During the month of December we especially remember the birth of the Savior and his special ministry. It is also appropriate that we remember the man God chose to restore his gospel in these latter days, because the Prophet Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805.
To understand Joseph Smith you need to see his spiritual and physical traits. Parley P. Pratt, who was personally acquainted with the Prophet, gave this word description:
“President Joseph Smith was in person tall and well built, strong and active; of light complexion, light hair, blue eyes, very little beard, and of an expression peculiar to himself, on which the eye naturally rested with interest, and was never weary of beholding. His countenance was ever mild, affable, beaming with intelligence and benevolence; mingled with a look of interest and unconscious smile, or cheerfulness, and entirely free from all restraint or affectation of gravity; and there was something connected with the serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye, as if he would penetrate the deepest abyss of the human heart, gaze into eternity, penetrate the heaven and comprehend all worlds.
“He possessed a noble boldness and independence of character; his manner was easy and familiar; his rebuke terrible as the lion; his benevolence unbounded as the ocean; his intelligence universal, and his language abounding in original eloquence peculiar to himself—not polished—not studied—not smoothed and softened by education and refined by art; but flowing forth in its own native simplicity, and profusely abounding in variety of subject and manner. He interested and edified, while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him who were ever weary with his discourse. I have known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the mist of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears. …
“In short, in him the character of Daniel and a Cyrus were wonderfully blended. The gifts, wisdom and devotion of a Daniel were united with the boldness, courage, temperance, perseverance and generosity of a Cyrus. And had he been spared a martyr’s fate till mature manhood and age, he was certainly endowed with powers and ability to have revolutionized the world in many respects, and to have transmitted to a posterity a name associated with more brilliant and glorious acts than has yet fallen to the lot of mortal.” (The Historical Record, vol. 7 [January 1888], pp. 575–76).
Adam was the first member of the church of Christ on the earth and the first high priest after the order of the Son of God. In the commission he received from God, Adam was given the keys to administer the divine plan of salvation to others, including all his children to the very latest generation of time. It is through Adam’s authority that any revelation pertaining to the gospel of Christ was or shall be revealed. The Prophet Joseph said:
“Adam holds the keys of the dispensation of the fulness of times; i.e., the dispensation of all the times that have been and will be revealed through him from the beginning to Christ, and from Christ to the end of the dispensations that are to be revealed.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Deseret Book Co.: 1961], pp. 167–68.)
He further observed that whenever any principles or teachings of the gospel are revealed to men on this earth, they are revealed from heaven by Adam’s authority. (Ibid.)
This principle means that whenever any keys of the priesthood are revealed from heaven, they are revealed under the direction of Adam. When John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood, he was acting under the direction of Peter, James, and John; but they were acting under the direction of Adam. Section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants is a recap of the restoration of the gospel, and the Prophet here recounts some of the events that happened. In verse 20 he says:
“And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca county, declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the book! The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light! The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna county, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times!”
From this it appears that Michael, whom the Prophet Joseph Smith said was Adam, was around to keep the devil from thwarting the plans of God. When Peter, James, and John came to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood, Adam was there.
Adam stands at the beginning of the gospel plan and presides over all dispensations of the gospel and at the grand conference at Adam-ondi-Ahman, which will take place before Christ appears in the clouds in glory for all mankind to behold. There each prophet who has had a hand in the affairs of mankind will make his report to Father Adam, who will then make his report for all of them to the Savior. Joseph Smith was the prophet who became the receptacle for all the keys that were ever held by any of the prophets from Adam to his time, because he was chosen to lead the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Joseph Smith was foreordained to this important calling. He was also somewhat conscious of this foreordination because he once said, “Would to God, brethren, I could tell you who I am! Would to God I could tell you what I know! But you would call it blasphemy, and there are men upon this stand who would want to take my life.” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 322.)
