What did Joseph Smith think? What was he like as a person? Questions like these are interesting to think about and are important considerations when you’re a part of a religion that draws so heavily on one person’s writings and ministry for its foundation. In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring, R. Eric Smith, Matthew C. Godfrey, and Matthew J. Grow discussed some of their insights into Joseph Smith’s mind and life gained through both their work with the Joseph Smith Papers Project and in editing the recently-published Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character (Deseret Book, 2021). What follows here is a co-post (a brief post with quotes and some thoughts), but I encourage folks to read the full interview as well (available here).
One of the questions that Kurt asked was about whether Joseph Smith was familiar with feelings of loneliness. Matt Godfrey answered as follows:
In a certain sense, yes. He was a gregarious person who never lacked friends, but being the prophet and leader of the Church, I think he had moments where he felt like most people couldn’t understand what it was like to be him. I think that’s where his statement “No man knows my history” was coming from.
He also had moments where it felt like God wasn’t speaking to him—such as in Liberty Jail—which created a sense of loneliness in him. I think many of us have had times when we have asked questions of God and feel like we are not getting an answer. It really can make you feel lonely—like maybe you are not significant enough in God’s eyes to get an answer. I think knowing that even Joseph Smith had moments where God felt distant helps me to better navigate those times and trust that when the time is right, God will answer my prayers.
Growing up in a culture that gives a great amount of reverence to Joseph Smith, it was actually a huge moment for me while I was reading Richard Lyman Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to fully realize that Joseph Smith’s experiences with the Divine weren’t completely separate and different than mine. A significant portion of the time, he relied on the Holy Spirit for revelations and he did have his times, as Godfrey alluded to, where he felt like God wasn’t answering. Those are certainly things I can relate to, even if I have never experienced visions in the same sense that he did.
When asked “what would Joseph Smith look like if the Joseph Smith Papers were all we had to know him by?”, the editors of Know Brother Joseph discussed a few takeaways they have had from studying and working with the Papers. Godfrey, for example, spoke of how: “I think he would look like a real human being who was not without faults or weaknesses, but was able to do a great work even with those faults and weaknesses. … You see a church leader and a civic leader, a father and a friend, a preacher and a prophet. In essence, you see Joseph as a well-rounded person in all of the different facets of his life.” Matthew Grow said that: “I think that what shines through in his journal, in his histories, in his correspondence, in his legal and business records is his dedication to his family, the Latter-day Saints, the Church, and the Restoration.” And Eric Smith added that: “Even the more ordinary documents, like property deeds and miscellaneous letters, show that he was fully invested in the work God had called him to do.” The Joseph Smith Papers Project is a huge undertaking, and a major effort in transparency on the Church’s part in offering a huge amount of primary documentation about Joseph Smith. Taken together, they offer an amazing opportunity to study and understand a very complex and interesting person.
In speaking of why Joseph Smith would probably want folks to study the Joseph Smith Papers, the editors had a few things to say. Eric Smith focused on how important writing his history was to Joseph Smith, noting that: “It seems he wanted to have the chance to tell his own story rather than letting it be told by outsiders and enemies.” Because of this, Eric Smith expressed that: “The Joseph Smith Papers include (among many other types of documents) all of the efforts Joseph made to tell his own story, and I think he would be thrilled that people around the world could read the pages exactly as they were written.” Matt Godfrey added that: “I would hope because he believed that it presented him and his life fairly and in all of its complexities and nuances. It is difficult to get at the true personality and life of a historical figure, but providing people with access to Joseph’s writings is one way to try to help them really get to know Joseph.” Likewise, Matthew Grow referred to Joseph Smith’s statement about “no man knows my history,” and went on to say that: “I think Joseph would want people to be familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers because they give insights into his heart, his motivations, his history, his witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Again, the Joseph Smith Papers provide opportunities for understanding Joseph Smith.
For more on the thought behind Know Brother Joseph, some of the ideas shared in the book, thoughts about why Joseph Smith found councils so important, and more on the things discussed above, read the full interview at Kurt Manwaring’s site (available here).