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Did Joseph Smith Predict Doomsday?

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.1, Spring 2016

In 2009, I wrote an otherwise routine piece for LiveScience.com about doomsdays and apocalyptic beliefs. It’s pretty standard stuff, a subject I have written about many times over the years. And yet it remains in some ways one of my more controversial pieces, generating at least a handful of indignant emails every few months.

In the piece, “10 Failed Doomsday Pre­­­­­dic­­­­tions,” I briefly discuss apocalyptic beliefs and give ten examples from history, including the Heaven’s Gate cult, the Millerites, and others.

The Seventh-Day Adventists don’t email me to complain that I misrepresented their original founder, William Miller, in his failed doomsday claims. But the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) make their displeasure clear.

The offending passage is one sentence long: “Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the End Times would begin promptly.”

My source for this is Doctrine and Cov­enants 130:14–17, written by Joseph Smith:

14. I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:

15. “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.”

16. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.

17. I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.

This case offers an interesting glimpse into the religious mind and what happens when logic is applied to scripture. My purpose here is not to bash or criticize Mormons; those who know my work know that I’m an equal-opportunity critic of all religions when their claims conflict with science or logic. In this case, I am the one who has been accused of misrepresenting Mormon scripture. I offer this as a case study, and I am pleased to let readers make up their own minds.

Below are two representative email ex­­changes I had with Mormons about whether Mormon scripture suggests that Joseph Smith predicted the end of the world.

A few months later I got another email:

(I never got a response.)

Religious scripture is, of course, notoriously open to interpretation. (Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn replied to me that “It’s best you never write about the time Joseph Smith prophesied that there were people living inside the moon, and one of his apostles would live to preach Mormonism unto them. . . .”) Different sincere people can read the same passages and come to very different conclusions about what the words mean. My inclusion of Joseph Smith as a failed doomsday prophet was not intended to disparage the Mormon faith but instead a historical fact based on Smith’s own writings. If other Mormons or religious scholars can explain why my interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17 is incorrect, I’m happy to hear it. Until then I stand by my work—at least until Armageddon.

Note: This piece is adapted from a February 1, 2013, CFI blog post of the same name.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.