I was ill earlier this week, so took the opportunity to listen to the Priesthood Session of General Conference. I was particularly heartened by Elder Anderson’s confident advice to “give Brother Joseph a break.”
The theme of the Conference was a call to believe, with many suggestions on how belief could be strengthened. For some, however, it helps to quiet the mocking voices in their heads to provide a plausible alternative to the popular bogeyman of the non-believers, the Joseph as narcissistic imposter who allegedly made up scripture from whole cloth and took dozens of his followers’ daughters and wives to his bed.
First, A Picture
In 1969 a family donated a daguerreotype to the RLDS Church (now the Community of Christ). They claimed it was a picture of Joseph Smith. If it is Joseph, the youth and gaunt look of the man in the image indicate the photo was taken in late 1839. In November-December 1839 Joseph took a trip to Washington D.C. to seek redress for the atrocities perpetuated against the Mormons in Missouri. Due to Joseph’s notoriety, it is reasonable an early daguerreotypist in DC would have sought to capture his likeness.
Rick Brunson has a brief article on his blog describing the evidences Shannon Michael Tracy documents in his book, Millions Shall Know Brother Joseph Again. In summary, this daguerreotype allegedly matches the death mask using both lineal matching and facial recognition techniques. The image also corresponds with photos taken of Joseph’s skull prior to the remains being reinterred during the early 1900s.
[Updated 10/11/15: There was apparently a storm of controversy about this image and the Tracy book in 2008. One disappointed summary can be found at Juvenile Instructor. When I scanned that article, it appears the author went from hoping this was an image of Joseph Smith to being completely angered by the unprofessionalism of Mr. Tracy. In my reading of this summary, I missed whether the picture had been proven to be not of Joseph. For the record, I was intrigued by seeing this image illustrating a post from a reputable blogger, with the text indicating that they hoped this was an actual image of Joseph Smith. Searching things more, I happened upon the Brunson blog.]
Having reviewed the comparison of the photograph to the Joseph’s death mask and skull, I can see how the famous painting (top) could have been made of an older version of the man in the photographic image. I can also see why Joseph would have said the painting made him look sissified. The narrowness of the painted nose and the pointed chin are similar to the photograph, but idealized in a way I could imagine Joseph considering sissified.
To review how painted portraits and photographs of subjects might vary, we can look at the images of Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale [Smith Bidamon], from the 1840s:
In the daguerreotype of Emma, she is shown with her son, David Smith, born a few months after Joseph’s death. She is in mourning black, but has a lace collar as well as the necklace of gold beads Joseph presented to her.
In the painting, Emma would have been a few years younger. Emma is shown with her characteristic shiny black hair parted in the middle. Again we see the gold bead necklace and the lace. As for the ringlets, Emma’s great-great grand-daughter tells me these were clip-ons. Perhaps Emma felt such things would be frivolous for her to wear for the daguerreotype, when she was a mourning widow.
Another interesting comparison is to look at the similarity of the daguerreotype image to known pictures of Joseph’s sons and notable blood kin.
An image of Joseph’s sons and their step-father, Lewis Bidamon, was taken around 1859. Joseph Smith III, with the beard and long face, would have been about 26. The youngest, David, would have been 14 or 15.
Joseph F. Smith was the son of Joseph’s brother, Hyrum. Thus he was Joseph Smith’s nephew. We are more familiar with older pictures of him.
Joseph F. Smith’s pose and the position of his hand appear to be modeled on the famous painting of Joseph Smith.
Joseph Fielding Smith, shown here at age 33 when he was called as an LDS apostle, is son of Joseph F. Smith and therefore Joseph Smith’s great-nephew.
Ina Coolbrith, the famed California poet, was Joseph’s niece. This image of her was taken in about 1870, when she was around 30 years old.
Looking again at this early daguerreotype, it is clear that the man in this image has similar facial features to Joseph Smith’s blood kin.
Reviewing a flipped image of Joseph’s son, Alex, the similarity is particularly striking. Note the hairline and the arched brow on the shadow side of the image. Alex would have been about 21 at the time of this picture, while his father (if it is Joseph) would have been 33.
[Updated 10/11/15: Despite all this fun looking at pictures, it would require more than this to “prove” the image was of Joseph Smith. I am reminded of the time we realized my great-great-great aunt (Phoebe Holmes [Welling]) looks like my husband in drag. Much hilarity ensued. And yet there is no blood relationship between Phoebe Holmes and my husband.]
What Bothers Those Tottering on the Brink of Disbelief?
A few years ago, John Dehlin made much about the various reasons people give for losing their testimonies. I responded to several of these reasons in my open letter to John after his excommunication, To My Dear Friend, John Dehlin.
However Elder Anderson did not say “Give the Church a break.” He said, “Give Brother Joseph a break.”
I’ll infer from Elder Anderson’s words that he has heard much angst from people who find that Joseph Smith (based on information from media outlets and the internet) is not the monogamist and scholar they previously imagined him to be. 1
Not a Scholar?
You don’t have to dig far into Mormon lore to remember that Joseph was a country boy with initially a grade-school education. My favorite was Joseph breaking off from dictating the Book of Mormon and asking Emma if there was a wall around Jerusalem (likely when dictating 1 Nephi 4:5). As Emma would later relate, the Book of Mormon had to be of divine origin, for it was a certainty that Joseph Smith was incapable of generating such a manuscript without divine help.
Joseph would use the term “translate” to describe what he did in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, the changes he was inspired to make to the Bible, and the source of the Book of Abraham, inspired by papyri accompanying mummies Joseph purchased in the mid 1830s. Yet there is no contemporary description that aligns with what moderns think of when they say “translate.”
Joseph was not usually looking at the original document. In fact, it was common for him to utilize a seer stone or the Urim and Thummim in “translation” and revelation, as discussed in the excellent article Joseph, the Seer in the October 2015 Ensign. His use of the stones was so well-know that he was urged to use the Urim and Thummim when writing the revelation on the New and Everlasting Covenant in July 1843 (a suggestion that he declined to follow, saying he knew this revelation without needed to resort to the interpreters).
One beauty of Joseph receiving the Book of Mormon, in particular, by revelation is the possibility that God allowed the actual prophets of the Book of Mormon, along with deceased scholars familiar with the Bible, to participate in making sure Joseph “got it right.”
I’ll reiterate two points here. First is how often the prophets of the Book of Mormon expressed their concern that their written language was incapable of capturing the power of their spoken sermons. I see the power of God manifested in finding a means for their spoken words to shine through, despite the limitations of their written language.
Second is an observation from reading Professor Royal Skousen’s edition of the Book of Mormon, where he painstakingly assembles the earliest version from the manuscript (where available) and the printer’s copy. When I first read the earliest text, I thought the grammar was backwoods New York in origin. But then I learned that it was actually an earlier version of English, from before the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Specifically, it is the English spoken at the time William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English.
We Mormons are familiar with the idea of God assembling teams to perform His work, such as asking Christ and Michael to preside over creation or having John and the three Nephite apostles minister to believers.
If I were assembling a post-mortal team to help provide the most authentic version of Mormon’s condensation of the Lehite records in English, I might have paired Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, and passionate English-speaking Bible scholars, such as Tyndale.
For any who have been super sad to learn that “translation” wasn’t done like depicted in the pretty portraits of a white-blond Joseph studiously translating the golden plates in full view of all comers, I am sorry for you. There was a reason for the testimony of the three and eight witnesses. The plates were not openly displayed for others to see. 2 Emma and other family members handled them through the cloth in which they were wrapped, so it’s more than the testimony of those twelve (Joseph and the 11 (3+8) witnesses) that leads us to know there was a physical artifact. Those pretty pictures that previously informed your imagination were painted by good people in a polite culture, where those who knew the historical stories of the translation process were too kind and loving to screech, “That painting is completely wrong. That never happened that way! Take it away, burn it up! Back to harvesting crops for you!!”
