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Joseph Smith: The Self-Shysted Shyster

What sort of man was Joseph Smith? The type to establish a world religion, clearly, but how much does that tell us? It takes a mere spark to blast a keg, after all, but sometimes the wick can be fickle, and waits for just the right spark. After all, there were hundreds of upstart sects and self-styled prophets in New England at the time, and especially in Smith’s hometown which was within the “burned over district,” where many revivals and sects had roused the people again and again. This is not unlike the stories of Jesus, who was merely one of many miracle workers at his time, merely one of many self-styled messiahs of the time, and many of the stories and sayings of the gospels seem to be absorbed from the urban myths regarding the wide group of itinerate preachers. Statistically, that one of the prophets caught on seems inevitable. But what is the nature of that one?

Smith had an idea, he calls its source “God.” Demythologized, this is the same source as all artists and poets—Walt Whitman claimed the Holy Spirit had inspired his own “New Bible,” the Leaves of Grass, and we need not by any means be a student of literature to see his writings are more inspired than Joseph’s. But Whitman’s new religion affirmed all world religions, whereas Joseph’s denied each and everyone one—every last sect of Christianity as “the Church of Satan.”

What was his basic idea, and where is it now? Perhaps it was lost? After all, an idea may develop into its opposite. Kellogg, when he invented corn flakes, like Graham with his crackers, intended to invent a food so bland and boring that it would dull all excitement, especially the sexual, and especially the masturbatory. The latest children’s cartoon, however, features a cartoon “cuckoo bird” who for lust of Cocoa Puff’s cereal explodes into a “coo-coo” frenzy to get his chocolate fix. In the same way, many defend Jesus against those who act in his name, listing, perhaps, the Catholic Church as the ostensible opposite of everything the man taught.

Is Smith an equally sympathetic character? His religious story began when he was perplexed about which of the competing sects in his neighborhood was the true one, and how to make sense of it all. Unconsciously, Smith wanted a short cut, a simple answer, no need for study or critical thinking. “They’re all wrong” the voice naturally tells him, and what a relief! He could instead use hunches and warm feelings to settle all theological disputes and package his conclusions as indisputable revelations. His Book of Mormon—a purported translation of ancient Jewish-American scriptures—therefore solves not only theological issues that could plausibly be ancient, but issues of his own day.

His revelations were sometimes revelations of convenience, making his personal whim unchallengeable, nor was God above weighing in on his domestic spats—to Joseph’s favor, naturally—and for this his wife would make fun of him.

After all the hoopla that comes later, the propaganda about angels and visitations and such, when his feeling of certainty after his prayer about which sect was correct got rewritten as a dazzling visitation of God the Father and God the Son, what are the ideas, anyway, that would be divine? This, to any intelligent person, is what really matters, not the incredible framework it is placed within. Smith’s basic ideas is the sacredness of family. Such an overpowering emphasis could only inspire the founding of a religion at a time of family disintegration. The patriarchal family is the symbol of heaven, and LDS teaching on the matter will be a valuable voice even for us as our cultural battles roil on.

Smith, the teenage shyster who used seers’ stones to find buried treasure—a bit of hooliganism popular enough at the time to make laws to keep such people from fleecing the public, and for which Smith himself was convicted—would later, by the same method, discover “gold plates,” which like the ark of the covenant, have mysteriously disappeared, but unlike the ark of the covenant probably never existed at all. These would be used to translate the most unliterary document I have ever read: the Book of Mormon. And just like L. Ron Hubbard, would write hundreds of sci-fi novels until one day he believed that he wasn’t making fiction but writing true galactic history, Joseph also began to believe his own stories, and the Shyster shysted himself.

The religion is a great comfort for true believers. They are communal, their symbol is the honey hive. You’re either all the way in or all the way out—hivemind—and it doesn’t matter if you understand, but it does matter if you obey. Your salvation depends on it.

Unlike other religions, there is little in Mormonism that could tempt an intelligent person to convert—though Buddhism and Taoism impress even highly critical and skeptical minds. Unfortunately, the scriptures—The Book of Mormon, The Doctrines and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price—are so poorly written that it’s painful to force yourself to read them, though a nonbeliever may enjoy large portions of the Bible, the Upanishads, and the Tao Te Jing. One searches in vain for an original trope in The Doctrines and Covenant, anything aside from the endless mixed up quotes from the King James Bible. Tropes and figures are pulled seemingly at random from the Old and New Testament, and this passes as “The Word of God” for a world already saturated in that literature. New “revelations” are spoken as if God scissored and collaged his old material before he whispered them to Smith. Yet like Muhammad, Smith will scoff at the skeptics, saying, “If you think I’m just making it up, try writing one of these revelations yourself,” but unlike Muhammad, he had no right for such a Poet’s arrogance.

The basic idea of Mormonism, the symbol of heaven, is the family. Therefore, the basic ethic, naturally enough, is husbandry, or in a wider sense, industry. Indeed, outside their temple they have sculptures of bee’s hives with the word “industry” written on them. In The Doctrines and Covenants 107, after detailing the proposed structure of the church, Smith ends saying, “Let every man learn his duty and act in the office in which he is appointed in all diligence. He that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand, and he that learns not his duty and shows himself not approved shall not be counted worthy to stand.” In other words, aside from apostasy, and aside from refusing to have a large family, the biggest Mormon sin is laziness.

About the large families, it does come as a great pressure for each young Mormon to prepare, first of all, for his necessary two year missionary trip (the missionary field being mostly American Christian neighborhoods), and then after that getting married in a celestial marriage (redefined from being what it once was, a plural marriage, to the now in-fashion, regular marriage of one man to one wife, and meaning, more or less, that its not death till you part, but never shall you part). The highest heaven is reserved only for those who have been “celestially married” and have large families. A bachelor by nature is dispicccable, and the homosexual Mormon, if he persists, will soon be excommunicated.

Sincere, convicted, stupid—this trademark look of the nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries can equally be found in true believers everywhere, and they look a lot like evangelical Christians. Watching videos about Mormons and ex-Mormons, it is easy to spot the ex-Mormon even before he has been introduced. There is a look of intelligence to his eyes, you can tell you are looking at somebody with intellectual integrity and perhaps a bit of a mental edge lacking in the Mormon counterpart.

So the sell-job we get from the Mormons—I let a couple of these lads visit me and make many subsequent visits—asks you not to think about the claims The Book of Mormon makes, whether it is historical, but to ask God in your heart if its true. This little bit of hypnotic shamanism didn’t work for me. I quickly read as much as I could in the book and prayed and not only felt from myself, a certain judge, but was also told by the higher power that this stuff was not inspired. At least not more than popular fiction.

As for the plates, the angels, all that stuff, we are back to the same sell-jobs Christians make. We have faith because God revealed his word in miracles, and you know that the miracles really happened if you have faith. But why these miracles? Regarding miracles, the question isn’t “If God can do anything why couldn’t he also do this? (swallow his prophets into large fish, allow talking snakes possessed by the devil into paradise, make a human sacrifice only to reverse it three days later, etc.),” but the more apt question is “If God can do anything, why would he do this?” The stories are, after all, absurd. God can do anything, write on the moon, write the gospel in the stars, give every person the same dream when they turn thirteen, whatever. Why did he hide a scripture in a hill and then evaporate it again after it was translated? Why not just inspire him to write what was on it in the first place? The answer is that the story about golden plates is fun, it is more interesting then the story that God inspired Joseph of an ancient scripture. But that’s a pretty shabby miracle compared to the stuff we hear in the New Testament, although that stuff is a lot more absurd (God’s faked death, his casting out of spirits into pigs, the healing of a few local diseases rather than disease itself, walking on water). If God can do anything, why these quiet miracles, done in a small corner of the world, witnessed by incredulous fisherman, and reported a few generations later by anonymous sources? To escape some of the damage that this question could cause, Paul, ever clever in his cynicism, claims that God performs such foolish miracles precisely to hurt our pride, to insult our intelligence, to mock our wisdom. It seems that God, like Paul, finds human philosophy intimidating enough to sneer at it, to attack it, that he regards human wisdom as wrong, bad, evil. Well having wisdom does save a man from believing nonsense, so Paul knew his enemy.

The incredible story of a criminally convicted shyster convincing his parents and friends that he is a living prophet seems to be explained by Smith’s well-documented charisma. People liked him as they like con men, trusted him as they trust tricksters, but more than that, and this is a key difference, Smith managed to con himself, and most of the others are not able to do that.