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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.