LDS The Mormon Concept of Modern Prophets:
Mormon Answers to Common Questions
This page, part of my Mormon Answers site, answers common questions about prophets in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and about Joseph Smith in particular. It is one of several pages in a suite on "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint (LDS) Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and does not necessarily reflect official LDS doctrine.
"Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city..."
-- Jesus Christ, in Matthew 23:34
"Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets."
-- Amos 3:7
"As my Father hath sent me, even so I send you."
-- John 20:21
The principle of modern revelation is at the heart of what makes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so different from most other Christian churches. For many, it is a troubling, even appalling concept. How could there be any prophets after Christ, the final revelation? How could there be any revelation beyond what is in the Bible? Why do we need modern prophets and apostles? Aren't we adding to the word of God if we admit the possibility of modern revelation? Aren't we being deceived by a false prophet? The doctrine of continued guidance and revelation from living prophets is not only Biblical, but it is vitally important for our time - a time when we need direct counsel from God just as much as the people did in the time of Moses, Noah, Peter, or Paul.
On the other hand, even divinely called prophets are still mortal human being subject to all manner of errors. God does not take over a prophets brain. Revelation from God may be a rare event, not a steady stream of direction on every trivial matter. As we learn from the Bible, prophets and apostles of Jesus Christ can make mistakes, commit sins, have silly arguments, be deceived by others, and so forth. To expect that every act and every utterance of a prophet will be infallibly correct and ideal is to demand far too much.
Mormonism 101 at FAIRLDS.org is a pro-LDS response to a popular anti-Mormon work (Mormonism 101 by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson). One chapter of particular interest is the one that deals with charges against Joseph Smith (polygamy, magic, etc.).
On the issue of the fallibility of prophets, see "'Well Nigh as Dangerous': Latter-day Prophecy and Revelation; Infallibility and Blind Obedience" by McKay V. Jones, also at FAIRLDS.org.
An excellent resource on the topic of prophets is the article "The Nature of Prophets and Prophecy" by John A. Tvedtnes, published at FAIRLDS.org. You may also wish to consult my related pages covering questions on Joseph Smith's First Vision accounts and a discussion of Joseph's prophecies that have been fulfilled. Also see John Tvedtnes's Response to a list of 52 allegedly false prophecies by Dick Baer (the list is toward the bottom of that page). Finally, also see my essay on the fallibility of human leaders in the true Church.
The word "prophet" comes from the Greek prophetes, which means "inspired teacher." Although neither the Greek term nor its Hebrew equivalent, nabi, initially required the function of foretelling, all prophecy looks to the future. Since the Lord has chosen some of his servants to be foretellers--to disclose, sometimes in specific terms, momentous events that are to occur--the predictive element often overshadows other implications of the word in the minds of some.
But the gift of prophecy is not restricted to those whose words have been recorded in scripture. By scriptural definition, a prophet is anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ and is moved by the Holy Ghost (Rev. 19:10; cf. TPJS, pp. 119, 160). Moses, voicing his approval of two men who had prophesied, exclaimed, "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Num. 11:26-29). Schools of prophets and "sons" (followers) of prophets, some false and some true, existed in large numbers in Old Testament times. In modern times, speaking of Brigham Young, Elder Wilford Woodruff said, "He is a prophet, I am a prophet, you are, and anybody is a prophet who has the testimony of Jesus Christ, for that is the spirit of prophecy" (Journal of Discourses 13:165). It follows that this spirit does not operate in every utterance of its possessor. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that "a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such" (History of the Church 5:265).
A belief in divinely called prophets lies at the heart of LDS doctrine (see the Articles of Faith, for example). We recognize the biblical prophets as well as those in the Book of Mormon, and we accept authorized modern prophets who lead and have led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe that Joseph Smith and all subsequent presidents of the church were and are prophets and representatives of Jesus Christ and special witnesses of Him to the world. The President of the Church is not only a prophet commissioned of Christ, but like Peter of old, also holds the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:16-19).
Modern prophets and apostles are like the prophets and apostles of ancient times: they were called by God, ordained and authorized by God, given the power to teach inspired messages from Christ, and appointed to lead the Church of Christ. Prophets and other ministers who are not called by God are unlikely to benefit the people (Jer. 23:32). True prophets did not go to college to get a degree from men, nor did they call themselves to the ministry. There was no doubt about the source of the call and the source of the authority they received. Recall the words of Christ to his apostles in John 15:16: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit...." Concerning the priesthood, Paul likewise taught that "no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron" (Hebrews 5:4). Recall that Aaron was called to the priesthood by God through the prophet Moses and was anointed to the office of priest by Moses (Exodus 28:1,41). The prophet Joshua was likewise ordained (given authority) by Moses through the laying on of hands (Deut. 34:9; Numbers 27:18-23). Other scriptures showing this pattern and related concepts about authority include 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Mark 13:34; Matt. 10:1; 1 Kings 19:16,19 with 2 Kings 2:12-15; Acts 8:17 and Acts 19:13-16.
Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God through whom the Church of Jesus Christ was restored. We believe that God has always worked through prophets and apostles, leading his people and His Church through revelation - direct, clear, revelation to chosen leaders - not through committees, councils, or debate among scholars. When widespread apostasy occurs and prophets and apostles are rejected, there can be a loss of such gifts, until God restores them. Such happened in the first couple of centuries after Christ, as chosen and ordained apostles and prophets were rejected, martyred, and eventually replaced, sometimes by usurpers and power-seekers, sometimes by apostates who changed the doctrine to make it more pleasing to the worldly philosophies of the day, and sometimes by well meaning men who lacked divine authority. In any case, much of the original Church was lost and waited the time of the restitution of all things (Acts 3:19) when the Church would be restored - along with the gift of apostles and prophets to guide the Church through continuing revelation. This restoration of the fullness of the Gospel took place through a mortal but divinely commissioned prophet of God, Joseph Smith, who established the church under divine direction in 1830. For more information, please read the Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony.
There have been numerous allegations against Joseph Smith by enemies of the Church, including some who once were members but turned against the Church. The allegations were inflammatory enough to stir up mobs that sought to kill Joseph and drove many Latter-day Saints from one community to another. Joseph finally was jailed - on false charges of treason - and was killed by a mob in Illinois in 1844.
In spite of the much evil that has been said of Joseph Smith, the vast majority of those who knew him loved him and affirmed his goodness and his divinely appointed role as a prophet. We need not rely on uncertain rumors or hearsay to determine whether he was a fraud or not. The Book of Mormon offers concrete evidence - mountains of it - for anyone to determine whether this farmboy was a genuine prophet of God or just a gifted but evil charlatan. The Book of Mormon is his translation of an ancient sacred record from peoples in Central America, some of whom also knew of the coming of Christ and of His atonement. Their record, a 500-page volume covering over a thousand years of events and prophecies, stands as a second witness for Jesus Christ, in harmony with the Bible, with a beauty and power that has changed millions of lives for the better - including mine. Read it carefully, ponder it, and pray to God to know for yourself if it is His word, with the Bible, or if it is a malicious fraud. This Christ-loving, divine record is something no man could have fabricated. If you love the words of Christ, I believe you will love the power of the Book of Mormon. If it is an authentic ancient record, translated only by the gift and power of God, then Joseph Smith was truly a prophet called of God. If it was a fabrication, then he was not. It's that simple.
I ask no one to just take my word for it. I ask people to put the Book of Mormon to the test. By test, I don't mean looking at an anti-Mormon book and listing 20 silly, easily-refuted arguments against the Book of Mormon. I mean actually reading the Book of Mormon, thinking about it, giving it a chance, maybe even taking a few notes or making an outline as you read to consider broad issues and to see how the overall structure fits together. Ask yourself, as you read, could any man have written this book? Does it truly testify of Christ and of God? What does it teach of Christ and His Atonement? What does it mean for me, in the 20th century?
This is a instructive question. In 1945, some LDS writer in a Church magazine gave us a little snippet that our critics have been regurgitating with glee ever since. "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done." You can see this quote in the June 1945 "Ward Teacher Message" in the Improvement Era, reproduced at Fairmormon.org. Following that message, you can also see that George Albert Smith, when asked by another minister about that statement, was displeased that it had been published and felt it did not properly represent the teachings of the Church. In his letter to Raymond Cope on Dec. 7, 1945, he said:
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not "prepared" by "one of our leaders." However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
On the other hand, we do treasure inspiration from living prophets and should respect their teachings, but we are free to think for ourselves and, in fact, we need to. So we have this tension between respecting the words of the prophets and of scripture, and the need to think for ourselves and find our own testimonies. This can involve asking sincere questions, even pointed ones, which is a valuable exercise if our quest is to understand and learn and not to attack or embarrass. It also involves the need to exercise faith and patience because many of our questions may not have clear answers based on what little we know here in mortality.
Given the need to respect our Church leaders, while recognizing they are fallible humans, it is not surprising to sometimes here people express opinions similar to that of the 1945 Improvement Era. N. Eldon Tanner in 1979 gave a First Presidency message approvingly quoting a 1978 speech from a Young Women's leader who said, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over." That's not the same as saying the thinking is done, and it's not the language that our leaders have used since that time to my knowledge. Yes, the Prophet with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are the ultimate decision makers for the Church, though it is still possible for members in good faith to question, wonder, and respectfully discuss. To attack and belittle or publicly criticize is contrary to the teachings of Christ for the governance of His Church, in my view. He puts mortal leaders in offices, and he asks us to respect them and His Church, in spite of their weakness and errors. But we can think, we can ask questions, and we can express our views respectfully and politely through proper channels.
I have had times when I disagreed with actions from some part of the Church, such as decisions from a priesthood leader above me. In my experience I learned that the only reasonable course in such cases is to always be patient, respectful, calm, and polite. (This is good advice in dealing with bosses as well!) One can sometimes find opportunities to discuss the differences directly, and it may still be unresolved. Patience. It's hard to be patient when you think you are right and others are wrong, but faith and patience with fallible mortal leaders is essential for the Church to operate. The example of Nephi in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 16:20-23) in respectfully dealing with his father, when his father's spiritual leadership was waning while in the desert, is a meaningful example to consider. Instead of criticizing his father for his murmuring against the Lord after Nephi broke his bow and the family was going hungry, Nephi constructed another and then humbly went to his father for inspired direction as to where to go to find food. A simple act, but one that illustrates a humble attitude of respect.
I'm always surprised to see 1 Cor. 13:8-10 used to support the notion that God no longer speaks to prophets. In early 2000, a local Christian church in Appleton ran an ad in the newspaper to invite people to an anti-Mormon lecture. The ad kindly reminded people that there is to be NO prophecy in these days, for the need for prophecy has ended now that we have all we need in the Bible. The ad quoted 1 Cor. 13: 8-10 as proof that prophecy has ended:
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
I think the best way that this passage can be consistent with common sense and the rest of the Bible (see the next question below for details) is to understand that prophecy, tongues (the gift to speak and understand foreign languages), and human knowledge are things of value to us in this imperfect mortal world, before the coming of the perfect day, but that charity is an eternal attribute that is essential for the next life and our eternal destiny. The day of perfection has not come - and it looks like it's a long ways off, from my imperfect perspective - so obviously, gifts of the spirit are still needed. If Paul means that prophecy would stop after the New Testament, does he also mean that knowledge would stop after the coming forth of the Bible? It has for some people, but don't blame Paul or God for that! This verse says nothing about prophecy not being needed just because the Bible is available.
The church that placed the above-mentioned ad claims to be a church that just relies on the Bible alone, taking their message straight from the pages of the Bible. Sadly, they must be missing quite a few pages. The book of Joel is one of those missing sections. If they had read it, perhaps they would know that prophecy and spiritual gifts are to be found in the last days, before the coming of the Lord. Look at Joel 2:28-31:
28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
29 And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.
30 And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke.
31 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come.
Yes, spiritual gifts, including prophecy, is to be poured out before the great Second Coming of the Lord. They are an important sign of the last days, in fact. One dramatic event shortly before the return of the Lord is described in Revelation 11, where two "witnesses" (v. 3 - perhaps apostles, special witnesses of Christ), also described as "prophets" (v. 10) will prophecy in Jerusalem for 1,260 days and be killed, then brought back to life by the power of God. Surely there will be more prophecy to come - at least 1,260 days' worth.
In Ephesians 4:11-14, Paul explains that prophets and apostles were put in the Church of Jesus Christ to help bring us to a unity of faith, among other reasons. Unity in the faith has clearly not been achieved (though you can make an important step in the direction by converting to the Restored Gospel today!), so prophets are still needed. Paul speaks of prophets and prophecy as something that is needed until there is religious unity (Eph. 4:11-14). In 1 Cor. 14:5 (see also v. 29), Paul wishes that all would have the gift of prophecy that the church might be edified. Is there no longer a need for edification?
Paul knew that the world, with its emphasis and reliance on human wisdom, would work to quench spiritual gifts and despise prophecy. But he said, "Quench not the Spirit" and "Despise not prophesyings" in 1 Thess. 5:19,20.
In light of the New Testament record, if there is any church on earth that can legitimately be called the Church of Jesus Christ, it must have apostles and prophets. And those who deny prophecy do not understand the scriptures.
This common teaching is popular, but simply not Biblical. Christ actually said that there would be prophets after him, whom he would send, and established the principle of continuing, modern revelation to apostles and prophets to guide his Church. In Matthew 23:34, Christ said:
Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city....
The same is repeated in Luke 11:49. Not only would Christ send prophets, but He would expect His followers to receive His prophets as His messengers (Matthew 10:40-41):
He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.
He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.
(See also John 13:20 and John 15:20.)
However, Christ did warn that false prophets would come (e.g., Matt. 7:15), but this warning only makes sense if there would be true prophets to be distinguished from the false. If there were to be no more prophets, He should have simply said so. Instead, He warned against false prophets and gave clues on how to distinguish them in Matthew 7:15-20:
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
The fruit of the Book of Mormon is tangible, hard evidence - not hearsay, slander, or rumor - which has been a proofstone available to all the world to examine the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith. Most of the ministers of the "mainstream" Christian world insist that there are to be no more prophets, but the absence of prophets and apostles is one of the surest indications that a general apostasy from the original Gospel had occurred. The original Church of Christ not only had apostles and prophets, but had such as its foundation, at its very core, as we read in Ephesians 2:19-20:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;Likewise, 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 and Ephesians 3:1-6 confirm that the early Church had apostles and prophets and that they taught sacred truths to the early Christians. Paul further explains the importance of apostles and prophets in the Church in Ephesians 4:11-14:
And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone....
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:
14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive....
Without the guidance that comes from revelation to God's anointed leaders, even a community of believers may be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, drifting like a ship without a rudder. For example, the early loss of apostles and prophets due to apostasy from within and persecution from without led to a situation where basic doctrines became clouded, confused, and perverted. The introduction of infant baptism is one example. Soon basic doctrines about the nature of God became replaced with ideas more palatable to the Hellenized thinking of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The reality of the physical, tangible, resurrected body of Christ was dissolved by councils of debating men who preferred abstract, Platonic "forms" over the "unsophisticated" idea of a God who actually looked like man, in whose image we were literally created. The idea that God and Christ were one in purpose yet separate beings (see John 17:20-23, Acts 7:55,56; John 14:28) was replaced with ideas that were more appealing to Hellenized intellectuals. Those who were taught and believed such doctrines were still Christians, certainly, if they accepted Christ, but there were truths and principles that were missing. These truths and principles have been restored - and it required specially called, authorized, and ordained prophets of God such as Joseph Smith.
God has always worked through apostles and prophets, and has not changed in that regard. Amos 3:7 explains: "Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." The Lord God does His work through His servants, the prophets, to whom he reveals truths and teachings. If there are no prophets, then something is missing.
Besides the apostles named in the New Testament (whose body of 12 was meant to be maintained, as seen by the selection of Matthias to replace the deceased traitor Judas, Acts 1:24-26), we have other names of men who were prophets, after the time of Christ. Acts 15:32 names two: "And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them."
Did Paul say prophecy had ended with Christ? No. In fact, prophecy was a gift of the Spirit had among the Christian community, as Paul indicates in 1 Cor. 14:3: "But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort." Revelation 11:10 also prophesies of two prophets in particular who, in the last days, will be killed in Jerusalem and be revived miraculously.
Amazingly, some modern critics charge that a belief in prophets after Christ makes Latter-day Saints non-Christian. While the word "Christian" is not defined in the Bible, it is used in 3 places. One is in Acts 11, where we learn that believers in Christ were first called "Christians" in Antioch. One of the key features of these Christians was that they accepted and heeded prophets who came among them - and this was after the Ascension of Christ. Look at Acts 11:25-30:
25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:
26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.
28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.
29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:
30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
In the above passage, prophets (apparently Christian) from Jerusalem came and prophesied of a coming famine, and the Christian community in Antioch apparently accepted and responded to the message of those prophets by sending relief to their brethren in Judaea. The saints (members of the Church) in Antioch were Christian, and had prophets, after the coming of Christ. Later in Acts 13:1, we again read of prophets being among the Christian community at Antioch:
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
In my opinion, accepting living prophets from God is a vital part of true Christianity, rather than a sign of paganism. The presence of living prophets is a sign of God's work underway, rather than a sign of evil. It is the absence of apostles and prophets, and continuing revelation itself, that is cause for concern among the mainstream Christian churches, as good and noble as many of them may be. Without continued revelation through anointed servants, these churches are like ships without a rudder, depending on human logic and debates among scholars to settle issues and provide guidance. No wonder there is such a huge range of ideas among Christian churches on moral and theological issues. Something is missing: guidance through God's chosen apostles and prophets. But that something has been restored, and the Book of Mormon provides the solid evidence to back the claim.
This is a fair question. The Restoration relied on lots of intensive revelation to restore the Church and get it moving forward, along with new scripture, priesthood authority, offices and structure, the Temple, etc. Once Joseph's work was largely done, there was less need for major canonized revelation, but revelation definitely continued, definitely continues, and yes, there have been canonized revelations and other major revelations since Joseph's day. A good resource with many materials to ponder is the FAIR Mormon page on revelation after Joseph.
Miracles and gifts of the Spirit still occur, though they are not designed for mass consumption nor are they generally broadcast for the entertainment of the masses. These are sacred, spiritual experiences that are generally kept personal and quiet. But it's a mistake to think they are gone or that our current leaders are just a bunch of administrators without spiritual gifts and power.
Recent examples of revelation include the 1978 revelation on the scope of the priesthood, ending former restrictions on the priesthood. More recent teachings on the family in the Proclamation on the Family can fall into that category.
Does the Bible teach the prophets are infallible? In some cases, we find prophets who sinned and were derelict in their duty, such as the prophet Jonah, who fled from a difficult assignment.
Prophets are mortals who receive the gift of prophecy from time to time, as God directs. Not all they do or say will be inspired. For Latter-day saints, we are not accountable to believe all that any Church leader ever said, but only those things which have been accepted and approved by consent of the leadership bodies of the Church - in a way similar to the way the Biblical canon was established. Not every word of Peter, James, and Paul, for example, was necessarily sacred, and some of them even made mistakes. But there were times when the power of God moved them to write scripture which others were inspired to recognize as scripture.
