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The foundation of Joseph Smith

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There's an interesting post at Nine Moons from Annie, a Southern Baptist, that includes this paragraph:

So the question I'm posing is: what would it take for me, a strong Southern Baptist, to be converted into the LDS church? And what would it take for you, a strong Mormon to be converted into the Southern Baptist church?

For herself, she answers that "...I think the first step (in my conversion process at least) would be to believe the big JS was an actual prophet of God, revealing revelations to the world that came directly from the Father Himself." Most of the comments agree. I do too--kinda. But not really. Let me explain:

For those who have just joined us, I'm not a member of the church. Never have been. So I've given lots (and lots and lots and lots) of thought to this question. For me, the question of why even consider the church is ... the Book of Mormon.

I could write quite a few posts on exactly why, but allow me to skip to my conclusion of it: If the Book of Mormon isn't divinely inspired, then it is a very remarkable book. There's enough evidence that I can't dismiss BoM truth claims, but not enough to accept them either. But that's not what this post is about.

Let's say we assume that "The Book of Mormon is True" (with a capital "T"). What does that mean? What conclusions can be drawn from that? It seems to me that we can deduce that "the Lord worked in some way through Joseph Smith to bring the BoM to Earth at that time." Here's where things start to get interesting.

Does this imply that Joseph Smith was a prophet? It seems that it might, but it's not a given. (Part of it, I believe, depends on how we define "Prophet.") However, I'm willing to accept this jump, because the next one is even more interesting: If Smith was a prophet of God (whatever that means) when he translated the Book of Mormon, was Smith always a Prophet? (Or, at least between 1827 and 1844.)

This isn't just idle speculation--I think we have good reason to at least consider the question. In doing so, consider all the high-ranking members of the church that left, especially the Witnesses. Some point out, and rightfully so, that the Book of Mormon witnesses who left never denied their testimony of the Book. This brings up another interesting, related question: why would a man who held/saw/helped scribe/etc. the Book of Mormon plates leave (or give warrant to excommunication) the Church that had the plates as the foundation? Sure, it may have been personal problems that the Witnesses had, but I think it's enough that it should give us pause. I admit ignorance on the finer points of Church history, but it seems to me that, if we need to propose a date between Joesph-as-Prophet and Joesph-as-not-Prophet, 12 July 1843 (or earlier) might be a good candidate.

And then there's the question of succession-- why Brigham Young? Why not Joseph Smith III, Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, Granville Hedrick, etc.? If we assume that the Book of Mormon is true and that Smith was a prophet, must we believe that Young was as well? (I must admit that I am relatively ignorant on Church history, so, perhaps, there's a good and clear answer here.)

Now, I believe it's likely that, if the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph was a Prophet; and if that's true, then it's likely that he was a Prophet to his death; and if that's true, then it's likely (though less so) that Young was as well. However, I do not believe that this is given or necessary, as I (hopefully) have shown above. Other than having the Spirit tell you all this, why should you/I make all these jumps of authority? Or, am I crazy, and there really are no jumps?

18 Responses to “The foundation of Joseph Smith”

  1. Blogger jeff g 

    Great post! Sometimes people think that if the book of mormon is true, then everything necessarily follows from there. Wrong. One guy giving a revelation has never been enough to secure the well-being of any group of people for 175 years in any past situation. How are we any different?

    One thing I will say, however, is that evidence strongly supports the claim that BY was authorized to continue the church and that JT was authorized to succeed him all the way up to the present. The church really does have a good claim to authority.

    But so does the catholic church as well. One man receiving authority and passing it on has never been a safe gaurd against apostasy. It helps, but it is not fool-proof.

    Thus the argument of the RLDS (former so called) and Fundamentalists doesn't really convince me.

  2. Blogger D-Train 

    Nice job, Pris. Here's my take:

    The Book of Mormon radically changes the burden of proof if one takes it to be the word of God. If it is, then Joseph has as much claim to prophetic authority as Isaiah, Ezekiel, or any of the others (presuming you believe in them, of course). The production of a book of sacred scripture is a nearly unparalleled act of prophecy; indeed, it is the essence of prophecy.

