Joseph Smith from a Philosophic Point of View by Lee Edgar Young 1900
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[The following lecture, the notes excepted, was delivered by the author before the students of philosophy, at Harvard University]
My inward feelings tell me of the thoughts that are uppermost in the minds of my hearers when I take up the subject, Joseph Smith. Every man before me has heard of the name, and of the sect that was founded by this prophet of the nineteenth century. Well do I realize that "Mormonism" and its founder have but little interest to the citizens of the civilized world today; and were each of you asked your opinion, I dare say that your answer would be that the thoughts and teachings of Joseph Smith will have but little weight on the minds of future generations. In responding to this subject, however, I must state, at the outset, that my basis of reasoning will differ somewhat from yours. Yet it is not because you, as physiological-psychologists, can not explain the different characteristic phenomena of the mind when you look at them as a result of natural law. [Physiological-psychology is that branch of philosophy which teaches that all mental life and phenomena are conditioned by the organism, and that we know nothing of mind apart from body.] But I do believe that there are certain states of the spiritual make-up, and certain strange phenomena more or less miraculous, which no phase of science or philosophy can explain.
We look at the human brain and well do we know that the school of physiological-psychologists has discovered the fact that brain molecular action must precede thought, and that thought precedes all action. To a certain lobe of the brain we ascribe memory; to another, imagination; and to another, perception, yet keeping in mind all the time that the brain works as a whole in perfect harmony. Any reasonable man, understanding these facts, readily appreciates the human body, the masterpiece of creation.
But what a world of skepticism this knowledge has caused! For how can there be mind and spirit when the brain decays? How can the mind act when there is no external playing on the ganglions of the nervous system? Magazines and scientific books have bristled with such questions, of late; but who can answer them? We accept the truths discovered by this school of thinkers, and appreciate with Holmes that the "brain is a seventy-year clock wound up by the Angel of Life." Yet with it all, we know that there are some phases of thought that no human being can explain, though he reason a thousand years.
Let me ask the psychologist a question. What is it in man that gives him that divine hope, and faith that God lives and that death is not the end of life? What is it that makes man an aspiring creature whose soul becomes purely angelic when he kneels in humbleness? Is it intuition? Is it instinct? Surely these do not explain. They are shades of feeling and emotion that are felt and experienced, yet cannot be described. Physiological-psychology has its bounds, and to try to explain all mind action from a purely materialistic point of view is flagrantly and palpably absurd. So, too, whatever progress scientific psychology may make, it will never be able to answer what a real prophet is, nor what revelation means.
To answer whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and a revelator, I think it is necessary to know what God is, and His relation to man. I shall assume as a starting point the empirical argument of Descartes which he uses to prove the existence of God. Said he: "No idea is higher or clearer than the idea of God, or the most perfect being." Whence comes this idea? That every idea has a cause, comes from the principle that nothing produces nothing. There must be as much cause as there is effect, and as I conceive of a being more perfect than I, this conception can only come from some one who is more perfect in reality than I. This idea of God is implanted in one by God Himself. It is an original endowment, and is as innate as the idea of myself. This is really the ontological argument: we have a concept of God, hence there must be a God. Then, to go farther, we cannot think of God as apart from an existing individual.
The Christian world says this God is omnipotent, all merciful, and all loving. He is our Creator, and as He is infinite in His government, so He is in His love for His children. This God must, then, have a perfect law of living; and, if man is His child, God naturally speaks to him and gives him principles by which he can come to the truest happiness. This truest happiness, we will all agree, is the living in harmony with the laws of nature which are governed by the law of God.
Can there be a more beautiful conception of man's relation to the Deity than this? God points out the way by giving a Gospel plan of salvation to the race.
Let us make a contrast. Take a negative view. Let mankind throughout civilization deny the existence of a Maker and an allwise Protector. Can you imagine the terror and horror that this world would be steeped in, within a short time? Man would soon become a mere creature of passions, a mere animal. Think of the condition of the people of Paris, at the time of the French Revolution, when they declared that the Revolution should not cease until it had "dethroned the King of Heaven as well as the kings of earth."
We say that God spoke to Joseph Smith and revealed to him the holy law of heaven. You say, "No. Joseph Smith's visions and revelations were the result of some abnormal frame of mind." Can this appear reasonable when we look into the life of the man and the status of his work?
John Bunyan asserted that God spoke to him; so did George Fox and Emanuel Swedenborg. In fact every age has had its men who have asserted that divine revelation has been given to them. Whether these men really saw God and talked with Him, I cannot say; but I do know that Joseph Smith has given to the world a book which has caused wise men to think, and students to ponder over its teachings. I refer to the Book of Mormon.
Regarding this work the conscientious person must come to one of two conclusions; either that it is the work of a scholar whose brain was as great as that of a Kant or a Bacon, or that God revealed to the Prophet the records from which it was translated. You may ask the question whether or not the "Principia" of Newton or the "La Mecanique Celeste" of Laplacet are not greater books. I say, No. The truths of the Book of Mormon could never be the result of mere "man-made" investigation any more than the Bible could be.
In the Book of Mormon, there is philosophically worked out a grand conception of life and its meaning; of death, and the immortality of the soul; and it contains a history that no human brain could concoct.
Joseph Smith left us ideas on all phases of learning. He laid down a philosophy of life, and gave to man a plan of human redemption, which only humble study can make him understand. He has embodied in his teachings an ideal life here on earth. He saw in man grand capabilities and powers, and pointed out the way for him to become free, pure and virtuous; and asserted by his life that the "pure in heart could see God."
Joseph Smith's teachings were utilitarian, yet very ideal in their tendency. He lived a life of sacrifice, thereby teaching the one essential thing in human life—love. He had a sublime feeling for the external world—he had every confidence in the grand development of the human race. He taught the principles of faith, love, and good works, that the glory of God is intelligence; and that knowledge—real knowledge—is the path which leads to heaven. To him the universal brotherhood of mankind is the ultimate reality of society; and he asserted that work, with faith in Jesus Christ, will finally bring the race to this perfection.
It is a sorrowful thing, yet nevertheless true, that Joseph Smith's teachings are not understood today. Neither were the teachings of ancient prophets clearly understood by the peoples of their times. In making a study of the results of the works of our "Mormon Prophet," we can safely say with Temilron, a French writer: "Men's eyes do not focus well enough to note readily the advent hour of the world's Messiahs. By by-paths, not by thoroughfares or by highways, does truth come to its kingdom among men. Good never gallops to victory here in this earth, nor in any instance does truth march to its crown in a dress parade. It enters its kingdom always by Golgotha, a jeering mob, brandishing sticks, accompanying, even its best disciples following afar off, the women staying nearest, and is lifted to its crown on a cross between reviling thieves."
I do not think that the work of Joseph Smith can be explained in its entirety by the psychologist.
There is a higher law than earthly laws. There is the law of Heaven. That law we come to know only through the development of the divine nature within us.
Philosophy has its bounds; but the truths of God are infinite and are only to be known through the Spirit of God. We accept the truths discovered by all investigators; but what Hamlet said to Horatio is true: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
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