DID JOSEPH SMITH MAKE PREDICTIVE PROPHECIES THAT CONFIRM HIS STATUS AS A DIVINELY APPOINTED PROPHET?
Well, Joseph Smith and his acolytes certainly thought so and so do his present day followers! The fact is that Smith made many utterances that could be construed as prophecy or predictive in some way. They were nearly all written down in his many books and pamphlets, so a good place to look for them is in his major works: Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, although he did claim that the Book of Abraham was a translation (done by him) of a newly found, but ancient document (as was the Book of Mormon).
MEANING OF PROPHECY
Before we examine the above writings, it may be opportune to look at what is meant by prophecy, for it depends what interpretation is put on it what is adduced, one way or the other. It is clear that present day adherents of the Mormon faith regard many of their leader`s predictions as conditional, i.e. they state or even suggest that something may or should happen in the near (or distant) future , the fact that it did not happen is no contravention of the claimed (divine) status of their prophet. Such is their belief. With this caveat in mind we can examine the Smith documents.
The Church of Latter-Day Saints has many critics, many of them denying the “divine” status of Joseph Smith himself, and consequently of his predictions. The list is extensive of “failed” prophecies which cannot be denied: events which have signally failed to come true. This essay is not specially concerned with these, but rather with those that did come to pass. The Book of Mormon, claimed by Smith to have been translated by him from sources revealed to him by an angel, is full of so-called prophecies which in the fullness of time have been shown to be fallacious. Of course there are predictive statements in the Bible that strictly have not been fulfilled and supporters of the LDS are quick to point these out. Also, genuine prophecies . must be made in the name of God, which Smith did not always do, although critics look upon them as attempts at prophecy. However the sheer number of unfulfilled “prophecies” made by Smith is perhaps the best evidence that he was not “called” by God to do momentous work.
Joseph Smith`s own explanation of his “divine “ mission is in essence the one concerning the “plates” he was shown by the angel, Moroni, which contained the revelations made to the prophet Mormon by God. By the aid of Moroni but chiefly by the agency of the Lord, Smith translated the Book of Mormon (echoing the “inspired” writers of the Bible), and reflecting the truths revealed to him by God. Or so he would have us believe. Smith was himself conscious that several of his utterances might be construed as prophecy; hence his well known nostrum: “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (History of the Church: 5; 265) – which narrows the field down somewhat. He made one other important caveat re prophecy: nothing is to be taken as in any way predictive if it is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed.
It cannot be denied that Joseph Smith was very much a mortal man with (many) faults. However he claimed to have seen a vision of God when he was a teenager which set him on his evangelican course. Later as a young man he “translated” the Book of Mormon (by divine aid) which he and his followers to the present day regard as sacred Scripture, (on a par with the Bible) but in the eyes of LDS adherents more than the Bible as it contains Joseph Smith`s own interpretations and interpolations. Important as it is, the Book of Mormon does not reveal as much of the dogma and beliefs of the religion as the book of Doctrine and Covenant.. In it we read of the supposed words of God; naturally very supportive of the writer: “Behold, thou art Joseph and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord….” (3;37) This is the current belief (among adherents). In the History of the Church, 1, vol 5, p. 516, Smith says : ..”I was called by my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom….” It is therefore possible to think that either Smith was a charlatan or was indeed a prophet of God. Maybe an examination of the predictions he made will help us decide. No doubt the words of Jeff Lindsay, an ardent apologist for the Mormon faith, sums up the present situation well: “Joseph Smith was as mortal as any of us, though he was a great and often inspired man. He saw God, he translated sacred scriptures with the power of God, he was ordained under the hand of angels and he made many true prophecies of the future—but he was a mortal man who lacked omniscience” (Essay on the Fallibility of Inspired Human Leaders)
CHOSEN BY GOD
From this sentence. it is also equally clear that Joseph is not regarded as divine, but that he was chosen by God and that he did make true predictions. Therefore it follows that if Smith was divinely appointed, his prophecies should be genuine and finally fulfilled. The escape clause lies in the acknowledgement that , however, Joseph Smith was fallible—and only human!. In fact the issue of infallibility comes up frequently in any discussion of the predictions of Joseph Smith, leaving the reader with the impression that when he was right he was divinely inspired but that when he was wrong he was a fallible human being. However, it must equally be understood that one unfulfilled prophecy does not make a person a false prophet. On that assumption, Joseph Smith would indeed be false.