    To say that Joseph was a prophet but fell away is tenable, but there isn't much evidence for that, other than the witnesses that you mention. What is also true is that many stayed faithful. I think that the conditions in Ohio, Missouri, and Nauvoo were enough to make any man shake. At least some of these (I'm thinking of John Bennett) were seeking personal power themselves. So there were reasons to question and leave.

    I think it's almost open and shut after Joseph's death. If he fell away, then the whole thing except for whatever was from before he fell away is gone. If not, the authority that he established is correct. The governance of the Quorum of the Twelve in the event of the President's death was and is well established. Is it possible that the Church has fallen away since then? Maybe, but the only evidence that we had from before (the fallings away) haven't really happened in the main leadership.

    For me, the best way to examine the prophetic calling of Joseph is to examine the Book of Mormon (as this is his first verifiable claim) and to examine the doctrines that he taught. Obviously, the guidance of the Spirit is essential here, but if he taught truth, he was a prophet. If he didn't, he wasn't. We don't teach prophetic infallibility (and I've critiqued that notion extensively on this page), but if he was a prophet of God, there'll be a heck of a lot more truth than speculation, especially in his official teachings and revelations (which I think are best found in the Doctrine and Covenants).

  3. Blogger lchan 

    There are a lot of jumps to be made. One thing doesn't necessarily follow the other.

    I think you're right that the biggest question is the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon could be the real deal, and Joseph Smith not. But if the Book of Mormon isn't the real deal, then Joseph Smith can't be.

    And, if the Book of Mormon is legitimate (I'm so tired of the word True), then there is no other church to be part of.

  4. Blogger jeff g 

    Well, it depends on how we define "falling away." Falling away from what? We want to say the truth, but who decides that? The leadership. So is the leadership ever going to fall away from what they have decided is the truth? Of course not.

    What they can fall away from, hoever, is the truth as God decides. Hence the importance of revelatin in the church. But if the time comes when revelation seems to have ceased, look out.

    For reasons such as these I view the BoM and JS as a good start, but it doesn't say much of anything about today. The "foundation" which we need today should be based on whether our leaders today are prophets or not. We need to judge their fruits, fruits which other churches do not lay claim to like building lots of buildings, getting the organization to grow and teaching good things. Every church does this. We need revelations, these are the fruits that matter.

    Of course this is all in addition to the proper authority. We should distinguish, however, between ecclesiastical authority (as found in every church, though not necessarily originating from God) and the authority to speak in the name of the Lord. Thus, we are now back at revelation again.

  5. Anonymous Susan M 

    I think what Ichan means is, you're crazy.

  6. Blogger Rusty 

    Excellent post! It's an interesting idea that if one thing is "true" then the rest follows. I think we say that because it makes sense logically, not necessarily because it makes sense in our heart. Yeah I've got a testimony of Joseph Smith, but my testimony of the Book of Mormon had to come through the Spirit as well. Same as my testimony of a living prophet. Same as every principle which I hold up as Truth. I don't think anyone really gets a testimony of Joseph Smith and like dominoes they get a testimony of everything else, it's a gradual process.

  7. Blogger Katie 

    ------This brings up another interesting, related question: why would a man who held/saw/helped scribe/etc. the Book of Mormon plates leave (or give warrant to excommunication) the Church that had the plates as the foundation?-----


    Why do people who know of the very real dangers of tobacco, continue to smoke?
    Why do we, when we have a choice between going to a movie, and studying for a test the next day (which we NEED to study for) sometimes choose the movie?
    Why do people continue to believe that Saddam had direct links to Al Queda?
    Why do people say they care about the environment but drive SUV’s?

    And on and on. Many of the decisions we make in this life involve some amount of cognitive dissonance. We know one thing to be true, but because of personal interests, pride, pleasure, ect., we choose something else. I have actually always thought that the fact that all the witnesses fell away but none denied the Book of Mormon to be one of the greatest proofs for the church’s truthfulness. If Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet and didn’t translate the BOM and got all these witnesses in on the joke, then the very first thing these guys would do when they decided to leave the church would be to trumpet: “Joseph Smith is a fraud! I never saw the plates! He was copying out of a King James Bible! The Book of Mormon is fake!” And yet no one did, some even reiterating their testimony from their death bed. I am left to acknowledge that they must of saw what they say they did.

