Draft Submission To Newsweek’s “My Turn” Re: Joseph Smith’s Birthday And Mormonism

On another thread, someone made the useful suggestion that I turn a letter to the editor I wrote to Newsweek re. Soukup’s “Mormon Odyssey” article into an essay submission to Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature. 900 word limit. 150 submitted each week, from which one is chosen. Long odds, but what the hell.

Those of you who know how long winded I tend to be can imagine how hard it was for me to choose the 900 best words to pick apart Mormonism.

Here it is. Feedback appreciated. I will submit it in the next day or two.



Joseph Smith, Jr. – Mormonism’s Founding Prophet Would You Buy A Used Car From This Man?

December 23, 2005 is Joseph Smith’s 200th birthday. As a result there has recently been a flurry of reporting with regard to Mormonism and Smith’s contribution to it.

Smith’s life will eventually become a great movie – lots of sex, deception, religious fervour, the rise of a powerful new religion, a run for the Presidency of the United States, and in the end Smith was murdered.

In my view, there is one question that takes Smith’s essential measure – “Was Joseph Smith trustworthy?” If so, the amazing stories he told should be taken seriously. If not, he is merely another in a depressingly long line of influential shysters.

Smith’s claims are spectacular. Among other things, he tells us that God appeared to him and commanded him not to join any of the churches then in existence because they were all “abominations”; that an angel gave him golden plates and the power to translate The Book of Mormon from those plates; that the Book of Mormon contains the literal history of God’s dealings with a Christian people who lived in the Americas from 600 BCE to 400 CE; that God sent Peter, James and John as well as John the Baptist, in person, to restore God’s authority by giving it to Smith; and that on many occasions angelic visitors or the voice of God himself came to Smith and taught him what he needed to do as the leader of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Most of Smith’s claims must be accepted or rejected solely on the basis of his trustworthiness. What does the historical record tell us in that regard?

Before Smith became God’s prophet he was a con man. He pretended to be able to see buried treasure in a small brown stone (a “seer” or “peep” stone) into which he looked by putting the stone into the bottom of a hat, covering the hat’s opening with his face and looking at the stone. He would say that he saw treasure buried on a particular property, and sometimes the property’s owner would hire him to dig up the treasure. There is no evidence that he ever found treasure, but he evidently put on quite a show. Not good enough, however, to satisfy all of his treasureless customers – we have court documents related to his conviction on charges of “glass looking” in connection with a failed treasure digging adventure.

It is interesting to note that Smith used the same “stone in a hat” routine to “translate” the Book of Mormon. Smith acknowledged that most of this “translation” occurred without the golden plates being present. See http://www.mormonstudies.com/criddle/rigdon.htm for one of many credible theories with regard to how the Book of Mormon may have come into being.

Smith “married” many women. It appears in some cases that this amounted to no more than sexual intercourse that was labelled “marriage” after the fact. Several of Smith’s “wives” were young girls, others were married at the same time to other men, and in a few cases Smith sent husbands on “missions” for the Mormon Church causing them to leave town just before he propositioned their wives. The worst part of Smith’s polygamy, however, was the manner in which he denied his actions in that regard in public and private, to Mormons and non-Mormons alike, for over a decade. His excuse for this massive deception?; that the people were not ready to hear God’s will. Smith’s lying with regard to his sexual activities established a pattern of Mormon leadership deception referred to as “lying for the Lord” that has dogged Mormonism ever since.

Smith deception was not limited to sexual matters. His mode of government, for example, and other important aspects of his relationship to Mormonism were based on secrecy and deception. It seems clear that Smith believed that his status as God’s “prophet” placed him above manmade legal and moral constraints. Leading Mormon historian Michael Quinn has described this as Smith’s “theocratic ethics”. In a theocracy, which Smith believed himself to lead, God’s law (as stated by God’s prophet – Smith) trumped all else. Hence, Smith became a law unto himself.

Smith’s record of a translator of ancient documents is telling. He failed in his only verifiable attempts, most notably with regard to the Book of Abraham which is still believed to be Holy Scripture by most Mormons. Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from certain Egyptian papyrii. His failure as a translator in this regard became apparent long after his death when scholars developed the ability to read Egyptian hyroglyphs. And yet throughout his life Smith proclaimed his ability as a translator with supreme confidence and used his various “translations” as evidence of divine gift that helped him to gain and hold his following.

I have summarized only a few of Smith’s noteworthy shortcomings. It seems clear that he was the type of person from whom most people would not wish to buy a used car. However, he was a charismatic huckster who was adept at hiding his history and spinning an exciting, compelling tale. No sooner had one group of followers left him than he found others. And the organization he founded, like many other well-known institutions whose murky roots are long forgotten, is a fascinating study in its own right.

Whatever Mormonism is – and that is far from clear – it is likely not whatever Joseph Smith said it was.

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