Joseph Smith

He is one of the most complex figures in religious history and the enigma at the core of the Mormon religion.

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

Describe [Joseph Smith's] family. …

He came from a tradition of visionaries. His father had dreams; his grandfather had dreams. So it was nothing new for him to feel that he had some form of heavenly communication. He was steeped in a family and a cultural environment in which those kinds of heavenly manifestations were not commonplace, but they weren't all that rare. I think that's part of what prepared him but also what prepared his family to accept him as a prophet, because before he could test the waters of public opinion, he had to pass muster with his own family. And it isn't every child who would go to his parents and say, "God and Christ have just visited me in a grove of trees," and be believed. But, of course, he was. ...

The importance of Joseph Smith in history -- this is a man people compare to Moses. What is striking about this man?

... The most amazing thing about Joseph Smith was the scope of his vision. He didn't see himself as merely restoring a few principles to make course corrections of Christianity. But he had this sense, I think, that everything was possible through revelation; all knowledge could come through revelation. ...

One would have thought that after translating the Book of Mormon that he would have considered his primary work to have been finished, and yet within weeks of finishing the Book of Mormon he immediately turned to the Bible, wanted to go through the Bible and create what he called the "translation" of the Bible, which was really more of a redaction, making minor changes and corrections. But he was absolutely insatiable, and I think that some of the most important contributions of Joseph Smith were not the ones that he left in print, but the way that he personally exemplified a kind of passion and excitement for knowledge, for revelation, that I think informs and undergirds the church to this day. …

You've said Joseph Smith was "of his time." Could he have emerged at any other time? Who were his competitors?

I think one of the reasons for the great appeal and the great success of Joseph Smith as a religious leader is the fact that he combined within himself a kind of transcendent intuition or recognition of eternal truths with a kind of historical situatedness. ...

What was happening in the early 19th century was this kind of burgeoning sense of the boundlessness of the human spirit. You see this in the political life and theory, with the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of democracies, the French Revolution. You see it in the realm of literature and philosophy, with romanticism and this sense that the human being is characterized by this infinite potential which can't be constrained by physical limitations. Historically it had seemed to many of these people caught up in this euphoria about human potential that religious institutions had always circumscribed and impeded and restricted that potential. ...

I think that what Joseph accomplished was the first seamless synthesis of this sense of this boundlessness of human potential together with a kind of authoritative revelation of truth from heaven. So you have, for example, Joseph Smith expanding the domain of the human spirit temporally in both directions. He restored, for example, the idea that we lived before we were born, there was a pre-mortal existence, that our spirits are co-eternal with God himself, which is an astounding proposition to make in a Christian context. And then at the other end of the human spectrum, he taught that man can become even as God is. ...

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

No matter which way you cook it, Joseph Smith is a bundle of contradictions, an unschooled, roughhewn frontiersman -- which is what New York was in 1820 -- who founds a church that has become a worldwide church. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. ...

[Joseph Smith] was what he was, and it doesn't really bother me. I look at great leaders, particularly religious leaders before and since, and they've all got blemishes, as do political leaders, particularly the charismatic ones. Joseph, if nothing else, was charismatic. And that just seems to be the inseparable baggage that these great people bring with them, and you have to be able to deal with it. You would love to have a monolith unblemished that everybody could look up to now and in retrospect and never have to apologize for, but it doesn't happen. So we have to deal with what he was. There were rough edges all the way around him. …

Some people in the church, even sitting at a high level, tend to reduce it almost to a geometric equation. If Joseph Smith wasn't this, this and this, then the church can't be true. That does us a great disservice, because it turns out not to be as clear-cut as that.

Michael Coe
Michael Coe, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Yale University, is an expert on the Central American region where Mormons have searched for evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.

I'm a totally irreligious person, even though I was born and raised a perfectly good Episcopalian Christian. Yet figures like Joseph Smith fascinate me as an anthropologist, and I suppose as an American, too. When I read Fawn Brodie's wonderful book, No Man Knows My History, I couldn't put it down. I mean, it's the most exciting biography I've ever read.

When I did read it for the first time, I realized what kind of a person this Joseph Smith was. In my opinion he was not just a great religious leader; he was a really great American, and I think he was one of the greatest people who ever lived. This extraordinary man, who put together a religion -- probably with many falsities in it, falsehoods, so forth, to begin with -- eventually came to believe in it so much that he really bought his own story and made it believable to other people. In this respect he's a lot like a shaman in anthropology: these extraordinary religious practitioners in places like Siberia, North America among the Eskimo, the Inuit, who start out probably in their profession as almost like magicians doing magic. ...

I really think that Joseph Smith, like shamans everywhere, started out faking it. I have to believe this -- that he didn't believe this at all, that he was out to impress, but he got caught up in the mythology that he created. This is what happens to shamans: They begin to believe they can do these things. It becomes a revelation: They're speaking to God. And I don't think they start out that way; I really do not. ...

