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/ 

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.

All posts by