One of the things that I have been trying to wrap my mind around is the connection in Mormonism between being “pure” or “worthy” and the ability to receive revelation. We see this, for example, in the story of the Three Witnesses. According to the story, when Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris went into the woods with Joseph Smith with the hope of receiving an angelic visitation to confirm the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, they prayed for awhile and received no answer. Martin Harris then retired from the party, thinking his lack of worthiness the cause of the group’s failure to obtain a witness.
We have been told repeatedly over the years that one reason we are supposed to keep the Word of Wisdom with precision is that the Holy Ghost cannot get through to us unless we are free of physical stimulants or depressants in our bodies. We are told in the temple that only those who have the best of feelings for others in the room should participate in the prayer circle. I think it an uncontroversial assertion that for Mormons there is an inextricable connection between righteousness and revelation. We are instructed “to live worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost,” and the receipt of revelation is often used as evidence of an individual’s worthiness.
What does not make sense to me is the way this principle is applied to the Great Apostasy and the Restoration through Joseph Smith. According to mainstream Mormon doctrine, the church established by Jesus fell away because the members embraced false doctrines, changed essential ordinances, and the Lord sometime shortly after the death of the original apostles took His priesthood authority from the earth. Then, because no one on earth was righteous enough to hold the priesthood and receive revelation from God, the heavens were closed. Enter Joseph Smith. We are told Joseph was chosen from before the foundation of the world to be the Prophet who would usher in the last dispensation of the fullness of times, that Joseph was among the noble and great ones assembled in the Grand Councils of heaven in the premortal existence. Why did God answer Joseph’s humble prayer offered up in the small grove of trees not far from his home? Because Joseph was special--he was among the most righteous souls who ever lived, right up there with Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. For more than a millennium and a half, no one walked the earth who was righteous enough to be entrusted with the visions and revelations the Lord wanted to give to mankind.
The problem is this: we know that Joseph was not even close to being the most righteous person to walk the earth since the days of the early apostles. We know (and one need not consult anti-Mormon sources for the information--just look at Rough Stone Rolling) that Joseph had anger management issues, he lied repeatedly on a variety of matters, he committed adultery, instituted polygamy secretly, had himself crowned king of the whole earth by the secret Council of Fifty, ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, etc.) Now, here is the interesting part. Mormon apologists, when confronted with these character weaknesses inevitably respond with a Hinckleyesque “Isn’t it marvelous” line. “Isn’t it marvelous,” they will say, “that the Lord can work with someone as rough and ordinary as Joseph? Isn’t it marvelous that the Lord could take this poor country bumpkin and, like a rough stone rolling down a mountain, turn him into a polished shaft of goodness?” Some in the Bloggernacle have commented about Rough Stone Rolling that their testimonies of the Prophet have grown because they see his humanity and recognize that if the Lord could work with Joseph and all his faults, then the Lord can work with any one of us, too?
The problem is these two ideas don’t mesh. Either the Lord can only give revelations to the super-faithful or He can work with adulterous, lying, megalomaniacs. Since we know that Joseph was one of the latter, if we are going to accept Mormonism’s foundational truth claims, we have to believe that God gives revelations not based on obedience to righteous principles but to any ordinary bloke or even any scrofulous rogue He chooses. Of course, if that is true, then what of the whole Great Apostasy thing? Talmage had some fun describing the lechery of some of the bad Popes of the Middle Ages. But why is that relevant? If God could work through Joseph, why not the Catholic Popes? Luther? Knox? Zwingli? Wesley? Roger Williams? Ann Lee?
But the church can’t have it both ways. If wickedness breeds apostasy and only righteousness yields revelation, then Joseph’s character is very much determinative of his claims to the prophetic mantle. If the Lord can work through wicked men, then one wonders if there ever really was a Great Apostasy. Without the Great Apostasy, there would be no need for a restoration—the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. I think the church leaders understand this, which is why they continue to push the “faith-promoting” version of history. Joseph’s real life has serious implications for this basic Mormon doctrine. If God could only give revelations and bestow priesthood authority on righteous men, then for Joseph Smith’s claims to be true, Joseph must have been a righteous man. Any information that casts doubt on Joseph’s virtue thus casts doubt on his claims to be an agent of the divine, according to Mormon doctrine. The church is accordingly left with a Hobson’s choice: continue to suppress Joseph Smith’s real history, which policy is alienating more and more thinking people, or acknowledge Joseph’s many faults, thereby undermining the church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority.