Gauging Joseph Smith

TracingWoodgrains - [original thread]
Eh, I'd recommend more the view of a hypothetical observer who thinks all of it is mostly just people being people. In this sense, Joseph Smith is neither unique nor even particularly egregious in his behavior, just following a long tradition of people claiming to be Heaven-sent and establishing a faith based on it. I agree that Joseph Smith wasn't what he said he was, but what he said he was was never "a reformer." It was "a prophet, comparable to Moses or Abraham, sent to restore God's church to Earth in the form Christ established, bringing the world out of a great Apostasy Christianity fell into shortly after the deaths of the Apostles."

Well, I think the distinction between well-intentioned looney and deliberate con-man is worth drawing, even if in most cases all we can do is make a poorly-educated guess. And even if some people really do seem to blur the line.

I think what I'm saying is that my impression is that we have enough evidence to justifiably conclude that Smith was an example of the latter. Do you agree? I'm curious as to your opinion because it's rare to encounter someone who's well-informed, rational, non-LDS, yet sympathetic to the LDS. You're, like, an ideal source of information.

Ha! On a meta-level, I love this forum sometimes. The conversations it enables are unlike almost anywhere else. I think it's great that we simultaneously started diving into these lines of questioning, for much the same reasons.

So, on Joseph Smith:

The man is complicated. He was an incredibly prolific speaker and writer, and every word from him that can be tracked down has been digitized and uploaded to a vast online library. Here's what makes it so tricky to gauge:

Every word of it is basically consistent.

As far as I've found, there wasn't any period at which he 'dropped the mask' and let things slip. Don't get me wrong: his story evolved and became grander over time. He retconned a few things in. But for the most part, he spoke, acted, and wrote the same way, all the time. Read a bit of this, written while he was in prison and while his followers were busy being driven out of Missouri. In particular, the first ten verses and verses 34-46.

That's basically his style. Full of praising God and grandiose proclamations, weaving a grand narrative that took in basically everything around him. Some artefacts come into his possession? Those must be ancient scrolls penned by Abraham. Pass a burial mound while hiking with his army? Oh, yes, this was Zelph, ancient Lamanite! Their "anti-bank" fails, a third of their membership defects, and they get driven from the city they were basically turning into a commune? Don't worry, God is simply testing us.

From somewhere around 14 at the earliest, 21 at the latest, until his death at 38, he was wholly committed to the movement he founded, never breaking character. As someone who made a video biography recently put it: he had his own army, his own city, his own county, his own bank, his own money, his own scripture, his own religion, around 30 wives, met the President of the US twice, (maybe) tried to assassinate a US Governor, was tatted and feathered, and escaped from jail 3 times. I'd add to that list: wrote thousands of pages of religious texts, ran for President, got thousands of people to immigrate to the US, had six children die in infancy (including one from exposure the night he was tarred and feathered), and was killed in prison.

All this to say: His claims clearly break down under scrutiny, but to this day, I have no idea what exactly motivated him. My instinct is that it was simple profit at first, spiraling from his early treasure-hunting, but things got out of control and at some point he started believing his own mythos. But he was one of the most fascinating people in US history, and if he was insincere, he never once dropped the mask.