When I really think about it, I have mixed emotions when it comes to talking about Joseph Smith. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ to this earth, I honor and respect Joseph as a great man who taught much, both with his words and his examples, yet, I sometimes feel that members of the Church put a little too much emphasis on Joseph, turning it almost into hero-worship.
I think part of this hesitation comes from an experience in high school. I never hid the fact that I’m a Mormon, all of my friends knew and were okay with it, and aside from the occasional teasing about multiple wives or not drinking coffee, not much was mentioned about it. But, one conversation I really remember centered on Joseph Smith and how he is treated and talked about by members of the Church. This friend was a good Christian and could not understand how Mormons could, in his mind, violate the first commandment, Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. The way he described his conversations with other Mormons, he got the impression that Mormons believe that Joseph Smith is talked about more in Mormon meetings than Jesus Christ. And as I started paying attention to Sacrament meeting talks and Sunday School lessons, I found he had a valid point. There were some times when I sat through an entire Sunday School lesson or Sacrament meeting talk without any mention of Jesus Christ, which should never happen in a Church bearing his name.
So, I have made it a point when I discuss my beliefs to always center them on Jesus Christ, and the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, at the same time, I have always been fascinated by Joseph Smith and his life. I believe in the verse in Doctrine and Covenants section 135, which reads,
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.
I was thinking about this the other day and I came across a post written by a friend of mine, who set up a script to find all of the scriptural references made during this latest General Conference. One of the most quoted scriptures was Joseph Smith History 1:17, where Joseph Smith describes his first vision. I love this experience, I love how it is described in the scriptures, and I love what it teaches us.
This experience is at the heart of what Mormonism is. Without this prayer and first vision, there is no restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. And this experience by a 14-year-old boy provides the example for all of us as we seek to know Jesus Christ and learn his Gospel better, coming with the same question he had — “Which church should I join?”
Joseph Smith was a young boy concerned about the many churches he saw that all claimed to be based on the Bible, but ”the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” (Joseph Smith History 1:12)
Joseph further writes of this time in his life,
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know. (JSH 1:10-12)
And so, he decided to do as the scriptures instructed and ask of God. He went into the nearby woods to find a place where he could be alone to make his petition, and he knelt down and prayed aloud. And he says,
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (JSH 1:16-17)
And that same experience is offered to each of us, and even required of each of us, when we find ourselves in the same situation as young Joseph Smith, wanting more wisdom, wanting to know which church to join. We can and must, as Joseph Smith, find a quiet, private place and offer up the desires of our hearts to God. And God will respond to us, just as He did to Joseph Smith. He probably will not appear to us physically as He did to Joseph Smith, but he will give us an answer to our honest and heartfelt prayer. That promise is repeated again and again throughout our scriptures, the most quoted by Mormons appearing in Moroni 10:4-5,
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
For me, that is the greatest thing we learn from Joseph Smith. True, he revealed many truths about celestial marriage and eternal families, about Priesthood organization and keys, about the nature of the Godhead and our relationship with our Father in Heaven, and those are important principles to know and understand and gain testimonies of at different times in our lives, but the very first step we must take, is the very first step that Joseph took — the desire to know and acting upon that desire by praying and asking God.
Joseph Smith teaches us both by what he taught and by his example that God loves His children and will answer prayers and give wisdom and guidance to those who ask him. No one is expected to just believe what is taught in this Church, or any of the principles or doctrines. All are asked and invited to study, ponder and pray and receive a personal witness from God, through the spirit that these things are true. I know this is true, for I, too, have done as Joseph Smith and asked of God. I have received a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through Joseph Smith. I know he was a prophet called by God to restore these essential truths and priesthood ordinances. And I know because I have asked to know.