RS/MP Lesson 43: “‘He Was a Prophet of God’: Contemporaries of Joseph Smith Testify of His Prophetic Mission” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on September 29, 2009
This is, I think, a nice little lesson. Scattered as it is among so many different people, however, it is difficult to trace in it any real unified intention. And of course none of it comes from the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a result, I will do little more in my notes here than draw on little bits and pieces of the many things said about Joseph Smith that seem to me striking in one way or another, writing up comments here and there.
The “Testimonies of Joseph Smith” section of the lesson opens with Brigham’s quite famous “I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith!” (p. 495). And I think that is a fantastic place to begin. Besides the obvious enthusiasm Brigham manifests, and besides the clear recognition in the statement that Joseph was a prophet of prophets, I like the way in which what Brigham says shows the pure saturation of Joseph’s influence. That is, having known Joseph Smith was not, for Brigham, something that just buoyed him up in difficult times; nor was it something that he could reflect on in nostalgic hours when things were quiet. Knowing Joseph Smith was something that led his soul to rejoice in every instant, constantly. What Joseph brought to light affects absolutely everything in us all the time—or it ought to. In this regard, I think it is not only rhetoric or even pragmatic necessity that leads Brigham to say, at the end of the same paragraph that “we have power to continue the work that Joseph commenced.” I take it that Brigham means to suggest that our work must be fully consecrated, as Joseph’s work fully informs us.
In the second paragraph on page 495, Eliza R. Snow very nicely describes Joseph’s militant fidelity to the revelations: “He knew that God had called him to the work, and all the powers of earth and hell combined, failed either to deter or divert him from his purpose.” In the following paragraph, she takes this to its radical conclusion: after “prov[ing] himself true to every heaven-revealed principle” and so “true to his brethren and true to God,” Joseph “then sealed his testimony with his blood.” Joseph’s death marks the absoluteness of (“sealed”) his disregard for death or finitude when he had the task of faith before him. Indeed, Joseph died because he lived as an immortal, immortally faithful to the revelations.
In the paragraph that spans pages 495 and 496, Wilford Woodruff mentions what he calls Joseph’s “greatness of soul.” It is a beautiful phrase to capture the spirit of what Eliza R. Snow says about Joseph.
In the following two paragraphs (p. 496), Daniel McArthur and Alexander McRae do a nice job of spelling out the fact that Joseph’s ongoing militant fidelity was effectively a process through which Joseph Smith worked out the truth that had been revealed only in outline (only in so many traces) in the revelations and encounters that founded his prophetic career. Significantly, though, neither of them presents this “truth procedure” as having been Joseph’s work of sorting out the truth only for himself; rather, what they say suggests that Joseph’s own fidelity established the truth for all. McArthur: “the more I heard his sayings and saw his doings the more I was convinced that he had of a truth seen God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, as also the holy angels of God.” McRae: “the more we tried it [his prophetic counsel], the more confidence we had, for we never found his word to fail in a single instance.” This universally valid and unchanging but nonetheless still processually constructed notion of truth is something I find very helpful: faith is necessary to truth.
On page 497, we have this from Angus Cannon: “when darkness would otherwise have beclouded my mind, his testimony has come up vividly before me.” Here I think we get a sense for the transmissibility of Joseph’s faithfulness. When we begin to falter before the temptation to slow down in our own fidelity to the truths revealed in the founding events of the Restoration, remembering Joseph’s own testimony and faithfulness can give us the necessary courage to dismiss the temptation and so to remain faithful. Joseph’s faithfulness was and hopefully remains, one might say, contagious.
And concluding the first subsection of this part of the lesson is this beautiful statement from Hyrum: “There were prophets before, but Joseph has the spirit and power of all the prophets” (p. 497). Amen to that.
Opening the next section, and still on page 497, is Parley P. Pratt’s relatively famous description of Joseph Smith from his Autobiography. I want only to focus on one thing he says: “there was something connected with the serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye.” Parley of course goes on to say quite a bit more about that glance, but I want just to comment on Parley’s focus at all on Joseph’s gaze. It is, at the very least, curious for Parley to fixate on Joseph’s gaze, but I think too that there is something profound about it. It strips away all the concern for Joseph’s physical presence, for his speaking power, for his highly charismatic way, and focuses instead of his way of taking in the world. For Parley, there was something indescribable about that, “something connected with” it that he can’t name. The seer saw in a way the rest of us don’t, though we have been given, at least, to see that seeing and to see that it is distinct from our own.
On page 498 we have Emmeline B. Wells saying: “There are no pictures of him extant that I know of, that compare with the beauty and majesty of his presence.” Here perhaps we veer dangerously close to a kind of nostalgic over-veneration of the Prophet’s personal presence. But the way that the point is phrased undoes, I think, that very temptation in what it says: by dismissing every representation of Joseph’s prophetic presence, it is an injunction against idolatry (though it seems to verge on the idolatrous itself).
Further along on the same page, John Bernhisel attributes to Joseph “a profound knowledge of human nature,” something that seems to me to have been absolutely crucial to Joseph’s character.
On page 499, Jesse Smith, Joseph’s cousin, describes the Prophet as having been “incapable of lying and deceitfulness,” a rather striking statement given the rather systematic presentation of Joseph Smith, often enough, as a liar and a deceiver. “Incapable!” But what is really striking about this statement is the way it connects an almost ridiculous honesty with the work of being a prophet or of speaking prophetically. There can be nothing held back, nothing dissimulated: everything must be on display for the prophetic to have its full (and fully weak) power.
On the same page, Joseph F. Smith describes Joseph’s earthiness: “Oh, he was fully of joy; he was full of gladness; he was full of love, and of every other noble attribute that makes men great and good, and at the same time simple and innocent.” I think that is beautifully put. The truly faithful is neither solemn nor trite, but happy enough both to laugh and to weep. And Joseph unquestionably had that kind of spirit about him.
Orson Spencer, on page 500, says this: “In doctrine Mr. Smith is eminently scriptural.” It is a nice introduction to what follows on page 501 from Jonah Ball: “There is no mistake. The way he unfolds the scriptures is beyond calculation or controversy.” I couldn’t agree more, though I think much serious work remains to be done in making sense of Joseph’s hermeneutical method. Whatever else can be said, Joseph’s way and style of reading scripture was both exemplary and startlingly fresh.
Also on page 501 but now from William Clayton, we get Joseph’s intertwined frankness and humility: “with regard to being willing to communicate instruction he says, ‘I receive it freely and I will give it freely.’” This is certainly one of the things I find most striking in Joseph Smith as well, that humility for him was a question of honesty, and that honesty was for him a question of humility. The two categories were not inseparable for him. There is much to learn from that, I think.
And now a final word from Brigham at the conclusion of the lesson: “From the first time I saw the Prophet Joseph I never lost a word that came from him concerning the kingdom” (p. 503). I’ll just finish off these notes by saying that I hope we too won’t miss a word; all he said was far too important.