In each of our lives, there are times when our sins bear down on us with such force that we ask, “Does God still love me after the terrible things I have done?” We may become depressed and wonder if we can ever be forgiven or return to our Heavenly Father.
During these times, we can take comfort in studying one of the more traumatic events in the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Its outcome demonstrated God’s great love for Joseph Smith and for each of us, His children.
Early in life, Joseph Smith had experienced one of the most significant events that could happen to any human being—a visitation by God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. This was followed by a period of time during which Joseph was tutored carefully by the angel Moroni; and after four years of preparation, he was allowed to take the gold plates from the Hill Cumorah, and he began to translate them.
However, the translation process went slowly until the Lord sent Martin Harris to be Joseph’s scribe. Martin’s interest in the translation intensified greatly after the Lord appeared to him in a vision. Martin was shown the marvelous work that the Lord was about to do and was told that he must go to New York City with some of the characters copied from the plates to show them to some of the learned of his day,1 thus fulfilling prophecies in Isaiah 29:1–12 [Isa. 29:1–12] and 2 Nephi 27:15–20. [2 Ne. 27:15–20]
What took place during his visit to New York, sometime in February 1828 (JS—H 1:63), convinced the skeptical Martin Harris to become deeply involved in the translation of the gold plates, committing both his time and money. He arranged his personal affairs in Palmyra, New York, so he could return to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Arriving about 12 April 1828, he acted as the Prophet’s scribe until 14 June. By this time, Joseph had dictated at least 116 manuscript pages.2
Joseph recorded that Martin “teased” him with requests to take the 116 pages from Harmony to Palmyra. He wanted to read them to his relatives to “convince them of the truth” of the work in which he was engaged. He pressured Joseph to ask the Lord, by means of the Urim and Thummim, whether Martin might take the manuscript. The Lord told the Prophet that he must not let it out of his hands. The answer was the same when Joseph, under Martin’s prodding, asked the Lord again for permission. But Martin finally persuaded Joseph to ask the Lord once more. This time the Lord allowed Joseph to let Martin take the manuscript, but under very strict conditions. Martin had to covenant with the Lord in writing that he would show the manuscript to only five people: his wife, his brother, his father and mother, and his wife’s sister.3
June 14 and 15, 1828, would be two days long remembered by the Lord’s prophet. On the fourteenth, Martin left with the 116 manuscript pages, which Joseph was never to see again. On the following day, Joseph and Emma lost their firstborn son, and because of Emma’s difficulties in childbirth, Joseph almost lost his beloved wife as well. Over two long weeks, his constant care helped her recover from near death. As Emma improved, Joseph had time to reflect that Martin Harris had not returned or sent word as promised. Joseph did not mention this to Emma, but eventually she brought it up, insisting that he go to Palmyra to see why Martin had not come back.
As the miles of the stagecoach journey rolled by, Joseph’s anxiety increased. He apparently began to realize for the first time the nature of his transgression. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, states in her biography: “Although he was now nearly worn out, sleep fled from his eyes, neither had he any desire for food, for he felt that he had done wrong, and how great his condemnation was he did not know.”4 Joseph was so exhausted that he might not have made it to his parents’ home near Palmyra, but for the kindness of a stranger who insisted on accompanying him the last twenty miles on foot. The young prophet had to be led the last few miles, and fell asleep repeatedly as he walked.5 They arrived early in the morning.
As soon as Joseph received a little nourishment, he asked the family to immediately send for Martin Harris. By 8:00 A.M., they had set the table for breakfast, expecting Martin to arrive any minute. Martin did not arrive until 12:30, however. “We saw him walking with a slow and measured tread towards the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate, he stopped, instead of passing through, and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes. At length he entered the house,” Lucy Mack Smith wrote. Sitting at the table with the family as though to eat, Martin suddenly dropped his knife and fork and cried in agony, “Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!” At this outcry Joseph could restrain himself no longer. “Martin, have you lost that manuscript? Have you broken your oath, and brought down condemnation upon my head as well as your own?” When Joseph’s worst fears were confirmed, he, too, cried out in great agony: “All is lost! all is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned—it is I who tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession.” (Emphasis added.)6
The Lord had warned him of the danger, but in his immaturity, Joseph, as many of us often do, had wanted his prayer answered the way he wanted and not according to the Lord’s will. Joseph learned from this, as the Israelites did when they ignored the Lord’s warning through Samuel (see 1 Sam. 8:4–22)—that we have to be careful about what we pray for, because we may get it, to our own detriment.
