Joseph Smith/Narcissism/Pride

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Accusations that Joseph Smith was ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic

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Question: Was Joseph Smith ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic?

Several quotes are used by critics to portray Joseph as ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic

Joseph Smith is quoted as saying such things as:

  • "I am learned, and know more than all the world put together."
  • "I combat the errors of ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the Gordian knot of powers, and I solve mathematical problems of universities, with truth . . . diamond truth; and God is my ‘right hand man.’”

These quotes are used to portray Joseph as ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic.

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

To paraphrase G. D. Smith, small wonder, then, that this Joseph—the one revealed by the documents—decided to run for the presidency. The decision was natural since the Saints felt no candidate was worthy of their support—though they knew that a vote for Joseph could well be “throw[ing] away our votes.”[1] Joseph’s campaign was “a gesture,” though one he took seriously.[2] Experienced students of Mormon history will know this; G. D. Smith evidently counts on his audience not knowing.

See also reply to Abanes here.

Did Joseph claim to know more than all the world?

G. D. Smith writes that “in defending his theology [during the King Follett discourse], Smith proclaimed, ‘I am learned, and know more than all the world put together.’” The period ending the sentence would imply that this completed his thought—and so it appears in the History of the Church.[3] If the three published versions of the original talk are consulted,[4] however, they each demonstrate that the sentiment may have been quite different:

Now, I ask all the learned men who hear me, why the learned doctors who are preaching salvation say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. They account it blasphemy to contradict the idea. If you tell them that God made the world out of something, they will call you a fool. The reason is that they are unlearned but I am learned and know more than all the world put together—the Holy Ghost does, anyhow. If the Holy Ghost in me comprehends more than all the world, I will associate myself with it.[5]

In the History of the Church version, the statement about the Holy Ghost is placed in its own sentence. This allows G. D. Smith to exclude it with no ellipsis and portray Joseph as decidedly more arrogant than he was.

Daniel C. Peterson’s remark is telling: “Amusing, isn’t it, . . . that the very same people who vehemently reject the . . . History of the Church as an unreliable source when it seems to support the Latter-day Saint 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.”[6]:54-55

Letter taken from context

Critics fail, then, to provide the context for these remarks, some of which are taken from an exchange which Joseph had with newspaperman James Arlington Bennet.[7] For example, G.D. Smith quotes the phrases above and then editorializes: “With such a self-image, it is not surprising that he also aspired to the highest office in the land: the presidency of the United States.”[8] Here again, he serves his readers poorly. He neglects to tell us that Joseph’s remark comes from a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exchange with James Bennet, who had been baptized in the East but immediately wrote Joseph to disclaim his “glorious frolic in the clear blue ocean; for most assuredly a frolic it was, without a moment’s reflection or consideration.”[9]:71

James Bennet's original letter

Bennet went on to praise Joseph in an exaggerated, humorous style: “As you have proved yourself to be a philosophical divine . . . [it] point[s] you out as the most extraordinary man of the present age.” “But,” cautioned Bennet,

my mind is of so mathematical and philosophical a cast, that the divinity of Moses makes no impression on me, and you will not be offended when I say that I rate you higher as a legislator than I do Moses. . . . I cannot, however, say but you are both right, it being out of the power of man to prove you wrong. It is no mathematical problem, and can therefore get no mathematical solution (italics added)[9]:72

Joseph’s claim that his religious witness can “solve mathematical problems of universities” is thus a playful return shot at Bennet,[10] who has claimed a “so mathematical” mind that cannot decide about Joseph’s truth claims since they admit of “no mathematical solution.”[11] G. D. Smith may not get the joke, but he ought to at least let us know that there is one being told.

Bennet continued by suggesting that he need not have religious convictions to support Joseph, adding slyly that “you know Mahomet had his ‘right hand man.’” Joseph’s reply that God is his right-hand man is again a riposte to Bennet and follows Joseph’s half-serious gibe that “your good wishes to go ahead, coupled with Mahomet and a right hand man, are rather more vain than virtuous. Why, sir, Cæsar had his right hand Brutus, who was his left hand assassin.” Joseph here pauses, and we can almost see him grin before adding: “Not, however, applying the allusion to you.”[9]:77

Diamond hard truth

Bennet had also offered Joseph a carving of “your head on a beautiful cornelian stone, as your private seal, which will be set in gold to your order, and sent to you. It will be a gem, and just what you want. . . . The expense of this seal, set in gold, will be about $40; and [the maker] assures me that if he were not so poor a man, he would present it to you free. You can, however, accept it or not.”[9]:72

Joseph does not let this rhetorical opportunity go by, telling Bennet that “facts, like diamonds, not only cut glass, but they are the most precious jewels on earth. . . . As to the private seal you mention, if sent to me, I shall receive it with the gratitude of a servant of God, and pray that the donor may receive a reward in the resurrection of the just.”[9]:77, (emphasis added) Joseph’s concluding remark about the necessity of “truth—diamond-hard truth” plays on this same association with the proffered precious stone.

Bennet's goals

The key point of Bennet’s letter, after the sardonic preliminaries, was an invitation to use untruth for political gain—hence Joseph’s insistence on “diamond-hard truth.” Bennet closed his letter by asking to be privately relieved of his honorary commission with the Nauvoo Legion, noting that

I may yet run for a high office in your state, when you would be sure of my best services in your behalf; therefore, a known connection with you would be against our mutual interest. It can be shown that a commission in the Legion was a Herald hoax, coined for the fun of it by me, as it is not believed even now by the public. In short, I expect to be yet, through your influence, governor of the State of Illinois.[9]:72, (emphasis added)

Bennet hoped to use Joseph without embracing his religious pretensions and was bold enough to say so.[12] However, Joseph was not as cynical and malleable as the Easterner hoped, for the Prophet then insisted at length on the impropriety of using “the dignity and honor I received from heaven, to boost a man into [political] power,” since “the wicked and unprincipled . . . would seize the opportunity to [harden] the hearts of the nation against me for dabbling at a sly game in politics.”

Joseph’s fear in relation to politics is that to support the unworthy would be to corrupt the mission he has been given. “Shall I,” continued Joseph rhetorically, “. . . turn to be a Judas? Shall I, who have heard the voice of God, and communed with angels, and spake as moved by the Holy Ghost for the renewal of the everlasting covenant, and for the gathering of Israel in the last days,—shall I worm myself into a political hypocrite?” Rather, Joseph hoped that “the whole earth shall bear me witness that I, like the towering rock in the midst of the ocean, which has withstood the mighty surges of the warring waves for centuries, am impregnable, and am a faithful friend to virtue, and a fearless foe to vice.”[9]:77-78

It is at this point that he makes the statement quoted by G. D. Smith—a nice rhetorical summation of the word games he and Bennet were playing and a jovial but direct rejection of Bennet’s politically cynical offer—but hardly evidence of someone with a grandiose self-image.[13]


Question: Is it possible to deduce Joseph Smith's thoughts and dreams years after his death?

Some critics of the Church attempt to discern Joseph Smith's motivations, thoughts and dreams, in order to explain the rise of the Church

Secular critics face a tough challenge when attempting to explain the foundational stories of Church—the primary sources from Joseph Smith and his associates do not provide them with any useful information. The only explanation left to them is that Joseph must have been lying about everything that he said. Authors then resort to fabricating Joseph's thoughts and dreams, and deducing his motivations based upon his surroundings. As one reviewer of Vogel's work puts it, "if no evidence can be gathered to demonstrate that a historical actor thought what you attribute to him or her, no conjecture can be beyond the realm of hypothetical possibility—just make things up, if you need to."[14]:326 This technique allows secular critics to quite literally create any explanation that they wish to account for Joseph's ability to restore the Church.

Creating a "psychobiography" by putting thoughts into Joseph's head

Secular critics, as a result of their inability to accept what they call "paranormal experiences," must come up with explanations for why Joseph Smith was able to create and grow the Church. Since many of the primary documents from Joseph and his associates accept evidence of spiritual experiences and angelic visitations as normal, secular critics look at Joseph's surrounding environment in order to deduce his thoughts and dreams, thus creating a "psychobiography" of the Prophet. A well-known critical work in which this technique is heavily employed is Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. Consider the following:

But the need for deference was strong within [Joseph]. Talented far beyond his brothers or friends, he was impatient with their modest hopes and humdrum fancies. Nimble-witted, ambitious, and gifted with a boundless imagination, he dreamed of escape into an illustrious and affluent future. For Joseph was not meant to be a plodding farmer, tied to the earth by habit or by love for the recurrent miracle of harvest. He detested the plow as only a farmer's son can, and looked with despair on the fearful mortage [check spelling] that clouded their future.[15]:18

Brodie's prose is very readable, and would be well suited to a fictional novel. Unfortunately, nothing in the paragraph quoted above is referenced to any sort of a source. According to Dr. Charles L. Cohen, professor of history and religious studies, and director of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

This habit of insinuating herself into historical actors' minds constitutes the second part of Brodie's method. "For weeks" after learning that Martin Harris had lost the 116-page translation of the golden plates, she stated, "Joseph writhed in self-reproach for his folly." Lucy Smith described her son's distraught reaction when Harris told him the bad news, but, though one can well imagine Joseph agonizing over what to do, there is insufficient evidence to say in an unqualified declarative sentence what he actually did.[16]

The speculation of one author becomes a later author's "fact"

Since Brodie's work is heavily referenced by critics, Brodie's opinions eventually become considered to be "fact" by those who wish to tear down the Church. Brodie's pronouncements regarding Joseph's motives are then passed along to the next anti-Mormon writer. Consider how the following claim evolves from speculation to "documented endnote," when Brodie states:

The awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging. Dream images came easily to this youth, whose imagination was as untrammeled as the whole West (emphasis added).[15]:25

Now observe how author Richard Abanes treats this quote in his book Becoming Gods (retitled Inside Today's Mormonism):

Such a theory boldly challenges LDS apostle James Faust's contention that critics of the First Vision "find it difficult to explain away." His assertion is further weakened by yet another theory of Brodie's, which posits that Smith's story might have been "created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging" (emphasis added).[17]

Here we have an unsupported theory by Brodie being confirmed by another author to "further weaken" LDS claims about the First Vision. Brodie's speculation of "was probably" and "it may have been" now becomes a cited endnote in Abanes' work. The speculation of one author has become the documented fact for the next author down the line.

Deducing Joseph's thoughts from his environment

Another author who takes great liberties in deducing Joseph's thoughts and dreams is Dan Vogel. Vogel's book Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet liberally assigns motives to the Prophet which cannot be backed up with any primary source. Instead, the author must interpret the meaning behind second- and third-hand sources that agree with his point-of-view.

Frankly admitting his "inclination . . . to interpret any claim of the paranormal . . . as delusion or fraud" (p. xii), Vogel refuses to accept Joseph's and his supporters' autobiographical statements—most of which grant, either explicitly or implicitly, such "paranormal" phenomena as angels, revelation, visions, and prophecy—at face value. Vogel's Joseph opens his mouth only to lie and deceive; and whatever he might be experiencing, or trying to do, or thinking about, one can rest assured that it's not what any record generated by him or his sympathizers would have us believe.[18]:206

When an author disregards the primary sources—the statements made by Joseph Smith himself—it becomes possible to create any story, motivation, thought or dream which suits the author's purpose. Responding to Vogel's description of Joseph's prayers and thoughts on September 21, 1823 leading up to the visit of Moroni, BYU professors Andrew and Dawson Hedges note:

What more could a student of early Mormon history possibly want? Here, in a crisp three pages, is a detailed account of what Joseph Smith was thinking about, praying about, and hesitating about over 180 years ago during one of the most significant 24-hour periods in church history. And not just what he was thinking about, in general terms, but how and when, within this 24-hour period, his thoughts evolve! And Vogel gives us all this without a single source to guide his pen—indeed, in direct contravention of what the sources say! One might chalk up this ability to navigate so confidently and so deftly through Joseph's mind to some type of clairvoyance on Vogel's part—"clairvogelance," we could call it—were it not that he himself protests so loudly against anything smacking of the "paranormal."[18]:211

Again, as with Brodie, and freed from the constraint of having to use actual sources, the author can attribute any thought or motivation to the Prophet that they wish in order to explain the unexplainable.


Stephen H. Webb: "Evidence That Demands Our Amazement... Joseph Smith was a remarkable person"

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[19]

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.][20]:95

Question: Did certain Church leaders claim that Joseph Smith "held the office of Holy Ghost"?

It is true that some Mormons in the 19th century apparently believed that Joseph was the Holy Ghost incarnate

It is true that some Mormons in the 19th century apparently believed that Joseph was the Holy Ghost incarnate.[21] Some have also speculated that the Holy Ghost is a "calling" filled over the eons by various individuals, and that Joseph Smith took this position following his death.[22]

This is, of course, not a doctrine of the Church and was repudiated by leaders when it appeared: It is also contrary to LDS scripture

Vern G. Swanson has written:

The most widespread is the belief that Smith was the Holy Ghost; or more correctly stated, that he represented the emanating spirit of the Father and the Son. This theory arose from several sources. In a 9 March 1841 discourse Joseph Smith apparently discussed three gods who covenanted to preside over this creation: "[An] Everlasting Covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth, and [it] relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth." These three gods, some argue, were Father Adam for the beginning of the mortal world, Christ for the Meridian of Time, and Joseph Smith for the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times. Others have seen Doctrine and Covenants 135:3 as evidence for Smith being the Holy Ghost: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it." Accordingly, Christ did the most to save humanity and is the second member of the Godhead; therefore, Smith, who did second to the most, is the third member.

