Creating a 20th Century Joseph Smith: Institutionalizing Prophetic Memory

Sharon Vermont and Religious Memory, Part 1

Straining at their bits, twenty-plus horses lumbered into Sharon, Vermont on December 22, 1905. Behind them trailed a “polished shaft of granite” weighing in at ninety-one tons and measuring 38.5 feet. When erected the pillar would commemorate the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s birth a century before. But the ramrod-straight straight obelisk was more than a heartfelt tribute to a man whose death in 1844 believers lamented still. It also became a blank slate upon which new memories of Mormonism’s sacred past could be constructed in the wake of the church’s recent decision to fully disavow the practice of plural marriage.[1]

Mormons had long placed the practice of “celestial marriage” at the center of their theological universe, believing that God, through his prophet, had once again revealed and restored the biblical practice in their day and age. To be a true follower of Joseph Smith was to accept plural marriage in theory and—often—in practice. But polygamy, in detractors’ eyes, did not good citizens make. Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans turned to the workings of law in an attempt to change the Mormons’ heterodox unions: jailing polygamists, revoking their franchise, even disincorporating the church. When the nation’s leaders discovered that the Saints had not renounced the practice as promised, they threatened to remove Mormon Senator Reed Smoot from office. When President of the Latter-day Saint Church Joseph F Smith (Joseph Smith’s nephew) arrived in Vermont he found himself in the position of needing to remove members’ attachment to plural marriage without undermining their confidence in modern-day prophetic revelation.[2]

To President Smith the dedication of the memorial became one way by which to reorient the Saints’ own understanding of themselves and their sacred history. In so doing, Smith directed his followers’ gaze away from Joseph’s institution of plural marriage, and towards his direct role in restoring what Latter-day Saints believed to be Christ’s original church from apostasy. In President Smith’s telling, Joseph acted as a continual conduit for continued heavenly revelation, and a servant of God who bestowed of divine authority upon his successors. The monument itself underscored President Smith’s emphasis, with the cement foundation symbolizing the primitive church, a granite base representing a “rock of revelation,” and the pillar itself “reflecting the light of heaven” which rested upon Joseph Smith. In emphasizing Joseph’s communication with the divine, President Smith called on the Saints to make Joseph’s oft-ignored “first vision” of God the Father and Jesus Christ a central part of their religious story. In so doing, President Smith emphasized a narrative upon which members might build a sense of themselves as a people, one which emphasized persecution for belief rather than polygamous practice and stressed the need for continued contact with the divine. Together, the memorial and President Smith’s opinion of its meaning helped chart a new path for both the Latter-day Saint Church and its individual followers at the close of one era and the beginning of another.[3]


[1] Kathleen Flake, “Re-Placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century,” Religion & American Culture, vol. 13 no. 1 (Winter 2003), 69-109; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial,” Historic Sites,, accessed 7/24/18.

[2] Flake, “Re-Placing Memory.”

[3] Joseph F. Smith, Proceedings at the Dedication of the Joseph Smith Memorial Monument (n.d., ca. 1906), 22-24.