Question: Is the quote of Joseph Smith's "boasting" of keeping the Church intact accurate?

Table of Contents

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. "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
  3. 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