Joseph Smith’s “Fulfilled Prophecies” Debunked


By J. P. Holding| Our purpose in this article is see about applying the “prophet test” to Joseph Smith. Did he pass or fail? Our study is based upon an item offered here by Jeff Lindsey, a prominent Internet LDS apologist. This site lists 21 clusters of prophetic oracles attributed to Smith. Of these, all of which are limited to LDS canonized writings (a stricture one may argue with on other grounds, but which we will accept for the context of this discussion):

  • One is a general claim of verification of details within the Book of Mormon with reference to the New World. This we will leave aside.
  • Two are of an eschatological nature declared yet to be fulfilled, which may be counted as fair in that the same affirmation may be made of certain Biblical prophecies.

Of those remaining number claimed to be fulfilled, Lindsey tells us that “the record is impressive and cannot be explained away as lucky guesses.” Is this the case? We will critically examine each of these in turn.

The Civil War Prophecy

It seems that the LDS may regard this as the crown jewel of Mormon prophetic insight. And justifiably it would be so, if valid. Let’s have a look at this declaration from D and C 87:1-8:

“Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; And the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place. For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States, and the Southern States will call on other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and then war shall be poured out upon all nations. And it shall come to pass, after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war. And it shall come to pass also that the remnants who are left of the land will marshal themselves, and shall become exceedingly angry, and shall vex the Gentiles with a sore vexation. And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations; That the cry of the Saints, and of the blood of the Saints, shall cease to come up into the ears of the Lord of sabbath, from the earth, to be avenged of their enemies. Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come; for behold it cometh quickly, saith the Lord. Amen.”

Lindsey notes that this passage was frequently used in LDS presentations prior to the Civil War, and fully printed in 1851. A supplemental prophecy in 1843 by Smith was made adding that “the commencement of the difficulties which will cause much bloodshed previous to the coming of the Son of Man will be in South Carolina. It may probably arise through the slave question.”

Lindsey anticipates certain objections to this prophecy:

“Was Joseph’s prophecy just a case of noting existing tensions and making obvious extrapolations? Hardly! While there had been tensions between the South and the North, including talk of secession, hardly anyone seriously thought that civil war would erupt. Americans had great faith in their nation and in democracy. In fact, there were members of the Church who were so shaken by the “ridiculous” nature of Joseph’s civil war prophecy that they left the Church, rejecting him as a false prophet. Even if Joseph were trying to make something out of trends and currents he saw in society, the many specific details of his prophecy suggest that more than reason and guesswork were needed to be so accurate.”

We will look at these “specific details” shortly, but for the nonce, what of extrapolation-making as an explanation? Lindsey does not provide any evidence that “hardly anyone seriously thought that civil war would erupt” (which would be justified, by example, by sufficient quotations from sources dated in the early 1800s to the effect, “This will not result in war…”) and does not offer detail on those who left the church. But the evidence would suggest rather that indeed, such extrapolations could and would have easily been made by Smith or any other astute individual.

James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom offers a summary of conditions prior to the Civil War that contributed to it and exacerbated tensions. Even prior to Smith’s prophecy, it would not have been difficult to foresee a war coming. McPherson notes that there were a number of expected dividing lines as the country grew in the period from 1800-1850 (rich/poor, Catholic/Protestant, rural/urban), but the “greatest danger to American survival” at this stage was the question of slavery. Why? Because slavery was associated with competing ideals that just happened to also have geographic associations.

The generation that fought the Revolution made slavery illegal north of the Mason-Dixon line (except in Missouri). South of that line, the slave trade became “essential” to the economy and culture; north of that line it was not. North of the line, the Second Great Awakening spurred revival and slavery became recognized as a moral evil under the impetus of a refusal to accept perceived Calvinist predestination and a recognition of the equality of peoples; south of the line, slaveholders denied they were sinners and instead taught that slavery was needed for economic good and to keep black people from degenerating into barbarity.

So serious was the division that McPherson writes that the slavery issue “would probably have caused an eventual showdown between North and South in any circumstances.” [8] Exacerbating the rivalry were several other social factors: for example, in the 1840s the wealthiest 5% of the population in the cities owned 70% of the taxable property — and most cities were in the North (and the North was draining wealth from the South, having many more votes in Congress). In the countryside the top 5 % of free adult males owned 53% of the wealth and the bottom half owned 1%.

One may well ask, in defense of Smith, why a war did not occur sooner if all of this is true. In reply we might note that there was much to keep the rivals occupied and unified. The two sides still had the same language, the same government, the same legal system, and the same overall religion and heritage. A war with Mexico in the mid-1840s encouraged a putting aside of differences, at least practically speaking. The advent of the Industrial Revolution, the expanding frontier, immigration (which sometimes directed hatred other ways) and wavering economic conditions meant that most had better things to do than to dislike their neighbor.

Nevertheless it was not hard to see the storm brewing on the horizon. Books like Weld’s American Slavery as It Is (made up mostly of advertisements and articles from southern newspapers) and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin fueled the flame. New York antislavery leader William Seward said in the 1840s, that slavery had produced in the South “an exhausted soil, old and decaying towns, wretchedly-neglected roads” and “an absence of enterprise and improvement.”