That such notions have circulated in the church since 1844 is made clear by comments from church leaders contradicting these views. In August 1845 Orson Pratt wrote to church members responding to rumors that Joseph Smith was the Holy Ghost incarnate: "Let no false doctrine proceed out of your mouth, such, for instance that the tabernacle of our martyred prophet and seer, or of any other person, was or is the especial tabernacle of the Holy Ghost, in a different sense from that considered in relation to his residence in other tabernacles. These are doctrines not revealed, and are neither believed nor sanctioned by the Twelve and should be rejected by every Saint."[23]

In D&C 130:21, a statement spoken by the Prophet Joseph Smith also makes it clear that during Joseph Smith's lifetime the Holy Ghost was a personage of spirit.

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.

This canonized statement makes the concept that Joseph Smith was the Holy Ghost theologically impossible, since Joseph was clearly a mortal human being with a physical body, despite his description of the Holy Ghost as a spirit.


Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional, "The Prophet Joseph Smith"

Elder D. Todd Christofferson,,  Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional, (September 24, 2013)
We should be careful not to claim for Joseph Smith perfections he did not claim for himself. He need not have been superhuman to be the instrument in God’s hands that we know him to be. In May, 1844, Joseph declared: “I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” He had commented earlier: “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I am charged with doing: the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against Him—they all watched for iniquity in Him.” Joseph Smith was a mortal man striving to fulfill an overwhelming, divinely- appointed mission against all odds. The wonder is not that he ever displayed human failings, but that he succeeded in his mission. His fruits are undeniable and undeniably good.

Click here to view the complete article


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. "Who Shall Be Our Next President," Times and Seasons 5 no. 4 (15 February 1844), 441. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  2. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).
  3. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 226. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  4. Joseph Smith in The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1995), 238. Joseph Smith, "Conference Minutes," Times and Seasons 15 no. 5 (15 August 1844), 614–15. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) Stan Larson, ed., "The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text," Brigham Young University Studies 18 no. 2 (Winter 1978), 193–208..
  5. Larson, “Newly Amalgamated Text,” 203. The italic type (added by Larson) indicates material found only in Wilford Woodruff’s account.
  6. Daniel C. Peterson, "Review of Decker's Complete Handbook on Mormonism by Ed Decker," FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 38–105. off-site
  7. Bennet’s name is also sometimes spelled Bennett.
  8. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 225.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 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). Volume 6 link
  10. Charles Mackay, though mistaking this Bennet for John C. Bennett, nevertheless realized what was going on: “‘Joseph’s reply to this singular and too candid epistle was quite as singular and infinitely more amusing. Joseph was too cunning a man to accept, in plain terms, the rude but serviceable offer; and he rebuked the vanity and presumption of Mr Bennett, while dexterously retaining him for future use.” See Charles Mackay, ed., The Mormons, or Latter-day Saints; with memoirs of the Life and Death of Joseph Smith, the American Mahomet, 4th ed. (London, 1856); cited in Hubert Howe Bancroft and Alfred Bates, History of Utah, 1540–1886 (San Francisco: The History Co., 1889), 151 n. 112. Concludes Bancroft: “More has been made of this correspondence than it deserves,” though G. D. Smith has seen fit to continue the error.
  11. Joseph pursued Bennet’s mathematical analogy for several paragraphs; see History of the Church, 6:75–77. Volume 6 link. Bennet was fond of the metaphor; in 1855 he was to privately publish A New Revelation to Mankind, drawn from Axioms, or self-evident truths in Nature, Mathematically demonstrated. See Richard D. Poll, "Joseph Smith and the Presidency, 1844," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 3 (Autumn 1968), 19 n. 19.
  12. Lyndon W. Cook, "James Arlington Bennet and the Mormons," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 2 (Winter 1979), 247–49.
  13. When Joseph’s personal letters are compared with this letter, one suspects a large contribution by scribe and newspaperman W. W. Phelps.
  14. Alan Goff, "Dan Vogel's Family Romance and the Book of Mormon as Smith Family Allegory (Review of: Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 321–400. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  15. 15.0 15.1 Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945). ( Index of claims )
  16. Charles L. Cohen, "No Man Knows My Psychology: Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, and Psychoanalysis," Brigham Young University Studies 44 no. 1, 68.
  17. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 44, note 135. ( Index of claims )
  18. 18.0 18.1 Andrew H. Hedges and Dawson W. Hedges, "No, Dan, That's Still Not History (Review of: Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, by Dan Vogel)," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 205–222. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  19. "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."
  20. 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)
  21. That Orson Pratt (see below) had to preach against this doctrine demonstrates that it had at least some currency. We [citation needed] an example, if possible
  22. [citation needed]
  23. Vern G. Swanson, "The Development of the Concept of a Holy Ghost in Mormon Theology," in Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, Gary James Bergera, ed., (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 97.