Tuesday, Dec. 23, will be the 209th anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Appropriately, this year as every year, that anniversary will be vastly overshadowed by celebrations of Christmas, the traditional birthday of the master he sought to serve.
Nevertheless, I want to say something here about Joseph, who is important not only as the inaugurator, like Abraham and Moses, of a new dispensation — the final dispensation, in fact, the dispensation of the fullness of times, in which all things are restored — but, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul, as a prophetic witness of Jesus Christ.
“I honor and revere the name of Joseph Smith,” said his friend and successor, Brigham Young. “I delight to hear it; I love it. I love his doctrine. I feel like shouting Hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up. I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth. I am his witness” (see "Discourses of Brigham Young," p. 456).
And so, to the best of my ability, am I.
Joseph was told by the angel Moroni “that God had a work for me to do; and that my 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 this prediction has certainly proved accurate. Although born an obscure farm boy on the American frontier, his name is known around the world, and he remains as controversial today as ever he was in life.
I’ve been disheartened in recent years to hear negative comments about Joseph even among certain members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and perhaps especially from my own tribe: There’s a temptation among academics, particularly among biographers and maybe scholars generally, to condescend somewhat toward the people whom they study, to view them as limited by their time and imperfections, forgetting that we, too, are constrained by our times and our perhaps much more significant flaws and incapacities.
Believing Latter-day Saints should always remember that it was Joseph who was divinely called and “blessed to open the last dispensation.” We weren’t, and that fact might actually be significant.
He wasn’t perfect and never claimed to be, but he also wasn’t evil. He was a good man. “No one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins,” he reflected in 1838. “A disposition to commit such was never in my nature” (Joseph Smith-History 1:28).
For those who wish to deepen their acquaintance with this good and divinely selected man, many books might be recommended. Among them, in this context, I suggest “They Knew the Prophet,” by Hyrum and Helen Mae Andrus, as well as their “Personal Glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith” and Mark McConkie’s impressive collection, “Remembering Joseph.”
I don’t advocate idolizing him, but I do hope that the Saints will continue to appreciate him.
Joseph Smith gave us more pages of revealed scripture than any other prophet in history. And those pages are suffused throughout with testimonies of Jesus Christ, affirming his deity, his atoning sacrifice and his victory over death.
The Restoration began in the Sacred Grove with the ringing declaration of the Father, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith — History 1:17). The title page of the Book of Mormon declares that book to have been written “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” And one of its principal functions, referring, among other things, to the biblical accounts of Christ, is “proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:11). And then, of course, there’s the familiar but still powerful early 1832 witness of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon: “And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-23). (Many of the Prophet’s revelatory experiences, besides this one, were shared with others as shared in a previous column in 2011 titled "Many of Prophet's revelations were shared experiences.")
Joseph was a sincere and devout man who went to his death affirming his testimony. It’s no coincidence that the Greek word “martyr” also means “witness.”