Joseph Smith/Character/Was he a disreputable person

Was Joseph Smith, Jr. a "disreputable person?"

At the age of ten my father's family removed to Palmyra, N. Y. where, and in the vicinity of which, I lived, or, made it my place of residence, until I was twenty one—the latter part, in the town of Manchester.

During this time, as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies; but as my accusers are, and have been forward to accuse me of being guilty of gross and outrageous violations of the peace and good order of the community, I take the occasion to remark, that, though, as I have said above, "as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies," I have not, neither can it be sustained, in truth, been guilty of wronging or injuring any man or society of men; and those imperfections to which I allude, and for which I have often had occasion to lament, were a light, and too often, vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation. This being all, and the worst, that my accusers can substantiate against my moral character, I wish to add, that it is not without a deep feeling of regret that I am thus called upon in answer to my own conscience, to fulfill a duty I owe to myself, as well as to the cause of truth, in making this public confession of my former uncircumspect walk, and unchaste conversation: and more particularly, as I often acted in violation of those holy precepts which I knew came from God. But as the "Articles and Covenants" of this church are plain upon this particular point, I do not deem it important to proceed further. I only add, that (I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man "subject to passion," and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!)
—Joseph Smith, Jr., (December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:40.


Question: Was Joseph Smith, Jr. known as a "disreputable person?"

Joseph was only seen as lacking character in the opinion of those that misunderstood him and opposed his efforts in restoring the Church

In many—if not most—critical treatments of the Church, Joseph is made out to be "one of the basest men that ever lived." A Boston Bee reporter wrote after interviewing Joseph:

I could not help noticing that he dressed, talked and acted like other men, and in every respect appeared exactly the opposite of what I had conjured up in my imagination a prophet [to be].[1]

Clearly, Joseph is not what the critics imagine a prophet to be either. Was Joseph perfect? No; he never said he was. What he did say of himself was, "Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing; the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault."[2]

Joseph was only seen as lacking character in the opinion of those that misunderstood him and opposed his efforts in restoring the Church. The recorded details and testimonies from firsthand accounts as to Joseph's good character cannot be ignored and certainly must be looked at by anyone serious in their study of Mormonism. The critics often avoid portraying the simple man who recognized the saving grace of Christ for his errors and sought to further the cause of righteousness.

Sectarian critics in particular ought to be careful, since the standard they apply to Joseph Smith might easily disqualify various biblical prophets. Paul for example, would not have been called to be an Apostle after his participation in the persecution of Christians and role in the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3).

Ultimately, however, attacks, on Joseph's character are classic ad hominem—the man is attacked instead of the message.


Question: Did Joseph Smith engage in "land speculation" in Nauvoo?

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

Those that made this accusation against Joseph Smith had their profits harmed by Joseph's policy of giving land to the poor

The Law's claimed that Joseph Smith used Church members' donations to engage in "land speculation" in Nauvoo. However, the Laws’ profits were harmed by Joseph’s policy of giving land to the poor, and the Laws also resented his ability to influence buyers. G. D. Smith’s account is a caricature of the facts. Few citations to the relevant literature are provided.

G. D. Smith claims that “the Law brothers came into a . . . dispute with [Joseph] over his conduct as trustee-in-trust for the church. In that capacity, [Joseph] had appropriated church members’ charitable donations for real estate speculation, buying low and reselling high to those immigrants who could afford to pay” (p. 423). In fact, Joseph had signed two promissory notes of $25,000 for Nauvoo, payable to Eastern land speculators.

