Jana Riess: A real Joseph Smith photo — or not? Why do Mormons care so much?

The polarized response to the picture reveals less about the church founder than it does about us.

On July 21, Mormons were rocked by news that a great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith had discovered a daguerreotype he believes to be the only known photograph of the prophet.

Almost immediately, the Mormon social media world exploded.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about this. Even before they had read the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal article that lays out the considerable evidence supporting the claim, every rando on the internet was suddenly an expert on death masks, facial recognition software and the conventions of 19th-century portraiture.

People are saying he’s either too old or not old enough. He’s either too weathered and craggy or he’s been unforgivably yassified.

And the usual: He’s either a charlatan who was out to have sex with your daughters and steal all your money, OOOOOOOOOR he’s an angelic paragon of everything that is good.

See! The photo proves it. It’s all right there.

During the past week, I’ve been fascinated by the response — and the vehemence of that response — from various quarters of the Mormon world.

Occasionally, legitimate questions are raised about the evidence for authenticity, like this excellent post at Ardis Parshall’s Keepapitchinin blog, urging caution about hasty conclusions.

But for the most part, Mormon social media has not been filled with people using the best tools available to analyze and evaluate historical evidence, but people defaulting to their previously held views of Joseph Smith.

Sometimes, those are reaffirmations of faith — assertions that whether or not the photo is genuine, Smith was a bona fide prophet and servant of God.

And at the other end of the spectrum, some people utilized the photo to underscore how Smith was a schemer and a pervert.

Among the people who appear to have budged in their prior assessments — people who actually changed their minds about him in some way because of the new image — are those who found the man in the photo, somewhat to their horror, more attractive than they expected. One humorous tweet from last week was from a woman who said that the oil-painting version of Joseph Smith left her cold — “I wouldn’t follow him into a Walmart” — but that the photo version helped her understand the “womanizing sex cult vibes” of early Mormonism.

Another of my favorite tweets in this vein struck a similar note.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing Team Hyrum contingent. These people seem to agree the photo in question is probably a genuine daguerreotype made in Nauvoo in the 1840s and that it passed through the Smith family inside a locket for nearly 180 years. But they think the man in the image is Joseph’s brother Hyrum, who was killed by his side in 1844 and whose facial features appear similar, if their death masks are any indication.

All in all, the polarized response to the photo reveals less about Joseph Smith than it does about us.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were removed from the Church History Museum in 2014, when it underwent renovation.

Joseph Smith is a deeply divisive figure, and the same basic camps that existed in his own day to either revile or revere the man are alive and well in our own. He’s either a con artist or he’s a sainted martyr. A villain or a hero.

And in that sense, even if the daguerreotype is proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to be none other than Joseph Smith, it may make little difference one way or the other in how he is viewed. That’s because all those who care enough to have an opinion have already made up their minds.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)