Praise to the Man

167 years ago today, Joseph Smith, Jr. was gunned down at Carthage Jail. For some, today is a day to mark the anniversary of Joseph’s death with writings and ponderings on the meaning of his life and teachings. Doubtless your Facebook walls are filled with historical anecdotes, pithy quotes or iffy youtube videos. I would think that the current popularity of The Book of Mormon musical is contributing in some small measure to amplified output by members via various social networks. I’ve been giving some thought to the reaction of the Saints in Nauvoo to the death of the Prophet, as well as subsequent declarations and reactions to his death, as well as thinking about what our religion teaches us with respect to such events.

A month after Joseph’s murder, WW Phelps penned Praise to the Man, Eliza R. Snow wrote countless poems of grief and retributive justice against Illinois mobs, and each potential successor to Joseph invoked his name one way or another as a means of establishing himself as Joseph’s true successor. Soon afterwards, John Taylor wrote the tribute that became Section 135 of the D&C, and Joseph was quickly placed in the pantheon of the great people who had ever lived. From that time on, largely thanks to John Taylor and Brigham Young, Joseph Smith became the Mormon Buddha, the most essential teacher since Jesus Christ. His birthday often becomes eerily commingled with Christmas, and passing anecdotes of wrestling and preaching become the stuff of supernal cassette tapes.

What would the Prophet think of this veneration? That is the million dollar question, but the man was so complex and at times contradictory that the question becomes a mirror of our own penchants. At its core, the Mormonism he preached was free of this sort of magnification of the man, in favor of magnifying God’s work. But the same man that decried the creeds of Christiantiy and veneration of Saints of Catholicism also had his own cult of personality and built a strong network of personal loyalties and adoration. I strongly suspect what he denounced in other faiths Joseph might have gladly accepted in his own.

This post is too light — too light with our history (accounts of life post-martyrdom abound, and are highly interesting), and too light in exploring what our doctrine says (I think, for example, that trends of personal veneration continue to run strong in Mormonism, especially with respect to certain prophets — Pres. Benson and Pres. Hinckley are the most recent of these). But perhaps the anniversary of Joseph’s death is the perfect time to start thinking about what his death means to us in a cultural and historical context.

*Thanks Blair for not getting mad at me for totally ripping off one of the pictures in his post.


  1. I think Brother Joseph went out his way to show the people he was a regular human being, and might be a tad bit uncomfortable with the extent that we Latter-day Saints revere him. At least I’d like to think that. That being said, I am grateful for what he did to found a religion that has given me and my family a lot of joy, which trumps some of the minor frustrations I have with “Mormonism.”

  2. Chris Gordon says:

    If the veneration and praise isn’t at least partially due and justified, what grounds to we have to argue it against those who knew him personally and were closest to him?

    Still, I think any person of character (at least anyone I would want to know) would be tremendously uncomfortable with a song written about him. I can’t argue with the value of song, story, and even lore in building testimony, however, and having a testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet (separate from whatever opinion one has of him as a man, leader, husband, disciple, or whatever) is pretty darn important.

    Like all, you take it with a grain of salt, consider audience, speaker, and purpose, and take what you will.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Chris, fair enough. I’ve brought the same sort of contextual-trumping argument against those who speak against polygamy. But I think there’s any number of reasons why we, with the detachment of time and the lessons of history, might not choose to revere the same man these people lived with and loved as Prophet in person.

  4. From my meager study of church history I have found the prophet Joseph to be, as WaMo said, a regular human being. While knowing and feeling the responsibility of his knowledge, experience and calling, he was first and foremost a true disciple of Jesus Christ. He would, I think, prefer that we focus our songs and testimony on the Savior.

  5. At the risk of sounding condescending, one only needs to take a look at the art selections at Deseret Book and wonder if we have crossed the line from respecting the founder of our religion for his amazing accomplishments to having created a mythological hero that hardly any of his contemporaries would recognize. Part of that, though, I believe is a reflection of our latter day culture, our relative prosperity and arguable mainstream acceptance compared to 19th century realities of hardship, poverty, and exclusion. We are perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the frontier prophet, and want Joseph Smith to look and act more like our modern prophets who are more accustomed to the boardroom than the stables.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Kevin, I was thinking along the same lines as you, but honestly our current DB offerings aren’t very dissimilar from contemporary adulation of the martyr Joseph. I wonder if the motivations aren’t different, though: mourning for the loss of a friend and leader vs. hero worship. Beats me.

  7. We don’t understand Joseph Smith — in a crazy, upside-down way, we seem more comfortable asserting how God accomplished creation or what his judgments on this issue or that person would be, than we are with knowing how Joseph accomplished what he did. But we recognize that he was a great man, and we want to pay tribute to that, and we do it through whatever means we have. If that leads some of us to produce works that cause others of us to have glurgic reactions, well, still we’re trying and I understand the impulse.