At the age of 14 this boy exercised such great faith that he was given the privilege of beholding the greatest vision ever recorded in the annals of scripture. This man was privileged to behold the presence of not just the great Jehovah, whom the ancient prophets had conferred with, but he was to have the great privilege of having the Father, known to us as Elohim, come down and in a face-to-face meeting speak to him and introduce His Son. In commenting about this President Joseph Fielding Smith said:
“All revelation since the fall has come through Jesus Christ, who is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. In all of the scriptures, where God is mentioned and where he has appeared, it was Jehovah who talked with Abraham, with Noah, Enoch, Moses and all of the prophets. … The Father has never dealt with man directly and personally since the fall, and he has never appeared except to introduce and bear record of the Son.” (Doctrines of Salvation [Bookcraft: 1954], vol. 1, p. 27.)
However, the First Vision was only the beginning of visitations from beyond the veil that Joseph was to receive during his short life of 38 years. Four years after he had been visited by the Father and the Son he was visited by an ancient prophet who had formerly lived upon the American continent and who introduced himself as the angel Moroni. Then, on May 15, 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by another ancient prophet, John the Baptist, who bestowed upon them the Aaronic Priesthood; and within a month they had been visited by Peter, James, and John, the ancient apostles of Christ, who bestowed upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood. This is the incident when Adam was present and thwarted the devil in his attempt to stop the bestowal of the priesthood.
After the Kirtland Temple was completed and dedicated, the Lord had a place to which he could come and restore other keys pertaining to the gospel. On April 3, 1836, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by Christ who accepted the temple; then three other ancient prophets appeared and bestowed necessary keys of the gospel. The great prophet Elias, whom Joseph Fielding Smith says is Noah (See Answers to Gospel Questions [Deseret Book Co.: 1957], vol. 3, p. 138), appeared and bestowed upon their heads the keys of the dispensation of Abraham, or in other words, as Elder Bruce R. McConkie says in Mormon Doctrine (2nd ed. [Bookcraft: 1966], p. 219.), the keys of celestial and plural marriage. Once again the promise that husbands and wives could be eternally united was upon the earth.
Following this vision the great prophet Moses, who had led the children of Israel from bondage, appeared and bestowed upon the heads of Joseph and Oliver the keys of the gathering of Israel and the leading of the Ten Tribes from the land of the North. Joseph now had authority to disperse missionaries throughout the world to begin the gathering in of the Lord’s elect in these latter days.
As soon as Moses had departed, the prophet Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, appeared and bestowed upon them the sealing power to bind wives to husbands, husbands to wives, and children to parents until the whole human race is sealed back to Father Adam. Although Elias had bestowed the keys of celestial marriage, the keys to seal that, and all other ordinances of the gospel, were bestowed by Elijah. This key also gave authority to begin work for the dead. With the authorization Joseph now had he could begin to look beyond the veil and perform proxy ordinances that would open the door of salvation for beloved ancestors who had lived upon the earth and died without an opportunity to hear the gospel.
Can you now begin to see the greatness of Joseph Smith’s mission? Each of these prophets may have held only a few keys of the gospel. Now he was receiving all the keys that had ever been on the earth.
By this time in his life Joseph Smith had become so used to looking beyond the veil that it was almost an everyday occurrence. When he and Sidney Rigdon were privileged at Father Johnson’s home in Hiram, Ohio, to have the revelation that is known as section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 76], he was so used to the Spirit of the Lord that he did not fall to the earth from exhaustion as Moses had done when he talked with God (Moses 1:9–10) and as he himself had done after the First Vision. In fact we see a little bit of Joseph’s humor in this incident. After the vision closed, Sidney was completely exhausted and had to lie down on the couch. Seeing Sidney’s pallor, Joseph remarked with a smile on his face: “Well, Brother Sidney is not as used to it as I am.” (Juvenile Instructor, vol. 27 [May 15, 1892], pp. 303–4.)
The first time Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, on September 21, 1823, it was the beginning of a very intensive teacher-student relationship between Joseph and Moroni that was to encompass four years and was to culminate in having brought the young Joseph from the role of an unlearned farm boy to the position of a heaven-taught, angel-tutored prophet of God. It is true that the young prophet spent very little time inside the formal schoolroom—but he was not unlearned. He spent four years in the university of eternity, taught by learned men from the throne of God.
