Two hundred years ago this spring — so the story is told — a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith walked into a grove of trees in upstate New York, knelt down and began to pray.
In answer to that prayer, Smith claimed God and Jesus appeared to him in a revelation that would eventually lead to the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That tale is at the heart of “A New Age of Miracles,” a new novel released April 15 by author and playwright Mahonri Stewart. It’s the first published novel for Stewart, who was born in Provo but now lives in Ogden. He teaches theater and English at Venture High School in Marriott-Slaterville.
Stewart concedes the timing for this novel is serendipitous — what with the current celebration among LDS church members of the 200th anniversary of Smith’s “First Vision,” as it’s commonly called — but that wasn’t necessarily the original plan. Stewart said he’s been tinkering with this novel for at least the last decade.
“This one took me 10 years to refine,” he said. “Normally, when I write a play I write it very quickly. But this one I kept digesting. Honestly, I could have put it out years ago.”
“A New Age of Miracles” deals with the early days of Smith and his family, prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon. The story sets the stage for other books in a Mormon history-themed series Stewart is calling “A Society of Prophets.”
The novel addresses seer stones and treasure-digging, visions and heavenly visitations — a magical spiritual world view that the author has long held.
“I’ve always had a supernatural view of my religion,” Stewart says. “I actually thought all the supernatural stuff was cool. I grew up with superheroes like X-Men, and I believed Joseph Smith had superpowers.”
‘A place of love’
Stewart knows his novel may make some in the LDS religion uncomfortable. Still, he believes it can be faith-affirming for those with an open mind.
“It’s interesting, my parents were reading it the other day, and they’re decently traditional LDS people. But they really loved it and were swept up in it,” he said. “Some people feel threatened by a certain narrative — inside the church, outside the church, whatever. I hope that’s not the case here. I wrote this from a place of faith, and a place of love.”
Stewart thinks the book works for readers in a number of different contexts, insisting that it tackles the controversies surrounding Smith but still takes his claims seriously. Although Stewart calls his work a sincere spiritual search, readers shouldn’t expect “saccharine, propagandistic stories absent of conflict.”
And Stewart’s interest in Joseph Smith and his claims isn’t just a passing, anniversary-fueled fancy, either. Rather, he says it’s been a “lifelong pursuit.”
“I’ve had a strong interest in Mormon history since I was young,” Stewart told the Standard-Examiner. “For decades, I’ve been studying it.”
Indeed, the 39-year-old Stewart was just 12 when he first read Smith’s 1838 account of the First Vision. He calls it “one of the most powerfully impactful spiritual experiences” of his life and says it catapulted him into an ongoing pursuit of Smith’s life and claims.
A nontraditional faith
Stewart says that a few spiritual experiences while serving an LDS mission to Australia led him to investigate more deeply the historical events after Smith’s martyrdom. Following the Mormon prophet’s 1844 death at the hands of a mob in Carthage, Illinois, his followers basically split into two groups. The largest, led by Brigham Young, emigrated west to present-day Utah and is now known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The second-largest, the Community of Christ (originally called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), remained in the east and followed the direct descendants of founder Smith.
Stewart says he was fascinated with the Mormons who remained behind, and he became spiritually drawn to them.
“I’m kind of nontraditional in my faith,” he said. “I’m LDS, but I’m transitioning to the Community of Christ. I still believe Joseph Smith’s claims, and I read the Book of Mormon. But I just have a different world view.”
For some of Stewart’s friends, his spiritual path may be unsettling.
“My faith transition is not easy for them, and it’s not easy for my family,” he said. “But I haven’t abandoned my faith, I’ve just added to it.”
Stewart has been writing since the fifth grade, and his writing and interest in theater “sort of grew into each other.” In high school, he wrote a 500-page religious fantasy novel called “A World We Know Not Of.” He describes it as: “My spiritual beliefs on another world, basically.”
Stewart says he worked on that first attempt at a novel for a few years, but it’s not something he’d ever show to anyone.
“Well, someday I might return to it and clean it up,” he said. “There’s some good stuff in there — along with a lot of juvenile writing.”
Today, Stewart is best known for his “spiritually tinged” plays. His first attempt, “Farewell to Eden,” was produced when he was a student at Utah Valley University; it won an award through the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Among his other published works are “The Drowned Book,” “Swallow the Sun,” “Evening Eucalyptus and Other Enchanted Plays,” “A Roof Overhead and Other Plays” and the anthology “Saints on Stage.”
‘We have a playwright!’
