“A Man Who Speaks to Our Time from Eternity,” Ensign, Mar. 1989, 13
I am asked sometimes, “Why don’t we have any great literature now?” And we don’t, you know; we may kid ourselves or other people may try to kid us that we do, but we don’t. There were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe; and there it seems to have stopped. There seems to have been no supreme figure since then. But I tell you there was one: Joseph Smith.
That may seem a bit extreme. After all, Joseph Smith had a very limited education—what could he know about good writing? It is true that Joseph Smith had practically no formal schooling, but the outstanding thing about him is what he did with what he had: he translated the Book of Mormon, wrote the Doctrine and Covenants under inspiration, and accomplished other tasks that show the extent of his genius. The fact that he was inspired by the Lord does not diminish his achievements, just as the fact that Paul and Peter were inspired does not diminish their achievements. We owe our thanks to the Lord in everything; nevertheless, there are supreme geniuses among men. Joseph Smith was one of them.
In trying to judge what is good writing, we must not be misled into theory not relevant to the point. The canons with which to judge literature are no different from the canons with which we judge our own friends’ and relatives’ talk. When we are listening to our friends, we do not think primarily of how “well” they are talking, do we? We think of whether they are telling the truth or not; we think of whether they are being loving or not; we think of moral qualities, and that is what we need to think of in literature. The object of art, after all, is not just aesthetic contemplation; the main object of art is an experience that incites us to better behavior, better doing. Art is there so that we may live better, not simply that we may look at it and have a private aesthetic and mystical experience.
For these reasons, a good man will write better than a bad man, granted the two have similar levels of technical achievement. If a man is good, he speaks well; if he is bad, he speaks ill. That is the classical and scriptural view. That was the doctrine of the ancients, the doctrine of the Renaissance, the doctrine of all literary criticism, until it was abandoned in the last hundred years. In his Timber or Discoveries, Ben Jonson includes a quotation from Quintilian that goes to the heart of the matter: “As a man speaks, so is he. Speak that I may see thee.”
Gifts are given to us all; we foster them or not; we behave with them well or not. It is true that very often bad men have good aspirations. Sometimes bad men are struggling not to be bad men, and in these cases they may well produce good work. We have to remember that. But we have to remember also that there are great writers who, because they were good men, managed to maintain a high level through a great deal of their lives. Words are part of conduct; they monitor conduct, reveal conduct. A man reveals himself completely by the way he speaks and writes. Whether or not he tries to hide himself, he still reveals himself.
What is true of literature is equally true of history. Once you start putting facts together, they cease to be facts: putting them together is an act of the imagination that reveals the mind and character of the historian. We may pretend it is an act of logic, but it is really an act of the imagination. An honest historian will not try to be objective, because being objective in history is impossible: a historical situation is too complex. What he will try to do is to express his total response in his history.
Historians are always biased. The question is whether they know it or not. It is the duty of a historian to express his bias. If he doesn’t, he is leaving some of the truth out—the truth that is in him, the truth of him. Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the whole of his mind, and that is the way Thucydides and Herodotus wrote about the history of Greece. Their reactions, their feelings are there as part of the documents before us. It is the honest reactions of historians to the situations they describe that is part and parcel of our tradition and that enables us to know how people in the past really were.
It is this kind of honesty, coupled with a rare spiritual sensitivity, that marks Joseph Smith’s genius as a writer. Nowhere is this made more clear than in his written account of the early events of the Restoration.
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.
Joseph Smith’s language reminds me very much of the language that Coleridge often used at his best in the Biographia Literaria. That is not saying a little. Coleridge was perhaps the best English prose writer of that time.
Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New York clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings, instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” [JS—H 1:12]
I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it as it is, who is bending all his faculties to express the truth, not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself. The passage continues as follows:
“At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.” (JS—H 1:13.)
Notice the coolness: “At length I came to the conclusion.”
“I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God,’ concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.” (JS—H 1:13.)
Notice the rationality of it, the humility of it, the perfectly good manners of it.
“So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt.” (JS—H 1:14.)
Just imagine what a TV commentator would make of this sort of thing.
