Joseph Smith, Con Man Extraordinaire

Painting by an unknown painter, circa 1842. Th...

Joseph Smith, con man. ... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In judging any worldview or belief system, I think it’s necessary to examine the system’s founder; his character will, in my opinion, tell me everything I need to know about his trustworthiness, and thus about the reliability of what he’s proclaiming.

In the case of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, a close look at his life reveals that he was not only a polygamist but a world-class scam artist who spent most of his life looking for the perfect con, failing at the task several times before, regrettably, striking gold with Mormonism.

Smith was born in Vermont, but his family moved to Palmyra, N.Y., when he was about 12. His career as a con artist began when he was a young man, when he took up work as a “seer,” also known as a “glasslooker,” in the Palmyra area. Smith told people that he, with the help of a special “seerstone,” could locate buried treasure and lost property. As you might’ve guessed, he never found anything, and even though the job didn’t pay much, he nonetheless took people’s money without delivering the promised service, so he was arrested in 1826. Charges were dropped because no one wanted to admit to being a sucker to Smith, but he was nonetheless well on his way as a con man.

With apologies to Lemony Snicket, next came the unfolding of a series of unfortunate events. A hard-up preacher named Solomon Spaulding decided, after several other failed ventures, to try his hand at writing and selling novels. He wrote a story called Manuscript Found at Conneaut Creek but failed to get it published, so he reworked the story and renamed it Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon. He took it to a publisher in Pittsburgh who agreed to publish it if Spaulding could come up with the money, but Spaulding never could find a backer, so the manuscript languished in the publisher’s office.

At some point in the late 1810s-early 1820s, a man named Sidney Rigdon was visiting that same publisher’s office, and he came across Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon. By this time Spaulding had died, so the manuscript had just been collecting dust—so Rigdon took it, supposedly just for curiosity’s sake at first. Rigdon, however, was an adherent of Campbellism, which sought to restore Christianity to its first-century form (at least, what Campbellites believed was its first-century form), and in Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon Rigdon saw an opportunity, a possible way to promote Campbellism and unite the various Christian denominations. He began to hatch an idea, and around 1825 to 1827 Rigdon told his closest friends that soon a new book of scripture would come out that would unite Christian Americans, convert Native Americans, and explain what happened to the people who had built thousands of mounds around the eastern U.S.

During this same period, a man named Oliver Cowdery lived in Rigdon’s area, and likely heard Rigdon’s idea. Cowdery used to live in New York, and was a cousin to Joseph Smith, and at one point went back to New York to visit the Smiths. Joseph Smith, by this time, had cooked up his latest (and ultimately “greatest”) con. Religious revivals were sweeping Smith’s part of the country during this time, and he wanted to capitalize on the fervor; when Cowdery told him of Rigdon’s idea, Smith found a way to do that. Smith had concocted some stories—one in which God the Father and Jesus Christ allegedly appeared to him (known as Smith’s “First Vision”), and one claiming that he had been visited by an angel named Moroni who told Smith about some buried golden plates that contained a record of the ancient Americans and of Jesus’s dealings with them, and that this was the true gospel. So Rigdon and Smith collaborated on a revision of Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon, and thus was born The Book of Mormon, first published in 1829.

Several of Spaulding’s relatives who were familiar with Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon swore in affidavits that The Book of Mormon was a ripoff of Solomon’s second, missing manuscript. In fact, they claimed that “Nephites,” “Lamanites,” “Lehi,” “Mormon” and “Moroni”—all key words in The Book of Mormon—had been used in Solomon’s work. So not only did Smith steal various ideas from Christianity and twist them, he also stole someone else’s literary ideas.

The success of Smith’s latest endeavor was not immediate—he tried selling copies of The Book of Mormon but found few takers—but the seed of his future empire was there. In the meantime, Smith, Rigdon and Cowdery went to Ohio and established a bank, but the bank had no charter, so the three men became wanted by state authorities. Cowdery became angry at Smith for the bank’s failure and left for Michigan, while Smith and Rigdon fled to Missouri.

Smith, however, began to accumulate followers around this time, and after Missourians kicked out him and his followers, the Mormons landed in Illinois and founded the town of Nauvoo out of swampland. It was during this time that Smith became a Freemason, and again Smith found it appropriate to “borrow” from others, incorporating many Freemasonry ideas into his new cult, including the idea of “celestial life” (Smith, in fact, fell in love with the word celestial).

By this time Smith was well on his way—he had fame, fortune, power, and an ever-growing following (not to mention whatever women he felt like seducing, and there were many). Though Smith was killed by a mob while he was in jail in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, he had reached his lifelong goal: discovering the perfect way to get people to give him whatever he wanted.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bluepearlgirl's world
    Apr 25, 2012 @ 13:07:31

    Reblogged this on bluepearlgirl's world and commented:
    And to continue my rants on religion, here is a posting by Jason Drexler writes blog. Thank you mr. drexler!


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  5. fred
    Nov 03, 2013 @ 10:37:28

    its all a hoax


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