The June 27, 1998 edition of the LDS Church News, in commemoration of the 154th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s death, quoted from a 1933 book entitled Joseph Smith an American Prophet. This book, written by John Henry Evans, was an attempt to give a ‘scientific treatment of Joseph Smith … without smothering these facts in opinion. ” Still, he admits in his preface that he has tried to “give a picture of the Prophet as one of his contemporaries would see, who was interested, but had no axe to grind” (p. vii).
Being LDS, it is expected that Evans’ work be designed to be ‘faith-promoting.” Despite his claim to the contrary, his book is peppered with opinion and exaggeration regarding Mormonism’s founding prophet. For instance, Evans states that Smith was Illinois’ “most prominent citizen”(p.v). I guess that would depend on how you define prominent. If you define prominent as “sticking out or noticeable and conspicuous”, that may be true. However, if you define prominent as ‘widely and favorably known,” we are sure many would disagree. While Smith was very conspicuous, much of his renown during that period was very negative. Even some LDS historians have noted that Smith had a dark side.
Evans claims that Smith, ‘wrote a book which has baffled critics for a hundred years and which is more widely read than any other volume save the Bible.” Baffled critics? More widely read save the Bible? Critics of the Book of Mormon have launched volley after volley against Smith’s novel. Just because some Mormons would rather choose feeling over fact does not at all mean the book is ‘baffling” or that the criticisms are not valid. Granted, some arguments against the book are not very convincing, but several of them are. Bear in mind also that Mormonism hadn’t reached the million-member mark at the time Evans made this comment. Even in 1933 those who read Islam’s Quran, or The Analects of Confucius, or Buddhism’s “Three Baskets,” far surpassed those who were reading the Book of Mormon. Does the LDS Church really want people to believe that in 1933 fewer Russians were reading Das Kapital or the Communist Manifesto than all those in the rest of the world who were reading the Book of Mormon?
Though Evans’ praises Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards as “the high-water mark of the religious intellect,” he claimed that Joseph Smith “showed a greater familiarity with theological questions than did Jonathan Edwards, although in quite a different way.” While conceding that Edwards was a disciplined scholar, he admits, “the Mormon prophet, on the contrary, had no scholarship.” “Nevertheless,” Evan’s wrote,” Joseph Smith’s grasp of the doctrines of the Bible is one of the amazing things about him” (pp. 10-11). On page 15 of his book, Evans’ wrote ‘…the Mormon prophet is the most compelling personality in the religious history of America, and one of the most fascinating in our entire history. He had a more spectacular rise to power than Lincoln, lived a more strenuous life than Roosevelt, knew more theology than Jonathan Edwards, and built up a greater church than Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy.”
The Church News article quoted Evans when he wrote, “In thirty nations are men and women who look upon him as a greater leader than Moses and a greater prophet than Isaiah” (p. v). Since 1933 the number of nations with Mormon adherents has far surpassed thirty; however, considering Smith’s dubious background, it hardly seems proper to list Smith’s name with men such as Moses and Isaiah. To agree with this statement makes me think that either the person is not fully aware of the type of person Smith was, or he is not really familiar with either Moses or Isaiah.