Seeing is believing, so the saying goes, and that was instantly true for some viewers of the recently discovered daguerreotype purporting to be Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith.
“My immediate thought was how young he looked,” says Kathleen Flake, head of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, who had no trouble embracing the photograph as authentic. “Yes, worn down — I see pain in the face, not beauty — but understandable. It is not the face of an illustrated, mythic figure out of history, but real and human.”
For others, though, seeing the image may not be enough. Indeed, it has led to disbelieving.
“The whole affect feels off to me,” says respected Latter-day Saint historian Richard Bushman, who wrote the acclaimed biography “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” “The mouth is too broad compared to the death mask. If shown this picture, I would never have suspected it of being Joseph Smith.”
Brent Ashworth, a Provo collector and dealer of Mormon artifacts, is similarly skeptical.
“It doesn’t line up with [Smith’s] death mask or the David Rogers  painting from life or the [Sutcliffe] Maudsley paintings/silhouettes or several other woodcuts and pictures made of the prophet in life or death,” Ashworth says. “To me, it just doesn’t look like it could be him.”
Whether they see it as the religious leader or not, last week’s stunning announcement by historians with the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) that they had found the only known photo of Smith prompted a social media maelstrom among historians, daguerreotype experts, observers as well as members of the larger, Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Why such interest?
Because “there hasn’t been one” — an actual photo of the man millions of believers around the world revere as a prophet who saw God and Jesus in a New York woods as a boy and launched a global movement — Lachlan Mackay, a historian and Community of Christ apostle, says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast. “It’s a mystery and we’re uncomfortable with that. And even though we all have kind of wired ourselves into seeing Joseph as that oil portrait, at some level most of us know people don’t really look like that.”
There has been this “desire to really get beyond what is an almost mythological figure in the portrait,” Mackay says, “to see the man.”
Concluding it was Joseph
The story of its discovery by a Smith descendant, Daniel Larsen, was published and explained in an extensive article in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. It is titled “Hidden Things Shall Come to Light: The Visual Image of Joseph Smith Jr.”
In 2020, Larsen, who joined the LDS Church in the past decade, found the daguerreotype in a locket he inherited from his mother, the granddaughter of Joseph Smith III, a son of Mormonism’s originator, upon her death in 1992. The younger Smith helped found what is now the Community of Christ and became its first president.
Larsen reached out to Mackay, his nephew, who oversees the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo, Ill., and the two then enlisted the help of Ronald Romig, who has spent three decades studying Smith family visual materials.
Together, they examined the photograph, using facial recognition software to compare it to the Rogers portrait, along with Smith’s death mask, and found a match — within a 5% range of probability — on 19 of 21 points. They compared the photo with the death mask for Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother. They hired experts who traced the daguerreotype and laid it on the death mask and the oil painting.
“And the places it doesn’t match on the portrait are the places that we knew going in it wouldn’t match because the portrait does not match the death mask,” Mackay says, “when it comes to the length of the nose and the width of the mouth and the thickness of the lips, features like that.”
It shouldn’t have surprised him, the historian says, because “portrait painters were not photographers,” he says. They were providing “glamour shots” that made people look “better and younger.”
Challenging the locket’s provenance
To help determine the photo’s history, Mackay and his wife, Christin Mackay, found pictures of Smith family women “wearing what surely appears to be this locket,” he says in the podcast. “And we found it first on Emma J. Smith, who is Joseph III’s oldest daughter, Joseph and Emma’s oldest grandchild. … We found it earlier on Joseph III’s wife, Bertha Madison Smith. It apparently goes from Bertha to Emma, who was not her daughter.”
If it was a Madison object, Mackay says, “it’s going to go to a Madison daughter, not to one of the daughters from Emmeline, Joseph III’s first wife, who had died. And then there’s a second photo of Emma J. wearing it. And again, in 1910, a third photo. So, for 35 years, she seems to be wearing and treasuring this object.”
Latter-day Saint historian Ardis Parshall questions those conclusions, based solely on that evidence.
“Those photos show only a round locket suspended from a loop, which does correspond to the Smith/Larsen locket. No other detail is visible,” Parshall writes in a lengthy analysis of the finding on her Keepapitchinin.org blog. “...The generic design of the locket(s) in the photographs does little to support the provenance.”
Further, she wonders why the researchers presumed that all objects owned by Emma and handed down in her family had a direct connection to Joseph Smith.
