JOSEPH SMITH: The Prophet, The Man, The Legend, The Myth, The Villain, The Hero
Each and every individual is unique, an enigma even, to understand who a person is and what they stand for requires us to take a step back and look at the puzzle without bias or prejudgments. As a young child I loved the adventures of Batman, the excitement, the depth in the heroes, villains, and stories captured my youthful imagination frequently. But one villain particularly caught my eye, for he was similar to the hero batman, his name: “Two face”… A villain who had once been a vital Hero as a District attorney, putting the bad guys behind bars, only to turn into one of the most twisted villains around, becoming the very evil he had sought to fight against.
Just as Batman and Two Face had two very different personalities and sides to their stories, so did dear Brother Joseph, and to understand just who this iconic man was requires us to take a step back, looking at his character and story without preconceived objectives or biases. Only then can the puzzle pieces fit together in harmony. Apostle J. Reuben Clark and others has adamantly taught “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” BUT WE MUST KNOW.
The Prophet Gordon B Hinckley emphasized emphatically that “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that great man. Either the things he said occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens. It’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world”. “Upon his unique character stands the validity of this Church.” Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or verifiable.
So who was Joseph Smith?
How We as Church Members View Joseph Smith
If we open any hymn book we can right away identify how the LDS religion views the Prophet Smith, as we read the famous words “Hail to the Prophet”. Joseph Smith in many saints eyes is considered to be up on the same level as even Christ himself, a man so devoted, so righteous, so sincere and loving that he even sealed his testimony by dying as an innocent lamb to the slaughter, becoming a heroic martyr.
We consider Brother Joseph the template and standard that all saints should aim for in the LDS church. The teachings of Josephs righteousness and enthusiasm to spread the word of God is astoundingly impressive, for he was a apparently a man so filled by the spirit that he boldly declared Gods will to all who would listen, even if it meant putting himself in harms way to do so. His testimony and commitment to his cause was unshakable, he was the perfect husband, role model, full of loving service and joy, and he was as a child, innocent, humble, and submissive in all things. This is the picture modern church literature paints of Brother Joseph. Pretty impressive resume isn’t it?
Unfortunately as most LDS saints come to discover this is not the entire picture of the puzzle, finding that often Josephs best traits and events were often over-exaggerated to make him appear more admirable than he was. Upon closer look we discover Joseph had more to him, a dark side you might even say.
How Those Who’ve Studied Church History View Joseph Smith
While it can’t be discounted Joseph said, did, and exemplified some amazing things in his lifetime, many LDS members who study church history come to find a completely different side of the man they thought they knew so well. An alter Ego of some sorts existed which has largely been ignored by church manuals, Let’s just call it “The Two Face”.
Saints come to discover a completely different man upon careful studies, finding a man that practiced magic with a wild and vivid imagination, having an ability to create vibrant spiritual stories, a boy who dug for buried treasure, and who although was not educated in the ways of the world had spiritual knowledge above and beyond most preachers. He was a spiritual scholar and giant at a young age to say the least.
They discover Joseph had not months to create the book of Mormon as previously taught, but over half a decade. They find scores of examples of plagiarism within the book of Mormon where entire pages and sentences had been copied word for word from local literature, and that the plates were never once looked at during translation. They discover Josephs “first vision” account changed on a regular basis becoming more spectacular with each telling, and that he never before mentioned the priesthood until his authority to lead others was called into question.
As if his boyhood and teenage years didn’t uncover enough, they find even more disturbing information… A man who drank daily and was found smoking just days after issuing the word of wisdom, even later opening up his own alcoholic saloon in his town. They see man who punched tax collectors, went bankrupt in Gods “unsinkable bank”, fleeing from debt. They see hundreds of his revelations and predictions fail relentlessly, they panic when discovering he had been tricked into translating pretend plates, and furthermore that he declared them to come from God, calling into question his honesty and translation of the Book of Mormon.
They discover that his translation of the Book of Abraham fails to match his scrolls, pointing to the book being fraudulently created. And they read about his opinion that those with dark skin were less worthy than those with white skin. They see a prophet who taught in sermons (and Book of Mormon scripture) that Christ, God, and the Holy ghost where one person (Trinity), just as his first visions changed to later being 2 different individuals. They see a man who’s story changed yearly to reflect these changing beliefs, and even more devastating a church that continues to hide these facts.