James Arrington, of Saratoga Springs, can lay claim to “discovering” the young playwright. The former chairman of the theater department at Utah Valley University in Orem taught Stewart in an “Introduction to Theater” class.
In the class, students are expected to do a little bit of everything in the art form — including writing a short play, which students read aloud in class, according to Arrington.
“Every once in a while, we’d find a diamond in the rough,” Arrington recalls. “When Mahonri read his little play in class, I popped the table and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a playwright!’”
The teacher encouraged the student to flesh out that play, which turned into “Farewell to Eden” and was produced at UVU.
Arrington says Stewart’s strengths are his grasp of 19th century language and history, his “careful and thoughtful” research and his speed at rewriting.
“You can give him notes on Tuesday night, and Thursday morning he brings in a new script and says, ‘How does this work?’” Arrington said.
Arrington also praises Stewart’s “wonderful imagination.”
If the playwright has a weakness, Arrington says it’s Stewart’s meticulous attention to ending his plays.
“The only problem with Mahonri I’ve ever had — and he knows he has this problem — is that he tries to tie up every single loose end at the end of a play. He feels he has to do that, and sometimes his plays are a little long and a little overdone because of that.”
Arrington says he’s excited to read Stewart’s novel and is sure it will be interesting.
“Mahonri can write,” Arrington said. “He’s a very talented writer.”
Utah Theatre Bloggers Association president Russell Warne, who suspects he’s seen more of the playwright’s works than anyone else — save perhaps the author’s family and circle of friends — calls Stewart a creative writer who explores “ideas that sometimes seem bigger than the world itself.”
“Summing up the body of work that I am familiar with, I would say that Mahonri Stewart is an imaginative writer who often blurs the line between fantasy and reality,” Warne wrote in an email to the Standard-Examiner. “His work often has a mystical feel, and he has a knack at using language to craft an elevated mood that never loses its tether to reality.”
The brother of Jared
Stewart’s unusual given name is taken from a story in the Book of Mormon.
“It’s a name I was proud of growing up,” he says.
Stewart’s great-grandfather was named Mahonri, and he has Mormon pioneer stock dating back to Nauvoo, Illinois.
“I come from a very Mormon family of 11 kids. And yes, I do have a brother named Jared,” he laughs, referencing the Book of Mormon character Mahonri Moriancumer, who is identified only as “the brother of Jared” in that book.
Although deeply “enmeshed” in the history of the time period, Stewart acknowledges that he’s obviously had to take some literary license in “A New Age of Miracles” — after all, it does attempt to recreate conversations from historical figures. But he takes seriously the attempt to root all of his scenes in historical fact.
“It’s not a biography — I don’t have source notes — but I have tried to make it authentic as much as I can,” Stewart said. “I don’t just play loose and fancy-free with these lives. To interpret these things, you have to make some creative leaps, but they’re all based in historical records.”
Stewart realizes that much of the literature dealing with the LDS religion is either faith-promoting, idealized stories — what he’s referred to as “saccharine, propagandistic stories absent of conflict” — or anti-Mormon screeds “that get very bitter and very unfair.”
Says Stewart: “I try to avoid both traps.”
And just how does one do that?
“You tell the truth,” he explained. “I did a whole lot of research, and I try to root it in looking at all sides, all characters within the narrative.”
In recent years, Stewart has been transitioning away from playwriting and toward novels and screenwriting. While he loves live theater, it often puts him “in the red.” As such, he says none of his works have been self-sustaining.
“I’ve been doing this for decades now, and I’ve always had to have a real job,” Stewart said. “Theater is a much more labor-intensive, time-intensive, cost-intensive project. But this (novel-writing and screenwriting) is just me and a computer.”
Of course, Stewart says that, in the end, he doesn’t write to make money.
“This is a spiritual journey for me,” he said.
Stewart recognizes that some of his plays are challenging, explaining: “A lot of people come across information they didn’t know before, and it throws them for a loop.” But he said that reaction is sometimes bewildering to him as a writer.
“I love these stories. They build my faith,” he said. “For me, I take great comfort in what Jesus said — that the truth will make us free. I’ve tried again and again to find truth. I may be off-base at some times, but the attempt has always been that I want to know the truth, and I want to get to God.”
Stewart said he is only interested in building faith, not destroying it. But he’s not interested in building just any faith.
“I want a mature faith, not one that topples over when you come across your first weird story in church history,” he said. “I feel I’ve encountered a lot of those stories, and my faith is intact. It’s different — the journey is not what I expected — but I’ve felt God as close as ever.”
“A New Age of Miracles” is available on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle formats, for $12 and $7, respectively.