There are various definitions of prophecy, most of them warning of the dangers of a too literal interpretation, especially when circumstances might change. Unfulfilled prophecies from the bible are adduced in mitigation of the charge that too many of Smith`s predictions did not come true and that too few did come true. This I venture to claim is the fundamental reason for attacks on Joseph Smith and the Church he founded. However, wrong interpretation (of Smith`s words) can enter into the generality of judgement.
It is true that Smith did make some verifiable prophecies. But many of these related to nugatory matters, such as the harmful use of tobacco, dietary principles of nutrition, while some, to be fair, were of greater consequence, such as forecasting the outbreak of the civil war (American) , but likely to be foreseen! the establishment of the LDS Church (now some 20 million world-wide) , and his own martyrdom (he had made many enemies! As we have said above, Joseph Smith was not perfect; he was fallible but this does not of itself debar Smith from possessing the gift of prophecy. The point at issue is: was Smith divinely appointed – or self appointed?
Clearly Smith himself was conscious of the credibility of his prophetic utterances. He did not regard himself as in any way perfect (only God is this, he knew). He has a revealing sentence in D & C, 132: 13-14, where he alludes to his revelations: “And everything…that is not by me or by my word …shall be thrown down , and shall not remain after men are dead…For whatsoever things remain are by me; and whatsoever things are not by me shall be shaken and destroyed.” An explicit statement of self-belief indeed! But much of which was misplaced. Critical comment has adduced about fifty utterances which could be construed as predictive and which did not come to be realised. (A list can be found in the article by Richard Packham, to be located on the Web at: http://www.exmormon.org/prophet.htm ) This essay however is not about unfulfilled prophecy but with what was fulfilled.
NATURE OF THE PROPHECIES
There are many foretellings in the oral and written words of Joseph Smith. Some of these are about future events and naturally Smith used the future tense when speaking of them , e.g. “will”, “would” and their variants. This is not necessarily the same as saying (or implying) that he “prophesied” the coming of future events. Again, interpretation is the crux. It is largely a question of the emphasis the utterer (Joseph Smith gave them. For example, Smith did speak about the establishment of his Church in years to come in a context that could be construed as prophetic – (in so far as the prediction did come true). Other statements alluding to future time often concerned people (he knew) and predicted what they might do or become; these tend not to be of great moment. Often the statements about future events were little more than promises, which sometimes came true (but which could be intelligently guessed at). Of a different nature altogether, for example, is his stricture (or prophecy) that false prophets will be thrown down: “For although a man may have many revelations….yet if he boasts in his own strength and sets at nought the counsels of God….he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. ” (D&C: 3;4) From this it is evident that Smith regarded himself as a true prophet, but as is well known, possessing the gift of prophecy does not make all utterances divinely inspired. His prediction about the American Civil War did come true and was possibly his “best”—(we have mentioned this earlier), but whether divine inspiration was behind this…?
Another accurate prophecy is that concerned with the hardships and tribulations that the early Mormon Church would face, but whether a divinely guiding hand was at work is doubtful. However, in his article “Fulfilled Prophecies of Joseph Smith” Jeff Lindsay (mentioned earlier) writes: “Joseph never claimed to be infallible, and no prophet is. He may have been frustrated by the delayed fulfilment of some prophecies such as the establishment of Zion in Missouri, which has yet to come. But those who knew him well
knew that he was a prophet of God and those who have examined carefully the prophetic Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenant or Pearl of Great price will find abundant evidence of heavenly inspiration”. High praise indeed, but all may not agree with it. (We shall examine the Book of Mormon shortly).
What Mormons do agree on however is that God gives direction of (or to) the Church through the current President of the Church. This is divine revelation. Heavenly inspired scripture is contained in the BOOK OF MORMON whose prophecies we can examine.. The Book itself is named after a prophet named Mormon who was we are to believe the author of it; Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book and it was then published in 1830. According to Smith the Book is a translation of an ancient text on gold plates containing the writings of prophets who lived about 500 BC to 500 AD. The last of these prophets was called Moroni who buried the plates somewhere in what is now North America. Smith said he received the plates from an angel (possibly Moroni now translated into heaven) . However serious doubts have been expressed about Smith`s version of events. Smith insisted that the Book was translated under divine inspiration. Thus it is regarded by adherents as evidence of the truth of the Church and that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God. The Book`s ostensible purpose is to show what great things the Lord has done for the House of Israel and to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ. Cynics of course claim that it is an attempt at justifying the existence of the new Church. The Book itself is composed of books named after the prophet named as author of the book. The books in the Book of Mormon are as follows:
First Book of Nephi : his reign and ministry,
Second Book of Nephi
Book of Jacob – the brother of Nephi
Book of Enos
Book of Jarom
Book of Omni
Words of Mormon
Book of Mosiah
Book of Alma: the son of Alma
Book of Helaman
Third Nephi: the son of Nephi
Fourth Nephi ; the son of Nephi. One of the disciples of Jesus Christ
Book of Mormon;
Book of Ether
Book of Moroni
There are some thirty statements in the Book of Mormon which are capable of being construed as prophecy but which have been criticised as fallacious. A full consideration of these statements (adverse of course!) is given in the article “Skeptic`s Annotated Book of Mormon” obtainable on the web site: www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/BOM/pr/long.html
These criticisms, if valid, are devastating in an article on prophecy in the Book of Mormon which purports to be one of the most treasured texts of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
It is however only fair to say that there are many/some prophecies of Joseph Smith which were fulfilled. Whether these were divinely inspired; indeed whether they were of such a nature that the guiding hand of God was required is a matter for debate.
As we have mentioned perhaps the most significant of Smith`s prophecies concerns the outbreak of the Civil War some thirty years after he made the prophecy. (c 1830 and 1860) This insight was given by God to Smith in a revelation.
In 1831, Smith prophesised that his church would establish itself and prosper in the area known as the Rocky Mountains. It was in Utah that the Church particularly flourished and gained a great many followers.
In 1838 the LDS was singularly persecuted and Joseph himself was thrown into jail. There he prayed for deliverance; the Lord spoke to him assuring him of eventual comfort and deliverance. Soon after, Joseph did escape, probably by collusion with a guard.
Smith prophesied in 1856 that a close acquaintance, one Stephen Douglas would occupy future high office . This he did, but failed to achieve the highest. i.e. becoming USA President.
Joseph predicted that there would be much lawlessness and concomitant destruction in Jackson County, Missouri, thereby saving life and limb of those who were going to enter the County.
In 1838, Joseph and some of his followers were condemned to execution. In the midst of their desperate plight Joseph cheered his fellow captives and promised them deliverance. This came true.
In 1829, Joseph Smith learned in a divine revelation that he needed three witnesses to see the gold plates he was about to translate. Smith picked three men ostensibly at random to pray for heavenly guidance. Apparently this they received and subsequently swore they were witnesses to Joseph`s translation.
Parts of the Book of Mormon offer geographical detail –-since verified as authemtic.
In 1833, Smith gave to the world his health guide, concerning such as alcohol and smoking , and dietary principles, advanced for his day but accepted today.
In 1836, Smith and a close henchman, Oliver Chowdery, declared that the prophet Elijah had visited them to impart to them authority for turning the hearts of children to their fathers. Apparently this meant genealogical work by which children seek out the names and histories of their fathers and forebears. Liberally interpreted, this has come to fruition as genealogical studies have from that day loomed large in Mormon interests. The Mormon archives harbour the largest collection of genealogical records in the world.
Beyond dispute are the fulfilled predictions of Smith concerning the futures of some of his close colleagues.
Even reports of “miraculous” happenings are cited. One concerns a woman who could not lift her arm. Joseph Smith it appears went up to her and said: “Woman in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command thee to be whole,” and from that moment she obtained full movement of her arm. The story is given in Early History of the Disciples by A.S. Hayden, Chase and Hall, 1876. (The disciples being of course LDS disciples.)
An interesting event occurred on the occasion of an imprisonment of Joseph and one of his friends. Apparently, Joseph had “visions of the future” vouchsafed to him as a result of which he awoke his friend and told him of the right time to make a bid for freedom, This he did and they both escaped. (Reported in History of the Church, Vol 3, p316)
In 1839, the Mormon Church was under renewed hostility, so much so that Joseph sought guidance from the Lord with regard to the best course of action. This involved a moving to another geographical area. Under divine protection and guidance the Church located safely.
There are others, mostly predicting the immediate future of his colleagues, but they are minor and in no way could they be described as divine prophecy. Maybe we should end this section on a note commendatory of Joseph Smith. We can do no better than quote the words of one of the most influential of LDS scholars, Jeff Lindsay:
The scriptures Joseph left us must be given special emphasis in determining his status as a prophet. Hearsay , etc., ….may appear to show false prophecies, but these are much less reliable …than the canonized writings we have where the claim of prophetic influence is to be taken seriously. Prophecy in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, demand attention –and respect, for they, like the other scriptures given through Joseph, are prophetic indeed.
In Doctrine and Covenant, (110) there is a revelation purported to have come to Joseph from God: “I am Jesus Christ , the Son of God; wherefore gird up your loins and I will suddenly come to my temple…” This was in 1830; the story goes that the Lord did appear in the Church`s first temple, soon after its dedication, in 1936.
It may be claimed that the growth of the Church was predicted in the words given in D&C, 64;33, “Wherefore be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work”: the words of God, revealed to Joseph.
Another revelation says that no-one against the LDS church will prosper: “There is no weapon that is formed against you that shall prosper”; LDS adherents claim that no-one has been able to grievously injure the Church.
The enigmatic statement in D&C, (87;4) : “Slaves shall rise up against their masters” is taken to refer to such as anti-colonial riots and rebellions of present history,
In 1833, Smith gave a “word of wisdom” which warned against the use of now considered harmful substances.
A statement by Smith in D&C : 98;6, seemed to suggest that the USA Constitution was established under God`s influence. (It has certainly survived!)
According to D&C, Moses appeared to some LDS followers and “committed unto us the keys of the gathering…..from the four parts of the earth”; this is taken as a prophecy of the second coming of Christ: one of the main tenets of the faith.
Some/many of Joseph`s so-called prophecies are really revelations of material items which were on the cusp of generally accepted knowledge in his time. Thus what he said about the nature of matter (nothing is immaterial) and the motion of stars in the universe are more to be taken as revelation than as prophecy.
Often Smith foretold his own prominence – via the angel Moroni, message derived from God. He (Smith) had work to do he alleged (from Moroni`s words): rewriting accepted Christian teaching; cleansing present day practice.
As we have pointed out, Joseph Smith made predictions concerning some of his colleagues, which mainly came true; he forecast for example that Brigham Young would later preside over the Church.
At one stage in early Mormon life, it seems there was much dissent and quarrelling, so much so that Joseph predicted a scourge among the quarrellers, unless they kept to the commandments (of the Bible according to Smith). This they did and the plague was lifted. (It might have gone away anyway.)
One of the most interesting events concerning Joseph Smith was that purported to have happened in 1841. It seems that Smith instructed a “dedicatory” prayer to be given by a follower, in Palestine as it then was, precisely, on the Mount of Olives. This is taken to foretell the eventual wholesale migration of Jews to Palestine.
Some of the (alleged) prophecies of Smith are more in the nature of premonitions, rather than predictions. There were times when he believed something was amiss or not quite right which was later proved to be a correct presumption. But in no way could these be regarded as prophetical or predictive of the future.
Perhaps nearer the mark is a statement of the early thirties, in which Joseph Smith spoke of there being established in the near future “stakes” in major cities of the USA. This did come to fruition as the New York stake was established in 1934 and other stakes followed in other cities. (A “stake” in LDS parlance means an organised or administrative unit of the Church, parallel to say a diocese in the Catholic Church.)
Maybe we should end this section with a significant entry! In the summer of 1844 there is a “prophecy” made by Smith of his own death! This is taken from the History of the Church (one of the basic books of the Mormon Church) where Smith says the following: “I told that if Hyrum [ a colleague] and I were ever taken again we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.”
Soon after Smith met his death
I have adduced all the evidence I can find in an attempt to answer the question posed in the essay title. I remain unconvinced that Joseph Smith was indeed a divinely appointed prophet. Mostly, we have his word for it – but not only his word. There is for example the evidence of some of his contemporaries whose interpretation of Smith`s words and actions which seem to testify to the predictive or prophetic gifts of Joseph Smith. Some of this testimony is given above. Often his own words reveal a deep belief in his powers. Real prophecy is more than intuition. Examining the above it is not seldom that the thought occurs: is this really prophecy or just a thoughtful guess at the future. Much of it seems directed at minor matters which it is hard to belief needs divine guidance or motivation .Of course he is regarded by millions as a true prophet divinely appointed.
The LDS church flourishes. But speaking personally I am not convinced by the prophecies which with some exceptions seem not to be real prophecy. I have tried to answer the question regarding what is true prophecy. I do not think it should be concerned with prognostifications about the future careers of someone or about happenings which would not be of any particular moment. As Smith claims divine authority for his work it is fair that we can refer to biblical prophecies as a yardstick. I am not saying that all prophecies in the bible were fulfilled, but at least most of them were (unlike those of Smith) and they related to important events that often did occasion fundamental change.
That Smith was convinced of his “chosen” status as a religious leader who would as it were cleanse the religious Augean stables of centuries of obfuscation and indeed corruption, there is little doubt. The doubt is entertained by others (who are not LDS followers).. Is his status that of a divinely appointed prophet? I think not. However let us look at the foregoing more closely and then judge.
THE PROPHECIES CONSIDERED
They do vary in gravity; with this proviso in mind it is possible to come to the conclusion that often the barrel is being scraped – by members of Smith`s Church. Nevertheless some of the items in the above list are introduced by statements that relate to heavenly provenance; for example, when the instance begins with such as: learned in a divine revelation; the prophet Elijah; by the power of God [healing] ; seeking guidance from God; I am Jesus Christ; words of God; appearance of Moses; the angel Moroni. Thus there are eight adduced that refer specifically to heavenly guidance or inspiration. This also leaves some thirty that do not. It is not however justified to dismiss the thirty as too mundane or worse, of no great significance; just as it is not justified to adjudge the others as of greater moment than the rest. We need to look at them individually and try to put them in context with what we know. This we shall now do.
The first “prophecy” in our list is concerned with predicting the American Civil War. This prophecy did come true, but whether it was by divine inspiration, as usually adduced, is problematical. Couldanyone have seen it coming? I tend to think so
The prediction that the Church would be established and grow in several parts of America certainly denotes confidence in his own movement but was this prophecy as it is general known. Possibly; or wishful thinking? This could perhaps be given as positive evidence of Joseph`s power?
When Joseph Smith was imprisoned, awaiting probable execution, he later claimed that Jesus Christ spoke to him and gave him words of encouragement, In the event, Smith did escape. This could be cited as some proof of Joseph being a “chosen one” by God, but as an instance of genuine prophecy it falls far short. In hindsight it is seems like a recollection.
Here there is alleged evidence of Smith`s ability to foresee the future, where he foretells (prophesies) the rise to prominence of a colleague. He was right over this but I cannot equate it with heavenly guidance!
We are told that Smith did forecast lawlessness and destruction in Jackson County, thus preventing a body of his supporters from going there and meeting their fate.
Again we may query whether this was common sense or real prophecy.
Yet again, Joseph and some of his followers were awaiting execution when he sought comfort from God, cheered his companions and later all escaped. Is this an example of prophecy? It was undoubtedly a correct inspiration – but anything more?
It was revealed (by heavenly agency) to Joseph that he would need witnesses to the authenticity of the gold plates and his translation of them, so he gathered three people (whether known to him is not clear) who later testified in writing to this very act. Was Joseph guided by God in his surmise—that he would need witnesses?
The Book of Mormon is attacked because of seemingly inaccuracies in geographical detail. However, it does seem , according to present day researches, that much ( if not all) the geographical references are authentic. Joseph could not possibly have known much of biblical geography at that time. Perhaps a plus point for Smith!
Much has been made (I believe too much) of Smith`s warnings and strictures concerning health matters. Do you need to be a prophet to deliver these warnings?
