Joseph Smith/Narcissism/Did Joseph Smith 'boast' of keeping the Church intact
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Joseph Smith is reported as saying:
- “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam... Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” (History of The Church, 6:408–409. BYU Studies link
This attitude strikes some as boastful, and unbecoming a prophet.
The quote in which Joseph Smith seems to boast is an interesting one. To understand the issues, we must remember:
- Public and private statements by Joseph Smith indicate that he was in fact a humble servant of God, and this particular statement should be interpreted in light of that fact.
- Joseph was using a scriptural passage by Paul, and applying it to his own situation--the idea of "boasting" was Paul's, not Joseph's.
- It is not based on Joseph's own writing; it is an account written after his death. It may not be accurate.
We will look at each of these aspects in more detail.
Joseph's true character
Consider the following excerpt from a letter Joseph wrote to his wife Emma:
- “I will try to be contented with my lot, knowing that God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me [except] to do his will.”
- (Letter from Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, June 6, 1832, Greenville, Indiana; Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois.)
These are not the words of a man who believed himself to be better than Christ. Joseph loved Christ and throughout his life strove to follow him. These words written in private to his wife demonstrate that Joseph was not so prideful as to think himself better than Christ. Consider also the following statement, made in public, by Joseph Smith:
- "I do not think there have been many good men on the earth since the days of Adam; but there was one good man and his name was Jesus. Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else....I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not." (History of the Church 5:401)
Both in private and in public Joseph Smith demonstrated his humility before the Lord.
The critics' second error is to take Joseph's quote out of context. What was Joseph's intent, and why did he use this approach? As it turns out, he was drawing from the Bible and applying its lessons to his own situation.
In the original context, Joseph was facing intense persecution by many people, including some he had previously considered to be his friends. The statement about "boasting" was supposedly made about a month before he was killed. He made it after reading 2 Corinthians 11: to the congregation. Note the following statement by Paul, in this scripture:
- Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little. That which I am speaking, I am not speaking it as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. For you, being so wise, bear the foolish gladly. (2 Corinthians 11:16-19, NASB)
Paul then launches into a literary tirade where he claims many things to make himself look the fool, to contrast himself with those who the Corinthians were listening to for their words of salvation, instead of to him. His words were meant to compare and contrast what the Saints at Corinth were doing against what he was offering.
Do the critics dismiss the words of Paul and deny his calling as an Apostle because he used such a literary approach that included boasting? No, they do not. Yet, they dismiss Joseph Smith when it is clear by his own statements, in context, that he engaged in the exact same literary approach. Consider the words of Joseph right after reading this chapter of Paul's to the congregation:
- My object is to let you know that I am right here on the spot where I intend to stay. I, like Paul, have been in perils, and oftener than anyone in this generation. As Paul boasted, I have suffered more than Paul did, I should be like a fish out of water, if I were out of persecutions. Perhaps my brethren think it requires all this to keep me humble. The Lord has constituted me curiously that I glory in persecution. I am not nearly so humble as if I were not persecuted. If oppression will make a wise man mad, much more a fool. If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster: I shall always beat them. When facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last. My enemies are no philosophers: they think that when they have my spoke under, they will keep me down; but for the fools, I will hold on and fly over them.
Joseph then makes the statements that the critics attack, in the same way that Paul made outrageous "boasts" to contrast his position with the position of those who the Corinthians were starting to listen to. Paul starts the next chapter of 2 Corinthians with the statement "boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable." So, it would appear that Paul recognizes the necessity of boasting at times against the wicked and hard-hearted (though it may do little good, being unprofitable), yet the critics do not allow Joseph to follow Paul's advice and, of necessity, boast at times.
Perhaps the critics are unaware of Paul's advice? Or perhaps they apply a double standard where Paul is allowed such literary and rhetorical license, but Joseph is not?
Such double standards are, sadly, the stock-in-trade of sectarian anti-Mormonism.
In short, Joseph is using the scripture in Paul as a counter-argument (or a rhetorical device)--he is responding to his critics, and demonstrating that (as with Paul) true messengers from God are often persecuted by those who should listen, while the false and apostate are praised.
Entries made by scribes, not Joseph
Even in the History of the Church (where the speech is recreated in 6:408-409), it is described as resting upon a "synopsis" by Thomas Bullock. Is it, therefore, a primary source? Arguably not.
But there are further questions. The date of the sermon is 26 May 1844. A month later, the Prophet was dead. Did he supervise this entry? No. The last years of his entries in the History of the Church were actually made by others after his death. It was common at the time for other authors to write as if someone else was speaking. So, these are not Joseph's words--they are the words which others (who admired him enormously after his murder) put in his mouth. The basic content is more likely to be accurate than the subtle details of tone and style.
This point is vitally important to keep in mind when trying to assess the character of Joseph Smith, his moral and spiritual quality, through the so-called "Documentary History." Even when it seems to have Joseph Smith speaking in the first person, the History of the Church may or may not actually be representing Joseph Smith's actual voice. (Dean Jessee's "Preface" to his collection of The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith specifically addresses the issue of the seeming egotism that entered into Joseph's later statements which was quite foreign to the man himself--this came not because Joseph suddenly became egotistical, but because the voice we hear is no longer Joseph's: it is the work of scribes following his death. They felt comfortable "praising" Joseph in ways which he would probably not have used.)
The impression which one gets of Joseph Smith from reading his authenticated personal statements is that of a humble and sincere man, struggling to do the will of God as he understood it. However, even if a note of proud defiance had crept into Joseph's tone during a speech in Nauvoo, at a time when both city and Church were under threat and pressure from gangs of unprincipled bigots, such a moment of weakness would be understandable.
But, there is more to the story than this. What was Joseph's intent in his speech? We can guess, even from the reconstruction that is available to us, as we will see in the next section.
First, though, we must address an issue which the above answer raises—does this mean the History of the Church is not reliable?
Is the History of the Church unreliable, then?
It worth saying that in the general reliability of the History of the Church, in view of the way it was put together, it is not the overall thrust or narrative that is likely to be inaccurate, but the nuances, the tone, the details. This is precisely the opposite problem from that which anti-Mormon critics would have us see in it: they think the overall story of the History incorrect (e.g. divine intervention, revelation, Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, etc.), but they want us to accept the details of tone and mood that it furnishes—or at least they do when those details seem to put the Prophet in a bad light.
It's amusing that the very same people who vehemently reject the History of the Church as an unreliable source when it seems to support the LDS position clutch it to their bosoms as an unparalleled historical treasure when they think they can use it as a weapon against the alleged errors of Mormonism.
- [note] 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), 6:408. BYU Studies link
- [note] This wiki article was originally based on a personal message from Daniel C. Peterson. It has since been subject to editing and additions because of the nature of a wiki project.
- [note] "By 27 June 1844, the date of Joseph Smith's death, the manuscript of the history [of the Church] had been completed only to 5 August 1838 and published [in the Times and Seasons] to December 1831." Dean C. Jessee, "The Reliability of Joseph Smith's History," Journal of Mormon History 3/1 (1976), 23–46. PDF link
- [note] For those who want a better handle on Joseph Smith's true character, a good resource is Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 2003).(print version) ISBN 978-1570089633 GospeLink (requires subscrip.)