Many years ago when at the age of twelve I was ordained a deacon, my father, who was president of our stake, took me to my first priesthood meeting. In those days these meetings were held on a week night. I recall that we went to the Tenth Ward building in Salt Lake City, Utah. He walked up to the stand, and I sat on the back row, feeling a little alone and uncomfortable in that hall filled with strong men who had been ordained to the priesthood of God. The meeting was called to order, the opening hymn was announced, and—as was then the custom—we all stood to sing. There were perhaps as many as four hundred there. Together these men lifted their strong voices, some with the accents of the European lands from which they had come as converts, all singing these words with a great spirit of conviction and testimony:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
(Hymns, No. 147.)
They were singing of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and as they did so there came into my heart a great surge of love for and belief in the mighty Prophet of this dispensation. In my childhood I had been taught much of him in meetings and classes in our ward as well as in our home; but my experience in that stake priesthood meeting was different. I knew then, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God.
It is true that during the years which followed there were times when that testimony wavered somewhat, particularly in the years of my undergraduate university work. However, that conviction never left me entirely; and it has grown stronger through the years, partly because of the challenges of those days which compelled me to read and study and make certain for myself. I think that many of you have gone through similar experiences. President Harold B. Lee once said that our testimonies need renewing every day. In harmony with that principle, I would desire to strengthen our testimonies of the great work that the God of heaven has permitted to transpire in these last days.
A few years ago, I received a letter written by an evangelist who in a bitter manner lashed out against the Prophet Joseph Smith, calling him a wicked imposter, a fraud, a fake, and a deceiver, and declaring that he was undertaking a campaign to spread his views. Whatever became of the evangelist’s work, I do not know. It will not have been significant. That kind of work may topple a few of the weak, but it only strengthens the strong. And long after that man and others of his kind have gone down to silence, the name of Joseph Smith will continue to ring with honor and love in the hearts of an ever-growing number of Latter-day Saints in an ever-increasing number of nations.
I remember being in Nauvoo, Illinois, the City of Joseph, with two brethren of the Quorum of the Seventy and twelve mission presidents and their wives for a mission presidents’ seminar. The touch of autumn was on the land—the leaves golden, a little haze in the air, the night cool, the days warm. The tourist season was over, and the city was quiet and beautiful. We held our first meeting in the restored Seventies Hall, where in the 1840s men prepared themselves, through study and through teaching one another the doctrine of the kingdom, to go out to declare the message of the gospel to the world. The work that went on there was a forerunner of the Missionary Training Centers of the Church. As we met in that and other homes and halls in Nauvoo, in our minds and hearts it was as if the figures of the past were with us—Joseph and Hyrum, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, the brothers Pratt—Orson and Parley—and a host of others.
This was indeed Joseph’s city. He was the prophet who planned it, and his followers had built it. It became the largest and the most impressive in the state of Illinois. With sturdy brick homes; with halls for worship, instruction, and entertainment; and with the magnificent temple standing on the crest of the slope up from the river, this community on the Mississippi was put together as if its builders were to be there for a century or more.
There, before that tragic day at Carthage, the Prophet was at the zenith of his mortal career. As I stood where he once stood and gazed on the city, I thought of the events that had brought him there, reviewing in my mind his inheritance. I thought of his forebears who generations before had left the British Isles and come to Boston; of their lives in the New World, through five generations on his father’s side and four on his mother’s; of their labors in clearing the lands of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont to build farms and homes; of their distinguished service in the War for Independence; of the adversities and the failures they experienced in trying to gain a living from the granite hills among which they lived. I thought of the little boy, born in Sharon, Vermont, in December of 1805, given his father’s name. I reflected on that terrifying period of sickness when typhus fever struck the family, and osteomyelitis [bone disease], with great pain and weakening infection, settled in Joseph’s leg. That was while the family lived in Lebanon, New Hampshire; and how remarkable it was that only a few kilometers away, at the college in Hanover, was Dr. Nathan Smith, who had developed a procedure by which that infected leg might be saved.
But the cure was not to be accomplished without terrible suffering. In fact, today it is difficult to conceive how the little boy stood it as his father held him in his arms and his mother walked and prayed among the trees of the farm to escape his screams while the surgeon made the long incision and broke off the portions of infected bone without benefit of anesthesia of any kind. Perhaps remembrance of that intense suffering helped prepare Joseph Smith for the later tarring and feathering at Kirtland, the foul jail at Liberty, and the shots of the mob at Carthage.
