More than two hundred years have passed since the Prophet Joseph Smith’s birth, and his singular life stands out in bass relief against the granite of history. As the light of scholarship and revealed knowledge passes across the horizon of time, it accentuates the height and depth of the prophet’s contribution to the salvation of mankind.
The divine promise of his mission expands our understanding and appreciation of his prophetic mantle “while the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous… seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under [his] hand.” 1
Two striking symbols that powerfully testify of the divinity of Joseph’s calling as prophet of the restoration are the two places that define the beginning and end of his earthly ministry — Palmyra and Carthage. These two towns are like bookends in the library of the prophet’s life between which stand the volumes of revelation, insights, doctrines, ordinances, and authority that bless our lives and prepare the world for Christ’s millennial reign.
Palmyra: City of Palm Trees
After passing from difficulty to difficulty in his various occupations, Joseph’s father settled in the area of Palmyra, New York. Little did he, or his family, realize the blessings that would flow to the world as a result of this move.
At the time of the Smith’s move to Palmyra, the town was a little more than 25 years old. Two developers, John Swift and John Jenkins, had purchased Tract 12, Range 2, in the winter of 1788. In the spring of the following year, they began to subdivide the property into smaller farms. The development was initially named after John Swift, but then renamed, Tolland. By 1797, the leading citizens were determined to select a permanent name for their growing town. A local resident, Daniel Sawyer, who had been reading a book about the ancient city of Palmyra, proposed that name which was adopted by the assembly. 2 The recommendation proved to be an inspired one.
For thousands of years, the Old World city of Palmyra (located in present day Syria) was an important stopping point for travelers crossing the caravan trade routes that cut through the rugged desert between Babylon and the Mediterranean. In Palmyra, caravans could obtain life-sustaining water that bubbled up from an underground aquifer. Date palm trees grew around the oasis providing food and shade to travelers. 3
This strategic location on the trade route helped the outpost prosper. When the Romans conquered the region in the first century A.D., they changed the Aramaic name, Tadmor, to the Greek translation, Palmyra, meaning city of palm trees. 4
City of palm trees was an appropriate name for this town and the oasis that gave life to the desert. The date palm tree has been the city’s most visual symbol for thousands of years. Drawing living water from beneath the soil, the palm tree rises to a height of between 60 to 80 feet. It grows tall and straight like a slender column. At its top is a crown of pale-green fronds which grow to a length of six to twelve feet, bending outwards.
As the tree grows, the old fronds gradually drop off and new leaves sprout from the center, keeping the top full and green and providing shade to those camped beneath. The sweet yellow fruit of the date palm as well as its trunk sap, wood, and palm fronds are used in a variety of ways for food and shelter. 5
For countless nomadic people, the date palm tree was a tree of life.
Interestingly, in the opening scenes of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi flees to the desert after his life is threatened in Jerusalem. It is in the wilderness that the Lord begins to more fully teach the now nomadic Lehi of the gospel covenant through a foundational vision. The centerpiece of his vision is “a tree whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” 7
In his dream, Lehi says “I [partook] of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.” 6
Perhaps the date palm was the tree of life in Lehi’s dream. 9
The Book of Mormon account teaches that the meaning of the tree that Lehi saw “is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” 10 The tree of life represents the love that God the Father and His son Jesus Christ have for mankind. It is supreme love that directs their work and infuses the gospel covenant “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” 11
Like its Namesake
Like its namesake, the New World Palmyra would also provide the world a wellspring of water. However, this was everlasting water to refresh the soul which “thirsteth for God.” 12
Approximately four years after his family settled in Palmyra, Joseph entered a stand of trees near his home seeking answers to deep spiritual questions. Sheltered from prying eyes, he knelt to pray. After expressing the desires of his heart, he records: “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!” 13
After centuries of apostasy, the tree of life had sprung from the rocky soil of New England bearing the fruit of eternal life. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” 14 The resumption of personal revelation between God and man — providing the way for all to be perfected in Christ — was only the beginning of this emerging endowment from the tree of life.
