thought is sufficient to explain the nature or continuing vitality of either the LDS Church or its critics.” ii

Smith was born and came of age during an immensely fertile period of American history, a period that included men and women of significant stature and substance—Emerson, Whitman, Lincoln, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglas, to name only those who come readily to mind. There were among his contemporaries those of greater literary talent and greater political acumen, but perhaps none with the innovative and visionary sweep of his imagination. As the eminent critic, Harold Bloom, observed, “I myself can think of no another American, except for Emerson and Whitman, who so moves and alters my own imagination. . . . So self-educated was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction, since he appears larger than life at moments, in the mode of a Shakespearean character. So rich and varied a personality, so vital a spark of divinity, is almost beyond the limits of the human, as we normally construe those limits.” iii

Bloom refers to Smith as “an authentic religious genius [who] surpassed all Americans, before or since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination. . . . There has to be an immense power of the myth-making imagination at work to sustain so astonishing an innovation” as Mormonism (Bloom, 92). According to Bloom, Smith’s charismatic power was extraordinary: “Whatever account of charisma is accepted, the Mormon prophet possessed that quality to a degree unsurpassed in American history. . . . [No other innovative religionists of American history] has the imaginative vitality of Joseph Smith’s revelation, a judgment one makes on the authority of a lifetime spent in apprehending the visions of great poets and original speculators” (Bloom, 93-94). Bloom goes even further in praising Smith for what Bloom, an atheist, finds inexplicable—how the prophet “reimagined ancient mysteries . . . associated with Enoch. Somehow, in an insight of genius, the Prophet Joseph recovered what Moshe Idel describes as the central mystery of Kabbalah.” Bloom states, “I can only attribute to his genius or daemon [a divine or supernatural being between the divine and the human] his uncanny recovery of elements from ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly” (Bloom, 98, 97).

The point of all of this is not to ignore or occlude the controversial aspects of Joseph Smith’s history and certainly not to engage in hagiographic distortions of his life, as some Mormons do. It is difficult, if not impossible to understand some of what might be called the darker aspects of Smith’s extremely complex personality or the negative consequences of some of his decisions. The “Prophet Puzzle” as it has been called, will likely remain a puzzle. But as someone who attended the two-hundredth anniversary celebration of Joseph Smith’s birth at the Library of Congress in 2005, I can attest that the estimation of the Prophet’s reputation among scholars of various religious persuasions as well as secularists seems assured, as is the Book of Mormon which he produced and which is considered one of the one hundred most influential books published in America.

Critics of the prophet need to recognize that the character and influence of Joseph Smith are still being unfolded, his history still being written. Undoubtedly there will be continuing attempts to reduce him by some absurdly negative and diminutive epithet, but my own guess as someone who has studied his life and the products of his religion-making imagination, is that his reputation will grow in stature as time unfolds. As I said at the conclusion of my article, “Joseph Smith and the American Renaissance,” “The period of spiritual and imaginative expression that flowered in early to mid-nineteenth century America is called the Age of Emerson, but given the growing reputation of the Vermont farm boy who saw the Father and the Son amidst the trees on his father’s farm and the book he miraculously brought forth to the world (which is more widely read than any book written in the nineteenth century), it is not inconceivable that sometime in this century it might be renamed the Age of Joseph Smith.” iv

As I said at the outset, every person in the world can be reduced to a single word, but all the words in the world can never hope to describe adequately or characterize any single person.


i “Joseph Smith—History,” The Pearl of Great Price.
ii “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Canon,” Journal of Religion
iii The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster,1992), 127.
iv “Joseph Smith and the American Renaissance,” Dialogue 35:3 (Fall 2002), 112.

Bob Rees holds a BA from Brigham Young University and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught at UCLA and UC Santa-Cruz and was a Fulbright Professor of American Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. Currently he teaches at Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley. Rees is the author and editor of numerous studies in the humanities, education and religion. He is the co-editor (with Eugene England) of The Reader’s Bookof Mormon (Signature Books, 2008) and the editor of Proving Contraries: A Collection ofWritings in Honor of Eugene England (Signature, 2005) and Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons (Signature, 2011). Currently, he is completing a second volume of Why I Stay and writing a books on Discipleship and Mormons and Gays. Rees has served as a bishop and a member of the Baltic States Mission presidency. He lives in Mill Valley, California.

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