Ask Mormon Girl: How do you deal with the real history on Joseph Smith?

Thanks, everyone, for all of your kindness after the death of my dad.  It was a rough first week and a half for me, but the family is doing okay now, and I feel a great sense of affection and gratitude towards so many friends and readers who reached out.  Thank you.

Last week, I travelled to New York City where I did some talking, including a stint as a guest on the Brian Lehrer morning show at the big public radio station WNYC, where I talked about Mormonism, Mitt, the upcoming August 7 release of the new and expanded Book of Mormon Girl with the Free Press / Simon & Schuster and other usual subjects.  Not twenty minutes after I walked out of the radio station, that email arrived in my inbox.

“You sound like a delightful person,” began the message from a listener in NYC . . .  “BUT DON’T YOU KNOW JOSEPH SMITH WAS A PEDOPHILE AND A CON MAN.”

All caps.  No joke.

Yes, that email.  I get that email all the time.

It usually comes from non-Mormons who take some kind of perverse pleasure in imagining they’ve rocked my Mormon girl world by taking a shot at the prophet Joseph.  Like Mr. All Caps in NYC.  Or another fellow named “James,” who wrote me last week:

I’ve read at Mormon websites that Joseph Smith translated the Golden Plates by putting a rock in a hat and puting (sic) it over his face.  A rock in a hat?  I believe miracles can happen, but a rock in a hat?  What’s with that? Tell me, Mormon girl, how did that work?  It also said that he was paid to do this for people and they took him to court when it didn’t work. Of course, it wouldn’t work, it’s a rock in a hat. Did the prophet do that?  If so, why? 

Or the emails come from former Mormons who are smack dab in the middle of their own wrenching faith transitions.  For these folks, I have a great deal of sympathy.  Growing up LDS, most of us learn a very simple and idealized version of the Joseph Smith story from our Sunday School and seminary teachers.  This version does us no favors when we discover—often quite accidentally, on the internet, all alone in the dark of night, or on the spot, in the company of strangers—that history was indeed more complicated.  Witness this message, which arrived just a few days ago:

“I’ve grown up Mormon my whole life and now that I’m nearly an ‘adult’ I’ve started doing a lot of investigating about the history of my faith and more importantly, Joseph Smith. After a lot of prayers and and contemplation, I’m facing a very awkward truth in which I’ve come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a false prophet. How can I continue to live in this faith if it’s based on a liar?”

I’m of the mind that people should learn complicated family stories from family, not from strangers.  We need to hear this stuff at home, in church, in seminary, and I hear that up at Church headquarters, the wheels are turning to make that possible.  Which is wonderful news.

I can’t tell you exactly when I realized that Mormon history and the life of Joseph Smith were both more complicated than my CES-paid seminary teacher had led me to believe weekday mornings at 6 a.m.  I wasn’t exactly raised in a Sunstone / Dialogue household, but neither were my parents shy about talking about more arcane matters like seerstones.  Really, I think when you grow up hearing your folks talk about seerstones, the old “rock in a hat” crack loses its shame.  At least it has very little sting for me.  I’ll take an enchanted world over an unenchanted one any day.  I am, after all, religious.

But as to the human side of Joseph Smith. . . polygamous relationships with women and girls as young as Fanny Alger, who was, historians believe, fifteen or sixteen when Joseph Smith initiated a relationship with her, without the knowledge of his wife Emma.  (This is the case that leads to the “pedophile” cracks from the likes of Mr. All Caps.)  Borrowings from Anglo-American folk magic and Masonic rites.  Questions about the creation of the Book of Mormon and its literal historicity.

I frankly don’t remember when this more complicated version of Mormon history started seeping into my world.  I didn’t learn it in any class at BYU.  But it was round about the time I was a Cougar that I started discovering that I was indeed a Mormon liberal and a feminist, and finding my way to the Sunstone crowd, and in that crowd, all of these things were just sort of taken for granted by people who nevertheless really loved Mormonism and did not act ashamed of Mormon history.

So it came to pass in a very natural way that as I grew up and discovered my own more complicated adult self I absorbed quite naturally a more complicated version of Joseph Smith and Mormon history too.

I was never made to feel embarrassed or shocked about Mormon history, and I have the Sunstone crowd to thank for that.  Especially Elbert Peck, you wonderful man, wherever you are. (Friends, please note that Sunstone holds its annual symposium this weekend in Salt Lake City, and I’ll be speaking Friday.  Come join us at Mormon summer camp. Info here.)

Formal study came later, in fact, and usually only as a written confirmation of what I already intuitively knew.  I finally sat down and read Mormon Enigma a few years ago, by firelight, in the evenings, as I was finishing the manuscript of The Book of Mormon Girl at a feminist writer’s retreat on Puget Sound.  I loved the book, as difficult as it was, and consider it and Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness essential reading.  Mormon Stories podcasts with Bushman and Compton are also essential listening.

Today, I can say that I know Joseph Smith was a complex and flawed human being.  He participated in the folk spirituality of his time and infused Mormonism with it.  Like many extremely charismatic leaders, he had relationships with women who were not his (first) wife.  I can’t say I know exactly what happened in the Sacred Grove (though I continue to treasure the stories I was raised with) because I know that Joseph Smith himself authored several distinct accounts of the event.  Humility obliges me to acknowledge these facts of written history.

But it’s up to me to decide how these facts of written history shape my faith practice.  A Mormon friend recently gave me a book by Annie Dillard, who quotes the Catholic priest and philosopher Thomas Merton, writing in 1968, a few days after leaving a Buddhist monastery and a few days before his death:  “Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable.  Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious.”

Nevertheless.  For the religious, everything turns on the nevertheless.  The word that offers merciful refuge to the human complexity in ourselves and the human complexity in our faith traditions

Nevertheless.  I am a religious person.  I love a merciful God.  And the religious movement Smith founded has given me some of the most intense and meaningful experiences of my life.  That wide-open answer is the only way I know how to respond to the emails both hurtful and heartfelt that the legacy of Joseph Smith channels into my inbox.

How about you?  Readers, how do you answer and manage questions about Joseph Smith?

Send your query to, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.


Filed under joseph smith

187 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: How do you deal with the real history on Joseph Smith?

  1. Ray Arias

    Well, as I found out more and more about it, I decided I had enough and I chose NOT to deal with it anymore. I’m just a member of record, but basically I consider myself not a member of the Church anymore and now I’m pretty much an agnostic now.

  2. Christa

    Thank you so much for your beautiful words. I have been avoiding these topics for a few months now because I want to approach them systematically and prayerfully, and I’m not at a place where I can do that with full effort. But I hear the insinuations every day. When my faith started to crack open, it was because of the past and the present–so many stories I was hearing (of what Brigham Young or Joseph Smith did or said, of how so-and-so’s bishop reacted to her sexual assault or to his depression and early return from a mission) left me reeling, wondering whether this was really the church I thought I grew up in, a church of loving, humble, admittedly imperfect people. So I started really considering my faith and testimony. Where once I followed the logic I taught as a missionary (if the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith is a prophet, and this is God’s true church), now I look at things piece by piece. Do I believe polygamy was from God? Based on how it was practiced, I’m tempted to say no, not at all. But what Joseph taught about the Spirit World after death? Yes. Absolutely yes. Do I believe the priesthood ban came from God? Not at all. But do I believe Joseph was right and acting under God to ordain black men in his lifetime? Yes. The Atonement? Most definitely yes. Forgiveness, repentance, grace? Yes, yes, yes. The very black and white way our church teaches about itself tends to shoot itself in the foot, especially in this internet era when members find out about difficult issues younger and younger. I appreciate your point that it’s better and safer to hear of these things from family than from strangers. At the end of the day, I can’t say anymore that Joseph Smith was a prophet in the same trusting way I did as a missionary. But I can say I value what he taught, line by line, doctrine by doctrine, in a way I never did when I saw The Gospel as one big package.

    • Jacie

      People often forget that Joseph was not Jesus. He was the son of Joseph Smith and Lucy Mac. Not God the Father and Mary. He didn’t have any immortal blood in him; he wasn’t perfect and didn’t need to be perfect. I loved Christa’s post and that though some things may be weird to us now we need to remember things were different back then and stories get changed over time reasons get lost in history.
      Although I grew up Mormon with many “Non-mormon” friends who heard ridiculous things about us (one included that we had blue tongues and horns…no joke!) I first heard the story of the “seer rock” while watching one of my favorite shows South Park. I was with a group of friends who were afraid I would be offended, instead I almost pee’d my pants laughing at the ridiculous notion.
      To these friends I offer one thing. Read the Doctrine and Covenants, visit sights like Nauvoo Illinois, and our various random church monuments, ask us questions for what we really believe and how things really went down. Even if you think we’ll be embarrassed or angry. And take EVERYTHING you read about us on the internet including this post at face value.
      I was reading the comments from the article Bloomberg Business Week put out called “Inside the Mormon Empire” one man kept insisting things over and over again that weren’t true, including joseph smith translated golden scrolls instead of plates and no one other than Joseph Smith ever saw them (for the record 11 men and one woman other than Joseph Smith saw them…that we know of.) I usually wouldn’t care about a persistent hater but I couldn’t help but be stunned by the venom he had laced throughout his words. Why did he hate us so much?
      I mention him only to warn those of you who really want to get a sense about who we are. For some reason we attract a lot of haters who hear untrue stories about us and want to spread them like wildfire. I understand that some may be hurt because they had a horrible experience being raised in the church…it happens with every faith…and so they want to make sure everyone feels the same way they do.
      I think it’s easier to hear stories and think the worst then just realize, in the 1800’s and before, it really wasn’t all that uncommon to marry at 15 yrs old; especially when your life expectancy was 40 yrs. We’ve all read of monarchs and founders of this great country getting married to youngins while they were losing their teeth. Does this mean they were pedophiles or disgusting pigs…maybe…or maybe it was more normal back then.
      In summary, listen to your gut. That’s why I can still believe in the teachings of Joseph Smith even though I’ve heard many stories. He was one man with his own imperfect personality and failures. However, the plan of salvation, the lessons woven throughout the Book of Mormon, miracles I have lived through with the help of prayer and priesthood blessings…etc etc are all reasons why I think this church has a lot to offer.

      • John Muldoon

        You have been totally indoctrinated in a vast falsehood. Quit feeling with your heart, and realize that feelings don’t translate to reality. You have been duped into believing what your social circle wants you to beliieve in. Facts are facts. Joseph Smith is no person that is to believed. His history in the church is well documented, as well as his actions. You need to turn and run.

      • Josef Firmage

        Yes, I loved this response. People judge all things through the glasses they choose to wear or that were handed to them by someone with the same prescription.

    • I think your comments are spot on. I taught the discussions without any doubt on my mission. Now I know better. I wish the church was more open and honest.

      • Derek Anderson

        Great comments. Do I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? I most certainly do. But was he a human, complex, and confusing individual? Definitely, yes. I don’t know what types of internal trials he may have been subjected to anymore than anyone else knows of mine. I do know that other men who I consider to be prophets from the Bible and Book of Mormon did things that made it into scripture (let alone things they did that didn’t make it into scripture) that make me cringe to think about. That doesn’t make them fallen prophets – they’re just human beings. This is where the Spirit and logic or reason part ways. We take some matters on faith, feelings, and senses. I have had personal experiences where I have felt confirmation and comfort in living the Gospel and in the teachings of the LDS Church such that I believe it to be true, notwithstanding flaws of men within it. Accepting this is just as important, I think, as striving to live a humble life, to be forgiving and accepting of others who have their own struggles and challenges. These are attributes that I am sure all of us can stand to develop a little more fully in our quest to become a little more like the Master.

    • Karen

      Christa, I really value your response. Probably because it mirrors my own journey with the Church and the Gospel. I often teach the young women I work with in the church that even if they cannot say that they know everything is true, they can identify certain parts in which they believe. To me, it is a much more sane way to deal with our beliefs. Thank you for your beautiful reply.

      • Andrea

        Karen, thank you for that comment. I have struggled my whole life feeling like I don’t know if everything in the church is true. Thank you for helping me see that I can just know some things are true and that is okay.

  3. This is as good an answer to that question as I have ever heard. Well done.

  4. Lindsey

    “People should learn complicated stories from family, not from strangers.” I love this! I haven’t been asked questions about Joseph Smith – I think I was always the one asking them. Discovering that Joseph Smith’s history was much more complicated than what is portrayed in church films made me feel like the church was trying to hide something from me. I distinctly remember learning about propaganda in middle School and thinking “uh oh, this is kind of like my church.” When I asked questions as a youth some of my Sunday School teachers reacted like I was heretical and one actually tattled on me to my mom! Fortunately my mom sensibly explained that Joseph Smith was just an imperfect person like the rest of us. I think members can handle the truth. It was hard to give up the larger than life hero portrait I had of him but I don’t know that it was much more upsetting than when I learned in elementary school that George Washington had slaves. That was a bummer!! I’m still grateful to George Washington though and revere him as the father of my country.

    • KnagaA

      I love this comment! It’s so important to remember that we worship Jesus Christ, not Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was an instrument of The Saviour, there’s much to admire about him but he was as flawed as any other man.

  5. Rick

    (edited version of recent post…)

    Thanks Joanna for having the courage to talk about these challenging issues. There are so many ways to approach the simple question “if Joseph did so many bad things, would God have really picked him to be his restoration prophet?”

    Church defenders tend to respond in one of two ways: first, they take the angle that we don’t really know if Joseph did all the bad things reported. His “enemies” have reason to discredit him, so the stories are likely false.

    Or, they take the “Joseph was flawed like the rest of us…and despite his human weaknesses, he was yet an amazing man whom God chose to do a marvelous work…”

    I considered these approaches over a decade ago when I was introduced to the “rest of the story” I was NOT taught growing up in my traditional LDS upbringing, and I don’t fault those that choose to take either of these approaches. They allow the member to continue in a faith tradition that has so many wonderful traits and features for living a happy life.

    But for me, it left me with enough internal conflict that I felt I needed to leave the church. I felt that for me it was dishonest and damaging to my soul to project to one audience that Joseph was one of God’s greatest prophets of all time, while deep down I felt he was a cheat and a liar to his wife and others of his time. Despite the rift it caused my own family, my own integrity and internal peace was more important.

    The initial fallout was painful and difficult to negotiate, but after rebuilding a life based on reality and evidence based beliefs instead of magic and superstition, it is a decision I do not regret at all. I’ve long since released the need to have others follow my path, and love those that choose otherwise, but feel that this was the best choice for me to take when I was faced with these difficult issues, and feel a peace that I doubt I would have if I had chosen differently.

  6. Zen Mama

    I’m not a perfect person, not do I expect other mere mortals to be perfect. The Book of Mormon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are the vehicles through which I feel closer to the Lord and have improved my relationship with God. I don’t get too caught up in the fallibility of humanity (including ecclesiastical leaders) because it has no bearing on my relationship with God and because I hope people don’t spend too much time worrying about my missteps.

    • Zen Mama: Thank you so much for your comments and the feelings you so succinctly expressed, and to those I say “Amen, Sister.” I recently read an article by Richard and Linda Eyre (sometimes I like their concepts on parenting and sometimes not) which reflected this idea. Their talk was about 5 things they hope their kids teach their grandkids. Amongst those 5 ideas were these: #1 We hope our kids will teach our grandkids that their testimony should center on Christ & his gospel of joy rather than on the church. We hope the grandkids will begin their testimonies by saying, “I know Christ lives,” or, “I know the gospel is true”, rather than “I know the church is true.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wonderful, and we owe it more than words can express, but it is also temporary, while family and the gospel are eternal. “The church is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families.”

      I am a convert to the LDS church and although I sometimes have questions about things like “Did Joseph Smith do this or that”, etc. I can honestly say that I know the Book of Mormon is true and I know I find myself growing spiritually and becoming a more fulfilled Christian as I attend the LDS church, attend the LDS temple regularly, and follow the precepts I learn through study of both the Bible and the B.O.M. I am definitely closer to God since converting to the LDS church and I feel sad when I hear of people who leave the LDS church when they have issues with the “church” rather than the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. If a person truly believes that after reading and studying the Book of Mormon with an open mind, seeking the truth about the gospel of Jesus Christ, then decides that what they have read and studied is leading them away from God and the Holy Ghost – I can’t argue with that. However, I have never yet met anyone who prayerfully reads the BOM, prays about it, and seeks to know of its validity (apart from any opinions about the “church” ) and then says it’s all hogwash and does not contain the truth.

  7. Katriina

    I have a college education and many years experience writing papers. I could never write an equivalent to the Book of Mormon. There had to be some divine intervention to enable Joseph Smith to write it.

    I also think, man is flawed. Just look at history. Man killed for religion. Man used religion as a means to forward his own agenda. Right now I’m doing research into the Tudor era and I see that that cardinals and religious men were corrupt as any other. Look at any religion and you will see men who are imperfect.

    • Catmandolin

      Of course Joe Smith had help writing the BOM. His partners in this religious scam are listed as “witnesses” in the first pages of the book that was originally listed as “authored” by Joseph Smith Jr. He also attempted to sell the copyright of the BOM to some people in Canada who rejected it for the nonsense that it clearly is.

  8. Tricia

    To women who were sexually abused as children or teens, Smith’s behavior with young girls is deeply troubling and painful. I read RRS until I got to that part and then had to sit it down. I had headaches and stomachs for a couple of weeks after that discovery, even though I had long suspected it. We will never know how many Mormon girls have been denigrated by the attitudes that this kind of behavior generates. Sexual abuse survivors are oftentimes quite protective towards other young women that have been hurt, whether by family members or charismatic religious leaders. In fact abuse by religious leaders can be equally as egregious as family abuse in that it contaminates one’s relationship with the divine. It’s very important that this not be minimized or dismissed simply because someone used caps or was trying to land a blow against Mormons.

    • Rick

      Wow…well said, Tricia!

    • What is RRS and what was Joseph Smith’s behaviour like with young girls? I’m LDS and have grown up believing the idea that he ‘did more for man save Jesus Christ’. Although I know he was a polygamist (sadly), what were his other flaws?

      • James

        I think Tricia meant RSR, which may mean Richard Bushman’s book, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” There are allegations that Joseph was secretly sexually involved with Fanny Alger when she was 16, before their marriage. There are also accounts by girls like Helen Mar Kimball, who was 14 when Joseph proposed marriage. Joseph reportedly told her an angel with a sword threatened him with death and loss of exaltation if he did not marry her. He promised salvation to her, her family, and her kindred if she complied. This strongly suggests coercion, either by God, or by Joseph, depending on whether he was telling the truth. He also kept most of his polygamous marriages from Emma’s knowledge. Additionally, he and many other church leaders publicly denied practicing polygamy while it was still happening. Joseph was also involved in treasure peeping. Before the Book of Mormon, he looked into a stone to help people find treasure, often without success (their lack of success was the main reason they were so eager to steal the reported gold plates). Many of these accounts indicate that Joseph lied sometimes, like all men. The trouble is figuring out when he was telling the truth. For additional info on polygamy and treasure hunting, see “In Sacred Lonliness” by Todd Compton, and “Mormonism and the Magic Worldview.”

    • Liss

      I did a lot of reading about Joseph Smith’s wives recently. What I came away with is that it is such a complex issue. There are absolutely no writings by Joseph Smith on the issue (or writings about why there are no writings). Many of the women involved also did not leave behind journals containing much information. Much is therefore left to speculation. It is therefore easy to look at certain relationships and see something awful. And we just don’t know. And historians don’t know. And not knowing is difficult.

      • Catmandolin

        Nonsense. Joe Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III, (who stayed in Illinois with his mother, siblings and many of his Smith relatives) was told by many of those Mormons who hadn’t followed BY to Utah that his father never practiced polygamy. But many others informed him that Joe Jr. did indeed “marry” other women/girls behind Emma’s back.

        This led Joe III to travel to Utah after reaching adulthood and led him on a quest to find out the REAL truth about his father’s sexual behavior. Joe III’s quest has left us numerous extant written, signed, witnessed affidavits from women/girls who state they were indeed “married” to Joe Jr. and some specifically stated that the marriage was not merely ‘in name only’ or for religious purposes only.
        Two of Joe’s “marriages” were to 14 year old girls and eleven of his plural marriages were to women who were ALREADY MARRIED to living men who were his followers.

        Having lived in Utah for nearly 8 decades and having devout, polygamous LDS grandparents who lived and worshiped in their LDS ward in SLC during the 1930’s I can attest to the continued and purposeful dishonesty about this subject by the Top 15 and their subordinates for many generations now.

      • Liss

        @ Catmandolin

        My apologies for being unclear. I didn’t mean to imply that there are no written documents. Rather that there are few documents; including a low amount of journal entries (at the time of the events) and little, to no, writings of Joseph Smith – who is of course one of the primary parties – in order for us to say clearly “this is exactly what happened. these were the motives of all involved.” Since you bring up the affidavits it is interesting to note that these are women who were living with the Saints in Utah. Many (possibly all) still active in the church, still revering Joseph Smith as a prophet. And as for the “sexual relations” part the only child of a woman whom as you say “were ALREADY MARRIED to living men” is Josephine Lyons, daughter of Sylvia Sessions Lyons. She told Josephine she was the prophet’s child. Which, frankly, she could only know for certain if she was only having sexual relations with one man at the time. And, indeed, the record shows that she was (common law) divorced from Windsor Lyon at the time of Josephine’s conception.

        Anyway, I just wanted to clarify that I did not mean that there is no historical data. Just that there is little from the primaries involved at the time of the events. And, for that matter, little from later on.

  9. James

    “Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious.”
    When religion became laughable, I realized that I was not, after all, religious.

    • Shanteel

      Bravo. So did I.

    • shawn

      And sadly, if the only way to come to terms with the truth of your religion is to shrug your shoulders and laugh, you’re pacifying reality to keep the status quo.

    • Morman Nailer

      Thank-you. There are people who ‘get a lot’ from LDS, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Marxism, Randroidism, and an host of other contradictory and self-contradictory systems of belief; this indicates that ‘getting something from it’ has little to do with truth, with which _I_ am more concerned than with feeling comfy in the Universe.

      If I am angry sometimes, it were because I don’t like seeing people expend their finite energies and time for the benefit of other people whose interests are not their own—this is not limited to religion, war and labour are also great offenders thereby…and I have no affection, if not a little reach ones, for con-men who start by deceiving themselves….

    • Tim

      That’s funny, because I always felt that the view of the world from an eye of science and reason, man’s understanding, was as laughable and as strange as a boy looking in a hat. For example, Quantum physicists state quantum objects can be in multiple places at the same time, travel back in time, borrow energy from the future, change their inherit nature, and know when we are watching them. The human brain, made up of trillions of neurons, independently connect to each other trillions of times a second but end up making everything coalesce into one, single and united state of mind, my own self-awareness. There are wasps that perform Neuro-surgery on cockroaches with their tails, there are specific type of fungus for every type of insect in the rain forest, knowing when to regulate and control those populations through infection, there are whales that swim across entire oceans, not varying tenths of a degree from a perfect straight line, from point A to B, theories that there are endless multiple universes created every time a sentient being has a thought, there are squid that can flash miles of sea floor maps across their backs, plants communicate through their roots, the hairs in the human ear only have to move the distance of the diameter of a hydrogen atom, to detect something. I mean, c’mon, right? So weird and absurd. A guy looking in a hat, that’s not strange.

    • I couldn’t agree with this more.

  10. FlockofSeagulls

    This is lovely, Joanna. Thank you. Thoughtful and well-stated. Besides, you manage to quote/cite Richard Bushman and Annie Dillard in a single blog post, which is kind of like a grand slam in my book … or at least a ground rule double. (Bushman is a former–and favorite–professor of mine, and I’ve long loved Annie Dillard.)

    As for my personal experience, I must confess that, as a practicing Mormon in my late 30s, learning some of the complexities of the Joseph Smith story came as a profound shock and threw me into a crisis of faith. In the end, however, that exploration only confirmed what I already knew: namely, that all stories are more complex than we first give them credit and that no heroes come without flaws. I found it rather like learning about Thomas Jefferson. Despite all the flaws and the contradictions, the power of his words remains. So too with Joseph Smith. Whatever his personal faults, he created a religion focused on the essential doctrines of Christ and filled with flawed people trying to learn and live and love as best they know how. I don’t care how Alma 5 came about; it was inspired, and I love both the essential doctrines of the Church (I mean the simple and uncomplicated ones) and the community of Saints, which continue to sustain and enrich the lives of me and my family.

  11. Praise to the Man

    My wife and her family revere their ancestor who joined the Church in the 1850’s as they should because he was a great person and saint as was his wife. Recently, my wife and her sister did some research on him for a family history project and discovered that he had been a participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. His history has been talked about in their family for generations, they even have a biography written by his wife about him, and they never knew about his participation in the massacre. It’s been interesting to see the reactions of the various family members. My father-in-law has really struggled with this information and he is slowly accepting it after trying and failing to find any proof that his ancestor did not participate in the massacre. My sister-in-law initially said that what their ancestor did was fine since he was under orders. My wife and I had a good discussion with her where we came to agree that what he did was absolutely wrong but it’s understandable that a man his position and with his background did what he did. To his credit, he is one of the only known men who participated in that to voluntarily and perhaps publicly admit his role and express remorse. We still honor him and look to him a source of pride and strength in our family. We have a more complete picture of him now and have a learned a lesson in how we look at figures in Church history like Joseph Smith and others.

    As for Joseph Smith, I know him to be a prophet of God even though he used a peep stone to find buried treasure and married women who were already married to other men. I’m all for the Church being more open about these things so we can revere him as a man and less of a myth.

    • Karina

      I am confused, are you saying that Joseph Smith participated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre? How can that be? The Massacre was on September 11, 1857 and Joseph Smith had died on June 27, 1844. Unless he never died, I don’t think he was there. The Prophet at that time was Brigham Young, and it was never proven that it was sanctioned by him.

      • Ohiogal56

        Karina – I believe ‘Praise to the Man’ is referring to HIS ancestor, NOT Joseph Smith.

      • Devin


        I believe she is referring to her own ancestor, who was not Joseph Smith. she then likens this principle to Smith

  12. Holly

    SUNSTONE has indeed helped many a Mormon seeker in a quest for greater peace and understanding with their Mormon heritage. Readers might like to know that the annual Salt Lake Symposium is this week, July 25-28, on the University of Utah campus. Joanna herself is on the program. You can learn more about both the program and registration by scrolling down on this page:

    Katrina writes:

    I have a college education and many years experience writing papers. I could never write an equivalent to the Book of Mormon. There had to be some divine intervention to enable Joseph Smith to write it.

    one of the papers that will be at this year’s presented is a comparison by Parker Blount of the stories in the Book of Mormon to fairy and folk tales. Semi-literate people have managed throughout history to devise compelling and beguiling stories–particularly when they rely on archetypal quests and well-established patterns. Parker’s paper shows how clearly and firmly the Book of Mormon is part of the tradition of fairy and folk tales. It’s so brilliant and obvious that you hear it and wonder, “Why hasn’t everyone seen this before?”

    The question of the divine origins of the BOM is not going to be settled today, but the argument that the BOM was too complicated for an unschooled peasant to write without divine intervention and must therefore be scripture we should accept as God’s word is not tenable–unless you also accept that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are also beyond the creative powers of unschooled peasants and are therefore also to be accepted as scripture.

    • The BOM’s historical and doctrinal complexity, its length, and it’s relationship to the Bible make it a far more intricate text than any one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Besides, that is a collection of folk tales–oral traditions that have developed over generations, whereas the BOM made its appearance in one dramatic historical moment, after a ridiculously short period for writing. Finally, Grimm’s Fairy Tales does not purport to be scripture. For these reasons, the comparison is invalid. I am with Holly: an unschooled young man who could barely put together a coherent letter (according to Emma) could not have produced the BOM without divide assistance.

      “Archetypal quests and well-established patterns.” You can invoke these as evidence that the BOM is “just literature.” But you can also do what C. S. Lewis did so compellingly throughout his brilliant career as a Christian apologist–that is, understand the presence of archetypal/mythic patterns as evidence of real truths woven into the very fiber of reality, truths that poets have tapped into for time immemorial, and which Christ embodied within history. I for one believe that poets and writers are often inspired with a heightened perception of what is really there. In other words, I think the authors of Grimm’s Fairy Tales were inspired to some degree.

      • Correction: I agree with Katriina.

      • Morman Nailer

        I read some Hebrew, Aramaic, and Seventeenth Century English, and B.o.M. reads much more like something composed in English based on that of the King James Bible than like anything translated from a Semitic or Hamitic language. I’m sorry, it may be pretty, it may have given your life some meaning, it might be the basis of your beloved fellowship, but that has _naught_ to do with its having any objective correlate.

        May I point y’all not in the direction of Reform Judaism, which is ideologically incoherent, but rather toward Reconstructionism, which says, in effect, ‘This is not revealed truth, there might not even be a God to reveal truth, but this is a foundational document of our people, the codification of many of our customs which pre-dated it, and a source of wisdom (especially in the commentaries on it of many of our more reasonable ancestors) along with the utter nonsense and kruft that as reasonable adults we should reject out-of-hand.’

        Similarly, many people enjoy baseball or chess without believing their rules are divinely inspired, or have much to say about reality.

  13. Andy

    Thanks so much for expressing faith when there is so much reason to doubt. As a no longer card carrying member of the church, I have wrestled with where I fit in a religion that can seem so disingenuous sometimes.

  14. It is always a complicated journey to move from magical thinking to the appreciation of holy mystery. Many religious traditions do a poor job of helping people make that move, and I suspect that Mormons are among the worst simply because of the high level of secrecy that permeates the structure.

    Unfortunately, secrets are destructive in any system, be it family, church or business. The keepers of the secrets hold too much power, and also end up having to speak multiple untruths in order to keep things hidden and inaccessible to others.

    Many who are on the outside of the Mormon church actually know more about its complex and often troubling history than those on the inside because information that doesn’t fit the party line is more readily accessible to them.

    Every religious group must face these questions and recognize that all our understandings about God are ultimately deeply flawed, highly subjective, and extremely partial.

    As a Christian pastor, I find much of Mormon doctrine disturbing. I also find much Christian doctrine disturbing. I have reached the point where I believe that when anyone, including me, says, “This is absolute revealed truth and may not be questioned,” then such a person or group needs to be avoided at all costs. No one person—or religious group—can do that in full honesty. However, those pronouncements can and usually are made when trying to keep people in line and tightly controlled.

  15. It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

  16. Dave Barto

    I think for me, after being a Mormon for 25 years, I really needed to focus on being a truth seeker. Yes, Joseph Smith wrote these books that many Mormons believe are inspirational from God, but really there have been many geniouses being able to write books and novels. Was Joseph Smith brillant. In my opinion, Yes! Did he know the bible exceptionally well, in my opinion Yes! Put the two together and yes he could of created the book of Mormon. But the reality is that the BOM is not where Mormons believe what their church is all about, it’s what follows, the D&C, the pearl of Great Price and the LDS prophets making us many different revelations on it. I now know after studying over 1000 and 1000 of hours, that either you follow the Bible 100% and the beautiful gospel that it is, or you continue to follow a made up imaginery, self interesting version of Mormonism. I made that decision to follow only Jesus since He is the truth, the life and the Way. A religion does not save you but Jesus only. If we put our faith in Him, we receive His free gift of Grace for all eternity, but it’s not only faith that he expects from us, he wants us to grow into perfection through Love and finally the nail that sets our lives is Hope. With Hope we earnesty expect salvation and not wonder if we have it. The new covenant gives us liberty and freedom but we are not to abuse it, in any way. God Bless my friends. Dave

  17. I just realize the Book of Mormon is of divine origin. That’s all anyone inside or outside the church has to decide for themselves. Everything else is taken on faith, and that’s why Mormonism is called a faith.

    • charles rivera

      You could say the same for Islam and their book, or even Scientology and their prolific science fiction writer, yes? So, why this and not those other religions? And everyone is back to square one.

      • Morman Nailer

        I have no objection to this weird approach to truth save when the ‘facts’ it claims are used in the public sphere as if they were objectively observable, and their doctrines presented as if they were reasoned arguments that deserved to have the physical force of the Law’s enforcers behind them….

  18. Jared

    I don’t recall being exposed to lesser-known truths about Joseph Smith at home during my formative years. But I was exposed to many of those things (e.g. seer stones, polygamy, etc.) in Seminary and in church. I took religion classes at BYU that hit most of this stuff straight on. As such, I’ve never really felt threatened by new information about Joseph Smith. Until recently, I never felt that my upbringing in the church was anything other than typical. Increasingly, I’m sensing that maybe my experience growing up in the church was atypical. If so, that\’s really unfortunate and I do hope it changes.

    While there is much to sympathize with regarding those who experience faith crisis, there’s one aspect of faith crises and Joseph Smith that has long eluded me – something on which maybe the AMG readership can elaborate. For those that have had a faith crisis (which necessarily assumes the existence of faith prior to the crisis) over newly-discovered truths about Joseph Smith, how do you deal with the Book of Mormon? In other words, if Joseph Smith was a whoremonger and a fraud, what’s to be made of the book he produced? If you’ve read the Book of Mormon and have received any kind of spiritual witness of it at some point in your life or you’ve somehow been inspired to be a better person as a result of reading it, how do you explain that all away once you become convinced Joseph Smith was a fraud? Even if you don’t believe in the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, how do you account for the many good, faith-promoting, and Christian teachings of the book? For example, Mosiah 18:8-10? Jacob 3:1-2? 3 Nephi 17? 2 Nephi 25:26? You get the point.

    If Joseph Smith is not what he claimed to be (a prophet of God), then where or how did he come up with the many theological/inspirational gems contained in the Book of Mormon? I’m not trying to challenge anyone’s conclusion as a result of a Joseph Smith faith crisis, I’m sincerely wanting to better understand how people reconcile the Book of Mormon in view of a Joseph Smith faith crisis. Would love to hear some thoughts.

    • Rick

      Jared…these are common and good questions — many which I had while negotiating my spiritual journey. Some of the answers to your questions are based on what is called “straw-man” arguments. If you are told that a certain feeling you get is evidence of a book’s truthfullness, then you get “that” feeling, is it true? Most believing Mormons say yes. But it is a tactic many sales organizations use to sell you their product. I’ve had many a feeling similar to the ones I had in church that had no bearing on the truthiness of what I was observing.

      As far as I know, there is no concrete understanding as to exactly how the Book of Mormon was written. Many theories, but none perfect. What we do know is that there were many books available to Joseph as he was writing the book, including many that related to other theories about Native Americans being from the middle east and of Hebrew ancestry. If a person writes things that are positive and uplifting — even if it is copied from another text — it is still positive and uplifting. That doesn’t make it historically true.

      “Spiritual witnesses” abound in many religious traditions. Most of these are in direct conflict with each other, but the believers are absolutely certain their experience is proof of their faith’s unique truth. This fact alone leads one to question the interpretation of said experience. IOW, one doesn’t need to deny the beauty of an experience, but perhaps it is prudent to question its meaning.

      • Polly

        I believe Sidney Rigdon wrote the Book of Mormon. I would like someone with access to more information than I have to direct me to sermons or teachings attributed to Joseph Smith in which he actually teaches, or makes reference to, some significant story or principle from the Book of Mormon.

        I don’t believe Smith ever used the Book of Mormon in all his preaching. I’m not even sure he ever read it….

      • Jared

        Thanks, Rick, for the thoughtful response. I’m perfectly familiar with straw man arguments and I get the idea that a perceived “spiritual witness” may not ultimately be what you original thought it to be. But that wasn’t really where I was going with my question – I should have tightened it up better, My bad. My comment about spiritual witnesses of the BoM wasn’t so much about interpreting the meaning of said witnesses, but rather it was merely an attempt to draw responses from people who at one point had faith in Joseph Smith and the BoM (it seems illogical that one could have a Joseph Smith faith crisis if they never had faith to begin with.)

        While I suppose it’s not absolutely true that faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet coincides with faith in the Book of Mormon, it strikes me as extremely uncommon that one would believe in Joseph Smith but not in the Book of Mormon. In other words, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the member of the church who believes in Joseph Smith as a prophet also believes in the Book of Mormon. So, again, to my original question: For someone who has a history of faith (whether it be “weak” or “strong”) in both Joseph Smith and the BoM and has had their faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet shaken because of learning new facts about Joseph Smith’s life, how does THAT person reconcile their new perception of Joseph Smith with the Book of Mormon? And when I refer to the BoM, I’m not so much talking about reconciling its origin (though that’s a part of it), but rather the writing itself. Whether one agrees with the doctrine being taught in the Book of Mormon, there’s clearly substance, complexity and depth in the writing (even when considering any perceived flaws.) Who gets credit for that writing after you’ve determined that Joseph Smith was not the prophet he claimed to be? Does Joseph Smith, now seen as an ordinary man, still get the credit? Someone/something else? Or do people in that situation choose to dismiss the book out of hand? Or maybe put the issue “on the shelf,” hoping that it can be reconciled later?

      • Rick

        Hi Jared…I think many would love to have been flies on the wall when Joseph was “dictating” the Book of Mormon. Why the head in the hat with a stone in it? Why all the other books in the room? Why the similarity of stories about Hebrew Ancestry to the legends told in his time and area…and the book “The View of the Hebrews” which he owned. What was Sidney Rigdon’s (and others) role in the book?

        There are many who have devoted much research to the origins of the book…and what we DO know is what it is not — a history of most of the people of the American continents for the millenium of 600 BC to 400 AD. Good science tells us that. But until we get a way to view previous events ( too bad we didn’t have security cameras back then!), I’m not sure that we’ll ever know for sure.

      • Holly

        Whether one agrees with the doctrine being taught in the Book of Mormon, there’s clearly substance, complexity and depth in the writing (even when considering any perceived flaws.) Who gets credit for that writing after you’ve determined that Joseph Smith was not the prophet he claimed to be? Does Joseph Smith, now seen as an ordinary man, still get the credit?

        Are you suggesting that books are only written by men who are NOT ordinary?

        Many people have written books. It’s done all over the world, in many different language. Writing a book is something ordinary human beings are obviously and manifestly capable of. Lots and lots of books are published and even more are written and never published. Some books are good, some are bad, despite some perceived “complexity” or lack thereof.

        So what’s the big deal about saying that Joseph Smith wrote a book that some people find important and that millions or billions more aren’t at all impressed by? The whole line of questioning seems obtuse.

      • Jason

        That’s interesting Polly. Anyone know of J. Smith teaching from the Book of Mormon… not about the origin or the divine nature of the text but lessons from its stories or characters?

    • Holly

      In other words, if Joseph Smith was a whoremonger and a fraud, what’s to be made of the book he produced?

      See my comment above for one answer–it’s a pastiche of sections of the Old Testament and folk and fairy tales–and a badly written on at that.

      Even if he’s NOT a whoremonger and a fraud, what’s to be made of the book he produced?

      My “faith crisis” was set off by the BOM, which I read three times at age 14 after suffering a nearly fatal illness. It was so obviously an inferior book. The language was so ungraceful and stilted–it badly needed a good editor! I was always taken aback by the hostility to education, by the absence of women, and by the ludicrousness of the story of Korihor, who starts preaching that there is no god and no supernatural sort of morality after a visitation FROM AN ANGEL: who is really that stupid?

      In short, I was never able to respect it as a literary text or a history, but I figured I had to accept it as scripture. So I tried.

      By the time of my mission, which I went on in a hope that it would vanquish all my doubts, I’d read the BOM at least a dozen times. I disliked it more and more each time I read it, and by the end, I could hardly bear to read it again. All the things that had bothered me before were almost endurable, and its emphasis on damnation, its innate cruelty, its essential meanness, meant that I went beyond merely not respecting it to seeing it as downright inimical to morality and ethics.

      or you’ve somehow been inspired to be a better person as a result of reading it, how do you explain that all away once you become convinced Joseph Smith was a fraud?

      Do you really think that flawed human beings are incapable of producing and expressing ideas that inspire others to become better people?

      If someone says, “Here’s a bit of wisdom I’ve gained–I hope it helps you live your life thoughtfully and well,” people can take it or leave it.

      If someone says, “Here’s a bit of wisdom that God revealed directly to me, and if you don’t accept this as god’s word and believe in me as God’s prophet, you’ll be denied God’s greatest blessings”–well, that claim in and of itself makes the whole endeavor suspect. Who says God really plays favorites like that? Oh yeah–the people who claim to be God’s favorites.

      Even if you don’t believe in the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon, how do you account for the many good, faith-promoting, and Christian teachings of the book? For example, Mosiah 18:8-10? Jacob 3:1-2? 3 Nephi 17? 2 Nephi 25:26? You get the point.

      What would someone creating a new religion in New England in the early to mid nineteenth century work with but Christianity? The originator of the religion works within the parameters available to him and wants it to be palatable to a wide audience. What, you think someone in rural Christian New York State is going to start preaching a form of Hasidism or invent scientology?

      I don’t expect any of my comment to convince you to change your view of the BOM, though I will say that part of me is always shocked when I encounter someone so oblivious to the BOM’s shortcomings. I hope at least that you’ve gotten over any simplistic notion that the BOM is some sort of sticking point for people as they give up their belief in Mormonism. For many people, it’s the first thing they jettison, precisely because they find it illogical, incoherent, bigoted, and cruel, on top of being badly written and dull.

      • Holly

        meh. That should be “almost UNendurable.”

      • Fred Niet

        Fair play to you, i have the same problem with the bible, koran and torah. All obviously the work of men (and only men) and showing human prejudices on every page. A creator god would have the power to edit words and actions attributed to him in all these contradictory hateful books. The fact He (and it has to be a he right?) doesn’t speaks more about a god than the books ever will. Hokum.

    • You ask “If Joseph Smith is not what he claimed to be (a prophet of God), then where or how did he come up with the many theological/inspirational gems contained in the Book of Mormon?”

      Here are my thoughts…

      Have you ever read (even a summary of) Tolkein’s creation story from The Silmarillion? Or Aslan’s words to the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve in Narnia? Did you find those inspiring to read? Perhaps even spiritual?
      Neither J.R.R. Tolkein nor C.S. Lewis claimed to be prophets of God, and yet their words can bring about the same feelings of inspiration and spiritual truth that some find in the Book of Mormon. The feeling the LDS Church teaches is the spirit, the warmth within, is something I’ve felt when reading Tolkein’s myths, or Aslan’s words, or Yoda describing the Force to Luke Skywalker, yet all of these are fictional events and fictional characters. A good story, or one told in just the right way, will inspire readers/listeners, regardless of origin or reality of the events.
      Joseph Smith had access to a great many stories, both written works and oral traditions, including the Bible. His described inability to compose a letter has no bearing on his ability to read or to narrate a story, which is essentially what he did (if he authored OR translated the BoM). He would have been able to draw on the stories of others, as well as on his own fantasies, bits of dreams, and snippets of historical documents to fabricate the stories and deep ideas you read, without ever having any direction from God.
      TL;DR- The Book of Mormon doesn’t have to be true to have bits of truth (or things that feel true) in it, or to be a good story, and Joseph wouldn’t need to be inspired by God to generate such a book.

  19. Child of the covenant

    I find life to be rich and complex enough without having to justify the the immoral behaviors of “The Prophet”; what Smith did was hardly prophetic. The same goes for “Heavenly Father” – his behavior as described in monotheistic religions falls far short of good parenting. I find that the complexities of the world we live in fit together more neatly once the God–>prophet–>sinners paradigm is abandoned.

  20. Molly

    I want to tell you that I was a mormon. The “complexities” of the story of Joseph Smith came to light with me because my Bishop told me to pray about it, then when I still wondered why the whole world (except for the leaders of the LDS church) believe J smith to be a false prophet, I was told to pray harder instead of answering any questions or even attempting to clear it up even as an ecclesiastical matter. When any man takes a 14 year old to his bed to satisfy his manly desires, it is called pedophilism and is. It does not matter what era this happened in, it is against all Bible scriptures to rape an underaged woman/child, period. Your “faith” is seriously questioned and that is why I resigned. Then, the little mormon ladies of the neighborhood attack and make our lives miserable, including trying to hurt us physically and our animals. We discovered on our own that we were being lied to and these are not little lies. With all due respect, those idiots who attack their fellow men and women have been instructed to by their LDS leaders. I am not the only person that has experienced LDS visciousness and unadulterated wrong doing….it is not the members it is what the members are taught!

  21. Sandra

    Sometimes I am able to be okay with Joseph Smith and his flaws, and sometimes it feels like a fresh open wound where I mourn the loss of my simplistic, less informed views on church history. I find myself in slight envy at times of those who either have no interest in the whole truth of our church’s past or know and honestly don’t care. Sometimes I feel like it boils down to needing to forgive for me–forgive Joseph Smith and other early prophets for erring, just like I want forgiveness for the things I have done. What I have come to realize is that it is a conscious, hard choice for me almost every day to choose faith, in the midst of truths that are very hard for me to look past. I often feel incredible loneliness, sitting in church where I never hear my own thoughts voiced by my fellow saints. Am I weaker than them? Is it an issue of needing to bend my will to become more like them in the way they think? I don’t know, but it is often heavy and hard for me, not just with church history, but also the way in which the church is run today. And the even harder question for me is, how do I now proceed in teaching my children their church’s history without tainting them in the future? Am I to believe like those around me that voicing any sort of negative truth, inkling of doubt, or personal struggle is blasphemous and should be withheld from my children at all costs? Am I damaging them more by withholding hard truths of the past, or by teaching them that even prophets are flawed? I struggle with feeling worthy to even pray and receive comfort because of the negativity I feel towards the church, yet I still believe it is true. This is definitely a deep, lonely struggle for me, one that I am not yet past.

    • Sandra! You sound so lonely and desperate for a friend here. You are not alone! You’ve obviously found the AMG community. Have you started listening to the Mormon Stories podcast yet? I strongly recommend to you the “Navigating a Mormon Faith Transition” episode, which features Joanna Brooks. My husband and I have found it indispensable. I know exactly what you mean, about not hearing in church the things that resonate with you. But you’re not alone, and you know you’re not “weak” or too willful. You’re maturing spiritually, and there are growing pains. But there’s no going back to your old shape once you’ve stretched a little. I share your fear on how to raise my children, because we haven’t been shown the example of how to do it any other way than the Molly Mormon way. It’s okay to feel negativity, to have doubts. It’s the guilt and shame surrounding it that are unhealthy. Let yourself feel loved by God without fear, let yourself get lost and then, when you’re ready, found again.

      • sean meyer

        Lovely advice. Be fearless and strong!

      • Carla McClure

        What a thoughtful response. When we start caring more about one another than about “being right,” we are on the path to becoming our best selves.

    • Sara

      You are not alone. I am struggling with the same issues, which have led me to this site. Reading your post described exactly what I have been feeling. My brain just doesn’t think the way the Mormons around me think. I wish it did. I wish I could love BYU, Jimmer, and be a republican. It would make my life a lot easier and help me fit into my culture. You expressed your feelings so beautifully and it helped me to know I am not alone.

      I am teaching my children the “whole truth” about church history. I think if I had been taught as a child some of the shocking things I have just learned, I wouldn’t feel so duped.

    • Angela

      I second Summer and her supportive and wise words and take my own comfort from them. Most of the time this balancing act of faith and questioning is scary and hard for me. I have so many of the same questions that you have, about myself and my intersection with others at church. I don’t have my own children, but I currently teach sunday school to the youth. I love those kids – truly – but I do not know how best to “teach” them when I am not sure what I believe myself (and especially at times when I DON’T believe the lesson manual). Sandra, I know what you are saying, I feel that loneliness so often too. And I guess that means that neither you or I are completely alone in that.

    • Anne


      You speak eloquently about the inner struggles of a person striving to make thoughtful, responsible choices. You’re not alone. I am struggling in a very similar way.

      Where I live our new members tend to be black & always start out so eager. Given a few months or so, someone tells them about Brigham Young’s words concerning blacks and, eventually, they stop coming. This breaks my heart. I wish that the discussion was much more forthright from the beginning, instead of something they uncover months into their new membership. How disillusioning this must be!

      I truly crave an honest conversation minus all the guilt trips. I do believe that if something is true, closer inspection and hard questions will not destroy it, but make it even stronger in the end.

    • Lyle

      I sympathize with your plight. My decision to leave the Church was automatic once I realized I no longer believed it to be true. Your sharing has caused me to wonder if Joseph felt any similar feelings when he was considering his own religious quandaries prior to his first vision.

  22. I appreciate your statements on this subject because this is a topic I have often tried to ignore in my own spiritual life. I either just assume the crazy Joseph Smith stories are not true, or they have been twisted to sound more weird than they really are. I realize now that this is not the right approach to understanding and coming to terms with the history of my faith.

    It is good to accept that Joseph Smith was human. And instead of dismissing any stories that sound strange, I should actually learn about his life to find what the true facts are. Thanks for the book recommendations; they will help me with this. I’d already planned to read rough stone rolling but now I have two more I can add to my list!

  23. Porter

    Joanna, there is a lot packed into that little word “nevertheless.” To me the word “nevertheless” implies ignoring or overlooking the problems. I, for one, am not able to ignore all of those issues. They are too big. I cannot ignore the the fact that Joseph Smith married teenagers and people who were married to others at the time. I cannot ignore clearly made up the Book of Abraham out of whole cloth. If he made that up, what else did he make up? I cannot put my faith in this man. I cannot bear my testimony and state that I know him to be a prophet of god. Prophets of god do not use their positions of authority to sexually victimize teenagers by promising eternal salvation.

    • I guess since my ancestors during that period, who were not Mormon and several were definitely involved in persecuting the early saints were married before the were sixteen, I am not shocked that Mormon girls were also married at that age. One of my ancestors, who outlived four husbands, was first married at fifteen to a man who was thirty seven. Her second husband was thirty one and she was nineteen when she married him. At twenty six she married a twenty eight year old, and at forty two she married a thirty seven year old.

  24. Studying Joseph Smith, warts and all, was difficult but in the end my testimony was strengthen. God chooses people who are willing to endure the persecution and maintain their love of God and compassion for their fellow man. That they are imperfect is comforting. As a teen in the Church, with a perception of a perfect prophet, I was very uncomfortable that I was so imperfect. The truth, no matter what, is always best. Today, I focus on the Savior and the Gospel, it is the truth. People are just that people and flawed. Joseph was flawed but still succeed in establishing The Church of Jesus Christ. The Will of God will be done.

  25. Wendy

    Where do the lies end and the truth begin??? How can you determine that? And does a prophet of God lie sometimes and tell the truth sometimes??

  26. Brother Benjamin

    I have often been confounded by the offence many take in the idea of seer-stones, polygamy (Even with a consenting teen in a century when teens were considered both culturally and legally as adults and perfectly capable to make their own decisions regarding marriage.) and many of the other aspects of Joseph Smith’s epic life. I first learned of the seer-stone in my family home evenings as a child. I loved the idea, and it still carries profound meaning and symbolism to me. A stone in a hat? YES! a thousand times yes! Isn’t this the most wonderous story? I cannot understand how anyone would find this anything less than inspiring. The world, all of it, even the stones, is filled with the power and glory of He who created it! God gives us all the chance to experience his power. This is the promise and perfection of mormonism to me.
    Polygamy? why the heck not? I believe in the right of every person to marry whomever they choose! If they believe in homosexuality, then that is their right! If Joseph Smith had a religious view that included the idea that God is a polygamist, and that we will find the greatest possible joy and purpose in living as he does, and that we can grow our families to include many people, as our love grows, then I appauld him for having the courage and love to do so! If only more people had his unbounded love and imagination for what is possible, the world would be a much better place. It is Fanny Alger’s right to marry Joseph Smith, just as much as it is the right of any person to make their own marriage decisions for themself. Sadly this marriage only lasted a few years, but is that not the fate of many marriages?
    I love all the stories of Joseph Smith’s life, and all of them are instructive to me, uplifting, and strengthen my testimony that he was indeed a man of God.

    • B Roberts

      “Polygamy? why the heck not?” Brother Benjamin I suspect that if you were a woman you wouldn’t be so flippant about polygamy! How do you think it is for faithful LDS women to know that if they live as righteously as is humanly possible, and are deemed worthy to enter the Celestial Kingdom that they will have to share their husbands with other sisters?? That’s the big reward we women have to look forward to in the eternities!! Maybe by the time we are perfected enough to make it to the Celestial Kingdom we will be okay with it, but for myself, right now, seeing with only my finite eyes,it doesn’t sit well! So I just wish you men in the church had a little more understanding of what a difficult principle this is for LDS women….a little less flippancy would be appreciated!

    • Lyle

      I am amazed at your seemingly boundless tolerance, including “homosexuality…[or] the idea that God is a polygamist.” Without some standard of truth and goodness, belief in and acceptance of anything is possible. Maybe our heavenly parents got a divorce and God got custody; that would explain why we don’t hear much of or from her. Or maybe God is homosexual; why the heck not? Myself, I am very comfortably reconciled to not knowing, since there is no reliable alternative. However, I do hold dear the standard of truth I was taught as a Mormon for 55 years. When I realized the Church and its founders were in conflict with that standard, I sadly left the fold and relinquished my membership. That was four years ago, and I have no regrets.

  27. Amanda Foreman-Young

    I dealt with it by being totally honest with myself. There came to be a point where I realized that the God of Joseph Smith was not my God by any means. None of this was due to any “anti”-Mormon literature but rather what I learned about the church on my own, mostly from historical church sources, and from reading the Bible. However, I still do not appreciate those who would attack Joseph Smith like N.Y. boy did up there. The man will always have a place in my heart, as I love him and Brigham Young fiercely, but in my own strange way. But they will never be to me what they are to anybody still devoted to the church.

    During my lifetime I’ve come to realize that some of the most charismatic people I’ve met are the most deceptive. Under the sparkle, they are terribly flawed humans as we are but with a protective layer they maintain so that others think highly of them, and will take them at their word. Sometimes the sparkle is hiding secrets and manipulations for selfish gain. This is now how I see Joseph Smith. And if I choose to compare him to what the Bible says a Prophet should be, he does not line up. And I can no longer use the typical church demand that I believe that part of the Bible was not translated correctly.

    In other words Joseph Smith was not who he claimed to be. I believe, had he been around in this day in time, that he would be comparable to any evangelist you see on the television, if not stranger.

    He was a poor boy from a poor family, extremely intelligent (though uneducated), and he found a way to create and build this faith that was ever-changing ever-evolving. I think it turned into much more than he had originally intended for it to. From this we do not get a “true” church. In fact, I don’t believe there ever was one true church, one true faith, or that the Spirit of God ever left those that sought it. This is where religion becomes one of the greatest dividers of people.

    Instead of admitting his flaws, his adultery, his weakness for women, Joseph came up with a convenient revelation to explain away his misdeeds. This is not very becoming of a man of God. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a pedophile as what he was doing was not illegal at the time. It was only in the past century that 18 became the age of consent. And we can sit and say, “But look at all he went through for what he believed in”. But I can also think of people I’ve known who would rather be beaten to death before admitting their dishonesty. These are the basic traits of somebody that may be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He was sick but utterly fascinating.

    And the fascination that is easy to find with him is most likely why so many people followed him. He gave them something special to believe in; he made them feel as if he was letting them in on his little secret through his direct line to the heavens.

  28. Carole

    I read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Bible a few years ago, and she talks about how some biblical scholars have taught that the principle of charity is the key to understanding controversial or difficult passages within the Bible – that the most correct interpretation of any scripture is the most charitable. Since we know through the Holy Spirit that God is Love, the correct interpretation of any scripture is the interpretation that confirms that truth.

    I tend to take the same approach to understanding Joseph Smith. The historical record can’t tell us his motivations for a lot of (any of?) the things he did and said, but if I know through the Holy Spirit that he was a prophet of God, I can be comfortable interpreting his actions and teachings in the most charitable possible way. That’s not to say he was never wrong, but I believe that he was close enough often enough that God was able to use him to restore His church.

    As a people, we Mormons tend not to be comfortable with ambiguity. I think this will need to change in order for us to really come face to face with some of the most troubling and interesting aspects of our history and theology.

  29. CK

    Love this. And thank you for the few references to new reads. I sure enjoy this adventure in religion.

  30. Helena

    The church JS founded relies fully on the claim that he saw god and Jesus in the grove. If this story isnt true, then it is based on a lie. A lie that continues to be told over and over. The church JS founded discriminates women, blacks and homosexuals. However many lovely experiences it gives you as an individual, i see no reason to continue being part of it, once realizing that the claim is false. I rather view it as every enlightened individual’s responsibility to resign and make sure the lie does not spread

  31. Rae King

    Very interesting. Going on the premise that God did call Joseph, I can’t help but wonder if some of the angst over the imperfections comes from the question of why God would allow someone doing these things to continue in the role of God’s Prophet. And, if God did call Joseph and put up with these things, does that mean that God is currently putting up with imperfections is his present leaders?

  32. Beth

    I was raised in a very conservative LDS family, one of 7 children, and had a father who served as bishop for seven years. David O. McKay was the prophet, seer, and revelator when I was a teenager. I went to early morning seminary every day, attended BYU, married in the temple, and raised my own 4 children strictly in the faith.

    When my children were very young, my then husband, who was attending BYU, became “friends” with Hugh Nibley and was shown special locked up stashes in the BYU library where one could learn about the ‘real’ Joseph Smith, and the real history of such things as the Mountain Meadow Massacre. My husband would come home, after spending hours with these documents, and speaking with members of the faculty. He was told by faculty members that they would deny it all if he implicated them in any conversations outside of their private offices. My husband was very distraught and needed to talk to me. I listened, but could not take it all in. It was too upsetting to realize that my entire religious life could be based on fabricated, embellished, or watered down history.
    I wrote to Boyd K Packer for answers, (before I realized what a flawed man he was!). I sent him a photo of our beautiful little family and asked for help in resolving “The Problem” that was tearing apart our happy eternal home! I wanted to know what was real. We got a call from his secretary, inviting us to come to SLC to meet with him. Unfortunately, we had just moved out of state and could not afford to make the trip. We were left on our own to flounder with all this historical knowledge that didn’t fit in with the ‘beautiful, spiritual story’ that we were being fed, every Sunday, in every publication, in every lesson manual, in every talk from from the pulpit. This was during the 1970’s. I don’t know if there even was a Sunstone or any other forum for delving into these issues at that time.
    Long story short: My husband became mentally ill and abusive. We divorced. I was left to raise my children alone with no child support. My children were great kids, and put themselves through college. The eldest daughter got degrees in Philosophy and Women’s studies. I learned along with her, because I typed all her papers for her. The Mormon Curtain that had clouded my vision for so many years finally parted! For the first time, I could see clearly, and what I saw broke my heart. I found that religion was not laughable at all. It was SAD! I had to leave to have any sense of peace in my life. Best decision I have ever made…other than getting a divorce. I’m sad for my ex husband who could never reconcile his anguish. He took his own life last year.

    I was sad for many years that the plan of salvation I grew up believing was not real. But I am very happy and at peace now. I have absolutely no need for living within a system that has to be explained away to make it ok. I am still a member of record but only because my mother is still living and it would hurt her too much if I left officially. She would find out. Somehow, she was notified by someone ‘official’ when her granddaughter, my daughter, had her name removed. My children still get contacted, even though they have married, changed their names, moved around. I wonder what kind of internal secret service the Church has that they can do this?! After many requests, I am finally happy to report that the RS visiting teachers are finally leaving me alone! That only took 15 years!
    Even though my story is not unique, I appreciate reading that I am not alone. I do also appreciate that there are those who can continue to find what is “lovely or of good report” within the religious community known as Mormonism, and more power to them if they can!

    • Lyle

      This is a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing. You should, someday, write it down in full. I’m sure it would be an inspiration to many.

  33. F.C. Levski

    Once again Joanna Brooks intellectualizes her way to the truth but by doing so misses the entire point of Mormonism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You can research the life of Joseph Smith to death and decide whether or not you like him, hate him, or fall somewhere in the middle. But researching and reading about Smith doesn’t make the church true.

    Mormonism rises or falls on personal revelation. Those who are investigating the church are encouraged to pray for their own answers. It’s something that members need to be encouraged to do more often. Some people may get an answer in the affirmative while others may come to the opposite conclusion after much thought and prayer but the key to a testimony of Smith and the church comes down to this one simple doctrine. I’ve read a lot about Smith’s life and can honestly say that, like all people, he was a complicated man. But learning the good and the bad about Smith didn’t make me believe he was a prophet of God. Rather that is based on my own personal prayers and revelation. Finding how to communicate with God and discover for oneself the truth is the essence of Mormonism and that’s something that Brooks completely overlooks.

    Yes, Brooks is correct that it’s better that the history of men like Smith come from family instead of an internet search gone wrong. But when I’ll tell my kids about the seer stones and other details that make Smith more human, I’ll end it with them to do their own research and form their own testimony of the gospel. Without that crucial piece of information it doesn’t matter if members know the whitewashed (official) version or the more human one. If they aren’t taught to find the truth for themselves, they’ll simply be tossed to and fro by whatever person or group has the most influence on them instead of discovering the truth for themselves.

  34. Jeremiah J.

    I think Joanna has given a fine answer to the question. One of the best pieces of reading I’ve seen on this question is Richard Bushman’s journal of his book tour for RSR, entitled On the Road with Joseph Smith. I’ve not seen anyone reflect so seriously on the interaction between historical investigation and one’s own religious allegiance to prophets. Bushman records some very good exchanges with church members who contacted him about parts of his book that troubled them.

    A few of my thoughts on this question: 1) Putting the blame on an idealized version of Joseph won’t quite do, I think. There are plenty of simplistic, unreflective views of what prophecy is (“rocks in a hat? that’s weird”) and who Joseph Smith was, and often the ones that claim to explode the naive faithful view are the most simplistic of all. The upshot of this is that if one wants to transcend these received, narrow conceptions there is no substitute for the difficult task of grappling with the key questions about Joseph or any prophet. I think there is probably no “real story” one could tell in Sunday school that would allow us to avoid this task, and I don’t follow the argument that people would be fine hearing at age 12 what they couldn’t get over at 24. Moreover, simply abandoning one’s former beliefs because something contradicts them on some point is about as lazy as refusing to listen to any contrary argument. I’m still surprised to meet people who have become disaffected after hearing the “real story” who actually haven’t read much of the historical debate. They got a few inches deep in uncomfortable details and stopped inquiring.

