This week’s topic will be more of a short note than a deep treatise. Whereas most of my posts here are about general Christian themes that, while steeped in LDS theology, would be generally applicable to almost any other Christian church, this week I am going to write about something distinctly Mormon. I wanted to spend just a few moments today talking about the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The impetus for this discussion is not so much a question from Lacey or a difficult theological riddle I have been wrestling with. Actually, the topic comes mostly from an opportunity I had to visit Palmyra, New York last weekend. Spending time in the locations where the amazing story of the Prophet Joseph Smith happened is cause enough for reflection on all the wonderful things we owe to the courage of one young man nearly 200 years ago. And my discussion this week will be primarily focussed on several important gospel principles that we have today solely or primarily through the hands of God’s modern day prophet.
1. From Joseph Smith, we learn that God answers prayers
The first thing that the story of Joseph Smith teaches us is that God is actively involved in the affairs of men.
For anyone who may be reading this who is not familiar with the story, I will recount it very briefly. I have talked about it in more depth elsewhere, so please visit some of my older posts for more details of the story itself.
In upstate New York, in Palmyra, not far from Rochester, in 1820 there lived a boy named Joseph Smith. At the time, he was 14 years old. His family were religiously minded, hard-working farmers. In that time, the Palmyra area was experiencing a religious revival, with many Protestant denominations attempting to gain converts.
Joseph describes his thoughts as follows: “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (Joseph Smith History, v. 10).
The religious confusion troubled Joseph, for he sincerely desired to find the Lord’s church. However, each religion read the same Bible and came up with conflicting interpretations.
And it is at this point that the story of Joseph Smith takes a simple, yet surprising turn. Joseph turned to the Bible, where he found the admonition of James, which says: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5). At this point, Joseph decided that, since he could not find the truth by himself, if God promised to grant wisdom to those who asked, that he might as well try asking God.
And so, one spring morning in 1820, Joseph went into a grove of trees near his house. There he knelt in prayer, ready to ask God which church to join. And the answer he received was overwhelming and world-shaking. Joseph described the experience as follows:
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. … When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
In answer to his prayer, this simple yet sincere boy had one of the greatest visions of all time. God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him and spoke to him.
There are many, many lessons we can learn from this story. But the most significant is that God actually answers prayers. He is not a silent stature in a dark temple; he is a living being who actually exists and actually cares about the dealings of men.
For me, this is perhaps the most significant truth we can learn. God actually listens to our prayers and he will answer them. He cared so much about Joseph’s inquiry that he came down personally from his heaven to deliver the answer.
Joseph described his experience to his mother saying “I have learned for myself.” (Joseph Smith History, v. 20). And the same can be true with us.When we have questions, when we “lack wisdom,” we can do as Joseph did. We can ask in faith and God will give us wisdom as well. We can ask him to find the truth, and he will manifest it unto us by the power of the Holy Ghost.
2. From Joseph Smith, we learn the true nature of God
The same story I just described has several other wide-reaching ramifications. Not least of these is that this was a vision of God and Jesus Christ. From this interview, we learn significant truths about these two beings.
For example, much of the world is confused about the relationship of God the Father to the Son. And while I have discussed this at length elsewhere, it is significant that both Father and Son were present in answer to Joseph’s prayer. He did not see some amorphous mass of love and light – Joseph describes two distinct personages.
From this vision, we learn that God has a body that looks much like ours. After all, do not the scriptures teach that God created man “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27)? Yet some struggle with understanding this basic truth.
We also learn that the Father and the Son are not the same. Many Christian churches labor under a difficult doctrine that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are different manifestations of one single being. In light of the scriptural evidence (including the baptism of Christ and the martyrdom of St. Stephen), this doctrine requires the spiritual equivalent of smoke and mirrors to understand. And while treatises and tomes are written on this topic, the entire doctrine comes crashing down in the Sacred Grove in Palmyra. For there, a modern prophet saw with his own eyes and realized that the Father and the Son are different beings.
From the experience of Joseph Smith, we learn that God is not a being without body, parts or passions who sits atop a topless throne, everywhere and nowhere. The grand revelation in Palmyra that spring morning taught us the truth about our loving Father in Heaven and our marvelous Savior, Jesus Christ. Joseph learned things that can never be garnered from books and learning – he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears, and the world shifted.
3. From Joseph Smith, we have the Book of Mormon
The next thing we have exclusively through Joseph Smith is the Book of Mormon. As you may know, a few years after Joseph’s First Vision, he was visited by the Angel Moroni and told of a record hidden in a hill. This was a direct fulfillment of the vision of St. John, who records that he “saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” (Revelation 14:6).
This record was to become the Book of Mormon. By the inspiration and power of God, Joseph translated the ancient writings into English and published them. From the initial printing of 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, thousands upon thousands of lives were touched.
The Book of Mormon is a clear, concise record of God’s dealings with some of the ancient Americans. These people had prophets and knew about Jesus Christ. They were even visited by Christ after the conclusion of his mission in Jerusalem.
