Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration (Review)

Reviewed by Bill McKeever

Despite the fact that Article 13 in the LDS Articles of Faith states that Mormons are to be honest, the LDS Church refuses to be completely truthful when it comes to its history, especially when the subject is Joseph Smith. As part of its celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the LDS Church commissioned a new film that would highlight his life. Titled Joseph Smith—The Prophet of the Restoration, the film begins in Nauvoo in 1844 while flashing back to past events in Smith’s life.

As with most LDS movies that deal with Mormon history, you tend to expect two things—an absence of pertinent facts and an appeal to the emotions. Sister missionaries standing at the door holding boxes of tissues confirmed this was to be no different. Surprisingly, I found its attempt to play on heart-strings not nearly as successful as others I’ve seen though I did see several viewers dabbing tears from their eyes after the lights came on.

I have seen my share of LDS films that try their best to convince the public that Joseph Smith was an upstanding citizen and husband who really communicated with God and brought back to us truths that had been lost centuries ago. However, like the two other films that have shown in this church-owned theater (Legacy and The Testaments—Of One Fold and One Shepherd), much of the story is left out in order to conceal aspects of LDS history that would probably alarm modern minds or, at the very least, cause them to question the story’s validity.

The Gold Plates

When Smith retrieves the plates, he pulls them out of the ground with relative ease, despite the fact that the weight of the plates would have made their retrieval extremely difficult.

When Joseph Smith is seen “translating” the gold plates, he is shown merely reading from them as he would any book. He is not wearing the “spectacles” he claimed were included with the plates for the purpose of translating them.

Eyewitnesses to the translation process included David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Smith’s brother William. All three of them admitted that Smith used a “seer stone” that he placed in a hat. Ignored is the testimony of his wife Emma, who also claimed that Joseph used a seer stone to translate the gold record. Emma said, “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us” (Emma Smith Bidamon, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints Herald, October 1, 1879, p.289). Why does the film fail to portray such an important event accurately?

Joseph and Emma

The film does mention that Emma’s father, Isaac Hale, was not in favor of his daughter marrying Smith, but it fails to explain why. Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman, in his book Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, notes that Hale objected because Smith “was a stranger and followed a business that I could not approve” (p.53). That business was treasure-seeking, a practice that involved finding treasure by the use of folk magic. Smith was arrested as a glass-looker in 1826, so we can understand Hale’s concern. Bushman notes that Smith promised his father-in-law that “Magic had served its purpose in his life,” and that his “treasure-seeking days were over” (p.54). Given the fact that Smith utilized a “seer stone” when translating the plates, it seems clear that his promise was not kept.

Polygamy

Prophet of the Restoration gives the impression that Joseph and Emma had an idyllic marriage. No mention is made in the film about how Smith’s belief in polygamy caused severe tension in their relationship. In fact, the polygamy issue is completely left out of the film. Mormon historian Todd Compton states, “I arrive at a list of thirty-three well-documented wives of Smith” (In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, p.2). In this group of well-documented wives, Compton notes that 11 of them were between the ages of 14-20 years old. Smith at this time was in his 30s (p.11).

Compton also notes that

“fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them” (p.15). Bushman concedes to ten. “Joseph married about thirty additional women, ten of them already married to other men. Nothing confuses the picture of Joseph Smith’s character more than these plural marriages” (Rough Stone Rolling, p.437)

Except for Compton’s inclusion of Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, Bushman agrees with Compton’s calculation (see footnote 1, page 644).

Currently there are tens of thousands of people loyal to Joseph Smith who practice what is known as “the principle.” The Mormon Church officially renounced plural marriage in 1890 and has always been quick to distance itself from LDS splinter groups that continue to engage in plural marriage. To a certain extent this is a bit hypocritical given the fact that this film glorifies the very man who is responsible for most of the problems we have involving polygamy today. If it wasn’t for Smith, would this even be an issue? This denial also does not take into account that polygamy in the hereafter is a very real part of current LDS teaching.

