Pleasing the Eye and Gladdening the Heart: Joseph Smith and Life's Little Pleasures
Andrew H. Hedges
When the Spirit of revelation from God inspires a man, his mind is opened to behold the beauty, order, and glory of the creation of this earth—Brigham Young1
Recently, several scholars have attempted to portray Joseph Smith and the religious ideas he taught as nothing more than products of American frontier culture, arguing that little, if anything, about the restored gospel and its founder was truly unique and original when compared to the early nineteenth-century cultural milieu of which it was a part.2
This paper presents evidence to the contrary and contends that in at least one respect Joseph and the religion he founded were unique on the American religious scene in the early nineteenth century. This uniqueness arose from Joseph's views of, and teachings about, the physical world in which he lived, his physical body, and the value he ascribed to his associations with other people. While Joseph clearly loved all that this physical world has to offer, evidence from popular pamphlets, sermons, and books of the time suggests that most Christians in early nineteenth-century America held to the belief that the physical world and the pleasure to be derived therefrom were inherently burdensome, miserable, restricting, and evil. Most Christians of the period were taught, and taught others, that one's focus should be on strictly spiritual concerns and that most forms of recreation, play, popular music, and other "worldly" concerns were to be engaged in at the peril of their eternal souls. These values were instilled in children at an early age. "Instead of loving God and keeping his commandments," one pamphlet written for Sunday school children read, "you have been disobedient and rebellious. . . . Instead of giving your hearts to God, you have given them to your sports and plays, to dress and fashion, and the vanities of the world."3 Time spent playing or on other "frivolous diversions"4 like reading too many books, other pamphlets warned, detracted from the real business of life, and people were counseled to "divide the day into proper portions," with "so much time [set aside] for retirement and divine worship, so much for business, and so much for study, exercise, &c."5 Such a regimen was to be observed even at the expense of one's friends,6 for "company, beyond a certain measure, is of bad consequence, be they ever so good and wise. Keeping much retired and by ourselves, is most profitable for us all."7 While the ministers and Sunday school teachers taught that temporal success followed in the wake of such a disciplined lifestyle, it is clear that they considered far more was at stake than their listeners' livelihoods. "A sound of your approaching damnation roars aloud in every threatening of [God's] word. Even while I speak," thundered one instructor, "hell stands open to receive you, and devils stand ready to drag you into everlasting fire. . . . Why be careless? Why be merry?"8
The dangers of enjoying life's pleasures were taught so powerfully that Brigham Young, who grew up in this environment, recalled:
When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth [have] been denied me, . . . I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it.9
Indeed, aspiring Christians were taught that the physical world and its influences were so worthless and corrupting and presented so many hazards to one's personal salvation that one should have no qualms about leaving this unhappy world for a better and should perhaps actually long for the great day of "dissolution" to arrive. The idea was a popular one and actually spawned its own genre of literature, which generally took the form of short pamphlets, and occasionally books, recounting the last days and dying statements of exemplary Christians.10
Biographies and memoirs of persons who lived and taught these ideals throughout their lives were also immensely popular at the time. Consider, for example, the book Memoirs of the Rev. David Brainerd; Missionary to the Indians on the Borders of New-York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania, published in 1822. David Brainerd was a household name in early nineteenth-century America; not only had various portions of his work, most of which detailed his labors as a missionary among the Mohican and Delaware Indians between 1743 and 1747, been published and republished in both America and England over the years, but they had also received glowing endorsements from such eminent divines as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and John Styles. By the Prophet Joseph's time, they were considered as valuable for aspiring Christians as they were popular; in fact, the editor of the 1822 edition wrote confidently that the missionary's diary alone was "probably the best manual of christian experience, ever yet published" and that Brainerd himself "would probably be selected by all denominations of christians as the holiest missionary, if not the holiest man, of modern times."11
Brainerd's piety lay in the disdain he held for the world and any happiness it might provide. "The whole world appears to me like a huge vacuum," he wrote his brother John, "a vast empty space, whence nothing desirable, or at least satisfactory, can possibly be derived; and I long daily to die more and more to it."12 The heavily wooded region in which he lived and worked was, in his eyes, "the most melancholy desart," the "most lonesome wilderness," nothing more than a source of "great hardships" and "tedious travel."13 Convinced that the physical world had nothing to offer, Brainerd could not even visit a house "where one was dead and laid out" without "look[ing] on the corpse," he wrote, "and long[ing] that my time might come to depart," or suffer some small inconvenience without being "comforted, to think, that death would ere long set me free from these distresses."14 "O death, death, my kind friend," he called out at one point, "hasten, and deliver me from dull mortality, and make me spiritual and vigorous to eternity!"15
