Let me set the stage for this little encounter:
It’s a small tour. I have two couples with me today; one older, one younger. I’m in the 1840 addition to the Homestead, dutifully explaining the intricacies of the hiding place in the cellar (now gone) and clarifying that the floorboards have, in fact, been replaced. My visitors nod.
Then the older man looks in my direction and asks,
“So, Rene, what do you think about Joseph?”
It’s a different question—one that I hadn’t encountered before, at least not like this. The unspoken variations and twists on this simple question hang in the air:
What do I, as a Community of Christ member, think about Joseph?
What do I, as a young woman, think about Joseph?
What do I, as a repeated tour guide at Kirtland and now Nauvoo, think about Joseph?
Whatever my answer, I’ll be speaking not just for myself, but also for the Community of Christ, in a way. It’s a caution, honor, and responsibility that all of us tour guides encounter on a daily basis.
So, as our small group stands in Joseph and Emma Smith’s first Nauvoo home, surrounded by 1840s artifacts and axe-marked wooden beams, I take a moment, then answer.
Before I tell you my response, though, I’m interested to know how you would react in this situation.
What do you think about Joseph?
As a 2nd time ”intern” here at Nauvoo, and a member of the Community of Christ, I truly do understand the complexities that lie within this question (even if the man asking the question does not).
It is a question we must all examine individually and yet the answer often reflects on our church as a whole. Even though we often start with “Personally I believe…” many visitors will still view our answer as an extension of Community of Christ Doctrine.
Firstly, I would have to say that Joseph was a MAN…albeit a gifted man, but a man none the less. Joseph himself often stated that he was but a man and some of what he said was of God and some was of Man. This is part of the basic principles which would lead to the founding of the RLDS movement. We turned away from the extreme teachings in Nauvoo and embraced the earlier teachings of Kirtland.
This does not mean, however, that I believe Joseph was a fallen prophet. I simply believe he was a common man called to do great things. In Nauvoo, Joseph was granted many responsibilities and there was no separation of Church and State. Nauvoo rapidly became a Theocracy with Joseph at its head. With this much responsibility and power, any man would reveal a few faults. None of us can be expected to be perfect and Joseph was no different than you or I.
This would most likely be too revealing of an answer for most of our guests here on the site, however, I feel it better explains my personal view of Joseph. To sum it up for guests I would probably answer with something like…
“Personally, I believe Joseph to be a prophet and founder of the Latter Day Saint Movement. He was a man, and like any other man he had some flaws; however this does not mean I believe him to be a fallen prophet.”
Once again as members of the Community of Christ we should rejoice in the freedom we have to study our church’s rich heritage and history and develop our own views on those who came before us.
I don’t know why we need to “think” anything about Joseph Smith than we need to about Spencer Silver or George Crum. I am grateful for what he has done, but confer upon him no more divinity than is upon any one of us, which is not to say a little, but it is surely not more.
Joseph was prophet of the church. He was guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but not in all things, or in all circumstances.
The tour answer can be as simple as that. Further discussion might include the fact that he was an adulterer, or that he was a bad judge of character.
As Historic Interpreters at Community of Christ historic sites we are oftentimes seen as the face of the church. We will most likely be the first member of the Community of Christ that members of the LDS church and those from outside the face will encounter. Because of this, our answers must be both truthful to our personal philosophies and sensitive to those of our guests. For this reason oftentimes we are not able to delve into great detail into Joseph’s personal life, out of respect for those who visit the site as a means of spiritual fulfillment.
It is important also, however, that we do not hide the truth from those who seek these answers. Oftentimes one will have a mix of LDS and non church members on tour. During these times questions such as “What do you think about Joseph?” can be extremely difficult. A simple answer can provoke questions which would not be wise to discuss in mixed company. While an answer delving into great detail of Joseph’s triumphs and fallacies may not be wise either.
This question can often require an analysis of the people you have on tour so that you can be truthful without be hurtful.
If I had to tell someone what I personally thought about Joseph, I might use a facebook analogy. Under the relationship status bar there are several choices: “married to,” “in a relationship with,” and “it’s complicated with.” I would probably put “it’s complicated with Joseph Smith.”
That said, I do not think that this precludes me from affirming the importance that he is in my church’s life or my own. To not see Joseph as important for a CofC member is like being a Lutheran and regarding Martin Luther as irrelevant. Good luck with that!