The episode where Smith and others “saw” the prophet Elijah, instigated the interest in matters genealogical, when Elijah spoke of children seeking out their fathers. This is taken to mean the delving into family records. This certainly bore fruit as the LDS genealogical records are huge. Maybe this is one piece of heavenly guidance that is credible.
Possibly most puzzling of all is the incident where it is reported that Joseph by the power of God healed the paralysed arm of the woman. More instances of Smith`s healing power would not have gone amiss in verification of his “divine” status; even so, these could not have been considered prophecy.
On another occasion when Smith and companions were incarcerated (according to the Church accounts this seemed to occur quite frequently) he saw a vision of the future (must have been by heavenly agency) which betokened an opportune time to make an escape. This wisdom was conveyed and all ultimately escaped. More testimony to Joseph`s special status?
One time it became clear to Joseph that his movement was under some threat. He sought the guidance of God which was to relocate. This he did which was beneficial. Perhaps this also adds to the esteem Joseph is held in by his followers. But is the reporting of this episode accurate?
A revelation from God? Joseph was told that “I Jesus Christ” will appear in “my temple” According to Mormon history Christ did appear in the Church temple, much later. This was undoubtedly in the nature of a prophecy which, if all is to be believed, did come true
The next one we shall consider is similar to one of the earlier ones, predicting the growth of Mormonism and its churches. Is this prophecy or merely anticipating the obvious; but it may not have been so obvious in the 1830s.!
Smith prophesised that no-one would prosper who harmed his Church. Although there have been, and are, many critics of the LDS, those who wish to do the Church actual harm are as yet unknown to history. More in the nature of a threat than a prediction?
One of Smith`s forecasts concerns the revolt among “slaves” as well as unrest in certain counties. This can only be interpreted if later anti-colonial unrest combined with aspirations for freedom are considered. Was this prophecy? There was later some unrest and trouble.
Possibly one of the strangest predictions, prophecies or what you will, is the statement made by Joseph Smith that in all probability the Constitution of the USA was (to be) established under the guidance of the Lord. This, if it is a prophecy, can never be verified (or denied): it is a statement one can accept -or reject.
I realise the danger of repetition; but as Smith often proclaimed the futures of his close followers, I could re-emphasise. These could be considered as prognostications and as one utterance concerned a future leader of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, some of them are not without significance. But again, I can not see the hand of God displayed in this.
On the occasion of Moses appearing to Smith and some followers., it seems some words were uttered by the patriarch which were interpreted as prophesying the Second Coming of Christ (something which the Mormon Church eagerly awaits) . Clearly this has not happened yet. But as we do not know the time scales involved, it might yet happen – and one of Smith`s prophecies (by proxy) may come true.
It is quite common nowadays to claim (by LDS supporters) that Smith was well before his time in scientific as well as religious matters. His comments on the universe and on the nature of matter, were perhaps somewhat avant-guarde for his time, but to be fair,they have been borne out by present study,
But they were not prophecy.
Smith, via the angel Moroni, foretold his own prominence and his mission in life. He did become a prominent figure and established a new religion. Has this the ring of true prophecy? No doubt more than most of his utterances. Cynics might however claim: he would say this, wouldn`t he?!
At one stage there was a good deal of unrest and indeed dissent among Smith`s disciples. He predicted a scourge of some kind would come upon them unless they abided by “his” commandments. His prophecy seemed to be taken seriously as they did change their behaviour and the plague (for such it was) did not take a hold. There is a strong spiritual element seen in this perhaps which it may be thought to be lacking in some other predictions.
An intriguing episode occurred in 1841 when for some reason Smith ordered a dedicatory prayer be said by one of his followers. The portend of this is, according to Mormon historians, that Smith foresaw the later mass migration of Jews to Palestine. The prayer was given on the Mount of Olives. If this interpretation is correct then Smith`s prophecy was fulfilled.
In the mid 1830s Joseph Smith stated that “Stakes” would be established throughout America. He was right in this prophecy or prediction; they were. The Church did grow very substantially. (Just a reminder: “Stakes” in Mormon parlance are religious communities: equivalent to a diocese.)
