Joseph Smith: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?

Robert M. Price

I have been convinced for some time that Joseph Smith’s claims about the discovery of the Golden Plates were a hoax, that Smith himself wr ote the Book of Mormon, that he forged the “Reformed Egyptian” writing he showed to Professor Charles Anthon, and that the whole imposture grew out of Smith’s earlier career as a fraudulent treasure hunter. Yet it is equally clear that the Mormon religion embodies stolid values and provides meaning and purpose for millions of devotees who would never think of committing fraud themselves. It is difficult for me to envision Smith laughing up his sleeve as, over many years, he watched his believers endure persecution, flee across country with the law at their heels, and share the joys and sorrows of a first-generation religious community. What would have been the point? Making money? He could surely have quit the game early on with more than enough cash. Why invent and consecrate the practice of plural marriage if all one wanted was a little extra sex? It seems to me that there was just too much trouble taken in creating his new world of meaning and morals if it was all some cheap scheme.

Nor is this conundrum unique to Mormonism. Think, for instance, of G.I. Gurdjieff, whose memoir Meetings with Remarkable Men seems every bit as fictitious as his other opus, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. How about Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society? She was not above employing the cheap stunts of a two-bit spiritualist. She would receive folded paper notes dropped through ceiling vents onto the séance table—telegrams from the deathless Ascended Masters whom she claimed reposed in far-off Tibet. But have you ever read her gigantic tomes Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine? Again, this is going to an awful lot of trouble for the sake of self-emolument, if that’s all it was.

The history of sages, messiahs, and gurus is punctuated with outrageous behavior. There are various rationales for behavior on the part of a spiritual luminary that would be condemned as illicit if engaged in by the pious rank and file. And they tell us important things about figures who, like Joseph Smith, have been elevated above common humanity either in their own esteem or in that of their followers—usually both.

The Knight of Faith

Kierkegaard, in his Fear and Trembling, considered the ethical implications of the biblical tale of the Akedah Isaac, or Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac (Genesis 22). The story may be approached in many ways, including as a ceremonial myth legitimating a switchover from infant sacrifice to animal sacrifice in ancient Israel. But such a reading was alien to Kierkegaard’s thinking. Kierkegaard took for granted that Abraham would have felt himself bound by the command “You shall do no murder,” just as a modern Christian would. Can he bring himself to accept the commandment to kill Isaac as a legitimate revelation from God? How can it be, if it entails breaking one of the gravest statutes of divine and human law?

Kierkegaard said the episode illustrates the dangerous fact that the individual transcends the absolute. Even if God commands one to murder, the general command not to murder does not become less absolute. It is not a relative standard, amenable to certain mitigations and exceptions. No, the command not to murder is inherently right. But the voice of God may call to the individual and give him a new command as it gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, and the individual must obey. He becomes the crusading Knight of Faith. Such an understanding is not easily differentiated from fanaticism, it seems to me, and I suspect that the delusional women who hear the voice of God telling them to insert their babies into the microwave and press “Dinner Plate” would agree with Kierkegaard’s theory if they were ever to hear it.

In the cases of libertine messiahs and prophets (those who throw off the yoke of conventional morality), we are more often dealing not with a unique command from God to them but rather a unique permission granted them. The most famous example must be that of the Prophet Muhammad, to whom Allah vouchsafed the revelation (Qur’an 33:49–50) that he might take as many as nine wives at once, though other Muslim men were restricted to four. The nineteenth-century Indian messiah Birsa (self-styled the Dharti Aba, or Father of the World) outlawed polygamy but himself had a pair of wives. Again, it is not that the general rule is invalid. It must be valid, being the command of God. But the permission given the Prophet is a command of God, too, and thus equally valid, though not of general application.

The Superman

Friedrich Nietzsche predicted the coming of the Superman, the heir to the deceased God. The Superman was a new self-understanding for the human race, a laurel wreath any human being might wear if he or she did not shrink from the terrible burden of destiny. In the absence of any metaphysical standard of truth and morality beyond human subjectivity, the Superman must shoulder the responsibility to create new values of courage and heroic will. The Superman will act in love or hate, unbound by hypocritical fears and resentments. The Superman will look with Bodhisattva-like compassion upon lesser mortals, taking no offense at their opposition, their failure to understand. He has no cause to hate or fear them, nor can they ever take away his freedom. If he wins followers, he may legislate a new morality of his own creation. But whether he wields political or religious power or no power at all in the external world, the Superman will dwell beyond the conventional polarities of good and evil. Naturally, such a moral, or super-moral, conception can be volatile, dangerous in much the same way as Kierkegaard’s notion of the Knight of Faith. The principal difference between the two ideas may be that Kierkegaard’s Knight is the one who dares to receive and obey a terrifying command while Nietzsche’s Superman himself dares to issue the command.

Some messiahs have sought to occupy Nietzsche’s eagle perch beyond good and evil, and some have ventured, if possible, even higher: pretending to attain an Olympian summit where they do not merely exercise the right to recreate good and evil. They even surpass the need—and use—of any such standards at all. In their opinion, moral strictures are fit only for mere mortals and for such lesser beings the Messiah might legislate. But even his own laws need not apply to himself. I should characterize Charles Manson as such a messiah—a man who identified with both Jesus Christ and Satan, seeing little ultimate difference between them. Whatever he did or commanded his followers to do was not so much “right” as simply requisite, the command of God that shall not return void. Thus it was that Miyan Bayazid Ansari, the Pir Roshan (Guide of Light), founder of the sixteenth-century North-Indian Roshaniyah sect, announced, “Since nothing exists but God, what meaning is to be assigned to such terms as right and wrong, good and bad, excepting that every man should implicitly obey his religious instructor?”

The libertine Rinpoche Chögyam Trungpa (apostle of Tibetan Buddhism in North America) also positioned himself beyond worldly good and evil but not in so potentially sinister a sense. He was the proponent and embodiment of Buddhist Tantra. Tantric mysticism is named for the Tantras (treatises, tracts) in which it is expounded. Tantric doctrine imagines the perceived world of difference and multiplicity, plurality, and the like as arising from a primordial event analogous to sexual procreation with t
he world as the result. The Oneness of the Void is not lost but rather still invisibly underlies all things; the object is to return, in mind and spirit, to that primordial unity. Rituals designed to effect this passage into a trance state of Oneness aim at transcending all worldly distinctions by transgressing them in an elevated, disinterested state of mind (called “mere witness” or “right mindfulness”). This is called the “Left-Handed Path” and requires the use of the “five forbidden substances”: meat, beans, intoxicants, fish, and sex with a partner not one’s spouse. These things would be mortally sinful if partaken of in a worldly attitude, but since they are approached as means of grace, they accrue no ill karma. One Tantric verse says: “By the same acts that cause some men to boil in Hell for one hundred thousand eons, the yogi gains his eternal salvation.” The yogi engages in intercourse with his partner, all the while maintaining a fantastic degree of control over breath and even ejaculation, bringing the whole process to a crashing halt on the verge of climax. At this point he is catapulted, inwardly, back to the primordial state of cosmic Oneness.

The usual caution issued by yogis is that it is only in the trance state of Nirvana that worldly rules do not apply. As long as one, even an enlightened being, occupies the worldly level in consciousness, one remains obliged to observe the rules of good and evil as they appear in this realm of half-truths. The rules are appropriate here. And yet the Tantric transgressions, albeit performed in a holy state of detachment, are certainly exercises in the here and now of the envisioned reality of that other Order of Things. It is not too big a step from understanding this to realizing that one’s guru may exist in a transgressive state in order that he may be a living reminder of that inconceivable world of rapture. The guru thus exists as the Beyond here manifest. Thus, perhaps, we can understand Trungpa’s boozing and womanizing. Call it “crazy wisdom” like that of the Zen abbot who slaps and kicks his novices over the line into Satori. Or we might think of “Old Ugly Face,” a Tibetan Lama created and depicted by Theosophist novelist Talbot Mundy. His institutional trappings denoting great holiness seemed altogether belied by his grumpy and irritable demeanor, his thunderous tantrums and tyranny. And yet, once one had taken a few steps down the yogic path prescribed by Old Ugly Face, one recognized in him the Compassionate Buddha, whose cruel and snide thunderbolts are now understood as the human-level expressions of that Mysterium Tremendum that the guru embodies at a hidden level beyond the senses of mortal man. His mortal persona is but the mirage of the Nirmankaya or “transformation body” of the Buddha.

The Divine Avatar

Immediately adjacent to the model just considered is the role of the messiah or prophet as divine avatar, something at least functionally equivalent to being an incarnation of the deity. At least such a saint stands in for God, wielding plenipotentiary authority as his apostle on earth. Thus the controversial actions of the messiah stem not from his own mortal will or lust but rather from the higher, sin-exempt prerogatives of God. The man is but the visible medium. Any blame attaching to his actions—and there can be none—rightly belongs to God.

Many Sufi Muslims were scandalized at the notorious banqueting of the great tenth-century Persian Sufi Sheikh Abu Said ibn Abi’l-Khayr. He was constantly throwing lavish feasts for his student dervishes and hangers-on, demanding that well-wishing supporters foot the bill or clear up the resultant debts. How could such surfeiting possibly comport with the ascetical ideal of Sufism? As Reynold A. Nicholson explains it:

Asceticism and positive religion [orthodox devotions] are thus relegated to the lower planes of the mystical life. The Sufi needs them and must hold fast to them while he is serving his spiritual apprenticeship and also during the middle stage which is marked by longer or shorter intervals of illumination; but in his “last state,” when the unveiling is completed, he has no need for ascetic practices and religious forms, for he lives in permanent communion with God Himself. This leads directly to antinomianism (lawlessness), though in theory the saint is above the law rather than against it.

As the host of the great banquet (cf. Luke 14:15–24), Abu Said was incarnating the role of the Bhagavat, the Lord of Bounty.

Nicholson also speaks of “the widely spread feeling that it is impious to criticize the actions of holy men, which are inspired and guided by Allah himself.” Ironically, the Pharisee Simon looks askance at Jesus’s easy toleration for the advances of a streetwalker as proof that Jesus is no prophet after all (Luke 7:39), when he might better have let it pass as above reproach simply because Jesus was a prophet.

Uncommon Needs

Psychologists speak of “eccentricity credits,” a larger-than-usual amount of slack we are willing to grant to the great. We don’t blame scientists for dressing like rodeo roustabouts, professors for being absent-minded, artists for being ill-tempered, and so on. Their exceptional abilities take up so much of their mental energy that we are not surprised to find them emotionally or socially unbalanced. Or we may view it as a wiring glitch: not enough hard-drive capacity left to deal with mundane concerns. And that’s all right with us. We want them to have the liberty to do what they’re good at. And the same holds true for messiahs, charismatic religious leaders. The Reverend Jim Jones was known to have committed various sexual and other transgressions, but his followers had too much invested in him to reject him. They rationalized his behavior as the result of an uncommon man having uncommon needs. Thus he was exempt from the strictures that bound lesser men. He need not be a god; he was simply a special case.

God’s Favorite

Many spiritual virtuosi have been called God’s favorites, implying that God is an indulgent father who can refuse his pet human no request. The first-century bce holy man Honi the Circle-Maker was a well-known miracle worker. In times of drought, the people would come to him and ask him to intercede with God on their behalf. This Honi would do by drawing a circle around himself in the dirt and refusing to budge till his Father should make it rain. Honi invoked God not by any liturgically grand titles of invocation but only as the simple Abba, “Father.” And it would rain. There was no way God was going to turn down his son Honi!

The point is relevant to messianic antinomianism (freedom from otherwise applicable laws) for the simple reason that the holy man (precisely as a holy man!) might be exempted from God’s rules commanded to mortals in general. As Matthew has Jesus ask Peter: “From whom do worldly kings collect tribute: from their own sons, or from foreign subjects? Is it not the latter? Then the sons are exempt” (Matthew 17:25). In the same way, the hasidic holy men of Galilee around Jesus’s time were authenticated as God’s favorites by token of the wonders they performed, and yet the establishment rabbis carped at their laxity with regard to the niceties of the Torah. The laxity was fully as much a sign of the Hasids’ closeness to God as the miracles they performed. God was indulgent with his favorites.

The seventeenth-century Kabbalistic messiah Sabbatai Sevi had notoriously chowed down on some forbidden fat and, perhaps publicly, committed what in a lesser mortal would have been unorthodox liturgical innovations. But he had the clout with God to get away with it. His ritual
transgression—his disobedience to the Torah—is, again, a sign not of his being a sinner but of the very opposite: his being God’s greatest mortal friend.

Prophetic Blasphemy

Prophets have been known to engage in some mighty peculiar behaviors at God’s command, not to provide an example for everyday behavior, but to make some point through the charade. It was thus that Ezekiel cooked his food over a dung fire for all to see (Ezekiel 4:12) and that he lay for 390 days upon his left side, then for 40 more on his right (4:4–6). This is why Hosea married a whore (Hosea 1:2–3), why Isaiah went about Jerusalem naked and barefoot for three years (Isaiah 20:2–3), and so on. But surely the greatest example must be the shocking apostasy of seventeenth-century messiah Sabbatai Sevi, who boasted that he would convert the Ottoman sultan from Islam to Judaism! But the sultan turned the tables, demanding that the messiah convert to Islam. He did! Sevi lived out his life thenceforth as a Muslim, while his remaining followers thought up theological justifications for the terrible deed. Had the messiah gone among the heathens in order better to gather and redeem them? Had he plunged into the very depths of evil so as to subvert it from the inside?

The New Dispensation

Once Sevi had retired from public life to pursue Islamic devotions in private, many steadfast followers did take his aberrant behavior as the veritable path of discipleship. The figurehead of this movement, called the Frankists or the Dönmeh, was Jakob Frank, who announced himself as Sevi’s successor. Frank believed Sevi’s messianic advent had truly inaugurated the messianic age, but in secret. Thus for the time being it was in secret that they must observe the new Torah of the messianic age. Jewish mystics had long speculated that the tenor of the law would change in the messianic age, or else become moot, for the simple reason that so many of Moses’s 613 commandments were prohibitions of sinful deeds. When the Messiah had inaugurated the kingdom, it would mean an end to sin, the dawn of perfection. Then the law would be read in a whole new way: all that was once forbidden would now become permitted, even commanded! Thus their secret worship took the form of orgies of blasphemy. One day, when the messianic consummation should occur in the plain sight of all, no secrecy would be necessary.

Albert Schweitzer spoke of Jesus, too, teaching a messianic “interim ethic,” but in his view the emergency measures were that one ought to be absolutely righteous, unhampered by the worldly exigencies that usually cause us to compromise. For example, we fear that if we give away our possessions to the poor, we will squander the future for the sake of piety in the here and now. Only what if there is no future, except for the Kingdom of God, asked Schweitzer’s Jesus? Suppose it is on its way, hastening, indeed practically here already? Then the only sensible thing to do with goods and money that will soon perish is to use them the only way they can still do any good: to feed dying beggars like poor Lazarus. Then you will have treasure in heaven.

Alternatively, some apocalyptic believers have reasoned, one may squander and splurge; “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow old things pass away!” Again, failure to liquidate one’s worldly resources might denote a lack of faith in the coming end.

In any case, the ethic that results is appropriately a liminal one, a stance dictated by one’s finding oneself at the cusp of the ages, just while the old age is winding down and before the new one has fully dawned. It is an ethic on the edge. The old rules are set aside. Eschatological (“end-time”) antinomianism broke out numerous times in the history of the Melanesian cargo cults, all of which were predicated on apocalyptic revelations of a new age around the corner. As scholar Peter Worsley recounted: “Children no longer had their noses and ears perforated, as ear and nose ornaments were no longer used; hair was cropped short. This sharp break with the old morality, and the powerful emotions generated in the process, were emphasized by the public breaking of strict sexual taboos. Women behaved hysterically, threw off their garments.”

To Err Is Human

Some theologians have speculated that in Jesus’s incarnation God must have taken on the fallen nature of mankind, or else he would not have been a genuine human being. Edward Irving, founder of the nineteenth-century Catholic Apostolic Church, a precursor to Pentecostalism, as well as Karl Barth, the father of Neo-Orthodoxy, held this view, which was very controversial, though neither man said that Jesus actually committed sin. The notion has come in quite handy in rationalizing the scandalous behavior of more recent messiahs, including David Koresh. He liked an occasional beer, and his polygynous sexual practices are well known. He viewed himself as the Sinful Messiah, a second coming of Christ in a form easier for sinful humanity to relate to.

Semiologist Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Writer on Holiday,” makes such a “sinner Christology” more understandable. Barthes explained the appeal of the many magazine and television profiles of great writers, actors, and statesmen at home and at leisure: the divinity that we in effect ascribe to them is rendered the more marvelous insofar as the reporter depicts the Great Man as going to the supermarket (“Say, that’s Jerry Falwell over there buying cat food!”) or having mundane hobbies (“Karl Barth was an American Civil War buff? Wow!”)—or caught in sexual escapades (Bill Clinton, Barth, Tillich, and on and on). Their “miraculous, eternal substance . . . condescends to take a social form so that its prestigious difference is better grasped.” The very contrast enhances the aura of greatness.

The Trickster

Many mythologies contain tales of a trickster god: a resourceful, clever, and humorous deity or sprite, sometimes animal in form, like the American Indian Coyote, sometimes humanoid, like the Norse Loki. He is a god of mischief, and sometimes his tricks are stratagems on behalf of those who believe in him, miracles of a sort. Other times, he aims his pranks, even deadly ones, at his believers. In the latter case, we are seeing a kind of theodicy, a way of squaring mishaps, bad luck, and tragedy with the supposed regard of a providential deity. He cannot be simply malevolent; or, if he is, we have passed over into a different mythic category, and we are talking about a devil, not a trickster. Perhaps we are the hapless butt of a divine jest and, as good worshipers, we must have the creaturely humility to roll with the punches and hope that next time he punches somebody else.

The trickster is not only a cross-cultural mythic type; he is also considered a deep-seated archetype in the Jungian sense (else he would not pop up in so many mythologies worldwide). Carl Jung theorized that any human being may at some point so closely identify with a particular archetype that he comes to embody or incarnate it. It is a (temporary) means of grounding the self, adopting meaning from a fundamental pattern. Great humanitarians may be said to have embodied the Christ archetype and as a result serve all around them. But it can go too far; Jung also spoke of inflation of the archetype, a kind of megalomania where the ego swells up to try to fill the magnitude of the godlike archetype: “The worship of the archetypes implies their overvaluation, which frequently leads to the personality being possessed by an archetype. The ghastly apparition of spiritual pride soon rears its swollen head, and, instead of utilizing the power of the archetypes, individuals come to imagine that they have become a divine archetype themselves. Psychic inf
lation where persons imagine themselves godlike—rooted as they usually are in feelings of deep inferiority—makes a travesty of the individuation process and reduces the power of the gods to the level of the psychic caperings of fools and madmen.”

The archetype begins to split the seams of the merely human self, and one boasts prerogatives, immunities, privileges that befit an imagined god but soon corrupt the mere mortal. Such a religious leader or founder comes to command, to manipulate, to abuse. The behavior is not cynical. Such a person is not a crook or a fraud. He has become winged Icarus and is soon to crash. This is what I think happened to Joseph Smith. Somewhere along the line, he became inflated with the trickster archetype. The creation of the Book of Mormon was a trick in this sense. And who knows that he did not convince himself that he had rediscovered the truth of ancient Israelites in America? The whole thing would not have been too different from Carl Jung mystically taking on the persona of the Gnostic guru Basilides and authoring “The Seven Sermons to the Dead” in a period of mantic possession. Smith had created an artificial world of meaning for his followers, surely a trick (as Hindu theologians say, Brahma having made the world in an act of cosmic play). But then he looked at it, liked what he saw, and decided to dive in. By virtue of his “hoaxing” he had become the very creator of a fictive world of meaning (and which one isn’t?). Thus the divine freedom of the avatar, the incarnate God, the son of God, was henceforth his inheritance.

Joseph Smith—liar, lunatic, and lord—was certainly a paradoxical man, and it was inevitable that he should have left behind an equally paradoxical, puzzling legacy: noble yet dubious, a tree with rotten roots but tasty fruits. And maybe that’s the Mormon miracle.

Further Reading

  • Roland Barthes. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
  • J.K. Elliott trans. and ed. The Apocryphal New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Stephen Fuchs. Rebellious Prophets: A Study of Messianic Movements in Indian Religion. Publications of the Indian Branch of the Anthropos Institute No. 1. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1965.
  • Hermann Gunkel. Genesis. Trans. Mark E. Biddle. Mercer Library of Biblical Studies. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  • Stephan A. Hoeller. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1982.
  • William J. Hynes and William G. Doty. Mythical Trickster Figures. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
  • Arthur Mandel. The Militant Messiah, or The Flight from the Ghetto: The Story of Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement. Atlantic Highlands: A Peter Bergman Book, Humanities Press, 1979.
  • Talbot Mundy. Old Ugly Face. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1940.
  • Bezalel Naor. Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism: Study of an Underground Messianic Movement. Spring Valley, New York.: Orot, Inc., 1999.
  • Reynold A. Nicholson. Studies in Islamic Mysticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1921, 1985.
  • Robert D. Pelton. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Hermeneutics, Studies in the History of Religions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Paul Radin. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Schocken Books, 1987.
  • Gersham G. Scholem. “Redemption Through Sin” and “The Crypto-Jewish Sect of the Dönmeh (Sabbatians) in Turkey.” In Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
  • Gershom G. Scholem. Sabbati Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Trans. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky. Bollingen Series XCIII. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Albert Schweitzer. The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion. Trans. Walter Lowrie. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.
  • Victor Turner. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures/1966. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
  • Geza Vermes. Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. London: Collins/Fontana, 1977.
  • Peter Worsley. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of ‘Cargo Cults’ in Melanesia. New York: Schocken Books, 2nd ed., 1968.

Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price is the author of Beyond Born Again: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Case Against ‘The Case for Christ,’ and other books. He is also the host of the podcasts The Bible Geek and The Human Bible.


I have been convinced for some time that Joseph Smith’s claims about the discovery of the Golden Plates were a hoax, that Smith himself wr ote the Book of Mormon, that he forged the “Reformed Egyptian” writing he showed to Professor Charles Anthon, and that the whole imposture grew out of Smith’s earlier career as …

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