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Accusations that Joseph Smith was prone to boasting
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- Question: Is the quote of Joseph Smith's "boasting" of keeping the Church intact accurate?
- Question: Was Joseph Smith prone to boasting?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that he was better than Jesus Christ?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith say that he would be a "second Muhammad," threatening to spread his beliefs with the sword?
Question: Is the quote of Joseph Smith's "boasting" of keeping the Church intact accurate?
The entries in History of the Church were made by scribes after Joseph's death
There are two issues here:
- The accuracy of the quote in History of the Church, since it is based upon a synopsis of Joseph's remarks by Thomas Bullock.
- Assuming that the quote is accurate, it is evident in any case that the quote has been removed from its larger context. For more detail on this aspect, see "Question: Was Joseph Smith prone to boasting?".
Even in the History of the Church (where the speech is recreated in 6:408-409), it is described as resting upon a "synopsis" by Thomas Bullock. Is it, therefore, a primary source? Arguably not.
But there are further questions. The date of the sermon is 26 May 1844. A month later, the Prophet was dead. Did he supervise this entry? No. The last years of his entries in the History of the Church were actually made by others after his death. It was common at the time for other authors to write as if someone else was speaking. So, these are not Joseph's words--they are the words which others (who admired him enormously after his murder) put in his mouth. The basic content is more likely to be accurate than the subtle details of tone and style.
This point is vitally important to keep in mind when trying to assess the character of Joseph Smith, his moral and spiritual quality, through the so-called "Documentary History." Even when it seems to have Joseph Smith speaking in the first person, the History of the Church may or may not actually be representing Joseph Smith's actual voice. (Dean Jessee's "Preface" to his collection of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith specifically addresses the issue of the seeming egotism that entered into Joseph's later statements which was quite foreign to the man himself--this came not because Joseph suddenly became egotistical, but because the voice we hear is no longer Joseph's: it is the work of scribes following his death. They felt comfortable "praising" Joseph in ways which he would probably not have used.)
The impression which one gets of Joseph Smith from reading his authenticated personal statements is that of a humble and sincere man, struggling to do the will of God as he understood it. However, even if a note of proud defiance had crept into Joseph's tone during a speech in Nauvoo, at a time when both city and Church were under threat and pressure from gangs of unprincipled bigots, such a moment of weakness would be understandable.
But, there is more to the story than this. What was Joseph's intent in his speech? We can guess, even from the reconstruction that is available to us, as we will see in the next section.
First, though, we must address an issue which the above answer raises—does this mean the History of the Church is not reliable?
Is the History of the Church unreliable, then?
It worth saying that in the general reliability of the History of the Church, in view of the way it was put together, it is not the overall thrust or narrative that is likely to be inaccurate, but the nuances, the tone, the details. This is precisely the opposite problem from that which anti-Mormon critics would have us see in it: they think the overall story of the History incorrect (e.g. divine intervention, revelation, Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, etc.), but they want us to accept the details of tone and mood that it furnishes—or at least they do when those details seem to put the Prophet in a bad light.
It's amusing that the very same people who vehemently reject the History of the Church as an unreliable source when it seems to support the LDS position clutch it to their bosoms as an unparalleled historical treasure when they think they can use it as a weapon against the alleged errors of Mormonism.
Question: Was Joseph Smith prone to boasting?
Joseph made a statement that sounded boastful, and unbecoming a prophet
Joseph Smith is reported as saying:
I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam... Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” (History of the Church, 6:408–409. Volume 6 link
This attitude strikes some as boastful, and unbecoming a prophet.
There are two issues here:
- The accuracy of the quote in History of the Church, since it is based upon a synopsis of Joseph's remarks by Thomas Bullock. For more detail on this aspect, see "Question: Is the quote of Joseph Smith's "boasting" of keeping the Church intact accurate?".
- Assuming that the quote is accurate, it is evident in any case that the quote has been removed from its larger context.
