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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.

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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.

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