This article was originally published in the BYU Religious Studies Center’s publication The Religious Educator . It was revised by Jeffrey Marsh for publication in Meridian Magazine. Click here to read Part I, Dealing with Personal Injustices, Lessons from the Life and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Joseph learned early in his ministry about the importance of mercifully forgiving others. He had experienced the joy of forgiveness during his first vision, when he heard the Savior’s voice declare, “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.” [i] Joseph later expressed his sentiments with these words: “Ever keep in exercise the principle of mercy, and be ready to forgive our brother on the first intimations of repentance, and asking forgiveness; and should we forgive our brother, or even our enemy, before he repent or ask forgiveness; our Heavenly Father would be equally as merciful to us.” [ii]
To the Saints, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Savior declared, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). He also warned that to not forgive can impact our own souls: “And ye shall also forgive one another your trespasses; for verily I say unto you, he that forgiveth not his neighbor’s trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation” (Mosiah 26:31). The Lord expects us to forgive those who repent, because that is what He is willing to do (see Mosiah 26:29). “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father,” Joseph observed, “the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs….If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.” [iii]
Elder B. H. Roberts observed that Joseph was generous in his forgiveness of others: “One of the surest evidences of Joseph Smith’s greatness of mind and of the inspiration of God upon him is to be seen in his treatment of those who had fallen but were willing to and did repent of their sins. His capacity to forgive under these circumstances seemed boundless.” [iv]
True enough, Joseph had often spoke about the need to forgive others, but his most powerful sermon was his personal example. Joseph had learned by experience the soul-expanding joy resulting from forgiving others. After being taken by an armed mob at Far West, and left to languish in Liberty Jail during the bitter winter of 1838-39, one of those who had betrayed Joseph Smith humbled himself and repented. He stood in the highest circles of Church leadership at Far West. This man ached for forgiveness, but recognizing the enormity of his offense, feared he could never obtain it. He humbled himself and traveled to Nauvoo to find the Prophet. He chopped a large pile of wood as a “present to the injured man of God [the Prophet], if peradventure he would forgive and permit him to return to the fold as a private member. He felt that there was salvation no where else for him and if that were denied him all was lost as far as he was concerned.” He had underestimated the power of the Spirit in healing broken relationships.
Not knowing how he would be received, if at all, “he started with a sorrowful heart and a down-cast look. While on the way the Lord told brother Joseph he was coming. The Prophet looked out the window and saw him coming up the street. As soon as he turned to open the gate, the Prophet sprang up from his chair and ran and met him in the yard, exclaiming, ‘O Brother Hyde, how glad I am to see you.’ He caught him around the neck and both wept like children.” [v]
Joseph encouraged the Saints to not only forgive, but to pray for offenders: “One of the most pleasing scenes that can occur on earth, when a sin has been committed by one person against another, is, to forgive that sin; and then according to the sublime and perfect pattern of the Savior, pray to our Father in heaven to forgive him also.” [vi] Joseph taught that we must cultivate the love of others, even our enemies by showing love to them. “Sectarian priests cry out concerning me, and ask,” Joseph said, “’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.” [vii]
Joseph demonstrated his willingness to frankly forgive those who offend. One evening, Joseph attended a debate at his brother, William’s, home. When things didn’t go as William had desired, William physically assaulted Joseph. Joseph was injured, and could not, for a time, sit down or stand up by himself. Within a few days later, a much calmer William wrote to apologize. The Prophet Joseph responded without hesitation, forgiving and praying for William: “In your letter you ask my forgiveness, which I readily grant….I freely forgive you, and you know my unshaken and unchangeable disposition….And now may God have mercy upon my father’s house; may God take away enmity from between me and thee; and may all blessings be restored, and the past forgotten forever.” [viii]
On another occasion, Joseph extended forgiveness to one who had betrayed his trust. The man had apostatized and signed an affidavit which was used to incarcerate Joseph in Liberty Jail. With great feelings of remorse for what he had done he earnestly desired to repent. Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve recommended this brother write Joseph a letter of apology and ask for forgiveness. He wrote: “I am as the prodigal son…I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed…I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me…I have done wrong and I am sorry. The beam is in my own eye…I ask forgiveness…I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet.” [ix]
Joseph’s response is one of the most moving letters ever penned by the hand of man. It is filled with forgiveness and effused with hope for brighter future relations:
DEAR BROTHER PHELPS:?I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to yours….; at the same time I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me….and inasmuch as long?suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our heavenly Father towards the humble and penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example, cherish the same principles, and by so doing be a Savior of my fellow men.
