“The Ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Ensign, July 1999, 32
In 1851, Charles Mackay, an English author, published a small work he claimed was the first public history of “this new religion” founded in America by Joseph Smith, “one of the most remarkable persons who has appeared on the stage of the world in modern times.”1 Although Mackay certainly was not the first to write a public history of the Latter-day Saints, he was right in assessing Joseph Smith as a most remarkable person.
Yet Joseph Smith was more than an uncommon man with a common name. Few individuals’ lives and labors have been foreknown and foretold like those of this great and long-hoped-for seer. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s life and ministry were seen by ancient prophets “since the world began” as part of the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21; see also Luke 1:67–75). The Restoration he brought forth under the Lord’s guidance is one of the great events in human history.
From the days of Adam, prophets like Enoch, Joseph of Egypt, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Malachi, and the Apostle Peter looked forward to his ministry and the establishment of the kingdom of God through his labors. President Brigham Young noted: “It was decreed in the councils of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he [Joseph Smith] should be the man, in the last dispensation of this world, to bring forth the word of God to the people and receive the fullness of the keys and power of the Priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father. … He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation.”2
It was not just Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles who prophesied of his ministry. Asael Smith, Joseph Smith’s own grandfather, spoke prophetically before Joseph was born: “It has been borne in upon my soul that one of my descendants will promulgate a work to revolutionize the world of religious faith.”3 Later, Asael affirmed that his grandson was the “very Prophet that he had long known would come in his family.”4
From his birth on 23 December 1805 in the quiet hills of Vermont until the early spring of 1820, however, Joseph Smith Jr. did not attract much notice. It was only after the Smith family moved westward, seeking a new beginning in upstate New York, that young Joseph witnessed a spiritual sunrise unexpected by anyone on earth but long part of the Lord’s plan. When Joseph knelt in a wooded area near his log home to offer a sincere prayer, the courts of heaven listened, knowing it was time for a new day’s dawn—a new dispensation.
In the midst of a “pillar of light,” Joseph saw “two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (JS—H 1:16, 17). Their appearance marked the beginning of “the dispensation of the fulness of times” when the Lord would “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Eph. 1:10). Truth rolled forth as the Father, speaking to Joseph, broke once and for all the silence of the Great Apostasy: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17; emphasis in original). It was a boy prophet’s introduction to the Lord and Savior of mankind.
Yet Joseph Smith was still a boy in many ways, given to what he would later consider common weaknesses of youth. Through three years of life and labor on the family farm, there is no further record of heavenly visitations until harvest time of 1823, when the need to learn his standing before God seemed to press keenly on his mind. He reflected later, “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections” (JS—H 1:29). As he had done before, he prayed, asking forgiveness of the Lord and thereby demonstrating an important personality trait, humility. “While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor” (JS—H 1:30).
“He called me by name,” Joseph wrote, “and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS—H 1:33).
By now it must have been abundantly clear to the 17-year-old that the visitation of the Father and the Son had great implications—it offered a message for the whole world. Knowledge filled Joseph’s mind as he opened his heart. Moroni quoted many prophecies from the past, placing them in a proper historical and doctrinal context, all pointing to the young man and his times.
Of particular note was the announcement of “a book deposited, written upon gold plates,” which Moroni said contained “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel … as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (JS—H 1:34). Moroni further stated that “the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled” (JS—H 1:42).
Four long years would pass before the day came that young Joseph would receive the sacred record. During this period, he was tutored by angelic messengers, including Moroni. It is impossible to know the full extent or number of visitations and visions he had, but it was the Lord’s way of preparing a prophet who would in turn prepare a people who in turn would prepare the world for the coming millennial reign of the Savior.
One poignant incident during this period illuminates the character of the young man called by the Lord to initiate this great latter-day dispensation. A Smith family neighbor in Manchester recalled that her father loved young Joseph Smith and often hired him to work with his boys. She was about six years old, she said, when he first came to their home. She remembered going into the field on an afternoon to play in the corn rows while her brothers worked. When evening came she was too tired to walk home and cried because her brothers refused to carry her. Joseph lifted her to his shoulder, and with his arm holding her feet to steady her and her arm about his neck, he carried her home.5 The good deed of a young, noble soul taking care of a still younger child foreshadows his prophetic calling to help all of God’s children find their way safely home.
During the decade that began in 1820 with the visitation of the Father and the Son, the major founding events of the Restoration transpired—the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the foundational, joyful restoration of the holy priesthood through John the Baptist and the Apostles Peter, James, and John. These events culminated in the organization of the Church on 6 April 1830 in Fayette, New York.