    2) One should think deeply about the range of motivations and ways of seeing things that could lie behind the choices Joseph and his followers made. This does not mean letting go of all moral judgment upon purported messengers of God, let alone historical figures in general. But it does mean adopting a more sophisticated kind of judgment that sees that the range of decent or redeemable of human relationships might not correspond exactly to the norms of the United States in 2012. I think one thing that helps is living in another country for an extended period of time, especially one seen by Americans as backward. Another thing that helps is reading more history.

    This is especially important in the case of polygamy. I think faithful Mormons can come to different conclusions about Joseph’s polygamy and polygamy in general. But I hope people can entertain the idea that the complicated kinds of relationships Joseph had were in fact examples of authentic love (rather than the mere satisfaction of “manly desires”), even if the institutions in which they existed are not ones we fully approve of. It’s apparently possible to be uncritically, hastily scandalized by someone else’s relationship, even from a modern, liberal view of sexuality. There’s probably no safe standpoint from which our gut reactions are an unfailing guide.

    I love the prophet Joseph. I don’t love his flaws, but I feel some sympathy for them, because they seem to flow from the incredibly hard tasks that he believed himself called to fulfill. In that way he strikes me as similar to other great spiritual leaders I admire, for whom we have solid historical facts. A lot of people today rail against individualism and selfishness. He actually tried to transcend them, and struggled with all the implications of that attempt. For me among his greatest qualities is the intensity of feeling he had for his friends and family. He reported visions of heaven and yet he was the opposite of an isolated mystic. If I were somehow transported to his time, place and company, I admit I’d be in for quite a shock, but that might be be as much my problem as his.

  35. charles rivera

    When I left the church in early 2000 it was because of the doctrine of polygamy. As a female, I felt revulsion towards this disgusting teaching, having been a child whose father had an affair and a family with another woman while still married to my mother. And continued the relationship all throughout his membership. I could no longer pretend to be ‘okay’ with sharing any future husband I might have with another or, worse, being ‘sealed’ to a man I did not know and play the part of good ‘sister wife’ to his harem. If God truly valued free agency, he would never have instituted this. I feel for the teens whose family’s salvation was held hostage and were thus coerced into secret marriage to Joseph Smith (I hope Brother Benjamin above realize that those teens were not consenting).
    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I notice that there are more males than females who give praise to the man who instituted polygamy in the LDS church. And for good reason: they benefit more from this teaching than the women.
    As for using the word ‘flaws’ to describe the craftiness and cunning of Joseph Smith… I’m sorry but being socially inept is a flaw, and so are lack of patience and having Tourettes syndrome. But scheming behind your wife’s back to coerce teens and married women into your boudoir is not merely a ‘flaw”, it’s a sign of a diabolical mind.
    It now all boils down to whether LDS care if these things matter or not. Because when you ask a member about polygamy, almost to a man, they will reply “oh, that’s all in the past”, a hiccup of history”, ignoring all the women who silently suffered, and the thousands if not tens of thousands of progeny.

  36. Polly

    It seems to me that everyone is forgetting that the Urim and Thummim, the set of stones bound by silver bows into a breastplate, were supposed to have been used to translate the plates, and were supposedly buried with the plates for that purpose. Why are you all so readily accepting that Smith could just side step God’s instructions, set aside the instruments designed for that purpose, and instead use a stone he found, drop it in a hat, as was the magic superstition of the day, and you all call it good?

    • William Clayton

      Comments and diary records of those that worked with Joseph Smith during the translation process indicate that he used the Urim and Thummim only during the translation of the first 116 pages, which were lost. For the Book of Mormon that we have now, Smith reportedly used a seer stone. And for later translation works including the Books of Abraham, Moses, and the Bible, he used no translation aids such as the Urim and Thummim or seer stone. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard L. Bushman theorized that the more comfortable Joseph Smith became with the revelatory process, the less he needed props to facilitate revelation.

  37. Rough Stone Rolling is a heavily biased book, only one coat of whitewash lighter than what is taught across the pulpit. Here’s a link to a deconstruction of sorts to Bushman’s book:

  38. William Clayton

    God has never required perfection from his prophets. Moses killed a man. Abraham fathered a child with his wife’s maid. Many ancient prophets were bloodied warriors, hardly Gandhi-esque cheek-turning pacifists. Jonah was a disobedient coward. John the Baptist seems like a smelly mad hermit living in the desert eating bugs. Peter cut a man’s ear off and lied about his association with Christ three times. The apostles sometimes quarreled like a group of old hens and in the hour their Savior needed their support the most, they fell asleep. And so on. Who knows what other flaws these and other prophets possessed that have been omitted by historians who, like modern LDS church leaders, want to put things in the best possible light.

    Joseph Smith was a rough and tumble product of his time. If he was the polite shrinking violate that modern people expect from religious leaders, he would not have long survived. After all, the people who were trying to put his head in a noose were the fathers of ultra violent lawless “folk heroes” such as the James and Younger brothers.

    Personally, I like Joseph Smith much better now knowing more of his personal history. He is three dimensional, real, and much more relatable for me. Unfortunately you have to wade through the official soft-focus portrayals put forth by the Mormon church and sort out the salacious innuendo and libels that anti-Mormons as so quick to accept as established fact.

    How Joseph implemented the practice of polygamy, of course, is the most troubling aspect. It certainly was for many early church stalwarts including Oliver Cowdry, Emma Smith, and just about everyone with the surname Whitmer. For that matter, Joseph’s mishandling of the matter was also a problem for the Lord, as is evident in multiple condemnations of Joseph that appear in revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. Nonetheless, while Cowdry, Emma and the Whitmers broke with the church over polygamy, none of them renounced the divinity of the Book of Mormon or denied that Joseph was a prophet of God.

    In the final analysis, I believe that in judging Joseph as a prophet we must evaluate his output – the scripture he wrote/translated/revealed, the fulfillment of his prophesies, and the organization he established. Does reading the Book of Mormon draw you closer to Christ? Is the church spreading throughout the world as he prophesied? Is the church as a whole a force for good in the world? If the answer to these are yes, then he must be a prophet even if he doesn’t conform to whatever robe-wearing meditative prophet construct you have in your head.

    • Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading your comment. If feels good knowing I’m in the same boat–that somehow, learning about Joseph Smith (warts and all) actually makes me like him MORE.

    • Porter

      If only it was as simple as all that! You state: “Does reading the Book of Mormon draw you closer to Christ? Is the church spreading throughout the world as he prophesied? Is the church as a whole a force for good in the world? If the answer to these are yes, then he must be a prophet.”

      Really? I’ve read lots of books that draw me closer to Christ, including wonderful books by non-Mormon authors and LDS authors who are not general authorities (yes, they do exist). Does that make them scripture? Does that make their authors prophets? The “Work and the Glory” series was inspiring, does that mean Gerald Lund is a prophet? And I have to say that the Seventh Day Adventist church is definitely a “force for good in the world” so that means Ellen White was a prophetess, right?

      Although the Church is growing, its not the fastest growing church by any stretch, and the growth numbers are inflated. How many of the 14 million members are actually active or even alive? Well, the church won’t say so we don’t know.

      The church needs more people like you, Brother Clayton. They’re the only ones who stay.

      • William Clayton

        You are comparing apples to oranges. None of the books you refer to purport to be scripture, delivered by means of claimed prophetic inspiration. Are C.S. Lewis’ books filled with great wisdom and provide insight into the nature of man and God? Absolutely. Was he divinely inspired? Perhaps. Did he claim his books were revealed to him by the power of God? Did he claim to be a prophet? Did he claim that his writings were scripture? No, no and no.

        Ellen White may have been a prophetess, to use the term broadly. While the LDS faith claims to be the only true church, meaning the only one with legitimate priesthood authority, it does not claim exclusive rights to divine revelation or goodness.

        Jesus clearly taught how we are to judge if someone is a prophet (Matt 7):
        15 ¶Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
        16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
        17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
        18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
        19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
        20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

        If Joseph Smith was a false prophet (corrupt tree), the church he created would have been corrupt (evil fruit). As I see it, the LDS church motivates and inspires its membership to do good works: to love their families, their neighbors, perform acts of service, etc. I know of no practice that the church teaches its members to do that could be considered “evil.”

        This is a fact that is often acknowledged by critics of the church. They say, “The Mormons I know are hard working, clean living, moral people, but Joseph Smith was con man and a pedophile.” By the Luke 7 standard, both sides of this argument cannot be true.

        I indicated that the church has and is spreading around the world as was prophesied. I made no representation regarding how fast or large the church was growing. But I will point out that the numbers that the church reports for membership are quite literal: number of living members that are baptized plus their children under the age of 8. In recent years more than 250,000 converts are baptized and more than 100,000 children are born into the church. When they die, are excommunicated, or request to have their names removed from church records, they are subtracted from the total. The church does not hide this. They voluntarily report to the U.S. Religious Census. And activity rates can be obtained by groups like The Pew Forum on Religion & Religious Life (see U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, and look under Comparisons for Frequency of Attendance at Religious Services).

      • Some of the discussion in this thread has followed a kind of “yes, but” theme in which faith provides a detour around logic and leads to a desired “nevertheless” state in which LDS is separated from its founder’s unfortunate “complications.” William Clayton (on July 30) tries instead to takes the bull more by the horns, but his faulty logic is, basically: some non-Mormons say that some Mormons “are hard-working, clean living, moral people,” so therefore the founder of Mormonism cannot have been a “con man and a pedophile.” Sorry, but the bar for logic is much higher than that. Ultimately Clayton’s argument adds up to an interdependency flaw: “the fruit of the tree is good, so the tree is good, which confirms that the fruit of the tree is good.”

        In fact, many “critics of the church” would say that simplistically judging Mormons negatively would be wrong, but evidence of a problem is seen in both tree and fruit. I would be more specific about the nature of that problem, but rejections of previous posts indicate the gate is not open for that just yet.

    • “God has never required perfection from his prophets,” writes William Clayton. Actually, the imperfection of previous prophets is a judgment based on current standards. The Bible’s writers portrayed a deity to be feared, an “Old Testament God,” whose prophets were not expected to be gentle or decent, at least not as we now understand those values.

      In fact, the Bible established what we now see as a very low bar for prophets, and by those primitive standards Smith did qualify, but isn’t that logic rather absurd and pathetic for Mormon apologists? From our current, more humane vantage point, we can look back and reject not only Smith, but also Moses, Abraham, etc. There have always been at least some people of solid moral character available, so what sort of God wouldn’t do a little character vetting before selecting a spokesperson?

      No, the Bible doesn’t save Smith, rather re-evaluating Smith begs the larger question of what to do with the whole inconsistent, irrational, irreconcilable Judeo-Christian belief system. So if an unflinching look at a flawed founder leaves Mormonism resting on shaky ground, perhaps there is some comfort in seeing that the problem is not an exception.

    • a Friend

      I feel exactly the same way, William. Thank you for putting it so well. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the new information I learned about the restored Church in RRS and other sources, I have to say that it didn’t seem to shake my faith in Jesus Christ, nor that this was His Church. We are indeed, all of us, human, including prophets. Learning more about Joseph’s humanity made him more real to me, more dimensional, more tangible. I felt closer to him knowing that I could handle the fact that his life, his world, his choices were – in a word – complicated.

      As for the other inexplicable (even absurd-sounding) phenomena? I think of what Paul said: “for now we see through a glass, darkly.” I too have prayed to make peace with all I’ve heard and read. And I can’t help but feel that there is purpose in the fact that many of these not-so-lovely flaws in our leaders, in our Church’s history, are only now beginning to emerge with more gusto because this is the time for it.

      I’m willing to believe that certain information was held back for a reason, and not with the intent to deceive, cover up or mislead the LDS masses. Perhaps there is a time and season to these things. I wonder if perhaps the time for the Brethren to incorporate this part of our history into mainstream, Sunday School discussion, is coming. I wonder if this is the time men and women have to get off the fence. This is a refiner’s fire, this is faith in action. This is when all of us have to choose for ourselves, especially now when the view appears its murkiest.

      For me, the answer was to accept that I do not understand all things now. History is sometimes fragmented, sometimes spot-on accurate, and sometimes we don’t know which is which. For now, I see through a glass darkly. I can’t rely on the accounts. I rely upon my real-time, custom communication with God, my personal conversations with Him about these things. And from those ponderings, I know that I love the prophet Joseph, and honor him (flawed and imperfect as he was) as the Prophet of the Restoration.

      • Liss

        I am rather amazed by the “you have a logical fallacy here” debates. Amazed because the underlying assumption is that scripture – if there is such a thing – conforms to prescribed logical parameters. The origins of “logical” thought are derived from philosophers whose prima facie belief was that all in the world is comprehensible from the basic senses. If not comprehensible from this level it does not exist. Scripture falls manifestly outside that thought bubble. In fact, so do viruses. Yet because we have now seen viruses, because they can be made visible we believe in them. Or rather because sources which we are willing to credit have now seen them and reported on them we believe in them. This, of course, is precisely the argument that those who are religious base their faith upon: namely, that they find a source to be sufficiently credible to believe what is said. Or in other words “we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God”.

        Of course, suppose that you find the source to not be credible? That’s the argument here, right? That when you learn “the truth” about Joseph Smith he is not a credible source. If you learn that he had headaches from using the Urim & Thummim and asked the Lord if he might use a different seerstone and the Lord agreed, does that make the Book of Mormon less credible? If you learn that very little is known about Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger does that make him less credible? If you learn that his Mother stood by him, and his wife stood by him, does that make him less credible? If you learn about who left the Church, does that make him less credible? Obviously, for some people such things do make him less credible. For others they make him more human, but not less credible.

      • Well said, Liss. I, for one, do not find these “shocking discoveries” to make Joseph Smith any less credible.

  39. Matt

    “As for using the word ‘flaws’ to describe the craftiness and cunning of Joseph Smith… I’m sorry but being socially inept is a flaw, and so are lack of patience and having Tourettes syndrome. But scheming behind your wife’s back to coerce teens and married women into your boudoir is not merely a ‘flaw”, it’s a sign of a diabolical mind.”
    – Polly

    Well said. I was born and raised Baptist myself, somewhat practicing currently. The problem I had with the Baptist (or Christian faith, for that matter,) is virtually the same that has been discussed in several of the comments here: I was fed up with every inconsistency and flaw I pointed out being waved away as “in the past” or otherwise just brushed aside like it makes no difference. Instead everyone chooses to focus on why we have the superior religion despite the blatant black marks across the Church’s history.

    I’ve always maintained that the followers who refuse to acknowledge/explain the atrocities are the ones who are too insecure in their faith to risk uncovering something they can’t handle. But hey, that’s just me. (Opinions, opinions!)

  40. NANCY

    As a non-LDS, I’ve wondered how to reconcile the stories heard about Joseph Smith which make him seem to have been a charlatan with the fact that the LDS faith seems to be filled with a lot that is good and true. I’m sure that LDS communities are filled with falliable people like any other community and are prey to all of the issues inherent in human weaknesses, but my experience with LDS people have made me feel that they are better at ‘loving one another’ than most.

    When I was growing up, our house seemed to be a regular pit stop for the Mormon missionaries. As kids, we always joked that the LDS used my mom’s house as a training ground for the new missionaries. We seemed to get a lot of them over the years. My mother, a staunch atheist, was always willing to debate biblical points with them and she knew the bible better than almost anyone. The conversations were always polite and friendly, but my mother was not to be convinced. Once she was in her 50’s, she began having strokes – losing ability after ability until she got to the point where she could no longer walk or speak and could communicate only by writing her thoughts out into spiral notebooks. As she deteriorated, her handwriting got harder to read. She became more and more bitter and friends and family (including her mother and siblings) stopped visiting or communicating – they found it too ‘upsetting’. The Mormons kept coming. No longer able to debate with her, they sat and prayed with her, talked to her, took the time to read her clumsily written thoughts, brought her books and treats, sent groups of young adults out to weed her yard and made her feel less alone. As far as I could tell, by the end there was no drive to convert her, they just stayed with her and that is the best gift that she could have been given at that point in her life. I don’t know what her beliefs were by the end because eventually she lost even the ability to write, but I like to think that maybe some of the conversations over the years finally took hold and that she had the solace of some level of faith at the end.

    My mom has been gone for more than 10 years now and I’ve never forgotten how good the LDS were to her. It was really good to read this piece which states so clearly what I think I’ve known all along – whatever is true about Joseph Smith (and I don’t know enough haven’t to make any judgements) the religion he founded is full of a lot that is good, loving and true.

  41. mike

    While attending BYU I learned of almost every challenge to Joseph Smith and the Church that we continue to see carted out again and again. I had a small evening class with David Whittaker in which we discussed the issues surrounding the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon, race, polygamy, etc. He pulled no punches and he never told us how to think or what position was the correct one. He challenged us and I think we are all better for it.

    I spent an entire semester down in the special collections researching a term paper concerning the origins of the Mormon endowment. About this time, I stopped in to see Professor Whittaker and asked him why some members who had a great knowledge of the restored gospel had left the Church. He gave his answer in the form of a question. He said, “whenever you’re studying complex issues concerning the Church, are you still studying your scriptures, or have you stopped?” His question makes an excellent point. First, if we have questions about Joseph Smith, shouldn’t we be reading the Book of Mormon while engaged in our study of him? It is, of course, his signature achievement. If it falls, so does he. If it is what he claims it to be, then something miraculous has occurred.

    Second, if we are earnestly seeking an answer to a question that affects our relationship with God, should we not involve Him in our study, whether through prayer or other appropriate means? I personally would argue that it is through God that some of the answers to these complex issues will come about (although some come after long periods of thought, study, growing up, and experiencing life). It was when I was studying the complex origins of the Mormon endowment , for example, that I developed such a strong love for and belief in the work performed in temples. It is no coincidence that I was also a temple ordinance worker at the time. I never would have developed the understanding of the temple that I have if I had just carried out my research while reading issues of Dialogue, a bevy of books published by Signature (some useful, others not so much), old journals, and yellowed newspapers. It was when I tested my faith through actions that answers and understanding came. After all, Joseph once famously noted that faith is an action word.

    • While I agree with many of the fine points you make, I want to enter a small protest to the idea that people only leave the church when they have lost their testimony by failing to read the scriptures. This is simply not true. Many people leave the church with the fire of the covenant burning brightly in their hearts. They simply are cast out because their broader understanding of the gospel is no longer welcome in a church organization that welcomes only the milk, only allows whitewashed histories, and is offended by the meatier doctrines of the fullness of the gospel. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance between the gospel, and the culture and policies of the church becomes too great. sometimes a comment slips out in sunday school that is too advanced for the rank and file to understand, and so they are ostracised, or excommunicated.
      I for one love the Gospel. I am a retired seminary teacher, I have been a temple ordinace worker for years, and yet I am preparing to send in a letter of resignation of my membership in the church. This is not because I am going apostate. I also read my scriptures and pray more now than at any other time in my life, it is necessary because it is the church that is going apostate. The ordiances and doctrines are in flux in the church, and the revisionist history is just the tip of the iceburg. This is in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that we have “changed the ordinaces” and thus “broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:5) The work of God will go forward in spite of apostasy within and without the church. If you want to know more I’ll happily share with you. GospelFullness (at) Gmail .com (No Spaces, use @)
      But the bottom line is that many of those who have left the church who have done in depth research are not leaving because they have lost their testimonies, many leave because they will not deny their testimonies to satisfy the members and leaders of the church who would rather they had not learned to think for themselves.

  42. Munga

    I’ve dealt with it by deciding what seems to me to be the obvious answer: that the truth must lie in the harmonizing of all the information we have. People seem to be sorting “bad” Joseph things from “good” Joseph things. If he was a a prophet, all the things were “acceptable-to-God” Joseph things. This has been freeing to me. I no longer feel bound to imagine a dichotomous world where men marry women like a bud puts out petals. Joseph was active in many marriages that were non-traditional, including those where the other men continued to live with the woman Joseph also married. And God was ok with this. This causes me to ask, “What does God think of our relationships? What is important in a good relationship?” God certainly wants children to be raised with many loving adults, given chances to grow, and then to explore, and even change, over a lifetime, just as Joseph did. Once I realized that WE were the people boxing Joseph’s example into our rigid mores and not God at all, I’ve been much happier.

    • SG

      How do you know that God was ok with this? It seems dangerous to assume that just because you believe JS was a prophet then God is automatically ok with the things (marrying underage girls, taking other men’s wives, etc) he did.

      • Munga


        Do you have a reason to believe that God disavowed the prophet? Consider that Joseph’s first super-marital interaction (if you discount the earlier, less supported reports of adultery when Joseph and Emma were very newly married) was near the time of the Kirtland Temple dedication, at which time many important keys were “dispensed” to Joseph.

      • Munga

        Remember also that God had no trouble expressing His displeasure with Joseph. Joseph failed to heed an answer one time too many and some totally redundant 116 pages of the BOM were lost (we learn later that pretty much all the story is repeated so it didn’t matter that they were lost) and for that God darkened Joseph’s interactions for a whole, lonely season.

