Do Mormons Worship Joseph Smith? No. But We Rightly Sing “Praise to the Man” for How He Brings People to Jesus Christ (Whom We DO Worship)
By Ken K. Gourdin
I recently responded to criticisms of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus Christ and God the Father in upstate New York in 1820. “Praise To The Man” is the title of Hymn no. 27 in the 1985 edition of the Church’s hymnal. It was written by W.W. Phelps, who had special reason to be fond of Joseph Smith. Joseph forgave William and allowed him back into the Church after he was excommunicated when his apostasy resulted in severe persecution against Joseph. The purposes of this writing are twofold: one, to discuss Brother Joseph’s alleged skill as a fraudster; and two, to respond to allegations that, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we worship Joseph Smith. Quoted material herein comes from my responses to posts made on the Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board at mormondialogue.org.
1. Joseph Smith as a Fraudster: The Church of Jesus Christ as a Giant Conspiracy
Regarding the potential establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ as merely a conspiracy to dupe and to defraud (of which the coming forth of the Book of Mormon must have been an integral part) I said this:
If the Book of Mormon is a then-modern creation from the mind of Joseph Smith, then why all of these embellishments related to the story of its supposed coming forth: ad hoc visitations of the Father and the Son, ad hoc visitations of imaginary angels with names that came from Joseph’s made-up book (when Joseph was able to induce shared hallucinations in Sydney, Oliver, Martin, David, et al), ad hoc plates, et cetera? Why didn’t Joseph follow the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)? How many people had to be in on the scam? How many people gave time, money, resources, and even their lives for the scam? Even the smallest possible conspiracies, those which involve only two people, tend to collapse under their own weight, and yet here we have a much larger conspiracy that’s still taking millions of people in, 193 years later? Should I be checking my watch, expecting the conspiracy to collapse any minute now?
2. While We Venerate Joseph Smith, We Do Not Worship Him
In a different (but related) vein, many outsiders (and even some members of the Church of Jesus Christ) express concern over what they see as excessive veneration of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Then-Elder John Taylor allegedly contributed to the problem when he eulogized the Prophet (see my quotation of Doctrine & Covenants 135, below:
With due respect, you keep moving the goal posts. First, we were talking about “perfection”; now, we’re talking about “importance.” There are plenty of people in the world who are considered important, in one sphere or another, but who are far from perfect, so those two words are hardly synonyms. I’ll give you some latitude and assume that you’re simply engaging in the imprecise use of language (or that the Church leader to whom you’re referring was doing so). No, Joseph Smith wasn’t perfect; he himself admitted as much. But yes, I’d say that as an instrument in God’s hands in accomplishing the Restoration, Joseph Smith was pretty dang important … but only insofar as he (through the Restoration) leads people to Christ. If the Restoration doesn’t do that, it’s useless.
I believe the quote to which you’re referring comes from then-Elder John Taylor, who said that “Joseph Smith did more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world than any other man who ever lived in it.” (See Doctrine & Covenants 135). Your mileage may vary, but if Joseph Smith really did receive the Aaronic Priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist (and I believe he did); and if he really did receive the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of the Ancient Apostles, Peter, James, and John (and I believe he did); and if that Priesthood power is God’s authority restored to earth to administer saving ordinances (and I believe it is); then I think the truth of Elder Taylor’s statement becomes pretty obvious.
Now, having said that, does that give anyone the right to look down his nose at devout members of other religious traditions? No, of course not. We ought not be too provincial in our possession of that authority. When the non-LDS religiously devout reach The Other Side, will God tell them, “Ohhh, sorry! You were mostly wrong! Here’s what you should have done instead”? No, of course not; otherwise, why do Temple work for the departed? Rather, I think He’ll tell them, essentially, “You were mostly right. Here are some other things you ought to know.” For what I think is a useful approach to people of other faiths vis-à-vis the Restoration, see http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/toward-interreligious-oneness/.
Bottom line? None of this matters if Joseph Smith, imperfect though he was, was just another guy. I think, if someone gets another person to strain on a few gnats (“Look at all of these awful things Joseph Smith did!” when we see those things “through a glass, darkly”; don’t have all of the facts; see the past as WE are rather than as IT was; et cetera) and swallow a camel (“Ergo, Joseph couldn’t have been a prophet!”) then we’ve lost by conceding ground we never had to concede. Personally, I think if the Lord could’ve used somebody as flawed as Joseph Smith as His Instrument, then maybe there’s actually hope for ME! Whodathunkit?! (Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith wanted us to put him [Joseph] on TOO high a pedestal—see Doctrine & Covenants 1:25-28).1 But personally, I’m thankful that the Lord used Joseph Smith to restore all of the wonderful things I have by virtue of having the Gospel of Jesus Christ in my life.
1 If Joseph Smith really wanted the world to think he was perfect, he missed a golden opportunity when he (allegedly) wrote the Doctrine & Covenants. In discussing the purposes of the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord (regarding His servants) said this in Section 1, verses 24-28:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.