“The Prophet of the Lord”—the title brings to mind all sorts of images, from bewhiskered men of the desert, with long flowing robes, to modern-day presidents of the Church.
It calls to mind such revered patriarchs as Adam and Abraham; such sensitive souls as Enoch, John the Beloved, and Lorenzo Snow; such dynamic, rugged leaders as Moses and Brigham Young; such crusaders as Paul and Alma; and men who spanned the ages in prophetic vision like Isaiah and Joseph Smith.
All of the prophets are different; each adds his own special uniqueness. Yet all of them are similar in one important aspect, and that is in relationship to the central focus of their life—their faith, trust, and confidence in one individual, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The term prophet may have several connotations, but no definition is more apt than that of “one who is possessed of the spirit of prophecy.” And, according to John the Beloved, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Rev. 19:10.)
Because of this focal point, we might suspect that prophets would reflect some facets of the personality that is Christ’s; others may reflect another. But taken as a totality they present an inspiring and intensely motivating study of life and varying life-styles.
In our day, numerous men have been prophets—those who serve in the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, as well as the patriarch to the Church are all sustained as such—but few men have been the prophet.
President Joseph Fielding Smith has written:
“Each of the Apostles when he is ordained has conferred upon him all the keys and authorities which were given by Joseph Smith to the Apostles before his death. These brethren, however, cannot exercise those authorities except when the occasion arises that they come to the Presidency. Before that time the powers lie dormant. This is the reason why they are sustained as prophets, seers and revelators in the Church, but there can be but one revelator for the Church at a time (the President of the Church). All keys of the priesthood reside in his person and are delegated by his direction.”
Obviously, such a man must have special qualifications and must be a man who has found favor with the Lord. Such is truly the case because this is a calling that rests in a special way with the Lord. The prophet’s life must be preserved by our Father in heaven so that he may become the senior apostle and, consequently, president of the Church.
When the president of the Church passes away, the First Presidency is dissolved and the Council of the Twelve automatically becomes the presiding body in the Church. The president of the Council of the Twelve then becomes the president of the Church. Brigham Young presided over the Church as president of the Council of the Twelve for over three years before a new First Presidency was organized. John Taylor also presided over the Church for three years in the same capacity, as did Wilford Woodruff for two years. In this calling, they were just as much prophet and spokesman for the Lord as they were when they presided with two counselors as a First Presidency. We are told that a special revelation to the president of the Council of the Twelve would be required for any other than himself to become president of the Church. As President Woodruff noted in a letter to Heber J. Grant (Mar. 28, 1887):
“As far as I am concerned it would require … a revelation from the same God who had organized the church and guided it by inspiration in the channel in which it has travelled for 57 years, before I could give my vote or influence to depart from the paths followed by the Apostles since the organization of the Church …”
Thus the passing of the mantle from prophet to prophet is an orderly affair, “by a procedure unique and by an ordained plan that avoids … the possibility of using political devices or revolutionary methods that could cause much confusion and frustration in the work of the Lord.”
The ten men who have presided over the Church in this dispensation have been men of great stature in differing ways. Each has made a special contribution; each has been a rare individual; each has been called and prepared early in life for his unique role. Each has endeared himself to the youth of his own generation, and each has something to say to youth of all generations.
For this reason this issue of the New Era has been dedicated to the memory of the ten prophets of this dispensation, with a focus on those aspects of their own lives that parallel most closely the lives of youth today, for none of these men was “reared in a vacuum.” They met life in all of its total intensity, grappling with its problems and struggling with its challenges. And in many ways their lives were more difficult than ours today because all were products, in a sense, of the American frontier, even President Joseph Fielding Smith who was born during the administration of President Brigham Young!
They knew hardship, they knew poverty and struggle, they knew temptation, even as we know it, but they were each a special type of man, and God signaled their importance to them while they were still in youth. He knew their hearts and their aspirations—and what is more important, perhaps, they knew him. His son Jesus Christ became the focus of their lives, and because of this and their desire always to remember him and to keep his commandments, they qualified themselves eventually to become his spokesmen on earth.