Finally, perhaps one we cannot argue with! In 1844, Smith declared that if he were to be captured again he would be killed – or he was not a prophet of God. Soon after this utterance, he was slain by a gunshot. Did this prove he was a divine prophet? If it were a prophecy it certainly came true!
I would state categorically that Joseph Smith did not make prophecies that confirm his status as a divinely appointed prophet. Many of the items given above are common sense or hopeful predictions. (I have tried to seek out anything that could remotely be considered as prophetic.) I believe I have done him more than justice on this score.
Some are almost banal; but this does not stop them being cited (by some) as testimony to Smith`s preternatural powers. A few may be considered as border-line true prophecies, but even these strain credulity. Maybe those predictions that quote heavenly or biblical figures can with some leniency be believed in. One or two could result from heavenly motivation or instigation. But they are few. My conclusion is that Joseph Smith was no divinely inspired prophet; he may on occasion have displayed a talent for futuristic utterance; he was without doubt a remarkable man who could convince others who were of uncommitted faith i.e. those looking for guidance. However from the evidence above, I remain unconvinced of Joseph Smith`s genuine gift of prophecy
Finally one observation: as with so much of history we are at the mercy of contemporary or near contemporary scribes, and/or later commentators. Some may be biased either way; some may have an axe to grind. Often we do not know of the authenticity or reliability of the sources we read or rely on. This is as true of material about Joseph Smith as it is, alas , about some historical figures – including those of the Bible.
WHAT WAS THE MORMON CHURCH`S ORIGINAL DOCTRINE ABOUT
Originally, the doctrine was racist. But this bald statement needs to be modified and indeed explained. The first thing to do is to put this attitude (to African-Americans ) in context; in the milieu of the time. We know that Joseph Smith began to rise to prominence in a religious sense, about 1830 in an age that took for granted the legitimacy of slavery and therefore the inferiority of black people. Reinforcing this attitude was the importance of the biblical story (at least to religious minds) concerning the “seed of Cain” : Cain who was the murderer of his brother Abel and who therefore God cursed with a black skin. It was believed by members of the fledgling Mormon Church that ,it followed, black people were descended from the sinner Cain. It is from this perspective that we need to examine the statement.
A RACIST SOCIETY
We also need to remember that racist policies in general had for a long time flourished in America. These policies were societal as well as religious. These were certainly in place in Joseph Smith`s time so maybe it is not surprising that the early Mormon Church reflected these attitudes. It must however also be noted that black Americans were not barred from membership of the Church but were barred from religious office in the Church, especially the priesthood. Nevertheless, many black people joined the church; maybe they took racist attitudes for granted as well!
Joseph Smith himself initially was anti-abolitionist, i.e. for the retention of slavery. If he harboured notions of setting negroes free, he could not be overt about this, and in fact, preached the importance of working the land which then necessitated servitude. Biblical authority seemed to be on his side too as we are told that Ham (one of the sons of Noah) “begat” Canaan who would be cursed (by God) and become a servant of servants. The accepted belief of the age among both Christians and Jews was that the African races were descended from Ham or Canaan and were destined to be slaves. After all, they had been cursed by God! So initially, the Church`s attitude to black people was inimical –but was modified over the years (of Smith`s lifetime) – when he perceived it to be politic to change. To be fair to Smith, however, it does seem as if he did not actually mention African-Americans in connection with their greatest disadvantage ( in Church membership) – barring from the priesthood. It appears that Joseph Smith did actually ordain an African-American to the priesthood in 1836. Whether this action was from genuine conviction or was an example of tokenism we do not know. Perhaps to encourage the others!
