Friday, July 1, 2011

The enigma of Joseph Smith

I read with interest a recent article by Dan Peterson entitled, "The Prophet Joseph Smith was no double-dealing cynic"

In all honesty the beginning of the article quite surprised me. Dan starts out with this unbelievable idea, he says,

"For a critic wanting to reject Joseph's own account, there are, broadly speaking, only two logical alternatives for explaining him: Either he was a false prophet but thought he was a real one, or he was a false prophet and knew that he was a false prophet. That is to say, again in general terms, that he must have been either dishonest or delusional, or some hybrid of the two."

Honestly, he is right. Of course, at the end of his piece he brings up the third possibility (which, his article is entirely devoted to trying to prove, apparently) that Joseph was a true prophet and, apparently, believed that he was as well.

In the process of outlining his argument, Dan selects a few quotes from Joseph Smith's journal entries to try to persuade readers that Joseph was sincere and cared for others. I have no problem with the idea that Joseph was possibly a very sincere, thoughtful and kind person. He grew up in poverty and in a household that was very spiritual and superstitious. I believe he was a product of his environment and maybe had a desire to do something great. In my study of Joseph I find that there is no shortage of good things that are attributed to him. He was really a spiritual revolutionary of his time. He taught many things that were foreign to so many in his day. He is quoted as saying things like;

"It is the duty of a husband to love, cherish, and nourish his wife, and cleave unto her and none else; he ought to honor her as himself, and he ought to regard her feelings with tenderness, for she is his flesh, and his bone, designed to be an help unto him, both in temporal, and spiritual things; one into whose bosom he can pour all his complaints without reserve..."

However, notwithstanding all the good things attributed to Joseph Smith, there are a few problems. One of the problems is actually somewhat brought to light by Dan in his article although he doesn't bother to mention it at all. The problem is that there is actually very little that we have in the way of writings in Joseph's own handwriting. I had a chance to thumb through one of the installments of the Joseph Smith papers and was surprised to learn a couple of things 1. How little we actually have recorded by Joseph in his own hand and 2. How little of a correlation exists between Joseph's own words and the words we attribute to him in revelations and other volumes of teachings.

Of course there are certainly plenty of explanations for these things. The response to the first issue would be simply that either Joseph didn't like to write or he couldn't do so very easily (or well) and so he took advantage of scribes wherever possible. I actually believe that this was the case, so having so little in the way of writings by Joseph himself is really not that troubling. However, in light of that fact, we are forced to rely on the testimonies and writings of others who were with Joseph to try to piece together more about the character of this man.

As for the second issue, this is where I kind of struggle. When I read that Joseph wrote in his own hand the following;

"Oh Lord keep us and my Family safe untill I can return to them again Oh my God have mercy on my Bretheren in Zion for Christ Sake Amen."

And then I am expected to believe that the following articulate prayer came from the same person (from the first few verses of D&C 76),

"Hear, O ye heavens, and give ear, O earth, and rejoice ye inhabitants thereof, for the Lord is God, and beside him there is no Savior. Great is his wisdom, marvelous are his ways, and the extent of his doings none can find out. His purposes fail not, neither are there any who can stay his hand. From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail."

They just don't seem to be from the same person. The first quote seems to be from someone who could barely compose a coherent sentence, let alone a complex piece of writing, and the second from a master of religious language. The common explanation for this is that Joseph was a semi-literate farm boy who seemed to stumble through his words when writing on his own (not being one who was 'mighty' in writing), but when dictating the voice of the Lord from heaven through a scribe, was mighty, speaking with the authority of heaven. In response to this my question would be, Doesn't God speak to us in the same language that we commonly use ourselves? Of course, Joseph could have been an exception to this, granted. The troubling aspect, however, comes in when one realizes that relying so heavily on dictation for conveying teachings and ideas might allow another person's writings to be substituted for those of the dictator. Of course, I don't have any real evidence of this happening, but let me introduce the points from Joseph's history that Dan conveniently omitted from his article.

There are actually many, many troubling things from the history of the church that an interested person can easily uncover with a few simple clicks in a web browser on the internet. Allow me to highlight just a few things from Joseph's history that call into question his legitimacy as a true prophet of God.

1. The Kinderhook plates incident. On April 16, 1843 a man by the name of Robert Wiley started digging in a mound. He quit when it started raining, but came back a week later (with a group of men) and began digging again. Ultimately a set of 6, bell shaped, brass plates were found connected by a rusty iron ring. On these plates were inscribed characters as follows:

It wasn't long before someone had the idea of taking the plates to Joseph Smith for a translation. Needless to say, this was a very exciting discovery of the day as it seemed the plates not only certainly contained more about the history of the Indian mound builders, but it also seemed to validate Joseph's story about obtaining plates of gold to be able to translate the Book of Mormon. After all, the Book of Mormon mentioned plates of brass so speculation abounded about what these plates, discovered in Kinderhook, Illinois, might contain.

Soon, it was published in the Times and Seasons that the plates were discovered and everyone looked forward to Joseph's translation. Unfortunately, Joseph was killed before any translation could be officially announced. We do know, however, that he was at least seriously contemplating their translation. William Clayton (Joseph's scribe) wrote the following;

"I have seen 6 brass plates...covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest J. [Joseph Smith] has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth."

William also recorded, "...that upon receiving the plates, Smith sent for his "Hebrew Bible & Lexicon," This seems to suggest that Joseph was going to attempt to translate the plates by conventional means, rather than by use of a seer stone or direct revelation. Regardless of how it was going to be accomplished, the records seem to show that Joseph believed the plates to be authentic and was intending to perform a translation of them.

The problem is, the plates turned out to be a hoax. Years later it came out that a few men had planted the plates with the specific hope and intention of receiving a translation of the plates from Joseph Smith, which they then could use to prove him a fraud. When an official translation never came forth, the ruse had lost its potential to discredit Joseph and his translation abilities. Unfortunately, many questions remain unanswered. For example, if Joseph was a prophet, why wasn't he able to sniff out the deception and call the fraudulent parties out when he saw the plates? One also is left wondering if Joseph had not been killed, would there have been a translation made at some point? Questions like these call into question Joseph's legitimacy as one called or inspired of God in his work.

2. The Book of Abraham. In order to gain further insight on this issue, I would highly recommend Charles Larson's book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri. This book can actually be obtained by current LDS members for $5 (Free with $5 S&H) through an outreach program at IRR here. The book is very nice as it contains a full color foldout scan of the original papyrus pieces. Anyway, this is what started me on my path. I sat in church one Sunday and thought I would look at the facsimiles contained in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and see if I could better understand the events depicted in them (I now realize that the name of my blog was a subconscious statement of this, because I didn't realize it at the time but, facsimilogos could be interpreted as "making sense of facsimiles") besides, I was looking for pictures in the scriptures and this is one of the few places you can find them (I know, sometimes church is boring and I was jealous of my kids picture books, so I wanted to look at the pictures actually contained in the scriptures).

As I studied the pictures there, I had a simple question. I wondered if there were any scholars who had been able to actually translate these scenes and wondered what they had to say about them. I was pretty sure that Egyptologists, if they were, in fact, able to even begin to translate Egyptian, would completely vindicate Joseph's translation of the fragments. That simple question led me to discover a great video on the subject found here. The video was very informative. In fact, it was much more informative than any video I have ever seen put out by the church. This video actually provided a historical context that made sense and was easily verifiable. Now that I think about it, most videos I have seen during my time in the church were mostly about tugging at my heart strings in some fashion, but never contained much in the way of substance. I was amazed to find something long on substance that wasn't designed to get me all worked up emotionally. However, this video placed a very solid question mark in my mind concerning Joseph's abilities to translate ancient languages where only a period used to exist. This of course lead me down a path of wanting to know more. If the church hadn't given me this thorough of an explanation of the history surrounding the origin of the Book of Abraham, what else was out there that I was unaware of? A lot. The final nail in the coffin for me surrounding Joseph's prophetic call and abilities occurred when I researched my last bullet point.

