2016-06-30
As a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I found Joseph Smith to be a stumbling block. Reared an authority-phobic Protestant, I knew problems arise when one person claims to be the definitive speaker for God. Mormons talked about him in such reverential terms, refer to him in one long honorific as "The Prophet Joseph Smith." They sometimes sing songs about him--even in worship services!--praising "the man who communed with Jehovah":

. Praise to his memory, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Plead unto heaven while the earth lauds his fame.
As an Illinoisan, I clenched when I learned that the original words to that verse, written not long after the assassination of Joseph Smith in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, were "Long shall the blood which was shed by assassins, stain Illinois .."

While I was assured by church members that Mormons don't worship Joseph Smith, I was (and still am) squeamish at the constant exaltations. I shy from endorsing anything that carries a whiff of displacing God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost as worthy of our highest praise. I am grateful. I can't adequately articulate my appreciation for Joseph Smith's role in the "founding miracles" of the Restoration of the Gospel, the priesthood, and the Book of Mormon (see R.L. Bushman). But I can't get on the "exalt the Prophet Joseph Smith" bandwagon. As a Mormon by commitment, covenant, and conversion, this makes me a bit of an odd duck. But then again, so was Joseph Smith. That's what draws me to him, in fact.

Back in the early 1980s odd letters began emerging about folk magic and "white salamanders" having influenced Joseph Smith, and many in the church were horrified at the besmirching of his character. How satisfying to then discover that these letters were fakes placed by Mark Hofmann, forger, bomber, and murderer, intent on discrediting the church's history.

But the truth remains that Joseph Smith was accustomed to the folk magic of his rural 19th-century culture. In his early years he had been a "treasure seeker." He was familiar with the concept of looking through stones or using "divining rods" to locate things and learn. Knowing these things about him doesn't diminish him in my eyes; they make him more real and knowable, not whitewashed and "prettified." In fact, as Richard Bushman, and scholar and LDS member, says in his new biography "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (p. 131), "Neither his education nor his Christian upbringing prepared Joseph to translate a book, but the magic culture may have.... Practice with his scrying stones carried over to translation of the gold plates. In fact, as work on the Book of Mormon proceeded, a seerstone.aid[ed] in the work, blending magic with inspired translation."

A man who can be brawny, perplexing, rough-edged, and outrageous
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  • There are aspects of Joseph Smith as a man and as a prophet that are brawny, perplexing, rough-edged, and outrageous to me. I have a lot of unanswered questions. I see him as a complex man with a cosmic curiosity and robust confidence in God and in his own calling. I am grateful for what I do understand. Because I see both his humanness and God's hand evident in his life and work, I don't feel obliged to toss him out because of what I don't understand.

    I disagree with the predominant pedagogy that believes showing the humanness of our leaders diminishes them and challenges the faith of the young. Having been an early-morning religious instructor for Mormon teens for four years, I am familiar with the bent of the lesson manuals. I have seen too many examples of young adults discovering "flaws" about the early church leaders and feeling betrayed, as though the whole structure of their belief system were based on "faith promoting myths."

    I'm not an advocate of taking a magnifying glass to every mole, but I see the theological counterpart to cosmetic surgery as being at least as damaging. Knowing that Joseph Smith and my contemporary leaders are complicated human beings allows me to feel connected to them. I am all too aware of my own faults. I become more confident that God can use even me to accomplish His work. As the old hymn says, "Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!" (from "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing").

    In Joseph Smith's day, the saints referred to each other as "Brother Brigham" or "Sister Eliza." We have gotten more formal over the years and substitute last names instead of firsts, but there is an appealing communalism about using the term "brother" and "sister." This attitude of unity is one "Brother Joseph" taught and drove throughout his life. I find this one of his greatest contributions. His current counterpart, the president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, said in April 1995:

    This church does not belong to its President. Its head is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose name each of us has taken upon ourselves. We are all in this great endeavor together. We are here to assist our Father in His work and His glory, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." Your obligation is as serious in your sphere of responsibility as mine in my sphere. No calling in this church is small or of little consequence. To each of us in our respective responsibilities the Lord has said: "Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you: succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees." (Doctrine & Covenants 81:5)
    Highlighted in this month's issue of the Ensign, the official church magazine for Mormon adults and families, is this quote by Joseph Smith from the History of the Church:

    The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.

    Thank you, Brother Joseph.

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