When a fellow mathematician asked the uncommonly brilliant John Nash how he could believe he was being recruited by aliens, Nash replied, “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
How about Joseph Smith? Was he a crook, madman, or a creative genius? Does it matter?
My answer to the first question is, “Probably a combination of all three.” My answer to the second is, “Yes, it matters profoundly!”
That Joseph Smith did some pretty crooked things is indisputable. For example, he stole other men’s wives, or tried to, using his stature as a prophet to convince, or browbeat, the women he desired. He sent the husband of my great great great grandmother, Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, on missions so that he could court her himself. Zina’s name tells the story of Joseph’s eventual success (and later, of Brigham Young’s). Poor Henry Jacobs didn’t stand a chance.
Does that make Joseph Smith a crook? Does that descriptor fully or largely explain the man? Not by a long shot. Why? Because even extraordinary crooks don’t do the kinds of things that Joseph Smith did, such as creating volumes of new scripture, inventing novel forms of communitarian economics, or building thriving cities from the ground up.
The question of honesty applies to every religious figure. That there may be some deceit involved goes without saying. But the great figures belie the idea that they were chiefly about deceit. Years ago, Morton Smith shocked the Christian world with a book entitled Jesus the Magician. Did Jesus use magical tricks? Smith is likely right in asserting that he did. But does the title magician explain the man? Not by a long shot. Gandhi scandalized his followers by sleeping with naked young girls, purportedly as a kind of spiritual test. Does that questionable behavior invalidate his life’s work? No serious person would say so.
In trying to take the full measure of the man, I’m prepared, therefore, to give Joseph Smith considerable moral leeway. After all, the father of three great religions was prepared to slit his own son’s throat to satisfy God. This same founding father, who, as a model of compassion for all of his children (Gen. 18:19), begged mercy for cities that deserved none (Gen. 18), was not above lying to pharaoh about his wife’s marital status and putting the poor king, who acted in good faith, into hot water with Yahweh. The other founding fathers of the faith of the One God are likewise men with feet of clay (see the delightful treatment by Harold Bloom, The Book of J. New York: Vintage, 1990). The greatest of them all, and the only real one of the bunch, David, was a murderer and adulterer as well as the ancestor and model of the messiah.
That Joseph Smith, like Abraham, David and Jesus, was deluded as well as crooked is suggested by the history of his 14-year tenure as prophet taken as a whole. What sane, honest American in 1830 asks people to risk their fortunes, families, and lives to follow him west to build the kingdom of God in brick and mortar? What sane, honest man of any age tells people he has translated an ancient document by peering through peep stone at the bottom of a hat?
Here again, however, I’m prepared to cut Joseph a lot of slack. What great religious figure in history is not guilty of similarly outrageous claims, which have cost believers and enemies alike dearly? For their faith in Jesus, Peter and Paul went to the cross, as did thousands of other Christians. And if we want to talk about the culpable death of innocents, the hands of Bernard of Clairvaux, the singer of the love of Jesus, are covered in the blood of thousands of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who fell before crusader swords.
That Joseph Smith was a genius, the greatest myth-making genius of American religious history according to Harold Bloom, and I agree with him, is also hard to dispute. As evidence for this I would point for example to the way Joseph Smith refashioned the hail-fellow-well-met gentlemen’s rituals of Freemasonry into the sweeping reformulation of Christian theology reflected in the Mormon temple endowment, Joseph Smith’s hermetic magnum opus. The radically heterodox theology at the heart of the endowment, from which Mitt Romney runs like a frightened rabbit, has it that “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.” The endowment was Joseph Smith’s ritual means for making Gods. What’s more, it made people gods through the oldest of pre-Christian–pagan!–rituals, the sacred marriage. It is through the union of male and female, according to Joseph Smith, that people achieve godhood. The essence of priesthood, the “power of godliness,” that is bestowed in the endowment, is the power of life–the power of creating life. An audacious, inspiring view of what it means to be human, and God, especially coming from an uneducated, rural New York farm boy!