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You don’t know me – you never will.
I don’t blame you for not believing my history;
had I not experienced it
[I] could not believe it myself.
(Words of Joseph Smith, p. 343)
Nancy and I recently saw the movie Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration at the visitors’ center in Nauvoo. It was a wonderfully appropriate setting for experiencing Joseph’s life, service, troubles, and martyrdom! Mercifully the lights did not come up quickly at the end of the production. Those of us who know and love Joseph Smith were working to staunch the flow of tears and to regain our composure.
I loved the movie.
Yet I wondered how those who do not already know and love Joseph might react. What claim does the movie make on a stranger’s interest or faith? Would a non-believer wonder if Joseph’s only claim was his amazing capacity to tolerate persecution with apparent good cheer? Certainly many or most of God’s prophets have suffered persecutions. But so have quacks and fakers.
I suggest we test Joseph’s claims by his fruits. One important fruit is the character of the people who follow him. Any demographer can tell you that the Latter-day Saints are a peculiar people – high in education, morality, charitable giving, and longevity. And the Church continues to grow at a rate that is either disturbing or satisfying – depending on your orientation.
In my view there is an even better fruit to test: Doctrine. Did Joseph Smith give us nonsense doctrine as many suggest? Are his teachings a mass of confusion, a hodgepodge of speculations and inventions? Do his teachings make a mockery of God in heaven?
Or did Joseph Smith deliver the most coherent, sensible, defensible, and breath-takingly gracious doctrine taught on this earth in almost two millennia? Let’s test him. If he is truly a prophet, he can stand the test. If he is not, the evidence will be clear.
The Doctrines that Matter Most
Some doctrines matter more than others. The nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is interesting – but not essential for our spiritual well-being. The body temperature of translated beings might provide stimulating fodder in high priest groups, but the knowledge is not vital for our salvation.
I think there are three doctrines with eternal consequences for each of us:
- What is God like?
- How does He guide us?
- What must we do to be with Him?
If we are going to test Joseph Smith – or any other professed messenger for God – why not test him with key doctrines?
1. What is God Like?
The vast majority of the Christian world sees God as the supreme creator. As part of His creative efforts, He created us out of nothing. What a miracle! According to the common Christian account, if we accept Him as our God, He will adopt us into His family and we will become His children.
Joseph Smith gave us a different vision of God. First, according to Joseph, God did not create us out of nothing. We have always lived! God did something analogous to what earthly fathers do. Earthly fathers take our spirits and add a body. Before we came to earth, God took our eternal intelligences and gave them spirit bodies. And, like the very best of earthly fathers, God loved, nurtured and taught us in our development.
This different account of His fathering makes a profound difference in at least two ways. First, God is not merely our Father if we choose to follow Him. He is already and literally our Father – the Father of every single person on the face of the earth! He is deeply and eternally invested in us! Which leads us to a second profound difference.
We are not created out of nothing. We had an identity that He has nurtured and advanced from the beginning of time. So we are not mere craft projects for Him. He does not merely spend an eon in the shop turning out pot holders and masonry bowls and then cherish and display those that turned out well and cast off those that disappoint.
He is our Father! We have seeds of His nature woven into our souls! He is committed to every one of us – not just the best of us.
Of course the usual areas of contention related to the nature of God are whether He has a body, is separate from the Son, and is knowable. While much mainline Christian theology attests that He is an ineffable mystery, Latter-day Saints invite the world to experience Him as a devoted, personal, real, all-loving, and all-powerful Father.
Joseph upended the familiar and accepted formulas and doctrines about the nature of God. He returned us to the simple truths taught by the Savior and the early church fathers.
We could show how Joseph Smith’s understanding of God opens our minds to the New Testament passages about the father of our spirits (Hebrews 12:9) and the command to become perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We could layout dozens of passages in the Bible that are more readily compatible with Joseph’s teachings than with those of mainline Christianity. But my objective here is not apologetics. It is simple contrast.
