Was Joseph Smith a criminal, a fraud, and a supporter of slavery?

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Among the list of stigmas Mormons have to deal with none are more insidious than the claims that Joseph Smith was a fraud, a criminal, and a supporter of slavery. These accusations were front-and-center with the liberal media during the Mitt Romney campaigns as they cherry-picked parts of Mormon history (see video at the end). What we should be asking is, how did a young farmer from this condition reveal a rich theology that mirrors the Bible?

What is lost to those who feel this way is the background the prophet came from. He lived in a time when divining rods, seer stones, and other Old World superstitions remained among early nineteenth-century country folk.[1] Meanwhile, as Mormonism was in its infancy, slavery and Anglo-Saxon white supremacy plagued the nation as the abolition movement began to take on a more influential and even a violent role. The Mormons – with very little political clout – were on the move, from New York to Ohio to Missouri and finally in Illinois before leaving for their trek across the Rockies after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.

To answer the first charge, Joseph Smith as a kid did get in trouble with the law for using “peep stones” to help his neighbors find buried treasure. But his actions were hardly uncommon in this time and context. What is odd and which has not been very accessible to most Mormons over the years is the exact method of the Book of Mormon translation. Thanks to a lot of work by historians (and perhaps the creators of South Park), members are presented with an image of Joseph Smith with his face buried in his hat looking into a “seer” stone and “translating.”

Joseph Smith was not a fraud, he was once a kid who grew up in a culture of magic and his message of restoring Christianity as an adult was enticing to Bible believers and posed a direct threat to other denominations.

Smith ultimately rejected these childhood tendencies as he began to take on his role as a prophet in adulthood.[2] In fact, the Book of Mormon reads more like the Bible than something out of occult folklore, according to Joseph Smith biographer, Richard Lyman Bushman.[3] The content of the Book of Mormon in itself says a lot about the nature of Mormonism, much more so than the background the prophet came from. It is from the latter that the critics falsely portray the church to for their own anti-religious ends.

Who was responsible for creating this narrative that the prophet was a fraud? It was his religious competitors that tried to use these old charges against him later in life to discredit his religious movement.[4] Joseph Smith was not a fraud, he was once a kid who grew up in a culture of magic and his message of restoring Christianity as an adult was enticing to Bible believers and posed a direct threat to other denominations.

The real challenge is when we look at the historical record and see a brief mixing of Joseph’s background of magic, the rock in a hat, with the embrace of the Book of Mormon translation. At first, it seems that Christians embracing this would be at odds with the Bible. However, God simply asked Joseph Smith to do something he was familiar with and out of that exercise he revealed to the backwoods prophet the text of a dead language – the Book of Mormon. If others Christians want to take issue with the translation process, there are things in the Bible that are very similar in nature.

Why should the prophet who was progressing and moving away from his superstitious background be judged for what he did as a child?

Second, some critics view the prophet as a criminal in light of his decision to destroy a printing press while in Nauvoo, Illinois. However, the Mormons’ own press, the Evening and Morning Star had previously been destroyed by a mob a decade earlier in Missouri. Obviously, it wasn’t an uncommon practice. That doesn’t make the prophet right, but there is also reason to believe it was done legally.[5] Even if it was not, Joseph did it acting as the mayor of Nauvoo on behalf of the city council, not as prophet. While these explanations might not satisfy critics, he was also an imperfect human with emotions and fears and there were legitimate reasons Mormons would not want their enemies publihsing slanderous editorials.[6]

The idea that Mormon doctrine and race relations were rooted in Anglo-Saxon white supremacy is dishonest and lazy.

Third, was Joseph Smith a supporter of slavery? To say he supported it and to say so in a tone that suggests he advocated for it is dishonest. The only the way you might be able to interpret that he supported slavery would be in his disagreement with the violent overthrow of Southern slavery coupled with his views that were informed by the Apostles Peter and Paul in their own dealings with slaves and masters in the first century AD (Ephesians 6: 5-9, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9, Colossians 3:22, & 1 Peter 2:18).

Critics also like to mention that the saints did not want blacks joining the Church in Missouri, although these comments were in the context of the saints needing to survive and not wanting to be involved in the issues surrounding the Missouri Compromise from a few years earlier.[7] Since Missouri was admitted as a slave state, the young church was trying to avoid annihilation by being agreeable. Nevertheless, this one statement hardly defines the Church’s position on the matter.

Furthermore, and years later, the prophet did take a political position against slavery.[8] The idea that Mormon doctrine and race relations were rooted in Anglo-Saxon white supremacy is dishonest and lazy. It takes what those in the South were doing and juxtaposes it onto Mormonism. Mormons only issue with blacks was a temporary restriction on holding the priesthood because of ancient scriptural edicts to do with the curse of Cain and Ham. Period. The end.[9] This restriction required another revelation to end it, which came in 1978 due to internal considerations not outside political pressure, as critics assert.[10]

To be clear, contrary to the way mainstream America viewed blacks for so long, Mormons were ahead of their peers:

  • Church doctrine never held that blacks were less than human or without souls, as some denominations did

  • Joseph Smith taught that any mental or economic weakness suffered by blacks was not due to any in-born defect, but simply due to not having ample opportunity to advance and receive the same education as whites

  • Church members were overwhelmingly abolitionist and were even persecuted and driven out because of their anti-slavery leanings

  • the Church never had segregated congregations; all members worshipped together

  • the Church supported equal civil rights for many years before the 1978 revelation: to the Church, the issue of priesthood was not one of civil rights or granting status, but of revelation.[11]

Lastly, was Joseph Smith a pedophile? He did have several wives. It may have gotten out of hand. Some women who had non-Mormon husbands were “sealed” to the prophet in a spiritual ritual that gave these women a chance to go to the temple because their husbands were disinterested in their wives’ religion – this was known as polyandry. Some women even had themselves sealed to the prophet after his death. The combination of these factors demonstrate the nuance required when we are tempted to over emphasize the many wives Joseph Smith had for the sake of a sensational headline.

Polygamy was viewed as consistent with the Bible, as an exception within Mormonism instead of the rule, Joseph Smith was a prophet, and marrying “teenagers” would not have been all that uncommon to the nineteenth century. Also, religion is voluntary, and these women would have had the consent of their fathers and non-religious husbands. Mormonism began with and continue with monogamy as the rule and primary value of marriage. Even with these factors the practice is still unsettling for most, however, even the early leaders expressed a reluctancy towards the practice.

Perhaps a little more context about marriage in the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth-century can shed light on just how complicated life and relationships were in those times.

In Texas during the mid 1800s, historian Robert Wuthnow described the period as one “where women were so scarce they had to marry in self-defense”.[12] 

Whether it is polygamy, race relations, or the seer stone, no matter what Mormons do, the closer they get to the Bible the more criticism they bring upon themselves.

 

Further, after the Civil War ended one woman expressed the bitter challenge they faced for a normal life of marriage lamenting the “vast a difference there will be in the numbers of males and females…having only a moderate fortune and less beauty. I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes.” Social historians of the Civil War agreed that such fears “were well grounded in demographic realities. Other examples described “that the reduced population of young men “demographically deprived” southern women of husbands.” [13]

While similar demographic factors on the frontier may have figured only little in the grand motive behind the early practice of Mormon polygamy, the Church’s new, or “restored” doctrines provided a means for God’s purposes – for growing His kingdom.

Anyhow, if you watch Lawrence O’Donnell or read his supporters thoughts at the Huffington Post on Mormonism, with all their boldness and assertiveness, how could you not be compelled to view Mormons in anything other than a negative light?

WATCH and consider whether you just let your emotions get in the way of the facts I have just presented:

 

 

Whether it is polygamy, race relations, or the seer stone, no matter what Mormons do, the closer they get to the Bible the more criticism they bring upon themselves. What might be most shocking to Bible believers is the support their revered text lends to these seemingly controversial issues.

Notes:

[1] Paul Hazard, The European Mind [1680-1715], (New York: Meridian Books, 1935) 177.

[2] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005) 51.

[3] Bushman, 69.

[4] Ibid., 117.

[5] Ibid., 540.

[6] Durham, Reed C., Jr. Nauvoo Expositor, (Accessed March 16, 2018: http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Nauvoo_Expositor).

[7] Lester E. Bush, Jr., Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Review, Dialogue Journal (Accessed March 16, 2018: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V08N01_13.pdf).

[8] Arnold K. Garr, Joseph Smith, Ensign, February 2009. (Accessed March 16, 2018: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/02/joseph-smith-campaign-for-president-of-the-united-states?lang=eng)

[9] Bushman, 289.

[10] FAIRMormon, Social pressure and the lifting of the Mormon Priesthood ban, (Accessed March 16, 2018: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood/Social_pressure#Question:_Was_the_priesthood_ban_lifted_as_the_result_of_social_or_government_pressure.3F).

[11] FAIRMormon, Was the Mormon priesthood ban simply a policy or was it doctrine?, (Accessed March 16, 2018: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Question:_Was_the_Mormon_priesthood_ban_simply_a_policy_or_was_it_doctrine%3F).

[12] Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, (Princeton University Press, 2014) 20.

[13] David J. Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns”, in The Journal of southern history 76.1 (2010) U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

 

Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and is currently teaching U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academiathe Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State UniversityLDS LivingMeridian Magazineand East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.

 

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