“Tom Brady and Joseph Smith, Lies and Liars”

“Tom Brady and Joseph Smith, Lies and Liars” May 16, 2015


A recent biographer of Brigham Young
Professor John W. Turner


This is probably a fairly representative statement of how not-altogether-unfriendly non-Mormon academics who give Mormonism any serious attention at all view Joseph Smith:




It’s pretty much how they must view him.


Otherwise, logical consistency would require their ceasing to be non-Mormon.


For the record, just so there’s no ambiguity, I don’t believe that Joseph Smith deceived or was deceived on any issue of substantial importance.


At the most basic level, though, my view and Professor Turner’s view are incommensurable.  They’re oil and water.


We can find consensus on what I would regard as peripheral issues in Mormon history (e.g., perhaps on the economics of the Kirtland bank crisis, the genesis of the Missouri troubles, and the details of the westward Mormon migration), but, on the fundamentals, on the truth claims — and, therefore, on the essential character and role of Joseph Smith — we’re worlds apart.


Which is one of the reasons that I’m skeptical about attempts to create a “Mormon studies” choir in which Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints are all singing in perfect harmony.


To be in such perfect harmony would require either that non-Mormons become believers (a consummation devoutly to be wished) or — and this seems to me sadly more likely, for a whole host of reasons — that, to some greater or lesser degree, Mormons become or pretend to be non-believers.


Short of that, the best we can hope for — and I do hope for it — is a culture of civil and mutually respectful exchanges, finding agreement where we can and frankly and openly acknowledging disagreement where we cannot.  We have (as I’ve said for decades) much to learn from and teach to one another.


And we Latter-day Saints (even Latter-day Saint scholars) should not apologize for our belief, nor be embarrassed by it.  We should do our scholarship as rigorously and soundly as we can, and we needn’t be obnoxiously or inappropriately vocal about our faith, but, where it’s relevant, where essential truth-claims are involved, we shouldn’t try to conceal the fact that we hold Joseph Smith to be a genuine modern prophet of God.


Many years ago, when I was just beginning my doctoral program, I wrote a paper on the early narratives of Muhammad’s prophetic call.  The professor for whom I wrote it (an Isma‘ili Muslim, originally from India, whose own religious views were never clear to me but who would ultimately serve as my dissertation chairman) caught me a few days after I’d submitted my first draft.  He liked the paper, but thought it would be better if I were to do a comparative study, dealing with both Muhammad and some other religious founder.


I had only a few days before the final draft was due, and plenty of other things on my table, so, in some desperation and with some trepidation, I turned to the religious founder I knew best and for whom the sources and studies were most accessible: Joseph Smith.  (I thought about choosing Jesus as the other prophet, but judged that the potential problems there were enormous.)


I was still feeling my way there with my likely graduate advisor and with the overall program — it was my very first quarter — so I approached the task carefully and in what I judged to be the neutral and objective tone appropriate to writing in a secular graduate school.


I heard nothing from him for weeks.  I got an A in the class, but I never received the paper back, and I assumed that the matter was closed.


Then, one day, he caught me walking across campus.  He had been intrigued, he said, by my discussion of Joseph Smith.  So intrigued, as a matter of fact, that he had picked up Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and browsed in it for a while.  He agreed with her and with me, he said, that Joseph was a fraud.


I felt profoundly awkward.


He went on in that vein for a while, and we talked about various aspects of the paper, about Muhammad, about Joseph — until, finally, I said “You should know that I’m actually a believer in Joseph Smith as a prophet.”  “Oh,” he responded.  And we moved on.


I learned a lesson from that encounter.  I felt that I had carried the pretense of neutrality perhaps a bit too far.  Had I really suggested that I believed Joseph to be a deceiver?


There was no need, of course, to bear my testimony in an academic paper.  That would have been quite out of place.  But I shouldn’t have feared disapproval so much that I actually came across as an unbeliever.


I encountered no problems from my professor then or afterward for having acknowledged my religious commitment.  And, in fact, although I didn’t exactly wear my Mormonism on my sleeve thereafter, I never bothered to hide it, either.  And yet my time in graduate school and my relationships with the faculty and my department were very positive.  (In the end, my professors nominated me for awards from both the graduate school and the Middle East Studies Association, and I won them.)


There’s plenty of room in mainstream academic work for scholarship that veers into neither loud zealotry and apologetics, on the one hand, nor feigned or real unbelief, on the other.


Believing Latter-day Saints needn’t chuck their most basic beliefs at the door of academia in order to gain admission.



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