Three more years passed then the angel Moroni, holding the keys of the Book of Mormon, appeared to Joseph Smith. 15 After an evening of instruction, Joseph was directed by Moroni to enter another stand of trees on “a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box.” 16
From the soil emerged a record “which are the words of those who have slumbered in the dust”, the words of a people sharing their hopes and dreams, their weaknesses and desolation, with a future generation. 17 The “saints… who have possessed this land, shall cry, yea, even from the dust will they cry unto the Lord; and as the Lord liveth he will remember the covenant which he hath made with them… that the Lord should suffer to bring these things forth.” 18
Joseph translated the plates that became a rod of iron leading the honest in heart to the fruit of the tree of life.
From the pages of the Book of Mormon, we hear Lehi’s voice calling to his family and all who would harken to his invitation to “come unto Christ.” 19 This sacred record stands as another testament of Jesus Christ, witnessing of His divine mission and covenant with the House of Israel.
It is profoundly symbolic that the inaugural events of the restoration took place in the environs of Palmyra, a town named after a tree of life. Since these two defining events, millions have made their way across their own spiritual wilderness to stand with Lehi in fulfillment of prophetic vision that “multitudes [of people would] press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.” 20
In our day and time, the family of God is invited to make their way to the tree of life just as caravans of travelers made their way to the ancient city of Palmyra, drawn by the promise of sustaining life. 21
Palmyra had yielded up her treasures. To Joseph’s heart came a sure knowledge of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. To Joseph’s hands came a record more precious than the golden plates they were preserved on. Both the divine revelation and the sacred record that he received in Palmyra were portable endowments allowing the honest in heart who would receive them to press “forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree” of life.
That path led the saints to Kirtland then to Nauvoo, and ultimately to the Salt Lake valley. Today the pathway leads the saints to the stakes of Zion throughout the world. While the events of the restoration moved on from Palmyra, the city remains a landmark — a place made sacred by the events that transpired there.
A City of Martyrs: Carthage
The second city that defines Joseph’s prophetic mission and is infused with symbolism is Carthage, Illinois, the place where Joseph as martyr sealed his testimony with his blood. The Bible Dictionary states that the word “martyr” comes from a Greek word meaning witness. 22 Over time, the term martyr has been applied to those who have been exiled, imprisoned, or killed for their beliefs as a witness to those who disbelieve their words or discount the commitment of their faith.
Our scriptural record recounts the experiences of many faithful saints and prophets who died as martyrs. For example, we read in the New Testament about Paul’s eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Stephen, who bore testimony of his vision of “the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” 23
The Book of Mormon testifies of the martyrdom of the prophet Abinadi that sealed his powerful, uncompromising testimony of repentance and salvation which he delivered to King Noah and his priests. 24
The single greatest account in the scriptures of one who laid down his life in doing His Father’s will, and showed that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” is that of Jesus Christ. 25 Our very salvation is centered on the prophet of prophets, the king of kings, the martyr of martyrs, the Lord Jesus Christ who “hath poured out his soul unto death.” 26
Although the names of martyrs and the cities in which they met their fate have been recorded in the pages of scripture and early Christian history, the name of one ancient city has become closely associated with martyrdom: Carthage. Carthage was a great city in North Africa, located in present day Tunisia. It was founded thousands of years ago by the Phoenicians, and its name means New City. 27 In 146 B.C., Carthage was destroyed by the Romans but later rebuilt by Julius Caesar on the site of the original city. It became the capital of Roman Africa. 28
Scholars do not know when Christianity was first introduced to Carthage, but amidst established pagan religions the new faith flourished. By the third century A.D., Christians were fast becoming a majority in the region.
