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Many in today’s sophisticated society compartmentalize their approach to life, pitting religion against the intellect, creating a cultural clash between secularism and spirituality. In our world it’s either Athens or Jerusalem. And many falsely assume that “reason” and “revelation” are mutually exclusive—meaning, that religion and the things of the Spirit have no place in the public square. But the Prophet Joseph Smith learned early on that he could obtain both scholarly wisdom, as well as eternal truth, by combining intellectual effort with spirituality. And because he learned to do both, he grew wise beyond his years. Orson Hyde (an original member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) noted that “nature had gifted him with a strong, discerning mind” (A Cry out of the Wilderness, Frankfurt, 1842).
And with that bright, discerning mind, the Prophet Joseph discovered that the laws of God apply to all aspects of life. Joseph learned that revelation from God can inform our understanding about anything, precisely because intellectual understanding and spiritual enlightenment emanate from the same source—God, the Supreme Intelligence, who knows all things. The true source of Joseph Smith’s brilliance was his association with the Spirit of the Lord. He was taught that fact by God Himself, when the Spirit drew his attention to James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” And when Joseph turned to God for enlightenment, he learned that God is more generous than most people can imagine—He often gives more than we ask for. That’s one reason why Joseph later observed, “The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask it from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teachings” (History of the Church, 4:425).
So, while Joseph Smith had only limited opportunities for a secular education, his knowledge of spiritual things was unbounded. He had a mind a spirit that comprehended all eternity. In his great “King Follett Sermon,” given to the Saints in Nauvoo shortly before his martyrdom, the Prophet declared tongue in cheek (with wit and humor): “I am learned, and know more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does, anyhow, and he is within me, and comprehends more than all the world; and I will associate myself with him” (History of the Church, 6:307-308).
As related by President John Taylor in an address on December 7, 1897, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Prophet Joseph became brilliant once God laid His hand on him: “Who was Joseph Smith?…He was selected as Abraham was to fulfill a work upon the earth. God chose this young man. He was ignorant of letters as the world has it, but the most profoundly learned and intelligent man that I ever met in my life, and I have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, been on different continents and mingled among all classes and creeds of people, yet I have never met a man so intelligent as he was. And where did he get his intelligence from? Not from books; not from the logic or science or philosophy of the day, but he obtained it through the revelations of God made known to him through the medium of the everlasting gospel” (Deseret News, 2 June 1880, 275).
Whenever Joseph had opportunity to share what he learned from God, the Saints flocked to listen. Mary Alice Lambert wrote: “Many, many times between the time I reached Nauvoo and his martyrdom, I heard him preach. The love the Saints had for him was inexpressible. They would willingly have laid down their lives for him. If he was to talk, every task would be laid aside that they might listen to his words. He was not an ordinary man. Saints and sinners alike felt and recognized a power and influence, which he carried with him. It was impossible to meet him and not be impressed by the strength of his personality and influence” (Young Women’s Journal, 16 Dec 1905, 554).
Parley P. Pratt, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote: “He possessed a noble boldness and independence of character; his manner was easy and familiar; his rebuke terrible as the lion; his benevolence unbounded as the ocean; his intelligence universal, and his language abounding in original eloquence peculiar to himself—not polished—not studied—not smoothed and softened by education and refined by art; but flowing forth in its own native simplicity, and profusely abounding in variety of subject and manner. He interested and edified, while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him who were ever weary with his discourse. I have known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the mist of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears. …In short, in him the character of Daniel and a Cyrus were wonderfully blended. The gifts, wisdom and devotion of a Daniel were united with the boldness, courage, temperance, perseverance and generosity of a Cyrus” (The Historical Record, Vol. 7, Jan 1888, 575-576).
But besides his engaging personality, and the combination of spirituality and wisdom in him, 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 for all. He formed adult-education programs, missionary training schools, established university level courses of study in Kirtland, Ohio, and procured a charter for a university at Nauvoo, Illinois. He believed that “all the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (History of the Church, 6:311).
One example of how Joseph excelled in enlightened wisdom is the plat he and the 1831 First Presidency developed for the city of Zion, to be built in Independence, Missouri. Following the pattern established by Moses in the Old Testament, Joseph proposed a city with a temple in the center, and with streets running north-south and east-west from there. The plan called for half-acre family lots, with each home positioned so that it would not face other homes, providing greater privacy for families. Farming areas were located on the outskirts of town, allowing the farmer and his family to enjoy all the urban advantages of schools, public lectures, and social gatherings. So, the central blocks were reserved for temples and community buildings, surrounded by residential lots radiating out from the temple, then farmland on the outskirts of town.
In the Plat for Zion, twenty-four temples were to be built in the center lots. You can see them numbered on this copy of the original plat.
Using Joseph Smith’s Plat for Zion as a template, President Brigham Young settled hundreds of cities in the west—including Salt Lake City, and many other cities in Utah, as well as numerous cities in Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada.
Salt Lake City was designed with 10-acre blocks, a temple in the center of town, streets that were 132 feet wide (so wagons could make a U-turn without having to unhitch horses), and a grid pattern with roads oriented north to south, and east to west.
Joseph Smith’s novel vision was to create cities where “the farmer and his family…will enjoy all the advantages of schools, public lectures and other meetings. His home will no longer be isolated and his family denied the benefits of society” (from B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:312). Each city Brigham Young founded was surveyed and laid out similar to Salt Lake City—with a city center, larger family lots in town, and farmland lying outside the city limits—drawing on Joseph Smith’s plat.
