This article was originally published in Mormon Coffee on October 13, 2014
In a Deseret News article titled “Defending the Faith: Joseph Smith wasn’t arrogant or boastful” (9/4/14), Mormon BYU Professor Daniel Peterson addressed a common criticism used against Joseph Smith:
“Some critics like to use a quotation attributed to Joseph Smith as a weapon against him:
“‘I have more to boast of,’ he’s reported to have said, ‘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. … Neither Paul, John, Peter nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such 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).
“The comment seems arrogant, lacking the humility appropriate to a prophet or even an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Dr. Peterson brought up four points that he believes people should keep in mind when evaluating Joseph Smith’s statement:
- Context: “Joseph was applying a passage from the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11-12) to his own perilous situation. The idea of ‘boasting’ wasn’t Joseph’s; it was Paul’s.”
- Interpretation: “Joseph seems actually to be praising his followers’ faithfulness, not himself.”
- Transmission: “Joseph didn’t write the quotation; it was reconstructed after his death. Thus, it almost certainly doesn’t represent his precise words.”
- Joseph’s Character: “Joseph’s authenticated personal statements plainly reveal him to have been a humble and sincere man, struggling to do the will of God as he understood it — and this particular statement should be placed in the context of his overall life and behavior.”
Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson have explored all four points of Dr. Peterson’s approach in a three-part Viewpoint on Mormonism broadcast series that aired September 30, October 1, and October 2. Here I want to look at just one point, that of context.
Dr. Peterson attributes Joseph Smith’s idea to boast in his own accomplishments to the biblical apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 11, which Joseph read to the Mormon congregation before delivering his sermon, Paul engaged in reluctant boasting in order to compare his apostolic credentials with false apostles who were beguiling the Corinthian church with another Jesus, a different spirit, and a different gospel.
“Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”
(2 Corinthians 11:18-23)
Paul went on to clarify:
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness…
“…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 11:30, 12:7-10)
Finally, Paul explained that he was not boasting for his own reputation or glory, but for the good of the church and the glory of God:
“Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.” (2 Corinthians 12:19)
According to Dr. Peterson, Joseph got the idea to boast from Paul’s exhortation when Paul called the Corinthian Christians to recognize and resist false apostles and their false teachings. If Joseph got the idea from Paul, he nevertheless did not apply his boasting in the same way. Compare Joseph sermon with Paul’s epistle.
Joseph ‘s discourse was his response to “the dissenters at Nauvoo.” These dissenters had accused Joseph of immoral and criminal conduct. So on that Sunday morning in May 1844, Joseph began with a declaration of the purpose of the remarks that would follow:
“My object is to let you know that I am right here on the spot where I intend to stay. I, like Paul, have been in perils, and oftener than anyone in this generation. As Paul boasted, I have suffered more than Paul did. I should be like a fish out of water, if I were out of persecutions. Perhaps my brethren think it requires all this to keep me humble. The Lord has constituted me so curiously that I glory in persecution. I am not nearly so humble as if I were not persecuted. If oppression will make a wise man mad, much more a fool. If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster: I shall always beat them. When facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last. My enemies are no philosophers: they think that when they have my spoke under, they will keep me down; but for the fools, I will hold on and fly over them.” (All quotes of Joseph Smith’s sermon are from History of the Church 6:408-412.)
“God is in the still small voice. In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the devil—all corruption. 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. You know my daily walk and conversation. I am in the bosom of a virtuous and good people. How I do love to hear the wolves howl! When they can get rid of me, the devil will also go. For the last three years I have a record of all my acts and proceedings, for I have kept several good, faithful, and efficient clerks in constant employ: they have accompanied me everywhere, and carefully kept my history, and they have written down what I have done, where I have been, and what I have said; therefore my enemies cannot charge me with any day, time, or place, but what I have written testimony to prove my actions; and my enemies cannot prove anything against me.”
The remainder of Joseph’s preaching during this church service addressed specific individuals and specific accusations made against him, focusing on his innocence.
“I never arrested Mr. Simpson…I never made an affidavit…I did not swear to it…I never built on another man’s ground…I never told the old Catholic that he was a fallen true prophet…I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can…What a thing for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” [Note: A this time Joseph Smith had at least 30 wives.]
Finally, Joseph explained,
“I have said this to let my friends know that I am right.”
In his final remarks Joseph tells his congregation of his tenderness toward them and his desire that they have a “virtuous leader”; and then defends himself one last time as he insists that he has not taken their money unjustly.
Was Joseph’s boasting like the boasting of the apostle Paul?
In Paul’s epistle, Paul boasted reluctantly. He felt – and said – that in doing so he was speaking as a fool; but He did it for the sake of the Gospel and his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. He explained that the only boasting he wanted to do was to boast in his weaknesses, because his weakness proclaimed the strength and glory of God.
Joseph Smith, on the other hand, was happy to “get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster” and proclaim, “I shall always beat them.” He taunted his critics and claimed that he gloried in persecution. He said that he had suffered more than the apostle Paul, and had more to boast of than Paul, John, or Peter — and even Jesus Himself. Joseph boasted for his own sake, to convince his friends that he was right.
I agree with Dr. Peterson — I think it is important to consider the context when evaluating Joseph Smith’s boasting. And doing so leads me to disagree with Dr. Peterson. At least in this case, Joseph Smith was indeed arrogant and boastful.