Was Joseph Smith really a prophet of God?

Summary: To Christians and Jews alike, the Bible is considered to be the word of God but, in reality, it contains the words of ancient prophets, therefore, it is the words of these prophets that we revere. It’s because of this view of the prophets that those who don’t believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God point to certain events in his life as evidence that he couldn’t be who he claimed to be. Their argument rests on the theory that if he truly was a prophet he wouldn’t have made some of the decision he did. This article looks at some of the events in the life of Joseph Smith and compares them to the prophets of old.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sing, “We thank thee O God for a prophet to guide us in these latter days” (hymn #19) and they firmly believe that the president of their church is a living, divinely called and sent prophet who speaks as God’s representative to the world. Furthermore, they believe that in 1830 the Lord called a young, twenty-four year old man named Joseph Smith to be a prophet and the first president of this church.

To Christians and Jews alike, the Bible is considered to be the word of God but, in reality, it contains the words of ancient prophets, therefore, it is the words of these prophets that we revere. However, we also believe that these prophets were men of great faith whom God called to speak to the world in his name. More than that, we also tend to think of these men as being highly righteous, which is why God chose them as his spokesmen.

It’s because of this view of the prophets that those who don’t believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God point to certain events in his life as evidence that he couldn’t be who he claimed to be. Their argument rests on the theory that if he truly was a prophet he wouldn’t have made some of the decisions he did. Perhaps the most glaring of these events was when he started a bank.

Joseph claimed that the Lord had told him to build a temple in the city of Kirtland, Ohio, but the saints who came with him to Kirtland had little money. Therefore, in order to finance the building of this temple, the church went into debt to borrow the needed funds. Joseph felt that if the saints could establish themselves as an economic community they would prosper and would therefore be able to better contribute to helping pay off these debts, but that didn’t happen. As such, even though the temple at Kirtland was built, the church found itself heavily in debt to their creditors.

Joseph struggled to find a way to repay the borrowed money and in the fall of 1836 he and the other church leaders came up with a plan that they thought would solve their financial problem. The plan was to start a bank, with the idea that people would borrow money in the form of bank notes, that was printed by the bank itself.  These borrowers would then pay the bank back, with interest, which would provide a profit for the bank, that would then be used to pay off the debts of the church.

The money that was lent would allow the saints to buy land on which they could raise crops and animals, which they could then sell to support themselves, or the money could be used for people to start a business of their own, which would provide them with an income. In this way it was hoped that this money would help ignite a booming commercial trade where everyone would prosper from the economic activity.

This kind of endeavor was rather common in small towns across the western frontier edge of the United States at that time, and so Joseph and the church leaders felt that this would be a successful way to raise the needed cash to pay off their debts.

At first, the Kirtland bank seemed to have some success as people began to borrow money from it, but as time went on, unexpected, and unforeseen problems began to arise. Some of the saints who had borrowed money had a hard time making the payments, which meant that the bank was spending money but not taking in as much as they had hoped. Another problem that arose was caused by a man named Grandison Newell who bought the bank notes from some of the saints but then began to horde them, thereby taking them out of circulation. The reason he did this was because he hated the Mormons and was constantly looking for ways to harass them. His preferred way was to do this legally, if possible, but he wasn’t adverse to harming them using unethical or illegal means.

Because the saints were not liked by their surrounding neighbors, newspapers in other nearby cities began publishing unflattering and untrue stories about the Mormons, and as a result, fewer and fewer people outside of Kirtland wanted to do business with the saints. Without this outside source of prospective customers, the saints had a very limited market for their goods. With very little money coming in, but with a debt to pay for their borrowed money from the Kirtland bank, the saints found it more and more difficult to make payments to the bank. For this reason, by January of 1837 the Kirtland bank was barely able to stay solvent. The hoped for revenue wasn’t coming in and the more people borrowed only helped the bank to go further into debt.

As though this wasn’t enough, Grandison Newell decided to turn in his hoard of banknotes for cash, knowing that the bank didn’t have enough money to honor them. Now, the Kirtland bank was faced with a real dilemma. With no way to give Mr. Newell the money he wanted, Joseph tried to see if he could go into partnership with some other bank, but by now the entire country was facing economic hard times and even banks in the large eastern cities of Philadelphia , New York, and Boston were closing their doors because of the financial crisis.

It didn’t take long before things went from bad to worse for the Kirtland bank and soon they too had to close their doors and go out of business. What was supposed to have been a way to pay off the church’s debts only caused the church to go further into debt when they could no longer honor the banknotes that their customers were holding. Worse yet, those who had bought land or goods using the banknotes were finding their property being repossessed by those who had sold them the land in the first place.

Since it was Joseph’s idea to start a bank, and many of the saints trusted him, many of them bitterly blamed him for their loss of money, land, and property. The critics of Joseph Smith argue that if he really was a prophet of God, then he should have known that his idea wouldn’t work. After all, a prophet is supposed to know what is coming in the future. And if he really was God’s chosen prophet, then how come God didn’t bless his effort and cause Joseph’s business venture to be successful, or at least reveal to him that this was a bad idea? For this reason, the critics of Joseph Smith claim that this shows he wasn’t a prophet because he was no more inspired in this decision than anyone else.

But this was not the only incident where Joseph seemed to err in the things he told his followers. In August 1831 he received a revelation from God telling the saints to move to the state of Missouri, stating that this was to be the land of Zion, a place where they would find peace and that this would be the land of their inheritance (D&C 57:1,2,15). The saints gladly followed what Joseph said was a commandment from God and built up the town of Far West there, and then spread to other areas where they likewise established other small communities while Joseph remained in Kirtland to manage the affairs of the church.

However, it didn’t take long before the other residents of neighboring towns became upset with the Mormons and began harassing them in an effort to get them to leave the area. By August of 1833 the situation was getting so bad that Joseph knew he had to do something to help the saints, but he didn’t know what. Therefore, he went to the Lord in prayer, seeking divine counsel but received no answer.

Finally, knowing he had to take some action to help his followers, even if he didn’t know what he could do, Joseph set off for Missouri and went to the town of Far West. First, he tried talking with the local residents to see if he could ease their concerns but had no success in changing their hostile attitude. Next, he appealed to the governor of Missouri and was told that the people there should resolve their problems among themselves. He then tried taking legal action by appealing to the courts to stop the violence, but the law enforcement authorities wouldn’t take any action to stop the mobs from raiding the Mormon settlements.

Feeling that he had no other choice, Joseph told the saints to arm themselves and if attacked they should defend themselves, meeting violence with violence, but he also told them that they were never to initiate the violence. When they followed Joseph’s advice, their enemies quickly fled, but instead of leaving the saints alone, they resorted to a different strategy. Soon false tales were being spread, and newspaper articles were being written accusing the saints of raiding towns, killing innocent people, plundering, looting, and other acts of violence.

When these reports reached the ears of the governor, in his effort to establish peace in his state, he decided that the Mormons must leave and so he issued an order calling for the saints to either be forcibly driven from his state or be exterminated. Now, instead of groups of angry mobs, the state militia descended on Far West to carry out the governor’s orders.

On October 31, 1838 Joseph went forth under a flag of truce to meet with the general in charge of the State militia, but instead of having a meeting, Joseph, along with other church leaders, were promptly arrested. They were then taken to the town of Liberty where they were put in jail until the Spring when they would be taken to the country seat in the town of Gallatin to be tried for treason.

The general in charge of the state militia gave the saints until Spring to move out of the state, but once the militia left, mobs of angry Missourians continued to harass them, vowing to kill anyone who hadn’t moved out by the end of January. Although the saints had legally purchased their lands, they now had to abandon their homes and take what little they could carry as they hastily made their way out of Missouri to the state of Illinois. In the Spring, as Joseph and the other prisoners were being transported from Liberty to Gallatin, they managed to escape and fled across the border into Illinois.

There are several things in this story that some claim proves that Joseph was no prophet. The first is that he had told the saints that God wanted them to move to Missouri and was going to give them the land for their inheritance. Clearly, this must have been a false prophecy because the saints had been driven from the land of their supposed inheritance and lost nearly everything in the process.

Another thing that the critics point to is that when Joseph went to the Lord seeking counsel on what to do, he received no answer. The skeptics say that the reason Joseph didn’t receive an answer is because all of his revelations were made up from his own imagination but when it came time for him to actually solve a problem, he didn’t know what to do, so he made up the excuse that God wasn’t talking to him anymore.

Still another accusation is that if Joseph really was a prophet of God, he should have received a revelation telling him that the saints would face trouble and been given divine instructions on how to plan for it. The fact that he didn’t know what was going to happen is an indication to some that he had no powers to see the future, which they say is the real test of a true prophet.

And still yet another thing that the critics point to is that Joseph seemed to be making one poor decision after another. Under his direction things went from bad to worse. If he was really a prophet, then all of his decision would have made things better, following the scriptures that says, “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

But things didn’t get any better for the saints when they lived in Illinois. Joseph purchased a plot of land there and built a town he called Nauvoo, but in time the people living in the surrounding area became upset with the Mormons and began physically harassing them. But that wasn’t Joseph’s only problem because more and more members of his church were becoming dissatisfied with his leadership and were leaving him.

