Was Mormonism Founder Joseph Smith A Sociopath?

Joseph SmithI am currently reading a fascinating book entitled God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is an excellent author, one of the most talented journalists of our time and certainly one of the foremost critics of religion. Upon reading through one of it’s chapters titled “Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings,” I came across a discussion of a practice I admittedly know very little about: Mormonism. Hitchen’s discussion of the beginnings of Mormonism criticize its founder, Joseph Smith, of being an opportunistic liar with a personal agenda and a long history of conning the public.

Hitchens says a lot about Smith and describes the founding of the Mormon Church in good detail, yet shrewd as his observations are, he fails to reach the conclusion that I am tempted to draw: Joseph Smith was likely a sociopath.

A Brief Overview of Sociopathy

Sociopathy is a complex disorder, but to put it tersely, it is an addiction to interpersonal power to the exclusion of other drives. To understand why I accuse Joseph Smith of being a sociopath, it is important to understand how this disorder manifests itself in a person. I will try to keep the background information on the disorder as brief as possible, and then demonstrate how it all relates to Mr. Smith.

There are two levels of human social interaction. Level one refers to the desire to socialize with other humans while level two refers to those things we do after we have socialized. Sociopaths love to be social, and they certainly love (due in part to their own narcissism) to be the center of attention. Sociopathy is a disorder that affects the second level of human interaction.

No doubt due to our inherited biology, prosocial activities are intrinsically rewarding because these are the activities that help to move the species forward and have traditionally led to the betterment of those involved. Prosocial behaviors are things like playing on a sports team, working together to solve complex problems, or even taking camping trips with friends. These are all examples of social behavior that contributes to the well-being of the individual, as well of the group.

Antisocial behavior on the other hand involves behavior that tears apart the fabric that holds society together. These behaviors seek to serve the individual by purposely ruining the well-being of others. Antisocial behavior is seen in cheating, lying, manipulating, stealing, conning and, of course, killing.

Sociopaths use antisocial behavior to gain interpersonal power over others, which serves their chief interest: To control others, and to use this control to amuse and serve themselves. They do not want the same love and affection as non-sociopathic people do, rather they pretend to love and care for others in order to achieve power and control over them.

We all have a drive for interpersonal power to more or less degrees. Some people only wish to control their own lives as much as they can, and seek only to guide others they come into contact with. Some people desire more control and are seen as dominant individuals. These individuals tend to be the center of attention at parties, seek out managerial careers that allow them to exercise control over others, and sometimes display ostentatious personalities in order to put their dominance on display. Sociopaths are the extreme form of this, and desire only power and control. It is this prepotent drive that leads them to engage in so many anti-social activities. The most common sociopathic behaviors are:

  • Pathological lying
  • Theft
  • Manipulation
  • Physical/Verbal aggression
  • Superficial charm/Glibness
  • Lack of empathy, guilt or remorse
  • Grandiose self-image
  • Strong feelings of entitlement
  • Justification of behavior and external locus of blame
  • Recidivism/multiple anti-social involvements

Let us now take a close look at the behavior of Joseph Smith, a man lauded by millions as a prophet of God.

Joseph Smith’s Early 20’s: Meet the Convicted Con-Artist

In March of 1826 at the young age of 21 and just before the founding of Mormonism, Smith was brought to trial in Bainbridge, New York. He was charged with fraud, and during trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing phony gold-digging expeditions. The court found Mr. Smith to be “A disorderly person and an impostor.”

Here we see that, before founding his church, Smith has already been convicted of fraud. Virtually all con men are sociopathic, and it is not a stretch to see why. Conning people into gold digging expeditions for personal gain and profit involves a great deal of anti-social behavior. He who does such a thing clearly feels entitled to other people’s money, even through deceptive means. The organization of such a con requires lying to a number of people about a great deal of information. A lack of guilt or empathy accounts for carrying the con out unimpeded by the notion that perhaps these people don’t deserve to be conned. Finally, actually accepting any money or positions of power that are derived from the whole debacle constitutes theft.

The Revelation

So what we now have is the image of a young man early in his adulthood, who clearly desires power, control and illegitimate material gain. Smith apparently did not suffer jail time, and not long after his trial, the world began reading in local news about the revelations of the self-purported “prophet” Joseph Smith. Smith proclaimed to newspapers and friends that he had been visited three times by an angel named Moroni. This angel informed him of the existence of a book written upon golden plates. This lost book supposedly explained the origin of the people living in North America, as well as the truths of Gospel. These plates were written in an obscure language, and Smith was further tasked with finding two magic stones that would allow him and him alone to translate the book. After much excavation, and with the help of divine guidance, he unearthed the book and stones on September 21st, a mere eighteen months after his conviction for fraud.

There is a logical principle that exists to settle these kinds of problems. It is known as Ockham’s Razor, and it states that when two hypothesis are in competition, the one that relies on the fewest assumptions and calls the fewest entities into the picture is likely the correct one. Simply put, Ockhams Razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

Examining this story, then, one must make a decision. Either a rather ordinary man who had already been convicted of being a con artist, who had no special prior involvement in religion, who had demonstrably poor ethics and who did not, in any outstanding way, stick out as the sort of man to entrust with a quest of such immense importance, was visited by a divine being and given the responsibility of uncovering the true history of humanity on the North American continent, and furthermore the elusive truth of the Gospel that mankind had been missing since its penning, truths that would undoubtedly shake the very foundations that organized religion had sat upon since their creations, or this man was setting up a new con. Millions of people have chosen to believe the former, I choose to believe the latter and, keeping in line with my theory that he was sociopathic, feel compelled to point out the antisocial nature of this act.

If we choose to see his story as a fabrication, the latent motivations of such a concoction become clear. One struggles to think of a position that offers more unquestioned power over the minds, lives, behaviors, and wallets of the masses of people than a prophet in an organized religion. Since one cannot apply for such a position, he must either hold out hope that he will one day be contacted by the almighty, or set out to appear as a prophet and gain the power and social dominance that comes with it. The story that Smith told reflects the creativity of someone who wishes to set themselves above the common man (ie “grandiose sense of self”) through lies cloaked in mystical language, and achieve a place of interpersonal power and control by establishing a new faith whose principal designer, preacher and prophet is him.

The Struggle For a Translation

Once these holy items had been dug up and brought home, Smith immediately set out to begin producing a translation of the golden plates. The contents of the translation are of little consequence to the current discussion; suffice it to say they turned out to be records passed down by many ancient prophets that told the story of a Hebrew settlement of America, as well as various canon from the Gospel. The problem with the translation process was that Smith was illiterate in the sense that he could read at a basic level, but he could not write (further calling into question why he would have been selected by an omnipotent god to read ancient and powerful text, and to write the new book on faith).

So, Smith called upon the help of a friend of his to pen his readings. This friend turned out to be his neighbor Martin Harris who, upon hearing the reportedly glib and passionate Smith relay the story in grandiose detail to him, mortgaged his farm and moved in with the Smiths, believing it was now his job to help in this holy task.

Note that many accounts attest to Smith’s prolific glibness, story-telling abilities and debating tactics. One need look no further than this part of the story for a case-in-point. In order for an otherwise normal person to be moved to the point of mortgaging his home for money, abandon his wife, and moving in with another person to collaborate on a spiritual endeavor, Smith must have cajoled Harris with the skill of business legends. It should further be noted, (bearing in mind that I am assuming that his saintly story is phony), that anybody who would not only allow but encourage another person to drastically alter his own life, change his residence and endanger himself financially in order to progress a burgeoning and self-serving lie possesses zero remorse, empathy or guilt, and is clearly driven by an insatiable need for interpersonal power and control; In other words, sociopathic.

Smith refused to show the gold plates to anyone, including his wife and Martin Harris, claiming that if anyone other than him laid eyes upon them they would be struck dead. In order for the translation to be carried out without Harris being accidentally killed while trying to assist in the successful completion of the divine quest, a blanket was hung across the Smith’s kitchen. Harris was made to sit on one side of it, and Smith sat on the other with his stones and golden plates, reciting the translation through the blanket. Harris, hungry for the smallest glimpse of the plates, which were now the driving purpose of his life, needed to be occasionally reminded by Smith that if he were to look at the plates or the prophet during the translation process, he would be killed.

Note the purpose of this knavish warning. Many sociopaths are quite cunning and will stop at nothing to deceive those around them. Smith knew that there were obviously no golden plates or magic stones, and that if Harris (or anyone else for that matter) were to sit next to him during the “translation”, he would soon realize that the whole ordeal was a manufactured lie. There would go his con and his desired state of power and control. How might one solve this problem? Given that sociopaths lack the autonomic arousal (ie- anxiety, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, etc.) that nonsociopathic people experience when they tell a lie, deception becomes the weapon of choice. Warning others that death awaits them if they ever steal a glance at the plates behind the curtain is an effective way at preventing credulous associates from defying your wishes and exposing your scam.

Thus, we must again make a choice. Either a divine being had imparted a massive holy undertaking onto a man who was inherently unfit to carry out the task alone, yet stipulated that anyone else who so much as looked at the plates in an attempt to lend a hand to the chosen prophet would be killed for no specified reason, or the man wanted to protect his con, (itself an antisocial construction) using antisocial tactics of lies and deception.

If we accept the latter, we must also accept that these are trademark sociopathic behaviors, and that the picture of Joseph Smith as a sociopath is beginning to look quite clear.

