I have no problem acknowledging that Joseph Smith was very impressive and unique in many ways. He had an extraordinary mind and personality. However, when I learned more about him and his life (beyond the whitewashed stories I’d learned growing up) I was disturbed that I’d been singing “Praise to the Man” about this guy. Nobody is all good or all bad. We’re all more complicated than that. But on the whole I quickly found myself feeling unable to defend him as a decent and respectable human being, let alone as a prophet of God. To be very clear, it wasn’t that I expected him to be without flaws because he claimed to be a prophet. It was that his patterns of behavior are exceptionally disturbing when compared to those of most human beings. There is a lot of information about this man that people deserve to know before dedicating their whole lives to the church he created. I understand that dealing with history can be complicated in that not all historical accounts are accurate, and there are often multiple sides to a story. For that reason I’m intentionally focusing only on a few key issues and sources that I feel are incredibly hard to dismiss.
HIS WORK AS A “TREASURE SEER” SUGGESTS HE WAS DISHONEST AND MANIPULATIVE AND ENGAGED IN CON BEHAVIOR FROM A YOUNG AGE
Even before officially starting the LDS/Mormon church the young Joseph Smith was already involved in practices that suggest he was using willful dishonesty and manipulation to make people think he had special powers. He worked for at least three years as a “treasure seer.” There are many accounts but even if we only consult one very well documented case (there is even a court record) it has him claiming special gifts to be able to see treasures deep in the earth that would spontaneously move to new locations under supernatural powers. Since I don’t believe these treasures existed or could spontaneously move around under the earth, I propose that Joseph was already exhibiting willful dishonesty (the only other explanation would be severe delusion) as he claimed to see such things.
“Treasure digging” or “money digging” practices that included all sorts of odd rituals, astrology, and “folk magic” were somewhat common at the time (even if controversial). Learning more about that is quite important to Mormon studies because Mormon origins have more ties to these practices than most realize (see my post HERE. for that). Generally speaking I don’t blame Joseph for buying into superstitions of his day. But it’s a very different thing to be the guy claiming to actually see the imaginary treasures moving under the earth. That to me suggests willful dishonesty.
It’s worth noting that his method of seeing these imagined “treasures” was looking into a “seer stone” or “peep stone” in a hat (a form of glass looking or scrying)—the same method supposedly used to translate the Book of Mormon. I think it goes without saying that if a man has a verifiable history of convincing people to believe he sees things that are not real, then this creates understandable reasons to doubt his other incredible claims. Especially when those other claims also just happen to involve “treasure” (gold plates that the public isn’t allowed to see) and when the earliest narratives about church origins have more ties to this “treasure digging” and “folk magic” culture than most realize.
One last issue I’ll note in this section is that Joseph again shows his willingness to be dishonest in his official canonized 1838 history. By that time these “treasure digging” and “folk magic” practices were very much looked down upon, and so he tried to distance himself from them. In fact, evidences of folk magic origins of the church were gradually removed from official narratives. In that 1838 history Joseph tries to give the impression that these “stories” of him being a treasure digger simply arose because he was basically a hired shovel for Josiah Stowell. But the evidence powerfully contradicts this claim! The court records tell us that he acted not as a hired shovel, but specifically as a treasure seer for Josiah Stowell. We also have a statement from Emma Smith’s brother stating that “Joe Smith never handled one shovel full of earth in those diggings. All that Smith did was to peep with stone and hat, and give directions where and how to dig, and when and where the enchantment moved the treasure.” In addition, many other accounts (see HERE or HERE) tell us that he was very much involved with acting specifically as a treasure seer for at least 3 years, as even active/faithful LDS scholars will acknowledge. It is well documented, and the official history that Joseph sanctioned is dishonest. The LDS church should correct it or update it so as not to continue teaching false information to its members.
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS YOUNG MAID FANNY ALGER BEHIND HIS WIFE’S BACK
Fanny Alger was the first of many young girls who worked as “live-in” servants or maids in Joseph and Emma’s home and ended up being romantically pursued by Joseph in secret. This relationship occurred behind his wife’s back, and before any talk of divinely sanctioned polygamy. Oliver Cowdery called the relationship a “dirty, nasty, filthy scrape,” and clearly felt that it was adulterous (and speaking out about it is a major part of what led to Oliver’s excommunication). As Richard Bushman noted, Joseph “never denied a relationship with Alger, but insisted it was not adulterous. He wanted it on record that he had never confessed to such a sin.”
Clearly Joseph claimed that God had approved of the secret relationship in some way. Personally I would hypothesize that he justified it by claiming her as a divinely given “concubine,” since he explicitly taught in the D&C that Abraham’s concubines were “accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him?” Or, as most believing apologists claim, perhaps he claimed the relationship had divine approval because a secret religious “marriage” was performed? But there is no record of him making such a claim, and claims of secret marriage occurring with Fanny don’t come until about 60 years later when Mosiah Hancock claims they had a secret ceremony in 1833 at which time she’d have been just 16 or 17, and which would mean they kept the relationship secret from Emma for a few years before being discovered. In any case, clearly Emma and Oliver did not approve. As even the very conservative and believing Brian Hales has noted: “It is apparent from what transpired that Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery either did not believe a valid plural marriage ceremony had been performed or they were unaware of it.”
There are many reports of Emma suddenly becoming aware of the situation (perhaps catching them in the barn if some accounts are accurate but that could be “hearsay”), and immediately kicking Fanny out of the house. Eliza Snow was living with the Smiths when the “fuss” (as she called it) occurred, and this would have been in 1836. Apparently Emma was so upset that Joseph sends for Oliver to come over—perhaps hoping he’d take his side, but he apparently sides with Emma. Word starts to get around among the Saints of what had occurred. By September of that year the Alger’s unexpectedly pick up and move to Indiana and Fanny suddenly marries someone else after just a 6 week courtship. Some speculate that all of this was because she was pregnant, but if so the baby does not seem to have survived.
Do people really believe God approved of Joseph having a secret relationship with this young girl entirely behind his wife’s back? Do people believe God approved a secret teenage concubine for him with no disclosure to his wife or the church? Even if he did in fact set up a secret private marriage ceremony with this teenage girl, is that really any less disturbing? Most importantly, this was only the beginning of a pattern that continued…
JOSEPH’S GROOMING AND MANIPULATION OF OTHER YOUNG GIRLS INTO SECRETIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Joseph was “sealed” to ten women under the age of twenty. In six of those we actually have evidence of sexual relations occurring (see the conservative Brian Hales site HERE). Brian Hales says that three were 17, one was 16, and two were 14 (HERE), and these numbers don’t include Fanny Alger who would have been somewhere between 16 and 19 depending how long they kept their relationship secret. Joseph had a pattern of going after the young girls who worked as live-in maids in his house. These included Fanny Alger, Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge, Sarah Lawrence, Maria Lawrence, and Melissa Lott (there is evidence of sexual relations with all 6 of these, and only one was over the age of 20). Hearing some of their stories is extremely disturbing. Multiple independent accounts have Joseph telling them that God had revealed to him that he was supposed to marry them specifically, and that that God had “given them” to him before the world was created. He told some that God had sent an angel with a sword to kill him if he didn’t obey their commands to take more wives, and given that I don’t believe a divine being would do such a thing I personally conclude that this was a willful emotional manipulation of girls/women. I will provide accounts of just 2 cases that I think everyone really should know about, but a great way to explore many more stories is to check out the “Year of Polygamy” podcast or BYU professor Todd Compton’s book “In Sacred Loneliness.”
Emily Partridge was 19 when married to a 37 year old Joseph in 1843. She was essentially ambushed and pressured to marry Joseph on the spot one day even after resisting his previous advances. Keep in mind I’m choosing her as an example because she was a faithful member and believer, not someone with any vendetta toward Joseph or the church, and she reported all of this in a firsthand account that I recommend reading yourself if you doubt any of this. I will summarize here. She reports that when she was 18 years old, after living in Joseph’s home for a year, Joseph had approached her:
“He [Joseph] taught it to me with his own lips… I was living at his house at the time. He came into the room where I was one day, when I was in the room alone, and asked me if I could keep a secret… and so he would write me a letter, if I would agree to burn it as soon as I read it, and with that I looked frightened, for I thought there was something about it that was not just right.”
She reported on the same incident on another occasion:
“..in the spring of 1842…Joseph said to me one day, ‘Emily, if you will not betray me, I will tell you something for your benefit.’ Of course I would keep his secret…he asked me if I would burn it if he would write me a letter. I began to think that was not the proper thing for me to do and I was about as miserable as I ever would wish to be…I went to my room and knelt down and asked my father in heaven to direct me…[At Joseph’s insistence] I could not speak to any one on earth…I received no comfort till I went back…to say I could not take a private letter from him. He asked me if I wished the matter ended. I said I did…. he said no more to me [for many months].”
Joseph was apparently using an older plural wife, Elizabeth Durfee, to act as a liaison to help him get more wives. Soon after Emily had refused Joseph’s letter Elizabeth Durfee was seemingly sent to test Emily’s ability to keep a secret. Elizabeth (who knew all about what was going on as she’d been married to Joseph for a year as a plural wife) approached Emily and claimed to have heard rumors of a practice of “spiritual wives” and asked if Emily knew anything. Emily kept the secret and didn’t say anything. The next February Emily reports that Joseph personally “taught me this principle of plural marriage, but we called it celestial marriage, and he told me that this principle had been revealed to him but it was not generally known.” A week after that she says “Mrs. Durfee came to me..and said Joseph would like an opportunity to talk with me… I was to meet him in the evening at Mr. [Heber C.] Kimballs.” When she got there Heber’s kids were sent to a neighbors home, and they pretended to send Emily as well before secretly calling her back. She said “I started for home as fast as I could so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview. Soon I heard Br. Kimball call, ‘Emily, Emily’ rather low but loud enough for me to hear. I thought at first I would not go back and took no notice of his calling. But he kept calling and was about to overtake me so I stopped and went back with him.” She recalled the following about what happened when they returned to the house: “I cannot tell all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded [him] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had got badly frightened he knew I would yet have him…Well I was married there and then. Joseph went home his way and I going my way alone. A strange way of getting married wasen’t it?”
Emily reported later that she “roomed” the next night and had “carnal intercourse” with him. She and others reported that this was not the only occasion.
Her sister Eliza was married to Joseph within just a few days. Emily reports:
“I and my sister Eliza received it [the principle of Celestial Marriage] and were married to br. Joseph about the same time, but neither of us knew about the other at the time, everything was so secret.”
For references see Todd Compton’s book “In Sacred Loneliness,” chapter 18. Or HERE.
Personally I see this as clear manipulation of a young girl, with Joseph simply claiming her as his under the pretense that God gave her to him—even when she clearly was not at all comfortable with the situation.
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner is also very much worth learning about specifically to get a feel for Joseph’s behavior. She reports that when she was only *twelve* Joseph told her she was “the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife” (I’ll let you decide whether this was a manipulative lie or an admission that he did not truly marry Fanny Alger) and she said that “he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid.” But then, when Mary was essentially a newlywed (nonmember husband), and was even pregnant with their first son, Joseph repeatedly asked her to be sealed to him, and she finally consented at the age of 23. She reports that Joseph told her an angel with a drawn sword threatened to take his life if he didn’t take more wives. To recap, Joseph Smith repeatedly asked a newlywed woman with a new baby to be sealed to him.
It’s interesting that Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner says Joseph told her she was “the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife” not only because he is supposed to have already married Fanny Alger (if not others also), but also because it seems that Joseph may have had a pattern of telling people that they were the first. The close friend of the prophet Benjamin F. Johnson (brother of one of Joseph’s plural wives Almera Johnson) reported that “In talking with my mother, he told her that when the Lord required him to move in plural marriage, that his first thought was to come and ask her for some of her daughters.”
HIS IMPLEMENTATION OF POLYGAMY WAS NOT JUST FLAWED, BUT DISTURBINGLY UNETHICAL, MANIPULATIVE, SECRETIVE, AND DISHONEST
I am not taking issue with the practice of polygamy itself here at all. If people choose that of their own free will without being manipulated or conditioned into it then I don’t have any problem. But that was definitely not the case with Joseph.
REGARDING SECRECY AND LIES:
Joseph kept his relationships with these numerous women very secret—telling only select trusted people, and going to extremes to try to keep these things secret not only from the public, but also from most of the church.
Joseph Smith said the following on 26 May 1844, while having at least 30+ wives and having had sexual relationships with many of them:
“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” —History of the Church, 6:411
In fact, after rumors started spreading it was even published in the D&C (as a response to the rumors) that God’s law was for people to have “one wife” and “one husband” which is of course dishonest given that Joseph was not doing this. This verse was of course later removed from the D&C! I did not know about this change to the D&C as a believing member.
We’ve already noted other extreme lengths Joseph was going to keep these things secret, such as asking young girls to burn letters he’d send to them, and using older wives as liaisons to test whether or not the young girls would in fact keep their relationship (and the practice of polygamy as a whole) secret even from other members of the church and even from their own family. Many are unaware that the key reason Joseph went to Carthage Jail was actually that he’d ordered to have a printing press destroyed that was threatening to expose the practices Joseph was engaging in! Given the extreme lengths Joseph was obviously going to keep these things so secret, it’s amazing that we have as much evidence about his sexual relationships with these women as we do, and makes me wonder how many other disturbing things we don’t know about.
Joseph was so dishonest and secretive about the issue that some groups to this day claim he didn’t practice polygamy—because of course if we take him at his word, he didn’t. The trouble is that mountains of evidence from loads of individual women tell us otherwise. That’s far too many people to call liars—especially given that most were faithful and friendly to the church.
REGARDING MANIPULATION USING GOD’S NAME
Some very important questions:
Would God really send an angel with a sword to threaten Joseph into taking more wives? If not, then Joseph was lying and willfully manipulating women/girls using God’s name when he told them this. I mean, of all the things God could send an angel with a sword for… He could have used this approach to stop instances of child sex abuse, perhaps. But no. We’re to believe instead that God pulled out the big guns in this way to ensure Joseph takes more child brides–largely in secret. Does that seem right? Personally I have to call this a clear example of Joseph manipulating people using God’s name, and I find it absolutely despicable.
Would God really tell Joseph that various teenage girls were “given” to him before this world? If not, then Joseph was lying and willfully manipulating women/girls using God’s name when he told them this. Or else Joseph had a habit of believing God was speaking to him when he was not–which is problematic for a man claiming to be God’s prophet.
Would God really threaten Emma Smith with “destruction” if she didn’t support Joseph’s taking more wives? If not, then Joseph was lying and manipulating his wife using God’s name when he told her this.
I would love for the general public to be more aware of one particular part of LDS scripture that is incredibly cringeworthy. The end parts of section 132 have never been removed from LDS canon despite being incredibly disturbing in all that it attributes to God. In this section Joseph claims that God threatened to “destroy” his wife Emma if she doesn’t get on board with his polygamy (verse 64). He claims God will “destroy” any of Joseph’s wives who claim to be “pure” (virgins) and aren’t (verse 52). He claims God approved of many ancient prophets having “concubines” (verse 37-39). He claims that while God is allowing him many wives, Emma will be destroyed unless she cleaves to Joseph and no one else (verse 54). He claims that God has given him permission to do literally anything in his name, and that it will not be “sin,” but will be “justified” by God (verse 59). Begin reading section 132 around verse 28 where Joseph starts to justify his polygamy, and read to the end.
One bit of interesting background is verse 51 where it is clear that Joseph had offered something to Emma, but in this verse he claims that God (definitely not Joseph, right?) has now revoked that offer from her, and that it was only offered as a sort of Abrahamic test that was always going to be revoked. The church’s manuals claim that we don’t know what this was about and can only speculate. However, although it is admittedly a late source (1887), William Law’s journal claims that “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 her [mansion] house and to be well treated, etc.” You decide whether William’s claim was legit. But boy does it seem to fit the context here. Whatever the true context, Joseph obviously offered some deal to Emma, then revoked it (claimed God revoked it). Whatever the context, this feels to me like manipulation using God’s name (“oh, sorry, God took that offer back…”).
Interestingly, I see other examples of Joseph manipulating people using God’s name in the D&C—such as when he tells Martin Harris exactly what words he’s allowed to say about his experience seeing the “gold plates,” and is threatened with condemnation if he ever denies—D&C 5:26-27. (Joseph knew it wouldn’t look good if Martin shared exactly what happened—which he actually ended up doing when multiple witnesses report him admitting that nobody saw the plates in a physical sense, but rather only “in vision”).
Another example of what I consider to be religious manipulation was reported by Helen Mar Kimball who was sealed to 37 year old Joseph at age 14, and was promised salvation for herself and her family if she did so. She was clearly very uncomfortable with the idea of marrying Joseph when it was presented to her. But her father “having a great desire to be connected with the prophet Joseph, offered me to him.” And he gradually convinced this young girl that it was right. She reported Joseph saying to her “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.” She then states, “This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.” Her story is worth reading. She clearly believed in Joseph and the church, but lamented in her writings how her childhood was taken from her, as she was forbidden to go out to dances as a child because she was Joseph’s.
REGARDING TAKING OTHER MEN’S WIVES (POLYANDRY)
Fourteen of Joseph’s wives were already married! Apologists have often chosen to assume that these cases were “eternity only sealings” that were only intended to have effect in the next life (like “don’t worry bro, your wife is only planning to be with me after we’re dead”). They propose that at least some of these sealings had the purpose of ensuring that women whose husbands were not Mormons would be sealed to believers in the next life, and have argued that these incidences of polyandry were not active or sexual relationships. However, there are problems with these apologetics. One problem is that in some of these cases Joseph was marrying or being “sealed” to women who had active Mormon husbands in good standing with the church. In fact, Joseph even sent Orson Hyde away on a mission, and then took his wife while he was away! So that eliminates any salvation based reasoning for taking Orson’s wife, and implies that he simply wanted her or decided God had given her to him. The other problem is that in at least one case, there is powerful evidence that Joseph was having sexual relations with another man’s wife. This is the case of Sylvia Sessions, whose daughter was long believed by many to be a child of Joseph Smith as she’d claimed that she was his child. DNA evidence confirmed that she was actually not Joseph’s child, which suggests she was sleeping with both men at the same time and wrongly assumed she was Joseph’s child. Dan Vogel documents these issues very well HERE
In general, Joseph didn’t even follow his own rules for polygamy in the D&C—which, for example, require men to have approval of their wives before taking additional wives. Joseph’s behaviors, unacknowledged as the abuses they were, set the tone for later prophets to behave similarly. Brigham Young’s treatment of his 55 wives was often appalling—including a 15 year old he married at age 42. Lorenzo snow later married a 15 year old at age 57, a 17 year old at 45, and a 17 and 18 year old at age 31. The polygamy stuff is one hell of a rabbit hole, created by Joseph Smith.
Those are just some of the highlights of my concerns about this man. He lied to people about seeing moving treasures under the earth. He lied about his role in treasure digging in his official history. Early on he had a secret relationship with a teenager behind his wife’s back. He lied about his polygamy to the public, to his wife, and to most of the church. He took extreme measures to keep his relationships with young girls a secret—asking them to burn letters, and using liaisons to test their willingness to keep his secrets. He used God’s name to manipulate people in various ways—claiming God gave women to him, claiming God would destroy himself and others if he didn’t take more wives, claiming God would promise people salvation if they married him. He ambushed at least one young woman into a marriage she clearly wasn’t comfortable with (while secretly courting his sister at the same time). He pursued other men’s wives. An issue I didn’t discuss is the dishonesty involved with his banking scandal. And many other issues could be discussed that depend on first introducing other issues. For example, if we agree that the Book of Mormon can’t possibly be historical, then it is clear that Joseph also lied and deceived people with regard to having gold plates, or speaking personally with prophets from this fictional book. As I watch documentaries about Warren Jeffs such as “Keep Sweet, Pray & Obey,” or series like Waco regarding David Koresh, I feel like I get glimpses into just the kind of behavior Joseph Smith exhibited, as well as into the psychology that allows individuals to think it’s all normal and okay as it happens. Personally, I can’t view Joseph Smith as a decent human being, let alone a prophet of God.