“In order that the object for which the saints are gathered together in the last days, as spoken of by all the holy prophets since the world began, may be obtained, it is . . . necessary, that they should all be gathered into the Cities appointed for that purpose . . . to obtain all the knowledge which the circumstances of man will admit of, is one of the principle objects the saints have in gathering together. Intelligence is the result of education, and education can only be obtained by living in compact society; so compact, that schools of all kinds can be supported” (editorial in the Church’s Elders Journal 1 [August 1838]:53).
In 1996, the 30,000 member American Institute of Certified City Planners, designated Joseph Smith’s Plat of the City of Zion as a national historic landmark, because the Prophet’s city-design was ingenious, sustainable, and functional. A plaque honoring the Prophet by this group hangs on the inside of the west wall of the Brigham Young Historic Park (just east of the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City) and reads: “The ‘Plat of the City of Zion,’ incorporated in a remarkable treatise on urban design, addressed to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith on June 25, 1833, guided the development of over 500 settlements in the Intermountain West, establishing a continuing commitment to the building of well-planned and culturally nurturing cities.”
Results of combining Reason with Revelation
As Joseph Smith’s Plat for Zion shows, by combining the best learning available, along with revelation from heaven, great things can be accomplished. The Prophet remarked: “Let the Saints remember that great things depend on their individual exertion, and that they are called to be co-workers with us and the Holy Spirit in accomplishing the great work of the last days…The work in which we are unitedly engaged is one of no ordinary kind….and…by the help of the Almighty, we shall go on from victory to victory…” (History of the Church, 4: 230-232).
Many years later, while speaking to educators assembled in central Utah in 1879, President John Taylor made this bold declaration: “You will see the day that Zion will be as far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are to-day in regard to religious matters. You mark my words, and write them down, and see if they do not come to pass”(Journal of Discourses, 21:100).
A perfect example of combing the best education the world has to offer with the influence of the Spirit is President Russell M. Nelson.
Elder Spencer J. Condie described President Nelson’s ability to learn by the Spirit: “When Russell began medical school, he had been taught that the beating heart must never be touched lest it stop. Yet he was constantly encouraged by a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that states, ‘Unto every kingdom is given a law, and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions’ (D&C 88:38). He also knew that the Lord had said there is no blessing given except by obedience to the law upon which that blessing is predicated (D&C 130:20-21). Therefore, he knew that even the blessing of the heartbeat was predicated upon law. The job of researchers was to harness the power contained in the understanding of those laws” (Russell M. Nelson––Father, Surgeon, Apostle, p. 110).
And the results were miraculous. His wife, Wendy Watson Nelson, spoke with President Nelson at Utah State University on September 17, 2017. She described some of the miracles President Nelson experienced because he learned to use the best the world has to offer, but to seek out and rely on the knowledge that comes from God:
“Over the years, young Dr. Nelson became an internationally renowned cardiovascular surgeon,” Sister Nelson said. “How did he do that? Only one way — he followed the counsel of the Lord and not the counsel of man.”
“Sister Nelson spoke of the advances in medicine President Nelson made as a young doctor, specifically his work in developing the heart-lung machine that helped support the first open-heart operation on a human being in 1951.
“To become the successful surgeon he was to become and to do what had never been done before, he actually had to defy the very books from which he studied,” Sister Nelson said. “His medical textbook read, ‘do not touch the beating heart.’ ”
“Even one of the most famous surgeons of that time proclaimed that any surgeon that attempted to operate on the heart would lose all credibility within the medical profession.
“However, young Dr. Nelson had a source he honored more than that famous surgeon, and a book which he honored more than his medical textbook,” Sister Nelson said. “Dr. Nelson’s source was the Lord, and the book was the Doctrine and Covenants.”
It was through pondering two truths in the Doctrine and Covenants — one, all blessings are predicated on obedience to divine law, and two, to every kingdom there is a law given — that Dr. Nelson started to wonder what eternal laws govern the beating heart?
“This question catapulted him into the journey of pioneering open heart surgery,” Sister Nelson said. President Nelson helped in the invention of the heart-lung machine that assisted in the surgery.
President Nelson continued to trust in the Lord, so much so that when he was called out of the operating room to follow the Savior, he was willing to “lay down his nets” — in his case his surgical gloves — and follow the Savior.
“Dr. Nelson did not want to live his life after the manner of man,” Sister Nelson said.
Sister Nelson taught that there will be times where a person will be compelled to do something that might not seem logical or possible at the time. She reminded listeners that, like Nephi, Joseph Smith and President Nelson, the Lord will provide a way. (Marianne Holman Prescott, LDS Church News, September 18, 2017.)
Joseph Smith, Nephi, and President Nelson all learned to combine reason with revelation. When Nephi was commanded to build a ship to carry his extended family across the ocean, he learned all he could from those around him, but he also turned to the Lord, and was richly rewarded. He came to know that when we do our best, and then ask the Lord to touch our offering, greater things can be accomplished than we could ever do on our own. Here’s how Nephi described it: “And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship. Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men. And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things. And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Ne. 18:1-4).
So whether it’s planning an urban-design for the city of Zion, operating on human hearts, or building ships, the Lord can increase our ability if we will humbly learn to combine our reasoning with His revelations.