Podcast 12: Give Brother Joseph "A Break"
My warmest of greetings to foreverLDS listeners. I think we're gonna have a feisty one today. Feisty may not the right word. Vigorous. Spirited. Energetic. The Gospel is so rich in potential topics of discussion. I envision so many things I could talk about any given week. I can't wait to discuss the Book of Mormon, the Savior and the Second Coming, fundamental aspects of the Plan of Salvation--Every week I have to make a choice. Those who follow me on Facebook already KNOW what I'm going to talk about. If you read the title of the Podcast you know. But many who follow my Facebook posts became enthusiastic participants in an open question I posed asking about statements made by our Apostles in October's General Conference. Ah, but nobody knows how I'm gonna go about this discussion. Even I don't yet know how I'm gonna go about it. Creating the Podcast sort of gives me a chance to synthesize all the information and, particularly in this instance, I'm curious to see where the information takes us.
I thought a great way to start would be to talk about one of my favorite verses of scripture. We all have them, right? In various Wards where I've lived they'd put plaques outside the Bishop's office of missionaries the Ward had sent to various parts of the world, and many had the missionary's favorite scripture engraved on it. I'm glad no one has ever asked me to engrave just one verse, because I have so many. In years past I might have said Ether 12:27 because it had, and still has, such a personal impact upon me, and I keep hoping the Lord will finally make something very weak--ME--into something strong. Still waiting for that transformation. I'm still very much in the process still of being shown all my various weaknesses. Be nice to get beyond that stage, but maybe that doesn't occur, or the awareness doesn't set in, until we reach the other side.
Today another scripture strikes me, because this one goes way back--back to when I was first investigating the Church. Back to when I was carefully studying the Gospel and working up the nerve to put Moroni 10:3-5 to the test. And this one comes from the mouth of the founder of the Restoration, Joseph Smith, from his history published in the Pearl of Great Price. It's verse 25 which reads: "I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it--" Now, I'm tempted to stop right there because there's the phrase where the old version of the Church film "The First Vision" decided to stop. I still prefer that older film made in '70s starring Stuart Peterson as the young Joseph Smith much more than the newer version, produced ten or fifteen years ago. Sorry if that offends anyone involved in the more recent production, but the older version just seemed so much pithier, so much more to the point. As a storyteller it just struck me as more resonating. But I say the same thing about the old John Wayne version of True Grit as compared to the newer Coen Brothers version and sometimes find myself at odds with critics who focus on technology and special effects and which version is truer to the novel, etc. The older version is just better storytelling. And for me that's the paramount factor, but I suppose I'll have to wait a generation for time to vindicate me.
Anyway, getting back on track, it was after that phrase, "I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it--" where the original First Vision film chose to end. The verse does go on a few more phrases. Joseph writes: "Neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation."
Leave that in there. It's a worthy ending to a verse that affected me very deeply when I was investigating the Church, and still impacts me today. This is Joseph Smith, bearing his testimony of the primal event that began the Restoration, and essentially, with this verse, laying it all on the line. Challenging the world until the end of days, until every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord--testifying that what occurred in that grove of trees in 1820 really did occur, and then offering us a very personal reflection of his experiences and emotions in the aftermath of that event. Try to imagine--a 14 year old kid--his mind consumed by a burning question--"Which Church, of all the Churches on the face of the earth, is true?" Then reading James 1:5, where it instructs him, in the simplest possible terms, that if he "lacked widsom, ask God"--To paraphrase the same concept as expressed by the Savior, "Ask and ye shall receive. Knock and it shall be opened." So this is essentially the same promise--worded just a bit differently by the Savior's half-brother, James. So Joseph Smith reads this promise in the Epistle of James--this quantifiable law--a law of physics, a law of the universe--a law of God--indicating that a certain action will produce a definitive and quantifiable reaction--and then he retires to the woods and makes the attempt.
And thus opening act of the Restoration commences. As I stated, what's particularly poignant for me is what Joseph describes in the aftermath of this extraordinary event. His indescribable joy, followed by equally incomprehensible hurt, confusion, and estrangement--not from members of his family--but from others whom he'd believed were his friends, whom he'd felt had loved and cared for him, particularly men who professed to serve God in their particular Christian denominations. Such individuals suddenly, seemingly overnight, became his enemy. So after experiencing such overwhelming joy, to then discover that by revealing the details of what he'd experienced in that grove, he finds himself a target of bitter derision.
