In church this Sunday, we sang the hymn "Praise to the Man" which contains these two phrase:
"Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!"
"Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren."
I felt acutely uncomfortable with the words and stopped singing it. The tune is rousing. The words were written by William W. Phelps, a contemporary with Joseph Smith, and who fell out with Joseph Smith, but later asked for forgiveness and to be accepted back into the church. When Joseph Smith was martyred at Carthage Jail in Illinois, he penned this poem to the prophet.
While I appreciate the feeling of those who loved Joseph Smith and who were devastated by his murder, the words of this song now seem to me to be akin to worship, which is not what modern Mormons feel for this prophet. We honor him and his sacrifice. We think that The Book of Mormon is the word of God. But we also recognize Joseph Smith's flaws. Yet this song seems to elevate him to nearly divine status and I am unsure that is the way that I feel about the early Mormon prophet.
To non-Mormons, I would hasten to add that Mormons do not now nor ever have prayed to Joseph Smith. We do not believe that he has become a god. We do not think that he intervenes in our lives or in the present workings of the church. The current prophet of the church is inspired by Jesus Christ, not by Joseph Smith, and it is Christ who is the head of our current church.
And yet, I am still bothered by what seem to me remnants of a near deification of Joseph Smith that happened shortly after his martyrdom. Joseph Smith was a prophet, yes. He was also, by his own admission, involved in treasure-seeking in his early years. He was notably bad with finances his whole life, which was part of the reason he ended up in Liberty Jail before his martyrdom, and part of the reason many of the most faithful Saints turned against him. He lied to his wife Emma about his involvement in polygamy for years before it became public. Also by his own admission, he lost the first 116 pages of the translation of The Book of Mormon, pages which were never found and which he was never allowed to translate again. The Book of Mormon which we have today is only a partial translation of the Gold Plates because of Joseph Smith's flaws.
In the Doctrine and Covenants 135, our scripture claims that "Joseph Smith "has done more save Jesus only for the salvation of men in this world". I worry that this sounds as if we think that Joseph Smith is in some way on the same level as Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith was a man, not the son of God. He was not divine in any way. He did not have the capacity to resurrect himself or to resurrect others from the dead. He could not suffer the Atonement of Christ which allows all of us to repent of our sins and return to God.
While I usually think Mormons do a good job of making Joseph Smith seem like a human being rather than god-like, there are moments like singing this song when I feel a twinge of unease, not just because of Joseph Smith, but because of our current leaders. Deifying our leaders creates problems in the church today. It makes it difficult for members to have their own opinions, politically and spiritually. It encourages members who agree wholeheartedly with the current leadership to shun those who speak out about their disagreement.
Disagreement, even in spiritual matters, is healthy within a church. Since Mormons believe that everyone has the right to receive individual spiritual enlightenment from God (even if not everyone is entitled to receive instruction about leadership matters), it is important to remember that God may speak differently to all of us. Figuring out how to hear God's voice on your own is one of the elements of spiritual adulthood. If we remain forever depending on others to tell us what God says, we are spiritually infants and also in danger of being led astray.