Why the Weakness of Joseph Smith Matters

The public discussion of the polygamy essays recently published by the LDS Church got me thinking about our expectations of Joseph Smith. It is true that the traditional accounts published by the Church as part of its narrative - within manuals, talks, etc. - all too often attempted to paint Joseph in the most positive light possible. While sometimes due to ignorance, those attempts could mostly be ascribed to well-meaning attempts to hide Joseph’s flaws from us in order to preserve faith - an innocent, child-like faith that for many is being disrupted now.

It seems to me only natural that Church leaders would do so, for we humans crave a hero - an unsullied person upon whom we can cast our hopes and our fears. We have a tendency to thrust some people into that role, and a prophet of God seems a most likely candidate for our efforts.

The problem is, Joseph was deeply flawed. He said so himself on many occasions, and never, to my knowledge, declared himself to be above reproach. His quotation of Ezekiel 14 at the establishment of the Relief Society exhibits, to me, his desire for others to look past the man and instead see the message. For many people today, as they learn the details about Joseph’s numerous flaws, some of which seem egregious, the message is discarded due to the flaws of the messenger. This is regrettable, but understandable.

I wonder, though, if God chose to use Joseph Smith because of his flaws, not despite them. By choosing someone deeply flawed, God chose to reinforce the idea that he will do his work with even the weakest things of the world. By doing so, God demonstrated his accessibility to all of us, for we are all deeply flawed. By choosing Joseph, God removed the veneer of perfection we have traditionally placed upon all prophets in scripture, making God’s interaction with those prophets a demonstration that God is willing to work with weak and flawed people. In other words, God is accessible to anyone, and the only person worthy of our hero worship is God himself. Jesus is the only person worthy of our praise. The flaws of the prophets, Joseph Smith included, point to Jesus alone as the one who can save us, and if Jesus can condescend to communicate, tolerate, and ultimately save such flawed people, then he can do so with us.

Perhaps that is the prophetic message Joseph Smith most clearly delivered.