One thing I try to tell my students in Nauvoo and Kirtland over and over again is that Joseph looks much better when you place him in his early American context. Before rendering a snap judgment on him, I tell them, make sure you’ve done adequate work to actually understand him. When people criticize Joseph, I often hear in their words my own frustrations coming out. (For instance, I would never take Joseph as a model for how to form life-long lasting relationships.) But at times, I really want to ask critics of Joseph, “Do you really know that much about what it was to be alive in early nineteenth century America?” “When is the last time you actually studied anything about early Latter Day Saint history or read a current scholarly biography on Smith?” “Do you really know this guy?”
Finally, I always use a quote from Jaroslav Pelikan to help put Joseph in context as a positive part of my faith. Speaking about “tradition,” Pelikan says that “we do well to recognize as infantile an attitude toward our parents that regards them as all-wise or all-powerful and that is blind to their human foibles. But we must recognize no less that it is adolescent, once we have discovered those foibles, to deny our parents the respect and reverence that is their due for having been, under God, the means through which has come the only life we have. Maturity in our relation to our parents consists in going beyond both a belief in their omniscience and a disdain for their weakness, to an understanding and a gratitude for their decisive part in the ongoing process in which now we, too, must take our place, as heirs and yet free.” (The Vindication of Tradition, Yale UP, 1985, p. 54) Joseph is one of my parents. I constantly remind myself that I need to grow into a more mature attitude to him beyond adolescent critiques while not having child-like faith in his omniscience.
So who is Joseph to me? Nothing less than a prophet of God with all the weaknesses and foibles present in all humans. And he is one of my spiritual “parents” along with a cloud of other witnesses including Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Francis, Merton, Wesley, and Joseph III.
I’m so glad I’m not a tour guide. It would be difficult for me to answer my personal thoughts without giving a bad impression of our church to what I’m thinking a Mormon visitor asked you.
My personal belief (as I tell church members, Mormons, and evangelicals alike) is that Joseph Smith might have had some psychic ability and a vision of creating an organization that he felt was how Jesus’ “church” was organized before it became corrupted. I believe that he did not translate the BOM from golden / brass plates that he was directed to find buried in a hill. I believe that he either plagiarized it or made it up to present a story that answered questions people were having in his day. Kind of the “Celestine Prophecy” or “Dianetics” of his day.
Finally, I believe that he let the adulation of followers calling him prophet all the time go to his head. He changed a lot between Kirtland and Nauvoo. By Nauvoo, he essentially became a cult leader and had the weirdest revelations of all.
The funny thing is, that I heard many Mormons say that God would never allow His prophet to lead the church astray. If one attempted to do it, he would be killed. As soon as they told me this when I attended BYU and had these discussions, I would point out that Joseph Smith was killed shortly after his King Follett Discourse and he was young. Every LDS prophet after him lived to old age. None of the Community of Christ prophets died at a young age either. What does that say about Joseph Smith? Of course, the comeback was that Joseph needed to be martyred.
I often wonder if I had lived back in the day, would I have been convinced by Joseph Smith enough to join his newfound religion and move to Kirtland, then Independence, then Nauvoo. Many early members gave up their farms and families to move with him across this continent. He asked a lot of his followers, but by Nauvoo, he just went off the deep end.
I admire Emma Smith a lot more than Joseph. She should have been the prophet of our church.
I do not consider Joseph Smith a prophet so I would not be a good tour guide either. I think Joseph was a glass looker and a treasurer hunter who discovered a better and easier way to make a living. I actually believe in my heart of hearts that Sidney Rigdon had as much to do with the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith. It was his “American Scripture” to compete with Alexander Campbell who did a translation of the New Testament from the Greek.
On the other hand, I realize that Joseph was a product of his time…a time with a magic world view and that others in his society also looked for treasure and others had “seer stones”. It was a tough time in which to live. The Smiths had lost everything..including Alvin, the most industrious of the lot.
I probably would not have stayed in the church if it was the church he developed. I could never be LDS. I am too much my own woman….subservient to none. :)
But Community of Christ suits my personality just fine. I love the mission statement and think it is worthy of Jesus’ message.
Growing up LDS nearly worshipping Joseph Smith (singing W.W. Phelps’ hymn “Praise to the Man”), I was very disillusioned to later learn of his non- prophetic behavior. I believe this was the source of his ongoing persecution and ultimately his death.
I have come to admire and respect Joseph Smith III who behaved like a prophet. JSIII proclaimed the Book of Mormon, claimed to be a prophet who received revelations who headed “the only true church” as well as had a high libido, all like his father. Yet he was admired and respected in both Nauvoo and Independence. The difference between the two was their attitudes and behavior, which reflected JSIII’s mother’s influence and his own personality.
Perhaps had Joseph Smith, Jr. been more like his son, he’d have lived a long, more enjoyable life. The church he founded would have grown much larger and most likely would not have fragmented upon his death.