JosephCharacter

Joseph Smith had a compelling personal charisma that endeared him to many people-including even some of his enemies. Elder Parley P. Pratt, who spent much time with the Prophet Joseph observed that: “His manner was easy and familiar;….He interested and edified while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary with his discourse. I have even known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears.”[1]

An incident at Far West, Missouri (headquarters of the Church in 1838) illustrates just such a moment. Joseph Smith was at his parents’ home writing a letter. The Prophet’s mother recorded what happened:

           Eight [members of the state militia] came into the house. Thinking they had come for some refreshment, I offered them chairs. “We do not choose to sit down, we have come here to kill Jo Smith and all the Mormons.”

“Ah,” said I, “What has Joseph Smith done that you should want to kill him?”

“He has killed seven men in Davies County,” replied the foremost, “and we have come to kill him and all his church.”

“He hasn’t been in Davis county,” I answered, “consequently, the report must be false. Furthermore, if you should see him you would not want to kill him.”

“There is no doubt that the report is perfectly correct,” rejoined the officer, “It came straight to us, and I believe it; and we were sent to kill the Prophet and all who believe in him, and I’ll be d—d if I don’t execute my orders.”

“I suppose,” said I, “you intend to kill me, with the rest?”

“Yes, we do,” returned the officer.

“Very well,” I continued, “I want you to act the gentleman about it, and do the job quick. Just shoot me down at once, then I shall be at rest; but I should not like to be murdered by inches.”

“There it is again,” said he. “You tell a Mormon’ that you will kill him, and they will always tell you, that is nothing-if you kill us, we shall be happy.'”

Joseph, just at this moment finished writing his letter, and, seeing that he was at liberty, I said, “Gentlemen, suffer me to make you acquainted with Joseph Smith, the Prophet.” They stared at him as if he were a spectre. He smiled, and stepping towards them, gave each of them his hand, in a manner which convinced them that he was neither guilty nor yet a hypocrite.

Joseph then sat down and explained to them the views & feelings, etc., of the Church, and what their course had been; besides the treatment which they had received from their enemies since the first. He also argued, that if any one of the brethren had broken the law, they ought to be tried by the law, before anyone else was molested. After talking with them some time in this way, he said, “Mother, I believe I will go home now-Emma will be expecting me.”

At this two of the men sprang to their feet, and declared that he should not go alone, as it would be unsafe-that they would go with him, in order to protect him. Accordingly the three left together, and, during their absence, I overheard the following conversation among the officers, who remained at the door:

1st Officer. “Did you not feel strangely when Smith took you by the hand? I never felt so in my life.”

2nd Officer. “I could not move. I would not harm a hair of that man’s head for the whole world.”

3rd Officer. “This is the last time you will catch me coming to kill Joe Smith, or the Mormons’ either.”

1st Officer. “I guess this is about my last expedition against this place. I never saw more harmless, innocent appearing man than the Mormon’ Prophet.”

2nd Officer. “That story about his killing them men is all a d- -d lie there is no doubt of it; and we have had all this trouble for nothing; but they will never fool me in this way again; I’ll warrant them.”[2]

Joseph possessed a positive attitude and had a “native cheery temperament” that naturally attracted people to him (see Joseph Smith-History 1:28). His personality had the same effect on the Saints. After his death, his wife Emma, wrote a letter to one of their sons and said,

           I do not expect that you’ll be able to do much more in the garden than your father could, and I never wanted him to go out into the garden to work for if he did it would not be fifteen minutes before there would be three or four or sometimes a half dozen men around him and they would tramp the ground down faster than he could hoe it up.[3]

A historian named Samuel Smucker wrote: “It cannot be denied that [Joseph Smith] was one of the most extraordinary persons of his time, a man of rude genius, who accomplished a much greater work than he knew; and whose name, whatever he may have been whilst living, will take its place among the notabilities of the world.”[4]

Even the New York Times, on September 4, 1843 (just a few months before the Prophet was slain), published this statement: “This Joe Smith must be an extraordinary character. He is one of the great men of this age, and in future history he will be ranked with those who in one way or another have stamped their impress strongly on society.”

One reason for his influence on people was the love and compassion he showed them. On one occasion he said, “Sectarian priests cry out concerning me, and ask, Why is it this babbler gains so many followers, and retains them?’ I answer, it is because I possess the principle of love. All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand.”[5]

Besides his vibrant personality, Joseph was also a person of great accomplishment. With only three years of elementary education, Joseph became a self-educated man and a great proponent of education. He formed adult-education programs, missionary training schools, and established university level courses of study in Kirtland, Ohio, and procured a charter for a university at Nauvoo, Illinois.


[6]

He believed that “all the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.”[7] He taught the Saints: “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). He believed that education has an eternal impact and that “whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:18-19). Thus, Joseph learned that “obedience” to God’s commandments enables us to advance in spiritual understanding (intelligence), just as “diligent” effort enables us to grow intellectually (in knowledge).

As described in the previous article in this series, Joseph was a translator of languages, including being among the first in the modern era to translate a complete book from an ancient Egyptian text.[8] He also learned Hebrew, Greek, and German. He once remarked that if he lived long enough he desired to learn every language.[9]

Joseph was a developer of a number of cities. He designed and planned the city of Zion at Independence, Missouri. He planned and organized the city of Nauvoo which grew to be one of the largest cities in Illinois at the time. Numerous other cities throughout the western United States (including Salt Lake City, Utah) are patterned after his design. In 1996 he was given an award posthumously by the 30,000-member American Planning Association for his vision in creating a city-design plan that placed a high value on the urban environment, the development of a coherent community which provided social interaction, and was proven to be agriculturally sustainable.[10]

The Prophet Joseph was the Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion-a militia of about 3,000 enlistees. To receive this honor, he was chosen by a vote of the people and commissioned by the Governor of Illinois. He also led Zion’s Camp, a military march from Ohio to Missouri. The organization he established in Zion’s Camp was later replicated by President Brigham Young in the great exodus of the Saints to the Rocky Mountains.

At the time of his death, Joseph Smith was the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Several of his campaign proposals about how best to help his country are still issues today (such as prison reform, and the number of elected representatives and the salary of those serving in congress). If Joseph had been elected and his platform implemented, it could have dramatically altered American history. For example, one of his platforms called for the Federal government to sell public lands and use the money raised to purchase the freedom of all slaves. His plan was to abolish slavery by 1850.[11] The socio-economic impact of his visionary leadership would have been astounding.

The noted Russian historian Leo Tolstoy visited America in 1892 and was asked by a reporter, “In your study of great Americans this past year, who do you consider the greatest?” His answer, “You have only had one truly great American, one man gave to the world ideas that could change the whole destiny of the human race – Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.”[12]

Joseph was an extraordinary man who possessed great strength of character, but that is not what qualified him to carry the appellation of “prophet.” He was designated as such in a revelation from the Savior revealed the very day the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized: “Behold…thou shalt be called a seer,…a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ,…through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ” (D&C 21:1). Joseph Smith was a person of great strength, but the Church he founded was not built on him, nor did its success rest on his personality. Some thought that the Church would come to an end with the death of Joseph Smith, but Joseph testified: “I obtained power on the principles of truth and virtue which would last when I was dead and gone.”[13] The work Joseph Smith established is greater than the Prophet Joseph himself because it is God’s work, which is increasing its influence for good across the earth. Truly, Joseph Smith was a man who matched the message.

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[1] Historical Record, Vol. 7, Jan. 1888, 575-6.

[2]History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958) 254-6.

[3]As cited in Neal A. Maxwell, We Talk of Christ, 86.

[4] Smucker, History of the Mormons, Philadelphia, 1856, pp. 181-183.

[5] History of the Church, 5:498.

[6]Of this university Joseph declared, it “will enable us to teach our children wisdom, to instruct them in all the knowledge and learning, in the arts, sciences, and learned professions. We hope to make this institution one of the great lights of the world, and by and through it to diffuse that kind of knowledge which will be of practicable utility, and for the public good, and also for private and individual happiness.” (See History of the Church, 4:269.)

[7] History of the Church, 6:311.

[8] The Book of Mormon was written in “reformed Egyptian” (see Mormon 9:32).

[9] The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Dean C. Jessee, Deseret Book, ??

[10]“1833 Plat of Zion,’ wins national honor,” Church News, Sunday, 25 May 1996, 11.

[11]See Church History in the Fulness of Times, 269-70.

[12] As reported by William E. Berrett, “The Life and Character of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” BYU Speeches of the Year, 21 April 1964, 2. The famed Russian author shared his opinion on the future of “Mormonism” with Dr. Andrew D. White, Former Cornell University President and U.S. Ambassador to Germany, as told by Elder LeGrand Richards ( See The Improvement Era, Feb. 1939, p. 94.) Tolstoy is reported to have said, “The Mormon people teach the American religion; their principles teach the people not only of Heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teachings of this Church, nothing can stop their progress — it will be limitless. There have been great movements started in the past but they have died or been modified before they reached maturity. If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.


[13] Religion 345, Institute Student Manual, Church Educational System, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979], 25.