Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

“Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Jan. 1996, 2

Heritage of the Book of Mormon

First Presidency Message

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

Why is the Book of Mormon the keystone of our religion? Because it is central to our history and theology. It is the text for this dispensation.

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are at the very heart of the Lord Jesus Christ’s latter-day work. Joseph Smith and his work were known prophetically in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. The great prophecy in Ezekiel says:

“The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying,

“Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:

“And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand” (Ezek. 37:15–17).

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are one in our hands. Joseph in Egypt saw the Nephites in vision and prophesied of Joseph Smith and of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:

“For Joseph truly testified, saying: A seer shall the Lord my God raise up, who shall be a choice seer unto the fruit of my loins. …

“Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written by the fruit of thy loins, and also that which shall be written by the fruit of the loins of Judah, shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord. …

“And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation” (2 Ne. 3:6, 12, 15).

The process of translating the Book of Mormon was an education for Joseph Smith. When the Lord called him, he was a young man, unlearned, simple, and very ordinary in the eyes of the world. This, of course, was in the scriptural pattern described by Paul: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27). President Brigham Young identified the qualities that are vital for the servants of the Lord: “If a man … of good natural judgement [possessed] no higher qualifications than faithfulness and humility enough to seek … the Lord for all his knowledge and … trust in him for his strength I would prefer him … to the learned” (General Church Minutes, 1839–1877, 23 Oct. 1859, p. 2).

But those who are humble, unlearned, and teachable still need a teacher as well as a means by which they can learn what God intends for them. This was true in the case of Joseph Smith. For him the Spirit had to be the teacher, and translating the Book of Mormon provided the schooling. The translation process taught the unlearned young man from New York essential lessons which were vital for his call as the prophet of the Restoration. As the Book of Mormon operates as the “keystone of our religion” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 194), so the process of translation was the keystone of the Prophet’s education (Ron Esplin, private memo to author, 2 June 1987).

The Book of Mormon was central to Joseph Smith’s understanding of the doctrines of the gospel and of his role in the Restoration. Surely the First Vision alerted young Joseph to his special responsibilities, but he was given a fuller understanding only through translating the Book of Mormon. The nature of his prophetic responsibilities became clear during the four years before he was allowed even to obtain the plates; the confirmation of his responsibility to translate the record perhaps came only after he had the plates in his possession and was commanded to make the record available to this generation.

The Lord said unto the young Joseph, “And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4). The Lord made it clear that the gift to translate, transcendingly important as it was, was only Joseph’s first gift; once the translation was completed, other gifts and responsibilities would follow.

It is interesting to observe how rapidly the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith unfolded after the Book of Mormon was translated and published. Priesthood authority and many gospel doctrines were restored during the translation process. Once the translation was finished and without delay, the first missionaries went out, and the Church was organized. We can conclude from this that the Book of Mormon was necessary both to weave the threads of the prophetic mantle of Joseph Smith and to lay the foundation for restoring the dispensation of the fulness of times.

In bringing forth the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith learned line upon line the things he had to learn in order to become the prophet of the Restoration. Yet it is so that Joseph Smith’s education continued past the translation and through his subsequent responsibilities and experiences. His awareness of his responsibilities grew. Surely he received a “postgraduate course” through the dedication of the Kirtland Temple and the visitations recorded in section 110 of the Doctrine and Covenants. But Joseph’s work with the Book of Mormon was a necessary foundation from which he could move the work forward. The biblical exhortation in James, “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” (James 1:5), prompted Joseph to go into the Sacred Grove as part of his personal quest for salvation and understanding.

Similarly, the powerful passages in the Book of Mormon about faith, repentance, and baptism invited other divine inquiries. The fruit of these inquiries was plentiful: the return of John the Baptist, the restoration of the priesthood and its keys, the coming of Elijah and other heavenly visitors.

We can expect increased attacks upon Joseph Smith as a prophet and upon the Book of Mormon. Satan will attack us at the core of the Restoration and our belief: the Prophet Joseph Smith and his divine mission. To any fair-minded person, his inspired works are more than adequate to establish him as a great prophet. His mission is a legacy which is enhanced as scholars learn more about the antiquity and roots of what he restored in fulness.

We need not claim perfection for Joseph Smith the way we do for the Savior. Joseph’s humanity was part of his strength and credibility. He never professed to be perfect; so we should not try to claim something he did not claim for himself. He knew he was only a mortal man with human feelings and imperfections, trying honestly to fulfill his divine mission. In counsel given to some members of the Church who had just arrived in Nauvoo on 29 October 1842, the Prophet so described himself: “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” (History of the Church, 5:181).

Joseph’s complete candor in recording the Lord’s loving reproofs is an admission that he did not write from self-interest. One such example is found in Doctrine and Covenants 5:21 [D&C 5:21]: “And now I command you, my servant Joseph, to repent and walk more uprightly before me, and to yield to the persuasions of men no more.”

A person will never be truly on the road to conversion until he has at least a beginning witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ. Further, members of this Church must accept, and its missionaries must teach, some absolutes. These absolutes are:

  1. That Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and the Redeemer of all mankind through his atonement.

  2. That through Joseph Smith, a prophet of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored in its fulness.

  3. That the Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ.

  4. That all of the Presidents of the Church since Joseph Smith have successively possessed the keys and authority which was restored through Joseph Smith.

  5. That Gordon B. Hinckley is the prophet, seer, and revelator to the world at this time.

The synonym for the message of the Book of Mormon is “the word.” Alma compared the word unto a seed. As a seed is planted in the hearts of converts, it begins to swell within their breasts, enlarge their souls, and enlighten their understandings (see Alma 32:28). The word and our faith in the word are a stairway. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us:

“For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

“And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit” (D&C 84:45–46).

