Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was little understood by the people of the nineteenth century and may be even more of an enigma to those who live at the end of the twentieth. “No man knows my history,” he said once. “I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself” (History of the Church, 6:317).
Like his Master, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith was called upon to endure a certain kind of loneliness in life. This farm boy who grew to become a prophet’s prophet could bear a personal witness of the divine Redeemer, for, like Jesus, Joseph was also, to some degree at least, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (see Isa. 53:3). His life was characterized not only by persecution and suspicion, but also by an isolation known only to those who walk in the glorious rays of the noonday sun and yet must minister among others content to walk in the fading light of dusk.
“God is my friend,” he wrote to his wife Emma at a difficult time. “In him I shall find comfort. I have given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me, only to do his will” (in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, comp. Dean C. Jessee, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984, p. 239; punctuation and spelling modernized). Such expressions give us a glimpse of the underlying secret of his humility and success: he knew, and he wanted all others to know, that he walked in the light of the Almighty. He was the covenant spokesman of the Almighty; God knew it, and he knew it.
The dispensation of the fulness of times was destined to bring to consummation the work of the Lord. Because this era would be a time when God would “gather together … all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth (Eph. 1:10), it was a day anticipated and longed for by the early Saints. It was known and spoken of by them, as was the man who would lead the final dispensation.
President Brigham Young thus observed concerning Joseph Smith: “It was decreed in the counsels of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he, Joseph Smith, should be the man, in the last dispensation of this world, to bring forth the word of God to the people, and receive the fulness of the keys and power of the Priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father’s father, and upon their progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family and that blood as it has circulated from its fountain to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation” (in Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954, p. 108; emphasis added).
Others knew of the coming of Joseph Smith in the last days and of the vital role he would play in the winding-up scenes. Joseph of old (see 2 Ne. 3:7, 18), the resurrected Savior to the Nephites (see 3 Ne. 21:9–11), Moroni (see Morm. 8:14–16, 23–25), and John the Baptist (see JST, John 1:20–22) all spoke of a great prophet that was to come.
Joseph Smith was to be a great Elias before the second coming of the Messiah, an Elias of restoration. He himself offered a type of prophetic commentary on his role in the latter dispensation: “The Savior said when these tribulations should take place, [the gospel of the kingdom] should be committed to a man who should be a witness over the whole world; the keys of knowledge, power and revelations should be revealed to a witness who should hold the testimony to the world” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 364; emphasis added). The Lord and his chosen servants have, from the beginning, known and spoken of the great latter-day seer.
There is another sense in which Joseph Smith was known to the ancients: he was schooled and tutored by them during his own mortal ministry. Save Jesus Christ only, the world has never known a more competent scriptural authority than Joseph Smith. It is one thing to read a book of scripture and quite another to be personally instructed by its authors. Who among the world’s scholars and religious leaders can lay claim to having stood face to face with Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John? Who can speak with authority about life in ancient America because of lessons learned from Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and no doubt other ancient American Hebrews? (See Journal of Discourses, 13:47; 17:374; 21:94, 161–64; 23:362.) Many of Joseph’s heavenly visitors laid their hands on his head and conferred their priesthood keys and authorities (see D&C 128:20).
In summarizing these events, President John Taylor said: “Joseph Smith in the first place was set apart by the Almighty according to the counsels of the gods in the eternal worlds, to introduce the principles of life. … God selected him for that purpose, and he fulfilled his mission and lived honorably and died honorably. I know of what I speak for I was very well acquainted with him and was with him a great deal during his life, and was with him when he died. The principles which he had, placed him in communication with the Lord, and … 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. Why? Because he had to introduce a dispensation which was called the dispensation of the fulness of times, and it was known as such by the ancient servants of God” (in Journal of Discourses, 21:94; emphasis added). Joseph Smith knew the scriptures, he knew their precepts, he knew their prophets, and he knew the central character—the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul explained that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). There is an order, a hierarchy, even among those called as oracles and mouthpieces of the Almighty.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie observed: “You start out with the Lord Jesus, and then you have Adam and Noah. Thereafter come the dispensation heads. Then you step down, appreciably, and come to prophets and apostles, to the elders of Israel, and to wise and good and sagacious men who have the spirit of light and understanding” (“This Generation Shall Have My Word through You,” in Hearken O Ye People: Discourses on the Doctrine and Covenants, Sperry Symposium 1984, Sandy, Utah: Randall Book Co., 1984, p. 4).
