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Joseph Smith, Brigham Young rank first and third in magazine's list of significant religious figures

Visiting young Joseph Smith on Sept. 1, 1823, the angel Moroni told him God had a work for him to do and prophesied that his name would be “both good and evil spoken of among all people,” an indication of the widespread and lasting historical influence he would have.

Now, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successor as Church president, Brigham Young, have been included in a collector’s edition of Smithsonian magazine highlighting “the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”

Moreover, in the category of “Religious Figures,” Joseph Smith occupies the top spot in a listing of 11 historically influential personalities. President Young is in third place — behind William Penn, but ahead of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jonathan Edwards, L. Ron Hubbard, Ellen G. White, Cotton Mather, Mary Baker Eddy and Billy Graham.

The magazine is published by the Smithsonian Institution, a group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government. This collector’s edition is currently on newsstands throughout the nation.

The compilation of 100 significant Americans is presented in 10 categories, including religious figures. The other nine categories are “Trailblazers,” “Rebels and Resisters,” “[U.S.] Presidents,” “First Women,” “Outlaws,” “Pop Icons,” “Empire Builders” and “Athletes.”

“We have highlighted what we decided was the most interesting choice within each category with a slightly fuller biographical sketch,” explained one of the magazine editors, T.A. Frail, in the introduction. “And finally, we made an Editor’s Choice in each category, an 11th American whose significance we’re willing to argue for.”

The brief biographical sketch for Joseph Smith Jr. opens by quoting the line from his personal history, “There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” (see Joseph Smith — History 1:5).

It goes on to explain, “That was in the part of New York State that became known as ‘the burned-over district’ for its fervor during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century.”

The sketch then tells of the First Vision and the Prophet’s subsequent organization of the Church.

“Mormonism soon acquired a history of displacement that included his lynching at the age of 38,” the biographical sketch states. It then quotes LDS scholar Richard Lyman Bushman, author of the well-known Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling, as saying, “In the 14 years he led the Church, … Smith created a religious culture that survived his death, flourished in the most desolate regions of the United States, and continues to grow worldwide.”

The biographical sketch about President Young opens by quoting his declaration, “Mormonism has made me all that I am.”

It goes on to read, “He made Mormonism what it became after Joseph Smith was lynched. Young, a craftsman from New York State, led the exodus of the faithful to what is now Utah. After he was appointed territorial governor in 1851, he made a bid for Mormon autonomy (including polygamy) — prompting President James Buchanan to send troops to quell what was perceived as a rebellion.”

In the conflict mentioned here — sometimes referred to as the Utah Expedition or Utah War, Mormon settlers resisted the entrance of the army into the Salt Lake Valley. But it was peacefully resolved, largely due to the mediation efforts of Thomas L. Kane, a non-Mormon friend of President Young and a man of influence among government officials.

The Smithsonian magazine sketch goes on to say, “Young ‘brought many of the key political issues of mid-19th century America into sharp relief: westward expansion, popular sovereignty, religious freedom, vigilantism and Reconstruction,’ biographer John G. Turner notes. And through all that, his church established a sense of permanency in its Utah home.”

The compilation of significant Americans was arrived at through a novel method involving advanced mathematics and Internet database technology.

In his introduction in the magazine’s special issue, editor Frail said the Smithsonian ranking was based on the methodology of Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, authors of the book Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank.

“Simply put, Skiena and Ward have developed an algorithmic method of ranking historical figures, just as Google ranks Web pages,” Mr. Frail wrote. “But while Google ranks Web pages according to relevance to your search terms, Skiena and Ward rank people according to their historical significance, which they define as ‘the result of social and cultural forces acting on the mass of an individual’s achievement.’ Their rankings account not only for what individuals have done, but also for how well others remember and value them for it.”

For their book, the authors analyzed more than 840,000 pages in the online reference Wikipedia plus data extracted from the 15 million books that Google has scanned, Mr. Frail explained.

“Skiena and Ward would be the first to acknowledge their method has limitations,” he added. “Their concept of significance has less to do with achievement than with an individual’s strength as an Internet meme — how vividly he or she remains in our collective memory. …

“That’s where we come in. Smithsonian magazine has been covering American history in-depth from its inaugural issue, published in 1970. Among the Smithsonian Institution museums we work closely with is the National Museum of American History. By synthesizing our expertise with the systematic rigor of Skiena and Ward’s rankings, we sought to combine the best of quantitative measures and qualitative judgment.”

Smithsonian editors asked the authors to separate figures significant to American history from the world population. Taking that portion, the editors then developed categories they believe are significant and populated each category with individuals from the Skiena and Ward ranking, even if they ranked below 100.

“This system helped mitigate the biases of Wikipedia,” Mr. Frail wrote.

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