How much can Mormons take?

“I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.” – Joseph Smith

The more I converse with people who have left the LDS Church, the more I hear stories that go this way “I was completely active in the Church and thought it was true, but then I learned such and such, and that was too much for me. I can’t believe a prophet of God would do such and such.”

What constitutes “too much to take” most often seems to be related to the policy of polygamy in the LDS Church (100 years ago) and Joseph Smith’s multiple marriages (some to women who were already married). Other less common items include racist comments by Brigham Young and other controversial statements by Church leaders.

For my part, I’m pretty sure I know every available and credible fact about Joseph Smith’s marriage (and plenty of less credible facts as well) and while Smith’s actions give me fuel for plenty of questions, and I can see why his actions would bother people, I still don’t have a problem believing he was a prophet. I think the primary difference  of perspective between those who believe Smith was a prophet (and continued to be until his death) and those who don’t believe, is whether or not they believe Smith’s actions were in accordance with instructions he received from God or not. If they were, then of course there’s nothing wrong with any of it (logically). If he was totally off and acting on his own, then he was deranged and/or a sexual addict on such a level as to make David Letterman blush.

But is there any precedent for such behavior? Certainly there is for polygamy, as there were multiple prophets of the Old Testament who had multiple wives, apparently with God’s sanction. As for taking the wives of other men, there is no recorded precedent I know of, other than David and Bathsheba, which of course was not sanctioned by God. But what about other, perhaps more controversial behavior?

For example, let’s imagine Joseph Smith had gone to the Mormons in Nauvoo and said “God has commanded me to put together an army, go up to Chicago, and destroy the city, including killing all women, children, and animals.” and then they went and did it. Would that be too much for you to take? And yet that appears to be precisely what happened in the Old Testament on more than one occasion, except that the cities that were destroyed weren’t Chicago.

In regards to this topic I enjoy the story of Dan Jones, one of the early converts to the LDS Church, as recorded in “Regional Studies”, Illinois, Boone—My Friends, p.84ff:

Dan Jones was a small, sea-loving Welshman who first became acquainted with the Prophet when the Saints were in Nauvoo. He and the Prophet Joseph became co-owners of the Mississippi steamboat, Maid of Iowa. Dan Jones’ total commitment and complete loyalty endeared him to the Church leaders generally, and to the Prophet specifically. On one occasion the Prophet determined to test the Welshman’s loyalty in an unusual, if not harsh, manner. He went to the wharf where Dan was working on their boat and convincingly portrayed himself in the part of a drunkard. The Prophet never referred to the incident in his own writings, but Dan Jones related the encounter in great detail. Only brief glimpses of the incident are recorded here.

Upon his arrival at the docks the Prophet found Captain Dan Jones busy at work on the deck of their boat. With appropriate staggering, slurs, repetition of phrases, hiccuping and other signs of obvious inebriation, the Prophet attempted to board the Maid of Iowa.

“Boat ahoy, Hallo Come and help me aboard Captain, for I’m afraid to fall off that plank into the river. Now hold fast, steady there all safe. Now Captain [Jones] you see I’m a leedl boozy tonight, been drinking a leedl wine with a friend; but what of that I’m a Prophet if I am drunk; that I am. Well look here Captain, you hold my note, don’t you? Well I have just called to tell you that I don’t mean to pay you a cent of it, that I wont. Now ain’t I an honest man to tell you so? I tell you I never mean to pay you a cent, there now help yourself.”

“You may think I am not a Prophet but I am a Prophet if I am drunk. There I told you what I came for, I wont pay a cent that’s all. Now help me ashore again, I know I’m a Prophet, don’t push me off the plank, or I’ll be a fallen Prophet, if not a drowned Prophet, Ha, Ha, there ashore safe let me go sue, sue away, I tell you I don’t care, good night.”

The Prophet staggered up the bank and away from the wharf toward his home until he met Dr. Willard Richards. After a warm greeting between the Prophet and his personal secretary and friend, the Prophet, very much sober, said,

“Excuse me, Dr. Richards I have played such a joke just now, I am afraid I’ll split my sides laughing; I must tell it you. I have acted the drunken man so natural aboard that Boat that I have made the Captain believe I was really drunk, ha, ha, for he looked as sober as a Judge. Suppose you call on him by and bye, and quiz out of him what he thinks of it; he is an honest man I believe, and if I cant shake him off me, I will make a man of him, let me hear again.”

