The character of Joseph Smith, according to his enemies, was that he was
- an impostor
- a charlatan
- a liar and
Now we will look at him, in the interestys of fairness, through the eyes of honest critics, disinterested observers, friends, and followers.
The enemies of Jesus claimed that he was "gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners", he was condemned as a "blasphemer" and sentenced to die a shanmeful death for "perverting the nation and also for forbidding his followers to pay tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is the King of the Jews." Although no parallel is intended, it is interesting to note that the Prophet Joseph Smith was also falsely accused of the same 'crimes.'
John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed, but to suggest that this disqualifies from him from prophetic office is to misunderstand the nature of divine commissions.
Jesus was charged with treason, imprisoned, and esecuted, but this does not disqualify him from being God's Son and Messiah sent to save the world by taking away its sins.
Some very serious and disturbing criminal charges were levelled against the early Christians by their enemies and tormentors, including orgiastic church meetings, cannibalism, incest, and treason. The Emperor Nero accused Christians also accused them with incendiarism, and inflicted
"the most elaborate punishments upon these people, hated for their crimes, who were commonly styled 'Christians." The author of this name was one Christus, who had been put to death during the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate. The deadly superstition, checked for the moment, was beginning to break out again, not only in Judea, the original source of the evil, but even in the capital itself, the centre where all horrible and shameful things converge and find supporters.
They were attacked in similar ways that Latter-day Saints have been attacked by their persecutors.
[Christians are] people ignorant of learning, unlettered and unskilled in the meanest arts...a gang of discredited and proscribed desperadoes...the lowest dregs of the population, ignorant men and credulous women. [At their] nocturnal gatherings, solemn feasts and barbarous meals, the bond of union is not a sacred rite but a crime. [They are] a secret tribe that lurks in darkness and shuns the light, silent in public, chattering in corners...and these vicious habits are spreading day by day...These conspirators must be utterly destroyed and cursed.
The early Christians were accused of eating human flesh, of incest and of engaging in licentious orgies after their divine services.
Certain rumours were current everywhere. The doctrine of the Eucharist, under which 'flesh' and 'blood' were eaten, was understood to mean the practice of cannibalism. The 'kiss of peace' at Sunday services was also misinterpreted. Clement of Alexandria complained: 'There are those that do nothing but make the churches resound with a kiss, not having love itself within. This practice, the shameless use of the kiss, which ought to be mystic, has occasioned foul suspicions and evil reports.' There was a reference to incest.
Those Christians who are aware of the false charges hasten to deny their substance and their implications. The basis of most false accusations is exaggeration and mis-information applied to the words and deeds of an enemy. The charges whilst palpably not true, acted against the interests of the Christians and provided them with a reputation for licentiousness which they found difficult to shake off.
Anti-Mormon writers ignore evidence that speaks well of Joseph Smith. Some may be surprised that such evidence exists but it is plentiful, rising largely from disinterested sources without religious or political axes to grind - although some positive testimony to his good character is obtained his Mormon contemporaries who knew him better than anyone else. It could be argued that the testimony of Latter-day Saints should be excluded on the grounds that they will exercise bias in favour of Joseph Smith. Of course if we discount his faithful followers and friends, we must also disqualify the witnesses that are hostile and negative, since their bias is also evident. Yet if we consider only the testimonies of those who stand on neutral ground we fail to obtain a well-rounded characterisation of the Prophet of Palmyra.
Enemies may be blind to his virtues; friends to his faults, and it would be as foolish to claim that Joseph was devoid of faults as it would be to assert that he was deficient of virtue. Whilst Joseph's detractors point out his faults and failings, (including some which he did not have), he did not claim the perfection that they demand of him. He said,
I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not.
The only testimonials included here are from Latter-day Saints that were Joseph Smith's contemporaries that actually knew him.
Modern Latter-day Saint writers, and those of earlier times who did not know him, are limited to obtaining their evaluation of him from the accounts of those who did, coloured possibly by their prejudices and by their faith.
Other testimonies that are compelling, are from Non-Mormons that either knew him well or that actually took time to meet him. Their testimonies are of greater value than the products of modern writers whose only contact with the personality and character of the Smith is through the eyes and minds of his enemies.
First we view the Prophet Joseph Smith through the eyes of Benjamin F Johnson in his letter to George S Gibbs in 1899 reflecting upon his estimation of Joseph Smith.
As a son, he was nobility itself, in love and honor of his parents; as a brother he was loving and true, even unto death; as a husband and father, his devotion to wives and children stopped only at idolatry. His life's greatest motto after "God and His Kingdom" was that of "wives, children and friends."
Joseph the Prophet, as a friend was faithful, long suffering, noble and true to that degree that the erring who did love him were reminded that the rod of a friend was better than the kiss of an enemy, "while others who sopped in his dish" but bore not reproof, became his enemies, and like Law, Marks, Foster, Higbee and others who hated him, conspired to his death.
As companion, socially, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and at times, even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that "maketh the heart glad," For amusements, he would sometimes wrestle with a friend, or oftimes would test strength with others by sitting upon the floor with feet together and a stick grasped between them, but he never found his match. Jokes, rebuses, matching couplets in rhymes, etc., were not uncommon. But to call for the singing of one or more of his favorite songs was more frequent. Of those, "Wives, Children and Friends," "Battle of River Russes," "Soldier's Tear," "Soldier's Dream," and "Last Rose of Summer," were most common. And yet, although so social and even convivial at times, he would allow no arrogance or undue liberties, and criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable, and contradictions would arouse the in him the lion at once, for by none of his fellows would he be superseded. And while with him in such fraternal, social and sometimes convivial moods, we could not then so fully realize the greatness and majesty of his calling, which, since his martyrdom, has continued to magnify in our view, as the glories of this dispensation were more fully unfolded to our comprehension.
Brigham Young said of his friend and leader,
Who can say aught against Joseph Smith? I was as well acquainted with him as any man. I do not believe that his father and mother knew him any better than I did. I do not think that nay man lives upon the earth that knew him any better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth. I am his witness. He was persecuted for the same reason that any other righteous person has been or is persecuted at the present day.
Joseph's popularity waned in the eyes of many Saints who denounced him as a "fallen prophet" and attempted to remove him from leadership. Brigham Young was present at a meeting in the Kirtland Temple whose aim was to install David Whitmer as the prophet of the Church. Brigham sprang fearlessly to Joseph's defence.
Father John Smith, Brother Heber C. Kimball and others were present, who opposed such measures. I rose up, and in a plain and forceful manner told them that Joseph was a Prophet and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God, and sink themselves to hell. Many were highly enraged at my decided opposition to their measure, and Jacob Bump (an old pugilist) was so exasperated that he could not be still. Some of the brethren near him put their hands on him, and requested him to be quiet; but he writhed and twisted his arms and body saying, "How can I keep my hands off that man?"
I told him if he thought it would give him any relief he might lay them on.
It is often claimed that Joseph allowed the Saints little personal liberty, by ruling as a despot. Heber C Kimball provides an interesting insight into this aspect of the Prophet's influence over them. It was Kimball's opinion that a Utah bishop had more control over the Saints than Joseph ever had.
Joseph could not so thoroughly control the people, for they were like wild bulls; but when he could not make them do what he wanted them to do, he suffered them to do what they pleased.
Parley P Pratt gave his estimation of Joseph Smith:
He possessed a noble boldness and independence of character; his manner was easy and familiar; his rebuke terrible as the lion; his benevolence unbound as the ocean; his intelligence universal, and his language abounding in original eloquence studied - not smoothed and softened by education and refined by art; but flowing forth in its own native simplicity, and profusely abounding in variety of subject and manner. He interested and edified, while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary of his discourse. I have even known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears.
Pratt's statement helps to explain Charlotte Haven's complaint about Joseph's oratory. However a journalist who visited Joseph Smith in 1842 was more impressed than she had been, as the New York Herald reported.