During the night of Moroni’s first appearance to Joseph, the principle of repetition in the learning process could not have been better illustrated. The angel, appearing three different times, spent the entire night teaching Joseph the things he needed to know relative to the gold plates and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The next day Moroni appeared to him again in the field where he was working with his father. In this visitation the angel instructed him to proceed to the Hill Cumorah. There the two met again, and Joseph was allowed to view the plates, although he was not allowed to take them out of their repository. In four of these visits the angel repeated to Joseph the same information.
During the four-year preparatory period Joseph received instructions not only from Moroni but also from others. George Q. Cannon said that Joseph was visited constantly by angels. In a letter he wrote to John Wentworth, the Prophet said: “After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of 22nd of September, 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 4. p. 537.)
When Joseph went to the Hill Cumorah the first time and was allowed to view the plates, he thought it was possible to remove them and immediately take them home with him. He even had thoughts of what he could do with a chunk of gold of that size. However, the Lord knew the frailties of man and sought to strengthen the young prophet by showing him a vision of what would be his if he were faithful; he also showed him, on the other hand, what would be his reward should he fail. Oliver Cowdery records that while Joseph was being instructed by the angel, “… the heavens were opened and the glory of the Lord shone around about and rested upon him. While he thus stood gazing and admiring, the angel said, ‘Look,’ and as he thus spake he beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates, all this passed before him, and the heavenly messenger said, ‘All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and the impure, the glory of God, the power of darkness, that ye may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.’” (Messenger and Advocate, vol. 2, no. 1 [October 1835], p. 198.)
Another but not very well-known appearance of Moroni was the visit that took place on the same day in September, one year later, 1824. At this time Joseph would have been 18. Joseph doesn’t tell us much about this particular visit, but the Prophet’s mother, in the history she wrote of her son, records some interesting details of this visit to the hill. She said that the Prophet went to the hill fully intending to take the plates home with him, and indeed was allowed to take them out of their hiding place. He supposed that the only requirement necessary to receiving the plates was to keep the commandments of God. This he felt he could do. Among those requirements was a strict injunction not to lay the plates down or put them out of his hands until he could deposit them in a safe place. But as he took them and turned away, he thought perhaps he should return and cover the box and check to see if, perchance, he had left anything therein. After laying the plates down upon the ground, he returned. And as he turned again to pick up the record, it was gone. Anyone who has ever lost anything of great value can empathize with the feelings of this frightened young man. In a state of great alarm he commenced to pray, whereupon the angel appeared to him and chastized him for his neglect. He was then permitted again to raise the stone that covered the repository and therein he beheld the plates. Still he was convinced he was ready to take the plates from the hill, and according to his mother’s account, “He immediately reached forth his hand to take them, but instead of getting them, as he anticipated, he was hurled back upon the ground with great violence. When he recovered, the angel was gone, and he arose and returned to the house, weeping for grief and disappointment.” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, [Bookcraft: 1958] p. 84.)
On another occasion the young man was sent by his father, Joseph Smith, Sr., on an errand to Manchester a short distance from the Smith home. Joseph was late returning home, and his father began questioning him as to the reasons why. The young prophet answered, “I have taken the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life.” When his father began to interrogate him as to who had a right to find fault in him, he answered, “Stop, father, stop, it was the angel of the Lord. As I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are, the angel met me and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, pp. 99–101.)
Moroni’s many appearances to Joseph during these four years, as well as the appearances of other ancient prophets, were to instruct the Prophet and prepare him for his mission. By the time 1827 had rolled around, Joseph had been sufficiently instructed and disciplined to the point where he could be entrusted with the care of the plates and the task of translating them.
A number of individuals appeared to Joseph Smith in order to help prepare him for his mission. He received visitations from the Father and the Son; Moroni; John the Baptist; Peter, James, and John; Moses; Elias (Noah); Raphael (it is not clear who this is); Michael (Adam); and Elijah. John Taylor says that Joseph Smith had communication with not only the Lord, “… but with the ancient apostles and prophets; such men for instance as Abraham, Isaac, Noah, Adam, Seth, Enoch, and Jesus and the Father, and the apostles that lived on this continent as well as those who lived on the asiatic continent.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 21, p. 94.)
