The story of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ began long before the spring of 1820, when our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to young Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “Beginning in the 14th century, the Lord began to prepare those social, educational, religious, economic, and governmental conditions under which he could more easily restore the gospel for the last time among men.”1 Latter-day Saint leaders and authors have variously described this 500-year pre-Restoration period as the “grand design,” “great prologue,” and “prelude to the Restoration.”2
The Old Testament prophet Joel foresaw the Spirit of the Lord working among individuals to help prepare the world for the Restoration. The Lord said, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
“And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28–29).
Of Joel’s vision, President Joseph Fielding Smith said: “I think, properly, we could go back into the days of the revival of learning—the renaissance, as it is called—and the reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to find the beginning of the fulfilment of this promise.”3 Those forerunners to Joseph Smith, the long-prophesied seer of the last days (see JST, Gen. 50:30–33; 2 Ne. 3:6–7), did not have access to the fulness of the gospel, but their efforts were vitally important in laying the foundation for him.
Elder Mark E. Petersen (1900–84) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote, “The restoration of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in these latter days, together with the advance preparation of conditions which made it possible, was indeed a divine drama which had many stages and many scenes, some of which were world shaking.”4 Early acts of this drama were staged in Europe during the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Later acts were staged in America, where courageous people—ancestors of Joseph Smith among them—colonized the New World, signed the Declaration of Independence, fought the War for Independence, and ratified the United States Constitution.
When the Great Apostasy took place nearly 2,000 years ago, the world entered a state of spiritual darkness from which it did not begin to recover until the Renaissance. Elder McConkie described the period of universal apostasy during the Middle Ages: “When the gospel sun went down almost two millennia ago, when the priesthood was taken away … and when those on earth no longer were taught and directed by apostles and prophets, then spiritual darkness reigned.” The scriptures were often kept from public use, false creeds were adopted, numerous pagans were forced to convert, and thousands of people accused of heresy were put to death. “The terrors of the night were real and the night was long—long and dark and black.”5 If the Lord had restored the fulness of the gospel under such oppressive spiritual conditions, it seems improbable that the Church would have survived, let alone flourished.
During the Renaissance, the rebirth of learning that blossomed from about A.D. 1350 to 1550, two events took place that were vital in preparation for the final dispensation: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s and Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in 1492.
In the centuries before the invention of the printing press, the majority of people could neither read nor write. Even Charlemagne, perhaps the greatest ruler of medieval Europe, was illiterate. Books were written by hand, and many ecclesiastical leaders strongly resisted the idea of circulating the Bible among the common people. One clergyman argued, “We must root out printing, or printing will root out us.”6 However, once Gutenberg’s invention became widespread, “the publication of books, including the Bible, was too great a force to be stemmed,” wrote President Joseph Fielding Smith. “Like an irresistible flood, printing, and the desire to read what was printed, swept over the entire land.”7 Among the first books Gutenberg printed was the Bible.
