Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Joseph Smith in and against American culture of his time

Posted by cherylem on January 12, 2008

I thought I would start a post where we could talk about what was going on in American history during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Feel free to add your own comments from your own areas of interest, or from your readings of the books that are out there regarding this time.

One of the things I have been thinking a lot about lately is how a religion that came from an environment of independence and free thinking has developed into a religion of conformity. I have been thinking a lot about how to encourage the next generation of LDS children to be non-conformists, to think and argue things out for themselves.

Anyway, I attended a lecture last night on the work of William Billings (1746-1800), an early American composers. Aloma Bardi (wife of Gabrielle Boccaccini, the early Christian scholar), said that Billings was the first American professional composer. As an aside, Aloma, an Italian, has made her special field of study American music, especially early American music.

The title of Aloma’s lecture was: Billings: The Religion of American Independence

I know that much has been written about the religious fervor of the time period during which Joseph Smith lived, but I thought it might be interesting for some to read a bit of the lyrics of Billings’ music, who preceded Smith by a generation or so; he died five years before Smith was born. If you are interested in the actual music, which is creative, independent and innovative (much like the early American culture and the early LDS church!) you can purchase some on I-Tunes.

I was very interested in Billings’ lyrics as they present a history of the idea that America is God’s land and the people who come here are God’s people, and also Billings’ use of ancient texts, including scriptural texts, to apply uniquely to this [then] new land.

In “America”, (lyrics below) there is the idea that it is here, in New-England, that pure religion will flourish and circle the globe.

In “Chester”, (lyrics below), there is the idea that actual battles (Revolutionary battles) were the work of God.

There are many more songs – Billings wrote over 300 songs, many sacred, many of which reflect “the religion of the American revolution.”

To Thee the tuneful anthem soars,
To Thee, our Father’s God, and our’s;
This Wilderness we chose our Seat:
To Rights secur’d by Equal Laws,
From Persecution’s Iron Claws,
We here have sought our calm Retreat.

See! How the Flocks of Jesus rise!
See! How the face of Paradise Blooms
thro’ the Thickets of the Wilds!
Here Liberty erects her Throne;
Here Plenty pours her Treasures down;
Peace smiles, as heav’nly Cherubs mild.
Lord, guard thy Favors; Lord, extend
Where farther Western Sun descend;
Nor Southern Seas the Blessings bound;
‘Till Freedom lift her chearful head,
‘Till pure Religion onward spread,
And Beaming, wrap the Globe around.

Death may dissolve my Body now,
And bear my Spirit home;
Why do my minutes move so slow,
Nor my Salvation come?

With heav’nly Weapons I have fought
The Battles of the Lord, [battles of the American revolution]
Finish’d my Course, and kept the Faith,
And wait the sure Reward.

12 Responses to “Joseph Smith in and against American culture of his time”

  1. cherylem said

    This formatting looks okay to me in Safari. At last. Thanks Brian for your help.

    I do see a couple of typos but I’m not going to go back and fix them because every time I make a change I lose the paragraphing and have to manually insert the paragraphs again.

  2. brianj said

    Cheryl, this looks great—both in content and in formatting. I know that Mormonism came from an environment of independence, as you say, but I don’t know about that environment ever existing within Mormonism. Can you speak to that? My impression is that there was at least some condemnation of “free-thinkers” within the church (though I can’t pull up any specific quotes).

  3. cherylem said

    Brian, I’ll answer your question a little later. But in the meantime, William Blake’s Jerusalem (1804) was about the idea that Christ had visited the British Isles and has some of the themes that carried over to the New world. Jerusalem was made famous by its musical setting by C. Hubert. (The dark satanic mills was Blake’s way of talking about the Industrial Revolution).

    Jerusalem, by William Blake

    And did those feet in ancient time
    walk upon England’s mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
    And did the countenance divine
    shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    among these dark Satanic Mills?

    Bring me my bow of burning gold!
    Bring me my arrows of desire!
    Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
    Bring me my chariot of fire!
    I will not cease from mental fight,
    nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
    till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant Land.

  4. Joe Spencer said

    Cheryl, I recently wrote (and submitted for presentation at a conference… keep your fingers crossed for me) a paper that deals in some detail with this subject. (Anyone interested can just let me know and I’ll send it along; it is my paper on the four discourses of Mormonism, for anyone who has already read it but might not guess that that’s the paper I’m talking about.) In summary, what I argue is this: the history of the Church is best read as the working out of four different discourses, which I call institutional, ecumenical, evental, and fundamentalist; institutionalist discourse, I argue, is a direct consequence of the Second Manifesto (which I take as a move made under inspiration) and has a kind of pragmatic function in relation to the evental discourse of kerygma (in other words, I think that, while the institution as an institution can be understood to be “in the way,” it is something we ought to praise God for, since we could not do the real work without it). The irony is this: this conformism of sorts, that goes under the double name of the institutional and the ecumenical, is the consequence of the Lord’s response to the conformism of American statism. That is, it is the silly dialectic of American conservatism and liberalism that forced the Church to take on its own dialectical facade of conservative Mormonism and liberal Mormonism. In the end, then, I think both conformist Mormonism and non-comformist Mormonism are problematic, precisely because they bound by the same “natural” (that is, fallen) logic, and they both miss the “real” function of the institution and the Church’s ecumenical discourse. In a word, they are both caught up in the Church and not in the Kingdom.

    But I digress: I do have a great deal to say, in the end, about the atmosphere in which the Church had its beginnings. I highly recommend Bushman’s lecture from the Worlds of Joseph Smith symposium at the Library of Congress in 2005 as a good starting point for discussion.

  5. cherylem said

    I watched that conference online some time ago but cannot now find the link. Is it still up? Does anyone have it? Or a link to Bushman’s paper?

    Your comments are great. And I’d love to read your paper.

    More later. I hope to post my BOM lesson here soon.

  6. Robert C. said

    Cheryl, here’s a link to the audio and video files:


    It seems there is both a paperback and hardcover version of the proceedings in print—Amazon links are here and here.

    I’ve read Joe’s paper and it’s got me thinking a lot about these kinds of issues. One thing that I think is esp. important is to remember that our loyalty should be to God and what Joe refers to as the Kingdom, first and foremost, and not to “the Church” as an institution. Actually I think Paul’s discussion of the law is very relevant and helpful here: if viewed as an end in itself, the law—like the Church as an institution, or any program (or correlated manual) thereof—is death; but, if viewed properly as pointing to something greater (i.e., the Kingdom), then the institution, programs, manuals, etc. of the Church can be used to further build the Kingdom. However, I think there is indeed something in our culture that makes it very easy for us to take conformist attitudes that effectively amount to the same kind of attitude that those whom Paul was addressing took when viewing the law as an end in itself….

  7. Joe Spencer said

    I wholeheartedly endorse everything Robert says in his #6!

    Cheryl, I’ll e-mail you a copy of my paper.

  8. brianj said

    Robert: beautiful.

  9. Joe,

    Id love a copy as well, likewise with the colored breakdown of the King Follet discourse that didn’t get posted

  10. Joe Spencer said

    Joshua, e-mail me at s9t9o9k9i9e9j9o9e@hotmail.com, but, of course, without the 9’s, and then I’ll send it to you. Anyone else wanting the paper can just e-mail me there as well.

  11. cherylem said

    There is an online filming of a conference (11-09-07) of Mormonism and American Politics: Early Encounters at Princeton University. Speakers include Melissa Procter, Richard Bushman, Sally Barringer Gordon, Kathleen Flake, and Jan Shipps.

    The email address is here:

  12. cherylem said

    This is also interesting:


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