“Prophecy of War, Prescription for Peace,” Liahona, August 2021
Years ago, at the end of one particularly uplifting and fun-filled day of celebrating Christmas with my family, one of my children looked up at me and asked, “How long until Christmas comes again?”
Even though it is August, many of us, of any age, can easily imagine and anticipate the kinds of things we might be doing and enjoying this coming December 25th.
Despite the real possibility of worldwide weariness over the lingering threat of COVID-19, economic challenges, and political and cultural divisiveness, chances are that most of us will set such things aside and be utterly engaged in a festive and spiritual celebration of the birth of our Savior. But in our current climate, we may sympathize with what was on Joseph Smith’s mind on December 25, 1832.
As the year was ending, the Prophet was alarmed by the increasing “appearances of troubles among the nations” (Doctrine and Covenants 87, section heading). In particular, he noted a global pandemic of cholera and the threat of the “immediate dissolution” of the United States. In his words, the state of South Carolina, disagreeing with the direction and policies of the federal government, “passed ordinances, declaring their state a free and independent nation.”1
On December 25, 1832, these concerns opened Joseph’s heart and mind to a most remarkable revelation, known today as section 87 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation foretold key aspects of America’s Civil War almost 30 years before it began. It also gave clear, spiritual direction for all calamitous times.
The revelation began with a warning: soon the United States would be plagued with war, starting with “the rebellion of South Carolina” (verse 1). In the ensuing conflict, “the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States” (verse 3).
If this were the extent of the prophecy, it might be said that Joseph Smith was just observant, not prophetic. In 1832 it already appeared that South Carolina was in rebellion and that war might be on the way.
But there is so much more to this prophecy and the events surrounding it.
Joseph was told that:
This conflict would precede war being “poured out upon all nations” (verse 3). Less than 50 years from the end of the Civil War, the first of two world wars began.
All these conflicts would “eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls” (verse 1). To this day, more American lives were lost in the Civil War than all other U.S. wars combined.2 U.S. president Abraham Lincoln himself noted in his second inaugural address, “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained.”3 And, however bloody the Civil War was, its death toll pales in comparison to that of the two world wars that followed, where the combined estimates of casualties range anywhere from 70 million to 160 million lives.4
The South would “call on … Great Britain” for support (verse 3), and “after many days, slaves [would] rise up against their masters” and be “marshaled … for war” (verse 4). Both of these things happened.5
After the 1832 crisis with South Carolina subsided, and before the Civil War began in 1861, Joseph was hardly considered “observant.” He and others who held to the revelation were ridiculed.
Elder Orson Pratt (1811–1881) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that from the time he was 19 years old, he preached this prophecy all across the upper United States. Generally, his teaching was regarded as “the height of nonsense,” and he was “laughed … to scorn.” He specifically noted reaction in Kansas, where many were certain that if war came, it would surely start there, where pro- and anti-slavery forces were often in intense and sometimes bloody conflict.
But Elder Pratt declared, “Behold and lo! in process of time [these events] came to pass [as Joseph had prophesied], again establishing the divinity of this work, and giving another proof that God is in this work, and is performing that which He spoke.”6
Section 87—a detailed, unerring, 30-year-in-advance description of the key events of the Civil War and the nature of the world wars (among others) that would soon follow—is a powerful witness to the inspired nature and prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Yet it offers even more.
In addition to the wars that would plague the earth in the latter days, Joseph was also told of famines, plagues, earthquakes, thunder, and vivid lightning that “the inhabitants of the earth” will experience until there is “a full end of all nations” (verse 6). To survive all of this, the Lord gives one, crystal-clear command: “Stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come” (verse 8).
As Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently explained: “When we stand in holy places—our righteous homes, our dedicated chapels, the consecrated temples—we feel the Spirit of the Lord with us. We find answers to questions that trouble us or the peace to simply set them aside. That is the Spirit in action. These sacred places in the kingdom of God on earth call for our reverence, our respect for others, our best selves in living the gospel, and our hopes to lay aside our fears and seek the healing power of Jesus Christ through His Atonement.”7
But, as Elder Rasband suggests, even in these tangible places of holiness, how we stand is even more important than where we stand. We must always live in and according to the full light of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we remain immovable in doing so, we will be standing in a holy place wherever we are physically and whatever dangers surround us.
In Kelsey, Texas, in 1942, at the height of World War II, a group of Latter-day Saints approached President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973), who was at the time a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They asked, “Is now the day for us to come up to Zion, … where we can be protected from our enemies?”
President Lee took the question seriously. After pondering, studying, and praying for some time, he concluded: “I know now that the place of safety in this world is not in any given place; it doesn’t make so much difference where we live; but the all-important thing is how we live, and I have found that security can come to Israel only when [we] keep the commandments, when [we] live so that [we] can enjoy the companionship, the direction, the comfort, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Lord, when [we] are willing to listen to these men whom God has set here to preside as His mouthpieces, and when we obey the counsels of the Church.”8
Section 87 proved remarkably prescient. Such prophecy should help build our faith in Christ and His chosen servants. We need such faith more than ever because this revelation is also a sobering reminder about the likely challenges still ahead.
As the world continues to hear of “wars and rumors of wars” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:26) and an array of natural and human disasters, we should all be grateful that on a festive December 25 in 1832, a thoughtful and inspired prophet of God took time to listen to and carefully record the warning words and saving command of Jesus Christ Himself. Of such a precious Christmas gift we might say, “In this there is safety; in this there is peace.”9