Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration
Good morning Brothers and Sisters.
As you can tell from the talks by my daughter Allison and my wife Lori – twenty years married as of yesterday afternoon – we were asked to speak on the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a predicate and in preparation to our talks we were asked to view the film “Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration” at the Temple Visitors Center. The film gives a very broad overview of the Prophets life, as would be expected in a film that is just an hour long. The film attempts to cover the Prophets life from a small child to his death at Carthage.
For me the entire scope of the film and the role that Joseph played in the Restoration of the Gospel of Christ was outlined in a quote from an 1838 speech to the Harvard Divinity College shown at the very beginning of the film from the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Coincidentally, 1838 is the same year that construction of the temple in Kirtland commenced.
“Men have come to speak of revelation as long ago given and done, as if God were dead. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was, that he speaketh, not spake… The need was never greater of new revelation than now.”
While it was and continues to be the “popular” and accepted belief amongst the rest of the Christian churches that revelation and prophets would cease after Christ that very idea goes against the very word of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.
“Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:”
The logic that there would be continuing revelation and prophets is born out by the additional logic also found in Matthew 7:15-20
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them”
Obviously if there are to be false prophets it stands to reason that there must be true prophets.
But why do we need prophets?
Ephesians 2:19-20 outlines how the church must be established.
“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;”
Two chapters later in Ephesians 4:11-14 Paul further describes the structure of Christ’s Church.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ:
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;”
So we need prophets and teachers to show us stability and lead us in perfecting ourselves in the eyes of the Lord.
Joseph Smith was that teacher and prophet.
That then got me thinking about what role a teacher plays in our lives and how we should then view the Prophets life.
I served my mission in Korea in 1982-1984 and if you ever visit the country, especially the capital, Seoul, there is a site that may strike you as rather odd. At night when you look across the city in residential areas you will be surprised at the number of red neon crosses that dot the illuminated landscape. Koreans always seemed to ask why our church did not have a cross on its roof.
We came up with a standard analogy that explained that we worshiped Christ’s life, teachings and his resurrection. Not the manner of his death. For example, if Christ had been run over by a bus would they expect that we would put an image of a bus on the top of the Church or if he had been stoned to death should we put up rock?
The important and symbolic messages to take away from the Gospels is not how Christ died, but rather that he did die and was then resurrected thereby paving the way for us to follow him home.
Therefore, if Joseph is the modern teacher and restorer of Christ’s message what is the most important aspect of the Prophets life and how we should relate to him?
Should we worship Joseph? Should we worship Mormon or any of the other ancient or modern prophets and apostles? Those outside the church certainly think that we either worship Joseph or Mormon. However we do not worship Joseph or any of the Prophets for that matter. We revere, respect and honor them for the sacrifices they made but we do not worship them.
In researching and preparing this talk I came across an interesting analogy to the role that Joseph (and other prophets) played in preparing us for Christ’s ministry and for his second coming.
Prophets are like a telephone and Christ and the atonement are the phone call. They are the instruments or conduits through which we receive Christ’s message. When we use a devotional meeting like a Sacrament meeting to discuss the life of Joseph Smith, I feel that we run the risk of saying, for a moment at least, the medium through which our understanding of the gospel was delivered is more important than the gospel itself. That is something we have to caution against. Rather a discussion of the role that Joseph or other prophets played should honor the trying circumstances that they had to endure in the trials of their faith along with the continual repentance that they went through.
Remember, most of us here were born or raised in the Church. The lessons of baptism, repentance and the Lord’s Plan of Salvation as we have been taught to understand them are or should be second nature for us. For Joseph and the other early Latter-Day Saints this was all new territory that was being revealed to them. The lessons that the Lord was revealing were provided, to use an old phrase, step-by step and precept by precept. Just like there is a decided difference in the understanding and knowledge that a first grader has on their first day of Primary school compared to the understanding that a High School Senior on Graduation day has so too is our understanding of the Lord’s Gospel compared to the understanding back in Joseph’s time. Yet, even we are barely out of diapers.
Joseph Smith was a prophet with a great message. In religious settings, his message should be celebrated. But he wasn’t the message, and he wasn’t the primary author of the message. That Author should be celebrated in our worship services and not His servants. After all, the mission of the church is to bring people to Christ, not to Joseph Smith.
