On that possible image of Joseph Smith

On that possible image of Joseph Smith July 24, 2022


James Jordan captures Joseph Smith "backstage"
Joseph Smith (Paul Wuthrich) on the set of the Interpreter Foundation’s Witnesses film project. (Still photograph by James Jordan)


You’ve probably already seen the news regarding the discovery of what may be an authentic daguerreotype image of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  Here’s a basic article about the find that includes an official response on the matter from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:


“Does an image of Joseph Smith exist? What one descendant found in a forgotten family heirloom”


And here’s a short piece about the finding that contains a few details that I hadn’t previously known:


“Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s photo discovered by descendant after nearly 180 years: A great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith Jr. found the Mormon prophet’s photo tucked inside a locket passed down for generations.”


I’ve found responses to the image — which I’m somewhat inclined to regard, tentatively anyway, as authentic — interesting:  Some believers have, I think, been bothered by it, feeling that the face isn’t handsome enough, or looks too old, or somehow (I guess) doesn’t look prophetic or sincere or whatever.  I share none of those concerns.  I can imagine that, by the time he was nearly thirty-nine years old and after he had been subjected to all manner of persecution and stress (especially in an era that lacked modern medicines and health care products), the bloom of youth might have begun to fade.  Moreover, early photographs tended to require a fair amount of time and the people in them almost never (if ever) smile.  I can imagine that daguerreotypes worked somewhat the same way.  Moreover, in an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Community of Christ (aka RLDS) leader and historian Lachlan Mackay quotes Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, as remarking that that a good portrait of her husband “couldn’t be painted because his countenance was changing all the time.”


Some critics have reacted to the discovery by basically saying that all of their own feelings about Joseph — e.g., that he was a fraud, a lecher, a con-man, a pedophile, a tyrant, and a generally unprincipled knave and villain — have been validated by the image.  I confess that I don’t see any of those things, either.  Moreover, it seems to me that such “insights” are pretty difficult to justify on the basis of a single small daguerreotype portrait, even if we assume it to be authentic.  I think, rather, that the image is serving for them as a kind of Rorschach test, and that their responses probably tell us more about them than about the person in the portrait.


One or two of those same critics have used the finding of the daguerreotype as an occasion to renew their derision of the Interpreter Foundation’s theatrical film Witnesses because the apparent image of the nearly forty-year-old Joseph Smith from the locket doesn’t look exactly the way Paul Wuthrich did in portraying Joseph Smith, for our movie, at mostly around the age of twenty-three.  Well, I thought that Paul was really good, and that his appearance was reasonably close to what we know about Joseph’s own looks.  Certainly he bears at least as close a resemblance to the younger Joseph as, say, Christopher Plummer, Alan Cumming, Kenneth Branagh, Dan O’Herlihy, John Lithgow, Bill Murray, David Strathaim, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Robards, Jon Voight, and Edward Herrmann have borne to Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom they have all portrayed on film).


I mentioned, yesterday evening, that Witnesses had just won the 2021 film award of the Association for Mormon Letters (AML).  I don’t make a big deal about such things because (a) we didn’t create the film in order to win awards and (b) I realize that the Latter-day Saint film market and film industry are small, and that even winning such an award still leaves one just a relatively big fish in a very small pond.  Nevertheless, it’s better, in almost every case, to win an award than not to win an award.  And it’s gratifying that Witnesses has garnered not only this award but also the 2021 Best Feature Film award from the LDS Film Festival and a 2021 Telly award.  The statuettes representing the latter two prizes look good on the buffet in our dining room, and — I don’t know one way or the other — perhaps something will eventually arrive from the AML.


Meanwhile, elsewhere, the AML announcement has stirred up the usual suspects.  They’re plainly feeling an urgent need to denigrate Witnesses yet again and to diminish the award.  And they’ve been at this for quite a while now.  During the first couple of years at least after the initial news of our film project, they were certain that Witnesses would never actually be made.  (Some even suggested that I would take the money given by donors for it and use it for personal matters, or that I had already embezzled the donated funds.). Then they were certain that Witnesses would be an amateurish mediocrity — basically a matter of me with an old hand-held movie camera.  When it appeared, they declared it a cinematic  joke and then, eventually, a total flop.  Now, these may seem to be changing positions.  But, properly understood, they’re really not.  These folks are maintaining focus.  They’re keeping their eyes on the prize.  In a world of continual flux and instability, it’s somehow reassuring to know that at least a few things never change.




In our priesthood meeting today, which was devoted to the theme of “A Mighty Change of Heart” — based on a talk by Elder Eduardo Gavarret that was given in the April 2022 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — part of the lesson consisted in discussing our first “spiritual experience,” or (my formulation) the first time that the Gospel really began to mean something to us, personally.  Two people volunteered to share what came to their memories, and then I was volunteered to share what had come to mine.  The first put his earliest such experience at about thirteen or fourteen years of age.  The second, noting the mention of that age and remarking that it was the same age as that of the Prophet Joseph when he saw his First Vision, also said that his first spiritual experience came at about the age of fourteen.  Which was interesting to me, because the experience that I related came at roughly thirteen or fourteen, too.  Probably fourteen.  I wonder if there is some significance in this.  Have others had such experiences at around that age?



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