Those who reject the claims of Joseph Smith often dismiss him as merely a shallow fraud who lurched from one crisis or opportunity for exploitation to another, improvising as he went. His unbelieving 1945 biographer, Fawn Brodie, set the tone with her depiction of him as (in Hugh Nibley’s summary of her position), a “chuckle-headed, pipe-dreaming, glory-mongering” charlatan.
“Brodie's Joseph picks up ideas like a thieving magpie,” says Nibley, “throws them together haphazardly, and sells them from the pulpit.” But Nibley is surely right to observe that “Brodie’s Joseph is decidedly not the man who produced the Book of Mormon; for the former is wildly imaginative, undisciplined, lazy, and short-sighted, while the Book of Mormon is the work (even if you take it as fiction) of an exceedingly sober, self-controlled, incredibly industrious, and well-organized brain.” (If you disagree, consider — among other things — Grant Hardy’s 2010 Oxford volume “Understanding the Book of Mormon.”)
The notion of Joseph Smith as a lazy, scheming, yarn-spinning ne’er-do-well without a single serious idea in his head simply can’t withstand scrutiny. He was anything but that.
But I won’t rely on the testimonies of those who accept his prophetic claims in order to make my point. Instead, I’ll point to three non-Mormon writers — from among a number of others who might have been chosen — who definitely reject those claims but who nevertheless cannot simply write him off as ordinary or run-of-the mill:
For example, a German-language article titled (my translation) “Joseph Smith and the Bible: New Light on the Achievement of the Mormon Prophet” appeared in the academic journal “Theologische Literaturzeitung” in 1984. In it, the Finnish biblical scholar Heikki Raisanen appealed to European students of “Religionswissenschaft” to give Mormonism and its scriptures more serious attention. While freely acknowledging that he didn’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and that he rejected Joseph Smith’s solutions, Raisanen marveled at Joseph’s penetrating awareness of seeming problems in the biblical text, long before mainstream scholarship began to pay attention to them.
Likewise, the famous Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, a Jewish agnostic, has been effusive in his admiration for Joseph Smith:
“Other Americans have been religion makers,” Bloom has written, “but none of them has the imaginative vitality of Joseph Smith’s revelation, a judgment one makes on the authority of a lifetime spent in apprehending the visions of great poets and original speculators. So self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction.”
More recently, Jane Barnes, a principal writer for the 2007 PBS documentary “The Mormons,” has published a book titled “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet” in which, although she declines to affiliate herself with Mormonism and the church, she recounts the powerful impact that her encounter with the prophet has had on her. And that impact extends well beyond Barnes.
In his 1996 book on “The Rise of Christianity,” the noted sociologist Rodney Stark repeatedly uses The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a model for understanding the growth of the early Christian movement. The LDS Church, he’s written elsewhere, represents “that incredibly rare event: the rise of a new world religion”; the Latter-day Saints “stand on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on earth since the Prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert.”
In a similar vein, early in the 20th century, the famous historian of antiquity Eduard Meyer took a year’s leave from the University of Berlin in order to study the Latter-day Saints in Utah. “Mormonism is not just another of countless sects,” he concluded, “but a new revealed religion. What in the study of other revealed religions can only be surmised after painful research is here directly accessible in reliable witnesses. Hence the origin and history of Mormonism possess great and unusual value for the student of religious history.”
Whatever one thinks of Muhammad, for Joseph Smith to be ranked with that Arabian prophet — whom at least one survey has, rightly or wrongly, pronounced the most influential person in human history (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_100) — surely suggests that Joseph is not to be lightly dismissed.
Extraordinary effects require extraordinary causes. The shallow, commonplace con-artist portrayed by Fawn Brodie and assumed by many critics isn’t up to the task. The Prophet Joseph Smith, however, most certainly was.
Daniel Peterson teaches Islamic studies and Arabic and edits the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative at BYU, founded MormonScholarsTestify.org, and chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" (mormoninterpreter.com). His views are his own.