Jan 25, 2011
Despite the fact that I consider myself quite unorthodox among LDS folk, for some reason I still find myself falling into a defensive stance when I hear too much criticism of the church. And although I tell myself that I won’t put on my apologist hat in defense of certain things (Joseph Smith, Mountain Meadows, Prop. 8), I sometimes still want to at least cut the church some slack. I suppose it is my way of trying to explore whether I can still find a niche among LDS believers.
At the same time, while I genuinely enjoy mingling with the masses of those who have left the church but still feel a mormon connection, I feel I run into the same problem that made me question my initial faith convictions in the first place – a few people who tend to demonstrate very little empathy toward those with different beliefs. While I may not ever be able to go back to my affirmations about certain aspects of the church (and sometimes admittedly I still wish I could), I can still try to understand and be fascinated by what it is about people that makes them cling to one belief or another.
In that spirit, and at the risk of sounding like an all-out apologist, I want to explore a few reasons why Joseph Smith still appeals to me, and why I can (sort of) understand why Latter-Day Saints feel such loyalty toward their founding prophet. Before I do, I want to assure you that even though I may not be as well-read as some out in cyberspace, I feel pretty comfortable saying I have basically covered my bases when it comes to Brother Joseph. From polygamy, to narcissism, to accusations of homosexual behaviors, I think I have seen most of what is out there. I am not really invested in trying to outweigh certain problematic issues with the positive to somehow prove that Joseph was a prophet. The only issue I raise with some of the accusations is they tend to be rather one-sided, sometimes overly presumptuous and they only tell part of the story of a very complex individual. I am aware that this could be controversial among this audience, but one of my interests in participating in this community is to see if we can somehow find common ground among those in and out of the church, whether we agree or disagree on particular issues.
I started down this road of thought as I read Emma Smith’s affirmation in Mormon Enigma, where decades after the death of her husband she still said she believed that the work he did was inspired. While I know this doesn’t prove anything, I am fascinated with thinking about what might motivate Emma to continue to validate Joseph’s prophetic calling. Maybe it was important for her to do so because of her membership in the RLDS faith since that congregation still also believed in their Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. I am sure there is no real clear answer, but it is intriguing to consider that the person who was probably closest to Joseph, who knew all his flaws and shortcomings, who had to endure her husband’s polygamous relationships, still appeared to remain loyal to him many years after his death.
It seems like when people lose their faith in the church, one of the first fundamental elements of testimony that crumbles is a belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet. Once people learn about all of the tough issues, he gets pilloried with all sorts of criticism and anger. Having said that, even if we find a way to discount someone like Emma, I think it is possible to at least admit that if she could remain loyal for whatever reason, then there are at least have to be some reasons out there that people find a connection with Joseph. It seems since he has been dead for over 160 years, sometimes we want to over scrutinize and criticize every possible angle after the fact. As he himself predicted, he was and still is a very controversial figure to consider. Ironically enough, this is the first thing I appreciate about the man – that we can approach him as a three-dimensional person. And I don’t even like 3D. I think it is a rip off. But in contrast to our prophets and apostles today, who publicly seem to be one-dimensional carbon copy duplicates of one another, I am thankful that over the course of time, we have been able to scrutinize Smith’s failings as well as his triumphs.
No doubt Joseph said some very grandiose things, and he had a vision that was so expansive that it really could amount to a big mess if you actually wanted try to put it all together. But I think in spite of his sweeping language he still took time to make it fairly clear that he was still just a man doing the work of God. I am not going to say he was full of humility, but in comparison with our current leadership, at least we can see some of his “humanness.”
Next, I believe that for many people the idea that angels and visions can come to someone in the present day is a very validating belief. In this regard, Joseph obviously did not disappoint. The idea that Moroni appeared to him or that he got the priesthood from Peter, James, and John may seem ridiculous to many. But for those who actually have faith in literal bibilical stories and events, they give at least a glint of hope that maybe those things can happen today. With the PR-conscious nature of the church today, the best we can get is the idea that “I’m not saying I haven’t seen Jesus, but if I have, it is too sacred for me to share anyway.” I doubt Joseph Smith would have discouraged anyone from trying to participate in the same revelatory experiences that he claimed to experience. As I’ve said, though this may seem problematic for some, for those who still want to hold to the faith that the supernatural can comingle with us, someone who openly shares such experience helps affirm that faith.
In addition, regardless of the historicity or authorship problems with relation to the Book of Mormon, Joseph was still instrumental in bringing forth a very important book of scripture to what has become presently a fairly vast audience. This is significant just because it is a very unique accomplishment. Maybe some feel there is nothing of value in the book and that it is just another book made up by a devious individual or group of people. But there just aren’t many books out there that claim to be on the level of the bible that I am aware of that have become as notable as the Book of Mormon. Maybe the Book of Mormon is not “the most correct book” like Joseph claimed, who knows? Maybe the Christ that the LDS church teaches today is very distinct from the mainstream Christian conception of Jesus. But the Book of Mormon itself has many valuable teachings of Christ that many times are in line with the bible. For those who still maintain a faith in the authenticity of the story of Jesus, I still think the Book of Mormon can be a valuable resource.
Finally, I am personally interested in Joseph’s ideas and attempts at creating a communal society on earth that he wanted to call ‘Zion.’ I recognize that the saints never really came close to meeting whatever may have been Joseph’s ideal, but it is still a concept that captivates me. Is the world just a mess and that is just the way it is, or is there a system out there that could vastly improve the human condition? Would Joseph be in agreement with the pro-capitalism church today? Would his ideas if correctly implemented ever really work? I guess we’ll find out in the Millennium, right?
I realize that this submission seems to be a terribly weak take on obvious points related to Joseph Smith. I am sure there are about 25 holes in each of the arguments I’ve put forth (besides the ones I’ve already admitted). Maybe I am just throwing this out there in contrast to our prophets today, who compared to Joseph Smith don’t seem very prophetic at all. But I hope you will be forgiving of my attempt to explore some of the possible ways that true believers can somehow reconcile their faith with their knowledge that Joseph Smith was far from perfect. I suppose I am just trying to be a voice for the believing side, even if I don’t evenfeel like I am on their side. I admit I am definitely not a scholar like Bushman. I am not a zealot like Mike (Tannehill), and I am definitely not as funny as Glenn. I am just curious if any of these points or others that I have ignored are worthwhile at all, even to someone who is out of the church. Is this even worth trying to discuss, or is this argument lost in oblivion? Is there anything redeeming in the Joseph Smith story, or in the man’s characteristics and history? Can we allow that many still genuinely believe these ideas, and that the result of such belief can have a positive outcome, depending on how that belief is approached? I say “yes,” regardless of whether he was a ‘true’ prophet or not. But that may just be me being the contrarian that I often like to be.