[For what it’s worth, people in my particular household are not always polite, kind, and loving. We would have been rather up front in telling those artists where they’d gotten it wrong…]
Once you give up on the fantastical and fictional version of “translation” depicted in these paintings, you can find the power and beauty in the actual process.
As for modern scholars of Egyptology, Joseph produced his translation before widespread understanding of the Rosetta stone, so modern Egyptology has formed in the context of Joseph’s claims. Anyone attempting to publish or teach anything that might resemble what Joseph said would have been mocked and ridiculed. This phenomenon is known to happen among anthropologists, who will give no concessions that might substantiate Mormon stories regarding early American inhabitants. Thus the academic fields have already reacted to Joseph, with an unabashed refusal to support his assertions. It should be no surprise, then, that “scholars” do not agree with certain Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham implications.
But What About all Those Wives?
Since 2007 I have increasingly been of the opinion that there was little, if any, sexual component to the relationships between Joseph Smith and his covenant wives (other than Emma Hale [Smith]).
From the time I was a teenager, I had been painfully aware of Joseph’s many marriages, which until 2007 I presumed had involved normal marital sexual relations.
As I recall, the first data point that challenged my presumption of full sexuality was a summary of the DNA investigations conducted by Ugo Perego, summarized at the website Wives of Joseph Smith. I have since read Ugo Perego’s paper on the subject, published in The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. 1. No DNA evidence confirms Joseph as the father of children borne to the women with whom he covenanted. Only in the case of Josephine Lyon [Fisher] is there any uncertainty, and Dr. Perego is raising funds to repeat the testing using more sophisticated techniques (the original samples now being the property of some corporation that doesn’t want to share).
Next, I realized that the reproductive history of my ancestor, Elvira Annie Cowles [Holmes Smith], was odd. Elvira was the Smith governess and one who had covenanted with Joseph. Sister Elvira, as she would have been known, remained childless until the year after Joseph’s death, conceiving no earlier than February 1845 (Joseph died June 1844). When Elvira covenanted with Joseph, she had recently been married (by Joseph) to the widower Jonathan Holmes. Family tradition (and lore submitted by family friends (the Wrights) to LDS Church headquarters in the early 1900s) indicates that Jonathan explained Elvira had been Joseph’s wife, that he had not become her husband until after Joseph’s death. Jonathan was legally Elvira’s husband prior to Joseph’s death, leaving the possibility that Jonathan was talking not about the wedding, but the consummation of the marriage.
The odd thing was that once Elvira started having kids, she proceeded to have kids every two years until she passed the age of 43.
As I reviewed the history of the other women who apparently covenanted with Joseph prior to his death, 3 I began to suspect that the big secret was that Joseph wasn’t having sex with any of them, as I commented to Jan Shipps in 2009.
It is impossible to prove that no sex was going on, but we have these factors:
2) None of the children of “wives” with legal husbands can be shown to have been engendered by Joseph Smith. 6
3) Objective study of Nauvoo reveals that there was a great deal of inappropriate sexual behavior going on during 1841-1842. This type of “polygamy” was sometimes termed illicit intercourse and other times termed spiritual wifery. The women involved in illicit intercourse would sometimes yield to more than one man. In the well-documented case of Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren], the illicit liaisons began before July 1841 when John C. Bennett persuaded Catherine to let him bed her. She allowed six men to bed her a total of nearly two dozen times before April 1842. In April, Catherine refused to have any part with her former seducers when Joseph and Emma Smith together began openly preaching against illicit intercourse. In late April, 1842, Catherine became the legal wife of William Warren after refusing offers from Chauncy Higbee and William Smith 7 to be their secret spiritual wife.
4) Examination of contemporary documents and later reminiscences of Nauvoo indicate the possibility that the earliest “plural wives” may have been either involved in illicit intercourse or involved in investigating the corruption. Many of these women were new converts from England or widows/fatherless/abandoned: in short, women in need. In several cases the men pressuring the women to yield to them were offering food and other minor protections. It appears this may have even played into how righteous men and women were convinced that spiritual wifery wasn’t just about illicit sex.
The men also assured the women that Dr. Bennett knew how to avoid pregnancy, with contemporary testimony from Mary Clift specifically mentioning the medicine her seducer gave her to prevent conception. 8
If you have been significantly distressed by the difference between the Joseph Smith you thought you knew and Joseph Smith as currently portrayed by media and the internet, there are two factors:
1) You believed a caricature of Joseph, derived from paintings and assurances from those who conveyed more certainty than they actually possessed, necessarily true if they were telling you false things, such as asserting that Joseph did not covenant with women other than Emma.
2) You have been misinformed about Joseph’s history. In particular, those telling you about Joseph’s alleged depravity have not been careful to tease apart the story of Nauvoo, lumping it all into a mass of sexual weirdness they have wholly attributed to Joseph Smith’s actions and teachings.
There was a reason those who lived through the terrible mistakes of Nauvoo failed to leave detailed records of their involvement and repentance, or detailed records of those they loved who had fallen. But enough historical residue remains to construct a partial picture. From this partial picture, I find that Joseph Smith was not merely the good man we have long believed him to be, but a man of courage and compassion beyond what we ever imagined in our public past.
- Independent of Elder Anderson’s comment, I am personally aware of many who report their friends and acquaintances have been terribly torn by the recent assertion regarding Joseph’s extensive list of “wives.” ↩
- Laura Hales points out that there are multiple accounts regarding a time an angel showed the plates to Mary Whitmer, to set her mind at ease regarding the great work of God taking place in her home, see the <a href=”http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/another-account-of-mary-whitmers-viewing-of-the-golden-plates/”>2014 Interpreter article by Royal Skousen</a>. ↩
- There were many women who were never associated with Joseph in life who wanted to be sealed to him when the Nauvoo temple was operating. It was a time when the customs regarding marriage (or sealing) in the New and Everlasting Covenant were not yet mature. People wished to be sealed but didn’t understand that sealings were expected to unite them to their own families, regarding both marital relationships and parent-child relationships. The final clarification of the proper order of such things was not laid out until the 1890s, when explained in those terms by President Wilford Woodruff. ↩
- Brian Hales argues Olive Frost bore Joseph’s child, but Olive and her child died in October 1845 with no age or birth date recorded for the infant. The report that the child was “Joseph’s” cannot exclude the possibility that the relationship was reported based on Olive’s covenant with Joseph. Brigham Young married Olive after Joseph’s death and I assert it is more likely he engendered the child that was buried with Olive in October 1845. ↩
- The death record for the child of Lucy Walker [Smith Kimball] is ambiguous. Birth date is give as January 1845, which would place conception before Joseph’s death. However the age of the child at death is given as 17 months, indicating birth occurred in January 1846. It appears more likely that the year of birth was written incorrectly (1845 rather than 1846) for a child born at the cusp of a year than that the age at death was incorrectly recorded as 17 months rather than 29 months. ↩
- Brian Hales and others are enamored of the idea that Josephine Lyon was Joseph’s biological child, based on the deathbed testimony of Sylvia Sessions [Lyon Smith Clark]. Yet Sylvia’s deathbed confidence to Josephine (see http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/history-2/plural-wives-overview/sylvia-sessions/) was recorded by a third party (Andrew Jenson) decades after Sylvia’s death. Even the third-hand record of the confidence does not specify that Josephine was Joseph’s biological daughter. Josephine initially married outside the Church (temple marriages being when information about a mother’s sealing to Joseph Smith would have typically have been conveyed), so there was a reason Sylvia would have felt in necessary to confide in Josephine where there is no record of a similar confidence shared with Sylvia’s children by Ezekiel Clark (none of Josephine’s Lyon siblings survived to adulthood). ↩
- Joseph’s brother and a sitting apostle. ↩
- This medicine was likely derived from Queen Anne’s lace. The seed pods are plentiful in the eastern United States throughout the summer and fall and modern naturopaths report that they have successfully avoided pregnancy while ingesting these seeds. ↩