Joseph Smith's alleged narcissism

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Joseph Smith's alleged narcissism


Was Joseph Smith ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic?

Joseph Smith is quoted as saying such things as:

  • "I am learned, and know more than all the world put together."
  • "I combat the errors of ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the Gordian knot of powers, and I solve mathematical problems of universities, with truth . . . diamond truth; and God is my ‘right hand man.’”

These quotes are used to portray Joseph as ego-maniacal, proud, and narcissistic.

To paraphrase G. D. Smith, small wonder, then, that this Joseph—the one revealed by the documents—decided to run for the presidency. The decision was natural since the Saints felt no candidate was worthy of their support—though they knew that a vote for Joseph could well be “throw[ing] away our votes.”[1] Joseph’s campaign was “a gesture,” though one he took seriously.[2] Experienced students of Mormon history will know this; G. D. Smith evidently counts on his audience not knowing.

G. D. Smith writes that “in defending his theology [during the King Follett discourse], Smith proclaimed, ‘I am learned, and know more than all the world put together.’” The period ending the sentence would imply that this completed his thought—and so it appears in the History of the Church.[3] If the three published versions of the original talk are consulted,[4] However, they each demonstrate that the sentiment may have been quite different:

Now, I ask all the learned men who hear me, why the learned doctors who are preaching salvation say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. They account it blasphemy to contradict the idea. If you tell them that God made the world out of something, they will call you a fool. The reason is that they are unlearned but I am learned and know more than all the world put together—the Holy Ghost does, anyhow. If the Holy Ghost in me comprehends more than all the world, I will associate myself with it.[5]

In the History of the Church version, the statement about the Holy Ghost is placed in its own sentence. This allows G. D. Smith to exclude it with no ellipsis and portray Joseph as decidedly more arrogant than he was. Daniel C. Peterson’s remark is telling: “Amusing, isn’t it, . . . that the very same people who vehemently reject the . . . History of the Church as an unreliable source when it seems to support the Latter-day Saint position clutch it to their bosoms as an unparalleled historical treasure when they think they can use it as a weapon against the alleged errors of Mormonism.”[6]:54-55

Letter taken from context

Critics fail, then, to provide the context for these remarks, some of which are taken from an exchange which Joseph had with newspaperman James Arlington Bennet.[7] For example, G.D. Smith quotes the phrases above and then editorializes: “With such a self-image, it is not surprising that he also aspired to the highest office in the land: the presidency of the United States.”[8] Here again, he serves his readers poorly. He neglects to tell us that Joseph’s remark comes from a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exchange with James Bennet, who had been baptized in the East but immediately wrote Joseph to disclaim his “glorious frolic in the clear blue ocean; for most assuredly a frolic it was, without a moment’s reflection or consideration.”[9]:71

James Bennet's original letter

Bennet went on to praise Joseph in an exaggerated, humorous style: “As you have proved yourself to be a philosophical divine . . . [it] point[s] you out as the most extraordinary man of the present age.” “But,” cautioned Bennet,

my mind is of so mathematical and philosophical a cast, that the divinity of Moses makes no impression on me, and you will not be offended when I say that I rate you higher as a legislator than I do Moses. . . . I cannot, however, say but you are both right, it being out of the power of man to prove you wrong. It is no mathematical problem, and can therefore get no mathematical solution (italics added)[9]:72

Joseph’s claim that his religious witness can “solve mathematical problems of universities” is thus a playful return shot at Bennet,[10] who has claimed a “so mathematical” mind that cannot decide about Joseph’s truth claims since they admit of “no mathematical solution.”[11] G. D. Smith may not get the joke, but he ought to at least let us know that there is one being told.

Bennet continued by suggesting that he need not have religious convictions to support Joseph, adding slyly that “you know Mahomet had his ‘right hand man.’” Joseph’s reply that God is his right-hand man is again a riposte to Bennet and follows Joseph’s half-serious gibe that “your good wishes to go ahead, coupled with Mahomet and a right hand man, are rather more vain than virtuous. Why, sir, Cæsar had his right hand Brutus, who was his left hand assassin.” Joseph here pauses, and we can almost see him grin before adding: “Not, however, applying the allusion to you.”[9]:77

Bennet had also offered Joseph a carving of “your head on a beautiful cornelian stone, as your private seal, which will be set in gold to your order, and sent to you. It will be a gem, and just what you want. . . . The expense of this seal, set in gold, will be about $40; and [the maker] assures me that if he were not so poor a man, he would present it to you free. You can, however, accept it or not.”[9]:72

Joseph does not let this rhetorical opportunity go by, telling Bennet that “facts, like diamonds, not only cut glass, but they are the most precious jewels on earth. . . . As to the private seal you mention, if sent to me, I shall receive it with the gratitude of a servant of God, and pray that the donor may receive a reward in the resurrection of the just.”[9]:77, (emphasis added) Joseph’s concluding remark about the necessity of “truth—diamond-hard truth” plays on this same association with the proffered precious stone.