They hear the church claim “The Book of Abraham isn’t central to the church so its authenticity doesn't matter”. Really? You mean to tell me the book that has the most unique of all our spiritual doctrines doesn't matter? The book the teaches families are eternal, that the fall of Adam was necessary that there might be an atonement, that we’re created in Gods image, that teaches of pre-mortal life, covenant keeping, temples, obedience brings blessings, repentance. THIS IS NOT CENTRAL??? This Is our most vital doctrine aside from the atonement! Is it not? and now they say its not important???
They wish these facts were false, but sadly the more they dig the worse things get… They discover A manipulative and verbally abusive husband who committed affairs by the dozen behind his poor grieving wifes back. They come to find that not only had he been engaged in polygamy, but he had flat out lied about it in congress, in public, and in church, even going so far as to denounce women who rejected his proposals as being “wh*res in local papers, and later burning down the news building because of polygamous accusations. They discover a man that sent husbands away on missions so that he could seduce and marry their wife. They see a man that threatened young girls and their family’s salvation should they not become his bride.
They discover a full fledged Mason who copied and pasted the entire mason temple ceremony and made it the LDS Temple ceremony. They see a man who told the saints to lie, steal, cheat, and take advantage of all who were not LDS, we see a man that threatened the extermination of every last Missourian which inevitably led to his murder where he shot and killed some of his assailants, and was not the innocent lamb we were once taught.
But worst of all they see a man who proclaimed himself as the “king of the entire earth”, boasting himself to be better at leading a church than even Jesus Christ himself. They see a man who had fallen as a prophet 100 times worse than King David of old.
While many (if not all) of these discoveries are disturbing to say the least, we now understand that they are indeed historical facts, the church has slowly begun to acknowledge each instance to some degree, allowing us as members to see the full unbiased view of the puzzle that is Joseph Smith.
What To Make Of The Puzzle? Prophet? Man? Hero? Villain?
Thus we see that there is more to the man that meets the eye, while he did in fact do a many great and noble things, and while he had many admirable characteristics, he had just as many (if not more) flaws, he was the “two face” of the LDS church in many essences, he fought for religious guidance and righteousness, but ultimately became the very evil he sought to destroy. It’s time for us as members to stop thinking about brother Joseph in absolute terms, Good or evil, for there was good, evil, and shades of grey within him, just as with all of us. Let us remember although he was imperfect it’s not our duty to judge, for that job belongs to God alone.
What is for us to judge is Josephs prophetic claim, for “Upon his unique character stands the validity of this Church.” It’s either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or verifiable”. How do we know Josephs claims are true or false? Simple… Jesus teaches “By their fruits ye shall know them”… “Beware of false prophets, Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know the truth”.
While I will not proclaim my feelings about brother Joseph I will proclaim my feelings toward the process of coming to know the true Joseph smith, the prophet, or the man, the myth, or the legend. To understand the puzzle we must humbly step back, evaluate the facts, study it out in our hearts and mind, and sincerely ask God for knowledge and truth. Only then can we truly know who Joseph was. Often times we as saints are deceived when our pride stops us from seeking for truth, failing to ask valid questions about our history, fear and embarrassment cause us to ignore the things we’ve read, and instead live in an “ignorance is bliss” mentality which damages our commitment to the gospel, our salvation, and ourselves.
It has been said by the apostles that “If Joseph Smith’s character was ever proven to be ungodly in nature it would be the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith. The foundation would crumble, the church would cease to exist”. Joseph was either a prophet, a fallen prophet, or he was not, this cannot be denied, no other conclusions can be reached. BUT IT IS OUR DUTY TO OURSELVES AND FAMILIES TO FIND THAT OUT FOR OURSELVES.
How we each interpret this information will determine our testimony and our beliefs moving forward.
Ask sincerely, be humble, keep an open mind and heart, play the role of the devils advocate by examining all sides of the issues and arguments, give credit where credit is due, and most importantly avoid jumping to rash conclusion before the context and full story is understood. For those looking for safe sources published by our church most would recommend: The history of the church, Brigham Youngs Discourse Journals, The Joseph Smith Papers, Other prophets journals, Rough rolling stone by church historian Richard bushman, Emma Hale smiths Mormon enigma (which is blunt, honest, and sincere in the most heart tugging ways). There are many other noteworthy books that can be read by former church historians, however they do at times contain biased views, thus I recommend proceed with caution. Many would point to the CES letter (which is primarily all valid), but it is a lot of negative true information all at once, which can scare many members away.