Playing the Ball as It Lies

Jun 27, 13 Playing the Ball as It Lies

As I read the words of Joseph Smith, his personality seems to come right off the page. Easy to like and easy to trust, he is that old family friend I’ve  looked up to, a hero of my youth even. Of this charismatic prophet who wore his heart on his sleeve, John Taylor wrote that he has “done more save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world….”[1] I love hearing about how he, in true prophetic form, strides across a room and takes a woman’s withered arm and by the power of God commands her to be healed. I love it when he stands in chained majesty, like a lion and rebukes the wicked guards while being held captive, or promises a friend that he will not taste death. These stories warm my heart and I smile at the thought of my prophet doing just what he’s supposed to.

Through the years my constant gnawing hunger to know God has driven me to continually dig for more truth and, as is the case with digging, it gets dirty. Getting to the valuable ore involves turning up a lot of this dirt, in fact, sometimes the ore is the dirt. Some of the dirt I’ve uncovered about Joseph is alarming. I feel uncomfortable or even sick as I read about him lying to Emma, getting in a yelling match with her, fighting with his brother William, the unfulfilled prophesies, polygamy practiced in secret or a story about the supposed contents of the counterfeit Kinderhook plates[2]. These are not the things I was hoping to find. I want to grab him and say, “What are you doing? You’re messing it all up! The last thing I need is a prophet who is no better than the rest of us.” You see, Joseph doesn’t know how much I’ve invested in him acting a certain way. The problem with me wanting him to behave more like a prophet is that I’ve never actually known one. I do, however, know what I expect of one.

For Joseph, I had a neat, clean, precisely measured box that was given to me sometime during adolescence. At the time, he fit into it perfectly. I had his pants and his shirt all pressed and laid out for him. I had his hair color and sense of humor neatly arranged. Even his accent was nailed down. Surely a New England farmer from the 19th century would pronounce words like “god” just like they do in Provo, right? I’ve seen the church videos. I think I know what I’m talking about. My Joseph was tall and charming, and filled with the spirit from sun up to sun down. He certainly wasn’t confused about anything and he never had doubts. I idolized him. He was beautiful as idols often are. I didn’t think to ask Joseph if the pleated pants I had for him fit. I just assumed they would. He was a kind of graven image, a conglomerate of carefully selected stories held together by church manuals with the best intentions, fireside talks, and the testimonies of friends, all things lovingly delivered, and, of course, generous amounts of hope as well as fear, fear to question what I believed the spirit had confirmed. When pieces of him would fall off, I would carefully hammer them back in place. I fiercely protected and defended my Joseph against doubts and questions. After all, I could not afford to have a weak or lame prophet. The God I knew would only work through people of the highest quality.

Years ago I read that in Nauvoo Joseph would sometimes go down to the docks, dressed in the worst clothes he could find, to meet newly arriving members. Without introducing himself, he would ask them what they thought about this Joseph Smith. To one man who had just expressed faith, he replied, “I am the prophet, but I have worn these rough clothes to let you know that if you expect me to be anything other than a man, that you should get back on that boat and go back to England.”[3] At the time I first read this I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear those same words.

I’ve finally had that conversation with him. I’ve conceded and will play the ball as it lies. I’ve become more interested in discovering who he was than deciding who he was. Some things still make me uncomfortable, but from my reading of scripture I’m not sure the gospel is as much about being comfortable as I wish it were. I’m not going to waste any more time insisting Joseph be different. God is trying to show me something. He’s trying to split my mind wide open and show me what he can do with the weak things of the world.

Joseph Smith?

Joseph is that crumbly old rock dug out of the ground which, if we are observant and careful, will reveal the life of an ancient sea bed a million years old or give us clues about the age of the earth. He is a stone like many others, but he’s one that I believe God has touched and caused to provide light for our dark journey to the Promised Land. We would do well to remember that while this stone is a revelatory tool, it’s also still a rock and if we set it on the tablecloth it will leave a smudge. If we throw it away because of it behaving like a rock, well, if only the gift of prophecy guaranteed a well-behaved prophet. Prophets are people. That is all they ever have been and all they ever will be. In fact, it seems sometimes the gift of prophecy comes despite behavior rather than because of it.

