Despite intense scorn and persecution during his lifetime, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and his theology have become the topic of legitimate scholarly inquiry that has laid the foundation for future research, according to participants in last year's Library of Congress symposium on Smith.
A panel of those participants told an audience at Brigham Young University on Thursday that Smith's life and unique contribution to American religious history will continue to be the subject of scholarly inquiry and debate not all of it "faith-affirming" in the sense that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have grown accustomed to hearing in church.
"We need to navigate the dangerous task carefully between the world of academia and the world of devotion," said Jack Welch, BYU law professor and symposium co-planner.
During Thursday's conference post-mortem, Welch said many scholarly divides came out of the conference, including questions about how or if Smith was created by his environment, about whether he should be examined in the same way other American religious leaders have been, about how much Smith knew about his "mission," and whether it's responsible to compare Smith with other religious figures of his day.
So many of those who attended the conference were LDS, Welch said, that in hindsight, he wished more non-LDS scholars had been invited.
Bob Millet, who holds a chair in religious understanding at BYU, said that while many Latter-day Saints may take umbrage with people who are fascinated by LDS theology and scripture but have a hard time accepting Smith, "I take it as a compliment that they're actually thinking seriously" about Smith, whose non-Mormon contemporaries considered him a fraud.
"You have to put yourselves in their position and ask how you would view a foreign prophet if you were a Methodist." Millet said scholars of American religion see him as an important historical figure as they examine what Smith accomplished during his lifetime, rather than focus on the truth of his claims.
Richard Turley, managing director of the LDS Church's Family and Church History department, said LDS officials wondered how LDS and religious scholars would respond to the bicentennial celebration of Smith's birth. An exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art on Smith broke attendance records, drawing 400,000 people during its run there.
From a scholarly perspective, officials were pleased that so many non-LDS scholars were eager to participate in examining Smith's life.
Turley and other participants lauded Jim Hutson, director of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, who worked with Welsh to put the conference together and mount an exhibit of the library's LDS documents during the symposium. They included the first printed document ever produced by Joseph Smith a title page to the Book of Mormon registered with the Library of Congress as well as a first edition copy of the Book of Commandments.
A new book edited by Welch, "The Worlds of Joseph Smith, "contains photos from the exhibit as well as the text of papers presented during the symposium.
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