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.