“Did Emma own nothing that came to her through her own Hale family? [Or] perhaps given to her by Lucy [Joseph Smith’s mother] from her Mack family [or] purchased by Lewis Bidamon [Emma’s second husband]?” Parshall asks. “Is possession of a locket evidence for the identity of the daguerreotype as Joseph Smith, or is it only coincidence that an item with another origin came into the Smith family?”
A Smith family feud?
Parshall also cannot see any reason for keeping this photo under wraps.
“I simply do not understand how Fred M. Smith [the third RLDS president] could possibly have resisted some sort of public use of any Joseph Smith daguerreotype he was aware of, whether he showed an image or merely spoke about having one,” she writes. “And I simply cannot believe — a subjective belief, admittedly — that knowledge of the identity of this daguerreotype, if it were in fact an image of Joseph, had vanished so utterly from family awareness in a single generation that he did not use it as a triumphant ‘nyah, nyah’ to goad the cousin [Joseph Fielding Smith, who would become the 10th president of the LDS Church] with whom he carried on such a heated rivalry.”
For his part, Mackay explains why he believes no one in the Joseph Smith III family mentioned it.
“Emma was extraordinarily protective of Joseph’s memory and of his bones,” the Community of Christ apostle says. “She was hiding him repeatedly because leaders from various Latter-day Saint Christian churches were trying to steal the body because they believed it would have spiritual authority. "
She was also “extraordinarily protective” of the Rogers painting, he says. “So when Junius F. Wells visits, she’s happy to show it to him, but she won’t let him copy it. "
Mackay believes that Smith’s widow was “trying to keep distance between the memory of Joseph and polygamy,” he says. “She just didn’t want that connection to him. So, I think they’re very protective about that.”
And that, he says, “is still the case in the family.”
Questions and hesitancy remain
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urges caution.
The global faith of 16.8 million agrees that “the daguerreotype and locket were created of the materials and methods appropriate to the 1840s,” according to a church statement. “However, as nothing is definitively known about the locket’s history before 1992, we cannot draw a conclusion about who is pictured in the daguerreotype.”
The church welcomes “the recent publication of the image,” the statement adds, and hopes “it will prompt the discovery of additional information helpful to determining its authenticity.”
Joshua Christensen — an independent historian, a daguerreotype collector and a member of the national Daguerreian Society — praises the Community of Christ researchers for their careful exploration of a potentially momentous find.
“Daguerreotypes were exciting because they were much more affordable than painted portraits, and both rich and poor were getting them,” Christensen says. “This is to say that if this was in the Smith family, it would make sense that this may be Joseph Smith or someone who strongly resembles him like a doppelganger cousin, for instance.”
Still, he says, there is much work to be done.
“At this point in the research, we primarily have a death mask and artworks to compare with, and that’s a challenge,” Christensen says. “Evaluating a project like this takes meticulous precision, knowledge, measurement and patience.”
It will require “an interdisciplinary effort [by] a variety of educated minds from various fields of study,” he says. “This means that the best that can be provided are answers to the probability of it being him — answering the question: How likely is it?’’
The skepticism from the research community “is not necessarily pessimism,” Christensen says. “Everyone seems determined to be as careful as the subject matter demands.”
Latter-day Saint historian Benjamin Park leans toward seeing the Mormon prophet in the daguerreotype’s image.
It is “far more plausible than any other that has been proposed to be of Joseph Smith over the years due to it coming from within the family,” Park says. “Many who have an immediate response to reject the photograph, based on existing oil paintings, drawings and the death mask, do so without much basis, in part because artistic skill, portrait angles and depth, and postmortem changes make all of these direct comparisons untenable.”
Even so, there are “enough holes in the photograph’s provenance, chain of custody, and identification that we should be hesitant to firmly conclude that it is of Joseph Smith,” he advises. “For now, until we get more investigation — investigation that I am sure is forthcoming — I can only conclude that this photograph is plausibly, though not certainly, Joseph Smith.”
Park hopes this discovery and subsequent debates prompt “better understanding of historical research, including how we come to see something as ‘fact,’” he says. “While we’d like to think our knowledge of the past is ironclad, in reality the issues with context and evidence make history more of a debate. We may never know if this, or any other photograph, is of Joseph Smith, just like how we may never have a firm understanding of many aspects of Joseph Smith’s life.”
Instead, believers and nonbelievers “must continue to struggle, engage and debate questions of history,” Park says, “as part of a community that already places so much significance on our heritage.”
Mackay is delighted by the engagement and eager to learn more about the history and context of the photo. He recognizes this is the beginning of the discussion, not the end.
Nonetheless, he doesn’t regret his unequivocal statements about the daguerreotype.
It really is, Mackay is convinced, his charismatic ancestor.