We tend to think of theology in discursive terms—as a collection of ideas or propositions. When we talk about the development of theology we are apt to trace the history of abstractions such as faith, hope, love, priesthood. With Joseph Smith, I’ve come to believe it is much more enlightening to attend first to characters and to the plots, language, discussions that collect around them. Again and again these characters inhabit stories that preview and explore situations very like those facing Joseph and the community of faith gathering around him. Following key characters thus becomes a tool for tracing developments in early Mormon history. Viewed within this context. Moses becomes a key to Mormon theology (or at least a prime exemplar of what I’m talking about).
Moses is a particularly interesting character because he is a relative constant in the texts dictated by Joseph—present in the Book of Mormon in 1829 and still an inhabitant of key discussions in Nauvoo over a decade later. (Unlike Enoch, for example, who has a spectacular but relatively self-contained presence in Joseph’s dictations.) The Book of Mormon sets Joseph up as “a Moses” (2 Nephi 3). Tracking the continuities and transformations associated with this Moses/Joseph doubling provides a distinctive angle of view onto the development of early Mormon theology and practice.
In the Book of Mormon passage dictated in 1829 that sets up the parallel between Moses and Joseph, Moses is evoked as the seer with a rod (as Mosiah and other Book of Mormon seers use and pass down the seer stones and other sacred artifacts). In 1829 Joseph similarly uses a seer stone to dictate the Book of Mormon and its environing revelations. In 1830, Joseph, no longer using the seer stone, dictates the story of Moses’s vision of God and his call to write the Bible (Moses 1). This prologue to the New Translation again explicitly points to the parallel between Moses and Joseph. And in the September 1830 conference, Joseph is singled out as the only one to “receive commandments and revelations in this church . . . for he receiveth them even as Moses” (D&C 28). In 1831, the parallel to Moses is used in evoking Joseph as president of the church. In 1832, the story of Moses within the New Translation and in its environing revelations is used as the basis for explorations of the high priesthood. In Kirtland, Moses is among the visitors during the dedication of the temple. His story continues its importance in Nauvoo, where it enables Joseph to explore further the rituals to be associated with the temple there.
Certainly there are explicitly discursive elaborations of doctrines in Joseph’s texts. I am not trying to minimize his contributions on this front . But my continuing studies of Joseph’s work convince me that distinctive Mormon doctrines almost always arise out of innovations and transformations that appear first in narrative contexts associated with the sacred characters of Joseph’s revelations and translations. Doctrines that do not seem continuous or related when tracked on the basis of logic or argument reveal themselves as much more so when traced along the thread of character and narrative.