Cover image: Mary Kept All These Things, by Howard Lyon.

Endless tales are told about Joseph Smith, and some are distressed by them. But the same kinds of tales were told about the Savior Himself—and if elaborate and persuasive lies can be told about Him, who can’t they be told about? The reality is that Satan operates a 24/7 smear factory, and he always has. We do not need to be distracted by its products, however; there is a better path.


In his first visit to Joseph Smith, Moroni told Joseph that his name “should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues”—that it “should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). It is hard to imagine a truer prophecy than this: the Prophet was accused relentlessly while he was alive, he was ultimately murdered, and he remains relentlessly accused to this day.

It is not unusual for people to be troubled or upset by accusations they may hear about Joseph Smith. “Could he really have been a prophet if he did that?” they ask.

In our experience, this is a common reaction. But it is worth noting that another possible reaction would be: “I wonder if that is actually true.”

For many of us, we tend to assume that any historical report must have some basis in truth, and therefore that any accusation or damaging report we hear about the Prophet Joseph must be grappled with and reconciled with our faith as if it were at least partially true. But that assumption is a mistake. As a matter of fact, it is extremely possible for accusations and damaging reports to be completely misleading or outright false. The “historical record” consists of everything people said or claimed in the past—it is not historical because it is true, but only because time has passed: that’s what makes it “historical.” The people of Joseph’s day were as likely to misread, spread rumors, pass along false gossip, or even lie, as people are today.

Assuming that everything we hear about Joseph Smith must be true minimizes the tendency of mortals to make serious errors, even when the errors are innocent, and it also overlooks Satan’s profound interest in lying about the truth. There is actually strong reason to believe that a man with enemies, who threatened conventional wisdom and offered a radical new way of living, would collect a larger-than-usual share of misleading or outright false reports about his life.

Rumors about the Savior

Nowhere is this clearer than in the life of the Savior Himself. In one of his most important works, Hugh Nibley reports that at an early period people began collecting even earlier stories and affidavits about Jesus from those who claimed to be familiar with His life. The stories show Jesus to have been “a simple country boy” and that he had had “an inordinate desire to impress people.” One account quoted by Nibley reports that Jesus was ashamed of being “born in a miserable Jewish village to a poor working woman of the lowest class”—and that this was why he fabricated the story of the virgin birth.

In addition, the account tells us that Mary “was actually thrown out by her husband, a carpenter by trade, when he found that she had been guilty of adultery.” Everyone, we are told, always knew that Jesus was not Joseph’s child, after all, and we are even told specific details of the affair—such as that Jesus’ real father was named Panthera and that he was a soldier. Then we are told that, having been kicked out, Mary “wandered around like a tramp” until she eventually “bore Jesus in disgrace.” Eventually Jesus went to Egypt looking for work, and there “became acquainted with certain skills on which the Egyptians pride themselves.” As Jesus became expert in these skills, we are told, he developed exalted ideas about himself and this explains why he eventually “announced that he was God.”

The ancient reporter of this story finds this early account plausible, and believes that it easily accounts for the events in Jesus’ life that would otherwise have to be explained as “miracles.”[1]

So there we have it: an early account of Jesus’ life that successfully casts him as a flamboyant charlatan, a manipulator and a liar, and, for that matter, as one born of the lowest class of parentage. It is all false, of course. The truth is not that the Savior misrepresented His own life to appear divine—the truth is that His enemies (whether malicious or just mistaken) misrepresented the divinity of His life to excuse themselves from having to follow Him. Those rumors and accusations are  the opposite of the truth about Him. But it is also all found in the actual historical record.

Naturally, disciples of Christ pay no attention to such tales. The Lord said in His own time simply that “my sheep hear my voice . . . and they follow me” (John 10:27). Indeed, His sheep follow Him because they “know his voice” (John 10:4). The Lord’s disciples, therefore, were not distracted by what was said about Him. They saw Him and the work He performed. Drawn to Him by the Spirit—hearing His “voice”—they followed Him.

The Path for Us

We have the same opportunity and responsibility today. Tales reported about Joseph Smith by critics do not matter. The Lord’s own experience with tale-bearers demonstrates that: if elaborate and persuasive lies can be told about Him, who can’t they be told about? The reality is that Satan operates a 24/7 smear factory; he has from the beginning, and he will until the end.

Luckily, in our own time we have faithful scholars at places such as FAIR and Interpreter who examine and refute false claims about the Prophet, and put misleading claims in the proper context. Seeing the Prophet emerge victorious from slander (as he invariably does) is beautifully satisfying.

But most of us don’t have the time to wade through original sources, read long papers, or attend live conferences to sort through the details of this accusation or that. The good news, though, is that we do not need to be historians to be confident about Joseph Smith’s character. As in the Lord’s own time, the proper path is simply to seek and hear the voice of the Shepherd. That means paying attention to Joseph Smith himself and to the divine work he produced—from the First Vision accounts to his huge scriptural output—not to the multitudinous tales about him. As we do that, we can be certain that the Shepherd’s voice will bear witness to us of who Joseph Smith was, and is, and of the majestic role he has played—and continues to play—in the Lord’s eternal work.

And, after hearing the Shepherd’s voice on the matter, what contrary voice could ever interest us again?


Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. You can learn more about modern prophets in their new book, The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times.

Click here to learn more.

[1] Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1974), 15–16.