Jane's predilection: Falling in love with a prophet

How did a nice girl from a good, WASP-y family in D.C. grow into a woman who fell in love with the founding prophet of Mormonism?

Jane Barnes details that story in her 2012 book, Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet.

She describes her beloved as "charismatic, imaginative, irreverent." They're not the sort of adjectives one usually hears to characterize, say, Moses or Elijah.

"He's extraordinarily compelling, very exuberant, fun– he's not like most prophets," concurs Barnes. Smith's early 19th-century visions, encounters with the angel Moroni, and the discovery of golden plates inscribed with writings became the Book of Mormon, the foundation for a religion that claims 14 million members worldwide, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Barnes compares Smith to scamps of that era– Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. "His story about the plates is very imaginative," says Barnes. Using magic to suggest divine purpose was very common during the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening in upstate New York, she notes.

"I don't know why people think he's a fraud," says Barnes. "If there was no Book of Mormon, I'd say he was a fly-by-night."

Barnes' delight in Smith's creative and evolving sense of religion– that man was "a god in progress"– hasn't been warmly embraced by mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Sainters.

"Some people have returned the book who thought it would be a loving portrait of Joseph and found it maybe too rambunctious," says Barnes. On the other hand, the book has been doing well among "very passionate, very literate Mormons, who are not always in the favor of the church," she adds.

Her besottedness with Joseph Smith surprised writer Mariflo Stephens, given Barnes' desultory church-going background. "She says she's always yearned for a spiritual life," says Stephens, who was in a writing group with Barnes for six years. Then again, says Stephens, "She's done everything and she's not afraid to try anything new."

Barnes, 70, has written two previous novels and is now working on a mystery– about Pope John Paul II. For years she wrote documentaries, including one called The Mormons, which sparked her love affair with Smith.

"You work night and day," she says. "You travel, you call up famous intellectuals. It's an incredible avenue, but it's a younger person's genre."

She attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop with her former husband, local writer John Casey, and her two daughters, Nell and Maud, are writers as well.

The pitfall of having writerly kin? "It's dangerous when we come together if you say something funny or insightful– your material could be stolen," acknowledges Barnes. "You've got to copyright it right then."

While under the spell of Joseph Smith, she didn't convert to Mormonism, but she still admires his take on religion– "Just to be yourself in your sense of God, that you don't have to limit your imagination," she extols. "There's an anarchy in Joseph that's very modern, an eclecticism in faith in yourself, of being experimental and irreverent."

Sort of like Jane Barnes.

Barnes will discuss Mormon founders with John G. Turner, author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet at 2pm Thursday, March 21, at New Dominion Bookshop.

Clarification 3/15/13: A 2010 Religious Congregations & Membership Study finds 6,267,771 Latter-day Saints in the U.S. The church claims 14 million worldwide, and the story has been updated with that number.

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It's easy to admire Joseph Smith when you get to really know him. Reading his journal (available online on the Joseph Smith Papers website) penned in his own handwriting, is a humbling & spritually rewarding experience for me.

Lisa, our Church's membership is now up to 14 million.

I plan to read the book to see if it corresponds well to top-notch biographies of Joseph Smith like that written by Richard Bushman (2005). I hope it does.

Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.