    Of course that doesn’t answer whether or not the truthfulness of the BOM means that JS was a prophet. But it would seem to come down to whether of not God has a plan for mankind. If we are to believe that God planned for JS to be a prophet, translate the BOM, but then knew he would fall away, what does that mean for God’s purpose? Why bring forth the BOM if not to make it the center piece of a restored church? What would have been His plan?

  8. Blogger Brent 

    ..from Katie's comments:


    "If Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet and didn’t translate the BOM and got all these witnesses in on the joke..., then the very first thing these guys would do when they decided to leave the church would be to trumpet: “Joseph Smith is a fraud! I never saw the plates!" [and] Why bring forth the BOM if not to make it the center piece of a restored church? What would have been His plan?"


    About being "in on the joke"...it seems we so often focus on the two main foundational pillars (the veracity of the BofM and JS as prophet) that we don't see the full extent of "the joke" and just how impossible it would be to construct such a conspiracy. In his first major work in 20 years directed towards LDS, Stephen R. Covey's "Six Events" lays out the significance of the sequence of restoration events. JS's "conspiracy" would also include "faking" the restoration of:

    1) Aaronic Priesthood
    2) Melchizedek Priesthood
    3) Church Organization
    4) Keys of Salvation
    5) Sealing Power

    The "faking" would include getting lots more folks besides the original B of M witnesses to go along with "the joke". When detractors of the church focus on the B of M and JS, and ignore the other restoration events, they have a relatively easy job of "explaining things away" to those who are willing to give them creedence.

    Just as an added thought, I also think it is significant that although Joseph's wife Emma had a falling out with Brigham Young, she went on to play her part in the Reorganized Church where she continued to embrace the Book of Mormon and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. Seems that she, of all people, would have the best chance of knowing whether Joseph was "faking it" and could have had reasons to "let folks in on the joke" when she saw Brigham leading the Church away to Utah. Of course, if she had aspirations for her sons to lead the church, there would be a motive to keep "the joke" to herself.

  9. Blogger Pris 


    The test for testing the prophetic calling has some good, but I see two problems:

    1) The sticky problem of "what is truth?" Specifically, how can I know it? I'm (obviously) a bit skeptical about knowledge gained from the Spirit--at very least there should be some collaboration. Also, What we've already accepted changes our view of "Truth" i.e. because of our differing religious views, you're (probably) more open to supernatural explanations. In this case, those already accepting JS-always-prophet will have a differing view of what truth is.

    2) Sample sizes. If we hypothesize that JS wasn't always a prophet, then there must be a dividing line. In my post, I thought 12 July 1843 might be an option--that's the official date of the polygamy revelation. (There are problems with choosing this date, but I'll save that for later). So, I can say, "Everything JS wrote/said before 12 July 1843 is valid--he was a prophet. After that date, he was not." Well--the pre-July 1843 writings far outnumber the post-July 1843. The (semi-rhetorical) question is: is there enough to post-July 1843 writing that we can get a good sample of "Truth"?

    2a) This problem is amplified if we assume a gradual loss of prophetic status instead of a brightline break. (This, actually, would be the way I would go. It isn't inconceivable that JS would be tempted by Satan, and that (considering the trickiness of the Devil) he might gradually (and unwittingly) succumb. Just a hypothetical.)

  10. Blogger Pris 

    Jeffrey: From what I've seen, I agree that BY probably had JS's authorization to continue the Church. After BY, I don't think the lineage is called into question. (In a related note, does anyone know when the official authority-passing structure was finalized?)

    Lchan: If the BoM is legit, but the Church (or any that claim that BoM is legit) isn't, would/should you/we still be a part of it? (Assuming we could know.) I'm not sure that we should.

    Susan: Yes, yes I am. Crazy like a fox!

    Katie: I see you point, but I don't think the analogy works. Taking your first example (smoking), I'd point out that there are multiple factors in deciding to smoke. For some people, the pleasure gained from smoking outweighs the dangers. However, applying a version of Pascal's Wager, it seems unlikely (to me) that reasons for leaving the Church (if it's true) do not even come close to outweighing the reasons for staying in. Especially if we believe that these men truly saw/held the plates (arguably having more of witness to truth than any of us will have), then it makes understanding their choice harder. Also, if we think that God chose/sanctioned the witnesses--that adds more questions. (However, if I accept that JS could be tempted by Satan and fall away, I must admit that the possibility is for the Witnesses as well.)