It is important to note that this pronounced "otherworldliness" was not original or unique to early nineteenth-century America. The idea that things of a material or physical nature were far inferior to those of a spiritual nature had been part and parcel of Christianity ever since Greek converts, unable to relinquish their ancient philosophers' teachings in this regard, had introduced it into the church— which had no such doctrine of its own—in the first and second centuries.16 The popularity of these ideas in the early nineteenth century merely indicates that these centuries-old "doctrines" were alive and well during the time of the Prophet Joseph and that the effects of the Great Apostasy were still being felt.17
For all the health this philosophy was enjoying in early America, however, it is important to note that in Joseph Smith we find precisely the opposite. For Joseph, the things of this earth were very much deserving of his attention, and he had no qualms about enjoying the pleasures to be derived from the physical world. This was not because Joseph was a hedonist, but rather because he understood, as few of his Christian contemporaries did, that the time-honored Christian teaching about the inferiority of the physical world was one of the "vain philosophies of men" that had crept into the early church, and one that had no basis in the doctrines of the gospel.18
As a youth, Joseph was cognizant of the earth's pleasures and the beauty of its order, and apparently appreciated, at least to a degree, its significance in the grand order of things. In his 1832 account of the First Vision, Joseph recounts how, as a boy, he
looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty [sic] through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth . . . and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said
fool saith in his heart there is no God.19
Already aware, then, of the implications inherent in the very order of the earth as a young man, Joseph learned even more about its beauty and purposes during the summer of 1831, shortly after he and several other elders had dedicated the land of Zion and its temple lot. Known today as section 59 in the Doctrine and Covenants, this revelation from the Lord contains one of the great truths about the physical world that the Prophet restored during his ministry:
Verily I [the Lord] say, that inasmuch as ye [keep the Sabbath holy], the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards; Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used. (D&C 59:16—20)
It is clear from his own writings, as well as from those of his contemporaries who took the time to record their observations of the Prophet, that Joseph took this doctrine to heart and made it a point to enjoy life's little pleasures, even when they were not convenient. On the night of 26 May 1834, for example, Joseph and Zion's Camp were bedded down on the Illinois prairie just west of the Embarras River. About 11:00 p.m., the camp's guards awakened Joseph with the news that they could see the mob's campfires to the southeast. Although it was immediately clear to Joseph that they had merely seen the light of the moon rising over the flat prairie, he was so struck with how beautiful the view was that he aroused the entire camp, "wishing the brethren to enjoy the scene as well as myself," he wrote, and feeling it "well worth the trouble of any man rising from his couch to witness."20
The scenery did not need to be as spectacular as a prairie moonrise to win the Prophet's admiration. From his own record, for example, we read of the "truly delightful" view that could be obtained from the top of an ancient mound in Illinois, or the "beautiful location" of Adam-ondi-Ahman.21 The Prophet found the area around Nauvoo particularly noteworthy in this regard. In a letter to John C. Bennett, written shortly after the Saints began settling there, Joseph noted how the growing town was "beautifully situated on the banks of the Mississippi . . . [at] probably the best and most beautiful site for a city on the river."22 In a proclamation to the Saints issued a few months later, Joseph went on to explain the new city's name—a Hebrew word for a beautiful and restful place—by noting its "most delightful location" on the east bank of the great river and at the western edge of "an extensive prairie of surpassing beauty."23
Closely related to this appreciation for natural beauty was the Prophet's love for the outdoors and outdoor activities. It is no coincidence that several people remember having first laid eyes on the Prophet, not in the confines of his office or in a meeting, but outside, and frequently at work. Brigham Young, for example, first saw Joseph as he was "chopping and hauling wood" near his home in Kirtland.24 Wilford Woodruff first saw him "out in the field," where "he had on a very old hat, and was engaged shooting at a mark."25 The Prophet's own record indicates that when he was not chopping wood or target practicing, he enjoyed walking in the woods, working in his garden, riding his horse, and taking pleasure rides on the steamship Maid of Iowa, of which he was a half owner.26
Along with his appreciation for the outdoors and beautiful scenery, Joseph thoroughly enjoyed his healthy body and took advantage of its potential. As Leonard Arrington makes clear, this is not to suggest that Joseph crossed the line "between living the fuller life to which we are called by the gospel and indulging in licentious behavior" but rather simply to note that the Prophet, who realized the eternal significance of the body and of the information to be learned through it, took every opportunity that presented itself to exercise its gifts.27 Best known in this regard is his love for wrestling and other sports, such as pulling sticks, jumping at a mark, and playing ball.28
Not so well-known, perhaps, but entirely in keeping with his zest for life, was his love for good food. While evidence for this side of Joseph's character is rare in the historical record, his noting the "excellent wild turkey [he had] for supper" on his way from Independence to Kirtland in 1831, or the "sumptuous feast" he attended at Newel K. Whitney's home early in 1836, certainly suggests that he appreciated a well-prepared meal.29 So too does a recollection of the Prophet by John L. Smith, who lived with Joseph for several months as a youth. After having been called to a dinner of corn bread, John reported, Joseph "looked over the table [and] said, 'Lord, we thank Thee for this Johnny cake, and ask Thee to send us something better.'" His request was not long in being granted; before they had finished the corn bread, according to John, "a man came to the door and asked if the Prophet Joseph was at home. Joseph replied he was, whereupon the visitor said, 'I have brought you some flour and a ham.'"30
Of all that Joseph found to enjoy in this world, evidence suggests that he derived his greatest pleasure from the association he had with other people—something his religious contemporaries, remember, were being cautioned against. A close reading of the historical record shows that he was rarely to be found alone, and that this was largely a result of his own desire to be with others. Whenever possible, these were first and foremost members of his own family. As LaMar C. Berrett has shown, Joseph was a devoted son, brother, husband, and father, a man who "took time to be with his wife"—as well as other members of his family—"whether he had it or not."31 He also enjoyed spending time with children, finding in "the prattling child," according to one contemporary observer, the "innocence and purity" he loved so much.32 And finally, Joseph clearly welcomed opportunities to associate with other adults, to the point where his son Joseph III recalled that his "father's home in Nauvoo was generally overrun with visitors."33
Joseph frequently combined his love for exercise and the outdoors with his love for associating with his family and friends. When Brigham Young first saw the Prophet, for example, "two or three of his brothers" were with him in the woodlot, while Wilford Woodruff noted that he was attended by his brother Hyrum when he met him in the field target practicing.34 For this very reason, Zion's Camp, in spite of its hardships, provided Joseph with great pleasure at times, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to Emma after having reached the Mississippi River in June 1834:
The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, . . . and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendor and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed, and in short were it not [th]at every now and then our thoughts linger with inexpressible anxiety for our wives and our children . . . our whole journey would be as a dream, and this would be the happiest period of all our lives.35
Similarly, Joseph went on walks, horseback rides, and at least one sleigh ride with Emma, and did everything from "playing in the yard" to hunting ducks and sliding on the ice with his sons.36 His whole family accompanied him on his pleasure trips aboard the Maid of Iowa.37 Much of the time he spent with neighbor children was also outdoors, where he could be found playing ball with a group of boys at one moment and picking flowers for a fatherless little girl the next.38
Overtly manifesting his love for the beauties and pleasures of the earth, Joseph offended several of his religious-minded contemporaries who had been raised to believe that a truly religious individual should wear, like David Brainerd did, his otherworldliness on his sleeve.39 Many of these people, although taken aback at some point in their association with Joseph by his down-to-earth qualities, were able to overcome their prejudices and learn from the Prophet's manner. Rachel R. Grant, for example, who admitted that the "great deal of sectarianism" she had imbibed made her think initially that the more serious Hyrum seemed more like a prophet than the "cheerful and happy" Joseph, faithfully went on to raise the seventh president of the church.40 Similarly, Sidney Rigdon learned a valuable lesson when he censured the Prophet in 1838 for encouraging a company of Mormon militiamen, wet and cold from an October rainstorm, to warm and cheer themselves by wrestling. "Brother Sidney," Joseph said, "you had better go out of here and let the boys alone; they are amusing themselves according to my orders." To Sidney's chagrin—especially since it resulted in his coat being torn—the Prophet then commenced wrestling with him, after which the first counselor reportedly "never countermanded the orders of the Prophet" again.41
