“No, we don’t worship Joseph Smith,” I explained to the investigator. “We respect him as a prophet.”
“You mean, like Mohamed?” he asked.
“No, more like Moses, or John the Baptist.”
It was a standard comparison that I had used repeatedly on my mission. Joseph Smith is just a prophet. He’s just like John the Baptist, or Moses, or Peter, James, and John.
Of course, there are a few problems with that characterization, aren’t there?
Chief among them — if Joseph Smith is really just like John the Baptist, then why don’t we treat the two similarly? And despite doctrinal protests, we really don’t.
In the current hymnal, there are no hymns about Moses. None about John the Baptist (though Jesus’s baptism is referenced a few times). A few cursory mentions of Peter, in places like What Was Witnessed (#11), and implied mention in #105, Master the Tempest is Raging. There are some mentions of Adam — more than any other Biblical prophet, probably — as well as Enoch.
In contrast, we get two very well-known, oft-sung hymns focusing directly on Joseph Smith: Praise to the Man, and Oh How Lovely was the Morning. Prior hymnals contained many more: The Seer; Blest was the Day when the Prophet and Seer; O Give me Back my Prophet; and so on.
The same goes for church art. The average church building might have pictures of Joseph Smith alone; of the First Vision; of the priesthood restoration; of translation. The Gospel Art kit reflects this. It contains ten pictures of Joseph Smith. There are six pictures of Jesus’ apostles, four pictures of Moses, Lehi, and Nephi, and three each of Adam and Daniel. For other prophets, there are fewer.
Some of the discrepancy in art and music can be explained by noting that we are celebrating the restoration of the gospel, not necessarily focusing on Joseph. Still, the personal nature of much of the music and art — Praise to the Man — cuts in the other direction.
On the other hand, it’s also clear that Joseph Smith is not the figure who dominates Mormon music or art. Hymnody and art about Jesus are several orders of magnitude higher than any other figure, including Joseph Smith. We may have two hymns about Joseph Smith, but there are scores and scores that talk primarily about Jesus.
Where does this leave us?
First, the sometimes-voiced criticism that we worship Joseph Smith is clearly wrong. We don’t worship Joseph Smith.
At the same time, my response — typical of a common response I’ve heard — isn’t quite right, either. Joseph Smith isn’t just another prophet. He’s a prophet who is accorded an extra degree of respect and admiration. This is not of the same degree — or even close — as the veneration and worship given to Jesus. But it’s also not exactly the same level of respect that we hear expressed for other prophets.
This may be hard to explain to the Protestant critic. There’s nothing in Protestant worship that approximates the level of admiration we give Joseph Smith. So the criticism is understandable. The only figure given sustained admiration in some Protestant contexts is Jesus. To an observer from such a context, any heightened level of admiration may look like worship.
Observers from other Christian traditions may be more familiar with giving praise and admiration to a figure, without worshiping that figure. Heirs of slave churches are probably familiar with the heightened emphasis on Moses — as seen in expressions like the hymn, Go Down Moses — in part a product of Moses’ role as one who frees slaves. Catholics are familiar with giving great respect to Mary and to saints (though this response is unlikely to satisfy a Protestant critic, since many consider Catholics to be worshipers of Mary).
But for many Protestants, there is no familiar analogue. Thus, the accusation that Mormons worship Joseph Smith, while incorrect, becomes somewhat more understandable.