Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Enigma of Joseph Smith


When I checked out No Man Knows My History, I was planning on a skim read. That was three weeks ago, and I have just now finished the epilogue. I read every word, including the footnotes, and I anticipate appendices A, B, and C to provide another few days of top-notch reading.

This book is the definitive, thorough biography of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Thinking of the detailed research author Fawn Brodie performed in order to write these 500 well-documented pages makes my head hurt. Nor was the book simply a dry recitation of names, places and dates. Brodie's rich, colorful language would make the most drab historical figure leap off the pages of her book.


But Brodie's subject was anything but a drab historical figure. No, indeed! I wonder whether anyone at all has ever squeezed so much drama into thirty-nine years of life. There were Joseph Smith's spectacular religious experiences, of course; but controversy, scandal and persecution were just as much a part of his days. His charismatic personality drew people to him—rich and poor, young and old, Americans and internationals—but many turned traitor and some of his closest friends became his worst enemies. He was a dreamer and a schemer; he rewrote the ancient history of America, he gave revelations as from God, he attempted miracles (sometimes successfully), he ran for President, he earned a reputation as a champion wrestler, he escaped from the law multiple times, he married over forty women, he formed his own army and founded his own city. He was rarely treated fairly; either he was adored and blindly obeyed or he was savagely attacked with word and weapon. He fell victim to the hostile frontier mob and in the end died a violent and unjust death at their hands.


Yet for all his biographer's hard work, Joseph Smith remains an enigma to me. Reading one page made me shake my head at his genius, the next at his outrageous blunders. He kept extensive journals, but these contain only guarded expressions of his thoughts. It's as if he expected to be the subject of a 500-page book. There is, therefore, no way to know his mind. Quite frankly, I am mystified by Joseph Smith.


"In a wanton moment of self-searching," Brodie writes, "[Smith] said with a kind of wonder: 'You don't know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don't blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself'" (366).


More baffling than Joseph Smith's life is his legacy. How could a man—a poor, uneducated man at that—singlehandedly raise up an entire religious system, complete with its own prophets, missionaries, scriptures, business holdings and social culture? One hundred and sixty-four years after Smith's death, Mormonism is 13 million strong and steadily growing. And each individual convert must confess Joseph Smith was a prophet and the first book he authored (
The Book of Mormon) is true.

It would seem, then, that Joseph Smith was successful. He sought after fame all his life; now his face plasters billboards and looks down from fireplace mantles across Utah and around the world. He wanted to speak for God; now his books are confessed by millions to be equal with the Bible. He yearned for respect; now he has the unparalleled glory of a martyr.

It could be argued, however, that success is measured by the extent that one's work endures through the passing of time. In this respect, couldn't Joseph Smith be labeled a failure? After all, the church that enthusiastically claims him as prophet does
not claim many of his teachings. He taught that the Lamanites of The Book of Mormon were the "principal ancestors" of the American Indians; the LDS Church has changed his wording, realizing this claim to be completely unjustifiable by modern science and archeology. He specified his son Joseph III should be his successor; after his death, the church was split into several factions, with the majority following Brigham Young. Perhaps most notably, he claimed "spiritual wifism" to be "a command of God" to last "for time and all eternity"; today the LDS Church denounces all who practice polygamy. And the examples could go on and on. There is no doubt that mainstream Mormonism today is vastly different than in Joseph Smith's lifetime. Essentially, the prophet is ignored among his own people. His work has not stood the test of time.

Being a Christian, I cannot help but draw a contrast with the person of Jesus Christ.
His words have endured for thousands of years. His teachings have remained the same. Although not all of His prophecies have been fulfilled yet, not one of them has been changed to accomodate modern discoveries. His historical claims have been backed up repeatedly by archaeological proof. There is no need to backtrack, gloss over, or give more recent revelations. Jesus Christ is Truth. And truth doesn't change. It endures.

Like Joseph Smith, Christ remains something of an enigma to me. However, the mystery surrounding Christ is not dark at all. It inspires awe, not a confused shake of the head. The more I learn about Christ and the closer I grow to Him, the more I find Him to be, well,
Himself. I have never found cause for disillusionment. That's one point where Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith differ irreconcilably. The only surprises I encounter in Christ's character are good ones. And the more of those surprises I find, the more I long for. I will be happy to spend my eternity endeavoring to plumb the depths of His wisdom and ways.
No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Second Edition by Fawn M. Brodie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

4 comments:

  1. Amen!! Well said! Sounds like an interesting read.

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  2. Great post. I don't think I know you, so if I am intruding on your turf, just let me know. I just wanted to clarify that Mormons (or at least I) don't believe that Joseph Smith was infallible. Even though he is revered as a prophet, Smith was still human and was not perfect as Jesus Christ was. This quote from the LDS newsroom helps clarify: “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church.” Many of the weird statements that you have cited are exceptions to the general rule that Joseph Smith spoke the mind and will of God for his time.

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  3. Trentathon, thanks for your response. I welcome any and all thoughtful and courteous comments.

    I realize the LDS Church does not claim Joseph Smith is infallible. In fact, that's my point. I absolutely refuse to place my faith for salvation in anyone with even the possibility of being fallible. Since Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God and entirely sinless, He and only He deserves my faith. Even if Joseph Smith were right 99.9% of the time, that's too big a margin of error when it's a matter of life and death. I will not let my eternal destiny rest on anyone or anything but Christ. "He offered one sacrifice for sins for all time" (Hebrews 10:12). Nothing and no one else is needed.

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  4. A better biography, and I believe more historically correct, is Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling.

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Your turn. What do you think?