Thursday, March 5, 2015

Rogues Gallery: Joseph Smith, Moses, and Other Misunderstood Miscreants

"A man may have a blemish on his cheek and still have a face of beauty and strength, but if the blemish is emphasized unduly in relation to his other features, the portrait is lacking in integrity." - President Gordon B. Hinckley1 

       Many Halloweens ago, a group of young deacons huddled in the bushes near a road that ran by their LDS chapel. The boys had recently acquired a life-size dummy and were currently waiting to throw it in front of yet another passing car. They had already pranked several drivers that night and got a great kick out of hearing brakes screeching and drivers screaming as the "accident" unfolded again and again. Soon the boys caught sight of another vehicle approaching. This one was a city bus! Excited, the boys threw the dummy in front of the bus and watched as it screeched to a halt and the passengers screamed. One lady even fainted.

       The boys took great pride in their trick, but were soon disappointed when a member of the bishopric came to put a stop to their fun. Brother John Burt confiscated the dummy and marched it down to the chapel's furnace room. As he prepared to incinerate the dummy, the boys threatened they would not pass the sacrament if their toy was destroyed. Brother Burt wasn't budged, however, and he threw the dummy into the flames, sending the boys straight home for their almost criminal behavior. The boys eventually thought better of their threat and humbly took their places in sacrament meeting that Sunday. 

       Who were these delinquents? They were the boys of the Pioneer Sixth-Seventh Ward, and among them was none other than Thomas S. Monson. This wasn't the first time the young Monson had pulled a prank. He and his friends could be seen around town hitching rides on switch engines and letting dogs loose from the dog-catcher's wagon.2

       As this story illustrates, prophets are not perfect. But people often expect them to be. This is especially true of the prophet Joseph Smith. Critics have a barrage of accusations to throw at him, and many of them are actually grounded in truth. Joseph Smith was a polygamist. He shut down a Nauvoo press. He was a village seer in his youth. He fled from the law. There are a hundred other things we could mention, and when you string them all together (as critics love to do) Joseph Smith starts to sound pretty unsavory. When we church members stumble across things about Joseph Smith's past we didn't expect, we may start to wonder if someone like that could really be a prophet after all. 

       It's a fair question - one we shouldn't shy away from. But we must never fall into the trap of thinking prophets are all saintly, uncomplicated men with squeaky clean histories. That's simply not true. If having a complicated past makes you unfit to be a prophet, we should toss the scriptures out right now, because there's hardly a prophet in them. Those who extol the ancient prophets while condemning Joseph Smith forget about the many difficult aspects of ancient prophets' lives. Some of the prophets have serious rap sheets - much more serious than Joseph Smith's. Considering Joseph Smith's messy history, he may fit in better with prophets than with any other group. Let's take a look at a few of them and see how weird Joseph Smith really seems when compared with the prophets of the past.


       Abraham is revered as a prophet in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Let's see how neat and pretty his story is. Like Joseph Smith, Abraham was a polygamist (Genesis 16:3-4). Not only that, but he cast out his second wife into the desert where she and her son (Abraham's first child) almost died of thirst (Genesis 21:10-21). Abraham was also the first prophet to attempt human sacrifice (Genesis 22:9-11). If you read the Book of Abraham you know that Abraham did this even after his own father tried to sacrifice him on an Egyptian altar (Abraham 1:12-15). Not the prettiest story, is it? Abraham was a difficult figure, but he was also a deeply faithful man. Most of the things Abraham did which we would find strange or uncomfortable he did because God commanded them. Abraham proves that just because a man is a prophet doesn't mean we'll understand everything he does, even when he's doing God's will.


       When you ask people to think of a Bible prophet, the first name that pops into their head is probably Moses. He brought us the Ten Commandments, parted the Red Sea, gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, and spoke with God face to face. Moses was the prophet of prophets. Oh, yeah... he was also a convicted murderer. While the act was probably justified, he killed an Egyptian and sought to keep it secret, fleeing Egypt once the truth got out (Exodus 2:11-14). Yet God called to him out of the burning bush and made him a great prophet. So prophets can be fugitives from the law and still be the Lord's chosen servants? Yes. Joseph Smith fled the law at times (not for murder, thankfully) but that doesn't preclude him from being a prophet. 