When Joseph Smith was just past his fourteenth year, during that most difficult time when one begins to pass into adulthood and many subsequent problems arise, the Father and the Son appeared to him, apprising him of his standing before them and counseling him to remain faithful.
He was instructed to join no church, was given other instructions, and was told whatever else may come under the description “many other things … which I cannot write at this time.” Because of this event early in his life, Joseph is sometimes called “the boy prophet,” but one would need to be cautious in pushing the designation too far. Joseph was twenty-four years of age when he was given the priesthood—the age of a returned missionary or college graduate. In short, he was called early in life to prepare, but only time and experience can really bring the type of maturity that is needful to preside in the councils of the Church.
Even at that, Joseph was amazingly young for such a calling. He was in his twenty-fifth year when he became the first elder of the Church and less than three months past his twenty-eighth birthday when the initial First Presidency was formed. Brigham Young was forty-three when he became the Lord’s spokesman. From the time of John Taylor to David O. McKay the president became president at ages ranging from sixty-two to eighty-four and died at ages from seventy-nine to ninety-six. The average age of the living prophet has been about seventy-nine years of age. Thus, as President Spencer W. Kimball has noted:
“We may expect the Church President will always be an older man; young men have action, vigor, initiative; older men, stability and strength and wisdom through experience and long communion with God.”
Joseph Smith was a rare exception to that rule because of the unique position he held in being the prophet chosen of God to begin this dispensation.
Brigham Young was also identified for leadership early in life. As a young convert to the Church, thirty-one years of age, he came to visit the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. Brigham met Joseph initially in the woods near Kirtland, when Joseph was chopping and hauling wood. That evening a special meeting of these famous men of history took place. Brigham Young later recounted:
“In the evening a few of the brethren came in, and we conversed together upon the things of the kingdom. He (the Prophet) called upon me to pray; in my prayer I spoke in tongues. As soon as we arose from our knees the brethren flocked around him, and asked his opinion concerning the gift of tongues that was upon me. He told them it was the pure Adamic language. Some said to him they expected he would condemn the gift Brother Brigham had, but he said, ‘No, it is of God, and the time will come when brother Brigham Young will preside over this Church.’ The latter part of this conversation was in my absence.”
Thus the Lord had shown his hand twelve years before the event, and his eyes were already upon Brigham, watching and guiding him in his life. But Brigham Young had many lessons to learn, and the following twelve years were filled with trials and difficult decisions, all of which led to a purposeful end.
John Taylor was also chosen early in life, and although he was a full ocean apart from the other Church leaders, the Lord was quietly working on him in such a way that he would eventually be brought into contact with the other apostles of the Church. When he was only sixteen years of age, John Taylor was moved upon in such a way that he spent many hours searching after the Lord, and the nearness of the Lord was often manifest to him. He wrote: “Often when alone, and sometimes in company, I heard sweet, soft, melodious music, as if performed by angelic or supernatural beings.” He saw, while still a small boy, an angel in the heavens with a trumpet to its mouth, sounding a message to the nations. (The significance of this vision should be evident to all members of the Church.) At seventeen he became a local preacher in the Methodist Church and one day, while traveling with a friend to a Methodist meeting, received a very strong impression that he was to go to America to preach. Nearly seven years later at age twenty-four, President Taylor embraced the Church at the hands of Parley P. Pratt, who had been called by special revelation to take the gospel to Toronto, Canada, where John Taylor was residing.
Wilford Woodruff’s warning came from a man who was not even a member of the Church, a close friend by the name of Robert Mason. Before the restoration of the gospel, several individuals received manifestations informing them of the impending restoration. Robert Mason was one such individual, and he informed Wilford Woodruff that he would be a “conspicuous actor in the new kingdom,” although Mr. Mason himself would never live to meet those who held the priesthood and partake of its ordinances. This occurred when Wilford Woodruff was only twenty-three. In less than four years, Wilford Woodruff was in the waters of baptism and from that point forward was the recipient of countless other spiritual confirmations preparing him for his future.
In the case of Lorenzo Snow, the Lord spoke first in the form of a patriarchal blessing pronounced upon his head by the patriarch to the Church, Joseph Smith, Sr., when Lorenzo was twenty-two. The blessing is significant and powerfully simple:
“Thou has a great work to perform in thy day and generation. God has called thee to the ministry. Thou must preach the gospel of thy Savior to the inhabitants of the earth. Thou shalt have faith even like that of the brother of Jared [which in light of that man’s experience is significant] … There shall not be a mightier man on earth than thou … The diseased shall send to thee their aprons and handkerchiefs and by thy touch their owners shall be made whole. Thou shalt have power over unclean spirits—at thy command the powers of darkness shall stand back and devils shall flee away. If expedient the dead shall rise and come forth at thy bidding … Thou shalt have long life. The vigor of thy mind shall not be abated and the vigor of thy body shall be preserved.”
The life of President Snow was preserved on more than one occasion. He did live a long life, coming to the presidency when he was eighty-four, but the Lord spoke to him through the patriarch early in his life, and his preparation was equal to the task of his later years.
President Snow was one of the first to prophesy directly of the future prophetic calling of Joseph F. Smith, but the hand of God in the life of Joseph F. Smith was evident long before President Snow’s prophecy. Young Joseph F. had perhaps the most intensive training of any of the prophets before his time, with the possible exception of Joseph Smith, his uncle.
While only fifteen years of age, he was called to serve a mission in the Hawaiian islands. Nine years after his return from Hawaii, he was sent back with Lorenzo Snow and others by the leadership of the Church on an important mission. On the way to the island’s shore, the boat that was carrying President Snow capsized, and he appeared to have drowned. But he was revived with the help of the priesthood and thereafter declared that the Lord had revealed to him that Joseph F. Smith would someday be the prophet of the Lord—this was thirty-seven years before the actual event! Joseph F. Smith was twenty-six years of age at the time, and the Lord was aware of his future.
The future of none of the prophets, however, was signaled more clearly than that of Heber J. Grant. While he was a small boy, he often attended Relief Society with his mother. On one such occasion, after the regular meeting had concluded, Eliza R. Snow, the sister of President Lorenzo Snow, gave blessings to all present by the gift of tongues, with Zina D. Young interpreting. In tongues Sister Snow also prophesied that Heber J. Grant would someday be an apostle of the Lord. On another occasion President Heber C. Kimball, a close friend of President Grant’s father, took the young boy up, sat him on a chair, and talked with him. According to the story later told President Grant by his mother:
“He prophesied in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that you [Heber] should become an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and become a greater man in the Church than your own father; and your father, as you know, became one of the counselors to Brigham Young.”
However, none of these prophecies were quite so impressive to President Grant as the vision that he had shortly after being called to the apostleship in 1883. In this vision he saw his father, Jedediah Grant, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Savior, and he also saw the decision made to send the revelation for his call to the Council of the Twelve—this when he was twenty-six years of age.
A patriarchal blessing was once again the device used by the Lord in warning George Albert Smith. President Smith was only fourteen years of age when the patriarch placed his hands upon the young man’s head and pronounced this blessing:
“… thou shalt become a mighty prophet in the midst of the sons of Zion. And the angels of the Lord shall administer unto you, and the choice blessings of the heavens shall rest upon you …
“And thou shalt be wrapt in the visions of the heavens and thou shalt be clothed with salvation as with a garment, for thou are destined to become a mighty man before the Lord, for thou shalt become a mighty Apostle in the Church and kingdom of God upon the earth, for none of thy father’s family shall have more power with God than thou shalt have, for none shall exceed thee … and thou shalt become a man of mighty faith before the Lord, even like unto that of the brother of Jared [note the similarity to the promise made to Lorenzo Snow], and thou shall remain upon the earth until thou art satisfied with life, and shall be numbered with the Lord’s anointed and shall become a king and a priest unto the Most High. …”
This blessing takes on an added dimension when one is aware of President Smith’s ancestry. His father, John Henry Smith, was an apostle and counselor in the First Presidency to Joseph F. Smith; his grandfather, George A. Smith, was also an apostle and served in the First Presidency with President Brigham Young. His great-grandfather, John Smith, who was the brother of Joseph Smith, Sr., was the patriarch to the Church for several years until Hyrum Smith’s son grew to manhood. With this in mind, one part of the blessing becomes especially interesting: “… none of thy father’s family shall have more power with God than thou shalt have, for none shall exceed thee.” And note that this warning came to George Albert Smith when he was fourteen—the same age as Joseph Smith was when he received the First Vision.
