Praise to the Man
By John A. Tvedtnes

Joseph Smith’s divine call came in the spring of 1820, of which he wrote, “I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith History 1:17). Three and a half years later, the angel Moroni appeared to him and “called [him] by name” and told him that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith History 1:33). Though the heavenly beings honored Joseph, the story of his vision

excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution … It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself. (Joseph Smith History 1:22-23) 

During his lifetime and up to our day, the prophet Joseph has been vilified by a vast array of people. Some of them are simply ignorant of the man and what he really taught; others, not content to see him die at the hands of an armed mob with blackened faces, feel it necessary to continue dragging his reputation through the filth built up by their predecessors. As time passes, more and more people have come to admire, if not follow, Joseph.

Today, Joseph Smith is revered as a prophet by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some twelve million strong, and he was recently listed among the top 100 contenders for the title “The Greatest American.” Countless others hold him in derision and some actually earn their livelihood by writings books, pamphlets, and web sites critical of Joseph and the Church he founded. In between these two extremes are the great masses of the earth who have either not heard his name or who have no opinion regarding his work. The question for all men is what we should make of this nineteenth-century farmer whose teachings spanned the centuries, from ancient times to the future.

As early as February 1833, Joseph proclaimed in the name of the Lord that, “In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation” (D&C 89:4). The revelation then goes on to enumerate substances that are not good for the body, including tobacco and alcoholic beverages. To be sure, there were others who spoke out against the evils of these substances before and after Joseph Smith, but he was unique in saying that the warning was being given because of the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.” Not until the end of the twentieth century, when the U.S. Congress began investigating the tobacco companies, did it become clear to the American public that the tobacco industry had literally conspired to cover up research on the negative effects of its product and to find ways to gain new adherents. Even one who rejects Joseph Smith’s claim to have been a prophet called of God should be able to see that his warning way well ahead of its time.

Joseph preempted his contemporaries in other ways as well. His 1844 campaign for the presidency of the United States called for the end of slavery, the annexation of Texas and adjoining territories, and the sale of government land to raise funds for social programs. [1] Nearly seventy years before Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity, Joseph Smith wrote of the exchange between time and space (Abraham, Facsimile 2, Figure 1). Benjamin F. Johnson, one of his close associates, wrote that

He was the first in this age to teach “substantialism”, the eternity of matter, that no part or particle of the great universe could become annihilated or destroyed; that light and life and spirit were one; that all light and heat are the “Glory of God”, which is his power, that fills the “immensity of space”, and is the life of all things, and permeates with latent life, and heat, every particle of which all worlds are composed; that light or spirit, and matter, are the two first great primary principles of the universe, or of Being; that they are self-existent, co-existent, indestructible, and eternal, and from these two elements both our spirits and our bodies were formulated. [2]

George Q. Cannon left a similar testimony:

There are many doctrines that we have taught that were very unpopular in the beginning that they now receive. Why, there are Elders in this congregation who can well remember that it was a common belief, when they preached the Gospel to religious people, that the world was created out of nothing. That was a commonly received idea. Joseph Smith taught the eternal duration of matter. He taught the doctrine that matter was indestructible; that it never had a beginning; that it never could have an end; that it might undergo chemical changes, but that it was indestructible, and that the elements of which the earth is composed were eternal – never had a beginning and never would have an end. The whole religious world were shocked at such an idea, and so in regard to the time occupied in the creation of the earth. But Joseph taught the true principle connected with this. He said the days mentioned as occupied in the creation were not our days of twenty-four hours’ length, but were periods of time. Now, that is a commonly received doctrine, although it was sneered at and rejected by religious men at the time it was taught by the Elders of this Church. And so it has gone on. [3]

Some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, while not willing to join his religious movement, nevertheless admired him as a great innovator. In a letter home written 6 February 1840, Congressman Matthew S. Davis wrote:

I went last evening to hear “Joe Smith,” the celebrated Mormon, expound his doctrine. I, with several others, had a desire to understand his tenets as explained by himself. He is not an educated man: but he is a plain, sensible, strong minded man. Everything he says, is said in a manner to leave an impression that he is sincere. There is no levity, no fanaticism, no want of dignity in his deportment. He is apparently from forty to forty-five years of age, rather above the middle stature, and what you ladies would call a very good looking man. In his garb there are no peculiarities; his dress being that of a plain, unpretending citizen. He is by profession a farmer, but is evidently well read …

During the whole of his address, and it occupied more than two hours, there was no opinion or belief that he expressed, that was calculated, in the slightest degree, to impair the morals of society, or in any manner to degrade and brutalize the human species. There was much in his precepts, if they were followed, that would soften the asperities of man towards man, and that would tend to make him a more rational being than he is generally found to be. There was no violence, no fury, no denunciation. His religion appears to be the religion of meekness, lowliness, and mild persuasion. [4]

On 22 March 1842, the Columbus Advocate newspaper published a letter to the editor that read:

Having recently had occasion to visit the city of Nauvoo, I cannot permit the opportunity to pass without expressing the agreeable disappointment that awaited me there. I had supposed, from what I had previously heard, that I should witness an impoverished, ignorant and bigotted population, completely priest-ridden, and tyrannized over by Joseph Smith, the great prophet of these people.

On the contrary, to my surprise, I saw a people apparently happy, prosperous and intelligent. Every man appeared to be employed in some business or occupation. I saw no idleness, no intemperance, no noise, no riot – all appeared to be contented, with no desire to trouble themselves with anything except their own affairs …

During my stay of three days, I became well acquainted with their principal men, and more particularly with their Prophet, the celebrated “Old Joe Smith.” I found them hospitable, polite, well-informed and liberal. With Joseph Smith, the hospitality of whose house I kindly received, I was well pleased; of course on the subject of religion, we widely differed, but he appeared to be quite as willing to permit me to enjoy my right of opinion, as I think we all ought to be to let the Mormons enjoy theirs; but instead of the ignorant and tyrannical upstart, judge my surprise at finding him a sensible, intelligent, companionable and gentlemanly man. In frequent conversations with him he gave me every information that I desired, and appeared to be only pleased at being able to do so. He appears to be much respected by all the people about him, and has their entire confidence. He is a fine looking man about thirty-six years of age, and has an interesting family. [5]

In a speech made at a public gathering in Nauvoo, on 17 May, 1844, non-Mormon attorney John Reid said,

The first acquaintance I had with Gen. Smith was about the year 1823. He came into my neighborhood, being then about eighteen years of age, and resided there two years: during which time I became intimately acquainted with him. I do know that his character was irreproachable; that he was well known for truth and uprightness, that he moved in the first circles of the community, and he was often spoken of as a young man of intelligence and good morals and possessing a mind susceptible of the highest intellectual attainments.

I early discovered that his mind was constantly in search of truth, expressing an anxious desire to know the will of God concerning His children here below, often speaking of those things which professed Christians believe in. I have often observed to my best informed friends (those that were free from superstition and bigotry) that I thought Joseph was predestinated by his God from all eternity to be an instrument in the hands of the great Dispenser of all good, to do a great work what it was I knew not. [6]

Following Joseph Smith’s announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, some non-Mormon newspapers actually seemed to favor him. The Illinois Springfield Register of 20 March 1844 carried an article entitled, “General Joseph Smith a Candidate for President, noting, “It appears by the Nauvoo papers that the Mormon Prophet is actually a candidate for the presidency.” Contrasting the prophet’s clear views with the “shuffling and dodging” of Senator Henry Clay, the author added that “General Smith … ought to be regarded as the real Whig candidate for President.” The Iowa Democrat of the same date carried this editorial:

We see from the Nauvoo Neighbor that General Joseph Smith, the great Mormon Prophet, has become a candidate for the next presidency. We do not know whether he intends to submit his claims to the National Convention, or not; but, judging from the language of his own organ, we conclude that he considers himself a full team for all of them.

