"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Revisiting a 'Natural Born Seer'

Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830 by Richard S. Van Wagoner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a recent visit to the historic Kirtland Temple in Ohio, I noticed a new biography of Joseph Smith in the gift shop. My eyes, my nose even, is drawn to displays of fresh hard-bound books. Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830, is a thick volume. A stately green band runs over the dust jacket, like a podium beneath the grayscale bust of Joseph. At a glance, I knew this would be an irresistible treatise on the founder of Mormonism.

The late historian Richard S. Van Wagoner does something compelling with this work. Instead of a birth-to-death biography, Van Wagoner focuses on Joseph’s first 25 years of life. The book ends with Joseph formally organizing the church. Given its origin story approach, the book deals with the least adequately documented, but arguably the most critical, years of Joseph’s existence. As Van Wagoner’s book suggests, it is also the most misunderstood era of Mormonism.

Natural Born Seer comes with all the unflattering revelations one should expect from scholarly biographies of Joseph. Was the aspiring prophet a peep stone using, treasure hunter? Yes. Did he knock back his share of liquor, right alongside his likely alcoholic father? Indeed. Was the Smith family a bunch of lazy, disreputable types? … It’s complicated. Suffice it to say the finances of Joseph’s parents were intensely problematic and unfortunate. The open wallets of eager followers were much needed when the time came to found a religion.

In its candid and diligent rehearsal of the available facts, Natural Born Seer paints a less than endearing portrait of Joseph Smith. Yet, Van Wagoner stops well-short of denouncing Joseph as a true spiritual leader. Ostensibly for the pure sake of getting facts in front of readers, the author all but debunks Joseph’s purported translation by “spectacles” (aka Urim and Thummim), and he goes out of his way to undercut the hindsight primacy LDS Mormons give to the First Vision. Yet he also, along with some of Joseph’s detractors, credits the prophet with achieving something remarkable through charisma and other talents.

Personally, I found my devout skepticism about Joseph Smith validated by this book. Intriguing, but also dismaying, is the frequent use of eye witness accounts supplied via interviews performed years, even decades, after the prophet’s death. However, the author greatly increases this book’s value by beefing up the context of Joseph’s early years. The role of Methodist revivalism comes vividly alive through Van Wagoner’s copious research.

For me, the most unexpected and deeply valued element of the book was getting to know Joseph’s older brother Alvin. I confess I had never given Alvin a lot of thought. He died just as Joseph began bringing forth the Book of Mormon. In a perfunctory way, I understood this to be a tragedy for Joseph. In Natural Born Seer, Alvin’s death is depicted for the seismic shock that it was to the Smith family. Van Wagoner studiously shows just how significant were Alvin’s contributions to the household, and his anticipated critical role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. During the brief span of manhood Alvin lived, he seems to have truly been a beloved son and big brother.

For readers considering a first foray into biographies of Joseph Smith, I strongly recommend back-to-back readings of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. If you have already read those, then I recommend Natural Born Seer for a closer look at Joseph’s early years. Also, know that this book contains two must-read Appendices: 1) Accounts of Claimed Supernatural Visions; 2) Meanings of Lamanite in Mormon Culture.

Rest in Peace, Richard. And thank you.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

'Waiting for World's End' the Woodruff Way

Waiting for World's End: The Diaries of Wilford WoodruffWaiting for World's End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff by Wilford Woodruff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What was Wilford Woodruff’s deal? Pay attention to the title of this abridgment of his lifelong diaries: Waiting for World’s End. Literary scholar Susan Staker, who also indexed all nine volumes of Woodruff’s journal, edited this book for folks curious enough to read a book’s worth of the diary (in lieu of the whole record). As she decided on which entries to include, she zeroed in on Woodruff’s preoccupation with end times, and his hope of being alive to help usher in Christ’s return.

Waiting for World’s End, as a sampling of the LDS Church’s fourth President, assumes readers are already familiar with Mormon history and theology. Readers looking for a primer should consider other resources. Staker’s editorial style is, as much as possible, to get out of Woodruff’s way. This means few background footnotes and minimal tweaking of the text. Things like spelling and punctuation go largely uncorrected. For example, some of the book’s great offerings are chances to experience Brigham Young’s voice, as recorded copiously by Woodruff. However, the text lacks standardized punctuation. For me, it was sometimes taxing to track who was speaking: Woodruff, Young, or some other early Mormon leader.

Being a former practicing Mormon, well-read (albeit rusty) in the religion’s history, theology, and lore, this was quite a satisfying read. I felt myself experiencing 19th century Utah vividly and intimately through Woodruff’s eyes and mind. He is a far more colorful and potent personality than I ever experienced through official LDS publications. His world travels are impressive and worthy of envy. His love of family and fellowship is profound and often moving. However, his overt eagerness to see the United States enveloped in war and natural disaster, for the sake of prophecy fulfillment, is troubling. Regardless, letting Woodruff and his scribes tell the story should ensure this is engrossing reading for both practicing Mormons and secular folk.

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