Joseph Smith, Prior Experience, and Personal Trust


A modern portrait of Joseph Smith, Jr.


Two or three weeks ago, I posted a little entry entitled “Books to Build Faith,” in which I recommended four books as a kind of “basic  packet” for people struggling with their testimonies, and I explained that I thought it important to strengthen faith as well as to fend off attacks, criticisms, or doubts.


Let me explain a little bit of what I have in mind:


Suppose that, one day, you hear a shockingly negative report about someone.  What effect will the report have upon your opinion of that person?


Phrased in such a way, the question is essentially unanswerable.  Why?  Because it matters very, very much whether you’ve had any other prior experience with or knowledge about the person in question, and, if so, what kind of experience or knowledge that was.


Suppose that this report is the first thing you’ve ever heard about him.  In that case, the report will almost inevitably color your opinion of him in a fundamental way because it’s the only “color” you have for him, the only information that you possess about him.  It represents one hundred percent, or close to a hundred percent, of your total information about the person, and, obviously, will loom large in your judgment.


Suppose, as an alternative scenario, that you’ve known him to be a bad sort for a very long time.  You’re not surprised to hear this latest account, and it fits right into the picture of him that you’ve had in your mind for years.  It’s not going to take a lot of additional evidence to persuade you that the new report is true.  The report doesn’t fundamentally transform your opinion of the person because it represents only, say, one percent or even 0.0001% of your total “picture ” of him.  But, because it’s consistent with what you already thought, it does reinforce your pre-existing opinion.  And you’re strongly disposed to accept it, and to take it at the worst.


Now suppose, though, that this person has, instead, been a friend of yours for decades.  You’ve always known him to be good, honorable, reliable, and kind.  The report that you’ve just heard about him doesn’t fit with the man you know, doesn’t seem consistent with his character as you’ve observed it over the years.  You don’t necessarily pronounce the report a lie, but you’re certainly more inclined to withhold judgment, to give him the benefit of the doubt, to postpone your verdict until you can get his side of the story.  It’s going to take quite a bit of solid evidence to persuade you to revise your long-standing opinion of your friend.  Why?  Because this account provides a relatively small portion of your view of him — perhaps, say, just a single percent or even only o.ooo1% of it.  You may even decide to go forward as before, trusting that the report is merely an anomalous blip.  Perhaps a definitive resolution will come soon.  Perhaps it won’t.  But, if you choose this course, you suspend judgment.  You simply exercise faith and move on.


Now, I think that this parable, if you will, can be applied to both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.


If someone runs into an argument against the Book of Mormon, the weight that she is going to give to that argument will depend, to a significant degree, upon her general evaluation of the Book of Mormon.  If she’s studied it and found it rich with spiritual treasures, she’ll be more inclined to minimize the argument’s force than if she doesn’t know the Book of Mormon very well and doesn’t value it, let alone if she already holds the book in contempt or derision.  But she will also be more resistant to this argument against the Book of Mormon, in my view, if, having read Richard Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, she is persuaded that the Witnesses were telling the truth about the plates and the angel and the confirming voice of God.  And, likewise, if she’s read Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon and is convinced that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni were distinct historical individuals, it’s going to be much more difficult for her to be won over to the view that Joseph Smith just made it up.


In a similar fashion, imagine that a Church member is confronted by claims about Joseph Smith and early Mormon plural marriage that disturb him.  (This rather murky topic is, perhaps, the single most difficult, most challenging, Latter-day Saint historical issue.)


There are some excellent scholarly resources on the question — including Gregory L. Smith’s review “George Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy,” in the now defunct FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 37-123 (still available online at, and the anthology, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, entitled The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy.  (I find three essays in the book — Don Bradley, “Mormon Polygamy before Nauvoo? The Relationship of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger”; Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of ‘Polyandry,’”; and Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context” — especially useful.)  A second such anthology is now being prepared for publication by Bringhurst and Foster.  And, most recently, the long-awaited three-volume study by Brian C. Hales of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy has finally appeared.  (I confess that I haven’t yet had time to read it.)