The importance of the Book of Mormon in the latter-day work cannot be overestimated. President David O. McKay once related a story about his father, Bishop David McKay, who, in 1881, was called to serve as a missionary in Scotland, his native land. He performed a great work and presided over the Glasgow District. In that year there was great persecution in the land, and whenever he tried to teach, it seemed that the people turned away. There was bitterness against anything relating to our faith and its origins. Antagonism seemed to arise at the very mention of the name of Joseph Smith. President McKay, speaking of his father, states:

“One day he concluded that the best way to reach these people would be to preach just the simple principles, the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, the first principles of the gospel, and not bear testimony of the restoration. In a month or so he became oppressed with a gloomy, downcast feeling, and he could not enter in the spirit of his work. He did not really know what was the matter, but his mind became obstructed; his spirit became depressed; he was oppressed and hampered; and that feeling of oppression continued until it weighed him down with such heaviness that he went to the Lord and said, ‘Unless I can get this feeling removed, I shall have to go home. I can’t continue having my work thus hampered.’

“The discouragement continued for some time after that, when, one morning before daylight, following a sleepless night, he decided to retire to a cave, near the ocean, where he knew he would be shut off from the world entirely, and there pour out his soul to God and ask why he was oppressed with this feeling, what he had done, and what he could do to throw it off and continue his work. He started out in the dark toward the cave. He became so eager to get to it that he started to run. … Something just seemed to drive him; he had to get relief. He entered the cave or sheltered opening, and said: ‘Oh, Father, what can I do to have this feeling removed? I must have it lifted or I cannot continue in this work’; and he heard a voice, as distinct as the tone I am now uttering, say, ‘Testify that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.’ Remembering then what he tacitly had decided six weeks or more before, and becoming overwhelmed with the thought, the whole thing came to him in a realization that he was there for a special mission, and he had not given that special mission the attention it deserved. Then he cried in his heart, ‘Lord, it is enough,’ and went out from the cave.”

President McKay went on: “You who know him know the mission he performed” (Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, pp. 11–12).

President Ezra Taft Benson had a similar experience while serving as a missionary in South Shields, England, in 1923. He states:

“We fasted and prayed sincerely that we would say only those things that would touch the hearts of the investigators, then went to the sacrament meeting. My companion had planned to talk on the first principles of the gospel. I had prepared to talk on the apostasy.

“The hall was filled, and there was a wonderful spirit in the meeting. My companion spoke first and gave an inspirational message. I followed and talked with a freedom I had never experienced before in my life. When I sat down, I realized that I had not mentioned the apostasy. I had talked on the Prophet Joseph Smith and borne my witness of his divine mission and of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. After the meeting ended, several nonmembers came forward and said, ‘Tonight we received a witness that your church is true. We are ready for baptism’” (Ensign, July 1987, pp. 8–9).

A keystone keeps an arch in place; without a keystone the whole arch will collapse. Why is the Book of Mormon the keystone of our religion? Because it is central to our history and theology. It is the text for this dispensation. Nothing took priority over getting the Book of Mormon translated and published. Everything was held until that was accomplished. There were no Apostles until it came into being. Ten days after the book’s publication the Church was organized. Publication of the Book of Mormon preceded missionary work because Samuel Smith needed to have it in hand before he could go forward as the first missionary of the Church. Sections 17 and 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants indicate that the Brethren could not fully know the divinity of the latter-day work until the Book of Mormon was translated.

As a young missionary I personally learned the importance of the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in missionary work. Elder Wm. Grant Bangerter, Elder Lynn A. Sorensen, and I, along with other dedicated young men, were pioneer missionaries in Brazil half a century ago. One year we converted only three people. In 1994 in this same country 43,247 souls were converted. There are now more than one hundred stakes of Zion in Brazil. There are seven stakes in the city where Elder Bangerter and I, laboring as companions, found the first members of the Church.

What is the difference between then and now? Why was it so hard in the beginning and so fruitful now? In large measure it was because the only scripture we had was the Bible. The only expression concerning the Book of Mormon came from our own testimonies spoken in a strange tongue. Unlike Samuel Smith, we did not have the Book of Mormon in hand to leave with any who might be interested. Only after the Book of Mormon was published in Portuguese did the great harvest of converts come. The Lord has made clear that this generation shall remain under condemnation “until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (D&C 84:57).

In section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Elder John Taylor wrote of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch at Carthage, Illinois, 27 June 1844: “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” (D&C 135:3).

The practical sage, President Brigham Young, who died with the name of Joseph upon his lips, said, “I honor and revere the name of Joseph Smith. I delight to hear it; I love it. I love his doctrine. … I feel like shouting Hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up. … I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth. I am his witness” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, pp. 458–59).

May we all be his witnesses. May our lives be testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ that he restored. May our testimonies ring forth with power and authority and conviction concerning Joseph Smith, the greatest prophet who has ever lived, and concerning the Book of Mormon, which he brought forth. The word of the Lord to Joseph has been fulfilled:

“The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;

“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand” (D&C 122:1–2).

Ideas for Home Teachers

Some Points of Emphasis

You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:

  1. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are at the very heart of the Lord’s latter-day work.

  2. The process of translating the Book of Mormon was an education for Joseph Smith, and the book was central to the Prophet’s understanding of the doctrines of the gospel and of his role in the Restoration.

  3. A person will never be truly on the road to conversion until he has at least a beginning witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Christ.

  4. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion because it is central to our history and theology.

Discussion Helps

  1. Relate your feelings about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

  2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?

  3. 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?

Joseph Smith Translating Gold Plates, by Robert T. Barrett

Illustrated by William Whitaker

The First Missionary, by William Whitaker; © Ila S. Wheelwright; used by permission.

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett