Question: Is it possible to deduce Joseph Smith's thoughts and dreams years after his death?

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Question: Is it possible to deduce Joseph Smith's thoughts and dreams years after his death?

Some critics of the Church attempt to discern Joseph Smith's motivations, thoughts and dreams, in order to explain the rise of the Church

Secular critics face a tough challenge when attempting to explain the foundational stories of Church—the primary sources from Joseph Smith and his associates do not provide them with any useful information. The only explanation left to them is that Joseph must have been lying about everything that he said. Authors then resort to fabricating Joseph's thoughts and dreams, and deducing his motivations based upon his surroundings. As one reviewer of Vogel's work puts it, "if no evidence can be gathered to demonstrate that a historical actor thought what you attribute to him or her, no conjecture can be beyond the realm of hypothetical possibility—just make things up, if you need to."[1]:326 This technique allows secular critics to quite literally create any explanation that they wish to account for Joseph's ability to restore the Church.

Creating a "psychobiography" by putting thoughts into Joseph's head

Secular critics, as a result of their inability to accept what they call "paranormal experiences," must come up with explanations for why Joseph Smith was able to create and grow the Church. Since many of the primary documents from Joseph and his associates accept evidence of spiritual experiences and angelic visitations as normal, secular critics look at Joseph's surrounding environment in order to deduce his thoughts and dreams, thus creating a "psychobiography" of the Prophet. A well-known critical work in which this technique is heavily employed is Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. Consider the following:

But the need for deference was strong within [Joseph]. Talented far beyond his brothers or friends, he was impatient with their modest hopes and humdrum fancies. Nimble-witted, ambitious, and gifted with a boundless imagination, he dreamed of escape into an illustrious and affluent future. For Joseph was not meant to be a plodding farmer, tied to the earth by habit or by love for the recurrent miracle of harvest. He detested the plow as only a farmer's son can, and looked with despair on the fearful mortage [check spelling] that clouded their future.[2]:18

Brodie's prose is very readable, and would be well suited to a fictional novel. Unfortunately, nothing in the paragraph quoted above is referenced to any sort of a source. According to Dr. Charles L. Cohen, professor of history and religious studies, and director of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

This habit of insinuating herself into historical actors' minds constitutes the second part of Brodie's method. "For weeks" after learning that Martin Harris had lost the 116-page translation of the golden plates, she stated, "Joseph writhed in self-reproach for his folly." Lucy Smith described her son's distraught reaction when Harris told him the bad news, but, though one can well imagine Joseph agonizing over what to do, there is insufficient evidence to say in an unqualified declarative sentence what he actually did.[3]

The speculation of one author becomes a later author's "fact"

Since Brodie's work is heavily referenced by critics, Brodie's opinions eventually become considered to be "fact" by those who wish to tear down the Church. Brodie's pronouncements regarding Joseph's motives are then passed along to the next anti-Mormon writer. Consider how the following claim evolves from speculation to "documented endnote," when Brodie states:

The awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging. Dream images came easily to this youth, whose imagination was as untrammeled as the whole West (emphasis added).[2]:25

Now observe how author Richard Abanes treats this quote in his book Becoming Gods (retitled Inside Today's Mormonism):

Such a theory boldly challenges LDS apostle James Faust's contention that critics of the First Vision "find it difficult to explain away." His assertion is further weakened by yet another theory of Brodie's, which posits that Smith's story might have been "created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging" (emphasis added).[4]

Here we have an unsupported theory by Brodie being confirmed by another author to "further weaken" LDS claims about the First Vision. Brodie's speculation of "was probably" and "it may have been" now becomes a cited endnote in Abanes' work. The speculation of one author has become the documented fact for the next author down the line.

Deducing Joseph's thoughts from his environment

Another author who takes great liberties in deducing Joseph's thoughts and dreams is Dan Vogel. Vogel's book Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet liberally assigns motives to the Prophet which cannot be backed up with any primary source. Instead, the author must interpret the meaning behind second- and third-hand sources that agree with his point-of-view.

Frankly admitting his "inclination . . . to interpret any claim of the paranormal . . . as delusion or fraud" (p. xii), Vogel refuses to accept Joseph's and his supporters' autobiographical statements—most of which grant, either explicitly or implicitly, such "paranormal" phenomena as angels, revelation, visions, and prophecy—at face value. Vogel's Joseph opens his mouth only to lie and deceive; and whatever he might be experiencing, or trying to do, or thinking about, one can rest assured that it's not what any record generated by him or his sympathizers would have us believe.[5]:206

When an author disregards the primary sources—the statements made by Joseph Smith himself—it becomes possible to create any story, motivation, thought or dream which suits the author's purpose. Responding to Vogel's description of Joseph's prayers and thoughts on September 21, 1823 leading up to the visit of Moroni, BYU professors Andrew and Dawson Hedges note:

What more could a student of early Mormon history possibly want? Here, in a crisp three pages, is a detailed account of what Joseph Smith was thinking about, praying about, and hesitating about over 180 years ago during one of the most significant 24-hour periods in church history. And not just what he was thinking about, in general terms, but how and when, within this 24-hour period, his thoughts evolve! And Vogel gives us all this without a single source to guide his pen—indeed, in direct contravention of what the sources say! One might chalk up this ability to navigate so confidently and so deftly through Joseph's mind to some type of clairvoyance on Vogel's part—"clairvogelance," we could call it—were it not that he himself protests so loudly against anything smacking of the "paranormal."[5]:211

Again, as with Brodie, and freed from the constraint of having to use actual sources, the author can attribute any thought or motivation to the Prophet that they wish in order to explain the unexplainable.

Notes

  1. Alan Goff, "Dan Vogel's Family Romance and the Book of Mormon as Smith Family Allegory (Review of: Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 321–400. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945). ( Index of claims )
  3. Charles L. Cohen, "No Man Knows My Psychology: Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, and Psychoanalysis," Brigham Young University Studies 44 no. 1, 68.
  4. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 44, note 135. ( Index of claims )
  5. 5.0 5.1 Andrew H. Hedges and Dawson W. Hedges, "No, Dan, That's Still Not History (Review of: Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, by Dan Vogel)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 205–222. [{{{url}}} off-site]