        Either God is ok with what Joseph was doing and Joseph was a prophet, or God was not ok with what Joseph was doing and Joseph was not a prophet, beyond the first vision and BOM translation.

      • It’s a very good point and a good question to ask, SG. I would only add to this my own thinking, which is that some allowances need to be made for cultural relativism. “Underage” in 2012 means something different from the mid-nineteenth century. As for marrying other men’s wives, well, that’s another and more complicated topic.

        But I’ll leave here something I’ve found that explores the evolution of the “age of consent” in our laws & customs:

        Just raises the question: if someone write an all-caps email to AMG, saying “JOSEPH SMITH MARRIED SIXTEEN YEAR-OLDS ARRRGH” maybe that person has a certain agenda, and is deliberately using rhetoric meant to inflame/manipulate, because to us, in 2012, “underage” means something very sinister and criminal. (If you follow politics at all, you know the campaigns are very clever and deliberate in their use of language for the exact same reason).

        Cultural relativism is a two-edged sword!

      • Liss

        For the “taking other men’s wives” aspect. I found these articles thorough:

        “Zina and Her Men: An Examination of the Changing Marital State of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young” by Allen L. Wyatt

        “The Joseph Smith-Sylvia Sessions Plural Sealing: Polyandry or Polygyny?” by Brian C. Hales

        Click to access HALES-final.pdf

  43. Founding a religion is like making sausages. A lot of nasty ingredients you’d rather not know about go into them. You just hope they get through the end of the process tasting good.
    Personally, I believe that Joseph Smith was given JUST enough divine inspiration to get the church off the ground. Same with Brigham Young. Same with every prophet (of old and latter-day). Mistakes were (and no doubt still are) made. You just hope that the next guy will be at some point be able to receive the inspiration to put it right.

    • I must say I like your analogy and agree with you completely. Joseph Smith was a divine prophet and got the church organized and going. He had his faults just like everyone else in the world. No one is immune from that. But I do still believe he was chosen of God to be the prophet and organize the church like he did.

  44. Fanny A.

    With all of this talk of Joseph’s shady side, especially with regards to his taste for teenagers, I am very interested in hearing mormons’ justifications for sending their teens to confess their sexual behaviors to the untrained men of their local bishoprics. Are there no Mormon parents that cringe at the very thought of asking their children to expose themselves to grown men? Maybe this could be Joanna’s next AMG post.

    • Beth

      I sure would like to see somebody address this, if not Joanna. My own experience as a parent was horrific. Right in the midst of ending my (temple) marriage of 24 years, my 15 yr old daughter, who had suffered greatly from physical abuse from her father (not sexual, but corporal), in her yearly interview with the bishop, confessed to him that she had had sex with a boy. He asked her if she had enjoyed it, and she said yes. His response was to tell her that he had no choice but to call her up before a group of the priesthood (men) who would decide if she should remain a member of the church or not. They would probably call for her excommunication. She told me she was very concerned about having to stand before a group of men, and the bishop told her he would be calling me to discuss the date.
      I was appalled and disgusted at this ridiculous and absurd decision on the bishop’s part, and I assured my daughter that she would NEVER be subjected to that. That was only one of many nails in the church coffin for me.

      • Jacie

        Beth you should outraged! That is NOT the official stance of the church and that bishop needs to be put straight. PLEASE inform your stake president of your bishops behavior. The only way your daughters sex life would be discussed infront of the stake high council or even with the rest of the bishopbric would be if her sex partner was not a minor himself. And in that case the excommunication would be for the partner but NOT her. The church only excommunicates people for having sex with someone other then their spouse if they had gone through the temple and reciveid their endowments. This is rediculous and disgusting. I have talked to my Father who has been a bishop twice, and a stake high councilmen several times; and my grandpa who has been a stake president and they both are just as disgusted as you and I are.
        This is not right, your bishop is clueless and needs to be told a thing or two. This is NOT the LDS church I know. Fellow readers please reply if you AGREE!

      • AJ

        Woah! yeah, that bishop is an idiot. please tell your stake president. your 15 year old is not qualified to go up against a displinary court over a sexual indiscression. If your stake president agrees with your bishop for some strange reason write a letter to your area authority. in my opinion your bishop should probably be released from his calling if he’s that off his rocker.

      • skeptikel

        When I was the YW’s president of my ward, several parents came to me asking me to stand up to the bishop for the way he was interrogating the youth in their interviews. Once their concern was brought to my attention I started noticing these young beautiful girls leaving his office in tears on Tuesday nights. My sister told me that this same bishop prefaced the beginning of her interview with, “I have a feeling you are going to tell me something I have never heard before.” She, thinking he had the power of discernment and would know if she withheld any information or lied, poured out every detail, racking her brain for some sin that would be worse than anyone else’s. His follow up questions: “What was the frequency?” Disgusting and perverted.

  45. Jason Bunting

    I’m a convert to the church of 16 years (joined when I was 22) and have had struggles with some of the things I learned about the church in subsequent years, but I’ve always come back to my testimony because of unique circumstances in my joining.

    Just some insight into a few things: regarding the various accounts of Joseph’s first vision, it doesn’t surprise me that there are multiple stories; my own sister, my only sibling, couldn’t even remember some of the significant portions of my own conversion story, even within a few years of it happening. That helps me fathom why those surrounding Joseph may remember parts of his story differently. Also, I told different people different parts of my story because there are some parts of it that are quite sacred to me, and don’t need to be told to everyone. Now, if you brought together everyone that has ever heard my story, they would find plenty of discrepancies, yet that doesn’t change the facts surrounding the event. Oh, and most people hear the “simplified version” of my story, because it’s easy to tell and gives them the basics – since I believe in my own story, there’s no reason to recite to everyone every single little detail of my story. It would be comical if they later said to me, “Oh, the story is much more complicated, therefore it is all a lie!!”

    Anyway, I could go on, but for me, it all boils down to…… You know it’s coming: faith. Now, for those of us brought-up in Western society, that just doesn’t work – we want to see proof or something resembling it. Well, that’s not how spiritual things work, strangely enough.

  46. Alan Arns

    Joseph Smith Jr. had and has a serious advantage over the LDS believers. He knew what the Bible said, what Christian denominations in the US were preaching and their core beliefs, such as the reality of Hell, Jesus being the one and only God, salvation being all or nothing, Heaven or Hell, that salvation was a free gift based on the finished work of Christ at Calvary, that grace AND works really means works because Christ’s grace cannot be added to, and God is a spirit who has never had a father (or mother). He knew all of this because of his upbringing and knew the Bible probably as well as anyone. He rejected it, all of it, then came up with his own doctrine. The LDS don’t have that option, they haven’t heard both sides the way Joseph had, therefore they really can’t make an informed decision. If anyone knows and understands the Bible, they could never be a Mormon. How many Christian scholars have switched to Mormonism? Zero. I know you want to categorize this as anti-Mormon information, but instead look for truth, no matter what the cost is. If it is true and anti-Mormon, then you know what your next move should be.

    • William Clayton

      My, you certainly think you know a lot about what I and other Mormons do and don’t know about the Bible. Contrary to your bigoted notion that Mormons are ignorant of the Bible and other religious beliefs, Pew Research recently published a U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey (28 September 2010) that showed that Mormons are more knowledgeable of the Bible and Christianity than any other population, on average 8.2% ahead of white evangelicals who scored second.

      (Comparison populations included white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, black Protestants, white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, Mormons, Jewish, unaffiliated, and atheist/agnostics.)

  47. Lauren Bean

    I have struggled with this same concept for the last 4 years. This and the whole Prop 8 fiasco (I am from CA) really turned my Mormon world upside down. I did grow up in a Sunstone/Dialogue family but it is not until recently that they have opened up more about this “other world” to the LDS faith. I do wish I had known about the Prophet Joseph Smith earlier in my youth. It may have better prepared me for the shock I was to recieve in my early 20’s that ultimately turned me away from the church.
    I am attending the Sunstone Symposium for the first time this next week and I hope to find some answers to the questions I have that the church can’t give me OR refuses to give me. Maybe it can restore my faith in the religion… hopefully.

  48. Nicely said! Having done some exploration of the real history (NOT from Deseret Book and NOT from ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons), my conclusion is much the same. Joseph Smith was a man, not a God. He is consistent with the changing times in America, incorporating some of the old ways (water witching, seerstones, pagan symbols) with new Christianity. I think that God would use the methods to teach me that are at my disposal, too. God could have used nothing at all, no stones, no plates, etc. He chose to use the tangible objects to help Joseph Smith connect to this world, I believe.

    Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about the polygamy issue. I’m still sorting that out. I know I don’t like it and I think there is a possibility that Joseph may have either misunderstood it completely or abused it. That said, it doesn’t change what he accomplished in the early ears of being a prophet. I believe he was a prophet of God and, in deep humility, translated the Book of Mormon, using the methods he was most comfortable using. I believe he organized the church in a manner that was most consistent with the church during Jesus Christ’s time.

    He was flawed. He was human. He was a pioneer with no precedent. He was deeply courageous and, at least in the early years, deeply humble as he received revelation and prophecy.

    I’m still evolving in my beliefs. I imagine he was still evolving as a person throughout his life.

    Another book I found quite enlightening is called “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith.” by Jane Brown.

    • mike

      Richard Bushman, in his wonderful little book, “On the Road with Joseph Smith,” offers a response to a letter he received expressing concern over Joseph’s marital history. His response, in part, is as follows: “I hope you write [the things you’re trying to work out]. One good way to begin is to write about the problem in its most acute form. What precisely bothers you about Fannie Alger and the later polyandry? What is so wrong about these relationships? Then work your way back from there. Speculate on how Joseph might have answered your criticisms. What did they look like from his point of view?”

  49. I wanted to thank you for such good insights, and for your emotional and spiritual honesty. Authenticity is the currency of the internet, and that’s clearly why you’re able to reach so many people.

    I especially liked this phrase: “I’m of the mind that people should learn complicated family stories from family, not from strangers.” It’s a very good way to put it. The burden is then on those of us in teaching and leadership positions to remain approachable, to not be ashamed, to embrace the complexity of the faith.

    Your post has gotten me thinking, though, about something that’s been in my mind for quite some time. To what degree are all of these dropouts/DAMU/apostates/meh Mormons products of a unique time and place? By which I mean, how much are we shaped by a post-Watergate American culture that is intensely suspicious of authority? McNamara and LBJ lied to our faces, on camera, for years, and the consequences of that, plus Nixonland, Iran-Contra, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, Valerie Plame, missing WMDs, etc. etc. have conditioned Americans to have a particular worldview. When you examine the faith of Mormons in other parts of the world, there is still faith in public institutions, and respect for authority. The social contract is intact, whereas here it is fraying. And so, do Japanese or Brazilian or Australian Mormons allow incidents in church history to derail their testimonies to the same degree we see in North America?

    I don’t doubt that people there have their struggles. Instead what I’m trying to address is this notion that Presidents McKay, Kimball, Benson, Hinckley, & Monson have all colluded to hide something from us, with a malicious intent to deceive us. It is this assignation of sinister motives that disturbs me, and which I believe is tied as much to social/cultural conditioning as it is to any “crisis of conscience” or what have you. It’s this disassociation that drives people out of the church, right? Joseph Smith wrote some incredibly eloquent things on the subjects of faith, charity, compassion, empathy, forgiveness. Subsequent church leaders have done the same. The Book of Mormon is a symphony of inspiring doctrine. Teachings from the standard works and homilies delivered at general conference are genuinely thrilling and inspiring. And then, as you say, in the dark of the night, someone encounters racist statements of church leaders from the past, or some literary critique of the scriptures (“they’re not ALL that great, you know”), or any one of thousands of proselytes who are eager and earnest and concerned for us deceived Mormons, etc. And that disconnect can indeed be painful for many to endure, and not everyone comes out of it a believing Mormon. I understand this process and have witnessed it many times. My main comment here is to draw attention to this phenomenon’s cultural origins. In the relatively carefree decade of the 1990s, before Jack Bauer was torturing people on prime time TV, our nation was won over by Mulder and Scully. “The Truth is Out There”–our institutions are lying to us, covering things up, they want to control us, and we, as liberty-loving Free Americans, won’t stand for it!

    I won’t bother with a full-fleshed apologetic response to this (Milk before Meat, focus on core principles, create a consistent doctrine that’s just as teachable/discussable in Macau as in Martinqiue as in Montreal as in Manti as in Maine), but I find it interesting that rather than assign a benign, or at the very least, utilitarian, motive to the “whitewashing” of church history, people go for the jugular, call us “the borg”, and, as a sort of prideful declaration of their independence, their knowing better, they eliminate the dissonance by simply removing certain notes from the chord. In my view it’s a decision just as limiting as those True Blue Mormons who literally put their hands over their ears whenever confronted with something difficult from church history.

    Many Americans have an obsession with living The Most Authentic Life Possible. It’s a countercultural rebellion against things that are mass produced, readily and easily digested, etc. (Christian Lander’s “Stuff White People Like” is an excellent place to start examining this phenomenon). And so they tire of hearing the same testimony over and over again, the same answers to all of life’s problems (read scriptures, pray, attend church). They want to live inside a Terrence Malick movie, with lots of meandering, profound, deep thoughts, and unanswered questions and ambiguity, etc. And they think that, because of Mormonism’s standardization, you can’t do both or be both: simple and complex, assured and questioning. It saddens me. And, in the end, I truly believe it says more about contemporary American culture than it does about the Mormon church, its doctrines and practices, etc.

    • Nancy

      I really enjoyed Nate’s thoughts on this matter and agree completely. I don’t dispute the fact that I was fed a simplified and pre-interpreted version of church history. I accepted the nice, neat edges and pushed down the niggling thoughts of “that doesn’t make sense” or “that really bothers me.”

      I enjoyed traveling through Europe as a young woman and attending the same church in Switzerland, Austria, England as I attended in Utah. The standardization gave me a sense of stability which I desperately needed.

      I love the way you describe how a prideful person, who must be “right,” removes certain notes from a dissonant chord. As I have grown and evolved in my 46 years, I have changed with my culture, as I believe the Church has done, as well. Although a little late in the game, the inclusion of blacks holding the priesthood is consistent with the evolution of integration at the time. In fact, I’ve found that when placed in historical context, many of what seems strange or unacceptable, is merely odd yet somewhat understandable.

      I am intensely grateful for my sheltered childhood where the world held hope and goodness. It is a nice touchstone for me to return to when my own faith waxes and wanes. When I have been angry at God for life’s circumstances, I am very grateful that I can return to that place in my history when believed completely and without question. It was a time of peace. I am very glad I did not have to carry the burden of the entire church history or all of Joseph Smith’s dirty laundry. It’s a lot like a friendship, I think. You start by sharing the easy parts of your personality and, when comfortable with the recipient, may share more of yourself, including your secrets, regrets, and character flaws. I would feel very uncomfortable if, upon first meeting a new colleague, he begins with, “Hi. I’m Bob. I have a pornography addiction and have cheated on my wife three times.”

      I am okay with the oddities Joseph Smith conveyed. I don’t know where polygamy stands in the mix but it is irrelevant to me. My current concerns are much more pressing like how much will I teach each of my children and at what time period. Like any sensitive issue (the sex talks), you give your children the answers to the questions they ask but you don’t have to explain every detail in one sitting.

      My own lack of faith or internal struggles with my religious or spiritual self is mine alone. Yes, I like talking with other grown-ups about it but I would certainly not want to burden someone who is planted squarely in the Garden of Faith; unwavering from the Sunday School answers. They do not need enlightenment nor do they lack intelligence. We have simply had different experiences and responded in a different way. It may be a combination of life long experiences, genetic make up, birth order, or scripture interpretation. We’re each unique and encouraged to seek personal revelation. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we don’t.

      I have certainly meandered away from Joseph Smith, it seems. However, was he really as different than I am? Given his brush with death when his leg was abscessed, could that not have prepared his personality to feel that he was saved for a divine purpose thus giving him the fortitude he needed to blaze a new trail of being a living prophet? Fallible, human man but still ordained to do God’s work.

      The Old Testament is rife with stories of prophets who were fallible. Islam considers Lot a holy man and a prophet. He engaged in incestuous relationships. It doesn’t need to be justified or explained away. He wasn’t perfect, just as David, Jacob, Solomon, and many other Christian prophets were not perfect people or perfect leaders but they were ordained of God with the gift of prophecy.

      Which brings me to my conclusion of Joseph Smith and his character flaws. They are irrelevant to me and my life. I have enough faith in the Book of Mormon and the way the Church is helping me teach my children of Jesus Christ, the history doesn’t matter.

  50. Anonymous

    If you go to the blog Mormon Matters, John Delin has 5 very interesting interivews with Richard Bushman. It discusses some of the typical difficult issues regarding Joseph Smith.

  51. Spencer

    Thank you for this article. I share a common view with you about my Mormonism. I grew up in a home where we had picture of the temple in open view. I went to seminary. I chose to attend a LDS-affiliated university and I have heard the “god and bad” of Mormonism. As I have aged I have noted a trend, that being how everyone, outside and inside the church, observes the church as this mysterious and mystical organization. And sure our history does give that idea. One of the biggest battles in organized religion is the side of reason being pitted against the side of faith, proof versus feeling. And I have wrestled on both sides of the equation many times. I have questioned my faith in Joseph Smith and his story. I am confident EVERY Latter-day Saint does. I have read the dialogues calling into question the validity of the Book of Mormon. I served a mission at 19 to teach this gospel full time for two years. But after pitting myself on both sides of the battle, I have come to a conclusion. What matters to me more than anything about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is what it has done for me. As I have grown in the church I have simplified my formula.
    a) Despite all that has been said or done,good and bad, by Joseph Smith, he founded a church that has brought immeasurable joy in my life and has been a very profound compass on how I lead my life.
    b) Like me, Joseph Smith is human. I consider myself a good Latter-day Saint, but while I feel this way, I have done stupid things. I am human.
    c) I have found that life is designed to be simple and precise. I believe in a world that is governed by simple, reachable concepts and laws, that will take me where I need to go. I.E. While the seer stone story is interesting, today it has NO relevance or interest to me because I have found my path without knowing the truth of that story. It is not pertinent to my path to my God. It does not matter to me.

    I testify to the simplicity that is found at the core of the gospel, and it is all I need to know!
    1. God lives
    2. Jesus Christ is my Savior
    3. I am a recipient of the sacrifice of Christ.
    4. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith and I have a great life.

  52. Luana

    Last night I prayed and asked for a motivation to get back the same feelings towards the Church that I had when I was baptized in 2009. And then I read this post. I’ve been thinking, we all have faults, with Joseph Smith would be no different. So this is my thought: Joseph Smith was a great man, because despite its faults, wonderful teachings he left for us. And not just him. There are things in the Church I do not agree so far as the position on homosexuality, the priesthood was not allowed to blacks, and other things. But what matters is how I feel when I’m there. What matters are the wonderful experiences I had and have in the Church. And that can not be taken away from me. Actually, “I’m of the mind That Should people learn complicated family stories from family, not from stranger,” I think it really should be talking more about that in the Church. For one hour you know a different version of what you learn in Sunday school and this may affect their testimony. I know people who grew up in church, and when they knew these “stories” just walking away, giving up a life story. What matters are not flaws but good things we have. Maybe I don’t need think that the Church and its leaders are quite perfect, but just always remember the good things that God and the Gospel made ​​in my life. Thanks for this inspiring blog, I feel your love and your charity in every word you write.

  53. TJ

    As troubling as polygamy is, and as odd as the translation process was, my doubts are insufficient to compel me to leave the church, for two main reasons. One is that I’ve had a number of experiences that, after much contemplation, do seem to me to be the product of divinity working within the church. The other is that leaving religion would only trade one set of questions for another. I cannot sleep under the stars, stare up into that huge expanse, and believe that this whole universe is just happenstance. I spent some time researching alternative faiths and other explanations but found nothing as compelling as the plan of salvation taught within the church. And practicing LDS faith does so much good for me. As odd as some aspects of Christianity and LDS history are, sometimes I just think that truth is stranger than fiction.

  54. Jordan

    I answer those questions with reflections on authority from God. God has chosen prophets throughout the history of the world who were flawed (Moses, Jonah, Isaiah all made mistakes that they were chastised for, not to mention Peter denying Christ thrice). The fact that a person isn’t perfect does not negate their authority.

    Second, I have prayed about and have had confirmed to me that Joseph smith received priesthood power and keys of authority from many of the former prophets, from the 3 chief apostles of Christ’s day, and was authorized to be God’s spokesman and to represent Him on earth. I have felt the power and influence of that priesthood now, in my lifetime, and I know that it is a continuation of that power and authority being properly used throughout the decades.

