Topic: Joseph Smith
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During his lifetime, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was considered by skeptics to be a charismatic, but little more.
They dismissed his claims of visions, revelation and translation of an ancient record as the fanciful fabrications of a man who said he spoke to God but couldn't prove it.
Yet more than 160 years after his martyrdom on a sultry summer afternoon in 1844, scholars who see a growing academic interest in Smith's life and work are less likely to dismiss him than to study him, looking for clues to the wellspring of what many now consider to be his religious genius.
Twelve million people worldwide now belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which Smith founded in 1830 with a handful of members. The 175th anniversary of the church, and more especially, the 200th anniversary of Smith's birth, will likely be highlighted in several sermons during the faith's 175th Semiannual General Conference, which opens at 10 a.m. today in the Conference Center.
While those remarks will center on the gospel that Latter-day Saints believe Smith restored to Earth under the direction of Jesus Christ, it is the daring of Smith's claims of truth, the scrutiny of his texts, his novel religious thought and the examination of his place in the religious revivalism of the early 19th century that continue to attract scholarly attention.
Several conferences featuring papers on everything from the influence Smith's father had on his worldview to detailed examinations of his DNA have already taken place this year, including one highly publicized event held at the Library of Congress last spring and others in such far-flung places as New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan.
Additional forums are scheduled at a variety of locales before year's end, including Claremont Graduate University's School of Religion, in Claremont, Calif.; Centenary College in Shreveport, La.; Brigham Young University; and a venue in Korea, according to Robert Millet, the Richard L. Evans professor of religious understanding at BYU.
While the church-owned school has long hosted such events, the broad interest Millet has seen in Smith this year has been unprecedented, he said.
Part of the curiosity was generated by the Library of Congress event, he said, adding there's also "a recognition of something significant happening on the American scene. I think, as some honest historians would agree, Joseph Smith may finally be getting his due in terms of recognition and acknowledgment, even if they don't believe what he taught.
"There is a growing curiosity and desire to participate in rational discourse with us, and also a greater interest in inviting (LDS scholars) into broadening religious conversations."
For example, Millet was contacted several months ago by a professor of religion at Centenary College of Louisiana, a private, Methodist-funded school. The two men had never met, but the professor asked Millet to help him organize a three-day conference on Joseph Smith later this month.
"It's one thing for us to mount that kind of event, but another thing entirely for someone else to do so. His specialty is religion in America, and he said he felt Joseph Smith hadn't been given his due. . . . I was shocked," but pleasantly so, he said.
Such meetings at home and abroad have featured both LDS and other Christian scholars, some of whom have researched Smith in their native countries and want to share their views. "This is not just an American phenomenon. Latter-day Saints in other lands have a similar desire to do this," Millet said, and they're being joined by those who have become curious about the man who founded what historians often refer to as the "quintessentially American religion" that now counts members in more than 100 nations.
Terryl Givens, professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond, said while the church is "clearly behind most of these efforts," he believes a "receptiveness by other scholars and institutions to host them is an indication we may be turning the corner. It would be nice if we were at a moment in history where (non-Mormon) scholars were taking the lead, but they're clearly participating. That's significant progress."
Givens just returned from Taiwan, where a major university hosted one such event. He listened to a non-LDS journalist from India present a paper on what he thought was "the relevance Joseph Smith had to solving inter-ethnic conflicts in both the Middle East and Kashmir. It was quite a striking paper to hear from an Indian journalist."
The presenter said Smith "demonstrated a sincerity in his religious quest that many people in the midst of religious conflict today would do well to imitate . . . because religion is often the excuse for conflict." He also used Joseph Smith's history as "an example of how much can be accomplished by a person with a nuclear family. That's an important part of the (public) dialogue going on there."
The mayor of Taipei addressed the gathering, he said, speaking favorably of the church and noting the government there has put templates and formats for weekly Family Home Evenings on their Web site, attributing them to the church.
Another paper was presented by a scholar from mainland China named Qi Duan, a researcher at Beijing's Institute for the Study of World Religions. "She has made herself a student of Mormonism," Givens said, coming to Hong Kong where he met with her for almost an hour and "fielded a number of perceptive and very informed questions."
She made a presentation that was videotaped for the conference in Taipei, discussing her reasons for the success of Mormonism. Her reasons "weren't groundbreaking or novel, but it's significant to have a researcher from mainland China making this her focus."
Givens said scholars from Bangladesh and Indonesia participated in a late-spring conference on Smith in Australia, both of them Muslims "who had very positive things to say about Mormons. I was surprised to find familiarity and insight from nations so disparate as those."
Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, has studied Mormonism for 45 years. She said that while the Library of Congress symposium on Smith attracted a lot of attention, "it was of interest to many more LDS than people who were not LDS. It turned out to be . . . triumphalist in nature. Don't think that will be as important as Richard Bushman's new book in the academic community."
Bushman, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, has just completed "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," a biography many believe will be the most definitive look at the church's founding prophet to date.
"It has become a reason for us in the academic community to pay more attention to Joseph Smith, and that's for people outside the church," she said.
Shipps and Bushman are both presenting papers this weekend at yet another conference focused on Smith, this one the annual meeting of the John Whitmer Historical Association in Springfield, Ill. Bushman's topic will be "Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln," while Shipps will focus on "Prophets and Prophecy in the Mormon Tradition," as a way for scholars outside the church to understand why his followers believed him.
Shipps said a careful study of the revelations Smith said he received before the LDS Church was organized shows "these revelations have predictive value in that they are fulfilled. . . . There were rational reasons, not just spiritual reasons, to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet."
Other presentations at the conference place Smith alongside Mary Baker Eddy (founder of Christian Science) and Ellen G. White (a founder of Seventh Day Adventist theology), examine his personality as well as his family, his associates and the doctrines he taught.
Observing the variety of scholarly presentations on Smith and the LDS Church ever since Yale University hosted a conference in 2003, Givens believes the church "has a reputation and Joseph Smith has an influence that, in some ways, exceed the recognition of many church members."