Drifting inexorably toward old age, I’m more and more impressed by what Joseph Smith accomplished in his less than 39 years.
Only a boy at his First Vision, he was still young when he was martyred. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve observed in a memorable speech during general conference in 1996, “The Prophet Joseph had no role models from whom he could learn how to be a prophet and leader of the Lord’s people. ... He had to rely on associates who had no role models either. They struggled and learned together” — and they, too, were remarkably young.
“I do not,” Joseph himself said, “nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man subject to passions, and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk.”
In 1838, recalling his adolescent years, he wrote, “I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.” Nonetheless, he declared, he wasn’t guilty of “any great or malignant sins,” since “a disposition to commit such was never in my nature," as written in his personal history.
During his public ministry, his missteps received public rebuke. (Imagine having your personal failures enshrined in scripture!) “Behold,” the Lord declared when Joseph lost the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon, “how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men” (Doctrine and Covenants 3:6). The Lord told him to repent, warning him that, otherwise, he would forfeit his calling.
Subsequent revelations again commanded him to “repent and walk more uprightly” (Doctrine and Covenants 5:21), announced that he had “sinned” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:7; compare 90:1), and chastised him for failing to keep the commandments (see Doctrine and Covenants 93:47).
Nevertheless, God never rejected Joseph Smith as a prophet. And neither should we.
“Perhaps there are very few men now living,” Lorenzo Snow testified in 1900, “who were so well acquainted with Joseph Smith the Prophet as I was. I was with him oftentimes. I visited him in his family, sat at his table, associated with him under various circumstances, and had private interviews with him for counsel. I know that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God; I know that he was an honorable man, a moral man, and that he had the respect of those who were acquainted with him.” Mark McConkie’s book “Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith” provides excellent material on the Prophet’s personality and character.
“I saw the imperfections in (Joseph),” President Snow remarked in his journal. “I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority He placed upon him ... for I knew that I myself had weaknesses, and I thought there was a chance for me. ... I thanked God that I saw these imperfections.”
“I told them I was but a man and they must not expect me to be perfect,” Joseph Smith said. “If they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them, but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.”
Joseph “claimed for himself no special sanctity,” said B. H. Roberts, “no faultless life, no perfection of character, no inerrancy for every word spoken by him. And as he did not claim these things for himself, so can they not be claimed for him by others; for to claim perfection for him, or even unusual sanctity, would be to repudiate the revelations themselves which supply the evidence of his imperfections, whereof, in them, he is frequently reproved.
“Joseph Smith was a man of like passions with other men; struggling with the same weaknesses; subjected to the same temptations; under the same moral law, and humiliated at times, like others, by occasionally, in word and conduct, falling below the high ideals presented in the perfect life and faultless character of the Man of Nazareth.
“But though a man of like passions with other men, yet to Joseph Smith was given access to the mind of Deity, through the revelations of God to him; and likewise to him was given a divine authority to declare that mind of God to the world.”
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.