Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch3:1:A non-LDS scholar shares his opinion on Joseph Smith

A non-LDS scholar on Joseph Smith

A non-LDS scholar shares his opinion on Joseph Smith

Hugh Nibley wrote:

What we must ask in the case of the modern prophet is what we must ask in the case of Jesus: where was he essentially different from all the rest?

On this question, one man's opinion is deserving of particular attention. Eduard Meyer was one of the most learned men of modern times. Ancient history was his field, and the origin of religions was his special interest. He wrote authoritative works on the origin of religions, and singled out the Latter-day Saints as one of the great original religions. Most other churches and sects are really only episodes in the history of a going concern, variations on an accepted theme, reforms or innovations undertaken by men who, though they may have felt aware of a special calling or a special talent for the job, were simply doing what other men did. But three religions—primitive Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism—actually claim to have been founded not by men but by direct revelation from heaven.

Meyer finds the closest resemblance between the Mormon Church and the primitive Christians. They resemble each other in every detail, even to their defects. He also finds resemblances between Joseph Smith and Mohammed, but these are superficial and incidental compared with the essential points on which the two men, both claiming to be prophets, stand in complete antithesis to each other. Since it has long been a popular indoor sport among the Gentiles to compare Joseph Smith to Mohammed, it will not be amiss at this time to list the points of difference between the two as observed by one of the few scholars, perhaps the only scholar, who has ever had a firsthand knowledge of both Mormons and Mohammedans:

(1) First of all, Meyer dwells at considerable length on the doubts and misgivings that so long beset Mohammed, his long periods of self mistrust and black despair, especially that period known as the fatra when he meditated and, according to some sources, even attempted suicide. For the Prophet of Islam, being an honest man, was greatly worried over the possibility that he might be insane, or that what he had seen might have been a devil rather than an angel. In contrast to this, "it is for Joseph Smith very significant," wrote Meyer, "that there is in his case absolutely no question of any such doubts and misgivings."3 Meyer congratulates Mohammed for having the normal human reaction and chides Smith for not having it.
(2) Second, in contrast to Joseph Smith's behavior, Meyer holds up the exemplary caution, restraint, and shrewdness of Mohammed, showing how he gained confidence with practice and through the years carefully worked out his doctrine and his story, correcting, revising, and building it up. Unlike Joseph Smith, or the Old Testament prophets, Meyer observes, Mohammed never actually sees anything in his revelations, but reads slowly and very painfully from a book. 4 Smith finds himself in company with the ancient prophets of Israel. Mohammed does not.
(3) The most important difference between the two purported prophets, according to Eduard Meyer, is "that Joseph Smith has a belief in the continuation of direct prophetic inspiration, speaking in tongues, etc., and along with that, of personal inspiration which every believer can receive. . . . Mohammed, on the other hand, knows only of one single book, that is the Bible, with which he has a vague acquaintance."5
(4) Joseph Smith views spiritual and supernatural things "much more crassly and materially" than does Mohammed. For Joseph, the manifestations of the other world are something quite real and matter-of-fact. "For Mohammed, on the other hand, there is only one miracle—the revelation of the words of the divine book and the appearance of angels. He denied any power to do miracles, and his followers have no special power of any kind." 6 Modern Mohammedans rather pride themselves on their cool and rational attitude toward all other-worldly things.
(5) The most obvious point of resemblance between these two men is their common claim to have given the world a revealed book. But precisely on this point Meyer finds the completest (if not the most important) difference between them. After all, hundreds of men have claimed to have given inspired writings to the world—there is nothing in the mere claim to justify or condemn a prophet. But Smith's book is like no other. Whereas "for Mohammed the book always remains in the hands of the angel," Smith not only read but also translated his book, which he carried around from place to place; he actually copied out characters of the book and circulated them around for all, including his worst enemies, to look at—has any impostor ever displayed such absolute confidence in his work? "Any such thing," says Meyer, "would never have occurred to Mohammed."7

Mohammed's accounts of heavenly visitors are vague and conflicting. Usually his visions came in sleep—he looks above him and sees something in the air, or he sees Gabriel standing on the horizon, or filling the sky with his gigantic size, or confronting him whichever way he turns his head, or standing a bowshot away. There is a dream-like quality in it all. Smith's reports, on the other hand, are clear, specific, and precise. The writer's great-grandfather was a Jew, and a very hardheaded and practical man. He tells in his journal, writing on the very day that the event took place, of how he cross-examined Joseph Smith on every minute detail of the First Vision and of how the Prophet satisfied him promptly and completely. From that day he never doubted the calling of the Prophet. Apparently Mohammed is not exactly sure just what an angel is. But what could be more clear and concrete than Joseph Smith's description of Moroni?

Eduard Meyer's final conclusion is that "Mohammed's revelations stand higher than those of Joseph Smith, because in his case we feel . . . something of the power of a conviction wrung out by hard mental toil, and even at times we feel something of a poetic inspiration."8 Of this, not the minutest trace in Joseph Smith. Meyer can respect the mental effort of the founder of Islam wrestling with his human limitations, but Joseph Smith remains an enigma. Meyer has no patience with this upstart who never doubts in the face of the most appalling persecution, and amid all his terrible trials and struggles never struggles for inspiration. Meyer's impatience with Joseph Smith is actually a strong witness to his prophetic calling, for Meyer treats Ezekiel in exactly the same way. Of this great prophet he says:

"The prophetic apparatus has sunk to the most literal form. Ezekiel is a literary hack-worker. He does not work through the living word such as Isaiah and Jeremiah struggled to bring out of the depths of the soul, but simply reels off the contents of a book which he is supposed to have swallowed in a vision. . . . Ezekiel is narrow-minded, cramped, without sweep or power, devoid of any creative imagination (Phantasie) and hence marked by unendurable pedantry and monotony."9
Here we have an interesting test. Meyer likes and understands Mohammed who, though a remarkable man to say the least, is after all just a man who reacts as one would expect any normal man to react if he were trying to work himself into a state of religious conviction. The vagueness, the mystery, the struggle, the doubt—every religious leader experiences them, and we all have some idea of what Mohammed went through. He is, so to speak, just another preacher, though a great one. But not so Joseph Smith! Meyer finds him, like Ezekiel, crass, literal, unpoetic, devoid of power of fantasy, unmoved by doubts, unennobled by despairing struggles. Here are men that cannot by any effort be fitted into Meyer's catalogue of religious thinkers. If the nature of his prophetic claims placed him completely apart from all the other religious men of his day, it also disqualified Joseph Smith for classification with any other type of prophet than that represented by Ezekiel, Christ, and the ancient Apostles. However much he may have resembled other men in other things, when it came to his prophetic calling, Joseph Smith was not a Mohammed struggling to convince himself and find poetic expression; he was not a scholar of divinity seeking to unriddle the scriptures for his less-educated or less-inspired fellows; and certainly he was not just another preacher. He was a true Prophet of God.[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 3, references silently removed—consult original for citations.