The Virtue of Joseph Smith

The following was originally printed in the March/Apritl 2015 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

Speaking at the general conference in October 2014, Mormon Apostle Neil L. Andersen gave a talk simply titled “Joseph Smith.”  Toward the end of his message, Andersen said,

“I give you my witness that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. He chose a holy man, a righteous man, to lead the Restoration of the fulness of His gospel. He chose Joseph Smith.” This phrase became the byline when his talk was reprinted in the conference edition of Ensign magazine (November 2014, pp. 28-31).

Speeches by LDS leaders on this subject are nothing new. Many leaders have glowingly spoken of their founding prophet, the one whom they believe was called by God to “restore” true Christianity. What I found interesting, however, is how Andersen utilized several logical fallacies to defend his premise.

Andersen said Smith’s work began with the “appearance of the Father and the Son” and that the reason his work is dismissed is because people “do not believe that heavenly beings speak to men on earth.” Those same detractors, he explained, also say it is impossible that “golden plates were delivered by an angel and translated by the power of God.” Let’s not forget that Smith’s claims are being dismissed by a growing number of Latter-day Saints who do believe heavenly beings speak to men on earth as well as presuppose that the gold plates were real. However, like many outsiders, once they learn all of the details surrounding these alleged events, they are compelled to conclude that they have the signs of fabrication. Andersen’s straw man argument is much too simplistic.

Andersen attacked the character of  ex-Mormons whom he feels malign the prophet. In doing so, he invoked a statement by Apostle Neil Maxwell who, in a 1977 BYU devotional talk, said, “Some insist upon studying the Church only through the eyes of its defectors—like interviewing Judas to understand Jesus. Defectors always tell us more about themselves than about that from which they have departed.” “Attacking the man,” or the ad hominem fallacy, fails to address the very real concerns many ex-Mormons (and others) have. This approach often is an attempt to shield the faithful from uncomfortable information. After all, why would anyone trust a person whose character is like Judas?

Andersen attempted to offset the many criticisms against Smith’s character by pointing to several contemporaries who testified to his virtue. This “appeal to the people” again fails to address the valid reasons many of Smith’s contemporaries felt he was not a virtuous, holy man.

Andersen cited the “spreading of the restored gospel” as the “fruit” of Smith’s calling. But Islam is growing much faster than the LDS Church. Does this fact lend credence to the truth claims of Islam?

Andersen  also committed a genetic fallacy when he warned listeners that “Internet information does not have a ‘truth’ filter. Some information, no matter how convincing, is simply not true.” Technically, he is right. There is plenty of information on the web that is certainly questionable (remember, even Andersen’s talk can be found on the Internet!), but just because something is critical of Mormonism does not automatically make it is false. Truth claims must be judged on their merit, not by where the information originated.

The timing of Andersen’s talk is especially interesting. A few weeks after his message, the church released a Gospel Topics essay admitting how Smith had married as many as forty women, including ten with living husbands as well as another ten teenagers as young as fourteen. There is proof that Smith lied many times to his wife Emma about his polygamous affairs. This might be a good place to start if Smith’s credentials as a virtuous and holy man are to be honestly examined.

For more on Joseph Smith, click here