Jane Elizabeth Manning & Anthony Stebbings

Prophet of the Restoration attempts to give viewers the impression that Joseph Smith’s church offered equal spiritual opportunity to all members regardless of color. “God desires to bless all his children,” Smith says to a black woman named Jane Elizabeth Manning. Manning and her brother-in-law Anthony Stebbings (in the film Anthony’s last name is not mentioned) were some of the few converts to early Mormonism of African descent. According to an article in the August 1979 edition of Ensign magazine, Manning converted while living in Connecticut as a “free black.” In 1843 she and eight family members traveled by foot to Nauvoo, a distance of over 800 miles. The film shows Joseph and Emma greeting Jane as she arrived and depicts Smith bandaging a black person’s bloody foot. However, the Ensign article states that Jane wrote in her biography how, before arriving in Nauvoo, they thanked God “for his infinite goodness and mercy to us, in blessing us…protecting us…and healing our feet. (“Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer,” Linda King Newell, and Valeen Tippets Avery).

Newell and Avery note that Manning eventually married another black member named Isaac James, and together they were one of the first to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley after the Mormons left Nauvoo in 1847. Isaac abandoned Jane in 1869, though he did return both to her and the church 20 years later. The article states that Jane Manning, despite her hardships, remained active in her faith and was a very productive member.

Jessie L. Embry, in her book Black Saints in a White Church, notes on pages 40-41 how Manning’s faithfulness was repaid after Isaac passed away. “Jane asked that they be given the ordination of adoption so they would be together in the next life. She explained in correspondence to church leaders that Emma Smith had offered to have her sealed to the Smith family as a child. She reconsidered that decision and asked to be sealed to the Smiths. Permission for all of these requests was denied.”

Embry goes on to write, “Instead the First Presidency ‘decided she might be adopted into the family of Joseph Smith as a servant, which was done, a special ceremony having been prepared for the purpose.’ The minutes of the Council of Twelve Apostles continued, ‘But Aunt Jane was not satisfied with this, and as a mark of dissatisfaction she applied again after this for sealing blessings, but of course in vain.'”

There is one confusing scene when Manning tearfully explains to Smith that the sheriff was insisting that Anthony pay a fine for trying to buy his son’s freedom from slavery. “He didn’t know he was breaking the law,” she says. Smith tells her that “laws are what protect us.” What law did Anthony break? The film doesn’t say. The Young Women’s Journal (17:538) notes that Anthony was indeed trying to raise money to “purchase the freedom of a dear child held as a slave in a southern state.” The fine however was related to Anthony trying to raise the money by “selling liquor on Sunday.” Smith is to have said, “I am sorry, Anthony, but the law must be observed, and we will have to impose a fine.”

Jail scenes

More than once Prophet of the Restoration shows Smith being arrested and jailed but viewers are bereft of details. For example, the film spends a fair amount of time focusing on Smith’s incarceration at Liberty Jail, but it neglects to explain that Smith was put there for his part in the Battle of Crooked River (though he did not participate personally in the actual fighting). In this skirmish a band of Mormons, led by Mormon Apostle David Patten, engaged a company of Missouri militiamen under the command of Captain Samuel Bogart. In the conflict Patten was killed along with a Missourian. Another Missouri militiaman, Samuel Tarwater, was wounded and left for dead. Angry Mormons proceeded to vent their anger at the unconscious Tarwater with the use of their swords. In doing so they struck him in the face, “cutting off his under teeth, and breaking his lower jaw; cutting off his cheeks…and leaving him [for] dead” (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p.99), Samuel Tarwater survived the onslaught and later pressed charges.

Smith’s death

Prophet of the Restoration reenacts the final moments in Carthage, Illinois where Smith and his brother Hyrum were being incarcerated following the destruction of a printing press that was used to expose Smith’s secret polygamous relationships and his abuses of power. The film accurately shows Hyrum being shot by a mob, but it does not show Smith responding with a smuggled pistol left with him earlier by a friend named Cyrus Wheelock. John Taylor, an eyewitness in the jail cell at the time of the event, wrote that Smith,

“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; 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 7:102,103).

When Smith heads for the window of the jail the camera angle switches to a POV shot (point of view). This dramatic affect lets us visualize what Smith probably saw in his final moments. The camera moves toward the window as bullets fly through the glass. However, when the window shatters, instead of the angle pointing down towards the ground, the “point of view” turns upward as if Smith rose in a type of Christ-like ascension.

Conclusion

Airbrushing the prophet–removing the flaws that tend to expose Joseph Smith’s dubious behavior–is unfortunately common when the LDS Church retells Smith’s story. Such a practice shouldn’t surprise us for if the LDS Church was to be brutally honesty about its founder prophet, the chances are very good that even many Mormons would not like what they see. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of tourists have viewed Prophet of the Restoration and walked away having no idea that an incredible amount of accuracy has been sacrificed in the making of this film.