Friday, August 29, 2014

Why I Believe: Evidence Seventeen: Joseph Smith “Burst Onto The Public Scene”

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was a Prophet

Evidence Seventeen: 
Joseph Smith “Burst Onto The Public Scene”© 
(Updated 10 September 2014)

In 2005 Richard Bushman, noted historian and author, published an acclaimed biography of the Prophet Joseph Smith(1) and in the same year an interesting essay comparing the early lives of Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln.(2) In one of its more insightful sections–“personal growth”–professor Bushman points out the similar backgrounds of the young men who were only three years apart in age–Joseph being born first. Both were born in rural agrarian environments and had relatively mobile parents moving from one location to another. Both were accustomed to hard work, and both had probably a year of formal schooling. The circumstances of neither young man portended future greatness; they both lived private and obscure lives. Both ended up in Illinois from 1839-44, yet they did not meet, but Lincoln knew of Joseph Smith, and Joseph may have known of Lincoln, though it is uncertain.  

Interestingly, both launched their future careers during their twenty-second to twenty-fifth years, but their adolescences exhibited considerably different characteristics. Lincoln showed more interest in books and learning as well as an interest in words and writing in his earlier years than Joseph did. So Lincoln began studying grammar and mathematics to improve his writing and thinking, and reading law. According to his mother, Joseph was not inclined toward reading, but was given more to “deep study”–i.e., thinking and pondering. The subjects he concerned himself with were the state of his soul and religious matters.

An additional point of comparison leads us to a profound insight.  According to Bushman, Lincoln’s ascent began at the bottom. Though he developed skills as a storekeeper, public speaker, surveyor, and lawyer his first run for public office was a failure. Unlike Lincoln, Bushman says Joseph Smith “burst onto the public scene with a masterpiece, the Book of Mormon, one of the world’s most influential books.”(3) In 1827 when Joseph was twenty-two years old he obtained the plates and the interpreters from Moroni. With the aid of his wife and Martin Harris, he began to translate. He lost the first manuscript and dictated a revelation he was given reproving him. It became an early revelation in the Book of Commandments to be published in 1833. For 18 months between the winter of 1828 and the summer of 1829 Joseph translated, but the bulk of the work was in a three month period. It was a book of more than 580 pages of history, journeys, wars,  sermons, prophecies, visions, and miracles. “The young man who was not known to have read a book or preached a sermon produced a book full of sermons and theological declarations”(4) which came off the press in March of 1830.  Joseph was three months into his twenty-fifth year. A flurry of activity immediately followed and continued unabated for fourteen years.

Just weeks after the publication of The Book of Mormon Joseph organized a church of which he was the presiding elder. A revelation given at the time provided guidance for the new church by way of doctrines and ordinances, and a beginning of an official priesthood. During that momentous event the Lord also gave Joseph Smith a revelation mandating that a record be kept of the history of the Church, a monumental undertaking that continues to the present day. “Then, [after publishing the Book of Mormon] without pause, he went on to the ... heaven-daring task of revising the Holy Bible.”(5)   Regarding that monumental effort which took place from about July 1830 until the summer of 1833, JST scholar Kent Jackson has written:
“At the time he began it, he was a twenty-four-year-old living in the wilderness of North America, with no academic training and no worldly background or skills, taking on the task of making changes in the Holy Bible, the cornerstone of Western civilization.  It was an audacious undertaking, but it was something the Lord instructed the Prophet to do.”(6)
Also, within three months of the Church’s organization Samuel Smith, Joseph’s brother, was serving as one of the church’s first missionaries.  

In the fall of 1830 Joseph sent four missionaries to begin preaching to the Indians, identified in the Book of Mormon as part of God’s chosen people. Although not particularly successful among the Indians, they were successful in converting a large number of people in the Kirtland, Ohio area who were followers of Alexander Campbell and Sidney Rigdon. More than 1000 eventually formed a nucleus of the new church. The Lamanite missionaries were also to locate the site of the New Jerusalem, also spoken of in the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible. It was to be the city of Zion, built in preparation for the Lord’s Second Coming. Their journey took them 1,500 miles to the western border of Missouri. Their work led to the establishing of a colony in Independence, Missouri, and soon to the drawing up of the plat of Zion with the Lord’s temple at its center.  

Meanwhile, in the new year of 1831, the first bishop was called and the law of consecration introduced into the Church. During the spring Joseph received revelations directing him to journey to Missouri with the promise that there the Lord would designate the land of Zion and the spot for the Temple. More than a dozen pairs of missionaries were called to meet Joseph and others in Missouri in the summer. They preached the gospel on their way, baptizing a number of people who would subsequently play important secondary roles in the Church’s early history. Others were directed to “gather” to Missouri.  

Lest you think this was all going on unnoticed by the larger world around Palmyra, New York, it is of interest to note that one of America’s most enterprising journalists, James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Morning Courier and Enquirer, visited western New York for two months (12 June to 18 August 1831) to investigate the new religion. On a canalboat from Utica to Syracuse, the Book of Mormon was one of two books on the table in the boat’s reading room. Bennett’s journal shows that he discussed Mormonism in Geneva, New York, about sixteen miles southeast of the Smith farm, and in Canandaigua, ten miles south of the farm. He later used notes he kept to write a two-part feature story which appeared in the Morning Courier and Enquirer on 31 August and 1 September 1831. Though his article betrays some “contemporary attitudes” toward the “Mormonites,” the article, according to Leonard Arrington, also suggests the “rapidity with which misinformation was conveyed by the press.” But to me, one of the most intriguing statements in the entire piece was highlighted by Bushman in his article.  Bennett, speaking to his readers wrote, “You have heard of MORMONISM–who has not?”(7) In August of 1831! An exaggeration to be sure. Or was it? Nevertheless, not everyone had heard of Lincoln’s work by 1834, when he was the same age as Joseph, or 1844 for that matter.

In Missouri a revelation to Joseph specified that Independence, Missouri is the location of the city of Zion.  Joseph designated the site for the temple and it was dedicated. Significantly, ten revelations in the present Doctrine and Covenants were given regarding this trip to Missouri.(8) Back in Ohio, Joseph and Emma moved to Hiram, Ohio to live with the John Johnson family. Here he continued his work on the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible and received a number of important revelations in connection with it. That November a conference decided to publish those and other revelations. Their initial plan was to produce 10,000 copies!

One more point is of interest regarding the years 1830-31, Joseph’s twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth years. It pertains to these revelations.  An analysis of the revelations given to Joseph Smith by year indicates that he received nineteen in 1830, and 1831 led all the rest with 38, which is 28% of the total, and Grant Underwood says if we consider word count it "bumps this figure to over 30 percent." Why so many in this period? First, the church was newly organized and there were many questions to be answered. Second, the First Lamanite Mission and Joseph’s subsequent visit to Missouri generated or were part of ten or more revelations. Third, this was a period of work on the JST. In Section 42, given in February of 1831, early in the JST project, Joseph was instructed to ask questions during the process.(9) In addition to corrections to the Bible, a number of the answers he received were full blown revelations later included in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Regarding the revelations given in the year 1830, the authors of one of the most respected of D&C commentaries wrote in summary:
If we consider only the work accomplished during this one year; or study, in their practical bearing upon human affairs, the wonderful truths revealed, we are overwhelmed with the vastness of the vistas opened up before us. It is like trying to penetrate the infinite depths of space, where the handiworks of God bear witness of His majesty, wisdom, power, and love, and where each glistening spark of light, on close examination, turns out to be a world.(10)
And summarizing those given in 1831 they say:
There is a wonderful feature connected with these Revelations–their Unity. Although neither the Prophet Joseph nor his associates had any pre-arranged plan regarding the work in which they were engaged, yet every Revelation fits into its place perfectly, as does each separate stone which the skillful architect lays in the walls of his magnificent cathedral, and as we follow the development from Section to Section, we perceive that there is a plan so grand, so beautiful, and so well adapted to human needs, as to leave no room for doubt concerning its divine origin. Each Revelation, considered by itself, though full of beauty, may be but a stone detached from the building to which it belongs, but seen as a part of the entire structure, it speaks with convincing eloquence of its wisdom, power, and love of the Divine Builder of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ.(11)
Such comparison between two great early Americans is calculated to inspire the question: “What is the reason that Joseph Smith, relatively poor, private, obscure, and uneducated “burst onto the public scene” without the kind of apparent preparation and ambition which accompanied Lincoln’s gradual rise to prominence?” In a word the answer is revelation!  I believe it was because he was called by God as a prophet, prepared spiritually by Moroni and other angelic beings, endowed with the gift to translate the record of the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation upon revelation–each a world of light and truth, each a unified part of the whole which when seen from the macro-distance is a magnificent cathedral.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let’s think together again, soon.

