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In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death
In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death
Samuel Morris Brown
Oxford University Press, 2012
408 pp., $40.95

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John G. Turner


The Chain of Belonging

How early Mormons regarded death.

On July 9, 1845, Mormon apostle Willard Richards rose, dressed, and administered rites of healing to his wife Jeannetta, who had been sick for two months. He "kneeled in prayer and laid hands on her three times with the signs which she repeated." In these rituals of healing, Latter-day Saints repeated portions of the sacred gestures and words of the church's endowment ceremony. Richards, knowing the gravity of his wife's condition, sent for other high-ranking church leaders to join in the rites and prayers. Jeannetta felt encouraged and asked, "How can I die under such prayers?"

Later that morning, though, Jeannetta stopped breathing. Willard and the others present "continued to bathe her twelve hours." Even after her body grew cold, they persisted until two o'clock the next morning. Willard slept in the room next to his wife's corpse.

The next day at sunset, a group of Mormon women dressed Jeannetta and laid her in her coffin. "Will you bury Ma in the garden?", four-year-old Heber Richards asked his father. "If you do I can bear it. If you do not I cannot bear it." Willard Richards told his son he would bury Jeannetta in the garden.[1]

Jeannetta Richards, like many others in antebellum America, knew how to die: with calm resignation and expressions of faith, surrounded by their loved ones during extended vigils that often extended for many hours after death. Apart from the specifically Mormon rites of healing, her deathbed resembled that of many Protestant Americans who modeled a holy, happy, and triumphant death.

In Heaven as It Is on Earth, Samuel Morris Brown's groundbreaking study of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's theological and ritual responses to the Protestant culture of "holy death," is far more than it appears at first glance. Brown, a critical care pulmonologist and autodidactic historian, offers a riveting reinterpretation of Smith's religious vision, brings his readers into the cultural world Smith inhabited, and also reflects on the need for contemporary Americans to "walk toward, and—earnestly, anxiously—through death with each other." In Heaven merits a broad readership that stretches beyond the confines of both Mormonism and academia.

As Brown explains, antebellum Americans obsessed over the dead, both the recently departed and those from centuries past. They inhabited a landscape that contained burial mounds, Indian relics, and—many thought—ancient treasures. They also lived amid high death rates and unexpected partings. Joseph Smith and his family endured their share of such partings. In 1823, Joseph's older brother Alvin died, a loss which never lost its sting for the Mormon prophet.

Brown connects Smith's religion-making quest to his collision against the limitations of antebellum death culture. Whereas many Americans retained a medieval, macabre fascination and horror with the decomposition of human flesh, Smith announced his belief in the corporeality of God, the materiality of the human soul, and the eternal nature of matter. "No beginning," Smith pronounced in an 1844 sermon, "no end." Many people in the American hinterlands found Indian relics and employed methods of divinization in search of buried treasure. Smith himself eventually used seer stones to "translate" golden plates containing accounts of ancient peoples whose corpses once littered the American countryside. A Mormon militia en route to Missouri in 1834 discovered a nearly intact skeleton within a burial mound; Smith identified the corpse as Zelph, a warrior who had perished in the one of the Book of Mormon's epic battles. "Whatever his ultimate credibility," Brown writes, "Joseph was ever in pursuit of the dead and their legacy." Through his encounters with angels, his narratives of ancient civilizations, and his identification of sacred landscapes (such as Jackson County, Missouri, as the site of the Garden of Eden), "Joseph the Seer" allowed the dead to speak to the living.

Expecting the future physical resurrection of the dead and the restitution of their earthly bodies, Smith noted that "we shall want to see our relatives first & shall rejoice to strike hands with our parents, children &c when rising from the tomb." Thus, in Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith built a family sepulcher which he called the "Tomb of Joseph," to which he hoped to move the corpses of Alvin and other buried loved ones.

It was not enough for Smith to live and die with his familial and ecclesiastical kin. Over the last five years of his prophetic career, Smith feverishly sought to bind human beings together in ties that would persist for eternity. His followers received patriarchal blessings that connected them to their ancient ancestors, plunged into the turbid Mississippi River in proxy baptisms for their dead, and found assurance that their marriages would persist for eternity.

