Like anything grown in America, Mormonism emerged in a climate of rebellion and turmoil. Springing from a backwoods boy, growing up near the spearhead of the industrial revolution in America, self-educated, proud, visionary, it lashed out against every orthodoxy in sight, it embraced the most dangerous heresies.
It this way, Mormonism seems a massive existentialist project. ‘Existentialism’ names not a way of thinking, but a group of thinker: some Christian (like Pascal, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard) some post-Christian (like Heidegger and Sartre), and some anti-Christ, like Nietzsche.
Walther Kaufmann, described existential philosophers in terms that are easily analogized to how early Mormons viewed themselves as religious thinkers:
Existentialism is not a philosophy, but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. . . The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism.
Swap out “existentialism” with “Mormonism” and “theology” for “philosophy” and it seems we have an observation as insightful as Kaufmann’s. As a philosophical term, existentialism is nearly useless for lack of precision, but it points to a frame of mind reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s.