The key point of Bennet’s letter, after the sardonic preliminaries, was an invitation to use untruth for political gain—hence Joseph’s insistence on “diamond-hard truth.” Bennet closed his letter by asking to be privately relieved of his honorary commission with the Nauvoo Legion, noting that

I may yet run for a high office in your state, when you would be sure of my best services in your behalf; therefore, a known connection with you would be against our mutual interest. It can be shown that a commission in the Legion was a Herald hoax, coined for the fun of it by me, as it is not believed even now by the public. In short, I expect to be yet, through your influence, governor of the State of Illinois.[9]:72, (emphasis added)

Bennet hoped to use Joseph without embracing his religious pretensions and was bold enough to say so.[12] However, Joseph was not as cynical and malleable as the Easterner hoped, for the Prophet then insisted at length on the impropriety of using “the dignity and honor I received from heaven, to boost a man into [political] power,” since “the wicked and unprincipled . . . would seize the opportunity to [harden] the hearts of the nation against me for dabbling at a sly game in politics.”

Joseph’s fear in relation to politics is that to support the unworthy would be to corrupt the mission he has been given. “Shall I,” continued Joseph rhetorically, “. . . turn to be a Judas? Shall I, who have heard the voice of God, and communed with angels, and spake as moved by the Holy Ghost for the renewal of the everlasting covenant, and for the gathering of Israel in the last days,—shall I worm myself into a political hypocrite?” Rather, Joseph hoped that “the whole earth shall bear me witness that I, like the towering rock in the midst of the ocean, which has withstood the mighty surges of the warring waves for centuries, am impregnable, and am a faithful friend to virtue, and a fearless foe to vice.”[9]:77-78

It is at this point that he makes the statement quoted by G. D. Smith—a nice rhetorical summation of the word games he and Bennet were playing and a jovial but direct rejection of Bennet’s politically cynical offer—but hardly evidence of someone with a grandiose self-image.[13]

Notes

  1. "Who Shall Be Our Next President," Times and Seasons 5 no. 4 (15 February 1844), 441. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  2. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).
  3. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 226. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  4. Joseph Smith in The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1995), 238. Joseph Smith, "Conference Minutes," Times and Seasons 15 no. 5 (15 August 1844), 614–15. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) Stan Larson, ed., "The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text," Brigham Young University Studies 18 no. 2 (Winter 1978), 193–208..
  5. Larson, “Newly Amalgamated Text,” 203. The italic type (added by Larson) indicates material found only in Wilford Woodruff’s account.
  6. Daniel C. Peterson, "Review of Decker's Complete Handbook on Mormonism by Ed Decker," FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 38–105. off-site
  7. Bennet’s name is also sometimes spelled Bennett.
  8. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 225.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957). Volume 6 link
  10. Charles Mackay, though mistaking this Bennet for John C. Bennett, nevertheless realized what was going on: “‘Joseph’s reply to this singular and too candid epistle was quite as singular and infinitely more amusing. Joseph was too cunning a man to accept, in plain terms, the rude but serviceable offer; and he rebuked the vanity and presumption of Mr Bennett, while dexterously retaining him for future use.” See Charles Mackay, ed., The Mormons, or Latter-day Saints; with memoirs of the Life and Death of Joseph Smith, the American Mahomet, 4th ed. (London, 1856); cited in Hubert Howe Bancroft and Alfred Bates, History of Utah, 1540–1886 (San Francisco: The History Co., 1889), 151 n. 112. Concludes Bancroft: “More has been made of this correspondence than it deserves,” though G. D. Smith has seen fit to continue the error.
  11. Joseph pursued Bennet’s mathematical analogy for several paragraphs; see History of the Church, 6:75–77. Volume 6 link. Bennet was fond of the metaphor; in 1855 he was to privately publish A New Revelation to Mankind, drawn from Axioms, or self-evident truths in Nature, Mathematically demonstrated. See Richard D. Poll, "Joseph Smith and the Presidency, 1844," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 3 (Autumn 1968), 19 n. 19.
  12. Lyndon W. Cook, "James Arlington Bennet and the Mormons," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 2 (Winter 1979), 247–49.
  13. When Joseph’s personal letters are compared with this letter, one suspects a large contribution by scribe and newspaperman W. W. Phelps.

Was Joseph Smith prone to boasting?

Joseph Smith is reported as saying:

I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam... Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” (History of the Church, 6:408–409. Volume 6 link

Joseph's quote, if accurate, is taken out of context

Assuming that the quote is accurate in History of the Church, it is evident that Joseph's quote is taken out of context. What was Joseph's intent, and why did he use this approach? As it turns out, he was drawing from the Bible and applying its lessons to his own situation. In the original context, Joseph was facing intense persecution by many people, including some he had previously considered to be his friends. The statement about "boasting" was supposedly made about a month before he was killed. He made it after reading 2 Corinthians 11: to the congregation. Note the following statement by Paul, in this scripture:

Paul: "let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little"

Paul said:

Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little. That which I am speaking, I am not speaking it as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. For you, being so wise, bear the foolish gladly. (2 Corinthians 11:16-19, NASB)

Paul then launches into a literary tirade where he claims many things to make himself look the fool, to contrast himself with those who the Corinthians were listening to for their words of salvation, instead of to him. His words were meant to compare and contrast what the Saints at Corinth were doing against what he was offering.

Do the critics dismiss the words of Paul and deny his calling as an Apostle because he used such a literary approach that included boasting? No, they do not. Yet, they dismiss Joseph Smith when it is clear by his own statements, in context, that he engaged in the exact same literary approach. Consider the words of Joseph right after reading this chapter of Paul's to the congregation:

My object is to let you know that I am right here on the spot where I intend to stay. I, like Paul, have been in perils, and oftener than anyone in this generation. As Paul boasted, I have suffered more than Paul did, I should be like a fish out of water, if I were out of persecutions. Perhaps my brethren think it requires all this to keep me humble. The Lord has constituted me curiously that I glory in persecution. I am not nearly so humble as if I were not persecuted. If oppression will make a wise man mad, much more a fool. If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster: I shall always beat them. When facts are proved, truth and innocence will prevail at last. My enemies are no philosophers: they think that when they have my spoke under, they will keep me down; but for the fools, I will hold on and fly over them.[1]

Joseph then makes the statements that the critics attack, in the same way that Paul made outrageous "boasts" to contrast his position with the position of those who the Corinthians were starting to listen to. Paul starts the next chapter of 2 Corinthians with the statement "boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable." So, it would appear that Paul recognizes the necessity of boasting at times against the wicked and hard-hearted (though it may do little good, being unprofitable), yet the critics do not allow Joseph to follow Paul's advice and, of necessity, boast at times.

Perhaps the critics are unaware of Paul's advice? Or perhaps they apply a double standard where Paul is allowed such literary and rhetorical license, but Joseph is not?

Such double standards are, sadly, the stock-in-trade of sectarian anti-Mormonism.

In short, Joseph is using the scripture in Paul as a counter-argument (or a rhetorical device)--he is responding to his critics, and demonstrating that (as with Paul) true messengers from God are often persecuted by those who should listen, while the false and apostate are praised.

Notes

  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:408. Volume 6 link

Did Joseph Smith believe that he was better than Jesus Christ?

Consider the following excerpt from a letter Joseph wrote to his wife Emma:

I will try to be contented with my lot, knowing that God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me [except] to do his will.[1]

These are not the words of a man who believed himself to be better than Christ. Joseph loved Christ and throughout his life strove to follow him. These words written in private to his wife demonstrate that Joseph was not so prideful as to think himself better than Christ. Consider also the following statement, made in public, by Joseph Smith:

I do not think there have been many good men on the earth since the days of Adam; but there was one good man and his name was Jesus. Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else....I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not.[2]

Both in private and in public Joseph Smith demonstrated his humility before the Lord.

Notes

  1. Letter from Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, June 6, 1832, Greenville, Indiana; Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois.
  2. History of the Church 5:401.