Who Was Joseph Smith?
While watching television a few weeks ago I saw a commercial for a television show about General Sherman, a Union general during the Civil War. General Sherman masterminded “Sherman’s March,” a slash and burn campaign which cut through Confederate Georgia. Debate lingers over whether or not General Sherman was a patriot or a terrorist. As with most events and historical figures, it all depends on one’s perspective.
The same question applies to Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the Church consider Joseph Smith a prophet whom Heavenly Father chose to restore the gospel on earth. Many mainstream Christians find the idea that the gospel requires restoration insulting, and consider Joseph Smith a false prophet and the members of the LDS church heretics.
Again, it all depends on your perspective.
Before we go further into what makes the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints different from other Christian denominations, let’s explore the person of Joseph Smith from the LDS point of view. There are many biographies written about Joseph Smith from both sides of the fence, however for our purposes I want to focus on two major points: a) The character of Joseph Smith up to his revelation, and b) The theology he revealed via his purported revelation.
History tends to remove us from the personality and humanity of its members. Joseph Smith is no different. He grew up in western New York state in the early 1800′s during a time of great religious turmoil in his community. This area was called the “burned over district” due to the religious fervor of competing Christian denominations. A young man of high curiosity and spiritual pursuits, Smith struggled with the existence of truth among the various denominations. He later wrote,
“So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person as young as I was…to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong…” -Joseph Smith–History 1: 8, 1o
This confusion and inner turmoil is the base of young Smith’s eventual transformation from a seeker of truth to an inspired leader to a faith of over 14 million devotees today.
In this context, Joseph Smith, a young man of only 14, becomes like many of us. How often do we struggle with the same spiritual trials as he did? What’s worse is that, in Smith’s day, Christianity had the religious market cornered in his part of the world, however the number of denominations was enough to cause him grieve. Today, with information about virtually every religion available at our fingertips, how much more difficult it is for us in search of answers?
Joseph Smith read this verse in the Bible and was thereafter emboldened to search for truth himself,
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given them.” -James 1: 5
From here, Joseph Smith sought God in a forest grove near his home and asked for answers. His prayers were soon answered in the spring of 1820. While in prayer, Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ reportedly appeared before Joseph Smith and called him to restore the gospel and the priesthood established by Jesus two thousand years earlier. Some years later, God led Smith to a an ancient record of Christ’s involvement in the Americas written on golden plates. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph Smith translated these plates into the Book of Mormon. These plates were later taken back by God. Thus, with the Book of Mormon and full status as a living prophet to lead Christ’s church, Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830.
From this angle, I cannot ignore similarities between Joseph Smith, other founders of world religions, and even ourselves. Every prophet or leader I’ve encountered thus far reaches this breaking point in faith. Each one finds the courage to abandon the spiritual status quo of their day and dig in the muck of tradition and theology themselves for answers. Only through unbiased diligence are answers found, and in some cases, not found.
LDS members, and missionaries in particular, will invite you to search truth for yourself. My Mentor, Elder Christensen told me that, “We are only guides who point the way. Only through the sincerity of your prayers and the confirmation of the Holy Spirit will you know if this book [the Book of Mormon] is true.”
We are all seekers, prophets and commoners alike. Regardless of the history you believe regarding Joseph Smith, his journey for truth is universal. In a way, through Project Conversion, I am participating in the same quest he and so many others have. What will I find in the end? Will I find anything at all?
If you were on a spiritual quest, did you find answers, or did you stare into the void, ask for truth and only receive an echo?