The institution was so contrary to what he argued were desirable values that he predicted a conflict that would result in the destruction of slavery. And Mormons might consider that one reason why Joseph Smith and the Saints were driven out of their locales in Missouri, in 1838-9, was because they were suspected of being favorable to abolition of slavery.

In short, there is some doubt for Lindsey’s proposal that Smith’s predictions could not have been the result of a perceptive mind rather than prophecy.

Now of course we would acknowledge that the same reasoning could be used, for example, of Jesus’ general prophecy of Jerusalem being destroyed. Much of what Jesus said would have been “common sense” in light of the Roman eagle hovering overhead and the usual tactics of war for the period.

So our analysis, even if it shows that Smith’s observations would be compatible with those of a merely and sufficiently astute observer, would not by themselves disprove any prophetic ability if all of the predictions came through perfectly; it would only admit a viable, naturalistic explanation.

However, let’s have a look now at those details.

“The war would begin with the rebellion of South Carolina.” That this point was fulfilled is indisputable, but was it prescient? Critics point to an event in 1832 that may have influenced Smith’s thinking. Lindsey writes:

“South Carolina had advocated the doctrine of “nullification,” arguing that a state could nullify federal laws or taxes that they ruled to be unconstitutional. If there was federal resistance, then South Carolina said they could leave the Union.”

Lindsey counters this by saying that “there was no reasonable expectation of war at that time, or even in 1851 when the prophecy was more widely publicized” and asks whether “anyone [can] offer evidence from writings of American statesmen or scholars in 1832, 1843, or 1851 that make such predictions?”

One wonders whether we should have expected so much from statesmen or scholars in the first place. Statesmanship and scholarship, done in accord with the tendencies of those institutions, would refrain from such bold words for fear of inflaming passions, and such sentiments would have been especially inappropriate during the 1840s with the war against Mexico.

Yet the steps from “rivalry” to “war” are not large ones. McPherson notes a Georgia newspaper in 1846 that favored slavery in California and New Mexico because it would “secure to the South the balance of power in the Confederacy, and, for all coming time….give to her the control in the operations of the Government.” [52] That’s a polite way of saying we’d rather take over than war.

Another Southerner said of actions designed to limit slavery, and perceived as insulting southern honor, “Death is preferable to acknowledged inferiority.” James Hammond of South Carolina said that the admission of so many free states would allow the North to “ride over us rough shod” in Congress and “reduce us to the condition of Hayti.” The only safety, he said, we in “equality of power” lest “we deliberately consign our children, not our posterity, but our children to the flames.”

And if Lindsey wants a “directer” prediction, here’s one from John Calhoun, made in 1847: If the North insisted, he said, on enacting the Wilmot Proviso (which put restrictions on slavery), the result would be “political revolution, anarchy, civil war.” (Emphasis added.)

It is also worthwhile to look at the text of what South Carolina produced at this time (see here):

“And it is further ordained, that it shall not be lawful for any of the constituted authorities, whether of this State or of the United States, to enforce the payment of duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this State; but it shall be the duty of the legislature to adopt such measures and pass such acts as may be necessary to give full effect to this ordinance, and to prevent the enforcement and arrest the operation of the said acts and parts of acts of the Congress of the United States within the limits of this State, from and after the first day of February next, and the duties of all other constituted authorities, and of all persons residing or being within the limits of this State, and they are hereby required and enjoined to obey and give effect to this ordinance, and such acts and measures of the legislature as may be passed or adopted in obedience thereto.

And we, the people of South Carolina, to the end that it may be fully understood by the government of the United States, and the people of the co-States, that we are determined to maintain this our ordinance and declaration, at every hazard, do further declare that we will not submit to the application of force on the part of the federal government, to reduce this State to obedience, but that we will consider the passage, by Congress, of any act authorizing the employment of a military or naval force against the State of South Carolina, her constitutional authorities or citizens; or any act abolishing or closing the ports of this State, or any of them, or otherwise obstructing the free ingress and egress of vessels to and from the said ports, or any other act on the part of the federal government, to coerce the State, shut up her ports, destroy or harass her commerce or to enforce the acts hereby declared to be null and void, otherwise than through the civil tribunals of the country, as inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union; and that the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do.”

South Carolina could hardly openly say “war” but it is clear from the language that the state was quite willing to take the step if needed. Here is a point from a state history of South Carolina (page now defunct):

“By the time of the American Revolution, South Carolina was one of the richest colonies in America. Its merchants and planters formed a strong governing class, contributing many leaders to the fight for independence. More Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina than any other state, including major engagements at Sullivan’s Island, Camden, King’s Mountain, and Cowpens. South Carolina ratified the United States Constitution on May 23, 1788, becoming the eighth state to enter the union.”

Given this history, which of the Southern states would you suppose would thumb a nose at the Union first?