But heaven, in Smith's understanding, would be more than a collection of nuclear (or extended) families joining together in the worship of the Almighty. He came to envision a great chain of redeemed humanity stretching back to Adam, and it was up to church members to restore the broken links in that chain. Within what Brown terms the "Mormon Chain of Belonging," certain individuals would enjoy more exalted status and dominion. For Smith, that status ultimately rested upon the number of a man's wives and children. "[U]se a little Craftiness," he once instructed his followers, "& seal all you can & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven." Assured of their salvation through their faith, baptism, and participation in emerging Mormon rituals, the Latter-day Saints could boldly "walk through the gate of heaven and Claim" what they had sealed on earth. Mormons turned the tables on the capricious God of Calvinism. Rather than subject themselves to a deity's whims, they could bind God himself to honor the covenants they made on earth.

Smith assembled a "sacerdotal heaven family" by marrying roughly thirty plural wives. A third of those women were already legally married, some to high-ranking church members. Smith offered a variety of arguments for his doctrine of celestial marriage during the last several years of his life. The ability of men to spend eternity with more than one wife answered the Sadducees' thorny question to Jesus about the post-resurrection status of Levirate wives, and it provided a balm to Mormon men who had remarried after a first wife's death. Mostly, however, Brown presents polygamy as an outgrowth of Smith's larger project of sacerdotal genealogy. "As they entered plural marriage," he explains, "Mormons integrated spouses into their Chain of Belonging, thereby increasing their dynastic gravity in the kingdom of celestial glory." Noting that Smith's critics have long seen "celestial marriage" as a "smokescreen" for Smith's own lusts, Brown contends that "the celestial nature of Smith's family was central from the beginning."

By the early 1840s, a plurality of wives fit rather well into Smith's theological framework, and since their abandonment of polygamy Mormons have had little trouble articulating their belief in the eternity of marriage shorn of its more controversial origins. It is not at all clear, however, that any conception of "celestial marriage" existed in the mid-1830s, when the already-married Joseph had a sexual relationship with Fanny Alger, a servant girl in his home. Most faithful Latter-day Saint historians regard the Fanny Alger "affair" as Joseph Smith's first plural marriage. If that is indeed the case, Mormon polygamy predated the theological scaffolding that eventually supported its practice.

From baptism for the dead to the endowment ceremony, from polygamy to prophecy, early Mormonism strikes most contemporary observers as simply bizarre. In all likelihood, most faithful Mormons today who picked up In Heaven would wonder whether Brown was actually describing their faith. Brown, though, possesses an unusual ability to show how the apparently bizarre makes sense in its cultural context. In Brown's reading, moreover, Smith was not a hermetic magus, cunning con artist, or deluded madman. Instead, he surveyed the religious, cultural, and intellectual landscape of antebellum American, extracting and redefining religious truth wherever he found it. Smith was more than a syncretist: "as his mind roamed over the conceptual landscape he inhabited," concludes Brown, "he … was a translator rather than a parrot, an artist rather than a collator." Thus, while Brown recognizes an idiosyncratic use of the Bible as the biggest single influence on Smith's thought, he refuses to reduce the Mormon prophet to a single cultural inheritance. Few scholars, moreover, have so vividly and richly captured the religious milieu of antebellum America.

For many early Latter-day Saints, Smith's church and its rituals offered a sure response to the fragility of antebellum death culture. Believing Protestants worried about the eternal fate of their family and friends, and Brown posits that many Protestants found cold comfort in both the Calvinist doctrine of election and in an Arminianism that always retained the possibility of backsliding into hell. Although Mormonism offered opportunities for its adherents to make their "calling and election sure," it bears noting that the constant dissension and apostasy that plagued Joseph Smith's church often nullified Mormon promises of eternal kinship. Down to the present day, events such as divorce and the unbelief of children rupture Mormon familial harmony in heaven as on earth. Asking any religion to provide an assurance that entire families—let alone the entire human family—will enjoy eternity together is asking quite a lot.

After his sweeping survey of early Mormon belief and practice, Brown briefly reflects upon his work as a physician "treating the sickest of the sick" and watching many of them die. "[D]eeply moved by the human urgency of the deathbed," he was "struck by the relative lack of guidance for people facing this most difficult transition." Brown marvels at the spiritual utility of both the antebellum deathbed and Joseph Smith's response to it. For antebellum Protestants and Mormons alike, it was of central importance to know their loved ones surrounded them as they died and would one day join them in heaven. The journey through life and beyond, he concludes, "mattered to the extent that it was undertaken with others." Christians today, Latter-day Saint and otherwise, could learn much about that journey from those who have undertaken it in previous centuries, including those Protestants and Mormons who struggled against death in the early decades of the American republic.

1. Willard Richards Diary, 9 and 10 July 1845, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

John G. Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard Univ. Press).

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