How did the Prophet Joseph Smith respond to skepticism in his time?

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“How did the Prophet Joseph Smith respond to skepticism in his time?” Ensign, Feb. 1990, 61–63

How did the Prophet Joseph Smith respond to skepticism in his time? And what can we learn from him about how to respond to modern-day skeptics?

Richard Bushman, professor of history, Columbia University. There have been unbelievers in all periods of history, of course. But skepticism in Joseph Smith’s time had at its core a distinctive argument. Impressed by Sir Isaac Newton’s method of scientific observation and reasoning (but ignoring his Christian orthodoxy), many people had adopted a philosophy that religious principles could be discovered by the same scientific method, without the exercise of faith. This philosophy was called deism.

Deists acknowledged the necessity of a Creator and the existence of moral principles. Some even believed in an afterlife. But they also felt that the miracles the scriptures record were an affront to the perfection of God’s creations—that once the world was established, God should have no need to tinker with it. Deists considered the Resurrection, the Atonement, and the divine sonship of Christ contrary to the natural order, lacking in supporting evidence—and therefore unreasonable.

Because these skeptics borrowed from the most advanced scientific thinking of the time, many Christian intellectuals felt compelled to defend their faith in terms deists would accept—with fact and reason, grounded in objective observation.

For many of the Christian apologists, authentication of biblical miracles seemed to be the answer. Because a miraculous healing occurred outside the natural order of things, they felt it was “proof” of the supernatural. Thus, a miracle would be a “stamp” of divine authenticity on a miracle-worker’s teachings. One Christian apologist, for example, claimed that if it could be proved that Moses did indeed part the Red Sea, “it must necessarily follow, that he was sent from God.”1 Similarly, Christians of the time felt that proof of the Resurrection would authenticate Christ’s teachings.

But authentication of miracles was no simple matter. How could a neutral observer distinguish Moses’ powers from those of the Egyptian wizards? And how could Christians “authenticate” biblical miracles?

By the end of the eighteenth century, William Paley, onetime lecturer at Cambridge and archdeacon of Carlisle, had examined “the direct historical evidences of Christianity.” For him, the crux of the matter was the credibility of witnesses. Paley showed that “many professing to be original witnesses of the Christian miracles, passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered.”2 The point was that the witnesses were willing to suffer for their beliefs with no other motivation than their faith in the truthfulness of the miracle.

Paley claimed that those who had witnessed miracles firsthand and who had had an opportunity to detect fraud would not have suffered so much to spread Christ’s teachings had Christ been a deceiver. Their lives, Paley claimed, were proof that they had seen miracles. No promise of wealth, power, or glory won Jesus’ followers to his cause, Paley claimed; their only motive for believing in him was the evidence of their senses. Christianity, therefore, was grounded in reason.3

Paley’s arguments appeared in more than a score of books on Christian evidences printed in the United States and Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Consequently, Christians of Joseph Smith’s time were highly sensitive about the subject of false prophets. False prophets and miracle-working shysters threatened the reasoning on which rational faith was founded; each one had to be proved counterfeit in order to protect the authentic prophets’ integrity.

Thus, Christian apologists treated false prophets with contempt, and they were serious about invalidating their claims.

This is one reason why Joseph Smith was attacked so vigorously by some Christian apologists. He was automatically assumed to be a false prophet and hence needed to be exposed. Among these writers and thinkers was Alexander Campbell, who in February 1831 began writing about the Book of Mormon in his own newspaper, the Millennial Harbinger. Another was Obediah Dogberry, editor of the Palmyra Reflector, whose six-part series on Joseph Smith had begun a month earlier.

Efforts to Discredit Joseph

Campbell and Dogberry both began their “analyses” with accounts of religious imposters. The names differed, but both messages were the same: “Every age of the world has produced imposters and delusions.”4 Dogberry, for example, referred to Joanna Southcote, a false prophetess who had recently attracted a large following in London: “If an imposture, like the one we have so briefly noticed, could spring up in the great metropolis of England and spread over a considerable portion of that kingdom, it is not surprising that one equally absurd, should have its origin in this neighborhood.”5 The effect in both cases was the same: association in readers’ minds with religious imposters discredited Joseph Smith before anything about him was known.

Having classified Joseph Smith among the imposters, Campbell and Dogberry then followed Paley’s and other apologists’ established patterns for distinguishing false prophets. Dogberry, for example, sought to “prove” that Joseph Smith had not begun his prophetic career with a miracle.

“It is well known that Joe Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the pretended finding of his book,” he wrote.6 Dogberry argued that Joseph was merely a money-digger who propagated and believed superstitions associated with hidden treasures. To Dogberry, it appeared “quite certain that the prophet himself never made any serious pretentions to religion until his late pretended revelation.”7 By these arguments, Dogberry tried to undercut Joseph’s accounts of heavenly visitations by saying that Joseph made the miracles up later to confirm his call as a prophet. According to Dogberry, since Joseph had something to gain from claiming miracles, his testimony was invalid.

Joseph Smith’s Response to His Critics

In such a climate, Joseph Smith might have been expected to answer the skeptics’ charges with miraculous “proof.” After all, the scriptures promised signs to believers. But Joseph Smith didn’t. Why?

The answer lies in the Lord’s reply to those who sought signs and miracles as “proof.” In July 1830 the Lord told Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to “require not miracles.” (D&C 24:13.) “He that seeketh signs shall see signs, but not unto salvation,” the Lord said a year later. (D&C 63:7.) “Faith cometh not by signs,” he continued, “but signs follow those that believe. … Wherefore, I, the Lord, am not pleased with those among you who have sought after signs and wonders for faith, and not for the good of men unto my glory.” (D&C 63:9–12.) Miracles occur to bless the faithful, not to convert skeptics.

To Campbell, it seemed preposterous that he “must believe [the Book of Mormon] first, and then ask God if it be true!”8 Christian rationalists expected miracles first, then faith. “Have they wrought any miracles?” Campbell asked.9 Without evidence of a miracle, he readily dismissed even the Three Witnesses’ testimony, implying that it was no more weighty than testimonials in patent medicine advertisements.

It is true that the witnesses made little of the supernatural aspect of the experience; they were more concerned about testifying of the Book of Mormon’s truth. For them, the angel’s appearance was not the heart of the matter.

Only once, to my knowledge, did Joseph Smith even partway meet the rationalists’ demand for evidence. The 1838 account of the First Vision meets Paley’s standards: Joseph was a neutral observer whose call began with a miracle, and he remained committed to his account of the story despite persecution and even death. When he later reported what he had seen, he was scorned. Yet he never denied it: “Though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true.” (JS—H 1:25.) Joseph suffered for a miraculous story just as the early Christians did. Though he said little to counter skeptics’ arguments, the “proof,” by rationalist standards, is that he stuck with his story to the end.

Modern Answers to Skeptics

Since Joseph’s time, a number of Latter-day Saints have dealt with skeptics using the arguments of Christian rationalists like Paley. B. H. Roberts’s New Witness for God presents both internal and external evidences for the Book of Mormon, much like the rationalists’ defense of the Bible. In fact, B. H. Roberts devotes a large part of his external evidences to miracles and prophecy.

The work of more recent Latter-day Saint apologists departs from the standard nineteenth-century patterns but still seeks rationalist answers to the skeptics’ questions. Their work is interesting and helpful to people with a scholarly bent of mind. Hugh Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert sustained my faith at a critical moment. Other Latter-day Saint scholars have subjected the Book of Mormon to rational tests and come up with illuminating analyses of the narrative’s complexity, its unexpected consistencies, and its clear marks of antiquity.

Yet we do not depend on such “proofs” to persuade unbelievers. A testimony of the gospel comes through faith—not from proofs based on the parting of the Red Sea or the raising of the dead. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon simply declared, “He lives! For we saw him.” (D&C 76:22–23.) Today, millions of Church members also testify that he lives because the Holy Ghost has impressed the reality of God’s existence on their minds and hearts. This is our evidence.