Joseph the Prophet: A Self-Portrait


One who has become a giant of the Lord is one we would all like to appreciate more deeply. And what better way to feel the pulse of such a person’s heart than through his own eyes?

Joseph Smith the Prophet left a treasure house of personal reflections and self-characterizations in his History of the Church, which totals over 3,200 pages. He was remarkably candid in both his speeches and writings. And he reflected his feelings openly, usually in offhand, but occasionally studied, expressions. Assembled here are some of his self-picturizations that offer at least a glimpse into the strength of his dynamic character and the sweep of his soul.

Eduard Meyer, the great German historian, once made a comparison of Joseph Smith and Mohammed. He concluded that Mohammed stood higher in his estimation than Joseph, because Mohammed experienced periods of self-doubt, vagueness, and misgiving in developing his religious views, whereas Joseph Smith seemed free of such despairing struggles. The Prophet was clear in his religious pronouncements. And he had no doubt as to the divinity of his calling or of the message he taught. Read what he says about his life’s mission:

“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. …” 1

“I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered Israel. …” 2

“If any person should ask me if I were a prophet, I should not deny it, as that would give me the lie. …” 3

Knowing who he was and what he was about, Joseph spoke powerfully “as one having authority.” 4

“I know what I say; I understand my mission and business.” 5

“In relation to the power over the minds of mankind which I hold, I would say, It is in consequence of the power of truth in the doctrines which I have been an instrument in the hands of God of presenting unto them, and not because of any compulsion on my part. … I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Repent ye of your sins and prepare the way for the coming of the Son of Man, for the kingdom of God has come unto you. …’” 6

“I defy all the world to destroy the work of God; and I prophesy they never will have power to kill me till my work is accomplished, and I am ready to die.” 7

To initiate the work of the Restoration, the Lord needed an indomitable spirit, a confident, fearless personality whose allegiance would be first and always to him. Such a one indeed was the Prophet. “I never knew what it was, as yet, to fear the face of clay, or the influence of man,” he wrote to James Arlington Bennett. “My fear, sir, is before God. I fear to offend Him and strive to keep His commandments.” 8

On another occasion the Prophet announced: “The object with me is to obey and teach others to obey God in just what He tells us to do. It mattereth not whether the principle is popular or unpopular. I will always maintain a true principle, even if I stand alone in it.” 9

In another letter to Bennett he wrote, “The whole earth shall bear me witness that I, like the towering rock in the midst of the ocean, which has withstood the mighty surges of the warring waves for centuries, am impregnable, and am a faithful friend to virtue, and a fearless foe to vice. … I combat the errors of ages. …” 10

Lest one conclude that Joseph Smith was unduly impressed with his own self-importance, we should hasten to add that he consistently spoke of his profound need for the Lord and ascribed his success to a divine source. “God Almighty is my shield,” he told the Saints. 11 “I am His servant.” 12

On other occasions he made these significant statements: “I realize in some measure my responsibility, and the need I have of support from above, and wisdom from on high, that I may be able to teach this people. …” 13 Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is my Great Counselor.” 14

With the Lord as his friend and teacher, the Prophet was enlightened with the wisdom of eternity. Little do we grasp even now the gospel heights to which his mind soared.

“I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.” 15

The Prophet loved “the learning and wisdom of heaven.” 16 And he made it a lifelong preoccupation to edify the Saints with these sacred truths. “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind.” 17

Little wonder then that he was exasperated by the feeble attempts of many to seek the truth. “When things that are of the greatest importance are passed over by weak-minded men without even a thought, I want to see truth in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom. I believe all that God ever revealed. …” 18

Joseph Smith was not one to be trampled over by conspiring men. Although he dutifully submitted to trials according to due processes of law, regardless of the falsity of charges brought against him, he refused to have his rights circumscribed without vigorous defense. More important to him was the liberty to enjoy the free exercise of conscience, to think and believe as one chooses, without interference from evil men, false traditions, and tired creeds. He described his feelings in these characteristic statements:

“It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees. …” 19

“I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled.” 20

“I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ which I cannot subscribe to.” 21

“I will spill my heart’s blood in our defence. They [the Missourians] shall not take away our rights. …” 22

Closely associated with his love of freedom was his deep sense of patriotism. “I would ask no greater boon, than to lay down my life for my country,” 23 he told the Nauvoo Legion. Having described himself as a “patriot and lover of my country,” 24 he once proclaimed, “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights.” 25

Four months later he said, “I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence; and if I lose my life in a good cause I am willing to be sacrificed on the altar of virtue, righteousness and truth, in maintaining the laws and Constitution of the United States, if need be, for the general good of mankind.” 26

With the Prophet’s steel there was also velvet: “Sectarian priests cry out concerning me, and ask, ‘Why is it this babbler gains so many followers, and retains them?’ I answer, It is because I possess the principle of love. All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand.” 27

“… my heart is large enough for all men.” 28 “I have no enmity against any man. I love you all.” 29 Gauge the depth of that love from these expressions:

“I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant of all. …” 30

“I am not learned, but I have as good feelings as any man. O that I had the language of the archangel to express my feelings once to my friends! But I never expect to in this life. When others rejoice, I rejoice; when they mourn, I mourn.” 31

“I hope I shall see them [his friends] again, that I may toil for them, and administer to their comfort also. They shall not want a friend while I live; my heart shall love those, and my hands shall toil for those. …” 32

“As I grow older, my heart grows tenderer for you. I am at all times willing to give up everything that is wrong, for I wish this people to have a virtuous leader.” 33

The Prophet’s pure love of others was forged out of his close kinship with his first love—the Lord and his righteousness. “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father,” he said to the Relief Society sisters, “the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders. …” 34

Typical of the Prophet are these words penned in his journal: “… those holy doctrines … I cherish in my bosom with the warmest feelings of my heart, and with that zeal which cannot be denied. I love friendship and truth; I love virtue and law; I love the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. …” 35

A prophet of God is also human, an admission usually more readily grasped by the prophet himself than by his followers. “A prophet is a prophet,” said Joseph, “only when he [is] acting as such.” 36

Joseph Smith was extraordinarily candid in his self-evaluations before the Saints, and he readily confessed his imperfections to them, along with his desire to improve. Consider these public statements:

“I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times. Notwithstanding my weaknesses, I am under the necessity of bearing the infirmities of others. …” 37

“I told them [the Saints] I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities … I would likewise bear with their infirmities.” 38

We should not assume, however, that Joseph Smith’s sins were malignant, for by his own statement, “a disposition to commit such was never in my nature.” 39 His famous words, spoken in his final hours on earth, suggest the outcome of his humble petitions for forgiveness from the Lord:

“I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men.” 40

No facet of the Prophet’s life shows more clearly the indomitable nature of his spirit than his reaction to adversity. He rarely spent a completely peaceful day in his entire lifetime, but his troubles served ultimately only to refine his soul:

“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact become marred.” 41

“Excitement has almost become the essence of my life,” reported the Prophet on another occasion. “When that dies away, I feel almost lost.” 42

By his devotion through such trials he obtained the promise that God would exalt him and be with him forever and ever. (See D&C 121:8; D&C 122:9.)

We have caught only flashes, here and there, of the Prophet’s remarkable character, but judged on their own merit, his self-characterizations are impressive. When considered in combination with the life he lived, the message he announced, and the influence he exerted and continues to exert on scores of lives, they are even more significant.

[illustrations] Portraits of the Prophet Joseph Smith: Page 40, profile painted by David Rogers. Page 41, painting by Edward Grigware. Below, left, portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Below, painting done in 1842 by Sutcliffe Maudsley, who is known to have painted the Prophet from life. Page 43, engraving from a painting by David Rogers, 1842. In his History of the Church, volume 5, pages 164“65, the Prophet records that he sat for this portrait on September 16, 17, 19, 20, 1842.

Brother Taylor is director of the Seattle (Washington) Institute adjacent to the University of Washington and a high councilor in the Seattle North Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    JS—H 1:25.

  2.   2.

    Discourse to Saints, July 1843; History of the Church (commonly called Documentary History of the Church) 5:516.

  3.   3.

    Conversation with Judge Douglas and others, January 1843; DHC 5:215.

  4.   4.

    Remarks to newly arrived English Saints, April 1843; DHC 5:356.

  5.   5.

    Discourse to Saints, January 1843; DHC 5:259.

  6.   6.

    Discourse to Saints, March 1844; DHC 6:273.

  7.   7.

    Discourse to Saints, October 1843; DHC 6:58.

  8.   8.

    Letter to James Arlington Bennett, September 1842; DHC 5:157.

  9.   9.

    Discourse in assembly room, February 1844; DHC 6:223.

  10.   10.

    Letter to James Arlington Bennett, November 1843; DHC 6:78.

  11.   11.

    Discourse to Saints, January 1843; DHC 5:259.

  12.   12.

    King Follett discourse, April 1844; DHC 6:305.

  13.   13.

    Epistle to the Twelve, October 1840; DHC 4:230.

  14.   14.

    Address to “Green Mountain Boys,” November 1843; DHC 6:93.

  15.   15.

    Discourse to Saints, May 1843; DHC 5:402.

  16.   16.

    Discourse to Saints, June 1843; DHC 5:423.

  17.   17.

    Funeral sermon, April 1843; DHC 5:362.

  18.   18.

    Discourse to Saints, June 1844; DHC 6:477.

  19.   19.

    Discourse to Saints, July 1843; DHC 5:498.

  20.   20.

    Discourse to Saints, April 1843; DHC 5:340.

  21.   21.

    Discourse to Saints, October 1843; DHC 6:57.

  22.   22.

    Speech at Nauvoo, June 1843; DHC 5:473.

  23.   23.

    Remarks to Nauvoo Legion, July 1841; DHC 4:382.

  24.   24.

    Letter to James Arlington Bennett, September 1842; DHC 5:159.

  25.   25.

    Discourse to Saints, October 1843; DHC 6:56–57.

  26.   26.

    Remarks at political meeting, February 1844; DHC 6:210.

  27.   27.

    Discourse to Saints, July 1843; DHC 5:498.

  28.   28.

    Letter to Washington Tucker, June 1844; DHC 6:459.

  29.   29.

    King Follett discourse, April 1844; DHC 6:317.

  30.   30.

    Letter to Edward Hunter, January 1842; DHC 4:492.

  31.   31.

    Funeral sermon, April 1843; DHC 5:362.

  32.   32.

    Journal notation, August 1842; DHC 5:109.

  33.   33.

    Discourse to Saints, May 1844; DHC 6:412.

  34.   34.

    Remarks to Relief Society, June 1842; DHC 5:24.

  35.   35.

    Journal notation, August 1842; DHC 5:108.

  36.   36.

    Conversation with some Saints, February 1843; DHC 5:265.

  37.   37.

    Discourse, July 1843; DHC 5:516.

  38.   38.

    Advice to newly arrived Saints, October 1842; DHC 5:181.

  39.   39.

    JS—H 1:28.

  40.   40.

    Remarks on way to Carthage Jail, June 1844; DHC 6:555.

  41.   41.

    Discourse to Saints, May 1843; DHC 5:401.

  42.   42.

    Discourse to Saints, May 1843; DHC 5:389.