The Struggle Continues: Smith Faces the Wrath of a Woman Scorned

Smith had not faced the last of his opposition however. Martin Harris’ wife was not a believer in Smith’s story and was reportedly furious with her husband for his sudden abandonment of his household duties. Determined to expose the whole thing as a faux, she stole the first 116 translated pages written by her husband and challenged Smith to produce a verbatim reproduction. Since he and he alone contained the power and responsibility to produce this translation, and given his prophetic and chosen status, and since he possessed the original golden plates and magic translating stones, there should have been no reason why he could not, in short order, produce the exact same text.

No reason, of course, other than if his story was a lie and there were no plates to begin with. Understanding that Smith was likely a sociopath who possessed no special divine powers and whose involvement in the establishment of this new religious movement was solely for his own amusement and personal gain, we can easily make sense of his reaction.

After several weeks of deliberation, Smith determined that he could not replicate the exact same pages because their integrity had been compromised and they were now susceptible to a satanic interpretation. Not to worry however, for God had promptly furnished new, unadulterated plates and the translation could continue. After a Herculean effort, the translation was completed and the plates were promptly transported back to heaven, never to return to earth again.

Once again we see the craftiness of this cunning dodge. If Smith indeed possessed these golden plates, and if he alone were granted the power of translating them, it would have only strengthened his case to produce a word for word copy of the pages that Harris’ wife stole. This feat would lend at least some credibility to his claims. However, if my theory is true, (that Smith was a sociopath and he was making this whole thing up), it makes perfect sense why he was not able to do this.

If there were no plates to begin with, he certainly could not hope to perfectly replicate the words he had spun in the first translation. Most people would feel awful foolish if put in such a position, for non-sociopathic individuals feel a visceral discomfort when they are threatened to be exposed as a liar. Think about a time when you were young and did something you knew your parents would be very angry about. If you tried to lie to cover your tracks, and if you are not sociopathic, you likely felt an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and a rush of cortisol (the stress hormone) when your parents repeatedly questioned you. If your parents were sharp, you might have found your anxiety levels rise so high that you began sweating and stammering until you were compelled to tell the truth. Since sociopathic individuals do not experience this increase in autonomic arousal, their only concern is how to lie so that their plan stays in tact, no matter how foolish these lies might sound.

Thus for Smith, it became necessary to somehow evade this bullet that Harris’ wife sent his way. Proclaiming that the original translation might be compromised by the influence of Satan and could no longer be considered valid, and that new, unsullied plates had been sent to him, was as best a solution as he could come up with. To prevent ever having to run into such a problem again, he added that the plates had been reclaimed by the heavens immediately following the completion of the translation.

Joseph Smith’s Treatment of Women

One final point, which deserves examination, is Smith’s divine revelations. These he produced with ease and quite often for no reason other than to suit his own interests. The most egregious and clearly sociopathic example of this is his “revelation” about multiple wives.

Sociopaths are, as has been explained earlier, obsessed with power and dominance. In addition to an overactive social dominance drive, sociopaths are usually afflicted with a severely damaged or completely missing ability to love. Thus, the sociopath does not form any actual loving bonds with others the way nonsociopathic people do. Women, then, represent objects to dominate, control and exert sexual power over. Not surprisingly, sociopaths often get quite bored of the same woman, since they have formed no deep intimate connections with them, and blatantly cheat on or outright leave the woman for whatever new female piques his capricious interest. For the sociopath, it was never about any romantic feelings at all, it was about pleasure from power, and power from sex.

Need we look any further for proof of Smith’s sociopathy than his revelation that God had permitted him to have as many wives as he pleased? Now in a position of power, it must have occurred to Smith that he could, with seemingly effortless ease, serve his own desires through the voice of God. Since he desired many different women, he needed a way to convince these women that it was good and just to partake in polygamy. What better way then to justify it with the word of God? All told, Joseph Smith took 34 women as wives ranging in age from 14 years old to 56 years old.

The website, www.WivesOfJosephSmith.org, contains the individual horror stories for each of the women, and explains how Smith preferred young women, often still in their teenage years. He frequently approached these women and befriended them, having them over to his residence for various events. When Smith felt the time was right, he would tell these women that God had told Smith that polygamy was how marriage was meant to be, and furthermore that God had commanded him to take her as a wife. Many of these women were confused, scared and miserable with Smith. He was so secretive that he once married one girl (after a year or more careful cajoling) and then a week later married her sister, yet went to great lengths to keep this arrangement from the both of them.

Here is a quote from the diary of a 16 year old girl whom Joseph Smith took from her family at 15 years old. Her mother had died of Malayria and Smith assured the father that he would soon be next, and that the young Lucy Walker would be better off with him. The quote, which shows how manipulative and monstrous he was, is as follows:

“While living in the Smith home, Lucy remembers: “In the year 1842 President Joseph Smith sought an interview with me, and said, ‘I have a message for you, I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.’ My astonishment knew no bounds. This announcement was indeed a thunderbolt to me…He asked me if I believed him to be a Prophet of God. ‘Most assuredly I do I replied.’…He fully Explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage. Said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family. That it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house.”

