“Founder Biographies as a Form of Scripture: The Case of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet”
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In his Brown Bag presentation, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University Armand Mauss focused on the varied tones and textures in retelling the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Premised on the predominant notion of scripture as it relates to texts, Mauss assessed whether the biographies of religious founders could, in themselves, constitute scripture.
For Mauss, the writings of and about religion founders are particularly susceptible to scripturalization, a process by which social relations are contrived into sacred power, because founding narratives about truth claims are quintessential to religious claims. Hence, the biographies of Joseph Smith could easily be considered “scripture” for the Mormons because the community recognized these texts as authentic and sacred. Mauss made a reference to the supposed founders of three religions: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. He argued that Joseph Smith’s life was similar to these founding figures because, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Mormonism declares that there was truth to be found in the biography of their founding figure. As scripturalized truths, such biographies engender foundational propositions for the articulation of distinctive and recognizable pillars for their respective religions.
By way of Peter Berger’s concept of “master narrative as a construct,” Mauss explored how scripturalized biographies found in a text and adopted by a community serve as constructs that become the reality for the community. The “Life of Joseph Smith” as found in the Pearl of Great Price is a prime example of this religio-sociological phenomenon. For the majority of Mormons, this excerpt was written by Smith himself. However, and contrary to popular belief, this narrative of Joseph Smith had been put forth by a council of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church after the death of the Mormon founder. Nevertheless, since it has helped construct a Mormon reality, the belated construction of Smith’s life gets overshadowed by its function as a scripturalized biography.
Mauss provided four categories to map the constructions of Joseph Smith’s biography as a foundational master-narrative:
- Apologetic biographies: refer to the favorable accounts written by the church or employees of the church. A prime example in this category is Lucy Mack Smith’s, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (1845), which charts the development of Mormonism as a product of the Smith family. Other apologetic material include: writings by Francis Gibbons, Preston Nibley, and Susan Easton Black.
- Interpretations by believers: which attempt to be integral as scholarly interpretations. These include: John Henry Evans’ Joseph Smith, An American Prophet (1933), and Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (1977). Most notably, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005) portrays Joseph Smith as one who turned things that had been early American culture into a supernatural narrative.
- Critical Interpretations: which are critical not of the subject per se but critical in the utilization of analytical tools provided by the social sciences. This category includes: Eber Dudley Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed (1834) where Smith is portrayed as a front-man for Sidney Rigdon, and the Book of Mormon as a plagiarized version of Solomon Spalding’s Manuscript Story. A subcategory of critical interpretations include what Mauss called “psycho biographies.” This subset includes biographical analyses such as Woodbridge Riley’s The Founder of Mormonism (1892), Harold Bloom’s The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1993), and Robert Anderson’s psychoanalytical account in Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith (1999).
- Apostate biographies: Most accounts in this type of biography start with a critical self-reflection on the author’s involvement in the Mormon church. For instance, in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (1945) Fawn Brodie highlights Joseph Smith as a pious fraud apparently in order to vindicate her apostasy, and the eventual break with her church and family.
Aside from its schematic presentation, the mapping of biographies asks the question of what interests are served in retelling the story of Joseph Smith. Implicitly, each construction of master narratives is, as Mauss puts it, “an act of faith” that privileges a particular collective or individual ontology. Analyzing the articulation of that ontology opens windows into the dynamics of scripturalization, which, in turn, facilitate a deeper analysis and understanding of the compelling figure of religious founders such as Joseph Smith.
Finally, some questions to consider:
- Mauss is very careful to specify that he is using a sociological idea to form his definition of “scripture.” By dictating this definition, in what ways does this limit or expand the function of the category?
- What might the social, psychological, and political dimensions of ontology be? If the articulation of ontologies engenders scriptural master narratives, how might an analysis of these dimensions of ontology expand the notion of what some have theorized as the social life of scriptures?
- Can apostate biographies truly serve as “scriptures?” Are reactions against the LDS church through this type of account just as meaningful or more so than the apologetic accounts put forth in LDS literature?
- What then are the implications for scripturalization, especially with regard to power and privilege at both an institutional and a discursive level?