Criticism Matters

Poor Wayfaring Man

In 1844, in the wake of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s murder at the hands of a mob in a Carthage, Illinois jail, he was eulogized by a very close friend, John Taylor, with the following statement:

“Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

Now, that’s pretty high praise coming from a Christian. Maybe a little too high? It is probably fair to say that this statement is just soaring, sentimentality-soaked hyperbole penned by someone mourning the loss of an admired leader and teacher.

At the same time, however, it is also fair to say that the LDS Church, by adopting the statement into its scriptural canon (see Doctrine & Covenants Sec. 135:3), singing hymns about Joseph Smith (see official LDS Hymns #26, Joseph Smith’s First Prayer, and #27, Praise to the Man), and extensively focusing on the favorable mythology surrounding Joseph Smith (see e.g., the Joseph Smith birthday commemoration web page, linking to an elaborate website dedicated to Joseph Smith), has elevated this sentiment to the level of mainstream LDS religious belief. This common belief is substantiated by the teachings of Brigham Young , which include the following (possibly also sentimentality-warped, but nonetheless extant and never officially disavowed) statement:

“…no man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. From the day that the Priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are—I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent. He holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation—the keys to rule in the spirit-world; and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ, which gives him a most perfect victory in the spirit-world. He reigns there as supreme a being in his sphere, capacity, and calling, as God does in heaven. Many will exclaim—’Oh, that is very disagreeable! It is preposterous! We cannot bear the thought!’ But it is true.”

(JD, Vol. 7, p.287)

Unfortunately, mainstream members of the LDS Church not only feel pressure to believe that Joseph Smith is the greatest-man-ever-next-to-Jesus (and the gatekeeper of heaven), but also, for those who attempt to learn more about Joseph Smith through studying history, to reconcile that belief with growing evidence that Joseph Smith was a man of very questionable personal morals and ethics, willing to use the beliefs of others (particularly regarding eventual rewards in the afterlife), as well as his own position of ecclesiastical power, to further his personal interests.

For many members of the LDS Church today, this conflict over the character of Joseph Smith extends also to current leaders of the LDS Church, who claim authority–through Joseph Smith–to speak for God. As authorized spokesmen of God, the current LDS prophets and apostles, whose words and actions are often ethically and morally questionable themselves, are simply not (religiously) accountable to members of the Church. In fact, as Apostle Dallin H. Oaks has taught, LDS Church leaders are never to be criticized publicly by members of the Church. The only redress against abuse is to privately contact the offending apostle himself, or go over his head and privately contact the prophet about it. Not much of a feedback mechanism there (particularly if it is the prophet who is behaving badly). In the end, I suppose, these men eschew accountability to Church members for their actions because they feel they are called of God to interface with the people, not elected by the people to interface with God. (Also, they don’t want accountability because they are typical self-interested human beings, and they are lucky enough to be able to indulge that preference. JMO.)

However it technically works, the result is to place sincere, faithful members of the Church in the difficult position of excusing or ignoring nearly all of the bad leadership and abuse that they see perpetuated by these men in the name of God. Even for abuses perpetrated by middle managers in the Church organization (Stake Presidents and Bishops) there can be tremendous cultural and official pressure to just let it slide. For a particularly glaring example of this, CLICK HERE (long version) or HERE (short summary in last two paragraphs). The moral crisis this creates in the minds of members of the Church becomes a catalyst for apostasy, as people who have always cared deeply for, and taken very seriously, the Church, its leaders, and its teachings, are not able, in good conscience (and sometimes despite their sincere desire), to continue participating in the LDS faith community.


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