Moses wished that all his people could have the spirit of the Lord upon them enough that they could also act as prophets (Numbers 11:29):
And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD'S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!
Having the Spirit of God move you from time to time does not make you perfect. Being a chosen and ordained prophet does not make every opinion true, nor does it make one superior in every area of knowledge. Reverend J.R. Dummelow (not LDS) described the authors of the Bible in terms that ought to be applied, in all fairness, to Joseph Smith as well:
"Though purified and ennobled by the influence of the His Holy Spirit, these men each had his own peculiarities of manner and disposition - each with his own education or want of education - each with his own way of looking at things - each influenced differently from one another by the different experiences and disciplines of his life. Their inspiration did not involve a suspension of their natural faculties; it did not make them free from earthly passion; it did not make them into machines - it left them men.
"Therefore we find their knowledge sometimes no higher than that of their contemporaries.... "(J.R. Dummelow, One Volume Bible Commentary, p. 85)
Hardly the megalomaniac portrayed in anti-Mormon literature, Joseph told members of the Church that he was but a man and that they could not expect perfection from him any more than he could expect it of them, "but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities" (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 181). Latter-day Saints do not believe in infallible prophets whose every word must be true.
One modern prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, wrote:
It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. (Doctrines of Salvation 3:203)
President Harold B. Lee expressed a similar idea in a European area conference:
If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church, were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth.
That's the standard for official Church doctrine and official prophecy. Finding someone who alleged to have heard a random statement from Joseph Smith does not make it binding prophecy or doctrine. Not even an appearance of the President of the Church on the Larry King show is going to result in official doctrine that Church members must live by. It may be entertaining, it may even be uplifting, but if the Lord wants to give His people new revealed doctrines for which we are to be held accountable, Larry King will not be part of the process. (No offense, Larry!)
For more information, Michael T. Griffith has a useful article, "Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid," which deals with false standards applied by anti-Mormons to LDS prophecy and prophets - standards which would invalidate the Bible as well. Also see the Web page, "What is Official Doctrine?" with an excellent article by Stephen Robinson. Finally, consider the 2007 statement from the Church, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," where we are reminded that Church leaders may sometimes express personal opinions, not genuine doctrine, and that there are official sources we should look to for genuine doctrine:
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four "standard works" of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
Deut. 18:22 reads:
When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
This doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet. James L. Mays, editor of Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988, p. 226), writes:
Prophecy in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a prophet's overall performance.
The problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways or at times much later than anticipated by the hearers. Moreover, God sometimes appears to reverse certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
Be careful in how you apply Deut. 18:22, for you threaten to reject some true prophets in the Bible! There are examples where a true prophet prophesied something which did not happen as he stated, to the best of our knowledge. An example is found in the story of Jonah, who was told by God to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah prophesied that the people would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4) - no loopholes were offered, just imminent doom. God changed things, however, when the people repented and He chose to spare them - much to the chagrin of that imperfect (yet still divinely called) prophet, Jonah. Jonah, in fact, was "displeased ... exceedingly" and "very angry" (Jonah 4:1) about this change from God, perhaps because it made Jonah look bad. In spite of an "incorrect" prophecy and in spite of the obvious shortcomings of Jonah, he was a prophet of God and the Book of Jonah in the Bible is part of the Word of God. Yet if that sacred text had been lost, only to be restored by Joseph Smith, perhaps as part of the Book of Mormon, it would be assaulted as the most damning evidence against Joseph Smith. Just imagine how the critics would dismiss the Book of Jonah as being evil, contradictory, ludicrous, anti-Biblical, unscientific, and unchristian (of course, there are plenty already who reject it as it is, unable to believe major parts of the story).
The prophet Ezekiel provides another example of how true prophets may err or give prophecies of uncertain accuracy. In Ezekiel chapters 26, 27, and 28, we read that Tyre (a fortified island city) would be conquered, destroyed, and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The riches of Tyre would go to Babylon (Ezek. 26:12). Nebuchadnezzar's army did lay siege to Tyre, and its inhabitants were afflicted, apparently so much that they shaved their heads bald, as prophesied in Ezek. 27:31. However, the 13-year Babylonian siege apparently was not quite as successful as Ezekiel had predicted, perhaps because the land-based tactics of Babylonian sieges were less effective against a fortified island city with significant maritime power. The result of the siege may have been a compromise or treaty rather than total destruction and plunder, for Ezekiel 29:17-20 reports that the predicted plundering did not take place. Almost as if in compensation, the Lord now announces that He will give Egypt to the Babylonians, which is the theme of chapter 29. Here are verses 17-20:
17 And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
18 Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it:
19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army.
20 I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD.
Yes, Tyre was eventually destroyed, but its complete destruction apparently did not occur during the Babylonian siege, and certainly the Babylonian army did not get the riches of Tyre as has been prophesied. It is Ezekiel himself who reports this "prophetic failure." (The analysis above is derived from an article by Daniel C. Peterson in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1995, pp. 49-50.)
D.C. Pyle has also commented on Ezekiel's prophecy of Tyre:
Of course, my favorite part of the prophecy against Tyre is the part found in Ezekiel 26:14 and 27:36, where the Lord states that Tyre would "not be rebuilt" and "exist no more forever."
Of course, after it was left unconquered by the Babylonian armies, it eventually fell to the Greeks under Alexander and was destroyed by his armies.
But then, the city which was never to be rebuilt forever rose again to wealth and power in 125 BCE! During the Roman period, the city rose to even more prominence and had a Christian community living in the mainland portion. Muslims reduced the city to ashes in 1291. It was rebuilt again sometime after this. In 1983, it had an estimated population of 23,000.
The prophecy stated that the place would "be a bare rockface for spreading nets and would never be rebuilt" but today, the place has become a fairly important maritime center.
To those who refuse to believe that Tyre still exists today, pictures can be see at https://tyros.leb.net/tyre/index.html. Note that there are many buildings - it has been rebuilt. A literal interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy coupled with a belief in Biblical inerrancy leads to obvious problems.
My purpose in discussing the prophecies about Tyre is not to question the truthfulness of the Bible (it is true - we just need to struggle to understand it properly, as we must with all scripture and all prophecy, and we need to understand its potential limitations). My primary purpose in discussing Tyre is to point out that an overly critical attitude and a strict application of Deut. 18:22 may reject even true, Biblical prophets. If we try hard enough to find reasons to reject a prophet, we will surely succeed - but beware lest we judge unwisely and reject those whom God has sent and anointed, even though they be mortal and fallible. As for Tyre never being rebuilt, I think it's fair to mention that Hebrew writers used extreme words like "never" or "all" or "forever" in a rather loose way. Tyre was "never" to rebuilt and animal sacrifices were to continue "forever" - but these expressions can best be understood as figures of speech rather than absolutes. But if we're going to take the reasonable, thoughtful path of understanding the Bible rather than looking for apparent flaws to condemn it out of hand, we should extend the same courtesy to the Book of Mormon and the words of modern prophets.
Another example to consider is the prophet Jeremiah - a great and inspired prophet - who prophesied that king Zedekiah would "die in peace" (Jer. 34:4-5). Critics could argue that this prophecy did not prove to be true, for Zedekiah saw his sons killed by the conquering Babylonians and was himself blinded and put in prison, where he died in captivity - not in peace (Jer. 52:10-11). Of course, the point is that he would not be killed by the sword, but die of natural causes - albeit in prison - yet to the critics, it may look like a case of a false prophecy. This case is certainly less clear-cut than the prophecy of Ezekiel discussed above, yet also serves to warn us against harsh judgments.
Many LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Jonah, also condemn the Old Testament as a fraud.
Joseph Smith made some amazingly correct prophecies: predicting in 1832 that a civil war would erupt, beginning in South Carolina, with Great Britain to be involved; prophesying that tobacco is harmful to human health and giving a dietary code with nutritional principles much like the modern "food pyramid;" predicting his own martyrdom; prophesying of the global success that the restored Church would experience, with persecutions; predicting that the Saints would become established in the Rockies; and predicting other important events relative to Native Americans, the United States of America, the Church, future calamities, many details related to specific individuals, etc. Several of these fulfilled prophecies are discussed in detail on my LDSFAQ page, prophecies that have been fulfilled. The prophetic nature of the Book of Mormon is also noteworthy. Even mundane passages such as the physical description of Nephi's journey through the Arabian peninsula serve as validated prophecies, in a sense, for none of the many accurate details in the text could have been fabricated in 1830 based on what was then known about Arabia, and the "direct hits" (e.g., the place Bountiful and the burial site named Nahom) serve as evidences vindicating Joseph Smith as a prophet.
The specific prophecies that are said to be false or incorrect by critics are typically based on hearsay or unreliable sources or are based on incorrect interpretations of what is said. There is no reliable evidence to say that Joseph Smith fails any sound test based on Deut. 18:22. Some of the most common specific objections are treated in my answers below, including a discussion of the Missouri temple prophecy (from Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants) and the Lord's command to David Patten (Section 114 of the Doctrine and Covenants).
For further reading on this topic, Michael T. Griffith has a useful article, Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid, which deals with false standards applied by anti-Mormons to LDS prophecy and prophets - standards which would invalidate the Bible as well. That article is part of his book One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996). Below is a portion of that article (quoted here since the Web link may have quit working):
In 2 Samuel 7:5-17, we read that the prophet Nathan unequivocally prophesied to David that through his son Solomon the Davidic empire would be established "forever," that the children of Israel would dwell in the promised land "and move no more," and that the "children of wickedness" would no longer afflict them. These things are quite clearly stated. No conditions are attached to these promises, none whatsoever. [Yet this prophecy clearly did not prove successful if it is interpreted literally.]...
[Another example of a problematic Biblical prophecy is] Judges 13:5, where it is recounted that an angel promised Samson's mother that Samson would "begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." No matter how liberal or expansive one wants to be with the facts of Israelite history (as recorded in the Bible or elsewhere), there is no way it can reasonably be concluded that Samson fulfilled this prophecy.
Not only did Samson fail to even "begin" to free Israel from the Philistines, but (1) there were times when he consorted with Philistine women, (2) he married a Philistine, (3) he himself never even led any Israelite troops against the Philistines, and (4) the Philistines eventually humiliated him.
Moreover, and most importantly, Israel actually lost ground to the Philistines during Samson's tenure. Judges 13-16 illustrates Philistine encroachment into Hebrew territory. The Samson narrative documents the eastward expansion of the Philistines by mentioning the Philistine presence in Timnah and Lehi, both in the strategic valley of Sorek (Achtemeier 1985:787-791). This Philistine expansion worsened the land shortage that eventually forced the Danites to migrate northward.
Of course, the nonfulfillment of Judges 13:5 can be attributed to Samson's failure to live according to his Nazarite calling. In addition to his sexual liaisons, he married a Philistine, ate unclean food, drank wine, and allowed his hair to be cut. Therefore, it could be said that the angel's prophecy was nullified by Samson's behavior. However, the angel placed absolutely no conditions on his promise that Samson would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. He simply declared that Samson would do so.
The Bible makes it clear that prophecy can be conditional and that its fulfillment can depend on the actions of human beings. This makes sense when one realizes that God's purpose is to bless mankind, not to be rigidly "correct" about everything. Predicted doom, for example, can be avoided by human repentance. If we demand that all prophecy be strictly fulfilled according to our narrow interpretation, we are likely to reject true prophets, as shown in the previous answer and as shown again below. Consider the following commentary from John Tvedtnes, taken from a 1985 response to Dick Baer available at https://www.shields-research.org/Critics/Tvedtnes.htm:
Baer establishes a test for false prophets ... based on the one given by Moses in Deut. 18:20-22. Ironically, the text can be used to prove that Moses himself was a false prophet. In Num. 25:13, he said in the name of the Lord that Phinehas, his grand nephew, would hold the priesthood eternally. But if Heb. 7:11-12 is correct, the Aaronic priesthood is not eternal. By the same standard, Jonah's prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed failed.
There are other such examples. E.g., Isaiah told king Hezekiah, "Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live." (2 Kings 20:1 [see also Isaiah 38:1-5]) But after the king pleaded with the Lord, the prophet delivered a new message, saying that 15 years would be added to his life. The Lord told Moses that he would destroy the Israelites and make of Moses a greater nation than they. When Moses protested that this would be wrong, the Lord changed his mind (Num. 14:11-20).
The fact of the matter is that all prophecy depends on the faithfulness (or unfaithfulness) of those involved. In the case of Nineveh, the Lord revoked his threatened destruction of the city because they repented. By the same token, he can revoke promises of good if people sin. The Lord himself explained this principle through the prophet Jeremiah:At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. (Jer. 18:7-10)
Tvedtnes also offers the example of David and the men of Keilah. Of them, the Lord said to David, "They will deliver thee up [to Saul]" (1 Sam. 23:12). This did not happen for one simple reason: David wisely fled from the city (vss. 13-14). Does this invalidate the Bible and make God errant? No - it shows that prophecy can be conditional, and that we better run when the Lord warns us of danger.
Instead of running, a change in behavior can also help. For example, in 1 Kings 21: 17-29, the Lord commands Elijah to prophecy of death and destruction to come upon the household of the wicked king Ahab. Ahab, in response, puts on at least a show of repentance by fasting, wearing sackcloth, and mourning. In response, the Lord tells Elijah, "Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son's days will I bring the evil upon his house." The prophecy will still be fulfilled, but the timing has been changed in response to Ahab's behavior. An even more dramatic example is the extra 15 years of life that King Hezekiah got after Isaiah prophesied he would die of the severe illness that he had (Isaiah 38:1-5). Hezekiah mourned and pleaded with the Lord, and the Lord withdrew the previously given decree. Though not stated as conditional, it proved to be a conditional prophecy that the Lord altered.
Some of the allegedly false prophecies of Joseph Smith are obvious examples of conditional prophecies (e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 84), following a Biblical pattern. The critics seem to have forgotten the Bible in their zeal to condemn.
Being a martyr means being a witness willing to suffer for principle - but it does not require that one make murder easy for one's enemies - especially when they are trying to kill others as well. The Apostle Paul, for example, used legal means to try to resist the persecution of those who sought to stop him. He didn't give in easily. His life became a powerful witness for Christ, with no question of his willingness to suffer for the cause.
Joseph smith gave his life as a final witness to the truthfulness of his prophetic mission, sealing his testimony with his blood. But there were others with him as a mob attacked him and his small group of helpless prisoners being held illegally in a jail, and Joseph successfully sought to save some of their lives, though he knew his would be taken. It is true that somebody had brought a small pistol to Joseph for self-defense, but his desperate efforts to save others hardly detracts from the fact that he gave his life, or that a mob of vile conspirators, stirred by some of the best anti-Mormon ministers of the day, deliberately murdered the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.
PBS provides a brief overview of the martyrdom, associated with their production of the documentary, "American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith." Also see the Ensign article, "Martyrdom at Carthage " by Reed Blake (June 1994). More detailed information on this topic comes from Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulsen in "The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths," FARMS Review of Books, 13/2 (2001): 109-169 (quoting from pp. 152-155):
Prior to the martyrdom, Joseph Smith was well aware that a group of conspirators had formed in order to murder him and his brother Hyrum, as well as other important men in the church. When Joseph Smith was in jail at Carthage, Thomas C. Sharp, who had organized an anti-Mormon political party in 1841, wrote in the Warsaw Signal: "We have seen and heard enough to convince us that Joe Smith is not safe out of Nauvoo, and we would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time. He has deadly enemies.. . . The feeling of this country . . . will break forth in fury upon the slightest provocation." Joseph Smith knew that he would die at Carthage. As he left Nauvoo, he stated, "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter."
The day and evening of the martyrdom (27 June), General Deming, who had command of the Carthage Greys, was to guard the jail, but he left during the day for fear of losing his life. The main group was in the public square, while eight individuals were to guard the prisoners under the command of Sergeant Frank A. Worrell. "The disbanded mob militia had come up to Carthage to the number of two hundred, with their faces blackened with powder and mud. . . . it was then arranged that the guard at the jail should load with blank cartridges and that the mob should attack the prison and meet with some show of resistance."
Joseph had been given a weapon earlier that day by Cyrus H. Wheelock, who had come to the jail to get messages to carry back to Nauvoo. The gun was a small one, known as a "pepper-box" revolver. According to Truman G. Madsen, a few individuals attempted to save the Prophet's life by testifying in his behalf. Stephen Markhameven offered to exchange clothes so that the Prophet could escape in disguise, but Joseph declined. "After all these efforts, the only real thing the Prophet had between him and the final scene was a pistol which Cyrus Wheelock had brought him." The prisoners had only two pistols and two walking sticks with which to defend themselves.
Sometime after 5:00 p.m., when the prisoners had been notified that Stephen Markham had been driven from Carthage by the mob, "there was a slight rustling at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender, then a discharge of three or four guns. The plot had been carried out: two hundred of the mob came rushing into the jail yard." George Q. Cannon reports that many members of the mob "rushed up the stairs while others fired through the open windows of the jail into the room where the brethren were confined. The four prisoners sprang against the door, but the murderers burst it partly open and pushed their guns into the room." As John Taylor and Willard Richards tried to knock the guns from the hands of the mob, a "shower of bullets came up the stairway and through the door." "Continual discharges of musketry came into the room."
According to the account in the History of the Church, John Taylor continued to try to ward off the guns of the mobsters until the guns extended approximately half their length into the room. Deciding that it was useless to fight, he tried to jump out of the window, at which point he was shot. Hyrum was also shot. "When Hyrum fell, Joseph exclaimed, 'Oh dear, brother Hyrum!' and opening the door a few inches he discharged his six shooter in the stairway,. . . two or three barrels of which missed fire." Finally, Joseph dropped his pistol and attempted to jump from the window but was shot in the chest and fell out of the window. Madsen reports that thirty-six bullets were fired into the prisoners' room within two minutes. Joseph and Hyrum each received five bullets, and John Taylor was shot four times.
These descriptions of the martyrdom hardly depict a "gun battle." The prisoners were locked inside their room, had no more than two guns, and were trying to defend themselves against an armed mob of at least two hundred men. As Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill write, "The murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage, Illinois, was not a spontaneous, impulsive act by a few personal enemies of the Mormon leaders, but a deliberate political assassination, committed or condoned by some of the leading citizens in Hancock County."
