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Joseph Smith: America's Hermetic Prophet
by Lance S. Owens
IF THERE IS A RELIGION uniquely and intrinsically American--a religion worked from its soil, and cast in the ardent furnace of its primal dreams--that religion must be Mormonism. Founded in 1830 by the then twenty-four year old Joseph Smith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as it is formally named) has emerged from relative insularity during the mid-twentieth century to become a world-wide movement now numbering nine million members. Patriotic, conservative, influential, and vastly wealthy: modern Mormonism is a bastion of American culture.
Despite its success and respectability, however, a fundamental crisis looms before Joseph Smith's church--and the crux of the predicament is Joseph Smith. Late twentieth-century Mormonism is being forced into an uncomfortable confrontation with its early nineteenth-century origins--an inevitable encounter given the preeminent import of the founding prophet to his religion. From the start, Joseph Smith has been cast by his church as a man more enlightened than any mortal to walk the earth since the passing of the last biblical apostles. No historical life could be granted a more mythological tenor than has his. To Mormons, Joseph Smith is, simply, "The Prophet". He bares the imago Christi. He alone stands as doorkeeper to the last dispensation of time; to him angels came and restored God's necessary priestly "keys" and powers; he built the Temple and taught the ancient rituals which therein make of men and women, gods.
But now, one hundred and fifty years after his death, Smith's place in Western religious history is undergoing an important and creative reevaluation. Historians and religious critics alike are examining him anew. And in his history's newest reading, themes unrecognized by its orthodox interpreters are quickly moving to stage center. Quite simply put, modern Mormonism--guardian of the Prophet's story--has no idea what to do with the rediscovered, historical, and rather occult Joseph Smith.
Two years ago, Harold Bloom's boldly original work, The American Religion, offered introduction to this unknown Prophet. The intrinsic and true American religion, pronounces Bloom in his widely reviewed book, is a kind of Gnosticism--alone a surprising enough declaration. But in evidence of this American Gnosis and as first hero of his story, Bloom gives us Joseph Smith. Of the man himself, he judges:Other Americans have been religion makers....but none of them has the imaginative vitality of Joseph Smith's revelation, a judgment one makes on the authority of a lifetime spent in apprehending the visions of great poets and original speculators.... So self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction.
And of his religious creation,The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the true religion....Mormonism is a purely American Gnosis, for which Joseph Smith was and is a far more crucial figure than Jesus could be. Smith is not just 'a' prophet, another prophet, but he is the essential prophet of these latter days, leading into the end time, whenever it comes.
"Sacred Activism is the fusion of the mystic's passion for God with the activist's passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart that longs to help, preserve, and nurture every living thing." - Andrew Harvey
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