“How Coming to Know the Prophet Joseph Strengthens My Faith,” Liahona, July 2021
When I first began working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project 11 years ago, I had a strong testimony of Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Restoration. However, Joseph seemed almost like a mythic figure to me—someone who was so much more spiritually advanced that I had a hard time relating to him. He received marvelous visitations from heavenly beings, including our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ. I, on the other hand, sometimes had a hard time feeling God’s love.
Because I’ve spent the last 11 years immersed in Joseph Smith’s life—reading his journals, his letters, his discourses—I’ve come to know him on a much more personal level. And I’ve realized that he was a human just like me. Yes, he was a prophet of God and received magnificent revelations, visions, and visitations. But he still had to overcome challenges just like the rest of us.
Those of us living today reside in a world highly unlike that of Joseph Smith and the early Saints. And yet our problems are not totally different. We all have difficulties because of the human experience: sickness, death, betrayal, discouragement, and just plain hard days. Joseph too had moments when God seemed far away and when he wondered if the Lord was aware of his and the Saints’ situations. He faced the deaths of loved ones and suffered from sicknesses and trials, but he met them with a resolute faith that God was with him and that there were “good things to come.”1
The following two examples from Joseph Smith’s life highlight how he navigated the human condition and how studying his life and the experiences of the early Saints has helped me face my own trials.
All of us at some point will face heartache because of death and disease. Joseph and Emma Smith were no different. Their first child died shortly after birth, and Emma’s next pregnancy (with twins) also ended in the babies’ deaths. Joseph and Emma then adopted newborn twins whose mother, Julia Clapp Murdock, had died in childbirth. Eleven months later, in March 1832, young Joseph—one of the twins—died after a mob attack on the Prophet Joseph exposed the baby, who was suffering from measles, to the cold night air.2
The deaths of his children gave Joseph empathy for others who experienced the loss of loved ones. Just a few days after his son’s death, the Prophet traveled to Missouri to fulfill a commandment the Lord had given him to counsel with the Saints there. On his way back from the trip, Joseph was delayed after Newel K. Whitney, his traveling companion, suffered a broken leg in an accident. The two had to stay in the small town of Greenville, Indiana, for a few weeks until Newel was well enough to travel.3
As Joseph languished in Greenville, he heard that his niece Mary—the two-year-old daughter of Hyrum Smith—had just died. The death was devastating to Hyrum and his wife Jerusha.4
When Joseph heard the news, he wrote a letter to Emma—who was still mourning the loss of the baby Joseph. “I was grieved to hear that Hyrum had lost his little child,” Joseph wrote. “I think we can in some degree sympathize with him.” Of course Joseph and Emma could sympathize, having lost four of their own children. Joseph then continued, “But we all must be reconciled to our lots and say the will of the Lord be done.”5 To make sense of the death, Joseph put his trust in the Lord.
I’ve thought about this experience as I’ve dealt with the deaths of family members, ward members, and friends. Even the Prophet Joseph, who had experienced the glorious vision of the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms about six weeks before little Joseph’s death (see Doctrine and Covenants 76), was pained at his son’s passing. He knew that he would see baby Joseph and his three other children again, yet their deaths still hurt. Being a prophet did not take away pain or preclude Joseph from experiencing the difficulties of mortality. But trusting in God and His plan mitigated some of the hurt.
In 1833, Joseph Smith and the rest of the Church faced a crushing setback when mobs drove the Saints from the city of Zion in Jackson County, Missouri. With many of the Saints cold, hungry, and homeless, Church leaders needed divine help more than ever. Yet as Joseph contemplated the situation, he found himself unable to obtain direction. After the initial violence in July 1833, Joseph wrote to the Saints in Missouri: “I verily know that he [the Lord] will speedily deliver Zion, for I have his immutable covenant that this shall be the case. But God is pleased to keep it hid from mine eyes the means how exactly the thing will be done.”6
After the Saints had been driven out of the county in November, Joseph petitioned the Lord again for answers to two specific questions: “why God hath suffered so great calamity to come upon Zion” and “by what means he will return her back to her inheritance.” But Joseph still could not get direction. “The Lord has kept [the answers] hid from my eyes,” he told Edward Partridge, the bishop in Missouri. “They are not plainly shewn unto me.” Instead, God gave Joseph a reassuring prompting: “Be still, and know that I am God.”7
On December 16, 1833, Joseph finally received his answers through a revelation (see Doctrine and Covenants 101). The first part of that revelation explained why the Lord allowed the Saints to be expelled from Jackson County—the first question Joseph had asked God. The second part was a parable about a nobleman who loses his land to his enemies and asks the strength of his house to take back the land. That was the answer to Joseph’s second question. The Lord also repeated His earlier words of comfort: “Be still and know that I am God” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:16).
Each of us will have moments in our lives when we feel like God isn’t answering our prayers. He might feel distant, and we may question whether He is aware of what’s going on. I have had those moments and have wondered when an answer would come. It has been comforting for me to read that even Joseph Smith, the great Prophet of the Restoration, had moments where he too had to struggle for answers—where God did not show him everything at once. That gives me courage to keep moving in faith, knowing that when the time is right, I will receive my answer.
The Prophet Joseph Smith was a remarkable person. He remains one of my heroes. He had to suffer through the trials of life, just as I do. He had to face death, disease, and discouragement. Yet he persevered with a faith in God and Jesus Christ that enabled him to overcome his difficulties.
The courage that I feel when I read of his strength, of Emma’s strength, and of the strength of the early members of the Church gives me hope that I can conquer my challenges as well. For me, that is one of the greatest reasons to study Church history: so that my faith can be fortified by looking to the examples of those who have gone before.