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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.