You may have noticed that when religious people get really hostile toward another religion, it usually isn’t one of polar opposites, but rather one which shares many elements with their own. This has certainly been the case as the LDS have taken the most heat, not from Muslims or Buddhists or Scientologists, but from other Christians. This scorching began even before our church was founded. When the fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith approached his minister and related to him a miraculous personal experience, he was immediately condemned. This reaction would have been expected had he propounded some heretical doctrine, undermining the validity of Christianity and the Bible record. Such was hardly the case.
Implicit in Joseph’s story was physical confirmation that God is not “dead,” that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Biblical account of His life, death, and resurrection were true in literal fact. These same assertions, so fantastic and unbelievable to many, have been accepted as a matter of faith by Christians, most of whom have never received any more than a quiet witness of the heart that they were true. For two thousand years members of the Christian community have looked forward to the day when a physical witness would replace their faith, and the supernatural events foretold in the Bible would unfold as undeniable confirmation that their faith had not been in vain. Young Joseph’s message was that his faith had been replaced by a sure knowledge and that this long awaited unfolding had begun.
Joseph’s innocent and naïve attempt to share his experience was rebuffed by the very people he expected would be most glad to hear of it. The reasons for this are a matter of curiosity to me, as I would like nothing more than to share Joseph’s message with others. In 1820, Joseph was not yet associated with the Book of Mormon, golden plates, angels, plural marriage, or any of the other controversial aspects of the future LDS church. His account was simply that he had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, and that they had directed him not to join any of the existing churches because they all contained some errors in doctrine. He was to wait for further instructions, and he did wait for three long years.
The reaction of Joseph’s minister may have bewildered the boy but it should not be so strange to us. There are several reasons that would explain his behavior. As a graduate of his particular sect’s religious training, he would have been heavily schooled, not just in the Old and New Testaments, but also in the writings of ancient Christian leaders and the more recent Protestant reformers. By the nineteenth century, the Protestant churches had a long history of using language not found in any of the English translations of the Bible. Many of these trained theologians accepted 4th and 5th century creeds with equal veracity. Joseph’s simple statement that he had seen both the Father and the Son would have been viewed as running counter to the creeds.
A more obvious problem that any ordinary man of the cloth would have is that of pride. It would be difficult for him to accept a mere child as having received a greater education in one brief vision than he had gained after years of devoted study and service. If Joseph was right, then his minister was wrong about some important aspects of the Christian faith. Admitting that you have been wrong about something is never easy, especially when you have been vocal in claiming to possess the correct understanding. The Protestant clergy of Joseph’s time had been very vocal indeed. Each denomination was battling for new followers and often resorted to criticism of the other church's doctrines. Each believed they had discerned the real truth.
There are also practical considerations he would need to weigh. The two choices before him would be to either reject Joseph as a fanciful liar, or to hang up his cloth and wait for the lad to receive the promised instructions. The latter would have been unthinkable. A man who makes his living as a preacher would be facing a career change in the middle of his life and might be repulsed by the thought of having to run a plow. His friends and family likely would have ostracized him. This would make earning a living even more difficult.
Another reason to reject Joseph’s story was the then common belief that miracles of this sort had ended with the close of the New Testament period. Although this thinking has since changed for many Christians, it was being forcefully taught in 1820.
Perhaps the most universal aversion people have had to Joseph’s message of modern revelation from God, is that it would require a change in beliefs, behavior, and social standing. Most people resist change and never more than when the path ahead is uncertain. Joseph’s minister would suddenly be well outside his comfort zone had he given any thought as to the possible truth of Joseph’s vision.
While the above reasons make understandable the rejection and criticism Joseph experienced, it remains a curious fact that he was so viciously set upon while still a youth of no importance. He marveled at this himself as he labored under the difficulty it brought to him and his family. It is not without significance that both his parents and all his siblings believed his incredible account, and that they continued to support him through all the terrible ordeals his claims brought upon the whole family. While Joseph's minister was his first rejection, his own father, Joseph Smith Sr., was his first convert.