- Overarching the Prophet Joseph’s entire ministry were his comparative youth, his superficial formal education, and his incredibly rapid acquisition of knowledge and maturity. He was 14 at the First Vision and 17 at the first visit from the angel Moroni. He was 21 when he received the golden plates and just 23 when he finished translating the Book of Mormon (in less than 60 working days). Over half of the revelations in our Doctrine and Covenants were given through the Prophet while he was 25 or younger. He was 26 when the First Presidency was organized and 30 when the Kirtland Temple was dedicated. He was just over 33 when he escaped his imprisonment in Missouri and resumed leadership of the Saints gathering in Nauvoo. He was 38 1/2 when he was martyred.
He talks about his family life and the burden that the times they were living in had on his family. He speaks about the death of young children in his home.
- The first three children of Joseph and his beloved Emma died at birth. A later child also died at birth and another in early childhood. Only four of Joseph and Emma’s nine birth children survived childhood. They also adopted twins, and one of these died as an infant.
He speaks about how Joseph was aware of his mistakes and that he had a learning process to go through to be refined by the Lord in his prophetic call. He sites numerous examples from the revelations he received that instructed him to do better than he has been.
- Joseph’s candor about his shortcomings is evident in the fact that one of the first revelations he recorded in writing and published to the world was a crushing rebuke he received from the Lord. The first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon translation were lost because 22-year-old Joseph yielded to entreaties and loaned them to Martin Harris. “Behold,” the Lord declared, “how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men.” The Lord told Joseph to repent or he would be stripped of his prophetic role. Four later revelations, also published by the Prophet, command him to “repent and walk more uprightly,” speak of his having “sinned,” and rebuke him for not keeping the commandments.
President Oaks explains that one of the challenges that the prophet had was that he had no role models on how a prophet should behave, speak, or conduct himself. His lack of guidance at times caused people to question his prophetic role.
- The Prophet Joseph had no role models from whom he could learn how to be a prophet and leader of the Lord’s people. He learned from heavenly messengers and from the harvest of his unique spiritual gifts. He had to rely on associates who had no role models either. They struggled and learned together, and the Prophet’s growth was extremely rapid.
He shares an experience the prophet had demonstrating that he didn't back down from confrontation. His courage was great and his confidence in the Lord protecting him until his work was done was amazing.
- Like most other leaders on the frontier, Joseph Smith did not shrink from physical confrontation, and he had the courage of a lion. Once he was kidnapped by two men who held cocked pistols to his head and repeatedly threatened to shoot him if he moved a muscle. The Prophet endured these threats for a time and then snapped back, “Shoot away; I have endured so much persecution and oppression that I am sick of life; why then don’t you shoot, and have done with it, instead of talking so much about it?”
President Oaks testifies that despite all the opposition that he encountered, Joseph never wavered from his testimony and calling.
- The Prophet Joseph Smith experienced severe opposition and persecution throughout his life, but in the midst of all of this he never wavered from his divine calling.
Finally, President Oaks talks about studying about the Prophet Joseph Smith in a legal view. As law students, he and friends studied all they could find on the legal cases against the prophet and those close to him. These conclusions are interesting as they are not something available to just any person since we don't know the law like President Oaks.
- As students at the University of Chicago, historian Marvin S. Hill and I were intrigued with the little-known fact that five men went to trial in Illinois for the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. For over 10 years we scoured libraries and archives across the nation to find every scrap of information about this trial and those involved in it. We studied the actions and words of Illinois citizens who knew Joseph Smith personally, some who hated him and plotted to kill him, and others who loved him and risked their lives to witness the trial of his accused assassins. Nothing in our discoveries in the original court records or in the testimony at the lengthy trial disclosed anything that reflected dishonor on the men who were murdered.
- The accessibility of Illinois court records led to another untouched area of research on Joseph Smith—his financial activities. Joseph I. Bentley, then a law student at Chicago, and I discovered numerous records showing the business activities of Joseph Smith. As we explained in our article, this was a period following a nationwide financial panic and depression. Economic conditions in frontier states like Illinois were ruinous. The biographers of an Illinois contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, have described his financial embarrassments during this decade, when business was precarious, many obligations were in default, and lawsuits were common. The enemies of Joseph charged him with fraud in various property conveyances, mostly in behalf of the Church. A succession of court proceedings that extended for nearly a decade examined these claims in meticulous detail. Finally, in 1852, long after the Saints’ exodus from Illinois (so there was no conceivable political or other cause for anyone to favor the Prophet), a federal judge concluded this litigation with a decree that found no fraud or other moral impropriety by the Prophet.
- As one familiar with early Illinois property law and as a lawyer enjoying the benefit of over 100 years of hindsight, I can readily see where Joseph and his fellow Church leaders and members were seriously disadvantaged by poor legal advice in some of the controversies just described. Bad legal advice may have been one of the causes for Brigham Young’s well-publicized negative opinions of lawyers. I have often chuckled at his 1846 declaration that he “would rather have a six-shooter than all the lawyers in Illinois.”
Finally, the people that knew the prophet best stood by his side all the way to death. These men knew personally, that he was a prophet of God and lived their lives in support of his great calling.
- Men who knew Joseph best and stood closest to him in Church leadership loved and sustained him as a prophet. His brother Hyrum chose to die at his side. John Taylor, also with him when he was murdered, said: “I testify before God, angels, and men, that he was a good, honorable, virtuous man … —that his private and public character was unimpeachable—and that he lived and died as a man of God.” Brigham Young declared: “I do not think that a man lives on the earth that knew [Joseph Smith] any better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth.”
I love learning new things about the prophet and this talk was full of lesser known stories about his life. I stand with President Oaks declaring that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. That he was also a man with many faults but that the Lord, like you and me, can make weak people into valiant disciples over time. I am encouraged by the patience that the Lord showed Joseph and know that the Lord is patient with me too as I make mistakes that take me off the chosen path.