Joseph Smith stated in the Wentworth letter that prior to his receiving the plates on the morning of September 22, 1827, he had received many visits from the angels of God; and John Taylor further stated that when Joseph Smith was raised up as a prophet of God, “Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, and others of the ancient prophets who formerly lived on this Continent” visited him and communicated certain principles of the gospel. (JD, vol. 17, p. 374.)
The Prophet’s mother said in her book that the family could hardly wait to get their chores done at night so they could gather around the kitchen table and listen to stories told by Joseph about the ancient Nephites and Lamanites. She said the stories were so vivid and filled with details of history, culture, and religion that it was as though the Prophet had lived amongst these ancient peoples all his life. He must have seen in panoramic vision the entire history of the Nephite and Lamanite generations.
Joseph was able to give excellent descriptions of the apostle Paul that indicate Paul had visited him. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 180.) On one occasion he compared his brother Alvin in likeness to Adam and Seth, saying he looked very much like them. (DHC, vol. 5, p. 347.)
His intimacy with the prophets is further evidenced by an event that took place in 1834 when the Prophet was leading the March of Zion’s Camp to Missouri to assist the Saints in reclaiming their land and homes that had been lost to the mobs. One day while walking out ahead of the company he was seen talking to a strange man. Upon returning to the company he was queried as to whom he was talking with. He said that it was John the Revelator and that he was on his way to visit the lost ten tribes. (Diary of Oliver Boardman Huntington, Typescript in BYU Library, 1847–1900, part 2, p. 162.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith was totally committed to the Lord and was willing to serve him at all times, at all costs, and at all hazards. He was willing to serve the Lord even when it was not convenient. When Joseph was living in the Johnson’s home at Hiram, Ohio, his wife, Emma, gave birth to twins who died the day of their birth. The wife of John Murdock also gave birth to a set of twins on that same day, but Mrs. Murdock died in childbirth. Joseph and Emma asked Brother Murdock if they might adopt his twins, and he readily accepted that offer.
When the twins were 11 months old, they became very ill with measles, causing many sleepless nights in the Smith household. One night the Prophet told his wife to go into the back bedroom and try to get some rest while he sat up in the living room with the sicker of the two children. As the night passed, Joseph lay down upon a trundle bed and dozed off. The next thing he knew, he was being carried bodily through the front door by an angry mob who were shouting among themselves, “Don’t let his feet touch the floor, or he will take us all.” They realized what a tremendously powerful man he was physically as well as spiritually.
They carried him out through the orchard, and as they did so, he saw Sidney Rigdon lying on the ground, presumably dead. The mob had also dragged Brother Rigdon from his house by the heels, bumping his head on the frozen ground until it had knocked him insensible.
After coming to a halt, the mob deliberated as to whether or not they should kill the Prophet but decided against it. Finally one of them said, “Let’s tar up his mouth.” With that they tried to force the tar paddle into his mouth. Next they tried to force a phial of poison between his teeth, but he kept them clenched so tightly that the bottle broke, along with the corner of one of his front teeth. Failing to tar up his mouth or poison him, one of the members of the mob fell on him, and after the others had torn off all Joseph’s clothes except his shirt collar, began scratching him like a mad cat, muttering: “… that’s the way the Holy Ghost falls on folks.” They then poured hot tar on his body, rolled him in a feather tick and left him for dead.
After regaining consciousness the Prophet made his way to the house. When his wife, Emma, saw him coming to the door with his body covered with tar and feathers, she fainted. The rest of the night was spent removing the tar from his body. The tender hands of Dr. Frederick G. Williams, a physician and also a counselor to the Prophet in the First Presidency, performed the heartbreaking task. Sometimes large pieces of skin came off with the tar. The next day was the Sabbath, and the Prophet, in great discomfort, was at the service where he spoke.
It is hard to study the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith without remembering that he learned to serve the Lord fully, at all times, and at all costs.