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The Clever Joseph Smith

By Bill McKeever

Note: The following was originally printed in the May/June 2022 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

The best of con men try their best to come up with stories that are difficult to falsify. In this area I give credit to Joseph Smith. Have you ever noticed how Smith was able to explain things in great detail where most experts could sometimes, at best, only speculate? Take, for instance, baptism for the dead. This expression is used only once in the Bible (1 Corinthians 15:29). Scholars admit this passage is so puzzling that numerous suggestions have been offered in an attempt to try and understand what exactly Paul meant by the phrase. Yet Smith devised a complex doctrine on just one verse.

Consider also “Reformed Egyptian,” a language that escapes the knowledge of learned Egyptologists to this day. Yet Smith claims that a group of people of Jewish background used this language to write an ancient text that he claimed was the Book of Mormon.

Even the Pearl of Great has an example of Joseph Smith making grandiose claims for some papyri his church bought off a salesman named Michael Chandler. Though the text contained on the papyri was authentic, Smith knew that at the time that there were no experts who could challenge what he claimed the text said. One might say that if Smith were indeed a true “seer,” he would have seen that, eventually, experts would arise who could expose his fraud, which they did.

Smith’s use of things that can’t be falsified are also found in Doctrine and Covenants section 7. Here Joseph Smith claimed to have a revelation “of a record made on parchment” by the apostle John “and hidden up by himself.” The revelation states how John would remain alive on earth until Jesus comes in his glory (D&C 7:3). No such parchment has ever been known to exist, much less located and examined.

The same can be said for the Book of Moses. It is described in the Pearl of Great Price as “an extract from the translation of the Bible as revealed to Joseph Smith.” And where is this text from which this translation comes? There is none. Sadly, most of Smith’s adherents don’t seem to care.

Yes, Smith was a master at being an expert on that which is non-existent or, at best, vague. According to Smith’s testimony, when he was permitted to retrieve the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon, they were under a large stone that covered a “stone box.” He claimed that inside the stone box were the plates, a breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim, often described as special glasses that were used by Smith to translate the Reformed Egyptian into English.  

The Old Testament also speaks of a breastplate and the Urim and [the] Thummim. Exodus 28 goes into great detail when it comes to describing the priestly garments worn by Aaron, the brother of Moses. In the King James Version, the Bible of choice by Joseph Smith and the LDS Church, it mentions in Exodus 28:30 that Aaron had a “breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart.” Modern Bible versions like the New American Standard and the English Standard Version calls it a “breastpiece.”

Aaron’s breastplate had four rows containing three precious stones in each row. These stones were to “be engraved according to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, according to their names; they shall be like the engravings of a signet, each according to his name for the twelve tribes.”

What exactly were the Urim and the Thummim? The Bible does not provide a lot of details. What we do know is they were to be “put in the breastplate of judgment” and located “over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the Lord continually” (28:30).

There is no evidence that the Urim and Thummim mentioned in Exodus 28 were used for translating languages. Smith’s Urim and Thummim were not placed in the breastplate, but instead these spectacles or glasses were somehow connected to it on the outside, enabling him to read the Reformed Egyptian characters and then relay an English equivalent to his attending scribe.

Though some LDS scholars cast doubt on what exactly Smith’s Urim and Thummim looked like and how they were used, a 1994 manual for children ages 4-7 instructs the teacher to

explain that the Urim and Thummim are like special glasses through which Joseph could look to help him translate the ancient writing on the plates. With Heavenly Father’s help and by using the Urim and Thummim, Joseph was able to translate the words on the gold plates into words we could understand.

Primary 3: Choose the Right B, 73.

To the faithful, Smith’s ability to explain the unexplainable proves that, indeed, Joseph Smith was called of God. Evidence doesn’t matter, even when the evidence tends to disprove what Smith has said. To most people who can spot a con, this is not proof that he was a true prophet called by God; it only proves that he was clever. And because his cleverness will carry eternal consequences for those who trusted him, it shows he was clever in an evil sort of way.

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