The world's historians have largely failed to recognize what happened in the spring of 1820 in upstate New York in a grove of trees sacred to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There, in answer to the earnest supplications of 14-year-old Joseph Smith, occurred one of the great theophanies of the ages. This marvelous manifestation of the Father and the Son to young Joseph ushered in the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times and led to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Joseph Smith is acknowledged by members of the Church as the prophet who stands at the head of the Lord's work in this last dispensation. Though Church members do not worship him, they revere Joseph Smith in his calling as prophet, seer, revelator, and first president of the Church in the latter days.
Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith was "foreordained in eternity to preside over this last dispensation."1 He remarked further: "The Lord had his eyes upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father's father, and upon their progenitors clear back to . . . Adam."2
There were also mortals who knew something of Joseph's mission before he was born. His paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, himself a devout man, is reported to have said: "It has been borne in upon my soul that one of my descendants will promulgate a work to revolutionize the world of religious faith."3
Joseph of old, son of Jacob, prophesied of Joseph Smith thousands of years before his birth in Sharon, Vt. The prophet Lehi, in his final blessing to his own son, Joseph, spoke of the prophecies of that Joseph who had been sold into Egypt, and also declared that he, Lehi, was a descendant of that ancient Joseph. He said Joseph of old "obtained a promise . . . that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel." (2 Ne. 3:5.)
According to Lehi's account of these prophecies, ancient Joseph testified that a "seer shall the Lord my God raise up, who shall be a choice seer unto the fruit of my loins. " (2 Ne. 3:6.) Further, Joseph prophesied that the name of this choice seer "shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father." (2 Ne. 3:15.)
There should be no doubt in the minds of the Latter-day Saints that the Prophet Joseph Smith was foreordained to his divine calling. He was one of the noble and great ones spoken of by Abraham (see Abr. 3:22-23); in the premortal world he qualified himself to stand at the head of this last dispensation.
On the evening of Sept. 21, 1823, some three years following his first vision in the grove, 17-year-old Joseph was in the attitude of prayer and supplication. During the course of his prayer, Joseph became aware of a personage at his bedside. That personage was Moroni. In his account of this experience Joseph quoted Moroni as saying: "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.) What was the work God had for him to do?
The Prophet Joseph Smith was to be the instrument through whom the Lord would restore the everlasting gospel and commence the building up of the kingdom of God on earth for the last time, all in preparation for the Second Coming of the Lord. Though a number of evidences can be listed in support of the accomplishment of Joseph's mission, only three of the most significant will be mentioned here.
First, through Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon was brought forth. After some schooling from Moroni, which extended over a four-year period, Joseph received the plates and translated them by the gift and power of God. This fulfilled, at least partially, the prophecy contained in a revelation to Joseph of old, who said: "Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers." (2 Ne. 3:7.)
This prophecy takes on added meaning when viewed along with a statement from the title page of the Book of Mormon. We are told there that the purpose of the Book of Mormon "is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever. . . . "
The Lord further promised Joseph of old that He would give this choice seer "power to bring forth my word unto the seed of thy loins. . . ." (2 Ne. 3:11.) It seems reasonable that the term, "my word," in this case refers to the Book of Mormon, which, according to its title page, was "written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel."
Second, through Joseph Smith the priesthood and its keys were restored and the Church was organized. It is a matter of record and testimony that Joseph and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist. (See D&C 13; Joseph Smith-History 1:68-69.) Then, later, Joseph and Oliver received the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James and John. This latter ordination included the office of apostle and the keys or right to organize and preside over the Church and its affairs. Reference is made in the Doctrine and Covenants to this restoration. (See D&C 27:12-13; 128:20.) Since Joseph Smith's time, the keys have been given to those who have succeeded him as president of the Church, each one in turn. In addition to representing the right to preside and to govern the affairs of the Church, the keys help to preserve the order that does and should exist in the kingdom of God.
Members of the Church know that the Church was organized on April 6, 1830, in the state of New York. On this sacred occasion, the kingdom of God was once again established on earth. Since that day, line upon line, the organization of the Church has been made more complete as the Lord has revealed His will to His servants.
Third, through Joseph Smith the saving ordinances were revealed. These include, but are not limited to, the ordinance of baptism and the ordinances of the temple, for the living as well as the dead.
We know from scripture and the written history of the Church, that following the bestowal of the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph and Oliver, they baptized each other. (See Joseph Smith-History 1:70-72; History of the Church, Vol. 1, ch. 5.) They had learned from John the Baptist on that occasion in May 1829, that, among other things, the Aaronic Priesthood holds the keys of baptism by immersion. (See D&C 13; Joseph Smith-History 1:69.) In a revelation to the Church through Joseph Smith in the spring of 1830, the correct manner of baptism was revealed. (See D&C 20:37, 72-74.)
Later, the ordinances of the temple were revealed to Joseph Smith and were administered to the Saints. The endowment and the sealing of husband and wife were seen as ordinances necessary for exaltation. Of a visit in May 1843 to Benjamin F. Johnson and his wife in Ramus, Ill., in company with William Clayton, Joseph said in his narrative: "Before retiring, I gave Bro. and Sister Johnson some instructions on the priesthood; and putting my hand on the knee of William Clayton, I said: . . . In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood
meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriageT; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase."4
Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants also gives us insight into the importance of the sealing ordinance. Of interest in the section heading is an explanation that though the material was recorded in 1843, "it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831," the year following the organization of the Church.
Through the restoration of the saving ordinances, the dead, as well as the living, have the possibility of salvation and exaltation. Soon after Joseph Smith's first public mention of baptism for the dead in the summer of 1840, the first proxy baptisms were performed in the Mississippi River. Eventually, they were done in the temple. The first endowments were administered in Nauvoo in 1842. Later, in the West, proxy endowments and sealings were performed.
One of the most sublime revelations we have from the Prophet Joseph Smith is an epistle from him to the Saints on the subject of baptism for the dead. This epistle is found in the Doctrine and Covenants. After telling the Saints that the subject of "the baptism for the dead . . . seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings" (D&C 128:1), Joseph said that "these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over." (D&C 128:15.) He was speaking of the dead in the same verse when he remarked that "their salvation is necessary and essential . . . to our salvation." This section is important to an understanding of the work for the living and the dead.
What of the many other accomplishments of the Prophet Joseph? Mention has not been made here of such things as the sending of the fullness of the gospel into the world, the bringing forth of many other revelations and commandments, the restoration of other keys, the gathering of many of the Saints, and the founding of a great city. These and many other wondrous events will be brought to our remembrance as we thoughtfully and prayerfully heed and study the Doctrine and Covenants. Added insight can be gained by studying History of the Church, a seven-volume work, which, according to the preface in volume 1, is taken primarily from "the narrative of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as found in the manuscript History of the Church."
In conclusion, it is both our opportunity and responsibility to gain a spiritual witness - or to strengthen the witness we have already earned - of the divine calling of Joseph Smith.
President Joseph Fielding Smith said: "If Joseph Smith was verily a prophet . . . then this knowledge is of the most vital importance to the entire world."5 President Smith further testified, "I have a perfect knowledge of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am perfectly satisfied in my mind that in his youth . . . he beheld the actual presence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ; in my mind there is no doubt, I know this to be true."6
President Harold B. Lee issued a challenge to Church members when he said, "We must accept the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith as the instrumentality through which the restoration of the gospel and the organization of the Church . . . was accomplished. Each member of the Church, to be prepared for the millennial reign must receive a testimony, each for himself, of the divinity of the work established by Joseph Smith."7
Through an earnest study of the Doctrine and Covenants, our understanding and faith can increase. We will know more surely that, because of the latter-day mission of Joseph Smith, the fullness of the gospel is again made available to the world. In addition, and more importantly, our resolve will be strengthened to live more fully what we have come to learn and know to be true.
1Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978), p. 108.
2Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City ; Deseret Book Co. , 19 78), p. 108.
3Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Geo. Q. Cannon (Salt Lake -City: Deseret Book Co., 1986), p. 26.
4History of the Church, vol . 5, pp . 392-393; see also D&C 131:1 -4.)
5Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1 954), vol. 1, pp. 189-190.
6Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, (Salt Lake City; Bookcraft, 1954), vol. 1, p. 201.
7Conference Report, October 1956, p. 62.