An acquaintance said to me one day: “I admire your church very much. I think I could accept everything about it—except Joseph Smith.” To which I responded: “That statement is a contradiction. If you accept the revelation, you must accept the revelator.”
It is a mystery to me how some people speak with admiration for the Church and its work, while at the same time disdaining him through whom, as a servant of the Lord, came the framework of all that the Church is, all that it teaches, and all that it stands for. They would pluck the fruit from the tree while cutting off the root from which it grows.
One hundred and fifty-one years have now passed since the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and history bears witness of the influence of this remarkable latter-day prophet.
The so-called Mormon code of health, widely praised in these days of cancer and heart research, is in reality a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1833 as a “Word of Wisdom” from the Lord (D&C 89:1). In no conceivable way could it have come of the dietary literature of the time, nor from the mind of the man who announced it. Today, in terms of medical research, it is a miracle, whose observance has saved incalculable suffering and premature death for uncounted tens of thousands.
Genealogical research is today a popular hobby. Thousands of eyes across the world have been turned to what is described as the Mormon treasure house of family history data. But this tremendous program of the Church did not result from the pursuit of a hobby. It is an extension of the teachings of Joseph Smith, the latter-day prophet. He declared that we cannot be saved without our forebears, those who did not have a knowledge of the gospel and consequently could not fulfill its requirements nor partake of its opportunities.
The remarkable organization of the Church, which has received much attention, was framed by him as he was directed by revelation, and no modification or adaptation of that organization is ever considered without searching the revelations set forth by the Prophet.
The welfare program, which some are prone to regard as of rather recent origin, is founded and operated strictly upon principles enunciated by Joseph Smith in the early years of the Church. This is likewise true of the family home evening program, which is no more than an extension of early revelation on the responsibility of parents to bring up their children in “light and truth” (D&C 93:40).
Not long ago, while riding on an airplane, I talked with a young man who was seated beside me. We moved from one subject to another, and then came to the matter of religion. He said he had read considerably about the Mormons, had found much to admire, but that he had a definite prejudice concerning the origin of the Church and particularly Joseph Smith.
He was an active member of another religion, and when I asked where he had acquired his information about the LDS church, he indicated it had come from publications of his church. I asked what company he worked for. He proudly replied that he was a sales representative for IBM. I then asked whether he would think it fair for his customers to learn of the qualities of IBM products from a Xerox representative. He replied with a smile, “I think I get the point.”
I took from my case a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and read to him the words of the Lord expressed through Joseph Smith, words which are the source of those practices my friend had come to admire in us while disdaining the man through whom they had come. Before we parted, he agreed to read the literature I would send to him. I promised him that if he would do so prayerfully he would know the truth not only of these doctrines and practices which have interested him, but also of the man through whom they were introduced. I then gave him my testimony concerning the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.
We do not worship the Prophet. We worship God, our Eternal Father, and the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. But we reverence Joseph Smith as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty in restoring to the earth the ancient truths of the divine gospel, together with the priesthood through which the authority of God is exercised.
The story of Joseph’s life is the story of a miracle. He was born in poverty, reared in adversity, driven from place to place, falsely accused, illegally imprisoned, and murdered at the age of 38.
Yet in the brief space of 20 years he accomplished what none other has accomplished in a lifetime. He translated and published the Book of Mormon, a volume of 531 pages, which has since been retranslated into 38 languages and parts of which are translated into an additional 48 languages, and which is accepted by millions across the earth as the word of God. The revelations he received and other writings he produced are likewise scripture. The total in book pages constitutes the equivalent of almost the entire Old Testament, and it all came through one man in the space of a few years.
In this same period, he established an organization which for more than a century and a half has withstood every adversity and challenge and which is as effective today in governing a worldwide membership of nine million as it was 160 years ago in governing a membership of three thousand. There are doubters who have strained to explain this remarkable organization as the product of the times in which he lived. That organization, I submit, was as unique and remarkable then as it is today. It was not a product of the times. It came as a revelation from God.
Joseph Smith’s vision of man’s immortal nature reached from an existence before birth to the eternities beyond the grave. He taught that all men will become the beneficiaries of the Resurrection through the atonement wrought by the Savior. But beyond this gift is the requirement of obedience to the principles of the gospel and the promise of consequent happiness in this life and exaltation in the life to come.
Nor was the gospel he taught limited in application to those of his own and future generations. The mind of Joseph Smith, tutored by the God of heaven, encompassed all mankind of all generations. Within the space of the 20 years preceding his death, Joseph set in motion a program for carrying the gospel to the nations of the earth. I marvel at the boldness with which he moved. Even in the infant days of the Church, in times of dark adversity, men were called to leave homes and families, to cross the sea, to proclaim the restoration of the gospel. His vision encompassed the entire earth.
Come to Temple Square during the Church’s general conferences, and you will see those from North, Central, and South America; from the British Isles and Africa; from Europe; from the Pacific; and from the ancient lands of Asia. They come from far and near. They are the flowering of the vision of Joseph Smith, the prophet of God. He saw this day and greater days yet to come as the work of the Lord moves over the earth.
This flowering would amaze those men with painted faces who, in a cowardly attack, shot and killed the Prophet that sultry June day in 1844. It would amaze Illinois Governor Thomas Ford, who had pledged to protect the Prophet and then left him to the mob. It was this same Thomas Ford who concluded in his history that Joseph Smith “never could succeed in establishing a system of policy which looked to permanent success in the future” (Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois … , quoted in B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:347). Thomas Ford today lies buried in Peoria, Illinois, largely forgotten, while the man he judged a failure is remembered all over the earth.
When I was 12 years old, my father took me to a meeting of the priesthood of the stake in which we lived. I sat on the back row, while he, as president of the stake, sat on the stand. At the opening of that meeting, the first of its kind I had ever attended, three or four hundred men stood. They were men from varied backgrounds and many vocations, but each had in his heart the same conviction, out of which together they sang these great words:
(Hymns, 1985, number 27)
Something happened within me as I heard those men sing. There came into my heart a knowledge, placed there by the Spirit, that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God. In the many years that have since passed, years in which I have read much of his words and works, that knowledge has grown stronger and ever more certain.
(Hymns, 1985, number 27)