Finally note this item about the response of then-President Jackson to South Carolina: “The first force bill, passed in response to South Carolina’s ordinance of nullification , empowered President Jackson to use the army and navy, if necessary, to enforce the laws of Congress, specifically the tariff measures to which South Carolina had objected so violently…”

I must therefore conclude that the selection of South Carolina as the instigator of the war did not require any special insight. The history and nature of the state made it a logical and intuitive choice. Beyond this it may be objected that even the rebellion of South Carolina could hardly be made into a threat against the entire Union, but as we have shown, the temper for such a rebellion was already firmly in place and would not be difficult to surmise.

  • It would cause the death and misery of many souls. Once a prophecy of war is granted, “death and misery” tend to follow! Lindsey points to 400,000 deaths, and rightly so, yet this prediction would be fulfilled even if only 50,000 had died. As such I cannot see that this point would require any special insight, for it is vastly confirmed by the history of war in general.
  • The Southern States would be divided against the Northern States. As noted above, this sort of polarization was to be expected.
  • The Southern States would call upon other nations for assistance, even upon the nation of Great Britain. The south did call upon Britain and other nations, but would this have required any special insight to determine? I cannot say so. There would be no more natural ally to appeal to than Britain, with its great navy, common language, and trade partnership with the South.
  • Great Britain would call upon other nations for assistance. At this point Lindsey becomes a little vague. “Great Britain, as I recall, also encouraged France to assist the South.” I do not see how this would equate with Britain “calling upon” other nations. (This was like America “calling on” France in the Revolutionary War at best.)Some LDS apologists relate this to World Wars I or II. Christian apologists object, but in fairness, one might note that Christian apologists (myself no longer included) often state that Ezekiel’s Tyre prophecy was finally and fully fulfilled only a few hundreds years ago. On the other hand, it is stronger to point out that chronologically the prophecy suggests that this will happen before a slave uprising.
  • War would eventually be poured out upon all nations. Lindsey finds this also fulfilled in the World Wars, and in the scale of wars and destruction since the time of the Civil War. Is this a prophetic insight? Perhaps, but it is in tune with the insights offered in Revelation, with which Smith was presumably familiar. We cannot admit or discount that any accuracy, perceived or otherwise, was the result of a prophetic insight.
  • …”after many days” slaves would rise up against their masters. Lindsey relates this to perhaps “[u]prisings of repressed peoples in many Communist nations and other authoritarian states” noting that such uprisings seldom took place in the Civil War era. One would have to accept a rather broad definition of what constitutes a “slave” and a “master” and argue that it could be applied to the political realm. As such I find this application questionable at best.
  • The remainder of the prophecy is seen by Lindsey and most Mormon apologists as yet to be fulfilled.

In sum, I find little here to suggest that Joseph Smith was gifted with any unusual prophetic insight here, although with much of this prophecy in the “yet fulfilled” category it is not possible to be categorically too harsh without compromising certain orthodox prophetic positions. The few points that are fulfilled with certainty would be easily drawn from the politics and society of the day.

Rocky Mountain Prophecy

With the next prophecy we enter into something of a gray area, one which can admittedly cover some Bible prophecies. Certain prophecies Lindsey cites, one could arguably say, are cases of persons striving to fulfill a word by Smith. Now none of this would guarantee the success of the word given, and that applies especially in this instance.

D&C 49:25 states:

Zion shall flourish upon the hills and rejoice upon the mountains, and shall be assembled together unto the place which I have appointed.

This is collated with a prophecy of Smith made in 1842, recorded by B. H. Roberts, stating that the Saints would “go to the Rocky Mountains” and another that states:

“I prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”

Would this have required any special insight? Lindsey quotes Roberts further to this effect:

“At that date, August 6th, 1842, the Rocky Mountains seemed like a country afar off to the people of Illinois. The Missouri River was the extreme frontiers of the United States. All beyond that was well nigh an unexplored wilderness filled with savages. The church was fairly settled at Nauvoo, the state authorities were apparently very friendly, the future of the Saints in Illinois seemed propitious. Yet in the midst of all these favorable circumstances the Prophet predicted much affliction for some of the Saints, death from persecution for others, apostasy for many, and for the great body of the church an exodus to the Rocky Mountains, where some of those present who were listening to the prediction, should live to assist in making settlements and building cities in the Rocky Mountains where they would see the Saints become a mighty people.”

However, Roberts’ description offers something of a bias. As McPherson reports, the Mormons were but a few out of thousands in the 1840s who sold their property and headed west. The sense of “manifest destiny” drove them; and what drove the Mormons to Illinois in the first place was persecution. Prediction of a need to flee would have required no special prophetic insight; it was merely a case of repeating what had happened before (and would happen again).

As noted, as well, this could be reckoned as a prophecy fulfilled by desire (amplified by the ample persecution the Saints endured, which drove them into three different states before this). Certainly being aware of this prediction, the Mormon faithful would make the Rockies their target. The only aspect of the prophecy that they lacked any part of control over was the “flourishing” aspect — that was not entirely out of their hands, however; and the range of qualification to be called “flourishing” is substantial.

Once again, we would note that the mundane nature of this prophecy by no means automatically disqualifies a possibility of genuine prophetic insight, for predictions of blessings upon Israel might be regarded as quite as general. But it does raise the sense that one would need a more precise, and less likely, sort of prediction to assure us that Smith possessed prophetic insight.

Prison Prophet

D&C 121-22 contain some prophecies given to Smith while incarcerated in a jail in Liberty, Missouri, at a time of great oppression for the Saints. Some of these are taken as millennial prophecies yet to be fulfilled, but the following Lindsey regards as fulfilled within Smith’s lifetime:

“Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands. Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job. And they who do charge thee with transgression, their hope shall be blasted, and their prospects shall melt away as the hoar frost melteth before the burning rays of the rising sun…

The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.

And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors. And although their influence shall cast thee into trouble, and into bars and walls, thou shalt be had in honor; and but for a small moment and thy voice shall be more terrible in the midst of thine enemies than the fierce lion, because of thy righteousness; and thy God shall stand by thee forever and ever. If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us?

O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

Inititally one may observe that such sentiments as these would sound just as appropriate coming from any religious leader — from Paul to Jesus to Moses, from Jim Jones to David Koresh to the leader of the Bahai movement. Lindsey avers that the “prophecy has been fulfilled” for:

“Joseph could have been killed in that prison, unable to return to his friends as promised in Section 121. Instead, in April 1839, after six months of illegal imprisonment, someone in authority acted to allow the Mormon prisoners to escape during a change of venue, perhaps desiring to avoid public embarrassment by having a trial without evidence. Joseph and his brother Hyrum , about 10 days after being allowed to escape, arrived in Quincy, Illinois and found their families impoverished but alive and healthy. As was prophesied in verse 9 of Section 121, Joseph was greeted by “friends do stand by thee,” and did greet him again “with warm hearts and friendly hands.”

Fulfilled? Arguably, yes. Prophetic? Perhaps, but the range of options is not particularly great. It was hardly likely that Joseph’s family, if previously in sympathy with him, would abandon him as the result of a clearly unrighteous imprisonment, and generally, the prediction of the sort that one’s life will not be in danger, despite present circumstances, is typical of optimism that might be expressed by anyone in danger without being regarded as prophetic.

Lindsey makes further points of interest:

“Joseph and the Church could have been destroyed by their persecutors. Joseph’s few years as leader of a small and hated group could have ended in obscurity. Instead, the name of Joseph Smith is known across the world today, as was prophesied. Hell rages against the name of Joseph Smith, as enemies devise every manner of lie to slander Joseph and the Latter-day Saints, while millions seek counsel, authority, and blessings that have been given to us from Christ, revealed and restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

On this account I would refer the reader to my item here and the supplement on Mormonism.

Lindsey adds that “the prophecy about future imprisonments and persecutions was accurate. Joseph would be killed 5 years later by conspiring enemies of the Church while he was held in another prison, Carthage Jail in Illinois.” Fulfilled, indeed, but not easy to claim as necessarily prophetic. Given the manifest hatred of certain groups for the Mormons that had already been experienced, this would not have been difficult to intuit.

5 Year Escape Plan

This one is short:

“In February 1844, when persecution in Illinois had become severe once again, Joseph “prophesied that within five years we should be out of the power of our old enemies, whether they were apostates or of the world; and told the brethren to record it, that when it comes to pass they need not say they had forgotten the saying.”…By 1849, the Saints were gathered in Utah (the first wave entered the Salt Lake area in July of 1847) and had indeed escaped the power of their old enemies.”

Here again one cannot bypass the potential conclusion that this was a prophecy within the power of the Mormons to fulfill. Beyond that, one might question whether the Saints were indeed “out of the power” of their old enemies, being that within the next 10 years the government sent troops to Utah. Later an uneasy peace was established, and Lincoln’s indifference gave the Saints the start of a respite from government interference.

Technically the prophecy was fulfilled, but the range of time and possibility left open tends to diminish any claim to special prophetic foresight.

Douglas’ Blessing

Stephen Douglas is best known as Lincoln’s foil both in Illinois and in the Presidential race of their day, but there is a Joseph Smith connection as well. On May 18th, 1843, Smith met with Douglas, then a judge, who was sympathetic to the Mormon cause. Pleased with the response from Douglas, Smith said:

“I prophesy in the name of the Lord of Israel, unless the United States redress the wrongs committed upon the saints in the state of Missouri and punish crimes committed by her officers, that in a few years the government will be utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be so much as a potsherd left, for their wickedness in permitting the murder of men, women and children and the wholesale plunder and extermination of thousands of her citizens to go unpunished, thereby perpetrating a foul and corroding blot upon the fair fame of this great republic, the very thought of which would have caused the high-minded and patriotic framers of the Constitution of the United States to hide their faces with shame. Judge, you will aspire to the presidency of the United States; and if you ever turn your hand against me or the Latter-day Saints, you will feel the weight of the hand of the Almighty upon you; and you will live to see and know that I have testified the truth to you; for the conversation of this day will stick to you through life.’. . .

It is said, “It was impossible for any merely human sagacity to foresee the events foretold in this prophecy. Stephen A. Douglas was a bright but comparatively an unknown man at the time of the interview, in May, 1843.”