Some may ask why Joseph used any weapons if he knew he was to die at Carthage. Apparently, he was more concerned with the well-being of those with whom he was associated than with his own. The Prophet had "promised those brethren in the name of the Lord that he would defend them even if it meant giving up his life." He had given his word to the Saints in 1842 that "When my enemies take away my rights, I will bear it and keep out of the way; but if they take away your rights, I will fight for you." Joseph clearly did not condone the oppression of his people. On 18 June, Joseph had told the Nauvoo Legion, "while I live, I will never tamely submit to the dominion of cursed mobocracy." On the issue of using a gun at Carthage, Joseph and Hyrum agreed that they disliked the idea, but Joseph thought it necessary for them to defend themselves. Joseph said, "Could my brother Hyrum but be liberated it would not matter so much about me." It has been speculated that when Joseph finally tried to escape from the window, he did so in order to save the life of Willard Richards, since it was Joseph the assassins wanted to kill. Joseph was shot from behind two or three times before he fell out of the window. Even after the Prophet had fallen from the window, the murderers continued to shoot at his dead body.
The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a large group of angry mobsters. They did shoot at the mobsters, but only in defense of their lives. To make this gruesome, plotted murder sound as though it were the result of some sort of duel, with each party acting with similar ferocity, is highly inaccurate and insulting.
References cited above:
86. History of the Church, 6:280-81 n.
87. Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 14.
88. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 380; see History of the Church, 6:558.
89. George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 2nded. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1907), 524.
91. Ibid., 517.
92. Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 121.
93. Ibid., 122.
95. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 526.
98. History of the Church, 6:618.
102. Madsen, Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 122.
103. Oaks and Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, 6.
104. Madsen, Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 122.
105. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 268; see History of the Church, 5:181.
106. History of the Church, 6:499.
107. Ibid., 608.
108. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 514.
109. Madsen, Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 123.
110. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 527-28.
Joseph Smith was a fallible mortal, yet was a noble and just man who was nevertheless slandered by his enemies (including some who became hateful after being excommunicated for adultery). He was great, but not perfect.
The Bible clearly teaches that true prophets of God are nevertheless imperfect. The Apostle Paul, for example, wrote of his weakness and admitted that he still struggled with sin (Romans 7:18-20). Moses, one of the greatest prophets of all, also was not without weakness and sin. A sin committed apparently in pride and disbelief kept him from being allowed to enter the promised land - as a punishment from God. (See Numbers 20:10-12. Moses did not accurately follow the instructions of the Lord in performing a miracle and seems to have presumptuously taken credit for it.) Not every act of Moses was perfect, nor was his reputation flawless. In fact, his detractors could point out that he began as a "killer," for he killed an Egyptian, although it was in the process of defending someone else who was being attacked. His brother, Aaron, called of God to serve as a mouthpiece for Moses, also sinned terribly in making a golden calf. He repented, but he did sin.
Jonah, again, is an example of an imperfect prophet, who yet was called of God and divinely inspired. David spoke and wrote scripture, yet later committed awful sins - including adultery and murder. Solomon also was guilty of ugly deeds. In the New Testament, we find contention between Paul and Barnabas and between Paul and Peter. Paul also seemed to suffer from the problem of prejudice, for his opinion of people from Crete, given in Titus 1:12-13, seems a little less than open-minded:
One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.
This witness is true.
Cretians are always liars? Maybe so, but it seems a little unfair (not to mention politically incorrect).
And among the Apostles of Christ, there was petty contention about who should be the greatest among them. They weren't perfect. They were called, chosen, anointed, and given power from God - but they made foolish mistakes at times. Even the great Peter had to weep bitterly when he realized what he had done in denying Christ three times. (Think of what fun anti-Mormons would have if Joseph Smith had denied Christ even once after his call to be a prophet.) Peter repented, and later became an immovable witness for Christ, but he was guilty of sin and failure after being ordained an Apostle. Human servants are still human and fallible - but as servants of God, they can act as true prophets and teach truth, prophesy about great things, and lead us to Christ. But we worship God, not his mortal servants. Nevertheless, we will be held accountable for how we receive the authorized servants that Christ sends to us. Be careful about condemning them for their mortal faults and sins.
Additional food for thought: Van Hale has compiled some excellent questions from the Bible that should help expose the fallacy of rejecting God's prophets for apparent sins, weaknesses, or practices contrary to our standards. In his discussion, Van Hale asks the following questions, all of which refer to actual incidents in the Bible that critics could use to incorrectly reject Biblical prophets:
Could a prophet...:
1. Kill? Judges 14:19 (Samson); Ex. 2:11-16 (Moses) [see also 1 Sam. 15:33].
2. Lie? Gen 12:10-20 (Abraham); Jer. 38:24-28 (Jeremiah); 1 Kings 2:8-9 (David); 2 Kings 8:10 (Elisha); and Matt. 26:69-75 (Peter).
3. Get drunk? Gen. 9:21 (Noah).
4. Boast? 2 Cor. 11:16 (Paul)
5. For a small fee, use his supernatural powers to tell where to find lost animals? 1 Sam 9:6-8, 20.
6. Prophesy of an event which fails to occur? Jonah 3:1-10; Jer. 18:5-10.
7. Gamble for high stakes? Judges 14:12-20
8. Be angry at God? Jonah 4:1, 9.
9 Believe something unscientific? Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:7 (the hare does not chew the cud). Gen. 1:16 (Was the earth created before the sun, moon and stars?)
10. Curse children? 2 Kings 2:23-25 (Elisha).
11. Want vengeance? Ps. 137:9; Jer. 18:19-23.
12. Contradict a former prophet? Matt. 19:3-8 compare Deut. 24:1-4 (divorce); 2 Sam. 24:1 compare 1 Chr. 21:1 (who caused David to sin?); Ex. 34:7 compare Ez. 18:20 (are children punished for the sins of their fathers?); Ex. 23:7 compare Rom. 4:5 (does God justify the ungodly?).
13. Fail to understand a revelation? Acts 10:3, 17; 1 Cor. 13:9-12.
14. Advocate divorce? Ezra 9, 10:3, 11, 19, 44.
15. Institute strange sounding rituals? Ex. 29; Num. 5.
16. Give counsel not approved by the Lord? 2 Sam. 7:1-5 (Nathan).
17. Worship false gods? 1 Kings 11:9-10.
18. Accept a position as the chief of magicians, astrologers, and soothsayers? Dan. 5:11.
19. Break God's moral law? Judges 16:1 (Samson visits a prostitute); 2 Sam. 11 (David and Bathsheba).
20. Give two contradictory prophecies? 1 Kings 22:14-18.
21. Lie to another prophet in the name of the Lord? 1 Kings 13:11-32.
22. Accuse God of deception and betrayal? Jer. 20:7
23. Go out in public naked? Is. 20:1-6 (Isaiah); 2 Sam. 6:20-22 (David); Micah 1:8 (Micah).
24. Attribute doubtful characteristics to God? 2 Sam. 6:6-7 (God kills in anger); Ex. 7:3 (God hardens Pharoah's heart); 1 Sam. 24:1, 10 (God punishes David for a sin he "moved" him to commit); 1 Kings 22:9-23 (God causes prophets to lie); Ez. 14:9 (God deceives prophets); Amos 3:6 (God is the cause of evil in a city); Ez. 20:25-26, 32 (God gave laws and judgments which were not good, including child sacrifice); Hos. 9:15-16 (God hates and curses); Deut. 20:10-11, Lev. 25:44 (God commands and condones slavery); 1 Sam. 16:14, 18:10 (God sends evil spirits to influence men); 2 Th. 2:11 (God will delude men); Ex. 32:14, Deut. 28:68, Amos 7:3, 6, Jonah 3:9, 10 Jer 26:13; 2 Sam. 24:16 (God changes his mind).
If Christians are willing to accept the prophets of the Bible in spite of a few blemishes on their reputations, shouldn't they be willing to give modern prophets a little slack? But I fear that some of our most vehement critics, like the bigoted religious leaders who sought the blood of Joseph Smith, are driven with the same hateful frenzy that inspired the respected religious leaders of Christ's day to seek His blood and the blood of many other true Christians. Prophets have been slain from the earliest days, and logic and fairness seems to do little in slowing down the assault.
Insisting on infallible prophets is actually more of an excuse to reject God's servants than it is a path to follow God. Prophets are mortals and will always have faults, allowing those who demand perfection to reject them. It is that attitude that led to the rejection of prophets and apostles in the early Church and closed the door on modern revelation. See "'Well Nigh as Dangerous': Latter-day Prophecy and Revelation; Infallibility and Blind Obedience" by McKay V. Jones at FAIRLDS.org.
Certainly we all have access to God through prayer, and have access to many or His words through the scriptures. But God has further words and instructions for the world, and has given prophets and apostles to bring us to a unity of the faith, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:11-14. If we accept Christ, we will also accept the authorized servants that He sends. Indeed, He will hold us accountable for how we receive or reject His prophets and apostles. Listen to the words of Christ in John 13:20, which he spoke to the 12 Apostles: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me."
Likewise in John 15:20, Christ taught his authorized Apostles this:
Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.
Further, in Matthew 10:40-41, Christ said,
He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.
He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward....
Yet in Matthew 23:34, Christ foretold that the prophets He would send would be rejected, persecuted, and killed, as happened to the leaders of the early Church and as happened to Joseph Smith:
Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city....
We will be held accountable for how we receive His servants. The challenge, of course, is to determine whether or not Joseph Smith was a true servant and prophet of God. In spite of the volumes of slander against him that enemies of the Church have prepared, their lies are refuted not only by the many witnesses who truly knew Joseph and experienced the miracles and divine manifestations associated with the restoration of the Gospel (among those witnesses are some of my own ancestors who left their own personal accounts) , but most importantly by the power of the Book of Mormon, which is a witness for Christ and powerful evidence that Joseph Smith really was a divinely called and authorized prophet of God.
Note: This question addresses several policies and commandments that have changed in LDS religion, including polygamy (practiced by way of commandment from God for a temporary period of time, ending in 1890), restrictions on the priesthood (known to be temporary, they were removed by revelation in 1978), the LDS health code (originally given as advice, later strengthened to be a commandment), etc. The argument is that God would never change any commandment or rule, so changes made by LDS prophets must "prove" they are not of God.
God's nature does not change, and absolute truth does not change, but the rules and instructions God gives to man are adapted for our time and circumstances, and DO change. This is part of the reason why we need continuing revelation and living prophets.
Consider a few examples. Should modern Christians keep the feast of the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, and offer animal sacrifices? Yet the Old Testament tells us that these rites should be kept FOREVER (Exodus 12:14-24). Should we keep the Feast of Firstfruits, which was to be a "statute for ever throughout your generations" (Lev. 23:9-14), or the wave offerings of sacrificed animals, another "statute forever" (Lev. 23:15-21), or the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:33-44, esp. v. 41) or offerings of flour and frankincense (Lev. 24:5-9), also said to be everlasting and perpetual? Do modern Protestants and Catholics strictly observe the Sabbath day as taught in the Old Testament (absolutely no work or shopping and observing the Sabbath on Saturday)? Yet the Old Testament practices were said to be given as "a perpetual covenant" and a sign between God and Israel forever (Exodus 31:16-17). Many of these Old Testament ordinances and observances were changed in the original Church of Jesus Christ - not by men, but by revelation from God.
Further examples include circumcision, which was said to be "an everlasting covenant" in Genesis 17:13, yet this commandment was later changed, making circumcision of no importance at all (1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6). The change was made through revelation to living apostles and prophets. A dramatic example of revealed change occurred in the revelation to Peter that showed him the Gospel was now to be preached to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. That revelation in Acts 10:9-18 occurred with the help of a vision in which Peter was commanded to eat "unclean" things. This revelation directly contradicted two previous Biblical revelations. One was the instruction from Christ that the Apostles were sent to preach to the house of Israel, not to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5; see also Matthew 15:24); the other was the prior strict prohibitions against eating the very things that Peter was commanded to eat (Leviticus 11:2-47). Those changes may have been hard for Peter to accept, but they were from God and he obeyed. (Speaking of food, are Christians today allowed to eat fat? Yet a prohibition against eating fat in Leviticus 3:17 is said to be a perpetual statute.)
How can we account for the changes that occurred in laws and ordinances that were said to be perpetual or forever? God can give a set of laws that are to be ongoing until He issues a change - but He must do it, not man. The changes that took us away from many aspects of the Mosaic law, as with the changes away from the still older rules of Sabbath observance and circumcision, were made under divine inspiration after the Atonement of Christ had been completed, which fulfilled the Mosaic law and required or permitted change of other practices. God did not change, but the rules that we needed were changed. The changes were revealed by those having authority, not by committees. Besides change made through apostles and prophets, Christ also personally reversed, modified, or strengthened several previous teachings of past prophets (e.g., see Matthew 5, esp. v. 21-22, 27-28, and 31-44).
Based on the many changes in laws and commandments documented in the Bible, it is entirely incorrect to say that modern prophets are false if they reveal any changes in practices or rules. The real issue is not whether we agree with them, but whether they are true prophets or not. That question, again, can be answered by determining if the Book of Mormon is true. If it is not, Joseph Smith and all successive prophets in the Church were false. If it is true, then we should be careful not to reject those whom the Lord has called.
Much of the rancor of anti-Mormons over revisions to LDS texts is based on a serious misunderstanding of the nature of scripture. Some seem to think that every word of the Bible was dictated by God and preserved perfectly, resulting in an error-free text that never needed to be revised and whose content was undeniably correct and trustworthy. This position requires bold and resolute ignorance, for it is absolutely contrary to the historical record and the witness of scripture itself. For detailed information on this important topic, please see my page, Latter-day Saints and the Holy Bible: Frequently Asked Questions. As a corollary to the views of our critics, the revelations and understanding given to prophets were full and complete, requiring no need for updating or improving their writings.
To those with such views, I say don't expect God's revelations to prophets to come all at once, to all be suddenly clear and perfect. Isaiah described revelation as coming "precept upon precept,...line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Is. 28:13-14). And what ends up being written is not necessarily dictated straight from the mouth of God, but can undergo human influence as it is being prepared. This may be particularly true for the writings that became the Doctrine and Covenants, where a variety of early revelations and instructions to the Church became less relevant in light of subsequent revelations and circumstances. Consider the writings of Jeremiah, which were recorded by Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch. As Jer. 36:32 explains, Baruch wrote all the words from Jeremiah that were recorded in a book. Unfortunately, King Jehoiakim of Judah burned the book that contained the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah commanded his scribe, Baruch, to write on another roll the words of Jeremiah, "and there were added besides unto them many like words. Many like words added? This doesn't sound like original dictation straight from the mouth of God, perfectly preserved. Prophets speak or dictate by inspiration, but there can be changes and additions. It's a natural result of having continuing revelation from God, the rock that Christ described to Peter as a foundation for His Church.
We need living prophets for our time. The instructions God gave to Noah don't necessarily apply to our day, though I have no objections to your building a boat or hoarding animals (make sure you have the proper permits first). We do have living prophets today, with Gordon B. Hinckley as the current President of the Church, with divine authority that is easily traced back to Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was given his authority and the keys of the kingdom by a visitation from angelic messengers, Peter, James, and John, who received their authority over the Church from Christ Himself. It's wonderful if it's true - and it is!
Many LDS people have focused on the Urim and Thummim that Joseph received with the gold plates in 1827, not realizing that his translation was primarily done using a "seer stone" that had long been in his possession, perhaps dating to 1822 or earlier. Yes, Joseph grew up in an environment with folk magic including the use of mystical peepstones for finding things, divining rods, and so forth. Some LDS people argue that this helped prepare Joseph to understand and use sacred tools he would later receive. I'm not sure about that. One can, of course, argue that the whole idea of the "buried treasure" of golden plates and the use of seer stones came from Joseph's environment and imagination. One can argue that the relationship between the seer stone that he already had and the later stone-based "interpreters" (also called a Urim and Thummim) delivered to him with the golden plates is just too coincidental and shows the whole idea came from his environment. Why would ancient Nephites have a divine tool, the interpreters, related to folk magic in Joseph's day?
First, though, note that the use of seer stones for revelation/divination is an ancient practice. The Urim and Thummin of the Old Testament is a key part of this tradition and may be among its principles origins. Whether they are just a symbol to help focus faith and the mind or whether there is sometimes actual divine technology involved (as seems to be the case for stones that can glow) is a topic for debate, but the concept of sacred stones that help in receiving guidance is very ancient. There is also a related ancient tradition for stones that glow (like the glowing pearls/stones Jewish that Noah allegedly used in the ark). The tradition of divinely powered stones continues perhaps into the New Testament with a white stone in Rev. 2:17 to be given to the faithful. For details on the theme of glowing stones, see John Tvedtnes' chapter, "Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore." For details on Joseph's translation and the use of the seer stone, see "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer's View of the Book of Mormon Translation" by Roger Nicholson at Mormon Interpreter, and also see Brant Gardner's detailed report, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?" from the 2009 FAIR Conference.
Some argue that it was helpful for Joseph to have grown up in an environment that accepted or understood seer stones, so that he would be prepared to accept and use the Urim and Thummim or be able to learn the skills required to translate the Book of Mormon through divine power. That's interesting speculation. However, in any case, the fact that folk magic was an important part of the world where Joseph grew up does not mean that folk magic explains the origins of the Book of Mormon and its translation. It may be that the use of objects like seer stones in folk magic stems from ancient traditions that involved genuine divine gifts. The secular or pagan use of crystal balls, sacred stones, and other objects for divination is widespread across continents and millennia, and theoretically have some common origins with ancient biblical and Nephite traditions. See my post, "The Apparent Use of So-Called Magic Objects for Divination: A Sound Reason to Reject Joseph as a Prophet?"
The nature and origins of the seer stone that Joseph had (apparently found in 1822) is an interesting question. Perhaps it was just a regular old rock. Perhaps it was something more and was used as a tool to prepare Joseph for his calling. I don't know--I would guess it was an ordinary rock, and suspect that maybe the value was in focusing the mind. Regardless, I think weighing the Book of Mormon should primarily focus on the text, and as for secondary evidence regarding the divine origins, the statements from the witnesses are perhaps the next place to scrutinize. The details of the translation process and the role of revelatory aids in the translation is an interesting topic, but not one that trumps the gold plates and the translated text, and definitely not one that explains anything about the contents of the text. Our uncertainty about the translation process and the tools involved should not detract from the power of the text, though it does raise some difficult and legitimate questions.
Some related information:
The bigger issue heres are how did Joseph perform the translation of the Book of Mormon, and did he use a "folk magic" seer stone/peepstone that he had been using before he was called as a prophet of God. For the latter question, the answer is yes, which raises some interesting issues. For details on these topics, see the previous question.
There was an 1826 hearing--not a trial--for charges against Joseph Smith, in which Joseph was acquitted, but Anti-Mormons have employed some outrageous tactics to convert that hearing and acquittal into a trial and conviction for the crime of "glass looking." An excellent summary of the issues is provided by FAIRLDS.org in their article, "Joseph Smith/Legal issues/Trials/1826 glasslooking trial." Their summary states:
A review of all the relevant documents demonstrates that:
- The court hearing of 1826 was not a trial, it was an examination
- The hearing was likely initiated from religious concerns; i.e. people objected to Joseph's religious claims.
- There were seven witnesses.
- The witnesses' testimonies have not all been transmitted faithfully.
- Most witnesses testified that Joseph did possess a gift of sight
It was likely that the court hearing was initiated not so much from a concern about Joseph being a money digger, as concern that Joseph was having an influence on Josiah Stowell. Josiah Stowell was one of the first believers in Joseph Smith. His nephew was probably very concerned about that and was anxious to disrupt their relationship if possible. He did not succeed. The court hearing failed in its purpose, and was only resurrected decades later to accuse Joseph Smith of different crimes to a different people and culture.
Understanding the context of the case removes any threat it may have posed to Joseph's prophetic integrity.
Malin L. Jacobs has also written an excellent and thoroughly documented article entitled An Analysis of Wesley Walters' "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials", available at the SHIELDS site. This document is also available in PDF form. Also see "The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith" by Russell Anderson, presented at the 2002 FAIR Conference. Anderson delves into the details of the historical documents, witnesses, and cultural setting for the 1826 examination (not an actual trial). Also see his article, "Just the Facts: The 1826 Trial (Hearing) of Joseph Smith."
I'll summarize several key issues below, drawing upon some additional resources.
Some historical background for this topic is provided in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.2, in the article "History of the Church," which describes young Joseph's activities prior to actually receiving the golden plates in 1827:
The events of the four-year interval between 1823 and 1827 doubtless helped Joseph Smith to mature in preparation for the responsibilities and challenges that subsequently came to him. There is some evidence that his father was involved in treasure hunting, a common activity among poor New England farmers who hoped through the use of magic to discover buried money, and it was necessary for Joseph to extricate himself from the mistaken notions of that superstition. The angel told Joseph that one of the reasons for the delay in giving him the gold plates was that he had dwelt on their monetary worth (PWJS, p. 7). In November 1825, Joseph and his father worked briefly with a man named Josiah Stowell of South Bainbridge (Afton), New York, who believed a Spanish treasure was located in Harmony, Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna River. The project failed, and the Smiths gradually separated themselves from the money-digging activities of their neighbors to concentrate on the religious mission described by the angel. As a happy outgrowth of the Harmony project, while working there Joseph met Emma Hale, whom he married on January 18, 1827. In the meantime, his older brother Alvin died; Joseph was arrested in 1826 as a "glass looker" [actually, this may not have been the charge at all - see below] under a New York law that made it a crime "to tell fortunes, or where lost or stolen goods may be found" (see the legal definition of "Disorderly Persons," The Justice's Manual, Albany, New York, 1829, p. 144 ...); and his parents lost their farm through their inability to make the last mortgage payment. These misfortunes, along with other experiences, deepened and strengthened the young man as he learned to discern between good and evil and to endure opposition.
As for this 1826 hearing, critics of the Church point to it as evidence of Joseph's poor character. It is often said that he ran afoul of the law in such questionable activities. This line of attack is based upon the persistent work of Rev. Wesley P. Walters, a professional anti-Mormon, who published a legal document from 1826 that supposedly shows that Joseph was convicted of glass looking. However, the highly questionable provenance and handling of this document raises the possibility of fraud, while even if the document is accepted at face value, its puzzling contents do not support the claim that Joseph was convicted. These issues are addressed in some detail by Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts in "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, pp. 177-180 (the whole article spans pp. 90-298), from whose work the following analysis is drawn, in part.
Let's consider the questionable origins and handling of the document. When Walters found the relevant documents among historical records in a county office, he dishonestly removed the evidence from its lawful custodians without their permission, according to McGregor and Shirts. They make the case that he may have essentially stolen the documents that he found and took them--or a subset of them--to Yale University. The lawful custodians of the documents did not get them back for three months, and had to apply legal pressure to induce the return. The county authorities whose documents had been illegally removed only learned of the theft because Mr. Walters published at least some of them. There was no written description of the documents before he removed them, and no witnesses who could describe what he found to compare it what he returned. Thus, the possibility exists that the documents have been tampered with, or that important pieces of evidence were removed or destroyed, leaving only what might be construed as damaging.
Further, the evidence of the alleged conviction for a crime is not what Walters says it is, even if we accept his document. Misdemeanor trials were not recorded in New York at that time, just felony trials. Thus, the document Walters has provided, which lists "misdemeanor" as the charge by Joseph's name, cannot be an official court transcript of a trial. If it were, it would require the signatures of witnesses who gave testimony, but there were no such signatures. Even Walters would later admit that this was not a genuine trial, but a pretrial hearing. Yet the document, whose provenance and authenticity cannot be guaranteed due to Walters' questionable handling, ends with this statement: "And therefore the Court find [sic] the Defendant guilty." Such language cannot come from a pretrial hearing of any kind. Something seems rather odd about the unauthenticated document produced by Mr. Walters.
Even if we accept the document as authentic, it does not prove that Joseph was being tried for being a "glass looker" or for any other allegedly occult practices. Several defendants are listed, each with a charge to the side of their names. Joseph has a charge of simply "misdemeanor" at the side of his name. The label "glass looker" appears below his name, not beside it. As far as we know, it could not have been a charge because there was no such crime as glass looking in New York at that time (though fortune telling and magically finding lost objects were crimes).
There was a judge, King Noble, who is quoted as saying that Joseph was bound over for trial. But Judge Noble did not hear the case and can only be reporting hearsay. Judge Noble is reported to have said that Joseph avoided a full regular trial by fleeing from the area, but it's much more likely that he was acquitted, as McGregor and Shirts explain (p. 179):
I mentioned Justice Neely's costs of $2.68. There is also an amount of $0.19 listed as "warrants." Another document that Walters ran down was a bill presented by Constable De Zeng for that amount. Now it happens that $0.19 was the prescribed amount for a pretrial mittius (warrant of commitment back to prison for lack of bail), as set down in A Conductor Generalis of 1819. In other words, it was the amount the constable would charge for bringing an accused person in. If Justice Neely had found that there was a case for Joseph to answer, he would have ordered him bound over for trial at the next court of General Sessions, and De Zeng would have charged an additional $0.25, which was the prescribed amount for a posttrial warrant of commitment. But the charge was not levied: therefore, Joseph was not remanded to the custody of the constable, and so he was, in all probability, acquitted. That is precisely what Oliver Cowdery reported in Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 (October 1835): 202.
Some kind of hearing occurred, certainly. But there is little reason to trust Mr. Walters and his analysis. The most plausible scenario is that Joseph was accused and acquitted.
But even if all these arguments fail, convictions and even imprisonment for alleged crimes is not the sort of thing that we should use to reject those claiming to be prophets of the Lord. Seems like a number of chosen prophets of God in the Bible did actually "run afoul of the law"--and for charges more serious than any misdemeanor. Moses fled his Egyptian home, apparently with a murder charge hanging over him--and even with a genuine dead body to support the charge. Joseph in Egypt and Jeremiah in Jerusalem spent serious time in jail. Elijah, Isaiah, Paul, and others were accused of misdeeds by the governments of their days. And please don't forget the Savior, who was convicted by the false testimony of others and even executed for His alleged crimes. In fact, the false charge of treason would prove to not only be instrumental in the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, but also of a prophet of Jesus Christ named Joseph Smith.
Matthew Roper also gives a brief but good discussion of the issue of the trial in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 4, 1992, pp. 80-82, in an article reviewing Weldon Langfield's 1991 book, The Truth about Mormonism: A Former Adherent Analyzes the LDS Faith. Roper notes that Mormon scholars have been "understandably skeptical" of anti-Mormon claims based on Walters' work, since the three previously known versions of the trial "were contradictory on some essential details, such as who brought charges against Joseph, the nature of the charges, who testified, or whether there was a conviction at all.... While less renowned critics such as Langfield continue to rely upon the mistaken conclusions of Walters and the Tanners, recent research demonstrates that those conclusions were ill founded and that Joseph was acquitted of any crime." He also notes that "W. D. Purple, who claimed to have kept notes at the trial, declared that Joseph was acquitted" (see Marvin S. Hill, "Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties," Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 12, Winter 1972, pp. 226-230). (Roper also quotes Chenango County Historian Mae Smith about Walters' illegal activities and the steps they had to take to get the documents back, citing a letter of Mae Smith to Ronald Jackson, February 6, 1986, with a photocopy in Roper's possession.)
Anti-Mormon critics such as the Tanners, in their attempts to make Joseph look bad, also claim that Joseph took "leg bail" from the trial, saying that he was allowed to escape with the promise that he would stay out of town. That's a very odd claim, given that Joseph and Emma were married in that town 10 months later by a justice of the peace. The Tanners can't explain how this could be. But it's simple: Joseph was "discharged" as W.D. Purple said (Chenango Union newspaper, May of 1877). He took notes at the trial and appears to be the only eyewitness that wrote anything about it. He said, "It is hardly necessary to say that, as the testimony of Deacon Stowell could not be impeached, the prisoner was discharged, and in a few weeks left the town." That's the most reliable first-hand, non-Mormon evidence available. Joseph was discharged, not convicted, and did not take "leg bail," but simply left freely a few weeks later.
Some recent authors have again tried to make much of the 1826 trial. In reviewing the work of one such author, Richard Turley made the following observation:
Referring to Joseph Smith's well-known 1826 trial, for example, Krakauer asserts that "a disgruntled client filed a legal claim accusing Joseph of being a fraud" (Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), p. 39). This assertion shows Krakauer's unfamiliarity with basic aspects of the trial in question, as well as his tendency to spin evidence negatively. In actuality, the trial resulted not from "a disgruntled client" but from persecutors who had Joseph hauled into court for being a disorderly person because of his supposed defrauding of his employer, Josiah Stowell. As a modern legal scholar who carefully studied the case has noted, however, Stowell "emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded" (Gordon A. Madsen, "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting," Brigham Young University Studies 30:2 [Spring 1990] 105). As a result, Joseph was found not guilty and discharged (ibid.).
Gordon Madsen's paper on the 1826 trial cited above provides very clear evidence that Joseph was acquitted. Here is his conclusion:
The foregoing considerations lead me to conclude that in 1826, Joseph Smith was indeed charged and tried for being a disorderly person and that he was acquitted. Such a conclusion does nothing to "prove" or disprove the claim that he was reputed to be a "glass looker." It simply means that he was found guilty of no crime.
While it is comparatively easy for any of us to be subjected to labels and name calling--and in fulfillment of prophecy, Joseph Smith received a remarkable quota of bot--it is quite another thing to be convicted in a court of law, even in the court of a justice of the peace. The evidence thus far available about the 1826 trial before Justice Neely leads to the inescapable conclusion that Joseph Smith was acquitted.
Another useful article on this topic is "An Analysis of Wesley Walters' 'Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials'," by Malin Jacobs at Shields-research.org. Also see Joseph Bentley's "Legal Trials of Joseph Smith," which is the last section of that page. Update: Russell Anderson has provided Joseph Bentley's article also.
Hmmm. What if we applied your standard to other prophets of the Bible? Could Moses and Aaron have withstood your criticism, with Aaron turning his rod into a serpent and back into a rod again, or Moses inflicting curses on Egypt that resulted in magical changes (water to blood, etc.)? And some of these things were in imitation of what worldly or evil magicians did. Do you feel compelled to reject Moses and Aaron for engaging in the magical practices of a pagan nation? And what about Joseph of old doing divination with a silver cup (Gen. 44:1-5), or the apostles selecting Matthias as a replacement for Judas by casting lots (Acts 1:26), or believers being healed by handkerchiefs that Paul had touched (Acts 19:11-12)?
And where do you draw the line between miracles and magic? To critics, walking on water or turning water to wine or making lots of food appear from a small quantity can all be classed as magical or occult acts.
Joseph admits to faults in his youth. There is no claim to perfection or infallibility. If, as a young man, he was superstitious or dabbled in the practice of "glass looking," what would that tell us about him later in the role of prophet? Regardless of any foibles or unhealthy curiosities as a youth, he grew to become a great prophet, one through whom Jesus Christ restored the true Priesthood, brought back modern revelation, and instituted the restored Church of Jesus Christ on the earth. And powerful evidence for those claims can be found, among other places, in the Book of Mormon. A great miracle - not magic. Got a copy? Read it yet? And have you carefully thought about it and then prayed to know if it's true? (Oh, and please don't listen to those anti-Mormon pros who are absolutely horrified at the thought of somebody praying to get wisdom from God instead of from them. Pray, ask, think - but be sure to pray.)
"We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable til then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in wonderful ways."
- William Smith, brother of Joseph Smith, Jr., quoted in Deseret Evening News, Jan. 20, 1894, p. 11.
There is no question that many people did not like Joseph Smith. He was hated enough that many joined in a conspiracy to arrest him on false charges and murder him while in the Carthage Jail. With such enemies, it should not be a surprise to find not only bullets but also a few unkind words directed at Joseph. To some critics, the fact that he had enemies is all it takes to condemn him, forgetting that Christ's Church in New Testament times was also spoken against everywhere and had numerous hateful critics who persecuted the saints and even killed the Lord.
The issue, though, is whether there is real substance to the many slanderous remarks that people have made about Joseph. Some early anti-Mormons worked hard to produce a large number of affidavits about Joseph Smith's character. Philastrus Hurlbut, twice excommunicated from the Church for immorality, became a bitter enemy. He collaborated with E. D. Howe, who published Mormonism Unvailed (sic) in 1834, which has been drawn upon endlessly by successive generations of anti-Mormon authors. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, in the article "Anti-Mormon Publications,"
Hurlbut was hired by an anti-Mormon committee to find those who would attest to Smith's dishonesty. He "collected" affidavits from seventy-two contemporaries who professed to know Joseph Smith and were willing to speak against him. Mormonism Unvailed attempted to discredit Joseph Smith and his family by assembling these affidavits and nine letters written by Ezra Booth, also an apostate from the Church. These documents allege that the Smiths were money diggers and irresponsible people. Howe advanced the theory that Sidney Rigdon obtained a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding, rewrote it into the Book of Mormon, and then convinced Joseph Smith to tell the public that he had translated the book from plates received from an angel. This theory served as an alternative to Joseph Smith's account until the Spaulding Manuscript was discovered in 1884 and was found to be unrelated to the Book of Mormon.
Hurlbut's affidavits against Joseph Smith show surprising consistency of wording and style, as if Hurlbut either wrote them or directly influenced the content. These aren't reliable documents by any means (see Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 283-314; also Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3 (1991): 52-80.)
In fact, the Howe-Hurlbut affidavits can be shown to be untrustworthy on issues of testable fact, as Donald L. Enders has shown in a ground-breaking article, "The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genessee," in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1993), 213-225, as cited in FARMS Update No. 90, "Can the 1834 Affidavits Attacking the Smith Family Be Trusted?", Sept. 1993. Enders examined land and tax records, farm account books, soil surveys, surveys of historic buildings, agricultural experts, and other sources, to examine and evaluate the Smith farm and their agricultural practices and other economic activities. The evidence shows that the Smiths worked extremely hard, clearing tons of rock and about 6,000 trees to begin their farm. Just the fence around it required cutting six or seven thousand 10-foot rails of wood. The Smiths worked in numerous areas to earn money for the farm, while also producing nearly a ton of maple sugar each year. 1830 Manchester Township tax records appraise the family's holdings at the average level per acre for farms in the area, and at a value above all but one of the ten local farms owned by families who signed affidavits claiming the Smith's were "lazy," "indolent" people who appeared to "live without work." The affidavits are based on hostility, not an honest appraisal of Joseph Smith.
For related information on the unreliability of the attacks on Joseph Smith, see "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined," by Richard L. Anderson (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1991, pp. 52-80) and "Censoring the Joseph Smith Story" by Hugh Nibley.
Marvin S. Hill in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 30 (Fall 1990), p. 73, makes an important point:
If the Smiths were so reprehensible, why did the Presbyterian Church to which many of these witnesses belonged admit Lucy and her children to membership in 1824? There was nothing negative said about their character when they chose to leave the Church in 1828. William Smith was probably right when he said that his family did not learn that they were bad folks until after the Book of Mormon appeared.
Many people who knew Joseph Smith and his family spoke of their good character and diligence. An example of one non-LDS person's favorable views of Joseph comes from a former neighbor, Orlando Saunders, who was interviewed in 1881. He said of the Smith family: "They were the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness; one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died." Saunders told Frederic G. Mather that the Smiths "were very good people. Young Joe (as we called him then), has worked for me, and he was a good worker; they all were. . . . He was always a gentleman when about my place." (Quotes are given in R.L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 309.)
Most of the people who knew Joseph best loved him and testified of his honor and integrity. Hundreds knew Joseph well, including some of my own ancestors who have left their testimonies that they had known a real prophet, a man of God, and a good, honest person named Joseph Smith.
This is one of the few attacks on Joseph Smith's prophetic ability that has any merit - and I say that simply because it has the distinction of being based on a statements from an official source, the Doctrine and Covenants, rather than hearsay evidence recorded by a third party. The source is Doctrine and Covenants 84:2-5, which critics use to say that Joseph was a false prophet. Here are the relevant verses:
2 Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the city of New Jerusalem.
3 Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and dedicated by the hand of Joseph Smith, Jun., and others with whom the Lord was well pleased.
4 Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.
5 For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.
This prophecy was given while Joseph Smith was in Kirtland in 1832. Latter-day Saints typically accept the premise that the prophesied temple was not built and offer reasons why construction of the temple had to be delayed, and why the delay does not invalidate Joseph as a prophet. Before I offer that discussion, let me first turn to insight from D. Charles Pyle who suggests that there may not be a problem at all, and the prophecy regarding the temple may actually be fulfilled already.
Surprise Answer: The Temple Prophecy May Have Already Been Fulfilled
In an email discussion on this topic in 2009 (cited with permission), Brother Pyle made this comment regarding verse 5:
Indeed, this verse was fulfilled--in Kirtland. Here is what was recorded for that event in 1836:George A. Smith arose and began to prophesy, when a noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind, which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels, which fact I declared to the congregation. The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple), and were astonished at what was taking place. (History of the Church, 2:428)
See also Section 110 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Most people who read the above verse in the above section of the Doctrine and Covenants assume that verse 5 has to refer only to the temple that was to be built in the center place of that time. However, all that is required is that a temple be built and that certain events happen in order to meet the conditions of this portion of the prophecy.
This is a fair point. The Church did make efforts in Missouri that can count as a beginning, and did complete a temple in that generation - in Kirtland, Ohio. There was obviously a desire to make the temple in Missouri, but the Church's presence and success in Missouri was not a foregone conclusion but a conditional event dependent on the faithfulness of the members. A variety of mistakes were made that violated their part of the bargain and resulted in being driven out, delaying the building of Zion in Missouri and making a temple there impossible at the time. But a temple - not the desired Missouri temple - was built shortly after this prophecy was given, arguably fulfilling the demands of the prophecy.
