I was meant to be teaching Lesson 5 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church – Howard W. Hunter in Relief Society today, but things changed and they’re having a birthday celebration for the founding of the Society instead…. which I was really disappointed about, as I was so looking forward to teaching and discussing it. And it would have been my first lesson in this calling, but now I won’t get to teach ’til May. Sad face (but no, that’s not the reason why I’m home today – I’m sick, and healing myself with ginger tea and rest). I really felt like this was an important topic to share and discuss at this time, because there’s been a lot of concern and action taken as a result of people beginning to disbelieve what they believed, and believing things reported by various sources, regarding our first latter-day prophet and his work. This chapter is a wonderful accolade and testimony to Joseph Smith’s character, his work, and the truthfulness of what he experienced. So I’d like to share what I’d been considering about it.
First, let’s consider the wonderful, marvellous and amazing thing (an event that actually merits the full meaning of those words) that occurred in that well-known spring of 1820, when the yearning and sincere young Joseph, unknowingly fulfilling ancient prophecies, walked into the woods near his family’s log cabin and prayed aloud (I’ve been in that cabin, and those woods – in mid-spring, when all was still mostly brown, golden and bare, with the promise of little green shoots coming out everywhere). Consider that for so many centuries, true revelation – received by a rightfully-ordained revelator and shared with mankind – had been absent from the earth. Righteously-seeking individuals had gained inspiration, and God had continued to bless His children’s lives and guide them on a good path; but knowing the truth; understanding God’s plan; being sure of who and what God was and what He desired of men and women had been forgotten. People who professed themselves teachers and priests contended with one another over each point of doctrine and constructed convoluted explanations of the Christian life and religion. Even those with the best intentions, let alone those seeking for power and glory, struggled to know what the truth actually was – no one knew! There was no way of properly knowing, because there was no revelation. Whatever was taught was based on ancient revelation, handed-down traditions, and intellectualism. (It still is). When you study the path of Christianity after the first century A.D., and the scholarly and denominational disputes today over theology, it becomes clear how muddied and uncertain this path is. You can feel the fear and uncertainty of that not-knowing – the only-searching, but not-really-finding experience that is the reality of life without the revelation that was restored to earth with the First Vision.
This prophet, Joseph Smith, could testify of his own positive knowledge that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, a resurrected Being, separate and distinct from the Father. He did not testify as to what he believed or what he or others thought or conjectured, but of what he knew (Teachings of Presidents of the Church – Howard W. Hunter, p.89 – emphasis mine).
It’s my opinion that this last dispensation – full of revelation, gifts and hope – was opened with such a glorious event so that we could have a definite knowledge on which our own testimonies could be based, and upon which this Gospel dispensation could be founded. We, and the world, rely on this actual knowledge that Joseph Smith had, and which he first gained through this vision.
Points for a long introduction! I’ve always been good at those :P. I don’t want to concentrate on the concerns around Joseph Smith’s apparent mistakes and foibles – I think that’s a sad and negative way to view all this wonder-filled trove of miracles that is the latter-day dispensation. But I do want to acknowledge it and discuss it just a little, because it has been a problem – a stumbling-block – for people, and well-publicised. President Hunter likens the reaction to Joseph Smith to that of the Galileans to Christ. They found it unlikely that he could be what he said he was, because he was ‘just the carpenter’s son’ (Matt. 13:55). He performed all sorts of miracles before them, and heard about by them, yet they wouldn’t believe what their own, and others’, eyes told them, because of what they thought they knew about him. They were constrained by earthly things, and their spiritual senses were left furled (I hope that’s a word; I like it anyway). When the young Joseph announced his experience in the woods, no-one except his family, who knew him well, believed him – he was just a young farmer’s boy; what would he know? Why would God reveal himself to a farmer’s uneducated boy and not a learned theologian? Pah! He must be lying to get attention. It went further than this, and those learned theologians, along with the most common ruffians, pursued him and awfully persecuted him for his claims – his truly wonderful, good news that God lives and remembers His children – in a frenzy of seeming madness. Christ was crucified for many reasons, not least of which was the fear that the common people and the Jewish leaders had of the supernatural powers He demonstrated through the miracles He performed – most of which were to heal. Joseph was martyred because he claimed marvellous visions and revelations; because he wouldn’t follow along with the accepted views of the day and go on in the confused, muddled path the rest of the religious world followed. Were they afraid of the clarity he brought, so different from the long history of wrangling uncertainty that had to be worked out by long years of scholarship? By the claims and the evidence of a closer association between heaven and earth than they’d ever considered? What was it that so distressed some people about this man and his cause, and that still does today? What President Hunter cites as his greatness is the same reason that many dismiss him:
His greatness consists in one thing – the truthfulness of his declaration that he saw the Father and the Son and that he responded to the reality of that divine revelation (p. 90).
It’s almost like those who are angry at this man they’ve never met focus on his mistakes to get away from the glory of his calling; all the things he did do right. That all of it is too bright for them to keep looking at; it hurts their eyes, and they say, “but look, he did these things wrong too! He’s not perfect – he cannot have had those visions, or remained pure after he had them, or experience those things and still be a man”, or perhaps they’re jealous because he was so favoured with revelation, so connected with the spiritual world as well as the mortal, so they look for things that make him more ‘real’ to them; just the farmer’s uneducated son who became an upstart and dared to be more. The fact is, Joseph Smith had a vision, saw angels and many other things, was given a work to do, and did it. He kept doing that, even when he struggled to want to, and (ironically) has for so long been judged because he was so dedicated to God and his calling. The other fact is, it doesn’t matter where he came from originally, or whether he made some mistakes; it matters that God chose him, and our allegiance is to that God – we don’t get to choose our own prophets.
I testify that the boy prophet, who in so many ways remains the central miracle… of this church’s experience, is living proof that, within God’s hands and under the direction of the Saviour of the world, weak and simple things should come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones (p. 90).
Like Samuel told the Nephites, if a prophet preaches hard truths, the people hate him, throwing stones and casting him out; but if a man tells them that they can do as they like, that they are all good just as they are, they will love him and give him gifts (Helaman 13). Is this what people do to Joseph Smith – and our present prophets? Do they wish they could choose their own; someone who tells them what they want to hear? My personal feeling is this: how dare any of us presume we know a person who lived long before our time and whom we’ve never met or associated with, thinking arrogantly that reading about his life and listening to rumours gives us that knowledge, and then judge him based on our apparently great wisdom and our perfect understanding of events? Just from a historiographical perspective, that’s absurd; from that of someone professing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and who’s a beneficiary of the untiring work and sacrifice of the person they claim the authority to judge, it’s unconscionable.
Phew, I’ve said my piece about that! Now on to the good stuff…. in Part 2 (because it’s already over 1400 words, and that’s enough for anyone in one sitting). I’ll finish this first part with Joseph’s own words regarding faults and charity, and how to treat each other.
It is a time-honoured adage that love begets love. Let us pour forth love – show forth our kindness unto all mankind, and the Lord will reward us with everlasting increase; cast our bread upon the waters and we shall receive it after many days, increased to a hundredfold. Friendship is like Brother Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.
I do not dwell upon your faults, and you shall not upon mine. Charity, which is love, covereth a multitude of sins, and I have often covered up all the faults among you; but the prettiest thing is to have no faults at all. We should cultivate a meek, quiet and peaceable spirit.
(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 316; taken from the LDS Scripture Citation Index)
Let us have charity towards Joseph Smith, covering a multitude of our own sins, and be like the friend Brigham Young spoke of, who “with the breath of kindness, blows the chaff away” from the words or deeds of a friend. Shame on us if we cannot, for he was such a friend to us, although he knew us not.