    Thus, I know, from first-hand experience and had confirmed by the experiences of dozens of others with whom I have had close association during such experiences, that the priesthood power and authority is valid and real. Thus, I am logically led to conclude that regardless of Joseph’s flaws, he tried to follow the Lord and when he acted in the capacity of prophet, we had the power and authority of the Lord.

    So, the human, perhaps foolish things he did seems to have be worked out between God and the other people involved, restoring his spirituality and ability to represent the Lord on earth (which is what the priesthood is).

  55. It seems to me that somebody who read this post and the responses would get a seriously unbalanced view of who Joseph Smith was. A handful of controversial actions have been mentioned and some of the writers have extrapolated from those a whole portrait of the man. (Incidentally, they have generally appealed to the easy, simplistic, and contemporary morality of muliculturalism/tolerance/equality to to so.) Others have challenged this negative portrait by referring to the positive things his legacy had done and is doing in the lives of LDS people. So my hypothetical blog reader, if without further background, would be balancing a few bad anecdotes against a generally positive legacy in order to construct their own portrait of Joseph. Personally, I think the later outweighs the former. But that is not my main point. My main point is that there are many many anecdotes that show Joseph as a compassionate husband and father, a courageous man, a good humored friend and leader, a humble servant, etc. Any person’s life will provide plenty of negative anecdotes (e.g. the life of one’s wife); if we focus on those exclusively, we may be in danger of becoming unable to see or remember the good things. I think this is one of the processes within marriage that leads to divorce. And becoming disaffected with one’s religion and leaving it–especially if it was really a heartfelt covenant that once tied one to it–is very similar to divorce. Getting a divorce is sometimes necessary, but it is tragic if the reason for it is that one has become unduly focused on the (perceived) negative aspects of the formerly beloved object, to the exclusion of aspects that are wholly beautiful and positive and at least as real as the negative aspects. Faith, like marriage, takes work. The knowledge obtained through faith is a vital (i.e. living) knowledge that needs to be nurtured–really, faith is a relationship. One must grow out of the honeymoon stage–and practice forgiveness–in order to achieve the full flowering of the relationship. Richard Bushman has evidently managed the transition: with his eyes wide open, he believes in Joseph Smith as–not only a prophet–but a great man. It is certainly possible to do. I propose that more of us should make the effort.

  56. Amey Holmes

    I have always thought it interesting that some of Joseph Smith’s mistakes were noted in the D&C. I often got very uncomfortable when something he did brought about chastisement from Heavenly Father. As I have thought about it, however, these were documented so we did not worship Joseph Smith, but rather to recognize that he is human.

    As noted by other bloggers, the Old and New Testament and Book of Mormon have examples of flawed individuals doing the work of God. Moses, for example, used his priesthood authority out of anger and thus violated his authority.

    I think those who walk away from the church due to the indiscretions of man really do not have faith in the church to begin with. By wrapping our faith in individuals instead of in the Gospel of Jesus Christ–who did provide the perfect example–we are most likely going to be disappointed when the human aspects of ourselves makes a mistake.

    I suppose the perfect example would be what happened at Penn State University and the absolute worship individuals had with Paterno and Sandusky. Their world view was shattered by the realization that these were men–not gods.

    Overall, I have found peace with things I disagree with by learning to recognize that we are all human, none of us are perfect, and this fact includes our prophets and apostles. I believe this is why we are instructed to pray about and study in our mind what we learn from the scriptures, prophet and apostles.

  57. a_questioning_arizonan

    Growing up in an area that is considered largely Mormon, I was raised Christian and was mostly unaware of a multitude of the things mentioned in your article. I dated multiple Mormon boys in high school, and was often asked to join them and their families in church on Sunday. A few times I agreed to their requests and joined them, often leaving more confused and bewildered by the LDS religion than I was before. I was given many BoM and continually asked, prodded and pleaded with to return to the church with them. My limited experience within the LDS church was enough for me at the time, I politely declined.

    From what I learned as teenager in a community so filled with Mormon residents, I knew little of nothing of the Mormon faith or it’s history. In school I’d hear whispered stories from other non-Mormon children about Joseph Smith and who he supposedly was, how the Mormon’s were asked to leave Nauvoo, and of course the large part polygamy played in early Mormon practices. Apparently very little of what I learned was “true.” I never heard or was never taught of Joseph Smith’s “seeing-stones” in a hat, his extreme polygamist tendencies, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, claiming himself to be the sole “prophet” and the use of militancy against those of non-Mormon faiths.

    From what I’ve read here and the small amount of research that I’ve done, my unease with the Mormon faith has not been lifted. Nonetheless, I will continue to research and question what I’ve learned to become more informed.

    • Jordan

      I thank Brett Thomas for those words, and I couldn’t agree more. Also, I would like to add that I have seen the fruit of the Lord’s work through Joseph Smith. “What He started” (He meaning God) through His servant Joseph is truly His kingdom restored on the earth today. Through what He reveled, we are able to gain access to the power of God to change our lives, our nature, our thoughts, to become able to live with God. We receive constant help, guidance, assurance, and a connection to God that I have never found elsewhere.

      One of the most effective ways to destroy an idea is to attack people who embody it. Terrorism was embodied in Osama Bin Laden, countries are represented by their leaders, and organizations are embodied in their leaders. For one trying to attack the Kingdom established again under God’s direct authority and supervision, destroying the image of Joseph Smith would be the first approach. Destroying other key sources of doctrine or knowledge would follow, such as discrediting the Book of Mormon, or trying to cast doubt on current prophets and apostles by talking about groups who have names similar to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons who do things that are less than acceptable.

      These stories discussed here, while they contain some true elements, are often trumped up, taken out of context, or otherwise misrepresented to try to vilify those who were integral in the Lord’s work. Not to equate Joseph to Christ, but to illustrate a point, read the New Testament. Any of the gospels. Satan worked very hard to vilify and defame and destroy Christ. He spread lies, preyed on people’s fears, even tempted Christ, trying to get Him to doubt His Godship–“if thou be the son of God” (Luke 4:3) and encouraged others to mock Him with that same “if” while He was on the cross (Matt 27:40).

      Satan succeeded in destroying the apostles, scattering those who believed in Christ, and causing much confusion in that time. Now, as God reaches out to restore understanding, authority, apostles, prophets, and everything else that is in His organization that men call a church (Ephesians 2:19-22), you can expect that the devil will again work to destroy that effort. For some, discrediting the additional scripture, the Book of Mormon, is the way to get them to disbelieve. For others, attack the Prophet. For others, work on Mormons around them so that the Mormons are bad examples or treat them poorly. The same tactics are used: lies, prey on fear, vilify, defame, mock. After 2000 years, the tricks are the same.

      No, Joseph was not without flaw, as was Christ. But he was a good man, a man chosen by God, and man authorized by God to be the instrument through which He again restored the profound and powerful truths of eternity. And I should add, that the power of God has been used from Joseph Smith on through every prophet and apostle since, as well as other men who have been entrusted with the incredible responsibility of holding the Power and Authority to act in the name of the Creator. Joseph was no fraud. He was not acting as a man when he acted as a Prophet–he literally stood in the place of God, just as all prophets and apostles have since the beginning of the world.

      The longer you wait to act on what you know, the more room you give to be swayed. Satan would love to tear you from the Power of God and from being able to actively participate in His kingdom. Don’t wait too long. It’s true, it’s real, and God will back me up on that. If you don’t believe me, ask Him.

  58. “…as I was finishing [a manuscript] at a feminist writer’s retreat on Puget Sound.”

    As if I needed even MORE reasons to want to be like Joanna! 😉

    The Joseph Smith realities listed here have been a fairly recent and very foundation-rocking reality for me. Like you, I feel the church that morphed out of what he began has given me some of powerful and beautiful experiences. It has shaped my life in very positive ways. And yet the dissonance of hearing Joseph lauded every Sunday in (once commonly-shared) Hero terms is too much for me.

    I’m taking a step back. A sabbatical to reconfigure my beliefs and give my soul a chance to heal.

  59. Brett Thomas

    I find it interesting that the two primary schools of thought portrayed here in the comments are: Joseph Smith the Prophet or Joseph Smith the pedophile. No middle ground for this man.

    After having read all of the comments I find only one discernible hard fact and that is this: Not a single person on earth today was alive during Josephs’ lifetime and therefore we are all left to rely on the testimony of witnesses. I’m surprised that so many are readily willing to cast aside the testimony of so many who claimed Joseph was who he said he was simply because another crowd rises up and claims that he was not. You have simply chosen to agree with a different set of witnesses. Furthermore, when someone claims that Joseph was a pedophile and a con-man, since when do we respond as believers, “Well, he had his flaws” – or- “Perhaps our history is more complicated than I once thought”?

    Joanna, while I appreciate the questions you raise in the article about the role of family and the church in helping us understand our history – I’m troubled that you use such a large platform to speak on behalf of Mormons and yet I was hard pressed to find one definitive statement in your article in defense of the prophet Joseph Smith.

    So, if you won’t do it, then I will. Joseph Smith was not a pedophile, he was a prophet. He did not use his position or authority to seduce or coerce anyone into sexual activity, because to do so would be contradictory to everything he taught and Joseph was not a hypocrite. This notion that Joseph was some deeply troubled and flawed man who also happened to be a prophet is false. Joseph was honorable, trustworthy and faithful to Emma in every way. I know he wasn’t perfect but I stand with John Taylor who said when Joseph died that his death “cost the best blood of the nineteenth century”. Jesus taught that by their fruits ye shall know them. The legacy of Joseph Smith is a restoration of truth that is changing the world for the better – is not that enough? I think that the very simple and idealized version of the Joseph Smith story is far more true than the accidental stumblings on the internet in the dark of night would have you believe – at least the scriptural accounts would speak to that truth. But sadly, for some, the internet has taken the place of scripture.

  60. H Skilley

    re Joseph Smith marrying young, 15 to 16 year old girls…

    I had an epiphany on this topic when I was watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie, of all shows (I’m a 34 year old male who usually watches football and basketball in my spare time). In the episode, Laura wanted to marry Almonzo. Almonzo proposed to her, and she informed her parents of her desire to marry him. Her parents expressed that they were strongly against this happening because their rule was that she couldn’t get married until at least age 16. So…Laura and Almonzo were trying to get married when Laura was only 14 to 15 years old. And her Parents thought it would be proper and alright if she was 16 years old.

    So what does this all mean? Well, from that little show I learned that you can’t really apply 21st century cultural norms to the 19th century. People at that time engaged in behaviors that was culturally ok during their time, but which might not be okay now. For example, Almonzo could be prosecuted for statutory rape for marrying a 16-year old in today’s society. But no one would have thought he did anything wrong when he was living.

    So too it is with some of Joseph Smith’s issues. I think that some people who throw out “Joseph Smith was a pedophile” or a “fraud” might be trying to throw a 21st century judgment on 19th century Joseph Smith. That sort of approach could be used to wrongly, incorrectly attack a whole host of historical figures. Joseph Smith should be judged for the time and place he lived.

    • David Atkinson

      Simple not true. The average age of marriage for a women in the 19th century was between 20 and 21 years of age. When 40 year old men (Joseph Smith) marry 14 year old children (Helen Mar Kimball) and have sex with them it is called pedophilia. The prophet Warren Jeffs is in jail, and rightfully so, for doing the same thing J.S did. Your argument of “Presentism” does not hold water in this case.

      • It actually does. Many in my own family history, both LDS and not, married very young. You site “average age” for marriage, which takes those married in their teens (a normal practice in the 19th century) and lumps them statistically with those who married in their 40s or whenever, bringing the average much higher. I have several examples from my own family history showing teen marriage was a normal practice.

      • Liss

        Clarification please. From where are you getting the information that Joseph Smith and Helen Mar Kimball had sex? They were sealed yes, at the behest of her Father, Heber C. Kimball, who wanted a link to the prophet. However, she remained living with her parents after the sealing. Certainly she had no children by Joseph Smith. And, small point, just for clarification Joseph Smith was 37 (not 40) at the time, and yes Helen was 14.

        Secondarily, it is true that among certain groups in the United States in the 19th century were marrying as teenagers. Whereas other groups married later. Even today there’s a five year span between the median age of first marrying women on the lower end (23.3 in Utah, 23.4 in Idaho) and the higher end (28.5 New York, 28.6 Massachusetts). The median of course being where the most people fall, but certainly there are those who marry younger or older than the medians as well.

      • H Skilley

        Sorry, but I think my example does hold water, and is reflective of reality at the time. According to this University of Washington website, the average age of women marrying for the first time was 20, BUT, it could be as low as 15 or 16 (not uncommon). In contrast, the average age for men marrying for the first time was 30 to 35. (British data easier to find). So yes, it was not uncommon at the time for older man to marry a younger girl. (in the 21st century this would be statutory rape).

        And yes, of course Warren Jeffs is in jail. He lives in the 21st century, and committed statutory rape. Joseph Smith lived in the 19th century and is a product of his time—he didn’t commit a violation of a statute, and his, marriage age patterns were not unheard of during his time (mid-1800s). Even the famous character “Scarlett O’Hara” of the book Gone with the Wind is age 15 to 16 when first married.

    • H Skilley writes, “Joseph Smith should be judged for the time and place he lived.” Really? Let’s consider another example. I live in a small town in Germany. There are no Jews here. In the early 1940s, they were all dutifully reported by my neighbors (or their parents and grandparents) and carted off and gassed. At that time antisemitism was prevalent throughout Germany, and contributing to the holocaust was the norm. After a major shift in outlook, most modern Germans now look back on that time with revulsion and condemn that behavior. Are they guilty of “presentism” and killing Jews was actually ok a few generations ago because everybody was part of it?

      When we consider Joseph Smith’s flaws, are we supposed to imagine that God didn’t want to practice presentism? Did God think, “Well, a 40-year old man exploiting teenage girls for sex, that may seem kind of nasty to Me, but what the heck, it’s the 1830’s and lots of guys are doing it, so I won’t make an issue of it.”

      • “exploiting teenage girls for sex” is a LOT different than marrying them. Even in the 1830’s and 40’s. ESPECIALLY in the 1830’s and 40’s. And you know it. Your comment is disingenuous and meant to insult and inflame everyone here, including our host. Shame on you.

      • Not the same situation at all. Killing other people is universally frowned on, and not a social norm. A lot of people, even in Nazi Germany, were horrified when they found out what actually happened to Jews who were turned in, and had to do one of three things: make the Jews less than human in their own minds so they would be ok with their eradication, make themselves so much more important that any humanity of the Jews is irrelevant to them, or fight against their destruction and defend them, putting themselves in jeopardy. If you have examples of people who have not done one of these three things, let me know–I would be interested to hear of somebody like that.

        Marriage, on the other hand, is a social norm. Throughout history, people married when they felt ready (or when another person felt them ready), and it so happened that people generally felt ready sooner in the past (actually, until the very recent past). In medieval times it’s well documented that people married sooner (check church marriage books), and most societies around the world talked about marriage sooner around the same time (like the practice of Chinese societies sending their young teens off to marry). Your situation is not the same in this regard.

        It is the same in a different regard, however. If I was going to punish another person, to judge their character and decide a punishment for them for what I consider to be wrongdoing, I would, if I was to be a fair judge, look at their situation. In the case of your town in Germany, it’s clear now that what they did was wrong. To judge them, I, in all fairness, would have to consider their motive, the situation in society around them, and try to figure out why they gave their neighbors up, and what they thought was going to happen to them. And then I’d go from there. I imagine that many I talk to would acknowledge that they didn’t know what was going to happen to them, or that they feared for themselves and their family, etc.

        If you want to judge Joseph Smith for his marriages, you need to look at the same things. You assume it was for sex, which is pretty foolish to immediately assume. That would mean that couples today who marry only for sex would be in a similar situation in a large degree, and I know a good number of couples that have married because they liked each other, and liked the idea of sex together, but later realized that they weren’t actually a very good fit for real life. Anyway, sex seems the most likely reason for his marriages to you, but that doesn’t mean that was his actual motivation. It may seem to me that the most likely reason people in your town turned in their neighbors is that they hated Jews and loved the idea they would be killed, but in reality, few would probably cite that as their reason for doing so.

        While I don’t know what Joseph’s motivations were, nor do you, as it is not fully document why Joseph dealt with his wives as he did. Marrying at that age difference, though, was normal for the time, and marriage is largely a socially defined thing (look at what is happening now in the states with marriage defined as man and woman only or if homosexual couples also constitute a similar marriage). Thus, think of his as you will, but judge him in his own time, and in his own setting. Don’t try to impose your own reasons and motivations on another person.

      • Eric Player and beliefislogical, it is your comments about Joseph Smith that are disingenuous. You both speak of what Smith did to teenage girls as if it were redeemed by meeting some norm of “marriage.” You both know perfectly well that beyond a bogus wedding ceremony, there were NONE of the real elements of marriage. Smith did not have one-to-one, committed relationships in which the girls had a chance to be equal or even semi-equal partners in a family. In fact, EVERYTHING that we hold precious and sacred about two people coming together in marriage was completely missing in his arrangements.

        Smith violated the natural course of life for these poor girls, who should have had a chance to come together with a first love, a true and devoted partner of similar age. Instead, they were rushed out of childhood and began adult life as part of some older guy’s large collection of “wives.” Any wishful thinking that a man who would push them into this was not consummating his “marriages” is just deliberate ignorance of human nature.

        The issue here is not what is “universally frowned on” or what is locally frowned on. No, an older man crashing his way into teenagers’ lives and exploiting them for intimacy is just wrong, plain and simple…always has been and always will be. Referencing the era and saying that moral relativism somehow made it more ok is simply amoral, in my opinion.

        For more on how a bad idea can be a pervasive norm in a culture, yet still a bad idea, see “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.” For more on whether bad behavior is excused because everybody was doing it, just remember what your mother had to say about that.

      • I understand your point of view. I still disagree with your claims of his motives, and while you will probably think that delusional and foolish to do, I have studied it out, I have thought about it and prayed about it, and my conclusions and feelings from the Spirit have suggested to me that Smith’s motives were not those. I do agree with you that it probably messed up the lives of the girls involved. Yet I still think that the situations and events were not as simple as is usually painted.

  61. The notion of lovable prophets whose flaws make them human is all very well, but “the real history on Joseph Smith” seems pretty grim. Should he be protected with euphemisms about his “complications” because religious sensibilities trump feminism and humanism, or is it ok to consider evidence that he was what we would now consider a pedophile and worse? In considering the “real history,” what language is permissible? Must we censor any suggestion that he was something of a pimp? So far, this charge hasn’t been considered in this thread, but should truth-seekers ignore the fact that Smith initiated and administered a system in which women and girls were distributed to members of a men’s group? The details of Smith’s administration are not fully recorded, but it does appear, for instance, that offering up a teenage daughter could result in the acquisition of multiple wives. Obviously the opportunity for sex with multiple women was a powerful incentive for at least some early adopters. Undeniably, Smith’s personal power (and access to more wives) increased with membership in his religion.

    One story is that whatever his flaws, Smith was nonetheless a true prophet who faithfully recorded the word of God when he was on the job. However, if we look at D&C 132:51 we see Smith using scripture to settle a quarrel with his wife. “A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her….” What exactly did Smith “offer unto her” and then decide to retract? Was it his faithfulness? Was it that she could have other partners too? Whatever, Smith wins this argument by writing a commandment from God. To modern readers, this is a pretty naked abuse of power.

    None of this invalidates anybody’s current experiences, however. Poison abounds in human relationships and to some extent we are all fruit of a poisoned tree, but we are not all poisoned fruit. We can certainly all choose not to drink from the poisoned cups of censorship and denial.

  62. I have to stand with Brett Thomas on this one. I recommend everything he has said, and I plead with you, Joanna, as your personal platform gets broader–particularly as you meet with and discuss your work with a man whose open mind and sharp wit I respect, Mr. John Stewart–that you would hold your head high in your love of the Gospel and the Prophet of the Restoration, pulling no punches. Or, if (as this blog post of yours suggests) you find that you cannot speak with that kind of certainty, you would at least remember the many “small seeds” of testimony who will be looking in on you, and speak to your own journey without “uprooting” those who are just starting theirs.

    But that was not the original question, was it? The original question was how does a faithful member look with eyes wide open at all of the history? How does one “answer and manage” the questions about Joseph Smith (presumably, internally)?

    For myself, I start with a principle I learned, actually, studying in film class. My professors would point out that many of the films we would see were old and considered classics of all time, but we ourselves might find them hard to watch, even incomprehensibly boring. We might find the choices made by the characters difficult to understand, even when critic after critic applauds it. And we WILL wonder why.

    What we were going to experience, we were warned, was the phenomenon of “Present-ism.” The notion of trying to infuse our present-day values (and entertainment standards) onto 50, 60, sometimes 100-year old films. (Some movies, of course, were timeless, but then talking mice know no age.) We had to get inside the experiences of the audience of the time, and realize how THEY would see the film.

    I have taken this lesson into most of my endeavors, and it works particularly well with history. As long as I start by realizing that my world view is not the only one, and most likely not the universal one.