Joseph Smith is undoubtedly one of the greatest characters of the age. He indicates as much talent, originality and moral courage as Mahomet, Odin or any of the great spirits that have hitherto produced the revolutions of past ages. In the present infidel, irreligious, ideal, geological, animal-magnetic age of the world, some such singular prophet as Joseph Smith is required to preserve the principle of faith, and to plant some new germs of civilization that may come to maturity in a thousand years. While modern philosophy, which believes in nothing but what you can touch, is overspreading the Atlantic States, Joseph Smith is creating a spiritual system, combined also with morals and industry, that we may change the destiny of the race....We certainly want some such prophet to start up, take a big hold of the public mind--and stop the torrent of materialism that is hurrying the world into infidelity, licentiousness and crime.
About same time the Advocate printed a contribution by the Illinois Masonic Grand Master recording his impressions:
Having recently had occasion to visit the city of Nauvoo, I cannot permit the opportunity to pass without expressing the agreeable disappointment that awaited me there. I had supposed from what I had previously heard, that I would witness an impoverished, ignorant and bigoted population, completely priest-ridden and tyrannized over by Joseph Smith, the great Prophet of these people.
On the contrary, to my surprise, I saw a people apparently happy, prosperous and intelligent. Every man appeared to be employed in some business or occupation. I saw no idleness, no intemperance, no noise, no riot; all appeared to be contented with no desire to trouble themselves with anything but their own affairs. With the religion of this people I have nothing to do; if they can be satisfied with the doctrines of their new revelation, they have a right to do so. The constitution of the country guarantees to them the right of worshiping God according to the dictates of their own conscience, and if they can be so easily satisfied, why should we, who differ with them, complain?
During my stay of three days I became well acquainted with their principal men, and more particularly with their Prophet. I found them hospitable, polite, well-informed and liberal. With Joseph Smith, the hospitality of whose house I kindly received, I was well pleased. Of course, on the subject we widely differed, but he appeared to be quite as willing to permit me to enjoy my right of opinion as I think we all ought to let the Mormons enjoy theirs. But instead of the ignorant and tyrannical upstart, judge my surprise at finding him a sensible, intelligent companion and gentlemanly man. In frequent conversations with him he gave me every information that I desired and appeared only too pleased at being able to do so. He appears to be much respected by all the people about him, and has their entire confidence. He is a fine-looking man, about thirty-six years of age, and has an interesting family.
Faithful Church member Lyman O Littlefield, who had been a member of Zion's Camp in 1835, and served as a missionary in Alabama in 1843, told of his impressions upon meeting Joseph Smith.
I had read some in the scriptures and heard men often talk about the prophets and apostles of the days of the Savior and had formed the idea, of course, that they must have been remarkable and good men, and the thought that I was to look upon a prophet of God in my day - that I was, in the flesh, to behold a person who stood in that near and familiar relationship to God, that His will was made manifest to him - was something that awakened reflections that my young mind could not well fathom or reconcile. But the opportunity came, and
I first beheld him a tall, well-proportioned man, busily mingling with the members of Zion's Camp, shaking hands with them, meeting them with friendly greetings and carefully seeing to their comforts. His familiar, yet courteous and dignified manner, his pleasant and intelligent countenance, his intellectual and well-formed forehead, the expressive and philanthropic facial lineaments, the pleasant smile and the happy light that beamed from his mild blue eyes; all these were among the attractive attributes that at once awakened a responsive interest in the mind of every kindly beholder, which increased in intensity as the acquaintance continued.
With his most familiar friends he was social, conversational and often indulged in harmless jokes; but when discoursing upon complicated topics that pertained to the welfare of individuals or the progressiveness of communities, his elucidations were clear and so full of common sense and genuine philosophy that the candid and fair-minded felt interested by his views, though they might decline to entertain or promulgate all of the self-evident truths he originated.
Joseph's brother, William, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, was excommunicated in 1845, following which he attached himself to the Strangite movement and then the Reorganized Church. Shortly before his death in 1894 he was visited by J. W. Peterson and a member of the Utah church called Briggs. The following report was carried by the Millennial Star.
Briggs: Did you not doubt Joseph's testimony sometimes?
Smith: No. We all had the most implicit confidence in what he said. He was a truthful boy. Father and mother believed him, why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things we might have doubted his work about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful;. No sir, we never doubted his word for one minute.
Briggs: Well, it is said that Joseph and the rest of the family were lazy and indolent.
Smith: We never heard of such things until after Joseph told his vision, and not then, by our friends. Whenever the neighbors wanted a good day's work done they knew where they could get a good hand and they were not particular to take any of the other boys before Joseph either. We cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber I ever saw. We had a good place. We also had on it from twelve to fifteen hundred sugar-trees, and to gather sap and make sugar from that number of trees was no lazy job. We worked hard to clear our place and the neighbours were a little jealous. If you will figure out how much work it would take to clear sixty acres of heavy timber land, heavier than any here, trees you could not conveniently cut down, you can tell whether we were lazy or not, and Joseph did his share of the work with the rest of the boys.
We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a wonderful way.
Briggs: Were your folks religiously inclined before Joseph saw the angel?
Smith: Yes, we always had family prayers since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, and if we did not notice it mother would say 'William,' or whoever was the negligent one, 'get ready for prayer.' After the prayer we had a song we would sing. I remember part of it yet:
Another day has passed and gone,
We lay our garments by.*
Hyrum, Samuel, Catharine and my mother were members of the Presbyterian church. My father would not join. He did not like it because a Reverend Stockton had preached my brother's funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for my Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy, and my father did not like it.
Briggs: What caused Joseph to ask for guidance as to what church he ought to join?
Smith: Why, there was a joint revival in the neighbourhood between the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians and they had succeeded in stirring up quite a lot of feeling, and after the meeting the question arose which church should have the converts. Reverend Stockton was the president of the meeting and suggested that it was their meeting and under their care and they had a church there and they ought to join the Presbyterians, but as father did not like Reverend Stockton very well, our folks hesitated and the next evening a Reverend Mr. Lane of the Methodists preached a sermon on: "What church shall I join?" And the burden of his discourse was to ask God, using as a text: "If any man lack wisdom let his ask of God who giveth to all men liberally." And of course when Joseph went home and was looking over the text he was impressed to do just what the preacher had said, and going out into the woods with child-like simple trusting faith, believing that God meant just what He said, he kneeled down and prayed; and the time having come for the reorganization of His church, God was pleased to show him that he should join none of these churches, but if faithful he should be chosen to establish the true Church.
Benjamin F Johnson articulated the feelings of many of the Saints upon learning of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
[Joseph said to me] "Oh! I am so tired - so tired that I often feel to long for my day of rest. For what has there been in this life but tribulation for me? From a boy I have been persecuted by my enemies, and now even my friends are beginning to join them, to hate and persecute me! Why should I not wish for my time of rest?"
His words to me were ominous, and they brought a shadow as of death over my spirit, and I said: "Oh, Joseph! how could you think of leaving us? How as a people could we do without you?" He saw my feelings were sorrowful and said kindly: "Bennie, if I were on the other side of the veil I could do many times more for my friends than I can do while I am with them here." But the iron had gone into my soul, and I felt that in his words there was a meaning that bonded sorrow, and I could not forget them. . . .
After returning to Macedonia I saw no more of Brothers Joseph and Hyrum, but learned early on June 28th of their assassination. To attempt to delineate the feelings of woe and unutterable sorrow that swelled every heart too full for tears, I need not attempt. I stood up, dazed with grief, could groan but could not weep. The fountain of tears was dry! "Oh, God! what will thy orphan church and people now do!" was the only feeling or thought that now burst out in groans.
