On the 200th anniversary of his birth, Joseph Smith remains an extraordinary figure with the most ordinary of names.
Revered by members of the church he founded, enigmatic to outsiders, Smith is America’s homegrown prophet, a New York farm boy of modest roots whose visions gave birth to one of the world’s fastest-growing religions.
The life of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, has been scrutinized and celebrated in the buildup to the milestone anniversary, which was marked Friday with a televised tribute from Smith’s hometown of Sharon, Vt.
To the world’s 12 million Mormons, Smith was a prophet of God who restored the one true Christian church. Beyond those constants, present-day believers talk about relating on a more personal level to Smith as a persecuted martyr, leadership guru or spiritual seeker.
A growing number of Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, meantime, are moving beyond the two extremes that dominated early portrayals of Smith as either a charlatan huckster of a phony religion or a fault-free superhero idealized by followers.
This more fully realized Joseph Smith was a product of his times and a complex man of human frailties – if not a prophet, non-Mormon scholars say, then a historic religious leader.
“In the church generally, he is a folk hero, kind of larger than life,” said Steven Harper, assistant professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. “Among the more academically inclined Latter-day Saints, there is a more nuanced and more richly human view of Joseph Smith. Both are alive.”
Smith equated to Bible
When talking to fellow church members, Harper often comes across the idealized prophet. His sister, he recalls, was shocked to learn that Smith put on a few pounds later in life.
Harper theorizes that Mormons safeguard Smith’s reputation out of fear of shaking the very foundation of the faith. He compares Mormons’ pure view of Smith to how evangelical Christians value the Bible.
“To find humanness in Joseph Smith would be like finding faults in the Bible,” said Harper, who is among a team of scholars editing Smith’s papers.
Mormons believe God and Jesus appeared to 14-year-old Joseph Smith in a wooded grove near his upstate New York home in 1820. When the boy asked which church he should join, he was told all were false.
Three years later, Smith said the angel Moroni appeared to him and led him to golden plates inscribed with a story of ancient Hebrew people who migrated to the Americas in 600 B.C.
At age 23, with only three years of formal schooling, Smith translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, which includes an account of Jesus appearing in the Americas after his resurrection. Smith organized the church a year later.
Identifying with Smith
The moment Eric Eames heard of Smith’s first vision, he could relate to that 19th-century teen.
“He was a young boy looking to know, ‘What’s the truth within all the chaos?”‘ said Eames, 25, of Highlands Ranch. “He had a great desire to know. I wanted to know too. I wanted to know, ‘Who was God?”‘
Eames was baptized a Mormon in 2001 and recently returned from a two-year mission in northern California.
Another recent convert, 20-year-old Kimberly Romero, said she identifies with Smith the persecuted, the man who was chased from state to state and murdered by an armed mob at age 38 in an Illinois jailhouse.
A cradle Catholic of Mexican descent, Romero befriended a Mormon in California, took a skeptical view of the faith at first but accepted it after she read the Book of Mormon, prayed over it and wept, moved by the spirit.
“In my family, no one is a member,” said Romero, a student at Red Rocks Community College. “I risked being turned away from my family. I risked my friends not wanting to be friends anymore. Just like Joseph Smith, I knew what I saw was true.”
Richard Lyman Bushman, a historian and practicing Mormon, paints a fuller portrait of Smith in his new biography, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” Bushman’s prophet is a man of piety who occasionally exploded in anger, a devoted family man who also took roughly 30 wives through the doctrine of plural marriage, choosing some women already wed to Mormon men.
In an interview, Bushman said he too idealizes Smith. But he said he sees great value in acknowledging that Smith was also a man of struggle.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
“He had personal issues, an incredibly difficult life to live, and if you look at him close up, he’s more like us,” Bushman said. “It’s a relief to many Latter-day Saints to find Joseph Smith was a man. It becomes helpful to know they can struggle to achieve something on a higher plane, and also that they don’t have to attain this sense of perfection we know is just not possible.”
Many Mormons, however, don’t dwell on the more difficult aspects of Smith’s character. Count among them Romero, the recent convert.
“What affects me is the good he did,” she said. “That is what changed my life, not his temper or his wives or whatever.”
Perfection after death
Mark McConkey of Colorado Springs is an attorney, former Mormon stake president and great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, the prophet’s brother. He acknowledges Joseph Smith’s complexity and “mortal moments.” But McConkey said he focuses on Smith’s straightforward and simple aspects.
He singles out Smith’s “principle of love” underlying a key church doctrine, a teaching that is one reason Mormonism remains controversial: the belief that humans can become perfect beings, like God, after death.
Yet McConkey also can put Smith in a contemporary context as a man who turned to others to spread the faith; learned from his successor, Brigham Young, how to organize cities; and taught that believers also could receive revelations.
“Looking at him through the eyes of the present, he was a man who had a marvelous talent for engaging others in the leadership process,” McConkey said.
Bushman says that to non-Mormons, Smith remains as polarizing as ever. The majority opinion is that Smith was a colorful fraud or a fanatic, he said. Some scholars place Smith in a line of American prophetic figures.
“I think that starkness – he’s either this or that – has begun to disappear,” said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar who has studied the faith for 45 years. “A lot of people don’t see him as a prophet but as an important religious leader who started a movement that still has tremendous importance on the religious landscape.”
Era of the supernatural
A more nuanced view also has emerged about more troubling chapters of Smith’s past. Early Smith critics made much of his use of “seer stones” to translate the Book of Mormon and his quests for buried treasure.
Many Mormons long assumed such stories were propaganda from naysayers, said Terryl Givens, a professor at the University of Richmond and author of “The Latter-day Saint Experience in America.” Scholarship confirms the stories but portrays Smith’s behavior not as an oddity but part of the era’s fascination with magic and the supernatural, Givens said.
“The LDS are learning that the context of Joseph’s early life and activities can be revised without it necessarily detracting from the inspiration of his original message,” Givens said.
Dennis Brown, who as a member of the Denver Temple Presidency is one of three men overseeing the Mormon temple in south suburban Denver, said Mormons do not worship Smith but revere him, much like the prophets Abraham and Moses.
A fourth-generation Mormon, Brown has written a presentation, “The Re’sume’ of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Brown broadens the Smith narrative, casting him as a designer of temples, architect of cities, lieutenant general of a militia second in size only to the U.S. military, candidate for the U.S. presidency and father of 11 children, six of whom died in childbirth or infancy.
To Brown, Smith was both brilliant and simple, a poor and persecuted man who overcame it all to introduce a notion of a God that was more personal and less a distant essence in the universe.
“To me,” Brown said, “the more you know about him, the easier it is to believe in him.”