z–Joseph Smith, Sin, and Magic

Joseph Smith was accused of many sins, crimes, and otherwise reprehensible behaviors. If this web site were about him, we might delve into these accusations, their merits, and their implications. But it isn’t. It’s about the scripture he claimed to have revealed. Our concern is not about the perfection of Joseph Smith (as if that mattered–we worship God, not Joseph Smith), nor about the seriousness of his individual sins (Christ is the Eternal Judge), but about the origin and authenticity of the Book of Mormon. For the purposes of this web site, our only concern is this: Even if some (or all) of these accusations against Joseph Smith were true, would that fact nullify the claim that the Book of Mormon is ancient scripture?

If the Book of Mormon is ancient scripture, then Joseph Smith, as the person who revealed it, was, by definition, a prophet or seer, even if he was not always the angel we would like him to have been. The Bible gives us one principal test for determining whether someone is a prophet (Matthew 7:16): “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” The Book of Mormon was Joseph Smith’s fruit. We are to Judge him by it, not it by him.

But we can also look at this another way. We can look at examples of ancient prophets, especially those who produced scripture. Were they free from sin and accusation of reproachable behavior?

Let’s start with Abraham, the father of Judeo Christian religion. He held slaves, took one as a polygamous wife, and then expelled her and her child into the desert. He lied about his first wife to protect her and his own skin. The subsequent patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, followed Abraham’s example of deception (Isaac with Abimelech, and Jacob with his father and his brother). Jacob’s efforts to obtain more cattle from Laban could be seen as motivated by greed and enabled by magic.

Moses, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, killed a man, had his people steal from the Egyptians, perpetuated violence against other cultures, and was a polygamist. One of his marriages (to the Cushite woman) was considered scandalous by those closest to him. Some of these actions were, according to scripture, commanded by God, and so not considered sin by believers. The same could perhaps be said for some of the actions of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Nevertheless, they are seen as deplorable by unbelievers, and that is an important point. On another occasion, Moses sinned so seriously that God forbade him to enter the Promised Land. Yet, despite all this scandal and sin, Moses is credited with the Pentateuch, the core of Judeo Christian scripture.

David was guilty of adultery and murder yet produced psalms that were quoted even by Christ as evidence for his own divinity and as his last words on the cross.

Paul had a violent past and was known for boasting and contention yet is responsible for much of the New Testament.

Joseph Smith was aware of his sins and of the unrealistic expectations of others.

I … went over to the store [in Nauvoo, Illinois], where a number of brethren and sisters were assembled, who had arrived this morning from the neighborhood of New York. … I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities. [1]

I was this morning introduced to a man from the east. After hearing my name, he remarked that I was nothing but a man, indicating by this expression, that he had supposed that a person to whom the Lord should see fit to reveal His will, must be something more than a man. He seemed to have forgotten the saying that fell from the lips of St. James, that [Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are… [2]

Joseph Smith has also been accused of dabbling in magic. As a youth, he believed in and experimented with some folk practices that were not unusual among the rural and uneducated of his day. These were not generally considered by those who practiced them to be cultish, occult, demonic, or even magic. They were seen as spiritual or natural and consistent with their Christian beliefs in dreams, visions, and prophecy. 

It may have been because he believed in angels and hidden treasures that he was able to have his visions and eventually receive the plates (Doctrine and Covenants 17:5).

One of these practices was the use of divining or dowsing rods, which are still frequently used in America today, particularly among the rural and less educated, for finding water and minerals.

Another was the use of stones to find lost objects or buried treasure. Joseph Smith commented on his early employment as a treasure hunter:

“Was not Joseph Smith a money digger?” Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it. [3]

Moses (Exodus 4:20-21; 9:23; 10:23; 14:16; 17:9; Numbers 20:11) and Aaron (Exodus 7:17; 8:5,16-17; Numbers 17:8-10) both apparently used rods in supernatural activities. The Biblical Urim and Thummim was most likely a “magic” stone or stones.[4] Jesus himself was accused of working by the power of the Devil. One person’s magic is another person’s miracle.

Joseph Smith’s interest and belief in rods and stones may have made it possible for him to have the faith necessary to receive revelations through the Nephite interpeters and his seer stone.[5] Spiritual communication can be accomplished through various means, but does require faith. Joseph’s upbringing instilled in him the belief that such communication was possible. His earlier reported ability to see lost objects became the gift of a seer to see translations of ancient scripture. [6] The texts Joseph Smith brought to light have value of their own, independent of any person.

Our scriptures came through sinners. God uses people to advance his purposes despite their sins. Not only was Joseph Smith, like other prophets, a sinner; he was also uneducated and fallible. Unlike some other Christian traditions, Mormonism does not (officially, at least), consider prophets to be saintly or infallible. Let’s judge the Book of Mormon, and let God judge Joseph Smith.

NOTES

1. History of the Church, 5:181; paragraph divisions altered; from a Joseph Smith journal entry, Oct. 29, 1842, Nauvoo, Illinois.

2. History of the Church, 2:302; from a Joseph Smith journal entry, Nov. 6, 1835, Kirtland, Ohio.

3. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 120.

4. Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997).

5. Mosiah 8:18; Bushman, Richard L. 2005. Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 72.

6. Mosiah 8:16-17.

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