Question: Was Joseph Smith 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]

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.