Notes:

1. Richard L. Bushman and Jed Woodworth, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005).

2. Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln.”  In Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration, editor not named, 89-108. The 34th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005. President Calvin Coolidge wrote in a preface to a short book on Lincoln: "When Americans cease to admire Abraham Lincoln the Union which he perpetuated will be no more. The strongest proof of the continued power of Lincoln's legacy is the  ceaseless publication of books about him. His greatness increases with each exploration.  It has not been bounded. The authority of his words grows with time. He  spoke and lived the truth.
     The practice of canonization is inherent in the human mind. Men of the past grow into giants, history takes the form of the good old days,  all deeds become  heroic. This has advantage, it is inspiring; but it is not human experience, and it is not true. There is too much written of what men think of Lincoln in proportion to that which tells [us instead] what he was. He does not need to be glorified.  That but degrades. To idealize him destroys him. The greatest inspiration his life can give is in the whole truth about him. Leave him as he is. He came from the soil, he was born of the people,  he lived their life. To make it all heroic, like giving him drawing-room airs, destroys the mighty strength of his example."  [Calvin Coolidge, in Charles C. Johnson, Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons  from America's Most Underrated President, (New York: Encounter Books, 2013, p. 107.]  I think this same sentiment applies to Joseph Smith.

3. Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln,” p. 96, emphasis added.

4. Ibid., 95, emphasis added. Not only did Joseph Smith “burst” on the American scene with the Book of Mormon, but noted American Historian Gordon Wood argued that the book itself came on the scene at the right time in America’s history. It would probably not have been published in the largely oral world of folk beliefs of the 18th century; it may have been “too easily stifled and dismissed by the dominant enlightened gentry culture as just another enthusiastic folk superstition.” If it came following the spread of science and consolidation of authority in the middle decades of the 19th century “it might have had problems verifying its texts and revelations.” However, “during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the time was ideally suited for the establishment of the new faith. The democratic revolution was at its height, all traditional authorities were in disarray, and visions and prophesying still had a powerful appeal for large numbers of people.” See, Gordon S. Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” in Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson, The Mormon History Association Tanner Lectures: The first Twenty Years (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), p. 26.

5. Bushman, "Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln," p. 96.

6.  Kent P. Jackson, “1830: Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible,” in Joseph Smith the Prophet & Seer, edited by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson, 55.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010.

7. Leonard J. Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites.’” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 357, emphasis added, other specific citations above found on 354 and 356.  See also Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln,” p. 96. Though the Book of Mormon did not have a favorable reputation in the publishing world during the early days of the Church, just three of literally hundreds of examples which may be cited showing the widespread interest and publicity it received at this time are: Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger 2 (7 February 1831):90, 93; later published as a pamphlet, Delusions. An Analysis of the Book of Mormon; with an Examination of its Internal and External Evidences, and a Refutation of its Pretences to Divine Authority (Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1832); Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” The Unitarian 1 (1 January 1834): 47-48, and Edward Strut Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833 to October, 1834 (London: J. Murray, 1835), 55-56.

8. Sections 52, 54-62.

9. D&C 42:56-58. For statistics on the number of revelations given per year, see Grant Underwood, "1831: A Flood of Revelations,"  in Joseph Smith the Prophet & Seer, edited by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson, 77-78.  Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010. Seventy-seven of the sections in our present Doctrine and Covenants, or 56% of the total, were received during the three-year period Joseph worked on the Translation of the Bible. As noted in the text, a number of these have a direct relationship to that work and others my yet prove to be linked to the JST.

10. Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl, The Doctrine and Covenants Containing Revelations given to Joseph Smith, Jr., The Prophet with an Introduction and Historical and Exegetical Notes, (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927), 254-55, emphasis added.

11. Ibid., 532-33, emphasis added.  For a review of the "flood of revelations" given in this year and the themes they treat, see Underwood, "1831: A Flood of Revelations," pp. 77-100.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. I am intrigued by the Joseph and Lincoln comparison. They are both noble men but I do believe that Joseph "burst onto the public scene" with a high priority errand from the Lord. I think that Joseph's inclination toward deeper things of the soul along with his willingness to inquire deeply called him to the work. It reminds me of D&C Section 4. Desire calls us to the work while faith, hope, charity, and love with an eye single qualify us for the work. The Prophet exercised "exceedingly great faith" and was "called with a holy calling" (Alma 13:3). To echo your declaration, "Thank God for Joseph Smith!"

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  2. Thanks Travis, I enjoy your participation here.

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