“It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.” (JS—H 1:14.)
Do you see how the tone is kept down, how matter-of-fact it is? Notice the effect of a phrase like “to pray vocally.”
“After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God.” (JS—H 1:15.)
Plain, matter-of-fact, truthful, simple statements in well-mannered prose. This is no posture. We are not thinking of Joseph Smith; we are just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear. Do you see how beautifully this is built up, how the tension is built up by his being so modest, so well mannered?
“I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak.” (JS—H 1:15.)
He is telling us about something terrible. But he is not trying to make us feel how terrible this is. He is telling us that it happened.
“Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.” (JS—H 1:15.)
He felt he was going to be killed. But there is no excitement, no hysteria about this. He just tells us. Notice in particular the coolness of the phrase “for a time.”
“But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm.” (JS—H 1:16.)
Notice the expression “of great alarm.” What would a posing sensationalist do with that? What kind of explosion would he devise, I wonder?
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually”—note the modifiers, the exactness. (JS—H 1:16; italics added.) What he is trying to do is tell us what happened. He goes on in the same tone. He doesn’t get ecstatic. He doesn’t run over. He just goes on telling us what happened in this astonishingly cool and at the same time reverential way. This is a visit of God the Father and God the Son to a boy of fourteen. But he is not in undue awe. He doesn’t stare. He is not frightened. He was perhaps terrorized by what had happened before, but he is not frightened now. He doesn’t lose his self-confidence, and at the same time he is modest.
And then the humor: he returns home, leans up against the fireplace, and his mother asks him what is wrong. He answers, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” (JS—H 1:20.) We have to remember that his mother had joined the Presbyterian church shortly before this. How do you assess that as a conversation between a fourteen-year-old and his mother? All mothers know that sort of thing really happens to them with their teenagers.
The whole man is involved in this account, but the whole man isn’t posturing and appealing to you to believe it. He is merely stating it, stating it with the whole of himself. The conviction is behind it. The emotion is there, in perfect control. It is in the rhythm, the superb rhythm of that piece; and we won’t get that unless we read it aloud. There is an extraordinary alternation of short and long sentences. Some of the sentences are long indeed—magnificent sentences—sentences much better than Samuel Johnson would write. So there is this combination of firm, controlled rhythm and matter-of-fact statement drawing on all the resources of early nineteenth-century prose to produce a piece of prose as sound as anything Coleridge ever wrote.
Now, there is no passage in mystical literature or in any other kind of literature concerned with visions that I know of that is like this; therefore I am not prepared to give credence to other “mystical” passages outside the scriptures—I know the difference. I am thinking about St. Bridget, who lived in Sweden in the fourteenth century and whose life I have studied in some detail; she had her ecstatic visions. I am thinking about St. Teresa, that great Spanish saint who wasn’t quite sure whether Christ was her Lord or her husband. They don’t compare with Joseph Smith. They attitudinize; they get into postures, contortions of mind, in expressing themselves. Not so Joseph Smith.
There are those who may point out that the history we have from Joseph Smith is actually his third or fourth version of the story and try to demean it on that account. But the truth is, a personal history always needs to be revised, because what we think is most important in our lives changes as our lives go on. Certain experiences become less important as we grow older, and others become more important, more profound. Were we here simply to have certain experiences, life would soon be over for us. But we are here to live so that those experiences—for example, the experience of eternal marriage—may broaden and deepen and become richer as we grow older. Though we may think we understand the significance of eternal marriage at the time we are married, we may understand it much more deeply later. In fact, we may spend a lifetime realizing or beginning to realize what the real significance of an eternal marriage is. So just as we should go back constantly to the scriptures and to other great books, we should go back to the most important experiences of our lives.
The poet Wordsworth took some thirteen years to assess the significance of his first crossing of the Alps on foot. His first description of that experience, written in 1792 in his Descriptive Sketches, is a perfunctory, conventional description of no significance. His second description, written in 1805, is a very different one. He had got the real experience at last. He didn’t know what it was until then. It took him all those years. Joseph Smith took eighteen years to understand the implications of the First Vision. Certainly, the boy of fourteen had no full appreciation of that experience, but ten years later he was beginning to have real appreciation of it, and ten years later than that, his appreciation was at the full. Joseph brooded for years over those experiences and the visions that he had in his teens. Inspiration may strike in a flash, but inspiration may not be fully felt or understood for many years.
It is a mark of the Prophet’s integrity that when he began to appreciate the full significance of his early experiences, he kept his account of them straightforward and unemotional. His story is fresh, honest, convincing. My conversion to the Church was profoundly influenced by its plainness.
Of course, Joseph Smith produced other extraordinary documents, and of all the documents the Church had to offer me, it was the Doctrine and Covenants that, after the Joseph Smith story, impressed me most. The Doctrine and Covenants legislates for a new religious community, and the way its revelations apply to the details of people’s lives seemed right to me. There has to be a connection between testimony, revelation, and ordinary practical life.
When I came to the Doctrine and Covenants and saw the extraordinary gamut of styles there—different styles for different occasions, many of which lift and sing—that was further testimony that Joseph Smith was telling the truth when he said that he was inspired in these things. Joseph Smith was born at a time when the scientific revolution had not yet percolated down through society, and yet what he has to say under inspiration in the Doctrine and Covenants—that spirit is a finer kind of matter, not something totally different—is the only modern statement of its kind that is compatible with the true kernel of the scientific revolution as opposed to the philosophies of men. The facts of science as we know them are reconcilable with the Doctrine and Covenants. They are not so reconcilable with the doctrines of other churches.
By the test of stylistics, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are unique literary phenomena. They are quite different from Joseph Smith’s own prose and significantly different from the Bible and from each other. They could not have been invented by Joseph Smith, or (more important) by anybody else at that time or today, for that matter. Clearly the Lord made full use of Joseph Smith’s remarkable mind; but equally clearly, only through inspiration could that remarkable mind have been made full use of.
Latter-day Saint parents today should bear in mind that the most important thing they can do for their children’s education is to read them the scriptures. The scriptures can be a complete moral and ethical education, as has been shown by those in the past who truly educated themselves from the scriptures when they had little other education—people like John Bunyan, George Fox, and Joseph Smith, who is the greatest example. Indeed, unless we study the scriptures thoroughly, we cannot consider our education complete. In the most important ways, a self-educated man who has read the scriptures is better educated than someone who has gone through Brigham Young University or Harvard or Berkeley or whatever without studying the scriptures, because he has been reading the word of the Lord and concentrating on it.
Those who founded our church were not greatly different from Christians in the meridian of time. They were plain, “uneducated” people. I think it is probable that Paul spelled correctly, but I doubt if Peter did. Nevertheless, Peter was a highly intelligent man. So was Joseph Smith. He absorbed knowledge about language through his exposure to the scriptures, and so was a fit tool through which the Lord revealed modern scripture with all the rhetorical richness of ancient scripture.
Joseph Smith intuitively understood, as the writers of the ancient scriptures understood, that what was most important when he wrote was to be himself. He was not misled by any teaching or cultural message to be artificially cheerful or artificially anything. Neither did he dismiss unpleasant matters. He faced them squarely and assumed responsibility for recording them truthfully. Indeed, he showed us by the way he wrote that the ways of salvation are not the ways of persuasion, but the ways of conviction. Humility and honesty are two names for the same thing in writing, and Joseph Smith is one of the most honest and humble of writers. In him, we have a man who is impetuous, generous-minded, sensitive, and tender. At the same time, the level of honesty he manages to reach in his writing is an example to all of us of how sensitivity and honesty can come together.
What would it have been like to meet Joseph Smith—to discover the reserved, reflective person that he was, yet with an enormous reservoir of power, with so much sense of humor, with such a pleasure in associating with his fellow human beings? And who cares that he was a person with faults? There are plenty of odd things carried down by even the purest mountain streams. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph’s faults are displayed right along with his strengths. The Lord commends him and chastizes him, and Joseph Smith humbly and honestly writes it all down for us. He doesn’t pretend.
Think of Joseph Smith as a man who speaks to our time from eternity.