The pioneers walked 1,300 miles. How did they do it? Surely, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—but also by humor, that spunky, pig-tailed daughter of faith.

If you’ve ever seen a photograph of Mormons on the plains, you’ll notice that they all frown, even the children. After looking at these pictures, you might be forgiven for assuming the pioneers had personalities as prickly as their beards.

Actually, our pioneer ancestors were a jolly bunch that had a lot of fun: “They formed friendships, helped one another, sang and danced, hunted game, gathered wild fruit, picked flowers, and climbed hills.” [1] They laughed at each other and at themselves. They even played practical jokes. These people, although tough as nails, were certainly not stiff or stuffy. (Incidentally, the reason they look so gloomy in photographs is that it wasn’t fashionable to smile in photographs at the time. [2])

From the journal of Zebulon Jacobs, we read of a practical joke on the plains:

Saturday, August 17. As we woke up in the morning all hands began laughing at each other, as our faces were besmeared with tar and wagon grease. Some of the boys from the other camp had paid us a visit and left their compliments upon our faces.

Henry William Nichols writes in his journal about some animal “dodging around the wagons” at night while he was guarding the camp. He sought the creature out, killed it, and then realized he had slayed a skunk. “I was completely smothered [in the smell],” he writes. He had kicked the skunk to get rid of it, and so ruined his shoes. He decided to throw these away. But he couldn’t afford to throw his clothes away, so he tried to soak them in the river overnight. In the morning, when he put on his clothes again, he continued to smell and was exiled from the breakfast fire to eat alone. He decided to secretly fasten his skunk-soiled clothes to the undercarriage of another wagon. The driver of the wagon was unaware of this circumstance. From Henry’s journal:

One incident makes me laugh when I think of it was when we were getting ready to start out. I took the bundle of clothes from the river and lashed them under the wagon. The old Fellow knew nothing of this circumstance. When we had traveled a couple of miles the sun became warm. It affected the bundle, and the old Fellow said, “My God, where does that smell come from?” At night I would put my bundle in the river again and in the course of a few days they got to a normal condition again. I had to take several baths before I was properly sterilized.

John Clark Dowdle writes in his journal about how he and the fellow men got a kick out of watching a woman collect buffalo chips for the fire. When she stooped to pick up a buffalo chip, she picked up one that was still squishy, and screamed so loud the company thought she had encountered a rattlesnake.

These delightful stories and others can be found at the Church’s “Pioneer Database.” [3]

The pioneers brought their good humor with them all the way to Salt Lake Valley. There, they founded one of the first satirical periodicals in the West, called Keep-a-Pitchinin. Keep-a-Pitchinin was like the 19th century version of today’s The Onion or The Babylon Bee. They also printed cartoons, parodies, and jokes. Even after 150-or-so years, the jokes are still rather funny. Orson Pratt, an apostle at the time, even contributed articles to Keep-a-Pitchinin, implying to me that humor is not below the dignity of even an apostle. [4]

Humor, I believe, is a gift from God. Humor allows us to cope with difficulty, as it clearly did with the pioneers. It can heal our sadness. Humor also bonds us to other people. It is, I think, a fruit of the Spirit. Humor is evidence that we have faith that “all is well” because God is over all.


Not only is humor a gift from God but it is also, I believe, an attribute of God.

By Joseph Smith’s day, the idea of an “impassive” God, bequeathed to Christianity by Greek philosophy, had ossified into axiom. Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas flatly asserted that to assume God could feel passions would be to trespass on His transcendent beatitude. As Terryl Givens has written, “To imagine a God literally troubled or grieving for His wayward creatures would be monstrous, because it would make God hostage to the whims of those creatures. It would allow darkness to ‘infect’ the light. To be susceptible to emotion is also to be vulnerable to external events and conditions, to be subject to change. For all those reasons, Christian orthodoxy has long insisted on a God who is not subject to the vagaries of emotion, and therefore neither vulnerable nor changeable.” He continues, “So by Joseph Smith's day, the passionless God was virtually universal in Christian thought.” Joseph Smith’s revealed theology broke decisively with this tradition when Joseph received and published the astonishing account of prophet Enoch’s ascent into heaven:

And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?

