Last year my wife and I spent a lot of our time with a real estate agent as we shopped for our first home. For a few months we went out with this agent and viewed home after home. Through this process we began to develop a friendship with this man. We learned that he was a God-fearing Christian who was active in his local Baptist congregation. I enjoyed asking him questions about how his church operated and what some of his beliefs were. We enjoyed a very open conversation during these house-shopping excursions, and I learned a lot. Through these conversations this good man learned that I was an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons.) Discussions about the many similarities between our two faiths and church organizations became common between us. One day on our drive he asked me, “Why do Mormons revere Joseph Smith so much?” I would like today to try to give my answer to that question.
To start you have to understand God’s pattern of calling prophets throughout the ages. Almost all of the scriptures we have recorded in the Bible are the writings of prophets. God uses prophets as a conduit to teach His children on earth what they should do and how they should act. He also uses prophets to warn and teach people about His doings. In fact, the prophet Amos teaches us that “surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). In other words, before God will do anything to or for His people, He will tell the prophets about it.
You might think that a single prophet would suffice to tell us all of God’s will. All prophets do teach the same basic principles of God’s gospel: faith, repentance, obedience, baptism, etc; however, each of them also has a specific mission given to them that is of particular importance to the people living at that time. This can be seen in the examples of many of the prophets in the Old Testament as well as with Christ’s Apostles in the New Testament. Take, for example, Jonah after he had already been eaten by the “big fish” and decided that he probably should to go Nineveh to fulfill the mission God had given him (Jonah 2). God specifically called Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that they needed to repent of the evil that they were doing or they would be destroyed. Jonah taught the principles of the gospel, specifically repentance, but also the imminent destruction of the people if they did not follow God’s commandments. If Jonah had been the only prophet that God ever called we might be confused as to what was really important from his message. Was the destruction part the most important or the repentance part? Obviously, some of Jonah’s teachings were general and some were very specific to the time and place to which Jonah was called.
Because situations have differed from place to place and from time to time throughout history, God has called prophets to teach the people in many places and times. God has called these prophets because He loves all of His children and wants all of them to be able to return to Him. He has given prophets specific instructions about what to teach and often has given these prophets specific commandments that are particular to their time. People rely on prophets not only to teach them eternal principles of the gospel but also for help in understanding how to navigate the challenges and difficulties that are particular to a certain age of history.
I believe that God is an unchanging being. Historically, God has called prophets, and because He is perfect and unchanging, it follows that He must follow His pattern and continue to call prophets. This is where Joseph Smith comes in. I believe that, like the prophets in the Bible, Joseph Smith is a prophet. His being a prophet is completely consistent with the pattern that God has established through history of calling prophets and giving them missions to complete relative to the salvation of men in their times.
Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in upstate New York. By the time he was 14, he had moved with his family to the small town of Palmyra, New York. In Palmyra there was a huge excitement about religion. There were pastors from many different churches, each saying that their churches were true. Being confused about the conflicting views of these different churches, Joseph turned to the Bible for help. After searching and study he found a verse in James that said, “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.” Joseph said that when he read this verse, it had a great influence on him. He decided to do as James directed and ask God which of all the churches was right and which one he should join. He went to a grove of trees early one spring morning to pray and ask God for an answer to this question. In that grove of trees that morning God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared as distinct Personages and answered Joseph’s prayer. He described the experience:
“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.” (Joseph Smith History)
Through this vision and subsequent visions and heavenly visitations, Joseph Smith was called as a modern-day prophet. Just like the prophets of the Old and New Testaments, he was given information and revelations from God on how to address the particular concerns of this modern age. Through Joseph Smith, God restored the pure form and authority of His Church as it originally existed in the time of Christ and the Apostles. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the same organization and authority as the ancient Church did with prophets and apostles in historic times. Its belief and faith are centered on Jesus Christ who is the author and finisher of our faith.
Because of his pivotal role in restoring this Church and authority, Mormons revere Joseph Smith. We tend to speak of him more than ancient prophets because we believe that he is a prophet for our time. The basic principles of the gospel that were taught by ancient prophets were also taught by Joseph Smith and continue to be taught in the Church today by those who have been called of God as prophets in our modern times. Mormons revere the ancient prophets from the Bible and also from the Book of Mormon; however, we also believe that we should give particular heed to the prophets that are speaking the will of the Lord in our time.
I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know that he saw what he said he saw in that grove of trees. I know that the authority he received from God is the true authority of God. I know that by following the counsel of modern prophets we can avoid many of the calamities and difficulties that will confront us in these challenging times. I know that every person who asks God in faith can also have this witness through the power of the Holy Ghost.
Please feel free to comment and ask questions.