Mormon Media Observer: It always comes back to Joseph Smith

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 8:41 a.m. MDT

It might come as a shock to MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell, but many Latter-day Saints might well see O'Donnell's mean-spirited remarks late last week about the Prophet Joseph Smith as evidence, ironically, that Joseph was a prophet.

In "The History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet," published in the late 1830s, Joseph wrote that Angel Moroni appeared to him and said "that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people."

O'Donnell's inaccurate allegations last week on MSNBC aren't the first time he has spoken ill of the Prophet. In 2007, O'Donnell, guesting on the McLaughlin Group, called Joseph Smith a "fradulent criminal" and worse.

To be sure then, O'Donnell has a long record of speaking evil of Joseph Smith, just as was predicted nearly 200 years ago.

And O'Donnell is, of course, not the only one. Indeed, millions do know Brother Joseph again.

It might be said that it was a foolish thing to say that Joseph Smith — a poorly educated, poverty-stricken man — would be known around the world 200 years after his birth. Nevertheless, Joseph Smith is.

How so? Consider: The most important journalist in American history by some measures — active during the life of Joseph — was whom? I bet only a handful besides those in the profession know it was James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald.

Who was the 20th president of the United States? Who was the most famous actor of the 19th century besides John Wilkes Booth?

A Pew study in 2009 found that Americans were more likely to know that Joseph Smith was a Mormon than knew that Martin Luther was the person who prompted the Protestant Reformation or knew who the Dalai Lama was. Almost no one knew the great Jewish scholar Maimonides or that the American preacher Jonathan Edwards participated in the First Great Awakening.

More people knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon than could identify the first four books of the New Testament.

It wouldn't surprise me, if my own research is any guide, that more people know Joseph Smith was a Latter-day Saint than know that John Boehner is speaker of the House today.

At the same time, maybe we shouldn't be surprised at the fame. Joseph Smith did say he walked out of the woods carrying new scripture, the golden plates, and he was murdered in part for saying so.

Of course, fame isn't proof of prophetic call. The fruits of his work and the evidence of faith are.

Now, I speak with gratitude to the numerous commentators not of our faith who quickly leapt to our defense after O'Donnell's latest rant. It was a moving thing.

Even Bill O'Reilly defended Latter-day Saints and Mitt Romney and seemed to mean well. Of course, his odd analogy comparing Joseph Smith to Henry VIII doesn't fairly capture what Latter-day Saints believe.

Finally, amid all the media's writing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints these days, O'Donnell has done us all a small favor. He has reminded us of the importance of the Joseph Smith story of seeing God and Jesus Christ and of seeing an angel who brought him golden plates.

Joseph Smith needs to remain central to the news reporting on the church because the church rises and falls on the strength of his story.

It is with Joseph Smith that the rub of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lies: Did Joseph Smith really walk out of those woods carrying the golden plates? It's a question too often ignored in coverage of the church of Jesus Christ. It's a question that deserves deeper reflection and honest analysis.

It's a question that deserves searching and prayer by all seekers of religious truth.

If Joseph Smith didn't translate ancient plates and if he made up the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth, O'Donnell has something of a point. Joseph would have to be a fraud.

But, of course, honest seekers must consider the opposite: What if Joseph told the truth? What if he really did get those plates from an angel?

If so, Joseph Smith would qualify as an epoch-maker — and all of his actions could then only be judged through the prism of prophetic calling. Joseph would deserve to be known around the world.

The most important, concrete evidence of Joseph Smith's call, the tremendous Book of Mormon, which he translated in about 60 days, stands ready to be prayerfully examined — and faithful prayer is the only full way to examine it. The book is easy to get. Indeed, it's available for free online.

Let me be one to speak of Brother Joseph, too. He is a prophet for the ages. Let me raise my voice and my heartfelt witness for this great man. Joseph Smith provided the world the remarkable Book of Mormon and guided the restoration of priesthood authority and the restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With the help of God and Jesus Christ, he provided a true miracle, for a world in desperate need of one.

Hail to the Prophet. May Joseph Smith's name and fame continue to grow.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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