The following is an alternate view of Joseph Smith, which incorporates the historical information used against Joseph but from a faithful perspective.  I don’t agree 100%, but I like a lot of the points in this.  Even though it comes from a non-LDS, I think it’s a view shared by a segment of believing LDS.  I’m all for nuanced views of Mormonism that help members make sense of their faith in the face of historical facts that challenge the traditional narrative.  Posting with permission from the author:

Friends, I am a non-Mormon LDS history buff, and an enthusiastic reader of early Mormon theological materials; I am getting really tired by the dubious quality of much of Mormon apologetics. It may be impertinent of me to offer any opinion, since I do not profess the Mormon religion, but I think it is strange and somewhat sad to see this tremendously inventive and colorful religion hide behind a mask of cramped, suburban, conservative Protestantism. If I were a Mormon apologist, I would frame my project around the following 6 points:
1.  Mormonism is a frontier religion created by Joseph Smith, who was an autodidact genius known to work as a rural conjurer, whose genuine supernatural abilities were attested to by allies like Martin Harris, and were also believed in by rival practitioners, such as Sally Chase. Smith’s gifts placed him in a privileged position to mediate between the mundane plane and supernatural realities. The belief in scrying, divining, and communing with spirits of the dead (angels, in the Mormon understanding), is nothing shameful, but is, instead central to the Mormon worldview. Magic is real, although it has no place in the disenchanted cosmos of the secular, dry, modern mind. This is a loss for the modern mind, but not a loss for magic.
2.  The theophanies (visions of divine beings) and supernatural visitations experienced by Smith are not recorded in any single, consistent form, because they defy the characteristics of ordinary day-to-day experiences — and because they were mediated through the mind of Joseph, a human being, for whom the significance of these experiences evolved over the course of his lifetime.
3.  Scriptures revealed by Joseph Smith were not based on his literal reading or translation of any text, but are narratives drawn from his interactions with a series of supernatural objects; they constitute accounts of deep human history — which liberate Christ from the confines of historical Palestine and make Him available to diverse human populations. Joseph believed that he was gifted in languages, but the evidence suggests that his purported translations were instead the products of visionary experiences which were triggered by his proximity to angelic oracular instruments, or to his handling of ancient stones, texts, archaeological artifacts, etc.
4.  Joseph, like Anansi, the young Krishna, and heroic figures in other traditions was a trickster who sometimes employed deception in order to navigate through a hostile world. Like the prophets of old, Joseph was also a human who succumbed to temptation and committed heinous sins, including sexual transgressions. Subsequent prophets have also been guilty of social and personal sins, such as racism, violence, pride, etc. These facts are not dirty laundry, but are, instead, deeply concordant with our understanding of human beings and human nature.
5.  The practice of plural marriage was a morally problematic development which arose from Joseph’s preoccupation with binding large populations into supernatural tribes and clans that would survive mortality and remain imperishable in the eternities. In general, the rituals and theology developed in Nauvoo were assembled from pre-existing cultural materials, hermetic, masonic, etc., through the inspired mind of the Prophet.
6.  Mormonism is the only branch of the Christian tradition which theologically addresses the vastness of the cosmos, the plurality of worlds, and possibly, the plurality of universes. It is Christian in that it is centered on the atonement of the suffering Christ; it is also an heir to the paganisms of Antiquity in that is conceives of embodied gods, male and female, with specific dwelling places, who operate in time and who change and evolve as humans do. In this sense, Mormonism, while articulated and defined in 19th-century language in terms of its specifics, is ancient in spirit.

Very interesting. My main disagreement would probably be the use of magic. This explanation seems to acknowledge magic as a legitimate, actual force. I would prefer to see the use of magic as a misguided attempt of mankind trying to connect with the divine. The difference may be more of a semantics difference than an actual philosophical difference, though.

  1. Original Poster here. Apologetics is, in large part, a rhetorical art, and I use the term ‘magic’ in a deliberately provocative way, with the objective of scandalizing the reader into agreement. A more subtle, acceptable word might be ‘theurgy’ — a term used by neoplatonists and also ancient Christians to describe religious rituals. The line between folk magic and folk religion is obviously a blurry one. But my instincts as a rhetorician (and as a lawyer) are to avoid euphemisms, because they create doubts. A trial lawyer ‘fronts’ his weak points. With respect to my personal theology, I am quite comfortable with magic, and I don’t believe there’s much room for religious experience without it. All religion is folk religion. This is a truth well understood in anthropology departments — but poorly understood, or denied outright, in theology departments.

  2. My broader aim is obviously to find an avenue through which Mormonism can escape from its bizarre and tedious historicity debates, which I do not think plague more mature, established religious traditions.

    I don’t believe many Catholics in the last few hundred years ever defected from Catholicism because of doubts about the apostolic succession of Peter, even though apostolic legitimacy of the popes and bishops in general is a central claim of Catholic apologetics. Saint George, the dragon-slayer, remains a patron saint of many European communities, even though the Church does not consider him to be a historical figure. Saint Christopher, a literal fairy-tale-style giant, is a very popular saint, and is the patron of travelers. Catholics may lose their faith when they lose their belief in God, or the supernatural as a whole, but I don’t think they would lose their faith in St. Christopher when they ‘discover’ that he is a purely legendary character. His legendary nature is largely assumed. There are even old traditions which depict Christopher as a member of a strange monstrous race, with a dog’s head. I’d love to get that old Saint Chris back!

  3. For the most part I stay away from apologetics. I’ve always seen it as trying to placate those who wouldn’t believe in the human story anyway.

  4. Fascinating perspective! While being a thoroughly unorthodox believer myself, I do believe in the prophethood and calling of Joseph Smith. Of course he was human. Of course he had faults and shortcomings. Even the Lord Himself told Joseph that he was replaceable. None of the things listed lessen the man in my eyes. If anything, he is more relateable, even if I don’t necessarily agree 100% with each point specifically.

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