Critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are often quick to jump forward with any and all criticisms that they believe might prove the undoing of the testimony of our members. It is not uncommon to see the proverbial “shotgun” approach of bombarding individuals who are young in the gospel with a barrage of information that all seems damning on the surface.
Just as with birdshot that only requires a single pellet to bring down a flying bird, such an approach relies upon the notion that with so many things being claimed, that if only a few – or even one – were proven true, then the Church cannot be true!
Such tactics, also referred to as the “spaghetti” method of “throw it and see what sticks,” do not require depth of thought, or for that matter, even truth or context. It relies exclusively on the notion that if you throw enough at someone, they may just give up under the burden of fending off the attacks.
It is interesting, however, that there are a number of criticisms raised about the Church and the restoration that initially appear damning, but under closer scrutiny prove to be evidences of authenticity often for the mere fact that they prove counter-intuitive to what one would expect from a fraudulent enterprise.
First Vision- Prophetic or Farce?
For example, critics have claimed that Joseph Smith invented the visions he had. As has been proven with many individuals who claimed prophetic status, it is typical of such individuals to establish themselves as the exclusive point of access to divine will. If Joseph were one seeking such glory, it would seem reasonable that he would similarly concentrate all the power in himself. However, such was not the case!
Joseph had his first vision in the spring of 1820. It was not, for him, an earth shattering revelation shedding light for the world on the nature of God! No, it was a deeply personal experience that answered for him what he most sought – how he might draw himself close to God through religious devotion. In his desire to know which Church to join, he innocently approached the Creator of the Universe, and God answered back, personally!
Following this vision, Joseph encountered stiff opposition to his recounting of his experience, and as might be expected of a 14 year old boy, he quickly learned to keep it to himself. But, the Lord had other plans.
When Joseph later sought to reconcile himself to God through prayer, God sent his messenger, the prophet Moroni, to answer Joseph. He was given very precise instructions from this heavenly visitor, who spent the entire night instructing the prophet and expanding repetitively on an important role he was to fill in the restoration. This role included returning to the earth critical truths and authority necessary to help us make and keep covenants with God in preparation for the future return of Christ.
This also was a personal visit, but it foretold the role Joseph would play in the restoration of the Gospel upon the earth. Following this visit of Moroni, numerous critical events of the restoration happened, not in the solitary presence of Joseph, but in the presence of others who were witness to divine interaction with man.
Priesthood Authority Given to More Than One
For example, Oliver Cowdery was scribe to Joseph while translating the Book of Mormon. Together they learned that authority to baptize was needed. Joseph, as much a learning participant in the unfolding of the restoration as he was a critical player, retired with Oliver to the banks of the Susquehanna River, and they supplicated God for guidance.
In response to this sincere inquiry, John the Baptist appeared to the men and bestowed upon them the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood (See D&C 13). For the better part of two millennium, this authority had been lost from the earth. But it was not restored to a glory seeking, power concentrating individual as might be expected if Joseph was fabricating a story to concentrate power in himself. No, it was restored to both men!
While we do not have the details of the later encounter, we know that Joseph and Oliver were both present when Peter, James, and John, the three ancient apostles who were with Christ at the mount of transfiguration, returned to the earth to bestow the Melchizedek priesthood. This was necessary as a precursor to the restoration of critical keys needed for the full restoration of the Gospel.
Joseph was not one who was eager to concentrate the influence and power within himself as would be expected from a fraud. Rather, he sought and invited others to seek and know for themselves. When he was entrusted with the plates, keeping them hidden from others was a significant burden. He was not allowed to show them to anyone. In one account of some bemusement for me personally, Joseph returned to his house with the plates wrapped in one of his shirts. Some family members present asked if they could see them, to which Joseph is reported as saying that he could not show them to these people, but he had no instruction preventing him from letting people feel them! So, with the plates covered, those present were allowed to feel and touch the plates under the cloth.
So eager was Joseph to share the burden of the restoration that he felt great relief upon the final approval by the Lord for Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer to become what would later be referred to as the Three Witnesses. These three were all visited by the angel Moroni. All three of them saw the plates and other sacred artifacts, and all three heard the voice of God command them to testify that they had seen the plates, and that they were translated by the Gift and Power of God. Despite all three later becoming disaffected with Joseph, none of them ever recanted their witness which now accompanies every printing of the Book of Mormon. Both Oliver and Martin returned to the Church after the martyrdom of Joseph. Only David Whitmer remained apart, but he never recanted his witness!
“Subordinates” Chosen By Others- Not by Loyalty
As a further contrary notion, Joseph needed to re-establish the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in order to help build the kingdom. These individuals would become the second highest authority in the Church, subordinate only to the First Presidency. But Joseph did not select these individuals. They were selected rather by Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, who sought them out based on the specific criteria set by the Lord (see D&C 18:37-38). And while a number of these men would prove a test for the prophet, Joseph nevertheless accepted these individuals as critical players in the hierarchy of the Church.
Miracles and Visions Seen By Many
Beyond these events, Joseph received the restoration of critical keys needed for much of what we recognize today as requisite authority for many of the sacred ordinances of the temple to be performed. As such, he was visited by Moses, Elias, and Elijah. He was not alone when such occurred, but was accompanied by Sidney Rigdon. A man whom some would claim was seeking to perpetrate a fraud was successfully convincing others that they were participating in the “delusion”.
It did not stop here.No, when the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, there were a great many visions had by others, which included seeing angels and other ancient prophets. Miraculous events occurred en masse by those who attended.
When the remarkable vision of the degrees of glory descended upon the prophet which gives us critical understanding of the conditions of the kingdoms that will follow, he was not alone! No, Sidney Rigdon was present, and witnessed all that Joseph saw (See D&C 76).
A Humble Con-Man?
No, Joseph as a charlatan was as unskilled at the craft as could be expected. He did not concentrate the power in himself. He did not make himself a sole conduit for access to divine will. He was not the sole source for critical truths that were restored. No, he foolishly allowed many individuals to join in his “delusions,” including many who would leave him for varied reasons. As a con-man, Joseph did everything wrong. But as a prophet?
As a prophet, Joseph exemplified humility! He was eager to lift others and to have them learn for themselves the truths of the gospel. He was not alone when the most critical events of the restoration occurred, but was accompanied by others. He did not exclusively experience the great visions that instruct us, but such experiences were witnessed by others!
No, Joseph makes for a very improbable fraud, but a very probable prophet! The very things one would expect from a con-man is absent from his history, while those things consistent with one inspired by the Almighty are everywhere present. The very contrary nature of his behavior, and the behavior of those around him in these critical experiences of the restoration, speaks to the authenticity of his claims! The efforts of our critics to impugn his character are betrayed by his behavior, and the loyalty of those who were present in the most significant events of the restoration speaks to the truth of his claims. This becomes more evident when you realize that, even when disaffected and angry with the Prophet, none recanted the experiences they testified to!
In coming weeks I will explore myriads of such “critical evidences” that speak as evidences of authenticity in contrast to the criticisms they were originally intended to be. We will examine criticisms in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, Church History, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. We will discover that such criticisms, under close scrutiny, serve to authenticate the claims of Joseph not only because they were found to be correct, but because they were discovered to be correct when all evidence would indicate they should be wrong if Joseph were not what he claimed to be.
In the end, we have our own access to God to confirm that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is where we find the authority needed to covenant with God. We can know for ourselves that such a restoration occurred, not under the solitary experience of one man, but under the collective experiences of the many participants in the restoration. And like those who shared in his visions and visitations, we can become our own witness that Joseph was the prophet he claimed to be.
This article also appears in Meridian Magazine.