Perhaps no other American is as controversial as Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church and a self-proclaimed prophet. Such claims as he made, to have been visited by God, the Father, and Jesus Christ; to have been called to be a prophet to preach the Gospel to a world in apostasy are at least shocking and incredible and at most outrageous. Joseph Smith, his life and his legacy deserve close attention, then, for if true, his claims are the most important message since the discovery of the empty garden tomb.
To understand the issue, however, one must first understand what a prophet is and only then can Joseph Smith be measured against this rubric. To dismiss Joseph Smith as a prophet because he does not fit ones own definition of prophet is a circular argument since that wholly depends upon the persons preconceived image of what a prophet is. We must, therefore, look to the Bible, the record of Gods prophets to begin to understand what a prophet is. In the popular imagination the role of a prophet is to tell the future. This is, however, only one aspect of a prophets calling and likely not a major one. So, what does the Bible tell us a prophet will be like?
There are two words in the Bible that are translated as prophet. One is the Hebrew word Nabi (or Navi), and the other is the Greek Prophetes. Both have the basic meaning of spokesman or one who proclaims something. A prophet of God, therefore, speaks in the name of, and hence with the authority of, God. A prophet says, Thus saith the Lord. Joseph Smith was such a spokesman. He spoke in Gods name. To him, the Lord said, I give unto you my servant Joseph to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and prophet (Doctrine and Covenants 124:125).
This mouthpiece of God speaks Gods word. The Lord said to Moses concerning Aarons role as Moses spokesman: Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet [hence, his spokesman] (Exodus 7:1). In a latter revelation to Moses the Lord said:
I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Peter thus said in his epistle that prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). The Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter D&C), which is a compilation of revelations given to modern prophets of the Mormon Church, echoes this statement saying that, whatsoever they [the prophets] shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation (D&C 68:4).
The Bible is a collection of the inspired words and deeds of prophets. Thus, the words of prophets become scripture. Isaiah was a man who saw great visions. Paul was a prophet whose inspirational teachings form the bulk of the New Testament. The revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith including the Book of Mormon and the visions and revelations recorded in the Doctrine & Covenants testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet. He spoke the words he received of God in visions and revelations. These words became scripture, just as in biblical times.
The message for which prophets are spokesmen is of the mission of Jesus Christ and the importance of obeying Gods commandments. In Revelation 19:10, an angel tells John that, the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. A prophet, who must by definition have the spirit of prophecy, must also therefore have a testimony of Jesus. Jesus commanded His disciples to read the scriptures, comprising essentially the Old Testament, explaining that, in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me (John 5:39). He later testified that every prophet wrote about Him:
These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me (Luke 24:44).
John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said, there is not a greater prophet, had as his primary mission to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. Of him, no record details miracles or great prophesies of the future. Instead, he taught the people to prepare themselves for Jesus coming and when that came he willingly stepped aside (see Luke 7:28 ff). Joseph Smith likewise testified of Jesus Christ. In a vision he received on February 16, 1832, he and an associate Sidney Rigdon saw Jesus Christ much as Paul had centuries earlier. They declared:
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the FatherThat by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God (D&C 76:22-24).
For Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ was the central figure in every doctrine and deed. Joseph Smith taught that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all mankind and provides salvation to all those who love and serve him. Prophets also denounce sin and call people to repentances. In 2 Kings 17:13, we read:
blockquote>The LORD testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and by all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets.
It is the duty of prophets to call people to repent and return to God. This can be seen in many instances. In 2 Kings 12, we read that Nathan, the prophet, was sent to call David to repentance because of his sins with Bathsheba. Nehemiah was sent to call the people of his day to repent and rebuild the temple. Jonah was sent to preach against the wickedness of Nineveh. Joseph Smith said, This we believe to be our duty-to teach to all mankind the doctrine of repentance (History of the Church 2:255). It is the duty of a prophet to denounce sin, call people to repentance and to worship the God of Israel. This last duty, namely calling to worship the God of Israel is essential, for Moses warned that false prophets could accurately predict the future, but if they used these miracles to lead people away from the God of Israel, then they would be false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-10).
