Joseph Smith, the Saint

David Howlett

Last summer, I thought a lot about Joseph Smith, Jr. Every day, I walked through the cemetery that contained the bones of his family and followers, passed the Kirtland Temple that he inspired, taught summer interns about his movement, and returned every night to sleep in the home in which he once lived. As a summer instructor for Community of Christ Historic Sites, I tried to help my students understand Joseph Smith with some empathy rather than rushing to judging him. I attempted to provide a historical context in which his theology and impulses became more understandable. And I hoped my students actually found ways to appreciate him rather than declare him crazy.

But I must admit that I struggle with Joseph Smith. He’s not the kind of saint or prophet that I would want to follow today. He’s egotistical. He’s brash and bold. He blames others for his failings. He’s a risk taker. His moods swing from intense joy to anger. He struggles with depression. And he is not always faithful to friends or family. Honestly, sometimes he embarrasses me.

Reading a Graham Greene novel helped me put things in perspective. In The Power and the Glory, Greene portrays a Catholic priest in Revolutionary Mexico who is trying to stay one step ahead of governmental authorities. The local state has outlawed the practice of Catholicism, and the police are hunting down and shooting priests. The protagonist in the story believes that he is the last living active priest in the region. It seems as if he is destined to be a martyr. Yet, the priest is not a conventional religious hero. He’s a whiskey priest (an alcoholic). He’s committed “mortal sins.” He struggles with guilt. He is not always brave. His life has been disastrous, and he has hurt others through his choices. And, when he is finally caught by the authorities, he is scared and worries about the pain of death. In the final chapter of The Power and the Glory, Greene portrays a mother reading to her children a hagiographic story about the execution of a brave young saintly priest. The martyr in the mother’s book dies smiling and praising Jesus for his death. This scene is juxtaposed by the whiskey priest’s execution. He is a small, trembling figure put against a wall away from the eyes of the public. At the last moment, the priest cries out a garbled phrase. He dies fearful in a crumpled heap.
But there is more going on in Greene’s novel than just a meditation on human frailty. The “power” in the Power and the Glory lies in its strange message of grace. As the whiskey priest is trying to evade authorities, he is praying for the sick and dying he encounters. He is listening to confession. He is administering the Eucharist in barns and small huts. He is putting God in the mouths of people. Wherever he goes, holiness happens
Like Greene’s whiskey priest, Joseph Smith was, well, a mess. Disasters seemed to follow in his wake, from New York to Nauvoo. When he died in a jail in Carthage, Illinois in 1844, apparently shouting “O Lord, My God” as bullets struck him from the guns of a mob, he was there due to his unwise choice of destroying a printing press that dared to criticize him and some of his very questionable secret teachings. There is so much for which I could judge him.
But, perhaps the fault does not lie so much in the historical Joseph as it does in me. Like the mother reading to her children about the pious young martyr priest, at times I want my heroes (and my history) to be perfect. Joseph was hardly that. He had all the failings, faults, and foibles of human flesh. I neither want to justify those failings, nor do I want to glorify serious ethical problems. However, whenever I am in my most iconoclastic moods, I need to take a step back and acknowledge that, like Greene’s whiskey priest, everywhere that Joseph went, holiness also happened. Literally millions of people have received grace in their lives through the writings, sacraments, and spaces that he created. The grace that I have seen pilgrims experience at Kirtland Temple is a testament to that. It is a paradox, but, in the end, it gives me hope both for myself and my capacity to minister to others. I can affirm that the God who worked with doubting, fearful fishermen in the first century also worked with a poor boy in New York in the nineteenth century. And that same God of failed saints and broken expectations can work with me. Thank God for grace. Thank God for saints like Joseph.

David Howlett is a recently ordained elder now in the process of relocating to central Ohio after living in Iowa City, Iowa for the past six years. He is a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Kenyon College and specializes in American religious history.

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3 thoughts on “Joseph Smith, the Saint

  1. We always want our prophets and church leaders to be perfect, but who among us is? God, on the other hand, doesn’t look for perfection, he looks for what’s in your heart. I am reminded of the example of King David and his illicit affair with Bathsheba, followed by having her husband killed. And yet he was beloved of God and of his people.
    I think another interesting question is this: if God’s hand was in the work, why did he allow Joseph to be martyred? Did God have him removed from the scene because Joseph had let his various lusts get the better of him and he was, at this point, doing damage to the movement? Or was God dispensing grace by not allowing Joseph to get any more out-of-hand than he already was?
    Thanks for this literary analogy. I plan to share it with others in my congregation who, like me, were raised on the story of Joseph as unblemished martyr. They have the opposite problem from you in that they can’t even allow for another reality beyond the perfect image of Joseph with which Boomers and their elders were raised. Perhaps your words will serve to open the door of re-consideration just a crack.

  2. Meghan Gray says:

    Thank you for tackling a hot button issue, bringing insight and a spiritual perspective to Joseph Smith. He’s not often talked about and I don’t know that much about him, but your comments weren’t sugar-coated. Yet they gave me a new appreciation for our first prophet-president and God’s ability to use us all as his ministers, despite our flaws!

  3. Darren Goble says:

    I would have to agree with the paradoxial view.
    I am reminded of two similar stories one involving Joseph Smith, Jr. and the other his son, Joseph 3rd. President Veazey touched upon Young Joseph’s story in his 2010 WC sermon. As they were boating across the Mississippi River in a storm, the boat began to take on water. Instead of turning back and avoiding danger and his responsibilities, Joseph 3rd took off his shoes and began to bail out water. In his father’s story, Joseph Jr. crosses the same river…escaping his responsibilities and attempting to avoid danger. Who, in his life and choices, exhibited responsibility as a person of spiritual authority and displayed leadership? I appreciate the church that Joseph Smith, Jr. started. However, it is the courage, wisdom, authority, and leadership that his son displayed that I would say truly exemplifies what I would call a saint.

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