The infant Church mirrored in many ways the maturing of the young man who was appointed its leader, for the Church itself was nurtured by a kind and patient Heavenly Father as it continued to grow. And as the gospel began to be disseminated, converts like Sarah Leavitt came to know the significance of the Lord’s revelations and commandments to Joseph Smith for themselves. She wrote: “It came to my mind in a moment that this was the message … for me and not for me only, but for the whole world, and I considered it of more importance than anything I had ever heard.”6
Not long after the eventful days surrounding the publication of the Book of Mormon in March 1830 and the organization of the Church in April, the Lord commanded His Saints to “go to the Ohio” (D&C 37:1; see also D&C 38:32). Persecution in New York and the surprising growth of the Church in the Western Reserve region of northeastern Ohio had opened the way for the Church to progress and expand.
The gathering to Ohio not only helped the Saints at the time but also brought them closer to their eventual home in the Great Basin. While members made the journey to Ohio, others continued on to Missouri, which was to become a most significant Church gathering point. In the summer of 1831, the Prophet and other leading elders were commanded by the Lord to go to Missouri. After their arrival, the Lord told them:
“This land, which is the land of Missouri, … is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.
“Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.
“… Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse” (D&C 57:1–3). Hundreds of faithful members made their way to Missouri hoping to build the temple and establish a community of faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
From both Missouri and Ohio, the Prophet sent missionaries to proclaim the good news of the Restoration. This aspect of the latter-day work was all-encompassing. The Prophet Joseph did not simply send the word forth to the regions round about, but in behalf of the Lord he called servants of the Lord to the four corners of the earth, including the Holy Land. The Lord’s plan was grand, and the vision was eternity.
Joseph Smith was among the early missionaries who left family and home to preach the message. Mary Beman recalled: “In the spring of 1834, Brother Joseph Smith came from Kirtland, Ohio, to my father’s New York estate, which he had purchased at Avon, Livingston County. This was the first time I ever beheld a prophet of the Lord, and I can truly say at the first sight that I had a testimony within my bosom that he was a man chosen of God to bring forth a great work in the last days.”7
In Kirtland some of the early members had glimpses of what lay ahead for the infant Church. President Wilford Woodruff vividly recalled such an occasion: “On Sunday night the Prophet called on all who held the Priesthood to gather into the little log school house they had there. It was a small house, perhaps 14 feet square. But it held the whole of the Priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were then in the town of Kirtland. … When they got through [bearing testimonies] the Prophet said, ‘Brethren I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here tonight, but I want to say to you before the Lord, that you know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it.’ I was rather surprised. He said ‘It is only a little handfull of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.”8
The Church grew both numerically and organizationally during the Kirtland period (1833–38). Despite economic problems and religious persecution, members were able to construct the first temple in this dispensation. Built at great sacrifice and incorporating various design styles and forms, the temple was more than a Church building. It was the house of the Lord.
The dedication was filled with excitement and religious meaning for the members gathered as Joseph Smith dedicated the Kirtland Temple on 27 March 1836 (see D&C 109). During the period leading up to and following the dedication, he received important revelations, including the vision of the celestial kingdom (see D&C 137), which foreshadowed the beginning of our present-day temple work for the dead.
Another glorious occasion was the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ, Moses, Elias, and Elijah on 3 April 1836 in that wonderful building (see D&C 110). The three messengers from Old Testament dispensations—Moses, Elias, and Elijah—appeared to confer their authority, keys, and power upon the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. From Moses, Joseph and Oliver received the “keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north” (D&C 110:11). Elias committed “the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed” (D&C 110:12). Elijah came in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy that the promises made to the fathers would be planted in the hearts of the children through the holy priesthood (see D&C 110:13–16; see also Mal. 4:5–6). Thus the unfolding Restoration brought back precious truths and priesthood authority of ancient prophets, allowing the Lord’s servants, under His direction, to gather scattered Israel, preach the ancient gospel, and seal families together forever.
This season of spiritual endowment was not the culmination of blessings for the members as the Lord Himself said: “For behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here; …
“Yea the hearts of thousands and tens of thousands shall greatly rejoice in consequence of the blessings which shall be poured out, and the endowment with which my servants have been endowed in this house.
“And … this is the beginning of the blessing which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people” (D&C 110:7, 9–10; emphasis added).
Although members of the Church experienced much joy and satisfaction with the completion and dedication of the temple, many were quickly reminded that Satan would be unrelenting in his efforts to stop the infant Church before it grew to maturity.
Within two years, trouble in Kirtland forced faithful members to leave Ohio and seek another place of rest. The temple was abandoned, and the Saints gathered with their beloved Prophet in Missouri in 1838. But there had been difficulties for the Latter-day Saints in Missouri earlier, and these would arise again, leading to further refining of Church members.
A period of trial and persecution broke out like threatening lightning storms so prevalent over the landscape in the midwestern United States. Soon the Saints found themselves fleeing their homes and farms, seeking protection in Iowa and Illinois while some of their leaders were left behind in Missouri jails. The Prophet himself was confined in Liberty Jail in Clay County on 29 November 1838. During the next five months, the Lord answered his questions, responded to cries of help, and pulled back the veil of eternity for the Prophet. From his dungeon cell, Joseph Smith wrote letters of help, counsel, and instruction to the members gathering along the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois. As one Church leader noted, this made Liberty “a center of instruction,” and as the eyes of the Latter-day Saints turned to it, “more temple than prison, so long as the Prophet was there. It was a place of meditation and prayer.”9
Eventually the Prophet and his companions escaped their unjust confinement, making their way to Illinois and the body of the Church. Joseph Smith seemed even more resolute and determined than ever before to fulfill his prophetic mission. Soon Nauvoo, in Hancock County, was established as a new Church headquarters.
Members and new converts heeded the Prophet’s call to gather, arriving by the thousands, and the Lord directed the Prophet in how to expand the Church’s organizational structure to meet the needs of this growth and resulting opportunities. More important, the Lord helped prepare members for what lay ahead by expanding their understanding with revelations and knowledge from the Prophet as they matured spiritually.
In Nauvoo the Lord expanded His gift of temple blessings by providing for the first time the saving doctrines of baptism for the dead and of eternal marriage. These truths and opportunities caused the Prophet almost to shout through his pen as he wrote to the members in Nauvoo regarding glorious events of the Restoration.
“Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. …
“… Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.
“… And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!” (D&C 128:19, 22–23).
Of the trials and tribulations that seemed to follow him constantly, the Prophet Joseph Smith had this to say: “As for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; … deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It has become a second nature to me; and I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation” (D&C 127:2).
Against these challenges, the Prophet could not be stayed from opening his mind and heart to the Saints, laying before them the glorious truths of eternity. He said in 1843, “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.”10
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed such wonderful eternal truths as the nature of the Godhead (see D&C 130:22–23), eternal marriage (see D&C 131:1–3), and eternal progression (see D&C 132:19–20). The Prophet said, “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2), giving us a glimpse of eternal relationships in heaven. He taught members of the Church that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” and “there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated” (D&C 130:18, 20). Perhaps the full scope of doctrinal light emanating from the Prophet is not yet fully comprehended.
As he approached 39 years of age, the Prophet again described the ultimate aim of the gospel program he had brought forth under the Lord’s direction. Just before his death, Joseph Smith said that he had been foreordained “to be one of the instruments in setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world. … It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on: the power of truth is such that all nations will be under the necessity of obeying the Gospel.”11
Part of the foundation laid by the Prophet consisted of giving to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles authority and responsibility to continue the work he had begun. Wilford Woodruff, fourth President of the Church, recorded: “I bear my testimony that in the early spring of 1844, in Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles together and he delivered unto them the ordinances of the Church and kingdom of God; and all the keys and powers that God had bestowed upon him, he sealed upon our heads, and he told us that we must round up our shoulders and bear off this kingdom, or we would be damned. … He stood on his feet for about three hours and taught us the things of the kingdom. His face was as clear as amber, and he was covered with a power that I had never seen in any man in the flesh before.”12
During a time of unprecedented growth and maturing while the Church was headquartered in Nauvoo, dark clouds of opposition had been gathering on the horizon again. Curtis Bolton, a member of the Church from New York, visited Nauvoo just before the terrible storm of persecution broke across the landscape of western Illinois. Boarding a steamboat for his return trip home, he saw Joseph Smith for the last time. Brother Bolton wrote: “He was standing with his youngest boy in his arms … in the middle of the street. No one was near him. He was a most beautiful formed man, and was laughing pleasantly to the brethren on board the steam boat, who were leaving to go aPreaching. I ne’er in this life shall look upon his like again.”13
Latter-day Saints everywhere were soon stunned at the news of the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage, Illinois, on 27 June 1844. Perhaps many had believed the Lord would never let their Prophet be taken so young.
During the period of mourning and sadness that followed, one of the most poignant and powerful summary statements on the Prophet’s life and ministry was written by Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a witness to the Martyrdom: “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 for the benefit of the children of men; 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” (D&C 135:3).
When we consider how many billions of our Heavenly Father’s children may be affected by the “bold doctrine” (D&C 128:9) of the sealing power of the priesthood and the related work of salvation for the dead, we may have a better idea of the implications of Elder Taylor’s inspired statement.
Yet despite all he accomplished, the Prophet Joseph Smith was only the appointed servant of the Lord. President Gordon B. Hinckley has put the Prophet’s ministry in perspective for contemporary Latter-day Saints when he wrote: “I worship the God of heaven, who is my Eternal Father. I worship the Lord Jesus Christ, who is my Savior and Redeemer. I do not worship the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I reverence and love this great seer through whom the miracle of this gospel has been restored. I am now growing old, and I know that in the natural course of events, before many years, I will step across the threshold to stand before my Maker and my Lord and give an accounting of my life. And I hope that I shall have the opportunity of embracing the Prophet Joseph Smith and of thanking him and of speaking of my love for him.”14
When we reflect upon the Prophet Joseph Smith’s humble beginnings and his lifelong road to Carthage, we are filled with love and appreciation for the one “blessed to open the last dispensation” and rejoice that “Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer” (“Praise to the Man,” Hymns, no. 27).