Brother Pyle had more to say about this episode and the conditional aspects of the Saints' presence and success in Missouri:
Trouble with [anti-Mormon] argumentation is that the prophecy was fulfilled, even if the location of the fulfillment was moved due to the conditional nature of prophecy and of the Doctrine and Covenants. The Bible is filled with such contingent prophecies. However [many] critics of the Church . . . take the Doctrine and Covenants out of context. Building a temple there would require the Saints to remain there in the center place. However, remaining in the center place was contingent by nature. Reading a number of sections of the Doctrine and Covenants shows the conditional nature of their stay there. The Saints failed to live up to the expectations and requirements to stay there. Therefore, they were driven out. . . .
The Saints were building the city. The temple site had already been dedicated and foundational cornerstones laid the year previous. Note also the past tense of the latter part of verse 3. However, verse 2, as already noted, was to be tempered by the contingent nature of sections of the Doctrine and Covenants surrounding Section 84, particularly Section 58 and the Sections numbering in the 100s. Note the following verses from Section 58:
6 Behold, verily I say unto you, for this cause I have sent you--that you might be obedient, and that your hearts might be prepared to bear testimony of the things which are to come;
7 And also that you might be honored in laying the foundation, and in bearing record of the land upon which the Zion of God shall stand; . . .
19 For verily I say unto you, my law shall be kept on this land. . . .
30 Who am I that made man, saith the Lord, that will hold him guiltless that obeys not my commandments?
31 Who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled?
32 I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing.
33 Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled. But wo unto such, for their reward lurketh beneath, and not from above.
44 And now, verily, I say concerning the residue of the elders of my church, the time has not yet come, for many years, for them to receive their inheritance in this land, except they desire it through the prayer of faith, only as it shall be appointed unto them of the Lord.
45 For, behold, they shall push the people together from the bends of the earth. . . .
50 And I give unto my servant Sidney Rigdon a commandment, that he shall write a description of the land of Zion, and a statement of the will of God, as it shall be made known by the Spirit unto him;
51 And an epistle and subscription, to be presented unto all the churches to obtain moneys, to be put into the hands of the bishop, of himself or the agent, as seemeth him good or as he shall direct, to purchase lands for an inheritance for the children of God.
52 For, behold, verily I say unto you, the Lord willeth that the disciples and the children of men should open their hearts, even to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit.
53 Behold, here is wisdom. Let them do this lest they receive none inheritance, save it be by the shedding of blood.
54 And again, inasmuch as there is land obtained, let there be workmen sent forth of all kinds unto this land, to labor for the saints of God.
55 Let all these things be done in order; and let the privileges of the lands be made known from time to time, by the bishop or the agent of the church.
56 And let the work of the gathering be not in haste, nor by flight; but let it be done as it shall be counseled by the elders of the church at the conferences, according to the knowledge which they receive from time to time.
Note the words concerning "many years" in the afore-cited revelation? As can be seen, this above revelation shows some interesting things concerning this land and even was prescient concerning what would come in this region as well as what people would say when the Lord revokes and takes blessings away due to failure to keep the law of God. Did this not indeed happen? Had not it indeed been seen in those days by those who left the Church? And, is not it now being fulfilled by every single critic who has written concerning Section 84 and the land of Zion?D&C 84:4 Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.The Saints did begin gathering to this location and building the city. They were driven out before the city could be completed because they had failed to live up to expectations for remaining there as a people. Again, see the context of the Doctrine and Covenants sections preceding and succeeding Section 84, particularly those numbering in the 100s. The Saints did not keep the conditions and were driven out. They were told to keep quiet of these things and not to boast, as well as keep the law of God concerning this land. They failed in all these things and were driven out as promised in a following revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants. See, for example, Section 97:26. This forced a move of locations for the building of a temple in that generation. . . . Suffice it to say, that it still was in the Lord's plan to build a temple within that generation.
Thus, the Kirtland Temple may have contributed toward fulfillment of that prophecy.
More Common Answer: The Temple Prophecy Was Conditional and Will Yet Be Fulfilled
If we assume that the prophecy requiring a temple absolutely required that it be the temple in Missouri, as many people do (probably unnecessarily), the conditional aspects of prophecy in general must be considered.
The critics almost always overlook the related revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 124:49-51, in which the Lord explains why the work in Missouri is on hold and not required of his servants at the moment:
49 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.
50 And the iniquity and transgression of my holy laws and commandments I will visit upon the heads of those who hindered my work, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord God.
51 Therefore, for this cause have I accepted the offerings of those whom I commanded to build up a city and a house unto my name, in Jackson county, Missouri, and were hindered by their enemies, saith the Lord your God.
The critics also overlook Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32, where Christ makes prophecies that are still not fulfilled which involved "this generation" - very similar to the wording that critics condemn in Doctrine and Covenants 84:2-5. The standard used to make a false prophet out of Joseph Smith would also reject Jesus Christ. My advice: be careful about whom you condemn and how you reject possible messengers of God.
Doctrine and Covenants 84:2-5 can also be viewed as a command rather than prophecy because of its use of the word "shall." In the scriptures, "shall" often but not always conveys an imperative or conditional sense, as in "Thou shalt not kill." If someone kills, they aren't destroying prophecy, but breaking a commandment. While verse 5 is clearly a prophecy, speaking of the generation that shall not pass away until the house shall be built, verse 4 with its phrase "which temple shall be reared in this generation" may be viewed as a command to build the temple. Doctrine and Covenants 124 refers to that passage as a past command which was being lifted for the time. Yet Church leaders then and now, as far as I can tell, typically still feel that the command will ultimately need to be fulfilled. A similar situation is found in the command for the Israelites to take possession of Canaan. Weak efforts to keep that command failed, at which point the Lord put the command on hold and required a waiting period of 40 years before His people would be prepared to keep it and gain their lands of inheritance.
Shall a temple be built in Missouri? I believe so. In fact, there is a Temple in St, Louis and one will soon be built just a few miles from Independence in Kansas City, Missouri (announced in 2008). The original command to build this temple was put on hold, but when we do build it, you will be able to say that the command or the prophecy has been fulfilled. Delayed fulfillment does not invalidate the Lord's prophets!
The Lord has the right to adjust the timing of His statements and decrees. The prophet Jeremiah established a similar principle, namely, that the fulfillment of God's promises to bless or punish a nation depends on the righteousness or wickedness of that nation. Just as with Jonah's prophecy of Ninevah's destruction, which was withdrawn by the Lord when Ninevah repented, much to Jonah's distress, so also modern prophecies can be put on hold or changed depending on how humans exercise their free agency. This may take away the clear-cut, black-and-white world that our critics want, but that's not the world of the Bible. Listen to the words of the Lord in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
7. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
8. If that nation , against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
9. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
10. If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.
God has the right to change his plans in response to human actions. His purpose is not to be inflexible, but to bless His children. In applying Jeremiah 18:7-10 to the issue at hand (though I'm not sure it should be applied), one could argue that the Latter-day Saints in Missouri did not repent of their transgressions (as a community, anyway, though many individuals did) and lost the privilege of building the temple at the time (see D&C 105:2-6). However, the Lord later said to those who had sought to build it that their offering had been acceptable in the face of opposition from others and that it was not then required to attempt to build the temple at that time (see D&C 124:49-51). Different groups appear to be addressed in these two passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, so both may be compatible if we wish to apply D&C 105:2-6 to the issue of the temple. But I think the best approach is just to consider the issue of delayed fulfillment. Be patient - we'll yet see a temple reared in Jackson County, Missouri.
None of this will satisfy the critics, of course, and I'm sure they would have enjoyed ridiculing Jonah and Jeremiah had they been there at the time. If they are interested in understanding whether Joseph was a prophet or not, the issue to consider is not how to weight the various issues concerning the command to build a temple. The real meat is with the Book of Mormon, where Joseph's claim to prophetic gifts can be tested much more readily and logically.
This is another attack that has the merit of being derived from an official source, Section 114 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Here is the text of verse 1, which is commonly cited as a failed prophecy:
Verily thus saith the Lord: It is wisdom in my servant David W. Patten, that he settle up all his business as soon as he possibly can, and make a disposition of his merchandise, that he may perform a mission unto me next spring, in company with others, even twelve including himself, to testify of my name and bear glad tidings unto all the world.
Actually, this statement is better viewed as a command, as Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts explain in "Letters to an Anti-Mormon" (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, pp. 90-298, citing page 176):
David W. Patten was commanded to "settle up his business as soon as he possibly" could, with a view to preparing for a mission. Although ... he died strong in the gospel, it has been argued that he didn't settle up his business as soon as he could; had he done so, he wouldn't have been "on the scene" to be killed at Crooked River.
But there is indeed a prophecy contained in that section, the prophecy that a twelve-man mission would depart the following spring, the spring of 1839. And it happens that on 26 April 1839 the Quorum of the Twelve did in fact depart on a mission of England [beginning from the place and time specified]. Had Patten been alive at the time, he would have been part of that mission. Thus, your rhetorical question, "Why would God describe the specifics of a mission that would never take place?" is moot, since the mission did in fact take place. Therefore it was entirely appropriate for Patten to prepare for it. The mission went ahead, with another in Elder Patten's place.
(For more on Patten's death and the hostilities associated with it, see my page on the 1838 "Mormon" War in Missouri.)
Here is the story as summarized by anti-Mormon Dick Baer (as cited by SHIELDS-Research.org):
Winter 1829-1830. An Address To All Believers In Christ, David Whitmer, pages 30-31. Joseph Smith sent Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon in response to a revelation that he claimed to have received from God.
The mission and the revelation was a total failure as recorded by David Whitmer. When Joseph Smith was asked why the revelation had failed he answered that he did not know how it was. David Whitmer records that Joseph Smith "...enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: 'Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil. So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or the heart of man."
Many people, including B.H. Roberts, have taken Whitmer's widely-quoted account at face value, more or less. Roberts actually asked if Whitmer's account was correct, would it still be possible to accept Joseph as a prophet? He then answered affirmatively. Some anti-Mormons, like Norman Geisler, claim that Roberts admitted to a false prophecy from Joseph. This is not the case.
David Whitmer's account may not be reliable. He wrote it in 1887, long after the events he described and long after Joseph Smith was dead. Whitmer wrote it at a time when he was hostile toward the Church. Since the evidence for this allegedly failed prophecy is a secondary source from someone who was hostile at the time, written at a time long removed from the events reported, it cannot be given much weight.
Joseph Smith may have received permission from the Lord to cause some men to go to Canada in hopes of selling the copyright. This was a time when the Church was facing financial difficulty -- perhaps selling some rights in Canada could have helped. As I understand the event, the possibility being explored was the sale of Canadian rights only, not rights in the U.S. In a time of financial distress, it may have been a reasonable possibility to consider.
I suppose that when David Whitmer heard about the trip and some prophecy associated with it, he assumed that it was necessarily a prophecy guaranteeing success, which, as we will see, was not the case at all. Years later, as a bitter ex-Mormon, having been away from the Church for 50 years, his recollection of the event may have been colored by his feelings.
Importantly, when B.H. Roberts addressed this issue, he was unaware of the most important information about the event, the personal statement of one of the participants, Hiram Page. The FAIR Wiki article, "Did Joseph Smith attempt to sell the Book of Mormon copyright?" explains:
Hiram Page, who was one of the individuals sent to Canada, laid out the event in a letter in 1848. Page wrote that the revelation Joseph Smith received conditioned success upon whether those individuals in Canada capable of buying the Book of Mormon copyright would have their hearts softened. When unable to sell the copyright, the four men returned to Palmyra. Hiram Page stated he for the first time understood how some revelations given to people were not necessarily for their direct benefit--in fact, Hiram Page believed that the revelation was actually fulfilled. . . .
Hiram Page's 1848 account of the Canadian Mission trip was sent to William McLellin. Because it was private correspondence, its existence and details were unknown until the 1930's, when the letter was donated to the RLDS Church's archives as part of a larger collection of McLellin materials. The content of the letter was not broadly known until after the document was stolen in 1985, but a copy of the original was donated by a private collector around the year 2000 who had made a copy prior to the theft of the original.
Further details are on the FAIR Wiki site. As far as we know, none of the actual participants of the Canada expedition were troubled by Joseph's prophecy - and at least one of them came back from the even with added respect for his role as a prophet. Hardly the fiasco that Whitmer, with no first-hand knowledge, described 50 years later, long after he had left the Church and had become upset with Joseph. Whitmer's description of the event is also where we are introduced to the questionable statement ascribed to Joseph that allegedly served as his excuse for the failed prophecy: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil." I think David's jaded memory of events might be more responsible for this story than a prophetic fiasco from Joseph Smith.
I'm grateful that Hiram Page's comments regarding this event were not entirely lost from the world!
Some critics has asserted that the effort to sell the copyright in Canada indicates that the Book of Mormon was obviously a fraud. If you begin with the assumption that the book is a fraud, I can understand how one could view the event in that manner. But if one takes a more open-minded approach, is it possible that an attempt to sell some rights in a small nation outside of one's operational base could be interpreted as a reasonable effort to deal with financial stress rather than an implicit and cynical admission of fraud? I think it is unwise and unwarranted to read into this effort some kind of willingness for Joseph to abandon the mission of the Church and the role of the Book of Mormon in order to take the money and run. This was a cause Joseph was ready to sacrifice all for, including his life, not a scheme to raise cash.
The original Nauvoo House still exists. I've been there recently. Some people confuse it with the Mansion House, which was Joseph Smith's residence, that was reconstructed.
The passage in the Doctrine and Covenants doesn't look like a prophecy to me, but a request from the Lord: "let my servant Joseph and his house have place therein, from generation to generation" (verse 56). Giving this request does not mean that the house will stand or be occupied forever. But it is still there.
There is no evidence from Joseph Smith's day that he ever said such a thing. The sole source for this claim is one person's journal entry from 1881 that was published in 1892. Joseph died in 1844. Can we trust an alleged reminiscence separated by decades and unattested by anyone else? It's not the kind of thing that ought to make anyone lose an iota of faith or sleep.
But suppose Joseph did think that people lived on the moon - so what? Many people did in the early 1800s. There had been a newspaper hoax in Joseph's day in which it was claimed that Sir John Herschel had discovered that the moon was inhabited by people. If Joseph or Brigham Young or other Church leaders believed such errant reports, does it make those men false prophets? If President Hinckley, in the course of routine conversation, describes atoms in terms of the old model with spherical electrons in fixed orbits around a nucleus, has he lost credibility as a revelator chosen by God? Did any Old Testament prophet show a knowledge of science close to that of President Hinckley, or a knowledge that would be acceptable to the hard-hearted Bible critics of today? Did any of them grasp the nature of subatomic particles, of relativity, or - much easier - did they know the value of pi or proper ways to classify birds and mammals? If President Hinckley as a matter of opinion says that he expects the Green Bay Packers to go to the Superbowl, should we reject him if the Packers fall short? We do not believe that prophets will have divinely guided opinions on every matter 24 hours a day, but only prophets when acting as such.
Back to the allege moon story, even if Joseph were fooled by a false report in the paper, does that make him any less of a prophet than was Joshua, who was fooled by a false report from the Gibeonites in Joshua 9? Was he any less of a prophet than the blind patriarch Isaac, who was fooled by his son Jacob into giving a blessing meant for his brother (Genesis 27:12, 35)? (See also 1 Kings 13 for an example of a prophet being fooled by the lies of others.) Remember, prophets don't speak prophetically in every little thing.
No, but there are unfounded rumors to that effect stemming from someone's attempt to make a buck. Charles Bidamon, the son of Emma Smith and Lewis Bidamon (whom Emma married after Joseph's martyrdom), wrote an affidavit stating that a coin he called the "Jupiter talisman" was found in Joseph's pocket when Joseph was assassinated and that it was one of Joseph's prized possessions. Anti-Mormons often talk of that and the apparently occultic implications, trying to show that Joseph was not a legitimate prophet. If they were slightly more honest, they might mention that Charles was born years after Joseph died, that his affidavit was given almost one century after Joseph's death (1938), and that it was given to help him sell the so-called talisman. They might bother to mention - since they surely know this and since it has been pointed out to them many times by defenders of the LDS faith - that apart from the self-serving sales hype of Charles Bidamon, there is no evidence that such a talisman was used by Joseph. Joseph's lawyer, Charles Woods, listed all the items found on Joseph at his death - and the talisman was not on the list. (See Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, pp. 90-298, see esp. p. 183)
But even if Joseph did have the talisman, there is no evidence that he ever used such a thing, much less used it for occult practices. If I die with a little metal disc in my pocket, does that prove I'm a Satan worshipper? Do the few Hebrew and Greek letters on that coin carry a Satanic message? What about the Latin word "Deus" that appears on it? That's the word for God - and unless you're a lot poorer than I think, chances are you occasionally have round metal objects in your pockets with a similar English word on it. Does the phrase "In God We Trust" make you a follower of the occult? And what about that all-seeing eye on the back of your dollar bills? Please spare yourself the shame of being caught dead or alive with such objects in your possession and forward them all to me at 20 Diane Lane, Appleton, WI 54915. Is that goodwill or what?
By the way, the ever-creative zeal of professional anti-Mormons to condemn modern prophets often seems like something right out of the Bible. I imagine that our modern critics would have really enjoyed living in ancient times, where they could have torn into other prophets like Moses or Joseph of old for their involvement in Egyptian ways or even seemingly "magical" practices. For example:
Good grief, they turned a rod into a snake during a pagan magic-fest with Egyptian magicians, performing the same occultic acts as the pagans! That's witchcraft! Moses and Aaron must die! Come buy our amazing new scrolls, "The Snake Makers" and "Behind the Mask of Mosesism." And come to our workshop tonight to learn how to witness to deluded Hebrews in love, and burn them.
I'll first deal with the generic issue of fallible prophets before discussing the Salamander Letter and Mark Hofmann. For detailed information on this topic, see the book, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hoffman Case by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992), much of which can be read online at Google Books). Also see Wikipedia's article, "Salamander letter," which contains the transcript of the letter.
The Generic Issue
The premise of the question about Gordon B. Hinckley, and many related questions about other prophets, is that a prophet should continually act under direct guidance from God so that nobody could ever deceive him and that no mistakes could ever be made. However, there is no Biblical basis for such a belief. Prophets are mortal men who have been ordained and chosen by God to be a mouthpiece for revelation and guidance, but that revelation only comes when God wills it, making it somewhat sporadic in both ancient and modern times. There is no expectation that every act, every decision, and every purchase by a prophet will be divinely and infallibly guided. As Joseph Smith said, "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such." Critics of the Church say this is a cop out, but it is true and Biblical.
The Bible gives examples of prophets and apostles who were mortal and fallible, with obvious mistakes having been made by Jonah (shirking his duty), Moses (not circumcising his son), and Peter (denying Christ three times). But can real prophets be fooled by deceivers? Certainly. Joshua was fooled by the men of Gibeon, who came in disguise as if from a distant country when they were locals who normally would have been treated as enemies. In that story, given in Joshua 9:3-27, Joshua was deceived. He was a prophet, but he fell for the trick of the Gibeonites.