As I contemplated Joseph Smith’s life, I thought of the forces that moved the Smith family from generations of life in New England to western New York, where they had to come if the foreordained purposes of God were to be accomplished. I thought of the loss of the family farm, of poor crops in that thin soil, of the great freeze of 1816 when a killing frost in July forced upon them the decision to look elsewhere; then of the move to Palmyra, of the purchase of a farm in Manchester, and of there revivalist preachers who stirred the people and so confused a boy that he determined to ask God for wisdom.
That was the real beginning of it all, that spring day in the year 1820 when he knelt among the trees, opened his mouth in prayer, and beheld a glorious vision in which he spoke with God the Eternal Father and his Son, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Then followed the years of instruction, the instructor an angel of God who on a number of occasions taught, rebuked, warned, and comforted the boy as he grew into a young man.
And so, while I was in Nauvoo I reflected on the preparation for prophethood; I reflected on this amazing Joseph Smith. I cannot expect his detractors to know of his prophetic calling by the power of the Holy Ghost, but I can raise some questions for them to deal with before they can dismiss Joseph Smith. I raise only three of many that might be asked: First, what do you do with the Book of Mormon? Second, how do you explain his power to influence strong men to follow him, even to their death? And third, how do you rationalize the fulfillment of his prophecies?
I take in my hand the Book of Mormon. I read its words. I have read Joseph Smith’s explanation of how it came to be. To the unbelieving it is a story difficult to accept, and critics for generations have worn out their lives writing books intended to disprove that story and to offer other explanations than the one given by Joseph the Prophet. But to the open-minded, this critical writing has only stimulated them to dig deeper; and the more deeply they dig, the greater the accumulation of evidence for the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s story. Still, as has been demonstrated for a hundred and fifty years, the truth of the Book of Mormon will not be determined by literary analysis or by scientific research, although these continue to be reassuring. The truth about the origins of the Book of Mormon will be determined today and tomorrow, as it has been throughout the yesterdays, by reading the book in a spirit of reverence and respect and prayer.
Some time ago, I received a letter from a father who said that, in response to a challenge I once offered at general conference that we read the Book of Mormon, he and his family were going to read the first edition, which touched so deeply so many strong and able men who read it when it first came from the press. I commended him but hastened to add that no one need look for a first edition to get the spirit of this remarkable volume. Every one of the more than a million copies that will be printed this year carries that same spirit, includes that same marvelous promise, and will yield the same result in testimony concerning the truth of the book.
The Book of Mormon is here to be handled and to be read with prayer and sincere inquiry. All the work of its critics throughout the hundred and fifty-three years of the book’s presence has lacked credibility and has been without effect on those who have prayerfully read the book and received by the power of the Holy Ghost a witness of its truth. If there were no other evidence for the divine mission of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon would stand as an undeniable witness of that fact. To think that anyone less than one inspired could bring forth a volume which should have so profound an effect for good upon so many others is to imagine that which simply cannot be. The evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon is found in the lives of the millions, living and gone, who have read it, prayed about it, and received a witness of its truth.
My second question, how do you explain Joseph Smith’s power to influence strong men and women to follow him, even to their death? is similarly difficult to dismiss. Anyone who has any doubt about Joseph Smith’s powers of leadership need only look at the men who were attracted to him. They did not come for wealth. They did not come for political power. They were not drawn by dreams of military conquest. His offering to them was none of these; rather, it concerned only salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It involved persecution with its pain and losses, long and lonely missions, separation from family and friends, and in many cases death itself.
Take for instance, Orson Hyde. Brother Hyde was a sales clerk in the village of Kirtland when he met Joseph Smith, the youthful prophet. It was to this unknown, unpromising young seller of buttons and thread and calico that Joseph, speaking in the name of the Lord, would say that he, Orson Hyde, was ordained “to proclaim the everlasting gospel, by the Spirit of the living God, from people to people, and from land to land, in the congregations of the wicked, in their synagogues, reasoning with and expounding all scriptures unto them.” (D&C 68:1.)
This young man, this clerk in a village store, under the inspiration of that prophetic call, walked two thousand miles on foot through Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York, “reasoning with and expounding all scriptures unto” all he met.
I recall being in Orson Hyde’s home in Nauvoo, the comfortable home he left to travel to England and Germany and to visit Constantinople, [now Istanbul], Cairo, and Alexandria en route to Jerusalem where on 24 October 1841, he stood on the Mount of Olives and dedicated by the authority of the holy priesthood the land of Palestine for the return of the Jews. That was a quarter of a century before Theodor Herzl [1860–1904] undertook the work of gathering the Jews to their homeland.
For another example, take Willard Richards—an educated man who, when Joseph and Hyrum Smith surrendered themselves to the governor of Illinois and were placed in Carthage Jail, was among a handful of men who went with them. By the afternoon of 27 June 1844, most had been sent to take care of certain matters of business, leaving only John Taylor and Willard Richards with the Prophet and his brother Hyrum. That afternoon following dinner, the jailer, knowing of the mob outside, suggested that they would be safer in the cell of the jail. Turning to Willard Richards, Joseph asked, “If we go into the cell will you go with us?” To this Elder Richards responded:
“Brother Joseph, you did not ask me to cross the river with you … you did not ask me to come to Carthage … you did not aske me to come to jail with you—and do you think I would forsake you now? But I will tell you what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for ‘treason,’ I will be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.” (B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:283.)
Strong and intelligent men do not demonstrate that kind of love for an imposter or a fraud. That kind of love comes of God and the recognition of integrity in men. It is an expression of the spirit and reflects the example of the Savior, who gave his life for all men and who declared, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13.)
There were so many others—the Youngs, the Kimballs, the Taylors, the Snows, the Pratts, and more upon more—who when they first met Joseph Smith seemed ordinary and unpromising, but who under the power of the truths and priesthood that Joseph Smith restored became giants in achievement through their service to others.
Finally, what of Joseph Smith’s prophecies? There were more than a few, and they were fulfilled. Among the most notable was the revelation on the Civil War spoken on Christmas Day, 1832. There were many high-minded men and women who deplored the institution of slavery then common in the Southern United States, and there was much talk of the abolition of slavery. But who but a prophet of God would have dared to say, thirty-nine years before it was to happen, that “war [would] be poured out upon all nations,” beginning “at the rebellion of South Carolina,” and that “the Southern States [would] be divided against the Northern States”? (D&C 87:1–3.) This remarkable prediction saw its fulfillment with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in 1861. How could Joseph Smith have possibly foreseen with such accuracy the event that was to come thirty-nine years after he spoke of it? Only by the spirit of prophecy which was in him.
Or again, consider the equally remarkable prophecy concerning the movement of the Saints to the mountain valleys of the Great Salt Lake. The Saints were then living in Nauvoo and its sister community across the Mississippi and were enjoying a prosperity they had not previously known. They were building a temple and other substantial structures. Their new homes were of brick, constructed to endure. And yet one day in August of 1842, while visiting in Montrose, Joseph prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and [speaking to those who were present] “some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.” (History of the Church, 5:85.)
Viewed in the context of the time and circumstances, this statement is nothing less than remarkable. Only a man speaking with a knowledge beyond his own could have uttered words which would be so literally fulfilled.
And what of this prophecy, which so magnificently foresaw the joyous destiny of this church?
“Our missionaries are going forth to different nations … the Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny many defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church, 4:540.)
Great was the Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision. It encompassed all the peoples of mankind, wherever they live, and all generations who have walked the earth and passed on. How can anyone, past or present, speak against him except out of ignorance? They have not tasted of his words, they have not pondered about him, nor prayed about him. As one who has done these things, I add my own words of testimony that he was and is a prophet of God, raised up as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to usher in a new and final gospel dispensation. Of the Prophet Joseph Smith, we could say:
“When a man gives his life for the cause he has advocated, he meets the highest test of his honesty and sincerity that his own or any future generation can in fairness ask. When he dies for the testimony he has borne, all malicious tongues should ever after be silent, and all voices hushed in reverence before a sacrifice so complete.” (Ezra Dalby, manuscript, Dec. 12, 1926.)
It is most fitting that today we sing in tribute to Joseph Smith, the great latter-day servant of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ:
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
(Hymns, No. 147.)