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Why “Pious Fraud” Ticks Off Everyone (Part 2 of 9)

In Joseph Smith’s History, it says his name will be known for good and evil, and that is certainly the case. Historian Dan Vogel believes Joseph was a pious fraud. What does that mean exactly? And how does it anger both critics of the Church, as well as supporters?

Dan:  I’m trying to find, as a non-believer now, the most charitable view of Joseph Smith a non-believer can have. So if you’re not going to believe Joseph Smith’s revelations, and that he had actual contact with God–this is the same question you have with any religious tradition. How do you view Joseph Smith and be a non-believer? Do you just think, “Oh, he’s just lying, and the whole thing’s a fraud, and he’s just a con man trying to get money?” [This is] what a lot of extreme critics of Joseph Smith say, “He’s trying to get power, money, sex.”

And I say, “I don’t believe that.” I believe that he used deception. If you don’t believe the Book of Mormon is actual history, but it could be inspired by Joseph Smith’s definition of what is inspired, then you have to believe that he used a little deception to sell that revelation that he had a revelation. It’s inspired, but he has to sell it to other people, to make it as hard for them to reject his revelation as possible, right?

Because he learned how to do that as a treasure digger, and he’s using this skill to build confidence to make people believe his revelations. So I see Joseph Smith as an inspired pseudepigraphist, like the Assumption of Moses, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Book of Enoch, these are pseudepigraphic works, written by anonymous people trying to smuggle new doctrines into the Christian tradition, by writing in the name of the dead Prophet. These are writings that are supposedly lost and rediscovered. So I believe Joseph was doing a similar thing with the Book of Mormon. He’s writing pseudepigrapha. But he believes he’s inspired. He knows there’s no Lehi and Nephi and all that stuff. But he believes that this is the method of teaching true doctrine. Like he said, “You can get closer to God through the Book of Mormon than any other book.” He really believes that, and he’s trying to correct false doctrine. He’s combating the deists, the non-believers in his day. He’s trying to shore up the Bible, which is being criticized by deists and skeptics of his day, because [of] problems that they see in the Bible or incompleteness and their sectarian strife over what the Bible says. He’s trying to calm that down. He’s trying to make people believe that otherwise may not believe. But he’s also trying to garner for himself power to found a new Jerusalem government.

Just a reminder.  I know that this is a controversial topic.  I am trying to approach this from an academic point of view, rather than embrace polemics.  Comments that are too critical of Joseph Smith, or bear testimony/quote scripture will not be approved.  Please keep the emotions in check as you comment, but I hope you will check out our conversation…. and don’t forget to check out our previous conversation!

Joseph Smith’s name is known for good and evil.
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Early LDS Priesthood: Similar to Ancient Christianity?

Greg Prince wrote a book[1] on the evolution of LDS Priesthood.  In our next conversation, I’ll talk to Greg and I’ll ask him more about this evolution.  He even touches on the variations in the First Vision accounts.

Greg:  Yes, I think you need to start by backing up to the time when there wasn’t even a church and look at phases that Joseph Smith went through.  The earliest phase was there wasn’t even talk of the church.  There wasn’t even talk of authority.  When he had his First Vision, if you looked at the earliest version of that as likely being the most authentic historically, it had nothing to do with churches.

He said in his account of it in 1832, [he] already knew from studying the bible that all the churches were wrong, which is diametrically opposed to what the canonized version says.  So he went to the grove for personal forgiveness, and that’s what that account said.  The Lord appeared and said Joseph had been forgiven; end of story, bye, bye.  [There was] no hint that there would be a church in his future.

When you start to get into the Moroni narratives, then you have implicit authority, meaning that people around Joseph believed that something extraordinary was going on, and when he got the plates, they saw that something extraordinary was going on, and nobody challenged his authority to do it.  Towards the end of the translation process, they become concerned about having authority to perform ordinances, baptism being the primary one.

Did you know that in the early Mormon Church, Bishops and Deacons weren’t even a part of the organizational structure?

The Nephite Christian Church described in the latter chapters of the Book of Mormon had only three offices:  teachers, priests, and elders, and there’s minimal description in there, but there was a differentiation between the teachers and priests on the one hand, and elders on the other hand.  The word “priesthood” was not used.  In fact “priesthood” was more likely to be interpreted as “priestcraft” in the Book of Mormon, the evil priests.

If you look at the Far West record, which is basically the minute book of the early church general conferences, in the first conference that is recorded in June 1830, there are only three offices to which people are ordained:  teachers, priests, and elders.  You have two others appended in 1831:  those were deacons and bishops.

There are lots of other surprising insights.

You can make the claim that this is a restoration of the primitive church structure, but you can’t make that stick.  Yes those offices are recognized both in the New Testament.  It’s about as far as you can take it.  The concept of a dual-tiered priesthood existing within an early Christian church isn’t there.  It’s taking parts of Old Testament theology, parts of New Testament theology, doing some cherry-picking, and eventually settling in pretty much on where we have it now.

He also talks about some of the circular reasoning we have regarding priesthood.  Check out our conversation!  (Check out our previous episodes on leadership vacuums and ailing leaders too!)

[1] Greg’s book is called Priesthood from on High and is found at

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Ailing Church Leaders: “Not Ideal Governance”

I enjoyed our latest conversation with Greg Prince.  We talked about incapacitation of church leaders due to medical factors.  Is this a problem in our church ailing church leaders having such an advanced age and becoming incapacitated due to medical issues?

Greg: So, if you’re just looking at this from a medical standpoint, it’s inevitable that incapacitation of an LDS Church president will be both more frequent and longer lasting.  In a fast-paced, complex world with a growing church, that may not give you the ideal governance.  So the question is, what do you do about it?

What we did about it is to say look.  Here’s the medicine involved in this, period.  If they choose to address the situation at some point, it’s their call.  But what we can say with a high level of confidence, because we looked at this through the eyes of medicine is, this is the situation.  It’s going to happen more frequently, and last longer.

Now a few month ago, Greg took some flak over a comment he made about church policies changing.  He made a similar comment to me when I asked if he saw the succession policy changing.

GT:  Do you ever see this policy changing?

Greg:  I see virtually anything changing because I have seen everything change.  I’m not aware of a single LDS doctrine of any significance that from 1830 forward has gone completely unchanged.  You’d think a lot of them would, but it turns out, no there were some substantial changes in many cases very early on.  If you just look at the First Vision narratives, you see the evolution of Joseph Smith’s theology of deity, and it’s taking place in a very rapid fashion and in a very dramatic fashion.

It wasn’t just nibbling at the periphery.  He was going through evolutionary leaps in the way that he portrayed the godhead.  That was reflected in his subsequent retellings of the story of the First Vision.  Each time he told it anew, it incorporated the then current version of his theology of deity.  That’s why those different versions are telling different stories, because they became theological narratives rather than historical narratives.

What do you think?  Are LDS policies changing?  Has there really been no LDS point of theology that hasn’t changed significantly over the history of the church?  Don’t forget to talk about our previous conversation on the leadership vacuums caused by extended periods of incapacitation.  Check out the conversation…