How Much Should Joseph Smith’s Life Matter to a Mormon Testimony?

book-of-mormon.jpgFor some context, I’m making my way through a recent Mormon Stories podcast with Kathleen Melonakos on her recently published book, Secret Combinations Evidence of Early Mormon Counterfeiting 1800-1847. I need to re-listen to segments and more importantly, I feel the need to read the book. It’s a pretty devastating criticism of Joseph Smith.

First of all, let me lay out a fairly obvious faithful critique of the book before we start – she has a clear critical bias. In the interview, the author explains both her Mormon roots and her long-ago departure from the faith. She is clearly approaching her research from a critical perspective. This fact doesn’t mean her book isn’t valuable, isn’t worth reading, or doesn’t provide important insights to the early church. However, it may also explain her less than generous interpretations of the cited historical evidence.

The main point of the book is to put the early Mormon church in historical context, but more importantly to find some answers to the fundamental question every critic of the Mormon church seems to want to answer – how did Joseph Smith do it? How did Joseph Smith write the Book of Mormon? How did he get so many people to follow him and to sacrifice so much for his cause? How did he come up with so much theology that extends and expands upon the consensus Protestant Christian position?

The faithful Mormon answer to all of these questions is pretty obvious and easy to summarize in a one hour presentation every Mormon missionary has memorized and gives to an investigator within the first couple of visits. Joseph Smith as a fourteen year old boy was confused by all all of the religious contention happening at the time. He wanted to join a church but couldn’t decide which one. In the midst of the confusion and as a response to reading in James that if “anyone lacks wisdom they should ask of God”, he went out into the grove of trees to do exactly that. In direct answer to his prayer, he saw God and Jesus Christ tell him to join none of the churches. Soon after, visits from angels came, guided him to buried plates where he translated a historical scriptural record through the gift and power of God, the Book of Mormon, a record of the ancient Americans. From there, Joseph organized a church of early believers, recruited others, expanded westward until he was assassinated. Brigham Young led the church to Utah and the rest is history.

I am Mormon now largely because I descended from very early converts to the church, Theodore Turley on my dad’s side, Carl Carlquist  on my Mom’s side among so many others. I inherited this religion, my faith extends back into my ancestry.

Melonakos’ book, however, is pretty devastating if taking at face value. Her answers to the question, how Joseph Smith did it is well basically that he didn’t, at least not all by himself. His theology had early pilgrim roots, much of his theology innovations have their genesis  Dartmouth college of which Hyrum Smith had some connection. Ideas for the Book of Mormon were in the air at time time, pulling from sources like the View of the Hebrews and the Spaulding Manuscripts. Much of this is not new to Melonakos, but her contribution is to find Mormon connection to early counterfeiting that was reasonably common in the area of the time, and that Joseph Smith, with his family, participated in these activities, and that they are at the heart of how Joseph Smith founded the church.

In this view Joseph Smith was a fraud, convinced others, including the three and twelve witnesses included in the Book of Mormon, to go along with that fraud, used Masonic rituals to bind participants to secrecy.

My fundamental issue with this view is that this fraud would have to be powerful enough to inspire countless others through the generations, culminating in the modern, global church with millions of members worldwide, all finding inspiration and strength as members of this deeply American faith.

Elder Holland responds similarly, describing how Hyrum and Joseph took comfort in the book they supposedly made up just moments before their death. Could a book they made up really provide this kind support for so many?

A faithful Mormon response to this type of critique is to outright reject it. The church actually has their own take on early Mormon history, the book entitled Saints, written by scholars employed by the church describing early church history from a decidedly faithful perspective.

What should I do with these competing narratives? I’ve already read what I consider to be among the most important Joseph Smith biographies, Rough Stone Rolling written by the faithful Mormon scholar, Richard Bushman, with his own biases. I’ve also read Mormon Enigma, another really well-researched book with a focus on Emma Smith that corroborates much of Bushman’s book describing the same events through Emma’s eyes.

I think there is value in understanding our early history. I think history can and should increase our faith in God and deepen our appreciation and love for the sacrifices of our forebears. I’m not a descendent of Joseph Smith, but my early ancestors had a deep faith in his message and made deeply significant sacrifices to help build the church he founded.

I don’t think it’s useful to ignore the critics. I think their arguments are worth considering, especially those done in good faith based on careful research. More fundamentally, though, I think Mormonism can and should survive whatever we might discover about Joseph Smith. I don’t believe the church should live or die on the credibility of a single person. There were far too many people involved in the church, past, present and future.

More importantly, I think Mormons should be fearless. Increasingly, every member of the church knows and loves someone who has left the church. I think being willing to have interfaith conversations, conversations between the critic and the believer, conversations in good faith with a willingness to learn from each other, can lead to deeper understanding, wisdom and a better world.