Givens glosses this passage this way:

The question here is not about the reasons behind God’s tears. Enoch does not ask, why do you weep, but rather, how are your tears even possible, “seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” Clearly Enoch, who believed God to be “merciful and kind forever,” did not expect such a being could be moved to the point of distress by the sins of his children. And so a third time he asks, “how is it thou canst weep?” The answer, it turns out, is that God is not exempt from emotional pain. Exempt? On the contrary, God’s pain is as infinite as His love. [5]

This, truly, is one of the most stunning insights of the Restoration: We worship an emotive, passionate God. I rejoice in this knowledge, but also long for a deeper exploration of the implications of Enoch’s revelation. If God is not “impassive,” surely God has several different emotional registers—surely He smiles, laughs, jokes, and dances as well as weeps? To state my conviction plainly: I believe in a God who weeps; I also believe in a God who giggles.

Do I blaspheme?

Is it possible that we have not quite internalized the profound implications of Enoch’s revelation? If the idea of God snickering with seraphim and ribbing the cherubim makes you recoil in righteous dread, I would ask: Is it possible that we Latter-day Saints have yet to make a clean break with the debunked doctrine of divine “impassibility,” such that our thinking about God has been hopelessly hamstrung? Our inability to imagine God except as furrow-browed and stoic is, I think, a moldy, cobwebbed inheritance from Plato and Augustine.

To be sure, I tread lightly because I do not mean to mock. “Fools mock, but they shall mourn.” Indeed. I do not mean to suggest that God is some cosmic clown. I know, however, that He is my Father; I know He is an exalted Man. I know that God has all virtues and perfections, and it seems to me perfectly reasonable that He would have a “perfect” sense of humor—humor being one of the noblest and most unique observable qualities of His children. I think that our humor is an inheritance from Him.

To many this may seem a crude and primitive paganism or a childish anthropomorphism. So be it. After all, Latter-day Saints ought not be offended by charges of anthropomorphism because we believe we share a genealogy and anthropology with God. In the words of Lorenzo Snow’s famous and inspired couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.” And as for paganism, our critics are already wont to call us pagans and polytheists anyway, so perhaps we might as well learn a thing or two from the pagans and polytheists with whom we are lumped.

Many non-Christian and polytheistic religions contain playful, mischievous, and humorous gods. In Hinduism, Krishna, who is sometimes called the best loved of all Hindu gods, is at times portrayed as a young toddler wrist-deep in his favorite treat: butter. This mischievous young Krishna is sometimes lovingly nicknamed “the butter thief.” At a more fundamental level, Hinduism understands the entire world of multiplicity and diversity to be lila, God’s play. “The basic myth of Hinduism is that the world is God playing hide-and-seek with himself,” writes Alan Watts. [6] Huston Smith, the celebrated scholar of comparative religions, explains the Hindu concept of lila in a very similar way:

If we ask why Reality, which is in fact one and perfect, is seen by us as many and marred; why the soul, which is really united with God throughout, sees itself for a while as sundered. . . The best we can say is that the world is lila, God’s play. Children playing hide and seek assume various roles that have no validity outside the game. They place themselves in jeopardy and in conditions from which they must escape. Why do they do so when in a twinkling they could free themselves by simply stepping out of the game? The only answer is that the game is its own point and reward. It is fun in itself, a spontaneous overflow of creative, imaginative energy. So, too, in some mysterious way must it be with the world. Like a child playing alone, God is the Cosmic Dancer, whose routine is all creatures and all worlds. [7]

In many cultures there are “trickster gods”: in Greek mythology there is Hermes (whom Homer in the Iliad called “excellent in all the tricks”) and Mercury; in Norse mythology there is Loki; in Navajo mythology it is the Coyote; in Australian Aboriginal mythology it is the Crow. The usefulness of these mythologies is that they capture an aboriginal intuition we all have that the world is full of whimsy, strangeness, and delightful surprises. If one goes to the zoo and sees the menagerie of hooved and winged and scythed and fanged and waddled and armored things, it is easy to believe that a whimsical god had a hand in their design or conception. As GK Chesterton has written, “It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't.” [8] If looked at with a clear vision, unbesmirched by habit and familiarization, our world appears as strange as a surrealistic painting by Dali or the fantastic inventions of Dr. Seuss. Even those apparently horrible and hideous creatures have a certain whimsical charm: the spider with its too-long legs is like a stilt-walker on parade; the bulging bullfrog, with its full elastic cheeks, is like a rubber ball. Nature may be “red in tooth and claw,” but it is also comic—like a child who has amateurishly applied her mother’s red nail polish and lipstick.

What would it mean for Christians to conceive of God as playful? Some Christian theologians have begun entertaining the provocative possibility of divine playfulness. Father James Martin, a Jesuit Priest, wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual. In it, he argues that God is a “playful” God. He asks, “Can you allow yourself to think that the wonderful or funny or unexpected things that surprise you are signs of God being playful with you?” He continues:

Think about this in a slightly different way. Can you imagine God not simply loving you, but, as the British theologian James Alison often asks his readers to imagine, liking you? We’ve heard the phrase “God loves you” so often that it becomes a platitude—like the wallpaper that we cease to notice once it’s plastered in our room. We think, “Well, of course God loves me. That’s just what God does.” But thinking about God liking us is quite different. That word has a different energy around it—surprising, lighthearted, personal. Here’s another question: How do you show that you like a friend? Maybe you tell your friend outright. Or maybe you do something generous for him or her. But you also may be playful with your friend. So can you let the funny things that happen to you not just as signs of God’s love, but God’s like? [9]

I think perhaps Henry Williams Nicols’ account of getting sprayed by a skunk is a great example of God’s playfulness, and of God’s “like” for Henry. What if, instead of getting in a huff when we experience life’s many (Alanis) Morissette-ean “ironies,” we saw these mishaps and inconveniences as examples of God’s playful “like” for us? Rain on your wedding day? Free ride when you’re already late? Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife? Meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife? Perhaps God is just playfully punking you—with a wink and a smile.

But, you object, this makes God into an impish, immature teenager! But perhaps it is only that we have grown old and curmudgeonly. Perhaps, as GK Chesterton says, “We have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” [10]

If we think about it, all of our most loving relationships incorporate humor. One of the happiest hobbies in my life is blowing raspberries on my sons’ tender tummies and hearing their little laughs. My relationship with my wife is certainly enhanced with playful, loving teasing and joking. It seems very likely that God would likewise employ humor in his relationship with us.


During his mortal ministry, many of Christ’s actions and sayings would have been uproariously funny to his audience, as Father James Martin argues in his Between Heaven and Mirth. Jesus teasingly nicknames Simon, who is notoriously impatient and impetuous, Peter (Petros meaning, in Greek, “Rock” or “Rocky”). He rides the braying donkey on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, almost in parody of a “real” royal procession. The ludicrous hyperbole of Christ’s parables has an undeniably comic effect undiminished by the centuries. A man with a 2x4 in his eye socket, walking around offering optical exams? A camel traveling through the eye of a needle? (By the way, like Chesterton’s rhino, the camel—that slack-jawed, foul-smelling, hairy, humped, spitting, backwards-kneed, 6-foot leviathan of the desert—is just another example of a real creature as strange as any gorgon or griffin, or any creature Dali dreamed up.)

The book of Acts even engages in some gentle ribbing of the apostle Paul. In chapter 20, it describes a young man, Eutychus, seated on a third story window listening to Paul’s long-winded sermon. As Paul drones on, Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death. Paul runs down and brings the young man back to life. One can imagine that the author of Acts, perhaps a friend of Paul’s, could have taken pleasure in writing this teasing narrative. It seems to say, “Hey, Paul, stay in your allotted time next service, okay Buddy?”

