Praise to the Man

Wandering through the Sacred Grove, my 15-year-old mind tried to absorb the First Vision experienced by a boy who was a year younger than myself at the time. Sitting a-top the Hill Cumorah a few hours later, I marveled that Joseph Smith translated the plates into the Book of Mormon and organized the Church despite horrendous obstacles and persecution. Touring Carthage Jail and standing in the room where the Prophet was killed, I felt immense respect and gratitude for his role in the Restoration. And in his willingness to die for it. As a teenager contemplating these events, my burgeoning testimony burned brighter. A year later, at age sixteen, I read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover for the first time. Consequently, my growing faith morphed into a sure knowledge of Joseph Smith's divine commission.

My respect for the Prophet continues to grow. So, I must take time from the busyness of this Christmas season to pay tribute to him. Jesus Christ, of course, is the reason for this season, and this post is not meant to diminish the Savior in any way. Still, the Prophet Joseph was born at Christmastime on December 23, 1805; thus, his birthdate is easy to forget. Last summer, I began reading the first volume of The Joseph Smith Papers. Because of his astounding spiritual intellect, I forget that Joseph Smith had very little secular education. I had never seen his limited writing abilities until I read this book. The purpose for publishing Joseph Smith's papers is revealed in the book's preface:
The motivation to engage in this vast project comes from the great respect in which Latter-day Saints hold Joseph Smith as the church's founder and a modern prophet. We believe Joseph Smith will be better understood and appreciated if the documents he produced are available for all to examine. The documents shed light on many dimensions of Smith's life and personality, his strengths and weaknesses, and the successes and failures of the movement he led.

The editors have also left the Prophet's journals with his original writing, spelling, and punctuation intact. Hence, I was taken aback when reading the Prophet's revelations and correspondence in their unedited form. For instance, here's his unedited journal entry from April 1, 1834:
Tusday this day at Brother Riders and the Court has not braught on our tryal yet we are ingaged in makeing out some supenies (subpoenas] for witness this Aprel 1st Tusday my Soul delighteth in the Law of the Lord for he forgiveth my sins and will confound mine Enimies the Lord shall destroy him who has lifted his heel against me even that wicked man Docter P Hrlbert [Doctor Philastus Hurlbut] he deliver him to the fowls of heaven and his bones shall be cast to the blast of the wind he lifted his [arm] against the Almity therefore the Lord shall destroy him (p. 65).

I find it absolutely astounding that the Lord was able to work through such a young man who had little worldly education and experience! Reading the Prophet's rustic writing is further proof of his divine mission. In fact, Joseph Smith exemplifies the kind of people the Lord chooses as His standard bearers. The scriptures (both ancient and modern) describe Christ's chosen leaders as follows:
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are" (1 Cor. 1: 25-28).

Surely, God is the great qualifier. Those whom He calls, He qualifies to do the impossible. And Joseph Smith was living proof of this concept. He did what his critics said (and still say) is not possible:
  • He translated the entire Book of Mormon from the gold plates in three short months.
  • He translated the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian scrolls.
  • He received revelations in the form of the Doctrine & Covenants.
  • He began a re-translation of the New Testament.
  • He wrote many correspondences and lectures regarding Church doctrine.
  • He restored and organized a church (more like a movement).
  • He planned and built cities and temples.
  • He tried to establish Zion and build the New Jerusalem to prepare the Saints for Christ's second coming.
  • He accomplished all of this while often times languishing in a jail on trumped up charges. All before his martyrdom at the young age of 38.

Talk about a miracle! Nothing in Joseph Smith's worldly upbringing had prepared him for such achievement and artistry. I'm in total agreement when the editors call the Prophet "an untutored genius in all of American history" (General Introduction, Joseph Smith Papers).
I also appreciate the book's unvarnished look at the Prophet's challenges and weaknesses. While leading the Church, Joseph engaged in a few fist fights and verbal altercations. One physical fight was with his younger brother in front of their elderly parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. Joseph and Emma had many marital difficulties which resulted in heated arguments. Yet, these accounts of an imperfect prophet served to deepen my love and respect for Joseph Smith. I found his frailties endearing. The Prophet's personal flaws give the rest of us hope--along with a sure knowledge that the Lord does indeed work mighty miracles through fallible humans. I shall forever "praise to the man who communed with Jehovah; honor and blessed be his ever great name."
Since my first visit in 1973, I have repeatedly returned to the hallowed places of the Restoration with my husband and children. My last visit, in 2010, involved our missionary daughter, Erica. My daughter, Cristi, and her husband, Zach, flew with us to Palmyra, New York to pick up Erica from her mission. As a missionary, Erica served as a tour guide at the various sites, thus she gave us a personal tour of every place.
"This is probably what the Sacred Grove looked like at the time of the First Vision," Erica explained as we walked through the grove in early spring.
While touring, I was heartened and a bit saddened at the development of the sites over the years. Though more "user friendly" to visitors, the sites now had a "touristy" feel and polished ambience.

The Joseph Smith farm. The Palmyra Temple is in the background.
The Sacred Grove had become crowded with people, and the grounds were trimmed, orderly, and neatly marked with paved pathways. The Hill Cumorah had "suffered" the same "fate." Still, I felt gratified that the Church has increased monies to develop these areas as clear living descriptions and testaments of the Restoration.
Joseph Smith's bedroom where Moroni appeared to him.
And the Spirit still burns as brightly in every place. I liken these sacred places on the East Coast to the sacred places in the Holy Land.
President Gordon B. Hinckley succinctly summarizes my feeling regarding Joseph Smith's mission. He says,
You and I are faced with the stark question of accepting the truth of the First Vision and that which followed it. On the question of its reality lies the very validity of this Church (“The Stone Cut Out of the Mountain,” Ensign, November 2007, p. 86)
Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church ("The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign, November 2002, p. 80).
That becomes the hinge pin on which this whole cause turns. If the First Vision was true, if it actually happened, then the Book of Mormon is true. Then we have the priesthood. Then we have the Church organization and all of the other keys and blessings of authority which we say we have. If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 227).
There is no middle ground. Joseph Smith talked with the Father and the Son or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then we are embraced in a great fraud, a terrible fraud (Counsel from the Prophet,” Church News, April 4, 1997, para. 4).

I add my testimony to President Hinckley's. It's either true or it isn't. And, surely, it is true. My testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith enables me to stand firm while the Church comes under increasing scrutiny and criticism for its "unpopular" societal stances. I owe my priceless blessings of the Restoration to this extraordinary man. Happy birthday, Joseph Smith!
And Merry Christmas!