Gerald E. Smith’s Schooling the Prophet is available for purchase today (paperback $19.95, ebook $9.99). In this guest post, Smith talks about how he came to write the latest book from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.—BHodges
Earlier this year I was chatting over the fence with our neighbor and former mayor of our town, and mentioned to him the new book I had been working on–Schooling the Prophet. He’s not LDS, but he is an avid reader and we often share books with each other and compare notes. When I told him the thesis of my book–how the Book of Mormon influenced Joseph Smith and the early Restoration–he looked at me quizzically and said: “Isn’t that kind of redundant? I mean, didn’t he produce the Book of Mormon?”
From the beginning, the Book of Mormon has been intertwined with Joseph Smith–he is its discoverer, its translator, even one of its copy editors. He directed its financing, its printing and its publication. Yet this intimacy between the prophet and his new scripture has paradoxically obscured a simple but profound idea: that the Book of Mormon itself could have influenced Joseph Smith. Not like a revelatory sketchbook, as in Beethoven’s sketchbook of symphonic ideas. Instead, as the Book of Mormon avers on its title page, Joseph saw it as a record of another people–an ancient people with an ancient religion, with original worship forms, theologies, rituals, and ordinances.
Could it be that the Book of Mormon was not merely derivative from the prophet, but actually may have been formative on his life and work as a prophet?
But there was more to the paradox. As Mormon scholars have documented, after publishing the scripture Joseph Smith almost never quoted or sermonized from the it–true also for Brigham Young and many other early Latter-day Saints. One of Joseph’s revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants reprimands the Saints: “And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (D&C 84:57). After investing much of his adult life in the Book of Mormon project, beginning with Moroni’s schooling visions of 1823, did Joseph then simply walk away from it?
The answer, I discovered, is no. He returned to the Book of Mormon again and again, over and over. I am convinced that he poured through its pages, committed passages to memory, sifted through its doctrines and theologies, studied its ordinances and meanings. Yet he rarely cited it publicly, perhaps because the world that early Mormonism grew up in was saturated in Biblical discourse. The idea of new scripture was provocative and on its face implausible.
Schooling the Prophet is a book that I hope will speak to many–to my family and friends, and to others seeking deeper answers about our faith–both those who are LDS, and many others who are not. I’ve spent my life discussing religion with people of various denominations in New England and beyond. I’m a professor at Boston College, a Catholic university started by Jesuit priests in 1863 in South Boston. While writing the book I mentioned its thesis to one well-known scholar and friend at BC. He responded: “I was blown away by your commentary re: your book . . . It sounds so interesting. I’m a Protestant (Presbyterian) and reading about the Protestant vs. Catholic angles is always interesting to me…. I would like to read it.”
Along the way I compare the influences of the Book of Mormon to other potential influences from neighboring 19th century religions–Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. The Book of Mormon was responsible for a Restoration that was uniquely “Mormon,” instead of yet another 19th-century Protestant movement like the Campbellite Disciples or Adventists.
Schooling the Prophet originated six years ago while I was on a sabbatical. The project was riveting, marvelous, and challenging. At the outset I decided to apply the most difficult test that I could think of: Did the Book of Mormon somehow influence the origins of early Mormon temple worship? Before long I had three chapters written with parallels between Book of Mormon temple worship and early LDS temple worship. Terryl Givens told me no one would want to publish a book with 150,000 words. So I refined and distilled, and then moved on to other important topics: the nature of God–D&C 20 (the Church’s first formal articulation of theology) says “there is a God in Heaven” who is “infinite and eternal” – both of these are uniquely Book of Mormon phrases; also priesthood orders, sacramental meaning, baptismal meaning (the Vatican declared Mormon baptism to be of a “different matrix”), and founding theologies like the fortunate fall of Adam, and sealing into covenant communities–all show nuanced and essential influence from the Book of Mormon record.
What did the Book of Mormon mean to Joseph Smith? The eve before their martyrdom, Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith spent their final hours in Carthage Jail rehearsing Book of Mormon narratives of “imprisonments and deliverance of the servants of God for the Gospels sake.” The Book of Mormon was not his; it is its own sacred record with its own provenance, histories, and meanings that helped school the prophet of the Restoration.
Schooling the Prophet has been a marvelous expedition.