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|What Parts of the Joseph Smith Story Should be Suppressed?|
Mar. 21st, 2008 at 12:22 pm
Most of these postings on Joseph Smith’s history and Bushman’s biography of him have focused on the interplay between scholarship and faith. Here let’s turn the focus completely inward: Are there parts of Joseph Smith’s story that are so damaging we should avoid discussing them outside the domains of specialists, assuring that the rank-and-file members never hear anything that might trouble their faith? Does Bushman focus too much on the earthy and unflattering aspects of Joseph Smith’s character in his book? Should we counsel our Latter-day Saint friends and neighbors of fragile faith to avoid this book?
None, no, no, and no. But the questions deserve more respect than I (and many of the readers here) are initially inclined to give it. There are people who have different levels of understanding about their own journey of faith, a wide variety of influences on them, that make their faith fragile.
The scriptures reserve special condemnation for those who seek to destroy and tear down faith. For instance, we hear Alma describe his son’s running off with the harlot Isabel as the “sin akin to murder” and therefore assume he is referring to sexual immorality. I think that reading is correct, but misses a larger and more important point. A careful reading shows that there were multiple sins he committed (for instance, “these things” clearly includes him leaving the mission field and possibly denigrating his father’s faith). And it was their effect on Alma’s listeners, who decided they wouldn’t believe his words and therefore (for a time at least) were denied the literally life-saving message of salvation.
That is what Alma considers “akin to murder” and if you believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ saves us from spiritual death, that’s actually a pretty good description. Alma describes himself, when he was an apostate, as a murderer, so this is not a new perspective from him when he applies it to his son. This does not excuse sexual immorality, I hasten to clarify, since there isn’t a quicker way for people to not believe what you say than hypocrisy in this area. (See: Haggard, Ted; Fallwell, Jerry; Gantry, Elmer.) But it also should expand our idea of what is a “sin like unto murder”: it’s anything we do that deliberately damages faith and causes people to not believe.
And Jesus himself in Matthew 18:6 says:
We often cite this scripture when discussing child abuse, but as the footnote points out, “offend” means “to cause to stumble” (or sin). So when we deliberately cause people to lose faith or not believe and encourage them to sin, we are singled out for special condemnation.
So before we heap too much scorn on the question, let’s all please have a little respect for what all of us who have a testimony of the LDS Church should understand, which is the literally soul-saving work that the Church is trying to do. If there were a conflict, then that work should have priority over mere curiosity, academic inquiry, or some “right to know”. If we ever engage in such efforts, using supposedly scholarly justifications, either to deliberately destroy faith, or even just to show off how much smarter we are than the rest of the ignorant sheep we worship with on Sunday, then we are in serious trouble.
Fortunately, I don’t think there’s a conflict, and the question is probably moot anyway. If there ever was a time when the flock could avoid learning some things, that time has long passed. Anti-Mormon invective is just a click away. Some of it is crude, but other ones are relatively sophisticated. As Elder Ballard recently urged, we should be active in respectfully countering these things.
But I think the supposedly unflattering things about Joseph Smith in Bushman’s book are actually quite useful, and when viewed correctly, should build our faith in the divinity of the work he restored.
Earlier this week, an acquaintance was talking about President Hinckley and said, “Man, I wonder what kind of mansion he has now? That must be one incredible place. I’ll bet it looks awesome!” I bit my tongue, but if I thought he would have understood my allusion, I would have said, “I’ll bet it’s just about as big as my Grandpa Loveland’s.”
I think one of the hardest things about being a General Authority in this Church would be not believing all the wonderful things people say about you all day long. President Packer’s talk from last conference is a wonderful corrective to the cult of personality we sometimes fall into when we talk about our Church leaders. They are divinely appointed to their office, and enjoy a number of gifts from that office, but that does not mean they are necessarily more righteous than the rest of us. He says,
And the same could be said of Joseph Smith. The Lord did not call him to that work because he was the nicest guy or the most righteous person. But what Joseph did do, was he was open-minded enough to ask questions, and then to stick to his guns. Given the amount of persecution he endured, those characteristics were essential. I love many things about Joseph Smith, but he was not perfect. He never said he was, and the revelations about him in D&C are candid about many of his failings. Armand Maus says that Catholics preach that their leader is infallible, but they don’t believe it. Mormon’s don’t preach that our leader is infallible, but we do believe it, he adds.
And that is wrong. I have been in a position to know some men who have served in high positions of the Church. I have seen them not be perfect. I have seen them sometimes do wrong things, wrong things that I wouldn’t do. But even with those flaws, that doesn’t mean the Lord didn’t need them to do a work that someone else more righteous might not have been able to do. Things I couldn’t do (and I’m not saying I think I’m more righteous than these men with their flaws! I have my own flaws too! Just different ones.) If only perfect men could occupy positions of leadership, our Church would be leaderless.
People will nod their heads when they hear that, yet they still doubt their testimonies when they hear Joseph Smith got angry at so-and-so, or was vain, or petty, not a very good judge of character, or got tricked by someone. They’ll go inactive if they see their Bishop rent an R-rated movie at the video store.
But think about it. If Joseph Smith was a charming rogue and an imaginative, religion-making genius, then he could have invented this Church. He could have founded a movement based on charisma and personal magnetism alone. We can imagine that.
But an unlettered farm hand, rough around the edges, and sometimes with serious personal weaknesses? How could he get people to drop everything and follow him? How could he set up an organization that endured long past his death? A very smart person, with lots of effort and many years, might create a book like the Book of Mormon. But someone with a 5th grade education who could barely (according to his own wife) put together a single grammatical sentence, dictating a 500 page book in 78 days?
Non-Mormons who want to depict Joseph Smith as an amiable rogue and conscious fraud don’t get it right, “sympathetic” as these treatments are considered. The vast majority of the people who joined the Church he restored did so before ever having met or laid eyes on him or heard a word he said (or even wrote, unless you count the Book of Mormon). This was not a movement founded on one man’s charisma. And he wasn’t that charismatic anyway.
I love the story (unfortunately not in RSR) about Joseph Smith dressing up in rough clothing going to meet a boatload of Saints just docking in Nauvoo. He says something like, “So you all coming up here because you believe that Joe Smith is a prophet!”
“Yes, we are,” one of them says solemnly.
“Well, would you believe Joe Smith was a prophet if he looked like I do now?”
An excellent question. One we can still ask ourselves, as we get a look at the sometimes rough man. But the question is not what kind of man Joseph Smith was. The question is, was he inspired and chosen by God to do a work? Could he have accomplished the work he did by himself, as a man, without any divine aid?
There is a lot about Joseph Smith I admire. I truly believe he was a great man, even excluding his prophetic gifts. There is a lot about him I admire and strive to emulate. But there are parts of him I would not. Even this should be cause for encouragement. If I look at what God could do with someone as rough as Joseph Smith, then what great things can He do with me?