Our cynical era is skeptical of “great men.” And we have reason. We’ve learned about the complexities of human psychology, and, perhaps more importantly, we’ve seen too many hypocritical preachers, abusive priests, corrupt politicians and adulterous advocates of family values. An old Anglo-French saying captures the attitude well: “No man,” it says, “is a hero to his valet.” Seen up close, in other words, nobody is truly great or heroic.
This cultural inclination provides a fertile field for the literally thousands of critics who’ve been determined to expose Joseph Smith as either madman or knave or both. Even some Latter-day Saints today are slightly embarrassed by him. “He was a deeply flawed man,” they’ll say, “but God used him despite that.”
Such believers, I’m convinced, concede much more than they should.
Of course Joseph Smith was flawed. Only Jesus wasn’t. But not deeply. He was a good man; we have no cause to be embarrassed by him. According to his own 1838 account, after his first vision he “was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.” But two following sentences are vitally relevant: “In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature.”
What were his offenses? “I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament” (JS-H 1:28).
After years of study, I’m convinced that Joseph’s self-assessment was substantially accurate.
“I honor and revere the name of Joseph Smith,” said Brigham Young, who worked very closely with him. “I delight to hear it; I love it. I love his doctrine. I feel like shouting Hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up. I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth. I am his witness.”
Consider, too, the song lyrics penned by W.W. Phelps, who had also known Joseph very well through good times and bad:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
Praise to his mem’ry, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Plead unto heav’n while the earth lauds his fame.
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.
Millions shall know “Brother Joseph” again.
Mark McConkie’s 2003 book “Remembering Joseph,” which includes a CD-ROM containing more than 2,000 pages of material, offers one excellent way to do so. It expands upon “They Knew the Prophet,” by Hyrum and Helen Mae Andrus, a still-available 1972 collection of personal accounts from more than 100 of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries. Moreover, the continuing publication of his personal papers offers a clear window into the Prophet’s soul; his sincerity and goodness are evident on virtually every page.
The angel Moroni told Joseph “that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (JS-H 1:33). Against all odds, this obscure and uneducated young man — who was murdered by a mob nearly 17 decades ago today — is indeed known worldwide, which suggests that the other part of Moroni’s statement is likely also true: God did indeed call him to the work.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.