L. Tom Perry, “By the Hands of His Prophets,” Ensign, Aug 1998, 49
Adapted from a talk given to the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 14 September 1995.
How blessed we are to have been led successively for the first half century of the Church by three great prophets of God, each bringing unique background and ability to the teaching of gospel fundamentals.
When I study the scriptures and history, I find my interest being focused on the organization of events, the chemistry and human relationships of the individuals involved, and I marvel at the evidence of the Lord’s hands in the events that occur.
I have always been intrigued with the account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. I have tried to place myself many times in the position of the young Prophet Joseph Smith as this very weighty responsibility fell on his shoulders. At the time he received the plates for translation, he was still a new bridegroom, having been married just a few days over eight months. To complicate his life, his father-in-law had not been too happy about the marriage. In this situation the Prophet was entrusted with this very valuable record, which had not been given to a mortal for over 1,400 years. Just protecting the plates from the curious and from treasure seekers was a challenge in itself. Almost driven from his home near Palmyra, New York, he traveled to Harmony, Pennsylvania, his wife Emma’s hometown, where he hoped he could begin the translation. Within three months of receiving the plates, he was finally settled in his own home, where he could work in some peace.
Between December 1827 and February 1828, he spent considerable time becoming familiar with the language of the plates and learning how to translate. In February 1828, Martin Harris, who had financially assisted the Smiths in their move from New York to Pennsylvania, arrived in Harmony to visit the Prophet. According to Martin’s testimony, he, Martin, had been instructed not to join any church until the prophecy in Isaiah 29:11–12 [Isa. 29:11–12] had been fulfilled. This prophecy reads:
“And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
“And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”
Martin Harris took some of the characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates to Professor Charles Anthon and a Dr. Mitchell (see JS—H 1:64–65) and received satisfaction regarding the work of the Prophet. He then settled down to act as scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph and Martin were together until 14 June 1828. By then they had completed 116 pages. After repeated attempts by Martin to gain permission to take the completed works home to satisfy his wife’s nagging, he was finally permitted to do so. We all know the story of the lost manuscript. You can imagine the devastation the Prophet must have felt when the plates were taken from him because he had not properly safeguarded them. The Prophet later said: “I made this my rule—When the Lord commands, do it” (History of the Church, 2:170; emphasis in original).
By the end of 1828, the plates had been returned to the Prophet with the promise that a new scribe would be furnished.
During the winter of 1828–29, the Prophet periodically worked on the translation with the help of Emma and her brother, but earning a living left little time for translating. He was also faced with the problem of Emma’s father, who was suspicious of Joseph’s claim about the plates and showed little sympathy. Joseph appealed to the Lord to send him the promised help so that the work could move forward.
It was on 5 April 1829 that Oliver Cowdery arrived at the Smith home. Now you can see the hand of the Lord in preparing this work to go forward. Having been hired to teach school in the Manchester township in New York, Oliver was invited to board at the home of Joseph Smith Sr. Here he heard of the miraculous story of their son. He made his way to Harmony to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith, who recognized him as the assistant the Lord had promised for the translation. On Tuesday, 7 April, they commenced the work of translation in earnest.
To me the most exciting miracle in the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon happened during the next 85 days. The complete book was translated from a then-unknown language into English. This is no common, simple book. Someone has figured out that it covers 1,000 years of colonization in which 54 chapters deal with war, 21 are historical, 55 are on visions and prophecies, 71 on doctrines and exhortations, 17 on missionary work, and 21 on the mission of the Savior, for a total of 239 chapters.
One time I became so interested in the speed of the work that was accomplished by Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith that I asked someone to research some of the other translations of scriptures for me to see how purely remarkable this work was. I found out that in translating the books of Moses from Hebrew to Greek, six men were called from each of the 12 tribes to perform the labor. Their project required 72 days, or 5,184 man days. Jerome was commissioned by the pope to translate the Bible from Hebrew to Latin; he worked on the project for 23 years, or 8,395 days. In the commission given by King James to translate the English version of the Bible from several other translations to what the king hoped would be the perfect English version, he selected 54 men who worked on the project for 4 years, or 78,840 man days.
Now contrast that to the translation of the Book of Mormon, which for all intents and purposes started on 7 April 1829 and was completed by 30 June 1829—two men working 85 days, or 170 man days. It was truly a miracle. It could only have been done under the direction of the Lord.
