Yesterday I was sitting on my sofa, legs crossed, Macbook resting on a pillow precariously balanced on my lap. I was fully engaged in my studies, but was distracted when a notification popped up on my screen informing me of an email from my mom.
My mom’s email began with a reminder that it had been 200 years since what Mormons refer to as the “First Vision,” and LDS Church authorities were encouraging members to consider the question, “How have the events that followed [Joseph Smith’s] First Vision made a difference for me?”
Now, what is funny about receiving my mom’s email, is that the work I was engaged in at that very moment, was recording notes I had made on an article entitled “Marriage as Treason.” The article, written by historian Nancy Bentley, documents how the anti-polygamy movement that arose in response to the Mormon practice of polygamy in the mid 19th century, relied on upwards of 100 domestic novels to convince the public that polygamy was a form of female bondage which posed a serious threat to the newly formed American nation.
All week I had been knee-deep in academic articles, that considered a compelling, but difficult line of inquiry—how had Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, been a proverbial shit-disturber who challenged widely accepted western ideals of sexuality, marriage, economics, theocracy and democracy. So my mom’s email, that expressed in her own beautiful way, the benefits she attributes to Smith’s First Vision and her conversion-to and membership-in the LDS Church was both timely and touching.
Since receiving my mom’s email, I have enthusiastically considered the question of how Smith’s First Vision has shaped my life– a question made all the more interesting since I am no longer a practicing Mormon, yet center non-monogamy (including the Mormon practice of polygamy) in my academic work.
Let me provide for my non-Mormon readers a little background on the First Vision. As the story goes, when Smith was a teenager he became interested in religion. He attended the services of many different church congregations around Manchester, New York, and found himself confused about contradictory interpretations of the bible. When he was 14 years old, he decided that the best way to find out which church he should join was to ask God. Smith went to a wooded area close to his home, and prayed to God. Both God and Jesus appeared to Smith telling him that he should not join any of the churches because they were all incorrect. This “vision” is considered the beginning of what Mormons refer to as the “restoration” of God’s true church, a.k.a. Mormonism. Click here for more info.
It must be noted, that secular and Mormon historians have long-questioned the authenticity of the First Vision narrative as disseminated by LDS Church authorities. Historical documents make a strong case that the story of the First Vision is not based on actual fact, but evolved and developed overtime. Fawn Brodie’s book No Man Knows My History published in 1945 was the first to claim that Smith fabricated his vision. This claim was adamantly denied by Church authorities at the time, but documents released by the LDS Church in 2016 for the Joseph Smith Papers Projects confirms that the story, first written by Smith in 1832 (12 years after the First Vision supposedly occurred) is different from the 1838 version which has become the bedrock of the Mormon faith.
If you are interested in learning more, click here to listen to a podcast from Mormonland.
Here’s the thing… to say that I am highly skeptical of the story of the First Vision as disseminated by the LDS Church would be an understatement. That being said, it matters not to me whether it is “true” or not. If my mom finds inspiration and joy from the First Vision, fantastic! And if other people find the inconsistencies troubling, then good for them too!
What interests me more than the question of truth, (like there is such a thing?) is the social meaning the First Vision narrative has for practicing Mormons. Likewise, what sends an utter surge of intellectual delight through my soul, is the social meaning the story has for those who historically perceived Smith (and Mormonism) as a serious threat to the American social order.
Which brings us full circle to the question posed by my mom and LDS Church authorities…. “How have the events that followed [Joseph Smith’s] First Vision made a difference for me?”
Although I am no longer a practising Mormon, the life and ideologies of Smith have had a profound impact on my life.
As a Queer theorist engaged in intellectual labor, the story of Mormonism impacts me in two meaningful and interconnected ways.
First of all, being raised Mormon profoundly situates my research. Feminist theorists such as Sandra Harding have long-question the supposed value-neutrality of ALL science, including social science. She argues that in societies organized by class, race or gender, it is impossible for a researcher to be “disinterest, impartial, value-free, or detached from the particular social relations in which everyone participates.” Being raised in the Mormon faith shapes my perceptions of the world—I see things that other researchers do not. The questions I ask, cannot be dissociated from my world view—a view shaped by gender, class and my religious upbringing.
Secondly, Mormonism in general, and Joseph Smith in particular, has ignited in me an irresistible interest in Queer theory. If you are scratching your head, and wondering what exactly Queer theory is, let me “try” to explain.
I would argue that it is impossible to nail down an exact definition of Queer theory because it actively resists a precise definition. However, identifying some dominant themes articulated amongst most Queer theorists can point us in the right direction. Queer theory is about disrupting taken-for-granted social conventions. It is about challenging and subverting the normative to show that what we think of as ‘stable’ (such as gender, sexuality or race) is in fact, fluid. It is about challenging power-structures such as capitalism, the police state, marriage and the medicalization of difference and considering how these structures reinforce systems of oppression. Queer theory has a particular interest in contesting dominant regimes of sexuality and considering how these regimes have ordered and structured society.
One of the fundamental principles of Queer theory is what Green refers to as “the insidious force of heteronormativity.”
Let’s break down heteronormativity… it is the assumption that heterosexuality (opposite-sex attraction and sex) is normal, natural and preferable. Queer theory interrogates heteronormativity by showing the ways in which gender, sex, sexuality and gender roles are power-sensitive constructs that privilege some at the expense of others.
If I could sum it up Queer theory in one sentence, I would say this…
Queer theory challenges all power regimes and all assumptions of normativity.
Ok… so now you may be asking how Queer theory relates to Joseph Smith. Let me tell you….
As mentioned earlier, Smith was quite the shit-disturber. Whether or not you believe he was divinely influenced, it is impossible to ignore the multiple ways Smith challenged the normativities of 19th century America. Let’s list a few…
- Polygamy, disrupted normative ideals of white, Christian family formation;
- Polygamy disrupted normative ideals of white, Christian femininity;
- Communal property ownership, as practiced by Smith, disrupted normative ideals of capitalism;
- Smith’s involvement in local and federal politics disrupted normative constructs of western democracy.
Everywhere Smith went, trouble followed, and at the heart of these troubles, was his provocative challenge to the normative. Whether it be sexuality, commerce, politics – Smith’s ideas challenged the newly emergent republic of the United States. In fact, many historians have argued that it was his challenge to normativities that actually reinforced monogamy and capitalism as being quintessential to the American consciousness.
This is fantastic stuff!
Now, I must confess that I am confused as to how a religion that so radically rejected the normative in its infancy transformed into a pillar of conservatism. I’m inclined to agree with historian, Katherine Mohrman, that the LDS Church has embraced capitalism, whiteness, and a heteropatriarchal familial and church structure in response to a Queer past that was simultaneously difficult to supress, yet mandatory to do so in order to be enfolded into the US body politic.
Smith’s Queerness informs my work.
His Queerness helps me see the world through a particular lens.
Smith’s Queerness is a treasure trove of delights.
That is my answer, dear mama bear, to the question of the day.
- In 2008, after several years of inactivity in the church, I formally submitted my request to have my name removed from the church rolls. Although I am a resident of Canada, I was so disturbed by the church’s involvement in California’s proposition 8 that sought a constitutional ban on marriage, that I could no longer in good conscious be affiliated with the LDS Church. ↑
- Harding, Sandra. (1991). Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 59. ↑
- Green, A. I. (2002). Gay but not queer: Toward a post-queer study of sociology. Theory and Society 31, 4: 521-45. ↑
- Mohrman, K. (2015). Queering the LDS Archive. Radical History Review, 2015(122), 143-159, 145. ↑