What can I make of Joseph Smith? Which version of him do I believe in?
There's the pious, faith-inspiring version I received as a child, when I was ready to believe whatever loving parents and benevolent Sunday School teachers taught me... I suppose even if they had known about secret marriages to fourteen-year-olds, and Emma Smith's broken heart, they wouldn't have considered such things proper to bestow on a young mind eager to absorb faith. (How sad that as I grew into an adult, it was made clear I was expected to remain perpetually in that infantile state of faith!)
There's the cynical, anti-Mormon version I finally gave its fair hearing as an adult, the one that eliminates nuance and human complexity by making Joseph a fraud and a charlatan, plain and simple. And yet how does a man painted in such unstinting shades of black willingly turn back, cross the Mississippi, and ride the lonely miles to Carthage jail where they murdered him?
Then there's the liberal Mormon version, the one castigated by the church, the one more than a few brave scholars have been martyred for. The one that accepts Joseph the noble martyr, the kind father, the laughing prophet, the innovative theologian, the man of the people, the man who abhorred violence, all in the same mix with the theocratic tyrant, the secret lover of too many wives, the man who consented to murder and war, and the man who built two cities from the ground up, and then watched them crumble from the dissention he himself sowed. A version, they insist, that, despite the contraditions, is woven together by a visionary kind of integrity. And yet what am I supposed to make of the Book of Mormon?
For me, the central problem of the Book of Mormon is not necessarily that it cannot possibly be true. There is of course not a shred of actual history in it, though it claims to be a thousand-year history. Without getting into all the improbabilities, into all the archaeological camels that need swallowing and the ethnological gnats that need straining, the Book of Mormon can at best not be what it claims to be. But even if it is fiction, as every novelist knows, fiction can sometimes be truer than fact.
The problem with the Book of Mormon is what Joseph claims of its origins. If Joseph had claimed that he "channeled" the Book of Mormon from the divine ether or that it had been dictated to him by the Angel Moroni (why couldn't it have?); if he had translated it as he translated the Book of Abraham, by calling down the inspiratory powers of Heaven to help him decipher some common old papyrus copy of the Book of the Dead, only later to discover that his "translation" had nothing to do with the actual text in the scrolls; it would be easier for me to believe that Joseph believed in himself, and I still might be able to respect the divinity shining through such bold imaginativeness.
But that is not how the Book of Mormon purports to have come into being.
Why would Joseph tell us there were golden plates, when simple logic dictates that there were none? All the carnival antics, allowing people to touch the plates under a cloth and not see them, allowing people to heft the plates in a box but not open it, claiming they were hidden in places they never were, publishing testimonies of eleven special hand-picked witnesses, all of that only underlines the crudeness of the lie. And if there was one lie he never needed to tell, it was that one. His followers would have been just as content to follow if the words had come from thin air; they didn't need golden plates which they never saw anyway in order to believe.
The liberal version of Joseph admits that he told many lies. He lied about polygamy for thirteen years. He lied about polygamy especially to the one person whom he should have been brutally truthful about it: his wife Emma. And he kept many other secrets, secrets that also all demanded their own sets of lies: secret assassins, secret governments, secret monarchy, secret police. But these were all lies that, as heinous as we may judge them, served a purpose. And they were lies that might never have been necessary if Joseph had not lived in an age of such barbaric violence. In an age like our age. If we grant that Joseph really believed God had commanded him to take plural wives, one could argue that these lies did not necessarily make Joseph a liar. Mike Quinn calls this "theocratic ethics."
But what do we make of a lie that serves no purpose? That was not needed? A man who lies because he fears that his wife will leave him, or a man who lies because he fears being killed by other men, we might still be able to trust when the context is changed, when we know he has no reason to lie. But a man who lies without purpose, we might never trust.
Is it possible that the golden plates actually existed? Could there really have been some mysterious set of artifacts that for reasons beyond me Joseph was compelled to hide forever rather than to donate to the world by surrendering them to a museum? Or can it really be that there is some angelic agency that has "hid them up" till the end of the world? But if that was so, then the product of that angelic agency -- the Book of Mormon -- must be what it claims to be. And if I have to believe that, then I have to throw out archaeology, throw out history, and I also have to believe that I have no capacity to discern fact from fantasy, and it doesn't matter what I believe or what I think any more anyway.
Don't quote those weary soliloquies about the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of God. I'm quoting them already to myself; I learned them from Joseph. But by God, holy texts have contexts, they have histories, they have embodiments and they have origins. And this holy text, as best I can tell, seems to have a cradle woven from lies. This is a problem for me.
And yet the sheer, maddening implausibility of the Book of Mormon and everything associated with its origins seems so odd, so strange in contrast with everything this man went on to build after that, based on it as his foundation. A world religion. He can't just have been a carnival trickster. Can he?
How do I judge this prophet? What do I make of such a man? I still don't know. But Joseph said it himself, or God through Joseph, have it whichever way you like: "Study it out in your mind..."