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Was Joseph Smith for Real?

How he lied, perhaps even to himself

by Mark D. Thomas

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 1.

Joseph Smith, the nineteenth-century prophet and founder of Mormonism, was never accused of thinking too small. He was poor farm boy with little education. He lived in the shadow of the Enlightened economic expansion which passed by his poor family. But he claimed visitations of God, Christ, and numerous angels, he translated numerous ancient texts (including the Bible) with divine aid, he revealed God’s true communitarian economic system to eliminate poverty, he planned and tried to develop large cities, married numerous women, and crowned himself king on earth. He loved not just to impress but to dazzle people and he was known among his followers as eloquent, deeply loving, and terribly charismatic. Oh yes—one of his most modest undertakings was to run for president of the United States. (In 1844, he was killed by his enemies before the election.) Central to his theology was the idea that weakness overcomes strength. He, more than anyone else, exemplified that doctrine.

To think small was never in his nature. Through a series of visions and revelations, he claimed to have restored the ancient Church of Christ, various priesthoods (the authority and power to act for God on earth), and the lost Gospel of Christ. The most famous of his translations was the Book of Mormon, which he claimed he found after receiving divine direction to uncover it in a hill in western New York. It related the history of ancient settlers who were led by divinely guided prophets to a new world in the Americas.

The Book of Mormon is a paradigm of all that Joseph Smith did. Smith’s translations and revelations speak the language of myth. Myth creates or discovers a world. Smith bridged the gap between the mundane and the sacred worlds of Mormonism. This world-building, in no small part, has contributed to the success of Mormonism in finding new converts in a rapidly changing and confusing world. Mormon theological symbolism of apostasy and restoration appeal to the sorrow of the dispossessed and provide the hope of the return to spiritual paradise lost.

Troubling Questions

But for all their romanticism, scholars must critically analyze the claims of Joseph Smith. One of the first questions that comes to mind is: “Can Joseph Smith claim skill as a translator of religious texts?” When one examines the body of writings that claim to be his translations (the Book of Mormon, the inspired translations of the Bible, the Kinderhook plates, the revelation of John, and Egyptian papyri), it is clear from the bulk of the textual evidence that Joseph Smith demonstrates no capacity to translate languages. He did not even know a language besides English until later in life. His “translations” are revelatory creations and biblical commentaries. They tend to contain clusters of biblical passages that are arranged into interesting mosaics that answer theological, textual, social, and existential questions. These mosaics are the most artful aspects of Smith’s revelations and narratives. He was not a translator, a historian, or a scientist. But he was a spiritual folk artist of the highest rank.

A second question that arises is, “How historically accurate is early Mormon history that functions as myth?” What do we make of the extraordinary visit of heavenly messengers? Some historians have accused Smith of a being a spiritual con artist. For example, they point out historical inaccuracies and the evolving details of the story of his early visions as evidence that they are fabrications. Mormon historians defend Smith’s character and his story as historically accurate. A review of his second vision will clarify my position regarding the historicity of Joseph’s story.

On the night of September 21–22, 1823, an angel purportedly visited Joseph Smith to announce the location of gold plates containing the Book of Mormon. The 1839 history by Joseph Smith is by far the most detailed description of the vision. When we examine this story in detail we discover that the wording of the angelic message discusses theological concerns of the late 1830s. In fact, some of the details of the vision contained in this 1839 history could not have occurred prior to 1834. But there are earlier, shorter versions of the vision without such anachronisms.

It is clear that the story changed over time in ways that were more significant than mere performance variations. The changes were due to evolving theology or improved marketing. By utilizing the methodologies of New Testament form criticism to peel away the anachronisms and attestation to ascertain the historical core of the narratives we can arrive at the original historical core of this vision story:

On the night of September 21–22, 1823, Joseph Smith saw what he described as a spirit or angel three times in a dream or vision; the being told him the location of an ancient record buried in a box in a hill near his father’s farm. Joseph Smith was given a vision of the hill (a vision within a vision). He was told that this buried record contained an important message for the world. This 1823 vision was understood as eschatological-part of God’s plan to save a corrupt world prior to the coming of his Son. The angel or spirit may have cited scripture, but the wording cannot be recovered.

This (or something very much like it) is all that we can know. It is enough. It demonstrates that one of the primary functions of the angelic visitations in early Mormonism is to establish primacy of the Mormon religious claims.

The vision combines elements from four separate, but often overlapping nineteenth-century traditions:

1. Magic/money digging. In the magic/money digging tradition, there is buried treasure controlled by guardian spirits which must be obeyed or appeased.

2. The nineteenth-century visionary tradition. Visions were associated with evangelical religion, radical prophets, and visions of the next world by those near death. (For example, Hyrum Smith told Solomon Chamberlain that the whole Smith family were visionaries; so such a vision would not be unexpected from one of the Smiths.1)

3. Revivalism. Joseph Smith claimed that he prayed on the night of September 21–22 seeking forgiveness under conviction of sins, a common state of those under the influences of the preachers of the Second Great Awakening.

4. A tradition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors who claimed to translate a buried ancient text. The general narratives of the source of these-buried books were the same: The texts were supposed ancient records buried in the ground that prophets or others found and translated their divine mandates, warnings, and answers.2 Besides-the more familiar Solomon Spaulding, an example of such a book is entitled: A Copy of a Letter Written by Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and Found Under a Stone Sixty-Five Years After His Crucifiction (Boston: Nathaniel Coverly, 1815). This work was published a total of six times between 1800 and 1820. And there were numerous other examples.