It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior….one with whom we had oft taken sweet counsel together, and enjoyed many refreshing seasons from the Lord?”had it been an enemy, we could have borne it.”
[Joseph described that he desired to follow the example of the Savior in helping others, then continue:] Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday, and an expression of their feeling was taken, when it was unanimously Resolved, That W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.
“Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.” Yours as ever, JOSEPH SMITH, JUN. [x]
Not only is this frank forgiveness touching, but the inspired expressions in this letter also demonstrate how forgiveness works in friendships?a willingness to forgive, coupled with a desire to renew the friendship. Commenting on this incident, Elder B. H. Roberts noted, “When the great offense of Elder William W. Phelps is taken in to account…this letter is remarkable. The Prophet’s frank forgiveness of his erring brother…exhibits a broad mindedness and generosity that can come only from a great soul.” [xi]
It is also interesting to note that the couplet the Prophet used to close his letter, touched Brother Phelps, who was himself a gifted poet. Many of the hymns penned by Phelps are beloved LDS favorites today, and one of them?The Spirit of God?is sung at the dedication of every temple. Phelps’ poems would probably never have become hymns had Joseph not extended his forgiveness and friendship.
Because Joseph forgave him, Brother Phelps rejoined the Saints at Nauvoo. Four years later, he was asked to delivery the eulogy in a memorial service in honor of his forgiving friend. Phelps recited a poem he had written as a tribute to Joseph, the martyred Prophet. The poem has since served as a lasting memorial to the greatness of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah. Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.” [xii]
Appreciating Others More
True friendship, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, is designed to “revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” [xiii] Joseph Smith expressed sentiments that “the kindness of a man should never be forgotten. That person who never forsaketh his trust, should ever have the highest place of regard in our hearts, and our love should never fail, but increase more and more.” [xiv]
To Joseph Smith, a true friend was a gift from God. “How good and glorious it has seemed to me, to find pure and holy friends.” [xv] He believed that friendship was one of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism.” [xvi] He was so grateful for the kindnesses occasionally shown to him that he resolved to be a greater friend to others: “I love friendship and truth; …I hope I shall see [my friends] again, that I may toil for them, and administer to their comfort also. They shall not want a friend while I live; my heart shall love those, and my hands shall toil for those, who love and toil for me, and shall ever be found faithful to my friends. Shall I be ungrateful? Verily no! God forbid!” [xvii]
Joseph’s gratitude to good people knew no bounds. When he opened his red-brick store in Nauvoo on 5 January 1842, it was filled with customers “and Joseph was behind the counter continually waiting upon purchasers.” [xviii] He said, “I have stood behind the counter all day, dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas and New Year’s dinners, for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, &c., &c.; and to please myself also, for I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all.” [xix]
His feelings of affection for true friends were intensified while he suffered in prison: “Those who have not been enclosed in the walls of a prison without cause or provocation, can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling…until finally all enmity, malice and hatred, and past differences, misunderstandings and mismanagements are slain victorious at the feet of hope.” [xx]
Joseph once explained that friendship is like a blacksmith “welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.” [xxi] One of my students, April Steed, noted that “Brother Joseph’s use of [the symbol of welding] is interesting, since the analogy of welding is quite similar to the analogy of sealing. This suggests that in addition to being sealed in family units, the Lord would also have the human family united in friendship.” [xxii]
Harvesting friendships requires us to practice patience and forgive one another. Lorenzo Snow commented that he “saw the minor imperfections in the Prophet Joseph Smith. But instead of being offended by them, they made him grateful, feeling that if the Lord could use [Joseph], with his imperfections, maybe there was some hope for him.” [xxiii]
During his post-mortal ministry, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught Brigham Young about the need to be patient with the Saints and bear with their imperfections. Shortly after they had settled in the Salt Lake Valley, President Young became concerned about those few Saints who desired to leave the Salt Lake Valley for the gold fields of California. He wrestled with his feelings until he had a particular dream in which the Prophet Joseph Smith appeared to him, herding “a flock of sheep of all kinds, sizes, colours, and descriptions, from the largest, finest sheep I ever saw, down to the ugly decrepit dwarf….I looked on the strange flock and…asked Joseph what in the world he was going to do with such a flock of sheep….He looked up and smiled, as he did when he was living, and as though he was in reality with me, and said, ‘They are all good in their place.’” [xxiv] Joseph’s counsel helped President Young learn to better appreciate the contributions of every individual, whether great or small.