This great book is one tangible evidence that we have of the call of the Prophet Joseph Smith to bring about the long-awaited restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and again establish the Lord’s Church on earth. According to prophecy, this time its establishment was to endure (see Isa. 2:2–3; Dan. 2:44). This being true, the Lord would carefully prepare his Church leadership to give continuity to the work.
The Lord’s timing in the restoration of the gospel—just at the very beginning of the technological revolution—shows that he understands his children. Technology had been asleep for centuries. If you wanted to communicate, it almost had to be eye to eye. If you wanted to travel, you had to rely on the wind or the strength of man to move vessels over rivers, lakes, or seas, or on land, beasts of burden or just plain walking. The simplicity of life in the early 1800s was a good seedbed for the Restoration. A half a century later might have been too late to find the humble, hardworking, rugged pioneers necessary to establish the Church.
I’ve been profoundly impressed with the men he called to lead his newly established kingdom here on earth, especially when we look at those called to lead in the first three administrations. Each prophet was uniquely different and yet possessed an extraordinary skill required for a particular period of time.
The Prophet Joseph Smith
First let us look at the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Lord needed a strong, vigorous young man who would be teachable. He needed someone he could mold into the leader who could bring forth the restoration of the gospel. The one foreordained for this great assignment was Joseph Smith. Out of weak things of the earth, the Lord created one with power and strength. Few prophets have come from more humble beginnings than those of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was the fifth child in a family of 11 children. The rugged, rocky soil of New England had not been good to his family. During Joseph Smith’s earliest years, the family moved frequently, trying to find fertile soil or a suitable livelihood, in Vermont, New Hampshire, Vermont again, then Palmyra, Ontario County, New York. Again we see the hand of the Lord guiding them to the proper destination. It was in this place where the family settled that the miraculous events of the Restoration occurred. Out of this hard, difficult, early beginning, Joseph Smith developed a great reliance on the Lord, trusting in him and gaining exceptional spiritual strength so he could use the gifts the Lord would give to him to organize the Church.
In order to organize the work to begin this dispensation, the Lord needed a pure spirit, unlearned in the things of the world, one who could be taught by the ministration of angels, for there was no earthly teacher equipped to do this training. This mortal pupil had to be truly sensitive to the Spirit and to be a quick learner. As I read Truman Madsen’s book Joseph Smith the Prophet, I was impressed with the special spiritual gifts the Prophet had acquired to enable him to lead in the Restoration. He was a young man of exceeding great faith. Who could doubt the simplicity of the story of that First Vision as we read in his history:
“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.
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
“At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to ‘ask of God,’ concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture”(JS—H 1:11–13).
This great, humble petition of a young man brought about a remarkable change in the thinking of mankind toward the very nature of God.
Who could deny that he was blessed with the gift of prophecy? “Elder John A. Widtsoe, after making a study of the Doctrine and Covenants, concluded that it contains nearly eleven hundred statements about the future. If one extends beyond the Doctrine and Covenants to other scripture, to the personal promises the Prophet gave in blessings, to comments made in sermons, to his counsels in the midst of his own brethren and sometimes in private and sacred circumstances, and to predictions he wrote in letters, they would far exceed that eleven hundred” (Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet, 37).
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, for example: “Brethren, I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies 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. … This church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world” (quoted by Wilford Woodruff in The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff , 38–39).
Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recalled hearing the Prophet once say “that we may build as many houses as we would, and we should never get one big enough to hold the Saints” (Deseret News Weekly, 27 June 1855, 123). How true that is as we see the growth of the Church today.
The Prophet had the power of discernment. An account is recorded:
“A man acting, as it were, as an undercover agent came to Nauvoo, tried to work his way into the good graces of the Prophet, then invited him out for a walk. On the crest of a hill the Prophet stopped, called him by name, and said, ‘You have a boat and men in readiness to kidnap me, but you will not make out to do it’ ” (Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet, 41). It was true, the man had planned to kidnap him, but instead he went away cursing.
Who could deny the fact that he received visions? He said of the Doctrine and Covenants, section 76, on the three degrees of glory: “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdom manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them” (History of the Church, 5:402).
A hundred times more than the present length would be more than a full-length Doctrine and Covenants.
Truman Madsen has written: “The Prophet is a God-made man. It will never do to say, as his critics are beginning to say, ‘This man was a genius.’ So saying, they wish to reduce a most remarkable movement to its leader, its founder, and, as they believe, its origin. True, he was a genius, he was a brilliant man. It takes a brilliant man even to comprehend, let alone to write, as he comprehended and wrote, the glorious insights that came to him, even granting that they came from the Lord. He was a man of superb intelligence” (Joseph Smith the Prophet, 49).
Yes, the Lord raised a spiritual giant to be receptive, to be trained, to be instructed, to be the first prophet of the Restoration.
President Brigham Young
While Joseph Smith was using his great spiritual gifts to establish the Church, another leader was being prepared for his role as the second President of the Church. Brigham Young was born in 1801. His early life was similar to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s, occurring in the harsh climate of New England, basically in poverty. His family also moved frequently in an attempt to find more suitable places to provide a living. His parents were devout Methodists. They were strict and rigid, keeping their children from such amusements as dancing or even listening to the music of a violin. The restrictions placed on the Young family probably led Brigham to a remarkable independence in his careful and long consideration about his religious commitments.
His formal education was limited to about one year because of the need for the whole family to work together in clearing the forest, building homes, and planting crops. These early years taught him thrift and industry. When he was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis. At this early age he was apprenticed as a chair maker and housepainter. By the time he was 18, he was in business for himself. He was a skilled artisan, noted for the simple beauty, sturdiness, and usefulness of the articles he produced.
His search for religious integrity was a long one. Fiery revivals had no appeal to attract him to join a church. He was a student of the Bible and joined small discussion groups in its study. You can see patterns of judgment, common sense, and self-reliance being developed early in the life of this leader.
An event was to occur in April 1830 that changed his life. His brother Phineas was shown one of the first copies of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel, who startled him with the declaration: “I know this book to be a revelation from God translated by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost and that my brother, Joseph Smith Jr., is a prophet, seer, and revelator.” Phineas determined to study the book to see if it was something that would lead people away from truth. After a week, he could find none of the errors that he had expected to find and started to feel that the book was true. He lent his copy to his father, who thought it was the greatest work he had ever seen, and then to his sister, Fanny, who declared it to be a revelation. Fanny passed it on to her brother, Brigham. He was more reserved:
“Says I, wait a little while; what is the doctrine of the book, and of the revelations the Lord has given? Let me apply my heart to them; and after I had done this, I considered it to be my right to know for myself, as much as any man on earth.
“I examined the matter studiously, for two years, before I made up my mind to receive that book. I knew it was true, as well as I knew that I could see with my eyes, or feel by the touch of my fingers, or be sensible to the demonstration of any sense. Had not this been the case, I never would have embraced it to this day; it would have all been without form or comeliness to me. I wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself” (Deseret News Weekly, 2 Oct. 1852, 96).
He later said: “I could not more honestly and earnestly have prepared myself to go into eternity, than I did to come into this church; and when I had ripened every thing in my mind, I drank it in, and not till then” (Deseret News Weekly, 16 May 1860, 82).
His conversion changed his life. He became very loyal in his support of the Prophet Joseph Smith. During those dark days in 1837 when the Kirtland Bank failed, the Prophet lamented that only Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young, among the original Twelve, did not lift their heel against him. Elder Young demonstrated over and over again a tenacious loyalty to the Prophet Joseph Smith, exercising courage and confidence in the assignments that were given to him.
The two were very different. Joseph Smith was the great inspired, visionary, prophet. Brigham Young was a tough administrator and a powerful leader who would make workable the visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith; a man of practical action; a statesman; a man decisive, vigorous, and determined. The Holy Ghost had manifest to him that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet—in fact the spokesman for God in this dispensation of time—and that Latter-day Saint teachings were not only good or reasonable but uniquely true unto salvation. Brigham Young said:
“Joseph Smith has laid the foundation of the kingdom of God in the last days; others will rear the superstructure. …
“… I know that he was called of God, and this I know by the revelations of Jesus Christ to me, and by the testimony of the Holy Ghost. Had I not so learned this truth, I should never have been what is called a ‘Mormon’ ” (Deseret News Weekly, 22 Oct. 1862, 129).
