Examining Mormonism’s Founder: The What-Did-Joseph-Smith-Lie-About Approach

By Rob Sivulka

Summary

A question I am often asked while holding up my “JosephLied.com” website sign [1] is, “What did Joseph lie about?” The question is like having a fish bite on the bait. When that happens, it’s time to set the hook and reel it in! While many issues may be brought up, I generally begin with three topics that ought to be considered by anyone who either believes or is considering following Joseph Smith.

 

Introduction

Did Joseph lie? Yes, he certainly did. In fact, Joseph can be proven to be a liar when it comes to monogamy, the Book of Abraham, and polytheism.

Joseph Smith’s Monogamy

William Law was a member of the First Presidency from 1841 through 1844. He and others made charges about Joseph Smith’s “spiritual wifeism.” In response Smith announced, on May 26, 1844, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”[2] In addition, Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) 101 used to say, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”[3]

The obvious conclusion is that Joseph lied about having only one wife. Smith’s polygamy paints a picture that is quite sordid and out of step with that culture. In fact, Smith’s polygamy even deviated from the way it was practiced in biblical cultures since, according to footnote 29 in the official LDS Church Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Smith married between 12-14 wives who were currently married to living husbands. D&C 132:61-63 condemns these polyandrous practices as adultery, saying,

[A]s pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. . . . But if . . . after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

Because these women did not belong to Smith but were married to other men, they could not have been virgins when Smith espoused them. The evidence also indicates that Smith was already married to these other women prior to threatening his first wife, Emma. She was commanded to accept these other wives of the Lord or be destroyed (D&C 132:51-56 and 64-65). It was adultery to take other men’s wives, condemned by D&C 42:18-29, which says that those who commit adultery and don’t repent shall not be forgiven “in this world, nor in the world to come.” Smith also married a mother-daughter pair as well as several pairs of sisters, acts which were not only against the cultural norms at the time but also against the biblical law of Moses (Leviticus 18:17-18).

If Joseph Smith is to be regarded as one who manages the church of God, then the New Testament is clear that he is to be the husband of only one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Latter-day Saints often bring up the examples of Old Testament saints who were involved in polygamy and even go so far as to claim that God endorsed these relationships. Even if God had commanded these relationships—something I reject— Smith’s polygamous activities appear to be more satisfying to his own libido than the words of Jesus.

There is irony regarding Joseph’s lie and earlier boasting how he was “the only one to keep a whole church together since the time of Adam,” adding that not “even Jesus ever did it.” He inadvertently prophesied his own demise when he said, “You will then know who are liars, and who speak the truth . . . I have prophesied things that have come to pass . . . Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a downfall.”[4] One month later, Smith was assassinated.

Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham  

In 1835, Smith obtained ancient papyri from a traveling mummy exhibitionist named Michael Chandler. According to Smith, these papyri contained the words of “Abraham, written by his own hand.” Given that Smith regarded himself as a prophet, seer, and revelator, he “translated” these Egyptian hieroglyphics, which became known as the Book of Abraham. It was first published in 1842 and canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880.  Note that this was before anyone in America had any working knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Surely, how could the uneducated Smith come up with such a work without the aid of the Lord?

The papyri were once thought to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, although they later turned up in the New York Metropolitan Museum and were given over to the LDS Church in 1967. This time, scholars knew how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. They studied the papyri and concluded that they were part of the Books of Breathing, a famous ancient Egyptian funerary text dated well after the time of Abraham. As it turns out, the translation does not mention anything about Abraham.

Even prior to this discovery, there were still translational problems with the Book of Abraham given its three published facsimiles. For example, in Facsimile No. 3, Smith identified Figure 1 (pictured second from left) as “Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh’s throne.” However, Egyptologists agree that this is the pagan god Osiris. Figure 2 is identified as “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head.” However, this is the pagan goddess Isis and the characters don’t indicate what Smith asserted. The same goes for the rest of Smith’s translations in this facsimile. The famous nineteenth century French Egyptologist M. Theodule “Deveria dismissed Joseph’s explanations [of all three facsimiles] as rambling nonsense.”[5]

In addition to all this, Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was published a year prior to the papyri being released to the Church. This lent further evidence that Joseph lied. Larson writes,

Professional Egyptologists to whom the Alphabet and Grammar was submitted for examination were quick to point out that the material in Joseph Smith’s notebook bore no resemblance at all to any correct understanding of the ancient Egyptian language.  As one of them, I. E. Edwards, put it, the whole work was, “largely a piece of imagination and lacking in any kind of scientific value.” He added that it reminded him of “the writings of psychic practitioners which are sometimes sent to me.” There were many similar verdicts, all confirming that the person responsible for what [William] Berrett had glowingly called “the first Egyptian grammar in America” could not possibly have understood the ancient Egyptian language.[6]

The LDS Church Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” admits to these points, though it claims that there are not enough papyri discovered to come to a conclusive decision about whether or not the text is what Joseph Smith said it was. But what difference should that make? There is enough to conclusively determine that Joseph lied in the translations that do survive in the papyri. Dr. Robert Ritner, professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, said that “all of Smith’s published [facsimile] ‘explanations’ are incorrect.”[7] Ritner called out the LDS Church for giving a “selective defense,” which he portrays as

simply indefensible except by distorting Egyptian evidence . . . The LDS approach has been to find individual minor identifications or remote possibilities that cannot in sum either explain or justify the Book of Abraham.  The new LDS citations of sources that are of minor relevance, misleading or false does not advance the cause of the church and its disputed scripture.[8]

While the essay admits that his “translation” was not literal but “spiritual,” Smith himself claimed that he was rendering a direct translation from the papyri. Thus, Smith lied about the Book of Abraham because he did not get the translation right.

Joseph Smith’s Polytheism                                  

The Book of Abraham teaches polytheism, which is the belief in or worship of more than one God. One may worship only one God, but if one still believes in other gods that are legitimate for others, then one is a certain type of polytheist, viz., a henotheist.  Abraham chapters 4 and 5 provide a Genesis-like creation account, except Smith used “the gods” in the Book of Abraham rather than the singular “God” found in all versions of Genesis (including, ironically, the Joseph Smith Translation). Dr. Ronald V. Huggins describes Smith creating these Book of Abraham chapters as a “reworking of the first chapter of the King James Bible by an overconfident beginning student of Biblical Hebrew.”[9]

While the name for God—Eloheim—can be translated either as “Gods” or “God” throughout the Bible, the pronoun and verb usage for Genesis 1 and the entire biblical context does not allow for “gods” to be the correct translation. The one possible exception is Genesis 1:26, which has God (Eloheim) say “let us make.” However, verse 27 uses the third person singular pronoun and verb, which indicates the singular nature of the one God who created.

There are basically three options in understanding what is going on in Genesis 1:26 (and not one of them demand Smith’s beginning Hebrew student understanding of the term Eloheim): (1) a plurality of majesty, (2) the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, or (3) the Creator speaking to other angelic or heavenly hosts. The first option refers to an individual propping himself up by using “us” language. Kings have used this throughout history about themselves, and no one has understood that as conveying a plurality of kings for a single dominion.

The second option is that there is only one Creator (or God), and yet somehow “He” exists inseparably from eternity (prior to literally any creation whatsoever) in a plurality of Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consequently, one of the Persons may rightly speak to the others in the first person plural pronoun. The third option is that Eloheim, the individual uncreated Creator, is talking to the created angelic or heavenly hosts. The latter could be referred to as “gods” (eloheim) even though the passage never specifically states them in those terms. If such is the case, there is still a semantical difference between Eloheim the Creator and eloheim whom he addresses.  This wouldn’t be polytheism since the natures of the one vis-à-vis the others are radically different.

The whole context of scripture is worth consideration. For instance, Psalm 96:4-5 says, “For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised: he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens.” It is “the Lord” (Jehovah) and the singular pronoun “he” that is used here in contrast to all the eloheim. Thus, this passage clearly reveals a distinction between the Lord (Jehovah) or Eloheim (since Jehovah in this Psalm is identified as the same character in Genesis 1) and all other eloheim. The former is the true God and the latter are false gods or idols.

Isaiah 44:24 says, “Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself.” Even if the Creator had help from other “eloheim” in making man after His own image, the Creator didn’t have help with the heavens and the earth. He did that “alone” and by Himself.

Not only did Smith teach a plurality of Gods who are equal in terms of their nature at the creation of this world, but he also went so far as to teach that God the Father had a Father before Him.  He said,

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! …I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; . . . I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.

. . . Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you.

. . . If Abraham reasoned thus—If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way . . . Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine, for the Bible is full of it.

I want you to pay particular attention to what I am saying. Jesus said that the Father wrought precisely in the same way as His Father had done before Him. As the Father had done before? He laid down His life, and took it up the same as His Father had done before.[10]

Psalm 90:2 teaches that, before anything was made, God remains God “from everlasting to everlasting.” Psalm 135:5 says that God is above or greater than all gods. Isaiah 40 says that no one has been God’s counselor and that no one is like Him (12-26).  A few chapters later, He states, “[B]efore me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me” (43:10). The next chapter indicates that there is no God besides Him (44:6, 8). Jesus taught there is an “only true God” (John 17:3), and as we have already seen, all other gods are false or idols (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6).  Romans 11:33-36 states that all things are of, through, and to Him. The biblical passages state that no other god was in existence prior to God, and no other was involved in creating this or any other world.

Mormons hold that God is an exalted man who has not always been God and assume these passages have a specific reference for only this world or set of worlds, not all worlds. Smith stated  in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, “The heads of the Gods appointed one God for us” (373). In effect, that option devalues the monotheistic God taught in the Bible. From an LDS viewpoint, God is simply one exalted man among many others, some of whom were involved in creating this world. However, the biblical passages are clear that no other God was prior to the biblical God and no other was involved in creating this world or any other world.

At this point, another counter-intuitive card must be played; it’s one that claims that these biblical passages actually refer to there being no other Godhead for us. That means that there is no other team of gods who act as one god for us. According to Apostle Bruce R. McConkie in his book Mormon Doctrine, this is the “supreme presidency of the universe,” and for us or our world or set of worlds is made up of “three personages” who are “separate and distinct from each of the others, yet they are ‘one God’. . . meaning that they are united as one in the attributes of perfection” (319). The result is that the term “God” turns out to be something we never thought of before. The personal individual term is replaced by one conveying a functional team of separate individuals.

The biblical, monotheistic passages never claim this.  If the LDS position were correct, we would expect that the biblical evidence would somewhere state what Smith clearly taught about separate Gods or Creators. However, everything argues against that. The personal Creator knows no other god besides Himself (Isaiah 44:8).

The basic problem for Mormons is that they assume there is currently a restored gospel originally taught by Christ and His apostles and that the original knowledge vanished after their deaths. In this line of thinking, Mormons assume the early Church Fathers must have uniformly gone against their mentors’ (the apostles’) teachings to take away these “plain and precious truths.”

For many Latter-day Saints, the personal testimony is most important. Mormons have the burden of proof that their form of polytheism was actually included within Christ’s teachings. Until that onus is met, it seems rather clear that there is no good reason to think that the creation was brought about by a team of separate gods or that God the Father had a Father. Instead, every good reason points to the fact that God is the greatest possible being after all and that Joseph was not telling the truth.

It is clearly possible to think of a God greater than the LDS version of God who is nothing more than an exalted man. A greater God is one who never had to be exalted to godhood, who never had to bow down or learn from someone else, and who rules over all “gods.” In fact, He literally rules over everything outside His own being.

Conclusion     

Lies are not becoming of a true prophet of God. In fact, the Bible says that a false prophet will be known by his lies (cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:21-22; Matthew 7:15-20). Joseph lied about his monogamy to perpetuate a perverted lifestyle. He lied about the Book of Abraham in claiming that God hath spoken when He had not. Finally, Joseph lied about God’s character. These seem to be the type of lies that should rule Joseph Smith out from being considered a trustworthy individual, let alone a prophet of God. Because Joseph lied, nobody should follow his ways or accept his teachings as true.

 

Rob Sivulka (West Jordan, UT) is president of Courageous Christians United based in West Jordan, Utah. He holds four degrees in biblical and theological studies, philosophy, and philosophy of religion and ethics from Biola University, Talbot School of Theology, and San Diego State University. He has also studied at the University of Oxford, the University of Strasbourg, and the University of Utah.

[1] To read about my approach, see chapter 20, “Website Advertising: The Sign Approach,” in Sharing the Good News with Mormons.

[2] History of the Church 6:410-411.

[3] This remained in the Doctrine and Covenants from 1835 to 1876 when section 132—given by Smith in 1843—was added.  Today, however, the LDS Church admits that Smith had 30 to 40 wives at the time he claimed to have only one wife. See footnote 24 in the Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.”

[4] History of the Church 6:410-411. According to Deuteronomy 13:1-5,  false prophets can give a sign or a wonder.

[5] Charles M. Larson, …by His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: a new look at the new Joseph Smith papyri (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1985), 25.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7]https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/Research_Archives/Translation%20and%20Historicity%20of%20the%20Book%20of%20Abraham%20final-2.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The Book of Mormon: Another Bible or Another Bible Forgery? Part 1,” Salt Lake Messenger, Issue 127, 14.

[10] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 346 and 373.