Tracking The Sincere Believer: ‘Authentic’ Religion And The Enduring Legacy Of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Who was the real Joseph Smith, Jr.? Over the past two centuries, he has been portrayed as a great spiritual leader, a prophet, a religious charlatan, and a deeply unstable person. Was he a divine conduit or a mountebank? A caring leader or crafty seducer? Biographers and believers continuously have sought the “real” man beneath the sacred self-descriptions. In this lecture, Laurie Maffly-Kipp suggests that this quest tells us much more about ourselves and our own times than it does about Smith. For believers and nonbelievers, determining Joseph Smith’s sincerity is a mighty business. For Mormons, Smith’s honesty directly correlates to the honesty of the Latter-day Saint tradition. If Smith really met Moroni, then the basis of Mormonism is confirmed; to distrust Smith’s sincerity is to distrust the entire faith system. Likewise, among nonbelievers, doubting Smith’s veracity is a key component of their debunking. Regardless of their theological commitments, then, believers and nonbelievers share an obsession with sincerity. Did Joseph Smith mean what he said? Did he feel religious inside? These questions necessarily tempt a far more fundamental query: What is sincere about religion? Moreover, once we move beyond the sincerity polygraph, what remains of Mormonism, and of religious belief more generally? What will we see, about the Mormon faith, about religious sincerity, and about ourselves, if we begin to move beyond this obsession with authenticity?

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Jan Shipps