Understanding Joseph Smith

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I was at lunch with a friend last week when we started talking about Joseph Smith. It was yet ANOTHER turning point for me.

I asked him what he thought of the church’s new article about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry. In a tone of conviction I’ve rarely heard from him, he said, “I’m all in. I don’t care about the polygamy stuff. I don’t care if he married other men’s wives and had sex with some of them. He didn’t murder anybody. He had a work to do. He restored the gospel. That’s all that matters to me.”

Following up on his comment that Joseph never murdered anyone, I asked about Joseph telling Orin Porter Rockwell to go and assassinate Ex-Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. He said, “there are two sides to that story.”

I then asked him a hypothetical question. Would you accept Joseph if you found out he ordered Rockwell to kill Boggs? “Yes” he said, “I’m all in.”

That pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it? There is a body of people who will believe Joseph Smith was a prophet no matter what comes out about him.

Right then, a thought came to me: high church leaders probably don’t want to put members in the position to have to say that. They undoubtedly love the commitment of such a person. But, I think somewhere along the line they’ve started to have, what Non-Mormon church historian Jan Shipps calls, a ” group mystical experience”, telling them this kind of commitment, though commendable, is dangerous to the future sustainability of the church.

My friend is a soft spoken, educated, highly successful professional, who has been married for close to 35 years with five children, two of whom are gifted athletes. Somewhere, however, in the past decade or two, my friend has decided to strap on the equivalent of a vest of dynamite, and launch himself into whatever group his leaders request.

I think church leaders know this, and are tempted by such devotion to ask not only for the devotee’s life but his death as well. But, I believe the leadership is backing away from this temptation for a couple of reasons.

One, such zealotry is a minority activity engaged in by decent people who have turned into odd ball personalities, having become alienated, puzzled, and hostile to the larger society. Two, there aren’t enough of these kinds of people who are able to pay sufficient tithing to keep the great institutions growing that were created when the church had started evolving more rational sensibilities in the 1950’s and 1960’s under the leadership of church president David O. McKay.

To solve this problem and right the ship, I believe the leadership is gradually turning to the very people whom they most mistrust- – “The so called intellectuals”, especially those intellectuals who are church history scholars.

With the help of these intellectuals, the church’s top leaders have probably found out for the first time in their own lives the extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement in bizarre sexual liaisons which cannot be satisfactorily explained or defended, when measured against the standards of Western Civilization. (However, enter into Bedouin culture on the Saudi Peninsula and you might get a different impression.)

Rather than hide these facts any longer and make apologetic responses to combat the intellectuals, they have joined them in getting all the information out so members and non-members alike can see and decide for themselves what they think of Joseph Smith.

In my opinion I think the church will embrace a more rational theology in the future, one that will openly admit and discuss its mistakes as well as its successes. Ironically, the intellectuals, who are starting to benefit most from this movement, will probably disagree with me on that position, pointing out the church is becoming more, not less, rigid. To that, I can only say, welcome to the Church of Jesus’s Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church is a mass of contradictions, because there are so many different departments and entities, within the church, filled with talented people seeking to express themselves.

The church has really only been managed as a tightly governed whole twice; once during the days when Brigham Young started church retrenchment in the mid 1850’s, and last, in 1970, after the death of David O. McKay, when the now infamous Church Correlation Committee increasingly gained control over the operation of the church.

Today, Church Correlation is gradually softening and adapting due in large measure to the impact of the Internet.

It’s not a stretch for me to conclude the church will begin to replace early church history, as its LOAD STAR, with modern church history which started shortly after 1904. That’s when the church put the final nail into the coffin of the aggressive practice of polygamy. (Some may bring up exceptions to that, like polygamous practices in the temple today. To that, again I say welcome to the church with some of its remaining contradictions.)

I believe we have started leaving the correlation phase of church governance. Today, white washing and employing superficial answers will no longer be accepted, not even when it comes to understanding Joseph Smith.

In my opinion no one wants to turn members into Mormon jihadis. Rather, the church will survive and grow to the extent decent, rational people serve in an environment of freedom, safety, and creativity. They want to be a part of a church that accepts forthrightly the good, the bad, the heroic, and the unacceptable of its revolutionary past, and now defines itself as the gradual refinement and reformation of early church history, even though that period happened to be one of the most interesting and provocative times in American history.
“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” ~ David O. McKay