Ardis Parshall has presented in previous postings â€œThe CSI Effect and Mormon Historyâ€, 3/20/2008, and â€œAnd Yet Another Joseph Smith Photograph”, 4/1/2008, arresting images that have, at first glance, an arguable relationship to our known historical depictions of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but turn out, on further research, to have no chance of being what we wish they were. In commenting on Ardisâ€™ second post (#14, #48), I pointed out the reasons why there are likely to be a great many old images that resemble our mental image of the Prophet, and why it would be extremely difficult to verify any of them as a real image of Joseph.
This process bears a lot of resemblance to the hunt for evidence of UFOs. It is almost impossible to verify that a photo suspected of being a UFO is really one, but you can rule out many of them for various reasons.
The incentive to find a real UFO photo is much like the incentive to find a real Joseph Smith photo among the numerous suspects, which I will call an Unidentified Male Object (UMO): It would just be so flippinâ€™ cool (substitute your favorite age-appropriate adverb and adjective) to find one. It is seen as a “pearl of great price” that is worth an extensive search to find, the gram of radium in the ton of pitchblende, the pony under the pile of horse manure.
Well, some people have strange hobbies (“Save the whales–collect all ten”), in which they become experts about very narrow topics, the hunt (as in the eBay commercials) being a great part of the emotional satisfaction. My wife collects dolls from the mid-Twentieth Century, as well as old quilts dating back to the 1860s. We found some of them in Alabama, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Oregon and Illinois, in addition to our home states of Nebraska, California, Utah, Washington and Idaho. It is probably no more harmful than hobbies such as dipping plastic strings into rivers and lakes for hours on end (AKA “fishing”).
But the hazard in looking for an original photographic image of Joseph Smith is that it is related to the restored gospel, and thus can become a Gospel Hobby. If we start to give spiritual significance to this activity, there is a danger that it can become more important to us than actually living the gospel. Its pursuit, and our opinions about it, could become more important than our relationships with our spouses and families and fellow Saints. Whether there exists a photo of Joseph or not does not affect our salvation or exaltation, but devotion to finding one, and to trying to authenticate it, could transform it into a graven image that supplants God in our lives.
We know with certainty that we donâ€™t know what Jesus really looked like, and many aspects of our mental image have been formed by the development of conventions in art over 2,000 years. BYU Studies discussed this process in a special issue with four topical articles in 2000 (e.g. Noel A. Carmack, “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture, 1900â€“1999”, BYU Studies (2000), Volume 39, no. 3, at 18,) about this process of depicting Christ. The most popular images are reflections of what we want Christ to look like, rather than an image based on historical records or the possible DNA of his closest modern cousins. We aren’t even sure what a Jew of the First Century looked like, not to mention one who was partly descended from non-Israelites like Ruth and women like Bathsheba and Tamar. But the unavoidable inaccuracy of those portraits does not impair their usefulness in helping us picture the actions and teachings of the Savior that are described in scripture. Having a photographic image has nothing to do with the efficacy of the Atonement. We don’t need a photograph to exercise faith in him, or to verify that he is the Son of God, or that he really walked on the water or was resurrected.
The hunger for an authentic image of Jesus or his mother Mary drives the strange phenomenon of seeing, and in some religions even worshipping, random images formed or perceived in the bark of trees (as happened in Salt Lake City ten years ago), the side of a cow, a tortilla, or the surface of a grilled cheese sandwich, or toast. This urge to see meaningful faces in inanimate objects is called Pareidolia, derived from the Greek words para and eidolon, literally â€œlike (an) idolâ€. The assumption seems to be that an image formed in this way, without purposeful human action, is “painted by God” and therefore is God’s accurate depiction of Jesus or his mother Mary, and as a direct work of Godâ€™s fingers, is almost on a par with the engraving of the Decalogue on the stone tablets, or for Mormons, the empowering of the 16 clear stones (including the Jaredite Urim and Thummim?).
The comparable danger is that someone might think that God is leading them to the true image of Joseph, causing them to invest emotional and spiritual significance in an image way ahead of rational verification. The unverified image of Joseph bears the same relationship to the real Joseph that the toast Jesus bears to the real Savior.
In one respect, what would be useful about having an authenticated photo of Joseph would be to verify that he was a man, and not a semi-divine creature, which is sort of the feeling that is produced from the cumulative effect of our appreciation of his accomplishments and the spiritual power of his testimony. The blessing of Richard Bushman’s book Rough Stone Rolling is that we can see divine power working through a real, unpolished man. Having a real photo of Joseph could give us some of the anchoring in reality that is produced by looking at photos of Brigham Young, especially the shot of the back of his head that appears in the endpapers of the book compiling his photos (Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, R. Q. Shupe, Brigham Young: Images of a Mormon Prophet, Eagle Gate, BYU Religious Studies Center, 2000).
There is, as Professor Henry Eyring liked to say, a value in knowing Joseph Smith and other leading brethren of the Church are real mortal men, because it gives us hope that the Lord can accept us, too. But even the pursuit of something worthwhile, “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy”, if it consumes too much of our resources, can be spiritually harmful.
It is likely that, in light of the internet and the ability it gives us to search and share and discuss old UMOs, there is going to be a lot of UMO spotting anyway. I therefore would like to suggest that creating a formalized process for screening UMOs and evaluating them in an open process would help people keep the hobby in proper proportion, would quell some of the conspiracy theories people cook up about why the Church might rather not find a photo of Joseph, and would, like the case above, help us to avoid spending time duplicating the research already done by others. Since some members in a 13 million member church are going to do it anyway, why not create a methodology that makes the process as efficient as possible, and educates people engaged in the hobby how to do it properly, so they are less likely to think they can rely on inspiration or angelic delivery?
While the newspaper with genealogical information that was miraculously delivered from England to Logan in three days actually led to salvific work being done in the new Logan Temple, there is no obvious direct salvific benefit from verifying a real photo of Joseph, so it is an order of magnitude less deserving of the kind of miraculous intervention that has sometimes been experienced in missionary work and family history research.
Why not take action to inject standards of scholarship and integrity into the process of sifting through UMOs for a possible picture of Joseph, so it is not transformed from a hobby into a Gospel Hobby that interferes with doing what Joseph would actually want us to be doing?