When I was growing up, I was taught to revere Joseph Smith, who was so good, so nearly perfect, that he had reached mythic proportions. We sang “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah,” and we meant it. He wasn’t just a man; he was a demigod (who even “mingl[ed] with Gods”) with no apparent human failings or flaws. People who never knew the man wept openly when speaking of his prophetic calling, his sacrifices, and especially his martyrdom in a lowly jail cell, his blood “shed by assassins.” In my youthful innocence, he had lost all trace of the human and had assumed the form of some half-Superman, half-Jesus personage. He was humble, pious, courageous, a hard worker, and the strongest athlete in town (we all heard stories of his skills at “stick pulling” and wrestling). He was no mere mortal.
No, that’s not right. I knew he was just a man, with ordinary human failings and weaknesses. I just never knew what those failings were. He himself said, “I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.” Teenaged boys get into all kinds of trouble, and many have speculated about Joseph’s youthful indiscretions, but Joseph tells us, “In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company.” So, I was left to suppose that he was free of any real flaws other than a youthful tendency to be too jovial (I thought that I could die happy if my only flaw were joviality).
Of course, discovering the reality of Joseph Smith the man was more than a little jarring, given his legendary status in my mind. There was a huge disconnect between Olympian Joseph and the man who lived and breathed in the nineteenth century, and mortal Joseph was, in all honesty, both a disappointment and a relief. I wanted him to be that demigod of my childhood, but then I was glad to see that God might work through a flawed individual who in many ways wasn’t all that different from me. Wilford Woodruff once said that he was glad he had seen Joseph’s flaws and failings because if God could use a flawed man to do such a great work, there was hope for Wilford Woodruff. Maybe there was hope for me, too.
Where did my unrealistic view of Joseph Smith come from? I’m assured by apologists that the church does not glorify Joseph in any way or downplay any of his flaws. I was just being “selective” in what I read and understood about the prophet. Naturally, they tell me, anyone with such a ridiculous and irrational view of the prophet is destined to be disappointed and will probably fall away from the church. I’m Exhibit A in that regard.
Looking back, though, I wonder how unrealistic my view was. The Joseph Smith of the church manuals, conference talks, and seminary classes was this demigod Joseph, the good and humble, wise and athletic. Nonsense, the apologists say. That version of Joseph was a figment of your imagination.
But was it?
Reading some church materials, I realize that the impression I had of Joseph Smith was intentional. Church materials do not attempt to define the man Joseph Smith, but they build up a legend; history becomes hagiography. Let’s look at a couple of examples: the chapter on Joseph Smith from the Presidents of the Church manual and the church’s official web site about Joseph Smith, josephsmith.net.
Headings in the manual describe Joseph as a “boy of courage and resolve,” “humble,” “prophet, seer, revelator, restorer, witness, and martyr,” and “the great prophet of this dispensation.” Besides his great visions, Joseph’s life was filled with honorable vocations and activities, though he was so much more than other men: “No man or combination of men possessed greater intelligence than he, nor could the combined wisdom and cunning of the age produce an equivalent for what he did.” Throughout the manual, Joseph’s accomplishments are played up, and much is omitted that would give the reader a more balanced and accurate account of his life. An instructive episode in the manual is Joseph’s marriage to Emma Hale, which is described thus:
While Joseph Smith awaited the appointed time to remove the plates and begin translation of the Book of Mormon, he worked for a man named Josiah Stowell. During this employment, Joseph boarded in the home of Mr. Isaac Hale in Harmony, Pennsylvania. “Isaac Hale had a daughter, Emma, a good girl of high mind and devout feelings. This worthy young woman and Joseph formed a mutual attachment, and her father was requested to give his permission to their marriage. Mr. Hale opposed their desire for a time, as he was prosperous while Joseph’s people had lost their property; and it was on the 18th day of January, 1827, the last year of waiting for the plates, before Joseph and Emma could accomplish their desired union. On that day they were married by one Squire [Tarbell], at the residence of that gentleman, in South Bainbridge, in Chenango County, New York. Immediately after the marriage, Joseph left the employ of Mr. [Stowell] and journeyed with his wife to his parental home at Manchester, where during the succeeding summer, he worked to obtain means for his family and his mission. The time was near at hand for the great promise to be fulfilled and for his patience and faithfulness to be rewarded” (George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Classics in Mormon Literature series , 43).
So much is left out here that is important to understanding the events that happened. Let me just answer a few questions:
1. What was Joseph doing when he worked for Josiah Stowell? You wouldn’t know from the manual account that Joseph had convinced Mr. Stowell that he could find buried treasure by looking into a stone. Joseph was later arrested and charged in this matter, and the following comes from the court record of his trial:
Prisoner [Joseph Smith] brought before Court March 20, 1826. Prisoner examined: says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school. That he had a certain stone which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times and had informed him where he could find these treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them. That at Palmyra he pretended to tell by looking at this stone where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of its injuring his health, especially his eyes, making them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business.
Josiah Stowel sworn: says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months; had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt spring; and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and did possess the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone. (See “The Facts about the 1826 Trial” for a decent summary from an apologetic source.)
It’s not surprising, then, that the manual makes no mention of Joseph’s employment other than that he was employed.
2. Why was Emma’s father so opposed to their getting married? According to the manual, the reason was the Smith family’s poverty relative to the Hales’. But here’s what Isaac Hale had to say about it:
I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Jr. in November, 1825. He was at that time in the employ of a set of men who were called “money-diggers;” and his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasure. His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man – not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father.
Smith, and his father, with several other ‘money-diggers’ boarded at my house while they were employed in digging for a mine that they supposed had been opened and worked by the Spaniards, many years since. Young Smith gave the ‘money-diggers’ great encouragement, at first, but when they had arrived in digging, to near the place where he had stated an immense treasure would be found – he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see. They then became discourged, and soon after dispersed. This took place about the 17th of November, 1825; and one of the company gave me his note for $12[.]68 for his board, which is still unpaid.
After these occurrences, young Smith made several visits at my house, and at length asked my consent to his marrying my daughter Emma. This I refused, and gave him my reasons for so doing; some of which were, that he was a stranger, and followed a business that I could not approve; he then left the place.(Affidavit of Isaac Hale, 20 March 1834, Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9
Mr. Hale was not so much concerned about Joseph’s poverty but that he was a stranger engaged in a shady business. Most parents would be reluctant to allow their daughter to marry someone engaged in endeavors involving enchantments and magic stones.
3. Why were they married in South Bainbridge, New York, rather than in Emma’s hometown of Harmony, Pennsylvania? The manual doesn’t say. Instead we read that that Isaac Hale opposed the marriage only “for a time,” but eventually they were able to “accomplish their desired union,” implying that he had in the meantime had a change of heart. Again, here’s Mr. Hale on the subject:
Not long after [Joseph’s request to marry Emma had been refused], he returned, and while I was absent from home, carried off my daughter, into the state of New York, where they were married without my approbation or consent. (Hale Affidavit)
In other words, they eloped without Mr. Hale’s consent. No change of heart had happened–quite the contrary. When Joseph returned for Emma’s belongings, Peter Ingersoll, an eyewitness, records what happened:
When we arrived at Mr. Hale’s, in Harmony, Pa. from which place he had taken his wife, a scene presented itself, truly affecting. His father-in-law (Mr. Hale) addressed Joseph, in a flood of tears: ‘You have stolen my daughter and married her. I had much rather have followed her to her grave. You spend your time in digging for money, pretend to see in a stone, and thus try to deceive people.’
Joseph wept, and acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.(Peter Ingersoll Affidavit, 2 December 1833, in Rodger Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990.)
I’m not writing this as an assault on Joseph’s character but rather as an example of the unrealistic and overglorified version of Joseph Smith we get through church publications.
The manual I’ve been discussing is notable mostly for its omissions, but the church’s web site, josephsmith.net, goes well beyond that and ventures into the territory of encomium. Headings on the site include “Teacher of God’s Truth,” “Leading with Love,” “Prisoner for Jesus Christ,” “Friend of Man,” and “Martyr for God.” Dig a little deeper, and we find “Honored and Blest Be His Ever Great Name” and a description of his character as “Gentleness and Meekness and Love Unfeigned.”
In one section titled “A Servant of All,” we learn that “the Prophet refused to place himself above others. Rather, as he humbly said, ‘I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.’ Bereft of pride, Joseph personified the Lord’s counsel: ‘Whosoever will be great among you, . . . shall be servant of all.'”
This doesn’t sound like the Joseph Smith who said, “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. … Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him, but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet…. God made Aaron to be the mouth piece for the children of Israel, and He will make me be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don’t like it, you must lump it” (Address of the Prophet, 26 May 1844). Nor does it sound like the Joseph Smith who “soundly thrashed” his brother for “insolence” (Bates and Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, Champaign: Illinois UP, 2003), or the Joseph Smith who warned prospective wives not to expose his practice of polygamy or “I will ruin you” (Bennett, History of the Saints, 226).
Similarly, Joseph’s marriage to Emma is described, sans anything but the bare minimum of details, in idealized romantic terms, finishing with this gem: “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.” When I first read that, I wondered if we should all follow Joseph’s example in marrying (and bedding) young girls without Emma’s knowledge or consent.
That Joseph kept his marriages hidden from Emma suggests that he was afraid of her reaction; indeed, in “Mormon Enigma,” we read that Joseph was under great “strain in his private life,” which calmed only temporarily: “Although Emma’s attempt to accept plural marriage brought temporary peace to the Smith household, neither Emma’s resolve nor the peace lasted long. Emily Partridge commented that Joseph ‘would walk the floor back and forth, with his hands clasped behind him (a way he had of placing his hands when his mind was deeply troubled), his countenance showing that he was weighed down with some terrible burden.'” Emma publicly and privately opposed Joseph’s practice of plural marriage, and for a time there was so much hostility in the house that Joseph accused Emma of poisoning him:
On Sunday, November 5, Joseph became suddenly sick and vomited so hard that he dislocated his jaw and ‘raised fresh blood.’
His self-diagnosis was that he had every symptom of poisoning. But he was well enough in the evening to attend an Endowment Council meeting in the room over the red brick store.
According to current medical literature, no poison available in 1844 was caustic enough to pool blood in the stomach so rapidly after ingestion as Joseph’s symptoms indicate and still be so ineffective as to allow the victim to pursue normal activities within a few hours . . . .
Twenty-two years later Brigham Young described a ‘secret council,’ . . . at which he said Joseph accused Emma of the poisoning and ‘called upon her to deny it if she could . . . . He told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told her where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he, ‘You got that poison so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.’ When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. He spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him.’ [Young] did not elaborate on the alleged second occurrence, but in 1866 Brigham’s rhetoric could well have been stronger that Joseph’s actual words, for it came at a time when Brigham was particularly hostile toward Emma.
Evidence suggests that Joseph indeed accused Emma of poisoning his coffee. His diary records that he and Emma did not participate in the Prayer Circle at that meeting . . . . This is particularly significant because members were asked not to join the Prayer Circle if they had feelings of antagonism toward anyone else in the group. Only unusual circumstances would have restrained them. Apparently Joseph believed at the time that Emma poisoned him. (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, Champaign: Illinois UP, 1994, pp. 163-64.)
Again, I’m pointing these things out not to attack either Joseph or Emma but to show the disconnect between the reality and the mythology build up around the prophet. You cannot read josephsmith.net without believing that Joseph Smith was near perfect, that he lived a blameless, Christ-centered life “bereft of pride” or any other human failing. But no one has ever lived such a faultless life, unless you count Jesus.
But this is the wrong approach. Joseph Smith was not Jesus, and when people find out about his failings, they are genuinely shocked because we were taught that “a more virtuous man never existed on the footstool of the Great Jehovah.”
My father taught me to expect human failings in others, especially if they claimed some sort of spiritual authority. “That way, when they screw up, you won’t be disappointed.” I probably applied that teaching to every other human except Joseph Smith, and I was disappointed when I learned who he was, but as I said, I was relieved that he, too, was a human like me. In all honesty, I like the human Joseph Smith much more than I liked the demigod. It’s hard to feel a connection to someone so obviously beyond my human experience, but I can relate to someone who made mistakes, even major ones. Joseph himself once said, “I told them [the Saints] I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities … I would likewise bear with their infirmities.”
Seems about right to me.