As far as joseph’s work goes, I’ve read critiques of the Book of Mormon pegging it as a fictional work of obvious nineteenth-century American origin with its anti-Catholic or anti-Masonic themes. I’ve read how the Book of Abraham bears no resemblance to what modern translators see in the available source text or facsimiles. And so on and so on. And these aren’t silly arguments as some apologists would make them out to be. I can’t resolve them, yet I still believe. The Mormon historian Richard Bushman, when confronted by a Christian friend about the problems of the Book of Mormon, replied saying, “Isn’t there some kind of human, existential truth that resonates with one’s desires for goodness and divinity [in scripture]? And isn’t that ultimately why we read the Bible as a devotional work? We don’t have to read the latest issues of the journals to find out if the book is still true. We stick with it because we find God in its pages- or inspiration, or comfort, or scope. That is what religion is about in my opinion, and it is why I believe the Book of Mormon.”[4]

The poet, Alex Caldiero, when asked about his faith in Joseph Smith as a kind of coyote figure or trickster on one hand and a prophet on the other, said that to him Joseph was a “true charlatan of God.” He continued saying, “my testimony… is based on that connection…. Picasso once said that ‘art is the lie that tells the truth,’ and Joseph Smith for me is that kind of person, as Picasso would be. He’s the liar that tells the truth. Now some people have a problem trying to encapsulate those two ideas and make them coexist…, but for me it’s a natural.”[5] I like this description because sometimes I see in Joseph what seems like a propensity to get caught up in telling stories. It’s like he has a kind of uninhibited creativity. Maybe Joseph would be a good example of what Paul called being “fool’s for Christ’s sake.”[6] Maybe it was these very aspects of Joseph’s character, the ones that make us uncomfortable, that God was using as a channel of revelation, like Joseph’s flare for the dramatic or propensity to tell stories. Should it surprise us that God might take some mortal, or even broken, part of us and repurpose it or even redeem it?[7] Is this not what restoration is? This is, after all, what Joseph did with masonry. He took it and repurposed it for the temple.

Joseph’s unrepressed and maybe even compulsive spiritual creativity often expressed itself as a kind of theological flexibility. How many drafts of revelations are there? How many changes? Did Joseph feel funny about scratching out lines from a previous revelation or reinterpreting scripture? Even though he talked often about completing the work he was called to do, he never seemed to be finished. He couldn’t leave things alone. I’m not sure he was supposed to. We hang so much weight on his last words about a given subject without looking at the trajectory of his theology. Think about the succession crisis after his death. He had at different times promised many different people they would be prophet after him. We assume his final words are the ones that count the most and we apply the same rule to his doctrines and ideas, but had he lived even a few more days who knows what he would have changed or developed.

I’m thinking about the way his first vision story and all of his stories evolved, the way his view of the God-head changed or even the way he went on about the supposed contents of the Kinderhook plates or the story of Zelf[8]. He was a man of seemingly fearless creativity and curiosity. Always searching, he said in response to the fear of new and different revelation, “I despise the idea of being scared to death…. I want to see all in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom.”[9]

We tend to view Joseph as though he was called to restore a piece of furniture. Think of him toiling away in his shop over the frame of an old chair, sanding, tightening up joints, replacing lost hardware, adding layers of fresh stain and varnish. He often said that he would not be allowed to die until he had finished his work. If his death is evidence that his work was completed then the chair, as it were, has been restored to its original design and is now finished. This metaphor would work if the Church and its ordinances were concrete and static objects like a chair, but the Church is described as a true and living thing[10], and, as we now know, living things evolve.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “at eighteen our convictions are the hills from which we look; at forty-five they are the caves in which we hide.”[11] To me, Joseph Smith was eighteen. I hate to admit that often I behave like I’m forty-five in this respect. Based on many talks and Sunday school lessons and even conference talks I’ve heard, I’m not the only forty-five year old in church. I’m not trying to criticize Church policy or the Brethren, besides, who can blame a general authority for being cautious when we look to him to be as great as the mighty Joseph Smith and Babe, his big blue ox. I do wonder if blacks would not have received the priesthood earlier if we had followed Joseph’s lead in despising the idea of being scared to death, scared to move wrong, scared to try something different, scared to question. Especially considering that the reasons to restrict blacks from priesthood, according to a church statement, are “not entirely clear.”[12] Maybe they were clear before 1978. It doesn’t really matter. I have to take responsibility for my own fear. I am, after all, a little piece of the Mormon Church.

Each of us is standing in the place of Adam or Eve with our little compasses and squares given to us by Joseph as a reminder that, like him, we are God’s little architects, not just laborers, but designers. In fear I secretly hope that since Joseph completed his work maybe that means he completed mine as well, or that if I must search for God maybe he is as boxed up and predictable as my Joseph used to be. No, that God ceased to be meaningful to me years ago. I know that if I or anyone else is going to commune with the real God, the inscrutable God[13] of a violent and confusing world, like Joseph, we must search the world for truth as if for the first time[14] and that like Joseph only death will finish our work. We can’t afford to hide under our religion or the work of dead prophets. There is a God who wants to be discovered anew and who is hiding in plain sight. He hides in the rocks and creeks and mountains. He hides in the faces of the weak and the strong and especially the annoying. Finding him must require adherence to what we have already tested to be true along with a radical faith, sacrifice, and searching.

We have to stand with Joseph, not Joseph the idol, but Joseph the man. With him, we must hug life to our bosom or we will not know the God he knew.


[1] Doctrine and Covenants 135:3

[2] Metal plates with writing on them presented to Joseph Smith as having been dug out of a mound in Kinderhook, Illinois. He was asked to translate them and according to William Clayton, “Joseph had translated a portion and says that they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” The plates were later proved to be fake. -Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print. p 490.

[3] Quoted from memory of Truman G. Madsen’s lecture series Joseph Smith the Prophet. http://deseretbook.com/Joseph-Smith-Prophet-Truman-G-Madsen/i/5090135

[4] Bushman, Richard L. On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary. Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford, 2007. Print. 2007 p 15.

[6] 1st Corinthians 4:10

[7] In an interview for athoughtfulfaith.org, Mormon theologian Adam Miller was quoted from his forthcoming book Letters to a Young Mormon, saying “If, as the Bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-armed experiments in theocracy or George Albert Smith’s mental illness.”  – Miller, Adam. “Adam Miller on Grace.” A Thoughtful Faith. Podcast. 15 Apr. 2013. http://athoughtfulfaith.org/2013/04/08/039-040-adam-miller-on-grace/

[8] During the march of Zion’s Camp through Illinois, some bones were discovered buried in a mound. Heber C. Kimball wrote, “it was made known to Joseph that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelph

[9] Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980. Print. p380-381

[10] Doctrine and Covenants 1:30

[11] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. Comp. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner, 1989. Print. p 31

[13] In an article for Sunstone Magazine discussing the complexities of his faith, Mormon  historian D. Michael Quinn stated, “…as a Restoration believer in the inscrutable God of Genesis, of Leviticus, of Job, of birth defects and leprosy, of Calvary and the empty tomb, of Mecca, of Black Death, of Inquisitions, of Native American genocide, of Palmyra, of Haun’s Mill and Mountain Meadows, of Lourdes, of multi-million deaths in natural disasters called “acts of God,” of Auschwitz, of Hiroshima, of infantile paralysis, of Cambodia, of pandemic starvation, of AIDS, of Bosnia, of Rwanda, of pediatric cancers, of 9/11, who is also the God of the most recent tragedy and the most recent miracle among us, I speak with the knowledge that my own faith, hope, and love may also be betrayed.” -Quinn, D. Michael. ““To Whom Shall We Go?” Historical Patterns of Restoration Believers with Serious Doubts.” Sunstone Magazine May 2005: p 34. Sunstonemagazine.com. Web. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/137-26-37.pdf

