President Joseph Fielding Smith declared:
"Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph Smith was a deceiver, who willfully attempted to mislead the people, then he should be exposed; his claims should be refuted, and his doctrines shown to be false, for the doctrines of an impostor cannot be made to harmonize in all particulars with divine truth. If his claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect." (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, p. 188).
I believe the truths discussed here show conclusively that the LDS church is not the "only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which…the Lord [is] well pleased" (D&C 1:30).
Some proclaim that Joseph was a deliberate fraud, while others deem him sincere in the belief that his revelations were genuine. In his unpublished history, Joseph said that when the angel first arrived to tell him of the plates, he thought it was a dream but later changed his mind. (Joseph Smith Letter Book, November 22, 1832 through August 4, 1835 as referenced in Reconsidering No Man Knows My History, p. 77). Perhaps he did have actual dreams pertaining to the first vision and angelic visitations which he came to interpret as literal physical events. It is easy to see how an individual with a creative mind and a strong mystical bent could eventually have experiences such as day visions and inspirations, which provided the foundation for his so-called revelations. The same may be said of those that worked closely with him. For example Stephen Burnett described in 1838 how Martin Harris, a few weeks earlier, said in a public meeting in Kirtland:
"…that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David [Whitmer]." (Letter from Stephen Burnett to "Br. [Lyman?] Johnson," April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2)
On the other hand, the reference to physical plates by some of the witnesses and scribes suggests a deliberate attempt to manufacture a convincing replica in order to mislead those that saw them up close. For example, Emma would feel the plates under their covering when she moved them to dust the table. According to her description:
"They seemed to be pliable like thick paper and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book." (Saints Herald, Vol. 26 (October 1, 1879), p. 289)
I don't know the answer to the question about Joseph's sincerity, but the implications are the same in either case: the facts deny the absolute authority and doctrinal integrity of the church which he founded. Are there still benefits to be derived from Mormonism? I think so, but there are also pitfalls. I no longer believe the Mormon church's claim that exaltation can only be achieved through its precepts and ordinances. And I cannot with integrity belong to such a church, given the facts discussed here.
Many Mormons will dismiss this information because of their testimony that the church is true. I did so myself for years. Some will want to know the "real" reason I left the church, doubting my sincerity when I say it is because I no longer believe it is true. I feel at peace and happy with my decision. I rejoice in the personal growth I've seen since making it. I compare my experience to a young bird that has just pecked his way out of the shell. I stand now surrounded by shell fragments, and could not return to the dark comfort of my shell even I wanted to do so. My only option is try out my new wings and see where they take me.
As William Gardiner stated so eloquently:
"Belief systems, especially religious systems of dogma, often transcend the need for evidence, and are based on such intangibles as faith, feelings, magic, myth, tradition, hope, fear, etc. Further, such belief systems are often a mixture of both myth and truth, mixed with their idiosyncrasies, thus diminishing from the black and white nature, or 'easiness' of discerning a clear sense of truth.
I will conclude with a few quotes that represent my approach to truth. In using my mind to discern truth from error, as opposed to trusting others to tell me what is true, there can be no condemnation.
"While spiritual insight or faith is one valid measure in spiritual matters, true spiritual insight never directly contradicts valid intellectual insight or facts in the physical world. Faith may go beyond reason, but does not go against it. It never blatantly contradicts the facts which we perceive with our God-given common sense. Faith and fact point in a single direction. Whey they do not, something is seriously wrong…A willingness to accept facts as they exist, and to learn to use them to test the views one holds rather than falling back on subjective experience or rationalizations, is the first step towards discovering genuine truth." (Charles Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, pp. 177-178)