“Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith,” Tambuli, Aug.–Sept. 1985, 6
If Paul was a prophet, Joseph Smith was also a prophet. The evidences that support Paul’s prophetic calling also support that of Joseph Smith.
Such a conclusion grows naturally out of a careful study of the lives of these two great men. This approach doesn’t assume, of course, that Joseph Smith was a carbon copy of Paul. Paul was not striking in person, whereas Joseph Smith impressed most visitors by his height and bearing. Paul was a missionary Apostle, whereas Joseph Smith presided over Apostles and generally directed missionary work instead of traveling to do it personally. Paul had the best education his culture could furnish, whereas Joseph Smith was raised in frontier poverty without training beyond junior high school skills.
But in spite of such wide personal differences, there are dramatic common denominators. It matters little that one spoke English, and the other Hebrew dialects and Greek, provided they both spoke as inspired by the Holy Ghost. Since we are addressing the question of their common calling, authority, and revelation, we are forced to go beyond appearances and come to inner spiritual realities.
Both Paul and Joseph Smith had a “first vision.” Of course circumstances differed, but the vision near Damascus and the vision in the New York forest were orientations for these two prophets for a lifetime of service. Christ appeared to Paul after the Savior had personally opened that dispensation, but the Father and Son appeared to Joseph Smith to begin the dispensation of the fulness of times. Yet both visions included conversations with the resurrected Christ, and on both occasions, the prophets were told to change their course of life and await the Lord’s further instruction.
Many Christians who comfortably accept Paul’s vision reject Joseph Smith’s. However, they aren’t consistent in their criticisms, for most arguments against Joseph Smith’s first vision would detract from Paul’s Damascus experience with equal force.
For instance, Joseph Smith’s credibility is attacked because the earliest known description of his vision wasn’t given until a dozen years after it happened. But Paul’s earliest known description of the Damascus appearance, found in 1 Corinthians 9:1 [1 Cor. 9:1], was recorded about two dozen years after his experience.
Critics love to dwell on supposed inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s spontaneous accounts of his first vision. But people normally give shorter and longer accounts of their own vivid experiences when retelling them more than once. Joseph Smith was cautious about public explanations of his sacred experiences until the Church grew strong and could properly publicize what God had given him. Thus, his most detailed first vision account came after several others—when he began his formal history.
This, too, parallels Paul’s experience. His most detailed account of the vision on the road to Damascus is the last of several recorded. (See Acts 26:9–20.) And this is the only known instance in which he related the detail about the glorified Savior prophesying Paul’s work among the Gentiles. (See Acts 26:16–18.) Why would Paul include this previously unmentioned detail only on that occasion? Probably because he was speaking to a Gentile audience, rather than to a group of Jewish Christians. Both Paul and Joseph Smith had reasons for delaying full details of their visions until the proper time and place.
The first visions of Paul and Joseph Smith underline the directness of their divine contact. Both prophets were literally in the presence of the resurrected Lord, and both received specific direction. Paul reported that he saw the Lord again on four other occasions after his initial vision, stretching through the next twenty-five years. (See Acts 22:17–21; 2 Cor. 12:1–4, inference; Acts 18:9–10; and Acts 23:11.) Joseph Smith reported that he saw the Lord several other times throughout the fifteen years after his first vision. (See, for example, D&C 76:22–24; D&C 137:2–3; D&C 110:1–10.) Neither prophet fell into the impostor’s trap of overclaiming such sacred experiences.
Both prophets knew that they had authority to represent God. Their remarks are filled with the personal knowledge of their authority to speak for the Savior. When Paul was challenged, he answered: “Am I not an apostle? … Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1.) And Joseph Smith declared: “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. … I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.” (JS—H 1:25.)
Although both prophets were given great doctrinal insights, they avoided another trap common to impostors: they didn’t claim to know all the answers. Paul shattered the arrogance of the Corinthians by comparing human knowledge to the understanding of a child: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” (1 Cor. 13:9.) And several of Joseph Smith’s statements regarding judgments and the Second Coming mirror his 1839 comment: “I know not how soon these things will take place.”1
Both Paul and Joseph Smith were considered blasphemers by their contemporaries. Their sin? They had added to the traditional scriptures. For this “offense,” Paul was considered anti-Jewish, and followers of Joseph Smith today are labeled as non-Christian. But Paul and Joseph Smith were simply doing what every Jewish and Christian prophet had done: they were adding a personal witness to prior revelations and speaking God’s message for a new generation.
Paul demonstrated this continuity by standing before the Jewish high council and observing that he was on trial for believing what other Pharisees believed—the reality of the Resurrection. (See Acts 23:6.) The difference in his case was that he was bearing personal witness.
When the Corinthians challenged him on the Resurrection, he didn’t argue with them about the philosophical possibility. On the contrary, he answered their objections only after insisting that he and others knew for themselves, for they had seen. If there is no Resurrection, he said, “we are found false witnesses of God.” (1 Cor. 15:15.)