We can only imagine the turmoil in Joseph Smith’s heart as he thought about reporting to the Lord: “Then must I … return with such a tale as this? I dare not do it. And how shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?”7
Mother Smith’s account of what the family went through following this experience gives us an excellent description of suffering for sin, the kind of suffering we all may expect when we alienate ourselves from the Lord through willfulness and disobedience. “I well remember that day of darkness, both within and without,” she wrote. “To us, at least, the heavens seemed clothed with blackness, and the earth shrouded with gloom. I have often said within myself, that if a continual punishment, as severe as that which we experienced on that occasion, were to be inflicted upon the most wicked characters who ever stood upon the footstool of the Almighty—if even their punishment were no greater than that, I should feel to pity their condition.”8
Joseph Smith returned to Harmony, Pennsylvania, still reeling from the great losses he had experienced. To his surprise, the angel Moroni appeared, bringing him the Urim and Thummim, which earlier had been handed back to Moroni, but not so that Joseph could resume translation. Rather, he was to receive a chastening revelation from the Lord. Those who have passed through the repentance process after separating themselves from the Lord’s influence will recognize that this chastening is not uncommon; we often have to face painful truths about ourselves before we can enjoy the companionship of the Lord’s Spirit again.
Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 3] stands as one of the great evidences of the Prophet Joseph’s divine calling. As nearly as can be determined, this is the first revelation he ever recorded. (He had received other revelations earlier, but they had not yet been recorded.) This one is a powerful witness of his prophetic calling; no false prophet would have recorded such a stinging denunciation of himself, as Richard Bushman notes: “[In] the rebuke of Joseph in the revelation of July, 1828, … [t]here is no effort to conceal or rationalize, no sign of Joseph justifying himself to prospective followers. The words flow directly from the messenger to Joseph and have the single purpose of setting Joseph straight.”9
There are a few examples of such revelation recorded in scripture. One is the story of Jonah. If he is the author of the book that bears his name, then our estimation of Jonah is surely increased tenfold, because the rebuke he received certainly is equal to that given the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The third section of the Doctrine and Covenants is one of the great revelations on helping a sinner return to the correct course. Notice how subtle the Lord is at first, and then how pointed he becomes in his rebuke.
“The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught. …
“Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men;
“For although a man [Joseph Smith] may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.
“Behold, you have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember also the promises which were made to you, if you did not transgress them.
“And behold, how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men.
“For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” (D&C 3:1, 3–7.)
Joseph’s problem was similar to one we commonly face. Sometimes we are more concerned about what our friends think than about what the Lord desires. It is interesting that although Martin Harris was the one directly responsible for losing the manuscript, Joseph Smith received this very pointed rebuke. We learn here that the Lord holds us responsible for what we do and is not interested, so far as we are concerned, in what others did that led to our problem. It shows real maturity when we, like Joseph, accept responsibility for what we have done and try not to blame others for our problems.
Joseph had lost the privilege of translation because he had listened to Martin Harris, “who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises which were made before God, and has depended upon his own judgment and boasted in his own wisdom,” the Lord said. (D&C 3:13.)
He explained: “Yet you [Joseph] should have been faithful; and [God] would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.” (D&C 3:8.)
The Lord said to Joseph, in effect, “I know the peer pressure was great, but remember that if you’re faithful, I will support you no matter how difficult the pressure gets.”
We cannot fully appreciate the impact of the next verse on the young Prophet unless we carefully read the change in verb tense. “Behold, thou art [present tense] Joseph, and thou wast chosen [past tense] to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.” (D&C 3:9; emphasis added). Surely Joseph must have thought at this point that he was about to lose the privilege of doing the Lord’s work.
The next verses, however, should be read very carefully by all of us who think we have made so tragic a mistake that we cannot ever be forgiven. It is Satan who would have us believe our sins are so serious that forgiveness is not available to us.