    Katie / Bent: I don't think there was a mass conspiracy--I don't think that there was "the joke." However, let me pose a different scenario: that the only one in on "the joke" was JS. He made a mock up of the plates and that's what the witnesses saw. Add in the power of suggestion, and it's not inconceivable that the witnesses truly believed what the saw was "real." Mass Psychology is not to be dismissed out of hand.

    After that (hypothetically), JS had their trust and confidence, then the Priesthood, organization, keys of salvation, sealing--that wouldn't be that difficult to fake.

    Again, I don't think that any of this happened, but I believe my formulation is more difficult to dismiss than yours (which, I agree, is absurd).

  11. Blogger Michele 

    Well, I'm starting to feel like a celebrity here guys. Coincidental that I found this blog today? Who knows, but there a few things I'd like to say if I could.

    First off, I liked the post and the comments so far, very interesting stuff we're dealing with here. I said that JS would be the main reason for my conversion into the Mormon church and I still hold that to be true. I do admit that perhaps there will be no snowball effect of me believing one thing and then having all the pieces fall into place.

    But I think that JS could have written the BoM and still not have been a prophet of the Lord, in which case, why would I want to believe it? I don't think reading the BoM would tell me if JS was a prophet or not; now I haven't exactly read my way through the entire thing, but from what I know the BoM has many similarities to the Bible, so while it could contain many "truths" it could also just simply be something JS thought up in his head while reading through Biblical passages one night. But if I felt JS to be a true prophet, I would be a whole heck of a lot more willing to believe that he had Divine help in translating ancient golden plates.

    But I also agree that it would be difficult to cover up a consipracy this big, but hey, I don't underestimate what some people can do.

    But I think I could even go so far as to say that if someone believes the BoM to be true, they could still not become Mormon. Why? Well, if we're talking Mr.Smith still being human and being fallible, then someone could basically just pick and choose which scripture book they want to believe. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought almost all of Mormon doctrine and rules came from the D&C and the WoW, and not the BoM. And if this is the case then someone could easily say that JS had Divine help in translating the BoM, but that he didn't receive any other revelations, thus not following anything out of either the D&C or the WoW.

    So, for me, Joseph Smith being a true prophet of the Lord would still be the first indicator I would need to start a conversion into the church. And that would only be determined by some Divine intervention for me.

  12. Blogger jeff g 

    On March 23, 1844 is when Joseph gave what has become known as "the charge". It is from that meeting that the apostles have claimed authority and have followed the same pattern since.

    “Said [Joseph]: … I am constrained to hasten my preparations, and to confer upon the Twelve all the ordinances, keys, covenants, endowments, and sealing ordinances of the priesthood, and so set before them a pattern in all things pertaining to the sanctuary and the endowment therein.

    “Having done this he rejoiced exceedingly; for, said he, the Lord is about to lay the burden on your shoulders and let me rest awhile; and if they kill me, continued he, the kingdom of God will roll on, as I have now finished the work which was laid upon me, by committing to you all things for the building up of the kingdom according to the heavenly vision, and the pattern shown me from heaven.” - Parley P. Pratt

    “And when they [the Twelve] received their endowment, and actually received the keys of the kingdom of God, … he [Joseph] exclaimed, ‘upon your shoulders the kingdom rests, and you must round up your shoulders, and bear it; for I have had to do it until now. But now the responsibility rests upon you. It mattereth not what becomes of me.’ ” - Willford Woodruff

    “Brethren, the Lord bids me hasten the work in which we are engaged. … Some important scene is near to take place. It may be that my enemies will kill me; and in case they should, and the keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this dispensation of the fulness of times. Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church henceforth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you.” - Draft Declaration by 12 Apostles.

    It should also be noted that while the position of President is bestowed according to who has been apostle long enough, the actual authority comes from being ordained Priests and Kings in the temple. This is why Sidney Rigdon was not choosen the lead the church.

  13. Blogger lchan 

    If the BoM is legit and the church isn't? Well, in that case there is no should, I guess.

    I don't know that there is a should, any way you look at it. I think you just choose what you want to believe, what you want to have faith in.

    This sort of talk is interesting, but for me it's not at the heart of what's important. But, I don't really care if Oliver Cowdery really saw the plates. I like what the church is today, but I don't think I'd be a member in Joseph Smith's time.

    I'm more concerned about my belief in God and Christ than I am in Joseph Smith. Because Joseph Smith is only important in his role in bringing people closer to God.

  14. Blogger Geoff J 

    Good questions Pris. In fact it was questions like these that prompted my last post claiming that we all must become (little) prophets, seers, and revelators if we are to have a rock solid spiritual foundation. That means that we need to inquire of the Lord and get answers on all of the most important questions in life. If God does not tell us directly then we remain in a state of hoping/guessing. These spiritual questions are too important to simply hope/guess about though (and that is true no matter what religion a person adheres to). We need to get God to answer out questions on them in no uncertain terms. The problem is that most people don't care enough or don't to put in the effort to get that clear personal revelation. But the again the Lord always defined the diference between his sheep and other when he said (over and over) "My sheep hear my voice".

  15. Anonymous Richard 

    Whole sections plagiarized from the King James Version of the Bible, hundreds of revisions made by LDS church authorities, "white and delightsome," cureloms, curemoms, steel, horses, chariots, submarines, Indians as Hebrews, vanished civilizations, "and it came to pass" ad nauseum, Joseph trying to sell the copyright for cash, modern DNA evidence, whole civilizations vanishing into thin air, a vengeful Jesus, the 116 lost page story, golden plates that weigh hundreds of pounds tucked under his arm, witnesses vouching for the plates with their "spiritual" eyes (!), Joseph's frauds of the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates...and on and on... of course you apologists all see this as evidence of its veracity.

    The guy was an 18th century cross between David Koresh and L. Ron Hubbard.

  16. Blogger D-Train 

    Well, Richard, I don't want to be contentious or anything, but I do want to suggest that your characterization of Joseph Smith as a Koresh-like figure is inaccurate at a level that can only be described as insulting and outrageous. Joseph never committed violence against his followers, never starved them in order to make them more complicit, and never compelled anyone to follow him to heaven or hell. A fraud? Maybe. Koresh? Hardly.

    In terms of the Book of Mormon, there are at least decent explanations for a lot of what you're talking about. Joseph never claimed the KJV words as his own. In fact, the BOM explicitly presents them as quotations. Quotation is not plagiarism. Revisions are part of the fact that people are imperfect and screw up sometimes, inspired or not. It's not clear what exactly "white and delightsome" refers to, processes similar to steel were perfected in ancient Egypt, etc.

    I wouldn't claim the title of apologist. In fact, at least the author of this post isn't even a Mormon. We're hardly apologists here. But, I do think that the laundry list of "problems" with the Book of Mormon shortchanges discourse by trying to present an avalanche of unsubstantiated claims as evidence that CLEARLY, Mormons have to be stupid and blind to buy all of that.

    We're always up for an intellectual discussion around here, but if that's what is wanted, that's what it's going to be. We aren't into slinging accusations and ad hominem attacks to try and delegitimize discourse before anything can be debated.

    If you want to talk about any of that specific stuff, we always love to chew on these things.

  17. Anonymous richard 

    "and (Joseph)never compelled anyone to follow him to heaven or hell."

    ...he just threatened them with flaming swords and their own destruction (see D&C 132. Receiving revelation that called for his own wife's destruction if she wouldn't allow him to bed other women is one of the all-time great cons.

    Smith made Koresh look like a choirboy. From the Danites, to destroying printing presses, the requirement of consecration to the Prophet, the ordering of political assassinations, the marrying of one fourteen and one sixteen year old, the marrying of multiple women who were already married, the marrying of wives of men whom he had sent overseas to proselytize, his plagiarizing of Masonic temple rites, and his delusions of grandeur of being more successful than Jesus, put him well beyond Koresh.

  18. Blogger fMhLisa 

    Wow! I just love stumbling across fun new ways to think about things.

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