Over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of research about various cult leaders. As I have read articles and watched documentaries on people like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and David Koresh (not to mention offshoot Mormon leaders like James Strang, Jim Harmston, and Warren Jeffs) I have been impressed by the number of commonalities in all of their stories. It’s really almost as if they are all playing their own variations of the same tune.
I’m not the only one who has observed the pattern. Former FBI profiler, Joe Navarro, has written several works aimed to help people identify and avoid “dangerous personalities.” I have adapted his list, combining multiple similar traits into single sections, and drawn comparisons to Joseph Smith.
1. Has a grandiose perception of self
“Would to God, brethren, I could tell you who I am! Would to God I could tell you what I know! But you would call it blasphemy, and there are men upon this stand who would want to take my life.”
-Joseph Smith (Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 322.)
Joseph viewed himself as a great prophet, seer, and revelator whose mission was foretold many hundreds of years before his birth. He even included a prophesy about himself as the “chosen seer” in the Book of Mormon which he described as “the most correct of any book on earth.”
Historian Grant Palmer observed: “Joseph Smith was a very audacious and ambitious individual. In 1844, in Central Illinois at Nauvoo, he established a theocratic/political kingdom on the Mississippi. He envisioned himself as a King presiding over an empire that eventually would include not only America, but the entire world. He organized a council of fifty men to help him realize his goal. Under his direction, this secretive body appears to have been given the responsibility of setting up satellite cells for this theocratic kingdom throughout the United States and the world” (John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 32, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012):52-58.1)
At the time of his death, Joseph was campaigning for his election as President of the United States.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
“Come on! ye prosecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam… Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.”
-Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 6:408–409)
After meeting Joseph in Nauvoo, Charlotte Haven recorded:
“He talked incessantly about himself, what he had done and could do more than other mortals, and remarked that he was “a giant, physically and mentally.” In fact, he seemed to forget that he was a man. I did not change my opinion about him, but suppose he has good traits. They say he is very kind hearted, and always ready to give shelter and help to the needy… Mrs. Smith was pleasant and social, more so than we had ever seen her before, and we were quite pleased with her; while her husband is the greatest egotist I ever met” (Overland Monthly, December 1890, page 621, 623, and 631).
His grandiosity certainly left an impression on his followers. John Taylor wrote: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”
Brigham Young said, “…No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom without the consent of Joseph Smith. Every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, Junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7, p. 289).
3. Feels that he is above the law or bends the law to suit his purposes
In a letter written to convince Nancy Rigdon of the appropriateness of polygamy, Joseph wrote:
“Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”
Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants requires that additional plural wives must be virgins and must be taken with the first wife’s consent. Joseph frequently broke this rule by marrying women who already had husbands and by keeping most of his wives a secret from Emma. In essence, he broke his own law.
4. Seeks popularity, position, and prominence
It seemed that Joseph, for good or bad, enjoyed attention. Though unsuccessful in the practice, as a young man he used a peep stone to make a name for himself as a finder of hidden treasure. His mother recalled how he loved to entertain his family with stories about the Native Americans.
In Nauvoo, not only did Joseph act as President of the Church, he also was mayor of Nauvoo and Lt. General of the Nauvoo Legion. After hearing of all his positions, Josiah Quincey remarked, “General, it seems to me that you have too much power to be safely trusted to one man.”
Joseph responded, ‘In your hands or the hands of any other person, so much power would no doubt be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet!” (B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 2, Footnotes)
5. Exploits others and puts them at financial risk
Of the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco that left many members of the church bankrupt, it has been written:
“It was natural that blame for the entire situation should be charged against the Prophet. They had gathered to Kirtland at his command; the idea of purchasing housing lots in the great subdivision scheme had his full support; he had inferred that the bank would not only succeed, but would one day be the most powerful institution of its kind….the Church populace was genuinely disillusioned when the bank failed. It was difficult for them to comprehend that a man who claimed to have divine revelation in religious matters could fail so miserably in economic affairs…. No amount of shifting of blame could obscure the fact that a prophet had failed in a grand project….”
-Robert Kent Fielding (“The Growth of the Mormon Church in Kirtland, Ohio,” pg. 233, 234, 237 & 238)
6. Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect
Joseph frequently used grooming tactics to prepare women and girls to marry him secretly. His first plural wife was Fanny Alger, a teenage maid living in the Smith home. His other wives were children, siblings, and even spouses(!) of close friends to whom he proposed with promises of exaltation or threats of destruction.
7. Incorporates sex into doctrines or rituals
It is no doubt that sex was a central part of Joseph’s ever-evolving theology. Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants canonized polygamy as the New and Everlasting covenant, “instituted for the fulness of [God’s] glory.” While Latter-day Saints have attempted to underplay the role of both sex and polygamy in the New and Everlasting covenant, it is clear from the language of the revelation (e.g. “virgin,” “seed,” “fruit of his loins,” “bore him children,” “concubines,” and “adultery”) that sex was intended. Sex is an also an inherent part of the temple rite whose holiest keywords include, “strength in the loins.”
