Cover image: “Joseph Smith Sr. & Lucy Mack Smith, Noble Parents” by Michael Bedard.
What can we learn from Joseph Smith’s parents about how to encourage our children to seek gospel learning and acquire spiritual knowledge?
Joseph Smith saw a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ when he was 14 years old. An angel commissioned him to translate the Book of Mormon at 17. Events like this do not just happen in a vacuum. Joseph Smith was raised in a home of faith. His parents facilitated and encouraged his gospel learning in ways that we can emulate to create a climate for acquiring spiritual knowledge in our own homes. The following are four key lessons we can learn from Joseph Smith’s parents:
1. Teach our children to turn to and trust the scriptures as the word of God.
Joseph Smith described in his personal journal the events that led up to his First Vision. He explained, “At about the age of twelve years, my mind become seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures—believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God and thus applying myself to them (1832 account, emphasis added).
The reason Joseph Smith read and trusted the counsel to “ask of God” in James 1:5 was because his parents had taught him to believe that the scriptures “contained the word of God” and that he should apply himself to them. We don’t know everything about the family scripture study habits in the Smith home, but we know that his parents must have taught their children by their words and their example that they should turn to and trust the scriptures as the word of God. This set the stage for Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the revelations he received throughout his life.
As parents, we should strive to create that confidence in the scriptures among our own children. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has counseled parents, “Live the gospel as conspicuously as you can. … Don’t just assume your children will somehow get the drift of your beliefs on their own. … [We] might ask ourselves what our children know? From us? Personally? Do our children know that we love the scriptures? Do they see us reading them and marking them and clinging to them in daily life? Have our children ever unexpectedly opened a closed door and found us on our knees in prayer? … I pray that they may know this” (Ensign May 2003, 86–87).
2. Ask our children inspired questions that encourage gospel learning and sharing.
The first person Joseph Smith opened up to after the First Vision was his mother. He explained, “I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, ‘Nevermind, all is well—I am well enough off.’ I then said to my mother, ‘I have learned for myself that [the church his mother attended] is not true’” (JS-H 1:20). Like a typical teenager, he did not immediately share everything he had experienced. But what he did share was the result of his mother asking him an inspired question.
Commenting on this verse, Elder David A. Bednar taught, “His mom was there. … Joseph’s mother was in the right place at the right time when he returned from the Sacred Grove, and she inquired” (Bednar, CES Training Aug. 2011). Likewise, if we are to encourage gospel learning in our homes, we must be in the home, asking questions.
Too often, our hectic lives and many demands pull us out of the home and leave us little time for gospel discussion and inspired questions. As parents, we must remember that “teaching is not [just] talking and telling. Rather, teaching is observing, listening and discerning so we then know what to say.” (Bednar, CES Training Aug. 2011). Asking inspired questions and listening to our children’s responses can lead to “conversations [that] can help parents to discern what their children are learning, thinking, and feeling about the truths contained in [the scriptures], as well as the difficulties they may be facing” (Bednar, May 2010 Ensign).
3. Testify to our children that what they are learning is true.
After the first night of visits from angel Moroni, he commanded Joseph to tell his father of his experience. Joseph obeyed, and explained, “I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God” (JS-H 1:49). Rather than being skeptical or even critical that Joseph was too tired to do his farm chores, his father was immediately supportive. He confirmed Joseph’s experience with his own personal testimony that it was “of God.”
This experience teaches us that another way that parents can create a climate of gospel learning is by sharing their own spontaneous testimony that what their children are learning is true. Elder David A. Bednar taught, “Parents should be vigilant and spiritually attentive to spontaneously occurring opportunities to bear testimony to their children. Such occasions need not be programmed, scheduled, or scripted. In fact, the less regimented such testimony sharing is, the greater the likelihood for edification and lasting impact” (May 2010 Ensign). By doing so, parents can provide a second, confirmatory witness to the truths their children are learning by the Spirit.
4. Encourage our children to act in faith and apply what they are learning.
After Joseph Smith’s father confirmed to his son that the experience with angel Moroni was “of God,” what he did next was equally important to Joseph’s gospel learning. He encouraged Joseph to act in faith. He “told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger” (JS-H 1:50).
This account shows that it is not enough for parents to just encourage their children’s study of the gospel. They must also encourage them to act on and apply what they are reading or hearing if they are to truly and deeply learn the principles of the gospel. As the Lord Himself explained, “If any man will do [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God” (John 7:17, emphasis added). We must do, before we can fully know. There is a basic level of gospel learning that comes when we read or hear something by the Spirit, but there is a higher and deeper learning that can only come by acting in faith and doing what we have learned by study.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision perfectly illustrates these two levels of gospel learning. When Joseph first read James 1:5 he described the experience as follows: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again” (JS-H 1:12). At one level, Joseph had learned by the Spirit that he could “ask of God.” And yet, it wasn’t until after he went into the woods and applied this principle that he concluded, “I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided” (JS-H 1:26).
It is one thing to know by reading it, and that’s a start, but it is another to know by doing it. We must help our children to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith,” as they not only read the scriptures by the Spirit but also faithfully apply them (DC 88:118).
If we want our children to be gospel learners like Joseph Smith, then we must strive to be parents like Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr. They were not perfect parents, but they were good parents because they created a climate or atmosphere that facilitated and encouraged spiritual learning in their home. Like Nephi, Joseph Smith could state “having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught” (1 Nephi 1:1). Good parents teach. Not only that, but they strive to create an environment of gospel learning in their home where their family can be taught by the Spirit. We can do that by teaching our children to turn to and trust in the scriptures, asking inspired questions that encourage gospel learning and sharing, testifying that we know what they are learning is true, and encouraging them to act in faith to apply what they are learning. As we do so, we will “establish .. a house of learning, … a house of God” (DC 88:119).
I conclude with the words of Elder David A. Bednar: “Are you and I helping our children become agents who act and seek learning by study and by faith, or have we trained our children to wait to be taught and acted upon? Are we as parents primarily giving our children the equivalent of spiritual fish to eat, [rather than teaching them to fish for themselves?] Are we consistently helping them to act, to learn for themselves, and to stand steadfast and immovable? Are we helping our children become anxiously engaged in asking, seeking, and knocking?
“The spiritual understanding you and I have been blessed to receive, and which has been confirmed as true in our hearts, simply cannot be given to our children. The tuition of diligence and of learning by study and also by faith must be paid to obtain and personally “own” such knowledge. Only in this way can what is known in the mind also be felt in the heart. Only in this way can a child move beyond relying upon the spiritual knowledge and experiences of parents and adults and claim those blessings for himself or herself. Only in this way can our children be prepared spiritually for the challenges of mortality” (Bednar, May 2010 Ensign).