Cultivating the Spirit of Forgiveness and Avoiding Self-Righteousness
At the organization of the Relief Society, Joseph taught about the importance of cultivating the spirit of forgiveness: “There is another error which opens a door for the adversary to enter…[Those who are] subject to overmuch zeal [causes] them to be rigid in a religious capacity?[these individuals] should be armed with mercy.” Then, speaking of forgiving those who have sinned against us, he continued, and with deep feeling added, “They are fellow mortals, we loved them once, shall we not encourage them to reformation? We have not yet forgiven them seventy times seven, as our Savior directed; perhaps we have not forgiven them once….They who repent not should be cast out from this society; yet we should woo them to return to God….We should act in all things on a proper medium to every immortal spirit. Notwithstanding the unworthy are among us, the virtuous should not, from self-importance, grieve and oppress needlessly, those unfortunate ones?even these should be encouraged to hereafter live to be honored by this society….Put a double watch over the tongue.” [xxv]
Joseph consistently warned the Saints about self-righteousness and hypocrisy: “All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind and hinder our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness.
” [xxvi] He noted that we could be more generous in our estimation of others: “Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbor’s virtue, but beware of self-righteousness, and be limited in the estimate of your own virtues, and not think yourselves more righteous than others.” [xxvii]
He cautioned that backbiting and faultfinding are forms of piousness: “the devil flatters us that we are very righteous, when we are feeding on the faults of others.” [xxviii] He warned against hypocrisy: “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite.” [xxix]
As President George Q. Cannon explained, Joseph Smith “was a great hater of sham. He disliked long-faced hypocrisy, and numerous stories are told of his peculiar manner of rebuking it. He knew that much that people call sin is not sin, and he did many things to break down superstition. He would wrestle, play ball, and enjoy himself in physical exercises, and he knew that he was not committing sin to do so. The religion of heaven is not to make men sorrowful, to curtail their enjoyment and to make them groan and sigh and wear long faces, but to make them happy. This Joseph desired to teach the people, but in doing so, he, like our Savior, when he was on the earth, was a stumbling block to bigots and hypocrites. They could not understand him; he shocked their prejudices and traditions.” [xxx]
An event in the lives of Joseph and Emma Smith, while the Book of Mormon was being translated, illustrates Joseph’s efforts to make amends after an offense had occurred. David Whitmer, who witnessed the incident, recorded: “He [Joseph Smith] was a religious and straightforward man. . . . He had to trust in God. He could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings towards everyone. To illustrate so you can see: One morning when he was getting ready to continue the translation, something went wrong about the house and he was put out about it. Something that Emma, his wife, had done. Oliver and I went upstairs and Joseph came up soon after to continue the translation but he could not do anything. He could not translate a single syllable. He went downstairs, out into the orchard, and made supplication to the Lord; was gone about an hour—came back to the house, and asked Emma’s forgiveness and then came upstairs where we were and then the translation went on all right. He could do nothing save he was humble and faithful.” [xxxi]
Thus, Joseph learned early on that the Spirit can only be readily discerned when we are humble and possess right feelings towards others.
Securing a Positive Judgment
Through his translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith learned that we obtain forgiveness of sin through personal repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Spirit (2 Nephi 31:13; Mosiah 4:22, 26), and that, following our baptism, we retain that remission of sin by continually loving and serving our fellow beings (See Mosiah 4:26 and Alma 34:27-29). Joseph taught: “To be justified before God we must love one another: we must overcome evil; we must visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, and we must keep ourselves unspotted from the world.” [xxxii]
However, our “peaceable walk” with others (Moroni 7:3-4), can be disrupted by criticism, contention, busybody backbiting, betrayal, or offenses (both real and imagined). Occasionally we may all be haunted by feelings of frustration, anger, guilt, or regret in our dealings with others. As seen, Joseph Smith spoke often about forgiving others. The numerous offenses and personal injustices he was subjected to throughout his life qualified him to speak about forgiveness with the voice of experience. His sufferings in his dealings with others were not abstract, or theoretical. They were real. He came to know, firsthand, about the required humility, patience, forbearance and meekness in dealing with others.
