What Would Joseph Do? A look at the documentary, "An American Prophet"

Reviewed by Bill McKeever

“Millions of people around the world know of him. Yet this frontier prophet of the early 1800’s found little honor and eventual martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob in his own country. Who was this Joseph Smith and what was it about his remarkable life story, which inspired such impassioned rancor or unflinching reverence?”

So reads the back cover of a 2-hour video production made possible by a grant from the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation. American Prophet is based on a book by Heidi S. Swinton, an LDS author who also wrote such books as, Pioneer Spirit: Modern-Day Stories of Courage and Conviction. In an article printed in the Deseret News (9/18/99), Swinton explained,

“Our goal was to be balanced, to present a story that gave recognition to the problems and difficulties and commentaries that were not always positive. And there was a lot of it to sift through. We’ve got statements in there that are negative about Joseph Smith. For some people that will be difficult, unless they recognize that this is a fullness of his story. No one’s entire life runs down a track where everyone stands and salutes you.”

Granted, the conflicts surrounding Smith’s life are brought out much more in this film than any other of its kind, but there is much the film does not say. While it does contain negative accusations and criticisms of Smith’s contemporaries, the viewer is far too often given the impression that these came from men with impure motives. No doubt that will lead many that are unfamiliar with the dubious behavior of Joseph Smith to think the claims were unjustified and perhaps even false.

Hollywood actors Gregory Peck and Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) lend their voices to the film. Mr. Peck narrates and Megan Follows portrays the voice of Emma Smith. The film also inserts several soundbites by various historians who give their personal take on the person of Joseph Smith. Those who do not share the beliefs of the LDS people concede, as we do, that Smith certainly was a man who accomplished great things. However, as some of them objectively imply, this does not necessarily mean he was a prophet. Most of the opinions expressed are those of faithful Latter-day Saints. LDS leaders like President Gordon Hinckley and Apostles Dallin Oaks and M. Russell Ballard are also interviewed.

The film begins with an emotional scene of the two bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith lying in the back of a wagon following the assault on Carthage jail. Tracing the story back to the beginning, the film comments on the religious excitement that was taking place at the time of Smith’s First Vision. Only the 1838 “official account” is referred to. Dallin Oaks states that the resistance Smith faced by the religious leaders of his day was due to the fact that, while they were learned men, their motives were tainted. Says Oaks, “words like jealousy, and envy, and threat, and resentment, come quickly to mind.” The possibility that this immediate resentment was based on the fact that Smith was making claims contrary to the Bible is never given plausibility.

Smith’s visit by the angel Moroni in 1823 is described, but no mention of the fact that Smith, in 1838, said it was an angel named Nephi, not Moroni, who told him of the gold plates that contained what is today known as the Book of Mormon. There is also no mention that Smith and his family was much involved in folk magic and treasure seeking and that Smith’s father also claimed to have visions.

The narrative speaks of Joseph Smith “digging” for Spanish treasure for a man named Josiah Stowell (or Stoal). Not mentioned is that Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, had said Stowell sought out the help of her son because he “heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” In his article entitled, The Gift of Seeing, LDS historian Richard Van Wagoner (who is not featured in the film) documents Mrs. Smith’s comment and adds that Stowell said Smith, “pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone” (Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol.15, No.2, p.55). The “stone” referred to in this case is the seer stone Smith would later use to “translate” the Book of Mormon.

Viewers are told that Smith’s employ under Josiah Stowell led to his meeting Emma Hale. When Smith asked Emma’s father for her hand in marriage, a voice representing that of Isaac Hale, states, “This I refused, and gave him my reasons for so doing. Some of which were that he was a stranger and followed a business that I could not approve.” The “business” is not discussed; however, former LDS historian D. Michael Quinn (not featured) notes that Hale “refused because of the young man’s treasure-seeking background” (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 140). Disregarding Isaac Hale’s concerns, Joseph and Emma elope and move to live with Smith’s family in Palmyra.

