On a number of occasions in the past few months, the subject of Joseph Smith- and by extension, the leadership of lay ministry- has come up as I’ve met with women in my stewardship, and other friends and acquaintances. I think on words uttered as a promise and warning from Moroni to Joseph at their first meeting: that Joseph’s “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.”
I’ve mentioned before that my grandmother- though someone I’ve never met- is famous to me to her love of the prophet Joseph. She joined the Church as a young mother, decidedly with the conviction that the Book of Mormon was true- but ever more distinctly, because she loved and believed this man Joseph, who sacrificed so much to play his pre-ordained role in the restoration of the gospel in the latter-days. I remember how often my own mother would recall her mother’s admiration of him- she told me that her mother was so excited to one day meet and thank him. The memory of her precious respect for the prophet resonated with me, and when we sang hymns that referenced him; when we read accounts of his life and trials; when we studied scripture that he had translated, I always thought of her. Knowing so little about her, I valued highly what I did know, and what had impacted my mother so.
I remember my first experience in Seminary- I felt grown up- I would be a scholar of scripture and I’d come to know Church History! One of the first accounts we studied was in the Joseph Smith- History record. We Joseph’s brief account of his childhood and that adolescent afternoon that changed everything: he, recalling scripture and likening it to himself, was obedient and asked of God to know more about Him. And after a difficulty of feeling and of darkness- truly the greatest physical power the weaponless, mortal-less adversary could muster- light broke through the quiet grove of trees and God the Father and His son Jesus Christ called to Joseph by name. We read, and piecing together the entire story written in Joseph’s own words, I raised eyebrows and thought to myself, “This is peculiar! This is a strange thing… this is the founding moment of something that I am a part of… that I believe happened?” I remember a strange comfort as I read on, Joseph’s description of that evening, and the days and weeks that passed. The opposition that began to grow- the displeasure and the discomfort, the subtle ostracising of a teenaged boy and his family who must have been day and night confronted by neighbours, community leaders, scholars in objection. I read Joseph’s words:
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… 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… However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision… 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, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.
I read again, “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” Again and again I thought of that sentence. I tossed it over in my mind and tried my hardest to think of the consequences that faced the fourteen year old boy- my age at the time. Why hadn’t he just stopped talking about it, saved his family the embarrassment and aggravation? Because he knew it, and he knew that God knew it. I understood my Grandmother a little bit more; the integrity she held dear, the reason she re-routed her life and chose to believe. She knew it, and she knew that God knew it. She and I were yoked with this Joseph.
From these little moments I have chosen to believe, always cautious of that warning, that Joseph’s name would be used for good and for evil. I understand the peculiarity of his story and the rumours that cloud his memory. It’s not my place to question the discomfort of others who find fault in the alleged details of his life. Many loved friends and family have chosen that those stories are as important to them as this first account is to me. Their fight for understanding and peace is their own, and I can only admire and respect their efforts to find resolution for themselves.
I also think of those early saints who knew Joseph best- who watched him grow up, who followed and stayed with him. Who dealt with him on a daily basis and watched him closely. Maybe they wondered what made him so special to engage the attention of the Almighty. Maybe he got on their nerves, maybe whatever rumours churning around then and now are true and everybody knew it. Either way, how might the saints then and now reconcile such a divide? To those early followers, a likely self-conscious Joseph said,
“When did I ever teach anything wrong from this stand? When was I ever confounded? I want to triumph in Israel before I depart hence and am no more seen. I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught. Must I, then, be thrown away as a thing of naught?”
“Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing: the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against Him—they all watched for iniquity in Him.”
Joseph Smith’s journal for October 29, 1842, records: “I . . . went over to the store [in Nauvoo, Illinois], where a number of brethren and sisters were assembled, who had arrived this morning from the neighbourhood of New York. . . . I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.”
