Shortly after World War II, I was visiting in Washington, D.C., and happened to pick up a New York newspaper. On the front page in a small box was reported an interview with an historian who for a year had been visiting the United States and was about to return to his native land. I have forgotten the name of this historian, but I have not forgotten one of the questions reported to have been asked of him. The reporter said, “You have been in America for a year, studying our history and our people. Tell me, which of all the Americans do you consider the greatest?”
The historian answered, “You have had only one great American—Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.”
Giving a reason for his statement, he said, “There is only one American who has advocated a way of life and has brought forth ideas, which, if followed, would change the whole society of the world.”
Delving into the life and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith reveals a wealth of ideas so revolutionary that they could, if adopted, change the course of human history.
We don’t recognize how different from his times Joseph Smith was in his views:
He gave a new perspective of God, a restoration if you will, but a perspective at variance with that which prevailed. He proclaimed our Father to be a personal god, with a body—an individual who could speak and would speak to man—a person who would hear and answer prayers.
He brought forth new evidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, a resurrected being who had not only appeared in our day but had reestablished his church and was directing it.
He elevated man to a new position as the literal son of God and a potential to be like God, who not only lived before appearing in the flesh but will live again after death and can, as a possibility, become a god.
He stated man to be the same species as God.
He declared that the whole purpose for the creation of this earth is for the benefit and eternal life of man—that our purpose in living is that we might have joy.
He taught that salvation will be universal, that all mankind will rise from the grave and can be forgiven of their sins upon repentance.
He announced that all the billions who have died might yet hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and, accepting it, have performed for them upon the earth all those necessary ordinances that lead to salvation.
These and countless other ideas are revolutionary. They are ideas that we still proclaim to the world and that, if accepted, could change the faith of all men.
Joseph Smith had some qualities that enabled God to use him and that would enable God to use you and me if we possessed them. For greatness is not handed to man upon a platter, and no individual can be an instrument in God’s hands except he possesses the qualities that are inherent in leadership.
First is the quality of intelligence. Without opportunity for formal schooling, the Prophet was interested in almost every subject. In 1836, he was instrumental in bringing to the city of Kirtland, Ohio, where the Church was quartered, a Professor Seixas, a Hebrew scholar. The Prophet believed that the Church leaders should be familiar with the language. But how much Hebrew could you learn in 14 weeks, attending two or three nights a week? Only two students could read Hebrew with any degree of fluency afterward—Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt. The Prophet also appears to be the only one who publicly discussed various passages in the Bible from the Hebrew text.
Frequently, we determine the intelligence of an individual by whether or not the views expressed in his lifetime withstand criticism in the years that follow. Some of the political views of the Prophet Joseph are interesting to review today:
He advocated a federal banking system—a type of reserve system that was not established in this country until 1917.
He urged Congress to place locks in the Mississippi River for the benefit of navigation. He didn’t live to see his hope fulfilled, but today, the Keokuk Dam and locks, which permit large vessels to move on the river, have been built at the very spot advocated by the Prophet.
He proposed a prison reform system that is just beginning to be realized. Joseph contended that our prisons should become seminaries of learning if we expect to rehabilitate those who have violated the laws of our society.
It is not because Joseph Smith advocated these things that they have finally been adopted. But it does indicate that his views in many fields, in addition to religion, have proven to be realistic and farsighted.
Zeal for Learning
There is a second quality of the Prophet Joseph, a quality that you and I must have if we want to become leaders. It is a zeal for learning.
You may recall in the New Testament the story of a young student. He journeyed with his parents, Joseph and Mary, down to the feast of the Passover. We don’t know why the party with whom he traveled to Jerusalem left before the feast was over, but it appears as if they did; they were some distance on their way when Joseph and Mary discovered that their son was not with them. They went back and found him sitting at the feet—or standing before—some of the great Jewish teachers. At 12 years of age, Jesus Christ had a zeal for learning.
Joseph Smith was of like nature. At the age of 14, he sought the true church. He would not give up until he found the answer. Throughout his life, a zeal for learning was one of his great qualities.
This quality of mind is exemplified in the many languages he studied. He had a working knowledge of Hebrew and often studied the Bible in German. He also learned to decipher Egyptian. In an address to the Saints, he made a list of some dozen languages and said, “If I live long enough, I’m going to master them all.”
Faith in a Living God
This zeal for learning might not seem so vital and might not have brought him to greatness save for a third qualification, for we have indeed had intelligent men and women in this world who have also had a great desire to know and whom we admire, but who have often lacked the third quality—faith in a living God.
What has this to do with learning? Joseph Smith indicates that often when he struggled with a problem and could not find the answer, he went to the Lord in prayer. If he prayed in faith, “the answer,” he said, “came into my mind, with such clarity and such sequence of thoughts that I knew it was of God and I dictated the answer to my scribe.”
No matter how intelligent we may be or how desirous to learn, without faith in God, many areas are closed to us. But these were not closed to Joseph Smith.
I think that a vital example of his faith is found in his experience with the book of Genesis in the Bible. Any reader of that book runs into problems. For example, the biblical record indicates that Adam and Eve had three sons, Cain, Abel, and Seth. Cain killed Abel and that left Cain and Seth to perpetuate the human race. Anyone reading the Bible knows that is impossible.
Joseph Smith exercised great faith when he prayed to the Lord to reveal to him the original context of this book of Moses. The original writings had been lost to the world, but Joseph prayed to the Lord to reveal them to him. That revealed text we have today is the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price. It constitutes one of the greatest additions to biblical scholarship that has ever been given to the world.
Power of Introspection
Joseph possessed a fourth quality that is important to all of us. It is the power of introspection—the power to look within ourselves and see what kind of person we are.
Every morning, each one of us looks into a mirror to examine our physical appearance—hair styling, makeup, general health. Have you ever thought how fine it would be to look within yourself—to meet yourself on the street and ask yourself what kind of a person you are, to interrogate yourself? Do you know your own faults, your own strengths?
Here is an interesting quality of the Prophet Joseph. He knew his weaknesses and his strengths. He declared, “I was a rough stone until the Lord took me in hand.” (History of the Church, 5:423.)
Most of us hide our weaknesses. When we read in the Doctrine and Covenants, sections 3, 6, 10, and 24 [D&C 3; D&C 6; D&C 10; D&C 24], we find that the Lord frequently upbraided the Prophet Joseph for failure to follow fully the directions given him. A lesser man would not have recorded those reprimands, but the Prophet never spared himself. He acknowledged and corrected his errors.
When he translated the Book of Mormon, Joseph recognized his weakness in regard to the English language, for he had had so little schooling. He studied the language, and when the second edition of the Book of Mormon came from the press, he had personally corrected the grammatical errors of the first edition. If you want to see him at his literary finest, reread sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. [D&C 121, 122, 123] This beautiful writing stands as a monument to a man’s ability to rise.
The Prophet recognized in himself many weaknesses, but he set about to overcome them. He recorded that on one occasion, a man came into his home and in a rage called him almost every name under heaven. The Prophet wrote that he was so incensed he kicked the man out of his house and all the way to the front gate. He then went back to his office and wrote in his journal how unbecoming of a prophet his actions had been. He never lost his temper again.
When he was imprisoned in Liberty Jail during that hard winter of 1838–1839, without a fire or proper food, Joseph heard lurid stories about how his people had been driven and massacred and the women ravaged. He pleaded with the Lord:
“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
“How long shall thy hand be stayed.” (D&C 121:1–2.)
It was a prayer of complaint. But when the Lord answered him, he said unto him:
“Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job.” (D&C 121:10.)
He reminded him that the Son of Man had descended below them all: “Art thou greater than he?” Joseph Smith did not complain again.
Love of People
Let me refer to a fifth characteristic of the man: love of people. No man can be great in this world without a love for his fellowmen. Emma said of Joseph that he would not even eat a meal alone but would have to invite a stranger from the street to share it with him. (See History of the Church, 6:166.) Written accounts are full of instances in which he stood for the defense of an individual. His own written account is full of situations in which he rebuked the Saints for criticizing one another.
The supreme evidence of his love occurred in June 1844 when, having had it revealed to him by the Lord that his enemies sought his life, he had planned to journey into the West and find a place for the Saints where they might be safe. He had crossed the Mississippi when word came from his wife Emma, “The Saints think you are a coward. They are charging that you are running away.” From Joseph came these famous words: “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of no value to me. Hyrum, we are going back.” (See Essentials in Church History, p. 374.)
As he rode out of Nauvoo on his way to Carthage to give himself up to the sheriff, he turned in the saddle, and looking back upon the city of Nauvoo, said, “Oh, that I could but speak once more to my beloved people.”
On the highway, he met Steven Markham who said to him, “Joseph, where are you going?” He answered, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am as calm as a summer’s morning I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men.” (Essentials in Church History, p. 376.)
This is the Prophet Joseph Smith who possessed these five great qualities: intelligence, zeal for learning, faith in a living God, the ability to look within himself and correct his own character, and a love of people. These five qualities, possessed collectively, helped to make Joseph Smith a fit instrument in the hands of God to be a prophet to this dispensation. These same qualities will greatly help us in our callings if we will but recognize and cultivate them.