David O. McKay was also warned in youth of his future responsibilities. As a young missionary he had been homesick and dejected. Discouragement was about to overcome him when he reached a turning point in his own life. During one missionary meeting, an especially rich outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord had been evidenced. The presence of angels had been detected in the room by the mission president, and by the spirit of prophecy he testified to young Elder McKay, “Brother David, Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat, but God is mindful of you.” Then he added, “If you will keep the faith, you will yet sit in the leading councils of the Church.”
This was all, but it came at the end of a long and vital search on the part of young David, and it was enough of a warning to the missionary in his early twenties that it was sufficient to buoy him up and help him during periods of discouragement in his life. Eventually, like the others, he was chosen as spokesman for the Lord.
And lastly, President Joseph Fielding Smith was the recipient of a powerful patriarchal blessing given him by the Church patriarch, John Smith, the son of Hyrum Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith’s grandfather:
“Thou art numbered among the sons of Zion, of whom much is expected. Thy name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and shall be registered in the chronicles of thy fathers with thy brethren. It is thy privilege to live to a good old age and the will of the Lord that you should become a mighty man in Israel … If thou shalt gain wisdom by the experience of the past, thou shalt realize that the hand of the Lord has been and is over thee for good, and that thy life has been preserved for a wise purpose. Thou shalt realize also that thou hast much to do in order to complete thy mission upon the earth. It shall be thy duty to sit in counsel with thy brethren and to preside among the people. It shall be thy duty also to travel much at home and abroad, by land and water, laboring in the ministry.”
For sixty years our remarkable president has served faithfully as a member of the Council of the Twelve, sustaining and upholding the prophets until his turn came, and then he took his position as president of the high priesthood and prophet of the Lord.
Each of these men is different in many ways from the others, and this is as it should be Elder Orson Whitney once noted:
“… Each succeeding President of the Church ought to vary in some respects from all other incumbents of that high and holy position. For this reason: The work of the Lord is always progressing and consequently always changing—not its principles, not its aims; but its plans, its instruments, and its methods of procedure. These are changing, in order to meet new conditions and profit by them. Today is not Yesterday, nor will Tomorrow be Today. The Lord provides the men and the means whereby he can best work, at any given time, for the carrying out of his wise and sublime purposes. The man for the Hour will be ready whenever the Hour strikes.”
Each has added his own particular type of strength to the growth and development of the Church. During the administration of each the Church has made significant steps forward. To suggest that all changes can be attributed to the prophet would be to discount all the capable individuals who lend their aid to the work of the Lord, but in a very real way, each of the prophets can easily be associated with the progress of the Church during his administration, since the Lord has chosen each for a special purpose.
During the administration of the Prophet Joseph, the foundation and the superstructure for the kingdom of God on earth was laid. Joseph directed the attention of the Church membership toward the Savior and pointed to his return as the most important future event in history. Through Joseph, the Master instructed his people in what they could do to establish a nucleus of people prepared for his return. In the fourteen years of his administration, Joseph laid a foundation for the establishment of this kingdom, culminating in the building of Nauvoo, Illinois, a city-state based on celestial principles.
Brigham Young brought the Church to the western United States and extended the boundaries of Zion, doing all in his power to encourage the Saints to make the kingdom of Christ the foremost thought in their minds.