Similarly, during a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in January 1840, at which Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon testified on behalf of Latter-day Saint reparations after the Missouri persecutions, Brother Rigdon spoke eloquently and at length on biblical evidences for the Restoration, but Joseph virtually sprang to the pulpit afterward to tell his personal experiences of how God called him, “bearing testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels which he had enjoyed.”2
The essential job of a prophet is to testify personally. And in the case of the prophets Paul and Joseph Smith, they did so on the basis of their eyewitness contact with Christ.
Availability of revelation. The sharp distinction between clergy and the common man didn’t exist among early prophets and their contemporaries. From the point of view of authority and doctrinal revelation, the New Testament Apostles clearly had a special position of leadership; but from the point of view of sharing God’s inspiration, they invited all to be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands and participate in the gifts of the Spirit. While correcting excesses, Paul encouraged the early Saints to “desire spiritual gifts” and seek to “prophesy.” (1 Cor. 14:1.) He penned a most impressive perspective of the availability of revelation through the Holy Ghost to all people: the things of God can only be revealed “unto us by his Spirit”—that which searches “the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10.)
The parallel between Paul’s teachings and Joseph Smith’s is vivid. In a letter to his uncle, Silas Smith, who had not as yet joined the Church, he contended that the revelations to earlier servants of God were the history of religion, not religion. True religion demanded present communication with God. The great answers of God to biblical leaders were really invitations to seek those answers anew. Joseph asked his uncle, “And have I not an equal privilege with the ancient saints? And will not the Lord hear my prayers, and listen to my cries as soon as he ever did to theirs, if I come to him in the manner they did?”3 No true servant of God teaches that the day of continuing revelation is past.
On a half-dozen other occasions, Joseph affirmed that he was a prophet, but added, in the words of Revelation 19:10 [Rev. 19:10], that everyone else who could gain a testimony of Jesus would also be enjoying prophecy, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”4 That is, if all pay the price to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost, all can be prophets. And he gave practical advice on how to identify these subtle but powerful spiritual promptings: “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation,” he counseled. “… When you feel pure intelligence flowing unto you—it may give you sudden strokes of ideas.”5
These parallel teachings show that true prophets do not seek to maintain professional status in an exclusive group, but to lead all to the same power that God has shared with them.
Man’s destiny. The revelations given to Paul and Joseph Smith tell us of our personal destinies. Nothing is more exciting than the brilliant scene of the three degrees of glory in Joseph Smith’s vision, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76 [D&C 76]. The Christian world knows nothing of such degrees of glory—it believes only in a superficial heaven and a dismal hell. Yet Paul spoke of himself in humility as “a man in Christ” who was caught up to the “third heaven” to see glorious things. (See 2 Cor. 12:2–4.) And he compared the resurrection of the dead with “celestial” and “terrestrial” bodies, which differ in glory as the sun, moon, and stars differ. (See 1 Cor. 15:40–42.)
Paul and Joseph Smith’s teachings agree with each other—and differ from the Christian world—because they personally received true revelation. In Joseph’s words, “When any person receives a vision of heaven, he sees things that he never thought of before.”6
Love. I know of few prophets who taught the meaning of love better than Paul and Joseph Smith. Indeed, the genuineness of their own selfless love confirmed the validity of their teachings on the subject.
It is hardly necessary to comment on Paul’s sketch of celestial love found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 [1 Cor. 13], or on his fatherly concern for converts—faithful or rebellious.
Joseph Smith’s life exhibits the same mature concern for others. For example, he could have escaped before being confined in Liberty Jail, but he would not do so for fear of reprisals on the Saints.7 After their safety was assured by the dissipation of mobs and the beginning of the migration, he tried three jailbreaks, all of them creative, but only the last successful. And at the end, Joseph returned from the far bank of the Mississippi, observing that if his life was of no value to his people, it was of no value to himself. The historical documents surrounding this decision prove that he consciously placed himself in danger of assassination to keep angry troops from coming to Nauvoo to look for him and endanger his people.8 Time and again Joseph placed his safety second, and the welfare of his family and the Latter-day Saints first.
There is substance, therefore, in his Nauvoo teachings on love. His comments before the Relief Society, though perhaps homely in expression, were godly in content: “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more are we disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls, to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our back.”9 Earlier he had written to the Twelve, who were leaving home to preach the gospel: “A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole human family.”10
Joseph Smith gave one of his most telling insights into self just weeks before his martyrdom. His statement that “no man knows my history” is his valedictory of love, linking his visions with his unlimited giving of self: “I have no enmity against any man … for I love all men, especially these my brethren and sisters. … You never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot do it. I shall never undertake [it]. If I had not experienced what I have, I should not have known it myself. I never did harm any man since I have been born in the world. My voice is always for peace.”11 Joseph is saying here that he knew marvelous things; therefore, he shared. Knowing that Joseph Smith and Paul sincerely loved, I cannot believe that either deceived.
Grace and works. Isn’t it odd that the saved-by-grace-alone tracts seldom quote Christ and the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus closed the Sermon on the Mount with the warning that hearing (or reading) his sayings without doing them would produce a moral catastrophe similar to the house that collapsed because it wasn’t built on a solid foundation. (See Matt. 7:24–27.)