[14] In an interview for athoughtfulfaith.org, Adam Miller was quoted from his forthcoming book Letters to a Young Mormon, saying, “You are a pioneer. Life has never before been lived in your body. Everything must be done again, as if for the first time. You are an aboriginal Adam, a primal Eve. You are a Mormon.”  – Miller, Adam. “Adam Miller on Grace.” A Thoughtful Faith. Podcast. 15 Apr. 2013. http://athoughtfulfaith.org/2013/04/08/039-040-adam-miller-on-grace/ 

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David Nicolay

David Nicolay is the man and does man things. Also, he was born and raised in Kansas where he attended a community college almost long enough to obtain an Associates Degree. Almost. He and his wife have 2 children so far and live in Salt Lake City where he works for an internet service provider.

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28 Comments

  1. tiffany /

    I liked reading your post. I hope I can get to where you are someday. I am still at a point where I don’t know if I can stand with a man who cheated on his wife with an underage girl. I don’t know if I can stand with a man who sent husbands away just to marry their wives. It still hurts but it was great to read that you’re at peace with it.

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Tiffany, I wouldn’t say I’m at peace with Joseph’s polygamy, etc. I refuse to ignore it though. I also wont ignore what joseph has given me. I see great value and truth in a lot that came out of him. Its almost like I’m trying to restore my own inner church using what he gave me and I have to decide how to care for the difficult parts. I’m still troubled by things like polygamy. Maybe I’m at peace with being troubled. I’m glad you liked the post.

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  2. Katie /

    Absolutely fantastic! I love this!

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  3. Wow. Unlike Joseph, this is perfect. Joseph is the great paradox and metaphor. Like you, despite all his many flaws and sins, I cannot walk away from Mormonism. There is truth in it.

    You better write more for us.

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    • Camille /

      Michael Barker: I cannot walk away from Mormonism. There is truth in it.

      I’m very hung up on this idea right now and I just don’t know what to do with it. I can’t walk away because I believe in the Book of Mormon, baptism, the priesthood (blessings, etc) but I can’t seem to reconcile it when I’m sitting in sacrament meeting. I feel like a fraud. No. That sounds really harsh. Maybe just really inauthentic.

      Tell me what to do with that. K? Thanks. :)

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      • Camille /

        PS I love this post! lol

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      • David Nicolay
        David Nicolay /

        Camille, What do you mean you can’t seem to reconcile it while sitting in sacrament meeting? Do you mean the meetings don’t move you and you feel like they should, or like you’re not living right? Or maybe you feel like you don’t mix? I’m curious.

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        • Camille /

          Hmm. Well no – they don’t generally move me. Except the random testimony that is really about a love of the actual gospel and Christ, maybe.

          But mostly it’s that I feel like I don’t fit in. And I feel like attending is a sign that I agree with the general consensus of the group – and that makes me feel dishonest.

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  4. Jonathan /

    Yeah! Write more for them or they’ll break down your door asking for more. Beware the Barker Blog Brigade!

    J/K- Rational Faiths is one of my favorite blogs out there, and I’m honored to have ever contributed. I hope to see lots more David Nicolay-authored posts in the future.

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Aww shucks. That means we have to talk more weird Mormon stuff if Megan can handle that. We can fuel each others minds.

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  5. Heatherly /

    Insightful perspective. Certainly I would not be able to write such. There are times in my life when people have(for whatever reason) thought I am perfect or expected me to be. Of course no one can go through life without making mistakes. No one wants to be made into an Idol and certainly it is not fair to make anyone into a perfect being. We all have our flaws. I suppose your post made me think about that. My faith is not shaken by others having made mistakes even such as Joseph Smith. I am grateful for the good he did do. Certainly I am eternally grateful for his willingness to be an instrument in Gods hands despite his weaknesses. I really enjoy hearing how you came to have a testimony and the journey you went through.

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  6. Aimee /

    Hi David. I really enjoyed your discussion here. I have often thought about knowing him as a man verses the idillic version that is painted for us at church.

