When many, both in and outside of the Church, think of Mormons, the last thing that comes to mind is a sense of humor. Jokes are more likely to be aimed at them. There might be stereotypes of happy couples with smiling children or cheerful young men and women, but this image won’t include laughter. To some extent piousness has infiltrated the subconscious of the Latter-day Saints a little too much. A good joke might be hard to find among serious calls to repentance.
As questionable as speculation, I wonder if the Prophet Joseph Smith would approve of the member’s seeming lack of joviality. He certainly didn’t like the lack of that quality when he was alive. Brigham Young learned from him that music, theater, and dancing were not of themselves sinful like he was taught growing up. Life is to be enjoyed within reasonable limits and not pined away in perpetual sorrow.
Despite all the information we have about the Prophet Joseph Smith, perhaps what has been ignored today by both believers and critics was his sense of humor and good nature. Even his contemporary enemies acknowledged those aspects of him. In fact, more than once they were scandalized by his amusements. Said one commentator hearing him speak, “His language and manner were the coarsest possible. His object seemed to be to amuse and excite laughter in his audience.” (Charlette Haven to Sister Isa, Jan. 22, 1843, in Mulder and Mortensen, Among the Mormons, pg. 118-119). He loved to make boastful claims in order to bring attention to his subject or stress importance.
An unquestionable example of hyperbole that all other instances of the same can be compared with is a statement about Emma’s cooking:
Emma’s lot must have been a difficult one, for he was always bringing home a group to dinner. But she was a good cook. “When I want a little bread and milk,” Joseph told William W. Phelps, “my wife loads the table with so many good things it destroys my appetite.”
– Leonard J. Arrington, “Joseph Smith and the Lighter View,” New Era, Aug 1976, pg. 8.
It is the same with many of the so-called boastful statements of Joseph Smith about his station in life, such as having more education than a college professor has. Many have looked at how he described his religious role and consider it blasphemy. High profile visitor John Quincy Adams heard such a boast and understood the humor behind his declarations. Adams commented that Joseph had too much power, and was answered back, “Remember, I am a prophet!” Quincy noted, “The last five words were spoken in a rich, comical aside, as if in hearty recognition of the ridiculous sound they might have in the Ears of a Gentile.” (Quincy, Josiah. Figures of the Past: From the Leaves of Old Journals. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883. Pg. 378-379).
Joseph Smith didn’t like the high mindedness of those who considered themselves too holy and self-righteous. He was even known to try and make them uncomfortable. As one story goes:
“I am aware that a great many have so much piety in them, that they are like the Baptist priest who came to see Joseph Smith. Joseph had the discernment of spirits to read a man, and a peculiar faculty of using up the old sectarian tone to “my dee-e-er brethren.” When he heard that good old tone he used to imitate it; and whenever one of the class, who are so filled with piety, and the good old tone, came to Nauvoo, Joseph used forthwith to take a course to evaporate their sanctimoniousness . . .
. . . After he got through chatting, the Baptist stood before him, and folding his arms said, “Is it possible that I now flash my optics upon a Prophet, upon a man who has conversed with my Savior?” “Yes,” says the Prophet, “I don’t know but you do; would not you like to wrestle with me?” That, you see, brought the priest right on to the thrashing floor, and he turned a summerset right straight. After he had whirled round a few times, like a duck shot in the head, he concluded that his piety had been awfully shocked, even to the centre, and went to the Prophet to learn why he had so shocked his piety. The Prophet commenced and showed him the follies of the world, and the absurdity of the long tone, and that he had a super-abundant stock of sanctimoniousness.”
– Jedediah M. Grant, “Instructions to Newcomers,” Journal of Discourses, 3:66–67
No one in the Church represents Mormon humor more than Elder J. Golden Kimball. Stories of and quotes from him are as popular now as they ever were. He once sustained moving a mountain in the middle of listing new office holders, then brought to the congregation’s attention what they just did in absentmindedness. Many have stated that his use of straight talk and lack of piety remind them how the Gospel is for the most humble and sinful of humans. Perhaps, some say, people would be more comfortable with Mormons if there were more like him. It might be more reasonable to hope for one of his kind for each generation. Then again, it is his unusual character that is admired and not his example.
President Gordon B. Hinkley counseled that humor is a healthy reflection of a positive life. He said:
“We need to have a little humor in our lives. We better take seriously that which should be taken seriously, but at the same time we can bring in a touch of humor now and again. If the time ever comes when we can’t smile at ourselves, it will be a sad time.”
– Church News interview with Mike Cannon, in Dublin, Ireland, Sept. 1, 1995.
This is not just a platitude that he ignored in his own life. Many recognized the positive good humor of his personality. He was not afraid to make comments about his age or his leadership position. At the first General Conference as Prophet he had said, “Years ago I gave a talk on the loneliness of leadership. Now for the first time I realize the full import of that loneliness. I do not know why this mantle has fallen upon my shoulders. I suppose some of you may also wonder. But we are here.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “This Is the Work of the Master,” Ensign, May 1995, pg. 69).
Most of his humor was self-effacing about health and age. One example among many include:
“Now, before I give my concluding words I would like to make a little explanation. People are talking about why in the world I’m walking with a cane. That’s become the topic of conversation these days. Well, I saw that Brigham Young used a cane. John Taylor had a cane, and Wilford Woodruff had a cane, and President Grant had a cane in his old age. And I’ve seen President McKay with a cane and Spencer Kimball with a cane, and I’m just trying to get in style.
The fact of the matter is, I have a little vertigo. I’m a little unsteady on my feet, and the doctors don’t know why it is. But they’re still working on me, and I hope it’ll be over in a day or two”
– Gordon B. Hinckley, “Good-bye for Another Season,” Ensign, May 2001, 85.
Before giving a Conference talk, he said:
“I forewarn you, this will be a rather long talk. I am an old man. I do not know how much longer I will live, and so I want to say what I have to say, while I have the strength to say it. I do not know when I will give a talk this long again. I shall give two speeches interrupted by the singing of a hymn. Altogether, I will take about 40 minutes. Having been warned, some of you will wish to get comfortable. Pleasant dreams.”
– Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 104.
President Thomas S. Monson has more of a visual comedy that fits with his story telling style. They often have a message behind the humor. His most famous joke is the ear wiggle:
“As I have pondered how we might best provide such examples, I have thought of an experience I had some years ago while attending a stake conference. During the general session, I observed a young boy sitting with his family on the front row of the stake center. I was seated on the stand. As the meeting progressed, I began to notice that if I crossed one leg over the other, the young boy would do the same thing. If I reversed the motion and crossed the other leg, he would follow suit. I would put my hands in my lap, and he would do the same. I rested my chin in my hand, and he also did so. Whatever I did, he would imitate my actions. This continued until the time approached for me to address the congregation. I decided to put him to the test. I looked squarely at him, certain I had his attention, and then I wiggled my ears. He made a vain attempt to do the same, but I had him! He just couldn’t quite get his ears to wiggle. He turned to his father, who was sitting next to him, and whispered something to him. He pointed to his ears and then to me. As his father looked in my direction, obviously to see my ears wiggle, I sat solemnly with my arms folded, not moving a muscle. The father glanced back skeptically at his son, who looked slightly defeated. He finally gave me a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders.”
– Thomas S. Monson, “Examples of Righteousness,” Ensign, May 2008.
More recently he talked about when he was young and tried to clear a field for a gathering of friends. It is long, but filled with little humorous details:
“One morning Danny and I decided we wanted to have a campfire that evening with all our canyon friends. We just needed to clear an area in a nearby field where we could all gather. The June grass which covered the field had become dry and prickly, making the field unsuitable for our purposes. We began to pull at the tall grass, planning to clear a large, circular area. We tugged and yanked with all our might, but all we could get were small handfuls of the stubborn weeds. We knew this task would take the entire day, and already our energy and enthusiasm were waning.
And then what I thought was the perfect solution came into my eight-year-old mind. I said to Danny, ‘All we need is to set these weeds on fire. We’ll just burn a circle in the weeds!’ He readily agreed, and I ran to our cabin to get a few matches.
Lest any of you think that at the tender age of eight we were permitted to use matches, I want to make it clear that both Danny and I were forbidden to use them without adult supervision. Both of us had been warned repeatedly of the dangers of fire. However, I knew where my family kept the matches, and we needed to clear that field. Without so much as a second thought, I ran to our cabin and grabbed a few matchsticks, making certain no one was watching. I hid them quickly in one of my pockets.
Back to Danny I ran, excited that in my pocket I had the solution to our problem. I recall thinking that the fire would burn only as far as we wanted and then would somehow magically extinguish itself.
I struck a match on a rock and set the parched June grass ablaze. It ignited as though it had been drenched in gasoline. At first Danny and I were thrilled as we watched the weeds disappear, but it soon became apparent that the fire was not about to go out on its own. We panicked as we realized there was nothing we could do to stop it. The menacing flames began to follow the wild grass up the mountainside, endangering the pine trees and everything else in their path.
Finally we had no option but to run for help. Soon all available men and women at Vivian Park were dashing back and forth with wet burlap bags, beating at the flames in an attempt to extinguish them. After several hours the last remaining embers were smothered. The ages-old pine trees had been saved, as were the homes the flames would eventually have reached.
Danny and I learned several difficult but important lessons that day—not the least of which was the importance of obedience.”
– President Thomas S. Monson, “Obedience Brings Blessings,” Ensign, April 2013.
There is at least one kind of humor that has been singled out as not compatible with the gospel. Mocking is defined as trying to make someone appear silly or hold in contempt. The Scriptures are filled with rebuking this behavior as unacceptable and perhaps leading the participant to damnation. In Alma 5: 30-31 of The Book of Mormon we read, “And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions? Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!”
The Savior Jesus Christ, before he was crucified, was bitterly mocked among the other indignities he endured. He was mocked during his scourging, he was mocked during his trial, and he was mocked during his crucifixion. Those who followed him were often equally mocked for their beliefs. It would not be unreasonable to be careful we don’t use humor to tear someone down; even those we disagree with. “Mockery costs our brother or sister severe physical and/or psychological pain. It also jeopardizes our hope of eternal life. Moreover, it is especially debilitating to those who have been called to serve. We cannot serve those for whom we have contempt.” (Gary L. Bunker, “Mocking Our Brother,” Ensign, Apr 1975, 36)
We must also be careful not to take spiritual things lightly. Although we must try and follow President Hinkley’s example of a more positive attitude, it shouldn’t go too far. The Lord warned in Doctrine and Covenants 88: 69, “Remember the great and last promise which I have made unto you; cast away your idle thoughts and your excess of laughter far from you.” In section 59: 15, it says that much laughter is a sin. Sacred things should be shown proper respect. There is a time for everything, and moderation can be the key to happiness.
Dire warnings aside, there should be plenty of reasons to rejoice and not take things too seriously. Life would be boring and depressing without lighter moments to bring sunshine to the soul. There has even been some studies that laughter and a good smile can increase physical health. By the way, did you hear the one about the Mormon . . .