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

Joseph Smith's story is a classic coming-of-age story. He has the vision as an extraordinarily young man. He reaches the emotional maturity necessary to discover the gold plates still as a very young adult. It's in the same period that we might think of an extraordinarily successful CEO today building his own empire. ... He has vision not only in terms of a story but also in terms of institutions. So many people can only put one together; he had two great talents.

He also was mesmerizing as a person. He had great charm. We've all known people who fill a room; he filled an entire faith. So in one sense Joseph is everything. In another sense Brigham Young is his cement: He took those tools, and he connected them together in a people's experience. So this faith is gifted with two extraordinarily gifted leaders, both of whom ... arrive at the right moment in their lives and American history to lead this group of people. They were brilliant; they were inspired. ...

I've been asked many times whether I believe Joseph Smith was a fraud or whether he was a prophet. I am among those who believe he was a prophet, but let me make it clear he was not my prophet. I am an Episcopalian; I do not believe in ongoing revelation. ... What Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did was turn this brand-new revelation and the existence as a small, very cultlike sect into a flourishing and worldwide religion. So we see, if you will, the painful birth, the early childhood, the flourishing and the maturation of a whole new religion. When I look at that, I think Joseph Smith was a prophet. ...

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

Joseph Smith's uniqueness can, I think, be understood by an analogy that I sometimes use to Henry Ford. Henry Ford wanted a car in every home. Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he'd had, which was seeing God.

So seeing God was what it was to be religious, and he sets about duplicating that original experience for everybody else, trying to come up with a system. One way to understand Smith is to say that he's trying to figure out which church is true, and he believes God comes to him and gives him this answer. And of course that becomes the model not only for finding out which church is true, but all kinds of other questions.

... One of the ways Smith is interesting is you can understand him as someone who's trying to bring Catholicism and Protestantism back together -- the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the sacrament, and Smith is trying to weave those back together. This is a sacramental institution. You cannot be saved without the ordinances. It's also a liturgy of the word. You've got the Bible; you've got the Book of Mormon; you've got the Book of Abraham; you've got the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C]. They're Smith's own revelations. In Mormonism, you can't pull those two things apart.

This is a man who is a tower of contradictions. People who adore this man and believe in him still say he is darkness and light, so many colors. What are those complexities?

Joseph Smith is a complicated figure, and I like those complications myself. To many people those complications contradict an idealized portrait of what a prophet ought to be. They forget that Moses killed an Egyptian, that Abraham lied about his wife. ...

To me it almost makes Smith's claim more legitimate that he's got this temper, because it fits with the extremity of his emotions -- how he was attached to people and how he would trust people too quickly and how he would look for people who were better trained than he, and he'd begin to lean on them, and then they'd disappoint him and turn on him, and then he'd have to do some kind of fix-up work. He was all the time saying, "OK, that revelation is complete," and then he'd come back, and he'd have another revelation. So he is puzzling.

But I suppose I would expect to find these contradictions in a human being who is trying to mediate the divine and is still human. And it seems to me too many people try to make their prophets angels. Now, Joseph Smith was no angel -- that record is out there, and it's highly debated. And his sexuality, his temper, his sense of certainty -- he was so certain at times. ...

The other fascinating dimension about Smith is his religious ideas ... and designing a system of beliefs that became credible to people. These are huge ideas about people acting in the name of God to change themselves, their physical environment, their human relations, to welcome the reign of God on earth. ...

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

... I think Joseph Smith was a revolutionary in the holiest, most redemptive, most sacred sense of that word; that he came to testify and show and to let us experience that God not only lives but loves us, that the heavens are open, that this is real. ... Joseph Smith is not divine. We do not worship him. I hope no one out there misunderstands our view of Joseph Smith. He is a man, a mortal, as temporal as any of the rest of us. But his witness, his testimony was of that God and of that Son [Jesus] -- of those spiritual truths, of redemption, of hope, of happiness, of future, of peace, of renewal, of sanctification; that there are better things than we see in the newspaper every day. ... The challenge for every one of us is to try to extend that redemptive, redeeming, hopeful love into the lives of those of us who do not have it. ...

Margaret Toscano
Margaret Toscano is a classics professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism.

Joseph Smith is the endless prophet puzzle. I think it's interesting that there's pretty good evidence that my great-great-grandmother was probably one of his plural wives, sealed to him at some time. What that means I don't know. I've always been intrigued by Joseph Smith, and in fact, when I look at my spiritual journey, one of the interesting things is that ... for a lot of Mormons, when they find out that the Sunday school [version of the] story is not true, they lose their faith. For me, when I found out the Sunday school story was not true, I discovered my faith.

... I found my faith, because for me, that sort of whitewashed history did not make any sense to my own experience as a person in my everyday life. I'm a person with struggles. ... I mean, these things were all very complex, so when I found out that Joseph Smith was this complex man who made a lot of mistakes and did things that were troubling, I was intrigued.