Joseph Smith, like Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others, stands as a dispensation head. The dispensation head becomes the means by which the knowledge and power of God are channeled to men and women on earth. He becomes the means by which the gospel of Jesus Christ—the plan of salvation and exaltation—is revealed anew, the means by which divine transforming powers, including saving covenants and ordinances, are extended to people during an age of time called a dispensation. The dispensation head stands as the preeminent prophetic witness of Christ; he knows firsthand because of what he has seen and heard and felt and experienced. Because of his central place in the plan, because it is by means of the power of his testimony that men and women come to know the Lord and bask in the light of the Spirit, the calling and position of the dispensation head thus becomes something to which his followers bear witness.
Elder McConkie thus pointed out: “Every prophet is a witness of Christ; every dispensation head is a revealer of Christ for his day; and every other prophet or apostle who comes is a reflection and an echo and an exponent of the dispensation head. All such come to echo to the world and to expound and unfold what God has revealed through the man who was appointed for that era to give his eternal word to the world” (“This Generation Shall Have My Word through You,” pp. 4–5).
To be sure, we worship the Father in the name of the Son; Christ our Lord is the way to the Father, and his is the only name under heaven whereby man can be saved. But, as we have seen, the dispensation head is the preeminent prophetic revealer of Christ. Thus, to bear witness of Joseph Smith is to bear witness of Jesus Christ, who sent him, in the same way that a testimony of Christ also implies clearly a testimony of the Eternal Father, who sent Him. On the other hand, to deny Joseph Smith outright—to deny the spiritual impressions which attest to his prophetic assignment—is to deny the Lord, who sent him. Jesus told his disciples that “he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me” (Luke 10:16; compare D&C 1:38; D&C 84:36; D&C 112:20).
There is a power—a supernal power, an unusual spiritual endowment from that Lord we worship—associated with the bearing of a pure and fervent testimony of Joseph Smith and the Restoration. Such outpourings surely signify heaven’s approbation. President Joseph F. Smith, nephew of the Prophet, declared: “I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, because more than ever I come nearer the possession of the actual knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, through the testimony of Joseph Smith … that he saw Him, that he heard Him, that he received instructions from Him, that he obeyed those instructions” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1919, p. 495; emphasis added).
It is not difficult to catch an occasional glimpse of the singular role of Joseph Smith in this final age of the world. In a spirit of gratitude and tribute, Elder John Taylor, a man not prone to hyperbole, wrote: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3). We ask: More than Enoch? More than Abraham? More than Jacob? More than Moses? What did Elder Taylor mean? We might consider the following possibilities:
1. Joseph Smith serves as the legal administrator associated with that period of time prophesied by Joel when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh (see Joel 2:28–29). When Moroni first appeared to Joseph in September 1823, he quoted these verses in Joel and said “that this was not yet fulfilled, but was soon to be” (JS—H 1:41). In the years since Moroni’s visit, many have indeed dreamed dreams and seen visions. Above all else, the Spirit of God has been the driving influence behind the dissemination of eternal truth and the spiritual transformation of those who have submitted to the terms and conditions of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
In addition, this Spirit has affected those outside the faith. President Joseph Fielding Smith, after quoting the prophecy of Joel, provided the following insight: “There have been a great many discoveries. In fact, since the establishment of the gospel, these discoveries and inventions have been increasing more rapidly and we have seen more, perhaps, … than was seen during all the years from the days of the revival of learning and the reformation down to the visitation of Moroni to the Prophet Joseph Smith” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 1:179).
In short, the Spirit of God—meaning the Light of Christ—has been behind the rapid intellectual, scientific, and technological developments from the time of the Industrial Revolution to our own Information Age. Joseph Smith presides over our age of enlightenment and expansion.
