Arts and Humanities | History of Religions of Western Origin | Other Religion | Religion
I wish to explore, in broad general terms, the histories to which historians have attached Joseph Smith. As you can imagine, the context in which he is placed profoundly affects how people see the Prophet, since the history selected for a subject colors everything about it. Is he a money-digger like hundreds of other superstitious Yankees in his day, a religious fanatic like Muhammad was thought to be in Joseph’s time, a prophet like Moses, a religious revolutionary like Jesus? To a large extent, Joseph Smith assumes the character of the history selected for him. The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man. If Joseph Smith is described as the product of strictly local circumstances—the culture of the Burned-over District, for example—he will be considered a lesser figure than if put in the context of Muhammad or Moses. Historians who have been impressed with Joseph Smith’s potency, whether for good or ill, have located him in a longer, more universal history. Those who see him as merely a colorful character go no farther than his immediate environment for context. No historians eliminate the local from their explanations, but, on the whole, those who value his genius or his influence, whether critics or believers, give him a broader history as well. I want to talk first about the way historians have sought the Prophet’s larger meaning by assigning him a history, and then examine the histories to which Joseph Smith attached himself.
© 2005 Brigham Young University Press
Bushman, Richard L. “Joseph Smith’s Many Histories,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, ed John Welch, BYU Studies 44, no. 4 (2005): 3-20.