Joseph Smith. The name evokes so many responses among mankind: nineteenth-century historical figure, religious reformer, founder of a faith, restorer, prophet, and seer of God who spent his life, and eventually sacrificed it, in being God’s witness and servant.
Whether we view him through the eyes of the student of history or through the eyes of the believer, however, a true picture of Joseph Smith must include this vital dimension: he was a marvelous exemplar of Christlike living.
Those who knew “Brother Joseph”—who had labored with him, prayed with him, come near to heaven with him—could never deny his goodness. It was impossible for them to separate Joseph the man from Joseph the Prophet, for he might in one moment be conversing or working in the field and in the next prophesying the future of the kingdom of God or ministering to a wounded spirit. Yet they saw that whatever his role, he followed the teachings of the Master.
Expressions from his contemporaries—people who personally witnessed the works of Joseph Smith—help complete our picture of the Prophet Joseph Smith as a noble disciple of Christ.
Friends, new acquaintances, and even people who saw Joseph Smith only at a distance could feel the love he had for others. Children could especially feel this.
Half a century after the fact, Margarette McIntire Burgess looked back on a day in Nauvoo when she and her brother had become stuck in the mud on their way to school. “Child-like, we began to cry, for we thought we would have to stay there. But looking up, I beheld the loving friend of children, the Prophet Joseph, coming to us. He soon had us on higher and drier ground. Then he stooped down and cleaned the mud from our little, heavy-laden shoes, took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped our tear-stained faces. He spoke kind and cheering words to us and sent us on our way to school rejoicing.”1
John W. Hess was fourteen when Joseph Smith spent several days with his family. Brother Hess recalled: “At that time Joseph was studying Greek and Latin, and when he got tired [of] studying he would go and play with the children in their games about the house, to give himself exercise. Then he would go back to his studies as before.”2
People of all ages seemed drawn to him. They felt the power of both his personality and his calling.
Jane Snyder Richards first saw the Prophet and shook hands with him, she said, “in a dream, about eighteen months before my removal to Nauvoo. Later, … I recognized him at first sight, while he was preaching to the people. His was one of the most engaging personalities it has ever been my good fortune to meet. … He was fearless and outspoken, yet humble, never considering that he was more than the mouth-piece, through whom God spoke. …
“As an instance of his humility and faith in prayer, I recall that upon one occasion when his enemies were threatening him with violence, he was told that quite a number of little children were then gathered together praying for his safety. Upon hearing of that, he replied:
“‘Then I need have no fear; I am safe.’”3
Almost anyone who spent time around the Prophet saw evidences of his humility. “Zion’s Camp, in passing through the State of Indiana, had to cross very bad swamps, consequently we had to attach ropes to the wagons to help them through, and the Prophet was the first man at the rope in his bare feet. This was characteristic of him in all times of difficulty,” said John M. Chidester.4 Samuel Miles commented, “When times of trouble came on I have seen the Prophet mustering in the ranks, his rifle on his shoulder, encouraging the Saints by his example as well as by his cheering words.”5
The Prophet’s love easily extended to people outside his household and immediate circle of friends. Andrew Workman recalled that Joseph was talking to a group of men one day when “a man came up and said that a poor brother who lived out some distance from town had had his house burned down the night before. Nearly all of the men said they felt sorry for the man. Joseph put his hand in his pocket, took out five dollars and said, ‘I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do you all feel sorry?’”6
The love between the Prophet and the Saints was reciprocal. Mosiah Hancock saw it as a youth when he heard Joseph Smith speak to the Nauvoo Legion. “He asked the Legions if they were not all his boys, and they shouted ‘Yes!’ … The Prophet said, ‘Brethren, the Lord Almighty has this day revealed to me something I never comprehended before! That is—I have friends who have at a respectful distance been ready to ward off the blows of the adversary. (He brought his hand down on my father’s head as he was acting as bodyguard to the Prophet) While others have pretended to be my friends, and have crept into my bosom and become vipers, and have been my most deadly enemies. … ARE YOU WILLING TO DIE FOR ME?’ Yes! was the shout. ‘You have said you are willing to die for me. …’ Then he drew his sword and cried, ‘I WILL DIE FOR YOU! If this people cannot have their rights, my blood shall run upon the ground like water.’”7
As a prophet, Joseph Smith was always accessible to those who humbly sought the Lord’s help, even though their individual concerns might have little impact on the kingdom as a whole.
One day in 1841, Joseph Taylor, whose brother was being held in jail by enemies of the Church, asked his anguished mother if she would like him to seek the Prophet’s help. He found Joseph Smith duck hunting with his son, Joseph III, a short distance from Nauvoo. “I told him that mother was very sad and down-hearted about the safety of her son John; and she had requested me to come and ask him as a man of God whether my brother would ever return home.
“He rested on his gun, and bent his head for a moment as if in prayer or deep reflection. Then, with a beautiful beaming countenance, full of smiles, he looked up and told me to go and tell mother that her son would return in safety inside of a week. True to the word of the Prophet, he got home in six days.”8
William G. Nelson told of an occasion when Joseph Smith came to call, only to find that the father of the family was away. Joseph inquired about the welfare of Sister Nelson and the children and was told that one of the sons was sick with chills and fever. William recalled the reply: “‘Tell Brother Nelson that the boy will get well, and you will not have any more sickness in your family as long as you live in Nauvoo,’ the Prophet said.
“This prophecy was literally fulfilled.”
William Nelson was one of many Saints who learned that there was spiritual safety in following the Lord’s appointed leader. “I have heard the Prophet speak in public on many occasions. In one meeting I heard him say:
“‘I will give you a key that will never rust,—if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.’ The history of the Church has proven this to be true.”9
Many early members testified from personal experience that Joseph Smith was in touch with the powers of heaven. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was present during an impromptu meeting in the home of the Prophet’s parents at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831. She said that when the Prophet got up to speak, “he began very solemnly and very earnestly; all at once his countenance changed and he stood mute. He turned so white, he seemed perfectly transparent. Those who looked at him that night said he looked like he had a search light within him. I never saw anything like it on earth. …
“He stood some moments looking over the congregation, as if to pierce each heart, then said, ‘Do you know who has been in your midst this night?’
“One of the Smiths said, ‘An angel of the Lord.’
“Martin Harris said, ‘It was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.’
“Joseph put his hand down on Martin’s head and said,
“‘The Spirit of God revealed that to thee.’”10
Some of the Prophet’s associates learned from experience to recognize this manifestation of heavenly power in him. Brigham Young said, “Those who were acquainted with him knew when the Spirit of revelation was upon him, for his countenance wore an expression peculiar to himself while under that influence. He preached by the Spirit of revelation, and taught in his council by it, and … at such times there was a peculiar clearness and transparency in his face.”11
Daniel Tyler told of an incident that illustrated both the Prophet’s generosity of spirit and his ability to forgive, as the Savior requires that we do. It happened in Kirtland at a time when a group of members including Joseph Smith’s brother, William, had turned against him. At one evening meeting, those in attendance could see that the Prophet was sorrowing. Opening the meeting with prayer, “he turned his back and bowed upon his knees, facing the wall. This, I suppose, was done to hide his sorrow and his tears.
“I had heard men and women pray—especially the former—from the most ignorant, both as to letters and intellect, to the most learned and eloquent, but never until then had I heard a man address his Maker as though He was present listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. Joseph was at that time unlearned, but that prayer, which was to a considerable extent in behalf of those who accused him of having gone astray and fallen into sin, that the Lord would forgive them and open their eyes that they might see aright—that prayer, I say, to my humble mind partook of the learning and eloquence of heaven. … It appeared to me as though, in case the vail were taken away, I could see the Lord standing facing His humblest of all servants I had ever seen.”12
Those who knew Joseph Smith well, and partook of the same Spirit that motivated him, knew his honesty and integrity were unquestionable. In 1843, Thomas Colborn, who had been a member of Zion’s Camp with him, responded to the Prophet’s request for a short-term loan of one hundred dollars. Thomas’s daughter, Sarah, heard Joseph say: “‘This shall be returned within three days, if I am alive.’” Sarah’s aunt angrily told her brother that he was foolish, that he would never see the money again. “‘Don’t worry, Katie,’ father replied, ‘if he cannot pay it, he is welcome to it.’ …
“The day came when it was to be paid. … Night came; 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, and we all retired for the night. Shortly after there was a knock at the door. Father arose and went to it, and there in the driving rain stood the Prophet Joseph.
“‘Here, Brother Thomas, is the money.’ A light was struck, and seated at the table, he counted out the $100.00 in gold.