One historian wrote: “None of the technological innovations [of the Renaissance] has had a greater effect over a longer period of time and upon more people than the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. Some scholars have pronounced it the single most important development of the Renaissance and perhaps of the entire modern world.”8 Elder McConkie concurred: “Few tools were more effective than printing in paving the way for the great revival of learning, for the religious reformation, and for the breaking away of peoples and nations from religious domination. Without the discovery of movable type in about A.D. 1440 the barrier of gross darkness covering the apostate world could scarce have been pierced.”9
Christopher Columbus’s personal study of the Bible greatly increased the influence of the Holy Ghost in his life. Two millennia before Columbus, Nephi prophesied: “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land” (1 Ne. 13:12). President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “We interpret that to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him.”10 Columbus himself declared: “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. … This was the fire that burned within me. … Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit … urging me to press forward?”11
President George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), a counselor in the First Presidency, said: “Columbus was inspired to penetrate the ocean and discover this Western continent for the set time for its discovery had come; and the consequences which God desired to follow its discovery have taken place. … We believe it was a preparatory work for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
“This Church and Kingdom could not have been established on the earth if [Columbus’s] work had not been performed.”12
The activities of Gutenberg, Columbus, and other prominent figures of the Renaissance helped set the stage for another great movement in European history: the Protestant Reformation. This religious movement, which took place primarily during the 16th century, was so powerful that “no area of Europe or field of thought and activity was unaffected by it.”13 Elder McConkie wrote: “The spirit of inspiration rested upon Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and others, causing them to rebel against the religious evils of the day and seek to make the Bible and other truth available to all who would receive such.”14 Elder Petersen called the work of the Reformers a “significant prelude to the great events in which the Prophet Joseph Smith was the primary figure.”15
Englishman John Wycliffe (1330–84) has been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”16 A priest and an Oxford University professor, Wycliffe was courageous and outspoken about religious corruption, and consequently his church condemned him. In 1382 Wycliffe was put under house arrest, under which circumstances he died two years later. However, before he passed away he began the first English translation of the Bible, which his followers completed after his death.
Wycliffe’s ideas fell on fertile soil in Bohemia—located in today’s Czech Republic—where a young priest named Jan Hus17 (1372–1415) embraced them. Hus was ordered to stand trial for heresy, but he refused and was excommunicated along with his followers. In 1414 the Emperor Sigismund and his councilors interrogated Hus about his attitude toward the teachings of John Wycliffe. Although Hus was more moderate than Wycliffe and did not agree with all of Wycliffe’s teachings, he refused to denounce them in their entirety. Hus was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.
Hus and Wycliffe were precursors to the most prominent figure of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther was an Augustinian monk and a professor at Germany’s University of Wittenberg. After a monk came to Saxony in 1517 selling indulgences—essentially permission to commit sin—to raise money for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Luther protested such corruption and worldliness by nailing his historic 95 theses—statements urging reform—to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Antagonism between Luther and the church grew, and in 1521 he was summoned by Emperor Charles V to appear before the Diet (Council) of Worms, where he made this courageous statement: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. … Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”18
Luther was officially banned from the empire, but several German princes protected him. He translated the Bible into German for the masses, and Lutheranism spread throughout northern Europe and caused an ecclesiastical revolution. Elder McConkie said, “Luther’s break with Catholicism was part of the divine program; it came as an Elias preparing the way for the Restoration.”19
About a hundred years after Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, William Tyndale (1494–1536) made an even more significant English translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew. When Tyndale could not find a publisher in England, he arranged for copies to be printed in Germany and smuggled into England. Tyndale’s translation was later used extensively by the King James translators of the Bible. In words that evoke the destiny of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Tyndale said: “If God spare me I will one day make the boy that drives the plough … to know more of Scripture than the Pope does.”20 Tyndale was executed in Belgium as a Protestant heretic.
Other inspired men led the Protestant Reformation elsewhere in Europe. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) worked to purify Christianity in the city of Zurich, Switzerland. In 1523 he presented 67 articles of reform to the city, which were accepted, but in 1531 he was killed while serving as a chaplain in a battle between Protestants and Catholics. Also in Switzerland, influential John Calvin (1509–64) carried out the work of the Reformation in Geneva. Among his many religious innovations, Calvin conceived a church organization governed by elders, which evolved into Presbyterian, or Reformed, churches. In Scotland, John Knox (1513–72) expounded and established Calvin’s doctrines. Before long, the Pilgrims and Puritans would take the ideals and thoughts of Calvin and other Reformers to the New World, America.
On the occasion of the Church’s centennial in 1930, the First Presidency declared: “It was not by chance that the Puritans left their native land and sailed away to the shores of New England, and that others followed later. They were the advance guard of the army of the Lord, [foreordained] to establish the God-given system of government under which we live … and prepare the way for the restoration of the Gospel of Christ.”21
President Ezra Taft Benson taught that “all of the great events that have transpired [in America], including the coming of Columbus and of the Pilgrim fathers, were foreseen by ancient prophets.”22 After prophesying about Columbus, Nephi continued: “I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters” (1 Ne. 13:13). Writers such as Plymouth Plantation governor William Bradford (1590–1657) described the persecution and imprisonment the Pilgrims endured in Europe before they fled to America in search of religious liberty.
