Joseph Smith, Jr.

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♫♬Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. He started the Mormon religion, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.♬♫
—South Park[1][2]
The man himself

Joseph Smith, Jr. was an American convicted conman, religious leader and self-proclaimed prophet. Smith claimed an angel named Moroni helped him find and translate a set of golden plates that give an account of Jesus's visit to North America. Smith also claimed God instructed him to build the one true church, and that all Christian sects and denominations were doctrinally corrupted. God's purported command was for Smith to translate the golden plates into the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon according to Smith was the "most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book" (even the Bible, which Smith thought was imperfect, because according to him, it was carelessly and purposefully altered by ancient scribes and writers.[3] The Book of Mormon mentions that Native Americans are the direct descendants of Jews who left Saudi Arabia and travelled across the Atlantic Ocean towards a new promised land in northeastern North America. He also claimed that, once upon a time, all Native Americans were white.[4]

Unsurprisingly, most of Smith's neighbors found these claims far-fetched. Smith and his followers were forced to relocate until they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was murdered by a lynch mob (ironically, while he was in jail for organizing a violent mob to destroy the press and offices of a newspaper he didn't like, among other things). His fraud conviction[5] and inconsistent "revelations" make him highly suspicious, but his modern-day followers, the Mormons, still regard him as their prophet.

Contents

[edit] Early life

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805, the fifth child of relatively affluent and well-educated parents. In later years, he claimed to have had a vision of God in his childhood, although the year of this vision and exactly what he saw and what was said to him vary; there are no less than four different accounts of the First Vision, all in Smith's own hand and all telling radically different stories despite claiming to be about the same event. He also claimed to have been later visited by an angel who showed him the location of a set of plates made of gold on which text was engraved. Both of these claims were actually made far later in life and there is no evidence of him having actually told anyone of these happenings when they occurred, not even his closest friends or family members. What the available evidence actually indicates is that he spent much of his youth and early adulthood as a petty con artist specializing in treasure-hunting and dowsing scams involving 'magic seer stones'. He was arrested and tried for these activities in 1826. In 1827 he eloped with a young woman named Emma Hale, whose parents disapproved of his less-than-legal vocation; she eventually became the first of his many wives.

[edit] The Book of Mormon

The book of gold plates Smith purportedly found and "translated" from "Reformed Egyptian" was the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The method of translation involved placing a "magic seer stone" (the same stones Smith had once used as a confidence trickster) in a hat, placing his head into it, and then dictating what he saw to another individual, who would transcribe it.[6] No evidence of these golden plates exists as Smith claims they were taken back into heaven after he did his translation -they were not even physically in the room with Smith as he "translated" them. A few people said they saw the golden plates, but some of those witnesses later recanted their claims, which brings speculation to the veracity of their original claims. The Book of Mormon is written (rather poorly) in imitation of the King James Bible with tedious overuse of the phrases "it came to pass" and "exceedingly" and "dwindled in unbelief" and "sore wroth" (almost to the point of becoming a running joke) and with entire chapters and books padded out with verse after verse of meaningless filler (including several verses that consist entirely of the same sentence repeated three or four times with slightly different wording). The "gospel" portion in 3 Nephi is more or less cut and pasted from the Gospel according to Mark. The theology of the Book of Mormon is remarkably orthodox, with condemnations of polygamy and none of the other "whackjob" features attributed to Mormonism. Missionaries leave copies of the Book of Mormon with contacts because it is the perfect case of milk before meat.

[edit] Book of Abraham

Smith also made an alleged "translation" of an Egyptian scroll he bought, which became the "Book of Abraham". The Book of Abraham is the source of the Mormon belief that God lives near the star Kolob with his multiple wives; it also makes some rather...'interesting' claims about Egyptian history, such as claiming that 'Pharaoh' is a name rather than a title and that Egypt itself was named after a woman named 'Egyptus' (it's actually derived from the Greek 'Aigyptos', which in turn was a mispronunciation of the Egyptians' name for their capital, Memphis).[7] Unlike the alleged "golden plates", this scroll really does exist. Scholars who have examined it concluded it to be common Egyptian writings with no relation whatsoever to the text Smith claimed he translated as the "Book of Abraham".[8] Despite the fact that the Book was exposed as a hoax nearly half a century ago, the Mormon church still officially accepts the "Book of Abraham" as divinely inspired scripture (it is part of The Pearl of Great Price, one of their four standard works of scripture along with the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine & Covenants). There are occasional rumors the book will be removed from church canon, but as of now nothing of the sort has actually happened.

Facsimiles of some of the scrolls, ostensibly copied by Smith himself, are included in the official church version of the Book of Abraham, along with Smith's labels and annotations pointing out who individual characters are and what certain words or phrases mean. The facsimiles are, at least visually, fairly accurate depictions of the original scrolls - the hieroglyphs are clear and identifiable, which makes it easy to discover they do not actually bear any resemblance at all to the translations Smith attributed to them. In addition, virtually every single character is misidentified - for example, Osiris is labelled as the prophet Abraham, the female Isis is named as the male 'Pharaoh' (which is given as a name rather than a title, which means that he would have been referred to as 'Pharaoh Pharaoh'), and Anubis (who is missing his snout in the recreation but retains the jackal ears) is inexplicably identified as a black slave with a vaguely Hebrew-sounding gibberish name. The facsimile of a round object (now identifiable as a hypocephalus) is even worse, being mostly nonsense clearly copied from other sources, including several phrases composed of two different languages and large numbers of characters placed upside down, backwards, or in the wrong place, misspelling words. Once the original scrolls were found, it was discovered that several sections were damaged or missing, and were presumably filled in on the facsimiles either by Smith or one of his assistants with what they thought should go there; it's worth noting that the damaged sections in the original scrolls correspond exactly with those sections of the facsimiles that Egyptologists once had difficulty explaining.

In summary, the Book of Abraham is an obvious and rather poorly-done hoax whose plausibility relied entirely on the fact that the Egyptian language was unknown at the time of its writing. Even then, the flaws are glaring enough that, had genuine scholars of the time examined it, they likely would have readily been able to identify them. However, laymen of the time would have, generally speaking, been ignorant of Egyptian history, culture, or language, thus making it fairly easy to pass off such a fraud to them.

[edit] Egyptian Language and Grammar

As a companion to the aforementioned Book of Abraham, Smith also compiled an "Egyptian Language and Grammar" that claimed to teach the Egyptian language, which was not yet known at the time. The text remained in the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after his death and was eventually placed in long-term storage in a vault in Salt Lake City, where it remains as of 2011. The church originally had no intention of releasing it, but several pages of the text on microfilm were leaked by an anonymous source in the mid-20th century. Modern scholars and linguists have examined them and determined that Smith had absolutely no notion of the Egyptian language whatsoever; indeed, he achieved the noteworthy accomplishment of getting every single thing wrong. The resulting 'language' he claims to be teaching is pure fantasy; he made it up.

[edit] Doctrine & Covenants

Doctrine & Covenants is a collection of supplemental prophecies and instructions for the church, written mostly by Joseph Smith, who claimed he received them from God. The Doctrine & Covenants includes a prophecy that the one true church would be located in Independence, Missouri, and that present-day Independence was the site of the Garden of Eden. According to the same purported prophecy received by Smith, the site of Independence was to be the location of the future construction of the New Jerusalem that is mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Funny thing, there is no mention of Salt Lake City in that prophecy. Smith also encouraged polygamy in the Doctrine of Covenants which accordingly contradicts the Book of Mormon which says that polygamous relationships are "abominations".[9] It also contains a series of increasingly restrictive and arbitrary rules members are not only expected to follow, but required to follow (or pretend they do) in order to be considered good Mormons. The Word of Wisdom is the most well-known of these many rules and instructions.

[edit] Death

Joseph Smith was killed in a gun battle with a mob of vigilantes while incarcerated in an Illinois jail awaiting trial for fraud and other crimes (central among which was his organization of a mob to burn down the offices of a newspaper that had published articles critical of him). One of Smith's last projects before being killed was his attempt at a wholesale revision of the King James Version of the Bible, with Smith making up those revisions himself. Also, just before his death, he was preparing to run for President of the United States as an Independent candidate.

His movement fragmented into several competing sects, with the prophet Brigham Young taking a wagon train consisting of the vast majority of the movement's members to Utah. This branch became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormons, as they are usually referred to. The Missouri branch became the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, today known as the Community of Christ, while numerous smaller groups such as the Strangites and Bickertonites split off and went their own way.

[edit] Biographies

Joseph Smith was the first Prophet to walk the earth since the invention of the printing press. As such, he leaves a paper trail much more detailed than any other religious founder. Whereas Muslims bickered for centuries over various hadith and various church councils couldn't figure out the canonical gospels for generations, everything Joseph Smith ever touched is still well at hand. As such, there are basically three types of history regarding Mormons: blatant hagiographies, anti-Mormon Christian apologetics, and objective writings about the founding of Mormon culture. The first two types are much more accessible than the third, especially in light of extreme political-correctness that calls skepticism of anything religious generally impolite.

As such, the best two books on the topic are also the most controversial. Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven is a brief history of the faith that focuses on some of the creepier Fundamentalist Mormons who live outside LDS jurisdiction, while Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History was a milestone in biography, fusing Freudian and Marxist literary analysis with psycho-analytical theories to better humanize the actions of Joseph Smith. Expectedly, the LDS Church had a shit fit. Brodie, raised in the faith, was ex-communicated, while Krakauer, an agnostic, was given loads of free publicity by the Church when they offered point-by-point critiques that were, on the whole, pretty lame.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. South Park - All About The Mormons
  2. The clip in German. (Nicht English, sorry.)
  3. This may be true since the texts of the Bible were agreed to be canonized by Roman Christians two centuries after the original documents were written. It's possible that those Roman Christians were influenced by the Roman paganism and altered the original doctrines and teachings found in the Bible by omitting and adding certain passages to the original text and incorporating certain Roman ideas into the Bible.
  4. The exact phrase he used was "white and delightsome," always used together, as though the two were interrelated; in Mormon theology non-white skin is always depicted as a negative.
  5. Joseph Smith's 1826 Conviction
  6. Literally "Talking through his hat!"
  7. Smith was apparently unaware that Egyptians did not actually refer to themselves as 'Egyptians'.
  8. Specifically, it's a 'Breathing Permit', an Egyptian funerary document intended to provide the deceased passage to the afterlife. In this case the deceased was named 'Hor', and not only was he not a prophet, he wasn't even royalty or nobility. The materials from which Smith 'translated' also apparently included a stone disc that modern scholars, going by Smith's own drawings of the item, can easily identify as a hypocephalus, yet another common Egyptian funerary artifact.
  9. Jacob 2: 23-28 (Book of Mormon)
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