All that we have to say on this point is, that if superior talent, genius, and intelligence, combined with virtue, integrity, and enlarged views, are any guarantee to General Smith’s being elected, we think that he will be a “full team of himself.” [7]

The Missouri Republican expressed the view that Joseph Smith’s entry into the Presidential race would unseat President Martin Van Buren. [8] A visitor to Nauvoo wrote a letter to the editor of the Church-owned Times and Seasons, saying,

I have been conversant with the great men of the age: and, last of all I feel that I have met with the greatest, in the presence of your esteemed Prophet, General Joseph Smith. From many reports, I had reason to believe him a bigoted religionist, as ignorant of politics as the savages; but, to my utter astonishment, on the short acquaintance, I have found him as familiar in the cabinet of nations as with his Bible and in the knowledge of that book I have not met with his equal in Europe or America. Although I should beg leave to differ with him in some items of faith, his nobleness of soul will not permit him to take offense at me. No, sir; I find him open, frank, and generous – as willing others should enjoy their opinions as to enjoy his own.

The General appears perfectly at home on every subject, and his familiarity with many languages affords him ample means to become informed concerning all nations and principles, which with his familiar and dignified deportment towards all must secure to his interest the affections of every intelligent and virtuous man that may chance to fall in his way, and I am astonished that so little is known abroad concerning him.

Van Buren was my favorite, and I was astonished to see General Smith’s name as a competitor; but, since my late acquaintance, Mr. Van Buren can never re-seat himself in the Presidential chair on my vote while General Smith is in the field. Forming my opinions alone of the talents of the two, and from what I have seen, I have no reason to doubt but General Smith’s integrity is equal to any other individual; and I am satisfied he cannot easily be made the pliant tool of any political party. I take him to be a man who stands far aloof from little caucus quibblings and squabblings, while nations, governments, and realms are wielded in his hand as familiarly as the top and hoop in the hands of their little masters.

Free from all bigotry and superstition, he dives into every subject, and it seems as though the world was not large enough to satisfy his capacious soul, and from his conversation one might suppose him as well acquainted with other worlds as this.

So far as I can discover, General Smith is the nation’s man, and the man who will exalt the nation, if the people will give him the opportunity; and all parties will find a friend in him so far as right is concerned.

General Smith’s movements are perfectly anomalous in the estimation of the public. All other great men have been considered wise in drawing around them wise men; but I have frequently heard the General called a fool because he has gathered the wisest of men to his cabinet, who direct his movements; but this subject is too ridiculous to dwell upon. Suffice it to say, so far as I have seen, he has wise men at his side – superlatively wise, and more capable of managing the affairs of a State than most men now engaged therein, which I consider much to his credit, though I would by no means speak diminutively of my old friend.

From my brief acquaintance, I consider General Smith (independent of his peculiar religious views, in which by-the-by, I have discovered neither vanity nor folly,) the sine qua non of the age to our nation’s prosperity. He has learned the all-important lesson “to profit by the experience of those who have gone before;” so that, in short, General Smith begins where other men leave off. I am aware this will appear a bold assertion to some; but I would say to such, call, and form your acquaintance, as I have done; then judge. [9]

The editor of the Saint Louis Organ, after admonishing all other candidates for the Presidency to drop out of the race, wrote, “General Joseph Smith, the acknowledged modern Prophet, has got them all in the rear; [10] and from the common mode of testing the success of candidates for the Presidency, to wit., by steamboat elections, he (Smith) will beat all the other aspirants to that office two to one. We learn from the polls of the steamboat Osprey, on her last trip to this city, that the vote stood for General Joseph Smith, 20 gents and 5 ladies; Henry Clay, 16 gents and 4 ladies; Van Buren, 7 gents and 0 ladies.” [11]

In 1844, Josiah Quincy, the well-known mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, visited Nauvoo, Illinois, in company with Charles Francis Adams. So impressed was Quincy with the genius of the prophet that he later wrote:

It is by no means improbable that some future textbook, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace to their descendants. History deals in surprises and paradoxes quite as startling as this. The man who established a religion in this age of free debate, who was and is today accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High, such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, impostor, charlatan, he may have been, but those hard names, furnish no solution to the problems he presents to us. Fanatics and impostors are living and dying every day, and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of religion exerted and still exerts, throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained. The vital questions Americans are asking one another today have to do with this man and with what he has left us. [12]

The New York Sun of 4 September 1843 carried an article entitled “Joe Smith, the Mormon Prophet,” which, while it rejected the claims of Mormonism, had positive things to say about Joseph Smith:

This Joe Smith must be set down as an extraordinary character, a prophet-hero, as Carlyle might call him. He is one of the great men of this age, and in future history will rank with those who, in one way or another, have stamped their impress strongly on society.

Nothing can be more plebeian, in seeming, than this Joe Smith. Little of dignity is there in his cognomen; but few in this age have done such deeds, and performed such apparent miracles. It is no small thing, in the blaze of the nineteenth century, to give to men a new revelation, found a new religion, establish new forms of worship, to build a city with new laws, institutions, and orders of architecture, to establish ecclesiastical, civil and military jurisdiction, found colleges, send out missionaries, and make proselytes on two hemispheres. Yet all this has been done by Joe Smith, and that against every sort of opposition, ridicule, and persecution.

That Joe Smith, the founder of the Mormons, is a man of great talent, a deep thinker, and eloquent speaker, an able writer, and a man of great mental power, no one can doubt who has watched his career.

Some modern scholars have also admired Joseph Smith’s accomplishments. During my lengthy residence (1971-79) in Israel, I often heard the late Professor David Flusser, who had chaired the department of comparative religions at the Hebrew University, speak about the man he, too, called “the prophet.” When I last saw him, Flusser was working on a book comparing Joseph Smith’s first vision with similar accounts in early Christian texts. [13] Another Jewish professor, Yale University’s Harold Bloom, wrote:

Smith’s religious genius always manifested itself through what might be termed his charismatic accuracy, his sure sense of relevance that governed biblical and Mormon parallels. I can only attribute to his genius or daemon his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly. [14]

W. D. Davies, a noted theologian at Duke University, agreed with Bloom, writing that “Mormonism is the Jewish-Christian tradition in an American key … What it did was to re-Judaize a Christianity that had been too much Hellenized.” [15]

Another renowned American scholar who commented on Joseph Smith’s work was the late William Foxwell Albright of Johns Hopkins University. After a critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote to him asking that he denounce the Book of Abraham, Albright defended Joseph Smith, saying, “I do not for a moment believe that Joseph Smith was trying to mislead anyone; I accept the point of view of a Jewish friend of mine at the University of Utah, [16] that he was a religious genius and that he was quite honest in believing that he really could decipher these ancient texts. But to insist that he did [mislead] is really doing a disservice to the cause of a great church and its gifted founder.” [17]

At the close of the 20th century, more and more symposia on Joseph Smith and the restored Church were being held at places such as Oxford and Durham universities in England. On 6-7 May of 2005, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the prophet’s birth, a two-day symposium on “The World of Joseph Smith” drew Latter-day Saint and non-LDS scholars to the Library of Congress, with video and audio streaming on the internet.

Perhaps the most well-known of the accolades directed at the prophet is the one written by his close associate John Taylor soon after Joseph’s murder and subsequently incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as section 135:

Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient time, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood. (D&C 135:3).

      More significant still is the Lord’s assessment of his chosen prophet:

I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets – The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh – But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; That faith also might increase in the earth; That mine everlasting covenant might be established; That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers. (D&C 1:17-23)

Indeed, we feel to shout “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer. Blessed to open the last dispensation, kings shall extol him and nations revere.” [18]

[1] History of the Church 6:243-4.

[2] Benjamin F. Johnson letter to to George F. Gibbs, 1903, cited in E. Dale LeBaron, “Benjamin Franklin Johnson: Colonizer, Public Servant, and Church Leader” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1967), 331.

[3] Journal of Discourses 24:258-9.

[4] History of the Church 4:78-9.

[5] Ibid., 4:565.

[6] Ibid., 1:94.

[7] Ibid., 6:268.

[8] Ibid., 6:269.

[9] Ibid., 6:269-70.

[10] I.e., they were all behind in the unofficial “polls” of the time.

[11] Republished in the 8 May 1844 edition of the Times and Seasons; see History of the Church 6:361.

[12] Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1883), 376.

[13] I fear that the book was never completed and may not see the light of day.

[14] Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 101.

[15] W. D. Davies, “Israel, the Mormons and the Land,” in Truman G. Madsen, ed., Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 91.

[16] Probably Louis Zucker, whom I was privileged to count among my teachers and friends.

[17] William F. Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, 25 July 1966. We are indebted to Boyd Peterson who, under a grant from FARMS, was able to photocopy this and many other pieces of correspondence about the Book of Abraham held in various university library collections.

[18] Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 27.

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.





2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.