This evidence supports the same conclusion that we reached from the criterion of multiple attestation: the core narrative fits into the historical setting in 1823; it has no historical anachronisms. But this is more than negative evidence. The historical setting supports the plausibility of the prophet’s claim to a vision. This provides weak evidence that Joseph Smith actually had the sense data in the narrative—he is reflecting the visionary experience in his family and broader social setting, something that we would expect to happen.

Myths of the Mind

But there is one more argument that provides strong evidence that Joseph Smith actually experienced sense data described in the historical core of the narrative. I call it “the argument from the psychological setting.” This evidence is found in his statement that he prayed in his room under the conviction of sin and that his vision followed this prayer.3 Conviction was a common evangelical expression for the heightened awareness of one’s lost state in sinfulness that often came from evangelical sermons. Dozens, if not hundreds, of visions accompanied the state of conviction in the early nineteenth century.

This is the strongest evidence that Joseph Smith actually had a vision. As I already mentioned, there were dozens (maybe even hundreds) of tales in the early nineteenth century of dying Christians, of those under social strain, or of those under conviction of sin in the Second Great Awakening who saw visions. Smith mentions this conviction as a matter of fact with no particular theological or apologetic significance—it’s a simple, throw-away detail of the story. Smith was on the existential border—the psychological setting in the early nineteenth century in which one would expect to find a vision. If Smith was lying about his vision, we must call into question the honesty of a large portion of the religious populous in the early part of the nineteenth century who had visions. It seems more reasonable to conclude that Joseph Smith perceived the sense data that he claimed to see in the expected psychological setting of visionaries.

On these two pieces of historical evidence (the historical and psychological setting of 1823 New York), I rest my case that Joseph Smith actually saw visions. This does not mean that he never lied. He did. But he probably had sense data roughly corresponding to the unredacted core versions of his visions. But the exact nature of the sense data in the vision cannot be historically ascertained.

In practice, mundane vision, mental vision, visionary vision, imaginary vision, and metaphorical vision (“seeing” God in nature or the Bible, for example) are each present and tend to blend together in the early nineteenth century and early Mormonism. Smith himself stated in his 1832 history that, at least once, he had difficulty distinguishing dreams from real perception:

Thus he appeared to me three times in one night and once on the next day and then I immediately went to the place and found where the plates was deposited as the angel of the Lord had commanded me and staightway made three attempts to get them and then being exceedingly frightened I supposed it had been a dream of Vision but when I considered I knew that it was not. . . .4

This analysis of Joseph Smith’s history indicates that there are historical errors in the history of early Mormonism, many still persisting to this day among competent histories. Smith molded his story for theological purposes to such an extent that the world of theology gets substituted for the world of history. So when we read the Mormon myth, it is not always simple to distinguish the two. But it is both historically and theologically accurate to state that weakness overcomes strength in the world of Mormonism. 


1. In an 1858 sketch of his life, Solomon Chamberlin, an early Mormon convert, describes his own visions in a pamphlet published prior to meeting Joseph Smith. An angel or spirit appeared to him in 1816, told him that “there was no people on the earth that was right and that faith was gone from the earth excepting a few and that all churches were corrupt. I further saw in the vision, that he would soon raise up a church, that would be after the Apostolic Order, that there would be in it the same powers, and gifts that were in the days of Christ, and that I would live to see the day, and that there would [be] a book come forth, like unto the Bible, and the people would be guided by it, as well as the Bible.” Chamberlin “was persecuted and called deluded” for his beliefs. On a visit to Palmyra, New York, he met Hyrum Smith and promptly asked, “Is there anyone here that believes in visions or revelations? He said Yes, we are a visionary house, I said then I will give you one of my pamphlets, which was visionary.”

Chamberlin uses “visionary” much as Channing did—referring to the experience of sense data vs. a metaphorical description. Channing and others used the term as a derogatory reference to those who received doctrinal visions. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines visionary in several ways: one who has “impractical schemes,” a “disturbed person,” and, as an adjective, “existing in imagination only; not real.” The last definition coincides with Laman’s and Lemuel’s charge that Lehi was full of “foolish imaginations” (1 Ne. 2:11, 17:20). Since the negative connotation is the only one allowed in the dictionary, I assume that the term was generally understood negatively by readers in the 1830s, even though Lehi, Chamberlin, and nineteenth-century visionaries themselves continued to claim the term positively. See Solomon Chamberlin, “A Short Sketch of the Life of Solomon Chamberlin,” To my knowledge, no copy of Chamberlin’s pamphlet has survived. See Letter to “Brother Carrington,” July 11, 1858, Beaver City, Utah, holograph; Historical Department Archives, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

2. For examples, see the excursus following chapter 5 in my forthcoming book Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999). Also see Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756–1800 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 23–28, 162. E. D. Howe, one of Mormonism’s severest critics, mistakenly claimed that one such document, purportedly found in the ground under a large, flat stone and translated from Latin by Solomon Spalding, was the source of the Book of Mormon. For a summary of this claim, see Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), pp. 126–27. See also excursus following chap. 5.

3. Dan Vogel, editor, Early Mormon Documents vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), pp. 9, 29, 41–42, 43–44, 63, 163, 204. For texts, see Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1983).

4. Cited in Dan Vogel Early Mormon Documents, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), p. 29.

Mark D. Thomas is a Book of Mormon scholar who resides in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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