It is encouraging to me that in addition to being one of the truly noble and great souls of all time, there was a normalness about Joseph. —Elder Marlin K. Jensen
Referring to Joseph Smith as both profoundly normal and divinely inspired, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Saturday evening that while there is much to be learned through studying the life and teachings of the founding prophet of the LDS Church, the real key is how that knowledge impacts the way we live our lives.
Speaking to some 200-plus members of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers during the final session of their day-long symposium on Joseph Smith, Elder Jensen, executive director of the LDS Church History Department, commended attendees for spending the day adding to their knowledge. But it isn't enough to just accumulate knowledge and information, he said. At some point, "it has to mean something in our lives."
"I'm interested in the relationship between what we know and what we do," said Elder Jensen, who has served as LDS Church historian and recorder since 2005. "That transfer of knowledge to behavior is important."
For a number of years, Elder Jensen has worked closely with the scholars and historians involved with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which is collecting and publishing papers and manuscripts created by — or under the direction of — Joseph Smith (earlier in the day attendees heard presentations from Ron Esplin, Karen Lynn Davidson, Jeffrey N. Walker and Ronald O. Barney, who reported on various elements of the project). During that time, he said, there are a number of things he has learned about Joseph Smith that have influenced his life and his behavior.
First, he said, "it is encouraging to me that in addition to being one of the truly noble and great souls of all time, there was a normalness about Joseph." Elder Jensen talked about how Joseph would engage in athletics, how he had a favorite horse and a favorite dog, and how sometimes he would tired of all the pressures of his life and say, "Let's sit a spell."
"That's pretty ordinary and pretty heartening to those of us who go through life in an ordinary way," Elder Jensen said. "It gives me hope, because most of the time I'm acting as a pretty normal person."
Similarly, Elder Jensen said it is "good for us to know" that Joseph acknowledged that he was "guilty of sins and follies." That is important for Latter-day Saints who "need to manage (their) expectations of our prophets, and not ascribe to them a perfection that only one person on this earth has ever had."
Joseph Smith's active and dynamic scholarship is also something Latter-day Saints should learn about and apply to their lives.
"There are journal entries in which he says he took the day away from his regular duties to learn some Hebrew, or some other language," Elder Jensen said. "This knowledge gave me great courage when I was a young missionary struggling to learn German. I appreciated the effort he made to keep learning and growing. Yes, he was the greatest revelator of his time — maybe of all time — and yet he put in the effort to learn."
And as Elder Jensen faces his upcoming "retirement" — the church has already announced that he will be replaced as church historian by Elder Steven E. Snow in October, when Elder Jensen will be given emeritus general authority status — he says he intends to follow that example, and "keep learning."
Elder Jensen also spoke about the life lessons that can be learned from the sheer volume of Joseph's revelations, from his great capacity for friendship, through the blessings of the priesthood that was restored through him, through the self-sufficiency suggested by the laws of consecration and tithing and through his grit and toughness.
Many times, he said, the Joseph Smith Papers scholars "will get together at lunch and talk about how tough Joseph was. How resilient. How resolute." That grit and determination should encourage all of us to "bear what we have to bear," Elder Jensen said, "and to put on our best face, no matter what. I think that's what Joseph did for the entire church, no matter how burdensome his life was."
Finally, Elder Jensen said, "we owe Joseph so much for what he taught us about deity, and for introducing us to a loving God ... and to God's son." He then suggested that we should all aspire to develop the kind of "closeness and awareness and accountability" that Joseph shared with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ — the ultimate example of transferring knowledge to behavior, he said.