The training on the march of Zion’s Camp, expulsion from Missouri, the martyrdom of the Prophet—each step prepared him for the leadership role that he was required to assume in bringing the Saints west to settle in the Rocky Mountains.
At the death of President Young, President George Q. Cannon, who had served as his counselor, reflected on the loss in these words:
“From the greatest details connected with the organization of this Church, down to the smallest minutiae connected with the work, he has left upon it the impress of his great mind. From the organization of the Church, and the construction of Temples, the building of Tabernacles; from the creation of a provisional state government and a Territorial government, down to the small matter of directing the shape of these seats upon which we sit this day; upon all these things, as well as upon all the settlements of the Territory, the impress of his genius is apparent. …
“His value has not been properly estimated by the Latter-day Saints. … There are none of us who will not feel this more and more. … The time will come when the Latter-day Saints will appreciate him as one of the greatest Prophets that ever lived” (in Preston Nibley, Brigham Young—the Man and His Works , 534, 537).
Again, out of the unlearned the Lord had reared a mighty leader to be the second President of the Church.
President John Taylor
Brigham Young and John Taylor came from widely different backgrounds which affected their outlook and perceptions and gave balance to the early leadership of the Church. President Young had spent his infancy, childhood, and young adulthood in rural communities of Vermont and New York, communities which were comparatively unknown and undistinguished. Farm families in these areas were so preoccupied with the business of wrestling a living from the soil that little time was left for cultural and intellectual pursuits, even had facilities been available to them. Brigham Young’s upbringing brought him deep understanding of God’s working with the things of the land and how to tame a wild environment. John Taylor, on the other hand, was born in an area that had been under cultivation for hundreds of years, in England. Nearby were large commercial centers that over the centuries had acquired the jewels of civilization—libraries, museums, theaters, and universities. The different environments in which Brigham Young and John Taylor were reared to maturity were calculated to prepare one to tame the wilderness and the other to combat the intellectual enemies of the Church with teachings of the restored gospel couched in well-honed sentences.
Each was recognized and honored by the other for his special role and abilities. Brigham Young, for instance, declared John Taylor to be the most powerful editor and writer in the Church. And at the general conference following President Young’s death, Elder Taylor, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “[Our departed leader] Brigham Young needs no fictitious aid to perpetuate his memory. His labors have been exhibited during the last forty-five years … in the building of cities throughout the length and breadth of this territory” (The Gospel Kingdom, sel. G. Homer Durham , 373).
John Taylor’s strength of witness and conversion were illustrated by an event that occurred near Columbus, Ohio, where a group of troublemakers, learning that he had scheduled to preach a service there, decided to tar and feather him. When a few Church members heard about the plot, they urged him to cancel the meeting, for they lacked the strength to protect him. Expressing his thanks for their concern, he decided nevertheless to fulfill the appointment. At the meeting, the English convert proceeded to lecture his audience about the blessings of freedom guaranteed in the American Constitution and about the valor of their forefathers in fighting for liberty. Having laid that groundwork, he suddenly shifted his focus: “I have been informed that you purpose to tar and feather me, for my religious opinions. Is this the boon you have inherited from your fathers? Is this … your liberty?” After letting the implications of these accusatory questions seep in, he said, “Gentlemen come on with your tar and feathers, your victim is ready; and ye shades of the venerable patriots, gaze upon the deeds of your degenerate sons! Come on, gentlemen! Come on, I say. I am ready!” (in B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor , 53–55). The would-be tormentors made no move. Instead they remained quiet and attentive while Elder Taylor expounded on the plain and precious doctrines of the restored Church for three hours.
The qualities exhibited in situations like this would earn him the title “Champion of Right,” as he was often referred to by the Latter-day Saints.
The Prophet Joseph Smith found him to be an intelligent, articulate, and tough-minded leader in building our Father in Heaven’s kingdom. He was always given difficult assignments to articulate the gospel of our Lord and Savior, and always was able to subdue the false doctrines that were being published against the early Church.
He received one of those difficult assignments from President Young when he was given a special call to go to New York City to organize and publish a newspaper whose purpose would be to present the doctrines and practices of the Church in such a way as to neutralize the groundswell of anti-Mormon feeling that had been mounting for over a year. He established his headquarters at the corner of Nassau and Ann Streets, between the offices of the city’s media goliaths—the Herald and the Tribune. From the beginning, he hurled the defiance of his well-reasoned editorials at the news giants surrounding him. The first issue of his extraordinary little paper established the tone:
“We are Mormon, inside and outside, at home and abroad, in public and private, everywhere. We are so, however, from principle. We are such, not because we believe it to be the most popular, lucrative, or honorable, (as the world has it); but because we believe it to be more true, more reasonable and scriptural, moral and philosophic; because we conscientiously believe that it is more calculated to promote the happiness and well being of humanity, in time, and throughout all eternity, than any other system which we have met with” (The Mormon, 17 Feb. 1855, 2).
This opening message, mild as it was, called forth abuse and criticism from almost every quarter. It was open season on the Latter-day Saints, and most of the editors in New York City denounced them at one time or another on the pages of their newspapers. Most of the ministers took occasion to do the same thing from the pulpits. The embattled editor of The Mormon did not wilt before the attack. Indeed, he responded with boldness, challenging his critics to prove their charges:
“We have said before and say now, that we defy all the editors and writers in the United States to prove that Mormonism is less moral, scriptural, philosophical; or that there is less patriotism in Utah than any other part of the United States. We call for proof; bring on your reasons, gentlemen, if you have any; we shrink not from the investigation, and dare you to the encounter” (in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 249).
He then sketched for readers the salient characteristics of a converted Latter-day Saint: “He grasps at all truths, human and divine. He has no darling dogma to sustain or favorite creed to uphold. He has nothing to lose but error, nothing to gain but truth. He digs, labors, and searches for it as for hidden treasure; and while others are content with the chaff and husks of straw, he seizes upon the kernel, substance, the gist of all that’s good, and clings to all that will ennoble and exalt the human family.”
He went on to affirm boldly: “The omnipotent power of eternal truth will stand unscathed in the view of gathering hosts, and the nations will know that God rules in the heavens, and that Mormonism is not a vague [f]antasy … but the greatest boon that could be conferred upon man, the offspring of heaven, the gift of the Gods, a celestial treasure, an earthly, heavenly inheritance, and a living, abiding and eternal reality” (The Mormon, 28 July 1855, 2).
While handling the duties of editing and publishing The Mormon, Elder Taylor also discharged heavy ecclesiastical responsibilities as president of the Eastern States Mission. Not only did he direct the activities of the missionaries assigned to labor there, he also oversaw the work of the numerous branches within the mission and coordinated the emigration of many converts from the mission fields abroad who were arriving in New York City.
John Taylor had a dignified, impeccable speaking style. His great gift and ability to communicate to our Father in Heaven’s children has given the Church so much in greater understanding of the mission of our Lord and Savior. Listen to his philosophy of education:
“We want also to be alive in the cause of education. We are commanded of the Lord to obtain knowledge, both by study and by faith, seeking it out of the best books. And it becomes us to teach our children, and afford them instruction in every branch of education calculated to promote their welfare, leaving those false acquirements which tend to … lead away the mind and affection from the things of God. We want to compile the intelligence and literacy of this people in book-form, as well as in teaching and preaching; adopting all the good and useful books we can obtain; … instead of doing as many of the world do, take the works of God, to try to prove that there is no God; we want to prove by God’s works that he does exist, that he lives and rules and holds us, as it were, in the hollow of his hand” (Deseret News Weekly, 5 June 1878, 275).
May the strength of his conversion, his loyalty to the Prophet Joseph Smith and to the Church, and the articulate way in which he defended the Church with polish and refinement always be remembered.
How blessed we are to have been taught by great prophets of God, each with his own unique abilities and experiences, each delivering to us the basic fundamentals we need to guide us through life and prepare us for the eternities to come. What balance the Lord gave to his Church through these three early leaders in building his kingdom! May God bless us that the strength and power of the witnesses of his prophets ever permeate our hearts and souls as we move forward in the great work in which we are engaged.
[illustrations] Paintings by Larry C. Winborg
[illustration] Joseph Smith was well schooled by the Lord for his mission of restoring the gospel in this dispensation.
[illustration] Brigham Young was a powerful leader, a decisive man of practical action.
[illustration] For his strength in defending the truth, John Taylor came to be known as the “Champion of Right.”^ Back to top