    I am in the YW presidency and have been thinking about how I can teach about JS in an honest way without making parents mad at me. I can’t feel authentic to teach the sugar coated version but is it my place to teach the real version? I want to teach it that way as to prevent crisis down the road. Have you given any thought to how we as a church culture can change how we teach about him while still teaching from a faithful place? Would love to hear any thoughts you may have.

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Aimee, that’s a good question. What ever we do we have to do it fast. The church is hemorrhaging young people faster than you can say “Google Joseph Smith.” His deification would have started in his life but probably picked up speed after his death. This isnt unique to religion or Joseph. We do this with all our heros. Remember, George Washington could never tell a lie.

      You dont want to scare people or bore them with facts from history. It might be good to demonstrate how Joseph experimented with ideas only to change his mind about them after having them flop or blow up in his face. He built the Kirkland temple with debt, for example. Those debts hounded him until his death. These kind of lessons can be done in a context of faith and, if done properly, will demonstrate how revelation really works most of the time.

      More than anything I would try to show how God uses the sinner, the weak, the broken, the average, to do his will. He builds ancient and majestic forests out of thousands of unimpressive trees with the occasional giant. The seeds of these trees are average and plain. The seeding process is a mundane detail. Finding these stories may take some digging because we love the fantastic. Our scriptures seem to be filled with exceptions and outliers. We mimic the scriptures in the way we write history.

      I would be careful not to throw out the idea of repentance or purity. Both of these are crucial.

      I hope this helps :)

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      • Old Man /

        Anyone who reads the Old Testament quickly recognizes the humanity and imperfections of the prophets. I sometimes wonder where it is we get this idealized notion of prophets. It certainly is not contained in scripture.

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    • Andrew Harris /

      The Truman G. Madsen tapes referred to in the post are a good start. They show the more scruffy, rascally side of Joseph Smith I think is the reason why I was able to maintain my faith in him as a prophet when I later discovered some of the more difficult realities of Nauvoo-era polygamy and such.

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  7. Robin /

    Nice post. While my testimony (as a convert at 16,) was started by just KNOWING that what I was being taught was true, it was cemented further with an absolute affirmation by the Spirit that what Joseph said happened in the Grove – seeing the Father and the Son – really did happen. “I knew it and I knew that God knew it”… something like that. and now *I* know it.
    Then over 4 decades of being actively engaged in all aspects of the LDS church, that testimony has gotten stronger. But it’s not based on studying Joseph, or his writings or what others have written about him. Nor the words of BY or others – I just can’t trust so many of those sources.
    So I instead throw my time and energy into going to the temple every week if possible, studying the scriptures every day, praying (more sincerely) night and morning, and studying books about how to hear the Spirit better, how to get closer to the Savior – topics that hopefully buoy up my current testimony.
    I guess what I’m saying is, reading about the faults and mistakes of those men 150 years ago doesn’t help me feel closer to the Savior. Having a testimony of the current prophet (given to me in no uncertain terms, despite the fact that T. Monson was really never my favorite Apostle,) and nurturing that testimony by continually trying to serve, attend meetings and study scriptures – I feel like that’s what’s going to keep me hearing and obeying the Spirit.

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Robin, I’m glad you liked it. You make a good point that rolling up your sleeves and getting some service and love under your fingernails is going to connect you with God faster than reading about someone’s weaknesses. However, sometimes discovering that God parted the seas with a weak and fallen man is exactly what some of us need. It gives us hope. It shows us what salvation looks like. Faith is a gift and to some it is given to know, but not to all. Not at first anyways. The internet tests faith in ways we are not prepared for. We could say that it’s separating the wheat from the tares but that’s not the kind of approach I expect from a God who is primarily a dad and who cheers every runner. It’s like president Hinckley said about the Joseph Smith papers (if I remember correctly), not everyone needs to know but for those who do it will be there for them.

      I really respect you unwillingness to accept all the different accounts of Joseph and instead to go out and test his words. That’s a solid approach in my opinion.

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  8. This is probably the most truthful thing I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

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  9. Garrett /

    This isa real issue for me. I have a hard time having any respect for or belief in a man that wouldn’t even qualify for membership in today’s church. His extramarital issues,burning the printing press, etc are things that would create the need for church discipline today, I cannot overlook those actions. If someone in today’s day and age were to do the same things that he did there are few people that would honor him for his actions the way we do JS. I hear so many say that they can overlook his flaws because he was a man and men are not perfect….but he was supposed to be the prophet, the spiritual leader, the prophet, the lords mouthpiece on earth…and he was out marrying everyone’s spouses…I can’t honor a man like that

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Garrett, you make some good points. I share some of your frustrations. I would point out that most, if not all, prophets from the Bible would not have qualified for membership today. They killed people, got drunk, had concubines, and had cities wiped out yet many still regard them as prophets. The difference between Joseph and the others is that he is much closer to us. The others are at a safe distance. Still, I don’t fault anyone for saying these prophet’s bad behavior makes their message a sham. I would remind them, though, that history is a foreign country and is likely not understood by many who claim to understand it. I was writing to an audience that has had experiences with the things Joseph produced that they can’t write off, people who “find God in the pages” of the Book of Mormon. If you come up against something about Joseph that offends you, you have to ask yourself if that changes the contents of the Book of Mormon, or your experience with it. For me, because I still find God in the work of Joseph Smith, I have to ask myself where I learned how a prophet should behave or what a prophet even is. I would like an answer that lays out bold, clean boundaries, and I would like people to not be duplicitous or hypocritical or mistake prone. I can’t find prophets like that or anyone for that matter. The only prophets I know of are the ones we read about. Rather than waiting around for better ones to show up I’m going to use the tools that have been given me as flawed as they are. I hope my children look at me that way someday. I’m not honoring all of what Joseph did and I’m sure that my children won’t honor all of what I did.

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  10. Windewaan /

    I strongly disagree with this article. I am all for accepting the leaders of the church as flawed humans like we all are. (That is what bothers me about the way the are depicted in church manuals – like some sort of super human being, the only flaws admitted to are the very innocent things, like Heber J. Grant’s not being able to sing.) But what Joseph Smith did aren’t just flaws and you can’t put them away as such. betraying Emma like he did,’marrying’ married women and teenagers and on top of it all lying about it and trying to conceal it – those are huge sins and according to the scriptures unacceptable to the Lord. So how can I believe that a man like that was as close tot he Lord as we like to believe and receive so many revelations? it just doesn’t add up. If he ever was called as a prophet of God (which i have come to doubt) surely he has become a fallen prophet.

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    • David Nicolay
      David Nicolay /

      Windewaan, thanks for the comment. I want to point out that not all of what you cited as sin was viewed that way in Joseph’s day. My grandmother wasn’t Mormon and isn’t from Utah and she was married at 16. That doesn’t detract from your overall point, though. As far as polygamy goes I’m not defending it. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with it. Could God have worked through it? Yes. He could have. Now, I don’t like polygamy any more than you, but the way I feel about it is irrelevant. I have learned that God, whom I believe to be good, often works through things I believe to be bad. 65 million years ago an asteroid slammed into earth and wiped out everything bigger than a watermelon. Is that a good thing? Not if you’re a dinosaur. But we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t have happened. Was that God?

      Take the story of Fritz Haber as another example. Fritz discovered a way to get the nitrogen from the air down into the soil which is the basis for chemical fertilizer. Half of the world’s population today is fed using this technology. At the same time he helped develop chlorine gas used to kill so many in World War I. A company he founded later developed Zykoln B which was the gas used for mass killings in Nazi death camps. He has been referred to as the father of chemical warfare. Was it God that inspired Fritz to develop a process that has saved countless lives? I am deeply troubled by Fritz’ development of chlorine gas. Does this mean I should refuse food grown with his fertilizer? Whether or not I think the death of a few million justifies the feeding of billions is irrelevant. That is what happened and you and I benefit from it. This is an extreme example, I know, but my point is that while I don’t like polygamy, still I find God in the King Follett sermon and other works of Joseph that came after polygamy began.