The description sells Douglas a little short. As shown from a page now defunct, Douglas was accomplished for his age even when Smith met him: “on the assembling of the legislature, although not yet twenty-two years of age, he was elected attorney general, an officer who then, in addition to his other duties, rode the metropolitan circuit. His opponent was General John J. Hardin.

This office he resigned in December, 1835, having been elected to the lower house of the legislature, of which he was the youngest member. The mental vigor and capacity he there displayed, in striking contrast with his physical frame, which was then very slight, won for him the title of the ‘Little Giant,’ which followed him through life. In 1837 he was appointed register of the land office at Springfield. In 1838 he was the Democratic candidate for congress ; but his opponent was declared elected by a majority of five votes. Over fifty votes cast for Mr. Douglas were rejected by the canvassers because his name was misspelled.”

Still, Smith’s insight does seem a bit precise, doesn’t it? After all, weren’t many men just as bright as Douglas? Yes, but Smith here matches the feat of Jeane Dixon, who told Ronald Reagan in 1962 he would be President. Gary Bauer also claimed a similar “premonition” about Reagan, and Bill Clinton’s mother, who proudly declared that her child would one say be President (see here), and George Bush, who predicted that “W.” would make President. Does this prove that Smith was just as insightful as these folks?

This leaves another aspect, the part about the government being overthrown. Lindsey offers a rather creative analysis of this one:

“In modern American usage, “government” typically refers to the entire system of governing a nation, so we tend to imagine national anarchy when we someone speaks of our government being overthrown. But “government” can also refer to the political party in control or to the group of officers in power. In Britain, for example, “the government” is frequently dissolved and changed, meaning that the party in power changes, without genuine anarchy or disruption of the method of governing.

Was Joseph Smith predicting utter chaos and the loss of our Constitutional form of government? I doubt it, for he had also prophesied elsewhere that our Constitution would be preserved, even though it would be endangered in the future. If we take his words to mean that the ruling powers in the country at the time would be overthrown, then that part of the prophecy has been fulfilled, as Woody Brison notes (personal communication, Nov. 1997):

“You have documented nicely the fulfillment of the part about Stephen A. Douglas, but what about the part about the government? . . . [I]t turns out this prophecy also was fulfilled. “The government” at that time was essentially identical to the Whig party, which was totally vanquished in the elections of the 1850’s and 60’s and ceased to exist about that time.”

This is indeed quite creative, but if Smith was speaking purely of a political party, how does that jive with a reference to there not being a “potsherd” left? What evidence is there for the word “government” used in this way in Smith’s time?

It is also hard to see how “the government” could have ever equated with the anemic Whig party, which managed only two Presidencies (William Henry Harrison in 1840, who died after 1 month in office and was replaced by a Democrat, and Zachary Taylor in 1848) and had only existed for 9 years before Smith made his prophecy. The Democrats at the time were the true power, with the Whigs a sometimes strong second.

Jackson County

In a prophecy not recorded in Mormon canonical documents, but reported by later Mormon writer B. H. Roberts, it is said that in Jackson County, Missouri — where the Saints had undergone serious persecution — Smith said aloud before an attorney:

“Doniphan, I advise you not to take that Jackson county land in payment of the debt. God’s wrath hangs over Jackson county. God’s people have been ruthlessly driven from it, and you will live to see the day when it will be visited by fire and sword. The Lord of Hosts will sweep it with the besom of destruction. The fields and farms and houses will be destroyed, and only the chimneys will be left to mark the desolation.”

It is noted that this found fulfillment in the Civil War era, when, under the rubric of an “Order No. 11” severe devastation was inflicted upon Jackson County.

This is all true, but the edge of this prophecy seems to be somewhat reduced by the further history of the region. Material found from the Jackson County Historical Society records (link now defunct):

“In 1863, Brigadier General Ewing signed General Order No. 11, requiring all persons living along the state line between the Missouri and the Osage Rivers to leave their farms. The enforcement of Order No. 11 resulted in terrible hardships for the people of Jackson County. Independence artist George Caleb Bingham captured their misery on canvas. In 1864, the Union and Confederate Armies met again on the battlefield, this time in the Battle of Westport. The Union Army won the battle, but 3000 soldiers lost their lives. By 1865, the Civil War came to an end. Jackson Countians, and the rest of the country, started the terrible task of rebuilding their lives and the Union.”

“Following the Civil War, Jackson County went on a building spree: Kansas City’s Jewish community organized the city’s first synagogue, Temple B’Nnai Jehuda. Construction started on the stockyards in the West Bottoms. Union Depot, also in the West Bottoms, was completed. Construction began on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 11th and Broadway. The New York Life Building, the city’s first skyscraper, opened at 20 W. 9th Street. The Vaile Mansion was built in Independence. And, most important of all, the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad hired Paris-born engineer Octave Chanute to build the Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River at the Town of Kansas. In 1889, the community that had started life as the Town of Kansas officially became “Kansas City.”

And an itemf from the Kansas City newspaper — now offline — adds:

“Within days, the Union commander of the border district, Gen. Thomas Ewing, issued his famous Order No. 11, intended to rid the Missouri border of Confederate sympathizers who had harbored and fed the guerrillas for years.