Joseph, fully realizing that his unique approach to life could be misconstrued, did what he could both to allay others' fears and educate them in this regard. "The Saints need not think because I am familiar with them and am playful and cheerful, that I am ignorant of what is going on," he told members of the Quorum of the Twelve thirteen months before his death. "Iniquity of any kind cannot be sustained in the Church, and it will not fare well where I am; for I am determined while I do lead the Church, to lead it right."42 Similarly, William M. Allred recalled that Joseph once reported that he knew "it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys." Joseph explained his actions by relating the story of a prophet "who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow and reproved him. The prophet," said Joseph, "asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time."43
In spite of his efforts, however, a number of people were not able to relinquish their hold on their prejudices. This included several ministers who visited Joseph at various times and who were reportedly "shocked"—"awfully shocked," in one case—when Joseph challenged them to a wrestling match or jumping contest.44 At times, Joseph's manner elicited even more extreme reactions. George A. Smith, for example, knew of an entire family who left the church because they saw Joseph "[come] down out of the translating room, where he had been translating by the gift and power of God, and commenc[e] playing with his little children."45
The contrast between Joseph Smith and the nineteenth-century ideal of a religious man could not have been greater. At a time when many people felt that piety was a function of one's ability to ignore the pleasures this world has to offer, Joseph was making no secret of the fact that he loved his life on this physical earth and wanted to experience it to the fullest possible extent. This was because he understood, like very few of his Christian contemporaries, that this earth had been created for the express purpose of making mankind happy and that there was nothing inherently wicked about enjoying its pleasures. This truth, like so many others, had been lost during the Great Apostasy, and people had been suffering the effects of its absence for some eighteen hundred years by the time Joseph arrived on the scene. The restoration of this truth to the earth in the early nineteenth century and the Prophet's willingness to live and teach it as a truly Christian principle in the face of great opposition count as great events in the history of the restoration of the gospel.
1. Journal of Discourses, 9:256.
2. For examples, see John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644—1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993); and Dan Vogel, ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990).
3. An Address Delivered to the Children of a Sunday School in Boston on the Last Sabbath of December, 1818 (Boston: Boston Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, 1819), 3—4. I am indebted to David Holland for alerting me to this and the following pamphlets and tracts.
4. Charles Atmore, Serious Advice, from a Father to His Children, Respecting Their Conduct in the World; Civil, Moral, and Religious (Philadelphia: Cunningham, 1819), 34.
5. Ibid., 10.
7. An Affectionate Address to Young Christians (New York: Seymour, 1819), 7.
8. Advice to Youth (Baltimore: Religious Tract Society of Baltimore, 1819), 2.
9. Journal of Discourses, 2:94.
10. For examples, see Experience Mayhew, Indian Converts: or, Some Account of the Lives and Dying Speeches of a Considerable Number of the Christianized Indians of Martha's Vineyard, in New-England (London: 1727); The Pleasures of Piety in Youth Exemplified, in the Life and Death of Several Children (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands, 1819); Accounts of the Happy Deaths of Two Young Christians (Boston: Willis, 1819); Early Instruction Recommended in a Narrative of the Life of Catherine Haldane, with an Address to Parents on the Importance of Religion (New Haven: Sidney's Press, 1819), 9, 13— 23; George Hendley, A Memorial for Sunday School Girls, Being the Second Part of an Authentic Account of the Conversion, Experience, and Happy Death, of Twenty-five Children (Boston: Armstrong, 1819).
11. Sereno E. Dwight, Memoirs of the Rev. David Brainerd; Missionary to the Indians on the Borders of New-York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania (New Haven: Converse, 1822), 9, spelling retained, emphasis in original in all quotations from Dwight.
12. Ibid., 122.
13. Ibid., 99, 101, 121, 176.
14. Ibid., 180, 145.
15. Ibid., 167.
16. See Stephen E. Robinson, "Warring against the Saints of God," Ensign (January 1988): 39.
17. Other authors have noted the harsh otherworldliness that prevailed in early nineteenth-century Christianity and the effects it had on many church members. Leonard J. Arrington, for example, has observed that "the goal set up by the ministers of the time was that each church member should become a spiritual athlete, that is, work unceasingly at being a religious person," and that many who were raised under the "artificially severe, ascetic, fun-abhorring" conditions "that contemporary religion seemed to insist upon . . . felt guilty if they enjoyed the ordinary things of life;" see Leonard J. Arrington, "Joseph Smith and the Lighter View," New Era (August 1976): 8, 10. For a further discussion of this topic, see Rex A. Skidmore, "Joseph Smith: A Leader and Lover of Recreation," Improvement Era (December 1940): 716.
