Surveys frequently ask which public figures are admired by young people. Those receiving most votes are political and religious leaders, or athletic and entertainment stars. If the same question were asked about historical figures, faithful Latter-day Saints would certainly favor the Lord, whose name we take upon us each Sunday and whose life we promise to follow. We value the greatest prophets to the extent that they follow the Master, and Joseph Smith is no exception. He had impulsive moments like Peter’s and fiery moments like those of James and John. But Joseph’s steady commitment to Christ is outstanding among all who ever lived, and his growth from youthful weakness to mature ministry shows that God was with him. A careful study of Joseph’s life furnishes a guide for getting 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 richly documented. Hundreds left their impressions of the man in journals and recollections, and Church secretaries wrote 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—and in the skill of loving those around him, which Jesus said was next in importance to loving God himself (Matt. 22:36–40).
Is one more deprived by poverty or luxury? In his 1936 inaugural speech, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” In their day, young Abe Lincoln and young Joseph Smith belonged to that group who lived in rural cabins and wore homespun, mended clothing. But they made their lives rich because they sought a higher standard of living, of mind, and spirit. And the necessity to work long hours was a key element in their total education.
Joseph was ten when his parents decided that they had had enough of stingy New England—their crops were frozen out the third summer 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 forests with his brothers, clearing 40 acres of heavy timber and underbrush, fencing and erecting buildings for themselves, and hiring out on neighboring farms. By such hard work Joseph built a 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 blend 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, p. 48). The Prophet led the way in physical and moral courage. It is well known that the morning after being tarred and feathered, he preached to a congregation that included his enemies. Not so well known is a similar episode in returning from a Canadian mission in the fall of 1837. At the time, Mary Fielding was close to the Prophet’s family and wrote to her sister about the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon making their way back to Kirtland through the swamps at night. They had been unjustly arrested and escaped about 10 P.M. with a mob of men trying to get them by fanning out from the roads with lighted torches. Joseph took his older counselor by the hand, and they “covenanted to live and die together.” When the blazing torches came their way, they lay on wet ground behind logs, choking back hard breathing for fear of discovery. The mud-drenched men reached home about 3 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 stagecoach team ran uncontrolled downhill without a driver for three miles. Joseph decisively assured the other passengers, then carefully opened the door of the careening coach, pulled himself up over the side to the driver’s seat, where he “got the lines, and stopped the horses, and also saved the life of a lady and child” (History of the Church, 4:23, 42). An anonymous letter of appreciation appeared in a Philadelphia paper at the time, with full confirmation of the above events.
Yet the real adventures of the Prophet’s life are his victories of mind and spirit. As a boy he asked revival ministers the great questions of life, and he grew to teach the world answers that only God had given him. 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 ministers and thought deeply about their doctrines. His mother observed his early mind at work and described him as “much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study” (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches, 1853, p. 84). That does not mean that he ignored the Bible, for his adult talks overflow with spontaneous quotations from scripture and well-informed comments on their background. The point is that the Prophet was not content just to read, and 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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist and poet, was born about the same time as Joseph Smith and also struggled with the shortcomings of traditional Christianity. In his Harvard Divinity School Address, he recognized that the scriptures contain “Immortal sentences … that have been bread of life to millions.” But Emerson also saw that the scriptures in the Bible did not connect the parts to the whole: He said they “are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect.” The solution? By the intuition that he trusted, Emerson declared, “I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws that he shall see them come full circle, shall see their rounding complete grace.” Within a few years Joseph Smith was standing at the Nauvoo pulpit explaining man’s mission on earth, blending scripture, logic, inspiration, and the deepest aspirations of thinking men and women. From the repulsive Liberty Jail the Prophet described the steep path that led up to the peak of spiritual perspective: “the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out” (History of the Church, 2:295).
There are questions that reason alone cannot answer. The solution to this problem is prayer, and Joseph early discovered its power. He was still in his 20s when he wrote about his youthful searching for answers. He looked above the cathedral spires of the forests and felt deeply that the heaven and earth were stamped with the power of a God who created by eternal laws. 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 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). Joseph Smith also lived at a time when many others prayed to know when the latter-day work promised in the scriptures would begin. The time was ripe for divine revelation, and Joseph’s personal life shows him to be worthy, for he had outstanding faith. His first known letter about the Church was written to Oliver Cowdery October 22, 1829, when the Book of Mormon was being printed. It ends with a prayer: “And may God of his infinite mercy keep and preserve us spotless until his coming and receive us all to rest with him in eternal repose through the atonement of Christ our Lord. Amen.” Joseph’s first known letter to his wife is June 6, 1832, written while waiting for Bishop Whitney’s broken leg to heal. What did he do with his leisure as a 27-year-old prophet? He told Emma, “I have visited a grove which is just back of the town almost every day where I can be secluded … and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meditation and prayer.” There were many sacred groves in the life of Joseph Smith.
