Why I Fell in Love With Joseph Smith But Couldn't Commit to Mormonism

FILE - This file image provided by the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows Mormon prophet Josep
FILE - This file image provided by the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr., in a copy of a daguerreotype made circa 1843-1844. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has struggled for acceptance ever since Smith said in the 19th century that God told him to restore the true Christian church by revising parts of the Bible and adding the Book of Mormon as a sacred text. (AP Photo/Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, File)

In 2003, I signed on as a writer for a PBS series on "The Mormons." I liked what I knew about Joseph Smith, but I had never actually met a Mormon before. Nevertheless, while researching Joseph Smith, I found myself falling in love with what his critics found so unacceptable: his irreverence, bold imagination and extremes of self-invention. Ultimately, I had what you might call a road to Damascus moment. Three years into the film, I was stopped in traffic by a head-splitting revelation of Joseph's presence, something so strong I began considering conversion. However, when I began traveling down that path, investigating as a potential convert, the lessons contained little of my Joseph. Indeed, it felt almost like the modern-day Mormon church was vaccinating its members against its founder's wild, religious intensity.

Gradually, I realized it could not be any other way.

I was well into middle-age when I began working on the documentary. My background hadn't been that churchy. But on summer evenings at my family's Rhode Island summer house, playing in the meadows with kids from the neighborhood, I felt God everywhere, and everything we did was god-like. Born in 1805, young Joseph Smith came from a family of frontier seekers who weren't that churchy either. They read the Bible together and constantly talked about what Christianity should be. Joseph found God in nature in the same innocent way I had.

As his calling developed, he used whatever he had with the irreverence of a modern artist. He used a magic peep stone to look for buried treasure. But then he parlayed the peep stone into a pair of holy spectacles he used to "interpret" the gold plates. He founded a new world religion by putting his face in his hat and reading aloud sentences that unscrolled in the darkness under the brim. And despite having only three years of education, he dared produce the Book of Mormon -- a revolutionary text which took Christ out of the Bible, a closed canon, and gave him new life in America. I found other signs of modernity, sexual experiment and contradiction in the older Joseph. He mirrored my childhood faith, but also seemed to have gone through the sixties with me.

Yet while we were making the film, I never met Mormons who saw the God of child play, as I did, in everything the young Joseph begat. When I encouraged them to talk about the "revolutionary" or "experimental" Joseph, they seemed shy and pained. Once I had my own conversion experience, I was more sensitized as to why Mormons would not want to talk about Joseph. My conversion moment was not funny at all. I was lost on some highway, sick to my stomach, when I understood (somehow through the medium of Joseph) that everything in life was a half-finished sentence that would be completed on the other side. Though the message was reassuring, I was frightened by the experience. I didn't find it easy to talk about my encounter with God with just anybody.

When I started attending the Mormon Church, I was instantly touched by the warmth in the congregation's believing. It was palpable in their spoken prayer and testimonies. Yet as I deepened my involvement, Joseph seemed everywhere and nowhere. In Gospel Principles' class, we studied Joseph's theology but without mention of his peep stone, his hat or his ingenuity.

I talked to the missionaries whose lives were dedicated to the study of the Mormon religion, thinking that our conversations could go deeper. At first, our passion for Joseph seemed shared. I could honestly agree with their assertion that Joseph was a holy prophet of God. I tried to explain that I also felt Joseph had replaced the suffering Christ as a modern, searching prophet. No, the missionaries advised me, Joseph was not the central Mormon prophet. Christ was -- and not my experimental Christ, but the most traditional, suffering Christ of the atonement.

One of the boys added very humbly, "The Mormons have suffered as much as any American minority, but no one knows it." Actually, I did know how much they'd suffered. Joseph spoke his truth, and the church took the consequences: mobs assailing them for their prophet's gold plates and driving their people across New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, all the way to Utah; American militias waging war on Joseph's pilgrims in Missouri and then murdering him in Illinois; our government hammering the church with laws against Joseph's religious polygamy. Though still sometimes mocked, the Mormon Church continued to thrive and grow against all opposition. Inevitably, it also grew away from its founder.

Today's Mormon Church is not the church of Joseph Smith. Joseph's church was a wild and woolly institution, constantly adapting to new situations and to the prophet's revelatory twists and turns. That's far from the case now, where the living prophets have had fewer and fewer revelations, and the church's authority is entirely top down. I felt this no more keenly than when in Gospel Principles class, where I rebelled against the rules and regulations. Why was same-sex marriage so bad? Did we have to believe in "the pre-existence" as a literal place? What about sacred translation? Serious people studied it, why couldn't we?

Once the outlaws among American religions, the Mormons are now the most tried and true.

I understood why the Mormon church had adapted in this way, why it would fear the contagion of Joseph's creativity. However, it was Joseph's ingenuity and rebelliousness that had drawn me in, and his religious vision that had brought me to the precipice. Since that's what I'd come for, I knew I could not stay.