Monday, September 20, 2010

Joseph Smith: Profile of a False Prophet

My interest in Joseph Smith is not just academic. As I mentioned in my previous post, 'Questions about Mormonism', Idaho is inundated with Latter Day Saints, and our neighborhood community is no exception. Shortly after moving to the area I was blessed with frequent visitations from traveling Mormon missionaries. I always try to visit with them and ask them questions about their religion, hoping to influence them with the gospel.

Once a pair of missionaries shared with me the article 'The Profile of a Prophet.' In a typical example of post hoc reasoning, the author outlines the profile of characteristics we should expect from someone who is a prophet. It was familiar ground, because some of these very same characteristics had been used by people trying to convince me that Frank Sandford was a prophet.

As I reflected on the article and tried to think of what to say to the people who had given it to me, I was struck with the thought that perhaps the Mormons, and particularly the  people described in the article's dialogue, were starting on the wrong end of the question. Instead of beginning by asking what characteristics a true prophet should exhibit, perhaps they should have asked what characteristics a false prophet has. The reason I say this is because Deuteronomy 18 lays down very specific criteria for helping us to determine if someone is a false prophet. If Joseph Smith conforms to the criteria of a false prophet then there is no need to look further at his alleged credentials as a prophet.

When I mentioned this to the missionaries, they refused to even consider the possibility that Deuteronomy 18:22 might apply to Joseph Smith. They indicated that it had never even occurred to them to assess Joseph Smith by the Mosiac standard since they just knew that the things he taught came from the Lord. There was not even the hypothetical possibility that he might be anything other than a true profit. But what does Deuteronomy 18:20 say? I quote:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak... that prophet shall die.
The scripture is very simple: anyone who speaks a word which they say is from God but it turns out not to be from God, that person is a false prophet.

So how does one know whether a prophet is speaking for the Lord or not? There are a number of ways. One clear indication would be if the prophet himself admitted that on occasions he had spoken falsely while claiming at the time that it had been from the Lord. Another indication would be if the prophet spoke things which contradicted scripture. Still another indication, given in Deuteronomy 18:22 is this: "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."

This last point is somewhat tricky since there were often prophets of God who were commissioned to prophecy judgments for which the Lord latter relented when the people repented. Jonah and Amos immediately come to mind. Prophecies are not the same as prediction, as Richard Pratt has shown in his fascinating study “Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions.” However, this is not relevant in the case of Smith, because although he prophesied things that never happened, we can know that he was a false prophet for the much more basic reason that (A) many of the prophecies he claimed were from God were, upon examination, clearly the product of a lying spirit (either his own or a demonic spirit); (B) his prophecies took people away from reliance on the Bible, functionally discouraging them from using scripture as a yardstick.
So how does Joseph Smith fare by these tests, particularly A and B?

The rest of this post has been removed since it appears in my chapter on Joseph Smith in my book Saints and Scoundrels


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