This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In the 19th century, critics considered nearly every leader of a new religious movement a lunatic.
They argued, for example, that the reported visions of Ellen White, a young woman who helped establish Seventh-day Adventism and led it until her death at age 88, and those of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, were just the product of troubled minds or even epileptic seizures.
Followers of both faiths reject those assertions, defending their charismatic leaders on the basis of what they achieved in the long run. Both churches appealed to and continue to attract large numbers of religious seekers.
White's visionary experiences and leadership helped create "a religion that has been a positive force in the world for more than 150 years," says Linda Walton, a member of the Provo Seventh-day Adventist Church. "It has one of the largest hospital systems and private school systems in the world, as well as a wonderful missionary program focusing on educational and medical needs."
On the Mormon front, LDS historian Richard Bushman acknowledges that Smith had "an extravagant personality with a lot of emotions," which, in some cases, indicate an unbalanced mind.
But the Mormon leader also had lots of good friends who were "solid people" and a strong, loving relationship with his wife and children, says Bushman, chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. "He was very effective in building an organization and kept that up to the end of his life. I don't think you can say this was a dysfunctional person."
LDS physician Greg Smith, of Alberta, Canada, points to more indications he believes show that Smith was not mentally ill:
• Joseph Smith could dictate coherently there is none of the "word salad" of schizophrenia or the meandering gush of pseudo-complexity or pressure-of-ideas one sees in mania.
• He could orate and hold people's attention for hours, leaving them feeling enlightened and convinced they had learned things they never had considered. The speech of the severely mentally ill typically is somewhat devoid of content and tedious in the extreme, if not off-putting.
• The Mormon leader was compassionate and empathetic, could put himself into others' minds and situation; none of these is characteristic of mental illness, which tends to turn people inward.
• He had many things going on at once, keeping all the balls in the air; he didn't get fixated as many mentally ill patients do.
None of this proves, of course, that claims to divine communication by White, Smith or any other religious leader were legitimate. That's for others to decide.