“By Example,” New Era, Dec. 2005, 4
Let us go back to the year 1805, on the 23rd day of December, in the town of Sharon, Vermont. Will you accompany me as we look back on those dramatic events taking place on that day? As Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife, Lucy Mack, proudly looked down upon the little baby who had come into their home, I’m certain they were pleased and most grateful. A choice spirit had come to dwell in its earthly tabernacle.
Some have asked, “Did he have an unusual childhood or boyhood?” “Was the Prophet Joseph different from me or my brothers?” I think we could gain insight into the childhood of the Prophet by reading the words of his mother. She said, “I am aware that some of my readers will be disappointed, for … it is thought by some that I shall be likely to tell many very remarkable incidents which attended his childhood; but, as nothing occurred during his early life except those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existence, I pass them in silence.”1 This is all we have from the boy’s mother concerning his early childhood activities.
During his early youth, however, ill health and ill fortune seemed to pursue the family. When young Joseph was seven years old, he and his brothers and sisters were stricken with typhus fever. The others recovered readily, but Joseph was left with a painful sore on his leg. The doctors, doing the best they could under the conditions of the time, treated him—and yet the sore persisted. Finally the doctors were afraid they were going to have to amputate his leg.
Thankfully, however, one day the doctors came unexpectedly to the home and told the family they were going to try a new operation to remove a piece of the bone, hoping this would permit the sore to heal. They had brought with them some cord and planned to tie Joseph to the bed because they had no anesthetic, nothing to dull the pain, when they cut into his leg to remove the piece of bone.
Young Joseph, however, responded, “I will not be bound, for I can bear the operation much better if I have my liberty.”
The doctors then said, “Will you take some wine? … You must take something, or you can never endure the severe operation.”
Again the boy prophet said, “No, … but I will tell you what I will do—I will have my father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms, and then I will do whatever is necessary in order to have the bone taken out.”
So Joseph Smith Sr. held the boy in his arms, and the doctors opened the leg and removed the diseased piece of bone. Although he was lame for some time afterward, Joseph was healed.2 At seven years of age, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught us courage—by example.
When Joseph was in his 11th year, his family, which now consisted of 11 souls, left Vermont and moved to Palmyra, New York. Four years later they moved to Manchester, located in the same county. It was here that Joseph described the great religious revival that seemed everywhere present and of prime concern to every heart.
These are his words: “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. …
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: 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” (JS—H 1:8, 11).
The Prophet said that after reading this verse he knew for a certainty he must either put the Lord to the test and ask Him or perhaps choose to remain in darkness forever. He declared that as he retired to the grove to pray, this was the first time he had attempted to pray vocally to his Heavenly Father. But he had read the scripture, he had understood the scripture, he had trusted in God his Eternal Father; and now he knelt and prayed, knowing that God would give him the enlightenment which he so earnestly sought. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us the principle of faith—by example.
Can you imagine the ridicule, the scorn, the mocking that all of his young friends, his older friends, and his foes alike must have heaped upon him as he mentioned that he had seen a vision?
I suppose it became almost unbearable for the boy, and yet he was honest with himself, for these are his words: “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; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JS—H 1:25).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught honesty—by example.
The Prophet Joseph was truly blessed with the ability to inspire faith. One bright morning Joseph walked up to John E. Page and said, “Brother John, the Lord is calling you on a mission to Canada.”
John E. Page was rather astonished and said, “Why, Brother Joseph, I can’t go on a mission to Canada. I don’t even have a coat to wear.”
The Prophet Joseph took his own coat from his back, handed it to John Page, and said, “Here, John, wear this, and the Lord will bless you.” Brother Page took the coat, went to Canada, and in two years walked 5,000 miles and baptized 600 souls, because he trusted in the words of a prophet of God.3
The Prophet Joseph believed in missionary work. While he and Sidney Rigdon were proselyting at Perrysburg, New York, October 12, 1833, having been long absent from their families and feeling concerned for them, they received the following revelation:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my friends Sidney and Joseph, your families are well; they are in mine hands, and I will do with them as seemeth me good; for in me there is all power. …
“Therefore, verily I say unto you, lift up your voices unto this people” (D&C 100:1, 5).
Joseph and Sidney continued their missionary labors.
Joseph Smith not only inspired men to volunteer for missions, but he also taught the importance of missionary work—by example.
I think one of the sweetest lessons taught by the Prophet, and yet one of the saddest, occurred close to the time of his death. He was required to leave his plan and vision of the Rocky Mountains and give himself up to face a court of supposed justice.
These are his words: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men” (D&C 135:4). That statement of the Prophet teaches us obedience to law and the importance of having a clear conscience toward God and toward our fellowmen. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught these principles—by example.
There was to be one great final lesson before his mortal life ended. He was incarcerated in Carthage Jail with his brother Hyrum, with John Taylor, and with Willard Richards. The angry mob stormed the jail; they came up the stairway, blasphemous in their cursing, heavily armed, and began to fire at will. Hyrum was hit and died. John Taylor took several balls of fire within his bosom. The Prophet Joseph, with his pistol in hand, was attempting to defend his life and that of his brethren, and yet he could tell from the pounding on the door that this mob would storm that door and would kill John Taylor and Willard Richards in an attempt to kill him.
And so his last great act here upon the earth was to leave the door and lead Willard Richards to safety, throw the gun on the floor, and go to the window, that they might see him, that the attention of this ruthless mob might be focused upon him rather than the others. Joseph Smith gave his life. Willard Richards was spared, and John Taylor recovered from his wounds. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us love—by example.
I pray we may learn from his example, that we might incorporate into our lives the great principles he so beautifully taught.