One of the early Christian writers, Tertullian, wrote to the Roman provincial governors in approximately 197 A.D. that Christians “have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” He writes that if all the Christians were to leave Carthage then the government “would be horror-struck at the solitude in which you would find yourselves.” 29
The situation posed an uncomfortable situation for the ruling class, who thought that the increase in number of Christian adherents would erode their grasp on power. Regional governors employed the law to check the growth of the Christians. Attacks on Christians accelerated, and many believers chose to die for their faith rather than deny their convictions. Soon the prisons of Carthage were filled and Christians were exiled, tortured, or put to death. 30
Some fifteen years later, Tertullian again noted the growth of Christianity throughout the Roman province of Africa Nova in spite of the repeated persecutions, and pointed to the number of believers who were willing to die for their faith. In a letter to the Proconsul Scapula, he wrote:
What will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every sex and every age and every rank, when they present themselves before you? How many fires, how many swords will be required?
Specifically regarding the Christians in the African capital, he said: “What will be the anguish of Carthage itself, which you will have to decimate, as each one recognizes there his relatives and companions, as he sees there it may be men of your own order, and noble ladies, and all the leading persons of the city, and either kinsmen or friends of those of your own circle? Spare thyself, if not us poor Christians! Spare Carthage, if not thyself.” 31
More than sixteen hundred years after Tertullian wrote about the plight of Christians in Carthage, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested and incarcerated in another Carthage jail under spurious charges. This time, however, the name Carthage denoted the location of a town on the edge of the American frontier. Less than three days after the arrest of Joseph and Hyrum, the link to the city of martyrs in the Old World would be forged forever.
For years the residents, dissidents, and government representatives in the state of Missouri had been unsettled by the rapid growth of a new Christian church that purported to be the restored church of Jesus Christ. Concerned that the gathering saints might form a resident majority that would influence the balance of power in the region, the saints were forcibly driven from Missouri to Illinois. For a time the saints enjoyed peace in the city of Nauvoo, but then the cinders of suspicion were fanned into flames of persecution. The prophet was arrested and taken into custody. 32
Repeatedly the prophet’s enemies had tried to use the courts to obtain their aims, but had been disappointed time and again.
Ultimately a renegade band took the law into their hands.
At about five o’clock p.m., Joseph and Hyrum “were shot in Carthage jail, on the 27th of June, 1844… by an armed mob — painted black — of from 150 to 200 persons. Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls.” 33
John Taylor, one of two survivors of the attack on Joseph and Hyrum at Carthage, subsequently wrote:
To seal the testimony of this book [Doctrine & Covenants] and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch… [Joseph] 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; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!” 34
It is symbolic that Joseph Smith was slain in Carthage, a city named after an ancient city of martyrs.
Praise to the Man
The prophet did not choose the cities in which he began and ended his ministry. Nor did he select these cities to underscore his prophetic calling. He was at the mercy of his life’s circumstances. And yet Palmyra and Carthage quietly and resolutely testify of his mission.
“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 fullness 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.” 35
1 D&C 122:2
2 Bob Lowe, “A Brief History of Palmyra,” www.palmyrany.com
3 Agnes Carr Vaughan, Zenobia of Palmyra (1967), 3-4
4 “Palmyra,” www.wikipedia.org
5 Lawrence Erbe, “Date,” The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition, Volume 8 (2002), 519
6 See 1 Nephi 2:1-6
7 1 Nephi 8:10
8 1 Nephi 8:11, 12
9 See C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988, 27
10 1 Nephi 11:22
11 Moses 1:39
12 Psalms 42:2
13 Joseph Smith — History 1:17
14 John 17:3
15 See D&C 27:5
16 Joseph Smith — History 1:51
17 2 Nephi 27:9
18 Mormon 8:23, 25
19 Moroni 10:32
20 1 Nephi 8:30
21 1 Nephi 8:21
22 “Martyr,” LDS Bible Dictionary, 729
23 Acts 7:56
24 See Mosiah 12-17
25 John 15:13
26 Isaiah 53:12
27 David Soren, Aicha Ben Abed Ben Khader, and Hedi Slim, Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia (1990), 13
28 Ibid, 14
29 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Volume 3 (1899-1900), 45
30 Ibid, 17-18
31 Ibid, 107-108
32 Gordon B. Hinckley, Truth Restored (1979), 74-75
33 D&C 135:1
34 D&C 135:1, 3
35 D&C 135:3