Years ago, I heard a Bishop say: “Brothers and sisters, the restoration was messy.” I didn’t think much about his wording at the time. But over the few years following (including my mission), I encountered a lot of people wanting to “educate” me about early Church history. Joseph Smith was the most common target, of course. They cited all sorts of stories about him that seemingly “proved” he was a lying, womanizing con man.
I mostly brushed off these claims during my mission. Those critics were not historians. I knew their agenda. I figured they were mostly lies, or at least huge distortions of the history. So, when I got home from my mission, I bought an 800-page history of Joseph Smith. It was written by an active stake patriarch and Church historian who worked on the Joseph Smith Papers project, so I figured his book would blow away all those false accusations with the fiery testimony of truth.
But I was surprised to find that instead of tearing down all the stories the critics had told me, history largely confirmed them. And you know what? That’s OK!
Why we don’t talk about the “messiness”
Yes, the critics had often warped the stories to fit their agenda. And when you put the stories in context, there was a lot more room for faith than the critics made it out to be. But the core facts of what happened were close to what the critics claimed– or at least unsettlingly close to it. I’ll be honest: those histories were troubling. And frankly, they were not just troubling to modern sensitivities– they were often controversial even in the context of the 19th-century frontier where they happened.
It was then I started to understand what this Bishop had said: the restoration was indeed “messy.”
Critics love to point out that we in the Church don’t often talk about these historical concerns in our meetings. And that’s largely true. But make no mistake: it’s not because we are trying to whitewash our history. It’s because we only have ~~3~~ (well, now 2) hours for Sunday block. That’s really not a lot of time. So we have to be very selective about what we teach. If something does not build faith in Christ or strengthen our determination to serve the Savior, it’s just not worth spending a lot of time on.
And even when we do acknowledge in classes that Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders were pretty rough around the edges, we generally don’t go into detail about it. Again, not because we’re afraid of our history– it’s just usually not important or helpful enough to talk about at Church.
History doesn’t save us– doctrine saves us. So at Church, we teach pure doctrine. Members are welcome to study detailed history at home.
Historical concerns can become obstacles to our testimonies
The problem is, most members tend to not study any history at home. Often, all we know about Church history is the few anecdotes we learned in youth Sunday School plus a few mentions every 4 years in Gospel Doctrine class when we study the Doctrine & Covenants. We read how Joseph Smith refused liquor for his leg surgery as a little home. We talk of Martin Harris’s exchange with Dr. Charles Anthon where he fulfilled a prophecy in Isaiah. We relate about Joseph Smith healing tons of people in Nauvoo. What shows up in the manuals is all so pleasant and wonderful, and we often go home and don’t look any farther than that.
Then, when we first hear of controversial events from Church history, it’s usually from someone with an agenda to destroy our testimony. That fact in and of itself can devastate us. We learn that we didn’t know everything we thought we knew about our own Church. We wonder why we are first hearing about this from an outside source. We ask why we haven’t heard about this before in our 20, 30, 40, or 70 years living the Gospel. We feel confused, concerned, and sometimes even betrayed.
Joseph Smith the man
I have a firm testimony that early and modern Church leaders were and are mortal men. Joseph Smith, especially. To be frank, in a lineup of potential prophets, he would have been far from my first pick to restore the Gospel:
His family was poor, which isn’t itself a problem, but often it was because his family were bad at managing debts and getting involved with bad investments. Joseph grew up in a community of superstitious farmers. He and his family got involved sometimes in that superstition. Joseph spent his youth among charismatic preachers whose church members who often rolled on the floor, convulsing, and speaking in tongues. That’s how life was in 19th century upstate New York. And you bet that had an impact on him and affected his outlook on life.
Personality-wise, he was not exactly an intellectual wonder. Members and investigators alike were often disappointed when they met Joseph Smith. They expected their prophet to be a dignified, somber statesman, but instead found a semi-literate farmer who was often joking around and would sometimes greet people and immediately challenge them to an impromptu wrestling match. One time, Joseph even accidentally broke a Church member’s leg. Joseph Smith was pretty disorganized, had a dominating personality, and quite a temper. He lacked many financial skills, leaving the Church steeped in debt.
He also struggled with get-rich-quick schemes as youth. Joseph records Moroni telling him that:
Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.
Sadly, when Joseph went to see the plates for the first time, that is exactly what happened. From the newly published Saints, Chapter 3:
Joseph thought about the plates as he walked. Even though he knew they were sacred, it was hard for him to resist wondering how much they were worth. He had heard tales of hidden treasures protected by guardian spirits… Joseph could not help thinking that he now knew exactly where to find enough treasure to free his family from poverty… [After seeing the plates], Joseph wondered again how much the plates were worth. He reached for them– and felt a shock pulse through him. He jerked his hand back but then reached for the plates twice more and was shocked each time.
When Joseph asked Moroni why he kept getting shocked each time he tried to grab them, Moroni chastised him, telling him, “Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord… [the plates] are not deposited here for the sake of accumulating gain and wealth for the glory of this world.”
Years later, Joseph could still not obtain the plates. Why? Because he was still trying to dig treasure out of the ground to get rich. He worked with money-diggers, trying to use his “seership” skills to locate buried treasure. This reputation tarnished his reputation among critics then and now, and earned him more rebukes from Moroni who commanded him to “quit the company of the money diggers.”
Perhaps the money-digging was one of the things Joseph referred to in his history when he wrote that he entered into “divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God” and hung out in the wrong crowd, “not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as [he] had been.”
The mistakes don’t stop there of course. Even after he was sustained as Prophet and President of the newly restored Church of Jesus Christ in 1830, he made mistakes. He offended people. He got angry from time to time and expected too much of the members. He was rash in his judgment at times. He unknowingly elevated con artist John Bennet to a position of leadership high in the Church and the community, who went on to cause a lot of damage to the Church. He seriously considered, at least for a while, translating the fake Kinderhook plates.
Sometimes Joseph Smith used language that made it hard to distinguish when he was speaking as the prophet and when he was speaking as a man. Some people, even members of the Quorum of the Twelve, found him hard to get along with and for a time in Kirtland, it looked like the Church was going to splinter into pieces.
All this is to say that Joseph Smith, the man, was a product of his upbringing as we all are. Joseph Smith, the man, was prone to error as we all are. And sometimes who he was as a mortal man negatively affected how he carried out his calling, as we all do in our callings as well.
Joseph Smith the Prophet
Yes, the restoration was messy. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
The fact that Joseph Smith was sometimes really rough around the edges doesn’t change the fact that he was indeed the Prophet of God. He was prepared before this world was created and chosen by God to restore His Church to the earth. Joseph did see God the Father and Jesus Christ in the Sacred Grove as he said he did. He translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God as he said he did. He received the keys of the priesthood of God as he said he did. He was not perfect, and he never claimed to be:
Although I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered Israel, I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times…
I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.
I learned that Joseph Smith was called to be the Prophet the same way Joseph Smith learned he was called to be the Prophet– that is by revelation from God. Through my study and prayer, I have come to learn that the Book of Mormon is true. God has answered my prayer and caused me to know that it is true. And because it is true, I know that Joseph Smith was called of God to translate it and to restore Christ’s Church in these latter days. And that is where my testimon lies.
How to address historical concerns
I originally delivered a much shorter version of this post as a Sacrament meeting talk. That’s really tricky because it’s a sensitive subject. I really didn’t want my first talk in a new ward to be one that makes the Bishopric nervous. But when I was preparing the talk, I kept coming back to those words from a decade ago: “the restoration was messy.”
I didn’t know if anyone in the congregation was struggling with concerns about Church history or Joseph Smith. I don’t know if any of my readers today might be, too. But as Pres. Eyring taught: “when you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right most of the time.” And, I would add that if you are not going through a struggle in your testimony today, you might be tomorrow. None of us are immune.
So in that light, let me share a few principles that have helped me grow in my testimony of the restoration of the Gospel and the Prophet Joseph Smith– even in the light of concerns about Church history:
1. Look to the Church for answers
You don’t need to go to a bunch of questionable source to find honest, scholarly answers to historical concerns. Go through and click the links I’ve shared so far in my post. All the links I’ve shared so far– even all the parts outlining some of Joseph Smith’s own “messiness”– are from the Church’s website.
We are living in an unprecedented age of transparency and availability of information in the Church. Critics would love to tell us that the Church is coverin up historical information, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In recent years, the Church has produced series of Gospel Topics and Church History essays to address common concerns about doctrines and historical events that our critics love to harp on. The Church is writing a new edition of Church history to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s called Saints. Volume 1 is out today– read it!.
Want more than the Topics essays and Saints? Want to go deeper? Again, you don’t need to buy an 800-page history or consult scholarly journals or look to outside sources to learn about these things. Just click the search bar on the Church website. With almost 50 years of Ensign articles and a bunch of Church history manuals indexed, you’re likely to find scores or articles about whatever subject is troubling you
Want to go even deeper but still only look at reputable, faithful answers? Broaden your search to include multiple Church-owned sites all at once using the magic of Google! Just use the site filter feature in the search bar to only return search results from reputable Church-owned sites, and you’ll have page and page of helpful resources. For example, if I search Google for
(site:lds.org OR site:byu.edu) Josiah Stowell, I get 590 different web pages on lds.org and byu.edu with information about Joseph Smith’s treasure digging days with Josiah Stowell and his subsequent trial.
But again, these resources only helps members that actually go home and read them outside the Church block. Unfortunately, we members tend to be less thatn proactive in that department. So the Church is bringing the controversial topics to us. We are now encouraged by the Church to address historical and doctrinal concerns in Church meetings themselves now. M. Russell Ballard instructed us:
Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue… Given the realities of today’s world, pure testimony may not always be enough…
Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today– a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.
This is especially visible in youth classes, where seminary, Institute, and Sunday School teachers are encouraged to bring up the touchy subjects with their students and use the essays and Saints to address the more controversial parts of our history and doctrine.
2. Look to Church scholars for answers
In that same talk I mentioned earlier, Elder Ballard enhorted us to also seek out “the best LDS scholarship available” to help with our concerns. Surely that includes the hundreds of resources on LDS.org and other Church-owned sites as I mentioned earlier. But what about other organizations not officially part of the Church? Often, I’ve heard members and leaders that are hesitant to use any resource that’s not on LDS.org to address for historical and doctrinal concerns out of fear it’s not kosher. Totally a legitimate concern. Fortunately, we’ve received guidance on that as well:
Elder Kevin Pearson of the Quorum of the Seventy was invited to speak at a recent conference for an organization of Church scholars. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assigned him to go speak at the event as an official representative of the Church to urge us to use faithful Latter-day Saint scholarly and apologetic organizations as resources when addressing these concerns. He mentioned several by name in his fantastic talk that was later highlighted on the official Church news. If you are looking for answers and you can’t find something on LDS.org, try searching FAIR Mormon, Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter Foundation, the More Good Foundation, BYU’s Religious Studies Center, and many others. Though they do not officially speak for the Church, they offer a lot of insights and historical context and explanations of some tough subjects that can really help. FAIR Mormon even has a contact form where you can ask a tough question and get answers from a team of volunteer Church scholars. This resource has helped a lot of Latter-Day Saints find potential answers to issues of faith and remain true to the Gospel in the face of concerning stories from friends and family.
I feel like too often when I have a question about some doctrinal or historical concern, the response I get is “We may never know in this life.” While that’s true, and I’m ultimately OK with that, it’s nice to read the perspectives and thoughts of some really smart people who can explain their ideas and theories about possible answers to perplexing questions. For me, and many others, we don’t need the answer, but we find comfort knowing there is plenty of space for a plausible answer (and often there are many). These organizations really help with that and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
3. Defend doctrines, not history
We are a very dichotomous Church. Because God is a very dichotomous God. We see the world in black and white, truth and error, good and evil. We do not claim to be a good church, or even the most correct church. We claim to be the Church– the one and only Church of Jesus Christ. A fantastic claim like that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. Elder Holland, and President Hinckley, and many others echo these words from Elder McCallister:
That is the genius of the Book of Mormon– there is no middle ground. It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud. This book does not merely claim to be a moral treatise or theological commentary or collection of insightful writings. It claims to be the word of God– every sentence, every verse, every page. Joseph Smith declared that an angel of God directed him to gold plates, which contained the writings of prophets in ancient America, and that he translated those plates by divine powers. If that story is true, then the Book of Mormon is holy scripture, just as it professes to be; if not, it is a sophisticated but, nonetheless, diabolical hoax.
We cannot compromise on the validity of the doctrines of the Gospel. And it’s important never to forget that. The doctrines of the Gospel are 100% true.
However, we also have to be careful not to be overbroad in our classification of what falls under the “Gospel” and “doctrine” category. In the early days of the Church, those terms often were used very broadly to cover any Church practice. But if you look at the last few decades of conference talks, you’ll see that the Brethren are generally more selective about when they use those words. We need to be careful to distinguish between the core, critical foundations of our faith and everything else that happens or has happened in our Church.
For most things, we intuitively know the difference between doctrinal and non-doctrinal issues. For example, when Pres. Nelson and Elder Cook announced the new curriculum and 2-hour Church schedule this past October, I don’t remember hearing of members storming out of the conference center in a huff, grumbling, “So much for God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” On most changes like these, we don’t feel upset because we intuitively know that a change in policy or practice doesn’t constitute a core change to doctrine.
Yet sometimes we take other, more important aspects of the Church, and struggle when those change or have changed in times past. As important as those issues are (and I’m not trying to downplay them), we have to remember that even they do not fall in the “doctrine” category. Dr. Michael Goodwin gives some really great insights on how to boil down the difference between what is a doctrine and what is not. A lot of the consternation about God supposedly changing doctrines comes from classifying things as doctrine that were never actually doctrinal to begin with. Eternal marriage is a doctrine; polygamy was a practice. Priesthood is a doctrine; who can hold it at any given time is a policy. God reveals doctrines which never change (the Atonement, the Priesthood, eternal marriage, etc), and He also reveals practices and policies that may change as He dictates (the way the Sacrament is administered, who can hold the Priesthood, polygamy, etc). I highly recommend listening to Dr. Goodwin’s interview where he goes into a lot more detail on this.
The way it fits into the controversial subjects is this: one of Satan’s greatest tactics is to introduce something concerning that some Church leader allegedly said or did, and then set us up to think that if that leader was wrong then the whole proposition of a true Church would come tumbling down like a house of cards. “So and so said something troubling and he was a Prophet, so either that thing is true, or else he’s a false prophet and therefore whole Church isn’t true.”
See what Satan does there? he backs us into a corner where we think we only have two options: either we must defend something crazy from the Journal of Discourses, or else we have to concede that the Church is true. That’s a false dichotomy and we need to watch out for it. Not every general conference address in Church history was written in advance, reviewed for doctrinal soundness, read from a teleprompter, recorded,and accurately transcribed like they are today.
And remember, even Prophets are entitled to their opinions and they are allowed to share them. We have had Democrat Prophets and Republican Prophets. Serious Prophets and funny Prophets. Prophets from all walks of life. Nowadays, in an international, internet-connected Church,I think the brethren are pretty careful to try and keep their personal commentary out of their ecclesiastical addresses, but it doesn’t look like early Church leaders were quite as meticulous about that. So if something sounds strange, take it with a grain of salt. Or as Elder Klebingat said when he came to our stake conference last year, “don’t get worked up about something some Church leader reportedly said in some meeting with 5 people 200 years ago under a tree.”
In addition to opinions and transcription error, leave room for plain old human error– both before and after someone’s call to Church leadership. Moses refused God’s command to circumcise his son. God was about to kill Moses for his disobedience when his wife saved the day. Peter was called Satan by Christ for loving men more than God, chopped off a guy’s ear, and denied Christ three times in one night. Paul (or at the time, Saul) officiated in the martyrdom, then was involved with Stephen and Barnabas in the Apostolic quarrel during the Pauline missions in Acts. Alma the Elder originally abused his official Church position to support King Noah in teaching lies to the people. In our dispensation, we read of Joseph Smith ignoring God and giving the 116 pages to Martin Harris to lose, permanently taking away scripture from us.
All these Church leaders across many dispensations committed sins, made mistakes, and sometimes really hurt the work. We feel no need to defend their actions, but we also don’t feel like their mistakes disqualified them from their callings. So why do we feel all bothered that early Church leaders in this dispensation do and did make mistakes, too? Just because it hits closer to home? As Joseph Smith taught, we must not expect our Church leaders to be perfect unless we’re comfortable with the idea of them expecting perfection of us in return.
Doctrines are important. Doctrines are worth defending. But that doesn’t mean that we have to defend every word that was ever allegedly uttered an every action allegedly taken by every Church leader in this dispensation. If it’s not a core truth taught by the united voice of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency, don’t get your knickers in a knot about it. The restoration was messy. And it’s an ongoing work. So the restoration is messy. And that’s OK.
The messiness as an evidence of the truth
There is a saying that “the Church must be the work of the Lord, or else the full-time missionaries would have ruined it decades ago.” The same view can be applied as a witness that Joseph Smith and early Church leaders were indeed called of God. Sometimes, I look at Joseph Smith in the early days of the Church and ask, “Did it have to be him? Couldn’t it have been someone a little harder for critics to attack?” And into my mind comes these words from the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones… that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world… 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.
Joseph Smith the farm boy, Joseph Smith the “rough” man, Joseph Smith the prophet did exactly that. The more I learn about how rough Joseph Smith and the early Church leaders were, the more I appreciate the power and miracle of God in using these rough men to build up His kingdom to fill the earth in these latter days.
The restoration of the Gospel was messy the same way the restoration of furniture or a car or a house is messy: wood shavings all over the place, puddles of paint over the workshop, and construction materials killing the grass in the yard. But that’s also what makes it so amazing. Everywhere around the house or the car or the Church is scratched, dented, rough, raw materials– evidence of what the builder had to work with. And in the center of all the mess stands the beautiful, elegant, finished product in all its glory.
Yes, the restoration was messy, and the work to restore is still ongoing. But already the Church and the Gospel we have are beautiful beyond anything mortal hands and minds could have ever designed. When I look at Joseph Smith and the other raw, rough materials God worked with, I grow in my testimony of the skill of the Master Builder who made this miracle happen.