Road to Carthage 4 - Jealousy
On this episode, we examine envy as a driving force behind the formation of Mormonism.
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
If you understand the words coming out of my mouth right now, chances are pretty high that you’re human. We all share aspects of humanity which are universal with only some rare exceptions. I’m going to speak generally for this introduction without any intention of leaving out anybody who doesn’t experience the focus of today’s episode.
What are those aspects of humanity I’m talking about? I’m talking about emotions that fall into two broad categories. Love and hate. Happiness and sadness. Stress and relaxation. Good and bad feelings, broadly speaking, are universally experienced by everybody, even if the stimuli which excite them are unique.
We all laugh, whether internally or audibly, as an expression of an emotion. What that emotion is, is much harder to define, but the stimuli may be similar for many of us. A funny joke, a shared memory with a loved one, insider references for only those who know what we’re thinking; all of these excite humor and help us to feel whatever it is that makes us laugh. Queue endorphins, smiling, and shared vulnerability.
Emotions teach us about ourselves. Rarely are our emotional responses to stimuli something we control. We can control our actions following the emotion, but the emotion often happens before we understand why it happened or what caused it. Happy feelings, whether humor, love, that sense of family and belonging, we can do things or place ourselves in certain situations where those emotions are expected. We go to a comedy club, go on a date, or attend a family gathering; if all goes according to plan, we feel those good emotions and we thrive as human beings.
What about the bad? We feel stress, anger, powerlessness as a response to stimuli. Rarely do we willing place ourselves in situations where we expect those emotions, but when they happen, our body is trying to teach us something about ourselves. Brains are complicated but they’ve evolved over billions of years to keep us alive. If we respond correctly to those bad emotions, we’re probably going to survive better or longer than those who don’t. If two people are walking through the forest and a bush shakes; how they each respond to the resulting fear and anxiety may determine which of those two people lives, and which one dies.
That’s an antiquated way to look at human emotion, but the fundamental holds true. Boil it down far enough and every human emotion has evolutionary benefits. When we feel pride in something, we’re seeking adoration from our fellow humans. When we feel anger about something, we’re righting a perceived wrong. When we feel attracted to someone we’re attempting to procreate. When we’re curious about something we might learn something new or discover a new viable place to settle with untapped resources. And, to touch on the focus of today’s episode, when we’re jealous of something or someone, we want some survival benefit they have that we don’t.
Whether it’s a beautiful home, a shiny new BMW, a promotion at work, an attractive partner, it’s human nature to want what we see others have. It’s born out of a scarcity principle and manifests depending on what we as a society deem to be valuable. I may covet my neighbor’s new car but I don’t covet when a homeless person is able to exchange their old tent for a newer tent with less holes in it. Some people have things we want, and many of us will stop at nothing to get those things for ourselves.
Envy can result from tangible items we desire to possess, or from more intangible forms. We can covet a person’s social status, education, or job title. If we’re driven by attention from the public, another person garnering that attention from their accomplishments or possessions can cause that envy of traits which are hard to quantify but no less real than the beautiful home, new BMW, promotion at work, or attractive partner. Envy can drive us toward aspiration, but far more often leads to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome.
The founding man of Mormonism exhibited covetousness in nearly every aspect of his life. Whether he wanted a larger following, envied other religious leaders for their success, or simply wanted the beautiful wife or daughter of one of his followers, Joseph Smith saw something he wanted and would stop at nothing to have it for himself. The Smith home was a competitive place for a person to grow up; teaching through a series of hard knocks the principle of scarcity. Homes with 11 kids tend to foster competition among them to get resources, be those resources enough food to survive or just some attention from mom and dad. This competitive upbringing created a young man who saw a world of opportunities, as long as he was able to acquire those opportunities before somebody else. This scarcity is only peripherally mentioned by Lucy Mack Smith in her Biographical Sketches of Jo’s very early life. She reveals the tumultuous time when typhoid ran its way through the family and resulted in Jo’s leg surgery. This coming after the eldest Smith daughter, Sophronia, lay catatonic for nearly 3 months with the illness, the whole family thinking her dead at some time; when she recovered, Lucy “pressed her to my breast, and continued to walk the floor. She sobbed again, then looked up into my face, and commenced breathing quite freely. My soul was satisfied, but my strength was gone. I laid my daughter on the bed, and sunk by her side, completely overpowered by the intensity of my feelings.” This is only one small snapshot of Lucy being overwhelmed with the duties of motherhood. Once young Joey came down with the typhus fever, his shoulder swelled then discharged fluid and the infection migrated to his leg. Lucy continues:
His leg soon began to swell, and he continued to suffer the greatest agony for the space of two weeks longer. During this period I carried him much of the time in my arms, in order to mitigate his suffering as much as possible, in consequence of which I was taken very ill myself. The anxiety of mind that I experienced, together with physical over-exertion, was too much for my constitution, and my nature sunk under it.
As is often the case in large families, older children begin to take on the role of parenting while the parents’ time is more occupied with the younger children. Accordingly,
Hyrum, who was rather remarkable for his tenderness and sympathy, now desired that he might take my place. As he was a good, trusty boy, we let him do so; and, in order to make the task easy for him as possible, we laid JOseph upon a low bed, and Hyrum sat beside him, almost day and night, for some considerable length of time, holding the affected part of his leg in his hands, and pressing it between them, so that his afflicted brother might be enabled to endure the pain, which was so excruciating that he was scarcely able to bear it.
The older Smith children helping to raise each other would be cold comfort to the younger children seeking approval of, and attention from, the Smith parents. We all have limited bandwidth and energy we can devote to any specific thing or person. Parents know this; but you don’t have to be a parent to understand that we all have limits. It’s clear Lucy found her limits while typhoid raged through the family and she was trying to keep all her kids alive.
Once Jo’s life extended beyond these childhood lessons of scarcity, his early public life was marked by more jealousy of those more successful than him. This trend becomes abundantly clear when we examine Joe’s treasure hunting career. A couple episodes ago we discussed how Joe borrowed his neighbor Willard Chase’s brown, egg-shaped seer stone, which he used to translate the Book of Mormon. Chase asked for the stone back, and Joe refused to return it. What that means is Mormonism’s vaunted “Urim and Thummim” was a rock that Joe stole from his neighbor.
Let’s talk about Willard Chase’s sister, Sally Chase. Another of the Chase siblings, Abel Chase, told an interviewer that Sally also had a seer stone. According to Richard Bushman in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, “A nearby physician, John Stafford, reported that ‘the neighbors used to claim Sally Chase could look at a stone she had, and see money. Willard used to dig when she found where the money was.’ After Joseph obtained the plates, Willard Chase led the group that attempted to find them in the Smiths’ house, guided by Sally Chase and a ‘green glass, through which she could see many very wonderful things.’”
In the early 1820s, Sally apparently led the Smiths on at least one treasure dig. According to Willard Chase’s brother-in-law Lorenzo Saunders,
Well I will tell you they did dig; Willard Chase & Alvin, the one that died; they dug before Alvin died [in 1823]. Willard Chase told me about a place; He said he & Alvin Smith went there to dig & there was a chest there; and he said it was so long, & so wide (measuring with a cane). It was an iron chest. And he said they dug down & it only lay a little under the ground. Willard Chase claimed his Sister Sally had a peep stone.
Joe watched what Sally was doing, and he liked what he saw and thought, “I could do that.” According to notes taken during Joe’s 1826 trial for “glass-looking” by W. D. Purple, Joe testified during the trial that...
when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl [Sally Chase] some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others; that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass; that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzeled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm.… He borrowed an old ax and a hoe, and repaired to the tree. With some labor and exertion he found the stone.
Where or when Jo heard about Sally can’t be known, but it seems as if he heard of her abilities as a town seer and felt this strong desire to be like her. He coveted her abilities of seeing and her stature as a town seer who people would pay to help find hidden or buried treasure.. He went and looked into her glass, and he saw where a seer stone was buried. He went and dug up the stone, and it became his very first seer stone. He sought her out and Sally let Joe look into her stone, and it showed him where to find his own better stone. Jo basically copied Sally’s business model and set himself up as a competitor. By 1827, his story of finding a gold Bible had made him the more famous seer, and Sally became the one who envied him.
According to Mother Lucy Mack Smith, Joe’s refusal to share the golden plates of the Book of Mormon with the neighborhood treasure-diggers caused a rift among them. The treasure hunters made several attempts to get the plates from Joe. On one occasion, Sally looked into her stone and saw that the plates were buried under the Smiths’ cooper shop. She led the treasure hunters to the spot, and they tore up the floorboards. Under the floorboards they found a box, which they smashed. Unfortunately, the box was empty. Joe later explained that he had buried the empty box as a misdirection; the plates themselves he had hidden in the flax in the loft. Ep 10.
There was another seer that Joe imitated: a man by the name of Luman Walters. According to D. Michael Quinn’s book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, the sources variously describe Walters as “a clairvoyant,” “a fortune-teller, a necromancer, an astrologer, a soothsayer,” “a drunken vagabond,” and “a physician . . . [who] had learned in Europe the secret of Mesmerism or animal magnetism” (in other words, a hypnotist). Abner Cole, editor of the Palmyra Reflector newspaper, referred to him as “Walters the Magician.” In a February 28, 1831 article, Cole wrote,
It is well known that Jo Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the pretended finding of his book, and that the juggling of himself or father, went no further than the pretended faculty of seeing wonders in a "peep stone," and the occasional interview with the spirit, supposed to have the custody of hidden treasures; and it is also equally well known, that a vagabond fortune-teller by the name of Walters, who then resided in the town of Sodus, and was once committed to the jail of this county for juggling, was the constant companion and bosom friend of these money digging impostors. There remains but little doubt, in the minds of those at all acquainted with these transactions, that Walters, who was sometimes called the conjurer, and was paid three dollars per day for his services by the money diggers in this neighborhood, first suggested to Smith the idea of finding a book. Walters, the better to carry on his own deception with those ignorant & deluded people who employed him, had procured an old copy of Cicero's Orations, in the latin language, out of which he read long and loud to his credulous hearers, uttering at the same time an unintelligible jargon, which he would afterwards pretend to interpret, and explain, as a record of the former inhabitants of America, and a particular account of the numerous situations where they had deposited their treasures previous to their final extirpation. So far did this impostor carry this diabolical farce, that not long previous to the pretended discovery of the "Book of Mormon," Walters assembled his nightly band of money diggers in the town of Manchester, at a point designated in his magical book, and drawing a circle around the laborers, with the point of an old rusty sword, and using sundry other incantations, for the purpose of propitiating the spirit, absolutely sacrificed a fowl, (“Rooster,”) in the presence of his awe-stricken companions, to the foul spirit, whom ignorance had created, the guardian of hidden wealth; and after digging until day-light, his deluded employers retired to their several habitations, fatigued and disappointed.
If we’re doing our best to trace mentors of Jo’s magic and occult practices, we can point to Sally and Jo imitating her with his use of seer stones. However, as his worldview and studies in the occult expanded, he imitated Walters in his use of magic, animal sacrifices, and arcane languages in order to bind the treasure guardian spirits. He also may have gotten the idea of finding an ancient book from Walters, because Walter used an old Latin book in his magical performances. Apparently Walters claimed that the book “contained an account of the anti-deluvians” meaning the giants who lived before Noah’s Flood. So it’s interesting that Joe’s book also contained an account of the ante-diluvians, the giants whom he called the Jaredites.
In 1818 Walters got arrested and then escaped custody, fleeing the Palmyra area and leaving Joe to sort of take over where he left off. Later, when Sally and the other treasure hunters were trying to get the plates from Joe, they hired Walters to help them and he made several trips to Palmyra. Apparently he told them that only Joe could get the plates. There’s even some evidence that he accepted baptism and briefly joined Joe’s church if we believe Bloody Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses.
Walters presents a rather interesting case study in Palmyra-era Smith family conduct. The same Abner Cole who published the article in 1831 we just read from worked out of the Grandin printing press while the Book of Mormon was being published. In his newspaper he published extracts from the Book of Mormon before the printing was completed. Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith paid Cole a little visit and in response Cole stopped publishing parts of the Book of Mormon and took the route of satire, publishing under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry The Book of Pukei, where he discussed Walters’ influence on young Jo. It opens up with Chapter 1 as follows:
And it came to pass in the latter days, that wickedness did much abound in the land, and the “Idle and slothful” said to one another, let us send for Walters the Magician, who has strange books, and deals with familiar spirits; peradventure he will inform us where the Nephites hid their treasure, so be it, that we and our vagabond van, do no perish for lack of sustenance.
Now Walters, the Magician, was a man unseemly to look upon, and to profound ignorance added the most consummate impudence,--he obeyed the summons off the idle and slothful…
Upon this introduction of Luman Walters into the treasure digging group, his occult directions and mandates were apparently followed by the group and they toiled for weeks under his direction “with a zeal deserving a better cause,” until they were fed up with the lack of results, running them all into danger of Walters draining them of all their resources.
And it came to pass that when the Idle and Slothful became weary of their nightly labors, they said one to another, lo! this imp of the Devil, hath deceived us, let us no more of him, or peradventure, ourselves, our wives, and our little ones, will become chargeable on the town.
Now when Walters the Magician heard these things, he was sorely grieved, and said unto himself, lo! mine occupation is gone, even these ignorant vagabonds, the idle and slothful detect mine impostures. I will away and hide myself, lest the strong arm of the law should bring me to justice.
After that, Walters departed the group of treasure diggers taking his “rusty sword,... magic stone,... stuffed Toad, and all his implements of witchcraft and retired to the mountains.” The crucial piece comes directly after that verse in the Book of Pukei where it describes Jo filling the vacuum left behind by Walters.
Now the rest of the acts of the magician, how his mantle fell upon the prophet Jo. Smith Jun. and how Jo. made a league with the spirit, who afterwards turned out to be an angel, and how he obtained the “Gold Bible,” Spectacles, and breast plate--will they not be faithfully recorded in the book of Pukei?
Whatever the arrangement between the Smith treasure digging troop and Luman Walters, no historian in their right mind would dispute that Walters had an influence on Jo. As I said before, if we’re tracing Jo’s contacts to speculate on who transferred specific knowledge to him, Sally Chase may have introduced him to peep stones while Walters likely expanded that basis of knowledge to include other aspects of occult traditions involving animal magnetism, use of ceremonial daggers like the sword of Laban, spirit conjuration, etc. Notably as well, once Walters was out of the picture and running his medical tincture shop, or apothecary, Jo took the reins as magician of the group. Whether or not Jo envied Walters’ knowledge and wisdom, it seems likely he envied Walters’ social status as a revered magician and sought to emulate those practices, possibly in hopes of being equally elevated among magic-minded folks.
Before we move from New York to Kirtland, let’s discuss one other group of people that may have excited Joe’s jealousy: the revival preachers who swept through Palmyra in the 1820s. According to historian Robert N. Hullinger, “From 1817 on revivals were a common feature of life in Palmyra.” In his history, Joe described a revival that occurred in 1824. Here’s his description:
Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist. For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.
Joe makes it sound like he was disgusted by all this, but I suspect that he was actually really interested. What this revival, or series of revivals, illustrated to Jo was a competitive market with saturation. All these folks contending about different interpretations of the Bible, what if there was a new scripture of Christ visiting the American continent to minister to lost tribes of Israel which would prove the authoritative final word one what divided all these different priests? Well-known preachers were the celebrities of the day and reputations often preceded their arrival to small towns like Palmyra. A young man who’d learned the key to survival in a crowded and impoverished family was doing whatever necessary to stand out would have seen the public adulation given these preachers and wondered what he had to do to get it for himself.
Driving home my point, here’s an excerpt from historian Robert N. Hullinger’s book Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism:
During the 1820s the Palmyra newspapers printed reports of revivals throughout the state and elsewhere. Camp meeting notices, especially those of the Palmyra Methodist church, were another indication of revival activity. In 1829 Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow preached to 3,000 people in the field next to the Methodist church, and in 1831 Charles Finney himself visited the community. The Methodists sponsored a revival in June 1826 a mile from Palmyra. People came from as far as 100 miles away, so many that more than 100 tents were needed. Between 8:00 a.m. and nightfall, five sermons were preached. The service at 5:00 p.m. featured a sermon that “contemplated the whole process of personal salvation, from its incipiency to its consummation in the world of light.” The address electrified the crowd. Afterwards, according to one account, “the Rev. Goodwin Stoddard exhorted, and invited seekers within the circle of prayer in front of the stand. Hundreds came forward; some said nearly every unconverted person on the ground.”
That part about Charles Finney coming to Palmyra is especially interesting, because Joe’s First Vision is extremely similar to a vision that Finney had in 1821, and Finney also complained a lot about how revivals cause strife between the different churches.
Have a listen for yourself from Finney’s 1868 autobiography when he describes his spiritual experience after having prayed in the woods and being struck dumb. He reveals some aspects of how altered states of consciousness can be achieved when a person’s mind is stressed and they’re constantly overwhelmed by existential crises.
North of the village, and over a hill, lay a piece of woods, in which I was in the almost daily habit of walking, more or less, when it was pleasant weather. It was now October, and the time was past for my frequent walks there. Nevertheless, instead of going to the office, I turned and bent my course toward the woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.
But still my pride must show itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. Yet probably there was not a person on earth that would have suspected such a thing, had he seen me going... I then penetrated into the woods, I should think, a quarter of a mile, went over on the other side of the hill, and found a place where some large trees had fallen across each other, leaving an open place between. There I saw I could make a kind of closet. I crept into this place and knelt down for prayer. As I turned to go up into the woods, I recollect to have said, "I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there." I recollect repeating this as I went up: ;"I will give my heart to God before I ever come down again."
But when I attempted to pray I found that my heart would not pray. I had supposed that if I could only be where I could speak aloud, without being overheard, I could pray freely. But lo! when I came to try, I was dumb; that is, I had nothing to say to God; or at least I could say but a few words, and those without heart...
Finally I found myself verging fast to despair. I said to myself, "I cannot pray. My heart is dead to God, and will not pray." I then reproached myself for having promised to give my heart to God before I left the woods...
The thought was pressing me of the rashness of my promise, that I would give my heart to God that day or die in the attempt. It seemed to me as if that was binding upon my soul; and yet I was going to break my vow. A great sinking and discouragement came over me, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.
Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God, took such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. "What!" I said, "such a degraded sinner I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!" The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord… I cried to Him, "Lord, I take Thee at Thy word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for Thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee; and Thou hast promised to hear me."
Finney returned to his office as a paralegal and waited for everybody to leave that evening before he returned to his prayers in hopes of a miraculous conversion in this stressed and open-minded mental state.
By evening we got the books and furniture adjusted; and I made up, in an open fireplace, a good fire, hoping to spend the evening alone. Just at dark Squire W, seeing that everything was adjusted, bade me goodnight and went to his home. I had accompanied him to the door; and as I closed the door and turned around, my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my feelings seemed to rise and flow out; and the utterance of my heart was, "I want to pour my whole soul out to God." The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed into the room back of the front office, to pray.
There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for some time afterward, that it was wholly a mental state. On the contrary it seemed to me that I saw Him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind; for it seemed to me a reality, that He stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to Him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance. It seemed to me that I bathed His feet with my tears; and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched Him, that I recollect.
I must have continued in this state for a good while; but my mind was too much absorbed with the interview to recollect anything that I said. But I know, as soon as my mind became calm enough to break off from the interview, I returned to the front office, and found that the fire that I had made of large wood was nearly burned out. But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.
No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, "I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me." I said, "Lord, I cannot bear any more;" yet I had no fear of death.
How long I continued in this state, with this baptism continuing to roll over me and go through me, I do not know.
Visionary and mystical conversion events like this are a dime a dozen in the burned-over district in which Jo’s theology and market scouting were formed. From that point forward, Charles Finney became a popular circuit rider preacher, debating Universalists, and holding very intense revivals which included basically hot seats for anybody who was teetering on the edge of conversion.
Notably as well, that conversion story from Finney was recorded in 1868, 47 years after it supposedly happened, but he’d obviously shared his conversion story in multiple public fora before writing it in his autobiography. It’s likely that during one of his revivals in Palmyra, where the young man Jo was attending, Finney shared his miraculous conversion story, details of which could have been lifted by Jo after he saw how successful of a preacher Finney was. Finney had the following and public clout Jo wanted.
Despite Joe’s claim to have been disgusted by the revivals, there’s evidence that he participated in them at the time. Newspaper publisher Orsamus Turner, who knew Joe as a teenager, wrote that Joe caught a “spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna Road,” and that “he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.” And Joe’s neighbor Peter Ingersoll told his niece Sara that
In the year 1822 or 23 Smith began preaching[.] He would hold meetings in the district school-house and draw large crowds to hear him. He would preach for a while and then go into a trance and seem to be perfectly conscious during this trance, and he would repeat some Jargon in an unknown tongue, then he would interpret the unknown sounds and assure those present they were the pure “Adamic language[,] the language in which Adam courted Eve in the garden of Eden[.]” Strange as it may seem he began to have believers for at first it was done in a spirit of mischief and fun[.] After holding these meetings “Joe” as he was called would come to uncle Peter’s house-- if uncle Peter was not with him-- and tell him of the success he had had, how many converts he made, and laugh till he would drop on the floor with mirth[.]
Now, this is a super late and secondhand source, so who knows how reliable it is. But it definitely suggests that Joe saw the power that revival preachers had over people and thought, “I want some of that.” We see many elements Jo incorporated into his church existing all around him which were exhibited as enviable traits by those he likely admired or for which he probably harbored jealousy. Whether it was Sally Chase and her seer stone Jo used to find his own better-than-hers seer stone, or mumbling incoherent words and magic incantations he picked up from Luman Walters, or even the first vision conversion story itself, all of these elements became integral ingredients to Jo’s own story and church. Jo was an observant guy and he could recognize what made people tick; what made people move and shake; more importantly, what made people give their hard-earned resources to somebody else.
Let’s move into the Kirtland period once Jo’s church had officially started. A couple episodes ago we discussed Joe’s lust for power, and all the ways that he shut down other people when they gained too much power in the Church. We discussed how Oliver Cowdery and Hyrum Page both received revelations in Fayette, New York in 1830, and Joe ordered Page’s seer stone destroyed and his revelations burned. What bears repetition about these events is that Joe then sent Cowdery on a mission to the Natives west of Missouri while Joe remained behind and consolidated his leadership of the Church. It could be argued that there was causality in these contemporary events.
When Cowdery and his mission companions headed to Missouri in 1830, they stopped in Kirtland, Ohio and converted a large Baptist commune, along with its minister Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon was a bit of a straight-laced, good-guy preacher, that had a tendency to fall in and out of revelatory trances, possibly a product of a head injury as a young boy. Joe had the ability to engage people one-on-one, and was very persuasive in doing so, whereas Rigdon was a fantastic public speaker, and the masses unequivocally loved him. So the two men had very complementary skills. Joe needed a go-getter, and Rigdon fit the bill. Eps 14, 15, 16, 24, Sunstone presentation on YouTube titled Sidney Rigdon: Forgotten Hero of Mormonism.
There are two theories about Rigdon.
One is that he had never heard of Joe or the Book of Mormon before. That’s the standard story, and the one that most historians today accept. He came into the Mormon church by a happy accident of fate.
The other is that Joe and Rigdon had met earlier in the 1820s, and Rigdon had collaborated with Joe in the Book of Mormon fraud. The theory goes that sometime between 1818 to 1823, Rigdon stole a manuscript novel by a guy named Solomon Spaulding from a printing press in Pittsburgh. He edited the manuscript and kept the work secret while working as a circuit preacher making a name for himself after he had a falling out with his mentor, Alexander Campbell. In 1823 he met Joe while preaching at a revival in Rochester New York, a mere 33 miles, or one and a half day's journey from Joe's hometown, Palmyra. They get to know each other through various correspondence, and devise a plan to start a new zionist religion. Rigdon shares the manuscript novel he’s been editing, and Joe uses it as the basis for the Book of Mormon. Meanwhile, Rigdon goes back to Ohio and builds up a congregation that will be primed to accept the new book. In 1830, after the book is published, Rigdon sends Parley P. Pratt to New York to meet Joseph Smith and lead some missionaries back to Kirtland to convert Rigdon’s church.
This theory is a little convoluted, but there are some eyewitness accounts from people who claim to have seen Rigdon and Joe together in New York in the 1820s, and there are also strong similarities between the Book of Mormon and a draft version of Spalding’s novel historian located in the 1880s. I’m personally ambivalent about this theory, but it was one of the earliest explanations for how the Book of Mormon came to be, and there’s no denying that it had a huge impact on how the American public perceived the Church and on Church leaders’ decisions. I’m happy to be swayed either way on the Spalding-Rigdon Book of Mormon authorship theory and the simple fact remains that if the evidence establishing the theory existed around literally any other book than the foundational book of Mormon scripture, most historians and objective students of history would easily conclude the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from Spalding’s work. That’s to say, if any other 19th-century book had as many accusations of plagiarism as the Book of Mormon, we’d all agree it was plagiarized, but such a conclusion is inaccessible to the majority of people studying it because, to them, the Book of Mormon is the word of god. With the number of sworn affidavits who claim such, the witness statements placing Jo and Rigdon in the same place prior to 1830, the similarities between the discovered manuscript and the Book of Mormon, how the leadership dealt with the accusations via draconian excommunication, various legal battles, Jo’s constant history of plagiarism, and a number of other elements; it leads many to study the Spalding theory and come to conclusions counter to historical consensus; being the sole-authorship theory. Most historians today claim the Spalding theory is dead; I tend to disagree. This consensus has created a social stigma in the Mormon history community around anybody who believes in the Spalding theory and I think that stigma is unwarranted.
Anyway, while Cowdery and the other missionaries continued their mission journey to Independence, Jackson Co., MO., Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, with his friend Edward Party-boy Partridge, decided to make a trip to Fayette, where Joe was residing, to meet with him; Jo and Rigdon clicked. Here, we have a very monumental shift in Mormon history. It was like a match made in heaven. From this moment on, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon would become Joe's new favorite right hand man, taking a special place in Joe's heart. Ep 24.
Rigdon brought with him to New York another Kirtland resident, Edward Partridge. By this time Joe had pretty much bled his first big bankroller, Not So Smarty Marty Harris, completely dry. Marty had mortgaged his farm to pay for printing the Book of Mormon, and due to poor sales of the book, he was now headed toward bankruptcy. His wife had also divorced him and taken some of his assets in the divorce settlement. Joe needed a new mark, and Edward Partridge would be his first target. Rigdon brought the target right to Jo’s doorstep.
Partridge was the grandson of Massachusetts Congressman Oliver Partridge. Back then anybody that was in the government tended to be a member of the upper crust, so Edward came from a rich family. Not only that, but he also owned a hat-making factory in Painesville, which was quite successful, and made Edward one of the more affluent people in town. Edward also happened to have two daughters named Emily and Eliza who were 7 and 10 years old when they first met their to-be husband Joseph when he was in his late 20s. Well, the people of Painesville, no doubt spurred by Rigdon as well, asked Edward Partridge to go with Rigdon to investigate Joe and the Book of Mormon, and he became convinced. In fact, Joe received a revelation for Patridge, which doesn’t say much except to flatter him a little and tell him his sins are forgiven and he’s called to preach the gospel and commit himself to Mormonism. It was a good sales tactic, and it laid the groundwork for Joe to later move in on Partridge’s wealth… and daughters... The first thing a confidence man has to do is gain the mark’s confidence, and that’s what this was. Once that confidence is established, the mark can be coerced into all sorts of things, especially when they’re given an important role in the structure of the church.
We see a hint of Joe’s intentions in his revelation, later canonized in Book of Commandments 39, which ordered him to move the New York church over to Kirtland in the first of many Mormon exoduses:
And now I give unto the church in these parts, a commandment, that certain men among them shall be appointed. . . . to look to the poor and needy, and . . . to govern the affairs of the property of this church. . . . And if ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity: And it must needs be that the riches of the earth is mine to give.
Look at that, Joe came up with revelations that told people that they would essentially have to give support to the poor and needy. That sounds pretty great, doesn't it? Guess who was poor and needy at this time? None other than the prophet himself. But then it takes a little turn when it says that these people will be appointed to govern the property of the church, and that will be their work. So basically Joe is laying the groundwork for a religio-communist economic system 3 years before the United Order was officially formed. And then it says that the people that follow this church will have their earthly riches taken away from them, and will be given riches of eternity instead. And that final verse is the most chilling of all. "It must needs be that the riches of the earth is mine to give." So, Joe will be the one responsible for distributing the riches of the earth, because those riches are his to give. How this was implemented was a little more complicated than Jo controlling all the assets of the Mormons, but the impetus and motivation behind it is very simple. Jo sees a bunch of prospective marks in Kirtland and he tells them, as the MOUTHPIECE OF ALMIGHTY GOD, to give all their property to him and they did it. The coercive nature of this revelation is remarkable and patternistic for Jo’s entire ministry. The property the people have isn’t actually theirs, but god’s and god was nice enough to bless them with it for a time. Now, give that property back to god and he’ll bless you in eternity for it. People ask if Joseph Smith actually believed what he said and I think revelations like this illustrate he knew exactly what he was doing regardless of whether or not he really believed himself to be the mouthpiece of gods.
Joe travels to Kirtland with Hingepin Rigdon and Edward Partridge, and when he arrives there he’s welcomed into the house of Newell K. Whitney. Here, we have Joe's second affluent target for exploitation in Kirtland. While Eddy Party-Boy Partridge was a good guy to have around, he kind of abandoned his wealth, and liquidated his assets, in order to become the first bishop of the church in Kirtland. Joe needed an active business to leech off of, in order to stay alive. While those one-time donations are nice to run on for a little while, they just aren't sustainable in the way recurring smaller donations are. Patreon.com/nakedmormonism. So, Joe decided to parasitically latch on to the Whitney family, and move into the upstairs apartment above Newell Whitney's merchandise shop. N. K. Whitney & Co., would soon become the very first bishop's storehouse for the church, and the place where Joe and Emma would live for over 2 years.
Joe was basically made king of Kirtland upon his arrival. Eventually, all the town’s commodities were transferred over to him to decide who would receive what, the missionary force for the church was running smoothly with new people headed to new places across the country constantly. The people in the town liked Joe for the most part, and the ones that didn't were effectively ostracized from their community. Three days after arriving in Kirtland, he received this incredible revelation, which became Book of Commandments 43:
He that receiveth my law and doeth it the same is my disciple. And he that saith he receiveth it and doeth it not, the same is not my disciple, and shall be cast out from among you. For it is not meet that the things which belong to the children of the kingdom, should be given to them that are not worthy, or to dogs, or the pearls to be cast before swine. And again, it is meet that my servant Joseph should have a house built, in which to live and translate.
Basically, after this town had essentially given everything it had to Joseph Smith, he came out with this revelation saying that anybody that follows him is a disciple of Jesus, and anybody that doesn't is a muddy dog who shall be cast out from among you, the true believers. And then, he tops it all off with a commandment for everybody to build him a house, because the apartment above the bishops storehouse just wasn't good enough for him to live with. The thing about Joe is, he always wants more, and he’s never satisfied to have anybody else be richer or more powerful than him. He couldn’t just let a rich man be rich; he had to socialize the rich man’s wealth and then dole some of that wealth back to the rich man as a show of generosity by God's one true servant. What can’t be accomplished when god is on your side? This structure has a way of self-selecting only the most credulous to give their time and wealth to the church. Those who’re not deluded enough don’t give up their stuff; those who are deluded enough, give up their stuff and time only for requirements of the church to be increasingly heaped upon their shoulders. It’s a pattern from Jo’s early church that perpetuates in the modern iterations as well.
When Joe got to Kirtland, he found that a prophetess named Laura Hubble had been producing revelations in the Kirtland church. I told this story a couple episodes ago, but it bears examination from a different vantage point today. Jo was very jealous of his tenuous grasp on power, especially in the early Kirtland era when that grasp was far less secure than it was in Missouri or Nauvoo. Any person who presented a possible threat to his leadership structure needed to be immediately neutralized, lest they arise to power by wrestling it from Jo’s envious fist. Hubble presented a crucial case of jealousy for power because how dare a woman say that she has powers that are reserved only for the priesthood, and the prophet himself? Well, let's see how Joe handled it. Unfortunately, we don't have the revelations that Mrs. Hubble was giving, as far as my research told me, no copy of these prophecies is extant, but we can always read the revelation that Joe gave in response to her revelation, and try to tease out what her revelations were about. This is from the Book of Commandments Chapter 45:
For behold, verily, verily I say unto you, that ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church, through him whom I have appointed unto you, to receive commandments and revelations from my hand. And this ye shall know assuredly, that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me. But verily, verily I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him, for if it be taken from him he shall not have power, except to appoint another in his stead; And this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations or commandments; And this I give unto you, that you may not be deceived ; that you may know they are not of me.
So that was 6 verses worth of Joe screaming at everybody to listen to him, and ignore anybody that claims to be giving divine revelation from god, because he's the only one ever that can do that ever EVER!! And anybody else that claims to have those powers is obviously lying, or deceived by Satan. There’s also an interesting power play in that passage; only Jo can give revelations and if he fails in his office of prophet, only he can name a successor. Sooooo… what if the people believe he’s a fallen prophet? He’ll be the one to tell them if they’re right. Who’s responsible for replacing him after he’s fallen? Jo, of course. This would be like a president who habitually flaunts the laws using the department of justice as his own system to cover up for his own crimes. Imagine what kind of a world that would leave! Imagine the corruption! Jealousy is an ugly look, especially when it’s jealousy of one’s own power. Eps 25, 28.
The revelation then goes on to say what the church should do with Ms. Hubble, and what it should do with Joe:
Purge ye out the iniquity which is among you; sanctify yourselves before me and if ye desire the glories of the kingdom, appoint ye my servant Joseph and uphold him before me by the prayer of faith. And again, I say unto you, that if ye desire the mysteries of the kingdom, provide for him food and raiment and whatsoever thing he needeth to accomplish the work, wherewith I have commanded him.
Yeah, Jo just gave commandments to his followers to build a home for him, and to support him with donations whether they be money, or actual commodities, all while he made a power play to make sure everybody followed him and only him as prophet. And he couldn’t tolerate any hint that someone else might be able to access the mysteries of God, because it threatened his privileged position and his comfy parasitic life. Joe occasionally tried to let other people have some power so they could do the work of leadership and he could relax, but in the end his envy always kicked in and he put them in their place, be they Ms. Hubble, Hiram Page, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, William Law, Thomas B. Marsh, Sidney Rigdon, or anybody else who posed a threat or became a little too ambitious for Jo to control.
Since we’re talking about Joe’s smackdown of Laura Hubble, this might be a good place to talk about how Joe never let any women have any significant power in the Church. I want to read you a passage from historian Susan Staker’s chapter in the recent book Writing Mormon History, an anthology edited by friend of the show, Joseph Geisner. She says that Joe’s scriptures were...
A profoundly homosocial economy with seers, angels, and gods all men. Joseph’s textual economy rarely attends to personalized female characters. Within the Book of Mormon, women are members of groups-- mothers, daughters, sisters, murderers. . . . Joseph’s revelations rarely mention women-- mostly with children in relation to ordinances of baptism or sacrament. . . . Only one of the revelations printed in the Doctrine and Covenants is addressed to a woman, the ‘elect lady’ revelation to Emma Hale, Joseph’s own first wife. Women finally capture Joseph’s attention within the 1835 Egyptian project. . . . ‘Zip Zi’ is one of the terms in Joseph’s initial Egyptian Alphabet document from July 1835: [he translates it as] ‘woman married or unmarried, <or daughter>.’ Within the bound Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet, this term elaborated along its degrees is associated with ‘all women’ and with ‘the first woman, who was Eve.’ ‘Woman’ signals ‘under or beneath, second in right or in authority or Government.’ With a focus on the fecundity of women, this term can also be used to note increasing or decreasing degrees of importance and a ‘fruitful place or fruitful vine.’ With this term, women are underscored as wives and mothers and second in relation to their men. . . . [In Nauvoo, Joseph dictates D&C 132, the revelation on plural marriage.] The revelation dictated by Joseph at Hyrum’s request never directly addresses Emma. Rather she is a subject of conversation between the God voice and Joseph.
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack there, but the bottom line is that Susan is saying Joe’s revelations hardly ever mention women, and when they do mention women, it’s always as the subordinates of men or done so to ensure compliance and subservience to the men. Women are treated more as property than as human beings who can make choices and exercise authority in the Church. This comes into incredibly sharp focus when we consider the polygamy revelation, but that’ll have to wait for now. Eps 148, 149. In a footnote, Susan goes so far as to say that “Joseph comes to gather other men, his friends and the friends of God, under the sign of the seer.” Mormon salvation is for men, not for women. In fact, as we’ll find out soon, part of how Mormon men achieve salvation is by collecting women like pogs. Ep 158.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, so let’s come back to Kirtland. On August 23, 1834, a guy named Sylvester Smith brought charges against Joe in the high council. We don’t know exactly what the charges were, but they had to do with the Zion’s Camp march to Missouri, an absolute fiasco which we’ll discuss in an upcoming episode. Eps 30, 31, 32. The high council investigated the charges and concluded in the meeting minutes,
that we are satisfied with his [Joe’s] conduct, having learned from the clearest evidence, that he has acted in every respect worthy of his high and responsible station in the Church, and has prudently and cautiously preserved the good of this society at large, and is worthy of our esteem and fellowship, and that those reports could have originated in the minds of none except such as either from a natural misunderstanding, or natural jealousy, are easily led to conceive of evils where none exist.
I’m not jealous, you are! They totally exonerated Joe, and chalked the allegation up to jealousy. By the time this hearing was conducted, Jo’s inner circle of church leadership was staffed so exclusively with cronies who would never contradict the prophet of god that they could do nothing but find no wrongdoing or illegal acts on his part. But Joe wouldn't take these allegations from Sylvester Smith lying down, and had to react in a familiar fashion. Five days later, “the High Council assembled according to the direction of Bishop Whitney, to try Brother Sylvester Smith, charged with a misdemeanor.” The misdemeanor was that he had continued to badmouth Joe even after Joe had been exonerated by the council. I mean, did we expect Joe to act any other way? As soon as Joe was charged for doing something unbecoming of a prophet of God, he would manufacture allegations against the person that charged him in the first place. This was an early manifestation of a strong pattern that developed of Jo’s coordinated character assassination campaigns against enemies or anybody who would say anything negative about him. It's a classic case of misdirection, and it worked because the leadership of the church obviously sided with the infallible and pious supreme leader, even the one and only true mouthpiece and servant of our heavenly father, Joseph Smith, Jun. It’s corruption and protectionism at its worst, the religious kind. Eps 39, 49, 51, 54, 58, 76, 77, 91, 94, 98, 109, 116, 117, Bennet Meltdown 120-134, 140, 146, 156, 171, 178, 179, 197, 198, 199, 200, 201, 204, and 213.
Now let’s skip ahead to another, much larger revolt against Joe’s leadership in 1837 and 1838. We’ve discussed Joe’s scheme to establish a Mormon bank a lot on this show, it’s kind of an important time in Mormon history. The bank of course blew up and a lot of people involved in it lost their savings. But even before the bank failed, there started to be pushback.
According to Wilford Woodruff’s journal, on January 17, 1837, just eleven days after the bank put its first money into circulation, David Whitmer lectured to the Seventies and “warned us to humble ourselves before God lest his hand rest upon us in anger for our pride and many sins, that we were running into in our days of prosperity as the ancient Nephites did.” The canary was beginning to wobble on its perch.
A month later, after Joe had been out of town for a couple weeks, he returned to find that “Many were stirred up in their hearts and some were against him as the Israelites were against Moses, but when he arose in the power of God in their midst, as Moses did anciently, they were put to silence for the complainers saw that he stood in the power of a Prophet. O how weak is man.”
It’s surprising he hearkened to Moses instead of Moroni, Helaman, Nephi, Nephi, Alma, or Nephi, but I digress. For the moment Joe had things under control. And as we discussed last episode, Kirtland Mormonism hit a high-point of euphoria with a drunken and possibly hallucinogenic party in honor of the anniversary of the Kirtland Temple dedication on March 23, 1837. But the mood shifted fast after that, because right around that same time, Andrew Jackson kicked off the Panic of 1837 by cracking down on private banks. There was a run on banks all over the country, and Kirtland was no exception. Ep 38. More than half the banks across the country folded and specie in the form of gold and silver became a precious commodity.
By early April Woodruff wrote in his journal that Smith lectured to the elder’s quorum that if the elders would just obey him for once,
Kirtland should speedily be redeemed and become a stronghold not to be thrown down. Joseph presented us in some degree the plot of the City of Kirtland (which is the stronghold of the daughter of Zion) as it was given him by vision; it was great, marvelous and glorious. The city extended to the east, west, north, and south; steam boats will come puffing into the City. Our goods will be conveyed upon railroads from Kirtland to many places and probably to Zion. Houses of worship would be reared unto the most high; beautiful streets were to be made for the Saints to walk in. Kings of the earth would come to behold the glory thereof and many glorious things not now to be named would be bestowed upon the Saints, but all these things are better imagined than spoken by the children of Jacob.
Did that quote seem at all desperate? Jo was up on the stand showing everybody plans he’d drawn out for Kirtland and how great it’ll be, if only they have faith in the KSS company and bring more people to the church, or just their money, the people don’t even need to come. Jo had a penchant for grand plans that were laughably ambitious and frankly impossible. He thought Kirtland would become a major industrial center and make him very wealthy. He thought the same for Missouri and all the plans fell through after the Mormons were forcibly removed. Only in Nauvoo did his grand plans nearly come to fruition but every project was so ill-fated and poorly managed to begin with that it would never become what he dreamed it could. Jo had visited New York city, Boston, Washington D.C., and plenty other large cities; it’s very clear he wanted to be king of his own metropolitan American city. Had he survived through 1844, who knows if that dream may have been realized.
By May 1837, there was so much discontent among the leaders of the Church that two apostles, Orson and Parley Pratt, filed charges against Joe in the high council “for lying & misrepresentation – also for extortion – and for speaking disrespectfully against his brethren behind their backs.” Apostle Luke Johnson also filed charges against Joe “for closing the doors of the house of the Lord against the high council.” The same day, Joe’s scribe Warren Parrish filed charges against Sidney Rigdon “for expressing an unbelief in the revelations of God, both old and new, also an unbelief in the agency of man and his accountability to God, or that there is Such a principle existing as Sin. –and also for lying & declaring that God required it at his hands.” Also among the dissenters were Apostles Lyman Johnson and John F. Boynton.
A few points worth consideration here. This tension among the leadership was a result of many factors. The Fanny Alger incident had cast Jo’s piety deeply into question as it was publicly discussed and widely known. The overwhelming debt the church had incurred which resulted in the formation of the KSS company remained unpaid. Creditors were beating down the doors of nearly every member of the Mormon leadership but Jo had tied up all their wealth in the KSS company and the money simply dried up, leaving everybody unable to pay their personal debts. The treasure-seeking trip to Massachusetts was a total failure. Dissent was openly contended in public church meetings, not just of the leadership but of the broader membership. Nobody likes a display of dirty laundry but when all the laundry is dirty it’s kind of hard to turn a blind eye. NSSM Harris had just declared in a meeting that he saw the gold plates with the spiritual instead of the natural eyes, casting all of Jo’s claims of divinity and the history of the Book of Mormon into question. The Spalding theory, resulting from multiple exposes and scathing newspaper articles, was gaining a lot of traction and missionaries across the nation were being confronted with questions they couldn’t answer.
By September 4, the Kirtland Safety Society had completely failed. But Joe also by this time rallied enough of the Church’s leadership around himself to have the dissenters’ apostleship revoked. In March the following year he also excommunicated Ollie Cowdery, D-Day David Whitmer, John Goebbels Whitmer, and William Wines (double-dub) Phelps, who by this time had all joined the dissenters. The charges brought against them in the excommunication trial were mostly fabricated, so much so that Oliver Cowdery later spent years negotiating with Brigham Young to have the false charges expunged from his record before he would return to the church. Cowdery died an untimely death before joining the Utah settlement. Joe even accused the dissenters of continuing to pass worthless Kirtland Safety Society bills on people, as if they were the ones who had been behind the predatory bank all along.
Joe may have won the bureaucratic fight for control of the Church, but the dissenters won the legal and physical fight for control of the town. Apparently things got so hot that at one point Warren Parrish burst into the Temple and held the Church’s leadership at gunpoint, and on another occasion, Bloody Brigham Young warned Joe that there was a plot to assassinate him brewing in the Quorum of the Twelve. Joe ended up fleeing Kirtland in the middle of the night and going to Missouri. Eps 39, 40, 41.
When Joe arrived in Missouri on March 14, 1838, “many of the brethren came out to meet us, who also with open arms welcomed us to their bosoms. We were immediately received under the hospitable roof of Brother George W. Harris, who treated us with all possible kindness, and we refreshed ourselves with much satisfaction, after our long and tedious journey.” Pro-tip for anyone who might be thinking about letting Joseph Smith stay in your house: just don’t. Or, if you do, hide your wife and daughters. According to several sources, George W. Harris’s wife Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris became Joseph Smith’s first polyandrous plural wife. “Polyandrous” meaning that she was married to more than one husband at the same time.
We’ll take a deep dive into polygamy on an upcoming episode, but you can’t talk about Joe’s aspirations for wealth of commodities without discussing the fact that he secretly married about a dozen women who were already married to other men. I don’t know how to understand this except as a product of Joe’s jealousy of his bros’ hot wives. Of course, apologists will try to tell you that maybe Joe never had sex with any of these women, and maybe his true goal was to create dynastic ties with their husbands or some other nonsense. Right. If Joe had wanted to be sealed to the husbands, he could have invented celestial gay marriage. Can we just be honest and admit that Jo’s libido was a driving factor in his revelations? If Joe were using plural marriage to forge closer ties with the women’s husbands, then maybe he should have waited until Orson Hyde returned from his mission instead of marrying his wife while he was away, am I right? We’ll get to Hyde’s story later, but first let’s deal with Lucinda Harris.
Lucinda was the widow of the infamous William Morgan who’d published his expose of Masonry in 1826 and went missing soon afterwards in the custody of Masons. This very public William Morgan disappearing issue happened right in Jo’s backyard in New York. Lucinda became a Mormon and remarried to George W. Harris. During the two months Jo and Emma lived with the Harrises, Jo courted Lucinda and took her as a plural wife. Even in a dire time when his life was threatened and the church was collapsing around him, Jo found time to court a new wife in the same household as he, Emma, and the kids were living in. The historical record can’t prove whether or not Emma was aware of this relationship. Biographers claim she was completely oblivious to the majority of Jo’s wives and there’s no way to unequivocally prove otherwise. Her knowledge and participation in polygamy is a heated subject of debate and speculation in the Mormon history community.
Unfortunately we don’t know many details of this marriage. This is from Todd Compton’s book In Sacred Loneliness:
There is no firm date for Smith’s marriage to Lucinda, but these two months [while the Smiths were living in the Harris home] are a good possibility. He often married women while he was living in the same house with them, and the Sarah Pratt statement correlates with the year 1838, as well. Smith was thirty-two at the time and Lucinda was thirty-six, so he was the first of her husbands who was not an older man. George Harris may have given permission for the marriage, since he was a close friend of Smith and a church leader. He later stood proxy for Smith in the Nauvoo temple as his wife was sealed to the dead prophet for eternity. Despite the prophet’s connection to Lucinda, she would not stop living with George, as was customary in Smith’s polyandrous marriages.
Whatever the exact circumstances of the marriage, it set a precedent for celestial polyandry, allowing Jo to acquire a lot of his friends’ wives after moving to Nauvoo. As much as women were commodities in this Victorian era, Jo couldn’t see a possession somebody else had without wanting it for himself. Good thing society has evolved past that… amiright?!
In the aftermath of the Missouri-Mormon war of 1838, the Mormons lost the War and surrendered to the Missourians in November 1838, Joe was interred in Liberty Jail with his brother Hyrum Smith and several other Church leaders: Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae, Lyman Wight. Meanwhile, most of the Mormons were expelled from Missouri and moved as refugees north to Quincy, Illinois. Joe’s absence threatened his power, his most precious and jealously-guarded possession. He was afraid of what Rigdon would do as soon as he got to Quincy without Jo there to naysay him or keep him reined in. Rigdon was released from Liberty Jail 2 months before the prophet and he had no way of ensuring Hingepin Rigdon wouldn’t step into the power vacuum.
But, fortunately for Joe, senior apostle Bloody Brigham Young stepped up to operate as president in Joe’s absence, which is good because he was very loyal and an awesome businessman who could coordinate the resettlement of thousands of destitute refugees. This time during the early organization of the Illinois settlements was when Rigdon developed a healthy new respect and fear of who Bloody Brigham was starting to become. Bloody Brigham purged the leadership and put his own guy, Wilford Woodruff, into the quorum, the same Woodruff who would become the 4th prophet of the Brighamite church. In addition, he kept a tight set of reins on the other members of the leadership, making sure that Jo would be happy with his work upon his return. At the March 1839 General Conference,
it was unanimously voted that the following persons be excommunicated from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, vis.: George M. Hinkle, Sampson Avard, John Corrill, Reed Peck, Wm. W. Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, Thomas B. Marsh, Burr Riggs, and several others. (History of the Church 3:259)
Bloody Brigham took this conference as an opportunity to excommunicate nearly every person who testified against the leadership during the November 1838 court of inquiry into Mormon treason during the Missouri-Mormon War. If a mafia family is filled with rats, time to go on extermination patrol and that’s exactly what Bloody Brigham did. Joe had no idea this happened until after he busted out of the joint by bribing his guards with whiskey and a healthy chunk of change. Rigdon wasn’t even present at this conference. Joe had told them explicitly to not hold any conferences until he could get there, which is an absurd thing to say because of course they will need to hold a conference to figure out just what the hell they’re going to do with 10,000 refugees moving into a dinky little swampland on the Illinois banks of the Mississippi. Jo legitimately feared for his position as head of the Mormon movement while he didn’t know how long he would remain caught up in the cogs of the Missouri legal machine. Bloody Brigham took charge and handled business as it needed to be handled. Eventually Joe bribed his way out of jail and escaped to Illinois, where he took over the reins of the Church beginning in spring of 1839.
Nauvoo was a clean slate for the Mormons and Jo. We’ve spent the last 3 years on this podcast talking about how he manipulated Illinois politics in order to increase his own power and influence and create a religious theocracy free from any legal oversight. Here, Jo’s greatest fantasies and dreams could become reality and I think it’s important to recognize something about his time in Nauvoo because I feel like we can learn a lot from this exercise. What powerful historical figures did Joe envy? Whose power did he want to emulate? Who did he view as men who’d accomplished more than him that he wanted to mimic?
Well, while Joe was sitting in Liberty Jail, the state of Missouri was out collecting evidence to be used against him in his jury trial for treason. One of the pieces of evidence they collected was an affidavit from Apostle Thomas B. Marsh, the milk-strippings guy and prodigal son of the Utah kingdom, who said this:
I have heard the prophet say that he should yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; that if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation, & that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean. That like Mahomet, whose motto, in treating for peace was the Alcoran, or the sword, so should it eventually be with us, Jo Smith or the sword.
Muhammed was a warlord. Like, he probably killed thousands of people. Joe wanted to be a great man like Mohammed, and if that meant killing every non-Mormon in America to build Zion, the Mormon Mecca, then that’s what he was willing to do. Interestingly enough, many newspapers would call him the Mormon Mohamet when reporting about his military expeditions in Missouri and the raising of his Nauvoo Legion. He almost seems to have worn that label as a badge of honor.
After escaping jail and going to Illinois, Joe compared himself to another brutal military leader on July 3, 1841. According to Thomas Sharp, a newspaper editor who founded the “Anti-Mormon Party” to oppose Mormon control of politics in Illinois, Joe gave a speech in which he warned the Anti-Mormons “that if they did not stop their blab about him, he would be President of the United States, (God would give him the office if he wanted it,) and then he would show them what a Bonaparte could do.” Napoleon Bonaparte, of course, was the French emperor who had embroiled Europe in a series of brutal wars and established the First French Empire.
Bonaparte was another badge of honor for Jo. During a dinner meeting, from Mormon Enigma,
Joseph remarked to William Phelps that he had a kind, provident wife who would load the table with good things to eat until the sight destroyed his appetite when all he had asked her for was a little bread and milk. Emma came into the room in time to hear William Phelps say, “You must do as Buonaparte did,--have a little table just large enough for the victuals you want yourself.”
With tact born of experience, Emma replied, “Mr. Smith is a bigger man than Buonaparte; he can never eat without his friends.”
“That is the wisest thing I ever heard you say,” Joseph commented.
Here’s another real gem whom Joe envied. Bonaparte famously boasted to the Austrian statesman, Metternich, “You cannot stop me: I spend 30,000 lives a month.” So the people Joe aspired to imitate were military tyrants who conquered and subjugated massive swaths of the world. This is who we sing praise to every Sunday? This is the humble man god chose to be his mouthpiece?
Let’s discuss one polygamy story because I think it highlights the covetous theme of this episode quite well.
Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde first met Joe while he was living in her parents’ home in 1831. Quite a pattern when it came to Jo’s later wives but this is where that pattern began. She was 16 at the time. That’s probably when she first caught his eye. Ep 26. Three years later, in 1834, Marinda married Orson Hyde, who would become one of Joseph’s twelve apostles. Now fast forward to Nauvoo. In April 1840, Joe sent Orson on a mission to England and Israel, which would keep him away for two years. That gave Joe plenty of time to work on Marinda. On December 2, 1841, Joe asked Ebenezer and Angeline Robinson to house Marinda and her kids until Orson returned. On that same day, Joseph received a revelation commanding Marinda to obey “the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things.” A note in his diary indicates that he married her four months later. According to George D. Smith’s book Nauvoo Polygamy,
A year following Smith’s “hearken to Joseph in all things” revelation to Marinda, Orson Hyde returned from his two-and-a-half-year mission to Jerusalem, Europe, and Asia. His return was noted in Smith’s diary on December 7, 1842, when Smith had dinner with the Hydes. Soon Joseph told Orson about plural marriage. Since Hyde was reportedly “furious”—perhaps accentuated by Joseph’s attention to Marinda, now their mutual wife—his reaction to this new doctrine would have been anything but certain. However, he eventually responded with enthusiasm and took two plural wives of his own in 1843.
Joe was amazing at disguising his jealousy for other men’s wives as piety, and making them feel like they were the ones who were jealous and in eternal error for refusing his advances. This is one example of Jo’s gaslighting masterclass. Ep 134.
Earlier in this episode I described how Joe’s revelations treated women like objects and pretty much always put them in subjugation to men. One of the apologist counterarguments against that is his creation of the Relief Society in 1842. Joe said some pretty empowering things to the Relief Society. For instance, according to the Book of the Law of the Lord, on April 8, 1842 Joe “gave a lecture on the pries[t]hood shewing [sic] how the Sisters would come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood. & that the signs should follow them. such as healing the sick casting out devils.”
According to the Relief Society Minutes, he created a female presidency to preside over the society, “just as the Presidency, preside over the church.” He told the sisters that “the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and that he was “going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.” He also said “the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them that they may be able to detect everything false, as well as to the Elders.” Ep 101, 102.
Anyway, you get the idea. Joseph and early Mormon leaders can be quote mined all day to substantiate the claim that women were given the priesthood. But when you really dig into what Joe thought and what he was doing with the Relief Society, he doesn’t look quite so feminist. Avery and Newell write of the purposes of the Relief Society in Mormon Enigma p. 108: “Emma and Joseph together outlined the purposes of the society, which were “to provoke the brethren to good works . . . to save the elder the trouble of rebuking . . . to look after the wants of the poor . . . [to] do good . . . [to] deal frankly with each other,” and to “correct the morals of the community.” All of that is fine, but the part I’m interested in is the part that says, “to save the elder the trouble of rebuking.” In other words, Joe is hoping the women will police themselves, so that he won’t have to police them. So at least part of the purpose of this organization is to control them. This, in my opinion, all points to the real reason for forming the Relief Society, to cut down on rumors of polygamy and create a system of tests to filter through the women who’d be most likely to accept of it. In many ways, the Relief Society was a testing ground for which women would be good masons by not revealing secrets revealed to them.
In a lecture to the Relief Society called “try the spirits,” Joe criticized a woman named Johanna Southcott who had started her own church a few decades before he did. Ep 108.
Johanna Southcott professed to be a prophetess, and wrote a book of prophecies in 1804, she became the founder of a people that are now extant. She was to bring forth, in a place appointed, a son, that was to be the Messiah, which thing has failed. Independent of this, however, where do we read of a woman that was the founder of a church, in the word of God? Paul told the women in his day, “to keep silence in the Church, and that if they wished to know anything to ask their husbands at home”; he would not suffer a woman “to rule, or to usurp authority in the Church”; but here we find a woman the founder of a church, the revelator and guide, the Alpha and Omega, contrary to all acknowledged rule, principle and order.
Using Biblical teachings from the New Testament, Jo told the Relief Society women to shut up, sit down, and submit to men, because the divine order doesn’t allow a woman to have any authority in the Church. He attacks Johanna Southcott, and in the same sermon he goes on to attack a couple other cults led by women, too, including the Catholic Apostolic Church, founded by Edward Irving in England. What was wrong with this church? Joe explains:
1st. The church was organized by women, and “God placed in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets”; and not first women’ but Mr. Irving placed in his church first women, secondarily apostles; and the church was founded and organized by them. A woman has no right to found or organize a church: God never sent them to do it.
2nd. Those women would speak in the midst of a meeting, and rebuke Mr. Irving or any of the church. Now the Scripture positively says, “thou shalt not rebuke an Elder, but intreat him as a father”; not only this, but they frequently accused the brethren, thus placing themselves in the seat of Satan, who is emphatically called “the accuser of the brethren.”
And remember, he’s giving this lecture to the Relief Society women just a week after it was founded. This was a power move, a priesthood flex to make sure the women still knew who was actually in control of the situation. Jo was very jealous of his manufactured power so maybe he gave them some form of priesthood, but he denied them the power thereof.
After delivering this screed, Joe left the meeting. But then Emma took the pulpit and spoke of some scandalous rumors being circulated by a woman named Clarissa Marvel. It seems as if Clarissa Marvel’s rumors may have concerned the polygamous marriage between Joe and Agnes Coolbrith, or maybe she herself had been propositioned; the historical record is a bit too ambiguous. Here again is an excerpt from Mormon Enigma, p. 108:
Emma reported that a young woman, Clarissa Marvel, “was accused of [telling] scandalous falsehoods on the character of Prest. Joseph Smith without the least provocation,” and asked that “they would in wisdom, adopt some plan to bring her to repentance.” She continued, “I presume that most of [you] know more about Clarissa Marvel than I.” Agnes Coolbrith Smith, Don Carlos’s widow, came to the accused girl’s defense, apparently unaware that gossip linked her own name to Joseph’s. “Clarissa Marvel lived with me nearly a year and I saw nothing amiss of her,” she reported.”
Avery and Newell take some liberties here in drawing the connection of Agnes coming to Clarissa’s defense and that being because the rumors involved Agnes’s and Jo’s marriage; but that speculation could be completely accurate. Like I said, the record’s ambiguous enough to read it in a few ways. But this issue was only just beginning. It wouldn’t be for another few weeks until it was wrapped up, during which it was made abundantly clear that the Relief Society isn’t just a 2-hour gossip session every week, but had much loftier goal, like silencing those who would spread such scandalous fake news about the one true prophet and his harem of concubines. At the Relief Society meeting in mid-April, Emma took the pulpit again and read another epistle from Jo trying to stifle such rumors.
We have been informed that some unprincipled men . . . have been guilty of such crimes—We do not mention their names, not knowing but what there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skill’d in Masonry as to keep a secret . . . Let this epistle be had as a private matter in your Society, and then we shall learn whether you are good masons.
Jo modeled the Nauvoo Relief Society on Freemasonry. And you know what Joe once said about Freemasonry? “The secret of Masonry is to keep a secret.” So it really seems like he designed the Nauvoo Relief Society as a way of slowing down the rumor mill and teaching women how to keep the secrets of polygamy. Was he really interested in giving women the priesthood? Or was he just interested in making women feel like they had been initiated into a secret order of priestesses and they needed to keep its secrets? Historians have read this as a general rebuke of John C. Wreck-it Bennett as he’d apostatized from the church soon after the foundation of the Relief Society, but I called Jo and Bennett kindred scoundrels for a reason. The perceived “crimes” here are largely semantic, only being distinguished by who is or isn’t approved to practice polygamy. Ep 107, 108, 110, 111, 115.
Let’s dig into one more interesting story about Joe’s jealousy with respect to polygamy. According to William Clayton, by May 1843, Joe’s first wife Emma Smith was in an absolute fury over Joe’s polygamy. She had tried to accommodate it, but she had finally lost her patience. According to Clayton’s diary,
[May 29, 1843.] This A.M. President Joseph told me that he felt as though I was not treating him exactly right and asked if I had used any familiarity with E[mma]. I told him by no means and explained to his satisfaction. . . . [June 23, 1843.] This A.M. President Joseph took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. Said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly and badly since I came…and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things. She thought that if he would indulge himself she would too. He cautioned me very kindly for which I felt thankful.
If only we had the entirety of Quilliam Claypen’s Nauvoo journal released to the public like the church promised 4 years ago instead of it remaining suppressed in church vaults; maybe we’d be able to understand a bit more context of what really happened here. Speculation it is, then. From the available text, it seems Jo believed that Emma was looking to take revenge on Jo by sleeping with William Clayton! It wasn’t just William Law who Emma thought was a sweet little man, but Quilliam Claypen as well and these allegations are coming from a far more trustworthy source. Or maybe Joseph Jackson, who talked about Emma wanting William Law, simply mixed the two guys up.
But, of course, Jo can sleep with and rape all the women he wants, but if Emma wants to enjoy the blessings of an open relationship... No, no, no, multiple partners is the blessing of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not Sarah, Ruth, and Esther. This situation apparently escalated to the point where, according to William Law, “Joseph offered to furnish his wife Emma with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in his house and to be well treated etc.” So it seems that eventually Joe caved in to Emma’s wrath and agreed to allow Emma a… concubine? Whatever the male equivalent of mistress is. Mister, I guess.
Apparently Joe couldn’t bring himself to actually go through with this plan, however, because the following month Joe received D&C 132, the infamous revelation on plural marriage. Check out verse 51:
Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.
So Joe apparently had given in and allowed Emma to have a relationship with other men, but then he called celestial “takesies backsies” with a thus saith the lord in D&C 132 and commanded Emma to “stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her.” According to the voice in Joe’s head, the whole thing had been an Abrahamic test! Remember that story in the Bible where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? And then, just as old Abe is about the plunge the knife into Isaac’s chest, an angel says, “just kidding, this was a test, sacrifice this ram instead”? Well, letting Emma sleep with other people was going to be Joe’s test, but conveniently God declared at the last second that the whole thing was just a big joke, “ha ha ha, I would never actually make you jealous like that, Joe.” That would be too horrible to contemplate, just like Abraham killing his son. It’s amazing how Jo was able to use the bible to come to whatever conclusion was most convenient and beneficial to him alone; when the Bible didn’t suffice he’d just come up with new scripture to get his way. He, of course, just a few verse later in D&C 132 said that any woman who refuses to allow her husband to have another wife is herself damned. The Law of Sarah is such a wonderful bit of the polygamy revelation, isn’t it? Real great stuff in that horrible little book. Eps 148, 149.
No matter what it was, women, businesses, property, money, social status, follows and retweets, newspaper headlines, any quantifiable commodity, Jo couldn’t stand being deprived of it. His avaricious nature with respect to all aspects of worldly wealth could never be satisfied. It was all short-sighted gratification and as soon as he partook of whatever it was he was pursuing at any given moment, he always wanted more. This drive; this animalistic and rabid greed for more, moRE, MORE, didn’t come from nothing, it was the result of a pattern of deprivation owing to destitution and desiring what others have that he didn’t. Growing up, Jo saw people with more than he had and he couldn’t stand it so he developed a set of tools to selfishly get what they had. Most of the time, that tool was “I prophecy in the name of the Lord that if you don’t give me that thing or do a thing for me, then you’ll suffer the wrath of the almighty for depriving his servant of that which he needs to build the kingdom of god.” His mind was ruled by a viciously competitive scarcity; if he was to have a piece of the pie he needed to take somebody else’s piece instead making his own damn pie.
