I have to laugh at times when I read about how some people characterize Joseph Smith. Sometimes he is a hick and buffoon, other times he is a power-mad profligate. The funny thing is that his critics can never quite agree on who he was: How can he be the laziest man in the world, while at the same time being sought out as a hired hand in mining?
I think the best way to make sense of him is to let the man speak for himself. This year members of the Mormon Church will be studying his life and teachings. The manual that the Church will be using is available as a free PDF download HERE. Read it yourself and make up your own mind.
I’m impressed with how generous Joseph Smith was with spiritual things. At no point did he ever tell anyone, “Don’t bother. Let me do your thinking for you.” And he certainly never said, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” He was always inviting everyday Mormons to experience what he had experienced. There were no boundaries to spiritual things.
Once he taught:
“Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (Chapter 36: Receiving the Ordinances and Blessings of the Temple,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007),412–22.)
That is a powerful statement. Joseph Smith says in effect, “You cannot piggyback your way into heaven. You need to stand on your own two feet.”
That is exactly the religion I want. I do not want to be dependent upon some other person. We all know how that goes—sometimes it works out, but people are fallible and imperfect. I would much prefer dealing with God on His own terms, without a mortal mediator or human interference. In this sense, Joseph Smith outdoes Martin Luther.
The great Protestant reformer was on the right track. Yes, you do need to come to God on your own terms, without mortal interference. But Joseph Smith takes it one step further. He says that anything that he as a prophet has seen and experienced can be seen and experienced by even the least member of the church.
“God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them, for the day must come when no man need say to his neighbor, Know ye the Lord; for all shall know Him … from the least to the greatest [see Jeremiah 31:34].” (“Chapter 22: Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007),261–270.)
Of course having an organized church with leadership is necessary. We are not all the way there. But Joseph Smith defies bifurcated pigeonholing. He sets up a church that now has over thirteen million members worldwide. But on the other hand, he teaches that any member can stand on the same ground as him, thus out-Protestanting the Protestants. He was able to balance the big and the small, and not have anyone fall through the cracks.
And the only condition is that spiritually we stand on our own two feet. For me, that is one of the Miracles of Mormonism.