“Shall I leave him ignorant of the joke?” asked Brother Richards.

The Prophet responded, “If he stumbles at it [the test] you may, but if not you may let him have the benefit of it too.”

Following the instructions of the Prophet, Elder Richards played the part of a sympathetic friend concerned for the welfare of his inebriated associate:

“Good night Captain,” “Good night Doctor, step aboard.” [Richards] [e]nters, puts on a grave face, and draws a long sigh, “Have you seen the Prophet about this evening?”

“He was here about an hour ago.”

“I hear that he has been drinking again! What a pity that such a good man gives way to drink so—great pity. Wonder they let him go about the streets to expose himself; was he very drunk Captain?”

“He had his three sheets in the wind or thereabouts.”

“Well what do you think of it?”

“All I think of it is that if he drinks until doom’s day, he can’t drown that truth which is in him, nor the little that is in me neither. Tis true that I would rather have a sober Prophet, but then if we can’t get a sober one, a drunken Prophet is better than no Prophet at all, so I will hold on to the one we have got, drunken or sober. That’s what I think to do Doctor.”

“Ha, Ha you will not be driven to that Cap[tain]; tis all a joke; the Prophet is as sober as a judge only weighing you.”

“So much the better if any difference, although, every body mind his own business is my motto.”


Back to my commentary…

Dan Jones didn’t care if Joseph Smith was a drunk. That is, he cared, but it didn’t influence whether he thought Joseph was a prophet or not. Dan Jones had a spiritual confirmation that Joseph was a prophet, and that’s all he needed to know.

That’s kind of how it is for me–I know Joseph Smith was a prophet, so when I learn about his wives and such, the question for me is “Why would God command such a thing?” But I don’t ask it as though God couldn’t have commanded such a thing, I ask it as a matter of idle curiosity. I don’t have a problem accepting that it’s possible, at least in part because I’ve already read much stranger things in the Old Testament. The only difference is that when it’s 3,000 years old then it doesn’t seem as “real” as something that happened much closer to our own time.

So again, how much can Mormons take? If you’d like to share what it was that was too much for you to take and why, or a story about someone you know and what was too much for them, then please do.


  1. It's pretty hard to believe Smith was a prophet after reading Fawn Brodie's biography of him. He seemed to make up revelations whenever it suited him, and often over the most mundane of things.

    Other contemporaneous accounts of his life aren't very flattering.

    Believe what you will, but there's a ton of evidence that Smith was a con man.

  2. Britney, I'm familiar with Fawn's take on Smith. Unfortunately the book has a hard time presenting facts vs. interpretation. I am Mormon, and though I had heard most of her arguments, her agenda was clear.

    Josh love the site. I have actually thought of your question a bit. I have two lines, my following line and my faith line. My following line ends before my faith line. My follow line consists of actions I would not do, but I would still remain a believer. When I fall between the two lines I would probably ask for the prophet to have a "Dan Jones" attitude towards me. Better a disobedient believer than an offended less active that writes so called "non-Hagiography" books of biased perspectives.

    I hope I am beyond Thomas B. Marsh (quarrel over cream) and Symonds Ryder (with his misspelled name) type offense. The line for my following would be a request for me to pull an Abraham/Isaac sacrifice (probably the most odd request from a leader in the old testament). Just could not do it, but I would still believe in the principles.

    My line for faith is much stronger. This is because I have found so often in my life that time is critical to understanding God. Great example of this is John 6. Christ first informs followers that they will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Out of context…sounds fairly crazy, and people actually stopped following him because of this statement. Had they only known, they would have probably stayed with him.

    Like wise I am curious if some of the more strange revelations and actions of Smith were not more in the vein of "Dan Jones" type moments. Throughout Joseph's life he had few he could trust. As with today, those most against the church are former believers and friends of the faith that were offended. I can't help but to think if a number of "revelations" were actually tests of faith (including a few marriages) to determine who he could trust.

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