Now look, there are traits people generally agree are laudable. We tend to gravitate towards individuals who exhibit honorable traits like altruism, ambition, charisma, respect, industriousness, compassion; the list can extend for pages. On the flipside of that coin, there are plenty of human traits which tend to make us averse towards a person. Selfishness, narcissism,... well charisma, ambition, and industriousness can fall into that negative category as well now that I think about it. You know what I’m saying though. Certain people we generally respect for certain reasons. Others don’t deserve our respect for what comprises their character.
When a person exhibits certain character traits, it makes us feel certain ways. They can instill a sense of trust or distrust, honor or dishonor, love or hate. Those emotions existed long before we had the vocabulary to describe them and that’s because they instill some evolutionary advantage; those emotions teach us about ourselves, the situation around us, or the people with whom we associate.
The thing is, I spend a lot of time studying early Mormon history and the life of its founding prophet and I can’t help but feel disgusted, repulsed, and generally reviled by what I see. That’s hard to deal with because it reveals to me the fact that two people can look at the same person or character trait and see it differently. A believer and a non-believer can come away with completely opposite value judgments of Joseph Smith’s character. Long-time listeners of the show will remember how much I’ve talked in the backlog about the cardboard cutout prophet I was taught to worship as a kid. You know that Joseph Smith, right? Handsome, muscular with blue eyes and blond hair, reading from the gold plates on a table while Oliver Cowdery studiously scratched every word the prophet spoke as it came to him by the gift and power of god. The man who was a theologian who always had a clever quip to any naysayer or skeptic. The man who never hurt a fly and the only people who didn’t like him were led astray by the adversary. I was indoctrinated into the belief that a portrait of an incredibly complex figure was worthy of adoration and respect. I sang praise to him because he communed with Jehovah and that was my favorite hymn.
That cardboard cutout, that portrait of a man larger than life hanging in every Mormon chapel… is a lie. It’s all tainted history correlated and crafted over nearly 2 centuries to sell a religion. If Mormons want to be more transparent about their history, don’t hang a portrait of a dark-skinned Jesus or a Joseph Smith with his head stuffed in a hat, hang the real portrait of the real Joseph. You know the one I’m talking about; we talked about it back on episode 206, it’s titled The Last Public Address of Lieutenant General Joseph Smith. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll do my best to paint the picture in your mind. In the far background you can see the Nauvoo Temple near completion on the hill overlooking the flats below an overcast sky. In the midground of the painting are some wooden shacks, possibly widow’s row, and a large 2-story building. The mid-foreground features hundreds of people. Every square inch of dead space of the painting is somebody’s face. Rows and rows of Nauvoo Legionnaires run the length of the painting and people are flooding out of the 2-story building and crowding around the centerpiece in the foreground of the painting, which is a makeshift wooden platform with 3 men standing and one sitting on it. A red-coat man stands behind and to the side of two men in blue shirts, while the sitting man is wearing a black shirt holding his tophat in his hands. There, at the front of the stage, with thousands of people staring in awe and wonder is a rotund Lieutenant-General Joseph Smith, dressed in white pants, long black boots, blue military uniform, and gold-fringe shouldercaps. His sword is unsheathed and pointed to the sky, the American flag with a golden eagle cap stands behind him, almost in his shadow as if an afterthought or maybe deliberate placement by the artist. The crowd of Nauvoo citizens surrounding the rows of Legionnaires with their rifles is comprised of people wearing black, many shady-looking and pale faced figures, one baby holds a trumpet. Among the onlookers are three men dressed in black military uniforms on horses, clearly disrupting the citizens who’re listening to the last public address of their supreme leader.
The painting is fascinating, but far more fascinating is the historical context it depicts. The Nauvoo Legion is there because Nauvoo was under a declaration of martial law Jo had declared to keep himself safe from the state militia sent there by the Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford. The 3 men dressed in black military uniforms are there to arrest Joseph Smith for inciting riot, manufacturing counterfeit money, and committing treason by declaring martial law. He’d spent the previous 4 years fueling tensions with the non-Mormon settlements surrounding Nauvoo, as any good criminal kingpin does, and the whole region was on the precipice of civil war to the point that the Governor of Illinois had traveled over 120 miles on horseback to handle matters personally and keep his state from spiralling out of control as had happened with Governor Lilburn Boggs in Missouri during the Mormon war of 1838. Joseph Smith’s personal military numbered over 3,300 men and over 1,300 state militiamen surrounded the Mormon settlement awaiting thousands of reinforcements from Missouri and the Governor’s order to lay siege to the city.
Sadly, though, that portrait will never usurp the fictional portraits of the prophet studying his gold plates as he and Oliver Cowdery translate the Book of Mormon. That’s because the church isn’t just hiding it’s history, it’s hiding from its history, which is far more insidious.
The propagandized prophet started with the man himself and his legions of sycophants have been generationally pushing the lies ever since. People talk about problems in Mormon history like the historicity of the Books of Abraham or Mormon, polygamy, plagiarism from Adam Clarke’s Biblical commentary, the Kinderhook Plates as if those are indictments of Jo’s claims to divinity. To contend over these issues is fighting on the battlefield laid out by the correlated narrative of lies and half truths. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in fighting on a battlefield with a tactical disadvantage where the bodies of skeptics lie slain by grand battles since the inception of the religion. I will fight there but I’m far more interested in a battlefield where I can sit at a tactical advantage; and luckily for us, the soft social science of history lays out that strategically advantageous battlefield for us; all we have to do is recognize it exists and drag our opponent kicking and screaming away from their home field advantage.
How do we fight on a level playing field? A simple question. Tell me one quality of Joseph Smith that makes him a good person. The apologist doesn’t have to even prove that Jo had visitations with angels, literally translated a historical record of gold plates written in reformed Egyptian by ancient Native American Jews; just give me one quality of Jo’s character that’s worthy of calling him a good person. At this stage of the battle, the apologist doesn’t even have to prove the existence of god, that god communicates with humans, that those humans are prophets, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that he didn’t stray toward becoming a fallen prophet at any point in his life, those are conversations that can happen once the first salvo is fired and that first salvo is proving a single act in Jo’s life that was done out of pure altruism. They may say that he did the most important thing in American history, he restored the one true gospel, that’s the most moral thing a person could do, but that’s an unacceptable answer when we view the man through a naturalistic lens. Why? Because starting a religion in nearly every case of human history has led to more suffering than welfare of humans. Religions are started for the sole benefit of the guy who says I speak for god and anybody who doesn’t believe me is a heretic, an infidel, less than human and we can therefore justify torturing, enslaving, and killing them. Therefore, starting a religion is one of the most immoral and malevolent things a person can do. An apologist who makes this argument is already starting the battle by firing the first volley at themselves.
Without getting lost in the argument of whether or not there’s such a thing as a purely selfless act, there’s absolutely nothing in Jo’s life which exhibits altruism, compassion, kindness, genuine love, charity, or any other trait worthy of respect. His life was marked by one selfish act to the next with no regard for the cost or damage caused by his relentless pursuit of wealth, power, and control, and his insatiable envy for what lay beyond his reach.
I’ve often wondered why it is that historians spend so much time on Jo’s life pre-Book of Mormon; pre-religion, pre-public persona of a prophet, seer, and revelator. That drive lies in establishing patterns of deception, fraud, and pathological lying for short-term self-aggrandizement that carried him into his public ministry. If we can prove Jo lied before 1830, then what reason do we have to believe he wasn’t lying after 1830 as a prophet of god? That’s a reasonable justification for studying so thoroughly his early life but at the end of the day if it's done with the agenda to prove he didn’t actually talk to god it’s completely unnecessary. That’s because we can look at his life after he published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Christ which reveals those same patterns of deception, fraud, and pathological lying for short-term self-aggrandizement. No matter how many times we shatter every mirror of this propagandized version of the prophet, he reappears with a crooked smile and weathered face to steal away the livelihood, passions, and very lives of ourselves and our loved ones who return to church every week and continue to sing praise to the man who lied about everything. Once Mormons have given everything to the church and the legacy of this man, they devolve to a childlike status of dependence on the parasite that extracted their autonomy from them to begin with.
To capture today’s episode, let’s close with a quote from William Law, second counselor in the First Presidency who left the Church in 1844 after he learned about polygamy and published the Nauvoo Expositor.
One trait was [Joseph’s] jealousy of his friends, lest any of them should be esteemed before him in the eyes of the Church or of the public. He would destroy his best friend for the sake of a few hundred dollars. It was his policy to get away with a man's money, first, because he wanted it, and second, because he believed that in getting a man's money he deprived him of power and position, and left him in a measure helpless and dependent. He was a tyrant; self-exaltation and gratification of his grosser passions with an entire disregard of others rights. [sic] And of all morality, led to his destruction at last.
There are so many more stories in early Mormonism I want to share with you.
There are thousands of podcasts out there better than this so I’ll release you until next week while I try to figure out exactly how they do it.
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