I Have a Question


Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Did Brigham Young confirm or expound on Joseph Smith’s first vision?

Milton V. Backman, professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and region welfare agent in the Provo area. Brigham Young maintained a strong conviction of the divine calling of Joseph Smith. In his autobiography and in his sermons, he bore a powerful testimony that Joseph Smith restored the fulness of the everlasting gospel. Referring to his initial meeting with Joseph in September 1832, Brigham Young declared that he “received the sure testimony, by the spirit of prophecy, that he was all that any man could believe him to be, as a true Prophet.” 1 And Brigham Young never deviated from that testimony.

On 22 December 1838, Brigham Young, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, fled from Kirtland “in consequence of the fury of the mob … who threatened to destroy” him because he proclaimed publicly and privately, “by the power of the Holy Ghost, that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Most High God, and had not transgressed and fallen as apostates declared.” 2

President Young’s conviction of the divine calling of Joseph Smith included an unwavering acceptance of Joseph’s testimony regarding the First Vision. In 1842, Joseph Smith published two accounts of his 1820 theophany in the Times and Seasons—one he had written and included earlier in the Wentworth Letter, and the other a more extended history that appeared in serial form. This latter account (the account which appears in the current edition of the Pearl of Great Price) was reprinted in the Deseret News, the Millennial Star, and the first editions of the Pearl of Great Price during the presidency of Brigham Young. That President Young was well acquainted with this history is evident by the fact that he periodically cited the work in his sermons and writings.

In his remarks, Brigham Young emphasized that “God called Joseph to be a prophet.” 3 Describing this call, he asserted, “The Lord chose Joseph Smith, called upon him at fourteen years of age, gave him vision, and led him along, guided and directed him in his obscurity.” 4

In addition to confirming that the First Vision occurred when Joseph Smith was fourteen, President Young substantiated other details relating to the historical setting of that event. Since he lived in western New York (at Auburn) in 1820, he observed some of the same religious developments that influenced young Joseph.

“I very well recollect,” he asserted, “the reformation which took place in the country among the various denominations of Christians—the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others—when Joseph was a boy. … In the midst of these revivals among the religious bodies,” he continued, invitations to join the respective churches were often extended to Joseph. 5

Brigham Young not only identified Joseph Smith’s mother and some of the Prophet’s siblings as members of the Presbyterian persuasion, he added that the invitation to Joseph to join a church was “more particularly from” members of that faith.

Citing from Joseph Smith’s history, President Young described young Joseph’s confusion as he examined the conflicting religious views. “Joseph Smith was naturally inclined to be religious,” he declared, “and being young, and surrounded with this excitement, no wonder that he became seriously impressed with the necessity of serving the Lord. But as the cry on every hand was, ‘Lo, here is Christ,’ and ‘Lo, there!’ Said he, ‘Lord, teach me, that I may know for myself, who among these are right.’” 6

While discussing what the Prophet learned during his first vision, Brigham Young emphasized that Joseph was informed that “he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus.” 7 Joseph was further told, Elder Young commented, to “refrain from the wickedness he saw in the churches.” 8

In the Wentworth letter the Prophet noted that it was during the First Vision that he learned that the fulness of the gospel would be made known to him. Brigham Young expounded on this by describing Joseph’s call to prophetic leadership and explaining that during that initial vision, the Prophet learned that God “had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him.” 9

Brigham Young not only certified that Joseph was persecuted after he informed others of his divine call, but he also explained why. 10 Many hated Joseph because of his influence, observed Elder Young. “He possessed a righteous influence over the spirits, feelings, passions, and dispositions of all who delighted in truth and goodness.” 11

Although Brigham Young did not cite the First Vision to vindicate his belief regarding the Godhead, he emphasized that what he received from the Lord, he received from Joseph. 12

“I love his doctrine,” Brigham Young commented. “I never saw any one, until I met Joseph Smith, who could tell me anything about the character, personality, and dwelling-place of God, or anything satisfactory about angels, or the relationship of man to his Maker.” 13

President Young constantly bore witness that he knew “by revelation” that “Joseph Smith was called of God to establish his Kingdom upon the earth.” 14 When explaining why the Lord chose Joseph while but a boy, President Young said, “Because he was disposed to do it. Was Joseph Smith the only person on earth who could have done this work? No doubt there were many others who, under the direction of the Lord, could have done that work; but the Lord selected the one that pleased him, and that is sufficient.” 15

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Manuscript History of Brigham Young, ed. Elden Jay Watson (Salt Lake City, 1968), p. 4.