Those closest to Joseph felt the power of the Spirit, which came upon him. Lorenzo Snow was 18 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, and his face was lightened until it appeared as the whiteness of the driven snow” (Deseret News, 23 December 1899).
It undoubtedly took a person with spiritual discernment to perceive such a light. Orson Pratt saw radiance about the Prophet when he received a revelation, as did Brigham Young, who said: “He preached by the spirit of revelation and taught in his council 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).
The outsider generally saw the Prophet as a decisive leader. While some called this arrogance, those who knew Joseph typically gave more thoughtful opinions. For instance, Joseph’s key lawyer in Liberty Jail was Peter H. Burnett, who later migrated west and became the first governor of the state of California and afterward was prominent both in law and banking. Burnett saw Joseph as lacking education and polish, but he considered him “much more than an ordinary man. He possessed the most indomitable perseverance, was a good judge of men, and deemed himself born to command, and he did command” (Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer, New York, 1880, p. 65). One immediately thinks of the straightforward manner of Jesus, who “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29).
One of Joseph’s many prophecies took place in connection with Burnett’s defense of the Mormons right after Liberty Jail. After a winter awaiting trial, the Prophet and those imprisoned with him were to be transferred for indictment to Gallatin, 50 miles away. The Mormon prisoners were offered a militia escort by lawyer Alexander Doniphan and his associates, who were officers. But Joseph “hung his head a few moments” in deep meditation and prophesied that the way of safety was to “trust in the Lord; if we take a guard with us, we shall be destroyed” (History of the Church, 3:259). His fellow prisoners reluctantly accepted this course of action that seemed to contradict all reason. Burnett later wrote of their “extreme danger” on entering the hostile settlement of Gallatin and was amazed that Joseph’s friendliness and courage had so changed his bitter enemies that within five days “he could go unprotected among them without the slightest danger” (Recollections, p. 67).
Nauvoo Saints not only stress Joseph’s inspiration but also his constant good will. This was the secret of gaining “so many followers.” The Prophet said: “I possess the principle of love. All I can offer the world [is] a good heart and a good hand” (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith, Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980, p. 229). This was shown even in daily contact, for Joseph wrote that his friends all knew his “native cheery temperament” (JS—H 1:28). Parley P. Pratt said that the Prophet’s normal expression combined “a look of interest and an unconscious smile, or cheerfulness” (Autobiography, p. 48). And Peter Burnett pictured the Prophet even in prison: “There was a kind, familiar look about him that pleased you” (Recollections, p. 67). Mature people are marked by their absence of egotism and by true concern for those about them. At the end of his life Joseph turned from safety in the west, prophesying that he returned to die. Why return? The clear answer in Nauvoo sources is that he returned for the welfare of his people, for he really rode to Carthage as a hostage to prevent the mobbing of Nauvoo.
The Prophet’s ability to sacrifice for others marked his character from his youth. His father gave him his patriarchal blessing in 1834 and looked back to Joseph’s early years before 14: “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 bed and board with the stranger and put the comfort of the Latter-day Saints above his own. We see him in the first summer in Nauvoo, when Joseph and family left their home for a tent in the yard and gave their space and time to those overcome with malaria in the new Mississippi environment. Joseph’s generosity was genuine and points to his deepest nature.
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” (Ehat and Cook, p. 179).
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 martyrdom he testified again, “I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught” (Ehat and Cook, p. 369).
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 the Twelve were being taught how to build temples and perform sealing work there for the entire human family. Joseph did more for the salvation of more people because the last dispensation reaches the greatest population explosion of all time and has the research promise of searching and sealing all generations of 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).
Source Note: Letters from Joseph Smith are conveniently in sequence in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984. Other manuscripts cited are in the archives of the Church Historical Department. In quotations punctuation and spelling have sometimes been corrected.