Of course, Joseph was more than a passive conduit of divine information and he was more than a means for teaching the timeless message of Christ. Much about Joseph has permanently shaped us as a people and as a culture. I think there should absolutely be celebration and commemoration of his life. That celebration should involve trying to get to know him and thinking about the human and cultural contributions of his life — the contributions that even the most devout believers can agree are genuinely Joseph’s. But I think this kind of humanistic celebration of Joseph the man clearly isn’t part of the church’s mission. Instead, this is something that belongs squarely in the realm of Mormon culture and society.
A few weeks ago we had a combined Relief Society and Priesthood meeting with “tag-team” lessons provided by our two resident Seminary Teachers.
In the session that Brother Miller taught I kind of short-circuited his lesson when he began by showing a bunch of books. The Scriptures, some Church publications like the Ensign along with some lesson prep materials and study guides. His first question was which of these books was the most important? I answered and said it was obvious. The Scriptures were the most important because they were the source material and most of the other books and magazines were others interpretations of the Scriptures.
Turning back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a minister himself in the Unitarian Church. He argued that relying on the words of another, be they priest or parent, was a barrier rather than a bridge to God. If we are merely repeating what we learn without engaging our own intellect, without searching for God on our own terms, then our beliefs have nothing to do with a true knowledge of God but instead are based on whatever we happen to learn and interpret from those around us, who likewise learned their lessons by rote from their elders.
This is probably one of the best and strongest lessons that we can take from the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The story of the restoration always begins with Joseph reading the Bible and discovering the passage in James 1:5 that reads:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraindeth not, and it shall be given him.”
It is also interesting to note that this same advice is given repeatedly in the Bible and not just in James. It can be found Matthew, Luke, John and other books.
Let’s look at that quote from Emerson again that is the very beginning of the film on the Prophets life but let’s start a little earlier in his speech to the Harvard Divinity School Senior class. Emerson had little time for a strict reliance on just the Bible, he felt that it kept Christianity in stasis forever looking backward.
“The stationariness of religion, the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed. . . indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake.”
Instead he saw a living, personal relationship with God independent of others’ thoughts or intervention as the only possible course.
The role that Joseph played in the restoration was to provide us that road map to obtaining our own personal relationship with God. When Joseph died at Carthage Jail – and I have visited that site and I have seen the faded blood stains on the floor of that room for myself and it is hard to comprehend that the Prophet and his brother Hyrum knew before they traveled voluntarily to that place that they would not return alive – he was sealing his testimony and the testimony of the other witnesses of the restoration with his own blood. That visit to Carthage also touched me in a personal way because the Martyrdom of the Prophet occurred on my birthday. Something I do reflect on, even if only briefly, every June 27.
For that sacrifice we should honor and revere his life. But we should not worship him.
Joseph, like all men was deeply flawed and he himself said so repeatedly.
In the excellent history of the Prophets life, “Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling” that I picked up a year or so ago there are a number of excellent anecdotes that bring the Prophet Joseph to life including the Prophet answering his critics that thought his behavior was not in keeping with what they imagined a Prophet to be. Remember their only understanding of what a Prophet is and was came to them through the Bible and we certainly don’t know much about the personal lives of the Prophets of old like Moses, Noah or Abraham let alone the Apostles that served with Christ. Most of the life of Christ is a blank slate too. We are certainly fortunate that we have scholars that are able to research and write about the lives of the modern Prophets like Joseph, Brigham and Gordon B. Hinckley.
In the book “Rough Stone Rolling” Joseph is quoted from his Journal…
“Many think a prophet must be a great deal better then any body else,” he told a congregation. But if he were that much better, Joseph said with characteristic hyperbole, “I would be raised up to the highest heaven, and who should I have to accompany me?”
Joseph did not offer himself as an example of perfection. Rather he told his followers not to expect perfection. In fact he was brought before a Church court twice because he had been too rough in scolding members.
