Newspapers and magazines often ask which public figures are most admired by young and old. Those receiving most votes usually are athletic and entertainment stars or political and religious leaders. If the same question were asked about historical personalities, faithful Latter-day Saints would probably nominate Joseph Smith. He was, and is honored not only because he was a great prophet-leader, but also because he was a loving, caring human being. His steady commitment to Christ was outstanding, and his growth from youthful weakness to mature ministry shows that God was with him. A careful study of Joseph’s life helps us get closer to the God that he served so courageously.
Not only is Joseph Smith great among all the prophets, but no other prophet left a life so well documented. Hundreds left their impressions of the man in journals and memoirs, and Church secretaries recorded his deeds and words in detail. Through the eyes of careful observers, we can see the qualities that made him a powerful servant of the Lord. And especially through his own candid words we can see how he developed in body, mind, and spirit.
Born 23 December 1805, Joseph was ten years old when his parents decided that they would move from New England because their crops had frozen three years in a row. Late that season the family followed their father to new farmland in western New York. Young Joseph hobbled over snowy roads with a severe limp from a crippling bone operation three years before. Yet he outgrew this as he worked in the fields with his brothers, clearing land, building fences, and erecting buildings for their use. By such hard work Joseph developed a strong body that served him well in the travels and trials required of the first leader of the restored church.
An important by-product of a strong body should be self-confidence in using it. Many personal descriptions of the prophet spoke of physical strength and a determined spirit, as does Parley P. Pratt’s in calling him “tall and well built, strong and active,” possessing “a noble boldness and independence of character” (The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, New York, 1888, page 48).
The Prophet led the way in physical and moral courage. For example, the morning after he was attacked and tarred and feathered by the mob, he was scraped clean and then preached to a congregation that included his enemies. Not so well known is a similar episode in returning from a Canadian mission in the latter part of 1837. At the time, a friend of the family wrote of the Prophet and his companion Sidney Rigdon making their way back to Kirtland, Ohio, through the swamps at night. They had been unjustly arrested, but they escaped at night, and a mob of men was trying to track them down. Joseph took his older counselor by the hand, and they “covenanted to live and die together.” When the mob came their way, Joseph and Sidney hid on wet ground, hardly breathing for the fear of discovery. The mud-soaked men reached home about 3:00 A.M., sick with fatigue, but after a short sleep Joseph appeared in the temple to speak “in a very powerful manner and blessed the congregation in the name of the Lord.”
Two years later the Prophet came out of Liberty Jail and planned a winter trip to Washington D.C. to seek federal help for the Latter-day Saints who had lost their homes and property in Missouri. Not far from the nation’s capital, the horses pulling the stagecoach ran out of control of the driver for about four kilometers. Joseph carefully opened the door of the swaying stagecoach, pulled himself up over the side to the driver’s seat, where he got control of the reins and stopped the horses, saving the lives of the passengers. This event was confirmed by a letter of appreciation that appeared in a local newspaper.
Yet the real adventures of the Prophet’s life were his victories of mind and spirit. As a boy, he was inquisitive, even joining the village debating society to become informed and understand the issues of the day. He later recalled how he had listened to various ministers of religion and thought deeply about their doctrines. His mother described him as a boy who would not only study a subject but also meditate deeply on what he had learned. His adult talks are filled with readily remembered quotations from scripture and well-informed comments on their background. The Prophet was an example for us. He was not content to just read—he thought deeply about the meaning of what he read.
Joseph learned that there were partial truths in various religions but not the full perspective of God. As he questioned, answers eventually came by the Holy Ghost, by visions, and by special messengers. One thing that made Joseph a great Prophet was thinking and seeking so intensely.
There are questions that reason alone cannot answer. The solution to this problem is prayer, and Joseph discovered the power of prayer early in his life. He was still in his twenties when he wrote about his youthful searching for answers. He first asked ministers to tell him about God, but he saw contradictions between Christ’s teachings in the Bible and the divided Christians that lacked Christ’s spirit. “This was a grief to my soul,” he wrote. Far from getting a quick answer, he thought and searched the scriptures “from the age of twelve years to fifteen.” In this first detailed telling of the First Vision, Joseph emphasized how he “cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go.” We all know his full answer, when the Savior told him that His church was not then upon the earth. But the greatness of the answer is matched by the seriousness of the search. Joseph prayed after he had done everything else in his power.
Joseph’s life shows him a humble, prayerful person. He paid the price to receive the blessings Christ promised when he said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find” (Matt. 7:7).
Those closest to Joseph felt the power of the Spirit, which came upon him. Lorenzo Snow was eighteen years old and not yet converted when he first watched Joseph Smith. He heard Joseph Smith speak in his neighborhood, standing in the doorway of John Johnson’s farmhouse. The Prophet began telling of the coming of Moroni “in a rather low voice,” but his inner feelings poured out as he proceeded “and seemed to affect the whole audience with the feeling that he was honest and sincere.” After his baptism, Lorenzo attended meetings in the Kirtland temple when Joseph Smith’s “whole person shone,” (Deseret News, 23 December 1899).
It undoubtedly took a person with spiritual discernment to see such a light. Orson Pratt saw radiance about the Prophet as Joseph received a revelation. Brigham Young, wrote: “He [the Prophet] preached by the spirit of revelation and taught in his counsel by it, and those who were acquainted with him could discover it at once, for at such times there was a peculiar clearness and transparency in his face” (Journal of Discourses, 9:89).
Another fine quality of the Prophet Joseph was his willingness to sacrifice for others. His father gave him his patriarchal blessing in 1834 and looked back to Joseph’s boyhood years: “Thou hast been an obedient son. The commands of thy father and the reproofs of thy mother, thou hast respected and obeyed.” Joseph the man was rarely irritated but regularly shared his home with the stranger and put the comfort of the Latter-day Saints above his own.
Privately and publicly Joseph insisted that God had appeared to him and sent John the Baptist and the ancient Apostles to restore the authority to act in the name of God. Such claims brought ridicule and persecution wherever he lived. Joseph was never a flatterer who would seek popularity by telling the people what they wanted to hear. But under the pressure of rejection and danger, he declared at the end of his ministry: “If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out—I have no doubt of the truth.”
One of the best tests of Joseph’s mission was his closeness to the Saints. He spoke frankly from the pulpit without a prepared text, and lived side by side with his brothers and sisters with no pretense. His greatest strength was that he never denied his weaknesses. And the truth of his visions came in the plain words of speaking of things as they are. A month before he was killed, he testified again, “I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”
The capstone of all of Joseph’s revelations was the eternal sealing of the living and the salvation of the dead. These doctrines were featured in the Prophet’s preaching from the introduction of baptism for the dead in 1840 to his death in 1844. The presiding Apostles then added the statement on martyrdom to the Doctrine and Covenants, including an astounding assessment of Joseph’s work: “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). Such a claim can be understood if we remember that through the Prophet Joseph, the restored gospel affects the salvation of countless numbers of people, both the living and the dead.
True prophets and true disciples reflect God’s love. The Prophet had this quality in relationship to his wife and family, the church, the missionary work to the world, and the sealing ordinances to all the living and the dead. At the beginning of temple work, Joseph gave the Twelve the reason for the full program of the final dispensation: “Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race” (History of the Church, 4:227).