Joseph Smith: Prophet, Revelator, Human

As Mormons celebrate the bicentennial of their church's founder, a new biography explores his achievements--and shortcomings.

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What were the negative effects of his inadequate preparation?

For someone so unprepossessing to claim so much made him appear like a fraud. How can anyone say God has spoken to him when he has so few qualifications? And so people ridiculed him immediately, and even more were suspicious of him, thought this was a con operation and he was actually dangerous. So that incongruity set up great suspicions in the people who saw him in operation.

We think of Smith as a man with supreme confidence, but you write about a man with human doubts and insecurities. What were some of these?

This came as a surprise to me because he does seem so bold, almost impregnable, in his confidence, and it is true that people didn't intimidate him. But he needed people around him, I concluded. He was at his best when he was surrounded by people, believers or unbelievers. When he was alone, he became blue, as he said. He fell into melancholy. He had a kind of Abraham Lincoln character about him, and all the sorrows of his past and his mistakes would flood in on him, and he felt like he was very dependent on God to restore him, because he felt so weak and ineffective.

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You've said that scholars are beginning to think of Smith in the context of a tradition of American prophecy. What do you mean by this?

Scholars are beginning to recognize that the prophetic voice recurs in America. It begins with Anne Hutchinson, who says quite bluntly that God was revealing his truth to her. This role is accessible in a Bible-believing culture, and the Bible is, of course, as significant as the U.S. Constitution for establishing the primers of American culture. So there are people who picked up that role, and Joseph Smith is preeminent among them. No one exceeds him in claiming prophetic powers. He produces Scripture and revives the biblical role. So that's one way to think of Joseph Smith, as stepping out into a tradition of American prophets.

How has Smith's image changed over the years among academics and the general public?

There are certain traditions that just persist forever. One is that he was a "colorful fraud," and even a "dangerous fraud," which was a stereotype that was locked on him almost immediately. He was classed with Muhammad as a man who thought he spoke for God and therefore wished to impose his will by force on people around him, and he was frequently compared to Muhammad in his own lifetime. That remains.

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