I Have a Question

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1987, 26–27

What were the sources of Joseph Smith’s greatness?

From an article first printed in the Improvement Era, Dec. 1948, pp. 809, 824, 826.

John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Council of the Twelve from 1921 to 1952. Greatness is a product of many causes. It is like the mighty flowing river, fed and made possible by thousands of mountain rivulets. Even so with Joseph Smith. The reflection from innumerable facets of his character makes up the picture of his greatness. That he was great, measured against the men of his and earlier days, has become the verdict of the passing years in the mouths of all honest students of the Prophet’s life.

Four of the qualities that made him great, human but never wavering, appear in his every act. They are, as it were, the cornerstones of his character: (1) He had unchanging faith and trust in God. (2) He loved truth. (3) He was humble. (4) He loved his fellowmen. These qualities always lead to real greatness. Without them, there is no true greatness.

Doubt did not belong to Joseph Smith’s nature. The Prophet’s faith in God—in His existence, reality, and relationship to man—was superb. Joseph Smith took God at his word, as in the First Vision; and throughout life he took counsel with the Almighty and did not try to act alone upon his own judgment. The striving of his life was to grow toward God’s likeness.

“If you wish to go where God is, you must be like God, or possess the principles which God possesses, for if we are not drawing towards God in principle, we are going from him and drawing towards the devil. …

“Search your hearts, and see if you are like God. I have searched mine, and feel to repent of all my sins.” (History of the Church, 4:588.)

Truth was the beginning of his search and the end of his inmost desire. It was the measuring stick of his conduct and teaching. His story really begins with his petition for truth, which led to the First Vision. The concluding, sober paragraph of that recital is the foundation of his life’s achievements:

“I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned; that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but to continue as I was until further directed. I had found the testimony of James to be true, that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided.” (Ibid., 1:8.)

A jubilant note is sounded in his reply upon his return from the divine interview to his mother’s solicitous concern:

“Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off. … I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” (Ibid., 1:6.)

In the midst of the Nauvoo tribulations of the Church, James Arlington Bennett proposed himself to be the Prophet’s right-hand man, to give the necessary help in those strenuous days. Courteously, the offer was declined, and in ringing words, like blows upon an anvil, the Prophet declared his certain dependence upon truth:

“I combat the errors of ages; I meet the violence of mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the gordian knot of powers, and I solve mathematical problems of universities with truth—diamond truth; and God is my ‘right hand man.’ ” (Ibid., 6:78.)

The possession of truth made him fearless, with a lion-like courage. When the people of Palmyra and vicinity, during the printing of the Book of Mormon, held a mass meeting and passed a resolution against his venture, his only reply was to guard the manuscript of the book more carefully. (See History of the Church, 1:76.)

There was no disloyalty to truth, no retreat from it. He could not exchange truth for popular approval. So he not only published the Book of Mormon but also organized a church that challenged the popular errors and superstitions of the centuries.

Facing the terrors of Nauvoo, he wrote to the commander of the Legion: “Let every man’s brow be as the face of a lion; let his breast be as unshaken as the mighty oak.” (Ibid., 5:94.)

To remove untruth from its pedestal is an unhonored task. The Prophet and his companions, during the Missouri persecutions, were sentenced to be shot. Joseph inquired why they were thus treated and added that he “was not aware of having done anything worthy of such treatment.” General Wilson’s answer echoed the eternal hate of untruth for truth: “I know it, and that is the reason why I want to kill you, or have you killed.” (Ibid., 3:190–191.)

Such hate punctuated the life of the Prophet; but all the while truth nestled in his bosom and gave him courage.

Joseph Smith, the Prophet, was a humble man. He recognized that he was only an instrument in God’s hands. He took no glory to himself. In a meeting with Saints who had just arrived in Nauvoo, he spoke noble words:

“I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.” (Ibid., 5:181.)

On one occasion he characterized himself:

“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact became marred.” (Ibid., 5:401.)

Joseph Smith loved his fellowmen. He did not hesitate to tell them so or to show his love by his acts. The end of a letter to Jared Carter reads:

“I love your soul, and the souls of the children of men, and pray and do all I can for the salvation of all.” (Ibid., 1:339.)

It was through the Prophet Joseph that the Lord revealed anew the true dignity of man. Men are begotten spirit children of God. That makes all men of the race of Gods, with godlike destinies.

In the light of this divine origin and destiny of man, the Prophet understood the word of the Lord:

“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; …

“And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (D&C 18:10, 15.)