Because it is the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—where Smith claimed to see God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees in Palmyra, New York—many adherents to “Mormon” faith traditions are looking back and studying Joseph Smith’s early accounts and history. Whether one is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Community of Christ, or other offshoot groups like the Snufferites, those early accounts of Joseph Smith’s calling and ministry are vital texts for followers of these faith traditions. For Utah novelist and playwright Mahonri Stewart, however, understanding these historical documents and spiritual claims has not been just an anniversary reading, but a lifelong pursuit.
Stewart is chiefly known for his spiritually tinged plays, some of which have won awards and honors through associations like the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, the Association for Mormon Letters, and the Hale Centre Theatre. However, Stewart has also been working steadily over the decades in branching into other mediums for his writing and has a keen interest in becoming a novelist. He has written book length manuscripts since he was in high school and currently teaches English literature, so his appreciation for the artform is backed up by decades of studying fiction and non-fiction. His first published novel A New Age of Miracles is set to be published through his new venture Prospero Arts and Media. The novel, the first of a Mormon history themed series called A Society of Prophets, reflects on his life-long interest in Joseph Smith, his family, and those that surrounded them.
“The first time I fully read Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of the First Vision when I was 12, it was one of the most powerfully impactful spiritual experiences of my life,” Stewart said. “It created a strong urge in me to search out his life and claims ever since.”
Although Stewart’s spiritual search is expressly sincere, one should not go into his work expecting saccharine, propagandistic stories absent of conflict. His previous portrayals of religious history—such as his plays Friends of God and The Fading Flower Flower—have received both praise and criticism for their honesty and transparency in detailing the lives of religious figures whose lives were far from perfect. He has dealt with polygamy, religious authoritarianism, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and many other hot topic issues in his work. Yet, underneath that willingness to engage in the hard questions is the heart of a Christian believer who takes Joseph Smith’s claims seriously.
“Here’s the thing, I’ve upset some people with my plays and stories,” Stewart admitted. “Not purposely, not because I was trying to be firebrand. Quite the opposite, actually, this has all been part of a spiritual journey for me. Yet, I do deal with various aspects of history in my work that some people would prefer to leave buried. I can’t just ignore those stories, or put them on a shelf. I have an intense need to dig those stories up, examine their worth, and find their place in the narrative.”
A New Age of Miracles is no different. It covers the early years of Joseph Smith’s life, as well as that of his parents and family members. It deals with the Smith family’s treasure digging, use of seer stones, and other folk magic paraphernalia. But rather than seeing these as faith destroying stories, as some try and hype them to be, within them Stewart still find the spiritual and the human.
“I try to synthesize these stories of seer stones and treasure digging with the other accounts of the Smith family—that they were industrious, spiritual, powerful individuals seeking a relationship with God. These stories are not contradictions of those accounts, but outgrowths of them. Non-traditional and specific to the era that they are, these were signs of belief and searching for the Smiths. That seeking led to a whole independent religious movement that has since led followers from a number of different branches of Mormonism to point back at these early stories with fascination. These are powerful stories, and I want to tell them, not just bury them in the ground or tuck them away out of view.”
A New Age of Miracles is available to buy on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle formats, for $12 and $7, respectively. Many of Stewart’s plays are similarly available on Amazon through Prospero Arts and Media.