Guilty or innocent, all residents of Jackson, Cass, Bates and parts of Vernon counties — unless they lived within a mile of Kansas City, Independence or any of three other military posts — were ordered to leave their rural homes within 15 days. No matter where they lived, those who could not establish their loyalty to the satisfaction of Army authorities — like Mattie Lykins and 63 other Kansas Citians — had to leave the district entirely.

Execution of Order No. 11, later depicted by George Caleb Bingham in his famous painting of the same name, caused unprecedented hardship. Refugees fled in haste, some burying their valuables before leaving. By the end of August, two-thirds of the population of the border counties was gone.

So many homes were burned by Union troops that people spoke of the blackened chimneys as “Jennison’s monuments,” after the hated jayhawker.

By the time Jonathan Fuller arrived in Kansas City, authorities had issued permits allowing many exiles to return.”

The reader will have to judge whether the quality tone of Smith’s prophecy fits the events described. Jackson County’s quick and ambitious recovery, and the application of the Order to other counties, seem, counter-intuitively to me at least, somewhat out of line with Smith’s harsh words.

Next up we have a prophecy made just as Smith and others were condemned to be executed:

“Be of good cheer, brethren, the word of the Lord came to me last night that our lives should be given us, and that whatever we may suffer during this captivity, not one of our lives should be taken.”

This did indeed happen, but it is open to question whether it was as spectacular a prophecy as might be imagined. As Lindsey acknowledges, the accusations against Smith were false; the leading militia officer opposed the plan to kill Smith, and the other officers were afraid to perform the execution and wanted to take Smith to another county to make the charges and do the deed.

Lindsey describes this situation as “grim” but it is hardly easy to pull off such a conspicuous illegal execution, and with the leading militia officer opposing it and with the complexity of the plot growing (and therefore making the risk of exposure more likely) it would not be hard to predict or perceive that an execution was not in the cards. We cannot categorically state that this did not involve prophetic foresight, but there is little reason that it had to.

Three Witnesses

In D&C 5:11-13, Smith predicted that he would find three witnesses for his golden plates. He did round up three men who affirmed that they saw the plates, and though some of these three later left the church, they never denied seeing the plates and having heard the voice of God concerning them. As this involves certain internal LDS apologetic proofs beyond our present scope we will leave examination of this prophecy aside.

Words of Wisdom

The next appeal is to the “word of wisdom” by Smith in D&C 89 which prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and black tea and coffee, while giving advice about the use of grains and meat. Lindsey compares this to the “food pyramid” of the modern USDA and asserts that Smith anticipated modern health warnings against tobacco.

However, Smith was far from first on these matters. The following came from the Cancer Council of NSW, Australia, on a page now offline:

“In 1602 an anonymous author published an essay titled Worke of Chimney Sweepers (sic) in which it was stated that illnesses characteristic in chimney sweepers were caused by soot and that tobacco may have similar effects. This was one of the earliest known instances of smoking being linked to ill health.

By the 1700s smoking had become a substantial international industry and smoking had become increasingly widespread. In 1795 a Sammuel Thomas von Soemmering of Maine reported on cancers of the lip in pipe smokers and in 1798 the physician Benjamin Rush wrote on the medical dangers of tobacco.”

And here, a history of tobacco, we find these important notes:

  • 1610: ENGLAND: Sir Francis Bacon writes that tobacco use is increasing and that it is a custom hard to quit. (LB)
  • 1610: ENGLAND: Edmond Gardiner publishes William Barclay’s The Trial of Tobacco and provides a text of recipies and medicinal preparations. BArclay defends tobacco as a medicine but condemns casual use(LB)
  • 1617: Dr. William Vaughn writes: Tobacco that outlandish weede It spends the braine and spoiles the seede It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight It robs a woman of her right
  • 1665: HEALTH: ENGLAND: Samuel Pepys describes a Royal Society experiment in which a cat quickly dies when fed “a drop of distilled oil of tobacco.”
  • 1683: Massachusetts passes the nation’s first no-smoking law. It forbids the smoking of tobacco outdoors, because of the fire danger. Soon after, Philadelphia lawmakers approve a ban on “smoking seegars on the street.” Fines are used to buy fire-fighting equipment.
  • 1699: LOUIS XIV and his physician, FAGON, oppose smoking.
  • 1701: HEALTH: MEDICINE: Nicholas Andryde Boisregard warns that young people taking too much tobacco have trembling, unsteady hands, staggering feet and suffer a withering of “their noble parts.”
  • 1761: HEALTH: ENGLAND: Physician John Hill publishes “Cautions against the Immoderate Use of Snuff” — perhaps the first clinical study of tobacco effects. Hill warns snuff users they are vulnerable to cancers of the nose.
  • 1761: HEALTH: ENGLAND: Dr. Percival Pott notes incidence of cancer of the scrotum among chimneysweeps, theorizing a connection between cancer and exposure to soot.
  • 1830s: First organized anti-tobacco movement in US begins as adjunct to the temperance movement. Tobacco use is considered to dry out the mouth, “creating a morbid or diseased thirst” which only liquor could quench..There are other records as well of nations and states recognizing tobacco’s addictive properties and outlawing its use. In China its use was punishable by decapitation! Bans on public smoking were common in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. So we can see that opposition to tobacco was “in the air” and based on sound medical knowledge rather before Smith had his say.What about the sparing use of meats?

