Joseph Smith – the prophet puzzle

Joseph Smith – the prophet puzzle

Mormon History Association Meeting,
18 May 1996, Snowbird, Utah
Dan Vogel, 1996

In her provocative 1974 essay, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” [Shipps’s essay can be found in The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past and is well worth reading] Jan Shipps faced the anomalies in the historical record concerning Smith, noting that “[w]hat we have in Mormon historiography is two Josephs: the one who started out digging for money and when he was unsuccessful, turned to propheteering, and the one who had visions and dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the will of the Lord to a sinful world.” To resolve what she called the “schizophrenic state of Mormon history, with its double interpretive strand of Joseph Smith as a man of God and Joseph Smith as a kind of fraud who exploited his followers for his own purposes,” Shipps called for a more fully integrated view of Smith, one that would allow for the complexities of human personality. More than twenty years later, Joseph Smith remains an enigma for historians, both believer and non-believer alike.

My intent in this essay is not to rehash all the evidence on both sides of the prophet/fraud issue, but to accept the challenge of Shipps by suggesting a possible solution to her “prophet puzzle.” Unraveling the complexities of Smith’s character and motives is itself a complex process, but before the puzzle can be solved, all the pieces, or at least the significant ones, must be gathered and correctly interpreted. However, some important pieces of the puzzle, in my opinion, have been either entirely overlooked or mishandled–pieces which I believe fill out the picture and reveal previously unexposed features of Smith’s character. Ultimately, I hope to push our understanding of Joseph Smith beyond a simplistic prophet-or-fraud paradigm to reveal a hopelessly complex, seriously conflicted, and immensely gifted man. Mindful of Marvin S. Hill‘s warning that those who attempt such endeavors “must write with courage, for no matter what they say many will disagree strongly,” I will now–perhaps a little recklessly–pursue my subject.


The most obvious and direct solution to Shipps’ prophet puzzle is to suggest that Smith was what might be termed a pious fraud, someone who deceives to achieve holy objectives. This was the operating thesis of Lutheran minister Robert N. Hullinger’s 1980 book, Mormon Answer to Skepticism, Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon. Responding to Shipps’ complaint that the Book of Mormon “has by and large been neglected as a source which might facilitate a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s early career,” Hullinger attempted to discover Smith’s motives for writing the book through an examination of the book’s rhetoric, and concluded that “Joseph Smith . . . regarded himself as [a] defender of God.” “Even if one believes that Joseph Smith was at best a scoundrel,” Hullinger observed, “one still must account for the Book of Mormon.” Indeed, the book’s clearly religious appeal–its defense of God, Christ, and spiritual gifts, and its call to repentance–argues strongly against the presumption that Smith’s motives were malicious or completely self-serving.

Marvin S. Hill has similarly warned against seeing Smith in either/or terms, insisting that one balance the implications of Smith’s 1826 trial with his private and genuine expressions of religious concern. In his 1972 review of Fawn Brodie’s biography of Smith, Hill criticized its author for ignoring the religious side of her subject’s personality, or for portraying Smith as essentially irreligious. “[Brodie] says little about the rationalizations Joseph would have had to go through where his religious role was imposed upon him,” Hill observed. “Brodie was never able to take us inside the mind of the prophet, to understand how he thought and why. A reason for that may be that the sources she would have had to use were Joseph’s religious writings, and her Smith was supposed to be irreligious.”

Among the first lines Smith wrote in his new journal, which he began keeping in November 1832, was: “Oh my God grant that I may be directed in all my thoughts Oh bless thy Servant Amen.” A few days later he wrote: “Oh Lord deliver thy servant out of temptations and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding.” Such passages, unavailable to Brodie, are revealing of Smith’s inner, spiritual world, and those who ignore this fact, who fail to recognize a deeply spiritual dimension to Smith’s character, or who count his profession of religion as contrived for appearances only, are throwing away a major piece of the prophet puzzle. I am convinced that those who wish to understand Smith on his own terms must escape the confinement of Brodie’s paradigm.

At the same time, one cannot turn a blind eye to Smith’s willingness to deceive. One of the clearest indications is Smith’s public denials of teaching and practicing polygamy while privately doing so. But perhaps more relevant to the present subject is Smith’s activity as a treasure seer. This is one of those pieces of the puzzle that, I believe, has been mishandled, or at least not fully appreciated by Mormon scholars generally. Some wish to compartmentalize Smith’s treasure-seeing activity as irrelevant to his subsequent prophetic career, that it was an activity that Smith out grew rather than grew out of, or to view it as some kind of psychic training-ground with meditation for the developing prophet. If these perspectives are not completely inaccurate, they are at least incomplete.

Far from being the passive hired hand that Smith tried to portray himself as in his official history, he was in reality an aggressive and ambitious leader among the competing treasure seers of Manchester, New York. It was in fact his unparalleled reputation as a treasure seer that drew Josiah Stowell to Smith and to hire him, not as a digger, but as the seer who could locate the treasure. From November 1825 until his arrest and trial in South Bainbridge in March 1826, Smith was employed by Stowell and others to locate treasure not only in Harmony, Pennsylvania, but also at various locations in the southern New York Counties of Broome and Chenango. During the 1826 trial, Smith admitted under oath that he had been actively engaged as a treasure seer for the past three years and that he had recently decided to abandon the practice because it was straining his eyes. It was not without reason that Smith tried to conceal these facts in his history: if he did not consider them radically at odds with his subsequent role as prophet, he at least found them easier to suppress than to explain.

It is when we examine specific examples of Smith’s treasure seeing that Mormon explanations run aground. Jonathan Thompson, for instance, testifying in Smith’s defense at the trial, reported that on one occasion Smith located a treasure chest with his seer stone. After digging several feet, the men struck something sounding like a board or plank. Excitedly they asked Smith to look into his stone again, probably to verify the source of the sound as there was apparently some doubt. But, as Thompson reported, Smith “would not look again pretending that he was alarmed . . . on account of the circumstances relating to the trunk being buried [which] came all fresh to his mind, that the last time that he looked, he discovered distinctly, the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them and that one of said Indians was killed by the other and thrown into the hole beside of the truck, to guard it as he supposed.” The trial record says that Thompson is a believer in Smith’s “professed skill” and believes that “on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging.”

Now, Mormon historians must ask themselves the following questions: if Smith actually translated with his stone, did he not also locate real buried treasure by the same means? Specifically, in the instance that Thompson reported, was there an actual trunk and did Smith really see the two Indians who had fought over it? If Smith located a real treasure, why was it not recovered? Should historians accept Thompson’s explanation that the trunk was enchanted and slipped away from them? If Smith only imagined that he saw the treasure, did he also imagine seeing the translation? Or, if he only pretended to see the treasure, did he also pretend to see the tristorians are in the awkward position of either accepting the treasure- seeking lore of Smith’s day as reality, or come face-to-face with a Joseph Smith who either consciously or unconsciously deceived.

The fact that Smith allowed family and friends to handle the plates while covered with a cloth or concealed in a box excludes the possibility of an unconscious fraud. Likewise, a detailed examination of Smith’s activities as a treasure seer presents examples not easily explained as Smith’s self- deception. Josiah Stowell, another believer in Smith’s seeric gift, testified at the same trial that Smith said that he saw in his stone a treasure “on a certain Root of a stump 5 feet from [the] surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather.” After digging, Stowell said that they “found a tail feather, but the money was gone, that he supposed that [the] money moved down.” Stowell’s account excludes the possibility that Smith was unconsciously motivated, for the discovery of an object not normally found underground becomes either proof of Smith’s true seeric gift or evidence of his fraudulent activity. In this instance, rather than accepting Stowell’s explanation for the treasure’s disappearance, it is easier to explain that Smith planted the tail feather either during a previous visit to the area, or, more likely, during the process of digging. It may have been this kind of activity that gave Smith an edge over his seeric competitors, explaining perhaps also how he quickly excelled them in reputation.

Despite the apparent evidence of conscious fraud, I would caution against viewing Smith’s activity as a treasure seer in either/or terms, for it is possible that Smith was both deluded and deceptive in his operations. In other words, Smith may have been sincere in his claims about seeing treasures and their guardian spirits in his stone but that he sometimes was tempted to provide proof through fraudulent means, either to satisfy his followers or silence his enemies. Although the evidence for fraud is more easily demonstrated and should rightly govern our interpretation, nevertheless Smith’s complaint about being persecuted for his gift, if not pure rhetoric, may have been sincere after all.

In the Book of Mormon, Smith does not deny the treasure-seer’s worldview but integrates it with his subsequent religious beliefs, describing cursed and slippery treasures (Hel. 12:18-19; 13:17-22, 31; Morm. 1:18-19) but restricting the use of the seer stone to translating (Mos. 8:13-18). The fact that Smith’s claimed interviews with the heavenly messenger were concurrent with his treasure seeing and that he later used the same stone in translating the Book of Mormon excludes any explanation that would attempt to separate the two roles. If Mormon historians remain unpersuaded by the preceding analysis, as I suspect they will, they will at least better understand the dilemma of which Shipps speaks.


Hullinger’s pious- or devout-fraud thesis has the advantage of harmonizing many disparities that confront us in the historical record concerning Joseph Smith, and explains much of his motives and character that would otherwise remain illusive. But Hullinger, in my opinion, did not go far enough, for, like Brodie, he never attempted to explore the underlying assumption of his thesis. In other words, what were the rationalizations, or more precisely the inner moral conflicts, of an individual who could boldly deceive in God’s name while simultaneously holding a sincere religious belief?

In rejecting Brodie’s paradigm, one need not confuse Smith’s inner, spiritual world with the prophet-image that he projected to his followers. Those close to Joseph eventually discovered the great disparity between the mantle and the man, or between the persona and the person. Historians too must distinguish between the public and private Joseph Smith, between the myth and the man, and carefully peal back the layers of Smith’s public image, created to satisfy the demands of his followers, to expose the “real” Joseph Smith, or at least his true beliefs and assumptions. We must seek to discover the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual “reality” from which he operated. It is not enough to know that Smith was religious, or that he had a spiritual dimension to his character, one must know what those beliefs were–for what is privately believed, as opposed to publicly taught, can make all the difference.

Sometimes private beliefs can be clearly stated but withheld from the public, as with plural marriage. But often privately held beliefs and assumptions are unconsciously or unintentionally revealed in the implied or connotative meaning of texts. The remainder of this essay will therefore examine the texts of the Book of Mormon and Smith’s early revelations, highlighting instances in which he articulated the ideas and philosophies of a religious impostor, even the very principles upon which a pious fraud could be founded.

A revelation dictated by Joseph Smith in March 1830–the very month that the Book of Mormon came off the press–is most revealing of Smith’s early state of mind. Directed at Martin Harris, the revelation defends Universalist doctrine, a seeming reversal of Book of Mormon teaching, and advances an unorthodox version of Jesus’ atonement. A close examination of this revelation reveals not only Smith’s private belief in Universalism but also an unintentional glimpse into his pious rationalizations.

Despite scriptural references to the torment and suffering of the wicked, the revelation declares “it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment” (D&C 19:6), explaining that the terms “eternal punishment” and “endless punishment” simply mean “God’s punishment,” that “eternal” and “endless” are synonyms for God’s name (D&C 19:10-12). In other words, “endless” and “eternal” have reference to the nature or quality of the punishment, not to its duration as commonly supposed.

While one might wish to conclude that Smith was simply placating Harris, whose Universalist leanings may have caused him some misgivings about the book he had promised to financially sponsor, I would argue that the Restorationist tone of the revelation reflects Smith’s true theological leanings–leanings he would develop further in his 1832 vision of three heavens (D&C 76). The revelation itself suggests a reason for the conflicting doctrines, stating that God has purposely used misleading language in order “that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men” (D&C 19:7). In other words, God sometimes deceives humankind for their own good. This is exactly the kind of rationalization one would expect from a pious fraud or religious impostor.

Not surprisingly the revelation invokes secrecy concerning its contents. Fearing that its teaching of a temporary hell would encourage sinners to remain unrepentant, the revelation instructs its recipients to “preach nought but repentance; and show not these things, neither speak these things unto the world, for they can not bear meat, but milk they must receive: Wherefore, they must not know these things lest they perish” (BofC 16:22-23, emphasis added; compare D&C 19:21-22). Despite publicly posing as a believer in the traditional heaven and hell, Smith was secretly a type of Universalist and therefore did not fear an eternal, never-ending hell that would have troubled most pious frauds.

Like his predecessors, Smith may have taken comfort in such biblical examples as Abraham and Jacob. Fearing for his life, Abraham instructed his wife Sarah to withhold their true marital status from the Egyptians and present him instead as her brother (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:12). This was a half-truth, certainly, but a deliberate deception nonetheless. Perhaps responding to those–like Bible commentator Adam Clarke–who found it difficult to excuse Abraham’s behavior, Smith included in his Book of Abraham a rather predictable variation on the already troubling story. Instead of Abraham telling his wife to lie about their marital status, Smith has God instruct Abraham to tell Sarah to lie (Abr. 2:22-25 / Gen. 12:11-13). Thus in excusing Abraham, Smith introduced the more troubling proposition that God is sometimes the author of deception. This assertion would have undoubtedly outraged not only Clarke but orthodox believers generally, that is, had they been paying sufficient attention to Smith’s teachings. It was nevertheless a concept that fit comfortably with Smith’s personal and private theology.

Jacob’s deception of Isaac is perhaps the most striking example from the Bible (Gen. 27). At the instigation of his mother Rebekah, who agreed to receive the curse should Isaac discover the deception (v. 13), Jacob extracted the first-born’s blessing from his blind father by pretending to be his older twin brother Esau. Of course the deception is justified on the grounds that Esau had incorrectly exited the womb first and that deception was only necessary to fulfill God’s will. In the popular commentary of Smith’s day, Methodist Adam Clarke dismissed the suggestion of some that Rebekah was acting under “Divine inspiration,” but nevertheless quoted one ancient Chaldaic Targum that renders Rebekah’s words differently than the Hebrew or Septuagint versions: “It has been revealed to me by prophecy that the curses will not come upon thee, my son.” Seemingly aware of the story’s possible misuse, Clarke warned that the author of Genesis “nowhere says that God would have any man to copy this conduct.”

Despite such biblical precedent, Universalism remains a major element in Smith’s ability to rationalize his fraudulent activities, both as a treasure seer and later as a prophet. Combined with a belief that God sometimes deceives in order to save his children, Universalism helps explain how Smith could perpetrate a religious fraud while at the same time having all the appearances of a deep and sincere faith. Those who continue to overlook this aspect of his private belief system, I submit, will never understand his evolution as a prophet.


The opening portion of the Book of Mormon includes the story of Nephi obtaining possession of the brass plates through deception and murder (1 Ne. 4). Despite the Spirit’s command, Nephi is hesitant to kill the drunken and defenseless Laban. “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man,” Nephi protests (v. 10). This is not unlike the moral dilemma that Abraham faced when commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, only that Nephi will actually carry out the directive (Gen. 22:1-14; cf. D&C 132:36, 50-51). The Spirit reissues the command and reasons with Nephi: “Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (vv. 12-13; cf. John 11:50). Overcoming his aversion to murder, Nephi cuts Laban’s head off with his own sword. Dressed in Laban’s armor, Nephi–like biblical Jacob– deceives Laban’s servant into giving him the brass plates. Thus by crossing moral lines Nephi accomplished the Lord’s errand and thereby preserved the Hebrew scriptures to future Nephite generations.

The Book of Mormon’s version of Adam’s Fall also lends itself to pious rationalizations. A radical departure from orthodox Christianity, the Book of Mormon declares that the Fall was part of God’s plan, and that it would ultimately produce more good than evil: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Similar to Nephi, Joseph’s Adam found it necessary to violate God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge in order to fulfill a higher law and bring about a greater good. Smith was not the originator of what is sometimes called the fortunate Fall, to be sure, but for more than obvious reasons he was perhaps attracted to an otherwise obscure idea.

