Joseph as a Con Man?

It is interesting to see the many different arguments used in support of LDS claims. Here was an interesting argument set forth on a forum for the authenticity of the gold plates.  The discussion touched on the Kinderhook Plates, and Joseph’s inability to identify them as fraudulent artifacts before he died. For at least one person, Joseph’s inability to identify the fraudulent nature of the Kinderhook Plates serves to strengthen his faith in the reality of the Gold Plates:

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I’m always looking for motives. Let’s just say JS did fake the BOM. Now he knows and the helpers he had know it’s fake. Things are going great, church is growing he’s raking in money,  he’s crowned King of the world by his crazed followers.

Why would he risk his credibility that he worked so hard to achieve? He would look better if he saw those fakes and said, “They are absolutely fake!” Of course he would know it as he made up the first plate story.

However, if Moroni showed him those plates and he KNOWS it’s true now he’s obligated to investigate if they are true or not. And since he is human he can make mistakes.

Am I the only one who sees this logic?

“Flucci” on MADB

The problem with this argument is that the answer lies in the characterization of “Joseph Smith just faking the BOM.”

What if instead of it being a conscious, planned “con”,  it was something a little more subtle, and based on a phenomena with which few people are familiar?  Are there other alternatives that can be considered?

So much of that argument is based on our assumptions about motivations, and the capabilities of Joseph Smith.  But there is much we don’t know about the limits of the human mind.  When we learn about other incredible things people have done, it raises interesting possibilities.

For example, consider the interesting phenomenon which can be seen in the works of a woman named Pearl Curran, who revealed the words of a long-dead entity named  “Patience Worth“.  Pearl’s dictation of Patience Worth’s poetry and histories was no less unusual than Joseph Smith’s dictation of The Book of Mormon.    When we consider Pearl Curran and other unusual feats like Ramtha/ JZ Knight, must we believe their claims whole-heartedly if we chose not to accuse them of being frauds and cons?  Or is there something else?  These people have also revealed the words of long lost cultures and civilizations. I don’t think their works are authentic records, but I also wouldn’t say they “know” they are “just faking it”. It’s possible for people who create such works to really, really believe they are authentically conveying the words of a long lost author, but still be mistaken.

There is also the phenomenom illustrated by the followers of Uri Gellar. He is a mentalist who bends spoons with his mind and other such things. There are situations when mentalists and psychics have been “caught” using cheats and other mechanical means to perform their tricks. When this happens, do their followers admit they were duped? Do they renounce their belief in their guru’s power?

No.

They easily hypothesize that their guru does have true powers, but they aren’t consistent. So he wouldn’t be able to do a stage show every night and get it right every time. So, in order to get his message across, he needs to supplement his true powers with “tricks” or props, so people will find it easier to believe.

So how does this help me understand Joseph Smith better? I think it’s entirely possible for him to dictate the Book of Mormon and truly, honestly believe he is conveying the words of a long lost civilization. I think it is possible for him to look at his culture, and understand it would be much, much easier for people to believe his story if he had a physical representation of the plates (which, judging from what I hear at Church and on online, is true either way).

I think it is entirely possible for Joseph to be pondering the experience of Abraham, and then have Chandler’s mummies show up with the papyrus.  Would it be that hard to believe God had arranged for the writings of Abraham to come to him? Apparently not, since people to this day believe it. And when he looks at the papyrus and closes his eyes and prays and concentrates, words come to him. It must be God, revealing the true meaning of the papyrus, right?  Would Joseph be a “con man” for truly believing such things, but being wrong?

It is a mistake is to assume that alternate theories regarding the 19th century origin of the Book of Mormon need to follow a traditional “con-artist” mentality like something from “The Sting” with Scott Joplin music playing in the background. We need to look at our assumptions a little more closely before disregarding a theory because just because you couldn’t or wouldn’t do it that way.  We need to honestly consider other alternatives.

In short, I believe that until the day he died, it is entirely possible for Joseph Smith to believe in everything he said or did as being “true”, never thinking he had spoken against the will of God or acted unethically or immorally. But I think it is possible for Joseph to have believed all of this, and at the same time for the Book of Mormon to not be historically true.

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