His detractors, even at this young age, would launch a campaign to tarnish him, smear his reputation and that of his family, and in general make Joseph's life so much more difficult to endure. Remember, Joseph Smith is presently immersed in that tender age when the rest of us find ourselves particularly sensitive to how others perceive us. Sensitive to how we are viewed by our peers and by the world, because at that age for many of us, the perceptions of others are everything.
The feelings that Joseph Smith expresses here, and in other verses of the First Vision, seem so innocent as I read them. So reflective of the emotions that I experienced as an adolescent, so relatable to the journey that I, myself, felt I was traveling at a similar age.
On that morning, young Joseph might have believed he was the happiest person on earth. For all he knew others had followed the advice of James and knelt somewhere, perhaps asking the exact same question, and so experienced the same kind of vision. I'm not sure Joseph had any reason to believe, at that time, that what he experienced was particularly unique. He was simply doing what the scriptures had suggested to him. And it worked! Couldn't others do the same thing? So what consequences could he possibly have anticipated if he revealed the details of what had occurred to others. Surely he must have hoped they'd rejoice with him. Maybe they'd even make the same effort to kneel down and humbly ask for truth to be revealed. He must have hoped they'd seek the same answer by doing the same thing he had done.
I remember when I first received a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Church and the Book of Mormon, I experienced some events that I felt were similar to Joseph Smith. I told my family and friends, just read the book, and then put Moroni 10:3-5 to the test, like I did, and you'll receive the same spiritual witness! I still remember my initial frustration--and emotional pain--that I couldn't seem to convince anyone close to me to embark on a similar quest for truth. Nobody would do it, and I still remember the distress and confusion of that. It still hurts me to this day. I don't understand it. Why is it so difficult to instill in someone else the desire to even want to know the answer to such fundamental questions? To want to know anything so badly that they're willing to make a similar investment of time and faith? These are such critical questions--and the opportunity to receive foundational answers is so plain. Why not just try it? But my efforts at that time were futile.
I can't say if my emotions are all that similar to what Joseph experienced. All that we know for certain is that in a matter of days, whatever pure joy he felt by God fulfilling the promise of James, began to be dashed, obliterated, little by little, as Joseph came to realize the unforeseen weight of what had occurred in that grove of trees. He writes: "I soon found … that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me.
It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself."
"Often the cause of great sorrow to myself." What an understatement that seems as I read it now. Joseph Smith only dwells on these feelings of sadness for a few short verses, but keep in mind that for him, until the date when he had his next communication from Heaven, was three long years--an eternity for a teenager. "Great sorrow to myself." I think of my own children, and the awful sorrow they have sometimes experienced during those tender, awkward years, learning the flaws of the world and the faults of men and women and people they love. As I ponder what I've experienced in my own life, and by observing others close to me, the feelings that Joseph Smith must have endured seem very easy emotions with which to empathize.
Keep in mind it was Moroni, who three years later would inform Joseph Smith that his "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."
On the day of the First Vision I presume he had no concept of that. Some in their immaturity or impetuous interpretation of psychology might think, "Well, what did you expect? You're telling people you--YOU--personally--were just visited by Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. You thought everyone would just roll over and believe your story? You didn't expect any resistance, and doubt, any repercussions?" My instincts tell me, no, Joseph didn't anticipate that. From everything I read it's easy to glean that he was essentially an honest-hearted boy. He had a reputation of being sober minded and hard working. He would have expected those with whom he shared the details of his experience to rejoice with him. When they didn't, it took him by surprise. Only his family--those who knew him best--believed every word he said.
Now for me, that's a truly remarkable part of the story of Joseph Smith that isn't emphasized as much as it might be. Every member of Joseph Smith's family--and he had a big family, 10 siblings--and every single one of them believed his story. Even his parents. That's incredible to me. Parents and older siblings are usually the first to cock an eyebrow and say, "Come on, Joseph! You saw what? You had what happen to you?" Yes, it's our families who know us best. They know all of our faults, all of our virtues--they know us through and through, and for Joseph Smith, the fact remains that his truest converts were the immediate members of his own family. Particularly his father. And more particularly, perhaps, his oldest brothers, Alvin and Hyrum.
Older brothers, especially when we're children, are never inclined to buy into new ideas expressed by younger brothers. I'm sure it's the same with older and younger sisters. I remember when I told my older brother the details of my conversion and how it related to reading the Book of Mormon and following the promise in Moroni 10:3-5, I couldn't seem to make a dent. This was my older brother. He was the one who generally had all the answers in my life. I worshipped him for that. In many ways I still do. But no matter how I put it, I could not convince him to develop within himself the desire to ask any of the same questions, or embark on a similar quest for spiritual understanding.
Not so with Joseph Smith's older brothers. Not so with his entire family. They believed him. They embraced every spiritual event he claimed to have experienced.
His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, offers us a powerful testimony of the Book of Mormon when she declares, "That book was brought forth by the power of God, and translated by the gift of the Holy Ghost; and, if I could make my voice sound as loud as the trumpet of Michael, the Archangel, I would declare the truth from land to land, and from sea to sea, and the echo should reach every isle, until every member of the family of Adam should be left without excuse. For I do testify that God has revealed himself to man again in these last days..."
The question I posed on Facebook went like this: During General Conference I heard a talk or two that suggested Joseph Smith had recently had an onslaught of bad press. I recalled Elder Anderson saying, "Give Brother Joseph a break." The statement struck me as a bit odd. I wasn't aware that folks were giving Joseph a particularly hard time. Nothing new anyway. So I asked, "Is there some new story or attack out there that I don't know about?"
As it turned out, there really wasn't. None of my 5000 or so followers could tell me that something "new" had been declared, but I did piece together that the subject of Joseph Smith had been receiving an unusual amount of attention online. I'm not sure how long this had been underway. Maybe ever since the internet first came into being. I was informed that the Church had recently published several articles on LDS.org about Joseph Smith and issues related to polygamy. Other discussions on the internet addressed seer stones and additional topics that were certainly not new to me, but as was kindly explained by a very good friend of mine in Alberta, Canada, while it's true this information has been available to the well-read for decades, it has not been common knowledge to the average member of the church.
This was an interesting to read. You had to be well-read to know about all these topics regarding Joseph Smith and Church history. I never found the information that difficult to locate. When I first joined the Church I was fascinated by the Restored Gospel. I read everything I could about every related subject. Frankly, I've never quite understood the reality that there are still members of the Church--folks who've been members all of their lives--but who have yet to read the entire Book of Mormon cover-to-cover. Now, I know that some people have trouble reading, they have learning disabilities, other challenges, circumstances for which I perhaps should feel more sensitive and understanding. And yet it's still astonishing to me how much less the average member of our faith seems to know about their Church, its doctrines, its history, etc., than average Church members in previous generations. If so many members of the Church have difficulty reading the Book of Mormon, or the New Testament, or other books of Holy Writ, how could they possibly be well versed in the finer points of Church history?
I believe there's another phenomenon underway in the world. This might help us understand some of the challenges we're experiencing in the Church, although the phenomenon is worldwide. Never has there been such a wide and glaring gap between the older generation and the younger generation on the subject of technology. It was amazing to me, for example, how quickly my 4-year-old picked up on using a computer, accessing youtube and games and mastering a general comprehension of the language of computers. I suspect much of this taps into the same kind of instincts that help toddlers master language skills. This natural ability seem to fade as we grow older. It has to be continually exercised. Well, for many of those who did not grow up with computers or the internet, they have kept up for as long as they felt they could. They continued to buy new computers every couple years to take advantage of all the new features and advances, and then--at a certain point--they stopped. Their technological progression came to an end. Or it slowed down considerably. For many people in this category of 40 or 50-plus years of age, they gave up around the time the first iPad was instroduced and simply allowed the world of Instagram and Smart Phones, and Twitter and Podcasting and subscribing to blogs and other content via iTunes or Spotify and their car radio and a multitude of other formats sort of passed them by. They have decided to stick with what they already know and understand and sort of allow the younger generation to just do their thing. The problem is that this technology generation gap has been allowed to expand like never before.
So when certain historical information about Joseph Smith or lesser known facts about Church history were publicized online to millennials, or members of the younger generation, some of it became viral, as if it was the first time this information had ever been published to the world. I wasn't learning anything new, but obviously some were, and it was being presented to them outside of its historical content, and therefore represented as something the Church had possibly been keeping under wraps all these generations. I knew that wasn't the case. But I can certainly comprehend how others had no idea. I'd discovered most of this information right as I joined the Church, because it seemed like I could never stop asking questions. I couldn't get enough of every topic that related to the Restoration. Then I immersed myself in a career that motivated me to learn everything I might have missed.
Still, I don't think the Lord requires us to have this kind of burning passion for knowledge. We have busy lives, families to feed, obligations to fulfill. We're not required to read all three volumes of B.H. Roberts Comprehensive History of the Church like I did on my mission because I happened to get saddled with a companion who wouldn't get out of bed until 1 o'clock in the afternoon.
