Associated Press
Richard Bushman, left, addresses Friday's Joseph Smith symposium at the Library of Congress. Bushman said Smith "transcends time and space." Grant Underwood, right, and Richard Hughes, second from right.

WASHINGTON — For the past two centuries, historians have invariably portrayed Joseph Smith as either a money-digger and religious charlatan or a religious genius and revolutionary theologian.

But historians today — those of all religious and academic stripes — seem to be reaching agreement that the man who founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is far more complex and far more complicated than any of the simplistic biographies that have defined the LDS prophet.

"A small history will not account for such a large man," said Richard Bushman, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University whose own definitive analysis on Joseph Smith will be released this fall.

"Something in him transcends time and space," he said, adding that historians must now consider the prophet in broader terms than "uniquely American" or simply a product of New England revivalism.

Bushman headlined the morning session of a two-day conference at the Library of Congress on "The Worlds of Joseph Smith," a series of lectures and scholarly commentary commemorating the bicentennial of Joseph Smith's birth.

For many of the LDS faithful in the audience, it was an opportunity to embrace academic debate about the man they revere as a modern prophet. For more secular students of religion, it was a chance to delve into the spiritual nuances of 19th century America with its abundance of restoration philosophy, apocalyptic idealism and millennialism.

And the defining figure of that religious renaissance is Joseph Smith, "the quintessential American" and a man "strange and different," said Robert Remini, a Jacksonian scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was just named historian for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Remini, who also just published a sweeping biography of Joseph Smith, said it is impossible to consider the historical importance of the man without appreciating his New England roots, his place in the westward expansion of a new nation and his collective religious experiences in a fervently religious society.

"I don't think the examination of Joseph Smith is complete," he said.

Richard T. Hughes, a professor of religion at Pepperdine University in California and an expert in restoration movements of the early 1800s, agreed that historians have long been divided along religious lines, with non-Mormon historians arguing that uniquely American circumstances created Joseph Smith and Mormons believing he was chosen by God to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The reality is "there is far more to Joseph Smith" than in either simplistic approach, said Hughes, whose college is affiliated with Alexander Campbell, a contemporary and outspoken critic of Joseph Smith who founded his own restoration movement with many of the same restoration underpinnings as the LDS religion.

In fact, the idea that prophets would restore the primitive church was prevalent in America, which was founded by visionaries who believed their experiment in democracy was, in fact, a restoration of God-given inalienable rights. In effect, the restoration of a true religion was a natural extension of the restoration of democracy, "a new order for the ages" and a "final golden age for all human kind."

Grant Underwood, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, a co-sponsor of the conference with the Library of Congress, pointed to one study that showed there were at least 400 modern prophets preaching in the early 1800s, many of whom claimed to have received revelations from God and who recorded their visions.

And many of the movements attracted thousands of followers, many were persecuted and many were based on the teachings of charismatic prophets.

"Visions are very common among born-again Christians. Who's to say they are not divinely inspired?" added Remini.

But as Joseph Smith is examined and re-examined through the different lenses of historians, Underwood said it is important to keep the perspective that "histories are the creation of authors, not photographs of the past. There are many histories of Joseph Smith, as many as there are authors. But none captures the man in his fullness."

Historians will debate the life and legacy of Joseph Smith for generations to come, but members of the LDS Church will base their convictions on faith in the teachings of a man they believe talked with God.

"Revelation is the key to the uniqueness of Joseph Smith's message," Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, said in written remarks he had prepared as Friday night's featured speaker.

"Joseph taught that he was directed by a continuing flow of revelation throughout his life and that everyone could enjoy personal revelation or inspiration to guide them in their individual lives," he stated.

Elder Oaks said the significance of revelation is the principal difference between the LDS Church and those of other religious traditions.

"It is the foundation of our church doctrine and governance, and it is also fundamental to personal conversion, personal decisionmaking and how we understand and apply the inspired texts we call scriptures," he asserts in his speech.

But LDS and non-LDS historians agree that histories are complex, and historians will always be unraveling the threads of Joseph Smith's life, each one looking at his life and legacy from a different perspective.

A Danish historian is examining the life of Joseph Smith within the context of the philosopher Kierkegard. Another is looking at similarities between how an uneducated Joseph Smith translated sacred hidden texts and a similar Tibetan tradition where monks hide sacred texts to be discovered and translated at a later time.

Bushman said that if scholars truly want to understand Joseph Smith they must look beyond the "American prophet" and examine him within a "trans-national" context.

"Only in the larger field will we see his true dimensions," he said.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com