    Joseph — the one I have created in my own image — would be uncomfortable having Praise to the Man sung in his presence, but he would also understand the impulse and would laugh and be quick to forgive our excesses.

  8. I am prone to hero worship. My American Heritage lectures on Abraham Lincoln were likely similar to the treatment Joseph received in the religion department. I have been accused of hero worship when it comes to John Rawls. Whatever.

    Yet, I do not think that I have to defend them as perfect. Lincoln’s slow transformation in regard to race is one of the things that I admire about him. I take departure from Rawls in a number of areas despite being very much a Rawlsian.

    My love of Joseph Smith is very much the same way. I love him, not the image that some portray, whether it is his detractors or CES. His weaknesses, his warts, and his personality is part of who Joseph Smith was.

    I find it easier to love myself when I can love an imperfect Joseph.

  9. Would Jesus be uncomfortable with the songs we sing about him? Probably.

  10. Chris Gordon says:

    Fair point, Steve. I guess the more I think about it, though, the more I’m thinking that I agree with Ardis–he’d be able to take this all in stride even with an embarrassed chuckle. I’ve been trying to relate it to any time we’ve turned history into lore to serve a cultural purpose and need. Is there or should there be a difference between the way we portray our leaders and the way we portray the U.S.’s founding fathers or the way most any country portrays the great leaders of its past? As much as we uncover the warts of the founders, for example, most everyone still gets a kick out of a quasi-olympian portrait of them and even finds a measure of patriotic pride in gazing upon it.

    I don’t know. I think that, like I said, any good leader would be embarrassed by it, but only a delusional one would think that it wouldn’t or shouldn’t happen. An overly self-aware one (e.g., John Adams) would relish it. A moderately self-aware one (e.g., Washington) would accept it and pose for the portrait.

    If Praise to the Man had been a living tribute (with different lyrics, of course) instead of a posthumous one, are we to believe that Joseph would have banished it from ever being sung? I kind of don’t think so. I’m sure he would have blushed and then after his death it may or may not have ended up in the hymnal.

  11. ” I guess the more I think about it, though, the more I’m thinking that I agree with Ardis…”

    The story of my life.

    -Chris H.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    Ardis, I guess the thing that perplexes me is that I strongly suspect that Joseph would really, really like Praise to the Man.

  13. I think there is a difference between the real Joseph and the one we create in our minds, as Ardis call it. However, I think we do this with almost all historical figures, particularly ones we love….or hate.

    I think Joseph may have reacted in different ways at different times in his ministry. I think the early Joseph would have been less comfortable with it than the later Joseph. My impression is that things became a bit more of a cult of personality later in his life, particularly when he felt more under attack.

  14. Do you, Steve? How do you visualize his behavior if he were present in a conference to hear it sung? (I’m not intending to be argumentative at all — I really want to know what you mean by his liking it, how that would manifest.)

  15. Cross-posting, JJ — you answered me without knowing what I hadn’t yet asked!

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Ardis, I sort of do — or at least I think him capable of it. In terms of visualisation it’s hard to say, but frequently he would call out in sermons praise for hymns sung or poetry written, and I can see it coming out that way. Not necessarily in a boasting fashion or anything, just happy that his friends thought fondly of him at last and maybe saw him the way he saw himself (especially, as Chris points out, later Joseph and not early Joseph). But the very fact that we can have discussions like this about the man makes him very fun and curious to discuss — he has a way of defying our expectations, both good and evil.

  17. The line between respecting and worshiping our leaders has always been blurry. My sense is that in general correlation has generally pushed us towards worship to a dangerous degree, especially relative to the living leaders. One of my favorite anecdotes is from the father of correlation H.B. Lee. From the church issued biography of Lee: He had come back from a youth meeting in Arizona and wrote this in his journal In context it is clear that he was shocked and puzzled by how he was treated:

    “The spiritual fervor generated in such a gathering as the Mesa youth conference was almost frightening in its intensity, as they adopt in some cases an almost worshipful attitude, which I am trying earnestly to play down to a respectful and
    appropriate loyalty to their Church leader.” (Harold B. Lee, p 506)

    You get lots of similar anecdotes from Hinkley – forbidding students to stand and sing “We thank thee O God for a Prophet”, numerous stories about him reprimanding people for giving over the top introductions etc.

    Follow the Prophet with its customary militaristic marching is my least favorite song in the Church. People forget that it only came into being in 1985. I think it is symptomatic of our excesses.

