He lived two centuries ago. Yet with the animosity and attacks on his character today, you would think he was a modern day public figure, stirring up stagnant religious and political waters.
Joseph Smith declared that on the night of September 21, 1823, an angel appeared to him telling him “that his name was Moroni” and “that God had a work” for Joseph to do.
Before telling Joseph what God’s work entailed, Moroni set forth the predicament the teenage boy would face, then and in the future. Your “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). And whether you believe his angelic experience or not, this is exactly how it has unfolded and is still unfolding.
He had significant divine experiences, many of which were confirmed by several witnesses. These divine experiences restored many lost truths to the earth. He taught these truths openly and then sent missionaries throughout the world to declare the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. In perpetuation, missionaries have been teaching these restored truths for 185 years.
He re-introduced the ordinances and covenants of the House of the Lord as known by the earliest patriarchs and prophets. Yet some say he stole the temple rites from the Masons. Seriously? Who came first the patriarchs and prophets or the Masons? The temple experience he initiated by revelation has plenty of evidence in the scriptures. One just needs to read the scriptures with temple eyes (I recollect President Howard W. Hunter telling that to a reporter). And one needs to understand that the Lord has sent legal administrators to the earth to restore that which was lost because of apostasy. This pattern too, is shown in scriptures.
He experienced first-hand the distinct beings of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, declaring that they are separate and personal beings, exalted beings like unto man, having created us in their image. They are approachable beings, not abstract, not incomprehensible, not unknowable as some of the creeds state. They are to be sought out and found (Read John 14-17 carefully).
He said he translated, by the gift and power of God, an ancient text from an ancient nation in the Americas. And yes, from bound gold plates, which never brought him any financial gain, only intense persecution. Spiritually poor men operating with no heavenly influence would have gladly tried to capitalize. But Joseph was a pure boy when he was entrusted with them and had to be tempered in his own human nature.
In every generation since, some spend considerable efforts to discredit the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. They fail. It isn’t going away. It will continue to “sweep the earth as with a flood” (Moses 7:62). Unfortunately, many today as in previous generations, have been indifferent, or been careless in finding out what the record presents and who Joseph Smith really is.
Elder Lawrence W. Corbridge of the Quorum of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assessed: “There is no dispute about what Joseph Smith accomplished, only how he did what he did and why. And there are not many options. He was either pretender or prophet. Either he did what he did alone, or he had the help of heaven. Look at the evidence, but look at all of the evidence, the entire mosaic of his life, not any single piece.”
John Reynolds, a non-Mormon U.S. Congressmen in Joseph Smith’s day heeded such advice. After spending a few months with him and near his public appearances, Reynolds concluded: “He did not appear to possess any harshness or barbarity in his composition, nor did he appear to possess that great talent and boundless mind that would enable him to accomplish the wonders he performed. No one can foretell the destiny of this sect, and it would be blasphemy, at this day, to compare its founder to the Savior, but, nevertheless it may become veritable history, in a thousand years, that the standing and character of Joseph Smith, as a prophet, may rank equal to any of the prophets who have preceded him.”
But even so, Joseph Smith isn’t on trial—we are. He has done his work, and plenty of it. The Joseph Smith Papers project confirms the magnanimity of his labors and words; which are really unnumbered and which he accomplished in the span of about 17 years (he only lived to 38). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bears the correct name. The temples point us to that name—House of the Lord, Holiness to the Lord. These succinct phrases sum it all up. Like Adam and Moses of old, Joseph Smith followed divine instructions that laid out the Lord’s pattern of bringing people back into the presence of the Father.
This work isn’t about Joseph Smith, and he clearly understood that. Yet many today fail to grasp the worldwide impact of an ordinary genuine man of the 19th Century. Joseph was given a significant responsibility—namely, to be a key person in helping the Lord cut a stone (God’s earthly Kingdom) out of a mountain. A stone destined to role forth and fill the whole earth (See Daniel 2:44-45, D&C 65).
Joseph Smith’s vision of the Kingdom of God was never to seduce women and seclude people to live in a compound in Texas, Arizona, Montana—you get my point. It is absolutely absurd to compare him to the likes of David Koresh or Warren Jeffs, as some maliciously do. If you really want to understand plural marriage as lived by the women and men in Joseph Smith’s day it would be helpful to read and ponder the manifestations, struggles, and testimonies of the women who actually lived it. I highly recommend the first three volumes of the Women of Faith series, by Richard Turley and Brittany Chapman [Nash]. (Brittany is speaking at the FAIRMORMON conference August 6-7. The title of her presentation is: “An Act of Religious Conviction: Mormon Women and Nineteenth-Century Polygamy.”)
The personalized message of inspiration that came to Joseph Smith while suffering in Liberty Jail states: “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand. And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors. And although their influence shall cast thee into trouble, and into bars and walls, thou shalt be had in honor” (D&C 122:1-3).
Again, Joseph Smith isn’t on trial—we are. To what degree are our hearts pure? Are we wise, noble, and virtuous when it comes to our thoughts, words, and actions? And where do we turn for counsel, authority, and blessings? Are we holding a modern day seer in honor?
Elder Neil L. Anderson’s recent conviction resonates: “In our society beyond the veil of death, we will clearly understand the sacred calling and divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith” (See, “Joseph Smith,” Ensign, Nov. 2014).
It is to our advantage to not wait in understanding that sacred calling and divine mission.
Even the Prophet’s most vehement critics—then and now—can at least agree on one thing: Joseph Smith was murdered in cold blood. This account begins in October 1838; Joseph is thirty-two years old and has less than six years to live. This fast-paced, driving narrative provides a factual account leading to the murder and is sure to capture the attention of Latter-day Saints and those not of the faith. Learn more about Ryan Jenkin’s latest book here.
RYAN C. JENKINS has been a student of the life and teachings of Joseph Smith for nearly 25 years. After obtaining his Master of Education from Weber State University in 2004, Ryan began writing opinion pieces for Northern Utah newspapers on family, freedom, politics, and religion. He was a blogger on the subject of faith for two years; many of his posts were featured on realclearreligion.org. He was also an associate editor for Great American Documents for Latter-Day Saint Families (2012). Professionally, he has experience in business, public relations, and religious education. He has been teaching and writing for 18 years. Ryan and his wife Melissa have six children. They reside in Columbia, Missouri.