For an August 9, 2011 Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast, click Josiah Quincy
By Sharon Lindbloom
The following was originally printed in the Sept-Oct 2011 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
“It is by no means improbable that some future textbook… will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.” Josiah Quincy, Jr., Figures of the Past, 1883
The above quote is frequently found in Mormon books, videos and articles. It has been repeated time and again in various media venues spanning several decades, freely used to impress people with the fact that a notable non-Mormon of the 19th century had held a positive opinion of Joseph Smith.
When the LDS publication Mormon Times ran an article titled “Joseph Smith ‘most influential’ 19th century American,” it wasn’t surprising that the Josiah Quincy, Jr. quote was one of the article’s highlights. The journalist concluded her article:
“[W]hen Josiah Quincy was combing over his journal entries, examining the people he had met or pondered on, he was faced with fairly impressive, regaled figures, including his own presidential relations. Any could easily have ‘exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen.’ But his pick was Joseph Smith.” (Mormon Times, “Joseph Smith ‘most influential’ 19th century American,” 28 August 2009)
This is pretty impressive on the face of it, but every statement has a context. Josiah Quincy’s recollections about a visit he enjoyed with Joseph Smith can be found in his book Figures of the Past, available in its entirety online. It contains a full chapter recounting Mr. Quincy’s impressions of the Mormon prophet.
In mid-May 1844, politician and future Boston mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr. stopped in Nauvoo, Illinois. His traveling companion was Charles Francis Adams, Sr., son, and grandson of two American presidents. Being deemed important visitors, these men were received and welcomed by Joseph Smith. Mr. Quincy wrote:
“Intelligence of our arrival had in some mysterious manner reached General Smith, and the prophet’s own chariot, a comfortable carryall, drawn by two horses, soon made its appearance. It is probable that we owed the alacrity with which we were served to an odd blunder which had combined our names and personalities and set forth that no less a man than ex-President John Quincy Adams had arrived to visit Mr. Joseph Smith.” (Figures of the Past, 380)
After spending a day with the Prophet, Josiah Quincy wrote his impressions in a journal. Later he wrote about the visit in letters to friends. Later still he compiled his impressions into a chapter for his book. The chapter began with the now-famous quote; Josiah Quincy was obviously impressed by Joseph Smith. But if all that he wrote in his book is considered, Josiah Quincy was not favorably impressed.
Mr. Quincy referred to the religious system of Mormonism as being comprised of “monstrous claims” (383). He said the sect created by Joseph Smith was filled with “demoralizing doctrines” (377). Quincy noted several times that Joseph Smith apparently thought very highly of himself, and thought himself quite clever. Speaking of himself as the militia commander of 3,000 men, Smith reportedly explained to his visitors,
“I decided that the commander of my troops ought to be a lieutenant-general, and I was, of course, chosen to that position. I sent my certificate of election to Governor Ford, and received in return a commission of lieutenant-general of the Nauvoo Legion and of the militia of the State of Illinois. Now, on examining the Constitution of the United States, I find that an officer must be tried by a court-martial composed of his equals in rank; and as I am the only lieutenant-general in the country, I think they will find it pretty hard to try me.” (383-384)
When Joseph Smith talked about theology and his supposed multi-lingual abilities, Josiah Quincy wrote:
“Smith was well versed in the letter of the Scriptures, though he had little comprehension of their spirit. He began by denying the doctrine of the Trinity, and supported his views by the glib recitation of a number of texts…The degrees and orders of ecclesiastical dignitaries he set forth with great precision, being careful to mention the interesting revelation which placed Joseph Smith supreme above them all…The prophet referred to his miraculous gift of understanding all languages, and took down a Bible in various tongues, for the purpose of exhibiting his accomplishments in this particular. Our position as guests prevented our testing his powers by a rigid examination, and the rendering of a few familiar texts seemed to be accepted by his followers as a triumphant demonstration of his abilities. It may have been an accident, but I observed that the bulk of his translations were from the Hebrew, which, presumably, his visitors did not understand, rather than from the classical languages, in which they might more easily have caught him tripping.” (385-386)
Perhaps the most concise and clearly stated opinion Mr. Quincy formed of the Prophet Joseph Smith is found following Quincy’s praise of the beautiful city of Nauvoo. He wrote,
“And all the diligent workers, who had reared these handsome stores and comfortable dwellings, bowed in subjection to the man to whose unexampled absurdities we had listened that morning. Not quite unexampled either. For many years I held a trusteeship which required me to be a frequent visitor at the McLean Asylum for the Insane. I had talked with some of its unhappy inmates, victims of the sad but not uncommon delusion that each had received the appointment of vicegerent of the Deity upon earth. It is well known that such unfortunates, if asked to explain their confinement, have a ready reply: ‘I am sane. The rest of the world is mad, and the majority is against me.’ It was like a dream to find one’s self moving through a prosperous community, where the repulsive claim of one of these pretenders was respectfully acknowledged. It was said that Prince Hamlet had no need to recover his wits when he was despatched [sic] to England, for the demented denizens of that island would never detect his infirmity. If the blasphemous assumptions of Smith seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, he had, at least, brought them to a market where ‘all the people were as mad as he.’” (388-389)
Josiah Quincy’s travelling companion also wrote of this 1844 visit with the Prophet. Though his recollections are not as detailed as Mr. Quincy’s, Charles Francis Adams wrote this in his diary:
“There is a mixture of shrewdness and extravagant self-conceit, of knowledge and ignorance, of wisdom and folly in this whole system of this man that I am somewhat at a loss to find definitions for it. Yet it is undoubted that he has gained followers at home and abroad…On the whole I was glad I had been [to see Joseph Smith]. Such a man is a study not for himself, but as serving to show what turns the human mind will sometimes take. And herafter [sic] if I should live, I may compare the results of this delusion with the condition in which I saw it and its mountebank apostle.” (Diary of Charles Francis Adams, For the Period May 14, 1844 to May 16, 1844, “Wednesday, May 15. Joe Smith. Visit the Temple.”)
Such was the “powerful influence” these respected visitors found in Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.