Why the Prophet is a Puzzle : The Challenges of Using Psychological Perspectives to Understand the Character and Motivation of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought
University of Illinois Press
In 1973 the non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps took up the Mormon prophet’s challenge in “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” a paper presented at the first conference of the John Whitmer Historical Association that subsequently appeared as the lead article in the first issue of the new Journal of Mormon History in 1974.
Shipps urged Mormon historians to begin to move beyond the two highly polarized and seemingly incompatible perspectives that had previously dominated almost all treatments of the Mormon prophet. On the one hand, believing Mormons typically portrayed Joseph Smith as God’s chosen prophet who could do no wrong. On the other hand, non-Mormon writers typically described him as a highly manipulative and psychologically disturbed scoundrel. Shipps suggested, instead, that any credible historical treatment of the Mormon prophet must take him as a whole human being and see him in all his complexity as a “harmonious human multitude,” as Carl Van Doren famously characterized Benjamin Franklin.