Like Paul’s soporific sermon did to Eutychus, the Book of Mormon put Mark Twain, America’s greatest humorist, to sleep. But I think there is some subtle humor in the Book of Mormon for those who look for it. Consider Queen Lamoni’s aromantic objection to the burial of her husband: “To me he doth not stink.” Or the cartoonishly incorrigible characters Laman and Lemuel who, like Goofus from the comic strip Goofus and Gallant in Highlights for Children, are constitutionally unable to do anything right. Even after being assured by an angel of the Lord (presumably glowing in glory and levitating a foot above the ground) that the Lord would deliver Laban into their hands, Laman and Lemuel immediately resume their murmuring: “And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands?” Or the dereliction of responsibility by Chemish, who, over the course of a lifetime, begrudgingly contributes a single forgettable verse to the scriptural record. Or Ammon carrying a basketful of lopped-off enemy arms— a comical illustration of what happens to those who “put their trust in the arm of flesh.” At this awesome display of power, King Lamoni sits in an awkward silence for the better part of an hour. King Lamoni thinks Ammon is a god because he never before has had a servant who was able to retain in memory just two directives at the same time. (Good servants are so hard to find these days!) Or King Noah and his priests, who are so sluggishly inert as to need breastworks made for them “to rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to his people.” (One wonders how such a lethargic royal court could have possibly had the energy or virility for the many concubines they had at their disposal.) In the very next scene, the supine King Noah, usually inclined to reclining, is now running full speed from a livid Gideon. Gideon pursues the puffing King Noah up a lookout tower and, in a perverse coincidence, is spared from the judgement of the sword by a lucky invasion of the Lamanites. Later, Noah’s priests, who formerly enjoyed a harem of concubines with whom to enact their sexual pleasures, are reduced to watching Lamanite women through a hole in the fence like desperate and pathetic peeping Toms. The hot-headed Captain Moroni mercilessly berates and threatens an innocent and victimized Pahoran. These are just a few examples that come immediately to mind.

Perhaps you don’t find these things funny. So be it. Humor, of course, is a matter of taste and preference. Furthermore, I suppose it is impossible to tell whether the Book of Mormon authors “intended” these things to be humorous. Still, I maintain that these stories display the hallmarks of all the best comedies: irony, unexpected reversals, hyperbole, and incisive examinations of the foibles of human nature.

To be sure, the Book of Mormon is a tragedy, not a comedy. But the best tragedies still have their lighter moments. Of the humorous moments in Hamlet, Sir Herbert Tree said: “The firmament of tragedy is made blacker by the jewels of humor with which it is bestarred.” [11] And so with the Book of Mormon.


Latter-day Saints have a somewhat complicated relationship with humor and laughter. I think it is fair to say that while we are a joyful and humorous people, we sometimes feel guilty about it. The Prophet Joseph Smith was known by close friends and associates to have a great sense of humor, but Joseph sometimes felt a tension between this part of himself and his prophetic calling: “But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.” [12]

In order to resolve the tension, we need a more robust religious vocabulary to talk about humor and laughter. The fantastic Catholic poet Mary Karr has a poem called “Who The Meek Are Not” that captures the problem of a confused and impoverished religious vocabulary. [13] What is “meekness,” she asks?

Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
in the rice-paddy muck,
nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
make the wheat fall in waves
they don't get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
nun says we misread
that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master's voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

Just as Karr reimagines what it means to be a “meek” disciple of Christ, it is time we Latter-Day Saints reimagine the meaning of two words in our religious vocabulary: “reverence” and “levity.”

When, in primary, my friends and I showed too much youthful exuberance, we were admonished to be “reverent,” which meant shut up and sit still. How “reverent” came to mean being quiet or serious, or how it came to be used as a tool to shush, I do not know. But it is a travesty. As any decent dictionary will tell you, “reverent” means “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe.” [14] And it seems to me that joyful laughter and youthful ebullience can be perfectly appropriate expressions of reverence. The sublime can make one giddy as well as silent; it is as appropriate to yip at the sight of the Grand Canyon as to stand in mute appreciation. As anyone knows, adults are quite proficient at shutting up and sitting still, but can be quite inept at awe. Children are quite proficient at awe, even if they have not yet learned how to shut up and sit still. In other words, adults can be quite proficient at the outward appearance of reverence even when there is no nourishing fountain of awe beneath the facade. On the flip side, young people might be having powerful and authentic feelings of respect and awe, but they’ve yet to be trained on how to “perform” these feelings in a socially acceptable way.

It is a shame when our religious vocabulary gets conscripted into the service of teaching polite social behavior to our children. An analogy might be useful, here: When Protestant churches began to develop Sunday schools for children, they decided that teaching their pupils to fold their arms in prayer would be an easy way to manage the children’s behavior. This was easier to do than to repeat ad infinitum, “Keep your hands to yourself!” This is a perfectly fine and appropriate strategy for discipline and socialization. But today, you might find full-grown Latter-day Saints that believe folding your arms during prayer to be a foundational principle and doctrine of the gospel. This is a confusion of categories; it confuses discipline with doctrine. A similar confusion is happening, I think, with the word “reverence.” By misusing “reverence” to rap the knuckles of overexcited children, the word is sapped of its original, richer, religious meaning. It is perfectly appropriate to teach young people the time and place for quiet behavior, but we needn’t confuse them about the nature of reverence to do it. Latter-day Saints need to redefine “reverence” as if they are to have a less complicated relationship to humor and laughter. Actually, I can’t help but wonder whether the word “reverence” is so compromised that we might need to retire it altogether in favor of another word, sadly too infrequently used in Latter-day Saint discourse: “awe.” “Wonder” would also fit the bill.

Christ chastised hypocrites for “disfiguring their faces” to “appear unto men to fast.” [15] I wonder if we are training our children to “disfigure their faces” into the marble mold of reverence, in order to “appear unto men to be reverent”—forgetting that reverence is founded on that more original and basic spiritual gift of awe.

A similar redefinition is needed for “levity.” I believe that what the scriptures call “levity” is not humor per se but perversion of it. All virtues can be perverted. Augustine taught that love was “disordered” when it was directly towards unworthy ends or objects. Disordered love is idolatry. Disordered meekness is timidity. Boldness in excess is overbearance. Disordered humor is levity.

The late Elder F. Enzio Busche taught the difference between the way the Spirit encourages humor and the way that the adversary attempts to pervert and distort humor for evil:

I learned in that moment that when we are under the influence of the Spirit, we can find a sense of humor and the ability to smile and not take ourselves too seriously, and we can laugh at ourselves. Then it dawned on me that the adversary’s weapons are sarcasm, irony, and cynicism, but that the Lord’s power is a gentle sense of humor. I have learned more and more since then that the adversary cannot deal with a sense of humor. He does not have a sense of humor; he does not even know what that is. He is always dead serious, and when you have a sense of humor, you are in control of the adversary’s influence. [16]

Luciferian levity is cruelly sarcastic, bitterly ironic, and sadistically sardonic. Levity is weaponizing laughter to injure another’s feelings. It is sneering and mocking. It is laughing at rather than laughing with. It is the incredulous sputter of the skeptical unbeliever. At first blush, Luciferian levity looks like holy humor, but it is only a cheap imitation. Our Father laughs deep from the belly; Lucifer forces a choked, raspy croak from the throat.


[1] “5 things we learn from the database of Mormon Pioneers”,, 23 July 2015. --- [Back to manuscript].

[2] Meyer, Robinson. “Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Portraits?” The Atlantic. September 20, 2013. --- [Back to manuscript].

[3] --- [Back to manuscript].

[4] Walker, Ronald W. “The Keep-a-Pitchinin or the Mormon Pioneer was Human.” BYU Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1974. --- [Back to manuscript].

[5] Givens, Terryl. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. 2015. Print. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. 1999. Print. [Back to manuscript].

[7] Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. 2009. Print. [Back to manuscript].

[8] Chesterton, G K. Orthodoxy. New York: Lohn Lane, 1909. Print.
[Back to manuscript].

[9] Martin, James. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. 2011. E-book. [Back to manuscript].

[10] Chesterton, G K. Orthodoxy. New York: Lohn Lane, 1909. Print.
[Back to manuscript].

--- [Back to manuscript].

[12] Joseph Smith History 1:28 [Back to manuscript].

[13] Karr, Mary. “Who The Meek Are Not.” The Atlantic. May 1, 2002. --- [Back to manuscript].

[14] “Reverence.” --- [Back to manuscript].

[15] Matthew 6:16 [Back to manuscript].

[16] Busche, F E, and Tracie A. Lamb. Yearning for the Living God: Reflections from the Life of F. Enzio Busche. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2004. Print. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Wozniak, Corey (2021) "The God Who Giggles: Towards a CoJC Theology of Humor," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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