"Praise to the Man" - Elevating Joseph Smith

By Bill McKeever

Homage to Joseph Smith

"Blessed be his name" is a familiar song that has glorified the name of Jesus for decades in Christian churches. However, at a concert at Brigham Young University the title read "Joseph Smith: Blessed be his name." On the campus of BYU a nativity display in the lobby of the Abraham Smoot administration building depicted, not the birth of Jesus, but the birth of Joseph Smith! A sign next to a cradle set in a 19-century looking log cabin read:

"We are the beneficiaries of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a work which had its earthly commencement with the birth of Joseph Smith, in the hills of Vermont on a December day in 1805. As we commemorate the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, the Savior of the world, may we also remember his messenger, Joseph Smith, and rejoice in his life and sacrifice."

During 2005, it was a rare day in Utah when the local newspapers did not run an article extolling the alleged virtues of Mormonism's founder or printed some announcement telling readers where such accolades could be heard. Titles like "Joseph Smith's fame" or "Depth of Joseph Smith lauded" were commonplace. Books, conferences, films, a new web site, a silver commemorative coin, and even an opera giving homage to the LDS founder were also added to the mix.

The church-owned Deseret News expressed the fine line the Mormon Church must walk when it came to celebrating the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's 1805 birth. On February 5, 2005, an article ran that stated, "As leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kick off their yearlong bicentennial celebration of Joseph Smith's birth, they emphasize that while he played a singular role in founding their faith, church members do not 'worship' him" ("Exhibit on Joseph Smith's life opens"). While it is technically true that the Mormons do not pray to Joseph Smith, they do often elevate their founding prophet in ways that are neither historically nor theologically accurate.

For instance, second President Brigham Young once remarked,

"I know that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, that this is the Gospel of salvation, and if you do not believe it you will be damned, every one of you" (Journal of Discourses 4:298, March 29, 1857).

On October 9, 1859, Young said,

"From the day that the Priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are -- I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent" (Journal of Discourses 7:289).

It is not at all uncommon for Mormon leaders to ignore all of the information that places Joseph Smith's personal virtue in question. Young claimed "Well now, examine the character of the Savior, and examine the characters of those who have written the Old and New Testaments; and then compare them with the character of Joseph Smith... and you will find that his character stands as fair as any man's mentioned in the Bible" (Journal of Discourses 14:203, August 31, 1871).

Speaking at the 175th general conference last April, newly appointed Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf told the congregation, "As we remember and honor the Prophet Joseph Smith, my heart reaches out to him in gratitude. He was a good, honest, humble, intelligent, and courageous young man with a heart of gold and an unshaken faith in God. He had integrity." ("The Fruits of the First Vision, Ensign, May 2005, p.38).

Uchtdorf's conclusion is certainly debatable given the amount that has been written by contemporaries who knew Smith personally and by historians who have carefully analyzed his behavior. In our book, Mormonism 101, Eric and I quoted an interesting observation made by Dr. D. Michael Quinn, a former Mormon historian who was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1993. In our opinion, Quinn gives one of the best capsulated overviews regarding the life of Joseph Smith. In his book The Mormon Hierarchy – Origins of Power (pp.261-262), Quinn notes: 

"Few Mormons today can grasp the polarizing charisma of their founding prophet. Some may feel uncomfortable when confronted with the full scope of Joseph Smith's activities as youthful mystic, treasure-seeker, visionary, a loving husband who deceived his wife regarding about forty of his polygamous marriages, a man for whom friendship and loyalty meant everything but who provoked disaffection by 'testing' the loyalty of his devoted associates, an anti-Mason who became a Master Mason, church president who physically assaulted both Mormons and non-Mormons for insulting him, a devoted father who loved to care for his own children and those of others, temperance leader and social drinker, Bible revisionist and esoteric philosopher, city planner, pacifist and commander-in-chief, student of Hebrew and Egyptology, bank president, jail escapee, healer, land speculator, mayor, judge and fugitive from justice, guarantor of religious freedom but limiter of freedom of speech and press, preacher and street-wrestler, polygamist and advocate of women's rights, husband of other men's wives, a declared bankrupt who was the trustee-in-trust of church finances, political horse-trader, U.S. presidential candidate, abolitionist, theocratic king, inciter to riot, and unwilling martyr."

Mormon leaders rarely, if ever, focus on such a contradictory comparison. In a Sunday morning conference message titled, "The Great Things Which God Has Revealed To Us," President Gordon Hinckley stated,

"In this year of celebration, through our own performance, let us honor the Prophet, through whom God has revealed so much. The sun rose on Joseph's life on a cold day in Vermont in 1805. It set in Illinois on a sultry afternoon in 1844. During the brief 38 and one-half years of his life, there came through him an incomparable outpouring of knowledge, gifts, and doctrine. Looked at objectively, there is nothing to compare with it. Subjectively, it is the substance of the personal testimony of millions of Latter-day Saints across the earth." (Ensign, May 2005, p.80).

