The Mormonizing of America (BOOK EXCERPT, PT 8)
The presidential race of Mitt Romney and the success of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon have generated new interest in Mormonism. Stephen Mansfield's book The Mormonizing of America provides a careful study of this growing religion. The Book Stop blog is posting excerpts from the first two chapters of this book.
The Smith family’s unending battle with poverty and their fierce spirituality are most of what we know of Joseph Smith’s early life. There is little else available to us but the broad remembrances of later years. We do know that he was a good-looking child, who grew into a handsome man. He had a mystical turn of mind, which is no surprise given the age, the region, and the family in which he was raised. He had little education because of the Smiths’ wanderings and want, but he was bright. He may also have been a bit of a prig. He said later that in his youth, he “fell into many vices and follies.” We might expect tales of drunkenness, prostitutes, and theft. But no. Smith explained that he meant only that he “often had occasion to lament . . . a light, and too often vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation.” We are almost disappointed.
Lucy recounts one of the few stories that survive from her son’s pre-Prophet years in such a dramatic, overdone fashion that it is nearly too much to believe. It is true at its core, though, and even the theatrical retelling helps us see something of how both mother and son may have wished for the Prophet to be perceived.
In 1812 and 1813, typhoid fever tore through New England, killing 6,400 people in five months. In the Smith home, every one of the children fell ill. Sophronia, Joseph’s younger sister, lay deadly still for nearly ninety days. She was entirely motionless for so long that once her parents thought she had died. When Lucy picked the girl’s body up in a blanket to carry her to her grave, Sophronia breathed in and sobbed. Mercifully, she and all her siblings lived.
The fever left Joseph after two weeks. There seemed no reason for concern. Soon, though, he felt excruciating pain in his armpit. A doctor wrongly diagnosed it as a sprain. The pain continued for two weeks. The doctor returned, realized there was a fever sore under Joseph’s arm, and lanced it. A quart of bilious liquid poured out. There was relief for a time but then the boy complained of pain in his leg. It too lasted for weeks and was nearly unbearable. Hyrum, Joseph’s older brother, sat with him by the hour, Lucy recalled, “holding the affected part of his leg in his hands, and pressing it between them, so that his afflicted brother might be enabled to endure the pain.”
We can feel compassion for a child’s suffering but this is where Lucy’s account begins to sound like overacted Victorian theater.
This is Joseph speaking to Joseph Sr., “Oh father! The pain is so severe, how can I bear it?”
Three weeks go by. Finally, a surgeon makes an eight-inch incision on the front side of the left leg between the knee and the ankle. There is relief but the pain continues and the surgeon cuts again, enlarging the wound “even to the bone.”
Still, the leg grows worse and the family calls in “a council of surgeons.”
“They being seated,” Lucy writes, “I addressed them thus:
‘Gentlemen, what can you do to save my boy’s leg?’” The doctors say they must amputate but Lucy objects and proposes instead cutting out the diseased portion of the leg. The doctors relent.
It is difficult to believe that the Smiths had the means of summoning a “council of surgeons” or that if they did the learned men listened to an uneducated laborer’s wife tell them to “cut out the diseased portion.” But there is more drama to unfold.
As the doctors approach Joseph’s bed, one of them says, “My poor boy, we have come again.”
“Yes,” says the valiant child. “I see you have; but you have not come to take off my leg, have you, sir?”
“No,” replies the surgeon, “it is your mother’s request that we make one more effort, and that is what we have now come for.”
The doctor offers to bind Joseph to the bed.
“No, doctor. I will not be bound, for I can bear the operation much better if I have my liberty.”
“Will you take some wine?” the doctor asks. “You must take something or you can never endure the severe operation to which you must be subjected.”
“No,” the seven-year-old replies. “I will not touch one particle of liquor, neither will I be tied down; but I will tell you what I will do—I will have my father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms and then I will do whatever is necessary in order to have the bone taken out.”
Then, this is Joseph speaking to Lucy: “Mother, I want you to leave the room, for I know you cannot bear to see me suffer so; father can stand it, but you have carried me so much, and watched over me so long, you are almost worn out.” His eyes began filling with tears. “Now, mother promise me that you will not stay, will you? The Lord will help me, and I shall get through with it.”
It is the sweet remembrance of a sixty-nine-year-old mother writing of her son’s surgery thirty years after it occurred. Perhaps it is natural that the memory should be reworked into a hero tale. However, it is disappointing that this overblown recollection has become a fact in the minds of the faithful. More engaging would have been the likely truth:
a scared child, a tearful mother, surgeons doing their best, and all surviving a horrific experience.
What followed were months of agonizing recovery. Pieces of bone missed by the surgeon later worked their way to the surface. Lucy or one of her other sons carried the weakened Joseph wherever he needed to go. When the boy was strong enough, he was sent to the home of an uncle who lived by the sea, where he spent many more months healing. Full recovery took a year, and Smith still walked with a distinctive limp for the rest of his life.
Years passed. There was the War of 1812 and the year of the June snow and the family’s move to Palmyra, New York. Always there were swirling revivals and religious upheavals. Stories of healings and visions filled tavern chatter. Jesus was busy. He appeared to dozens, hundreds, in a variety of garb with contradictory instructions for the church. It was, to the Smiths, a troubling, cynical time that confirmed their unshakable beliefs: the Christian church was lost, there was a true gospel yet to be revealed, and meanwhile the world lay in unendurable darkness.
To Americans hearing the Mormon story through the years, the spiritual landscape of the burned-over district has probably felt like familiar territory. It is the United States in microcosm. The entire religious history of the country has had the feel of those square miles of New England in the early 1800s: a new spiritual frontier pioneered by bold experimenters who blended together disparate mystical and theological cultures in hopes of something new. As in that overheated district, churches have always fought. In every generation, well-intentioned people have made widely differing claims. Confusion has often reigned.That the Mormons present themselves as the solution for a burned-over culture has only helped them in appealing to a religiously “burned-over” nation. They grew out of religious weariness. They found solutions no else had. They understand how pitiful it all seems. Join them, and break from the madness. This is one of the most appealing aspects of the Mormon Church for Americans today, and it is a narrative that grows organically and compellingly from the Joseph Smith stor
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