    I would be curious to know how people define the line not to cross when it comes to the “evil speaking” covenant. I know for many this means no discussion of critiques of church policy for example. I generally believe in trying to be sympathetic in judging the church and doing so with sincere intent to help and be productive. But for me the “evil speaking” is crossed mostly by claiming/assuming deception and bad intent without real proof rather than thoughtfully engaging in the messiness inherent in trying to lead a large organization.

  18. I think that Joseph would be torn about this, at least the Joseph I’ve constructed. We don’t really know him, and even his contemporaries didnt really know him, you know the quote. I think for us the important distinction is that our love for the Prophet stems from the doctrines that he revealed, that through him the knowledge the Gospel was restored, and we can be with our families for eternity. He was the instrument.
    I can see Joseph having a good laugh, and joining in with the song, and then making sure we understood that he was just an ordinary man.

  19. “I would be curious to know how people define the line not to cross when it comes to the “evil speaking” covenant.”

    I tend to be willing to question their arguments. However, I do not particularly question their calling or intentions. I tend to assume benevolence at some level….though I should do this with most people.

    I think that calling them m*$%&#$ f*&%ers at symposium crosses that line.

  20. Mommie Dearest says:

    Regarding the art selections found at Deseret Book venerating Joseph Smith (and all things Mormonish): they are a commercial enterprise selling a product. People do love meaningful icons and trinkets that plunk their heartstrings, but they don’t necessarily feed the soul.

    Sidebar: I received an email last week chirping that Deseret Book was having a framed art sale–“up to 90% off!”–which is what can happen to commercial enterprises.

    I like the image in the OP (and the other images in the link) because they show a more historically accurate of the events of Carthage than we have traditionally seen in the past. The threat of violence implied by the image of four men barricading the door says weighty things that make it perhaps a good thing to have the written material somewhat lighter.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Word, JJR.

  22. “I think that calling them m*$%&#$ f*&%ers at symposium crosses that line.”

    Did someone do that?

  23. @22: Yes

  24. Thank you, Steve. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I think Joseph would have enjoyed a rousing rendition of PTTM, but that the weight of the veneration would have been heavy. Even the Savior resisted such veneration. “Why call ye me good?”

  25. At its core, the Mormonism he preached was free of this sort of magnification of the man, in favor of magnifying God’s work. … not to mention, his sermons about how he was not any better than the rest of the saints, and that was why Heaven was a society for all of us, not a lonely and isolated place.

  26. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    In the context of time and place, I believe that it was very easy for the early Saints, particularly those who knew and interacted with Joseph, to put him on a pedestal after his murder. Many Saints experienced profoundly spiritual moments with Joseph Smith and they became nexus or cornerstone of their testimony of the Restored Gospel. Remember that Joseph was excoriated in virtually all of the regional newspapers and the vast majority of Saints took umbrage at that, especially after the Missouri persecutions. Most Saints fled Missouri but Joseph and a handful of brethren were left behind
    to continue to suffer in Liberty Jail. He kept paying the price and the others had escaped. One major element of Joseph’s character was that he, “never forgot his roots”, as we might say today. His explanations of the Scriptures when he preached brought both clarification and comprehension to both the educated and the not so educated. They relished his plain speaking.
    When I first joined the Church I felt awkward singing “Praise to the Man” but as the years have gone by and I have learned considerably more about Joseph Smith, I have become a self-confessed admirer and fan. He is one of the first people I would like to meet when I get to the other side of the veil. When I see films re-enacting the martyrdom I am moved to tears, and I feel fury and anger at the mobbers swell in my heart. So now I can sing “Praise to the Man” with unabashed enthusiasm because if God can love and use a brilliant but flawed mortal like Joseph, maybe he can love and find some good use for me.
    Ardis, I swear that at my next physical when the doctor asks me what the problem is, I’m going to answer, “Doc, I’ve been feeling extremely glurgic lately! I’m sure he’ll add at least ten bucks to the bill just for having to look it up like I did!

  27. While I understand why poets like WW Phelps and Eliza R. Snow would choose to praise and remember their friend and prophet the way they did, I am incredibly uncomfortable with the level of hero-worship that is directed toward Joseph Smith. In talking with a friend about this not too long ago, I mentioned that many of the Saints practice what I would call “Josephalotry” – excessive veneration of Joseph. We also talked about the numerous claims about Joseph made in “Praise to the Man” that do not seem to have a strong scriptural background, along with the disturbing focus on Joseph rather than Jesus.

    That being said, though, I believe the hymn has its place, as does the occasional talk and discussion of who Joseph was and what he accomplished, but I feel that the discussions about him need to stay Christ-centered, because that, to my way of reckoning, is what Joseph was. It wasn’t all about him; it was about Him.