Joseph's quote, if accurate, is taken out of context
Assuming that the quote is accurate in History of the Church, it is evident that Joseph's quote is taken out of context. What was Joseph's intent, and why did he use this approach? As it turns out, he was drawing from the Bible and applying its lessons to his own situation. In the original context, Joseph was facing intense persecution by many people, including some he had previously considered to be his friends. The statement about "boasting" was supposedly made about a month before he was killed. He made it after reading 2 Corinthians 11: to the congregation. Note the following statement by Paul, in this scripture:
Paul: "let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little"
Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little. That which I am speaking, I am not speaking it as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. For you, being so wise, bear the foolish gladly. (2 Corinthians 11:16-19, NASB)
Paul then launches into a literary tirade where he claims many things to make himself look the fool, to contrast himself with those who the Corinthians were listening to for their words of salvation, instead of to him. His words were meant to compare and contrast what the Saints at Corinth were doing against what he was offering.
Joseph employed the exact same literary approach that Paul the Apostle did
Do the critics dismiss the words of Paul and deny his calling as an Apostle because he used such a literary approach that included boasting? No, they do not. Yet, they dismiss Joseph Smith when it is clear by his own statements, in context, that he engaged in the exact same literary approach. Consider the words of Joseph right after reading this chapter of Paul's to the congregation:
My object is to let you know that I am right here on the spot where I intend to stay. I, like Paul, have been in perils, and oftener than anyone in this generation. As Paul boasted, I have suffered more than Paul did, I should be like a fish out of water, if I were out of persecutions. Perhaps my brethren think it requires all this to keep me humble. The Lord has constituted me curiously that I glory in persecution. I am not nearly so humble as if I were not persecuted. If oppression will make a wise man mad, much more a fool. If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster: I shall always beat them. When facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last. My enemies are no philosophers: they think that when they have my spoke under, they will keep me down; but for the fools, I will hold on and fly over them.
It would appear that Paul recognizes the necessity of boasting at times against the wicked and hard-hearted
Joseph then makes the statements that the critics attack, in the same way that Paul made outrageous "boasts" to contrast his position with the position of those who the Corinthians were starting to listen to. Paul starts the next chapter of 2 Corinthians with the statement "boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable." So, it would appear that Paul recognizes the necessity of boasting at times against the wicked and hard-hearted (though it may do little good, being unprofitable), yet the critics do not allow Joseph to follow Paul's advice and, of necessity, boast at times.
Perhaps the critics are unaware of Paul's advice? Or perhaps they apply a double standard where Paul is allowed such literary and rhetorical license, but Joseph is not?
Such double standards are, sadly, the stock-in-trade of sectarian anti-Mormonism.
In short, Joseph is using the scripture in Paul as a counter-argument (or a rhetorical device)--he is responding to his critics, and demonstrating that (as with Paul) true messengers from God are often persecuted by those who should listen, while the false and apostate are praised.
Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that he was better than Jesus Christ?
Joseph was not a man who believed himself to be better than Christ
Consider the following excerpt from a letter Joseph wrote to his wife Emma:
I will try to be contented with my lot, knowing that God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me [except] to do his will.
These are not the words of a man who believed himself to be better than Christ. Joseph loved Christ and throughout his life strove to follow him. These words written in private to his wife demonstrate that Joseph was not so prideful as to think himself better than Christ. Consider also the following statement, made in public, by Joseph Smith:
I do not think there have been many good men on the earth since the days of Adam; but there was one good man and his name was Jesus. Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else....I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not.
Both in private and in public Joseph Smith demonstrated his humility before the Lord.
Question: Did Joseph Smith say that he would be a "second Muhammad," threatening to spread his beliefs with the sword?
The statement which Joseph is charged with making did not accord at all with how he had his followers behave
Some have argued that Joseph may have said something like this, but was doing so for rhetorical effect to frighten the Missourians into leaving the Saints alone. But, it is by no means certain that he said it at all. Some who made the claims returned to the Church, and other sources were motivated by hostility and a desire to portray the Saints as a military and religious threat.
This claim came from Thomas B. Marsh after he left the Church
The source of this claim is from Thomas B. Marsh, an apostate former president of the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1838, Marsh swore an affidavit in which he claimed to have heard Joseph Smith say:
he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; and if he was not let alone, he would be a second Mohammed to this generation, and that it would be one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean; that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was, 'the Alcoran or the Sword,' so should it be eventually with us, 'Joseph Smith or the Sword.' 
