The last son of Joseph Smith understood the power of doubt
The following was written in the late 19th century by a young man familiar with the two Mormon churches: The Utah LDS Church and the Midwest Reorganized LDS Church founded by Joseph Smith III. “’Except you believe, ye shall be damned’ is the first proposition of the church.’ ... In art, in science, in every department of life, intelligence is never required to give credence to or act upon any proposition unless it is capable of demonstration, actual demonstration, or it is based up apparrent (sic) fact, apparent even though their causes and mode be hidden. But in religion another basis is acted upon and we are expected to believe and stake our salvation upon this belief. ... The seeker for salvation must first believe and the vital object, salvation or damnation, hangs thereon. This is absurd.”
The author was David Hyrum Smith, the youngest son of the slain LDS prophet, Joseph Smith. Born after his father had been murdered, David was cossetted by his family and lived the life of a writer, artist and missionary. The young father — in his 20s — had returned to a mission in Utah after several requests. Joseph Smith III, whom the letter was addressed to, must have regretted extending the call, writes Valerie Tippetts Avery, author of “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” a fascinating biography of David Smith. To young David, already prone to instability, the mission call served to convince himself of something that tormented, that he had spent years angrily refuting — that his father had preached and practiced polygamy.
The knowledge, confirmed to David by former plural wives of his father, led to other doubts, expressed by David in these letters to his brother. In the following excerpt, David reasonably objects to the longstanding Christian doctrine that a loving father willfully leaves his children abandoned on earth. David was reflecting on his new fatherhood and the love for his son as he wrote: “I have a child. I keep myself obstinately hidden from him; I make no revelation to him but in an obscure and very doubtful way the requirement of love and obedience comes to him. And death or life hangs in its acceptance. How very unjust if he be ignorant, prejudice guide him, if wise, then reason tells him if I have a father he must come near me first, love me, and teach me to love him. ..; I do not argue the benefit of Faith and trust in God as a general application of moral principle but the attaching of salvation upon such ambiguous grounds is unjust.”
Writes Tippetts Avery, “Fatherhood had taught David to distrust the seemingly deliberate obscurity of God.”
Yet David Hyrum Smith took his newfound skepticism a step further, arguing against the dogma that man can only seek important further knowledge from a selected prophet. This doubt struck at a key doctrine — at that time — of both churches. He wrote: “If faith unto salvation was an eternal principle and true, it could be discovered and demonstrated so as to be of general benefit as the law of gravitation of the rules of mathematics. But as it comes to us it makes us subservient to our falable (sic) fellow Man for eternal life, a most absurd proposition. But you again might speak God has revealed himself. But here again is an absurdity our fellow man brings us a revelation, and we are only guided by our faith in him. We do not know he has had this revelation and eternal salvation depends upon our faith in our fellow man and his revelation. Unjust and absurd.”
In his writings, David Smith further pointed out the inconsistency of ascribing belief based on one man’s claim of divine prophecy. For every Joseph Smith, he told his brother, there were Brigham Young, “Spiritualists,” and “Strangites” ... an offshoot of Mormonism.
Young Smith’s ideas could be dismissed as heresy or apostasy by some believers. The proper term is doubt, though, which is a healthy expression, and a prerequisite toward a mature belief and hope. Any follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any Christian religion, should acknowledge the inconsistencies demanded by Christian theology, which are:
• That belief is required without presentable evidence.
• That our father in heaven has deliberately abandoned us from palpable presence.
• And that for every claim of a Joseph Smith or a Thomas S. Monson, there are thousands of similar claims from prophets with hundreds of millions of adherents.
We cannot prove theology, and we should not try. Beliefs we hold dear may not affect others in the same manner. History exists which alleges those we worship as servants of God as sinners of lust and power.
The mystery of belief, if it can be defined, is that to doubt is to believe. Doubt turns sand into a rock. To not doubt is to omit an ingredient for faith and hope.
More will be written about David Hyrum Smith. There is an irony to his letters. Mental illness overcame him and he spent the last half of his life institutionalized. A melodramatic person might see his fate as God’s punishment. Such supercilious jeering may exist. But we should investigate the questions he shared with his brother. Failure to do so results in churches having a low activity rate.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.