This past Monday, June 27, marked the anniversary of the assassination of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I've been thinking of him.
For a critic wanting to reject Joseph's own account, there are, broadly speaking, only two logical alternatives for explaining him: Either he was a false prophet but thought he was a real one, or he was a false prophet and knew that he was a false prophet. That is to say, again in general terms, that he must have been either dishonest or delusional, or some hybrid of the two.
But mere subjective delusion within Joseph's mind cannot explain the material objects — the sword of Laban, the Liahona, the plates, the breastplate and the "interpreters" — described by the Three Witnesses and, in several cases, "hefted" or handled by others (e.g., the Eight Witnesses, various members of the Smith family, Mary Whitmer). Somebody made them. It cannot explain the visions that others such as Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon shared with him. To dismiss their reports requires more than merely declaring Joseph crazy: There has to have been conscious and deliberate fraud, on his part and perhaps on that of one or more others.
It's a well-known principle in economics, however, that price-fixing cartels tend to be unstable and temporary. Why? Among other reasons, the diverging interests of a cartel's various members typically fracture it over time. Similarly, criminal and other conspiracies generally falter — and the bigger they are, the more likely this is — as time passes and the individual conspirators seek to further their own interests, or to minimize risks or harm, by going their separate ways.
This is one of the reasons it's so difficult to view all, most, or even, really, any of Joseph Smith's early associates as conspiring with him to commit fraud. But the principal reason is that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that these early associates were people of bad character, while there is plenty to the contrary.
(At this point, certain critics will summon up a few treasured quotations from Joseph Smith and other early Mormons about some of those associates, harsh things that were said under stress, in crisis and the heat of anger. However, historical evidence and analysis haven't sustained those harsh statements.)
But what of Joseph Smith himself? His honesty and sincerity shine in his personal writings, in documents never intended for publication. For instance, the very first entry in his diary reads as follows:
"Joseph Smith Jrs Book for Record Baught on the 27th of November 1832 for the purpose to keep a minute acount of all things that come under my obsevation &c—Oh may God grant that I may be directed in all my thaughts Oh bless thy Servent Amen"
On Dec. 4, 1832, he concludes his entry with the prayer, "Oh Lord deliver thy servent out of temtations and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding."
Similar entries abound throughout the diary. "Lord bless my family and preserve them," he writes on Oct. 13, 1833. The following day, departing into Canada, he implores the Lord to "be with us on our Journy."
On Nov. 13 of that same year, having awakened before dawn to witness a meteor shower, his mind is on the biblical signs predicted for the last days. "Oh how marvelous are thy works Oh Lord," he wrote, "and I thank thee for thy me[r]cy unto me thy servent Oh Lord save me in thy kingdom for Christ sake Amen."
On Jan. 16, 1834, away from home and concerned about the Saints in Missouri, Joseph includes yet another prayer: "Oh Lord keep us and my Family safe untill I can return to them again Oh my God have mercy on my Bretheren in Zion for Christ Sake Amen."
That March, in Pennsylvania and evidently homesick, he yearns for his family in Kirtland, Ohio, praying, "O Lord bless my little children with health and long life to do good in this generation for Christs sake."
Quotations of this kind could be multiplied many times, from his diary and his personal letters. No double-dealing cynic can be found in them.
Delusion doesn't account for Joseph Smith. Nor, it seems, does dishonesty.
That leaves the very challenging third option: Joseph was a sane man, declaring what he sincerely believed to be the truth.
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.