But the nature of the sources is such that it probably isn’t enough merely to fight a rearguard action on this issue — particularly in our society, which tends, for very good reason, to be deeply cynical about sexual matters.  We’ve seen far too many philandering preachers, far too many hypocritical “family values” politicians.  What needs to be done is to examine carefully the question of Joseph Smith’s general character.  Is he the kind of man who, when difficult and seemingly irresolvable issues arise, should be given the benefit of the doubt?


Mark McConkie’s impressive collection of eyewitness testimonials (Remembering Joseph) argues powerfully that he was a good, honorable, reliable, and kind man whose character does, indeed, merit that kind of trust.  And John Welch’s anthology of articles (Opening the Heavens), along with the Anderson and Hardy books, supplies strong evidence that he did genuinely receive divine revelation.



  • RaymondSwenson

    I have been reading books about Joseph Smith for most of my 63 years. As an attorney and a military officer, a missionary and adjunct professor, I have had occasion to deal with the full spectrum of people, from the best to the worst. I was in law school with Ted Bundy the serial killer. I also served as a missionary with some of the people I most admire.

    When I consider Joseph Smith in comparison with the people I have known in my life, I find him to be a person of integrity and unselfishness, who clearly impressed a lot of really outstanding people who carried the torch after he was martyred. What he accomplished in only fifteen years is incredible. If he had wanted power and wealth, he could have easily achieved it within the context of the utterly conventional religions of his day. Despite his growing following, he was never wealthy. He repeatedly suffered physically at the hands of people who resented his simple testimony of what he had witnessed. I am impressed by how many of his revelatory experiences were shared with others. We have so many details of his personal correspondence and conversations that confirm his good character, while the critics depict him in terms of caricature and stereotypes, asserting they can read his mind from a hundred years away, a dubious proposition that undercuts their credibility. The critics fail most crucially in explaining how a charlatan could produce the deeply spiritual and bracing teachings in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, and then be willing to die rather than deny their truth. The fact that Joseph has such rotten enemies highly commends him in my view.

    • DanielPeterson

      An excellent comment.

  • John P

    Thanks for the link to Greg Smith’s review. I had wondered what to make of Wikipedia’s long list of wives compared to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism only mentioning Fanny Alger, notwithstanding Eliza R. Snow being a more widely known example. Those of us who are familiar with the warm account of Brigham Young’s wives happily living together in the Lion House like sisters can feel good about Biblical and Latter-day doctrines. But where it grows murky for me is how Joseph could have been sealed to married women. Perhaps some were not in good marriages, but some were with wives of close friends. Any insights on this would be appreciated.

    • oldsgm

      Don’t confuse the idea of being “sealed” with being married. In my reading, I found that sometimes a wife would ask to be “sealed” to the prophet while still being married to someone else due to her perception that her husband wasn’t as worthy as the prophet. It did not confer any marital (ie sexual) rights and was understood that the sealing was for the life hereafter, not the current one. There are several articles in the Maxwell Institute that cover the issue much better than I can. In fact, there were so many women that wanted to be sealed to the Prophet after his death that the Church had to put in place a policy that no further sealings to the prophet would be allowed.

      • John P

        Interesting thought, though I would think it more appropriate that these kinds of issues be sorted out after Judgement Day when the woman would be free to seek a better spouse.

    • DanielPeterson

      Brian Hales’s article in the Bringhurst and Foster book (mentioned in the blog entry above) is the best treatment of the subject that I know — although I haven’t yet Brian’s new three-volume study.

      • John P

        Thanks. I see now that the title of his article specifically addresses that issue.

  • ClintonKing

    For me, a fundamental question is the following: If Joseph Smith isn’t a prophet of God, then why did God tell me he was?