An even more dramatic example of a prophet being deceived, and of the mistakes that prophets can make, is given in 1 Kings 13. In that chapter, we read of a man of God with prophetic power and the gift of healing who was given an assignment by God and who was told by God not to eat or drink in that place. After having performed a great miracle, another "old prophet" wanted to meet the man of God and have the man of God eat and drink at his house. To achieve his vain desire, the old prophet told a lie, saying that an angel of God had told the old prophet that the man of God was indeed to come eat and drink after all. Sadly, the man of God - a powerful prophet - believed the lie. He was deceived (1 Kings 13:18 - though the Joseph Smith Translation has a notable difference by having the old prophet not telling a lie). He joined the old prophet at his home where he ate and drank, disobeying the instructions he had received from God. God then gave a revelation to the old prophet - the one who had lied! - saying that the man of God would be punished for his disobedience, that "thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers" (1 Kings 13:21,22). That prophecy was fulfilled as the man of God was killed by a lion on the way home. It seems pretty harsh to me, and anti-LDS critics would delight in attacking this story if it were in the Book of Mormon, but the story does illustrate that prophets can be deceived (and that they can sin - though I hope the old prophet repented in great sorrow). We do not believe that prophets are infallible - and neither do they. But we trust the Lord's promise that He will not let His properly chosen and anointed Prophet to lead the Church astray.
As a final example of prophets not receiving direct revelation for everything they do and say, in one of Paul's discussions of marriage in the New Testament, he speaks of an issue for which he had received "no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment" (1 Cor. 7:25-28). This seems to indicate that Paul was just giving his best judgment but did not feel that he had direct revelation from God on the topic. This passage made it into sacred scripture. Surely there were many other things Paul did, said, and even purchased that were not guided by infallible, direct revelation from God. But when God chose to give revelation to Paul, then he was acting as a true prophet and those revelations can be trusted (to the extent that they have been properly preserved and translated in our modern Bibles).
Gordon B. Hinckley and the Salamander Letter
Gordon B. Hinckley, before being made Prophet of the Church, was involved in purchasing some documents from Mark Hofmann, a documents dealer who sold the Church several counterfeit historical documents. Gordon B. Hinckley at that time was an Apostle serving in the First Presidency while the Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, was ill. While Elder Hinckley never said the documents were authentic, it seems clear that he did not immediately and prophetically recognize that they were forged, otherwise the Church might not have shown interest in them (although keeping them out of the hands of vocal enemies of the Church may have been wise in any case). While President Hinckley (then Apostle Hinckley) expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the controversial Salamander letter, many people, including FBI documents experts and historians, believed that some of Hoffman's forged documents were authentic, and this may have influenced his actions. Some of those documents challenged some LDS views about Joseph Smith and played into the hands of critics.
In 1980, President Hinckley met Mark Hofmann, then a university student who claimed to have found an old Bible with a paper that appeared to be the original paper with characters copied by Joseph Smith from the gold plates and given to Martin Harris for examination by Charles Anthon. Though now known to be fraudulent, like many other documents from Hofmann, it was a convincing forgery. Shortly thereafter, Hofmann claimed to have found a record of Joseph Smith's blessing to his son, Joseph Smith III, in which he blessed the eleven-year-old boy to be the "successor to the Presidency of the High Priesthood," which some interpreted to mean that the son would be the next prophet. This letter appeared to strengthen the claims of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a small church which claims that descendants of Joseph Smith should be rightful heirs to the office of President and which rejects Temple work and much of what makes Latter-day Saints different from Protestants). The Joseph Smith III blessing seemed to challenge established LDS doctrines of succession of the Presidency, but President Hinckley (then Elder Hinckley) firmly maintained those principles as being revealed and correct. As a gesture of goodwill, that troublesome document, rather than being suppressed or destroyed, was publicly given to the Reorganized Church. This has been an important pattern in the Church: we make important documents available, documents like those from Hoffman or the Book of Abraham fragments. We publish them and encourage discussion. We don't run from the truth.
Other Hofmann documents proved troublesome or unflattering to the Church, but none more so than the famous Salamander Letter. Elder Hinckley saw this on Jan. 3, 1984. It appeared to be a letter from Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps which described how Joseph received the gold plates. Apparently contradicting the official LDS account about the appearance of the Angel Moroni, the letter from Harris claimed that a spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander, and suggested that folk magic and treasure hunting was involved in Joseph's acquisition of the golden plates, resonating strongly with popular anti-LDS allegations about Joseph Smith. Interestingly, the letter could be interpreted in terms of American frontier culture and figurative ways of expression to still accord with the LDS view, but it was also fodder for the enemies of the Church who claimed that it disproved the whole Book of Mormon. This and most of the other troubling documents from Hofmann were made public, though not necessarily with great eagerness! President Hinckley affirmed that "We have nothing to hide" (Sheri L. Dew, The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996, p. 427). The document was a forgery, but appeared to be authentic. President Hinckley's explanation that accompanied the printing of the full letter in the Church News (April 1985, the same month that the Church officially acquired the letter) said, "No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document. However, at this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies. It is, however, an interesting document of the times" (S.L. Dew, The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 428). President Hinckley affirmed that the letter did not undermine the Church or Church history. He remained confident and firm in his stance, in spite of the heavy assault of the media and critics of the Church. He said the Church "will weather every storm that beats against it. It will outlast every critic who rises to mock it. It carries the name of Him whose it is, even the Lord Jesus Christ" (Church News, June 30, 1985, as cited by Dew, p. 428). Those were prophetic words.
On October 15, 1985, two LDS people in Salt Lake were killed by separate bombs. The next day, a bomb exploded in Mark Hofmann's car near Church headquarters as he was getting in the vehicle. Hofmann was not killed. Hofmann had been injured by one of his own bombs, a bomb meant for someone else as part of Hofmann's desperate plan to save his neck, to cover his tracks, and to continue perpetrating fraud. The accidental and non-fatal explosion of Hofmann's bomb in his car proved to be key to revealing the truth behind the Hofmann fraud. In February of 1986 he was charged with 28 criminal charges, including two counts of murder. Extensive and even brilliant investigative work was needed to establish the case against Hofmann and to prove that he had forged documents. One key was a forensic scientist discovering an ultraviolet visualization technique that helped detect evidence of forgery in Hofmann's work, which was generally too sophisticated for previously known methods to crack. Eleven months after being charged, the case against Hofmann was very strong and Hofmann pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He also boasted of fooling Church leaders with his forged documents, including the Salamander Letter, the Joseph Smith III blessing, and the Anthon transcript (Dew, p. 431). Hofmann would have liked to bring down the Church (while making a lot of money), but his plans came to nothing.
What does all this say about modern prophets? The business decision to buy the controversial documents - one of the hundreds of business decisions made each month by Church administrators during that time - perhaps did not receive direct guidance from the Lord. Certainly the Lord did not reveal to Elder Hinckley that the documents were fraudulent. But I think the Lord did see, in His own dramatic way, that those damaging documents were revealed as frauds, though the faith of many was tried in the process. The way the truth was revealed was much more convincing and effective than if a Church leader had declared that the damaging and "authenticated" documents were fraudulent. Such claims would have been ridiculed and may have even hindered the objective investigation into the possibility of forgery by Hofmann. It was a great relief, certainly, to learn that the troubling documents were brilliantly executed frauds and that Hofmann and others had been trying (and still try) to use those fraudulent documents to harm the Church.
Critics still charge that the Church was guilty of suppression of documents. In fact, the Church showed remarkable openness in allowing the documents to be published and even in giving one important document to a competing organization. John Tvedtnes commented on the alleged cover up in an article in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1994, pp. 204 ff, which is a review of Jerald and Sandra Tanner's work, Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book "Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon". I quote from page 211:
In their discussion of the Hofmann affair, the Tanners repeat what they have long asserted - that the LDS Church is "suppressing" documents it does not want made public by placing them in the First Presidency's vault (p. 24). But placing an historical document in a safe place hardly implies suppression. Burning the document would be a safer way of getting rid of negative evidence. Placing it in a vault only preserves it for future use. We have the example of the Joseph Smith papyri, which lay for decades in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, only to be brought to the Church's attention by a professor doing research there. Yet no one has accused the Metropolitan of "suppressing" these documents! They were their guardian, just as the Church is the guardian of many documents. Recent history has shown us how people like the Tanners misuse such documents -- sometimes literally publishing what does not belong to them -- to promote their own ends. Consequently, one is not surprised when the Tanners, unable to obtain documents they want, accuse the Church of suppression. . . .
Strangely, the minutes the Tanners quote from a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (p. 31), rather than suggesting a cover-up, indicate that the Church was going to publicly announce the acquisition; clearly, this does not support Hofmann's story [of a Church cover up].
The Salamander Letter incident was a difficult and tragic episode in Church history, one that warns us of the lengths that enemies of Christ and of His Church will go to in their desire to destroy. Let us be careful about imposing non-Biblical standards for prophets. The truth about the Hofmann documents was revealed, but not in the way critics demand. There is no reason to reject Gordon B. Hinckley as the Lord's prophet because he allowed the Church to buy documents that were forged. Joshua and other prophets have been fooled by less sophisticated frauds. If you reject him by that standard, prophets of the Bible also must be rejected.
Addendum: Paul Albers offered me his perspective on this matter in e-mail from March 20, 2003, quoted with permission:
Gordon B. Hinckley never came out and endorsed those documents as authentic. That is something simply assumed due to the fact that he purchased them. That assumption is not justified.
Every statement he made about them was a qualified statement that falls short of endorsing them as correct. He said things like "experts say they are authentic." He didn't say that he agrees with their evaluation and, in fact, regarding the JSIII document, he did say that being a fraud was not ruled out, but that there is no evidence of that so far (this is all going by memory).
By purchasing those documents, GBH kept control of them within the Church. If they became the property of enemies of the Church, then they would NEVER have been tested well enough to show them as fakes and the church would have a false charge hanging over its head with no way to bring the truth to light to the world. . . .
The proof is in the pudding: the actions of GBH and the Church lead to the exposure of a fraud and murderer and kept the Church from falling into the trap laid for it.
Update: More on Alleged Suppression and the Stowell Letter
Some critics continue to make much out of the alleged suppression by the Church of a forged letter from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. One of several forgeries by Mark Hoffman, this was less damaging than the Salamander letter, but did add new material to implicate Joseph in folk magic. With highly controversial historical documents, there is a case for taking time to verify authenticity before publishing. A year or two of good-faith investigation is not tantamount to suppression. The documents in question were being studied by experts. Questions about suppression of documents may have been stirred in part by a denial by an LDS spokesman that the Church had the Stowell document, rapidly followed by a subsequent correction from President Hinckley that the document was in possession of the Church. Rather than evidence of deception and false denial, what happened was very likely an innocent mistake. See Chapter 5, "Salamander Letter," in Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hoffman Case by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992), esp. pp. 88-102, online at Google Books).
Yes, the document was sensitive. President Hinckley purchased it in 1984 and kept it in the First Presidency vault. Several experts were engaged to examine the document and verify its authenticity. In 1985, while both the Salamander letter and the Stowell letter were being studied for authenticity, rumors of the existence of the Stowell letter spread, a Church employee, Jerry Cahill, was asked by a reporter if the Church's Historical Department had the letter. Based on what he knew via his boss, Richard Lindsay, from President Hinckley, the Historical Department did not have the letter, and he said so. He apparently had not heard that the First Presidency, not the Historical Department, had the letter. At this time, President Hinckley was preparing a press release to clarify this when major stories broke in the media before the press release was issued. Richard Turley argues that Jerry Cahill's statement was an innocent mistake and plans were obviously in place to discuss the document more fully, though authentication was not complete. The draft press release that President Hinckley prepared on Aug. 23, 1984, contained this statement:
I am advised that question are being raised concerning the location of a letter presumably written in 1825 by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell, typescripts of which I am told are now in circulation.
In response to queries, personnel of the Historical Department of the Church have indicated that they do not have the letter. This is true. I have it. I handled the purchase when it was brought to me by a dealer and put it in the vault adjacent to my office pending the time when we may have studied it to determine its authenticity. Meanwhile I would assume that no reputable scholar would draw conclusions concerning it and no journalist of integrity would wish to publish it. (Turley, Victims, pp. 91-92).
Unfortunately, before this was finalized and released, on Saturday, August 25, 1984, the Los Angeles Times ran a major story about the Stowell letter and the Salamander letter and apparently obviated the planned press release. Meanwhile, Jerry Cahill wasn't informed that the Church had the Stowell document and would later again deny Church ownership, based on what he understood earlier--even though a BYU Professor, Marvin Hill, had publicly discussed the Stowell letter in March 1985 (Turley, p. 101).
Cahill was wrong, but unwittingly so. The responses to his earlier inquiries had led him to genuinely believe that the church did not have the letter.
By Friday, May 3, Hinckley became aware that Cahill's public denials about the church owning the letter and invited Cahill to his office to discuss the matter. Hinckley informed Cahill that the church did in fact own the document. The two men decided to discuss the matter with Cahill's supervisor, Richard Lindsay. . . . They settled on having Cahill write a letter correcting his earlier statements. (Turley, p. 101.)
Later that week the Church would publish photographs and a transcript of the Stowell letter with a cautious statement. It appeared authentic, but there was still room for debate and several reasons why some felt it was not. We now know it was a forgery.
You can call these events whatever you want, but I suggest that the most reasonable and charitable approach is to see them as a good-faith effort to understand and authenticate a controversial document, rather than a conspiracy to forever suppress.
If suppression were the name of the game, one would have expected strenuous efforts to suppress the much more controversial Salamander letter. However, the history of the events surrounding that document support no such conspiracy. The Church actually declined to purchase it when offered the document in 1984 and published the full text in April 1985, after it was donated to the Church by Steven Christensen. President Gordon B. Hinckley first saw the Salamander Letter in Jan. 1984, after which he wrote this in his journal:
We have nothing to hide. Our enemies will try to make much of this letter, but any fair-minded individual who will read it in terms of the time it was written and the language of the day will not see it as detrimental to the history of those events connected with the restoration of the gospel. [Gordon B. Hinckley Journal, 10 February 1984, as cited by FAIRMormon.org in their article, "Mark Hofmann/Church reaction to forgeries".]
This question is based on a misunderstanding of Luke 16:16. An excellent answer has been written by Raymond Woodworth, who has allowed me to reproduce the following portion of his essay (with a major update made Dec. 2002 and another update Feb. 22, 2004):
THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
"The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it." (Luke 16:16)
In their attempt to undermine the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some individuals quote Luke 16:16 to show that prophets ended with John and are no longer needed, claiming that the belief in living prophets is unbiblical. However, the "John" mentioned in Luke 16:16 is John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:12-13). If it were true that living prophets ended with him, then there certainly would not have been prophets of God long after John's death (e.g., Acts 11:27; 21:10-11). So, what does Luke 16:16 really mean; and more specifically, what are "the law and the prophets"?
Simply stated, the law and the prophets are books of Old Testament scriptures:
1. The law is a book.". . . cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." (Gal 3:10)
2. The prophets is a book.". . . as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?" (Acts 7:42)
3. The law and the prophets are read in a synagogue."And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on." (Acts 13:15)
4. Things are written in the law and in the prophets.". . . so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets." (Acts 24:14 )
5. The law and the prophets are scriptures."And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." (Luke 24:27)
The law and the prophets are two of the three main groups of Jewish scriptures; which over time Christians called the "Old Testament," and Jews called the "Tanakh" (a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible). The Hebrew Bible is divided into three groups of books: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. During the time of Christ, the third group or division was called "the psalms":"And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses and in the prophets and in the psalms concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures." (Luke 24:44-45)
Realizing that the law and the prophets are books of Old Testament scriptures helps us to better understand other New Testament verses. For instance, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained:"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matthew 5:17)
In other words, Christ came not to destroy the scriptures, but to fulfill them (for more examples, see Matthew 22:36-40, Luke 16:19-31, and Acts 28:23).
As Christians in general and Latter-day Saints in particular, it is important not to confuse or equivocate between "the law and the prophets" and "apostles and prophets." The former are books of scriptures, while the latter are members of the true church of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 12:28, Eph 4:11). Nevertheless, the question still remains: why were the law and the prophets until John?
They were until him in the same sense that they prophesied until John:"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John." (Matthew 11:12-13)
The law and the prophets prophesied until John because they were prophesying of Christ. When Jesus came after John, He fulfilled those scriptures concerning Christ, as they are written in the law and in the prophets (Matthew 5:17, Luke 24:27, 44-45).
The apostle Paul testified:"Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles." (Acts 26:22-23)
Therefore, Luke 16:16 refers to the fulfillment of the scriptures, "the law and the prophets," concerning Christ. But this verse says nothing about "apostles and prophets" as living servants of God, who received new revelation, prophesied, and served in the church long after John's death. "The law and the prophets" were until John, not "apostles and prophets."
Prophets after Christ
Another scripture some wrest along with Luke 16:16 is Hebrews 1:1-2:"GOD, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, . . ."
Some argue that God spoke unto the fathers by the prophets "in time past" during the Old Testament. But now that we have Jesus, we no longer need prophets. Therefore, they say that there will be no true prophets after Christ.
Deceitfully, they neglect to mention that, when God spoke unto us by His Son, one of the things He said He would do is send us prophets (Matthew 23:34, Luke 11:49). God also said by His Son that, if we receive those He sends, we receive Him (John 13:20). Since we will be judged in the last day by what Christ has spoken, shouldn't we heed His words and accept those He sends (John 12:48-49)? So, how can it be true that we no longer need prophets or that there will be no true prophets after Christ?
The fact of the matter is they, who cite Hebrews 1:1-2 to support their argument against true prophets after Christ, are reading into these verses their own ideas (i.e. eisegesis). Hebrews 1:1-2 states that (a) "GOD, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets," and (b) "Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, . . ." But nowhere does it say that (1) we no longer need prophets nor that (2) there will be no true prophets after Christ. These last two statements are their private interpretations. And according the Bible, these interpretations are false.
Interpretation (1): We no longer need prophets. The apostle Paul refuted this interpretation in one of his epistles written years after Christ's Ascension. Paul compared the church to the body of Christ, where every member of the church is an essential member of Christ's body. Note that Paul specifically identified "prophets" as current members of the New Testament church:"But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you: . . . Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way." (1 Corinthians 12:18-22, 27-31)
Hence, as "the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee," neither can one member of the church say unto a prophet, "I have no need of thee"; for all the members of the body of Christ need to be "fitly joined together," so that, by working together as a whole, they "maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:16, cp. 2:21).
To be sure, Paul gave additional reasons why and how long we need prophets in the church:"And [Christ] gave some apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." (Ephesians 4:11-14)
Thus, the reasons why we need prophets along with the other members of the church are: "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: . . . That we hence forth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine."
How long we need these members in the church is: "Till we all come in the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God." Have we achieved these ends? No! Then, we still need prophets along with the other members of the church.
Interpretation (2): There will be no true prophets after Christ. The Bible contradicts this interpretation, bearing record that there were true prophets in the church after Christ's Ascension (Acts 13:1, 15:32, 1 Corinthians 12:28). These prophets in the New Testament not only taught and preached, but they also received new revelation and prophesied (Ephesians 3:1-6, Acts 11:27-30, 21:10-11). In fact, apostles and prophets formed the very foundation of the church, of which Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-21). And since these apostles and prophets had a testimony of Jesus, the "spirit of prophecy" was present in the very leadership of the church (Revelation 19:10). This also means that the apostles themselves were prophets as well, who received and brought forth further revelation and prophecy after Christ (e.g. the Book of Revelation).
Even in the latter days, the Bible foretells that God will pour out His spirit, and our sons and daughters will prophesy (Joel 2:28). In addition, the Bible reveals that in the last days there will be two witnesses who will prophesy 1,260 days. These prophets will also have power to devour their enemies with fire, to shut heaven that it does not rain, to turn water to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues as often as they will. After they prophesy, they will be killed and lie in a street in Jerusalem for three and a half days. Then God will raise them from the dead, and they will ascend up to heaven in a cloud (Revelation 11:1-12). As the Lord lives, there will be true prophets in the latter days like those in the Old Testament. Therefore, those individuals who claim there will be no Old Testament-style or -type prophets in the latter days, "do err, not knowing the scriptures."
In conclusion, Hebrews 1:1-2 means what it says:"GOD, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, . . ."
But Hebrews 1:1-2 neither says nor means that (1) we no longer need prophets nor that (2) there will be no true prophets after Christ; for, when God spoke unto us by His Son, He clearly stated that He would send us prophets (Matthew 23:34, Luke 11:49). He did so in the New Testament after Christ's Ascension (Acts 13:1, 15:32, Ephesians 3:5), and He will continue to do so in these latter days (Joel 2:28, Revelation 11:1-12)."Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:7)
Thank you, Raymond Woodworth, for that clear analysis and for permission to quote you.
Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. If Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated their pious neighbors who presently shot him.
("The Future of Political Science in America," an address by Mr. Shaw to the Academy of Political Science at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on the 11 the of April, 1933, as cited in Richard Vetterli, Mormonism Americanism and Politics, Salt Lake City, Ensign Publishing, pp. 461-462, as cited by Alma G. Allred in "Variations on a Theme" at SHIELDS-research.org.)
Joseph Smith did have multiple wives. He did live with some of them. The Reorganized LDS church disputes even this, asking "Where are all the children?" if this were so. The paucity of evidence for children being fathered by Joseph, other than with his first wife Emma, suggests that abundant sex was not what Joseph's polygamy was about. Most puzzling, perhaps, was the occasional practice of polyandry, in which Joseph was sealed to women who were already married to another man. While there is no evidence that sexual relations were involved in these apparently "dynastic" sealings, it is nonetheless troubling. Joseph seemed to be focused on building eternal ties for the next life, and being sealed to a woman for eternity does not necessarily imply living together during mortality. If this form of polyandry involved sexual relations, such a practice would have been even more controversial than polygamy itself, would have stirred more outrage, and would have definitely required explanation or justification in the document that officially introduces and justified the practice of polygamy, Doctrine and Covenants 132 - yet it is silent on this issue. For a more complete discussion of charges of polyandry, please see an article by Alma G. Allred, "Variations on a Theme" (that's a PDF file - there is also an HTML version), which reviews a recent book by Todd Compton accusing Joseph Smith of polyandry. Another recommended resource is the FAIRLDS.org compilation, Mormonism 101, especially the chapter that deals with charges against Joseph Smith (polygamy, magic, etc.).
One of the more troubling charges against Joseph is that he was a pervert who wanted intimate relations with young teenagers. Yes, of his approximately 30 marriages, 6 were with females under 18. Here, the arguments of anti-Mormons regarding Joseph's wives tend to rely on 21st century sensibilities regarding age and age differences, and, more critically, they are based on the assumption that these polygamous marriages involved sex and were all about sex. A reasonable response to these arguments and assumptions is found in new "wiki" entry in the FAIR Wiki by FAIRLDS.org, "Joseph Smith's Marriages to Young Women." It deals specifically with the two most controversial cases of young wives, Helen Mar Kimball, who was 14 when married, and Fanny Alger, who was 16. It also provides perspective on the issue of age differences in marriages in that day, showing that marriages between older men and younger women in Joseph's day were not out of line.
Here is an excerpt from the article, as viewed July 4, 2006:
The most conservative estimates indicate that Joseph entered into plural marriages with 33 women, 6 of whom were under the age of 18. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of LDS apostle Heber C. Kimball, who was 14. The rest were 16 (two) or 17 (three).
Helen Mar Kimball
Some people have concluded that Helen did have sexual relations with Joseph, which would have been proper considering that they were married with her consent and the consent of her parents. However, historian Todd Compton does not hold this view; he criticized the anti-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner for using his book to argue for sexual relations, and wrote:The Tanners made great mileage out of Joseph Smith's marriage to his youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball. However, they failed to mention that I wrote that there is absolutely no evidence that there was any sexuality in the marriage, and I suggest that, following later practice in Utah, there may have been no sexuality. (p. 638) All the evidence points to this marriage as a primarily dynastic marriage.[Todd M. Compton, Response to Tanners, post to LDS Bookshelf mailing list, no date.]
In other words, polygamous marriages often had other purposes than procreation--one such purpose was likely to tie faithful families together, and this seems to have been a purpose of Joseph's marriage to the daughter of a faithful Apostle.
Critics who assume that everything "is all about sex" reveal more about themselves than they do about the minds of early Church members.
Probably the one about whom we know the least is Fanny Alger, Joseph's first plural wife, whom he came to know in early 1833 when she stayed at the Smith home as a house-assistant of sorts to Emma (such work was common for young women at the time). There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny's family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them from many years after the events.
Unfortunately, this lack of reliable and extensive historical detail leaves much room for critics to claim that Joseph Smith had an affair with Fanny and then later invented plural marriage as way to justify his actions. The problem is that we just don't know exactly what happened, and so are left to assume that Joseph acted honorably (as believers) or dishonorably (as critics).
There is some historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored, so it is perfectly legitimate to argue that Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger was such a case.
Look, I'm not comfortable with polygamy as practiced Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the prophet Abraham, or any of the other polygamist prophets of the Old Testament. My cultural perspectives make me bristle at that practice -- and it's not just the thought of multiple mothers-in-law (mine is a gem, by the way!). But in fairness, we do not know what really happened in these marriages - there is just not enough information to resolve many of the questions. Further, I need to realize that my modern sensibilities might not be the same as the Lord's, and even if mistakes were made (e.g., offending Emma Smith or anything else), they do not necessarily detract from the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the reality of the Restoration any more than some of Abraham's seemingly questionable family matters prevented him from being called the "friend of God."
As for marrying some younger women, women can legally marry at age 16 right now in Wisconsin and many other states (typically parental consent is needed), and I've known women who were married at that age and younger. But the age 14 marriage to Helen Mar Kimball would be especially troubling if it were about sex, but it appears to have been a "dynastic marriage" to join families or to seal Helen to Joseph in the eternities, and does not appear to have resulted in sex with a minor. But even that doesn't remove the discomfort factor with that or any other marriage in polygamy.
While polygamy bothers me, I think we need to be careful about condemning those who practiced it in the past. The evidence does not point to sex as the driving force for that practice, and it may not have even been involved in many of the marriages. His enemies have written many volumes condemning Joseph Smith, but those who knew him best, those of strong Christian heritage, did not find a lecher or pedophile in their midst--they found a prophet of God teaching and striving to live a pure religion. While polygamy leaves many questions unanswered and may have been implemented poorly many times, I think it would be a terrible mistake to let it be the deciding factor that let someone give up on the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
On a final note, it has often been argued that polygamy may have been instituted in part to help provide for women and ensure them the blessings of marriage, when otherwise it might not have been possible. It's easy to shoot down some of the associate legends about large numbers of Mormon men being killed by mob persecution, creating a need for men to care for more than one wife: the numbers of men killed were pretty small, and in general there were actually more men in Utah during the time of polygamy than there were women. (And polygamy began during a time of peace before the real trouble in Missouri and Illinois began.) But there may be some support for the idea that polygamy helped provide marriage opportunities for women to faithful males, when the women otherwise might have been unable to find a suitable mate. See "Single Men in a Polygamous Society: Male Marriage Patterns in Manti, Utah" by Kathryn M. Daynes, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 24. No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 89-111. (The link is to an 8 MB PDF file for entire edition, including Daynes' article.) This article points out that when one looks at the distribution of men and women of prime marrying age in Utah, there was often a surplus of women. And if one factors in the non-LDS segment of the population, which was overwhelmingly male, and the relative lower rate of men who received their endowments versus women, then there was a significant shortage of qualified men for temple marriage during the time when polygamy was in force. This shortage is examined using the population in the Manti area as a case study.
Interestingly, Brigham Young indicated at least once that a key reason for polygamy was to compensate for the tendency of many men to not marry, thus providing an opportunity for more women to enjoy the blessings of marriage. Here is a fascinating quotation from a talk given in 1868, parts of which are also quoted by Kathryn Daynes:
There is a little matter I want to speak upon to you, my sisters. It is a subject that is very obnoxious to outsiders. They have given us the credit for industry and prudence; but we have one doctrine in our faith that to their view is erroneous, and very bad; it is painful to think of. Shall I tell you what it is sisters? "Oh," says one, "I know what you mean, my husband has two, four, or half a dozen wives." Well, I want to tell the sisters how to free themselves from this odium as many of them consider it. This doctrine so hateful and annoying to the feelings of many, was revealed from heaven to Joseph Smith, and obedience is required to it by the Latter-day Saints,-this very principle will work out the moral salvation of the world. Do you believe it? It makes no difference whether you do or not, it is true. It is said that women rule among all nations; and if the women, not only in this congregation, Territory and government, but the world, would rise up in the spirit and might of the holy gospel and make good men of those who are bad, and show them that they will be under the necessity of marrying a wife or else not have a woman at all, they would soon come to the mark. Yes, this odious doctrine will work out the moral reformation and salvation of this generation. People generally do not see it; my sisters do not see it; and I do not know that all the elders of Israel see it. But if this course be pursued, and we make this the rule of practice, it will force all men to take a wife. Then we will be satisfied with one wife. I should have been in the beginning; the one wife system would not have disagreed with me at all. If the prophet had said to me, "Brother Brigham, you can never have but one wife at a time." I should have said, "glory, hallelujah, that is just what I like." But he said, "you will have to take more than one wife, and this order has to spread and increase until the inhabitants of the earth repent of their evils and men will do what is right towards the females. In this also I say glory, hallelujah. Do men do that which is right now? No. You see travelers-young, middle-aged, or old-roaming over the world, and ask them where their families are, and the answer will generally be, "I have none." You go to the city of New York, and among the merchants there I doubt whether there is one man in three who has a wife. Go to the doctor and ask him, "where is your wife and family?" and, "thank God I have none," will be his reply. It is the same with the lawyer. Ask him about his wife, and his reply will be, "O bless me, I havn't [haven't] any, I say it to my praise, I am not troubled with a family." You to the parson, and were it not for his profession, the cloak of religion that is around him, not one in a thousand of them would have wife or children.
Do not he startled, my sisters; do not be at all afraid; just get influence enough among the daughters of Eve in the midst of this generation until you have power enough over the males to bring them to their senses so that they will act according to the rule of right, and you will see that we will be free at once, and the elders of Israel will not be under the necessity of taking so many women. But we shall continue to do it until God tell us to stop, or until we pass into sin and iniquity, which will never be.
Do you see anything very bad in this? Just ask yourselves, historians, when was monogamy introduced on to the face of the earth? When those buccaneers, who settled on the peninsula where Rome now stands, could not steal women enough to have two or three apiece, they passed a law that a man should have but one woman. And this started monogamy and the downfall of the plurality system. In the days of Jesus, Rome, having dominion over Jerusalem, they carried out the doctrine more or less. This was the rise, start and foundation of the doctrine of monogamy; and never till then was there a law passed, that we have any knowledge of, that a man should have but one wife.
Now, sisters, I want you to see to this. I advise you to have faith and good works; be fervent in spirit and virtue, and try to live so as to bring the men to the standard of right, then we shall have no trouble at all. I believe that in Massachusetts they have only 27,000 more women than men; but that is not many. There is a cause, perhaps, for this. A good many young men go into the army, or go here or there. What is done with the daughters of Eve? In many countries they stick them in the factories, into the fields, the coal mines, and into the streets-as I have seen hundreds of them-gathering manure, &c., working all day and getting a penny at night to buy a loaf of bread with. They stick some of them down into the iron works, under the ground to pack the ore, or into the building to lug off the iron. But the young men are sent to the wars. When England and the rest of the nations learn war no more, instead of passing a law in this or any other nation against a man having more than one wife, they will pass a law to make men do as they should in honoring the daughters of Eve and making wives of and providing for them. Will not this be a happy time? Yes, very fine. If you will produce this to-day, I'll tell you what I would be willing to do, I would be willing to give up half or two-thirds of my wives, or to let the whole of them go, if it was necessary, if those who should take them would lead them to eternal salvation.
--Brigham Young, Discourse given at the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Aug. 9th, 1868, Journal of Discourses, 12: 261-262.
Daynes notes that the number of women receiving their endowments points to a significant imbalance in the sex ratio:
In every year sampled from the Endowment House records listing endowments of the living, however, women who received their endowments outnumbered men who did so. During the year preceding 5 May 1856, only 82 men were endowed for every 100 women. Four years later-during the year from 20 August 1850 to 15 August 1860--the number of men endowed for every 100 women dropped to 76. Ten years later . . ., it had dropped even further to 73. A decade later, by the year ending 3 June 1880, it had risen to 83 but fell again to the nadir of 73 ion the last full year endowments were given in the Endowment House, 15 October 1883 to 16 October 1884.
Daynes then turns to Manti, a settlement about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, using it as a crucible for more intensive investigation of marriage and gender ratios. Manti was small enough to permit detailed investigation of the records while being a significant population center and the first place in Utah outside of Salt Lake to be designated for a temple. As in other parts of Utah around 1880, Manti had about 25% of its total population living in polygamous family units, and was within the mainstream of the Utah polygamy experience based on other indicators as well, though there were relatively fewer men in Manti than in other parts of Utah. Interestingly, what polygamy did was shift the advantage from men to women when it came to finding a spouse. The relative abundance of women of marrying age in Manti would have put them at a disadvantage, but with polygamy in place, the balance shifted such that there were many more single men than single women of marrying age. At one point, around 1860, there were about three times as many single men between ages 15 and 29 as there were women in the Manti area. Nevertheless, nearly all men who wanted to marry eventually did. The competitive pressure drove bachelors to marry somewhat younger than normal, and to also compete for wives younger than them, or, in some cases, by seeking wives among widows or older women. Daynes notes that the competition for women to marry improved the position of women by giving them more options and the ability to be more selective. Also, when a marriage did not work out, "Women in unsatisfactory marriages could expect opportunities for remarriage if they divorced their husbands, and thus they would not necessarily feel trapped in unhappy unions by economic pressure" (p. 110). Thus, women had more bargaining power than men in the marriage market.
Another interesting observation from Daynes:
Like many traditional societies with a high sex ratio, Mormons fostered a protective morality towards women, and women were most valued as wives and mothers. Mormon leaders' insistence on patriarchal authority thus becomes more explicable. On the one hand, it showed a protectiveness toward women. On the other, the emphasis on patriarchy reflected a desire to maintain authority over women because high demand for them increased their value and hence potentially increased their power. Plural marriage thus not only affected marriage choices for everyone who lived in Utah but also altered the relationships between the sexes. (p. 111).
So, in terms of the allowing more women to marry, many polygamy wasn't such a terrible idea after all. Maybe the Lord wasn't crazy in having this temporary practice during the early days of the Church. But I'm still glad it's over. And let's keep it that way: come on, you single men who aren't planning on marriage, quit wasting time! If you don't shape up, there's a risk that - gasp - polygamy will come back to make up for you slackers.
Two objections are raised by our critics in this area: 1) Polygamy is condemned by the Book of Mormon, in apparent contradiction with practice of polygamy that occurred during a period of time in the Church; and 2) Jacob 2:24 says the polygamy of King David and King Solomon was abominable, while David's polygamy is praised in Doctrine and Covenants 132:38-39. We'll consider both issues in order.
The Book of Mormon's teachings on polygamy are found in chapter 2 of the Book of Jacob. The prophet Jacob, Nephi's brother, gave a beautiful speech to his people around the sixth century B.C. in which he condemned them for the introduction of unauthorized polygamy. Here are his words from Jacob 2: 23-31, which are still relevant to our lives today:
23 But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.
24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.
25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.
26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.
27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;
28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.
29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.
30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
31 For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.
Regarding the first alleged contradiction, Jacob 2:30 explains that polygamy is forbidden UNLESS the Lord commands it. It's the exception, but it's clear that the Lord can command it when He sees fit, and it's also clear from the Old Testament that it was an acceptable practice at some periods of time. Abraham, for example, the great prophet and the one whom the Bible calls "the friend of God" (2 Chron. 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23), was a polygamist. Even Christ spoke respectfully of Abraham, leaving no room to suspect that Abraham was a corrupt and evil man (Matt. 8:11, 22:31-32; Mark 12:26; Like 16:23-30, 20:37; John 8:39,56). Rather, he held up Abraham as an example that people should follow (John 8:39).
Thus, the Book of Mormon condemns people who seek multiple wives and concubines, but leaves the door open for exceptional cases authorized by the Lord. I'm glad we're not living in a time when that difficult and exceptional practice is permitted and required. As in Jacob's days, those who now advocate polygamy are in defiance of the Lord's revealed will for our day and jeopardize their membership in the Church.
As for the second contradiction, here is Doctrine and Covenants 132:38-39:
38 David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.
39 David's wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord.
Here the Lord states that it was not sinful for David to have the multiple wives that were given to him BY THE LORD. None of those cases were sins. Compare 2 Samuel 12: 7,8:
7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
The Old Testament teaches that the Lord gave David multiple wives through the Lord's prophet, Nathan, and Doctrine and Covenants 132: 38,39 recognizes that the wives that David received with the Lord's approval through an authorized channel were not sinful. It was the wives "received not of me [the Lord]" that represented sinful actions, and that must be the "many wives and concubines" that was abominable before the Lord in Jacob 2:24. There were two groups of wives: authorized ones given by the Lord (probably just a few), and the many others that David took on his own. I believe that Jacob 2:24 refers to the second group.
Background: Fawn Brodie is the author of a very popular work on Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. Though seemingly very damaging to Joseph Smith, Hugh Nibley and others were quick to expose her improper methods and abuse of logic and source material to establish her preconceptions of the man. However, the book remained respected in non-LDS circles, until Fawn Brodie used the same approach in creating a book on Thomas Jefferson. Since the life of Thomas Jefferson was much better understood by non-LDS scholars, she couldn't get away with the same improper methods in this case. Her book received devastating reviews. This helped LDS writers, who could point out that the same improper methods that led to Brodie's flawed and negative conclusions about Thomas Jefferson also led her to flawed and negative conclusions about Joseph Smith. And they were right - her work lacks credibility.
