Joseph Smith

Know Brother Joseph: Q&A with the Editors

Joseph Smith once said that “no man knows my history.” A new book from the Joseph Smith Papers Project seeks to change that.

Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character is a book drawn from Joseph Smith Papers Project research. Contributors share invaluable insights about the Joseph Smith’s life, ranging from his birth and First Vision to his character and martyrdom. Editors R. Eric Smith, Matthew C. Godfrey, and Matthew J. Grow discuss some of the book’s highlights.

Why are the chapters in Know Brother Joseph 1,500 words or less?

Matt Grow: Academic articles are often 10,000 words or more. Here, we asked each author to write in just 1,500 words or less. Our thought was that writing concisely would lead to a more focused and accessible approach.

It forces each author to prioritize the most important aspects of their approach. And in a book like Know Brother Joseph, it also allows for many more voices to be heard—about 40 authors in all.

Are all of the contributors to Know Brother Joseph historians?

Eric Smith: About half of the contributors are historians, but all contributors have worked in the area of history in some significant way. For example, several of the editors who wrote essays have worked for years as part of the Joseph Smith Papers editorial team.

We felt it was beneficial to get perspectives from people in a variety of professions, including from some people who haven’t yet published much of their own writing. While some essayists could fall into multiple categories, the breakdown of occupations represented in Know Brother Joseph is roughly as follows:

  • Historian: 20
  • Editor (this is where I fall!) : 6
  • Educator: 6
  • Writer: 4
  • Archivist: 2
  • Attorney: 1
  • Genealogist: 1
  • Curator: 1

What does Steven C. Harper say was the dilemma between head and heart that led to the First Vision?

Matt Godfrey: This is how Steve Harper describes the fight Joseph was experiencing between deciding if Methodism or Presbyterianism was right. Methodism focused on a conversion experience whereby one’s heart would be transformed by the Spirit; Presbyterianism stated that Christ’s atonement applied to just a few people.

Because Joseph could not feel the “ravishing” of his sinful heart, his mind told him that perhaps Presbyterianism was right and he was not one of the chosen few.

When God and Jesus Christ told him that none of the sects on the earth were true, this solved the dilemma. It helped him understand that the reason he was not feeling anything was not because he was not one of God’s chosen elect; it was because Christ’s doctrine in its purity was not on the earth.

What is the “middle ground” referenced in the Preface of Know Brother Joseph?

Matt Grow: In the preface, we are making the point that Joseph Smith has always been a figure of great interest. When the angel Moroni first visited him in 1823, he said that Joseph’s name would be known for good and evil throughout the world.

Of course, millions of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints testify that Joseph was a prophet who restored Christ’s Church.

Detractors, both in his time and in our own time, dismiss him as a fraud.

The middle ground is those who are curious and want to understand the phenomenon of a nineteenth-century American prophet. For instance, college classes now include Joseph and the early Latter-day Saints in a variety of contexts.

How can Joseph Smith’s example give us strength to faithfully endure our trials?

Eric Smith: Joseph Smith said in section 127 that tribulation had become “second nature” to him. I think that acceptance helped him to push forward no matter what challenges came. He knew that the adversity would never go away—that all he could choose was how to respond.

As far as how he responded, have you ever had a friend who was unusually brave physically, or socially, or in dealing with setbacks, and it rubbed off on you in a good way? That is kind of what I get from thinking about Joseph.

His example makes me more brave and encourages me to not let my mind slip into despair.

I love the quotation from George A. Smith:

“[Joseph] told me I should never get discouraged, whatever difficulties might surround me. If I was sunk in the lowest pit of Nova Scotia and all the Rocky Mountains piled on top of me, I ought not to be discouraged but hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage and I should come out on the top of the heap at last.”

George A Smith

Matt Godfrey: Looking at how Joseph Smith handled trials helps me to understand that even the great prophet of this dispensation was not exempt from trials—and not just the trials of being persecuted for his religious beliefs, which is oftentimes what we think of, but also the everyday trials that all of us face: death, sickness, arguments with family members, moments where God seems to be silent, friends who suddenly aren’t your friends anymore.