Yet the dispossession suffered by the Saints in Missouri made repayment difficult since many could not afford to purchase land. [3] “Joseph wanted to help,” reports Richard Bushman, “but huge debts prevented him from simply giving away land. What could poor converts do?” Joseph’s preference was “to give land to the poor, especially to widows and orphans. To finance these free gifts, he wanted others to pay generously. The high council priced Nauvoo lots from $200 to $800, leaving room for negotiation. All these judgments required patience and wisdom and exposed Joseph to criticism for gouging and unfair treatment.” [4] In addition, “in June 1840, he asked the high council to appoint someone else to attend to ‘the temporalities of the Church.’ . . . [B]ut his appeal went unheeded, . . . leaving Joseph responsible for the debts and final disposition of land.” [5]

Thus the charge that Joseph was involved in “real estate speculation” is not true. G. D. Smith’s claim that Joseph was selling high “to those . . . who could afford to pay” is a bit of verbal legerdemain—it is true, while still managing to hide the fact that the Prophet was giving away land to those who could not pay. Joseph was already in debt for the land; land sold for higher prices did not benefit Joseph but did benefit those Saints too poor to afford land at all.

On what basis, then, were the Law brothers complaining? Their motives were not so pure as G. D. Smith suggests, just as Joseph’s actions were not so venal as G. D. Smith’s version implies. The Laws invested in lots in upper Nauvoo and on the outskirts while the church held title to the lower city. As Lyndon Cook has explained,

By 1843 the fundamental economic interests of the [Laws] and the Mormon leader were in definite conflict. Brisk competition caused the Prophet to insist that the Saints purchase building lots from only the Church. Although most recognized this as a sacrifice which would assist in liquidating Church debts, to William Law it sounded too much like totalitarianism. [6]


Question: Did Joseph Smith really tell Orrin Porter Rockwell 'it was right to steal'?

The only evidence for this statement is a fourth-hand claim made by a convicted fifteen-year-old thief attempting to justify himself

The only evidence for this statement is a fourth-hand claim made by a convicted fifteen-year-old thief attempting to justify himself. Joseph's diary recorded the comment, suggesting it cannot have threatened or worried him.

Quinn's use of the source is incorrect, and his lumping of a later journal entry with it creates a false impression

Historian D. Michael Quinn's material for this claim reads:

10 Mar [1843]. Fifteen-year-old Thomas Morgan says that Orrin Porter Rockwell told him "Joseph had taught that it was right to steal…which was the means of drawing Thomas into the practice of stealing." Smith's next remark about his boyhood friend: "conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well." [7]

Unfortunately, in this section of his book, Quinn provides no references, footnotes, or endnotes. One reviewer noted that "In a work where source notes are taken as seriously as they are in this book, it is unfortunate that they were not included in appendices 6 (Biographical Sketches) and 7 (Selected Chronology). The careful student needs to be able to weigh the evidence for the extensive and sometimes sensational information that is given here." [8]

So it proves here.

Background: identifying the participants

The source for Quinn's source appears to be an entry made in Joseph Smith's journal. A transcript of the journal for the period in question reads:

[Entry for February 20, 1843] Last night Arthur Milikin had a quantity of books stolen and found them at 3 this P.M. in Hyrum Smith's Hayloft. Thomas Morgan and Robert Taylor (Morgan 15, Robert Taylor 13 years old next April) /both members of the Church/ were arrested on suspicion in the forenoon. On finding the books [they] immediately went to trial before the Mayor having had a brief examination about noon. Court adjourned till 10 [A.M.] tomorrow.... [9]

So, Thomas Morgan was a fifteen-year-old member of the Church brought before Joseph (in his role as a civil judge) for theft. The History of the Church notes that the next day:

Robert Taylor was again brought up for stealing, and Thomas Morgan for receiving the books, [referred to above] and each sentenced to six months imprisonment in Carthage jail. [10]

Morgan and Taylor were found guilty, and sentenced to jail. The History of the Church later says that

I [Joseph] went with Marshal Henry G. Sherwood to procure some provisions for Thomas Morgan and Robert Taylor, who, on petition of the inhabitants of the city, I had directed should work out their punishment on the highways of Nauvoo. [11]

So, far from approving theft, Joseph sentenced the young thieves to jail time, which was later converted into labor at the petition of others.

Evaluating the claim

We now come to the source (9 days later) to which Quinn likely alludes:

Friday, March 10th 1843 Clear and cold....As Thomas Morgan went out to speak with Mayor, said he had been told by several that Joseph had taught that it was right to steal viz. O. P. Rockwell, David B. Smith, and James Smith which was the means of drawing Thomas into the practice of stealing. [12]

So, it turns out that Quinn's source is a hearsay statement from a fifteen-year-old member boy found guilty of stealing, and sentenced to jail by Joseph (later commuted to road work). The young man doubtless wanted to excuse himself in the prophet's eyes, and so makes the claim that the only reason he was 'draw[n]...into the practice of stealing' is what he has heard (unnamed) others say that Joseph said to Porter Rockwell. This statement is thus at least fourth hand:

Joseph -> Rockwell -> "others" -> Thomas Morgan.

Moreover, why would Joseph's personal journal record this incident if there were any truth to it? Why would Joseph allow a record to be made of advocating theft?

Next remark: wishing the boy well?

Quinn follows his claim about what Joseph told Porter by writing:

Smith's next remark about his boyhood friend: "conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well."

This is disingenuous at best. The entry which reads "Conversed much about Porter, wishing the boy well," comes from a diary entry on March 14, 1843—four days after the encounter with Thomas Morgan! [13] Quinn gives the impression that the very next thing that Joseph said, after hearing the tale from Morgan, were warm reminiscences regarding Porter Rockwell. Nothing could be further from the truth—this is simply the next remark about Porter in Joseph's journal, eight journal pages later. Small wonder that Joseph's thoughts turned to Rockwell, since on March 4, 1843, Rockwell was arrested for the attempted murder of former governor Boggs of Missouri. [14]


Brigham Young (1855): "he was an honorable man and dealt justly, we know his true character. But let his enemies give his character, and they will make him out one of the basest men that ever lived."

Brigham Young:

The history of Joseph and Mary is given to us by their best friends, and precisely as we will give the history of the Prophet Joseph. We know him to have been a good man, we know that he performed his mission, we know that he was an honorable man and dealt justly, we know his true character. But let his enemies give his character, and they will make him out one of the basest men that ever lived. Let the enemies of Joseph and Mary give their characters to us, and you would be strongly tempted to believe as the Jews believe. Let the enemies of Jesus give his character to us, and, in the absence of the testimony of his friends, I do not know but that the present Christian world would all be Jews, so far as their belief that Jesus Christ was an impostor and one of the most degraded men that ever lived.[15]


B.H. Roberts: "Joseph Smith was a man of like passions with other men; struggling with the same weaknesses; subjected to the same temptations"

B.H. Roberts:

[Joseph Smith] claimed for himself no special sanctity, no faultless life, no perfection of character, no inerrancy for every word spoken by him. And as he did not claim these things for himself, so can they not be claimed for him by others; for to claim perfection for him, or even unusual sanctity, would be to repudiate the revelations themselves which supply the evidence of his imperfections, whereof, in them, he is frequently reproved.

Joseph Smith was a man of like passions with other men; struggling with the same weaknesses; subjected to the same temptations; under the same moral law, and humiliated at times, like others, by occasionally, in word and conduct, falling below the high ideals presented in the perfect life and faultless character of the Man of Nazareth.

But though a man of like passions with other men, yet to Joseph Smith was given access to the mind of Deity, through the revelations of God to him; and likewise to him was given a divine authority to declare that mind of God to the world.[16]


Joseph Smith: "I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature"

Joseph was open and direct about his weaknesses, saying to his accusers:

Being of very tender years, and persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends... I 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. 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. But 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.[17]


Joseph Smith (1834): "during this time, as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies"

Joseph Smith:

