Affinities and Infinities : Joseph Smith and John Milton
BYU Studies Quarterly
Brigham Young University Press
John Milton, son of John Milton, was born in Bread Street, London, in December 1608, the son of a middling scrivener; Joseph Smith, son of Joseph Smith, was born in December 1805, the son of a landless farmer. The senior John Milton’s fortune depended on the unsavory practice of money lending, but over time he made a handsome life for the family; the senior Joseph Smith’s fortunes depended upon the undesirable necessity of money borrowing and in time a morass of debt defined the family life. The Smith and Milton families resided on opposite sides of the lender-borrower dynamic, but the mystique of money lending shadowed the reputations of young John and young Joseph both.
This coincidental spark between the lives of the two men—one an august, Anglo bard and the other an American folk prophet—is one of a number of curious likenesses and neat differences. Both men were tireless autodidacts, for instance, with special interest in languages and translation. But Milton received the best education of any man of his generation in England; Joseph received scant formal schooling, though he never hesitated on that account to bring his writings to light. Both men, responding to an explicitly apocalyptic urgency, developed millenarian theo-political ambitions, Milton’s pinned to the English Revolution and Joseph’s to a project of American Zion-building. Milton lived to see his hopes brutally dashed in the failure of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the English monarchy; Joseph lived to see his Nauvoo with its tens of thousands rise from the wide Mississippi. Above all, both men claimed the mantle of prophecy: this conviction ran like a vein of gold through their writings, each conceived as a kind of third testament thoroughly steeped in a biblical imagination. Both men claimed that their words came from God, that they were visited nightly by a divine being of light. If Milton called his nightly visitor Urania, and Joseph called his Moroni, we can hardly quibble.
These psychological affinities point to deeper conversations between the textual legacies of John Milton and Joseph Smith.