Joseph Smith experienced all of these things, but was able to maintain an optimistic spirit and a trust in God that is admirable to me.

I also greatly appreciate one of his teachings in Doctrine and Covenants 123:17: 

“Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.”

Joseph Smith

Was Joseph Smith familiar with feelings of loneliness?

Matt Godfrey: In a certain sense, yes. He was a gregarious person who never lacked friends, but being the prophet and leader of the Church, I think he had moments where he felt like most people couldn’t understand what it was like to be him. I think that’s where his statement “No man knows my history” was coming from.

He also had moments where it felt like God wasn’t speaking to him—such as in Liberty Jail—which created a sense of loneliness in him.

I think many of us have had times when we have asked questions of God and feel like we are not getting an answer. It really can make you feel lonely—like maybe you are not significant enough in God’s eyes to get an answer. I think knowing that even Joseph Smith had moments where God felt distant helps me to better navigate those times and trust that when the time is right, God will answer my prayers.

Why was Joseph Smith so committed to involving others in councils?

Matt Grow: One of the essays in Know Brother Joseph explores the question of why Joseph thought councils were so important. Throughout his life, Joseph increasingly relied on councils to make decisions for the Church and its members—the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, high councils, the Council of Fifty, the Relief Society presidency.

He saw counseling together as a crucial way to receive revelation for the Church. He urged members of councils to take their roles seriously, to have open and candid discussions, to try to put aside bias, and to seek the Spirit.

He told one council that he wanted the participants to “speak their minds. . . . and to say what was in their hearts.” Furthermore, they should “agree to disagree long enough to select the pure gold from the dross by the process of investigation.”

In short, he was so committed to involving others in councils because he felt like it would improve decision-making, result in revelation, and prepare the members of councils for important responsibilities.

What’s one of your favorite chapters from Know Brother Joseph?

Eric Smith: I really like how Cherry Bushman Silver’s essay connects Joseph Smith to another significant figure I have come to admire in recent years: Emmeline B. Wells, advocate for women’s rights and fifth general president of the Relief Society.

Rather than trying to summarize the piece myself, I’ll borrow from Cherry’s words:

“Emmeline B. Wells, the last general Relief Society leader to testify of meeting Joseph Smith personally, valued his mentoring of women in leadership, philanthropy, and spiritual gifts. Although she encountered him only briefly at age 16, she never lost her admiration for him. If anything, her sense of his superior thinking increased over the remaining 75 years of her life.”

Cherry Bushman Silver

As I recently reread Cherry’s essay, I kind of put myself in Emmeline’s place and considered my own admiration for Joseph and the gifts that have come into my life because of him. I found this exercise quite moving.

Matt Godfrey: I love all of the essays in Know Brother Joseph, but one that stood out to me was Angela Hallstrom’s essay, “A Writer’s View on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.”

In this article, Angela goes into detail about the writing process as she has experienced it: “we research, take notes, think, pace, create an outline, write the first five chapters before hitting a wall, lay awake at night full of existential dread, muster the energy to gird one’s loins and begin again, write, write, cut, cut, rewrite, rewrite, send it to a trusted reader or editor, rewrite again, and so on until it is published” (pp. 37-38).

Such a process, she says, usually takes years to produce a published work, yet Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon in three months. I think the points she makes are fascinating and have helped me see the question of authorship of the Book of Mormon in a new light.

Matt Grow: One of my favorite chapters is the last one in Know Brother Joseph, by historian Adam Petty on Protecting Nauvoo: The Last Days of Joseph Smith. Petty takes us through those days of chaos and pressure and tumult, explaining why Joseph acted the way he did—and how the protection of Nauvoo and the Saints was uppermost in Joseph’s mind in June 1844.

In the end, Joseph allowed himself to be arrested and to go to Carthage to ensure the safety of Nauvoo.

Petty writes, “It is during these mad days in June that something of Joseph’s character becomes visible. Here was a man who spent the last weeks of his life desperately trying to defend his people. Here was a man who ultimately put his life on the altar and like a lamb went to the slaughter, reminding all of us that ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”

Petty shares how his work on the Joseph Smith Papers has allowed him to come to understand Joseph. He writes,

“In 1844, the Latter-day Saints faced a dilemma. Would they stand by Joseph or would they listen to his detractors? Joseph still has his critics today, just like he did in 1844, and modern Latter-day Saints face the same choice. Will we stand by Joseph?”

Adam Petty

What would Joseph Smith look like if the Joseph Smith Papers were all we had to know him by?

Eric Smith: From considering Joseph’s papers as a whole, a key point I take away is that he was consistent and unwavering in testimony. Across the various types of documents and across the years, he doesn’t backtrack about the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, his calling to be a prophet, the reception of divine authority, or the great work and role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Even the more ordinary documents, like property deeds and miscellaneous letters, show that he was fully invested in the work God had called him to do. All the temporal stuff he was involved in was to try to support, protect, and make possible the spiritual.

Matt Godfrey: I think he would look like a real human being who was not without faults or weaknesses, but was able to do a great work even with those faults and weaknesses.

The Joseph Smith Papers presents all extant Joseph Smith documents without redactions or changes, and because of this, you see a Joseph that is both the prophet of God and a man with human qualities and emotions. You see someone who could be quick to anger, but also someone who was quick to ask for forgiveness.

You see a Joseph Smith who could be loyal to people almost to a fault, and a Joseph who was hurt when others didn’t show him that same loyalty.

You see a church leader and a civic leader, a father and a friend, a preacher and a prophet. In essence, you see Joseph as a well-rounded person in all of the different facets of his life.

Matt Grow: A great question! I think that what shines through in his journal, in his histories, in his correspondence, in his legal and business records is his dedication to his family, the Latter-day Saints, the Church, and the Restoration.

The records reveal how central the building of Zion was to Joseph’s life.

Why might Joseph Smith encourage people to be familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers?

Eric Smith: Joseph was personally involved in creating records, including launching (in 1838) the history that we know today as the History of the Church. In May 1843, he related to William Phelps a dream whose message was that “the history must go ahead before anything.”

Later that year, he asked a class to move locations because the noise was hindering the history-writing effort going on in a nearby room. So we know he was invested in the history. It seems he wanted to have the chance to tell his own story rather than letting it be told by outsiders and enemies.

The Joseph Smith Papers include (among many other types of documents) all of the efforts Joseph made to tell his own story, and I think he would be thrilled that people around the world could read the pages exactly as they were written.

Matt Godfrey: I would hope because he believed that it presented him and his life fairly and in all of its complexities and nuances. It is difficult to get at the true personality and life of a historical figure, but providing people with access to Joseph’s writings is one way to try to help them really get to know Joseph.

I feel like my study of the documents we include in the Joseph Smith Papers have helped him become a much more real person to me. It’s enabled me to see a fleshed-out, three-dimensional Joseph Smith—one who was a real human being who navigated the human experience just like all of us do.

And I think Joseph would want people to really get to know who he was as a person and to dig deeply into his life.

Matt Grow: At times, Joseph despaired that the Latter-day Saints and others would ever understand him—meaning, I think, his motivations, his inner self.

In the famous King Follett sermon in April 1844, he told the congregation, “I love all men especially these my brethren & sisters.” But he told them, “you never knew my heart[.] no man knows my hist[ory].” “If I had not experienced what I have I should not have known it myself,” he said.

With that background, I think Joseph would want people to be familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers because they give insights into his heart, his motivations, his history, his witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think he would want people to come on the journey with him through his life and experience, as much as we are able, the miracles and revelations that he experienced—as well as his struggles and challenges.

I think that Joseph would appreciate that.

Further reading

Joseph Smith resources

Joseph Smith’s First Vision

Joseph Smith and seer stones

Joseph Smith wives

Death of Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith Papers Project

Joseph Smith BYU Devotionals

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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