INFLUENCE OF BRIGHAM YOUNG
After some liberalisation of the racist attitude, and after Joseph Smith`s death the incoming President Brigham Young reverted to a full proclamation of the belief that Blacks were indeed descended from Cain via Ham and were therefore “cursed” (possessing the “mark” of Cain: a black skin!) Under Young `s Presidency, strict interpretation of the Gospel passages that seemingly condemn blacks to an everlasting serfdom was the order of the day. He believed implicitly in the doctrine of prohibition from the priesthood. Only a decree or revelation from God could alter this. Apparently this never came,
There was to be no quick answer to the dilemma facing the Mormon Church: racial discrimination was not as virulent or prevalent by the early 20th century and movement was growing for the acceptance of African-Americans to the Mormon priesthood. Even so, it was not until the publication of a book called THE WAY TO PERFECTION (1931) by the tenth President. Joseph Fielding Smith that matters vis-a- vis the priesthood began to be resolved. Apart from examining the current issues, the book propounded the theory that African-Americans from premortal eras had been unreliable: i.e. that even in the time of war in heaven they had favoured Lucifer`s cause but had been too cowardly to openly rebel. This theory was accepted with great enthusiasm by the body of the Church as more rational than the existing doctrine (which seemed somewhat arbitrary). It was felt that Joseph Fielding Smith had addressed (and solved) a theological problem. The problem was that Fielding Smith`s book had done very little to resolve the question as to who should actually receive the priesthood.
In the early days of the Mormon Church its membership was mainly in the northern states of America, but as its evangelising work spread to the southern states the problem of discrimination came to the fore. Much activity took place in Missouri, one of the “slave states”, so much so that the exclusion issue became acute. One of the “difficulties” was that although practice suggested otherwise, there was actually nothing written down of a racist nature in Mormon “Bibles”, in such as the Doctrine and Covenant”. As we have said earlier, discrimination was strengthened by the second President Brigham Young , who for example was reported as replying to the question: “What chance is there for the redemption of the negro?” with the rejoinder: “The Lord has cursed Cain`s seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood.” Also when asked if the spirits of negroes were neutral in heaven, Young replied, “No they were not; there were no neutral spirits in heaven at the time of the rebellion; all took sides. All spirits are pure that came from the presence of God.”
It has to be remembered that at this time, the South believed that the Bible did acknowledge slavery as permissible; however to balance this belief is the fact that the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenant did condemn slavery . But at the time these were voices crying in the wilderness. Joseph Smith was indeed anti slavery even if blacks were not worthy enough in his eyes to aspire to the priesthood. Smith and the other early Presidents regarded themselves as Prophets of God so it is a mystery that they ignored the pertinent passage in Galations where Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek , there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”(3;28). The tenets of pre-existence and skin colour form the basis of early Mormon belief in the inferiority of black races. There is nothing in the Bible which supports this belief. However, different “break-away” groups of the Mormon Church have different practices. Some have always allowed black people to hold high office, while others continue racist practices.
DESCENDANTS OF CAIN
The first written reference to dark skin is to be found in the Book of Mormon, in the chapter on Nephi (mentioned earlier) where it is explained that those who rebelled against God were called Lamanites and those who supported were called Nephites. The mark of Cain was put upon the Lamanites, that is a black skin, and by analogy all of negroid race were held to be descendants of the sinful Cain. It must be pointed out though that the Book of Mormon did not support the theory that God had cursed the black race. The position seems to be that the Mormon hierarchy originally supported the system of slavery, but later changed its mind, Joseph Smith being one of them, while at the same time prohibiting African-Americans from attaining the highest office of the priesthood. Membership itself of the Church we may remind ourselves was never denied on the ground of race.
Certainly in the 1830s it does seem as if Joseph Smith was definitely a supporter of slavery but by the 1840s he had become strongly anti-slavery. But this does not necessarily mean that Smith was in general sympathetic to the basic worthiness or equality of blacks. When asked what he thought of the then prevalent situation of blacks, he is reputed to have replied, “They came into the world slaves mentally and physically….had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by law to their own species…” (History of the Church, Vol 5,). Attitudes have now certainly changed. The main LDS Church has at present a strictly no tolerance stance regarding racial discrimination; and in 1978 declared that a divine revelation had been received forbidding further discrimination of any kind in the Church. As we have mentioned however, other branches of the Mormon Church have different practices with regard to discrimination. Male African-Americans can now be admitted to the Mormon priesthood.
A fitting conclusion to this essay is provided by the passage in the Bible (Genesis) which the first Mormons believed gave them authority for their (racist) attitude to African-Americans. The passage is seen in 9;20-27:
Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard, and he drank of the wine, and became drunk. He lay uncovered in his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away and they did not see their father`s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said.
Cursed be Canaan: a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.
Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem, and let Canaan be his slave.
God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
And let Canaan be his slave.