President Ezra Taft Benson spoke famously of the Book of Mormon, describing how the early members of the Church had the Book of Mormon “before they were given the revelations outlining such great doctrines as the three degrees of glory, celestial marriage, or work for the dead. It came before priesthood quorums and Church organization.” (October Conference 1986).
The Book of Mormon is a book that changes lives. In its pages, one finds the Holy Ghost. In its pages, one learns of Christ. In its pages, one has the Atonement set forth in great specifics and with great clarity. Many doctrines that are a bit muddled or difficult to understand in the Bible are set forth clearly and concisely in the Book of Mormon.
And not least among its properties, the Book of Mormon is the “fruit” of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Jesus warned against false prophets, but promised that we can know a prophet by his fruits. (Matt. 7:16). By reading the Book of Mormon, you can see the marvelous fruits it will bring into your life. This can reaffirm your testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith as well.
President Benson describes these fruits: “There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. The scriptures are called “the words of life” (D&C 84:85), and nowhere is that more true than it is of the Book of Mormon. When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance.” (October Conference 1986).
The Book of Mormon contains answers to all of life’s most important questions. It is also a foundation for faith in Christ and a source of strength to endure the rigors of Church membership. A testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is the shield of faith Paul wrote of, “wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” Ephesians 6:16).
4. From Joseph Smith, we have the restored priesthood
Another topic I have addressed elsewhere, the restoration of the Priesthood is a significant benefit we receive from the Prophet Joseph Smith.
As part of restoring the Church, the Lord needed someone to have the keys of the priesthood on the Earth. The Lord gave these keys to Peter, James, and John and the other apostles. Yet over time, as the apostles died, these keys were lost.
Yet, Joseph Smith again is instrumental in bringing this priesthood back. John the Baptist appeared to him, giving him the Aaronic Priesthood, including the authority to baptize. Later, Peter, James, and John appeared and gave him the Melchezedik Priesthood, with authority to bind on earth and in heaven. Other angels appeared to Joseph also, returning to mankind other significant priesthood keys.
For centuries, any acts performed by anyone in any church were done with no actual authority. Men who denied the ministry of angels and the occurrence of miracles nonetheless took it upon themselves to preach and to baptize. And though they did much good, what they did was without the authority of God. Yet, through the restoration of the priesthood, Joseph Smith was granted express permission to perform saving ordinances for the world.
The priesthood blesses the lives of church members everywhere. Through it, we are baptized, given the gift of the Holy Ghost, and set apart to perform our ministries. Through the priesthood, we can be healed when we are sick or given counsel when our souls are troubled. Pause to think for a moment – the same power and authority that Peter had, the same power by which he said to the beggar: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6) – the same power that Jesus used to calm storms and raise the dead and feed multitudes – this SAME POWER is among us today. It is held by someone you know. Can anything be more significant that that?
5. From Joseph Smith, we have temple blessings.
One last item I would touch on is the blessings of the temple. Members of our church are able to go enter sacred buildings called temples to participate in significant ordinances on behalf of themselves and their departed ancestors. I have written about the temple elsewhere. But it also belongs here, because it comes directly through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Anyone who has ever visited a temple knows the special spirit that is present. Temples are places of learning and revelation. They are areas to commune with God, feel his power, taste the fruits of his love, and rejoice in the marvelous ministry of our Savior. Those who attend the temple receive revelations.
Every piece of the Temple, whether it be the Endowment, the Sealing, the work for the dead – each piece comes from Joseph Smith. Temples are living edifices memorializing God’s glorious restoration of the Gospel in our time.
Each of these marvelous doctrinal points comes through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Each is a marvelous opportunity to find out for yourself whether the Prophet was indeed called of God.
As I mentioned, last weekend I had a chance to visit the areas where these things occurred. I was able to visit the site of the house where Joseph Smith grew up. I was able to walk into the Sacred Grove where he said that significant prayer. I was able to pause for a few minutes and pray and feel the Spirit testify to me that this is one of the few spots on Earth where the God of Heaven actually visited. I was able to visit the Hill Cumorah where Moroni buried the Book of Mormon plates and where he returned hundreds of years later to deliver them to Joseph. I visited the print show where the Book of Mormon was printed. I visited the Palmyra Temple, a living monument to the restoration.
I have seen these things with my eyes. But more importantly, I have prayed and asked God if these things are true. And I know that they are.
I am indeed grateful for the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am so thankful that he had the courage to pray to God and the strength to resist persecution. I am so grateful that I was able to learn from a young age the importance of this mission. It has indeed blessed my life and made me someone different that I ever could have been otherwise.
I invite all to find out for themselves. Whether this be by a pilgrimage to Palmyra or a simple bedside prayer. Ask God for yourself whether he really called Joseph Smith, and then when He tells you yes, leave whatever you are doing to follow this marvelous modern prophet.
The following are a few pictures from the Palmyra area.
Entrance to the Sacred Grove
Inside the Sacred Grove
Outside the Smith Home (view from Sacred Grove)
Joseph Smith’s Home
View of the Palmyra Temple
At the Hill Cumorah