Joseph Smith is a complicated personality to explain. Despite numerous inconsistencies, the failure to identify definite ulterior motives for his claims and actions causes many Mormons to accept Joseph Smith’s account of his own life without question. After all, why would somebody lie about being visited by an angel, or finding and translating a buried testament of Jesus Christ? On the surface, these claims can seem too fantastic to be made up, and if critics are unable to convincingly present an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith, then the Mormon will never abandon the official church version (even when they know that to be not exactly historically accurate).
My own stance on explaining the complexity of Joseph Smith’s personality is the same as my view on the Book of Mormon itself. I only need to present evidence of plagiarism or source material that would be unavailable to the book’s purported authors to disprove the Book of Mormon’s authorship claims, I do not have to be able to explain in every minute detail how Joseph Smith came across his source materials and authored his fiction. Similarly, embarrassments like the Book of Abraham caught Joseph Smith red-handed in his lies, I don’t need to psychoanalyze him to know that this is deception. Questions of “how” and “why” are irrelevant or secondary at most, all that really needs to be demonstrated is that the book and its author are frauds.
For instance, one likely source for the Book of Mormon that I recently stumbled upon is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. This text is a pseudepigrapha of undetermined Judeo-Christian origin probably finalized in the 2nd century of the Christian Era. Scholars are undecided on whether it was a Christian document or a Jewish document with later Christian interpolations, but all agree it is a forgery. Possible influence on the Book of Mormon is loose, but its structure of the Patriarchs writing their testimony on their deathbeds is eerily similar to the last entries in the small plates of Nephi. Some Mormon apologists have even attempted to cite similarities between the two as proof that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, apparently oblivious that this argument is essentially saying the Book of Mormon must be real because it resembles other known forgeries. Of course, the standard Mormon response is to say that even though the Testaments were first translated into English in the 1820’s, Joseph Smith would have been unlikely to have had access to that information. I counter that it’s impossible to conclude to any degree of certainty whether Joseph Smith could not have known something, but as long as it was a fact published within his lifetime, then it’s not impossible for him to have had some direct or indirect exposure to it.
I admit I can’t prove any solid ties to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Mormon, but I bring it up to point out the flip side of the Mormon defense of Joseph Smith. Why did this author and others in antiquity and throughout history write books and then attribute them to Biblical figures? If an inability to explain why Smith would lie forces us to accept his word, then wouldn’t it force us to accept every other pseudepigrapha as well? I doubt I can fully explain the motivations behind Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad either. But if a Mormon is to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, then they must be willing to give these other false teachers the benefit as well, or prove without a doubt their falsity.
The Mormon resistance to admitting Joseph Smith as a fake is usually because they could only envision him in that role as a deliberate liar with evil intentions. This is an unrealistic view that really isn’t typical of the false prophets that have walked the earth; the reality is that most of them have been psychologically complicated personalities known as pious frauds, not very different from Joseph Smith’s profile. My theory is that self-proclaimed prophets–especially those closely tied to an existing religious tradition–emerge more out of a desire for reform than to deceive; the deception is merely an unavoidable side-effect of their reform methods. Perhaps out of desperation when traditional reform methods have failed, such as the Bab’s frustration with the state of Islam in Iran.
While religions can often be reformed through conventional means, they also demonstrate a unique phenomenon of charismatic reform. An example of conventional reform is the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther. His 95 Thesis were not intended as a new revelation or scripture, but rather as logical reasoning from within the framework of the accepted canon. The resulting doctrine of sola scriptura is the apotheosis of rational reform, being a wholesale rejection of arbitrary authority like personal revelation. On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation exemplified the opposite, weighing its claims, dogmas, and creeds on the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy, an office considered to be infallible by its followers. While conventional reform is based on logic and reasoning accessible to any human being, charismatic reform is by fiat, and available to only a select body or individuals. Conventional reform tactics are the prevailing trend in Western civilization, even permeating the secular arena, such as in the way Americans interpret and amend our own Constitution.
While Catholicism embraced charismatic reformists, other religions have built-in defenses against it. Islam, for instance, strictly prohibits its adherents from claiming any divine revelation after the time of Muhammad. Although they are often far from rational, juristic rulings or fatwas are really the only acceptable means of advancement available to Muslims. Conventional reform in Islam, however, has been stunted due to the fact that Muslims consider these majority rulings to be infallible, and therefore irreversible. Thus after a millennium, Islam was left behind by the modern world, and could advance no further. But out of the school of one theological reformer Shayk Ahmad would come the Bab, who would break the boundaries his predecessors could not, simply by declaring himself a new prophet. Overnight, theological innovation and social progress heretofore undreamed of in the Muslim world was effected. The Bab’s movement would go through a succession crisis after his death, but would emerge as the Baha’i Faith and commence a new wave of women’s rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance. Almost. While charismatic reform can be a shortcut to progress, its fatal flaw is that it can usually go no further than the most advanced point of its prophet. Although Baha’i views on gender equality surpassed those of Muhammad, yet Baha’i women are forever prevented from serving in the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, just because Baha’u’llah failed to envision society becoming even more egalitarian than his own views. Other rulings, like his ban on homosexuality, have been a legacy of frustration to dissenting Baha’is who could only hope for another charismatic reform after 1,000 years (the soonest that Bahai’s believe a new Manifestation of God would be revealed).
Returning to the subject of Joseph Smith, it must be pointed out that his theology developed in a Post-Revolutionary American Protestant climate that, while receptive to conventional reforms, frustrated many in its slow progress towards equality, especially in the recent failure to outlaw slavery in the Constitution. Abolitionists were just one of many groups anticipating an overnight advancement. While Mormonism has earned a reputation for its racist history, Joseph Smith is often unfairly castigated for views held by his successors, when in reality his own opinions were radically progressive for the pre-Civil War period. I would go so far as to argue that Smith was assassinated not because he was a prophet, but because he was a pro-abolition prophet. Following the LDS succession crisis, however, the church would be grounded in the racial doctrines of Brigham Young until cancelled out by another revelation in 1978. Just as Baha’i gender equality remained locked in the revelations of the 19th century, so the LDS church was unable to reform itself through conventional means. Of course, since Mormons didn’t have the impediment of having to wait another 1,000 years for a new prophet, there’s really no excuse for their lack of progress.
As for theological reforms, the Book of Mormon was not so much an innovation as it was an affirmation of folk-American Christian beliefs. Smith sided with Protestants on infant baptism and, although he would later recant and try to edit it, provided proof-texts for a flawed Trinitarianism in his first edition. Ultimately, what we see is Joseph Smith attempting to circumvent the debate of conventional reform under the authority of a new divine revelation. Since the Book of Mormon was the only LDS scripture in print at the time, we could reasonably speculate that Smith could have rationalized it as a necessary fraud if he thought he was merely resolving theological questions in favor of what he believed were in line with God’s views. But as we’ve already seen, forging sacred texts to settle theological disputes is hardly a new development in history.