Joseph Smith and Albus Dumbledore

This is a guest post by Tom Stringham.

This post is written for what I assume is a small audience. It will be most meaningful to members of the church who, for one thing, are fans of the Harry Potter series of books and, for the other, still feel a little uneasy about Joseph Smith and polygamy after an eventful November. I won’t be able to contribute any more historical insight than has already been given, but I hope to reframe a story that is still mostly unknown to us by considering a fictional story we may know much better.

Specifically, I want to make a comparison (at the risk of coming across a little irreverent) between Joseph Smith and Albus Dumbledore. The reader, then, can put him/herself in the place of Harry Potter, the earnest and good-hearted boy who at one point found himself feeling disillusioned about a man he loved and admired.

One of the most poignant moments in the Harry Potter series is in The Deathly Hallows, when Harry is suddenly confronted with disturbing facts about his headmaster’s past. A journalist in the magical world has published a book called The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, claiming to expose an unseen side of Dumbledore: “Stripping away the popular image of serene, silver-bearded wisdom, [the author] reveals the disturbed childhood, the lawless youth, the lifelong feuds and the guilty secrets Dumbledore carried to his grave.”

While reading the book, Harry discovers that in his youth, Dumbledore and another brilliant wizard had laid out plans for the forceful subjection of Muggles to wizarding rule. Dumbledore, unbeknownst to Harry, had seen Muggles the way Lord Voldemort saw them, as inferior. As Harry learns more about Dumbledore’s past, he begins to lose faith in his now-deceased headmaster, who seems, in many ways, to have been someone very different than he pretended. These revelations are especially painful for Harry, who had seen his mentor as infinitely capable, compassionate and trustworthy.

Dumbledore had been the ideal authority figure, especially to Harry, who never had adults in his life who loved him before he entered Hogwarts School. The reader gets the impression, during the first few books, that Harry had imagined his professor to be perfect. “Albus Dumbledore,” he retorts to the ghost of Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets, “is the greatest sorcerer in the world.” In The Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore appears almost divine: “Harry turned to look where Neville was staring. Directly above them, framed in the doorway … stood Albus Dumbledore, his wand aloft, his face white and furious. Harry felt a kind of electric charge surge through every particle of his body – they were saved.”

Contrast this with Harry’s reaction after learning about Dumbledore’s past, which may hit close to home for some members of the church: “[Harry] shook his head. Some inner certainty had crashed down inside him … He had trusted Dumbledore, believed him the embodiment of goodness and wisdom. All was ashes: how much more could he lose?”

What’s interesting about this story of Dumbledore’s past is that many readers of the Harry Potter books seem to have all but forgotten it, and are surprised to be reminded of it when I bring it up. The image of Dumbledore they keep in their minds, along with Harry Potter fans collectively, is the (correct) image of Dumbledore the wise and righteous mentor, teacher, and father figure, his flaws somewhere in the faded background. The immersive power of fiction allows us to forgive him—when you feel you know someone, you can trust in the goodness of their character despite knowing their sins.

Unfortunately, the historical record itself does not allow us to easily feel such an intimate connection with Joseph Smith. If we could know him personally, and understand what made his friends and followers adore him the way they did, we might be much less disturbed by the revelations of his past—revelations which may not, for all we know, even indicate transgression. In this sense, church films which paint a glowing (if incomplete) portrait of the prophet might be more helpful to the average member in understanding the truth about his character than historical accounts of his life that offer more detail but less immediacy.

My suspicion is that Joseph Smith is a better person than most of us can imagine. Like the fictional headmaster, he may have been acutely flawed but excellent where the rest of us fall very short. Someday, like Harry in a heavenly King’s Cross station, we will meet him, and give him unqualified thanks for the remarkable life he lived. What we learned as children remains true: Joseph Smith is an extraordinary example of righteousness, and he is the prophet through whom God’s church was restored.

11 thoughts on “Joseph Smith and Albus Dumbledore

  1. It is certainly true that a lot of anti-Mormons remind me a lot of Rita Skeeter, especially with their general disdain for the truth.

  2. Thanks for the post Tom. Its good to know I’m not the only one that noticed this example. My recent research into the BoM has reminded me of this a great deal. The truth about Dumbledore was somewhere in the middle of the idealistic version that Harry knew, and the (anti Mormon) Rita Skeeter version. I might offer that Dumbledore was the wise and virtuous man that he was in the books because of the mistakes he made in the past and lessons he learned. (For example, he trusted Snape’s conversion was real because Dumbledore also lost somebody he loved because of his foolish mistakes.)

    There was a FAIR Conference presentation that talked about the different levels of history. A level is basically the white hat simplistic version. The B level has the same simplicity but its the evil version opposite given by anti Mormons. (Maybe I watch too much Star Trek or Community but everybody in that version gets an evil goatee). And the C level is understanding the deep and complex nature of history. So when I study Nephite history and the consequences of the policy choices they made I consider the complexity of history and different stories one could create from Dumbledore’s life, and see that in Nephite history. For example, Moroni’s actions could seem militant. The need to pay for heavier armor and fortifications could create a rapacious need for taxes, which in turn might fuel discontent and even armed rebellion against the government. So I read between the lines and consider how this or that event might have been viewed differently by a writer that isn’t in love with the Nephite government, and how that complexity might lead to a c level understanding of events with the BoM.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  3. I guess it still depends on what you attribute as mistakes in Joseph Smith’s life, or wrongs on his part.

    Joseph admits to “sins and follies” in his account of the 1823 night-time visit by Moroni. i think he elsewhere referred to those as “frivolity” as opposed to serious sins.

    Then there is the big mistake of letting Martin Harris borrow the 116 pages.

    Some antis harp about the digging (for buried treasure) that Joseph did for Josiah Stoal. That turned out useless, but was not any fraud on Joseph’s part. A lot of people dug for treasure, and Stoal hired Joseph to do the digging for him.

    Was polygamy a mistake, or a fraud, or connivance? I don’t believe so. If anything, Joseph’s mistake was in _delaying_ the implementation of polygamy, and perhaps in half-heartedly implementing it by the several “sealings for _eternity-only_”. (See Meg’s series of articles on the subject, and her conversation in comments with Bruce Nielson about whether a sealing for eternity-only constitutes a “polyandrous marriage”.)

    So my worry is that the OP may be granting too much to those who claim JS was just a sexual libertine (and therefore a total fraud) or a fallen prophet. It really depends on what you’re accepting as mistakes, or even sins, on his part.

    He certainly regretted/repented the frivolity of his youth, and the 116 pages affair. (I haven’t read much about the Stoal employment.) But he never repented/regretted polygamy, or temples, or temple ordinances/sealings, and proxy temple ordinances.

    Compared to Joseph, Brigham Young “doubled down” on polygamy, while none of the splinter groups at the time accepted it (Rigdonites, the RLDS, Strang, etc.) And none of the splinter groups had the temple ordinances, neither for the living nor the dead.

    So yeah, things got messy. But I think it is still important to distinguish exactly _what_ was, or possibly was, a sin or a mistake or an error.

  4. Fun discussion of the similarities between the character of Dumbledore and the real man Joseph Smith, from the perspective of how those who have trusted may feel upon reading a gritty version of events.

    There was also an interesting parallel of sorts in the respective deaths of these individuals. Each was going to die. Dumbledore had sustained fatal damage from attempting to use the ring/horcrux to bring back his sister. Joseph had delayed obedience until hundreds of men (many of whom had been cut off from easy sex by Joseph’s teachings regarding plural marriage) had sworn to kill him. If Joseph had not died at Carthage, these hundreds of men would have continued to hunt him down.

    If Joseph and Emma had embraced the doctrines associated with the New and Everlasting Covenant in February 1831, then there is no way that John C. Bennett and the like could have claimed secret teachings associated with illicit sex. Everyone would already have known that only God’s covenant could allow a man and his wife to be together in eternity, and that on occasion it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife.

    However, even if Joseph had lived to the age of a tree, at some point there would have been a need for the next generation to assume the mantle of gospel leadership, as Harry and others assumed the mantle of Dumbledore’s quest to destroy the horcruxes and the evil man who threatened their world.

    Perhaps in an alternate history where Joseph and Emma embraced the covenant immediately, Joseph would have been succeeded by his son Thaddeus after having rung in the end of the era of plural marriage. Who knows where the seat of the Church would have been in such an alternate history. Perhaps it would have been in Missouri, in the Kansas City area.

    But what we have is the history that we have. And like Rita Skeeter, many have made their names by proclaiming the supposed evils of those who bore the brunt of the restoration. Alas, it isn’t possible to turn these folks into beetles. Ultimately they, too, are children of a God who loves them, eternal beings who once upon a time fought to defend the word of God and, along with all who were ever born, accepted Christ and cast all their hopes upon His power to save, and God’s power to bring all who wish back home to dwell in glory.

    Thus our world view is fundamentally different from the worldview that brought forth the Harry Potter series.

  5. After reading “Joseph Smith: A Rough Stone Rolling” we can read some of the failings and mistakes that Joseph made. He had a real temper. He chewed out the entire Quorum of the Twelve. They stood up to him and he repented. The amazing thing is that even with a temper, he was so willing to repent and forgive, I am specifically thinking of the WW Phelps incident but there are many, many more. He didn’t seem to be able to hold a grudge. Also there were issues where he encouraged fighting back that tended to backfire on him. There was an incidence where the militia fired on another militia. I can’t remember the specifics, but this haunted him for awhile. There is the destruction of the printing press, etc. The author notes, that the culture of the day included standing up for yourself and those you love. So by today’s standard they are not appropriate, or when thinking of the actions of a prophet. He was a man of his times and many of his mistakes and character is from that time.


Comments are closed.