  2.   2.

    Ibid., pp. 23–24.

  3.   3.

    Ibid., p. 139.

  4.   4.

    Journal of Discourses, 8:354.

  5.   5.

    Journal of Discourses, 12:67.

  6.   6.

    Ibid.

  7.   7.

    Journal of Discourses, 2:171.

  8.   8.

    Journal of Discourses, 18:238.

  9.   9.

    Journal of Discourses, 2:171.

  10.   10.

    Ibid.

  11.   11.

    Journal of Discourses, 7:3.

  12.   12.

    Journal of Discourses, 6:279.

  13.   13.

    Journal of Discourses, 13:216; 16:46.

  14.   14.

    Journal of Discourses, 14:209.

  15.   15.

    Journal of Discourses, 11:253.

What does the phrase “blood on one’s head or on one’s garment” mean?

Keith H. Meservy, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, a member of a Church writing committee, and a member of the bishopric of the Pleasant View Third Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

This question is best answered by first looking at the responsibility of an ancient watchman—a responsibility involving life-and-death issues.

Anciently, a watchman was responsible to keep the surrounding country under surveillance from a spot on the watchtower, to identify any hostile force that invaded the land, and to warn citizens of the invasion. Only when he recognized the danger and warned them of their peril could citizens take measures to protect their lives.

“When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman:

“If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;

“Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.

“He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.

“But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.” (Ezek. 33:2–6.)

As conquering enemies destroy physical life, sin destroys spiritual life. But those who are sick enough to die, when warned of their danger, might save their lives through repentance. And thus one might see why the Lord would call Ezekiel to be a watchman—to warn citizens of their soul-destroying dangers. If they heeded his warning and repented, they would live. If not, they would die spiritually—but he would not be responsible for their deaths; he would have fulfilled his calling and delivered his own soul:

“Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: …

“When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

“Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.” (Ezek. 3:17–19.)

Other prophet-teachers have exemplified and taught this principle of responsibility. King Benjamin explained that he had assembled his people “that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you . …

“That I might rid my garments of your blood. …

“That I might declare unto you that I can no longer be your teacher.” (Mosiah 2:27–29; italics added.)

In great humility, Paul likewise testified to “the elders of the church” at Ephesus how diligent he had been in teaching, in testifying, and in warning them so he would not be stained by their blood. “Ye know,” said he, “after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,

“Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears; …

“I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,

“Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. …

“Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.

“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. …

“By the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:17–31; italics added.)

Perhaps the expression of the application of this principle in the lives of Jacob and his fellow worker and brother, Joseph, is the most sober in the scriptures: “We did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might [to teach them correct principles] their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.” (Jacob 1:19.)

Any divine calling involves the same life-and-death matters. Leaders and parents are called to teach of the way leading to life and warn of the way leading to death. Their callings are sacred and carry heavy responsibilities. Of this point, Elder John Taylor has said, “If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty.” (Journal of Discourses, 20:23.)

However, while the Lord’s servants teach that the wages of sin are death, the devil shouts that sinning is really living. Thus, it is imperative that divine servants teach clearly and simply, for only when the teaching is so clear that individuals cannot misunderstand are God’s children free to choose.

Then, if they ignore the call, they will die, but their blood will be on their own heads. On the other hand, if they have not been taught or warned—and could have been if the Lord’s servants had done their duty—their spiritual death, or “blood,” will be upon the head of their “watchmen.”

For this reason, parents who do not teach their children “to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25–26; see also Moses 6:53–62, especially vs. Moses 6:57–58.)

The Lord has made those who have been taught the truth responsible for sharing it with others. “Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.

“Therefore, they are left without excuse, and their sins are upon their own heads.” (D&C 88:81–82.)

Thus, parents, teachers, and leaders who strive to live and teach gospel principles can be assured that they will not be held accountable for the sins of those over whom they have been given charge, for symbolically, their own “garments” are spotless.