The restoration of the gospel began with the Father’s and the Son’s appearance to Joseph Smith in a grove near Palmyra, New York, in 1820. It involved the ministry of angels in literally establishing God’s kingdom on earth. It set up what Joseph Smith called “the established order of the kingdom of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 325.)
President Wilford Woodruff recalled a meeting held in Kirtland, Ohio, on 27 April 1834 that indicated something of what would be involved in building the kingdom:
“The Prophet called upon the Elders of Israel with him to bear testimony of this work. … When they got through the Prophet said, ‘Brethren I have been very much edified and instructed in your testimonies here 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. You don’t comprehend it.’ I was rather surprised. He said ‘it is only a little handfull of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.’” (In Conference Report, April 1898, p. 57.)
We are witnessing today the rapid growth of the Church. It has indeed covered a great amount of North and South America and is reaching throughout the world. As one indication, there are now Latter-day Saint temples not only in North and South America, but also in England, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, and Hawaii. And we are just getting started.
This is the dispensation of the fulness of times—the last of the dispensations that first began with father Adam. This time the gospel and the kingdom are going to stay upon the earth. This time the eternal purposes of the Lord pertaining to the salvation of the human family on earth will be fulfilled.
What exactly is the fulness of times? And how was it established? Answering the second question is easier and actually answers the first in part: Prophets of former dispensations established the fulness of times by extending the gospel and the priesthood they held to latter-day prophets.
One of the fundamental concepts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that there is an established, revealed order or system for the gospel. Both the earth and the heavens are governed by law—divine law.
Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the teaching found in D&C 130:20–21: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
And from D&C 132:5, 8, 28: “For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world. …
“Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion. …
“I am the Lord thy God, and will give unto thee the law of my Holy Priesthood, as was ordained by me and my Father before the world was.”
The Lord has a plan, an order, a system for the salvation of the human family. It is an ancient plan—an eternal plan. It was explained to us and implemented in the premortal life and has been introduced—or “dispensed”—several times to mankind on the earth through chosen prophets, beginning with Adam.
Dispensations are those periods or eras wherein the Lord has called someone to administer or preside over a major assignment or oversee the flow of gospel blessings. Michael, or Adam, headed the first gospel dispensation. We could say that he was the Lord’s administrator for dispensing gospel truths and ordinances.
The Lord has established gospel dispensations several times among people on the earth; sometimes a dispensation endured for a while and then ceased to function on earth because of wickedness and unbelief. The gospel dispensation given to us is appropriately called the fulness of times because it will bring the culmination of all previous dispensations, plus the fruition of some unique things never before accomplished on the earth.
I have often thought of the establishment of a gospel dispensation on the earth as something like establishing a colony in a new land. When European settlers arrived in America in the sixteenth century, they brought to a people (the American Indians) a different culture, a different mode of life, and new laws and authority. A new culture became established among the previous occupants. It was really an old culture transplanted from Europe, but it was new to America in that generation.
Similarly, angels from an older world have visited this world to bring a new dispensation, introducing an old order that is, to the new prophets, a new culture, a new authority, and new laws. These heavenly visitors have brought to earth the priesthood, a celestial order of marriage and family, a celestial economic system, and a celestial social system.
The ancient prophets who were the leaders anciently are angels now, and a number of them have ministered to the earth in the latter days. Although all are engaged in the same holy work of the Lord, these heavenly beings are not all alike and did not all come for the same purpose. Some brought information; others brought keys and priesthood. But all were engaged in setting up the “established order of the kingdom of God.”
Let us consider some aspects of this order and organization as it exists among these celestial beings and as it relates to the Church upon the earth.
Elder Orson Pratt observed: “There are authorities in heaven as well as upon the earth, and the authorities in heaven are far greater in number than the few who are upon the earth. This [church] is only a little branch of the great tree of the Priesthood—merely a small branch receiving authority from heaven, so that the inhabitants of the earth may be benefited as well as the inhabitants of the eternal world; but the great trunk of the tree of the Priesthood is in heaven.” (In Journal of Discourses, 7:84.)
Elder Pratt’s words echo those of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “[The Melchizedek priesthood is the] channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation and every important matter is revealed from heaven.
“Its institution was prior to ‘the foundation of this earth. …’ It is the channel through which the Almighty … will make known His purposes to the end of time.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 167.)
Who, then, were the divine messengers who came to the Prophet Joseph Smith?
We know of at least the following:
—The Father and the Son, who initiated this dispensation and brought a correct knowledge of the Godhead.
—The angel Moroni, who brought forth the Book of Mormon.
—John the Baptist, who restored the Aaronic Priesthood.
—Peter, James, and John, who restored the Melchizedek Priesthood.
—Moses, who brought the keys of the gathering of Israel.
—Elias, who brought the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, thus establishing the patriarchal order of marriage and family.
—Elijah, who brought the keys of sealing and of turning the hearts of the children to the promises made to the fathers.
No doubt many others came. We do not have an exact record of the date, place, or occasion when some of these messengers extended their particular keys to Joseph Smith, but because we know the rules that govern the system, we know they came. The Prophet alluded to some of these visitations in an epistle to the Saints on baptism for the dead. (See D&C 128:20–21.)
In addition, associates of the Prophet, such as President John Taylor, indicated that the Prophet Joseph Smith had been visited by many of the ancient prophets. Said President Taylor:
“If you were to ask Joseph what sort of a looking man Adam was, he would tell you at once; he would tell you his size and appearance and all about him. You might have asked him what sort of men Peter, James and John were, and he could have told you. Why? Because he had seen them.” (Journal of Discourses, 18:326.)
“The principles which [Joseph Smith] had, placed him in communication with the Lord, and not only with the Lord, but with the ancient apostles and prophets; such men, for instance, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Adam, Seth, Enoch, and Jesus and the Father, and the apostles that lived on this continent as well as those who lived on the Asiatic continent. He seemed to be as familiar with these people as we are with one another.” (Journal of Discourses, 21:94.)
What qualified each of these prophets to come to Joseph Smith and be the one to restore the particular keys and priesthood for this dispensation? First, they were chosen and ordained in the premortal life. Second, they were righteous and diligent in mortal life and held keys in their day on earth. Third, they went into eternity still holding keys and information and thus were appointed as divine messengers, on an errand, to return and bestow their authority and knowledge.
We learn an important principle from the dealings of these heavenly visitors with mortals. When keys and priesthood were bestowed, there were always two persons who were the recipients. In every documented case, Oliver Cowdery was present with the Prophet Joseph when priesthood and keys were restored. This is no doubt a demonstration of the law of witnesses. (See Matt. 18:16; D&C 6:28.) When the revelation was personal, however, or consisted of information only, it seems that no such witness needed to be present.
When we see the relationship between the dispensations as explained by the Prophet Joseph Smith and see that all are conducted on the same plan, we see that all of the former dispensations were open-ended. That is, the work of these earlier dispensations had a starting date, but their work has not yet been fulfilled. The leaders of each dispensation, still holding the keys, have visited the earth again to enable the work the Lord had given them to be continued here. In the meantime, those who held the keys and were once mortal prophets are continuing their work on the other side of the veil in the spirit world, or elsewhere as translated or resurrected beings.
The dispensation of the fulness of times is a period of restoration and of gathering. Peter described the work in terms of a restoration: “And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you:
“Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:20–21.)
Paul called this period of time a dispensation: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:
“That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” (Eph. 1:9–10.)
The question is, What was to be restored in this dispensation of the fulness of times? Elder David W. Patten, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, answered that question in July 1838: “The dispensation of the fullness of times is made up of all the dispensations that ever have been given since the world began, until this time … in the which all things shall be fulfilled that have been spoken of since the earth was made. …
“Joseph Smith, the leader of this dispensation] must be clothed with the power of all other dispensations, or his dispensation could not be called dispensation of the fullness of times. …
“Therefore, brethren, beware concerning yourselves, that you sin not against the authority of this dispensation, nor think lightly of those whom God has counted worthy for so great a calling.” (In History of the Church, 3:51–53.)
Elder Patten’s words bring us an awareness of the high calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and also of each of his successors, down to President Ezra Taft Benson. It is not a matter of personality or of popularity; it is a matter of a man holding the keys of the priesthood and being the Lord’s anointed.
The saving principles and ordinances of the gospel are the same in every dispensation. We do not have any doctrines or ordinances in the Church today that have not been had at some time in earlier dispensations. There are, however, some things to be accomplished in this dispensation that have not been done before, such as the building of the New Jerusalem, the gathering of Israel, the second coming of the Savior, the beginning of the Millennium, and the renewing of paradisiacal glory to the earth, restoring it as it was before the Fall.
How many dispensations have there been? We often hear that there are seven: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Joseph Smith. This list is far too shallow, however. The seven are only a few of the dispensations mentioned in the Bible. (What about Melchizedek, Elijah, and John the Baptist?) And the list completely ignores what we know about the gospel being among the Nephites, the Jaredites, and the Lost Tribes. There have been many dispensations. The dispensation of Adam was the first, and the dispensation of the fulness of times is a combination of them all.
The Prophet Joseph taught that Adam was not only the first man on the earth, but also the first prophet of Jesus Christ:
“Adam … was the first man, who is spoken of in Daniel as being the ‘Ancient of Days,’ … the first and oldest of all, the great, grand progenitor … the first and father of all, not only by progeny, but the first to hold the spiritual blessings, to whom was made known the plan of ordinances for the salvation of his posterity unto the end, and to whom Christ was first revealed, and through whom Christ has been revealed from heaven, and will continue to be revealed from henceforth. Adam holds the keys of the dispensation of the fullness of times; i.e., the dispensation of all the times have been and will be revealed through him from the beginning to Christ, and from Christ to the end of the dispensations that are to be revealed.
“And again, God purposed in Himself that there should not be an eternal fullness until every dispensation should be fulfilled and gathered together in one … therefore He set the ordinances to be the same forever and ever, and set Adam to watch over them, to reveal them from heaven to man, or to send angels to reveal them. …
“These angels are under the direction of Michael or Adam, who acts under the direction of the Lord.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 167–68.)
In view of what the Prophet said, we can ask the question: Who sent John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moroni, Elijah, Moses, and all the others to Joseph Smith? It was Adam. Who sent angels to minister in any age of the world? Who sent Moses and Elijah to the Mount of Transfiguration? It has to have been Adam, or someone acting under his direction. Under the direction of Jesus Christ, Adam holds all of the keys, and keys are the directing power. At the opening of every dispensation, Adam reveals for the Lord the gospel, or he sends someone to do it.
Of course, since there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, every dispensation is a gospel dispensation and has its authority from Christ. All of the prophets and all of the angels, Adam included, are servants of Jesus Christ. But Adam, as the mortal father of the human family, was the first of mankind to be given priesthood keys and hence presides over all dispensations.
From the Prophet Joseph, we learn, in fact, that Adam holds the keys of the First Presidency under the Lord:
“The Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation. He obtained it in the Creation, before the world was formed, as in Genesis 1:26, 27, 28. He had dominion given him over every living creature. … [Gen. 1:26–28]
“The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent. When they are revealed from heaven, it is by Adam’s authority. …
“This, then, is the nature of the Priesthood; every man holding the Presidency of his dispensation, and one man holding the Presidency of them all, even Adam; and Adam receiving his Presidency and authority from the Lord.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 157, 169.)
The Prophet Joseph also had some important things to say about the great prophet Noah: “Noah, who is Gabriel … stands next in authority to Adam in the Priesthood; he was called of God to this office, and was the father of all living in this day, and to him was given the dominion.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 157.)
Noah was like a second Adam, the father of all who came after the flood. It is stated in Doctrine and Covenants 27:6–7 that a prophet named Elias holds the keys of “bringing to pass the restoration of all things” in the last days. This Elias is further identified in these verses as the angel who visited Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and who gave him the promise of a son. (See Luke 1:11–13.) Since Luke identifies this angel as Gabriel (Luke 1:19), and Gabriel is Noah, we conclude that the Elias of Doctrine and Covenants 27 is Noah. [D&C 27] It therefore appears that Noah has a major role, under the direction of Adam, in bringing about the restoration of the gospel in the fulness of times; he therefore has a special relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The word angel means “messenger.” It is often used to refer to any heavenly messenger, but in the strict technical sense, as defined in Doctrine and Covenants 129, an angel is a resurrected or translated being with a body. There are also ministering spirits, who do not currently have bodies of flesh and bones. Such have passed through mortality and are awaiting the resurrection.
The Prophet Joseph taught that there is an order that must be observed in the teaching of the gospel among beings of different types, and that Jesus himself observed it. The general pattern is for mortals to teach mortals, spirits to teach spirits, and resurrected beings to minister among other resurrected beings. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 191.)
There are times, however, when it is necessary for beings of a higher order to minister to beings of a lower. It appears from what has been revealed that if priesthood or keys are to be restored to earth, a resurrected or translated being is employed because of the laying on of hands; however, spirits can convey knowledge or deliver messages, but not lay on hands. (See D&C 129.) Because of the necessity of the ordinance of laying on of hands, we know that John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elias, Elijah, and any others who conferred priesthood and keys on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were resurrected or translated beings, not merely spirits.
Usually, then, angels or spirits do not minister to mortals (especially if there are other mortals who can do what is needed), but when the need arises, the Lord or his angels give direct and personal guidance to the prophets. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 265.)
Because of the principle that spirits preach to spirits, I take it that not every righteous spirit in the spirit world in Jesus’ day was resurrected immediately after Jesus rose from the dead. We have learned from Doctrine and Covenants section 138 that, between the time of his death and resurrection, Jesus went in spirit to the world of spirits. He did not go personally among the wicked in the spirit world, but instead spent the time ministering among the righteous spirits and organizing a mission in the spirit world for them to preach to those in the spirit prison. (See D&C 138:18–33.) Jesus’ spirit thereafter returned to his dead body, and he became the first resurrected being on this earth. If all of the righteous were resurrected immediately after Jesus, it would essentially have disorganized the spirit world mission.
Everything that we know teaches us that there is an established order in the kingdom of God, whether that kingdom is on earth or in heaven. The Prophet Joseph Smith emphasized that “the organization of the spiritual and heavenly worlds, and of spiritual and heavenly beings, was agreeable to the most perfect order and harmony: their limits and bounds were fixed irrevocably, and voluntarily subscribed to in their heavenly estate by themselves, and were by our first parents subscribed to upon the earth.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 325.)
When we contemplate the heavenly order of things with its intelligence, purpose, and light, as it has been given to us in the dispensation of the fulness of times and contrast it with the confusion, disorder, contention, and lack of vision found among man-made organizations on the earth, we can appreciate why the gospel of Jesus Christ must be taught carefully to men and women everywhere. The world is in spiritual darkness. We can plainly see that the dispensation of the fulness of times, with its celestial laws, promises, and authority, is as yet still but a system of colonies planted among people with different laws and customs who have not yet learned of the established order of heaven.
Who cannot see that those mortals who are limited to the secular and religious beliefs of the world are “as babes upon their mother’s laps” in terms of understanding the scope, the plan, the order, and the purposes of Jesus Christ as the earth’s history moves onward? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on the earth in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.