“He said, ‘Brother Thomas, I have been trying all day to raise this sum, for my honor was at stake. God bless you.’”13
The goodness of Joseph Smith could be surprising to those who had expected harsher treatment from him. Young Alvah Alexander was playing with the Smith children at the Prophet’s house one day “when [Joseph Smith] came home and brought two men … [who] had been arrested for abusing [him]. He brought them in and treated them as he would one who had never done him a wrong; gave them their dinner before he would allow them to depart.”14
In person, the Prophet often made people forget all of the evil reports they had heard about him. News reporter Mathew Davis heard him speak in Washington, D.C., on 5 February 1840, to an audience that included members of Congress. Mr. Davis wrote to his wife: “[Joseph Smith] is a plain, sensible, strong minded man. Everything he says, is said in a manner to leave an impression that he is sincere. There is no levity, no fanaticism, no want of dignity in his deportment. …
“During the whole of his address, … there was no opinion or belief that he expressed, that was calculated, in the slightest degree, to impair the morals of society, or in any manner to degrade and brutalize the human species. There was much in his precepts, if they were followed, that would soften the asperities of man towards man. … His religion appears to be the religion of meekness, lowliness, and mild persuasion. …
“Throughout his whole address, he displayed strongly a spirit of charity and forbearance. …
“I have changed my opinion of the Mormons. They are an injured and much-abused people.”15
If simply hearing Joseph Smith could reshape the thinking of one-time observers, it seems natural that working with him frequently and intimately over years would leave unassailable knowledge of his goodness.
Elder John Taylor, whose loyalty to Joseph Smith had put him in the path of four musket balls in the Carthage Jail, was called upon to defend the name of the martyred Prophet during a public debate at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, in July 1850. He responded: “I testify that I was acquainted with Joseph Smith for years. I have travelled with him; I have been with him in private and in public; I have associated with him in councils of all kinds; I have listened hundreds of times to his public teaching, and his advice to his friends and associates of a more private nature. I have been at his house and seen his deportment in his family. … I testify before God, angels, and men, that he was a good, honourable, virtuous man—that his doctrines were good, scriptural, and wholesome—that his precepts were such as became a man of God—that his private and public character was unimpeachable—and that he lived and died as a man of God and a gentleman.”16
Among the faithful who knew him, he often did the works that the Savior had commanded his original Twelve to do (see Matt. 10:1–8). William D. Huntington, for example, related to Levi Curtis the story of how the Prophet literally brought him back to life. Brother Huntington was one of a large number of members who fell ill in the early days of Nauvoo. He told of becoming weaker and weaker, until he “presently felt easy, and … found that he was in the upper part of the room near the ceiling, and could see the body he had occupied lying on the bed, with weeping friends, standing around.”
Joseph Smith and two other men came into the room and prepared to administer a priesthood blessing. They “laid their hands upon the head of his body, … and as the three stretched out their hands … , he by some means became aware that he must go back into that body, and started to do so. The process of getting in he could not remember; but when Joseph said ‘amen,’ he heard and could see and feel with his body. …
“As soon as the brethren had taken their hands from his head he raised up in bed, sitting erect, and in another moment turned his legs off the bed.
“At this juncture Joseph asked him if he had not better be careful, for he was very weak. He replied, ‘I never felt better in my life.’”17
It would be expected that the Prophet might make lasting impressions on those who constantly moved within his spiritual circle. But the testimonies of others show that he made equally enduring impressions on those whose only tie to him was friendship.
As a young man, William Taylor, brother of the third president of the Church, had the privilege of spending time with the Prophet; when Joseph Smith withdrew from Nauvoo because he was in danger, he stayed with William’s family. William recalled: “I have never known the same joy and satisfaction in the companionship of any other person, man or woman, that I felt with him, the man who had conversed with the Almighty. He was always the most companionable and lovable of men—cheerful and jovial! …
“I said to him once:
“‘Brother Joseph, don’t you get frightened when all those hounding wolves are after you?’
“And he answered:
“‘No, I am not afraid; the Lord said he would protect me, and I have full confidence in His word.’
“I knew the danger, and whatever happened to him would happen to me, but I felt no more fear than I now feel. There was something superior to thoughts of personal safety. Life or death was a matter of indifference to me while I was the companion of the Lord’s anointed!”18
No matter what he may have known about future trials, Joseph Smith maintained a faith in God and a constant confidence that were part of his legacy to those who knew him. More than sixty years after the Prophet’s death, Angus M. Cannon would write: “The impression created upon my young mind in the inspired utterances of Joseph Smith have accompanied me throughout my subsequent life; and when darkness would otherwise have beclouded my mind, his testimony has come up vividly before me, giving me evidence that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been established and governed by the manifest power and authority of God.”19
The Prophet’s legacy of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the heritage of every Latter-day Saint, from those born in pioneer communities at the turn of the century to those baptized in Sydney or London last Sunday. For nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s life helped define discipleship. Today, as we each seek to mature spiritually in a church that is moving to meet the twenty-first century, we still can find no better latter-day model of a disciple of Christ.