Anti-Mormons have now been claiming that Brodie's work on Thomas Jefferson has been vindicated by recent scientific evidence. Brodie had claimed to find evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered multiple children with a slave, Sally Hemmings. In fact, she said he fathered all of her children. This was one of several disputed conclusions in her book. According to anti-Mormons, recent DNA evidence now proves that Thomas Jefferson was in fact the father of a child by Ms. Hemmings, thus vindicating Brodie. But, as is so often the case, the anti-Mormons abuse the data in striving to make their case.
The DNA evidence strongly suggests - but does not absolutely prove - that one (not more than one) of Sally's children was fathered by someone within the group comprising Thomas Jefferson, his brother Randolph, Randolph Jefferson's five sons, and a slave child in the Jefferson line. In fact, scholars had long believed that Randolph Jefferson or one of his sons had fathered one or more of Sally Hemmings' children. Brodie contradicted this by claiming that all of her children were from Thomas Jefferson. The evidence now appears to refute Brodie's claim that all were father by Thomas Jefferson. While there may be the possibility that ONE child was fathered by Thomas, it is entirely possible that it was by another Jefferson.
Important information on this issue has been neglected by the media. Here is an update from the Wall Street Journal, March 11, 1999, in a letter from Herbert Barger published on page A23:
It Was a Jefferson, But It Wasn't Tom
In regard to your editorial "Founding Fatherhood" (Taste page, Weekend Journal, Feb. 26): I assisted Dr. E.A. Foster with the Jefferson/Hemings DNA study and I am aware of a glaring error in data in the British scientific journal Nature of Nov. 5, 1998. The mainstream media took the false headline "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child" and distributed it to the world. Please take this inside information from me: I arranged for the Jefferson blood donors and other family historical information and the DNA results do not indicate Thomas Jefferson.
Dr. Foster denied Nature valuable historical data that would have resulted in an accurate headline, which would have read "DNA indicates that any one of eight Jeffersons could be the father of Eston Hemings." As a Jefferson family historian for 25 years, my research shows that Thomas Jefferson did not father any Hemings child and he denied that he did. Ask Dr. Foster and Nature if that headline was correct - they both told me it was not correct due to the haste of a media release data.
Ft. Washington, Md.
As a long-time Jefferson fan, I'm happy to see that there is more to the story than the mainstream media revealed - they are always anxious to tear down our Founding Fathers and anyone else who stands for virtue.
As for Fawn Brodie, her dispute with other historians over Jefferson has not been resolved in her favor. Regardless of which Jefferson the one child in question was fathered by, their critique and Nibley's critique of her methods remains entirely valid.
(FYI, another DNA-related issue is treated at length on my LDSFAQ page, "DNA Evidence and the Book of Mormon.")
Christ is our judge. But he has also called some people to play a role in judging and reigning over others. For example, Christ told the Apostles that they would sit as judges over the House of Israel (Matt. 19:28). The Bible further records that the Saints would also sit as judges (1 Cor. 6:2,3; Rev. 20:4). Joseph Smith, as the chief apostle of this dispensation, has a similar privilege. Christ's chosen leaders participate in the judgment in some way - and thus those in this dispensation of the Gospel have some accountability to Joseph Smith as well, who holds the keys of this kingdom now as Peter did of old. (Those old stories about people meeting Peter at the Pearly Gates derived from this concept, no doubt.) When Brigham Young said that no one would get into heaven without Joseph's approval, I understand that he is saying that Joseph will play an apostolic role in the judgment and that those of this dispensation will be accountable for how they received or rejected the powerful testimony that Joseph offered, crowned with the Book of Mormon and sealed with his own blood. Ultimately all judgment and authority is committed to the Son and the Father, but portions of it are delegated to men through the Priesthood. Joseph's role, like those of the early Apostles, is clearly subordinate to that of the Son in this matter - and in any other matter, as well.
Here's the inquiry I received about the tornado that struck Salt Lake in Aug. 1999, an odd occurrence that damaged the Delta Center and killed a visitor from Las Vegas, leading hundreds of deep-thinking critics to make remarks like the following:
The recent tornado in Salt Lake City has given me some pause for thought.... Why God didn't notify the Prophet ... of the catastrophe before it happened? Surely this moment of all times called for a divine revelation? Had the Prophet ... been warned in advance he could have notified the media and precautions could have been taken.
Interesting thoughts. One might also wonder why the Apostles got caught in a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee, or ask why Paul got shipwrecked? Guess they weren't real apostles after all.
A man from Las Vegas was killed and some structures were damaged. Unfortunate - but this represents a tiny body count compared to the many Utah auto accidents, avalanches, house fires, and the like, and the harm was microscopic compared to the worldwide floods, earthquakes, and so forth that cost so many lives each year. Do you really require prophets to serve as local weathermen to validate their ministries? (Noah was something of an exception - he wasn't dealing with minor local flooding.) Don't demand things from prophets that run counter to God's purposes. And do you assume that every accident caused by weather, earthquakes, etc., is a deliberate act of God to punish or afflict? Such is counter to the testimony of the Bible.
This world is not a rose garden. Bad stuff happens - even to good people. Even to cities with Mormons in them.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre FAQ was a most terrible event, in which some Latter-day Saints in southern Utah a century ago ruthlessly killed a group of people passing through their territory. The actions were denounced by the Church and those responsible were held accountable. The leader of the event, John D. Lee, under proper legal procedures, was found guilty and executed by civil authorities. But anti-Mormons continue to claim that Brigham Young was responsible (or some even pin the blame on Joseph Smith, who was long dead when the event occurred) - without any real evidence.
There have been some widely publicized new books on the Mountain Meadow Massacre by non-historians seeking to smear the Church. I suggest reading the reviews of these books beginning with the page, "Church Response to Under the Banner of Heaven / Jon Krakauer" in the LDS.org Newsroom. Further details are provided by Richard E. Turley in Faulty History: A Review Of Under The Banner Of Heaven at the FAIRLDS.org site, which is a review of Jon Krakauer's recent book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
Attempts to blame Brigham Young for the massacre are based upon highly creative contortions of the evidence. And they must ignore vital evidence, such as the fact that Brigham Young took direct steps to prevent the violence that occurred. According to Turley's article (p. 4):
Like other recent writers, Krakauer must somehow confront the fact that when Brigham Young learned about a possible attack on the train, he sent a letter ordering the southern Utahans not to meddle with the emigrants. The letter is clear on its face, though some writers, anxious to prove a circumstantial case against Brigham Young, try to make no mean yes by asserting that the order not to attack the train was really just the opposite. To further undermine the letter, Krakauer asserts:The actual text of Brigham's letter remains in some doubt, because the original has disappeared (along with almost every other official document pertaining to the Mountain Meadows massacre). The excerpt quoted above is from a purported draft of the letter that didn't surface until 1884, when an LDS functionary came upon it in the pages of a "Church Letter Book."
Although the letter was indeed cited in 1884, it did not first surface then, and its "actual text" does not remain "in some doubt." Most correspondence from Brigham Young was copied immediately after it was produced and before being sent. The copies--equivalents of today's photocopies--were made by pressing the original inked letters between wetted pages of a bound book of onionskin. The moisture caused fresh ink from the originals to seep into the onionskin, creating mirror images of the letters. A perfect mirror image of Young's famous letter is right where it should be in Brigham's 1857 letterpress copybook. It is a contemporaneous copy and was available to and used by the prosecution in the trial that led to John D. Lee's conviction and subsequent execution in the 1870s.
Krakauer and others may wish to ignore well-known, easily available, and highly significant evidence such as the original image of Young's letter, but in so doing, they reveal that their object is not to explore history but to attack.
The Mountain Meadow Massacre was a terrible moment in our history, and the man behind it, John D. Lee, was executed for his role. His actions were in opposition to Brigham Young and the Church, and it is improper for Krakauer and others to claim otherwise.
2004 Update: Will Bagley and Blood of the Prophets
A controversial book, Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley, has received a lot of attention for claiming to prove that Brigham Young was responsible for the massacre. However, his approach is rather deceptive. For details, see Robert D. Crockett, "A Trial Lawyer Reviews Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. 199-254.
As Daniel C. Peterson wrote in his "Editor's Introduction" to FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. ix-lxii:
Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, for example, has received media attention and kudos out of all proportion to its merit as history and on the basis of little or no significant new evidence. In their highly critical review of Blood of the Prophets published in a recent number of Mormon Historical Studies, W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall--respectively a professor of history at Southern Virginia University and an experienced independent researcher based in Utah Valley--acknowledge that the book has some good qualities, but find those seriously outweighed by its defects. [W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, Mormon Historical Studies 4/1 (2003): 149-157.]
Bagley's research is extensive and takes advantage of sources not known to Juanita Brooks. His handling of those sources, however, is problematic and at times is manipulated to fit his thesis, and both his prejudices and biases quickly become apparent. Bagley is intent upon implicating Brigham Young in the massacre. To do so, he repaints nineteenth-century Utah with blood. . . .
Bagley is a superb storyteller. Yet the manner in which he constructs his story is designed to reinforce the notion that nineteenth-century Utah was a corrupt cauldron of blood, vice, and hypocrisy. Bagley's prejudices and unexamined assumptions permeate the narrative. In countless places, Bagley labels Mormons and anyone with a kind word for them as ridiculous or worthy of dismissal. [Ibid., 150.]
"In some cases," they say, "Bagley substitutes unsubstantiated gossip for evidence." [Ibid., 154.] They excoriate him, moreover, for his "manipulation of information" and for announcing conclusions that "go well beyond his evidence." Worse, at a very crucial point in his argument, Bagley has misrepresented the contents of a vital document, an inexcusable act that Reeve and Parshall identify as "a direct violation of the American Historical Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct." [Ibid., 152.] On Bagley's truly spectacular distortion of a piece of evidence that is fundamental to his argument, see also Lawrence Coates's review of Blood of the Prophets, by Will Bagley, BYU Studies 41/1 (2003): 153-158. Two other valuable reviews of Bagley's book, by Paul H. Peterson and Thomas G. Alexander, accompany that of Coates in the same number of BYU Studies, at pp. 159-166 and 167-174, respectively.] "Perhaps the real message in Blood of the Prophets," they suggest,is that considering Bagley's extensive research, he could come up with no better evidence than Dimick Huntington's journal to link "Young to facilitating the murders." And to make even that unsustainable claim, he had to put a new word into Huntington's pen. [Reeve and Parshall, 156.]"Even though Bagley claims to be aware of 'the basic rules of the craft of history,'" Reeve and Parshall report, "he consistently violates them in Blood of the Prophets. As a result, Juanita Brooks' The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains the most definitive and balanced account to date." [Ibid., p. 149.]
I'll admit that there are some odd things that have been written down in the Journal of Discourses as apparent quotations of Church leaders. The vast majority of the sermons written down in there from the 1800s make a lot of sense to me, but I'm occasionally puzzled about what was meant for some quotations, if they are accurate. But we need to remember that Journal of Discourses is a useful tool, but does not define official LDS doctrine. Even though the vast majority of it is clearly aligned with LDS doctrine, it is not a definitive, authorized source for us. I can disregard the whole multi-volume set because we are not accountable for what's in there, no more than we are for the personal speculations of any other Church leader.
If we had third-party renditions of every sermon that Peter or Paul ever preached, and documents allegedly giving many other statements that they made, you can be sure that there would be occasional puzzling moments (we already have some of that in the scriptures as it is). But pretty much all we have from them now is the tiny fraction of their words that became accepted as scripture. It's not that way with Brigham Young and other Church leaders, for whom we have volumes and volumes of non-canonized statements and musings.
Actually, we do have many volumes of writings from various Christian leaders over the centuries, and they have touched upon many puzzling topics and managed to contradict each other over many issues, sometimes in bitter arguments about things that just don't make sense today. And often we have their own personal writings rather than third-party recollections or transcriptions of what was said. Mainstream Christians usually don't even know about such writings and just ignore it since it's not in the Bible. After all, why should Catholics worry about some outrageous quote from Augustine, or why should Protestants worry about some extreme statements from Martin Luther, if such is not part of their canon of official belief? We should be given the same courtesy: if it's not official doctrine, the speculations and alleged quotations from Church leaders that we don't accept as doctrine should not be held against us unless our critics are willing to play by the same rules.
It is not Bible doctrine that every word of an apostle or prophet is scripture - otherwise we'd have more than the 0.00001% of their words recorded. And Bible teachings do show plenty of examples of prophets and apostles making mistakes or disagreeing among themselves. So let's be generous and realize that humans are human and always fallible, but thank God there are moments when He speaks through His servants.
The concept of "blood atonement" has caused vast confusion about Latter-day Saints, and has been a very effective tool in creating fear and misunderstanding. During 1856-1858, in a time of intense preaching against sin known as the "Mormon Reformation," Brigham Young, with rather characteristic overstatement, did say that LDS members in severe sin would be better off asking others to kill them to appease the wrath of God. Here's one example (also cited in the Wikipedia entry on the Mormon Reformation):
I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. (Journal of Discourses 4:53-54.)
As Paul H. Peterson explains:
While President Young did preach that forgiveness for certain sins could come only through the sinner's shedding his blood, such comments reflect his style more than his intent. Many of Brigham Young's utterances were rhetorical and designed to encourage (or sometimes even frighten) Saints into gospel conformity. With equal force, he also instructed Church leaders to forgive those who expressed sorrow for sin and repented.
Note that even if we take these words seriously and not as rhetoric, this concept would call for the voluntary decision of the sinner and not for Mormon officials to sentence and execute Mormons apostates in the bloody scenarios that we see occurring in some nations of the world today. However, in my opinion, such statements may have led to the frequently heard opinion among some LDS circles that capital punishment for murder may do more than just punish murderers, but may help them in seeking forgiveness. In any case, sinners were not executed in Utah except for those guilty of capital offenses (murder) according to established legal procedures.
According to Wikipedia (as viewed Jan. 13, 2007),
Although this belief [blood atonement] was never widely accepted by Church members, it became part of the public image of the Church at the time and was pilloried in Eastern newspapers along with the practice of polygamy. During the subsequent history of the Church, this concept was frequently criticized by Church members and was formally repudiated as Church doctrine in 1978.
The concept of blood atonement in popular anti-Mormon literature is often focused on the concept of "apostates" who have been to the Temple and then have rejected the faith later. In such literature, it has often been alleged that Mormon apostates were secretly put to death in Utah. Again, this is without foundation. See, for example, "Blood Atonement" at FAIRMormon.org.
Whatever Brigham Young meant or thought, Utah did not become a theocracy in which apostasy or sin in general was punishable by death. It remained a safe and relatively non-violent place for both Mormons and non-Mormons. Even anti-Mormons could live and prosper in Utah without fearing for their lives.
The awful exception of the tragic Mountain Meadow Massacre does not appear to have any relationship to the concept of blood atonement. The victims, a large group of travelers from Missouri, allegedly including some of the mobbers who killed Joseph Smith, were massacred by some Mormons and Indians in southern Utah. This absolutely was not an expression of Church doctrine but of the lawless actions of some angry Mormons, acting contrary to the teachings and doctrines of the Church. Allegations that the crime was done under directions of Brigham Young are without foundation. When he learned of possible trouble brewing in the area, he was greatly troubled and ordered that every effort be taken to avert violence, but it was too late (for details, see the FAIRWiki article, "Mountain Meadows Massacre"). The ringleader of the crime, John D. Lee, was condemned and executed after his lawful trial.
What organization led the way in avoiding Y2K computer problems? Bingo! According to Time magazine, Jan. 18, 1999, p. 72, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the first organization to have their computer systems Y2K compliant. Thinking far ahead about the need to handle genealogy data in the future, the Church had Robert Bremer, the IBM programmer who wrote much of COBOL, create a system using a four-digit year. That was roughly 40 years ago. Now will you believe in prophetic gifts? :) Oh well. Then pick up that Book of Mormon and start reading!
Mormon Prophets, Called of God but Fallible: Why the Church of Jesus Christ Is and Can Be True even though Church Leaders Make Mistakes - an essay by Jeff Lindsay dealing with the Biblical concept that true prophets are still fallible mortals.
Mormonism 101 - a FAIRLS.org resource.
Louis Midgley's review of Fawn Brodie's famous anti-Mormon book, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (from FARMS Review of Books, Volume 8, No. 2, 1996, pp. 147-230). Her imagination runs too wild in her book which seeks to force the history of Joseph Smith into agreement with her preconceived notions. Also see Hugh Nibley's early response to Brodie, "No Ma'am, That's Not History.
My Turn: Tough Questions for Anti-Mormons - A few questions of my own for the critics. We Mormons don't have to merely be on the defensive all the time.
Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999, available at Amazon.com). Contains information from early Christian writings that support the authenticity of the modern Restoration.
Ashamed of Joseph Smith? - A review of an anti-Mormon book claiming that Mormons are now embarrassed by Joseph Smith. The review responds to several common attacks hurled against Joseph.
Can a Man See the Face of God and Live? - Stanley D. Barker's answer to a common question about Doctrine and Covenants 84.
Joseph Smith's Alleged 56-year Prophecy - Did Joseph really prophesy that the Second Coming would be in 1891? An investigation into the claims of anti-Mormons.
Just the Facts, Please - an excellent article by Richard Bushman in FARMS Review of Books. Bushman offers a credible response to Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters' book, Inventing Mormonism, which tries to refute Joseph Smith's account of the First Vision.
FARMS reviews of pro- and anti-Mormon books - lots of great material.
American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith - information from the very fair PBS documentary on Joseph Smith.
Legal Setting for the 1826 Hearing - brief FAQ at BYU.
Gordon A. Madsen "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting," BYU Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 1990. Key scholarship on the 1826 trial.
The Polygamy Story: Fiction and Fact - an online book by J. Max Anderson that refutes claims of modern fundamentalists who try to justify their practice of polygamy.
Didn't Joseph Smith prophesy that Christ would return in 1890? - Stephen Gibson answers a common question about Doctrine and Covenants section 130, in which the Lord tells Joseph Smith that the Second Coming won't be before he would reach age 85. Critics try to twist this into a false prophecy, but it was actually a way of NOT specifying when the Second Coming would be with a somewhat evasive answer to the Prophet's inquiry.
For one of many testimonies about the divine calling of prophets, see the autobiography of one of my ancestors, Talitha Cumi Garlick Avery Cheney, a tough pioneer woman who was baptized by Joseph Smith and was an eye-witness to an interesting and puzzling miracle involving Brigham Young.
Joseph Smith Forgives W.W. Phelps - insights into the character of Joseph Smith from the painful incidents with W.W. Phelps.
The Making of America - Cornell University's rich source of searchable primary documents from American history, beginning in 1815, allowing you to explore American life and history in the past.
Basic questions about Joseph Smith--from a BYU FAQ page.