The Lord says further, If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream (Numbers 12:6). Prophets, then, have dreams and visions in which the Lord is made known unto them. Peter also mentions this as what may be termed the prophetic pattern. In Acts 10:39-44, Peter teaches that God reveals Jesus Christ to chosen witnesses, the prophets, who then teach the world about God. Every prophet is chosen by God, taught by angels or through dreams and visions and finally commissioned to teach others. Isaiah fits this pattern. In a vision recorded in Isaiah chapter 6, this great poet-prophet saw the Lord on His throne surrounded by angels. He is forgiven of his sins, and charged with a mission.
This vision and the charge given to the prophet is the Sowd, the sacred and oftentimes secret intimacy that prophets obtain with God. Sowd in Hebrew translates as counsel, assembly, secret, or divine intimacy. At its root it refers to private correspondence or counseling. The Prophet Amos said, Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret [Sowd] unto his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). That is, the Lord will not act until He has revealed His counsel, His plans, and His secrets to the Prophets. Thus another role of a prophet is to be a diviner, through revelation, of Gods deed present and future. This can refer to prophesying the future, or to determining what work is of God right now and what His will is regarding human actions.
Joseph Smith and his mission fit this ancient pattern perfectly. As a young man, confused but full of faith, he prayed to God. According to href="http://scriptures.lds.org/js_h/1">Joseph Smiths own account, he saw in vision, just as Moses, Isaiah, and Stephen had, the God of Israel. Just as was the case with Isaiah his sins were forgiven and like Moses he learned the true nature of God. In subsequent visions he was taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ by angels and through multiple revelations which are recorded as sacred scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants. He was commissioned by God to translate the Book of Mormon as testimony to Jesus Christ and to Joseph Smiths own divine commission. He was shown Gods counsel and href="http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_prophecies.shtml">prophesied many things that have since occurred.
In connection with this divining of counsel, it is interesting to note that the Samaritan women whom Jesus met at the well in Sychar said, I perceive that thou art a prophet (John 4:19), when He told her about her life previous to meeting Him. Prophets, then, are given such spiritual insights as necessary to fulfill their missions. In this capacity a Prophet may rightly be called a Seer. When Saul sought out a man of God who could give him advice on what course he could take, the record states, Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to enquire of God, thus he spake, Come, and let us go to the seer: for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer (1 Samuel 9:9). A Seer, then, is one who sees what is ahead, who understand the operations of God in the world. He sees accurately not only the future, but also the present and the past. Through this divine insight he can perceive Gods workings in the world.
In a revelation given to Joseph Smith in November of 1831, the Lord said of Joseph Smiths mission:
Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments (D&C 1:17)
The reasons given were:
- That every man might speak in the name of God the Lord (v. 20)
- that faith also might increase (v. 21)
- That mine everlasting covenant might be established (v. 22)
- That the fullness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple (v. 23)
Joseph Smith was commissioned to be an instrument in the hands of God, but only one of many, who would lay the foundation of Gods Kingdom here in these days. As a Seer and Revelator he taught truth and revealed many things to come, as a Prophet he preached repentance in Gods name and taught the testimony of Jesus Christ, and as translator he translated and published the Book of Mormon. Finally, as a prophet he was a leader. In Hosea we read:
And by a prophet the LORD brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he preserved (Hosea 12:13).
A prophet is set to lead the covenant people of the Lord. Paul said that the household of God is built upon a foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:19-20). Apostles, as can be easily shown, are prophets also, since they have the spirit of prophecy which is the testimony of Jesus Christ, but as apostles they have a special mission to go forth and proclaim Jesus Christs resurrection (see Acts 1:22). Prophets and Apostles lead the people of God. In this capacity, Joseph Smith was the leader of the Mormon Church, called of God, and ordained an apostle of Jesus Christ, to be the first elder of this church (D&C 20:2). Until his death in 1844, he led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Prophet and Apostle of god. Joseph Smith guided the Mormon Church through persecution and trials.
