Brigham Young taught,
“[The wicked] found fault with Joseph Smith, and at length killed him, as they have a great many others of the Latter-day Saints. What for? Because of his wickedness? No. But the cry was, ‘Away with him, we cannot do with this man nor with his people.’ Did they hate him for his evil works? No. If he had been a liar, a swearer, a gambler, or in any way an evil doer, and of the world, it would have loved its own, and they would have embraced him, and nourished and kept him. If he had been a false prophet they never would have lifted a hand against him, because he could have spread still more delusion through the world around him.” (Journal of Discourse 4:78, November 9, 1856)
But Joseph Smith was much more complicated than the “good man,…as good a man as ever lived,” that Brigham Young described a little earlier in his sermon.
Most active Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was an exemplary man. Brigham Young expressed it this way:
“Well now, examine the character of the Savior, and examine the characters of those who have written the Old and New Testaments; and then compare them with the character of Joseph Smith, the founder of this work — the man whom God called and to whom he gave the keys of Priesthood, and through whom he has established his Church and kingdom for the last time, and you will find that his character stands as fair as any man’s mentioned in the Bible. We can find no person who presents a better character to the world when the facts are known than Joseph Smith, jun., the prophet, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, who was murdered with him.” (Journal of Discourses 14:203, August 31, 1871)
Joseph Smith himself believed he had much to boast of:
“I combat the errors of the ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the Gordian knot of powers; and I solve mathematical problems of Universities: WITH TRUTH, diamond truth, and God is my ‘right hand man.’” (Times and Seasons 4:375)
Nevertheless, many people have a different opinion of Joseph Smith. Based on historical research, historian and former Mormon D. Michael Quinn noted,
“Few Mormons today can grasp the polarizing charisma of their founding prophet. Some may feel uncomfortable when confronted with the full scope of Joseph Smith’s activities as youthful mystic, treasure-seeker, visionary, a loving husband who deceived his wife regarding about forty of his polygamous marriages, a man for whom friendship and loyalty meant everything but who provoked disaffection by ‘testing’ the loyalty of his devoted associates, an anti-Mason who became a Master Mason, church president who physically assaulted both Mormons and non-Mormons for insulting him, a devoted father who loved to care for his own children and those of others, temperance leader and social drinker, Bible revisionist and esoteric philosopher, city planner, pacifist and commander-in-chief, student of Hebrew and Egyptology, bank president, jail escapee, healer, land speculator, mayor, judge and fugitive from justice, guarantor of religious freedom but limiter of freedom of speech and press, preacher and street-wrestler, polygamist and advocate of women’s rights, husband of other men’s wives, a declared bankrupt who was the trustee-in-trust of church finances, political horse-trader, U.S. presidential candidate, abolitionist, theocratic king, inciter to riot, and unwilling martyr.” (The Mormon Hierarchy – Origins of Power, 261- 262)
Joseph Smith was a complicated man with a complicated history.
Brigham Young said Joseph was not hated for any “evil works”; he was not killed for any “wickedness.” Yet he did marry other men’s wives. He did physically assault his detractors. He did deny his critics their First Amendment rights. He did have himself crowned a theocratic king. And he did not always practice what he preached. Throughout history many men – and women — have been killed for far less.
Joseph Smith’s murder proves nothing either way regarding his claim of being a prophet of God. To determine the truth of that assertion we must apply God’s biblical tests of a prophet. In so doing, Joseph Smith’s genuine character is brought to light and his false claim of being a mouthpiece for God is exposed.