Joseph Smith/Personality and temperament
|Joseph Smith, Jr.|
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Critics allege personal failings in Joseph Smith (such as his allegedly short temper, his "reputation" in Palmyra, etc.) as evidence that he was not a true prophet of God.
Although we cannot fully detach the man from the message, we should remember that Joseph Smith was a man as well as a prophet. As a man, he was subject to the same passions and opinions as other men, but as a prophet, he restored the truths, ordinances, and authority necessary to exalt mankind.
At its base, this attack is simply ad hominem abusive—an attack on the messenger, rather than his claims.
This criticism is not driven so much by facts as it is by expectations—people have their own preconceived notions of how a prophet should look, speak, and act. When a person who claims to be a prophet, often people dismiss him because he doesn't fit their idea of what a prophet should be, regardless of what he has accomplished.
Joseph Smith encountered and recognized this sort of prejudice, and he spoke about it:
- I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught. Must I then be thrown away as a thing of nought?
Brigham Young explained it this way:
- I recollect a conversation I had with a priest who was an old friend of ours, before I was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph. I clipped every argument he advanced, until at last he came out and began to rail against "Joe Smith," saying, "that he was a mean man, a liar, moneydigger, gambler, and a whore-master;" and he charged him with everything bad, that he could find language to utter. I said, hold on, Brother Gillmore, here is the doctrine, here is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the revelations that have come through Joseph Smith the Prophet. I have never seen him, and do not know his private character. The doctrine he teaches is all I know about the matter, bring anything against that if you can. As to anything else I do not care. If he acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we will abide it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor's wife every night, run horses and gamble, I do not care anything about that, for I never embrace any man in my faith. But the doctrine he has produced will save you and me, and the whole world; and if you can find fault with that, find it.
At a 1894 gathering of Latter-day Saints who personally knew Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith (his nephew) arose and made the following remarks:
- Now, some of us remember one thing, and some remember another thing, with relation to the Prophet [Joseph Smith]. I remember several instances, general incidents, myself, which might be considered inappropriate to mention here tonight. For it is sometimes the ludicrous things and drastic things which occur that impress themselves with greater vigor upon the mind; and we remember them more distinctly than we do other things of far greater importance and which are far more worthy to be recollected. No matter what we may recollect of the Prophet or what may be said to us here tonight with regard to our memeory [sic] of him, the one thing that I wish to call your attention to first and foremost of all other things is this, that whatever else the Prophet Joseph Smith may have done or may have been, we must not forget the fact that he was the man out of the millions of human beings that inhabited this earth at the time—the only man, that was called of God, by the voice of God Himself, to open up the dispensation of the Gospel to the world for the last time; and this is the great thing to bear in mind, that he was called of God to introduce the Gospel to the world, to restore the holy priesthood to the children of men, to organize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the world, and to restore all the ordinances of the Gospel, for the salvation not only of the living, but also of the dead, and he was called to this mission by God Himself. Now, if somebody tells us about Joseph being fond of wrestling, fond of running a foot race, fond of having a good scuffle with some lusty neighbor or friend; or if you hear somebody tell about the good, that is, the overflowing of the human nature that was in him, it need not detract one iota from the great and glorious principles which were revealed through him to the world.
Dr. John M. Bernhisel, related his impressions of Joseph Smith to Illinois Governor Ford in 1844. He wrote:
- Having been a boarder in General Smith's family for more than nine months, and having therefore had abundant opportunities of contemplating his character and observing his conduct, I have concluded to give you a few of my "impressions" of him.
- General Joseph Smith is naturally a man of strong mental powers, and is possessed of much energy and decision of character, great penetration, and a profound knowledge of human nature. He is a man of calm judgment, enlarged views, and is eminently distinguished by his love of justice. He is kind and obliging, generous and benevolent, sociable and cheerful, and is possessed of a mind of a contemplative and reactive character. He is honest, frank, fearless and independent, and as free from dissimulation as any man to be found.
- But it is in the gentle charities of domestic life, as the tender and affectionate husband and parent, the warm and sympathizing friend, that the prominent traits of his character are revealed, and his heart is felt to be keenly alive to the kindest and softest emotions of which human nature is susceptible; and I feel assured that his family and friends formed one of the greatest consolations to him while the vials of wrath were poured upon his head, while his footsteps were pursued by malice and envy, and reproach and slander were strewn in his path, as well as during numerous and cruel persecutions, and severe and protracted sufferings in chains and loathsome prisons, for worshiping God according to the dictates of his own conscience.
- He is a true lover of his country, and a bright and shining example of integrity and moral excellence in all the relations of life. As a religious teacher, as well as a man, he is greatly beloved by this people. It is almost superfluous to add that the numerous ridiculous and scandalous reports in circulation respecting him have not the least foundation in truth.
