In June of 2009, just prior to leaving for the MTC on our mission to Paris, France, Diana and I visited the heritage sites in Missouri. Most importantly – we visited Carthage Jail. There was nobody else there that day – just us and the missionaries, so we not only had a personal tour of the jail, but we also had plenty of opportunity for quiet time. The jail is very small, much smaller than its legend. The stairs seem hardly wide enough or long enough to hold the dozens of hard-hearted, wicked men who storm the jail in our imagination. The room itself, while heavy with the residual contemplations of thousands of pilgrims, is appropriately bare and seems far too small to hold within its walls the notoriety that has reached virtually every corner of the world over the last 170 years. The whole building, despite being consistently disinfected, as almost any historical site would be these days, still smells of old brick and wood. One might even imagine, with a little effort and imagination, the smell of stale sweat and dirt from bodies so coarse and unrefined as to participate in a mob murder such as occurred here on July 27, 1844.
After we left the building, we walked down to the well below the window from which Joseph fell. I told Diana that I wanted to sit by myself for a few minutes. While I did, I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone – I had the feeling that Joseph himself knew I was there, what I was thinking, and that I was, as I had many times before, seeking for not so much a confirmation but a tangible knowledge that he lived and died as great as his personal legend declares. I was seeking a confirmation of the declaration:
I received that knowledge that day, sitting at the well outside of Carthage Jail. I received that knowledge from a kind, compassionate and eternally wise man – one who was familiar with the struggles of mortality. The knowledge I received came almost like a touch on the shoulder from one who knew me personally and was taking the opportunity – that rare moment of spirit-to-spirit connection – to welcome me to the battle. I felt like I met Brother Joseph that day. I think perhaps it won’t be the last time.
As Mormons, we are supposed to have a testimony of Joseph as the prophet of the restoration. We are taught the “history” of his accomplishments as the founder and first prophet of the newly restored Church of Jesus Christ. We typically gain a witness of the reality of his faith, his ministry and his service to his God and his fellow man early in our time in the church – whether it be as a child or as a newly converted adult. I do not trivialize this testimony. My experience has been that it is strong and very real. Mine was that Joseph was a great man, a very courageous man, a man well worthy of being an example to us all.
Yet, my testimony has grown far beyond that over the years. During a recent Sunday School lesson, we discussed the contributions of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I found myself getting rather emotional as I considered what he did for this world, and more particularly for me. I began forming a mental list of things that, without him, we would not have knowledge of. (I also found myself speaking perhaps a bit too passionately for a gospel doctrine class.) I offer this list here as my personal testimony of Joseph Smith as a true prophet:
- The gospel of Jesus Christ as understood by the world in 1820 had been mutilated and disfigured in the haze of 1800 years of politics, power and deceit. A message of eternal and universal beauty, hope, love and simple yet infinite goodness had been corrupted by designing men, under the heavy influence of Satan, into an instrument of control through fear. Joseph in his innocence and with a rare sense of integrity, had the courage to simply “ask of God”. Others had asked of God, but others didn’t have the confidence of God to the point that He and the Son would entrust them with the great mission of the restoration. Joseph was a 14 year old marvel of sincerity, honesty and a desire for righteousness. Without this young man, the polluting concepts of the Nicene and other apostolic creeds might have remained as the only definition of the nature of the Godhead.
- Through Joseph, not only was the gospel restored in its purity, but that restoration was anchored – given staying power – through the Book of Mormon. The Lord obviously intended for this restoration to “take”. Through the Book of Mormon, we are able to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the very truth that defines our existence – through the eyes of those who were much closer to its reality than we are. Both the pre-meridian prophets and those who came after the advent saw the truth much more clearly than we would be able to today were we to be left without their insights and teachings.
- Not only was the simplicity of Christ’s Doctrine of repentance and baptism restored (3 Nephi 11:39) through the Book of Mormon, but Joseph gave us a glimpse into the “mysteries of the Kingdom” (D&C 76:7) through the revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants. Revelations on the kingdoms of glory (D&C 76), the oath and covenant of the priesthood (D&C 84) and the true power and nature of the priesthood (D&C 121) have provided windows into doctrines and truths that were hidden from man since the beginning, (D&C 76:7) being made known only to a select few prior to the ministry of Christ and perhaps even fewer since then. These and other revelations offer a tantalizing taste of the power and glory that await those of us who anxiously seek the fullness of the gospel, as well as a prescription for how to lay hold of the Lord’s greatest promises. As marvelous as these revelations are, perhaps their greatest gift is in the surety that, as much as we have been given, there is even more that we will be given when we prove ourselves obedient to that which we have. Joseph literally opened the windows of heaven.