  28. Alex, Praise to the Man is mild compared to the claims made in D&C 135. I like the idea that it was about Him and not Joseph, though this may not be historical.

  29. My present bishop, an emeritus Seventy, mentioned in a talk this weekend that he was cautioned when he went out on assignments that “you are a servant, not a celebrity.” That suggests to me how common the exaggerated feelings of the Saints are, and that the General Authorities are fully aware of it, and even perhaps that it might (sometimes, for some men) even be a temptation.

    Joseph, of course, being so much more divinely heroic than the mere mortals around him, of course would have been subject to no such temptation, and would smite with his baleful glance any horrid person who dared to treat him with deference. Yea, verily.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Ardis, forsooth!

  31. I think that Joseph Smith, like us, has inherent contradictions. Like others above, I think he wanted to relate to the “common man”, yet there is also the image of him parading around the city on his horse in his military uniform with a cigar in his mouth. He is certainly a complex person.

    As far as the “trends of personal veneration [that] continue to run strong in Mormonism”, it would actually be fairly easy to correct should someone high up choose to do it. We hear stories about the GAs entering rooms in a particular order, or choosing chocolates in a certain pecking order, or whatever. All it would really take is someone high enough to decide to change that. I do like the more informal nature that I have heard exists in the CofChrist, and it seems their leaders are much more approachable.

    And on a personal level, in my medical practice, my patients call me “Mike”. It’s pretty simple, but it breaks down the “doctor-patient” hierarchy that has historically existed. Patients really appreciate that we approach their problem as equals – I offer some information, and we decide together what works best for them. And all it really takes in a willingness for me to not be called a title “Doctor”.

  32. I agree with Steve that Joseph Smith would have probably enjoyed Praise to the Man and Section 135. He knew his calling was real and that the miracles that he had experienced were real. As a frontier prophet who faced pretty extreme internal opposition at times from apostles and others in church leadership and among lay members, he would have been pleased that, as Steve said, his loyal friends had done something like that for him. He would take it as a signal that there was a core who truly believed, as he did, in the truthfulness of his role as a prophet of God and of the value and necessity of the work of building Zion.

    I think that he would have continually focused praise and worship to God. I don’t see evidence from his life that he failed to redirect praise to God and instead sought fame and adoration in his work.

    He might scratch his head though at the insipid Deseret Book type of kitsch that is passed off as art depicting him and experiences from his life in such an a hero-worshipping way. I have to believe that he would vomit at the cherubic blond Joseph Smiths depicted in Liberty Jail with a tear rolling down his chubby cheek and a potatoe sack around his shoulders.

    Although I think it is a milestone that Steve used the word “supernal” in the original post, hinting that he is close to being called into General leadership, I think that, contrary to the kitsch sold a Deseret Book venerating Joseph Smith, which I don’t think he would have supported, he would have been amused and enthusiastic about Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith tapes and stories. For some reason I think that would have been pretty comfortable for Joseph Smith.

    But we have become far to baroque in general about how we interact with, depict and treat both living and dead General leaders. This just ties into a general culture fascinated by kitsch and celebrity adoration though and is not necessarily a valid criticism of anything inherent in the Gospel itself or the Church.

  33. I remember reading some “Lives of the Saints” when younger and laughing at how impossibly unrealistic was the portrayal of the Catholic saints. However, now that I am older, it just seems like a very human impulse to exaggerate (or for those on the other side, to demonize) the character of someone one has not met. In particular, I am thinking of the Joseph Smith Memorial in Sharon, Vermont, with its flawless granite obelisk, meant at great cost and effort to symbolize his flawless character, when Joseph referred to himself as a rough stone rolling.

  34. Brent C says:

    I always hear the Irish Spring commercial when folks sing Praise to the Man. Then, I found out it’s the same melody but from a Scottish(!) anthem. Appropriate that the melody’s provenance is as problematic as the man.

  35. Steve Evans says:

    John, you’ll know I’ve arrived when I start spouting Edgar Guest poetry. Until then you can sleep safely at night…

  36. Supernal cassette tapes, FTW.

    For a quick, off the cuff post, this sure gets at some deep and serious questions, Steve. And Ardis’ comment #7 is money.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks young Brad. I guess I prefer to get at questions rather than actually explore or answer them. But that’s fine too.

    Ardis is ALWAYS money.

  38. To me, one thing seems for sure – Joseph liked being difficult to figure out. He would probably have enjoyed this thread.

  39. “God is in the still small voice. In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the devil–all corruption. Come on! ye prosecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet . . . ” (History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 408-409).

    The image of Joseph I have has him leading the chorus.

  40. I’m really struggling with Joseph’s choices right now, especially polyandry. I am happy to sing praises to our Savior, not so much to Joseph.