Attorney John S. Reed, a life-long non-Mormon, said in May 1844:
- The first acquaintance I had with Gen. Smith was about the year 1823. He came into my neighborhood, being then about eighteen years of age, and resided there two years; during which time I became intimately acquainted with him. I do know that his character was irreproachable; that he was well known for truth and uprightness; that he moved in the first circles of the community, and he was often spoken of as a young man of intelligence and good morals, and possessing a mind susceptible of the highest intellectual attainments. I early discovered that his mind was constantly in search of truth, expressing an anxious desire to know the will of God concerning His children here below, often speaking of those things which professed Christians believe in. I have often observed to my best informed friends (those that were free from superstition and bigotry) that I thought Joseph was predestinated by his God from all eternity to be an instrument in the hands of the great Dispenser of all good, to do a great work; what it was I knew not.
Peter H. Burnett, a former Governor of California and attorney for Joseph wrote:
- You could see at a glance that his education was very limited. He was an awkward and vehement speaker. In conversation he was slow, and used too many words to express his ideas, and would not generally go directly to a point. But, with all these drawbacks, he was much more than an ordinary man. He possessed the most indomitable perseverance, was a good judge of men, and deemed himself born to command, and he did command. His views were so strange and striking, and his manner was so earnest, and apparently so candid, that you could not but be interested. There was a kind, familiar look about him, that pleased you. He was very courteous in discussion, readily admitting what he did not intend to controvert, and would not oppose you abruptly, but had due deference to your feelings. He had the capacity for discussing a subject in different aspects, and for proposing many original views, even of ordinary matters. His illustrations were his own. He had great influence over others. As an evidence of this I will state that on Thursday, just before I left to return to Liberty [Missouri], I saw him out among the crowd, conversing freely with every one, and seeming to be perfectly at ease. In the short space of five days he had managed so to mollify his enemies that he could go unprotected among them without the slightest danger.
A New York Herald writer said he was "one of the most accomplished and powerful chiefs of the age." He then described him as follows:
- Joseph Smith, the president of the church, prophet, seer, and revelator, is thirty-six years of age, six feet high in pumps, weighing two hundred and twelve pounds. He is a man of the highest order of talent and great independence of character--firm in his integrity--and devoted to his religion; . . as a public speaker he is bold, powerful, and convincing; . . as a leader, wise and prudent, yet fearless as a military commander; brave and determined as a citizen, worthy, affable, and kind; bland in his manners, and of noble bearing.
Opposite the positive views presented here and the conflicting views of Joseph which critics seek to take advantage of, there is reason to pause and consider the absoluteness of one opinion of Joseph over another. Speaking of Joseph's human side, the world's expectations of him, and reconciling the two realities, Marvin S. Hill concluded:
- If a look at the human side of Joseph Smith seems at times somewhat unflattering, it comes from no desire to diminish him. It comes rather from the belief that at times in the Church we tend to expect too much of him, to ask him to be more than human in everything he did. This may lead to some disillusionment, if occasionally we find that he did not measure up to all our expectations. The early Saints usually avoided that kind of mistake. Brigham Young said of Joseph: 'Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.' Brigham chose to stress the positive side.
- Parley P. Pratt said that Joseph was "like other men, as the prophets and apostles of old, liable to errors and mistakes which were not inspired from heaven, but managed by...[his] own judgment."
- These brethren knew Joseph as a man with human weaknesses, yet they believed in his divine calling and in his greatness. It seemed to them that what he had achieved as a prophet far outweighed his imperfections. In the long run their love of him and their faith in his calling were decisive in shaping their lives. Seeing Joseph in his various moods, they still called him a prophet of God... Those who would understand the Prophet must give consideration to his spiritual side as well as his human side. It was his strong commitment to things spiritual which made him so aware of his human failings, so desirous to overcome his weaknesses and to give his all to the work of the Lord.
- [note] Joseph Smith, Jr., Thomas Bullock Report, 12 May 1844, Temple Stand; cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 369, punctuation modernized.
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 4:77-78.
- [note] "Joseph, the Prophet. His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances", Salt Lake Herald, Church and Farm Supplement (12 January 1895): 210. Reprinted in Joseph F. Smith, "Joseph, the Prophet. His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 5:26ff. [Discourse given on 1894?.]
- [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), 6:467–468; citing Bernhisel to Thomas Ford (14 June 1844). BYU Studies link
- [note] "Some of the Remarks of John S. Reed, Esq., as Delivered Before the State Convention," Times and Seasons 5 no. 11 (1 June 1844), 549–550. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Peter H. Burnett, Recollections of an Old Pioneer (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880), 66–67.
- [note] James Gordon Bennet, "The Mormon Prophets," New York Herald (19 February 1842).
- [note] Marvin S. Hill, "Joseph Smith the Man: Some Reflections on a Subject of Controversy," Brigham Young University Studies 21 no. 1 (1981), 9. PDF link