    From there, I pretty much do as Brett Thomas (Aug 3) and Carole (July 23) do. Look at the facts–the simple facts, not the conclusions people draw, whether “oh yuck!” or not–with an eye toward believing the best. Golden rule. Same way I would want to be judged.

    P.S. – And I just have to add for all those Sidney Rigdon-as-author post-ers. How many times does it have to be shown that Rigdon joined AFTER the BoM was published before you’ll give that a rest?

    • Joanna, I just wanted to come back and say to you–since I figure this is the only context in which I will get to–that I enjoyed your interview on “The Daily Show.”

      While there were some areas of opinion in which we disagreed (and I mention those to my friends when re-posting the spot, but really, who is ever going to be 100% in agreement?) I found your enthusiasm infectious and your warmth reminiscent of a big sister.

      i hope you have a long 15 minutes.

  63. Bonnie J.

    I will not sit here and make judgments about Joseph Smith. That is God’s job, not mine. But what I would like to say is this: God is good and loves his children. I believe he testifies *good* to his children who are searching for goodness. Do the stories in the Book of Mormon encourage following Christ? I believe that mostly they do. (I do not agree that God would turn a sinner’s skin black, otherwise we would ALL be black! Among other things I do not wholly agree with…) I think that the majority of the Book of Mormon and the teachings of the Latter Day Saints teaches one to be good. And it is my opinion that when people pray to receive a confirmation about the Book of Mormon that they receive a confirmation that it’s *good* and not necessarily true.
    Because the Book of Mormon is said to be a record of a people who established themselves in the Americas then I believe that aside from faith, followers *should* expect some type of tangible proof along with their confirmation of faith.
    Let’s take the other major book of gospel of discussion here: The Bible.
    Although some of the stories in the Bible cannot be proven either by science or historical artifacts, the places and the people within the stories can be. The cities they lived in are either still in use today or are part of ruin. The landscapes can be found exactly as they’re described. Their writings, their tools, their coins, their bones can all be found and touched and seen. Most are proven by scientific means to be exactly as they are described in the Bible. Even the people are not only characters but are in fact historical figures found in many writings, not just the ones included for compilation of the Bible. The ancient records of the Bible can even be seen, translated and verified by scholars and science.
    Not one of these things can be said about the Book of Mormon. Explain away the anachronistics, the influences of other writings, such as the King James Version of the Bible, (even when proven mistranslations of which were quoted word for word in the BoM), the 3913 changes that have been made to the “most correct book on earth, the fact that DNA evidence has revealed that the American Indians (once thought by the LDS to be the descendants of the Lamanites, and in fact indicated in the title page of earlier BoM editions, to which this book was supposed to have been written to) are actually descendants of Asia and not the Middle East, etc, etc, etc, there still requires a burden of proof as it is claimed to be an actual record of a people that once lived in the Americans.
    No cities, no ruins, no tools, no coins, no weapons, no bones or bodies, no geographic relations, no writings, and the list continues. Even the Hill Cumorah in New York was once acknowledge by the church as the actual Hill Cumorah in the BoM until no archaeological finds proved it to be true. Same with the Mayan ruins in Central America, which can be seen depicted in early Mormon artwork, was once acknowledged by the church. Now the church no longer acknowledges any geographical location for any site indicated in the Book of Mormon.
    Aside from the incorrect translations of a Greek Salter and the Kinderhook Plates which are NOT part of the LDS canonized religion, it has been proven that the facsimiles included with the Book of Abraham are a *completely* incorrect translation of Egyptian.
    If Joseph had claimed that this book was a revealed word of God and had left off the part about it being an ancient record of the early Americas, that would be one thing. One would have to rely completely on faith and a confirmation of their prayers that the Book of Mormon is true, But this is simply not the case.
    The Book of Mormon is a spiritual book that encourages a goodness in people and in my opinion for that it can be admired and enjoyed. But it simply cannot be a factual historical book due to the lack of *all* evidences.
    May God love and bless you and lead you to the truth.

    • I’m sorry, but the Book of Mormon was never meant to be historical. You’ll note as you read it that it generally lacks geographical information, detailed historical information, or anything that would be seen as “historical”. Second, the Bible has so many geographical evidences for two reasons: one, the places where it took place continued to be inhabited and have run-ins with many other people, preserving names of places which we can attach to the Bible later. In the case of the Book of Mormon, this did not happen. The people were largely isolated from the Europeans, who’s version and records of history is the most widespread and acknowledged, and as the people kept growing, names changed and connections to the Book of Mormon names were lost. And the invading Europeans burned most of the records kept by the people, and the rest were lost, so there could have been substantial evidence before it was destroyed.

      Second, people who find things in the Old World readily attach it to the Bible, and offer it as proof of the Bible. People do not do the same with the Book of Mormon. Plates with writings in what seems closely related to Egyptian hieroglyphs are visible in most museums of central America. Traditional names chosen by people who have deep ties to more ancient tribes are names from the Book of Mormon, temples have been discovered with things that look a lot like the facsimile in Abraham pressed into the walls, the traditional beliefs in some of these areas (I have talked with Peruvians personally who told me these beliefs) include belief in “The great White God”, Quetzalcoatl, who would return one day. They claim that he taught them many things, and healed their children. Their description of him matches that of Christ, both in their time and in many of the specifics, as described in the Book of Mormon. They often tell a story about like that is pretty much Lehi’s Tree of Life vision, and there are basically two cities dating back to “a few decades AD” sitting at the bottom of lake Titicaca, which is interesting when you consider that around that time, the Book of Mormon records cities being swallowed up in the sea.

      The point is, there is a lot of archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, but it is not attributed to the Book because the Book of Mormon is less well known than the Bible.

      My point is 1) there is evidence, you just need to look for the connection yourself, or there’s a group at BYU doing it for you. 2) Even if there was no evidence, lack of evidence doesn’t negate truth. The sun burned on hydrogen before there was any evidence of it. 3) The Book is not a historical record. 4) It is very true, in every sense of the word. What did God say? “Put not your trust in the arm of flesh”? Truth comes from God, and while truth as discovered or uncovered by man may support it later, truth comes from God. Another example, God revealed to Joseph Smith that tobacco and alcohol are harmful to the body. The “proven” science at the time was that alcohol made you strong and tobacco was good for you. Now, it’s clear that neither are true: both are poisons that can cause addition, and have many harmful effects.

      Also, most of Christ’s life is not supported by archeology or other historical accounts. The Gospels and a few other manuscripts are all that exist from His actual life. Yet, any Christian believes that Christ did what He said, and that He healed and preached even though there is no proof of it.

      • Jason

        Beliefislogical… That’s an interesting lead into your response to the flawed historicity of the BoM, that:

        “I’m sorry, but the Book of Mormon was never meant to be historical. You’ll note as you read it that it generally lacks geographical information, detailed historical information, or anything that would be seen as “historical”.

        I’m just not sure what you mean by that statement given your ‘logical’ path of laying out evidence to support the truthfulness of the Bom’s history. While all the things you mentioned tug at a few of the threads of professionally accepted assertion negating any connection of the characters of the Book with any ancient aboriginal inhabitants of any part of the Western or Old world, they fall short in dismantling the larger fabric of reason and empiricism that simply states that the stories of Jews in the Americas written as, yes, a historical narrative (See the Preface of the Book and also all the dates given in the footnotes), the never really happened. No one outside the Church regards FARMS with any degree of consideration as having any expertise in the history of the Judeo world, again no matter the continent. Or, if you ever have the chance, try visiting the Anthropology Dept. at BYU and ask them about FARMS and the pursuit of a Book of Mormon history.

        But that is not my point. The point is to ask ‘why?’ Why does it matter if the BoM is TRUE or not? Why does it have to be that people stand up, as they did last week, to declare that “I know the Book of Mormon is true”? And by true I mean That it (all of it) Really Happened– from the origin of the Record itself, to the origin of the printed version we read today, that Joseph Smith actually, was given a real, material ancient American artifact, and translated an inscribed text from metal plates to an English, paper version. True, it is testified, that a son of the Pre-Columbian, Judeo-American Prophet Alma really did walk around with Western hopes and dreams and the same Christian wisdom we seek to have in our reality, happened in ‘his’ reality. But Why? Why such emphasis on a testimony of the Truth of an Actual Book of Mormon as a material entity and not so much in any wisdom in the text it brings. Why can’t it just be a collection of parables, written by a modern Prophet? Would that course, if take from the beginning, really have changed the look and feel of the Church today? And if so, Why?

      • That is a good question. The primary reason that it is important that the Book of Mormon is true in every sense of the word is that it ties in with a multitude of promises of God, from the scattering and protecting of Israel, to the unification again of Israel, to Christ coming in glory both the inhabitants then and in the future. There are a great many truths taught therein about the nature of God and Christ and their workings. If they are just stories made up to illustrate a point, it loses a lot of it’s power and personal applicability (if that word even makes sense).

        It’s reality also ties it more strongly with the Bible, which is (for the most part) actual events that actually took place with actual people (I say mostly because there are Psalms, Proverbs, and probably Job which are not actual events being described, though Job may be) making the reality of God’s hand over His children and His active role in the lives of people in the world more obvious, and, again, being more applicable to me as a rational thinker.

        It is also the primary physical, testable source of evidence of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the reality of the Restoration. It is hard to test the idea that a man who lived more than a century ago received power and authority from God, and that God, through that authority and power brought about a restoration of all things and truths. But it is relatively simple to take the Book of Mormon, a physical object which we cannot deny exists, and test it’s content. If it is what it claims it is, and if we, as stated by the prophet Moroni in the Book of Mormon, “ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto [us each individually], by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

        The truth of the Book of Mormon is usually the beginning of testimony of the Restoration and everything that comes with it–from modern apostles and the priesthood authority and power that they hold all the way down to the sacrament at church and the teachings of Christ given in Sunday school. For most people, the truth of everything in the church rests in the truth of the Book of Mormon, and if the truth of the Book of Mormon was destroyed, most people will reject also all personal witness that teachings were true, they begin to ignore all the evidence they have seen that the Priesthood (that power and authority I keep talking about) actually is on earth and that God manifests His power through the actions of men who hold it, and their faith in the restoration fades to nothing.

        I guess the difference with me is that I trust God completely, and He has shown me on many occasions, through spiritual manifestations as real and meaningful as any scientific or historical evidence, that it is true in every sense of the word, and that those events truly did happen. Since I take that at full face value because it came from God, who cannot lie, anything else I hear about only adds to that belief. Things like Quetzalcoatl or their Tree of Life analogy, or the cities under Lake Titicaca or metal plates in Peruvian museums, only serve to verify my conviction, but do not create or form the basis of that conviction.

        I guess the short version is that God has witnessed that it is a true book. Does that help to answer your question?

  64. William

    I’m not Mormon, so you’ll probably discount everything I say, but here goes anyway. Regardless of whether you believe in stories of Smith’s polygamy, or his use of seer stones to con people out of money in a search for treasure, the most telling story that indicates he was a fraud is the account of his actions associated with the lost book of Lehi. A true prophet would retranslate the text from the golden plates, if he had them. He would have no concern about any variance of the 2nd transcription from the first, because he was acting under divine inspiration. A false prophet would make up a story to act as an excuse for why he was unwilling or unable to retranslate the stolen text. Which course of action did Joseph Smith take?

    • You words are not discounted. As you have seen, there are quite a few non-LDS folks writing in this thread. Joseph was a polygamist, yes. That is even recorded in LDS canonized scripture and is well known. I have yet to hear a credible story of him using the seer stones for con work or to look for treasure, and I can tell you with complete certainty that he is no fraud.

      A “true prophet” would do what God tells him, which is what Joseph did. Joseph wanted to re-translate the lost portion. God told him that He had another plan, and Joseph followed God’s plan. Just like Biblical prophets (Moses didn’t want to go to Egypt again, Abraham didn’t want to offer his son for sacrifice, etc), Joseph also followed God’s instructions. It is well explained that God commanded him not to re-translate, explaining that one reason (which would help Joseph to accept the command even more readily): because those who had taken the manuscript thus far planned to change what he wrote if it was exactly the same, or overemphasize the differences if it differed. But that’s probably not the whole reason God issued that command. It made sense to Joseph, and was enough for him when explaining it to others. A few more ideas of reasons follow, if you are interested.

      This story is an interesting one. The fact the God planned to have a “significant prophesy and revelation only” version of the stolen section of the book prepared for when Joseph would ignore God’s answer tells a great deal about God. He planned it over 2000 years in advance. It is a faith-building story, and one that has allowed me to trust that the Lord knows of my mistakes and the dangers and problems that will come to me from my mistakes before I make them. When He advises me to act a certain way, or refrain from something, I am inclined to listen. It has helped me pay more attention to and give weight to His counsel that I otherwise (due to my generally stubborn nature) would probably ignore, especially if He was telling me something different from what I wanted.

      Other reasons God might have commanded it or planned it that way is that “God works in mysterious ways”, as phrased in the Bible. “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass” is the phraseology in the Book of Mormon of a similar concept. The point is that I have received a lot of good in my life from what I learned from the story of what happened with the translation. Secondly, I have learned invaluable things about Christ’s Atonement, the God’s Plan for us, repentance, many Christ-like virtues and other things of great value from the things translated from that alternate portion. I don’t know how many of those things would be as clearly (or maybe more clearly) set forth in the stolen portion, nor do I know what kinds of things I would learn from that book that I have not had the chance to learn about now, but the fact is that it is not a loss–God has used this to help us understand His character, provide opportunities for us to grow, and helped many other people.

      My conclusion: God knows what will happen, He continues to protect our free agency, our ability to choose for ourselves, even if it means that it will slow or potentially create pitfalls for His work. The individual is most important to the Lord, and He is wise enough to be able to use these things to bless not only the individual, but countless others. In this case, those who were high priests and prophets writing the words thousands of years ago were blessed by being commanded to select the most significant and meaningful teachings and prophesies only, those who had access to their writings through the centuries it was available also benefited from the condensed doctrine, those who have prayerfully read the Book of Mormon have been blessed by what is written there, and it provided an extra experience that teaches and blesses many more in our day and age.

      I think those are some additional reasons God might have commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith not to re-translate. I’m sure it would have been a mess at the time, as well, as opponents to God’s works would have changed the manuscript and used it to try to convince many others that God wasn’t actively working in their day and that He hadn’t again given the power and authority to act in His name. But it served many good ends, not just avoided negative ones.

  65. Mormon Socialist

    What a terrific post, Joanna. You’ve said quite beautifully many things that I’ve been trying to say myself for some time.

    “Growing up LDS, most of us learn a very simple and idealized version of the Joseph Smith story from our Sunday School and seminary teachers. This version does us no favors when we discover—often quite accidentally, on the internet, all alone in the dark of night, or on the spot, in the company of strangers—that history was indeed more complicated.”

    Oh yes – absolutely. I’ve tried to weave this into my Gospel Doctrine and Priesthood classes on many occasions. Not to take over the set topic, but just to clear away some of the “airbrushed” history that does people no favours, just as you say.

    “I’m of the mind that people should learn complicated family stories from family, not from strangers. We need to hear this stuff at home, in church, in seminary, and I hear that up at Church headquarters, the wheels are turning to make that possible. Which is wonderful news.”

    Yes, I perceive that this is happening too, in a very necessary way. Slowly the realisation is dawning that the Church needs to OWN its story and not be ashamed of it. Yep, warts and all. The Church will of course be an advocate for a faithful reading of that history. But burying it is not an option.

    The irony is that I firmly believe that the Church has absolutely nothing to fear from this. It’s not as though the Church makes small claims to begin with – either divine visitations, angels and ancient gold plates were involved, or they weren’t. That’s the main game. Arguing over warts and flaws in the humans who responded to those events (including Joseph Smith himself) is utterly beside the point. Would a “plaster saint” version of Joseph somehow PROVE his claims? No more than his flaws would disprove them.

    I’m a convert. And my story (unusual though it may be) is instructive in this regard: my original primary source of information was anti-Mormon literature! Firstly, the pamphlets put out by a Baptist church I once attended, and then the whole panoply of hostile literature I found by accident in a library one day. I was hooked. At first, with creeping horror, at the thought that such lunatics could exist. Then came the slow realisation that such a monstrous, fantastic concoction was bigger than anything that people could actually believe. So if it was too weird to be true, what was the other side of the story? If the Mormon story was truly UNbelievable, how did Mormons, who appeared to be otherwise sane, intelligent people, even accommodate such madness?

    The result, as I tell people, is that I became a Mormon not in SPITE of anti-Mormon literature, but quite definitely BECAUSE of it. And having thus been innoculated against the scare-stories about the early saints, I tend to embrace the weirdness as part of what still draws and binds me to the Church. And I will happily tell everyone that the Church is true because of its wrinkles, which only help all the more to show the divine hand in its origin. If the early saints were so “saintly” of their own accord, then it would be all the more hard to separate the divine from their own actions. But because they were indeed frequently not terribly saintly at times, the divine assistance shows up all the more sharply by contrast.

  66. Giving up college in lieu of getting married young. Having children at a young age based on doctrinal and social teachings. Those things feel as if they are a choice when one is making them growing up as I did in the Mormon faith. And really being able to choose who you want to marry outside of the context of Mormonism? That is impossible for most Mormon women. This is only a part of the pressure placed on LDS girls.

    It is more painful to wake up to the realization of the truth in regards to church history when you have given up so much of your life and decisions based on false information.

    When every important part of your life has been made in your life was based on intentionally misrepresented material via correlated material from SLC? It is a different experience. I appreciate that you brought this up but I would ask you. What did you give up in regards to your major life decisions? Do you feel Mormon girls have a great deal of choice, specifically when they grow up in devout families and Mormon dominated communities?

    Most Mormon’s are conditioned through a life time of religious study both at home, at church, and through Mormon culture, to follow a specific path. To deviate is to loose the respect and acceptance of everyone you know.

    You are rare and I’ll be honest a bit of my emotional reaction to your blog is envy. But it is also anger. I feel this is yet another misrepresentation of how Mormonism really isn’t.

    I was conditioned not to research, to shelve my questions etc. Sunstone?Was taboo and not to be mentioned or looked at.

    Anything that goes contrary to the set beliefs will make a devout believer very uncomfortable. This is often recognized as a loss of the spirit. Anyway I know I’m not bringing anything new to your awareness. These posts have been very upsetting to me. If this is what America thinks of as the cost of Mormonism misrepresenting church history?

    With all due respect Johanna- you are not my voice as “ask Mormon Girl” and I’d dare say you are not most Mormon women’s voice. You represent a small minority of women who were fortunate enough to break free from the mold.

    And while part of me is happy that you can have this relationship with the Mormon church I disagree. I feel it is a betrayal of Mormon women’s true story. After discovering the truth of Mormonism remaining, for me, would be like staying in an abusive relationship.

    • Liss

      I am sorry to hear that for you “remaining [a Mormon] would be like staying in an abusive relationship.”

      There is much truth to what you say. I experienced similar pressures growing up (primarily) in a Latter-day Saint dominate city in Utah. My parents – and by extension my family – were very devout. I am the eldest daughter (second child) of nine. There was much in the way of “expectations” which were gender based and, at least stated, to be based on scripture. I was, however, always a questioner (still am) and I have always believed that I could ask God the questions and get answers; rather than take the interpretation of someone else.

      One of the most interesting developments in my relationship with my religion occurred five years ago when I moved (with my husband) away from Utah to a liberal city. Here there was little cultural Mormonism and I was able to sort out a lot of the culture from the doctrine.

      Anyway, I do hope that there is peace in your life now.

    • skeptikel

      Wow, very emotional and heart felt. I can relate to your experience. I even teared up reading this. I came to the same conclusion as you: I felt I could not maintain my integrity upon discovering the truth. I felt betrayed and duped. And your analogy of the church to an abusive relationship is spot on.

  67. Dick

    Bonnie, can you please explain that through several hundred years of archeological research not one piece of evidence has been unearthed to show or prove that Moses and the whole nation of Israel wandered around the desert for forty years. Or even that Egyptian history has no mention of Moses – a ‘prince’ of Egypt, or any mention of the plagues of Moses or the armies of Egypt drowning in the Red Sea. Surely events so major as this must be ably proved in the ‘historic’ record – but no, not one tiny mention, not one minute artifact. Nothing. Please do your research, if the same scrutiny that has been levelled at the Book of Mormon were given to the Bible, it would be a pretty sad conclusion.

    • Jason

      There is no contemporaneous historical account or material evidence that Jesus, as in the Christ, ever existed…well, outside of the psuedo-scientific Christian apologetic community. Scrutiny of a tangible New & Old Testament history IS actually more intense and more wide-spread and eclipses all scholarly investigation of the whole of Mormon History that include the events and characters of the Book of Mormon. Either way you are correct, that any intellectual and scientific pursuit would end for the Truth Believer with a pretty sad conclusion. Indeed the sweet taste of the Fruit of the Tree of Ignorance is blissful and from the Tree of Knowledge savory to the mind but bitter to the soul.