The essence of what probably attracted the would-be prophet to the fortunate Fall is clearly set forth in the words of fifth-century theologian St. Augustine, who reasoned: “The works of God are so wisely and exquisitely contrived that, when an angelic and human creature sins . . . it fulfills what He willed.” English poet John Milton portrayed Adam as uncertain if he should even repent of his sin, since by it God had produced so much good that otherwise would have remained undone:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth . . .

In order that “much more good . . . shall spring” from his sin, Milton’s Adam decides to delay repentance trusting in God’s mercy. Thus, unlike Eve, Adam had willfully sinned and knowingly brought both spiritual and physical death upon himself–all for the good of humankind. The advantages of the fortunate Fall for the pious fraud are obvious, and Smith was perhaps attracted to it because it seemed to justify the ethically contradictory actions of his own mission.


Assuming Joseph Smith a pious fraud, did he–like the Targum’s Rebekah or even his own Abraham–believe his deception was inspired of God? Specifically, did Smith believe the Book of Mormon was inspired although he knew it was not ancient history? Despite Smith’s claims that the Book of Mormon resulted from a purely mechanical process of translation (one in which Smith simply read the translation from the seer stone), he seems to have actually operated from a liberal view of revelation, one that would rationalize the production of fraudulent scripture.

Early in the work of translation, Oliver Cowdery expressed a desire to translate himself and received permission through a revelation Smith dictated (D&C 8). However, without use of the translator’s stone, Cowdery was at a loss about how to proceed. A subsequent revelation explained his failure: “Behold you have not understood, you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you: therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. Now, if you had known this you could have translated” (D&C 9:7-10).

As an experienced rod worker and clairvoyant, Cowdery naturally expected the “translation” to be revealed to him from an outside source. In the previous revelation, God had promised Cowdery: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 8:2). Now he is being told that “you must study it out in your mind”–that the translation would come from his own thoughts. Thoughts about what? What is there to work out in one’s mind if there is nothing there to begin with? If the thoughts come from his own mind, is not that the same as writing the book himself? It is doubtful that Cowdery found such a definition of translation useful–at least he never returned to the subject although “other records” awaited his attention.

Regardless of the outcome, the revelation hints that Joseph privately held a definition of translation and revelation that was more liberal than that of many of his followers, one which is so internal that the seer stone and the plates become mere props. Of course, Joseph encouraged the view that he was simply reading the God-given translation from his stone when actually he was working the words out in his mind like any writer, dictating the words he felt good about and forgetting those not worth remembering. Oddly, the revelation asks Cowdery: “For, do you not behold that I have given unto my servant Joseph sufficient strength, whereby it is made up? and neither of you have I condemned” (v. 12). Joseph’s definition of translation is not unlike the inspiration that many serious writers experience.

Near the close of the Book of Mormon, Moroni writes that “every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God” (Moro. 7:13). And again, “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (v. 16). In another place Christ is made to reason: “These things are true; for it persuadeth men to do good. And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. I am the same that leadeth men to all good” (Eth. 4:11-12). Thus even if Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself, under this definition it would have to be considered inspired of God because it attempts to persuade mankind to do good and to believe in Christ.

Smith’s reasoning was simple, the Book of Mormon is of God because “all things which are good cometh of Christ” (v. 24), for the devil “persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him” (v. 17). Thus it is likely that he extended the principle to include himself: his desire to save others was itself inspired of God and proved that he was not an evil person.

Early in his career it is likely that Smith conceived his prophetic role much the same as the Book of Mormon prophets, who for the most part write according to their best knowledge rather than by direct revelation. Mormon, whose early life parallels Smith’s–including being “visited of the Lord” at age fifteen–became the editor by “commandment” and records the things he has “both seen and heard” (Morm. 1:1, 5). He was chosen to write the final chapter of his people’s history because he is “sober” and “quick to observe” (v. 2). His son Moroni later confesses that he and his father made their records “according to our knowledge” (9:32). Nephi also made his record by “commandment of the Lord” and “according to my knowledge” (1 Ne. 1:3; 9:3, 5; 19:2, 3), and is qualified for the work because he is “highly favored of the Lord” and possesses “a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Ne. 1:1). Perhaps Smith, too, believed that he was specially qualified to write scripture, that God had called upon him because of his talent as a story teller and considerable powers of persuasion, that he was inspired by God in the general but not in every particular.


Again, assuming Smith a pious fraud, what did he believe his own fate would be? It may be that Smith believed that with God’s sanction he would be exempt from punishment, but there is another possibility, one that perhaps takes us to the core of his private world.

The March 1830 revelation declares that the unrepentant would suffer for their own sins: “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” (D&C 19:16-17). Of course, the idea that humans can suffer like Jesus for their own sins is viewed by orthodox Christians as an infringement on Jesus’ infinite atonement, but in Smith’s day it was a concept held by many Restorationists in one form or another. Applied to Smith’s pious fraud, his reasoning perhaps went something like the following: those who believe the Book of Mormon and repent, regardless of the book’s true origin, will be saved and not suffer in hell, or, perhaps of more immediate concern, will not be destroyed at Jesus’ appearing. For this act, Smith–like Jesus–would suffer in a temporary hell and become a savior unto his followers.

That Smith’s mission of saving souls went beyond the usual calling of sinners to repentance is perhaps hinted at when the Book of Mormon applies Old Testament scripture, traditionally interpreted as Messianic prophecy, to Joseph Smith. Jesus, for instance, is made to declare concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon: “there shall be among them those who will not believe it, although a man shall declare it unto them [Acts 13:41]. But behold, the life of my servant shall be in my hand; therefore they shall not hurt him, although he shall be marred because of them. Yet I will heal him [Isa. 52:13-14], for I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil” (3 Ne. 21:9-10; emphasis added). Here Jesus alludes to Isaiah’s suffering servant (previously quoted in 20:43-44), traditionally interpreted as a Messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus (compare Jn. 12:37-38; Mk. 9:12), and applies it to Joseph Smith.

Smith’s savior-like role may have later escalated to pathological proportions. According to Heber C. Kimball, Smith “many times” said: “Would to God, brethren, I could tell you who I am! Would to God I could tell you what I know! But you would call it blasphemy, and there are men upon this stand who would want to take my life.” Smith may have come close to revealing his secret identity when he declared in August 1842, according to the record of Franklin D. Richards, that “the Holy Ghost is now in a state of Probation which if he should perform in righteousness he may pass through the same or a similar course of things that the Son has.” If Smith had reference to himself as some Mormons at the time believed, he may well have considered martyrdom as the best conclusion to his mission.

One might therefore view Smith’s death as an inevitable extension of his Messiah complex. Even Smith’s reported comment–“I am going like a lamb to the slaughter” (D&C 135:4)–has Messianic overtones (Isa. 53:7; Acts 8:32). I would therefore argue that Smith’s death was both a martyrdom and an atonement. According to Smith family tradition, Joseph told his mother: “I go as a lamb to the slaughter, but if my death will atone for any faults I have committed during my life time I am willing to die.”

Due to his particular psychology, Smith would have found it difficult to resist martyrdom. The Book of Mormon is ostensibly about division and war between nations, between the opposing forces of good and evil. I would submit, however, that the war between good and evil that Smith wrote about was really within himself, that Joseph was struggling to resist his Universalist father’s example. In this sense, I would argue, the Book of Mormon is less a reflection of Smith’s environment than a mirror revealing the contours of his own image. Smith confessed that before writing the book he had fallen into “divers temptations to the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.” Joseph desperately wanted to be like Nephi, Abinadi, Alma, and Mormon. Instead, near the end of his life he had become more like a king Noah, whom Joseph portrayed as decadent and gluttonous for his excessive drinking, concubinage, and preoccupation with worldly power and wealth.

