The Prophet Puzzle: Possible Solutions
(Here’s a short graphic novel inspired by the information in this post.)
If you go to the front page of Indie Mormon, you can see a word cloud that shows which tags occur the most often in my posts. Unsurprising to me I see “Joseph Smith” and “Book of Mormon”. The topic of how Joseph Smith brought forth the Book of Mormon is something that has fascinated me since I decided the Book of Mormon isn’t literal history of ancient inhabitants of the Americas. I previously discussed how he might have done it, but I haven’t talked about the why. Why did Joseph Smith bring forth the Book of Mormon? If you accept the black or white, all or nothing premise, either Joseph Smith was a true prophet called of God, or he was a charlatan and deceiver of the worst kind. But something I’ve learned this year is that questions in life are rarely solved with simple either/or choices. Below I discuss three essays written by historians of LDS church history that attempt to solve “the prophet puzzle.”
“The Prophet Puzzle” by Jan Shipps
In 1974 Jan Shipps wrote an essay named “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith.” This essay can be found in “The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith,” a book of essays written from both LDS-believing and non-believing points of view. Shipps writes how both LDS members and non-members have struggled to figure out the prophet puzzle of Joseph Smith and explain who he was, and why he did what he did. She argues that you have to look at the whole picture, and then try to draw conclusions from what the evidence shows. For example, she includes a timeline that shows how intertwined Joseph Smith’s money-digging was with his discovery and eventual “translation” of the gold plates. You can’t really separate the two. Joseph Smith attempts to downplay his involvement in the money-digging in Joseph Smith History in the Pearl of Great Price, but the historical record is clear that he was deeply involved in it, while at the same time telling people about the gold plates he had discovered. The money-digging influenced the way Joseph brought forth of the Book of Mormon, as he used the same seer stone for both treasure hunting and for translating.
“The Prophet Puzzle: Revisited” by Dan Vogel
In 1996, Dan Vogel published the essay “The Prophet Puzzle: Revisited”, also available in the book “The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith”. Vogel revisits Shipps’ essay and writes:
The most obvious solution to Shipps’s puzzle is to suggest that Smith was a “pious deceiver” or “sincere fraud,” someone who deceives to achieve holy objectives. Admittedly, the terms “pious deceiver,” “sincere fraud,” and the like are not wholly satisfying. Nevertheless, “pious” connotes a sincere religious conviction, and my use of “fraud” or “deceiver” is limited to describing some of Smith’s activities—the possible construction of plates from tin as well as his claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an anciently engraved record, for example—not to Smith’s perception of himself. In other words, Smith may have engaged in fraudulent activities while at the same time believing that he had been called of God to preach repentance in the most effective way possible .
So Joseph Smith could have been deceiving others by creating fake plates that he would allow others to “heft” in a box, while knowing all along he didn’t have actual gold plates. But in his mind, his intentions were good because he believed he was bringing people closer to God and Jesus Christ. Having read the Book of Mormon many times, I know for myself it contains many passages that teach people to do good. However, that doesn’t make the Book of Mormon historically accurate. Any fictional account could attempt to draw people closer to God by the use of stories, parables, metaphors and symbolism. But that doesn’t make the fiction historically true.
To me some of the most convincing evidence of Joseph Smith being willing to deceive in the name of God can be found in the scriptures he brought forth. In the D&C 19 revelation, God explains how when the scriptures mention endless and eternal punishment, it doesn’t mean those torments will actually last forever. It means that it’s punishment meted out by God, because “endless” and “eternal” are other names for God. But, God warns: “…show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.” In other words, in order to get the world to repent, they need to think endless and eternal punishment means people will suffer in Hell forever. So God tells us it’s acceptable to deceive others when it comes to punishment for sin because they aren’t ready for more Universalist doctrines, like what we read in D&C 76.
There are other examples of deception or breaking commandments in the name of God as contained in scriptures revealed by Joseph Smith:
- Abraham 2:22-25: Instead of having Abraham tell his wife to lie about their marital status like what’s described in Genesis, it’s changed to be God’s idea to deceive.
- The Spirit commands Nephi to kill Laban, saying Nephi is justified in killing Laban in order that Nephi’s people don’t “dwindle and perish in unbelief.” Nephi then puts on Laban’s clothes in order to fool Zoram into thinking Nephi is Laban.
- In the Book of Mormon, it’s clear that the fall of mankind was a “fortunate fall” because although Adam and Eve sinned and knowingly brought on death, it was for the good of mankind. This is not a belief that is generally held in the Christian world, but it’s another example where Joseph Smith’s scriptures show that the ends often justify the means.
Vogel points out that the Book of Mormon makes it very clear: whatever inspires people to do good is of God:
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 was inspired of God because it attempts to persuade humankind to do good and to believe in Christ.
Vogel explains he is not trying to condemn Joseph Smith, but to understand him. Vogel writes: “I 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 accomplish his mission more fully.”
“History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates” by Ann Taves
Another take that really intrigues me is found in Ann Taves’ 2014 essay “History and the Claims of Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates”. Taves writes that maybe it’s not an either/or proposition: either Smith was a true prophet, or a fraud. She asks: is it possible for there to have been no ancient gold plates, but for the gold plates to have become real for Joseph Smith and his followers? She proposes that maybe Joseph was a “skilled perceiver” and that he had a dream-vision of Moroni in 1823 that created new possibilities in his mind. But like a doctor isn’t really a doctor without patients to heal, Joseph couldn’t be a seer without having believers to whom he could reveal his visions.
Like Vogel, Taves also sees plenty of evidence to show that Joseph Smith had something that represented the gold plates in a normal, material sense. He sometimes kept it in a box, or sometimes covered it in a cloth on a table. But she points out that there was something supernatural about them as well. She documents how when both the three and eight witnesses saw the plates, the plates were brought there by an angel. And even Joseph Smith saw the plates through faith, as we read in D&C 17:5: “And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.” Real, material plates wouldn’t require faith to see them. Did God require faith for people to see the Book of Abraham papyri? Or what about scrolls of the Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) scriptures? Even the Ten Commandments which were written by the finger of God were something the people were allowed to see.
Taves proposes that maybe Joseph Smith realized he had to actively participate, in faith, in order to make the plates materialize. She admits “the historical evidence for this interpretation is speculative” but she makes some interesting points. Lucy Smith described how one evening shortly before Joseph brought home the plates, he told to his parents how the angel had chastised him, and that the angel said the time had come to bring forth the plates. Joseph told his parents not to worry, that he knew exactly what to do. Taves proposes that this “chastisement” convinced Joseph he needed to take a more active role in materializing the plates.
This more active course, I am hypothesizing, involved creating what was in effect a representation of the plates, perhaps using sand and later tin or lead, as detractors claimed, in the knowledge that they would become the sacred reality that the Smith family believed them to be only in so far as the angel made them so. As such his representation of the plates, placed under the cloth or in the box, can be understood as representing or even co-creating the reality of the plates along a continuum of possibilities, ranging from the way a crucifix represents the crucifixion, an Eastern Orthodox icon is said to manifest the reality of the saint it depicts, the way Eucharistic wafers are thought be transformed into the literal body of Christ, or the way that Mary “created” Jesus in her womb. As such, what I am construing as Smith’s actions in creating plates would have analogues in other Christian “materializations” of the sacred.
Taves makes what I consider a brilliant point by comparing this action with a story in the Book of Mormon. The brother of Jared prepared sixteen stones and brought them to the Lord. The brother of Jared then asked the Lord to touch them. The Lord touched the stones with his finger, and “caused them to shine in darkness” (Ether 6:3). Using Taves’ theory, the parallel is very interesting. The Lord commanded the Jaredites to prepare barges, but he didn’t give them all the materials they needed to make them complete. They had to realize they needed light, and then ask the Lord to make their stones shine. Similarly, Joseph Smith might have had a dream about the gold plates, and at some point he realized he was going to have to take an active roll in materializing the plates, so that the Lord could then make them “shine” forth to the world. In this way, you could argue Joseph Smith wasn’t a deceiver. He may have believed God was inspiring him to bring forth the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith knew he never uncovered actual gold plates from the hill, but maybe he believed the plates existed somewhere, and that his mock plates represented those plates, and even “became” the real plates at some point. In this way, he is not an actual prophet in the way the LDS church describes, but neither is he a pious fraud, because he believed he was interpreting gold plates that existed somewhere.
So which theory do I believe? Both Vogel and Taves make some very interesting points. Could it be a mix of both? Maybe it started off as a deception, but then Joseph Smith began to believe it so much that he thought the gold plates really did exist somewhere. His fake plates may have become to him a very real representation of the gold plates that he believed existed. In any case, I believe Joseph Smith had every intention of helping people come closer to God and Jesus with the Book of Mormon. Whether he was a pious fraud like Vogel proposes, or whether he thought the gold plates existed somewhere and that he was translating them like Taves suggests, Joseph Smith believed the Book of Mormon would lead people to have more faith and to draw closer to God. Nearly 200 years later, there is no denying millions still draw faith and inspiration from the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith revealed.
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