Accounting for that prophecy of Moroni, I was reminded recently of God’s own accounting for Joseph’s name, and how it would be used in the latter-days. The Doctrine and Covenants records the early history of the restoration and organisation of the Church, and there we read of revelation and council given to its leaders from God. The very first revelation given also to the members of the Church as a whole is also recorded in Section 21. As opposed to speaking to just the prophet, whose responsibility it was [still is] to share the words of God with the covenant-making members of the Church, God here for the first time in this dispensation gives council and commandments to the saints:
(verses 1-3, business as usual- Christ speaks directly to Joseph, as prophet…)
4. Wherefore, meaning the church,
…which is to say that Jesus now shifts His council to address the members of the church…
thou shalt give heed to all his [the prophet’s] words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me
… here Jesus is making it clear that He is the judge rather than the people, and it’s His stewardship and concern whether or not the prophet is worthy or “walking in holiness”…
For his word ye shall receive as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith
… and that’s it, folks: the first commandment given to the church body in the latter-days is to receive (to be obedient to) the council of the prophet (because it truly comes from Jesus Christ, whose name our Church bears), in all patience and faith.
I’ve pondered on the choice of those two words and have discerned that as Moroni knew and warned, even Jesus, who knew Joseph by name in the grove of trees many years before, even he knew that then and today the world would consider this man Joseph and would blacken and tarnish his name. Maybe away from the pulpit Joseph was clumsy and faltered; but that call and judgement belongs to the Saviour of the world alone- and I am being asked to be patient and to have faith in God rather than man.
Like Joseph, I have had moments of revelation and enlightenment: powerful and personal witnesses from the Holy Ghost that leave me here in a tumultuous world knowing, and knowing that God knows that I’ve felt this truth and confirmation. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet- and whatever the judgements of man that befall him, I choose to be patient and faithful. I choose to adore him as my Grandmother died adoring him before I was born. Whatever the foils of his standing, I know that the Book of Mormon is a real witness of Jesus Christ- and if that’s true, then God is real: and if God is real, then I am mortal, and like Joseph, imperfect- but destined to be one day be like that same God who knows me by name.
Extra tid-bit: consider this teaching from Elder Jeffey R. Holland (2013):
On one occasion Jesus came upon a group arguing vehemently with His disciples. When the Savior inquired as to the cause of this contention, the father of an afflicted child stepped forward, saying he had approached Jesus’s disciples for a blessing for his son, but they were not able to provide it. With the boy still gnashing his teeth, foaming from the mouth, and thrashing on the ground in front of them, the father appealed to Jesus with what must have been last-resort desperation in his voice:
“If thou canst do any thing,” he said, “have compassion on us, and help us.
“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”1
This man’s initial conviction, by his own admission, is limited. But he has an urgent, emphatic desire in behalf of his only child. We are told that is good enough for a beginning. “Even if ye can no more than desire to believe,” Alma declares, “let this desire work in you, even until ye believe.”2 With no other hope remaining, this father asserts what faith he has and pleads with the Savior of the world, “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.”3 I can hardly read those words without weeping. The plural pronoun us is obviously used intentionally. This man is saying, in effect, “Our whole family is pleading. Our struggle never ceases. We are exhausted. Our son falls into the water. He falls into the fire. He is continually in danger, and we are continually afraid. We don’t know where else to turn. Can you help us? We will be grateful for anything—a partial blessing, a glimmer of hope, some small lifting of the burden carried by this boy’s mother every day of her life.”
“If thou canst do any thing,” spoken by the father, comes back to him “If thou canst believe,” spoken by the Master.4
“Straightway,” the scripture says—not slowly nor skeptically nor cynically but “straightway”—the father cries out in his unvarnished parental pain, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” In response to new and still partial faith, Jesus heals the boy, almost literally raising him from the dead, as Mark describes the incident.5
Observation number one regarding this account is that when facing the challenge of faith, the father asserts his strength first and only then acknowledges his limitation. His initial declaration is affirmative and without hesitation: “Lord, I believe.” I would say to all who wish for more faith, remember this man! In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited. In the growth we all have to experience in mortality, the spiritual equivalent of this boy’s affliction or this parent’s desperation is going to come to all of us. When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. It was of this very incident, this specific miracle, that Jesus said, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”6 The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all.10 Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
Last observation: When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.”11 I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief.