Tuesday, July 15, 2014

History, Hearsay and Heresy Part 2: Joseph Said That?

In my last post, we discussed the importance of sources when evaluating quotes attributed to Joseph Smith--particularly when we intend to stake our eternal salvation upon the principles taught.

Now with that in mind, I’ve selected some of the best Joseph Smith quotes from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual, Chapter 27: Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy. Considering these are included in an official church manual, which was written by our prophets…

     —Nope. (You really should check into how the manuals are produced.)

Er..edited and approved by our prophets…


Uh…read by our prophets?

     —Not likely. 

Well, considering it’s an official church manual, it should be correct. I’m sure it’s been carefully checked and correlated to only teach true doctrine from solid, reliable sources. With souls at stake, anything less would be absolutely unthinkable.

So on to some Joseph Smith quotes:

“I will give you a key that will never rust — if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.”

The source is listed as a statement by William G. Nelson, published in the Young Woman’s Journal.  This statement was published in 1906, 62 years after the death of Joseph Smith.

William G. Nelson, the source of this statement, was born in Jefferson County, Illinois, June 10, 1831; associated with the Saints in Illinois and in the West, where he served as a ward bishop and a member of the high council at Oxford, Idaho. The facts surrounding this quote are as follows:
  • Nelson appears to have been in a position as a boy to hear Joseph Smith make this statement in Nauvoo. 
  • Nelson would have been 13 years, 2 weeks, and 3 days old when Joseph Smith was killed.
  • Nelson published the quote at least 62 years after hearing it, when his age was approximately 75 years.
  • Nelson makes no other statement of source, circumstances when, where and to whom Joseph said it, whether Nelson recorded it in writing, or how he remembers the wording precisely. It is therefore hearsay, and not a historical record. There is no contemporary collaborating source.
  • This statement was published in an adolescent periodical magazine among other faith-promoting and folksy stories about many topics. Essentially, the Mormon Seventeen. It is neither doctrine nor scripture.
Some difficulties with what is taught are as follows:
  • Depending on whose account you read, the majority of the twelve were in open rebellion to Joseph Smith in Kirtland.
  • The records of the church were recorded by the official church historian, John Whitmer, who took them with him when he left the church, requiring a new history to be written. Therefore to stay with the records of the church at that time would have required staying with Whitmer in Missouri, outside the church.
  • If the "majority of the twelve" doctrine was openly taught by Joseph Smith, there would have been no leadership succession crisis at Joseph's death. The church members would have known to follow the twelve. But no such thing happened.
  • Also, if this doctrine were known to Brigham Young at the time of the succession crisis, he could have argued that Joseph taught the members to stay with the majority of the twelve. But Brigham made no such argument.
Nelson could have based his “recollection” on the following quote, published 4 years earlier:

Ezra T. Clark recalled: "I heard the Prophet Joseph say he would give the Saints a key whereby they would never be led away or deceived, and that was: the Lord would never suffer the majority of this people to be led away or deceived by imposters (sic), nor would he allow the records of this Church to fall into the hands of the enemy" (Improvement Era 5 [January 1902]: 202). 

Ezra T. Clark was born in Lawrence, Illinois, November 24, 1823. He died in Farmington, Utah October 17, 1901. Relevant facts are as follows:
  • Clark appears to have been in a position to hear Joseph Smith make this statement in Nauvoo.
  • Clark was 20 years old when Joseph died.
  • This quote is from a testimony Clark gave July 24, 1901 at age 77.
  • Clark published this statement at least 57 years after hearing it.
  • Clark makes no other statement of source, circumstances when, where and to whom Joseph said it, whether he recorded it in writing, or how he remembers the wording precisely. It is therefore hearsay and not a historical record. There is no other contemporary collaborating source.
  • This statement was published in an adolescent periodical magazine among other faith-promoting stories about many topics. It is neither doctrine nor scripture.
  • Within the same testimony, Clark makes several demonstrably false statements about historical events, as well as statements about the content and timing of Joseph Smith’s last sermon, which Clark claims to have witnessed, thus showing his memory unreliable and at least some quotations of Smith fabricated.
The most obvious problem with this quote is that it teaches false doctrine. If the Lord will not suffer the majority of this people to be deceived by "imposters," the Lord would necessarily have to abrogate the agency of the Mormon people. And as you may recall, such a plan was proposed in the beginning, but not by God. We must be free to choose.

Clark may have based his “recollection” on the following statement, published 13 years earlier:

Edward Stevenson published a similar statement in 1889 as follows:
"a key by which you may never be deceived" is that "a majority of the saints and the records and history of the Church also" would remain with the Church (see Jenson and Stevenson, Infancy of the Church, p. 5). 

Edward Stevenson was born May 1, 1820, and died January 27, 1897.

Relevant facts are as follows:

  • Stevenson appears to have been in a position to hear Joseph Smith make this statement in Nauvoo.
  • Stevenson was 24 years old when Joseph Smith was killed.
  • Stevenson published this quote at age 69, at least 45 years after hearing it.
  • Stevenson makes no other statement of source, circumstances when, where and to whom Joseph said it, whether he recorded it in writing, or how he remembers the wording precisely. It is therefore uncorroborated hearsay. Again, not a historical record, even though it was published in a history book.

So...What do all the above quotes have in common?

  1. All were first published many decades after Joseph Smith died.
  2. None is from any official doctrinal or scriptural publication of the church.
  3. None is from any recognized church authority.
  4. All are hearsay--meaning they are just statements people claimed Joseph made. In my last post, we explored how hazardous it can be to take such statements at face value.
  5. All have important historical and doctrinal problems, contradicting actual history and doctrine.
And, most importantly,

All were published at a time when the LDS church was battling the RLDS church over which church was "true." Both had estimable claims to be the proper successor to Joseph's restoration. How convenient to have old men on hand in Utah to provide statements that the way to stay with truth is to stay with the Majority of the Twelve (Point LDS!), the records of the church (2-0 LDS in the lead!), and the majority of the membership (LDS for the WIN!!) Sorry RLDS, but thanks for playing.

Yep, good thing we've got old men with spotty memories to say what needs sayin.'

But it doesn't end there. Unfortunately, it gets deeper, broader, and yet more dangerous. I'll show you what I mean in my next post.

Until then, here's one other Gem from the Improvement Era in 1902, that I just couldn't resist sharing. It appears on the page before brother Clark, whom we discussed above.

Advice on Marrying 
     While you're at it, there's nothing like picking out a good-looking wife, because even the handsomest woman looks homely sometimes, and so you get a little variety; but a homely one can only look worse than usual. Beauty is only skin deep, but that's deep enough to satisfy any reasonable man...then, too, if a fellow's bound to marry a fool, and a lot of men have to if they're going to hitch up into a well-matched team, there's nothing like picking a good looking one.
--John Graham, the Packer, to his son Pierrepont.

Words to live by indeed. What do you think? You gonna stake your eternal life on that one?


  1. Awesome!!! So glad you shared this! This is a quote that has been bothering me for a while as I am going through what everyone calls my "faith crisis." I don't like calling it a crisis, more like, an awakening or enlightenment or breaking off the shackles of lies and false traditions. This is a difficult process to separate what is true and what is false. I'm still trying to decide if I should just forget everything and build back up only the correct aspects or if I should continue trying to remove one part at a time while trying to prevent the whole structure from crashing down on me.

    In your previous post you said it very well:
    "But let's look at it another way. What if there were a quote, every as bit as apocryphal, and just as dubious in its source, that happened to say something you agree with. Would you trust it then?

    This is where it gets interesting. And dangerous. Remember, only truth can save you."

    There are so many aspects of this religion that seem to be super important (ie. the word of wisdom) that really are not as important as we make them out to be.

    I loved these last two posts and will definitely be reading more.

  2. Hi Ian,

    I can so empathize with your faith crisis. I would start with the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, and throw out all preconceived notions. Read what the book actually says, not what we tell each other it says. It's very different than we've been taught. And "righteousness" has nothing to do with how you dress, what you pierce, and properly answering a series of temple recommend questions.

    Here are the truths that anchor EVERYTHING for me:

    • Jesus Christ is the Savior, and the only way to salvation.
    • He always follows patterns
    • He has revealed his patterns and methods in scripture
    • He is no respecter of persons. What worked for Joseph, Abraham or Moses MUST work for you and me as well.
    • Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet, and delivered Christ's message.
    • Christ is at work still today, using the same patterns to reveal truth and save the willing.

    Faith in the church will fail. Faith in leaders will fail. All faith MUST be centered in Jesus Christ only. When I hear of people having a crisis of faith, it usually seems to start with faith in the wrong things, and ends with faith in nothing at all. Don't let that be you.

    OK, Sorry, you got me going there. Keep up the search! God is willing and anxious to talk to YOU!

  3. This post is incredible, Bro. Larsen! And very timely too :-)

  4. D&C 109:56 Pray that their hearts may be softened, and that their prejudices may give way before the truth...

  5. Thanks for the reasearch on this quote -- I've struggled with it for years and just left it on the shelf. This clears up so much. And I loved the humor of that last quote on picking a wife!

  6. Great post. What a royal mess we have made!

  7. Aren't the gospels hearsay?

    1. They appear to be eyewitness accounts, corroborating each other in many cases, and written by the power of the Holy Ghost. Quite different than these off-hand, agenda-driven recollections published in magazines and contradicting scripture.

  8. How sad that you have lost the Spirit of understanding that would bless your life in reading everything, because you think you have found error in it, yet you could be taught with full understanding from on high.

    1. Hi MJ,

      Thank you for your concern about me. Rather than a personal attack, though, why not point out the error you feel I've made? If I've gotten it wrong about these three quotes, please feel free to tell us how and why. I invite correction and discussion. But personal attacks do no good for either of us.


Hey everyone,

It's been brought to my attention that comments from mobile phones and some browsers might not come through in some situations. I recommend you save the text of your comment before submitting, in case you need to submit again.

If you commented and it hasn't appeared, try sending from a different browser, or device, or use the "Contact Me" tool to reach out to me personally. Sorry for the problems! The blogger platform, though free, seems to have problems.