Joseph’s meekness in applying the Savior’s principles to real life situations serves as an example for all to follow. He believed that all the admonitions from heaven, including the injunctions to forgive one another, were given to help us be happy, and that God only has our best interests in mind: “As God has designed our happiness?and the happiness of all His creatures, He never has?He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed.” [xxxiii]
Joseph was shown that a failure to forgive one another our trespasses, failure to bind our hearts together in love, and failure to seal our families in eternal temple covenants, would lead to the melt-down of society and that the entire human family would be “utterly wasted.” [xxxiv] “Wherefore, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth,” the Lord declared in His preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, “[I] called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments” (D&C 1:17).
When God the Eternal Father introduced His Beloved Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1820, He said, “hear Him.” Joseph listened then and ever after?even to the hard sayings about personal relationships. His life and teachings were filled with examples of how he tried to implement the two great commandments in the law?to love God, and to love others as ourselves. His teachings contain priceless counsel about these weightier matters, and illustrate how applying the healing balm of forgiveness can mend and strengthen our interpersonal relationships.
As we journey back into God’s presence, none of us travel alone. We can help make the journey easier for each of us to bear if we adopt as our personal credo the Savior’s description of His own mission and purpose in life: “The Lord [the Father] hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,…to comfort all that mourn;…to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:1-3; see also Luke 4:16-19). The Prophet Joseph Smith demonstrated that his life was dedicated to this same end. He testified that he had manifested long-suffering, forbearance and patience towards the Church, and also to his enemies, and that we must all learn to “bear with each other’s failings, as an indulgent parent bears with the foibles of his children.” [xxxv]
In an address to the Saints, he further admonished, “You must enlarge your souls towards each other if you would do like Jesus, and carry your fellow-creatures to Abraham’s bosom.” The Prophet Joseph consistently implored the Saints to realize that “Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons [and daughters] of God.
[i] See Milton Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, 157.
[ii] Teachings, 155.
[iii] Teachings, 241.
[iv] History of the Church, 4:163.
[v] Juvenile Instructor Magazine, Daniel Tyler, Vol. 27, 1892, 491.
[vi] History of the Church, 6:245.
[vii] Teachings, 312-313.
[viii] History of the Church, 2:342-343.
[ix] History of the Church, 4:141-142.
[x] Teachings, 165-166.
[xi] History of the Church, 4:162-163fn.
[xii] See LDS Hymn’s #27.
[xiii] Teachings, 316.
[xiv] Teachings, 31.
[xv] History of the Church, 5:107.
[xvi] History of the Church, 5:517.
[xvii] History of the Church, 5:108-109.
[xviii] The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols., ed. Dean C. Jessee , 2:348-349.
[xix] History of the Church, 4:491-492.
[xx] History of the Church, 3:293.
[xxi] History of the Church, 5:517.
[xxii] April Steed, Religion 393 paper, Spring 2002; copy in possession of author.
[xxiii] As cited by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, in A Disciple’s Life, by Bruce C. Hafen, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002, 236.
[xxiv] Journal of Discourses, 6:321.
[xxv] Teachings, 238.
[xxvi] Teachings, 241.
[xxvii] Teachings, 228.
[xxviii] Teachings, 241.
[xxix] History of the Church, 5:401.
[xxx] Hyrum and Mae Andrus, Joseph Smith, the Man and the Seer, 45-46.
[xxxi] As cited in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:131.
[xxxii] History of the Church, 2:229.
[xxxiii] History of the Church, 5:135.
[xxxiv] See, for example, D&C 2:1-3; 45:27; 87:1, 6; 128:15-18; and Joseph Smith—Mathew 1:17.
[xxxv] Teachings, 228.
[xxxvi] Teachings, 174.