Joseph had used his divine calling improperly. He had been entrusted with a sacred record, had been granted access to divine help in translation, and yet had succumbed to the enticings of someone whose focus was on something else. Joseph knew how important the translation of the Book of Mormon was to God’s children. It was to be the fulfillment of prophecy and of the Lord’s covenants with his prophets. (See, for example, Enos 1:16.) The sacred record had been compiled by some of these prophets, at great sacrifice, and preserved by the hand of the Lord. Knowing this, Joseph undoubtedly feared that in losing both the manuscript and the gift to translate, he would be responsible for holding back the prophesied work.
Like Joseph, we too may sometimes lose our focus on following Christ and fall into gratifying our mortal desires. Then, when we are forced to face our own weakness, we may fear that we have irretrievably lost the trust of God.
In his great love for us, the Lord indicates that there is still hope. These were his words to Joseph:
“But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work;
“Except thou do this, thou shalt be delivered up and become as other men, and have no more gift.” (D&C 3:10–11; emphasis added.)
Anyone who has watched a loved one or friend turn from sin and repent has probably seen the light return to the loved one’s eyes and felt the joy that replaces the repentant sinner’s pain. We can appreciate, then, what happened to the Prophet Joseph Smith when the Lord showed him that the disappearance of the manuscript had not come as a surprise and would not hinder God’s work. The Lord had anticipated this event by at least twenty-four hundred years; many prophets had labored in part so that Joseph could repent and continue the work of translation. I know of no other example that shows better the Lord’s foreknowledge and his love for us as individuals.
The Lord had commanded Nephi to make two separate records: the large plates, primarily a political history, and the small plates, a religious history, “for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.” (1 Ne. 9:5; emphasis added.) Mormon was surprised to find the small plates of Nephi as he was abridging the records, but he, like Nephi, was impressed to keep the small plates separate, even though he did not know why. “And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. … The Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.” (W. of M. 1:7; emphasis added.)
Two separate records had been kept by the prophets for almost five hundred years, not only so that the Lord’s covenant with Nephi, Jacob, Enos, and others could be fulfilled, but also because of the Lord’s great love for Joseph Smith. The existence of the second record made it possible for the Prophet to “repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment” of God. (D&C 3:10.)
Joseph was reassured that the translation of the Book of Mormon would not be thwarted because of his misstep. The Lord told him that “this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites, who dwindled in unbelief because of the iniquity of their fathers. …
“And for this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records—that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people.” (D&C 3:18–19.)
After a time during which Joseph humbled himself in mighty prayer before the Lord, the sacred records and accompanying items were returned to him on a very important date. It was the anniversary of Joseph’s annual visits to the Hill Cumorah, just one year after the young Prophet had originally been entrusted with the plates.
“On the twenty-second of September,” Joseph told his family, “I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim, with which I have again commenced translating, and Emma writes for me, but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified. The angel seemed pleased with me when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.”10
Before Joseph began translating again, the Lord gave him this counsel, the latter part of which could apply to any of us as we set our feet on the right path after repenting: “See that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.
“Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end.
“Pray always, that you may come off conqueror; yea, that you may conquer Satan, and that you may escape the hands of the servants of Satan that do uphold his work.” (D&C 10:3–5.)
The Prophet was told that Satan had motivated men to alter the original manuscript in order to attack the Lord’s work if Joseph were permitted to retranslate those pages. Satan’s purpose, as always, was to destroy the work of the Lord. (See D&C 10:8–27.)
But instead of a retranslation, the Lord had planned for a translation from the small plates that would fill, with a better record, the gap created by the loss of the 116 pages. He told Joseph:
“And now, … the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people. …
“Behold, there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel; therefore, it is wisdom in me that you should translate this first part of the engravings of Nephi, and send forth in this work.
“And, behold, all the remainder of this work does contain all those parts of my gospel which my holy prophets, yea, and also my disciples, desired in their prayers should come forth unto this people.” (D&C 10:40, 45–46; emphasis added.)
The Lord went on to explain what the great gift of this gospel, preserved by his foresight and power, means to those of us who will accept it:
“For, behold, I will gather them as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if they will not harden their hearts;
“Yea, if they will come, they may, and partake of the waters of life freely.
“Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. …
“And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” (D&C 10:65–67, 69.)
Thus ended one of the great learning experiences of Joseph Smith’s life. What he learned about trusting completely in the Lord would help him accomplish the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon and this dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we, who also have constant need to repent, can benefit not only through the gospel that Joseph helped bring forth, but also by his humble example.