The Library of Congress and Brigham Young University announce an academic symposium examining the religious, social and theological contributions of Joseph Smith Jr., the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in recognition of the bicentennial of his birth.
"The Worlds of Joseph Smith" symposium May 6 -7, 2005, in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., will feature sessions focusing on Smith's own world, his recovery of "past worlds," his challenges to the theological world and his founding of a global religion.
The symposium is open to the news media and invited scholars in the fields of American religious history and religious studies. Each session will feature the presentation of a paper, three respondents and time for open discussion. Some seating by registration only will be available to the public. The program will also be broadcast via the Internet.
James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, says people will find it instructive to be informed by a group of distinguished scholars exactly how the church, founded by Joseph Smith, evolved from a small, persecuted band to a major religion influential in the United States and the world.
"Other religious persuasions important in American history – Puritanism, for example – traced the same trajectory but, unlike Mormonism, reached a limit from which their influence receded," said Hutson. "This topic will be among the many subjects that should stimulate reflection and make the symposium an intellectual feast."
Jack Welch, professor of law at BYU and co-planner of the symposium along with Hutson, is pleased that the Library of Congress and BYU could come together to sponsor a scholarly examination of Smith's life.
"Joseph Smith is a towering religious figure. Perhaps for that very reason, he draws a lot of lightning but also channels extraordinary power," said Welch. "The conference is not aimed at proselytizing or advocating any particular point of view. It will not involve polemics or propaganda. Anyone who would be interested in knowing how informed scholars approach the study of Joseph Smith, just as they might study Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, St. Francis or any other major religious leader, will find the outcome of this conference informative, up-to-date, interesting and reliable."
Robert Millet, the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at BYU who was instrumental in the genesis of the symposium, says it will recognize and explore the impact of an important religious figure.
"Even if one doesn't accept Joseph Smith's claims of divine inspiration and authorization, it's hard to dismiss his impact on the theological world," said Millet, a professor of ancient scripture. "As we approach the anniversary of his birth 200 years ago, it's important and worthwhile to examine and explore his contributions, which include the establishment of a worldwide church."
Religion experts from Baylor, BYU, Columbia, Pepperdine and other major universities will make presentations and participate in the symposium. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be a featured speaker. Prior to his call to full-time Church service, Elder Oaks served as a Utah Supreme Court justice, as president of BYU and as a professor of law at the University of Chicago.
"Joseph Smith is an important religious figure in the history of America," said Welch. "We anticipate that modern scholars and the general public will appreciate still today the breadth, value, innovativeness, durability and relevance of the principles he taught."
Born Dec. 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vt., Smith was the founder and first president of the Church, which was organized in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830. Smith established the organization based on directions given during visitations from God, Jesus Christ and other angelic messengers.
Smith was president of the Church from Jan. 25, 1832, to June 27, 1844, until his death at age 38. Today, the Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, has just over 12 million members, more than half of whom reside outside the United States. Church curriculum is available in 175 languages, an indication of the ethnic diversity within the growing faith.
During his life, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, a religious history of peoples who lived on the American continents before and after the time of Christ. Today, the book is printed in 104 languages. A first-ever commercial edition of the Book of Mormon will be published this November by Doubleday.
Smith was also the founder of the city of Nauvoo, Ill., where he was elected mayor in 1842. He became a candidate for president of the United States in 1844 when Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in population.
Before his death, Joseph Smith founded a university, studied languages, directed the construction of two temples for worship, preached numerous sermons, edited two newspapers, organized Church missionary efforts, ran several businesses and served his family.
Richard Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and chair of the executive committee at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU.
"The time is ripe for an assessment of Joseph Smith's position in American culture," said Bushman. "Events of the two hundred years since his birth have proven that the religious culture he created has staying power."