...during this time, as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies; but as my accusers are, and have been forward to accuse me of being guilty of gross and outrageous violations of the peace and good order of the community, I take the occasion to remark that, though as I have said above, 'as is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies,' I have not, neither can it be sustained, in truth, been guilty of wronging or injuring any man or society of men; and those imperfections to which I allude, and for which I have often had occasion to lament, were a light, and too often, vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation. This being all, and the worst, that my accusers can substantiate against my moral character, I wish to add that it is not without a deep feeling of regret that I am thus called upon in answer to my own conscience, to fulfil a duty I owe to myself, as well as to the cause of truth, in making this public confession of my former uncircumspect walk, and trifling conversation and more particularly, as I often acted in violation of those holy precepts which I knew came from God. But as the 'Articles and Covenants,' of this Church are plain upon this particular point, I do not deem it important to proceed further. I only add, that I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man 'subject to passion,' and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk.[18]


Walker: In 1819 "Under New York law, being just thirteen, Joseph's testimony about the work he had performed was admissible only after the court found him competent"

In 1819, a year prior to the First Vision, Joseph Smith was thirteen years old. His family sued a neighboring farmer over a dispute regarding some horses they had purchased. One author explained that Joseph's use as a witness indicates that the trial judge and jury found him both trustworthy and competent to give evidence:

Under New York law, being just thirteen, Joseph's testimony about the work he had performed was admissible only after the court found him competent. His testimony proved credible and the court record indicates that every item that he testified about was included in the damages awarded to the Smiths. Although Hurlbut [the farmer they were suing] appealed the case, no records have survived noting the final disposition of that case; perhaps it was settled out of court. The significance of this case is not limited to the fact that a New York judge found the young Joseph, just a year prior to his First Vision, to be competent and credible as a witness....

The trial was held on February 6, 1819. Twelve jurors were impaneled, all men and property owners. The Smiths called five witnesses, Hurlbut seven. Both Joseph Jr. and Hyrum were called to testify. This appears to be young Joseph's first direct interaction with the judicial process. He had turned thirteen years old a month and a half previously. New York law and local practice permitted the use of child testimony, subject to the court's discretion to determine the witness' competency. The test for competency required a determination that the witness was of 'sound mind and memory.' A New York 1803 summary of the law for justices of the peace notes that 'all persons of sound mind and memory, and who have arrived at years of discretion, except such as are legally interested, or have been rendered infamous, may be improved as witnesses.' This determination of competency rested within the discretion of the judge....

From the record it appears that Judge Spear found Joseph Jr. competent, and he indeed did testify during the trial. This is evident in a review of the List of Services that was part of the court file. Joseph Jr.'s testimony would have been required to admit those services he personally performed. His testimony was certainly combined with Hyrum's. Hyrum was born February 11, 1800, and was therefore nineteen years old at the time this case was tried.[19]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. "Mormonism," Boston Bee (24 March 1843); cited in "From the Boston Bee," Times and Seasons 4 no. 13 (15 May 1843), 119–120. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  2. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:140. Volume 5 link
  3. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 430.
  4. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 414, 417.
  5. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 417.
  6. Lyndon W. Cook, “William Law: Nauvoo Dissenter,” BYU Studies 22/1 (Fall 1982): 62.
  7. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 637.
  8. Dean C. Jessee, "review of The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power," Journal of Mormon History 22:2 (Fall 1996): 167–168.
  9. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 307.
  10. History of the Church, 5:283, for date 20-21 Feb 1843. for date 20-21 Feb 1843 Volume 5 link
  11. History of the Church, 5:292, for date 1 March 1843. for date 1 March 1843 Volume 5 link
  12. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 329.
  13. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 334.
  14. History of the Church, 5:295. Volume 5 link
  15. Brigham Young, (6 October 1855) Journal of Discourses 3:366.
  16. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 2:360–361. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  17. Joseph Smith, History (1838), 3–4; cited in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, [original edition] (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984), 9–11. ISBN 0877479747. GL direct link
  18. Letter to Oliver Cowdery [December 1834]; cited in Jessee, 336–337.
  19. Jeffrey N. Walker, "Joseph Smith's Introduction to the Law: The 1819 Hurlbut Case," Mormon Historical Studies 11/1 (Spring 2010): 129-130.