Historian Dan Vogel is one of the premiere experts on the life of Joseph Smith. In part one of our interview, we will talk about his early life growing up in Mormonism, and I was a bit surprised to find out what a big fan of Bruce R. McConkie he was!
Dan: I really liked research and writing on early Mormon history. Ever since I was about 16 and then going on it pretty hard. Before my mission, I had read all the standard works. I had practically all the inspired version, all the changes underlined in it from reading Bruce R. McConkie’s, New Testament Commentary. When I read those three volumes, as a teenager,
GT: You were a McConkie Mormon, then?
Dan: Yes, and he came to my mission.
GT: Oh, really?
Dan: Yeah. He came to my mission.
GT: Where did you go?
Dan: Birmingham, England. He came to my mission. He was one of my heroes, because he was a scriptorian, and I was kind of scriptorian myself, as a kid. You know, I was really gung ho on seminary, going to seminary and raising my hand, “I know that! I know that!” So I was very annoying.
GT: This is early morning seminary?
Dan: Oh, yeah.
GT: I feel bad for these people outside of Utah that don’t have release time seminary. That was too early for me.
We will talk about his mission, and his change in beliefs. By the way, at the beginning of this episode, I introduce Dan as “Dr. Dan Vogel.” He does not hold a Ph.D., so that is not correct. Sorry about that slip up on my part.
Of course, Dan is no longer a believer. Before we turned on the camera, Dan mentioned to me that the term “pious fraud” angers critics of the church. I was surprised to hear that, but he thought the term was more middle-of-the-road. When Dan uses that term, what does that mean exactly?
Dan: I’m trying to find, as a non-believer now, the most charitable view of Joseph Smith a non-believer can have. So if you’re not going to believe Joseph Smith’s revelations, and that he had actual contact with God–this is the same question you have with any religious tradition. How do you view Joseph Smith and be a non-believer? Do you just think, “Oh, he’s just lying, and the whole thing’s a fraud, and he’s just a con man trying to get money?” [This is] what a lot of extreme critics of Joseph Smith say, “He’s trying to get power, money, sex.”
And I say, “I don’t believe that.” I believe that he used deception. If you don’t believe the Book of Mormon is actual history, but it could be inspired by Joseph Smith’s definition of what is inspired, then you have to believe that he used a little deception to sell that revelation that he had a revelation. It’s inspired, but he has to sell it to other people, to make it as hard for them to reject his revelation as possible, right?
Because he learned how to do that as a treasure digger, and he’s using this skill to build confidence to make people believe his revelations. So I see Joseph Smith as an inspired pseudepigraphist, like the Assumption of Moses, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Book of Enoch, these are pseudepigraphic works, written by anonymous people trying to smuggle new doctrines into the Christian tradition, by writing in the name of the dead Prophet. These are writings that are supposedly lost and rediscovered. So I believe Joseph was doing a similar thing with the Book of Mormon. He’s writing pseudepigrapha. But he believes he’s inspired. He knows there’s no Lehi and Nephi and all that stuff. But he believes that this is the method of teaching true doctrine. Like he said, “You can get closer to God through the Book of Mormon than any other book.” He really believes that, and he’s trying to correct false doctrine. He’s combating the deists, the non-believers in his day. He’s trying to shore up the Bible, which is being criticized by deists and skeptics of his day, because of problems that they see in the Bible or incompleteness and their sectarian strife over what the Bible says. He’s trying to calm that down. He’s trying to make people believe that otherwise may not believe. But he’s also trying to garner for himself power to found a new Jerusalem government.
Just a reminder. I know that this is a controversial topic. I am trying to approach this from an academic point of view, rather than embrace polemics. Comments that are too critical of Joseph Smith, or bear testimony/quote scripture will not be approved. Please keep the emotions in check as you comment. How do you react to Dan’s position?