© 1994 by H. Michael Marquardt. All rights Reserved.
This study might be called the search for the historical Joseph. Although it has become fashionable to quote Martin Heidegger's axiom that "there are no facts, only interpretation," we believe that facts exist and that an array of different interpretations is possible. We trust most readers will agree.
One feels considerable empathy for Joseph Smith as his life unfolds from court records and other scraps of history. When the Smiths default on their mortgage, when a young women dies and friends grapple with the meaning of death, when money diggers demand their share of the treasure, when Joseph is jeered at in open court for crystal-gazing, when a potential convert is abducted by her Presbyterian minister -- these are not stories of public relations invention. What we encounter is an understanding of the complexity of the times and that these issues were an important part of everyday life.
As the documents reveal, some of the events differed from what has been traditionally taught. Was Smith less than forthcoming in later years about his evolution from Manchester farmboy to a new prophet? Did he or others alter the record intentionally? Having been involved in our own quest for the past thirty years searching archives for clues to this and other mysteries, we have long since abandoned the simple prophet-fraud dichotomy that others find so compelling. Our intent is to understand, not to debunk.
The question of volition is open-ended. Smith believed that he spoke with supernatural beings, and he produced impressive transcripts of interview with them. Whether he actually did is ultimately left to each as a matter of faith.
Those interested in the origin of Mormonism will soon discover that to have only Joseph Smith's recollections of his early years misses the richness of the times. When Smith told his life's history, his understanding at that later time shaped the story of his extraordinary visions. Magical incantations, guardian spirits, treasure in hills, use of a special stone for secular and religious purposes -- these were all de-emphasized while the story became conflated and simplified. Supernatural encounters were amplified and polished to accommodate more orthodox views. To us, the original accounts ring more authentic.
Whether readers peruse our book in search of their own spiritual moorings or out of historical inquisitiveness, it should assist them in clarifying some of the issues surrounding the beginnings of this new religious movement. Predominantly a summary of primary documents and recollections, our book allows room for people of all perspectives to expand rather than confine their previous perceptions.
Joseph Smith is an important figure in western religious development, and he deserves a preeminent place among other millennialists of his time. Much of the subsequent history and world view of the United States was influenced by such reformers whose social experiments, redaction of religious tradition, and consideration of alternative futures brought us to where we are today.