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Book Notice: Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries

By: Ben P - November 09, 2008

This weekend, during a trip out to California for a wedding (that we were actually late to because we slept in past our first flight), I got the chance to glance through the newly published Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries. Edited by Reid Neilson and Terryl Givens, this volume is a collection of, in my opinion, some of the most thoughtful essays on Mormonism’s founder. In the introduction, the editors noted that, “The rationale behind this collection is that the day has come when the founder of Mormonism and his prominent role in American history and religious thought cannot be denied” (7). While a few of the articles have been published previously, the majority are printed for the first time.

While JI will hopefully have a more in-depth review of it later, I figured I would post a book notice informing everyone of the book (it seems it hasn’t received adequate attention yet), and listing the articles included.

The articles are broken up into three sections: “American Prophet,” Sacred Encounters,” and “Prophetic Legacy.” In the first part, “five scholars situate Joseph Smith within an American setting in particular.” This section includes:

Richard H. Brodhead, “Prophets in America circa 1830: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nat Turner, Joseph Smith.” In this previously published essay, Broadhead (now dean of Duke University) places Smith within what he calls “America’s Prophetic Tradition.” One of the few articles I have read before, I highly recommend it.

Klaus J. Hansen, “Joseph Smith, American Culture, and the Origins of Mormonism.” I was surprised to find an essay from Hansen in here, but this article is designed to argue that Smith can only be understood within his American culture.

Richard Dilworth Rust, “‘I Love All Men Who Dive’: Herman Melville and Joseph Smith.” A noted literary scholar, Rust compares Smith to the great American author Melville in their quest as “thought-divers” who explore the “darkest abyss” of the human experience. This work was previously published in BYU Studies.

Catherine Albanese, “The Metaphysical Joseph Smith.” As a widely acclaimed religious studies scholar, Albanese places the Mormon Prophet within her recent focus of expertise: American metaphysical religion.

James B. Allen, “Joseph Smith vs. John C. Calhoon: The States’ Rights Dilemma and Early Mormon History.” Allen, a Mormon studies veteran, places Smith within the context of US political history, especially his presidential run.

The Second section, “Sacred Encounters,” focuses on “the religion-making imagination of Joseph Smith.” This section includes:

Richard Lyman Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Creation of the Sacred.” This article argues that Smith met his followers’ desire for the sacred. He focuses on two “sacred” creations: words, which expanded the scriptural cannon, and places, with the focus on the city of Zion.

Terryl L. Givens, “Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plentitude.” This paper was presented an published as a part of the Worlds of Joseph Smith Conference held at the Library of Congress (one of the handful of good papers, too). It seeks to place Smith within the context of the Romantic intellectual revolution.

Douglas J. Davies, “Visions, Revelations, and Courage in Joseph Smith.” Designed to “further the project of an interdisciplinary, rather than a provincial or academically ghettoized, approach to Mormon studies,” Davies explores the implications of Smith’s early experiences like his leg surgery, First Vision, etc.

Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, “Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition.” Focusing on Smith’s views of temples, both in his restoration scriptures and modern revelations, this two-part article looks at the Mormon Prophet through the context of temple studies.

The final part, “Prophetic Legacy,” “expands the discussion to a consideration of Joseph Smith in a global context.”

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Tracking the Sincere Believer: ‘Authentic’ Religion and the Enduring Legacy of Joseph Smith Jr.” In this article, noted religious scholar Maffly-Kipp engages how people have dealt with Smith over the years, and gives suggestions on how writers can move past the “irresolvable debate over human motives.”

Richard J. Mouw, “The Possibility of Joseph Smith: Some Evangelical Probings.” Mauw, and Evangelical philosopher, also examines a better way to approach the controversial prophet without a polemical battle.

Wayne Hudson, “The Prophethood of Joseph Smith.” Hudson, a humanities scholar, argues that Smith should be viewed as “a genuine prophet of world historical significance.” This article presents “the possibilities of taking prophecy seriously as an aspect of religious experience and of cultural import.”

Reid L. Neilson, “Joseph Smith and Nineteenth-century Mormon Mappings of Asian Religions.” This article explores how Smith dealt with other religions, and how to address Smith within the context of religious pluralism.

David J. Whittaker, “Studying Joseph Smith Jr.: A Guide to the Sources.” This bibliographical essay presents a valuable guide to both primary and secondary sources relating to Smith.

Neilson and Givens conclude the introduction with this stated goal: “It is our hope to provide between these two covers an assemblage of statements on the place of Joseph Smith in American history and religious thought that is more wide-ranging than any collection previously available” (11). After a quick examination, I really think they succeeded. This volume far surpasses any previous collection on Joseph Smith; the list of authors is impressive, the topics are intriguing, and the contexts are significant. Published by Oxford, it is designed for a much wider audience than the usual Mormon readership, and the contributors should draw a lot of respect.

The last few years have been important for Joseph Smith studies, with Bushman’s biography still being somewhat fresh and the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers hitting bookshelves within the next few weeks. This is also a busy time for important Mormon books, with several “must-haves” hitting the shelves before Christmas; I’m sure everyone’s Christmas list is already impressive.

However, while there is a lot going on, don’t let this important compilation be a casualty of diverted attentions—it should be an important contribution for years to come. I’ll close with Edwin S. Gaustad’s, respected American religions historian, endorsement of the book:

The net effect of this excellent book, a valuable collection of essays, is to dramatically widen the circle of readers now familiar with the deeper currents of modern Mormon studies, especially as these relate to its founder.

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12 Comments

  1. Looks like an impressive collection of authors. Thanks for bringing it to our attention by this notice.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 9, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

  2. Ben, thanks for the post — this was not on my radar screen at all.

    I’m really missing the old Wasp’s book section.

    Comment by Randy B. — November 9, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  3. Thanks, Ben. This looks fantastic.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — November 9, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  4. oooo might have to pick that one up.

    Comment by Jon W. — November 9, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

  5. Thanks for the post, Ben. This collection does look like a solid contribution to the literature on JS, and one that might be appropriate for grad school seminars not interested in tackling a full-length bio of JS like RSR.

    Comment by Christopher — November 9, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  6. I just put it in my Amazon queue. Thanks for the review Ben.

    Comment by Clark — November 9, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

  7. Ben (or anyone), could you provide a list of some of the other “must-haves” that are imminent?

    Comment by gomez — November 10, 2008 @ 6:28 am

  8. Gomez, These are my picks (which are skewed to history):

    USU’s Smart bio and digital diaries.

    RSC’s Martineau journals volume (though you may want to wait for the USU version).

    Of course the JSP (amazon has volume 1 for cheap).

    I have heard really good things about Mark Staker’s volume on the Kirtland Revelations (note that Kofford has pushed publication back to March).

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 10, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  9. Gomez: Jared T. is going to put up a book list later this afternoon, so stay tuned :)

    Comment by Ben — November 10, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  10. Thanks Ben! This compilation looks great!

    Comment by Blake — November 10, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

  11. I should have the list up sometime today. I’m waiting to hear back from a few people. There are more than I expected.

    Comment by Jared T — November 12, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

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