  68. Sam s.

    Depending on the question asked about Joseph Smith. First and foremost i will always acknowledge he wasn’t perfect. He never claimed to be. Also I say in the end history isn’t what saves you from hell. It’s the doctrine. I ask people to at least be open minded to the doctrines possible truth. History has a possibility of being falsified. Also so many times when we see the history we fill in the blanks on our own without thinking about it. Like what was motivating Smith? Was it lust or his wanting to follow God? In the end you really can’t know that because you haven’t been in his head. So in the end i find it better to try and find out for yourself if you believe if the doctrine he taught is true? Is the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants true? If you believe those things you acknowledge he was an imperfect man who did some dumb things but he was God’s chosen prophet. If you believe in the doctrine and covenants then you believe the authority continued all the way to at least Spencer W. Kimball. Other then that i do try and address the specific question but since their are so many and some just don’t have answers and just have to go on faith this is the answer i would tack onto almost any question about Joseph Smith.

    • Liss

      “If you believe in the doctrine and covenants then you believe the authority continued all the way to at least Spencer W. Kimball.”

      Meaning that Ezra Taft Benson was a fallen prophet? That there are now no longer prophets on the earth? What?

      • Meaning that the Doctrine and Covenants contains revelations from Spencer W. Kimball, so if you believe in the book called the Doctrine and Covenants you acknowledge that the priesthood and prophetship continued at least that far. Since there is no canonized scripture currently from a prophet after him, your belief in the D&C doesn’t say explicitly that you also believe in the prophetship of any prophet after that.

        It does not mean that there isn’t, it’s just that no prophet after President Kimball added to the D&C. I don’t think that Sam is implying anything about current prophets.

  69. Allen

    At a young age, I knew there was a God and there was a Holy Ghost. Those beliefs became my anchor as I partied away in junior and senior high school. I knew my lot was to go on a mission (I did) and marry LDS and have a family (I did). I drink Rock Stars now and then and watch on occasion an R rated movie. My convert wife, on the other hand, would almost rather wear a chastity belt. And my testimony continues to grow. The doctrines perceived and taught in my youth and not too long ago in my middle age are not what I believe today. For example, Grace. We are saved by Grace. Period. After all we can do, as Nephi points out, is also true. But all we can do is rely fully on the merits of Christ to save. Beyond that, there is nothing we can do because he paid the full price without condition. Forgiveness. I don’t believe God forgives, only loves. Forgiveness is a mortal step in front of a Godly attribute to simply love others. And probably the most difficult thing to do is love myself. I believe self-loathing is Satan’s greatest tool.

    Finally – and thank you for reading if you’ve hung on this long – Mormons are beautifully human too. We worship a God, not Thomas S. Monson, not Joseph Smith, a favorite BofM prophet or Paul H. Dunn. We worship a God who said,

    “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
    But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
    Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
    Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”

    A God trembled from pain. That in itself is topic for the Ages. He took on a body like ours, and in some miraculous way – perhaps during his whole pre-mortal and mortal life – felt every sorrow, pain and joy ever experienced. The Atonement is the main anchor of my testimony today and the doctrine continues to be discovered as a life-long pursuit. It is taught, extolled and humbly and gratefully received in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beginning with Joseph Smith.

  70. Hi Joanna! I wrote about dealing with doubts brought on by Mormon history issues in an essay “A Surefire Recipe for Unassailable Faith, Involving Four Judgments and a Vegetable Analogy,” published in the literary magazine Hotel Amerika last year – you might enjoy it if you didn’t see it previously back when the Wheat and Tares blog linked to it. It’s here:

  71. The problems with Joseph Smith go on and on. Reconciling “a man of God” with the real history of his life, his relationships, and the writings released under his name requires such torturous rationalizations, reality defying denials, and fantastic, irrational suppositions, that any ongoing trust in him seems impossible for anyone willing to look at the whole story head on. The more you consider the mountain of evidence and logical argument against Smith (readily available from many sources, including this blog), the harder it is to twist and turn and find some way to make his Prophet story work. On the other hand, everything about him fits very easily into one simple and logical, but disappointing explanation—he was a very talented manipulator, a storyteller (or story manager) who exploited men, women, and children.

    What then are members of “his” LDS church experiencing, so powerful that it trumps the obvious rational conclusion? Well, religion in all its many flavors has been a powerful, self-triggering intoxicant for thousands and thousands of years. So many gods and prophets have been ratified by something on the inside, something we call “spiritual,” some combination of thoughts and feelings that leads to the conclusion that what MY religious leader is saying MUST be true.

    In most of the “Western” world (for the past few millennia) salvation has been considered possible through Jesus ONLY, and since the 1830’s some people have believed that ONLY the LDS church has had the TRUE authority for administering that salvation. Taking an unequivocal stance of devotion to faith means that priests of all other sects are necessarily false, and their followers confused. All the millions and millions of spiritual epiphanies confirming false religions must just be self-delusional experiences. Even with the greatest sense of universal love, if you are right, something has to be wrong with other people’s spiritual conclusions. This common dysfunction that takes many forms: Prayers to Allah must be misdirected five times a day; Rastafarian’s Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie cannot have been God; Jews have failed to see their greatest star as the Savior; Hindu’s polytheism including an elephant head god must be a form of hallucination; Catholics who believe they are speaking directly with a Jesus who never mentions that he is NOT the three in one trinity must be imagining his part of the conversation. And of course the list continues, invalidating thousands of cherished human beliefs over the ages.

    So even when respecting everyone’s right to their beliefs, we can still see that intense spiritual experiences are integral to a splendid array of religions, so contradictory of each other that at least most of them HAVE to be mistakes. So are you part of a tiny minority who actually IS getting god(s) right? Or is your religion (and your personal spirituality) just another form of essentially the same underlying delusional disorder common to most humans? Very few people are ready to look in that mirror. We are attached to who we think we are, and fear of letting go discourages considering the flaws of any religion that anyone holds dear. Nevertheless, AskMormonGirl has opened the discussion of the real history of Joseph Smith, and in so doing, she has positioned readers of this blog on a long and very slippery slope.

    • Somehow, though you say you are a member of this church, you talk as though you are unfamiliar with a single doctrine taught within its halls.

      Of COURSE members of other faiths have valid, and real, and strong, spiritual experiences. They should be expected to. And we hope and pray that they would. “The Spirit of Christ is given to EVERY MAN [and WOMAN]” (Moroni 7:16, emphasis and brackets mine). They are meant to guide them in this life so that they may find the tools they need to return their Heavenly Father, whether they receive all the ordinances in this life, by joining the Church and following its precepts, or in the next vicariously. (Most, of course, have had or will have their work done for them, which was the message the angel was sent to declare in 1 Peter 3:19–the Greek making clear to modern scholars exactly what Section 138 already outlined.)

      And whether that church is called colloquially “Mormon” now or by its previous “Jewish” or “Buddist” or “Shinto” (hey, we don’t know what started them and how far they have fallen from their original revelation) the important thing to remember is that “there are more nations than one,” (2 Nephi 29:7) and God has a plan for them all.

    • I’m sorry, but I cannot agree with you. I’ll summarize how I see religion for you really quickly, though I already know you won’t like it.

      Religion is the organizations that are created to help man understand things that actually exist. Things that are facts (as they are called in science) or truth (as they are called in religion. They’re the same to me–both are descriptions of things that actually exist). Other religions all have truth, or, in other words, they all connect to something real that does exist. They feelings they have are real, and reflect the actual God, Who really physically exists, reaching out through His power, which is both real and tangible, to help them know that they have found something true.

      The LDS church IS the only church on earth currently which has full authority from God to act in His name and to call His power down, though they are not authorized to do whatever they want and expect God to obey–that is not the kind of authority we are talking about. Regardless, having such authority and power allows access to a fullness of truth, or rather, the authority to receive all things that God has designed for us (meaning mankind) to get. But that does not negate truth elsewhere in any way. It simply means that others don’t have the fullness. God responds to faithful devotion, including 5 prayers a day and lifelong commitment to a particular parish or congregation by becoming a priest–provided that both are done with pure intentions. That also holds that any LDS person who acts under impure intentions (only to fit in, for example, though they believe none of it)–they will not see God responding to their weekly church attendance or service. Christ taught that clearly in the New Testament when He said that a gift given grudgingly is the same as a gift not given.

      Just because a feeling is not exactly the same as one’s usual feelings doesn’t make it a delusion. My sister isn’t ticklish, and I am only ticklish in a few places. Others are wildly ticklish everywhere, but it would be foolish for my sister to think being tickled causes another person to be delusional, or for me to think that my sister is evil because she isn’t ticklish even in a few places. That’s not the best example, but I hope it illustrates a point. By design, we need to work to learn about the factual, spiritual nature of life. Heavenly laws, which are just as real and effective and laws of physics, seem to specify that we use different abilities, abilities called forth when we faithfully act, when we listen to the Spirit, when we are sincere and honest with others, ourselves, and God. These aren’t delusions.

      A quick example how one can misunderstand spiritual laws but still be partially right using a physical law to illustrate. Light exists. It comes from our sun. That is a fact. How it gets there and what it is might be a trickier question. Perhaps I look at other, similar things that carry heat–like fluids. I see that heat often acts like a fluid, therefore I conclude that it must either be carried by a fluid or be one itself. For other reasons, scientists (truth seekers) thought this: aether, they called it. But that isn’t true. Yet, using that idea, I can come to get good models of heat transfer and other things. So, my partial knowledge, skillfully applied, does reward me with knowledge and abilities that I wouldn’t have without any knowledge.

      I think that you are smart enough to carry the analogy further: with the right tools, you can find out that it doesn’t flow by a fluid, but a lot of the ideas and models are still valid, so you adjust a few things and perfect your knowledge even more. In religion, it’s the same. One can always gain access to better tools, more knowledge, and grow and progress their understanding, but any understanding of actual events and feelings, which have been dubbed “spiritual”, is beneficial. Does that make sense?

  72. Jen

    I guess for me, as long as I could remember, the prophet, while important was not nearly as focused on or talked about , in my family, as Christ.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t believe Joseph Smith to be a prophet. I do. I am grateful for him.

    So when questions come, I just answer them. And I answer them better now that I’ve read Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. For me, that book, made sense out of the snapshots of Joseph’s history I had been exposed to from time to time.

  73. Hailey

    I think that bottom line our prophets are men, not gods. The church isn’t the Church of Joseph Smith of the Latter Day Saints. We don’t worship him. As far as the comment of pedophile behavior, back then the girls got married at 15, so having those polygamist relationships with those girls wasn’t about trapping younger girls. Every religion has something they don’t understand and honestly just because ours was the most recent its a topic that is brought up more than other religions. By their fruits ye shall know them. The Church has brought forth such amazing good things, so to have a person leave because of speculation when there isn’t actual facts being revealed makes me sad because there was so much controversy at the time its hard to say what is fact and what was speculation. They arrested Joseph many times for false charges. They thought we had horns for years and that the “Mormon” people were somehow different than other human beings. I have lived outside the Church and then came back and have never been happier. This topic is a good thing to discuss, but we can never know the facts of what went on so its pointless to assume one thing when there is as equal of a chance it never occurred.

  74. Kevin

    The real story gets more interesting than just the negative allegations about Joseph Smith and polygamy. If we are to believe Hyrum Smith (full disclosure: I do) Joseph had revealed to him in the very early 1830’s the principle of poylgamy existing within celestial marriage in general. He procrastinated on it for some years until heavenly warnings came to him to do so no further. This subject is very complex and we will probably never know all the whys and wherabouts until moreglorious times.

  75. Janice

    We were not there. We have an incomplete history of everything that happened. I have a hard time with some stuff. I have read the information the anti’s/critics have written. Doing my own research and looking up the anti’s references proved to me they twist information, misquote, take quotes out of context, etc. On the site “Sacred Symbolic” there is an article about a FAIR podcast where Kevin Christensen is interviewed. He is an amateur scholar. He said that “if Jos. Smith and the BofM, were, in fact, perfect, we being imperfect, wouldn’t really know because we can’t judge what perfection is. As long as we are flawed and have no experience with perfection, we can’t judge or know what it is.” What little I posted here probably does not make sense, so I suggest reading the article or listening to the podcast.
    Things I have done to help is that I try to read everything I can about the ancient scriptures, including writings not considered sacred scripture like the Dead Sea Scrolls, books not put in the Bible,, etc. New discoveries are constantly happening and being translated into English. I also read about what non-LDS scholars have written about the Council of Nicea, the early “church fathers”, the writings of the early church fathers and what their writings mean, etc., and how Greek philosophies were used by the early church fathers to influence and explain their beliefs which shaped the doctrine used by mainstream Christianity today. One example is the Trinity. I read what non-LDS scholars have written about early Christianity and how it compares to the Mormons, especially the temple worship. By reading this and what LDS scholars have written and what the Prophets and Apostles have taught, has lead me to believe Jos. Smith was a Prophet. There is no way he knew about the things and information we know and have today. The only way he could have gotten it “right” was by Divine help. There was no lucky guessing on his part. It is not coincidence. I have listened to other beliefs, and there is so much they can’t explain or don’t understand about the scriptures or early Christianity. Everything we believe is in the Bible. The BofM is to testify of Christ’s Divinity. We have to study, read and pray. I would like to say more; sorry for the length. Prophets make mistakes, Jos. Smith even admitted to his. Someone once told me something that I use everyday: We don’t know what we don’t know!

  76. I DID grow up in a Sunstone/Dialogue household. I remember growing up and wondering why I couldn’t just be taught the same things I was learning in Primary every Sunday. As an adult getting ready to start my own family, I’m glad I learned how to hold uncertainty in the palm of my hand while in my own home.

  77. Kathleen Matheson Weber

    I knew most of the things people are finding shocking when I was in High School. I was an early reader and we had both the Documentary and Comprehensive histories and Journal of Discourses in the house. I was surprised at times and asked a lot of questions. When ETB took many books off the Shelves kids grew up without perspective. I think many younger adults are struggling so because Ezra Taft was, effectively a book burner. He ordered The Story of the Latter Day Saints destroyed as it was being printed. But he jumped the gun. He was due to acceded to the throne. Deseret Books worked around the clock to get them printed under President Kimball, who had authorized the History.

  78. Kathleen Matheson Weber

    One bit of trivia I came across recently was that the Trail of Tears began in 1838– the same time as the Extermination order. Indian women were free to marry when they got their first period and in Northern California there are many half and full blooded Indigenous girls. I had two workers, both of the Five east coast tribes who could read and write in their languages who married at 13. I will tell you one story about a Mormon Indian girl. Caruk (Down River) Indian on one side, Portuguese on the other.

    Joyce’s mother had her baptized at 12 because she liked the Mormon boys and thought they could give her a better life. She had a boyfriend in 8th grade who came to her graduation, then they got married. She was walking down the street one day and she saw a shoe box that said Joy on it. She thought of how happy she was and decided to name her child joy. Her husbands family had a old timey ban and she loved to play with her babies and to dance as they went from Saturday Night missionary farewells. I am 60 and old enough to remember these.

    She stopped going to Church when her boys were deacons. Her ward was racist and would let her light skinned boys pass the sacrament, but not her dark boys. So they all stopped going to Church.

    Jackson County left orphans. Cherokee and Mormon children travelled much like the bands of children who travelled at night and slept in barns during the Shoa. Rhoda Leech Neese and her brother traveled in one of these bands. It took a long time to get from Jackson County to Nauvoo. Maybe because they found help at times, Maybe because they had to forage before they could go on.

    When they got to Nauvoo, Rhoda was pregnant and pretty far along. I never found out why, but desperate times sometimes call for unthinkable compromises. She married James Guymon and helped with his first wife who was ill. He was one of Joseph Smith’s Half Breed Cherokee body guards. All Indigenous tribes were polygamous especially in hard times. Stay close to the real history and ignore the anti-polygamy propaganda. I studied propaganda and know both how to write it and how not to write it. I know the types of propaganda and how go recognize it. My mentor was the father of a good friend and he wanted to know, in general, about the American left. He felt the future would take that path. Forget about Testimonies, I never got one. Go to a DUP archive and read. You will find many answers than propaganda can not offer. These stories came from Kim Mc Call’s line. He will verify them, I think.

  79. Shawn

    As a PhD candidate in American History I can tell you that what you are stating are not historical facts. I believe that non-biased, non-LDS historians have proven the anti-mormon claims about Joseph Smith’s relationships with other women are false. Joanna, for someone who practically claims how open minded and well-studied they are, I find your narrow mindedness to be quite appalling. It seems as if you are only interested in reading what is considered to be shock and quackery historical accounts. Which are not historical at all. They are false. I recently converted to the LDS religion. Before that I was agnostic. However, I found out about the false historical claims when I was agnostic. It would be nice if for once you actually defended the doctrine and teachings of the LDS religion. I’m not suggesting to do so in a “blind-sheep” mentality. No, I’m suggesting that perhaps you need to re-evaluate your virtues. No offense, but you come across as being a mormon in name only. It’s as if you believe that by proclaiming you are a mormon your bizarre and misleading claims will hold validity. I don’t mean to judge, but this is the impression that you radiate. Being Liberal, open-minded, and a feminist does not mean that you purposely choose harmful and false teachings to cause shock. Allowing political beliefs to have a front-seat to religion is a very narrow minded and sad thing to do. One more thing, women do hold leadership positions and equal authority in the church. If you really think that you are so flawed that you need to hold the Priesthood to be perfected, then please be my guest. Also, when can my partner and I become Relief Society Presidents?

    • James

      Good Lord, Shawn. Feel free to gloat in private, but don’t go around telling people that they are superficial and need to work on their virtues, just because they have more liberal views. I’m sure that Joanna isn’t just swallowing all the “anti” stuff hook, line, and, sinker. Maybe she isn’t defending some of the doctrine because she doesn’t believe it. Gordon B Hinckley didn’t think polygamy was doctrinal either. So should we go on a warpath to excommunicate someone that disagrees with Joseph? If you think that sex was not an intended part of polygamy, look no further than Brigham Young. I could go on, but really. Keep your accusations of narrow-mindedness to yourself.

  80. john

    I do believe that a prophet can (could) have many human flaws and still serve God. I also believe in the learning/developmental process we all experience. The question, for me, is how serious those flaws can be before the spirit of God ceases to strive with man….we are taught that sin and transgression create alienation from God….if Joseph was commiting adultery, could God work through such a man?? Was the adultery acute or chronic in nature? Judging by the habitual nature of his practice, efforts to repent seem absent from his history. If members commit adultery today, they are isolated by leadership, chastened (which is proper) and an intervention is created. Can a modern day member commit adultery and still feel worthy to carry out the work of the Almighty? I couldn’t. Does this mean we are too hard on ourselves and should see Christ as much more merciful than we do? Did Joseph know Christ so well, and experience his mercy in a different way (level) than we do? Maybe those of us who commit adultery should just get right back up and forgive ourselves, not cry, feel bad, etc. Did Joseph simply lack the natural feelings, driven by conscience, to stop and think about his sins? So many possible answers. The chursch taught me that adultery is serious. OK, I’ll even buy polygamy….but spiritual wives??? Marrying married women? These days I’m trying to see the church through the lens of Jesus Christ….and I’m happy to see the G.A.s are placing less focus on JS…after all, he was a man…and I don’t worship him. Finally, I don’t believe the Lord of our lives, our redeemer, the perfect God would work through an evil man, ever! So, if Josepsh’s work is real, he could not be evil. He would have to have had the spirit of God, either through forgiveness or righteous living. So, either his marriages were real and approved of God, or they were not, and God forgave him each time, or did not forgive him (and his works were not of God). I still struggle because the church offers so many inspiring words. Who can sit through a conference and deny the truth of so many men/women?
    I would like to see all the ‘ists’ (e.g., feminists) switch focus from ideological views to the lens of reality or principles. Victimization doesn’t solve problems, truth does. If a man or a woman speaks truth, wonderful. If you are gay or straight, figure out what is right, but don’t throw others under the bus. I’m tired of the bashing white males receive: we all have different values and views and should not be lumped together. The orthodox views of many older G.A.s does not represent the views of educated,open-minded white males. I think women are better at relationships, in general, and make great leaders so please stop creating silos and adverserial positions and work together based on views and not demographics.

  81. Jen

    Can anyone link to the Mormon Stories podcast that Joanna mentioned? I can’t seem to find it on their website, but I’m not sure exactly the one she’s referring to.

  82. Tom

    I am not a Mormon. I have read the BOM three times and each time I enjoy it more. I don’t feel it is history in a literal sense but it is in a real sense! To me it captures human nature quit powerfully and the grace of God even more so. All the wars and killings are just an honest vehicle to reveal what a true walk of faith in peace looks like. There is a glorious and brutal truth to it and the way we humans are. Maybe the world has always been made up of Lamenites and Nephited and both have the great potential for good and evil. Is it inspired? I find it inspirational. Joseph is both a disappointment and marvel. As are all.

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