8. Insists on opulence even when others are relegated to lesser means
I find it interesting that in Section 124, the saints are commanded to build two buildings — a temple and a hotel that would also serve as Joseph’s house and would later be called The Mansion House. While only about 23 verses discuss the building of the temple, 33 verses discuss Joseph’s house.
9. Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems
Joseph was raised in an environment of folk magic. His family was frequently involved in using magic to seek guarded treasure.
As a religious leader, Joseph used the supernatural to explain almost everything. The Book of Mormon, an artifact not available for public view, was allegedly shown to him by an angel, and he translated by it looking at a stone in a hat. An early revelation to Oliver Cowdery endorsed the use of a divining rod.
Among dissenting opinions in the church, Joseph revealed that years prior, he had been ordained by angels to have authority in the church. This priesthood authority he used to heal and bless the saints. He also told the story of the First Vision years after the alleged event and with several significant changes.
10. Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity
This one is obvious.
11. Isolates the group physically (gathers people in a new area)
Like the Oneida Community or the People’s Temple, Joseph dreamed of a Zion where he could implement radical economic systems among a tight-knit group. His gatherings led him from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. Brigham Young followed his precedent by leading his followers to Utah.
12. Preoccupied with his own martyrdom
Joseph frequently predicted his own death. In 1844, he recorded in his journal, “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” (History of the Church, Vol. 6:546). 15 years earlier he had dictated a revelation that hinted at his future murder: “…behold I grant unto you eternal life, even if you should be slain” (D&C 5:22).
He once boasted, “I defy all the world to destroy the work of God; and I prophesy they never will have power to kill me till my work is accomplished, and I am ready to die” (History of the Church, 6:58).
This quote captures both his preoccupation with martyrdom as well as his grandiose vision of himself:
“I speak boldly and faithfully and with authority. … I know what I say; I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend? I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely” (History of the Church, 5:257, 259).
Before going to Carthage, Joseph remarked that he was going “like a lamb to the slaughter.”
13. Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems
“I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world… It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on: the power of truth is such that all nations will be under the necessity of obeying the Gospel.”
-Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 6:365)
14. Is hypersensitive to how he is perceived by others
Joseph frequently felt the need to defend his reputation in public. Said he, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing: the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes?” (History of the Church, 5:140).
When he was rightfully accused of polygamy, he told the saints:
“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers. I labored with these apostates myself until I was out of all manner of patience… I have said this to let my friends know that I am right… I am at all times willing to give up everything that is wrong, for I wish this people to have a virtuous leader… When I shrink not from your defense will you throw me away for a new man who slanders you?” (History of the Church Vol. 6:408-412)
To people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the esteem of other people can be more important than life itself. Joseph, in defiance of a revelation, returned to Nauvoo and his eventual death, saying, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of no value to me.”
15. Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or unworthy
Joseph believed he had secret insight he was unable to share with the saints due to their unworthiness. He once remarked, “Some people say I am a fallen Prophet, because I do not bring forth more of the word of the Lord. Why do I not do it? Are we able to receive it? No! not one in this room” (History of the Church, 5:529–30).
Elsewhere he said, “There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger [a piece of corn bread] for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle [a wooden mallet]. Even the Saints are slow to understand” (History of the Church, 6:184–85).
16. Labels critics and unbelievers “enemies”
“I have no enemies but for the truth’s sake.”
-Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 5:259)
“There have always been, in every age of the church, those who have been opposed to the principles of virtue, who have loved the gain of this present world, followed the principles of unrighteousness, and have been the enemies of truth.”
-Joseph Smith (Times and Seasons, Aug. 1, 1842, pg. 868)
“It seemed as though all the powers of earth and hell were combining their influence in an especial manner to overthrow the Church at once. … The enemy abroad, and apostates in our midst, united in their schemes…”
-Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 2:487–88)
“I shall triumph over my enemies: I have begun to triumph over them at home, and I shall do it abroad. All those that rise up against me will surely feel the weight of their iniquity upon their own heads.”
-Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 5:139–40)
17. Tests followers’ loyalty
This is not a trait on the original list, but it is one that I have noticed among many cult leaders. Their NPD has them constantly worried about how loyal their followers are. They devise strange challenges (often sexual or violent) to test their loyalty.
Joseph frequently conducted such tests, especially in regard to polyandry. Brigham Young explained, “Did the Prophet Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not…the grand object in view was to try the people of God to see what was in them.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2, pg. 14).
Brigham himself was the recipient of such a test. Richard Edgley retold the story: “In the presence of a rather large group of brethren, the Prophet severely chastised Brother Brigham for some failing in his duty. Everyone, I suppose somewhat stunned, waited to see what Brigham’s response would be… Brigham slowly rose to his feet… bowed his head and said, ‘Joseph, what do you want me to do?’ The story goes that sobbing, Joseph ran from the podium, threw his arms around Brigham, and said in effect, ‘You passed, Brother Brigham, you passed’ (see Truman G. Madsen, “Hugh B. Brown—Youthful Veteran,” New Era,Apr. 1976, 16).
As I mentioned in the beginning, these are actual characteristics prevalent among cult leaders. Does Joseph fit the bill? All I can say is something my seminary teacher once told me: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s usually a duck.”