“The Prophet Joseph Smith: Teacher by Example,” Ensign, June 1994, 2
“I was born in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five, on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, State of Vermont.”1 Thus spoke the first prophet of this great dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times. These words of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his testimony which follows have been translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, German, French, Polish, and almost every language of the civilized world. When read by honest men and honest women, these profound words have changed thinking and have changed lives. This is the value of the simple testimony of the boy prophet, Joseph Smith.
Let us go back to the year of our Lord 1805, on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont. Will you take that journey with me? Will you accompany me as we look back on those dramatic events taking place on that day? As Joseph Smith, Sr., and his wife, Lucy Mack, proudly looked down upon the little baby that had come into their home, I’m certain they were pleased and most grateful to the Lord that the period of her confinement had passed favorably and that this child had been born to them. I can imagine that they might have exclaimed, as did the poet, that this little baby was “a sweet, new blossom of humanity, fresh fallen from God’s own home to flower on earth.”2 A choice spirit had come to dwell in its earthly tabernacle.
Some have asked, “Did he have an unusual childhood or boyhood?” “Was the Prophet Joseph different from me or my brothers?” I think we could perhaps gain insight into the childhood of the Prophet by reading the words of his mother, Lucy. She said, “I am aware that some of my readers will be disappointed, for … it is thought by some that I shall be likely to tell many very remarkable incidents which attended his childhood; but, as nothing occurred during his early life except those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existence, I pass them in silence.”3 This is all we have from the boy’s mother concerning his early childhood activities.
During his early youth, however, ill health and ill fortune seemed to pursue the family. The good father tried farming in several localities but couldn’t quite succeed in any of them. When young Joseph was seven years old, he and his brothers and sisters were stricken with typhus fever. The others recovered readily, but Joseph was left with a painful sore on his leg, a sore which would not heal. The doctors, doing the best they could under the conditions of the time, treated him—and yet the sore persisted. Finally the doctors were afraid they were going to have to amputate his leg.
We can imagine the grief and the sorrow that would come to parents who were told that the leg of their young son must be removed. Thankfully, however, one day the doctors came unexpectedly to the home, and they told the family that they were going to try a new operation to remove a piece of the bone, hoping that this would permit the sore to heal. They had brought with them some cord and planned to tie Joseph to the bed because they had no anesthetic, nothing to dull the pain, when they cut into his leg to remove the piece of bone.
Young Joseph, however, responded, “I will not be bound, for I can bear the operation much better if I have my liberty.”
The doctors then said, “Will you take some wine? … You must take something, or you can never endure the severe operation.”
Again the boy prophet said, “No, … but I will tell you what I will do—I will have my father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms, and then I will do whatever is necessary in order to have the bone taken out.”
So Joseph Smith, Sr., held the boy in his arms, and the doctors opened the leg and removed the diseased piece of bone. Although he was lame for some time afterward, Joseph was healed.4 At seven years of age, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught us courage—by example.
When Joseph was in his tenth year, his family, which now consisted of eleven souls, left the state of Vermont and moved to Palmyra, Ontario County, New York. Four years later they moved to Manchester, located in the same county. It was here that Joseph described the great religious revival which seemed everywhere present and of prime concern to every heart. These are his words: “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. …
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”5
The Prophet said that after reading this verse he knew for a certainty he must either put the Lord to the test and ask Him or perhaps choose to remain in darkness forever. He declared that as he retired to the grove to pray, this was the first time he had attempted to pray vocally to his Heavenly Father. But he had read the scripture, he had understood the scripture, he had trusted in God his Eternal Father; and now he knelt and prayed, knowing that God would give him the enlightenment which he so earnestly sought. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us the principle of faith—by example.
Can you imagine the ridicule, the scorn, the mocking which all of his young friends, his older friends, and his foes alike must have heaped upon him as he mentioned that he had seen a vision? I suppose that it became almost unbearable for the boy, and yet he was honest with himself, for these are his words: “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”6 The Prophet Joseph Smith taught honesty—by example.
An unusual thing happened after that great first vision. The Prophet Joseph received no additional communication for three years. However, he did not wonder, he did not question, he did not doubt the Lord. The Prophet Joseph patiently waited. The Prophet Joseph taught us the principle of patience—by example.
Following the visits of the angel Moroni and the delivering into the hands of the Prophet the golden plates, he commenced the difficult assignment of translation, which would absorb his every waking moment, his every thought, his every action night and day, perhaps every hour. One can but imagine the dedication, the devotion, and the labor required to translate in less than ninety days this record of over five hundred pages, which covered a period of twenty-six hundred years. There is not an absurd, impossible, or contradictory statement in the entire book. Joseph worked, Joseph studied, Joseph applied himself to his task. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us diligence—by example.
I love the words Oliver Cowdery used to describe the time he spent assisting Joseph with the translation: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim … the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’”7
The Prophet Joseph was truly blessed with the ability to inspire faith. One bright morning Joseph walked up to John E. Page and said, “Brother John, the Lord is calling you on a mission to Canada.”
John E. Page was rather astonished and said, “Why, Brother Joseph, I can’t go on a mission to Canada. I don’t even have a coat to wear.”
The Prophet Joseph took his own coat from his back, handed it to John Page, and said, “Here, John, wear this, and the Lord will bless you.” Brother Page took the coat, went to Canada, and in two years walked five thousand miles and baptized six hundred souls, because he trusted in the words of a prophet of God.8
On another occasion Joseph was speaking to a group of brethren at Nauvoo on the importance of missionary work, and at the conclusion of his message he had so touched the congregation that 380 elders in the congregation volunteered to immediately embark on missions.9
The Prophet Joseph believed in missionary work. While he and Sidney Rigdon were proselyting at Perrysburg, New York, 12 October 1833, having been long absent from their families and feeling concerned for them, they received the following revelation:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my friends Sidney and Joseph, your families are well; they are in mine hands, and I will do with them as seemeth me good; for in me there is all power.