In my opinion, an open-minded student of the theology that Joseph delivered must be stunned! Joseph made God more real and personally invested than any modern theologian of Christianity. His teachings, while different from the understandings of his contemporaries are in perfect agreement with the original commonsense teachings of the Bible.
2. How does God Guide Us?
In the area of divine guidance of our lives, there are two major competing world views. The Catholic view is an epistemology of authority. God guides His people through a central spokesman, the Pope. Catholics are supposed to follow the Pope’s counsel.
The second world view, espoused by most Protestants, is more communal. God guides us through the body of believers. Having cut themselves off from a spokesman for God, Protestants are left with a document, the Bible, and the faith community to interpret it.
Neither Catholics nor Protestants have a vibrant prophetic tradition. Official scripture is limited to that delivered centuries ago. The apostles were the last messengers of scriptural truth. While there are skirmishes as to the merit and authority of different books (e.g., the apocrypha) and councils, the canon is closed. The heavens are silent. The tradition of prophets is ended – fulfilled by the coming of the ultimate prophet, Jesus Christ.
No one was more surprised than Joseph Smith to learn otherwise. He did not go into the grove of trees in 1820 expecting to see God and be called as a prophet. He merely hoped for some guidance in his spiritual journey. But God surprised Joseph and all the world. The Father and the Son appeared to the boy prophet! The heavens were opened once again!
With the opening of the heavens came a string of heavenly messengers: John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Elijah, etc. Wow! God is serious about having humans taught from on High!
Through a modern prophet God brought us the amazing Book of Mormon! Disguised as mere scriptural meanderings, the Book of Mormon is a resonant, insightful, and powerful testimony of the atonement of Christ. Anyone who has looked earnestly for God and His plan in the Book of Mormon has been flooded with soul-edifying truth! The insight and invitation of just the great atonement chapters in the Book of Mormon justify all the “sorrows, sacrifices and toils of [any] life,” to paraphrase Parley P. Pratt’s exuberant utterance.
But there is more. Much, much more. We are taught that there are more peoples and more records – far more than we know. Not only do we have the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but we are challenged to be ready for the records of lost tribes.
And there is yet more. The Book of Mormon reinforces the pattern of heavenly involvement in human experience. We accept as doctrine the full invitation of Heaven to be taught from on High.
And there is still more. Latter-day Saints have a remarkable personal epistemology. We believe that the Lord will reveal vital truths to every single seeker through God’s third in command, the Holy Spirit. Father invites: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (D&C 8:2). Notice the amazing and safety-providing redundancy in God’s process of personal revelation: He tells us in our minds and in our hearts. Revelation must stand up to both reason and feeling.
And then God gave us through Joseph Smith explicit teaching and case studies on how to test revelation:
And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:23-24).
God is quite determined to teach the lessons of eternity to those who seek them! God is not only more real and invested in human affairs, He and His helpers are more involved than any human imagined. Joseph Smith is himself the evidence that the heavens are open. With the coming of the restoration, we do not have a peephole on God’s truth, we have a picture window on His perfect purposes. Anyone who reads Joseph Smith’s story (Joseph Smith-History) with an open mind must conclude that this was an honest boy who was as surprised as anyone at all that God stood willing to do for His children.
And there is still more. In general conference, President Faust renewed the invitation to draw angelic help to our lives. “We do not consciously realize the extent to which ministering angels affect our lives. President Joseph F. Smith said, ‘In like manner our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful, and worthy to enjoy these rights and privileges, may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction, to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh.’ Many of us feel that we have had this experience. Their ministry has been and is an important part of the gospel.”
So, how does God guide His children? He does it abundantly through all the classical epistemologies. He uses authority and revelation (modern prophets and continuing revelation), intuition (the wisps of the Spirit), empiricism (learning from experience), and reason (“Study it out.”). The human experience can be flooded with the knowledge of God. Indeed, all things testify of Him!
God’s methods for guiding us are awe-inspiring. They are also consistent with the ancient precedent. All I can say is, “Wow.”
3. What must we do to be with Him?
There are at least three insurmountable difficulties in most Christian plans of salvation. First, they offer only two vastly-different, eternal destinations. Every person will go to Heaven or to hell. As Catholic doctrine has moved away from limbo and purgatory, they now suffer this problem with the Protestants. It is simply indefensible to argue that humans can fall tidily into two categories of deservingness.
Many Christian theologians now recognize the problem and write about different levels of blessedness. Joseph Smith went a step further. He taught us that there are various degrees of glory. He takes Paul’s hint of diverse outcomes (I Corinthians 15) and gives us a panorama of purpose. He details three degrees of glory and describes the paths that lead to each. The restored plan of salvation shows God’s amazing creativity and relentless goodness. And every element of this plan is implicit in the Bible. The prophet of the restoration made it explicit.
The second intractable problem in mainline Christian plans of salvation is the improbability of salvation. After most churches lay out their requirements, it is clear that most of God’s children must go to hell. Most of this earth’s residents over its tortured history never heard of Christ. Most have not accepted His message because they have not heard it. Most eschatologies condemn all of these people to endless hell.
That is outrageous. It cannot be true that a perfectly loving and perfectly wise Father would allow the bulk of His children to be lost without even a chance at salvation. The idea is grotesque! Yet mainline theologies offer no hope to any but a select few. They may hint at hidden purposes. But that is all.
Joseph Smith did exactly what a prophet is supposed to do. He taught us about a Perfect Father with a Perfect Plan. He invited all hearers to come and feast on it. He showed us in detail how God intended to rescue every one of His children who was willing. Jesus’ visit to paradise and the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) is no longer a mystery but rather an inspiring, hopeful, and specific assurance.
A third insurmountable difficulty of mainline plans of salvation is their theocentricity. They insist that the residents of heaven will be so focused on praising God that they will be unaware and uninterested in any association with their fellow residents of heaven.
If we reason by analogy, the problem with this doctrine becomes obvious. Does a good earthly parent want his or her children to do nothing but adore him or her? No. The opposite is true. The best parents are focused on teaching, helping, encouraging, and challenging their children.
This is exactly the truth that God delivered through His latter-day prophet. God’s work and glory is to help us advance (Moses 1:39). “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24). That is exactly what we would expect of a Great Father.
Latter-day Saints look forward to an eternity filled with loving associations and productive activity. That is the hope written in the souls of most people. It is the official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Was Joseph Smith a wild and creative dreamer of doctrine who spun a web of clever ideas to ensnare the gullible? Each person can judge for him or herself. Each can test the doctrines with the Bible. Each can ask God if they are heaven-authorized doctrines or mad impositions.
The fact is that the teachings delivered by God’s latter-day prophet and his successors are magnificent and awe-inspiring. Joseph himself stood in awe of the truth that was delivered through him. Note his statement about that greatest-of-all revelations, the Vision recorded in D&C 76:
Every law, every commandment, every promise, every truth, and every point touching the destiny of man, from Genesis to Revelation, where the purity of the Scriptures remain unsullied by the folly of men, go to show the perfection of the theory (of different degrees of glory in the future life) and witness the fact that the document is a transcript from the records of the eternal world. The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation may confess the Lord and bow the knee; the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.11, emphasis added)
Yes. It came from God! I know it is true. While Satan draws cruel caricatures of LDS beliefs, those who earnestly study them and faithfully test them through study and prayer will know as we know. God has opened the heavens and poured out blessings of knowledge from heaven. I am grateful to Joseph Smith for being the bearer of all this incredibly good news.
The most important part of the restoration story is also the most difficult to portray on film. It is not what happened in Kirtland, Far West, or Nauvoo. It is what happens in individual minds and hearts as seekers experience the dawning of a new day of truth about God and His plan.