Peck states that Smith eventually retrieved the gold plates spoken of by the angel Moroni and that to keep them safe several hiding places were utilized. While Emma is mentioned as being one of Smith’s scribes, she is recorded as saying, “I never felt at liberty to look at them.” The film also does not mention that there is controversy surrounding those who allegedly did see the gold plates. For instance, Dr. Marvin Hill (not featured) from BYU, has said “The evidence is extremely contradictory in this area, but there is a possibility that the witnesses saw the plates in vision only” (Dialogue, Vol.7, No.4, p.83 ). While Dallin Oaks tells of some of the details involved in bringing about the translation, no mention is made that several eye-witnesses have stated that Smith read this translation off of his seer stone that was placed in a hat “to exclude the light.”

Peck relates how Martin Harris mortgaged his farm in order to raise the $3,000 necessary to print the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon. No mention is made that this was a major factor in Harris’ eventual divorce. Quoted is Smith’s claim that the Book of Mormon is the “most correct of any book on earth and that a man would get near to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Ignored is the fact that the book has seen several revisions and that it doesn’t teach the necessary precepts modern Mormons believe they must practice in order to achieve celestial glory. Condemnation against the Book of Mormon and against Smith himself is through the mouths of Smith’s enemies. None of the particular arguments that drew them to these conclusions are discussed.

BYU professor Robert Millet mentions that “all men and women have the ability to become godlike,” but like so many other LDS who broach this subject, this vague generality stops short of explaining that Mormons believe that they can become Gods who inherit both omnipotence and omniscience; beings who will rule their own worlds and populate them just as God populates this earth.

Mr. Peck briefly mentions Smith’s plan to take care of the LDS followers flocking to Kirtland, OH. Though not mentioned in this term, this plan was known as the “law of consecration.” This “higher law” required faithful members to deed to their bishop all of their property, both personal and real. When it failed to work, it was abandoned for the “lower law” of tithing.

From Kirtland, some of the Saints would settle in Jackson county, Missouri. Dr. Millet admits that the “Saints did not always use wisdom” and correctly notes that Mormons who claimed that the land in Missouri would eventually become the property of the Mormons. Notre Dame historian Nathan Hatch is quoted as saying, “I would not paint Joseph Smith in pastels colors. He was a radical preacher of extreme ideas, very powerful ideas, which had tremendous appeal. He called people to extreme ways of living, dependent upon his authority because he believed God was speaking in new and profoundly different ways.” Unfortunately, while the film does speak of the tremendous dedication he expected of his followers, his extreme doctrinal ideas are mostly avoided.

“Amid the tumult,” Peck says, “Joseph was pronouncing what he said were revelations from God to direct the church and its people.” The film does mention that Smith felt the Bible was missing important points necessary for salvation and that he worked on an “inspired” version of the King James Bible. LDS historian Richard L. Bushman is quoted as saying “revelation trumps the Bible.” And because of this Joseph felt he had “the authority to actually change the words of the Bible by force of his own revelation… So for Mormons in his time and today the revelation is what they heed above all.”

The film speaks of “challenges to Joseph and his work from disenchanted factions.” Peck states that these included defectors whom “were apostles, witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and members who had at one time praised his name.” Dr. Grant Underwood from BYU-Hawaii attributed this to men who were not getting things to go “their way.” The possibility that Smith was seen as a manipulator who used his authority to get his way is never a consideration.

The film then turns its attention to the Kirtland Safety Society, a bank that was established to “finance some of the needs of the burgeoning church and community.” Peck states how the bank failed and this led to even more discontent among Smith’s followers. D. Michael Quinn explains that this bank was operated in outright defiance of the law. It “operated as a bank despite the refusal of the State Legislature to charter it” (Echoes And Foreshadowings: The Distinctiveness of The Mormon Community, Sunstone Magazine 3:3/16). Thomas G. Alexander, in his book, Things in Heaven and Earth (p.54), stated that Smith knew his charter was refused, but “leaders went ahead with the banking enterprise anyway.” Smith and Rigdon would flee from Kirtland; however, the film then quotes Joseph Smith who compared his flight with the persecutions faced by the “apostles and prophets of old.”