It must be remembered, however, that prophet are human agents working for God and are thus fallible. James said of Elias (i.e. Elijah), that he, was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months (James 5:17). Commenting on this passage Joseph Smith said:
I was this morning introduced to a man from the east. After hearing my name, he remarked that I was nothing but a man, indicating by this expression, that he had supposed that a person to whom the Lord should see fit to reveal His will, must be something more than a man. He seemed to have forgotten the saying that fell from the lips of St. James, that Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, yet he had such power with God, that He, in answer to his prayers, shut the heavens that they gave no rain for the space of three years and six months; and again, in answer to his prayer, the heavens gave forth rain, and the earth gave forth fruit. Indeed, such is the darkness and ignorance of this generation, that they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any intercourse with his Maker. (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Vols. 2:302)
Of himself he later said, I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Vols. 6:366). The Prophets and Apostles of God are human and hence fallible, but the inspired words they reveal, as Peter said, come from the Holy Ghost who is a revelator to mankind. Like Isaiah, Samuel, Moses, Noah, Paul, and Peter before him, Joseph Smith had his faults, which makes his miracles and teachings all the more amazing and inspiring, for God works always through weak and erring servants to accomplish His great purposes.
Perhaps it is the faults of the prophets that make some people reject them. Jesus Christ once remarked that, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house (Matthew 13:57). To neighbors, Jesus was merely a carpenter, the son of Joseph, but to those with faith He was the Messiah, the Son of God. Similarly with the prophets who, unlike Jesus, were not sinless, they are often rejected for trivial reasons. Some rejected Joseph Smith as a prophet because a business venture he participated in failed, or because he enjoyed playing sports. Others were offended by his denunciation of their actions. Finally, on June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob with faces painted black while he sat in jail awaiting trial on false charges. Like Paul before him, Joseph Smith was jailed, persecuted, and finally killed. Many prophets and apostles have been killed because of their teachings and deeds and Joseph Smith was no different.
In every possible test Joseph Smith compares favorably with the prophets of the Bible. Like them, he spoke in Gods name and the revelations given to him have become scripture just as Paul or Moses did. He had the testimony of Jesus Christ, the spirit of prophecy, and so devoted his ministry to testifying of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. He was commissioned by God through visions and the visitations of angels to do Gods work here on earth and so received authority to act and speak in Gods name. He was a prophet, a seer, a revelator, a translator, a missionary, an apostle, and a martyr for he was hunted and murdered by angry mobs because he dared to speak against their traditions and because his teachings and deeds stirred up controversy.
Ultimately, one must look at the fruits of Joseph Smiths mission. To know if Joseph Smith truly was a prophet of God, one must study his teachings and his deeds. These can be found first and foremost in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. If the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God, then Joseph Smith truly was a prophet of God and while argument and evidence may be compiled for pages upon pages, only the Spirit of God will ultimately reveal to a person whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet. Why this matters, even and perhaps especially for Christians, is that if Joseph Smith was a prophet, then Jesus Christ has a message for the whole world and especially for those who claim to believe in Him. This message is that His Church has been established by prophets and is now being led by them through inspiration of God. For non-Christians, the message is one of faith and hope, that Jesus Christ lives again and through His power all may be resurrected and saved.
Jonathan F. Barney was born and raised in Mapleton, Utah and graduated from Springville High School. He attended Utah State University on full scholarship and graduated in 2004 with a degree in History and Linguistics. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Near Eastern Studies, emphasizing the Arab World at Princeton University. From 1999 to 2001, he served as a volunteery missionary for the Mormon Church in Ohio. In 2003 he studied for one semester at the American University of Cairo in Egypt. In his spare time he enjoys reading, hiking, calligraphy (both Latin and Arabic scripts), and writing
To learn more about Joseph Smiths life and teachings visit these excellent sites:
Joseph Smith.net With pictures, writings, and biographical information about Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith.com with Joseph Smith's writings about his life