My most recent reflection on Mormonism was prompted by re-watching PBS’s American Experience on Mormonism. Naturally my husband, something of a Mormon though inactive and unsure of what he believes, was interested in re-watching the show. Going through the four hours of the documentary over two nights clarified for me what I think about Mormonism.
Firstly, I think Mormonism as it was founded was a result of 19th C utopian experimentation, revivalism in the Second Great Awakening style, widespread King James Bible literacy, American exceptionalism, regional folk magic, masonic rites and the special charisma of Joseph Smith. I think Joseph started by making it up, realized that people were sucking it in, and started to take it more seriously. It’s likely he completely fabricated at first his story about the golden plates, found it interesting that the local minister reacted so strongly to his story, enjoyed how engaged people were over it, and set to work constructing something. I do think that by the time he formed the church he believed in himself, that he had in fact been called by God and had in fact been inspired in writing the Book of Mormon. After that, the syncretism of the elements I mentioned before happened subconsciously.
Everything fits together so neatly in this model. The Book of Mormon spoke to people because they resonated with the fact that it was peculiarly contemporary and couched in a comfortable King James style of language. It dealt with those pressing issues of the day, infant baptism? Trinity? Anti-Masonry? What about those curious Indian mounds? Origins of the Indians? Why is America so special to God? (they assumed it was). And of course, they would have been familiar with the experimental societies of the day, as they were legion, and wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable joining one under Joseph. His seer stone and gold digging wouldn’t have necessarily bothered them, all that they were familiar with. Finding hidden treasure was often undertaken by respectable citizens. Joseph’s insistence on the nuclear family as basic unit of salvation would have been unique and provided a sense of reassurance and comfort to a culture emphasizing overwhelming individuality and a society which suffered from the frequent loss of children.
None of that need to invalidate the claim that Mormonism really is inspired by God and that God did in fact give Joseph the keys of the priesthood. It may be that God speaks to each human community in terms the community can understand and thus allowed Joseph some freedom in how to express deeper truths. Thus it would in fact be expected to see elements of his time in the religion. This is of course a possibility but one that I do not argue for.