The key is to have a core testimony. And because I have a core testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, the authority of the Holy Priesthood and of the Church itself, any random tidbit of information which might today be considered controversial I just took in as "That's fascinating. I wonder how it all fits together." My testimony has never been threatened by details of Church history or polygamy or the revelation on the Priesthood for all worthy males as received by Spencer W. Kimball or anything else. If I wanted to find all the information I desired to gain a satisfactory understanding of any issue I was curious about, I never felt like it was all-too difficult to find. And if, on some rare occasion, I didn't discover the answer I was seeking on some matter or another, I simply placed the question in the back of mind with the full confidence that I'd receive that understanding at some future date.
However, with some Latter-day Saints, controversial information, particularly about the Prophet Joseph Smith, is released on the internet as if it is being made public for the first time. So for some it has become a genuine stumbling block for some members of the Church. For example, the fact that Joseph had 12-14 polygamous wives, and that he married some of them for eternity and not for time, or that he authorized polygamy for other Church leaders on a very limited basis. Now, on the internet you'll read that Joseph had between 30-50 polygamous marriages, but this is just gossip and can't be substantiated. Admittedly, the historical record remains scant, but 12-14 is what historians can state definitively. Also the fact that Joseph used seer stones besides the Urim and Thummin as a receptacle of revelation. Eventually, he used no such tools at all, so I always looked at these items sort of like training wheels--wheels that I'm not even remotely qualified to comprehend myself even today--but for a Prophet of God--for THE prophet of the Restoration--apparently such tools were quite helpful. The list of potential controversies can be as long as any disaffected member of the Church wants to make it. Many of these topic are worth addressing in an individual podcast. If there's one you prefer, let me know. There's no way I could possibly discuss a topic as diverse as the Prophet Joseph Smith in a single block of time. As with so many other topics, today we just scratch the surface. The prospect of going deeper is what excites and motivates me to sponsor a podcast in the first place.
What my friend in Alberta, which can obviously be classified as the "mission field" compared to where I live in Cache Valley, near Logan, Utah--what my friend was communicating was that these controversies were inciting a crisis of faith for many Church members and for some reason I was feeling rather oblivious to what she described was occurring.
She wrote to me: "Many are screaming out that they have been misled and even lied to, and are experiencing a crises of faith. The fact that the church has recently made a point to deal with these issues on lds.org (and some believe this is feeding the hysteria, and that only 'now' does the Church feel the need to "come clean". Sadly it is affecting many, many members of the Church, even those who have previously been stalwarts in their wards and stakes. Never before have the mists of darkness obscured the safe, but narrow path so effectively. Even the faithful and determined are losing their way because they are not holding fast to the rod of iron. They are crying 'false prophet' and letting go, just when they need to hold even tighter. As Joseph predicted, they cannot leave this work quietly - but are dragging family members and friends along with them. Those who are hearing these things for the first time are wondering "why" - if these things are true, are they only hearing it now." My friend's response, wisely, to members who were expressing such concerns was to reply, "In all fairness, when was the last time you read the Ensign cover to cover? Where exactly did you expect to 'hear' these things? In Sunday School? The responsibility to be well read doctrinally and scripturally is our own."
Honestly, I can't verify the accuracy of what my friend is describing. I hope this kind of disaffection is isolated, but in any case I doubt very much if it would be accurate to say, "Never before have the mists of darkness obscured the safe, but narrow path so effectively." We've had other flashpoints in the history of our Church where the faith of the members has been tried, if their wicks had not been trimmed, if the oil in their lamps was insufficient, great divisions occurred. Scripturally this is known as the separation of the wheat and the tares. And I don't think any moment in our history has ever compared to the crisis of faith that we experienced after the Prophet Joseph Smith was assassinated. There simply was no clearly designated path for succession from one Prophet or Church President to the next. Even the highest ranking leaders of the Church were confused. No one expected Joseph to be killed. He'd escaped so many other entanglements, they had no reason to believe Joseph and Hyrum would not ride home victorious from Carthage, just as he had ridden forth from every other predicament. This time, it didn't happen, and the Church was in shock. Emotionally AND doctrinally. We all know the miraculous event when the membership of the Church gathered to hear from various Church leaders arguments regarding who should succeed Joseph Smith, and how many people testified that Brigham Young was somehow transfigured to speak in the voice of Joseph Smith, and how this event was transformational in their decision to go west with Brigham Young. We can more about the details of that another time. The point of it is that those with oil in their lamps, who apparently witnessed this miracle or believed those who proclaimed it, followed Brigham and the other Apostles, while those whose lamps had no oil, did not.
There have been other flashpoints of crisis. The institution of polygamy as well as the cessation of polygamy. Events associated with the revelation on offering the Priesthood to all worthy males in 1978. Still, I don't think any of them compared to the crisis of faith that took place right after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith.