We all think we know the story of Joseph obtaining the Plates. But how many of us know that the Lord chastened Joseph when he first saw the plates? As Joseph related:
“felt a severe shock when he touched the plates, and that the angel appeared and severely rebuked him. Joseph reported three failed attempts at lifting out the plates, causing him to cry “unto the Lord in the agony of my Soul why I can not obtain them.”
The angel told him that he was
“…tempted of the advisary and saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandment that I should have an eye single to the glory of God therefore I was chastened and saught diligently to obtain the plates and obtained them not until I was twenty-on years of age.”
Joseph was not yet ready for that task and responsibility but the goal was placed before him to learn and prepare for that day. Alvin, Joseph’s oldest Brother’s dying command to his younger brother was
“to be a good boy and do everything in your power to obtain the record.”
Reading the descriptions of the young Joseph from his own hand and those of his family he certainly sounds like a typical teenager when he was growing up. Including a period of time that he was a “skeptic”. At times when he was younger and before embarking on the path of restoring the gospel it sounds like at times he had more in common with Lamen and Lemuel then Nephi.
Fortunately for the Lord’s plan and for us today Joseph did persevere but he certainly seemed to be plagued by worries through out his life. In a Journal that he kept he wrote the following in December of 1832:
“Oh Lord deliver thy servant out of temptation and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding.”
Joseph was a very complex person with swings in mood and temperament. He could be loud and boisterous one minute and then brooding and solemn the next.
Again we have to remember that the formation of the Church, the restoration of the gospel, the translation of the Plates and the delivery of the spurts of revelations that he was receiving were all new things. He did not have a road map to follow. Joseph was forging the restoration of the Church as had been commanded by the Lord all the while being beset by opposition. Is it any wonder that he was at times confused as to what he should do?
His journal entries reveal a striving young man uncertain of his standing with God, yearning to be worthy and grateful when he finds peace. Joseph was beset throughout his ministry by contention from within and without the Church. Leadership and steadfastness to keeping our eyes on the final goal of eternal salvation are lessons we can draw from his life.
One of the main examples of Joseph’s life that we can apply to our own as we seek to learn from him as a teacher and ultimately as a conduit for the Lord’s message is that we must persevere to the end. All of us will and do experience temptation and doubt. By continuing to believe and work toward repentance and redemption we will find salvation. Who knows, somewhere along the line we will be able to leave our mark and influence someone else
In May of 1844, barely a month before his death, Joseph was visited by a small delegation that included the son of the former US President John Quincy Adams and a man named Josiah Quincy who was the son of the President of Harvard and whom would be elected Mayor of Boston the following year.
Writing four decades after that meeting Josiah Quincy said:
“It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to the interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet.”
Joseph described himself as:
“…but a man…a plain, untutored man; seeking what he should do to be saved.”
His revelations enabled him, as one scholar said of prophets,
“to do unaccustomed things.”
Joseph said his calling was to
“lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.”
Revelation was the essence of his religion.
“Take away the book of Mormon, and revelations, and where is our religion? We have none.”
Joseph received revelation exactly as Christians thought biblical prophets did. But if modern revelation is unimaginable, why believe revelation occurred in the past?
Joseph’s whole life can be encompassed in the question: does God speak?
Joseph has forced the question of revelation on a culture struggling with it’s own faith. Joseph’s historical role, as he understood it, was to give God a voice in a world that had stopped listening.
In 2nd Nephi 29: 3-4 it says:
“The Gentiles say, A Bible, a Bible, we have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible”
D&C 20: 11-12 provides the Lord’s answer:
“Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old;
Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen”
In reply to a minister asking how to distinguish the doctrine of “Mormonism”, Joseph replied that “we believe the bible, and they do not.” It was the power of the Bible that Joseph sought to recover. Not finding it in the existing churches he looked to God to recover it.
William Phelps wrote a Hymn for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple that we all know the words to:
“The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning,
The angels are coming to visit the earth.
We call in our Solemn assemblies, in spirit,
To spread forth the kingdom of heaven abroad,
That we through our faith may begin to inherit
The visions, and blessings, and glories of God.”
It is my testimony to you that if we help to continue to further this revolution we will be able to see to our own salvation and obtain those blessings and glories for ourselves and our families.
see to our own salvation and obtain those blessings and glories for ourselves and our families.