“Therefore, follow me, and listen to the counsel which I shall give unto you.
“Behold, … I have much people in this place, in the regions round about; and an effectual door shall be opened in the regions round about in this eastern land. …
“Therefore, verily I say unto you, lift up your voices unto this people; speak the thoughts that I shall put into your hearts, and you shall not be confounded before men;
“For it shall be given you … in the very moment, what ye shall say. …
“And I give unto you this promise, that inasmuch as ye do this the Holy Ghost shall be shed forth in bearing record unto all things whatsoever ye shall say.”10
Joseph and Sidney continued their missionary labors.
Joseph Smith not only inspired men to volunteer for missions, he not only took his own coat and handed it to John Page as he went on his mission, but he also taught the importance of missionary work—by example.
I think one of the sweetest lessons taught by the Prophet, and yet one of the saddest, occurred close to the time of his death. He had seen in vision the Saints leaving Nauvoo and going to the Rocky Mountains. I imagine he felt as did Moses—anxious to lead his people away from their tormentors and into a promised land which the Lord his God had shown him. But it was not to be. Rather, he was required to leave his plan and vision of the Rocky Mountains and give himself up to face a court of supposed justice.
These are his words: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men.”11 That statement of the Prophet teaches us obedience to law and the importance of having a clear conscience toward God and toward our fellowmen. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught these principles—by example.
There was to be one great final lesson before his mortal life ended. He was incarcerated in Carthage Jail with his brother Hyrum, with John Taylor, and with Willard Richards. The angry mob stormed the jail; they came up the stairway, blasphemous in their cursing, heavily armed, and began to fire at will. Hyrum was hit and died. John Taylor took several balls of fire within his bosom. The Prophet Joseph, with his pistol in hand, was attempting to defend his life and that of his brethren, and yet he could tell from the pounding on the door that this mob would storm that door and would kill John Taylor and Willard Richards in an attempt to kill him. And so his last great act here upon the earth was to leave the door and lead Willard Richards to safety, throw the gun on the floor, and go to the window, that they might see him, that the attention of this ruthless mob might be focused upon him rather than the others. Joseph Smith gave his life. Willard Richards was spared, and John Taylor recovered from his wounds. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”12 The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us love—by example.
June 27 of this year marks the 150th anniversary of that solemn event when the first prophet of this dispensation sealed his testimony of the Restoration with his blood. I testify that he was a prophet of God. I have seen the Lord convert people to His plan of salvation through the testimony of the Prophet Joseph. Many years ago I served as the president of the Canadian Mission. In the city of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, two of our missionaries were proselyting door-to-door on a cold, snowy afternoon. They had not had any measure of success. One was experienced, one was new.
The two called at the home of Mr. Elmer Pollard, and he, feeling sympathy for the almost frozen missionaries, invited them in. They presented their message and asked if he would join them in prayer. He agreed, on the provision that he could offer the prayer.
The prayer he offered astonished the missionaries. He said, “Heavenly Father, bless these two unfortunate, misguided missionaries, that they may return to their homes and not waste their time telling the people of Canada about a message which is so fantastic and about which they know so little.”
As they arose from their knees, Mr. Pollard asked the missionaries never to return to his home. As they left, he mockingly said to them, “You can’t tell me you really believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, anyway!” and he shut the door.
The missionaries had walked but a short distance when the junior companion said, “Elder, we didn’t answer Mr. Pollard.”
The senior companion said, “We’ve been evicted. Let’s move on to greener territory.”
The young missionary persisted, however, and the two returned to Mr. Pollard’s door. Mr. Pollard answered the knock and angrily said, “I thought I told you young men never to return!”
The junior companion then said, with all the courage he could muster, “Mr. Pollard, when we left your door, you said that we didn’t really believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I want to testify to you, Mr. Pollard, that I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God; that by inspiration he translated the sacred record known as the Book of Mormon; that he did see God the Father and Jesus the Son.” The missionaries then departed the doorstep.
I heard this same Mr. Pollard, in a testimony meeting, state the experiences of that memorable day. He said: “That evening, sleep would not come. I tossed and turned. Over and over in my mind I heard the words, ‘Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. I know it … I know it … I know it.’ I could scarcely wait for morning to come. I telephoned the missionaries, using the address which was printed on the small card containing the Articles of Faith that they had left with me. They returned; and this time, with the correct spirit, my wife and family and I joined in the discussion as earnest seekers of truth. As a result, we have all embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ. We shall ever be grateful to the testimony of truth brought to us by courageous, humble missionaries.”
In the 135th section of the Doctrine and Covenants we read the words of John Taylor concerning the Prophet Joseph:
“Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions … ; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”13
What a fitting tribute to a prophet of God! I pray we may learn from his example, that we might incorporate into our lives the great principles which he so beautifully taught; that we ourselves might emulate him; that our lives might reflect the knowledge we have that God lives, that Jesus is His Son, and that we are led today by a prophet of God.
Some Points to Ponder
You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:
Throughout his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith lived and taught the principles and virtues of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
By his own example, he taught us:
—courage at age seven
—faith in his fifteenth year
—honesty in responding to others about his first vision
—patience as a teenager
—diligence in bringing forth the Book of Mormon
—the importance of missionary work
—obedience to law
—the importance of having a clear conscience toward God and our fellowmen
—love in offering his life
Relate your feelings about the mission and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum president?