I did not go to see their mutilated bodies. I had no wish to look into their grave; I knew they were not there, and the words of Brother Joseph began to come back to me: "I could do so much more for my friends if I were on the other side of the veil." These words - "my friends" - oh, how glad that he was my friend. These thoughts gradually gained the empire in my heart, and I began to realize that in his martyrdom there was a great eternal purpose in the heavens. But we were not able, as yet, to comprehend such a necessity. I could begin now to feel just what he meant, and his words, "do for my friends" to me, were like the promise of Jesus to provide mansions for his disciples that they might be with him always. These things were now my consolation, and when I could begin to rejoice in them, the fountains of my tears began to flow, and I grew in consolation from day to day.
William Clayton, an English convert who wrote the Mormon anthem, Come, Come, Ye Saints,, assisted Joseph Smith with clerical and administrative assignments and was his amanuensis for much of the Documentary History of the Church wrote to his friend William Hardmann about the slanders which were current about the prophet in 1842.
My faith in this doctrine, and in the prophet and officers is firm, unshaken, and unmoved; nay, rather it is strengthened and settled firmer than ever...
For me to write any thing concerning the character of the president Joseph Smith would be superfluous. All evil reports concerning him I treat with utter contempt. …
Joseph is not the "treasurer of the Saints," and has no more to do with their money than you or me; every man does just what he pleases with his money, and neither Joseph, nor any other of the officers, ever attempt to control any one, or their property either...
With regard to J. Smith getting drunk, I will say that I am now acting as clerk for him, and at his office daily, and have been since February 10th, and I know he is as much opposed to the use of intoxicating drinks as any man need be. I have never seen him drunk, nor have I heard any man who has seen him drunk since we came here. I believe he does not take intoxicating drink of any kind: our city is conducted wholly upon temperance principles. As to his using snuff and tobacco, I KNOW he does no such thing. To conclude, I will add that, the more I am with him, the more I love him; and I am sorry that people should give heed to evil reports concerning him, when we all know the great service he has rendered the church.
Charles Francis Adams, the American lawyer, diplomat and author, who was the son of United States President John Quincy Adams, together with his cousin Josiah Quincy, who later became the mayor of Boston, called on Joseph in Nauvoo in 1844 six weeks before the martyrdom. Josiah Quincy took pains to record his impressions.
It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influences 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. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace of their descendants. History deals in surprises and paradoxes quite as startling as this. The man who established a religion in this age of free debate, who was and is to-day accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High-such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fantastic, imposter, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us. Fanatics and imposters are living and dying every day, and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained... Ten closely written pages of my journal describe my impressions of Nauvoo, and of its prophet, mayor, general, and judge; but details necessarily omitted in this diary, went into letters addressed to friends at home, and I shall use both these sources to make my narrative as complete as possible...
A fine-looking man is what the passer-by would instinctively have murmured upon meeting the remarkable individual who had fashioned the mould which was to shape the feelings of so many of his fellow-mortals. But Smith was more than this, and one could not resist the impression that capacity and resource were natural to his stalwart person. I have already mentioned the resemblance he bore to Elisha R. Potter of Rhode Island, whom I met in Washington in 1826. The likeness was not such as would be recognized in a picture, but rather one that would be felt in a grave emergency. Of all men I have met, these two seemed best endowed with that kingly faculty which directs, as if by intrinsic right, the feeble or confused souls who are looking for guidance. This it is just to say with emphasis; for the reader will find so much that is puerile and even shocking in my report of the prophet's conversation that he might never suspect the impression of rugged power that was given by that man...
I should not say quite all that struck me about Smith if I did not mention that he seemed to have a keen sense of the humorous, aspects of his position. "It seems to me, General," I said, as he was driving us to the river, about sunset, "that you have too much power to be safely trusted to one man." "In your hands or that of any other person," was the reply, "so much power would, no doubt, be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet!" The last five words were spoken in a rich, comical aside, as if in hearty recognition of the ridiculous sound they might have in the ears of a Gentile....
We then went on to talk of politics. Smith recognized the curse and iniquity of slavery, though he opposed the methods of the Abolitionists. His plan was to make the nation pay for the slaves from the sale of the public lands. "Congress," he said, "should be compelled to take this course, by petitions from all parts of the country; but the petitioners must disclaim an alliance with those who would disturb the rights of property recognized by the Constitution and foment insurrection." It may be worth while to remark that Smith's plan was publicly advocated, eleven years later, by one who has mixed so much practical shrewdness with his lofty philosophy.
In 1855, when men's minds had been moved to their depths on the question of slavery, Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that it should be met in accordance "with the interest of the South and with the settled conscience of the North. It is not really a great task, a great fight for this country, to accomplish, to buy that property of the planter, as the British nation bought the West Indian slaves." He further says that the "United States will be brought to give every inch of their public lands for a purpose like this." We, who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty would have been worthy a Christian statesman.
But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844? If the atmosphere of men's opinions were stirred by such a proposition when war-clouds were discernible in the sky, was it not a statesmanlike word eleven years earlier, when the heavens looked tranquil and beneficent?...
Who can wonder that the chair of the National Executive had its place among the visions of this self-reliant man? He had already traversed the roughest part of the way to that coveted position. Born in the lowest ranks of poverty, without book-learning and with the homeliest of all human names, he had made himself at the age of thirty-nine a power upon earth. Of the multitudinous family of Smith, from Adam down (Adam of the "Wealth of Nations," I mean), none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent to-day, and the end is not yet.
I have endeavored to give the details of my visit to the Mormon prophet with absolute accuracy. If the reader does not know just what to make of Joseph Smith, I cannot help him out of the difficulty. I myself stand helpless before the puzzle.
Not every one found Joseph the prophet as interesting or as striking as Quincy had. A refined and educated gentlewoman visited Nauvoo. She wrote the following to her sister in New Hampshire after she had been there for a few weeks.
Nauvoo, Jan. 22, 1843. My Dear Sister Isa:
Last Sabbath there was preaching at the Prophet's house. Having not a little curiosity to see and hear this strange man, who has attracted so many thousands of people from every quarter of the globe, the Judge and myself sallied forth. We had not proceeded far when a large horse-sled, with a little straw on the bottom upon which were seated men and women, stopped before us; one of the men asked us to get on, and by a little crowding we placed ourselves among them and were borne along with the multitude that were thronging to hear their beloved leader. Such hurrying! one would have thought it was the last opportunity to hear him they would ever have, although we were two hours before the services were to commence. When the house was so full that not another person could stand upright, the windows were opened for the benefit of those without, who were as numerous as those within.
Joseph Smith is a large, stout man, youthful in his appearance, with light complexion and hair, and blue eyes set far back in the head, and expressing great shrewdness, or I should say, cunning. He has a large head and phrenologists would unhesitatingly pronounce it a bad one, for the organs situated in the back part are decidedly the most prominent. He is also very round-shouldered. He had just returned from Springfield, where he had been upon trial for some crime of which he was accused while in Missouri, but he was released by habeus corpus. I, who had expected to be overwhelmed by his eloquence, was never more disappointed than when he commenced his discourse by relating all the incidents of his journey. This he did in a loud voice, and his language and manner were the coarsest possible. His object seemed to be to amuse and incite laughter in his audience. He is evidently a great egotist and boaster, for he frequently remarked that at every place he stopped going to and from Springfield people crowded around him, and expressed surprise that he was so "handsome and good looking." He also exclaimed at the close of almost every sentence, "That's the idea!" I could not but with wonder and pity look upon that motley and eager crowd that surrounded me, as I thought, "Can it be possible that so many of my poor fellow-mortals are satisfied with such food for their immortal souls?" for not one sentence did that man utter calculated to create devotional feelings, to impress upon his people the great object of life, to teach them how they might more faithfully perform their duties and endure their trials with submission, to give them cheering or consoling views of a divine providence, or to fit them for an eternal life beyond the grave.
Yours affectionately Charlotte
Joseph Smith's "loud voice" is explained by the presence of many persons both within and without the house who had come to hear him speak upon his safe return to them. She also misunderstood Joseph's references to himself which she thought egotistical and boastful. It appears that she was not acquainted with the vicissitudes of Joseph's life to understand that he was making some effort to mark the contrast between what those people thought about him who had drawn their opinion and images of him from the poison wells of hostile image-makers, and the man he and his loyal friends knew himself to be. Doubtless when she came to know the Latter-day Saints and Joseph Smith better she would understand their interest in the ostensibly minor details of the prophet's experiences, and would also appreciate that the Saints were well acquainted with how to "faithfully perform their duties, and endure trials," etc. Other witnesses to the character of Joseph Smith add their testimonies of a man they knew and loved, or admired and wondered at.
Another who found Joseph less than inspiring was Nancy Towle, an evangelist who visited Kirtland in September 1831. In her book she records her impressions of the Saints and the youthful prophet.
As a people, wherefore in common with the world, I will do them [the Saints] to say, I saw nothing indecorous: nor had I an apprehension of any thing of the kind. But in their public performances, I no more looked upon them as sanctioned by the Lord of Hosts than if they had merely intended to mimic the work of the Lord, Rather, to the contrary, I viewed the whole with the utmost indignation and disgust: and as a mere profanation and sacrilege of all religious things.
I really viewed it strange that so many men of skill should be thus duped of them. I pitied and loved them too, believing that many had actually intended forsaking all for Christ....
Ques. "Mr. Smith, can you, in the presence of Almighty God, give your word by oath that an Angel from Heaven shewed you the place of those Plates?-and that you took the things contained in that Book from those plates? And at the direction of the Angel you returned said plates to the place from whence you had taken them?
Ans. "I will not swear at all!"
Upon this, being about to leave the place, he turned to some women and children in the room and lay his hands upon their heads (that they might receive the Holy Ghost) when "Oh!" cried one to me, "What blessings you do lose! No sooner, his hands fell upon my head than I felt the Holy Ghost as warm-water go over me!"
But I was not such a stranger to the spirit of God as she imagined-that I did not know its effects, from that of warm-water! And I turned to Smith, and said, "Are you not afraid of your pretensions? You, who are no more than any ignorant plough-boy of our land! Oh! blush at such abominations! and let shame, forever cover your face!"
He only replied, by saying, "The gift has returned back again as in former times, to illiterate fishermen." So he got off, as quick as he could. He recollected himself, wherefore, and returned to pass the compliment of "Good-by!" A good-natured, low-bred sort of a chap that seemed to have force enough to do no one any harm.
It is not difficult to understand the evangelist's disapproval of Joseph Smith. Nor should we dismiss her rudeness without questioning why she considered herself able to make such a public display of it yet maintain that she was undertaking a Christian ministry. Similar sarcasm is employed against Joseph and the Church by modern day lady evangelists, as we shall see. It is clear to see that Joseph disappointed her by his meek reply and turning away when she wished him to trade insults with her, or at least defend himself against her tirade with greater vigour than he displayed.
Towle's estimation of Joseph Smith as an "ignorant plough-boy" is one that Latter-day Saints will accept sympathetically, for so he was, but much more besides. His response shows that he accepted her judgement of himself. But he knew that he held God's commission, and that God used the weak things of the world to fulfil his purposes. Joseph accepted his weaknesses, readily confessing them to his friends.
I do not think there have been many good men on the earth since the days of Adam; but there was one good man, and his name was Jesus. Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anyone else. Suppose I would condescend-yes, I will call it condescend!-to be a great deal better than any one of you. I would be raised up to the highest heaven; and who would I have to accompany me?
Joseph often indulged in light-heartedness to press his points home. He continued:
I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm yet deals justice to his neighbors, and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite. I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not.
He parried suggestions that he should always be taken seriously by remarking,
A prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such.
On another occasion he said:
The burdens which roll upon me are very great. My persecutors allow me no rest, and I find that in the midst of business and care the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Although I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered Israel, I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times.
Whilst men such as Hurlburt scoured the district where Joseph spent his early years for damaging testimony, one who knew him well in that place, but who disagreed with the characterisations presented in Howe's book, was non-member John Reid, who practised the profession of law.
Law's testimony was delivered at a public gathering in Nauvoo on May 17th, 1844, ten years after the appearance of Mormonism Unvailed, and cogently refutes Martin's charge that the characterisations obtained by Hurlburt were incapable of being refuted!
The first acquaintance I had with Gen. Smith was about the year 1823. He came into my neighbourhood, being then about eighteen years of age, and resided there two years; during which time I became intimately acquainted with him. I do know that his character was irreproachable; that he was well known for truth and uprightness; that he moved in the first circles of the community, and he was often spoken of as a young man of intelligence and good morals, and possessing a mind susceptible of the highest intellectual attainments. I early discovered that his mind was constantly in search of truth, expressing an anxious desire to know the will of God concerning His children here below, often speaking of those things which professed Christians believe in. I have often observed to my best informed friends (those that were free from superstition and bigotry) that I thought Joseph was predestinated by his God from all eternity to be in instrument in the hands of the Dispenser of all good, to do a great work; what it was I knew not. After living in the neighbourhood about three years, enjoying the good feelings of his acquaintances, as a worthy youth, he told his particular friends that he had had a revelation from God to go to the west about eighty miles, to his father's in which neighbourhood he would find in the earth an old history written on golden plates, which would give great light and knowledge concerning the will of God towards His people in this generation: unfolding the destiny of all nations, kindreds and tongues, he said that he distinctly heard the voice of Him that spake.
This estimation of Joseph Smith's character by Law carries more weight than depositions based on rumour and hearsay. It is in keeping with the opinions of those who knew him well, and were convinced of his natural goodness through their experiences with him over several years in a comprehensive variety of circumstances.
- Luke 7.28.
- Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, p. 70.
- Ibidem, p. 71.
- Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church, volume 5, p. 401.
- Journal of Discourses, volume 9, p. 332.
- Manuscript History, p. 16.
- Journal of Discourses, volume 4, p. 330, (May 31, 1857).
- Parley P Pratt, Autobiography, pp. 45-46.
- . Haven, Charlotte, "A Girl's Letters From Nauvoo (1843)" in "Overlander Monthly", (San Francisco) December 1890
- The Juvenile Instructor (the official organ of the LDS Deseret Sunday School Union), volume 27, p. 56.
- Latter-day Saints Millennial Star, volume 56, pp. 132-134.
- Benjamin F Johnson, My Life's Review, pp. 97, 102.
- Letter from William Clayton to William Hardmann, cited in Millennial Star, volume 3, pp. 75-76 (August 1, 1842).
- Elisha R Potter was a blacksmith, farmer and lawyer who served thirty years in the Rhode Island Legislature and served four terms as a Congressman. Josiah Quincy said of him, "Wherever he went he was a conspicuous figure, by reason of his gigantic stature, vigorous personality, and keen wit." Quincy also said, "Of all men I have met, [Joseph Smith and Elisha R Potter] seemed best endowed with that kingly faculty which directs, as by intrinsic right, the feeble or confused souls who are looking for guidance."
- Josiah Quincy, "Joseph Smith", in Figures of the Past, Boston, 1833,
- Haven, Charlotte, "A Girl's Letters From Nauvoo(1843)", in Overland Monthly, San Francisco, December 1890.
- Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1833, cited in Mulder & Mortensen, Among the Mormons, pp. 57-62.
- Smith, Op. Cit. volume 5, p. 401.
- Smith, Op. Cit. volume 1, pp. 95-95.
* The full text of this hymn by John leland is:
The day is past and gone,
The evening shades appear;
O may we all remember well
The night of death draws near.
We lay our garments by,
Upon our beds to rest;
So death shall soon disrobe us all
Of what is here possessed.
Lord, keep us safe this night,
Secure from all our fears;
May angels guard us while we sleep,
Till morning light appears.
By John Leland, 1792
Music by Horatio W Parker