As an uneducated farm boy claiming to see God the Father, Jesus Christ, and various angels, Joseph Smith also claimed to translate an ancient record and receive modern revelation. Experiencing sorrow and failure as well as joy and success in his abbreviated life, he was eventually killed by a mob for his beliefs. Can someone be both very human and also a mouthpiece for God?
This is the fourth episode in a series of posts supporting the testimonies of all the various witnesses to the Book of Mormon. This episode focuses on the experiences of Joseph Smith as a prophet and as a man. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Undaunted Witnesses Episode 4: Joseph Smith: Man, Prophet—or Both?
Emma: Why is this happening, Joseph?
Joseph: I don’t know. I’m not sure I understand anything right now.
Emma: Can’t you do something?
Joseph: What? What would you have me do?
Emma: Can’t you heal him/ Can’t you raise him from the dead, Joseph?
Joseph: No, Emma. It doesn’t happen that way. I can’t just reach out my hand and raise the dead.
Emma: Peter did it.
Joseph: I’m no Peter.
Emma: But you’re a prophet. Did you not see God? Did he not speak to you?
Joseph: Yes, He did. But he doesn’t speak to me now.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And back with us today we have Dr. Gerrit Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.
I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie Witnesses. That experience was both fascinating and enlightening, but it left me with a lot of questions. And that is why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me.
Thanks for being here.
Gerrit Dirkmaat: Excited to be here.
CBF: As we look at prophets today, and leaders today, we can see that they have shortcomings, and they’re not perfect people. But for some reason, Joseph Smith has been heralded as this PERFECT PROPHET, which we know he wasn’t. But why do you think that’s the case, and why is that damaging for us to have that belief?
GD: It’s a very natural response to: Knowing that the reason why what I believe is SO different than the rest of the Christian world is the revelations that come through Joseph Smith. You’re right, we can get to the point where we start to think of prophets as almost superhuman people, how will they ever make ANY mistake. And then if we find out they made any at all — ‘What do you mean Joseph Smith was angry?! How could he ever possibly be angry?’
CBF: Right — it can totally derail people.
GD: ‘My thought in my mind is that Joseph was never angry.’ Then you haven’t really read a lot of what Joseph Smith said and did. So, I think it’s important that we allow for the fact that prophets past, prophets present, they’re men. They are at least like us in the fact that we are all sinners, and we all fall short of the glory of God, and that without some kindness and some grace on our part, we can always find something negative about them.
You know, Joseph Smith himself, will say, ‘I never said I was perfect, but there’s no error in the revelations which I’ve given to you.’
Joseph is pretty up-front with people in his time, that he has faults, that he is not perfect, and the problem is as soon as he said that people were like, "He doesn’t seem to be perfect.’ They would still want him to be perfect and then be angry if he wasn’t. You know, Joseph is someone who makes mistakes, but he’s also someone who very quickly recognizes his mistakes and asks God to forgive him. Which is hopefully what we can all aspire to do.
So I think that Latter-day Saints should welcome the fact that the leaders of their church are struggling through the difficulties and questions of life and this mortality the same way that they are, that God has given them a special calling, that allows them to receive revelation for the Church, but that’s not the same thing as knowing every single thing, and we have to give them that grace.
CBF: I love that. I think a lot of times we tend to, almost, idolize the prophets, current and past, and I think that’s probably not beneficial for anybody to think, ‘Oh, well they are such a righteous being that nothing they ever do is going to be wrong. I think it’s much more helpful, for me at least, to think of them as humans who can make the same mistakes, and can receive the same personal revelation that you and I can receive. That’s very good to learn about Joseph, and the things that he did in history.
GD: And that way you know you can, it’s easier to relate to someone like that. Look, the first years of Joseph Smith are not expressions of how perfect he is. I mean, the whole reason he’s praying in the first place to have the angel Moroni appear to him is because he feels the weight of sin. He’s seen God and Jesus, and yet he still a teenager, right? And so he has that weight of sin on him, and he’s praying again for forgiveness when the angel comes. And here the angel shows him in vision where the plates are, tells him how important this is. Joseph goes out to find them. That angel’s appeared 3 times in one night, once the next day. The angel is there AGAIN when he goes to get the plates. Even with all of that, Joseph’s first thought when he sees the plates is, ‘We’re gonna be rich!’ I mean, the gold, that it takes him YEARS, it takes him FOUR years to fully overcome that natural man, four years and his marriage to Emma, by the way. Because he doesn’t seem to get it right UNTIL —
CBF: Yay, Emma!
GD: Once he marries Emma, it seems FINALLY he’s able to get past that block, but really these are years of failure. How else could you look at them? He’s supposed to be able to get the plates, but he can’t. That’s a lot more true of all of our lives than I think we want to admit.
GD: That all of us tend to judge other people, caricature them, by their worst day. We take whatever the worst thing that’s ever happened to them and we say, ‘That’s who that person is.’
But conversely, when we’re talking about ourselves, we actually all hope that everyone judges us by our best day. I don’t want you to judge me by who I was when I was seventeen, hopefully you’ll do it with who I am now. And so we need to afford people in the past that grace, that ability to grow.
CBF: Absolutely, thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.