       Perhaps the most complicated prophet of all, Jonah was commanded to preach repentance in Nineveh, but chose to take a cruise instead. He fled the Lord in a ship and found himself in the belly of a great fish because of it (Jonah 1:1-3). After repenting, Jonah was put back on land and he visited Nineveh. Remarkably, the people of Nineveh heeded Jonah's warning, turning back to righteousness. How did Jonah respond? With prejudice! He was angry the Lord had chosen to forgive such a wicked people. After he saw that God had forgiven them, he prayed and said "Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:3). Not the most gracious attitude. But he was still a prophet, even with his rebellious and prejudiced nature. Jonah, like Joseph Smith, was called by God despite his imperfections.

Alma the Younger

       There's hardly a person, let alone prophet, whose past was as bad as Alma the Younger's. Despite being raised by a prophet, Alma was "a very wicked and an idolatrous man" (Mosiah 27:8). Not only did he live his own life wickedly, but he was "a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them" (Mosiah 27:9). Alma tried to "destroy the church," trampling on everything he'd been taught and dragging others down to his level. Not exactly prophet material. Yet Alma was redeemed of Christ, and went on to declare repentance to hundreds and to give us the longest book in the Book of Mormon. He was living proof that God can take even the most rebellious of men and make prophets out of them. Joseph Smith wasn't wicked like Alma, but he was imperfect, and God worked through him in the same redemptive way. 


       While not technically a prophet, Paul is the author of much of the New Testament and revered by Christians everywhere. Good thing Paul never did anything troubling, right? Actually, Paul was a staunch Pharisee who persecuted Jesus's followers mercilessly. Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen, and rather than realizing the brutal consequences of what he was doing, he moved on to persecute even more Christians. In fact, "he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). Paul was on one of his persecution missions when the Lord stopped him on the road to Damascus, which experience helped convert him to the truth. Despite his complicated past, the Lord called Paul "a chosen vessel" (Acts 9:15). So it was with Joseph Smith. He was called despite his frailties.

       So there you have it. A rogues gallery comprised of divinely inspired men, who had both glaring flaws and deep convictions. Labeling Moses as an outlaw or Paul as a persecutor wouldn't be fair, so why allow Joseph Smith to be labeled this way? The only perfect person to ever live was Jesus, who was himself labeled incorrectly as a glutton (Luke 7:34), a sabbath-breaker (Luke 6:2), and a blasphemer (Luke 5:21). So let's not play the label game, and simply remember all prophets are fallible human beings, whose divine callings and personal weaknesses can make their lives difficult to understand. Lorenzo Snow understood this. He said,
  "I saw the … imperfections in [Joseph Smith] … I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority He placed upon him … for I knew that I myself had weakness, and I thought there was a chance for me … I thanked God that I saw these imperfections."3
        All this is not to diminish the greatness of a prophet’s calling, however. Prophets are imperfect, but they rely on a perfect God, who helps them in their weakness. If we want to know the way to God, we must listen to these wonderful (and imperfect) men and they will show us where to go. A prophet never claims to be infallible, but he does acknowledge his call from God, on whom he relies in every instance. Nephi said it best in his famous "psalm":
  “Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support” (2 Nephi 4:17-20).

       The next time you happen upon an unexpected story of Joseph Smith (because it will happen), remember that prophets are imperfect, and doing difficult things is sometimes part of the calling. God works in mysterious ways, and sometimes his prophets are required to do the same in his service. So don't judge. None of us are flawless and we all deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let's extend that courtesy to Joseph Smith. I'm sure he would do the same for you and me.

1. Hinckley, Gordon B. "Be Not Deceived." Ensign, November 1983.

2.  Swinton, Heidi S. "Becoming a Gentleman." In To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, 69-70. Salt Lake City, Utah, Utah: Deseret Book, 2010.

3. Maxwell, Neal A. "Out of Obscurity." Ensign, November 1984.

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