In Joseph’s book, those who fall from grace are usually destroyed. While the Lamanites, misguided by tradition, ignorantly sin, the Nephites sin against the light deliberately, knowing the commandments, and therefore deserve their fate having turned away from God (Alma 9:12-30). Even while writing the Book of Mormon, Smith was perhaps troubled by guilt and doubt about his mission and motives. Would the deception–the dark underbelly of his personality that he drew upon to carry out his pious fraud–overtake and consume the good he hoped to do? Near the end of his career Smith publicly denounced the charge of some of his followers that he had become a fallen prophet, but privately he was perhaps burdened with guilt. By taking other men’s wives, Smith had violated even the stipulation of his own revelation (D&C 132:61). His good side–his prophet-image–was being uncontrollably corrupted.

Less than a year before his death, Smith dictated a revelation defending the principle of plural marriage, which he and some of his followers were already practicing. Among other things the revelation included the following promise to Smith: “I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your Father. Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac” (D&C 132:49-50; emphasis added). Indeed, Abraham too had faced a moral conundrum, but at the last moment God provided a means of escape.

The revelation perhaps alludes to the method of Smith’s “escape” when it advances the doctrine of making one’s calling and election sure, whereby individuals sealed by the “Holy Spirit of promise” are insured salvation despite all manner of subsequent sins, excluding blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, although they might be “destroyed in the flesh” and for a time “delivered unto the buffetings of Satan” (v. 26). This concept is not unlike the Restorationist doctrine defended in the March 1830 revelation, although it is now framed in the context of the vision of three heavens and pertains to those who are to receive “exaltation” in the highest heaven. While previous revelations speak of delivering sinners over to the “buffetings of Satan” (D&C 78:12; 82:21; 104:9, 10), this is the only revelation to advance the notion of also being “destroyed in the flesh,” which I would suggest alludes to Smith’s own fate. To those, like Emma, who would criticize Joseph, the Lord cautions: “I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions” (v. 60).

In the Book of Mormon, Smith had twice built mighty nations, only to have them destroyed in the end. This was the story of Kirtland, Ohio, Independence, Missouri, Nauvoo, Illinois, and nearly also the church. It was, I suggest, the limited “reality” and repetitive scenario that ruled Smith’s inner world. No matter how hard he tried to imagine it, there was no happy ending to his story.


In my pursuit of the prophet puzzle I have sought to understand Joseph Smith, not to condemn him. Smith, to be sure, presents historians with a formidable puzzle, but, as Shipps has well said, “The mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith.” The paradigm explored in this essay attempts not only to bring Shipps’ two Joseph’s together but also to search out his motives, inner conflicts, and rationalizations as suggested by Hill. Because this paradigm has the advantage of explaining the historical record more fully than previous attempts, either pro or con, I believe it is destined to replace that of Brodie’s, at least as far as non-Mormon historians are concerned.

As a refinement of Hullinger’s thesis, I would suggest that Smith really believed he was called of God to preach repentance to a sinful world but that he felt justified in using deception to more fully accomplish his mission. Like the faith healer who uses plants or confederates in his congregation to create a faith-promoting atmosphere in which the true miracles can occur, Smith assumed the role of prophet, produced the Book of Mormon, and issued revelations to create a setting in which true conversion experiences could take place. It is the true healings and conversions that not only justify deception but also convince the pious frauds that they are perhaps after all real healers or real prophets.

What did Smith hope to accomplish by his pious fraud? One goal of Smith’s deception, as the March 1830 revelation shows, was to bring humankind to repentance even if by misdirection or dishonesty. Initially, Smith hoped to frighten his fellow humans into repentance and therefore help them avoid the torments of even a temporary hell. Later, he will use the incentive of higher rewards. Meanwhile, if mankind were saved by incorrectly believing in an eternal hell, to that end Smith perhaps believed his method was justified. Whatever the means, Smith believed his followers would be saved as long as their repentance and faith in Christ were sincere.

Smith’s March 1830 revelation, the Book of Abraham, the story of Nephi and Laban, and the fortunate Fall demonstrate that Smith believed that God sometimes inspires deception, that some sins are according to his will, or that occasionally it is necessary to break one commandment in order to fulfill a higher law. We may never know exactly Smith’s reasoning, but the least that can be said is that if he wrote the Book of Mormon, became a prophet, and founded the church as a pious fraud, it is quite evident that he had the psychological means of justifying such an act.