If what my friend is describing is as widespread as my friend indicates, this is news to me. I wasn't aware that the situation was this pronounced, and perhaps others can confirm if this is what they are witnessing in their own Wards or Stakes. It's certainly NOT what I am witnessing in my own Ward or Stake. But perhaps some brand of hysteria regarding those who learn about Joseph Smith from not-well-meaning, agenda-driven bloggers and website creators is what inspired Elder Anderson's comment in General Conference.
Let me read his comment entirely in context: "For example, questions concerning the Prophet Joseph Smith are not new. They have been hurled by his critics since this work began. To those of faith who, looking through the colored glasses of the 21st century, honestly question events or statements of the Prophet Joseph from nearly 200 years ago, may I share some friendly advice: For now, give Brother Joseph a break! In a future day, you will have 100 times more information than from all of today’s search engines combined, and it will come from our all-knowing Father in Heaven. Consider the totality of Joseph’s life—born in poverty and given little formal education, he translated the Book of Mormon in less than 90 days. Tens of thousands of honest, devoted men and women embraced the cause of the Restoration. At age 38, Joseph sealed his witness with his blood. I testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Settle this in your mind, and move forward!"
Funny how a General Authority can say so much better than I ever could. That's how it should be. My role, I feel, is to offer additional reassurance. Much like the Church, over the last ten years I've devoted far more energy trying to convince my fellow Latter-day Saints to live the Gospel basics. Hold Family Home Evening. Attend the Temple. Get down on your knees--engage in personal and family prayer every day. If you're a child and you feel the responsibility of family prayer resides with a parent or parents, you'd be surprised how much influence you can have in stirring up your entire family for good. If your efforts fail, keep in mind that it's your own personal conduct--your determination to live the commandments of God and adopt the basic practices that should be commonplace for all Latter-day Saints, that seals every chink in the Armor of God that should be protecting your soul from the fiery darts of the adversary. When this armor is in place, the most serious of controversies--as well as the silliest of controversies--stream away like water off a duck's back. The explanation for this isn't logical. It was never expected to be. When the Holy Ghost is your guide, when your testimony is based on confirmations received by this member of the Godhead, there is no crisis of faith. Even questions not fully understood or answered become moot. They just don't matter, and we find that we can forge ahead serving our families and serving our fellow man, hardly missing a beat, in our devotion to and activity within, the Kingdom of God.
Like Elder Andersen, I love Joseph Smith. I know that he is a prophet of God beyond anything I could ever learn from books or internet blogs or any other source of information. Because this knowledge is not based upon the written word. I didn't glean it from the statements of others. I learned it from the Source of all wisdom and understanding. I learned it on my knees, and that testimony has been reinforced more times than I could possibly count.
I urge members to re-read the First Vision in our Pearl of Great Price. Of course I'm aware that Joseph Smith wrote about the First Vision on several occasions and that the details vary slightly, just as any story I might tell from my personal experiences would vary each time I told it, emphasizing certain details and omitting others depending upon the intended audience, depending upon who is listening.
As I drink in Joseph Smith's mastery of language in the 1838 version in our scriptures I am reminded how former generations took the art of writing so much more seriously than our current generation. Watch the movie, Lincoln with Daniel-Day Lewis again. In this film Steven Spielberg did very well at capturing the artistry and power of language as it was employed during this period in our history--a period when the art of memorization of meaningful text was so much more emphasized than it is today. I recognize this mastery and appreciation of prose as I read the words of Joseph Smith, coupled with the light of Revelation, and the mantle of being the Prophet of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I'll surely talk more about Joseph Smith in future podcasts. It's inevitable. The subject is too exhilarating. In the meantime, as Bruce R. McConkie admonished, "Stay in the Mainstream of the Church." I'll add to that, live the commandments of God, repent when you screw up, as we all do, and adhere to the directive found in D&C 49 verse 23: "Wherefore, be not deceived, but continue in steadfastness, looking forth for the heavens to be shaken, and the earth to tremble and to reel to and fro as a drunken man, and for the valleys to be exalted, and for the mountains to be made low, and for the rough places to become smooth—and all this when the angel shall sound his trumpet."
Now that's language. I've studied writing all of my life and I can't touch that. It's gorgeous. It's breathtaking, and for those who don't see it, I feel very sorry and pray that someday you will.
Stay close to the Lord. If you don't feel as close to the Lord today as you yesterday, ask yourself who moved. My best to you and to your families. This is Chris Heimerdinger speaking to you from ForeverLDS.com. Until next week, over and out.