Nephi foresaw that the colonists would “humble themselves before the Lord” (1 Ne. 13:16). William Bradford recorded that as the Pilgrims set sail on their voyage to America, “they had a day of solemn humiliation,” their pastor proclaiming “a fast, that we might humble ourselves before our God.”23 Acting under inspiration, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact, said to be “the first written constitution in North America,”24 which called for obedience to laws enacted by the group rather than decreed by a monarch.
The Puritans subsequently settled in Massachusetts Bay and eventually absorbed the Pilgrims. However, the Puritans were not tolerant of those who did not believe as they did. One of the dissenters among the Puritans was Roger Williams, who believed in religious freedom and maintained that the apostolic church organized by Christ was no longer on the earth. After banishment, Williams and his followers founded Providence, Rhode Island, and adopted principles that became important traditions in the United States, such as democracy, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.
Colonists in other parts of America also worked for religious freedom. Under the leadership of the Calvert family, Roman Catholics settled in Maryland and in 1649 passed the Act of Toleration, which advocated freedom of conscience. In 1681 the king of England granted a charter of land to devout Quaker William Penn, whose colony in Pennsylvania became a model of religious tolerance. Of these colonists President Benson wrote, “The Pilgrims of Plymouth, the Calverts of Maryland, Roger Williams, William Penn—all had deep religious convictions that played a principal part in their coming to the New World. They too, I believe, came here under the inspiration of heaven.”25
The final event that Nephi observed in his vision of the American colonies was the War for Independence. He wrote:
“And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to do battle against them.
“And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
“And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations” (1 Ne. 13:17–19).
President Wilford Woodruff taught: “Those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. … General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord.” President Woodruff also related: “Every one of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them.”26
George Washington gave credit to God for the victory of the United States. In his farewell address to his army, he said: “The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the [United] States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.”27 President Spencer W. Kimball said: “The Lord permitted these few poorly armed and ill-clad men at Valley Forge and elsewhere to defeat a great army, … a few against the many, but the few had on their side the Lord God of heaven, that gave them victory. And there came political liberty and religious liberty with it, all in preparation for the day when a young boy would come forth and would seek and make contact with the Lord and open the doors of heaven again.”28
After the colonists won their independence, they experimented for a short time with a government under the Articles of Confederation. When they found that method inadequate, leaders turned their attention to drafting a new form of government. Few, if any, people on earth hold the resulting United States Constitution in higher esteem than do Latter-day Saints. The Lord has said: “That every man may act in doctrine and principle … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. …
“And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:78, 80).
The Constitution and Bill of Rights applied directly to the needs of a new religion because they provided for freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. Later the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner.”29
“It was decreed in the councils of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid,” said Brigham Young, that 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 fullness 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. … 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.”30
Thus, many of the Prophet’s ancestors were God-fearing Christians, including his parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, who were married in 1796, seven years after the Constitution was ratified. Before Joseph’s birth, his grandfather Asael Smith said: “It has been borne in upon my soul that one of my descendants will promulgate a work to revolutionize the world of religious faith.”31 Years later the Prophet Joseph Smith related that his grandfather died “after having received the Book of Mormon, and read it nearly through; and he declared that I was the very Prophet that he had long known would come in his family.”32
Elder Petersen noted that it was only a handful of years “after America was established as a free constitutional nation that one of the great spirits in the [premortal existence] was sent to earth to be born on December 23, 1805, in a little farmhouse; and he was named Joseph Smith.”33 With the birth of the Prophet, the curtains closed on the divinely orchestrated prelude to the Restoration, and conditions were ready for the dispensation of the fulness of times.