During John Taylor’s administration, the organization of the priesthood was refined. Stakes were organized on a better basis, with more responsibility resting upon the head of each individual stake president. President Taylor, with his indomitable spirit, was an ideal person to preside over the Church during the most trying times of the history of the Church, when the United States government directed political warfare against Utah and the practice of plural marriage.
With the manifesto and the cessation of plural marriage, peace again returned to the mountains. The Salt Lake Temple, forty years under construction, was completed, and a time of spiritual rededication ensued. Wilford Woodruff, who had spent much time in temple work and genealogical work, was ideal for presiding over this period of time.
Lorenzo Snow presided for only three years, but these were important years at the turn of the century. Court litigation and nationwide depression had seriously affected the finances of the Church. All through his life, Lorenzo Snow had been at the center of many of the financial solutions of the Church. At Mount Pisgah he had surprised Brigham Young by putting that small community on its feet financially. Later in Brigham City, he had again drawn the attention of President Young in response to his excellence as a community builder. Finally, his last noticeable achievement was the tithing revival depicted in the Church film “Windows of Heaven.” But President Snow was more than an excellent community builder. He was a man of infinite foresight, an educated gentleman of the highest order. Standing at the beginning of a new century, he focused the eyes of the Church on the future potential of the twentieth-century man guided by a pattern of life established by Christ.
Joseph F. Smith’s era should be remembered as one of exploration and experimentation. In a very real sense, it represents the first pulsation of the correlation program of our own day. Family home evenings, priesthood responsibility, and refining of the auxiliaries of the Church are all part of his era from 1901 to the end of World War I in 1918.
The years after World War I were difficult years. Prohibition and its resulting conflicts, depression and another World War were all part of the national scene in America, where the Church was located in greatest numbers. With his unyielding will to succeed, Heber J. Grant was an excellent leader for the church of Christ in those days. The welfare program and its associated programs sprang from that era in the Church.
With the ending of World War II, the chances for the Church to move out into the world became greater. Again, one had been prepared to represent the stance of the Church during that time in the person of George Albert Smith, a man possessed of love for “all of God’s children” wherever they might be throughout the earth. President Smith very nicely drew together the past in the sense of his great feeling for our heritage and his development of Church history sites, and he broke into the future in his pointing our way out into the world.
President McKay, the first apostle to be sent on a worldwide tour of nations, was an ideal man to preside over the Church when it began its inroads into the world. This man of culture and gentility mixed easily with heads of state and bestowed a feeling of well-being and dignity on members of the Church everywhere. In pointing to the beginnings of the Church correlation committee and its great work with priesthood programs, one also comes to the administration of David O. McKay, a man concerned with scholarship and progress in a Christlike spirit.
Now President Smith stands at the head of the Church in one of its most dramatic periods. New programs emerge weekly as new stakes literally begin to dot the earth. We happily see many thousands enter into the Church and enjoy the blessings of the gospel. But in all of our growth our goal is to bring people to a one-to-one relationship with our Savior. This is done only by individual effort—much prayer, much fasting, and much study. President Smith stands at the forefront of all of us as a student of the Savior. He serves as a constant reminder of the need for effort on our part.
In short, each of the presidents has brought his own special type of training to his calling. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., noted on one occasion: “God … has fashioned every man whom He has ever called to head His people, even from Moses of old till now. No man ever comes to lead God’s people whom He has not trained for his task.”
This issue of the New Era has been dedicated to the memory of these men, with a special emphasis on their youth and their preparation, their confrontations with the problems that plague us all.
And like all of these presidents who passed through their periods of preparation, each of us is now doing the same. There is not a single reader of these words who has not been appointed a mission on earth. You are parents to be, Sunday School teachers and MIA officers to be, home teachers and bishops to be, Relief Society presidents and Primary teachers to be, scholars and business leaders and scientists and many unknown things.
In our patriarchal blessings and in many other ways, the Lord guides each of us to be what we can be, should be, are blessed to be.
May all of us strive to prepare and do as well as these ten presidents did in fulfilling their appointed missions. We have much to learn from them.