- In the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph not only restored key insights into the process and design of creation, he also introduced the concept of Zion. The story of Enoch and his Zion city point us toward an ideal unimaginable in this telestial existence. The description of the City of Enoch, and the resulting promise of a Zion inhabited by the “pure in heart” burn within the hearts of those who can truly embrace its promise. It illustrates a pathway – a transition – between the telestial and the celestial through the terrestrial. Without the concept of Zion, we are left with some sort of magical leap from this world, with its burden of sin, to a celestial habitation after the resurrection. Through Joseph, though, the path becomes a little less mysterious, a little less magical. Zion invites the process of shedding ourselves of worldly dependencies and trusting in God instead of the world. As we engage ourselves in this process, claiming the blessings of the atonement along the way, we qualify for and learn to follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost. In doing so, we become one with Christ, one with God, and one with each other (John 17:21). Joseph again has helped reveal a gospel that is personal and action-driven, that invites us to “become” Gods as Christ so clearly commanded (Matt 5:48).
- Joseph restored the doctrine that salvation was available to all – both the living and the dead – mysteriously alluded to by Paul in the scripture mastery standard in 1 Corinthians (scripture here). This doctrine alone is enough to stand the Christian world on its ear! However, in the same way that he anchored the restoration of the Gospel of Baptism, he anchored and expounded the fullness of the gospel through the temple ordinances. The glory of God’s plan for His children truly comes alive through these ordinances, and the mercy of a loving Heavenly father, whose love is extended to all of us even after we leave this mortal probation, contrasts sharply with the Biblical portrait of a harsh and vengeful God whose judgment at death is final.
- Other critical doctrines that are hinted at but never developed in the Bible were expounded on by the Prophet Joseph – including the doctrines of Calling and Election (2 Peter 1:10) and the Second Comforter (John 14:16, D&C 88:3). These incredible doctrines likewise come alive in the temple ordinances. The neglected doctrine of translation was first introduced through the story of the 3 Nephites in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 28), but careful study suggests that its day as a predominant doctrine will precede the Second Coming.
Joseph, in his description of the first vision, spoke of things that he was forbidden to share. (Joseph Smith History 1:20). Likewise, referencing the vision of D&C 76:
“I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them” (TPJS, p. 305). The Visions of Joseph Smith by Larry C. Porter
Another relevant quote:
“Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject” (TPJS, p. 324; cf. HC 6:50).
How much more did Joseph know? How much would he have shared if we had not proven ourselves unprepared? How frustrated must he have been? He tried to introduce Zion, but his attempt was thwarted by the relative worldliness of the Saints.
It is my testimony that not only was Joseph Smith a prophet among the greatest of the Lord’s prophets, his mission as the prophet of this last dispensation was unique and, for me, very personal. Through the windows that he opened, I am able to see glory beyond my imagination. My understanding of who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming is waxing clearer by the day. As I learn the doctrine, and as I learn to be obedient to what I have been given, I receive more. The light – the picture – gets brighter and more complete.
I would liken this process to the experience of watching Diana work on a painting (which I am doing as I write this). The under-layers are hazy, but the general colors and values are suggested, promising a hope of something greater. As she stays true to the vision in front of her, exercising faith in her ability to bring it to life, the details begin to fill in. Ultimately, the golden aspen leaves virtually shimmer and quake in the breeze. The surface of the lake ripples as the wind stiffens and the sunlight dances like diamonds off the tips of the tiny waves. The reeds, the thistles and the wild rose bend gracefully – sometimes fitfully – in obedience to the commandments of the God who made them. As the scene comes alive on paper and board under the hand of the artist, so is the picture of Celestial beauty painted on my soul by the hand of the master. Such a work would have been much more difficult to produce without the faith, integrity, honesty, and courage of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I offer, then, this public declaration of gratitude for his sacrifice, for the faithful fulfillment of his mission. I also declare my personal intention that neither his sacrifice, nor the Lord’s sacrifice on my behalf, will have been in vain.