In half a dozen letters, Paul listed the moral sins that will keep one from God’s kingdom if not repented of, concluding on one occasion with these words: “I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:21.) What could be better proof of apostasy than the change of Christianity from a religion of action—based on a belief in the redemptive grace of Christ—to a religion of belief alone?
Joseph Smith also taught the importance of grace, mercy, and the love of the Savior. “And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true,” he taught. “And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true.” But, consistent with the teachings of the Savior and of Paul, Joseph Smith also taught the principle of responsibility: “Sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.” (D&C 20:30–31; italics added.)
There is no such thing as easy salvation, and Joseph Smith consistently taught a salvation based on successfully controlling one’s body for good. Like Paul, he taught that unrepentant evil would not be ignored on the day of judgment. He appealed to all to put their lives in order and to “deal justly before God and with all men—then we shall be clean in the day of judgment.”12
The doctrine of the importance of works in no way diminishes the role of the Savior’s redemption. Where do we find a more poignant telling of Jesus Christ’s atoning suffering in behalf of mankind than in the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit … and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink …
“Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:18–19.)
Through Joseph Smith the same gospel taught by Paul was restored, with its sweet assurance of forgiveness on condition of repentance and its promise that each believer who obeys the commandments can, through Christ, rise to perfection.
The personal spiritual qualities seen in both Paul and Joseph Smith are impressively similar. Both men trusted deeply in God. Paul’s mature letters refer to constant prayers for the Saints and his hope that they will pray for him. The great miracle of being freed from prison by an earthquake came in the midst of the prayers of Paul and his companion. (Acts 16:25–26.)
Similarly, Joseph Smith’s letters, diaries, and Nauvoo speeches are interspersed with prayers for the blessings of God upon his work and upon the Latter-day Saints. These are not staged references, but the spontaneous appeals of a sincere man. His closeness to the Lord is also emphasized by his private letters to his wife, which were written with no thought of publication. To cite only one of numerous examples, in 1832 he wrote to her of a delay in returning home, mentioning his heartfelt prayers to God for forgiveness and blessings, and speaking of God as his friend and comfort: “I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me, only to do his will.”13
Sacrifices for the work characterize the missions of both men. When the Corinthians doubted the Resurrection, Paul simply asked them why he would live a life of discomfort, risking his life every hour for something not true. On one occasion, he listed some of the adversity he had suffered in his ministry:
“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
“Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
“In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
“In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
“Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:24–28.)
Joseph Smith also proved his sincerity by sacrifice. Writing to the Church during unfair arrest attempts that kept him in hiding in and out of Nauvoo for months, he also looked back: “The envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life … and I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation.” (D&C 127:2.) Indeed, although the Prophet didn’t summarize all his trials, any historian could easily take Paul’s format and adapt it to Joseph Smith’s life, as Joseph himself did in Liberty Jail in alluding to his lifetime burdens. (See D&C 122:5)
For instance, a number of times professing Christians leveled guns at him with the threat of death. Once he was beaten, tarred and feathered, and left unconscious. Twice he was endangered by stagecoach runaways when on the Lord’s business. He took back roads and waded through swamps to escape his enemies. He endured years of inconvenient travel on land for the kingdom, as well as risking many steamboat journeys on waterways. He faced years of unjust legal harassment, which made his own home unsafe, and he was imprisoned for a long winter in a filthy jail on unverified charges. Through all, he maintained the responsibility of leading the Church, worrying, praying, and planning for the welfare of his family and his fellow Saints.
Why did Paul and Joseph Smith do these things? Because they positively knew the truth of the gospel, the Resurrection, and the Judgment. Joseph explained that his lifelong persecutions for telling his visions made him feel “much like Paul—There were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise … though they should persecute him unto death. … So it was with me.” (JS—H 1:24–25.)
Both Paul and Joseph Smith had predicted safety in earlier persecutions, but they accurately predicted their own deaths. In Paul’s final letter, he wrote: “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.” (2 Tim. 4:6.)
From 1842 Joseph Smith had said that his work was virtually through and that he could die at any time. In 1844 he agreed to be arrested, bluntly telling Governor Ford in several letters that the legal process was a pretext “till some bloodthirsty villain could find his opportunity to shoot us.”14 Contemporary journals record Joseph’s forebodings on the way to Carthage, and Willard Richards recorded the Prophet’s words in Carthage on the day of the martyrdom: “I have had a good deal of anxiety about my safety, which I never did before—I could not help [it].”15 His non-Mormon lawyer recalled that Joseph said on the morning of the martyrdom “that he should not live to see another day, so fully was he impressed with the belief that he would be murdered, all of which proved true.”16
As we read Joseph Smith’s teachings and Paul’s letters, we can see the commitment of each prophet. Both were men consumed with a mission. Of his work, Paul said, “Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16.) With the same conviction of urgency, Joseph Smith said: “If I had not actually got into this work, and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out—I have no doubt of the truth.”17
These two prophets, who had stood in the presence of Jesus Christ, knew the urgency of each day and the work of eternity going on around them. Their lives testify eloquently to the truth of their message—and of their callings as prophets.