Hey guys, so every once in a while, you might run across the criticism that the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith was an arrogant and boastful man who thought he was better than Jesus Himself. To back up this claim, critics will almost always bring up the following quote from a sermon Joseph gave on May 26, 1844. You may have heard it before:
“I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” Don’t go anywhere, let’s talk about this.
So here’s the deal: I don’t think that everything Joseph ever said or did needs to be defended. Humans are not one-dimensional beings. Everyone makes mistakes, and just like everyone else, Joseph will have to answer for his. So if this was Joseph just being prideful, I’m willing to acknowledge that while still believing he was a prophet of God. I don’t think this statement would disprove his prophetic call any more than I would believe that his more humble statements (of which there are many) would prove he is a prophet of God. Peter denied Christ 3 times. Should he have done that? Probably not. Was Peter still chosen by Christ to lead his church? Of course. Heaven knows I’ve said plenty of things I shouldn’t have said, and I hope that after I’m gone, I’m not defined by those moments.
I highly doubt that Joseph actually believed he was better than the Savior of the world. In the midst of persecution in 1839, Joseph received a revelation from God we know today as Doctrine and Covenants 122. God says to Joseph, “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man [Jesus] hath descended below them all.” And then God asks the rhetorical question, “Art thou greater than he?” The obvious answer was no, Joseph was not greater than Jesus.
So, when it comes to this quote, for me, a believing Latter-day Saint, the worst case scenario is that Joseph got carried away and said something prideful. I can accept that. That said, looking at the context in which this statement was made may be helpful to some.
First, it’s important to note that this account of Joseph’s sermon is not coming from Joseph himself. It’s a synopsis prepared by some of his clerks, rendered into first-person to look as if Joseph wrote it himself. That’s not how we write history today, but it was common back then. Sometimes, as Dean Jessee noted, this practice would make Joseph look more prideful than he was, as what his followers thought about him was sometimes portrayed as what Joseph thought about himself. So we can’t say with certainty that Joseph said exactly what is represented in the quote, but we can’t prove otherwise, so we’ll assume the synopsis is accurate.
At the beginning of the synopsis, we’re told that Joseph read the 11th chapter of 2 Corinthians. In that chapter, Paul boasts in a sarcastic way in order to make his point. He writes, “…Let no man think me a fool; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little. That which I speak, I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also.”
It’s as if Paul is saying, “If people are going to treat me like a fool, I’m going to act like a fool and boast like a fool would.” He writes about his critics, “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.… Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen,” he continues on and says, “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”
So Joseph Smith reads this chapter to the group, and then what does he do? Well, it seems that he at least tries to employ the same rhetorical strategy that Paul used. Joseph says, “I, like Paul, have been in perils, and oftener than anyone in this generation. As Paul boasted, I have suffered more than Paul did. I should be like a fish out of water if I were out of persecutions. Perhaps my brethren think it requires all this to keep me humble. The Lord has constituted me so curiously that I glory in persecution. I am not nearly so humble as if I were not persecuted.”
You can read the rest of it on your own, but it’s within this context that we get the controversial quote in question. When he says, “I have more to boast of than ever any man had,” he’s in part alluding to Paul’s boasting and taking it a step further.
Now, I’m not saying that this context forces us to let Joseph off scot-free. I think it’s still reasonable to see the context and think that maybe Joseph took things a step too far. But at least we see where he’s getting this boastful approach from. In the end, again, I don’t think he seriously was making the case that he was better than Jesus. I think this was just rhetoric. In this part of the sermon, he wanted to make the point that despite all of the opposition he faced, he would come out on top in the end.
Ultimately, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot riding on this statement, but you’re certainly free to come to your own conclusions. As you do so, I’d encourage you to get a more comprehensive view of Joseph than the passing glance we get from social media. Read some respected books about him. Richard Bushman wrote a great biography of Joseph called Rough Stone Rolling. That’s one that both Latter-day Saints and critics generally tend to like. If you want to learn more about Joseph Smith right now, here’s a great episode about his education (or lack thereof) that you might like. Have a great day!
— “Rough Stone Rolling,” by Richard Bushman.
— “Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life & Character,” by various authors, including Matthew Godfrey, Matthew Grow, & R. Eric Smith.
— “The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith,” edited & compiled by Dean Jessee
— “Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet,” by Susan E. Black & Andrew Skinner
— “Joseph Smith: The Prophet and Seer,” by Richard Holzapfel & Kent Jackson
— “History, 1838–1856, volume F-1 [1 May 1844–8 August 1844]” via the Joseph Smith Papers Project: https://bit.ly/3oVhAL8
— “Discourse, 26 May 1844, as Compiled by Leo Hawkins,” via the Joseph Smith Papers Project: https://bit.ly/3NkTym6
— The quote as it appears in “History of the Church,” 6:408: https://bit.ly/3Ck6UZu
— “Joseph Smith wasn’t arrogant or boastful,” by Dan Peterson in the Deseret News: https://bit.ly/3MZTyqa