3. The testimony of the 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon. As a lifelong member of the church I was very familiar with the testimony of the 3 and 8 witnesses to the plates of the Book of Mormon. I often referred to their testimony in response to any accusation that the gold plates were not real. Sure, maybe Joseph alone might not be 100% trustworthy, but there were witnesses! Others saw and handled these plates which Joseph claimed to have in his possession, so they must have been real, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, according to a statement made by Martin Harris, he seems to indicate that the manifestation of the plates was more of a spiritual witness than a physical one. David Whitmer has indicated this as well. I was always told that none of the witnesses had ever denied their testimony of seeing the plates of the Book of Mormon, however, I was never told that the witnesses said that these were just "spiritual" visions and not physical ones.

What about the 8 witnesses? They saw and handled the real plates, though, right? Maybe. Maybe not. The reason I say this is because most of the 8 witnesses came from one family. John Whitmer said, "I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. ...they were shown to me by a supernatural power" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 307)

So why was a supernatural power needed for a physical witness of some plates? The other question is, How could these witnesses be expected to know that the plates presented to them were the same one's that contained the Book of Mormon (as opposed to a fabrication)?

It is interesting to note that several of the 8 witnesses later went on to testify that they saw the voree plates which James Strang (potential successor to Joseph Smith to lead the church) claimed contained "The book of the law of the Lord". He also claimed to have the Plates of Laban spoken of in the Book of Mormon. So, even though the witnesses never denied their testimonies as contained in the preface to the Book of Mormon, they never denied seeing anything supernatural! So the credibility of the witnesses is called into question when one learns that they never denied seeing the gold plates, never denied that James Strang was Joseph's successor and said that the presentation of the plates was a supernatural event.

When taking just these three incidents into consideration, I will again present Dan's original proposition; Joseph was either a false prophet but thought he was a real one, or he was a false prophet and knew that he was a false prophet...he must have been either dishonest or delusional, or some hybrid of the two. My contention is that these are the only two real possible explanations for Joseph Smith and the third explanation that he WAS a real prophet and KNEW he was a prophet, just falls flat on its face. What do you think?

(Please note: When using Firefox web browser, if you type a comment without logging in first, your comment may disappear when attempting to submit. To avoid this, login first and then type comment or always copy comment before attempting to submit.)


  1. Thanks for putting that all together, very interesting :)

    Yeah, on JS I lean towards a combination of deluded and dishonest. I found the suggestion that he may have been schizophrenic a very interesting one. Your point about there not being much written in his own hand is HUGE! really. For a moment I thought - maybe he never even existed! haha I went on a mini conspiracy theory bender :P

    I think he was charismatic, 'loved' women, was great with kids/youths etc playful and fun. I think that he dabbled in the supernatural, the occult even. I think that he experimented with magic mushies too.

    Now I haven't backed up any of this bcos this is bloggerdom and I don't have too :) yay! gotta love that. If anyone is intrigued by my ramblings they can always go and google something.

    I flip flop about the man. You know if he had allowed the women in his life to have multiple partners too then I probably would look on the man more fondly.

    Ultimately though, whether he did it on purpose or not his religion has hurt many people... and that sucks whatever way you look at it.

  2. I agree, I honestly think the world would be a better place if he hadn't existed. But then I realize some other zealout would have filled that void at some point probably. I can't escape the conclusion that he was a pious fraud. He had to know he was a fraud, he was just in wayyy too deep with his father in law and family to be able to give up on the jig. It makes me sick when the church portrays him as dying for 'the cause'. He didn't think he was going to die when he did. I wish the mob wouldn't have been so quick to kill him. I wish they would have taken him and tortured him until he admitted that the whole story was made up. That would have been the best.

    The interesting thing I read recently is that attributing polygamy to Joseph may have actually been a con started by John Bennett and perpetuated by BY. I find the idea an interesting one because it wouldn't make Joseph out to be SUCH a bad character. Polygamy is just sickening and the sheer number of women he supposedly married makes it all that much worse. However, if we look at polygamy as something attributed to Joseph (but not actually practiced by him) it looks bad for BY (not that he needs any help in that). I read this theory here on Rock Waterman's blog:

    His blog post was very interesting, I thought. At first, I wondered why the church just doesn't abandon the whole polygamy concept, but then I realized that doing so would call into question the whole succession legitimacy of BY. Apparently, the church can't afford to admit that BY was the real source of polygamy and he coerced women into lying about their polygamous marriages to Joseph. Which I don't doubt could have happened. I would be interested to get more perspectives on this idea.

    As always, thanks for your comments Maureen.