“What do you have to Say?” Joseph asked. “Nothing” Lucy replied, “How could I speak, or what would I say?” Joseph encouraged her to pray: “tempted and tortured beyond endurance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me that I might find rest on the bosom of my dear mother…Why – Why Should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father I am only a child in years and experience. No mother to council; no father near to tell me what to do, in this trying hour. Oh let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul.”

Joseph told Lucy that the marriage would have to be secret, but that he would acknowledge her as his wife, “beyond the Rocky Mountains”. He then gave Lucy an ultimatum, “It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.” Lucy said, “This aroused every drop of scotch in my veins…I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living sacrifice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds, this was too much, the thought was unbearable.”

More stories like this can be found at the website noted above.

Note how sociopathic, devoid of love and empathy, and controlling Smith’s way of procuring his wife was. Far from courting his many, many wives through normal, affectionate and mutually involved intimacy, he instead frightened and coerced them into marrying him against their every wish. This particularly young sixteen-year-old girl even wished to join her mother beyond the grave rather than marry this man. Instead of doing what any loving and empathetic person would certainly do, (namely, respecting her wish and leaving the young girl alone) he instead imposed upon her a timed ultimatum that threatened her acceptance into heaven.

This ultimatum, he claimed, was her destiny and her duty, as revealed to him by God himself. Because Smith had indoctrinated her into believing that he was the Almighty’s only prophet, she believed him. In an act which decimated any chance at a normal teenage life, she married him against every physical and cognitive plea not to. The most prolific of tragedy authors would have to reach pretty far in order to top the heinous madness and soul-crushing sorrow that Smith inflicted upon these women.

The easiest way that one can tell that Smith was outright manipulating these women into marring him and lying through his teeth about “commands from God” to do so, is his peculiar and illogical instruction to keep the marriage a secret. Why would Smith have to tiptoe around mere mortals if the marriage was a command from God so important that his wife’s rejection would spell her soul’s eternal damnation? This would not make any sense at all, and upon realizing this we see that his coercion is all a part of his anti-social (sociopathic) personality.

If we accept that Smith was a sociopath, it makes perfect sense that he would seek to overpower and dominate women, both body and mind. To steal these women’s minds (which is exactly what lying and indoctrination is) and control them to such an extent that they will, against their deepest desires, cast aside their lives and dedicate themselves to him, is perhaps the biggest rush a control-hungry sociopath can achieve. To wield such power over women is, in effect, to control their lives and to make of them as he and he alone decides. As you can now undoubtedly see, this is sociopathy in is purest essence.

In Summary

Was Joseph Smith a sociopath? Of course I cannot say for sure, however the evidence to say that he was is quite compelling. Joseph Smith was a convicted con artist who, merely a year following his release from court, began claiming that he was a chosen prophet of God, selected to uncover the truths about the Gospel and the anthropology of the North American continent. His story appears to be wrought with lies and logical leaps that, when put under Ockham’s Razor, seem to strongly support the idea that he was a sociopath. Controlling and manipulative, deceitful and uncompromisingly selfish, treating women as property to be controlled rather than people to be cherished, Smith seems to fall right in line with the major diagnostic criteria for the disorder and thus can reasonably be theorized to have been one.

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5 thoughts on “Was Mormonism Founder Joseph Smith A Sociopath?

  1. This was a fascinating and admirably respectful take on an polarizing topic. I would love to hear more about how sociopathy and religion intertwine!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this–you have a captivating and engaging writing style. I’ve got a family member with these personality traits who, not surprisingly, tried to form his own religion in a similar fashion. Fortunately, he wasn’t as successful. Pay no attention to keen101–you’re right on the mark with respect to sociopathic thought processes and drives.

  3. I have two things to tell you. First, there’s a fantastic biography of Smith published in the late 1940’s called, “No Man Knows My History.” Secondly, I knew a guy in Oklahoma who was said to be a descendant of Smith’s whose name was also Joe Smith. He was a kind of counselor who was an extremly shady person. Like his ancestor he shared a fascination with weird religious ideas, seemed slightly touched, but the interesting part was his ex-wife told me he had confessed to her, “I’m a sociopath.” And he was a licensed counsellor so he should know. I think the famous joe smith was, too.

  4. I don’t know. Regardless of whether I believe Joseph Smith was really a prophet or not, it’s hard for me to believe that a sociopath could have dictated the Book of Mormon. At the worst, he’s mentally ill/ genius but there are a lot of details from his life that would make me inclined to reject the hypothesis that he was a sociopath.

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