Growing up in the Church, I was taught a faithful version of Joseph Smith and Church history. Mormons all know this version since it is the one they all grew up with. However, this faithful version is very different from the historical version I later learned about. It wasn’t so much the historical facts that caused me so much heartburn. Rather, what was so disconcerting was the differences between the two versions.
The first issue where I discovered a large discrepancy between faithful and historical accounts concerned polygamy. It was during the 2006 news coverage of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS polygamists debacle in Texas that I first gave polygamy some serious thought. I had never been comfortable with the official explanations given by the Church about why Joseph Smith introduced polygamy. The history of polygamy, that I first learned about while reading “Mormon Polygamy: A History”, is much different than the version I had been taught my whole life. I learned that Joseph had about 30 wives. The Church puts the number at 24 on their Family Search website, although the exact number is probably 34. About 1/3rd of the women Joseph married were teenagers, while another 1/3rd were already married. I learned these marriages were likely consummated. I learned that Joseph lied to his wife Emma, the Church, and the public about his involvement with polygamy. Despite his efforts, Joseph couldn’t hide polygamy; it caught up with him and was the major factor that led to his arrest and murder at Carthage Jail. I learned that polygamous marriages were secretly performed by members of the 12 Apostles well beyond the 1890 manifesto that was supposed to end polygamy. The Reed Smoot hearings were a particularly embarrassing chapter of Church history, in which LDS leaders were on full trial during a sensational four-year Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.. President Joseph F. Smith pled guilty in 1906 to violating Utah anti-bigamy laws (having approved of plural marriages after the 1890 manifesto), three Apostles ignored subpoenas to testify in D.C., and two Apostles later resigned (John W. Taylor was excommunicated). Polygamy, as practiced by the LDS Church, had striking parallels to the FLDS drama occurring around this time in my life.
One of the other main discrepancies between faithful and factual history, is the events surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price. I learned from reading Richard Bushman’s “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” and D. Michael Quinn’s landmark book “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” that Joseph and his family were involved in a common type of frontier-religion where there was a strong fusion of religion and the occult. This was especially common in the New England area where Joseph came from. Joseph used a stone to look for buried treasure, that he found while digging a well. He apparently had a good reputation as a scryer or “gold-digger” and was sought out for employment. Joseph used this same stone (or a similar stone) while dictating the Book of Mormon. He placed the stone in a hat, buried his face in a hat, and then claimed to read illuminated words revealed in the darkened hat. The gold plates where usually not even in the same room, and if they were, they were covered up. He used a similar “stone-in-a-hat” technique to look for buried treasure (although he never found any).
The Book of Abraham is the only text Joseph Smith translated that we can test for accuracy. However, I learned that it has no relationship with the original Egyptian papyrus that Joseph used for his translation. The Egyptian papyrus was later discovered in a New York Museum in the 1960’s and translated by Egyptologists. It’s actually only a common Egyptian funerary text called “The Book of the Dead”. And yet Joseph claimed to have translated the papyrus which he said contained the writings of Abraham.
These are just a few of the handful of discrepancies between faithful LDS history and historically factual LDS history. We don’t always like what history teaches us, but it exists whether we like it or not. My main point is that there is a huge gap between these two contradictory versions of our LDS origins. What is a person like me, or anybody else, to make of this gap in faithful and historical accounts?
One of the best LDS historians today, Richard Bushman, discusses most of these troubling aspects in his recent book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”. He is a Harvard educated, emeritus professor of history from Columbia University in New York, a past Bishop and currently active Stake Patriarch, who tries to account for the historical facts of Joseph Smith and weave them together in a faithful way. The Church doesn’t usually deny this history, but they leave it out of their seminary and institute lessons, they skip it in their Church manuals, or they fail to mention it in their General Conference talks. They use art depicting Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon which show him looking ponderously at gold plates; no hat, magic stones, or urim and thummim present - a scenario which, based on multiple eye-witness accounts, likely never occurred. The leaders seem as uncomfortable with the historical version of Joseph Smith as many members of the Church. Instead, we accept a much-sanitized version of Joseph Smith that bears little resemblance to who he actually was.
I know of some people, scholars like Richard Bushman and many active members of the Church, who are able to square the facts of the historical Joseph with the mythical Joseph they grew up believing in. Bushman is an advocate of the Church being more forthright about Joseph Smith, because of the damage it can inflict on someone’s testimony when they discover the history on their own. I know people sometimes briefly look at Church history with an “eyes-wide-shut” approach: exploring Church history only from LDS and apologetic sources. This is what I did for some time as well, but found these sources to be very biased. Once I felt that all the pieces of the “prophet puzzle” were in place, I could no longer simultaneously believe in the two contradictory views of Joseph Smith. The cognitive dissonance I felt, the insurmountable paradox of Joseph the man vs. Joseph the prophet, was just too much. To me, the two views of Joseph were irreconcilable. But to others, they are.
Maybe it’s the scientific paradigm I see the world through that makes it impossible for me to believe Joseph Smith now. If believing Joseph Smith makes you happy (as it once did for me) then I’m genuinely happy for you. I also feel happy where I’m at now, and have no desire to try to make it all fit in my head again the way it once did. My blood pressure and cholesterol are much better now.