Leaving a general conference session a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a demonstrator holding a sign announcing that Joseph Smith had "lied."
Now, I don't buy this for a second. The evidence for Joseph's overall sincerity (including his apparent willingness to die for his claims, but also exhibited in his personal papers and letters, which, though never intended for publication, are now being made available to a general audience) is strong and compelling.
But, I found myself wondering, is it really only Joseph who has to have lied if dishonesty, false witness, is supposed to account for Mormonism and the restored church?
Not by a long shot.
Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer would need to have lied about their encounter with Moroni, the plates, the Urim and Thummim, a number of other exotic objects and the audible voice of God. Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith Sr., Hyrum Smith and Samuel Harrison Smith must have lied about seeing and "hefting" the plates of the Book of Mormon. Hyrum Smith, in fact, must have maintained that lie through four months of winter misery in Liberty Jail in Missouri and right up through his clearly foreseen martyrdom in Carthage, Ill.
Lucy Mack Smith must have borne false witness in claiming to have held the breastplate that came with the Nephite record. Emma Smith and Katherine Smith Salisbury must have lied in their descriptions of the Book of Mormon plates. William Smith must have lied in estimating the weight of the plates at about 60 pounds. Mary Whitmer must have lied to her son and grandson in claiming to have seen them.
Oliver Cowdery must have lied about the hands of John the Baptist and then of Peter, James and John being laid upon his head to confer priesthood authority. Sidney Rigdon must have borne false witness about the vision of the three degrees of glory that he supposedly shared with Joseph Smith (Doctrine and Covenants 76). Philo Dibble must also have lied in recalling his experience with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon on that occasion.
More than 120 witnesses must have falsely testified about Brigham Young's transformation before their eyes upon his succession to the presidency of the church. Brigham Young himself must have lied about receiving the revelation contained in Doctrine and Covenants 136. Joseph F. Smith, too, must have lied when he claimed a vision of the redemption of the dead, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 138. Spencer W. Kimball must likewise have been lying, in early June 1978, about receiving the revelation on priesthood now identified with "Official Declaration — 2" in the Doctrine and Covenants. Elders Bruce R. McConkie and David B. Haight, with other members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, must also have lied when they bore testimony of their experience during that revelation, as did the two apostles who, weeping, told historian Leonard Arrington what had just happened to them in the Salt Lake Temple.
Lorenzo Snow must have lied to his granddaughter about his vision of Christ in the temple at the death of President Wilford Woodruff, and President George Q. Cannon must have been lying when, on at least three occasions that I know of, he testified before spellbound audiences about having spoken with the Savior face to face.
I don't believe it. I don't believe that Joseph Smith and his associates were liars. I see no direct indication of it. And I don't believe these other witnesses have been deliberate, conscious deceivers. The evidence for their sincerity is, once again, overwhelming, and persuasive.
But perhaps, a critic might respond, a significant proportion of these people were simply mad. Not likely. Joseph Smith would have to have been unerringly successful in identifying crazy and hallucinatory people, ahead of time, who would corroborate rather than expose his baseless concoctions. And the odds of this being the case are, in my judgment, extraordinarily low — so minuscule, in fact, as to amount to virtual impossibility.
No, what gave rise to the Restoration, and what keeps it going, is the force of experiences and convictions diffused among, and sincerely held by, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of good, earnest people over the better part of two centuries now. Important as he is, and much as we honor him, it doesn't all rely just upon Joseph Smith.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.