18. I should emphasize here that this paper compares Joseph's views of the physical world with those of his devoutly Christian contemporaries only. Its scope, then, is quite narrow, and does not attempt to compare Joseph's ideas with those of the Deists, Rationalists, Romantics, and the emerging Naturalists and Transcendentalists who shared his world. I will simply note here that while many of these philosophies and ideologies promoted the glories and pleasures of the world, they did so at the expense of basic Christian beliefs; Thomas Jefferson, for example, a Rationalist, denied the divinity of Christ, while the Transcendentalists' "Supreme Being" was a disembodied "Oversoul" with which one sought to "commune" through nature. Joseph, tutored by the Lord, was unique among these groups in that he was able to explain his beliefs about the physical world, and enjoy it himself, without having to abandon fundamental truths about Christ's divinity and the nature of God.
19. The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 1:6.
20. History of the Church, 2:72.
21. Ibid., 2:79; 3:39.
22. Ibid., 4:177.
23. Ibid., 4:268. I am indebted to Larry Porter for leading me to these references about Nauvoo. Similar statements are peppered liberally throughout the Prophet's record. A sampling of descriptive phrases used by the Prophet to convey his appreciation for the earth's beauties would include "spring . . . with all its charms," "the beautiful, clear water of the lake," and "beautiful country"; see History of the Church, 2:405, 503, and 3:34 respectively. While Joseph may not have penned several similar statements contained in his History, evidence suggests that he probably read and endorsed them. These would include a description of Jackson County, where the author recorded that "as far as the eye can glance the beautiful rolling prairies lay spread around like a sea of meadows. . . . The shrubbery was beautiful. . . . The prairies were decorated with a growth of flowers that seemed as gorgeous grand as the brilliance of stars in the heavens, and exceed description"; see Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:359.
24. History of the Church, 1:297.
25. Journal of Discourses, 7:101.
26. See Skidmore, "Joseph Smith," 717, 762.
27. See Arrington, "Joseph Smith," 13.
28. See Alexander L. Baugh, "Joseph Smith's Athletic Nature," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993), 137—50.
29. History of the Church, 1:202; 2:362.
30. John Lyman Smith, "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 172.
31. LaMar C. Berrett, "Joseph, a Family Man," in The Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry C. Porter and Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 36—48; quotation on p. 43.
32. Louisa Y. Littlefield, "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 24.
33. Joseph Smith III, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration, ed. Mary Audentia Smith Anderson (Independence: Herald House, 1952), 73.
34. History of the Church, 1:297; Journal of Discourses, 7:101.
35. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 324—25. I am indebted to Richard L. Anderson for directing me to this account.
36. Berrett, "Family Man," 43—44; John Lyman Smith, "Recollections," 172; Joseph Taylor Sr., "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 202; History of the Church, 5:265.
37. See Skidmore, "Joseph Smith," 762.
38. For stories of Joseph playing with neighborhood children, see accounts by Edwin Holden, John Lyman Smith, Calvin W. Moore, John W. Hess, Bathsheba W. Smith, Lucy M. Smith, and William M. Allred in "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 153, 172, 255, 302, 344, 471, and 472, respectively. For an account of his picking flowers for a fatherless girl, see Mercy R. Thompson, "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 399.
39. Both Alexander L. Baugh and Truman G. Madsen have noted this phenomenon; see Baugh, "Athletic Nature," 145—47, and Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 25—26. I am indebted to these two authors for pointing me to the sources I use in developing this argument further.
40. Rachel R. Grant, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet," Young Woman's Journal 16 (December 1905): 551.
41. John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled; or The Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand, 1877), 76—78; quotations on pp. 77, 78.
42. History of the Church, 5:411.
43. William M. Allred, "Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith," Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 472.
44. Edwin F. Parry, comp., Stories about Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1934), 17—18; Journal of Discourses, 3:67.
45. Journal of Discourses, 2:214.