      This is playing the ball as it lies. It’s uncomfortable. It contradicts much of what I’ve been taught. While I may want to throw out Joseph’s polygamy, I’ve resisted the ease of boxing it up with everything else he did, good and bad, and throwing it all out. Knowing God is not as easy as I wish it were. Joseph himself wrote that to know God our minds “must stretch as high as the utmost heavens and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss.” He wrote that from Liberty Jail after his practice of polygamy had begun.

      As I’ve learned more I’ve had to make room for new rules and a God that is bigger than the one I knew before. I’ve had to relinquish my control of God and let him come to me as he is, and I’m still in the process. I hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from.

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      • naomi /

        I think it would be easier to take the position you advocate (and make it look quite sensible!) if the contemporary leaders didn’t preach such a hardline of obedience to Western American cultural norms and values, which become quasi-doctrinal and end up muddying what JS and early church leaders called the creedless pursuit of truth. If we were able to accept truth from wherever, accepting it form sullied sources would me amenable. However, for me, because a hardline of obedience is preached with blinders to much of what is good or virtuous if it it also ‘worldly’ makes it harder to approach Mormonsim in this way.

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        • David Nicolay
          David Nicolay /

          I agree. I think we have a church culture that isn’t used to looking for truth anywhere except for approved or proven sources. Our curiosity feels checked and controlled. I think part of the reason for this is because Joseph was part of that American culture and his teachings reflect that. For me, picking up the ball where he left it includes venturing outside of our comfortable worldview. For that to happen church wide I don’t see any other way than to get rid of correlation. Then we have to stop correlating each other on a personal level.

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  11. Ingrid Harris /

    David you are so wise! Jeff and I thoroughly enjoyed this article and the discussion proceeding.

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  12. Sunny /

    I have to be honest…reading parts of this made me squirm. I feel a lot of the same feelings that Robin stated. Joining the church as a teenager I don’t believe I got all those “perfect” stories from primary of Joseph let alone anything opposite. Over the years I have heard plenty of both.

    I just would like to say that my joining the church had nothing to do with Joseph Smith at all (the kind of “man” he was) and my retention in the church still has nothing to do with him. Some may view this as naive. I don’t believe it is. I prayed after being taught by the missionaries “to know if it was true”, I felt a love and more importantly a peace I’ve never felt before, and that was that. I’ve never questioned those feelings. I trusted and still trust that process of prayer as my guide today. I of course have struggles and questions in many areas. There have been times when I felt the “church” was too much,but truthfully these have been times when I personally didn’t feel right with the Lord and it had nothing to do with Joseph Smith and all his “wrongdoing”, or what my bishop had done in his youth or what I felt about the RS president.

    I believe that sometimes people use the excuse of others misdeeds as a way to escape the uncomfortable feelings that come along with being their best selves. Telling the truth about who you are is a lot harder than figuring out the truth about a man from a hundred years ago. It’s nice to know that the Lord used Joseph, even in his weakness’, especially if it helps one to become confident in his own abilities to serve the Lord, however it’s not important information in regard to our own salvation.

    I appreciate and respect this post David. I always learn something new when I read/listen to your work:) My testimony has been fortified as to what I’ve felt all along. Thanks:)

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    • Kathy Talbot /

      I love your comment. I, myself, have felt that way about the church. It comes down to peace, prayer and an unwaivering testimony of the BOM. All else will fall into place for me when the Lord sees fit. I file away the information, so at a later date, it can either be confirmed or denied. It takes the fear and anxiety out of my faith (for the most part). I don’t go searching for hidden things or deeper history. I am trying to go deeper into myself, which is far scarier in my opinion. I go with open eyes but a cautiousness to what is told. We make our own reality. History is someone else’s opinion written down.

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  13. naomi /

    This was an incredibly respectable post; pointed and well written on a very murky subject. Thanks.

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