Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been obsessed with Joseph Smith’s appearance since he died on June 27, 1844.
The morning after Joseph, along with his brother Hyrum, was killed at Carthage Jail, both of their faces were carefully covered with plaster for an hour. The man performing the service was undertaker and furniture maker George Cannon, whose son George Q. Cannon would later become one of the most prominent leaders of the faith. The purpose for the molds was to etch the siblings’ facial features in stone. The resulting death masks have become some of the church’s most cherished possessions — the closest thing the faith has to sacred relics. They are now on display in the Church History Museum in downtown Salt Lake City.
But the search for a more accurate — more lifelike — portrayal of the founding prophet, a photograph, has been elusive. The announced discovery of a daguerreotype of Smith found by his descendant, Daniel Larson, merely rekindled a heated debate that has been around for quite some time.
Undergirding the energy associated with these discussions is a pair of difficult, yet important, questions: Why does it matter what Joseph Smith looked like? And why is it so difficult to get a definitive answer?
The eyes have it
The only throughline across many contemporary descriptions of Joseph Smith’s appearance was his eyelashes. Observers gawked at his bushy lashes that nearly covered his strikingly blue irises. Nearly all other features were up for debate: Some emphasized his “Roman” nose, others his “well-proportioned” face; sympathetic reporters remarked on his “handsome” build, while those more critical described him as “fleshy.” The size of his forehead, prominence of his chipped tooth, or refinement of his clothes often depended on the witness’s feelings. But most, regardless of religious affiliation, couldn’t help commenting on his eyes.
Such a priority does not surprise scholars of 19th-century religion. In the nationwide experiment of religious liberty, in which all denominations were placed on equal footing, lots of attention was devoted to how spiritual leaders gained a following. This was particularly the case when trying to explain the success of radical, countercultural movements guided by charismatic figures, like Mormonism. To many, the answer was in the eyes.
The eyes were the window into the soul. For believers, Smith’s embracing stare proved his sincerity, his simple yet profound position as a modern-day prophet. For skeptics, Smith was a charlatan who deceived simpletons. Some even posited that he, and his priesthood-holding successors, were mesmerists, able to hoodwink through prolonged eye contact.
But Mormons came to love more than just Smith’s eyes. Eighteen months after his martyrdom, the founding prophet’s portrait was found in the Nauvoo Temple’s Celestial Room, a reminder to saints receiving their sacred ordinances that he still oversaw their efforts and sacrifices. That the painting appeared next to that of Brigham Young also reaffirmed the latter’s succession claims. Smith’s embodied presence and likeness were still required.
Joseph Smith’s image proved to be as important as it was malleable over the next 170 years. The fact that there wasn’t a photograph — the only hard evidence of his appearance being stylized, and often divergent, paintings — enabled immense creativity. Western Mormons, who mixed spirituality with hard labor, could envision Smith as a muscular pioneer with a colonizer’s physique. Conservative Mormons, who desired a more staid and reverent spirituality, could picture him with a serious demeanor, like the famous Del Parson portrait of a respectable prophet. Romantic Mormons, hoping to see the founder of “traditional” families, could embrace the gentle husband and father made famous in Liz Lemon Swindle’s work.
Charles Dickens chastised Joseph Smith for claiming “communion with angels” in the “age of railways.” Mormonism also had the temerity to believe in prophets in the age of photographs. But because Smith wasn’t photographed himself, he enabled his followers to still envision him in myriad ways.
Yet with members envisioning their own Joseph, it made it less likely that they will ever accept a photograph that challenges their image. That doesn’t look like Joseph, many responded when seeing the Larsen daguerreotype.
Of course it doesn’t. Reality rarely matches the myth.
Why the debate will continue
Historians will likely be debating the Larsen daguerreotype for many years. There are reasons to both believe and doubt that it depicts Joseph Smith.
Lachlan Mackay — a Joseph Smith descendent, Community of Christ apostle and respected historian — was initially skeptical before becoming convinced of the connection through rigorous research. Other scholars raise compelling questions regarding provenance. Unless more persuasive evidence is discovered through further study, the divide is likely to remain.
But why is it so difficult to determine whether this particular photograph depicts a particular person? The problem seems like it should be easy to solve. But the debate over a single daguerreotype is a lesson in historical complexity.
Historical work — at least, good historical work — recognizes the difficulties of reconstructing lost worlds and lost persons. Archival records are produced, preserved, and provided by fallible individuals and reflect diverse personalities, priorities, and principles. Uncovering the layers of past days and peoples requires acknowledging and dissecting biases and agendas. You give four historians the same set of documents, and they may come to five different conclusions. Contingency is ever present. Humility is a necessity.
Religious traditions often operate on a different set of rules. Clear answers, not qualified theories, are the expectation. For denominations like Mormonism, in which history — recent history — is part of their sacred truth claims, the divide between scholarly and devotional approaches to the past is exceptionally distinct. Documentation that falls far short of enabling academic consensus is simultaneously used to buttress eternal doctrines.
Failing to answer questions that exemplify historical complexities can therefore be dangerous within religious communities. “What did Joseph Smith look like?” seems innocent enough, but what about “How did Joseph Smith understand his First Vision?” Or, “Why did Brigham Young enact a racist restriction that barred men and women with African descent from priesthood and temple ordinances?” Or, more recently, “What were the origins of the church’s opposition to same-sex marriages?”
Answers to these questions are crucial to a religious community’s faith claims, but they are also challenged by the complications of the historian’s craft. Learning to balance those tensions is at the heart of any religion but especially so with a religion with such modern origins. Finding concrete answers are as significant as they are fleeting.
“No man knows my history,” Joseph Smith proclaimed in one of his final public sermons. He could have just as well said that nobody even knows his true likeness. That lack of firm knowledge of either, however, is as rooted in our own cultural entrapments and biases as it is in the unbelievable nature of the prophet’s life or lack of reliable sources.
That the Larsen daguerreotype is found inside a miniature locket is appropriate, for the debates swirling around it are a miniature of Mormonism’s ever-present questions. Neither will likely ever have a uniform consensus.
Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark), an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University, is the author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.”
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