Smith then moves to Far West, Missouri where once again, the Saints fail to find rest. Richard L. Bushman explains that the Mormons did not socialize or commercialize with the local folks. This, coupled with the fact that they voted as a block, led to tensions that “were difficult to overcome.” This assessment is certainly joined by other historians as well. Contrary to popular LDS belief, much of the trouble faced by the Mormons in Missouri really had little to do with their unique doctrinal positions. The killing of 17 Latter-day Saints at Haun’s Mill is mentioned in such a way that it could have been construed as a random act of violence. Most are unaware that this terrible deed was in retaliation for an attack on Missouri militiamen by Mormon “Danites” at the Crooked River one week earlier. Here one militiaman was shot dead and another was brutally mutilated. Smith would eventually be arrested and the Saints would be forced to leave Missouri without any of the prophesied temples being built.

While incarcerated at the jail in Richmond, Missouri, Smith is quoted as rebuking the guards for their use of foul language. Parley P. Pratt noted that this challenge led the guards to lower their weapons and caused their knees to shake. Did this really happen or is this LDS folklore? In his article entitled, Literature in the History of the Church: The Importance of Involvement, Dale Morgan writes, “Beyond all doubt this is effective writing, making the reader sit up and pay attention, and burning an image into his mind; on such grounds, the passage must be accounted literature. Is it also history, the whole truth? Would any uninvolved onlooker have seen this happening in Pratt’s terms? Did he himself see it in quite the same way at the time? These are more difficult questions”(Dialogue, Vol.4, No.3, p.29).

Following several months in the Liberty Jail, Smith is allowed to escape and joins his flock in Quincy, Illinois. On May 10, 1839 the Saints begin their move into what was then known as Commerce, Illinois. Here he feels to start another city, the city of Nauvoo. As Mr. Peck states, “before long the Mormons made up half the population of Hancock county.” Smith laid out the city, and like others before, planned for a temple to be built.

It would be in Nauvoo where Joseph Smith would once again defy the laws of the land and introduce the doctrine of plural marriage. The narration states that “What he [Smith] termed the new and everlasting covenant included both monogamous marriage and plural marriage.” This is only partially true. While a man could be sealed for time and eternity to just one wife, many LDS historians admit that the new and everlasting covenant was a phrase primarily reserved for plural marriages. If not, the threat of destruction leveled against Emma Smith by her husband in Doctrine and Covenants 132:54 would make little sense — unless of course LDS historians are willing to concede that Emma must not have wanted to be eternally bound to her husband Joseph.

The film neglects to mention that Emma was not the first woman “sealed” to him for time and eternity. The fact is Smith would be sealed in marriage to at least 17 other women before Emma would be joined to him eternally on May 28, 1843. Two of those wives, Sarah and Maria Lawrence were still teenagers when they married the 37 year-old Mormon prophet. When William Law, a counselor to Joseph Smith, learned of his relationship to Maria Lawrence, he filed a lawsuit accusing Smith of living “in an open state of adultery.” Not only did Smith respond to the charge by excommunicating Law, he continued to deny that he had more than one wife.

Emma apparently did go along with her husband’s sealing to two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge. Richard Van Wagoner remarks that “she recanted within a day and demanded that Joseph give them up or ‘blood should flow.’ Her change of heart came after she found Joseph and Eliza Partridge partially secluded in an upstairs bedroom in the Smith home. The realization that the sealing represented more than a ‘spiritual marriage’ or ‘adoptive ordinance’ devastated her”(Sidney Rigdon, Portrait of Religious Excess, p. 293).

There is plenty of evidence that proves Joseph Smith not only married several single women, some in their teens, but he married women who were already married to other men. According to LDS historian Todd Compton: “One misconception concerning Joseph’s polyandry is that it was a practice represented in only one or two unusual marriages; however, fully one-third of Joseph’s plural wives, eleven of them, were polyandrous. If we superimpose a chronological perspective, we see that of Joseph’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous”(Dialogue, Vol.29, No.2, p.22).

Compton writes that

“though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for such a marriage (except, perhaps, in the cases of the older wives). And in a significant number of Joseph’s marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations” (ibid).

It is difficult to justify this behavior in light of the strict biblical prohibition against it. Leviticus 20:10 declares that an adulterous act such as this was punishable by death: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

The film dares not venture into the relationship Smith had with his wife. Many Mormons have been led to believe they had one of the best marriages possible. Van Wagoner notes,

“A multitude of Mormon records provides irrefutable evidence for Smith’s prerogative with an array of women, many of them just a few years older than his own children. And while the prophet now stands astride the Mormon world like a colossus, in Nauvoo he maneuvered within the charisma of his own mystique to defy both church, Nauvoo City, and Illinois marriage laws, as well as to conceal his behavior from his wife Emma. This equivocal deportment, secreted by a deferential and circumspect group of men and women, created two cultures in Nauvoo—one where monogamy and fidelity prevailed—the other where eros and duplicity seemed to subvert the highest moral values, and where exonerating the “Lord’s Anointed” became more important than telling the truth.” Van Wagoner goes on to write, “This dichotomy left Joseph’s and Emma’s marriage hanging by a thread. Emma spent the last three years of her husband’s life jealously battling his errant yearnings, more than once threatening to return to her family in New York”(Sidney Rigdon, Portrait of Religious Excess, p. 293).

On October 7, 1866, Brigham Young related a story that actually accused Emma of trying to murder her husband; not once, but twice. Young declared,

“Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked then she. He told her where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he, ‘You got that poison so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.’ When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. He spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses of this scene all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him.(The Essential Brigham Young, p.188).

There is one event where Emma Smith caught her husband alone in the “hay mow” with a woman named Fanny Ward Alger. On page 10 of his book Mormon Polygamy, Van Wagoner writes, “That there was a sexual relationship seems probable.” The Smiths hired Fanny Alger as a maidservant in 1835 when she was 19-years-old and some have argued that she became Smith’s first secret plural wife.

After his excommunication Law continued his crusade to expose Smith. He would be influential in the printing of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that exposed Smith’s plural wife system. The Nauvoo City Council, led by Nauvoo’s mayor, Joseph Smith, ordered the printing press destroyed along with all existing copies of the paper. “Illinois Governor Thomas Ford intervened,” Says Peck, “issued an arrest warrant and ordered Joseph to turn himself in at Carthage, the Hancock county seat. Joseph at first refused.” Joseph and Hyrum were actually planning to flee Nauvoo and head west toward the Rocky Mountains. According to the Documentary History of the Church (6:549), Emma Smith sent Orrin Porter Rockwell with a letter urging her husband to return. Several of Smith’s followers accused him of cowardice, stating that once he was gone “their property would be destroyed, and they left without house or home.”

States the narration, “His enemies were not willing to wait for a trial, broker a settlement, or risk Joseph somehow wresting from their grip…their faces daubed with mud to disguise their identities, the force stormed the Carthage jail. In a flash they were up the stairs and firing through the door.” No mention is made that both Hyrum and Joseph had earlier in the day received two smuggled pistols from a friend named Cyrus Wheelock. Also in the cell with the Smith brothers were Willard Richards and John Taylor. Taylor records that when a musket ball pierced the door and mortally wounded Hyrum Smith, Joseph “instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; [p.103] only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died”(Documentary History of the Church 7:103). Taylor continued to tell the same story long after the event.

We wholeheartedly agree with Richard L. Bushman when he says, “even if Joseph Smith trespassed on American sensibilities about freedom of the press that did not license people to gun him down.” The attack on Carthage Jail and the killing of Smith was unjustifiable.

As mentioned earlier, Heidi Swinton said that the negative aspects of Joseph Smith, portrayed in American Prophet would be difficult for some people. She said, “For some people that will be difficult, unless they recognize that this is a fullness of his story.” I don’t know if that is totally true. Because so many of the negative points are framed in such a way as to make the viewer think the accusations were either unfounded or were the exaggerations of people with personal vendettas, I can’t say that American Prophet is really “a fullness of his story.” Perhaps if viewers were given a more in-depth look into the character of Smith’s accusers, they would see that not all of the accusations were unfounded or without merit.

Because American Prophet neglects to objectively look at Smith’s true behavior, it is incorrect to claim it is a “balanced” appraisal. I certainly can’t see it being blamed for a mass exodus from the LDS Church and experience has shown that many Mormons will continue to adore this man despite the amount of readily available information that paints Smith in a bad light. Somehow they will justify their prophet’s questionable behavior and continue to protect the myth that Mormon leaders and even some LDS historians have perpetuated over the years.

On page 334 in the D&C Student Manual Religion 324-325, it reads, “The Prophet Joseph is the great example in this dispensation of how sons and daughters of God should conduct themselves.” I can only say, let us hope not.