2. Though we thrill in the knowledge that God continues to guide his church and kingdom, most of what we know today in the form of doctrine has come to us through Joseph Smith. His call initiated the “times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21), a day of restoration that will continue throughout the Millennium. It is called the dispensation of the fulness of times, or the dispensation of the fulness of dispensations. In a revelation to the Prophet in January 1841 dealing with the ordinances of the temple, the Lord stated: “I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 124:41).
Joseph Smith was raised up to make known “those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, [things that] shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times” (D&C 128:18).
3. With the visit of the Savior to the postmortal spirit world, the work of the redemption of the dead began. But after the period of the Great Apostasy, the responsibility for gospel ordinances for the residue of mankind came to rest with the final dispensation. Think on it! Joseph Smith and his successors bear a major responsibility for the teaching of the gospel in the world of spirits and the performance of saving ordinances for literally billions of our Father’s children.
President Brigham Young uttered this bold statement: “Joseph Smith holds the keys of this last dispensation, and is now engaged behind the vail in the great work of the last days. I can tell our beloved brother Christians … that no man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. From the day that the Priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are—I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent. He holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation—the keys to rule in the spirit world; and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ. …
“Should not this thought comfort all people? They will, by-and-by, be … thankful for such a man as Joseph Smith, junior. … It is his mission to see that all the children of men in this last dispensation are saved, that can be, through the redemption” (in Journal of Discourses, 7:289; emphasis added).
As suggested earlier, the life of Joseph Smith was in some degree patterned after that of his Master, Jesus Christ. That pattern holds true even when extended to its tragic conclusion. Like his Master, Joseph Smith also shed his blood in order that the final testament, the reestablishment of the new covenant, might be in full effect (see Heb. 9:16). Just prior to his death, the Prophet Joseph was reported to have remarked:
“I am tired, I have been mobbed, I have suffered so much. Some of the brethren think they can carry this work out better than I can, far better. I have asked the Lord to take me out of this world. I have stood all I can. I have to seal my testimony to this generation with my blood. I have to do it, for this work will never progress until I am gone, for the testimony is of no force until the testator is dead. People little know who I am when they talk about me, and they never will know until they see me weighed in the balance in the kingdom of God. Then they will know who I am, see me as I am. I dare not tell them, and they do not know me” (Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, in They Knew the Prophet, comp. Hyrum and Helen Mae Andrus, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974, pp. 26–27).
President Brigham Young offered this testimonial: “Who can justly say aught against Joseph Smith? … I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 459). He also said, “I feel like shouting Hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 458).
Elder Wilford Woodruff observed: “There is not so great a man as Joseph standing in this generation. … His mind, like Enoch’s, expands as eternity, and only God can comprehend his soul” (Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 9 Apr. 1837, Church Archives).
One of the significant challenges we face as Latter-day Saints at the close of the twentieth century is to be true and faithful to the legacy Joseph Smith left us. The Psalmist declared that in the last days the wicked would strike at the foundations of the faith of believers (see JST, Ps. 11:1–3), and would seek to undermine those fundamental verities which underlie our commitment to the Church and kingdom of God. This has entailed and will yet entail attempts—both vicious and subtle—to malign the name and labors of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of this dispensation. In our day, it is fashionable among critics to stress the humanity and weaknesses of Joseph Smith and his successors, to cast aspersions on their motives or character by revealing historical details that lack the context for a true understanding of the events.
Unfortunately, Joseph the Prophet cannot be with us now to answer all charges against him. But be it remembered that the God of heaven has called and approved Joseph Smith; those who attempt to mar the name and image of the Prophet of the Restoration will eventually answer to God for their actions. President George Albert Smith observed: “Many have belittled Joseph Smith, but those who have will be forgotten in the remains of mother earth, and the odor of their infamy will ever be with them, but honor, majesty, and fidelity to God, exemplified by Joseph Smith and attached to his name, will never die” (cited by Harold B. Lee in Ensign, Jan. 1974, p. 126).
Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of the living God. I know that the Lord appeared to him, called him, and empowered him to reveal the Father and Son and the doctrines of salvation to a world that had been wandering for centuries in darkness. May the Lord endow each of us with the commitment and spiritual strength to live as we believe, in order that we can evidence our appreciation for God our Father, for Jesus Christ his Son, and for their preeminent witness in these last days, Joseph Smith the Prophet.