The Vegetarian Society tells us (link now defunct):

“Famed philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras encouraged vegetariamsm. While wishing to avoid animal cruelty, he also saw the health advantages a meat-free diet. Pythagoras viewed vegetarianism as a key factor in peaceful human co-existence, putting forward the view that slaughtering animals brutalised the human soul.

With the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century there emerged a new appraisal of man’s place in the order of creation. Arguments that animals were intelligent feeling creatures were voiced and moral objections were raised as there was an increasing distaste for the mistreatment of animals. Amongst western religions there was a re-emergence of the view that, in fact, flesh consumption was an aberration from God’s will and the genuine nature of humanity.”

So this too offers nothing not already “prophesied” before. Finally, what of tea and coffee? Here again Smith offered nothing new. Here we find the words of Henry D. Thoreau, a contemporary of Smith:

“The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and, besides, when I had caught, and cleaned, and cooked, and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. it was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.: not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeeable to my imagination.”

And we formerly found on a coffee history site (it is now a dead link) that coffee, like tobacco, had its history:

  • Late 16th Century–Priests petition Pope Clement VIII to ban the evil drinking of coffee (he refuses–probably a closet coffee lover)
  • 1656–Coffee drinking prohibited & coffeehouses closed in Turkey by the Grand Vizir of the Ottoman Empire (penalty for drinking coffee: a dunk in the Bosphorus in a leather satchel!)
  • 1674–Women’s Petition Against Coffee established in LondonSo it appears that Smith offered nothing that was not “in the air” and of necessity prophetic on this subject.

Newel’s Glory

It is reported that Smith delivered certain prophetic words to one Newel K. Whitney, an early convert. Here is a story from a 1912 report:

“Six months after the Church was organized, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, and other Elders started upon a mission to the Lamanites; and, coming to Kirtland, in northern Ohio, they preached the Gospel there, and gathered into the fold quite a number, among them…my grandfather, Newel K. Whitney…These disciples, hearing that the Church would probably move westward, began to pray for the coming of the Prophet. I have heard my grandmother and my father relate that when the Prophet came to Kirtland he drove in a sleigh and halted in front of the mercantile store of Gilbert and Whitney. He sprang out, went into the store, walked up to the junior partner, and said: “Newel K. Whitney, thou art the man.” Grandfather was astonished; he had never seen Joseph Smith till then–Joseph had never seen him with his natural eyes–and he answered: “Stranger, you have the advantage of me; I could not call you by name, as you have me.” And the stranger then said: “I am Joseph, the Prophet. You have prayed me here. Now, what do you want of me?”

It is also related that Smith correctly predicted that Whitney would find a boat he was told to look for it, and it is added that “instances might be multiplied, if necessary” of other correct predictions by Smith.

These two predictions are reminiscent of two Biblical prophecies by Jesus: the seeing of Nathaneal under the tree, and the finding of the man carrying a jar of water. The latter is actually seldom seen as prophetic — most commentators think Jesus had things arranged in advance, and one might suggest that Smith often did, too, and that perhaps some took these as prophecies (while Smith may or may not have intended them to be).

The first instance above, if true, might represent genuine prophetic insight — or something unusual at least.

Genealogical Rampage

Lindsey’s next entry turns in part upon certain internal Mormon doctrines beyond our scope, as well as an understanding that Smith restored the doctrine of baptism for the dead (but see Ch 4 of my book, The Mormon Defenders). However, he also interprets a prediction that “the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers” as fulfilled in genealogical research.

Joseph Fielding Smith is quoted as saying, “Before the year 1836 there was very little, if any, research being made anywhere in this world in behalf of the dead. It is true that here and there some man may have been searching out a genealogical record, but what was his object? To prove title to some estate. There were no genealogical societies; there were no genealogical organizations; there were no genealogical researches of any systematic character anywhere in the world…What do we discover now? One year after this revelation was given and these keys were bestowed, we find in Great Britain the government passing laws compelling the preservation of duplicate records of the dead on the part of those who kept them….In the year 1844, the year of the martyrdom, the first organization for the purpose of gathering together the records of the dead, and compiling genealogical records, was formed in the city of Boston. It was the New England Historical and Genealogical Society. In 1869, in the city of New York, another society, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, was organized.”

Did Smith predict a trend, and was J. F. Smith right to see a fulfillment in the advent of genealogical research? Not really. Normally the advent of societies and organizations and laws merely codifies and makes more formal what the people as a whole already practice. Moreover, few, if any, of these societies, organizations, or laws were put together for any purpose relevant to Mormon baptism for the dead.

As such the claim of fulfillment for this prophecy cannot be made without further evidence of rampant genealogical indifference before Smith, and more relevant interest thereafter.


Lindsey next cites a prediction by Smith that stakes would open in major cities like Boston and New York (which they did, in 1962 and 1934, respectively). Like several predictions above, this one had the nature of one able to be fulfilled by determination of the Saints themselves.

