Editor's note: A version of this column by Daniel Peterson was previously published on at patheos.com.
My late friend Davis Bitton, a Princeton-trained professor of history at the University of Utah, was a specialist on France.
But he was also an expert on the history of Mormonism and the Latter-day Saints, presiding from 1971-72 over the Mormon History Association and serving from 1972 to 1982 as assistant historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Among his many Mormon-related publications is a volume of essays titled “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives.” It focuses not on the biography of Joseph Smith itself, but on the prophet’s image, particularly after his death, among believing Mormons and unbelieving non-Mormons.
That image has varied wildly. John Taylor, a close associate who was seriously wounded in the same vicious attack that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith, ranked theirs as “the best blood of the 19th century” (see Doctrine and Covenants 135:6). Others, during Joseph’s lifetime and since, have depicted him as one of the very worst men in history.
It seems obvious to me that, when evaluating Joseph Smith, the judgments of contemporaries who knew him best ought to be given special emphasis. With that in mind, I draw from “Knowing Brother Joseph Again” four testimonials concerning the prophet. They come from two men and a woman who knew him very well.
The first, dating to 1837, comes from Wilford Woodruff, the great missionary, apostle, and journal-keeper who would later become the fourth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There is not a greater man than Joseph standing in this generation,” he said (see "Wilford Woodruff’s Journal," Scott G. Kenney, April 9, 1837, 1:138-139). “The gentiles look upon him and he is to them like a bed of gold concealed from human view: they know not his principle, his spirit, his wisdom, virtue, philanthropy, nor his calling. His mind like Enoch’s swells wide as eternity. Nothing short of a God can comprehend his soul.”
The second, recorded at Salt Lake City, comes from Jane Manning James, who, as a young free black woman, had been employed as a servant in the Smith household at Nauvoo, Ill. In other words, she saw the Smiths at home, when they weren’t on public display, and at their least formal. In 1905, she reminisced about her reaction to Joseph Smith’s assassination by an anti-Mormon mob in June 1844.
“When he was killed, I liked to a died myself, if it had not been for the teachers, I felt so bad," she said (see "Reminiscence," by Jane Manning James, Young Women Journal, December 1905). "I could have died, just laid down and died; and I was sick abed, and the teachers told me, ‘You don’t want to die because he did. He died for us, and now we all want to live and do all the good we can.’ ”
The third, which dates to 1853, comes from Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith to become the second president of the LDS Church:
“When Martin (Harris) was with Joseph Smith, he was continually trying to make the people believe that he (Joseph) was the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. I have heard Joseph chastise him severely for it, and he told me that such a course, if persisted in, would destroy the kingdom of God. ... This people never professed that Joseph Smith was anything more than a Prophet given to them of the Lord, and to whom the Lord gave the keys of the last days, which were not to be taken from him in time, neither will they be in eternity” (see "Journal of Discourses," Vol. 2:127, Brigham Young, April 17, 1853, page 110).
The fourth, dating to 1855, also comes from Young:
“I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up and ordained, and to whom He gave keys and powers to build up the kingdom of God on earth and sustain it," he said (see "Journal of Discourses," Vol. 3:51, Brigham Young, Oct. 6, 1855, page 137).
Brigham, sometimes nicknamed “the American Moses” and “the Lion of the Lord,” was a strong and decisive leader. He wasn’t intimidated by the challenge of bringing his people across the Rocky Mountains into the unpopulated, semi-arid and forbidding Great Basin. He was anything but a shrinking violet.
In Joseph Smith, though, he found a man to whom he willingly submitted, a man at whose feet he was humbly willing to seek instruction. And this deference continued throughout his life.
On Aug. 29, 1877, after decades of heroic leadership, Brigham lay on his deathbed. Significantly, his last words were “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” He had missed the prophet for more than 30 years, but the two friends, it seems, were about to be reunited.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.