My Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

I was asked to share a brief testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in sacrament meeting last week. To the best of my recollection, this is what I said:

A prominent LDS scholars of the last century was asked in an interview whether his deep study of the church and its messy history had disillusioned him. He replied that he couldn’t be disillusioned because he had never been illusioned in the first place. I relate to that: I’m a convert to the church who very soon after joining was exposed to the glorious, crazy messiness of the history of our church, and so I’ve never had a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith as Disney-fied or airbrushed or anything like that; my testimony has always been of a weak and flawed man who nonetheless did great things. I believe in the Joseph Smith who had a vision of God, but also the Joseph Smith who threw down a bugle in a fit of anger. I believe in the Joseph Smith who translated the Book of Mormon, but also the Joseph Smith who signed a letter “with utter contempt, JS Jr.” I believe in the Joseph Smith who organized the church, but also the Joseph Smith who broke a girl’s doll and offered her only a non-apology.  smith

I’m grateful for my admittedly weird testimony because along with it has come some really significant blessings.

First, the recognition that God can use very flawed humans to do very amazing things. I also take comfort in knowing that God has a use for imperfect people, including me. There is hope for all of us. And we need to exercise the same charity and benefit of the doubt that we want applied to us. We also need to recognize our own limitations in understanding, per Elder Oaks, who said that he didn’t know what to make of certain elements of polygamy. If a weak and flawed person can do amazing, inspired things, then God’s power is very real. We might not be able to see that so well if the prophet were nearly-perfect.

Second, when you go digging in church history, you don’t just find the skeletons in the closet–although there are skeletons in the closet–but you also find treasures in the attic as well. As a feminist, there are two particular treasures that I appreciate from Joseph Smith. First, that he told the Nauvoo Relief Society that he intended for them to be a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day and as in Paul’s day. I wish I had time to unpack that statement! But suffice it to say that I love President Uchtdorf’s teaching that the Restoration is still ongoing. Joseph Smith also restored to us knowledge of our Mother in Heaven.

Finally, my weird view of Joseph Smith has protected me–protected me from the danger that in thinking that he was perfect, I might lose sight of the only perfect person, Jesus Christ. I bear testimony that he lives and loves us and sends us prophets–flawed prophets–who point the way back to him.

42 comments for “My Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

  1. Kevin Barney
    December 4, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Just in time for Smithmas! (But seriously, very well done.)

  2. December 4, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Julie, beautiful testimony of the Prophet Joseph, warts and all. It mirrors my own very closely. Thank you for sharing!

  3. December 4, 2014 at 11:15 am

    That was a great testimony. Did you get any reaction to the unflattering things you said about Joseph Smith?

  4. Ben S.
    December 4, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Excellent! I’m curious about reactions as well.

  5. Julie M. Smith
    December 4, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Eric and Ben, about a half dozen people told me they liked it. A few hours later we were at tithing settlement and the bishop told me that three people had already told him that they really liked what I said. So far, nothing negative. But, in my experience, you never hear from the people who hate it. :)

  6. Wahoo Fleer
    December 4, 2014 at 11:30 am

    An excellent model for the body of the church going forward.

  7. December 4, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Skeletons in the closet and treasures in the attic — great metaphor!

  8. Jones
    December 4, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    So well done. As always, you provide a great model for me.

  9. Brent
    December 4, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    “I also take comfort in knowing that God has a use for imperfect people, including me.” A thousand times this. Thank you for your brilliant testimony!

  10. Molly Bennion
    December 4, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Also an adult convert, I joined after exposure to much of the crazy messiness of which you speak. I’ve remained grateful to have come to Mormonism with a firm foundation in traditional Christian thought and history so i could better appreciate the strengths and weaknesses Joseph offered and better understand the crazy manipulations of history and doctrine which have followed. Perhaps you feel some of that advantage too?
    Julie, thank you for your excellent writings, MSS podcasts, the Mormon Stories feminist poscasts, etc. Wherever I find your name, I pay attention.

  11. PP
    December 4, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    For me, I’ve come to peace with Joseph. I do believe he was a Prophet of God, despite the troubling things he did. How? Well, think of the type of person God would need to select in order to form a new Church, create a new scripture, endure tarring and feathering, endure threats of death, endure all the terrible adversity the early Saints experienced – and still keep going. I think there are few people in history with the strength of character that Joseph Smith had, and I think that’s why he chose Joseph as a prophet – God needed a man equal to the task, not a shrinking violet.

    The flip side of this is that someone with this strong of a character would sometimes make terrible mistakes because of their strong will – threatening people at times, mistaking human feelings for promptings of the Spirit, doing things that appear un-Christlike. Perhaps instituting polygamy earnestly, but erroneously. My study of Joseph leads me to believe he was sincere, and I think he’d have to be in order to endure everything he endured. The “Joseph-just-wanted-sex” theory of polygamy is pretty lame: you don’t need to invent a religion and suffer like he did in order to be a philanderer. Look around – we have them all around us, and the 19th century was no different.

    I believe the “Church” is “true” (ultimately of God), but the narrative it espouses is not the whole truth. Reality is far more complex than the simple things we are taught in Sunday School. The Church has been guilty of whitewashing its history. But it’s moving in the right direction.

    For me, what is ultimately the most important is my relationship with God and with Christ. Focus on them – not the Church – and I think a person will end up ok, and perhaps even find a renewed faith within the Church.

  12. December 4, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    I really like this, Julie. Thanks for sharing it here too!

  13. Old Man
    December 4, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    Julie,

    History isn’t messy. Only our thoughts about it are. I’ve always accepted the idea that a testimony is what you know to be true and how you know it. So by that definition, what you wrote above wasn’t a testimony. It was a philosophical position (which I do respect). I hope that one day you tell us your testimony.

  14. Ben Huff
    December 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Julie, this is wonderful; thank you for sharing it! If Joseph brings us to Christ, what more could we want? And the glory be to God, who finds a way to use all of us for good! If our testimony of prophets (this is for you, old man) is really in essence a testimony of God and his Son and the fact that they use prophets to bring about their purposes, well, that is exactly what the prophets tell us we need to know and understand about them. Their glory is in seeing the glory of God break forth in their lives, and through theirs, in ours as well.

  15. Andrea R.
    December 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Really wonderful, Julie. Thank you.

  16. Jack
    December 4, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Julie, I’m glad you didn’t say “deeply flawed” as I’ve read so many times on the blogs. Joseph certainly had his weaknesses like anyone else. But I don’t think he was one of those crazy dualistic types whose wackiness was justified by his genius.

  17. M Miles
    December 5, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Perfect. Resonates with me as well.

  18. December 5, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Julia, this is something I will link to in perpetuity. :)

    Don’t know that I agree with Jack, but I do agree with you.

  19. ji
    December 5, 2014 at 5:25 am

    I, too, am grateful for a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith — what a great man he was! I am continually amazed and the works of God, and his willingness to use the weakness of his children to accomplish good. I will be honored to meet him one day in the celestial kingdom of our God.

    He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people. JS—H 1:33

    The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand. D&C 122:1-2

    Wherefore, I call upon the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised, to thresh the nations by the power of my Spirit; And their arm shall be my arm, and I will be their shield and their buckler; and I will gird up their loins, and they shall fight manfully for me; and their enemies shall be under their feet; and I will let fall the sword in their behalf, and by the fire of mine indignation will I preserve them. . . . And I have sent forth the fulness of my gospel by the hand of my servant Joseph; and in weakness have I blessed him. D&C 35:13-17

  20. Chadwick
    December 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Old Man:

    You lost me at “History isn’t messy.”

  21. Keith
    December 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks, Julie. Ben Huff writes: “If Joseph brings us to Christ, what more could we want?” I agree with this. I can say openly that I’ve been helped to come to Christ by Barth, Moltmann, Kierkegaard, Lewis and many others. They’ve helped point me to that Way and understand what life in Christ means. The crucial question is–from the traditional notions of restoration, authority, fulness of the gospel, etc. (which I accept)–whether Joseph brings us to Christ here and now, in this time, in some way that others can’t. There’s a completeness of what the Father offers us in and through Christ not available without turning to the “more” offered by what is restored through Joseph.. (I’m not saying Ben would disagree with this, just pushing the thought further.)

  22. Steve Smith
    December 5, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    “I’ve always accepted the idea that a testimony is what you know to be true and how you know it. So by that definition, what you wrote above wasn’t a testimony”

    Ooh, let me try. I know that heliocentrism is true. I know this to be true because the parallax ellipses of the two stars of 61 Cygni are consistent with the idea that the earth moves in orbit around the sun. We can observe this through telescopes and geometric reasoning. I therefore have a testimony that the earth revolves around the sun. Is this what you mean Old Man?

  23. Cameron N.
    December 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Steve, I think he was thinking along the lines of “for we saw Him standing on the right hand of God…by him, through him, and of him, worlds were and are created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters of God” (paraphrasing).

  24. Steve Smith
    December 6, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Just challenging Old Man to come up with a better definition of ‘testimony’ and why Julie’s doesn’t fit the mold of what he thinks testimony is.

  25. Cameron N.
    December 6, 2014 at 11:57 am

    After re-reading the post Steve, I agree. I think Old man may have missed the last sentence, which includes the statement I think he was looking for. “I bear testimony that he lives and loves us and sends us prophets–flawed prophets–who point the way back to him.”

  26. Jacob F
    December 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    “Wherever I find your name, I pay attention.”

    Ditto

  27. rah
    December 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Rule number one of testimonies is not to tell someone that theirs doesn’t count…Anywho.

    Julie, thanks for sharing your testimonly. I too appreciate the skeletons and treasures metaphor. Let me add a treasure or two. I love JS more universalist approach to heaven and progression. I love the eternal sealing doctrine (divorced from polygamy). I loved his williingness to see society as mutable and his search for a temporal and spiritual Zion. I loved his example and exhortation to seek knowledge from all sources. I love the JS that taught: “Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves”.

    Treasures all.

  28. Frank
    December 7, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    Doesn’t the church create the illusion of the infallible Joseph Smith? Isn’t this a function of promoting his prophetic claims? Talking about him only in a “faith promoting” fashion? So, now isn’t it disingenuous for the church to blame us for being “illusioned”?

  29. December 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Doesn’t the church create the illusion of the infallible Joseph Smith?

    Possibly at the introductory level (what organization wouldn’t focus on the good), but I’ve been in plenty of Sunday School classes that go over how he was fallible and how many of his contemporaries found him to be too ‘human’ to match their preconceived notion of what a prophet should be.
    If your complaint is that the Church generally focuses on positive aspects of his life, you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that the Church shouldn’t accentuate the positive.

  30. Josh Smith
    December 7, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Jack (#16):

    Joseph did NOT have “weaknesses just like everyone else.” Joseph had Joseph’s weaknesses. If we were to drag Joseph out of the 19th century and plop him down in upstate New York in 2014, he would be labeled as “pathologically narcissistic.” And, he would rightfully be incarcerated.

    If I traveled to upstate New York to visit Brother Joseph in jail, I probably have it in me to punch him in the face.

    On the other hand, … in my heart, I would have to admit that my life is much more meaningful, much richer because Brother Joseph lived. So, after I punched him in the face, I’d give him a hug.

    Obviously my bishop doesn’t ask me to get up and share my thoughts on Joseph Smith. :-)

  31. frank
    December 7, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    jader3rd

    Yes but they accentuate the positive about Joseph Smith until maybe it is a little misleading, a little hero-worship like? And then those who are shocked by the truth that he is human, they are chided because they didn’t read enough to see through the puffery? Isn’t that simply victim-blaming behavior one sees in certain harmful relationships?

  32. DSB
    December 7, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Julie,

    Beautiful and thoughtful words. If only I could offer such non-bumbling, extemporaneous testimonies. My heart wants to but my tongue is an idiot.

    I realize that you were trying to recall a speak-on-demand testimony so perhaps your written words aren’t exactly what you said. But I do want to comment on your writen, if in-accurate, version.

    My specific comment has to do with your last sentence and your use of the word “flawed”. My simple thesis is that a more accurate (at least in my version of a Joseph Smith testimony), and less loaded adjective, would simply be “human”. To me, “human” carries with it all of the weaknesses of a mortal man working within his time and place to do what he could do. On the other hand “flawed” seems so much more sinister. Perhaps I’m putting “flawed” too much into the set of other prophetic adjectives such as “fallen” and “false”. To me, none of our prophets are perfect and could therefore all be classified as “flawed prophets”. Ouch! That hurts, especially when thinking about Kimball and Hinckley who both seem to be the antithesis of sinister. I think I simply prefer “human prophets” rather than “flawed prophets” because it feels more compassionate. Perhaps it is tomaytoes and tomahtoes.

    It is also not my testimony…it is yours…and I certainly respect your telling of it and am not asking you to change it. Just a comment on how my testimony might compare.

  33. Julie M. Smith
    December 8, 2014 at 9:22 am

    DSB, I can’t remember how exactly I phrased it. If you take “flawed prophets” to mean “they aren’t living up to what a prophet should be” (as in: “all flawed merchandise is 50% off”) then I agree with you that my wording was not good. If you take “flawed prophets” to mean “all prophets are human, which means that they are all flawed,” then that is what I was trying to say.

    And, FWIW, this wasn’t quite extemporaneous. I was asked the night before and had a rough plan of what I was going to say worked out beforehand. :)

  34. DSB
    December 8, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Gotcha. Regardless, your words strengthened my testimony and understanding. Thx.

  35. December 8, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    In my opinion this article perpetuates myths which are causing increasingly large numbers of people to leave the church. The idea that Joseph was “weak and flawed” because he did “horrible things” like get upset and throw a bugle IS airbrushing history. No one is going to condemn Joseph or lose their testimony because he got mad. You’re list of his flaws makes this another “disney” article ignoring the elephant in the closet!

    When it comes to Joseph, people are losing their testimony because of Joseph’s polygamy and the dozens of very controversial actions surrounding this issue and a few others. If one’s testimony of Joseph being a prophet is to be of much value to others, members need to start including these “skeletons” in their lists of imperfections. (even if done ambiguously) Otherwise, when members do end up researching the facts they can think in their minds “oh, so and so knew about this and still believed in the divinity of this man’s work”. Articles like this do the opposite… they make people who read the history think… “WTF? So and so led me to believe the worst thing he did was get mad…. and now I find out he married other people’s wives and said angels with flaming swords forced him to do it or die?”

    I too have a testimony of Joseph… but knowing the history, the facts and the debatable facts requires a massive reorganization of the average testimony–because the average LDS testimony is built on airbrushes and myth.

  36. Julie M. Smith
    December 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    lance,

    I think you may be responding more to what people usually say in these situations than to what I actually said.

    If you return to the original post, you’ll see that I did _not_ create the impression that getting mad was the worst thing JS ever did, but rather I specifically:

    1. mentioned polygamy as a tough issue
    2. affirmed that there are in fact skeletons in the closet
    3. used a quote from Elder Oaks to legitimate the idea that it is OK to have facets of polygamy that one cannot understand

    So I think I more than met your standard of “even if ambiguously” mentioning the skeletons.

  37. zeus
    December 8, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    Joseph Smith: Myth v. Reality – the church creates the myth and the historians bring us the reality. Is it remarkable that the church persecuted the historians until the internet proved the historians true?

  38. lance
    December 9, 2014 at 12:24 am

    Julie. Sorry to leave a comment that comes across so negative. Just opening the door to an open discussion concerning topic is beneficial to many.

    Well done.

    I guess my 10 cents is that it’s time to bring more of those skeletons out of the closet in a positive and unity preserving manner.

  39. Julie M. Smith
    December 9, 2014 at 8:35 am

    “I guess my 10 cents is that it’s time to bring more of those skeletons out of the closet in a positive and unity preserving manner.”

    Amen.

  40. Old Man
    December 9, 2014 at 11:33 am

    “the average LDS testimony is built on airbrushes and myth”

    Lance, I respectfully disagree. It is simply one thing to have felt the spirit of a man’s work, to spiritually recognize the glory of the Restoration, and quite another to wrestle with information and ramifications of the historical process. Do they overlap? I’ll let you decide.

    The danger lies in assuming that the historical process inevitably leads one to Truth, when in reality it is a process which approximates the truth. Zeus (37) seems to think that everything which historians say is true, but anyone who has attended a conference of historians knows that debates go on in earnest. Good historians create models, they try to approximate what actually happened through analysis and interpretation. It is a marvelous discipline. But there are ideas and models, which have been presented by some of the most talented Mormon historians, which have been rejected in the long term. But what many church members don’t realize is that the work of the historian is vital. It is too casually dismissed at times. And I would argue that we live in a great time because historians themselves are gaining confidence through a long process of research, analysis and debate, with a variety of issues in church history. Thankfully, that process will be ongoing.

    My previous comment (13) was taken to task for vagueness, and rightfully so. What I attempted to convey was that all too often we assume that the reader or listener understands our sources. Julie did a great job of citing sources for creating an argument that Joseph was flawed. That’s important, but these days quite elementary. It shouldn’t shake any rational thinker’s perspective that there were and still are flawed prophets. I personally have not studied or met any other variety. If it does shake anyone, they were asleep in their D&C, OT and NT classes. What I challenged her with is that she offered a philosophical stance ( I think a healthy, productive one), not necessarily a full testimony, but one targeted to those struggling with specific issues. Her position is worth discussing. I have read Julie’s posts for some time, and given her life experience, her take on scripture and history, I discern a person of great thought and wonderful spiritual and human experience. She has experienced revelation or she would not be so passionately engaged. There are sources and then there are Sources. A testimony deals more with the latter than the former.

    Julie, I hope I did not offend you with my previous comment.

  41. Grey Ghost
    December 10, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Julie, thank you for this. You have described the Brother Joseph that I, as an adult convert, came to know and love, and to honor as a prophet.

    In fact, it’s been quite a surprise to me that there are a large number of people in the Church who aren’t aware of these things, or who are shocked by them, and it makes me wonder how many people I’ve disillusioned over the years by some offhanded reference to historical events that I didn’t realize would be unknown to them.

  42. Chad Gharring
    December 11, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    I need to stop reading the comments section of articles I like. But it is an addiction I am too weak to stop.

Comments are closed.