Monday, January 17, 2005

Idealization and correcting falsehoods

One of the most famous incidents from Joseph Smith's boyhood is the leg operation he underwent when he was seven years old. He refused to take brandy as an anesthetic, insisting instead that his father hold him while his leg was cut open and pieces of bone broken off.

This incident was brought up by our Gospel Doctrine teacher yesterday as an example of how Joseph Smith was prepared for his prophetic mission. He noted that the Word of Wisdom hadn’t been revealed yet, but that “that was just how Joseph was raised -- that his family didn’t do that sort of thing.”

I’m sure the teacher had good intentions. The problem is that, as noted by Kaimi and commenters over at Times & Seasons, it’s simply not true. Joseph and his family drank alcohol up through Joseph's death (he had wine just before he was killed; see History of the Church 6:616). I’m inclined to agree with Marc D. that the most likely reason Joseph refused alcohol was that his father had problems with alcoholism.

This seems like a minor issue, but it highlights one of the things that bothers me when I see it in the Church: the idealization of prophets. This can cause problems in a couple of ways: First, the specifics. When someone who has been taught in Sunday School that Joseph never drank alcohol finds out (most likely from an unfriendly source) that he actually did, there is a sense of betrayal -- why was I taught falsely in church? Second, the general expectation that prophets should be superhuman. The comment was made in a context that was pretty much saying, “See how prepared Joseph was? Even at seven years old, the Holy Ghost revealed to him that he shouldn't drink alcohol, even though he wouldn't have the Word of Wisdom revealed to him for many years.” And this sets up incorrect expectations that run up against reality and can cause a lot of confusion later on. It seems to me that this type of approach generally tends to lead people to discount their belief in a prophet instead of critically examining their own assumptions of what a prophet is.

So, did I speak up in Sunday School to correct the teacher? No, I bit my tongue for a couple of reasons: 1) there wasn't time to address all of these issues; 2) even if there had been, I'm not sure it was the proper venue; 3) I don't know the teacher well enough or how my comments might have been received -- after all, it might have been more difficult for people to discover through my comment that Joseph Smith drank alcohol. I was quite frustrated. What would you have done, or what would you do from here, if anything?


  1. I would have spoken with the teacher after the class. During the class it would have sounded too much like you were sharpshooting the teacher, given that you would be directly contradicting his/her point. Then let the teacher correct self, or not, the next week. 

    Posted by Mike Clark

  2. Grasshopper, good to see you back in the swing of things. Yes, I'd agree that Sunday School is not generally the place to offer corrections of this sort. The solution is for better teachers to be called, i.e., ones that don't misstate doctrine or history in class.

    That's my alternate formulation of the problem you describe in the post: that too many people are quite happy with misstating history to match their own predispositions and biases. Whether it's termed "idealization" or "faithful history," knowing or even merely careless misstatements tend (in my mind, anyway) to undercut the frequent claims of integrity and dedication to truth one hears over the pulpit. 

    Posted by Dave

  3. Does anyone have the source for the story mentioned? I've looked for an original source, and have had trouble finding it.

    The story is non-sensical to me. It was presented to me, as a child, to bolster the Word of Wisdom. But, has others have pointed out, the WOW didn't even exist at the time, and alcohol continued to be freely imbibed long after the WOW.

    Additionally, this was a surgical proceeding and the alcohol was being used as an anesthetic. Should I have concluded from my childhood WOW lessons that it would be wrong for me to use anesthetic in such a situation?

    I've long suspected that this story is a fabrication based loosely on actual events. That's why I'd like to read the original source on this, to see what the context of the story was and how it was told.


    Posted by Timothy

  4. As far as I can tell, there are only two sources for the story of Joseph's leg operation. In BYU Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Leroy S. Wirthlin published an essay on the medical details of the leg operation. He identified the two sources: An 1838 recollection by Joseph Smith (which does not mention the refusal to drink alcohol) and the history of Joseph written by his mother. So Joseph's mother is the source of the story of refusing alcohol. Her book was dictated in 1845 and originally published in 1853. Given the time frame, I doubt that the story was intended to give the impression that Joseph was somehow observing the WoW prior to its revelation.

    In older reminiscences of Joseph Smith that make reference to this story (such as in the Improvement Era), the point of the story has nothing to do with the WoW; rather, it is taken as an illustration of the courage of Joseph Smith as a boy -- the same strength of courage he would need as a prophet suffering great persecutions later in his life (cf., for example, the story of his preaching the morning after being tarred and feathered during the night). 

    Posted by Grasshopper

  5. That story came up in adult sunday school a couple of weeks ago. I am sure it will come up again since this year's topic is the D&C and church history. I just bit my lip and showed restraint. There is no need to cause that level of controversey in sunday school. I agree with the posters above. Unfortunately at this point, I think people will have to deal with that individually. I think that I would bring it up in more informal settings with others and with my own children (family home evening).

    I have been uncomfortable with that story ever since I remember hearing it. Something always seemed a little odd about it. As I got older I came across the same background information and reasoning. The contradictory nature of it does not bother me at all. There is something in human nature that leads many to idealize the past and build upon facts -- the classic tall tale in literature. It just becomes so problematic in other ways when it is a pivitol religious figure like Joseph Smith instead of Paul Bunion or Davey Crockett.

    Here is another item like this that makes me feel "uncomfortable" a lot: The hymn Praise to the Man. I hold the Prophet Joseph Smith in the highest regard. The more I learn about him and his life, the more my faith in the church grows. He was a prophet called by God to do a great work. That is for sure.

    From his biographical information, his writings, his speeches and the way he lived his life, I can not imagine that he would be comfortable with people singing this hymn either. That is my personal opinion, but I think that it is a well supported opinion. It seems to me that all prophets tend to feel somewhat unworthy of the great works that flow through them. Can anyone think of any exceptions? I can't. I can think of several that have given us insights into their personal view of themselves in the records they left. Moses, Nephi, Mormon, Lehi, Paul and even Joseph Smith left behind misgivings about their failings and personal shortcomings at times.

    It might be nice to think of prophets as superhuman -- that they were perfect like the Savior and had never committed sin. I think the evidence suggests that they were ordinary people like you and me. They were certainly special in their preparation, sacrifice and spiritual depth of character. It seems that they were all universally humbled though by their very close interaction with God and the divine. 

    Posted by Brian Johnston

  6. The funniest thing happened to me a few weeks ago. A sister missionary approached me and told me the story of Joseph not drinking alcohol during that operation. She claimed that this showed that he did not partake of alcohol during his life and that I was wrong when I said that he did. She then prodeeded to tell me that she had prayed and received an answer to her prayers and that she was told that JS had never drunk alcohol. I suggest you tell people that continue to tell these falsehoods about the prophet to get their history straight. It makes them look like liars when the truth is that they are most likely misinformed members repeating a story line that falls in line with their beliefs.

    Posted by Rich

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  8. Even Bringham Young owned a bar and whiskey distillery in Salt lake.

  9. What I *would* have done, or what I like to *think* I would have done, or what I *should* have done?

    What I most likely would have done is contradicted the teacher in a voice only my neighbors could hear. Really quite unhelpful. That is what I did tonight at institute when we were told that a goal unwritten is merely a dream (entails (a) that illiterate people can't have real goals, and (b) that none of my covenants constituted goal-setting).

    A better course of action would probably be to call for a citation: "That's funny, I recall reading otherwise. What's your source?" Yeah, it's terribly passive-aggressive-Wikipedian, but at least it spikes the saccharine Kool-Aid of pious myth with the irritant of doubt, and maybe someone who hears will stop drinking before he demonstrates what that Kool-Aid really does.

    There is probably a more charitable solution than mine. One that allows both "kindness and pure knowledge [to] greatly enlarge the soul" (emphasis mine).

    Although on that subject, "reproving betimes with sharpness" means "reproving on time with precision," so maybe a gentle correction in the lesson isn't such a bad thing, "when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and showing forth afterward an increase of love" eh?