Green and Goldrup: "this threat was quite probably a mere fabrication by the disgruntled Marsh"
Arnold Green and Lawrence Goldrup noted in 1971 that "this threat was quite probably a mere fabrication by the disgruntled Marsh,"  and pointed out Orson Hyde (who was also disaffected at the time) later repented and returned, indicating that parts of the affidavit had been invented by Marsh. Marsh himself was later to repent and return to the Church, which casts further doubt on his story.
The tale was also repeated by George M. Hinkle, John Corrill, George Walter, and partially by Abner Scovil.  Joseph Smith's journal for the period notes:
some excitement was raised in the adjoining Counties, that is Ray & Clay, against us, in consequence of the suden departure of these wicked character[s], of the apostates from this Church, into that vicinity reporting false stories, and statements, but when they [the Missourians] come to hear the other side of the question their feeling[s] were all allayed upon that subject especially. 
It is, then, by no means certain that Joseph made this statement—the witnesses are all hostile, and clearly intended to frighten the Missourians
Joseph was under enormous pressure to defend the Saints against the repeated actions of mobbers. As historian Marvin Hill notes,
the actual response to belligerence when it occurred was much more restrained. Although the elders did confiscate property and burn houses, their attacks were generally aimed at specific enemies. Mormons had neither the inclination nor means to wage a general war of extermination against all mobbers, despite menacing talk. The only fatalities occurred in the skirmish with Bogart, where the elders got the worst of the fight. Had the prophet been intent on waging total war, it is unlikely he would have allowed Rigdon to issue his 4th of July warning, which only put the Missourians on guard. 
Stephen H. Webb: "Evidence That Demands Our Amazement... Joseph Smith was a remarkable person"
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
By any measurement, Joseph Smith was a remarkable person. His combination of organizational acumen with spiritual originality and personal decorum and modesty is rare in the history of religion. He was so steadfast in his ability to inspire men and women through times of great hardship that none of those who knew him could claim to fully understand him. He knew more about theology and philosophy than it was reasonable for anyone in his position to know, as if he were dipping into the deep, collective unconsciousness of Christianity with a very long pen. He read the Bible in ways so novel that he can be considered a theological innocent—he expanded and revised the biblical narrative without questioning its authority—yet he brusquely overturned ancient and impregnable metaphysical assumptions with the aplomb of an assistant professor. For someone so charismatic, he was exceptionally humble, even ordinary, and he delegated authority with the wisdom of a man looking far into the future for the well-being of his followers. It would be tempting to compare him to Mohammed—who also combined pragmatic political skill and a genius for religious innovation—if he were not so deeply Christian. [Title is Webb's.]:95
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- This wiki article was originally based on a personal message from Daniel C. Peterson. It has since been subject to editing and additions because of the nature of a wiki project.
- "By 27 June 1844, the date of Joseph Smith's death, the manuscript of the history [of the Church] had been completed only to 5 August 1838 and published [in the Times and Seasons] to December 1831." Dean C. Jessee, "The Reliability of Joseph Smith's History," Journal of Mormon History 3/1 (1976), 23–46. PDF link
- For those who want a better handle on Joseph Smith's true character, a good resource is Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2003).(print version) ISBN 978-1570089633 GL direct link
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:408. Volume 6 link
- Letter from Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, June 6, 1832, Greenville, Indiana; Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois.
- History of the Church 5:401.
- History of the Church, 3:167 note. note Volume 3 link
- Arnold H. Green and Lawrence P. Goldrup, "Joseph Smith, An American Muhammad?: An Essay on the Perils of Historical Analogy," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 no. 1, 46.
- David Grua, "From the Archives: Joseph Smith or the Sword!?," blog post at Juvenile Instructor blog (17 Nov 2007) off-site.
- JS, Journal, [July 1838], cited in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 2, Journal, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 255–256. ISBN 0875795455.; as cited in Juvenile Instructor, ibid.
- Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1989), 97.
- "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
- Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011). (emphasis added)