Was Joseph Smith for Real?

By Thomas, Mark D. | Free Inquiry, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Was Joseph Smith for Real?


Thomas, Mark D., Free Inquiry


Joseph Smith, the nineteenth-century prophet and founder of Mormonism, was never accused of thinking too small. He was poor farm boy with little education. He lived in the shadow of the Enlightened economic expansion which passed by his poor family But he claimed visitations of God, Christ, and numerous angels, he translated numerous ancient texts (including the Bible) with divine aid, he revealed God's true communitarian economic system to eliminate poverty he planned and tried to develop large cities, married numerous women, and crowned himself king on earth. He loved not just to impress but to dazzle people and he was known among his followers as eloquent, deeply loving, and terribly charismatic. Oh yes--one of his most modest undertakings was to run for president of the United States. (In 1844, he was killed by his enemies before the election.) Central to his theology was the idea that weakness overcomes strength. He, more than anyone else, exemplified that doctrine.

To think small was never in his nature. Through a series of visions and revelations, he claimed to have restored the ancient Church of Christ, various priesthoods (the authority and power to act for God on earth), and the lost Gospel of Christ. The most famous of his translations was the Book of Mormon, which he claimed he found after receiving divine direction to uncover it in a hill in western New York. It related the history of ancient settlers who were led by divinely guided prophets to a new world in the Americas.

The Book of Mormon is a paradigm of all that Joseph Smith did. Smith's translations and revelations speak the language of myth. Myth creates or discovers a world. Smith bridged the gap between the mundane and the sacred worlds of Mormonism. This world-building, in no small part, has contributed to the success of Mormonism in finding new converts in a rapidly changing and confusing world. Mormon theological symbolism of apostasy and restoration appeal to the sorrow of the dispossessed and provide the hope of the return to spiritual paradise lost.

TROUBLING QUESTIONS

But for all their romanticism, scholars must critically analyze the claims of Joseph Smith. One of the first questions that comes to mind is: "Can Joseph Smith claim skill as a translator of religious texts?" When one examines the body of writings that claim to be his translations (the Book of Mormon, the inspired translations of the Bible, the Kinderhook plates, the revelation of John, and Egyptian papyri), it is clear from the bulk of the textual evidence that Joseph Smith demonstrates no capacity to translate languages. He did not even know a language besides English until later in life. His "translations" are revelatory creations and biblical commentaries. They tend to contain clusters of biblical passages that are arranged into interesting mosaics that answer theological, textual, social, and existential questions. These mosaics are the most artful aspects of Smith's revelations and narratives. He was not a translator, a historian, or a scientist. But he was a spiritual folk artist of the highest rank.

A second question that arises is, "How historically accurate is early Mormon history that functions as myth?" What do we make of the extraordinary visit of heavenly messengers? Some historians have accused Smith of a being a spiritual con artist. For example, they point out historical inaccuracies and the evolving details of the story of his early visions as evidence that they are fabrications. Mormon historians defend Smith's character and his story as historically accurate. A review of his second vision will clarify my position regarding the historicity of Joseph's story.

On the night of September 21-22, 1823, an angel purportedly visited Joseph Smith to announce the location of gold plates containing the Book of Mormon. The 1839 history by Joseph Smith is by far the most detailed description of the vision. When we examine this story in detail we discover that the wording of the angelic message discusses theological concerns of the late 1830s. …

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