One such person was a man named William Law who decided to stay in Nauvoo and print a newspaper detailing all the things that he said Joseph was doing wrong. As a result, the publication of this newspaper helped increase the divisiveness within the church, which was William’s intent.

Although Joseph believed in the principle of free speech, he and the city council determined that this newspaper was a public nuisance and passed an ordinance prohibiting this newspaper from publishing any kind of material. Based on this law, a group of men broke into the building where the paper was being printed and destroyed the printing press and all of its type.

William Law filed suit against the city of Nauvoo and when Joseph appealed to the governor of Illinois, the governor disagreed with what the city council had done and ordered that Joseph and other city managers stand trial, and if found guilty, they should pay William Law for the damages done to his press.

Knowing the hostility of the surround population, Joseph feared that he wouldn’t be given a fair trial so he fled out of the state into the territory of Iowa to keep from being arrested. However, many people back in Nauvoo called him a coward for running away and even his own wife, Emma, begged him to come back. With so many people questioning his decision to flee, Joseph had a change of heart and returned to Nauvoo and gave himself up to the authorities.

The critics point again to how Joseph seemed to be making one bad decision after another, which again seems to indicate that the Spirit of God wasn’t guiding him. The critics also say that because Joseph could be talked out of fleeing is another indication that he didn’t know what to do and could easily be swayed by the opinions of others which, they say, is not the way a true prophet of God behaves. They also point to how those who were closest to Joseph and knew him personally finally began to see through his charade and started leaving him.

However, all of these criticisms come from having a false idea of what makes someone a prophet.

Joseph was a mortal man, with his own unique strengths and weaknesses, just like all other prophets before him. He was not a clairvoyant, nor was he someone who was immune from making mistakes, and neither were any of the other prophets we find in the Bible. Just because someone has been called by God to speak in his name doesn’t mean that they will never, ever make a bad decision pertaining to their own personal life.

As Christians we believe that the men who wrote the Bible did so under the inspiration of God (2 timothy 3:16), but that doesn’t mean that everything they said in casual, non-religious discussion was also inspired by God.  For example, just because Isaiah was a great prophet doesn’t mean that everything he said around the dinner table or to the vendors in the fish market, or, casual discussions he had with his friends were just as inspired of God as the things he said as a prophet.

As Joseph Smith himself taught, a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such. Take for example Moses. After he had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, he took it upon himself to hear every complaint and resolve every dispute. When his father-in-law Jethro saw this he said, “Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone” (Exodus 18:18). What we see is that Moses was making a mistake in how to govern his people and it was Jethro, not God, who taught him a better way to do it.

When Joseph started a bank, his motive was to help pay the debts of the church, but in doing so he was not acting as a spokesman for God. In other words, he was not performing the duties of a prophet. There is no record that Joseph sought a revelation from God seeking to know what he should do in this matter, therefore he was acting in the capacity of an ordinary man, using his own natural wisdom and best judgment to solve a problem, rather than acting under the direction of inspiration from God. Furthermore, his efforts failed, not so much because of bad judgment, but because of forces outside of his control that contributed to the bank’s failure.

But if he was truly a prophet, wouldn’t God have blessed his efforts, some might ask? Peter was a fisherman by trade, but just because he was a great apostle doesn’t mean that he could have developed a greatly successful fishing business. The apostle Paul was a tentmaker, but being an apostle of Jesus Christ doesn’t guarantee he could have run a highly successful tentmaking business.

There are many great preachers today and some of them are highly successful in their vocation, while others, who are just as devoted and faithful to God, struggle to draw more than a small congregation. There are ordinary people who have great faith in God who have become very successful in their chosen profession, but there have been many other devoted Christians, who are just as righteous but who suffer with financial difficulties.

The size of a Christian’s bank account or their skills or talents aren’t an indication of their righteousness. In fact, there have been several well-known, wealthy televangelists, who have had a thriving ministry who were later found to be living a sinful life. The fact that Joseph Smith was unsuccessful at running a bank has nothing to do with whether or not he was a prophet. A prophet is not called to be successful in the world but to preach the gospel of salvation under the direction and command of God,

But what about the prophecy that Missouri is to be the land of Zion and would be given to the saints for their inheritance? Since they were driven out within a few short years, isn’t that a false prophecy?

A prophet – or anyone else for that matter – only has knowledge of things beyond their natural abilities when God gives them that knowledge. Joseph Smith did make several prophecies that came true, but no prophet knows every event that will happen in the future. For example, in the book of Genesis we read, “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:.. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land” Genesis 12:1,2,6,7).

God himself prophesied that a great nation would come from Abraham and that his seed would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Yet, when Abraham was one hundred years old his wife Sarah still had not given birth to even one son, let alone a nation of children. By then Abraham was past the time when he could sire any children so it seemed that the promise God made to him was never going to come true. Even when Abraham finally had Isaac, he had to wonder how he was going to sire a great nation of people. It wasn’t until Joshua lead the children of Israel into the promise land, more than 500 years later, that God’s prophecy to Abraham became a reality.

Furthermore, long before Abraham begat Isaac, God had promised a specific area of land to him and his children as their inheritance, but at the time God made that promise, the land belonged to the Canaanites. Although his son Isaac and his grandson, Jacob, lived there for a while, Jacob’s twelve sons moved to Egypt where they lived for the next four hundred years. Clearly, God’s promise to Abraham inheriting the land of the Canaanites wasn’t fulfilled until the children of Israel marched across the Jordan river and conquered the land nearly six hundred years after the promise was given.

When Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection and while the apostles “looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Act 1:10,11).

The saints who lived in the first century, including the apostles, expected Jesus to return to earth in great glory in their day. They thought they were living in “the last days,” (1 John 2:18) and, in fact, both Jesus and Paul said that some of them would still be alive when Jesus came back again in glory (Matthew 16:27,28; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), yet 2,000 years later this prophecy has still yet to be fulfilled. Just because the Lord told Joseph Smith that Independence, Missouri, was going to be the land of Zion and that he was going to give it to the saints for their inheritance, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a false prophecy simply because it didn’t come to pass in their lifetime.

Then what about the many people who turned away from following Joseph Smith, such as William Law and others who were close associates with him? Doesn’t that prove that they finally came to see that he was not who he made himself out to be?

Jesus prophesied saying, “I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute” (Luke 11:49). The prophets of the Lord have always had people who found fault with them. The prophet Elias cried unto God saying, “Lord, they have killed thy prophets and digged down thine altars, and I am left alone, and they seek my life” (Romans 11:2,3).

The prophet Jeremiah was likewise despised by the people because of his teachings. Even the chief governor of the House of the Lord (i.e., the temple), when he heard what Jeremiah was saying, put him in stocks (Jeremiah 20:1,2), and King Zedekiah had him put into prison for what he taught. Even Jesus had followers who one day said that his sayings were too hard, and “from that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).

The apostle Paul had many Christians who disagreed with the doctrines he taught and had no small dispute with him (Acts15:2). Later, he and his missionary companion, Barnabas had a falling out with one another and they went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). There were some in the early church who were trying to undermine Paul’s authority, claiming that he was a false preacher. There were others who complained that although he wrote powerful letters, yet when people heard him preach in person, his speech was weak and “contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10). There were still others, who acknowledged that he was an apostle, yet they considered him to be the least of all the apostles.

When Paul preached to the Jews in the city of Thessalonica, those “which believed not [on his word], moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gather a company, and set all the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5). Because his life was in danger, Paul was smuggled out of that city and then went to the city of Berea to deliver his message about Jesus Christ. But when the people of Thessalonica heard he was preaching in Berea, “they came thither also, and stirred up the people” (Acts 17:13).

What the Bible records is that Paul was both loved by some Christians, and despised by others, and that many non-Christians were filled with rage against him, going so far as to spread false rumors about him. When we look at the life of Jesus Christ we find that he too experienced similar problems. And as we look at the life of Joseph Smith we see the same attitudes being expressed toward him. There were those who adored him and followed him no matter what kind of hardships they had to go through, but there were others who stopped following him for various reasons.

Some left over an honest difference of opinion concerning the doctrines he taught. Some left because they were excommunicated for gross sins and became fierce critics of the church as a means of exacting revenge. And there were still others who sought greater power and influence within the church, and became angry at Joseph when they didn’t get what they wanted. It was these disaffected members who claimed that Joseph was a false prophet, and it was these same individuals who “stirred up the people” into an uproar against him by spreading false rumors.

Very rarely will someone who is a charlatan risk their life for a lie. When things start getting dangerous for them, they will generally pack up their belongings and quietly leave town. Then they will go to another place where their reputation is unknown, and practice their fictious claims on a different, unsuspecting group of people. By contrast, all the prophets of God stayed true to their beliefs despite every hardship and danger they had to endure. Like the prophets of old, Joseph never wavered in his belief that God had called him to be a prophet, despite the constant dangers to his life. And like most prophets, he was willing to die for that belief.

When we compare the life of Joseph Smith to the other prophets of God found in the Bible, we find very similar parallels. In fact, many of the same things that the critics of Joseph Smith made against him were some of the same charges that the ancient Jews made against the prophets God sent them, including Jesus himself. What we see then is that there is very little, if any, reason for people to ask, “Was Joseph Smith really a prophet of God?”


Related articles can be found at The Nature of Mormonism