“And yet Joseph Smith was plainly a liar,” informs Lawrence Wright in his best-selling Going Clear. In an epilogue, Wright compares Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to the founding prophet of Mormonism. As evidence, Wright points to Smith’s denial of polygamy and his claim that scrolls of Egyptian papyrus contained the writings of the biblical Abraham and Joseph (they were common funerary texts with no connection to the Hebrew Bible).
At least to me, it is one thing to claim that someone lied and another to claim that someone is a liar. A liar is habitually dishonest. He breathes in and lies out, at least much of the time. How many lies must one tell before one is a liar? Presumably the label requires more than the odd fib or two.
In his most recent post, my co-blogger David Swartz observes that in his 1970 gubernatorial campaign, Jimmy Carter smeared his primary opponent as an integrationist and entirely misrepresented his own intentions on race. Is this a singular instance of dishonesty? Or was Carter dishonest?
Or to take a more current example, Tom Brady almost certainly lied when facing questions about the Patriots’ under-inflated footballs. He lied about knowing the locker room attendant in question, and he lied about whether or not he had any inflation preferences. “He is also a liar,” writes Washington Post columnist Adam Kilgore, a sentiment echoed by many other journalists. Is Brady a “liar”? Is lying something he does with regularity? Or backed into a corner, did he fib? Is he a cheater? Or did he just bend the rules in this instance?
It is not uncommon for us to draw sweeping conclusions about the character of individuals based on a single instance, or a handful of instances. Oftentimes, we draw such conclusions about entirely peoples. For example, in his New Testament Epistle to Titus, Paul (issues of authorship are not terribly relevant to this point, you New Testament scholars out there) asserts that “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” Surely people on Crete do not always lie! And did Paul regularly slander Cretans and other peoples?
When considering the integrity of individuals, most of us have different standards for politicians, athletes, and religious leaders (not to mention spouses and friends). We expect politicians to lie and do other unseemly things in order to gain office. Winning election, after all, is the first job of contemporary politicians. Winning reelection is their second. And are we really outraged that Tom Brady might have lied about having cheated? Athletes always look for a competitive edge, sometimes within and sometimes outside of the rules.
What about religious leaders? Sadly, they regularly disappoint our higher expectations. Did Joseph Smith lie about polygamy? Perhaps Smith was so careful with public statements about his multiple marriages as to keep himself technically innocent of explicit dishonesty. Nevertheless, Smith kept the full extent of his polygamy hidden from his first wife Emma, and Latter-day Saint missionaries — or at least those who knew about plural marriage — falsely denied rumors of polygamy. Both Smith and other Mormons had good reason to deny that they taught or practice polygamy, as Smith’s own marriages contributed to his 1844 death.Did Smith lie about the Book of Abraham papyri? Did he know the texts had nothing to do with Abraham? Did he have no idea what the papyri contained? Presumably the hieroglyphics would have been mystifying without divine revelation. Or did he genuinely — if incorrectly — believe that the scrolls contained ancient narratives? Was he sincerely deluded?
On some matters, questions of honesty are easy to set aside. Smith reported many visions of divine beings. Did he just make up stories about them? Or, alternatively, we might presume that he had what we might neutrally term “sensory overrides,” in which he saw things in his mind that were not physically there? Did he sometimes embellish those experiences? Since we cannot peer into Smith’s mind, the authenticity of visions is hard to establish and hard to impugn.
Perhaps the biggest question in terms of Mormonism and Smith’s honesty is the matter of the golden plates, the ancient record of the Nephites and other peoples that Smith reported receiving from an angel in 1827. Unlike visions, as Richard Bushman has well explained, golden plates are physical. They were either there or not there. Many individuals confirmed that Smith had something in his presence that he claimed were the plates. Was this a clever ruse?
Was Joseph Smith a true prophet or a fake, a “liar”? Did Smith sometimes have “religious experiences” and sometimes make things up? Scholars typically bracket such questions. As a historian, I’m far more interested in other matters. Why did thousands of Americans in the 1830s believe Joseph Smith? How did early Mormonism fit into the tapestry of early American religion? What are the cultural antecedents for Smith’s theological and ritual innovations? In the classroom, though, I do not discourage my students from asking questions about honesty or truth because, simply put, those are important questions regardless of the faith tradition under study. For most faith traditions, however, we’re left with an absence of evidence rather than the abundance one encounters with Mormonism.
Was Joseph Smith, as Lawrence Wright claims, a “liar”? Since I’m not a Latter-day Saint, I think at times Smith deceived and perhaps was deceived. But a liar? I don’t like that label for Joseph Smith, any more than I like it when applied to Tom Brady (my wife’s from Boston, after all) or all Cretans. Does it apply to some individuals? Probably. I’m sure some people, and some religious leaders, are congenital liars. A journalist friend of mine once told me that he regularly saw Jim Bakker lie without any apparent hesitation or pangs of conscience.
In most cases, though, calling someone a “liar” sounds a lot like calling that individual a “sinner.” Especially given the remarkable ability we all possess to deceive others and ourselves, I don’t think that’s the most creative or searching way to understand Tom Brady, Jimmy Carter, L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith.