Religious critic Harold Bloom calls Mormon-founder Joseph Smith, Jr. “the most gifted and authentic of all American prophets.” Bloom explains that Smith didn’t just passively read the Bible, but “drowned” in it and “came up with an almost near identification with the ancient Hebrews.”
Smith believed his time was a vital piece of the Biblical story, as was his country. In his world view, the Bible’s Garden of Eden was actually located in western Missouri and Noah built his ark to survive the swelling of the Mississippi river. Smith taught that after Jesus was crucified and rose from his tomb he roamed the American continent to preach directly to its inhabitants before ascending to heaven. All this and more Smith learned from a collection of golden tablets created by Native Americans, who he believed were actually descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. They committed these secrets to the tablets and then tucked them away on a hillside near the farm where Smith grew up in New York. Smith claims he was led to them by an angel named Moroni and that he translated their message by looking through a set of “seer stones.”
I find it fascinating that an otherwise ordinary New York farm boy took a centuries-old faith and made it so utterly his own, inserting himself into the story and making his land the backdrop for important plot points. If this doesn’t scream “American ingenuity” I don’t know what does.
The Book of Mormon and Smith’s other writings are like a bridge connecting Biblical locations and times to here and now. Together with the Old and New Testaments, they are the Mormon holy books, bound into one tome that is striking in its girth. I spied several people lugging it around during my visit to the church. Stand on it and you’re at least a foot closer to God. The fact that Mormons carry it as one giant book is as telling as their church’s official name. Jesus’ time and today are not separate entities, but one continuous era in which we are now in the latter days.
For all the specificity of Smith’s vision, at its core it speaks to the same sources of suffering that Christianity has addressed since the beginning. For those of us grappling with our worthiness, Smith taught that being born as a human on earth is a reward for proving ourselves faithful to God in the spirit world. Though we may not remember it, each of us on this planet has demonstrated our value and is currently enjoying the prize. What a lovely solution to the guilt we might feel even subconsciously that we’ll never do anything good enough to deserve our lives: we’ve already done it.
Smith also taught that death is a return to our true nature as ever-lasting, cosmos-dwelling spirits. If anything, death is an event to welcome because greater challenges lay beyond it. Our earth-bound incarnation is simply an opportunity to demonstrate our ability and desire to be fathers and mothers of our own celestial kingdoms, where we are “sealed” for eternity with our loved ones.
To Smith, plural marriage was an indispensable tool for achieving this goal.
Even though its importance is downplayed by church leaders today, some religious critics including Bloom agree that Smith’s writings make it clear how essential he considered polygamy to his doctrine. While most Mormons have distanced themselves from the practice, Bloom speculates that at the upper echelons and in secret chambers many are more committed to it than they let on publicly.
If this true, I opt not to be scandalized. As long as adults are making their own choices, I don’t see a need to pass judgment. How a person draws closer to God is a private matter, and plural marriage seems equipped with its own hardships.