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"Dictated by Christ": Joseph Smith and the Politics of Revelation

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 26, Number 2, Summer 2006
pp. 275-304 | 10.1353/jer.2006.0026


A few months after Alexis de Tocqueville was born in Paris in July 1805, Joseph Smith was born in the Vermont hills. Twenty-five years later Tocqueville toured America while Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and received direct revelations that steadily attracted thousands of followers. Harper examines the location of authority in the culture Tocqueville observed compared with the authority assumed by Smith's revelations, emphasizing the controversial political potential of revelation in a culture that locates authority in the people. Harper argues that democratization fostered hostility against Smith's uniquely "dialogic" revelations. Americans who were concerned with the impotence of democratized authority regarding ultimate questions accepted Smith's revelations. Rejecting socioeconomic explanations, Harper draws instead on close, contextual reading of Smith's revelations and a profound recent study of the Book of Mormon by Terryl Givens. Harper asserts that American democracy necessarily distanced itself from direct revelation and that Joseph Smith emerged in that context and offered an alternative authority grounded in an accessible but undemocratic God. At the height of his political power, Joseph Smith was lynched in 1844. The potential of his prophetic authority could not be countenanced by the democratizing culture Tocqueville observed in America.

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