Was Joseph Smith a mystic?

Thanks for the question. I think it is difficult to know for certain. Joseph Smith did assert that he had mystical knowledge and insight — and he performed certain practices that had the appearance of invoking special spiritual consciousness — but he also did a lot of things that made these apparent mystical practices and insights seem a bit like a con-artist or circus performer, rather than the genuine article. This speaks to motivations, of course, and it is always difficult to know for certain what someone’s motives are — especially if they lived a long time ago. But consider these well-established facts:

1. When Smith — and convicted con-artist — utilized elaborate methods of performance to “interpret” the prophecy of ancient papyri while traveling around the U.S., this resulted in his Book of Abraham, one of the foundational scriptures of the Mormon Church. But when those papyri were later examined by archeologists, it was discovered that they were merely fragments of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Breathing Permit of Hor, and so on. In other words, Smith was completely fabricating his interpretation out of thin air, and making it more authoritative by misuse of these archeological props.

2. Once the earliest Mormon Church was established, Smith’s successor Brigham Young used his lieutenants to enforce rigid control over the Church — not infrequently resorting to murdering anyone who challenged Young’s authority, left the Mormon Church, or were considered any sort of threat.

Just these two points alone are fairly damning, and remind us of many other cults that have made things up and then rigidly controlled the power within the cult. Scientology is another excellent and well-documented example of this.

This is not to say that modern Mormons themselves aren’t good-hearted people, don’t do good work, can’t be compassionate and charitable servants of their faith, etc. I want to be careful to differentiate Mormons from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Danites, etc. in that regard. But, at the same time, it’s pretty clear that Smith wasn’t a good person, wasn’t good-hearted, and engaged in some pretty nefarious deception and oppressive evil-doing while he was alive. Smith just graduated from petty conman (divining gold deposits) to creating a conman’s religion (again, much like L Ron Hubbard did with Scientology).

So was Smith a mystic? Possibly…just not a very kind, wise or genuine one. He certainly didn’t allow his mysticism to mold his conscience, the accuracy of his insights, or the compassionate efficacy of his actions…which leads me to doubt his level of mystical proficiency. Certainly he was not a mystic who followed Christ. Then again, there has been a long tradition of spiritual hoodwinking and cult creation in the U.S., so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people were (and are) so gullible. At the same time, what is fairly shocking is just how large and influential the Mormon Church became, when it was founded on such unsavory deceptions and power-grubbing machinations.

My 2 cents.


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