Hinckley then proceeded to tell how, as a boy he loved to listen to a man "with a rich baritone voice," who sang the words to John Taylor's song, "The Seer, Joseph the Seer." He then quoted selected portions from the song:

"The Seer, the Seer, Joseph, the Seer! . . . I love to dwell on his memory dear; The chosen of God and the friend of man, He brought the priesthood back again; He gazed on the past and the future, too, . . . And opened the heavenly world to view."

The portion quoted by Hinckley is rather innocuous compared to some of the other lines. For instance, in the first stanza we find:

"His equal now cannot be found, By searching the wide world around. With Gods he soared in the realms of day, And men he taught the heavenly way."

Another stanza states:

"The saints, the saints, his only pride! For them he lived, for them he died! Their joys were his, their sorrows too, He loved the saints, he loved Nauvoo. Unchanged in death, with a Savior's love, He pleads their cause in the courts above."

This is just one of many references where Joseph Smith is given messianic prominence. Not only does he die for the members of his church, but he also pleads their cause in heaven. Such a comparison comes uncomfortably close to Romans 8:33-34 that tells us it is Jesus Christ Himself who died for His elect and now intercedes on their behalf.

Another popular song sung by Mormons in conference is "Praise to the Man" written by W.W. Phelps:

"Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer. Kings shall extol him, and nations revere. Praise to his memory, he died as a martyr; Honored and blest be his ever great name! Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, Plead unto heav'n, while the earth lauds his fame.

"Great is his glory and endless his priesthood. Ever and ever the keys he will hold. Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom, Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.

"Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven; Earth must atone for the blood of that man. Wake up the world for the conflict of justice. Millions shall know 'Brother Joseph' again."

The chorus to the above song reads:

"Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven! Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain. Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren; Death cannot conquer the hero again."

The Christian faith has its share of heroes and often the deeds of these men and women are mentioned in sermons as positive examples to follow. However, I find the degree to which Mormons elevate their founder to be especially disconcerting. Though Mormons insist they do not worship Smith, they certainly do ascribe to him attributes and accomplishments that surpass those of any mortal man, including that of the biblical Twelve Apostles. When was the last time you sang a song in church dedicated to the Apostles Paul or Peter that said they died for you and now intercede on your behalf? 

Addendum: Related Quotes

  • "For the length of time he lived, [Joseph Smith] was as good a man as ever lived in the flesh, Jesus excepted." - Brigham Young http://jod.mrm.org/7/237
  • "I recollect a conversation I had with a priest who was an old friend of ours, before I was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph. I clipped every argument he advanced, until at last he came out and began to rail against Joe Smith, saying, that he was a mean man, a liar, moneydigger, gambler, and a whore-master; and he charged him with everything bad, that he could find language to utter. I said, hold on, brother Gillmore, here is the doctrine, here is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the revelations that have come through Joseph Smith the Prophet. I have never seen him, and do not know his private character. The doctrine he teaches is all I know about the matter, bring anything against that if you can. As to anything else I do not care. If he acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we will abide it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor's wife every night, run horses and gamble, I do not care anything about that, for I never embrace any man in my faith. But the doctrine he has produced will save you and me, and the whole world; and if you can find fault with that, find it." - Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, volume 4, p. 77-78
  • "He (Joseph Smith) is the man through whom God has spoken... yet I would not like to call him a savior, though in a certain capacity he was a god to us, and is to the nations of the earth, and will continue to be." - Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:321
  • "Well, now, examine the character of the Savior, and examine the characters of those who have written the Old and New Testament; and then compare them with the character of Joseph Smith, the founder of this work ... and you will find that his character stands as fair as that of any man's mentioned in the Bible. We can find no person who presents a better character to the world when the facts are known than Joseph Smith, Jun., the prophet, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, who was murdered with him," (Journal of Discourses, vol. 14, p.203)
  • "If we get our salvation, we shall have to pass by him [Joseph Smith]; if we enter our glory, it will be through the authority he has received. We cannot get around him [Joseph Smith]" (as quoted in 1988 Melchizedek Priesthood Study Guide, p. 142).
  • "I tell you, Joseph holds the keys, and none of us can get into the celestial kingdom without passing by him. We have not got rid of him, but he stands there as the sentinel, holding the keys of the kingdom of God; and there are many of them beside him. I tell you, if we get past those who have mingled with us, and know us best, and have a right to know us best, probably we can pass all other sentinels as far as it is necessary, or as far as we may desire. But I tell you, the pinch will be with those that have mingled with us, stood next to us, weighed our spirits, tried us, and proven us: there will be a pinch, in my view, to get past them. The others, perhaps, will say, If brother Joseph is satisfied with you, you may pass. If it is all right with him, it is all right with me. Then if Joseph shall say to a man, or if brother Brigham say to a man, I forgive you your sins, "Whosoever sins ye remit they are remitted unto them;" if you who have suffered and felt the weight of transgression—if you have generosity enough to forgive the sinner, I will forgive him: you cannot have more generosity than I have. I have given you power to forgive sins, and when the Lord gives a gift, he does not take it back again." - Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, p.154-155
  • "NO SALVATION WITHOUT ACCEPTING JOSEPH SMITH. If Joseph Smith was verily a prophet, and if he told the truth when he said that he stood in the presence of angels sent from the Lord, and obtained keys of authority, and the commandment to organize the Church of Jesus Christ once again on the earth, then this knowledge is of the most vital importance to the entire world. No man can reject that testimony without incurring the most dreadful consequences, for he cannot enter the kingdom of God." - Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, p.190
  • "It is because the Lord called Joseph Smith that salvation is again available to mortal men.... If it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration, there would be no salvation," - Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 396, 670
  • "You call us fools; but the day will be, gentlemen and ladies, whether you belong to this Church or not, when you will prize brother Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Living God, and look upon him as a god..." (Herber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 5:88)
  • “The day will come—and it is not far distant, either—when the name of the Prophet Joseph Smith will be coupled with the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Son of God, as his representative, as his agent whom he chose, ordained and set apart to lay anew the foundations of the Church of God in the world, which is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ, possessing all the powers of the gospel, all the rites and privileges, the authority of the Holy Priesthood, and every principle necessary to fit and qualify both the living and the dead to inherit eternal life, and to attain to exaltation in the kingdom of God” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 134; quoted in “Joseph Smith: Restorer of Truth,” Ensign, Dec 2003, 17).
  • "The issue facing the religious world today is: Was Joseph Smith called of God? And that's the single, most important issue to determine. And they're gonna find out only one way. By learning a little bit, and praying a lot." Robert Millet, Overcoming Objections
  • "I have taught for thirty years, and still teach, that he that believeth in his heart and confesseth with his mouth that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph Smith is his Prophet to this generation, is of God; and he that confesseth not that Jesus has come in the flesh and sent Joseph Smith with the fulness of the Gospel to this generation, is not of God, but is anti-christ." (Journal of Discourses 9:312)
  • "An Old Testament passage that Saints were initially reluctant to interpret as a reference to Joseph Smith is a prophecy attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15; 'The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken.' The image of a 'prophet' being 'raised up' who would be 'like unto Moses' certainly fits Joseph Smith who has been likened to Moses (D&C 28:2, 107:91). Interpreting this prophet as Joseph Smith was initially seen as problematic since the New Testament identifies the prophet in this passage as Christ (Acts 3:22–26, 7:38), an identification that is reinforced in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 22:21) and by Moroni during his first visits to Joseph Smith (JS–H 1:40). More recently, LDS scholars have deemed it appropriate to invoke the principle of multiple fulfillment and interpret it as also being an allusion to Joseph Smith. For example, BYU religion professor Frank Judd writes, 'Moses’s prophecy has dual fulfillment: Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith.'" - "This Is My Doctrine": The Development of Mormon Theology, by Charles R. Harrell

Addendum: Jesus (Not Joseph) is the Head of the Last Dispensation

By Aaron Shafovaloff

As the chief prophet, priest, and king, Jesus is the head of the final dispensation, and it was set up that way so he got all the attention. Introducing another dispensation and putting Joseph Smith at the head of it sidelines Jesus, no matter how much one is able to integrate the phrase “Jesus Christ” into a prayer or service.

The fullness of time was 2000 years ago, not 175 years ago. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:7-10:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The mystery hidden for ages and ages was not waiting for Joseph Smith to be revealed. Consider how Paul spoke in Colossians 1:24-26:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

It’s all about Jesus. Time centers around him. Dispensations and priesthoods culminate in him. Temples and sacrifices end with him. He is the new temple. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) And so he did.

“That’s my Jesus.”

Addendum: "The equal of Joseph cannot be found searching the world around and indeed with Gods"

MRM received the following e-mail from a Mormon on March 27, 2009:

Greetings

I must comment on a little section quoted regarding the poem / hymn “The Seer, Joseph The Seer” by John Taylor...  Reading this, I must simply state Brother John Taylor hit the nail on the head. Indeed the equal of Joseph the Seer cannot be found searching the world around and indeed with Gods (yes plural) he soared the realms of day. And finally I must add how un offended I am at the concept of the prophet pleading the cause of the Saints in the courts above. Otherwise thanks for publishing this poem / hymn written to honor the greatest man (with the exception of Jesus only) to have walked this earth. As you are fortunate enough to be so proximate to the headquarters of the restored Church of Jesus Christ - perhaps you should avail yourselves the opportunity to feel the Spirit of God and let it witness to you of the prophetic calling of Joseph the Seer.

Sincerely,

Tim

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