Joseph Smith came out of a world entirely Romantic, and his theological project reflected those values. However, many of the tensions he sought to resolve in his own cultural moment have their echoes today.
Personal freedom was as sacred to him as to the young Friedrich Schiller, his emphasis on individualism invites comparison with Lord Byron and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his view of restoration as inspired syncretism is the religious equivalent of Friedrich Schlegel’s “progressive universal poetry,” his hostility to dogma and creeds evokes William Blake’s cry, “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,” and his celebration of human innocence and human potential transform into theology what Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had merely plumbed through the novel and the drama. In most of these ways, the majority of us today are recognizably children of that Romantic heritage.
But there are strains in Joseph Smith that seem utterly incompatible with the essence of Romanticism. Joseph was–and there seems no way around this–an uncompromising legalist. This may be the most vexing and incongruous dimension to Joseph the man, the prophet, and the theologian—and one that seems especially discordant with an age like our own, one that is suspicious of institutions and inherited forms. A legalistic vocabulary dominated his religious thought: Authority, priesthood, laws, and ordinances, were everything. “There is no salvation,” he declared, “without a legal administrator.” That title he applied to Zachariah, John, and even Jesus Christ; the prophet is whoever holds “keys,” and the exact “order and ordinances of the Kingdom” were non-negotiable, set in stone “by the Priesthood in the council of heaven before the world was.” In Oliver Cowdery’s 1834 version of Mormonism’s articles of faith, he wrote that “We believe that God is the same in all ages; and that it requires the same holiness, purity, and religion, to save a man now, as it did anciently.” In Joseph’s final version, that belief drops out, to be replaced by “a man must be ordained called of God . . . by the laying on hands, by those who are in authority, to . . .administer in the ordinances” of the gospel by one having authority.”. . .
Is there a way to make sense of these fiercely opposed tendencies in Joseph’s gospel vision? On the one hand, a clear impulse on his part to embrace the full implications of a universe of freedom, progress, and limitlessness: no creeds to constrain, no arbitrary rules or rituals to hinder. On the other, a reliance upon religious formalism strictures that seemed almost absurd in its legalistic fervor. “If you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be Crafty, the first thing you do go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself, & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory, & go ahead and not go back, but use a little Craftiness & seal all you can. . . . I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me and my council.” He sounds here as if he is prepared to out-lawyer St. Peter himself.
These imperatives could go by many names: I have been referring to them as Romanticism and legalism; but let us think of them instead, as love and law. Law, in this vision, is the glue that binds actions to their consequences, and thus guarantees the validity of agency. It is not about justice; it is about meaningful freedom. A universal clemency would not compromise justice. It would void agency. To bestow universal salvation, would be to impose on a moral agent a consequence they did not will, that is, did not choose, to receive. The tragedy of human existence in particular, is the tragedy of absolute freedom vs. perfect love. Love is manifest in the granting of freedom. And law is but the guarantee of freedom.
And so the law, for Joseph Smith, was not the opponent of freedom, but its ally. What at times could appear legalism, might in a broader context be seen as his resistance to the well-intentioned but disastrous illusion of an ungrounded human autonomy. He believed that ordinances and rituals, in particular, tied us to premortal conventions we participated in creating: they constitute “the most perfect order and harmony—and their limits and bounds were fixed irrevocably and voluntarily subscribed to.” This is why, in his words, we “have got to be subject to certain rules & principles” established “before the world was.” These rules and principles articulate the causal links that affirm the value and efficacy of a human freedom itself. The ritualistic saturation, the logical culmination of Joseph’s legalistic bent, oriented around these pre-ordained “rules and principles,” allows disciples to enact in dramatic fashion very specific choices tied to very particular consequences. Such formalism with its rigor may be said to be what distinguishes religion from its cheaper surrogate “spirituality.”
If Joseph had one contemporary who shared his concerns about the dangers of unfettered freedom, and what I have called law’s benevolent dominion, it was William Wordsworth, who toured revolutionary France came to recoil in horror from what he saw. The revolutionary dream had turned nightmare, and he wrote a great “Ode to Duty” in which he recognized the illusory bliss of what he called “unchartered freedom,” and the “weary strife” it engendered, and the law as the “Godhead’s most benignant grace.” But it was in a simpler sonnet that he captured the essential paradox of romanticism and legalism, of love and law.
“Nuns Fret Not,” he called the sonnet. The poet here finds an apt allegory in the seeming constraints that poetic rules and forms impose on the impulse toward free expression. His words about poetic discipline seem an appropriate summation of Joseph’s apparent belief that the fullest expression of agency can only unfold within the context of a certain religious rigor.
In part, it reads,
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
. . . In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Wilford Woodruff, Journal, March 10, 1844, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 331.