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Should Joseph Smith Appear Today

By Bill McKeever

Mormons have a tendency to rarely criticize their founding prophet. To hear many of them speak, Joseph Smith was a man of impeccable character who was a beacon of morality to his followers. Brigham Young went so far as to say:

“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, the founder of this work – the man whom God called and to whom he gave the keys of Priesthood, and through whom he has established his Church and kingdom for the last time, and you will find that his character stands as fair as any man’s mentioned in the Bible” (Journal of Discourses 14:203).

This attitude is certainly reflected in some of the LDS pageants held around the country. For instance, in the City of Joseph pageant held each summer in Nauvoo, Illinois, the person portraying Joseph Smith is seen happily holding hands with his wife Emma while touting the virtues of the Mormon faith. The truth is, during the Nauvoo period of LDS history, Smith was secretly married to as many as 40 women. Emma’s disdain for the practice of plural marriage led Smith to lie to her about the relationships.

Apparently Smith’s lust for women even led him to ask Sidney Rigdon’s nineteen-year-old daughter Nancy to become his plural wife in 1842. When his advances were rebuffed, Smith wrote a letter to her that included the following:

“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another … Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire” (B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant, p. 373).

In his article entitled “150 Years Of Truth And Consequences About Mormon History,” former LDS historian D. Michael Quinn wrote,

“Character assassination was common in Nauvoo Mormonism. In 1842, Nancy Rigdon rejected Joseph Smith’s polygamous proposal. She told her family, and her brother went public. As a result, Joseph Smith published affidavits that she had been sexually impure. In another example, Martha Brotherton published an affidavit about her rejection of Joseph Smith’s polygamous proposal. As a result, he had her sister Elizabeth publish the answer that her sister was a whore and a liar.”

If Smith were somehow transported into modernity, would a person of his character be accepted into the Mormon fold? If, hypothetically, Joseph Smith was to come back from the dead and resume his membership in the LDS Church, could he do it without controversy? To many it would seem unlikely. Still, Hugh Nibley, one of the foremost LDS apologists for the LDS Church, insisted, that “If Joseph Smith were to walk into a conference of the Mormon Church today he would find himself completely at home; and if he were to address the congregations they would never for a moment detect anything the least bit strange, unfamiliar or old-fashioned in his teaching” (No Ma’am, That’s Not History, pg. 46).

It is refreshing to know that not all Mormons are so quick to ignore the vast amount of information that makes Nibley’s conclusion suspect. For instance, Richard J. Cummings, professor of languages and literature at the University of Utah, made the following observation in an article entitled “Some Reflections on the Mormon Identity Crisis”:

“Hugh Nibley declared some years ago that ‘if Joseph Smith were to walk into a conference of the Mormon church today he would find himself completely at home; and if he were to address the congregation, they would never for a moment detect anything the least bit strange, unfamiliar or old-fashioned in his teaching.’ However, anyone willing to face the Mormon identity crisis realistically must ask if Joseph Smith’s imagined return to the church might not bear a closer resemblance to Christ’s less-than-cordial reception in fifteenth-century Seville as conceived by Dostoevsky in the Grand Inquisitor episode of The Brothers Karamazov than to the cheery scenario depicted by Nibley” (The Wilderness of Faith, p.61).

Cummings refers to Fyodor Dostoevsky, a nineteenth century Russian who was exiled to Siberia after being accused of conspiracy. In his book The Brothers Karamozov he tells of two brothers, Ivan and Aloyesha. Ivan, the atheist, gives his impressions of what might have happened had Jesus returned during the 16th century Spanish Inquisition. Naturally, Ivan demonstrates that even Christ Himself would be strongly criticized and condemned for His views.

The same could be said for Joseph Smith. Certainly most conservative Mormons, were they to fully understand the teachings and behavior of their beloved prophet, would be appalled to know that their leader was a womanizer and prevaricator. Could they with a clear conscious sustain as their leader a person who exhibited such behavior?

In his tongue-in-cheek article entitled Joseph Smith Visits Redwood City First Ward, the late Samuel W. Taylor, grandson of LDS President John Taylor, gave us an imaginary encounter with Joseph Smith who happened to be visiting Taylor’s home town from “Celestial First Ward, Kolob Stake.”

Taylor begins his narrative with a quote from Keith Norman that reads, “Mormonism … has experienced a social and intellectual transformation of such magnitude that a resurrected Joseph Smith, returning to earth today, might well wonder if this was indeed the same church he had founded.” With this in mind, Taylor begins his fictitious story by offering Joseph Smith a ride to the local ward for a “session with the quorum presidency before church begins.” Smith jumps into the car, and the fascinating encounter begins.

Numerous topics are discussed, including the role of the twelve apostles, the Word of Wisdom, the age of elders in the church, the role of deacons, the definition of the New and Everlasting Covenant, how missionaries were to be supported, garments, temple recommends, and changes to the Book of Mormon. When Smith learns how his church has “evolved” over the years, he exhibits emotions from dismay to mild shock. By using real issues that have been a part of LDS history, Taylor shows that if Joseph Smith was to visit a modern LDS meeting, things would definitely be strange and unfamiliar.

I can only imagine the fireworks if Brigham Young was to show up. “What? Adam isn’t God? And whattya mean no beards at the university that bears my name?”


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