Whose story is it?

To whom does a person’s life-story belong? Does the person who lived that life get to tell it, or does someone else get to tell it instead? If someone else, then who? And what basis should be used?

Joseph Smith was told by the angel Nephi (I’m letting Joseph identify the angel’s name) that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.” So right there in September 1823 an otherworldly messenger (as an angel presumably has some reliability) says there will be contradictory versions of Joseph Smith among all who discuss him in the future.

Does Joseph Smith get priority in providing us an account of his life? If we won’t let him account for himself, then do we defer to those who were close to him, and sympathetic to him? People who believed him to be a good man, so that they give us a good report? Or those who were ostensibly close to him, but who turned out to be two-faced and actually his enemies? People who believed him to be a bad man, so that they give us an evil report?

What about those who were not particularly close to him, but who had strong negative opinions of him? And what of an admitted liar, like John C. Bennett, who said he lied to get close to Joseph and always intended to be a deceiver? He gave an evil report of Joseph, but if he admits he lied to get his story, is his story to be trusted? Do we defer to liars if they provide an evil report we want to believe?

What about people who were contemporary, but not particularly close to Joseph? Do we let them tell Joseph’s story? And how persuaded should we be if they don’t bother to give any particularly important account until 5 years after Joseph died? What if they waited 10 years? What if they waited 20? 30? What if they tell a story 60 years after Joseph’s death that they attribute to their deceased father who purportedly told them something about Joseph some decades earlier? Most of Joseph’s many histories are based on these belated, often fabricated, accounts.

There has been a great, overwhelming, assumed to be irrefutable narrative about Joseph Smith that practically every institutional source has now agreed to accept. But that narrative contradicts the way Joseph Smith told his story. Does the guy who lived it get a say in how his life is explained?

If Joseph gets to say a word or two about himself, then when he wrote about his life in 1838 the following (after he had been brought before the High Council at Far West on a charge by Oliver Cowdery that he committed adultery), how seriously should we consider these words in deciding whether to give a good or evil account of the man:

I was left to all kinds of temptations, and mingling with society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors and displayed the weakness of youth and the foibles of human nature, which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations offensive in the sight of God.
In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins, a disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God, as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to anyone who recollects my youth and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.

He says we do not need to suppose he was ever guilty of “any great or malignant sins”–like adultery, dishonesty, sedition, treason, or any number of falsehoods then in circulation. Joseph said that “a disposition to commit such was never in [his] nature.” Does he get to tell us that and we reject it? He’s saying what is in his heart, his personality, his inner soul. Should that matter?

When Joseph explained the religion he believed and taught to an inquiring newspaper editor in 1842, he said: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men[.]” Should we believe that about Joseph’s beliefs? If so, how should that affect the story we tell about the man?

While in prison in 1839 the voice of God spoke to Joseph and said this to him: “The ends of the earth shall inquire after your name, and fools shall have you in derision, and hell shall rage against you, while the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under your hand. And your people shall never be turned against you by the testimony of traitors, and although their influence shall cast you into trouble, and into bars and walls, you shall be had in honor.” This again is an account of Joseph’s life spoken from an otherworldly source (presumably God is a reliable source to consider when deciding whether to speak good or evil of Joseph). How much weight should be given to this statement/prophecy/counsel?

Can anyone that would be regarded as “pure in heart” believe an evil report about Joseph? Would they not prefer to see purity in Joseph, if they are likewise pure? Can anyone that would be regarded as “wise and noble” believe an evil report about Joseph? Would they not prefer to see wisdom and nobility in Joseph, if they are likewise wise and noble? Can a “virtuous” person believe an evil report about Joseph? Would they not prefer to see virtuousness in him if they are likewise virtuous?

Can someone who believes in lying, deceiving, and misleading even their wife believe in “being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all”? Did Joseph actually believe in the religion he gave his life for?

I’m certain [and I do mean CERTAIN] that Joseph Smith was a virtuous man, and not a liar and deceiver. That is not to say that those who have provided accounts that tell of him being dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy, promiscuous, egomaniacal, and, well, evil have not been considered by me in making my decision about the man. But I’ve let Joseph account for himself first, as a priority in deciding his goodness or evilness. He has been consistent in everything that can be tracked back directly and intimately to him.

I’ve also considered the scriptures as part of deciding Joseph’s story. The Book of Mormon, Isaiah, and modern revelation have a great deal to say about his life. So, too, has the JST account of Genesis had something to add about Joseph’s story.

I’ve considered the self-interests of the publishers of the Joseph Smith Papers and contrasted their “Historical Introductions” and footnotes with the content of the letters, journals, histories, and documents. They often (and I do mean OFTEN) contradict the very document with their Introductions and footnotes. They strain, distort, and outright misstate content to justify an institutional narrative that they need to retain power and influence.

Well, God put it best: Fools hold Joseph in derision. Hell rages against him. But I see in him virtue, nobility and purity. God expects that from someone that God would trust, as He did Joseph. Although he made “many foolish errors” the greatest was perhaps his tendency to attribute the same trustworthiness and honesty that was in his heart to his unworthy associates. That has allowed a great deal of the evil spoken about Joseph to gain acceptance.

Joseph Smith is like a religious Rorschach inkblot test: The beholder sees something that tells us about themselves. Tells us far more about themselves than about Joseph.