Mormon Leaders and Imperfections

By Sharon Lindbloom
15 June 2016

Last week a “Defending the Faith” column by Daniel Peterson appeared in the Deseret News: “Are you looking for a church with perfect leaders?” In the article, Dr. Peterson argues that Mormons should not expect perfection from their leaders because they are mortal humans who are “going through the same mortal probation, the same learning experience as the rest of us.”

Joseph Smith PortraitDr. Peterson notes, “Only one perfect person has lived on this planet.” Indeed, humans make mistakes. Dr. Peterson provides a few examples of human imperfections, such as Joseph Smith’s confession that in the Prophet’s youth he “fell into many foolish errors…and the foibles of human nature.” For example, Joseph Smith said, “I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company” (Joseph Smith—History 1:28. Ellipsis mine).

Dr. Peterson also includes the example of the Apostle Paul, whose imperfection was highlighted by opponents who accused him of having a weak bodily presence and unskilled speech (2 Corinthians 10:10).

Surely everyone can understand and relate to these sorts of “imperfections”; which is why Dr. Peterson’s article is so puzzling to me. Do Mormons really hold such unreasonable expectations of their leaders that they would criticize one for having a physical infirmity? Or for having laughed inappropriately or failed to show proper respect fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago? I don’t think so.

So what is Dr. Peterson thinking about as he cautions Latter-day Saints, telling them that it is “uncharitable” to expect perfection from their Church leaders?

If he’s suggesting that LDS prophets and apostles are imperfect in their ecclesiastical responsibilities (i.e., Mormon leaders can lead the Church astray), Dr. Peterson stands against the clear and continual doctrine proclaimed by these leaders for nearly 200 years. Though these are not the kinds of examples he cites in his article, it is possible that Dr. Peterson holds to this position and is calling others to join him.

Otherwise, perhaps Dr. Peterson is anticipating the “bad press” Joseph Smith often gets this time of year and is hoping to pre-empt the criticism that inevitably results.

It was during the month of June in 1844 that Joseph Smith was accused by a dissenting Nauvoo, Illinois newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, of all manner of “imperfections” including preaching polytheism, engaging in financial misdeeds and land speculation, committing adultery and perjury, instituting polygamy, pressuring women and girls to become his own plural wives, etc. Joseph Smith chose to defend himself against these accusations by having the press destroyed, which led to public (non-Mormon) outcry, which led to Smith declaring martial law in Nauvoo, which led to his arrest, which led to his death in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.

While the murders of the Mormon Prophet and his brother, Hyrum, were incontrovertibly wrong, Mormons like to believe that Joseph Smith was falsely accused and entirely innocent. But the accusations brought against him by the Nauvoo Expositor were true, as were other accusations the Prophet thought to answer.

“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one,” Smith complained two weeks before the Nauvoo Expositor was published. Yet at that time 34 women and girls in Nauvoo were wives of the Prophet.

But he wasn’t worried about the truth getting out. In this same sermon, preached on May 26, 1844, Smith said,

“Come on! ye prosecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” (History of the Church 6:408-409)

Perhaps these sorts of imperfections are what Dr. Peterson actually has in mind when he writes about fallible Church leaders. Joseph Smith was not perfect, but, as Dr. Peterson quotes a Mormon hymn, “Who am I to judge another / When I walk imperfectly?”

I submit that nobody is perfect. Yet a man claiming to speak for God, a man claiming he is the one chosen to restore God’s kingdom to earth, a man claiming he has accomplished something even Jesus Christ did not do — this man ought to be expected to demonstrate fruit commensurate with his professed faith and calling.

Dr. Peterson quotes the second verse of Matthew 7 as he encourages Mormons to be charitable toward their imperfect leaders and beware of pronouncing judgment against them. I also appeal to Matthew 7 as Jesus continues His teaching, here addressing concerns more specifically regarding church leaders:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

Jesus calls us to judge the fruit produced by Joseph Smith because, regardless of what a man may claim, we will recognize what he really is by his fruits.