Joseph Smith Jr. would have been 200 years old on December 23, 2005. Hence, we are in the midst of a reporting flurry regarding Mormonism. Much of this shows Mormonism at its clean-cut best â€“ attractive families; successful businessmen and politicians; Steve Young; with smiles all-round. And Mormons generally have earned their hardworking, pleasant image. However, the more we know about history the better we can understand the strengths and weaknesses of what we encounter in the present. In that neighbourly spirit, letâ€™s consider a few of Mormonismâ€™s foundational planks.
Joseph Smithâ€™s claims include that God appeared to him and commanded him not to join any church because all were â€œabominationsâ€; angelic visitors and the voice of God himself regularly guided Smith as he led Godâ€™s Kingdom on Earth; and God sent Peter, James and John to give Smith Godâ€™s exclusive authority. Then add lots of sex, deception, political intrigue, Smithâ€™s run for the U.S. Presidency and claim to be â€œKing of the Earthâ€, and millions who today revere him as humanityâ€™s second most important person behind only Christ. This is quite a story.
While there are many ways to interpret Smith, one pedestrian question takes his most important measure: Was he reliable?
Before Smith became Godâ€™s prophet he was a convicted con man. Among other things, he pretended to be able to see buried treasure by looking into a small brown stone. People then paid him to find the treasure. Court records describe his conviction on fraud related charges in that regard. This cooled his enthusiasm for treasure seeking.
Then Smith began his prophetic career. He reported that God and Christ appeared to him, and that an angel gave him the golden plates from which he claimed to translate the Book of Mormon. He used his treasure seeking stone to perform this translation, mostly without the golden plates present.
Once accepted as a prophet, Smith exercised the alpha maleâ€™s traditional sexual prerogative over his followers. What he eventually called polygamous marriages were often little more than clandestine affairs. Several of Smithâ€™s over thirty â€œwivesâ€ were young girls, others were already married and remained so while consorting with Smith. In a few cases Smith sent husbands out of town on long term Mormon business before propositioning their wives. Rumours of adultery and polygamy swirled around him while he gradually allowed other Mormon leaders to join him in this secret practise. Meanwhile, for over a decade Smith and the others involved denied their behaviour. This lying established a pattern of leadership deception that still dogs Mormonism.
Smith claimed to be able to translate ancient records but failed in his only verifiable attempts. For example, his mistranslation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri became apparent long after his death when scholars developed the ability to read Egyptian. And over a century of Book of Mormon scholarship has produced little to support its claims, against mountains of disconfirming evidence.
Smithâ€™s tendency to deceive pervaded his mode of civic and church government. And he altered his personal history as well as revelations from God in ways that helped him maintain control over his followers.
While he sometimes admitted error, Smithâ€™s most egregious deceptions were excused on the basis that God told him to lie because it was necessary. This characterized much of what is most troubling about Smith â€“ the ends too often justified the means. In a theocracy God’s law, as stated by God’s prophet, trumps all. Hence, Smith became a law unto himself.
Disillusioned Mormons left Smith in droves as reality collided with his grandiose claims. But the stories he told on Godâ€™s behalf evolved so as to attract new followers. Many who stayed did not understand his shortcomings until they were so committed to Mormonism that they rationalized his deceptive behavior. The study of cognitive dissonance and cognitive bias explain how this works and why it should be expected.
Smith was murdered at a time when Mormonism was stumbling. His martyrdom caused him to become an icon that would be used for often conflicting purposes by the many groups into which his followers splintered. One such group followed Brigham Young to the Utah desert where it grew into mainstream Mormonism.
For leaders like Young, a community building myth about Smith was more useful than Smithâ€™s history, so inconvenient fact tended to be surpressed. Hence, Smithâ€™s deceptive tendencies were not understood until long after Mormonism reached critical mass as an American sub-culture, and even now many well-educated Mormons are unaware of their religionâ€™s questionable beginnings. The current prosperity of many religions with unsavoury pasts illustrates that once a social group has a sufficient head of steam, it takes far more than scandal to stop the train.
However, the tension between Mormon myth and the information rich, Internet world is painful. This causes many Mormons to emphasize more than ever the idea that the powerful emotions they feel while worshipping are Godâ€™s voice affirming all Mormon beliefs, and that these feelings are the most trustworthy evidence of reality. The belief taht emotional feeling is a form of knowledge makes Mormons susceptible to manipulation of many kinds, and is likely responsible in part for Utahâ€™s North American leading rate of white collar crime, anti-depressant consumption and several other unflattering social statistics.
So, should Smith be believed? It appears not. But his life coupled with Mormon history presents a gripping, cautionary social parable.