In 1969 Leonard Arrington asked 50 prominent Mormons to identify the “five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon history.” The list was published in Dialogue. Twenty-four years later, Dialogue decided to run the survey again. It was re-published a few month ago in the Deseret News, and it has been a favorite bloggernacle topic for the past few months. BH Roberts was #1 in both surveys. In the 1969 survey, Joseph Smith was #3, but fell to #5 in 1993.
Concerning these surveys, Yale University Professor Harold Bloom said,
I can understand the two surveys you cite only if the Mormon Ph.D.’s employed an absurdly narrow definition of an “intellectual.” Joseph Smith, even to a Jewish non-Mormon like myself, is the only American creative enough to be called a prophet, seer, and revelator, that is, a religious genius. There was Emerson, of course, but ultimately his was more a literary mind than a religious one. I greatly admire McMurrin, and Roberts also, but if “intellectual” means what it should mean, then Smith clearly is the most eminent intellectual in Mormon history. He was an authentic visionary, and totally original in mind and spirit— really a kind of mortal god. I cannot understand why he is not honored by more Americans.
The above letter was written in response to a query by Henry Miles. Miles developed a correspondence with Bloom over the past 2 decades, and published the series of letters in Dialogue. Bloom is one of the most high-profile non-Mormons that has extensively studied Smith, and has written or spoken about Smith on many occasions. What do you think of Bloom’s characterization of Smith? Do you think Smith was undervalued in the 2 surveys?
Was Joseph Smith undervalued? Most certainly. Without him, there is no Mormonism to intellectualize about I’m with Bloom on this one.
Bloom wants a greater definition of intellectual here, but I don’t see why being visionary makes someone an intellectual per se. Was Melville an intellectual for being such a great writer/novelist? I always consider intellectual has being an cultural term about someone who is famous for their arguments, ideas, insights–not necessarily visions.
Still, JS is by far the most formidable genius on those two lists. And it’s not even close.
Thanks for the comments. Joseph Smith is a bit on an anomaly. Inside the church, we trumpet his 3rd grade education to marvel at how someone without an education could have produced such a wonderful book. It’s as if Joseph is the anti-intellectual. Certainly he didn’t have book smarts. The “cultural” term intellectual seems to refer to book smarts, and I noticed at least one of the surveys preferred to look at PhD’s, of which Joseph was certainly missing.
While it’s true that Joseph Smith had about three years of what could be called formal education, he had a hunger and a thirst for knowledge, he read newspapers, he read and owned books, he spent his entire adult life educating himself one way or the other. BH Roberts called him a genius. I would agree. As for being an intellectual, I don’t know and I don’t really care. He was certainly not a man who just sat around and thought or wrote great thoughts. He laid down the theological foundation for just about everything we have
I never have been comfortable using the term â€˜Mormonismâ€™. I have maintained for quite some time that a more accurate adjunct moniker for the TCoJCoLDS should be â€˜Smithismâ€™. I know that sounds odd, but again, for me itâ€™s a much better fit.
Where does Smithism end and Youngism begin? Doctrinally, I often wonder how things would have turned out differently had Smith lead his followers to Utah instead of Young.
I read somewhere that his uncle was a professor at some college in New York and that when Joseph was recovering from his bone operation he spent along time with his uncle. So he may not have had a formal education but he sure did get an education through his uncle and the Lord.