On page 114 of the paperback edition of Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer makes the following assertion:
Joseph [Smith, the first prophet of Mormonism] preached a fresh message that was exactly what a great number of people were eager to hear. He took measure of the public's collective yearning and intuitively shaped his ideas to fit the precise dimensions of that inchoate desire.
This is an interesting interpretation to say the least, one that ascribes to Joseph Smith tremendous powers to satisfy the market for religious fulfillment. But given that the Latter Day Saints numbered, at most, something like 20,000 at the time of Smith's death, isn't this something of an exaggeration? The number, in other words, might not have been so great, and Smith's message might not have been so well-tailored to the precise dimensions of America's inchoate desire.
But leaving aside such trivia as numbers, it also suggests a certain interpretation of Smith, and one that I think isn't necessarily borne out by the historical record. Precisely what he thought of himself is unclear. Was he taking measures and shaping ideas, or was he spontaneously responding to his environment, believing his actions and words sprung from a divine source? Could it not be that this man's mysticism, his direct experience of the almighty (or his sincere belief in same), was what appealed to his followers; that rather than consciously moulding his ideas, his unmoulded ideas caught something of the zeitgeist -- such as it was?
I believe it was Jean Cocteau who wrote that in every genuine work of art (and as a work of art, the Book of Mormon isn't too much worse than some of the novels of Fenimore Cooper), there is something the artist can't account for, which Cocteau called God's part. Might not Joseph Smith have been a vessel for that?