National Geographic Magazine recently published an excellent feature article titled The Polygamists. Journalist Scott Anderson’s insightful piece about the FLDS church, its people, and its history is well worth reading.
In the midst of this article Mr. Anderson writes this about the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs (who is currently in prison):
“Jeffs’s diary, also seized during the Texas raid, reveals a man who micromanaged the community’s every decision, from chore assignments and housing arrangements to who married whom and which men were ousted—all directed by revelations Jeffs received as he slept. He claimed that God guided his every action, no matter how small. One diary entry reads: ‘The Lord directed that I go to the sun tanning salon and get sun tanned more evenly on their suntanning beds.'”
In addition to revelations about people’s marriages and housing arrangements (and tanning salons), the National Geographic article mentions expulsions of men (from the church) that Jeffs deemed unworthy, and the “reassignment” of their families to more worthy men:
“In his diary Jeffs recounts reassigning the wives of three men, including his brother David, because God had shown him that they ‘couldn’t exalt their ladies, had lost the confidence of God.'”
The article notes that some people say this practice of reassignment “became one more weapon to hold over the heads of those who dared step out of line.
When I read this I was struck by the dictatorial and egocentric nature of Jeffs’ revelations and how they reminded me in some ways of many of Joseph Smith’s revelations. It seems to me that if you read Smith’s revelations outside of a presupposition that he was a true prophet, some of them come across as pretty self-serving.
According to an eyewitness (who later left the LDS Church), Joseph received a revelation forbidding him to continue his travel on the Missouri River (D&C 61) following the near-upset of his canoe, an event that deeply frightened him.
“…Joseph in the afternoon of the third day, assumed the direction of affairs on board of that canoe, which, with other matters of difference, together with Oliver’s curse, increased the irritation of the crew, who, in time of danger, refused to exert their physical powers, in consequence of which, they ran foul of a sawyer, and were in danger of upsetting …when threatened with the horrors of a watery grave, they unanimously desired, to set their feet once more upon something more firm than a liquid surface: therefore, by the persuasion of Joseph, we landed before sunset, intending to pass the night upon the bank of the river…
“The next morning, Joseph manifested an aversion to risk his person any more, upon the rough and rapid current of the Missouri, and in fact, upon any other river; and he again had recourse to his usual method, of freeing himself from the embarrassment[s of a former commandment, by] obtaining another in opposition to it. He succeeded according to his desires. A new commandment was issued, in which a great curse was pronounced against the waters; navigating them, was to be attended with extreme danger; and all the saints in general, were prohibited journeying upon them to the promised land. From this circumstance, the Missouri river was named the river of Destruction. It was decreed, that we should proceed on our journey by land, and preach by the way as we passed along.” (Letter from Ezra Booth, published in the Ohio Star 2:3, 24 November 1831)
Then there’s the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89). Brigham Young said,
“I think I am as well acquainted with the circumstances which led to the giving of the Word of Wisdom as any man in the Church, although I was not present at the time to witness them. The first school of the prophets was held in a small room situated over the Prophet Joseph’s kitchen, …in which the Prophet received revelations and in which he instructed his brethren. The brethren came to that place for hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen. When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry.” (Journal of Discourses, 12:158)
Add to these convenient revelations the frequent revelations Joseph Smith proclaimed which chastised individuals for behavior that “displeased” the Lord (e.g., disposal of their property contrary to counsel or speaking ill of Joseph), those that told people to stop arguing with the Prophet and start obeying him, and those that instructed individuals, by name, to “buy stock” in the Nauvoo House in order to provide for its construction, a building wherein “Joseph [Smith] and his seed after him have a place in that house, from generation to generation, forever and ever, saith the Lord.”
Consider the many revelations through which Joseph Smith directed the specific comings and goings of his followers, the frequent direction for named individuals to give their money and property to the Prophet’s endeavors, the revelations calling for various specific women to submit to plural marriages, and, of course, the “inspired” additions to Genesis 50 that “prophesy” about the Prophet himself.
True believing Mormons might say that God was just getting the foundation of His new church in order, attending to details. But if we look at them from a different perspective–not as a skeptic or a critic, but just as a not-yet-convinced investigator–don’t Joseph Smith’s convenient and apparently self-serving revelations raise some red flags? The apostle Peter warned that false prophets, in their greed, “will exploit you with false words” (2 Peter 2:3).
(For the text of most of the Joseph Smith revelations I referred to above, I used The Joseph Smith Revelations Text and Commentary by H. Michael Marquardt, 263-329)