This Saturday is Joseph Smith’s birthday. And a fitting gift for the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be broader acknowledgment within the Christian world of his theological contributions.
Though many of Joseph Smith’s 19th-century revelations were rejected by the mainstream sects of his day, nearly two centuries later, numerous Christian thinkers are espousing theological propositions once associated almost exclusively with the Prophet. Even though many of his teachings presaged contemporary Christian discourse in striking ways, today's divinity school students are still perhaps as likely to encounter Joseph Smith in a profanity-laced Broadway musical than in their classrooms.
This is not to say things haven’t improved. There is some evidence, according to non-Mormon scholar Grant Shreve, that “American literary scholars” today have come to “embrace (the Book of Mormon) as worthy of attention.”
Indeed, “for the first time,” Shreve wrote this past spring, studies about the Book of Mormon’s “literary qualities” are being published “in major journals of American literary studies,” and “literature courses that prominently featured the Book of Mormon” are beginning to appear “with more frequency in secular university course catalogues.”
And yet, the growing appreciation of the Book of Mormon within the academy has not entirely translated into an appreciation of the Prophet Joseph, especially within theological circles.
In discussing a social model of the Trinity — the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost represent three distinct beings who are fully one in will, love, doctrine and sociality — scholars Carl Mosser and William Hasker don’t mention Joseph Smith’s revelations on the subject. Instead, Mosser tries to discount the growing popularity of social trinitarianism on the grounds that it resembles Mormon teachings.
“Mormonism may represent the only fully social doctrine of God endorsed by any group claiming to be Christian,” he writes. “Something seems to be wrong if the (social trinitarian) tent is so large that it attracts within its walls teachings about God that were universally classified as non-trinitarian and heterodox until very recently.” Hasker responds to this assertion, writing that “one would like to think (Mosser’s remark) is an attempt at humor, but it seems that the actual intent is to establish guilt by association.”
Mormonism here is used as a rhetorical device, and indeed, there’s no acknowledgment by Hasker or Mosser — both of whom hold doctorates — that a rural farm boy like Joseph Smith (who had scant formal education) presented these prescient insights on the subject in antebellum America, well before 21st century doctrinal debates on social trinitarianism were being published in volumes from Oxford University Press.
And it’s not just discussions of the Trinity where the Prophet’s voice is conspicuously absent.
A survey of recent scholarship I conducted with my co-author, David L. Paulsen, shows that Joseph Smith’s revelations and contributions are all too often missing in ongoing debates about postmortal evangelization, deification, the divine feminine, eternal marriage, the restoration of New Testament charismata, the opening of the scriptural canon, divine embodiment and conceptions of deity as both personal and passible.
Understandably, non-Mormon scholars may feel uncomfortable discussing the ideas taught by the founder of a rival faith or a faith they view as beyond the bounds of Christendom. Putting aside the fact that definitions of “orthodox” Christianity have been historically fluid (hinging more on popularity or power than doctrinal purity), there’s a point where failing to include or even acknowledge the contributions of a figure within theological discourse becomes an issue of scholarly integrity.
Neglecting to cite a central figure in the shifting landscape of American Christian thought may be a simple academic oversight. But purposefully excluding an individual from doctrinal discourse because of a denominational affiliation is more than a mere scholastic failing; it's unchristian. For Joseph Smith's birthday, here's to hoping the trend changes.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News. He is the co-author of "Are Christians Mormon?"