BYU conference explores Joseph Smith and the ancient world

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 11:44 p.m. MST

Hundreds of students of all ages gathered Thursday and Friday to listen and take notes as 26 scholars examined the extent to which LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was familiar with ancient writings, scriptural or otherwise.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

Hundreds of students of all ages — including at least one LDS apostle — gathered at locations in Provo and Salt Lake City Thursday and Friday to listen and take notes as 26 scholars examined the extent to which LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was familiar with ancient writings, scriptural or otherwise.

“Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World,” a two-day BYU Church History Symposium, drew capacity audiences to the BYU campus and the LDS Church Conference Center Little Theater. Dr. Lincoln H. Blumell of the BYU Department of Ancient Scripture and one of the symposium’s organizers said the idea for the event came to him while visiting LDS Church historical sites in upstate New York.

“At one location," he said, "it was suggested that Joseph Smith was familiar with the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus.

“I started wondering about the ancient writings that might have been available to Joseph Smith during his lifetime,” Blumell continued, adding that his research has led him “to the conclusion that some of (Joseph Smith’s) statements and teachings were informed by resources that were available in his day.”

It occurred to Blumell that this would be an interesting subject for study and analysis, and that “it ought to be addressed and studied within the household of faith.”

Speaking within that household was noted scholar, historian and author Dr. Richard L. Bushman. Referred to in the introduction to his keynote address as “the patriarch of Mormon scholarship and father figure to a generation of Mormon scholars,” Bushman said that “the path to antiquity in Joseph Smith’s time lay through language.”

Although he referred to his presentation as more of a report than a paper based on original research, Bushman provided illuminating information on four languages through which 19th century scholars explored the ancient world: Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian. Latin and Greek, he said, would have been the most logical languages for Joseph Smith to study, since they were the languages most often studied by scholars of the day.

“Nearly all colleges required proficiency in the classical languages before you could go to college,” Bushman noted. “Grammar schools were to teach Latin grammar. Classics dominated the curriculum.”

But “Joseph seems to have done little to promote classical language study among his followers,” Bushman said. Instead, Joseph stressed Hebrew, which was the language of the Old Testament prophets rather than Latin or Greek, which was the language of the New Testament prophets.

“Joseph Smith ignored Hellenism and embraced Hebraism more than any religious thinker of his generation,” Bushman observed.

Joseph Smith also studied Egyptian, which at the time was seen as a language of mystery. “It was the home of the esoteric,” Bushman said.

“It has been speculated that Joseph was seeking the pure language of Adam,” Bushman said. “Hebrew was considered the ‘prima lingua’ — if not the pure language, then the closest to it. And the Egyptian language was also close.”

Bushman concluded by offering his opinion that if Joseph Smith were primarily interested in education and literacy he would have focused his language study on Latin and Greek.

“Instead,” he said, “he seems to have been driven by a quest for spiritual knowledge, and Hebrew and Egyptian offered the spiritual wisdom for which he hungered. Whereas Latin and Greek would have opened him to a world of beauty and intellect, the languages he chose to study reveals the higher tendency of his mind and spirit.”

Another highly attended session on the first day of the symposium featured Dr. David F. Holland, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and author of “Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint.” Holland had the distinction of being the only speaker during the two-day conference introduced by an apostle: his father, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. After listing his son’s academic credentials, Elder Holland assured the audience in the Joseph Smith Building auditorium: “This is a very, very good boy. I know his mother.”

The younger Holland expressed some reservation at the outset of his speaking assignment. “I’m not a specialist in LDS history,” he said, “and I’m speaking to a room full of them.”

Holland’s presentation compared Joseph Smith’s view of the world — past, present and future — with two of his religious contemporaries: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; and Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“These three American oracles share a bit in common,” Holland said, pointing out they were all born in New England “into a religious and cultural context defined by the mainstream Protestantism of their nation.” And all three “claimed a special mission and inspiration from God Almighty,” which led to all three producing sacred texts that followers considered “equivalent to Holy Scripture.”

While Holland said “it would be impossible to compare the whole corpus of their writing,” he focused on the way Eddy, White and Smith looked to the historical past and the prophetic future within the body of their work.

“Christianity is unavoidably an historical faith,” he said. “Its scriptures retell the past and foretell the future. They are bi-directional, speaking of fathers looking to the children and children looking to their fathers. God seems to want one’s heart and vision stretch in both direction, with deep reverence for the past and wholehearted commitment to the future.”

Speaking specifically of the LDS prophet/founder, Holland said, “Joseph Smith’s vision flowed both down and up the historical spectrum.”

“He was profoundly interested in the past while looking to the prophetic future,” Holland said, adding that Joseph Smith’s views suggest that there is significance in a relationship between God and man that stretches across time, without generational distinctions.

“In the LDS Church the immediate present, the millennial future and the past are locked in a redemptive embrace,” Holland concluded. “Such a relationship can only come about through a prophet willing to embrace both the ancient as well as the future.”

Other topics addressed during the symposium included “Scholars, Scripts and the Folklore of Antiquity,” “Joseph Smith and Ancient Texts,” “Joseph Smith’s Interest in the Ancient Americas” and “Joseph Smith, the Bible and 19th Century Biblical Scholarship.”

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