Anticipation of Death

Smith is next reported to have predicted his own death a few days before it happened. In his journal, an entry from Saturday, June 22, 1844, says, “I told Stephen Markham that if I and Hyrum were ever taken again we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.” Lindsey notes that: “Shortly thereafter he and Hyrum were placed in Carthage Jail and then murdered by a mob. Others who were with them survived the attack, but Joseph and his brother were killed, as predicted.” Also cited is D&C 5:22 in which Smith was told, “and if you do this, behold I grant unto you eternal life, even if you should be slain.”

Given the Biblical precedence for the slaying of prophets (1 Kings 19, Matt. 23:31-34, Acts 7:52, Rev. 18:24), and Smith’s prior troubles, this may be prophetic insight — or just a natural understanding of his likely fate.

Wales Mission

Just before he was killed, Smith reportedly told cellmate Dan Jones that. “You will yet see Wales, and fulfill the mission appointed you before you die.” Lindsey reports, “Dan’s life was spared the next day. Later that year, in August of 1844, he went to Wales in company with Wilford Woodruff and gave great impetus to missionary work in that land. His work led to the conversion of many hundreds of people. Further, he started the first foreign-language magazines for the Church, publishing a magazine in the Welsh language beginning in 1846.”

The portion about going to Wales could be genuine insight, or a self-fulfilled prophecy. Whether the aspect of Jones surviving is of any note cannot be determined without further knowledge of why Jones was there in jail. Lindsey says that Jones’ life was “clearly at risk” but does not specify further.

Rigdon’s Role

In D&C 100:9-11 great things were predicted for Smith’s companion Sidney Rigdon as a spokesman. This, like many above, may be genuine prophetic insight or a matter of willful fulfillment by Rigdon.

Johnson Prophecies

Turning from prophecy for a moment, Lindsey reports and instance in which Smith healed a woman named Mrs. Johnson of a “lame arm” which she could not lift over her head. As with healings of similar nature by modern faith healers such as Benny Hinn, this is a claim that should be taken with caution. The majority of Jesus’ healings (a man born blind, for example) are of conditions of a far more serious nature and that are quite clearly organic. We would classify this healing as something not useful as solid proof of Smith’s abilities without further data.

Smith also reported made a prophecy to one of Johnson’s sons who refused his message: “I told him if he did not obey the Gospel, the spirit he was of would lead him to destruction and when he went away, he would never return or see his Father again” (History of the Church, 1:260). Lindsey writes: “Olmstead did not repent, but later left on a journey to the south, including Mexico, and then back to the U.S. where he became ill in Virginia and died without seeing his family again.”

This if true might be taken as a genuine prophetic insight, and if collected with others that could be definitively classed as such, might be useful as proof of Smith’s prophetic abilities. However, this is so far only the second such instance we have found. A few more would be needed to regard this sort of fulfillment as more than coincidence.

Markham’s Role

While jailed, Smith prophecied to a man named Stephen Markham, who was to be a witness on his behalf, that if Markham got up early and left, he would get safely home. Lindsey notes that Markham followed Smith’s advice and got home safely in spite of pursuit.

The data here is simply insufficient to make a case for a genuine prophetic insight. Markham had successfully resisted a beating by a jail guard, and had gotten away previously from a mob that joined in on the beating. Moreover, Smith told Markham that if he stayed, “the mob would shoot him on the way.”

With that kind of fear implanted, and with Markham presumably familiar with the territory (and the mob having no real resources to track him), this seems less like a prophecy and more like a perceptive observation blessed with an added motivation.


Next spring let them depart to go over the great waters, and there promulgate my gospel, the fulness thereof, and bear record of my name. Let them take leave of my saints in the city of Far west on the twenty-sixth day of April next, on the building spot of my house, saith the Lord.

Smith issued this prophecy in 1838. Lindsey reports:

Fulfilling the Lord’s instructions at that time seemed impossible. In fact, enemies of the Church learned of this revelation and were determined to keep it from happening. Mob members in Far West declared that any Mormons showing up in that town near the assigned date would be murdered. In spite of such threats, the members of that Quorum managed to enter Far West just after midnight on the morning of the 26th of April, where they laid the cornerstone for the temple, ordained two new apostles and other officers, sang a hymn, had a prayer, and then departed in accordance with the instructions they had from the Lord.

This is another case where we might suspect a willful fulfillment of a prophetic word, the danger notwithstanding. One might note that there appears to be no prediction by Smith as to whether the 4/26/39 activity would be successful; in content this amounts to an instruction, and even if the Quorum had been driven off or killed, it would seem that the prophecy would still be fulfilled.

One would also like to know how many mob members there were in Far West and how many were in the Quorum, and whether anyone would have expected an entrance just after midnight, and how long the entire process took. In short it is far from clear that this was the risk suggested, though further data may prove that it was.

In conclusion: The data is simply insufficient to grant that Joseph Smith was capable of genuine prophetic insights.  Nor would any actual prophetic insight, if it were there, indicate he was receiving his insight from God.

This article was republished with permission from Tektonics Apologetics.
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