Cover image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
Spring 2020 is the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. The articles in this column look forward to the upcoming bicentennial celebrations of the events of the Restoration with great quotes, stories and interesting thoughts about the Prophet Joseph Smith.
If anyone had reasons to be overcome with melancholy and gloom, it was the Prophet Joseph Smith, who seemed to face opposition at every turn. But Joseph wrote that from his youth he always had a “native cheery temperament” (JS-Hist. 2:28).
To his cousin, George A. Smith, who was at one time feeling low, the Prophet gave this uplifting advice: “Never be discouraged. If I were sunk in the lowest pit of Nova Scotia, with the Rocky Mountains piled on me, I would hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage, and come out on top” (cited in John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, 9).
At the 150th anniversary of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in 1994, a colleague and friend, Dr. Gil Scharffs, gave a presentation to honor the Prophet. It was a moving tribute. Brother Scharffs had spent a majority of his career writing about and defending the Prophet Joseph. I enjoyed attending his classes and lectures. He always had something interesting to share. In his 1994 presentation, Brother Scharffs highlighted several incidents in Joseph’s life when his “cheery temperament” helped him rise above the challenges he faced. Here’s a short excerpt from Brother Scharffs inspiring presentation (with updated references):
“What can one say in a few minutes to capture the magnitude of this giant prophet? My task is impossible. One could talk at length on just his qualities alone. One of the things I like best about Joseph Smith is that he was hard to discourage.
“We have read about the incident at Hiram, Ohio, when the mob broke into his home and he and Sidney Rigdon were tarred and feathered, which resulted in the death of one of Joseph and Emma’s adopted twins. But the following morning, Joseph preached a sermon attended by some of the mob. [Astonishingly, a portion of that sermon centered on charity—the pure love of Jesus Christ.]
“A few months before his death, with the mob nearby growing in numbers. A group of Saints in Nauvoo were discussing that it was reported that their enemies were bragging, ‘We’ll drive the Mormons to hell for sure this time.’ When Joseph Smith heard the remark he replied, ‘Never mind, my brethren, if they drive us to hell, we’ll turn the devil out and make a heaven of it’ (cited in President George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 362).
“In his journal we read under the date July 7, 1843: ‘In the evening I received an extremely saucy and insulting letter from R. D. Foster. Pleasant evening’ (JS Papers, History, 1 May 1844 to 8 Aug 1844, 71).
“Joseph Smith also recorded, ‘I should be like a fish out of water if I were out of persecution’ (JS Papers, History, 1 May 1844 to 8 Aug 1844, 58).
“One can note that a sense of humor undoubtedly sustained Joseph Smith during his many trials.
“Another religious leader in Joseph Smith’s day [William Miller] had predicted the end of the world would happen on April 3, 1843. On that date Joseph Smith wrote in his diary, ‘Today is too pleasant for false prophets’ (History of the Church, 5:326). The price of material went sky high, but the followers of William Miller didn’t.
“When word arrived in Nauvoo that Porter Rockwell had been arrested for shooting ex-Misouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs, Joseph remarked: ‘Port couldn’t’ have done it. He wouldn’t have missed’ (cited in Nicholas Van Alfen, Porter Rockwell–Mormon Frontier Marshall, 1964, 21).
“Hyrum once chided his brother for playing too much ball with the young men of Nauvoo. It was his opinion, he said, that such conduct was not becoming a Prophet of the Lord. Joseph then replied, ‘Brother Hyrum, my mingling with the boys in a harmless sport like this does not injure me in any way, but on the other hand it makes them happy and draws their hearts nearer to mine; and who knows but there may be young men among them who may sometime lay down their lives for me’ (Millennial Star, 3:84, Sep. 1842). Two boys, Dennison Harris and Robert Scott, did actually save Joseph’s life soon thereafter, when they warned him of an assassination attempt.” [To read about this incident see Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Priesthood Blessings,” Conference Report, April 1987.]
“When you’re busy helping others you don’t have time to sulk about your own problems. From the diary of Mosiah Hancock we read: In 1841 “I played my first game of ball with the prophet. We took turns knocking and chasing the ball, and when the game was over the Prophet said ‘Brethren, hitch up your teams,’ which we did, and we all drove to the woods. There were 39 teams in the group and we gathered wood until our wagons were loaded. When our wagon was loaded, Brother Joseph offered to pull sticks with anyone—and he pulled them all up one at a time—with anyone who wanted to compete with him. Afterwards, the Prophet sent the wagons out to different places of people who needed help; and he told them to cut the wood for the Saints who needed it. Everyone loved to do as the prophet said, and even though we were sickly, and death was all around us, folks smiled and tried to cheer everyone up’ (Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock, 1834-1907).
It was fascinating to hear Dr. Scharff’s recount story after story about the Prophet Joseph’s positive attitude and character. I realized then, and have many times since, that in addition to his divine calling, Joseph Smith also had a compelling personal charisma that endeared him to many people—including even some of his enemies. Elder Parley P. Pratt, who spent much time with the Prophet Joseph observed it firsthand: “His manner was easy and familiar;….He interested and edified while, at the same time, he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary with his discourse. I have even known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears” (Historical Record, 7:575-576, Jan. 1888; cited in New Era, Dec. 1973, 7).
An incident at Far West, Missouri (headquarters of the Church in 1838) illustrates just such a moment. Joseph Smith was at his parents’ home writing a letter. The Prophet’s mother recorded what happened:
Eight [members of the state militia] came into the house. Thinking they had come for some refreshment, I offered them chairs. “We do not choose to sit down, we have come here to kill Jo Smith and all the Mormons.”
“Ah,” said I, “What has Joseph Smith done that you should want to kill him?”
“He has killed seven men in Davies County,” replied the foremost, “and we have come to kill him and all his church.”
“He hasn’t been in Davis county,” I answered, “consequently, the report must be false. Furthermore, if you should see him you would not want to kill him.”
“There is no doubt that the report is perfectly correct,” rejoined the officer, “It came straight to us, and I believe it; and we were sent to kill the Prophet and all who believe in him, and I’ll be d—d if I don’t execute my orders.”
“I suppose,” said I, “you intend to kill me, with the rest?”
“Yes, we do,” returned the officer.
“Very well,” I continued, “I want you to act the gentleman about it, and do the job quick. Just shoot me down at once, then I shall be at rest; but I should not like to be murdered by inches.”
“There it is again,” said he. “You tell a ‘Mormon’ that you will kill him, and they will always tell you, ‘that is nothing—if you kill us, we shall be happy.’”
Joseph, just at this moment finished writing his letter, and, seeing that he was at liberty, I said, “Gentlemen, suffer me to make you acquainted with Joseph Smith, the Prophet.” They stared at him as if he were a spectre. He smiled, and stepping towards them, gave each of them his hand, in a manner which convinced them that he was neither guilty nor yet a hypocrite.
Joseph then sat down and explained to them the views & feelings, etc., of the Church, and what their course had been; besides the treatment, which they had received from their enemies since the first. He also argued, that if any one of the brethren had broken the law, they ought to be tried by the law, before anyone else was molested. After talking with them some time in this way, he said, “Mother, I believe I will go home now—Emma will be expecting me.”
At this two of the men sprang to their feet, and declared that he should not go alone, as it would be unsafe—that they would go with him, in order to protect him. Accordingly the three left together, and, during their absence, I overheard the following conversation among the officers, who remained at the door:
1st Officer. “Did you not feel strangely when Smith took you by the hand? I never felt so in my life.”
2nd Officer. “I could not move. I would not harm a hair of that man’s head for the whole world.”
3rd Officer. “This is the last time you will catch me coming to kill Joe Smith, or the Mormons’ either.”
1st Officer. “I guess this is about my last expedition against this place. I never saw more harmless, innocent appearing man than the ‘Mormon’ Prophet.”
2nd Officer. “That story about his killing them men is all a d- -d lie there is no doubt of it; and we have had all this trouble for nothing; but they will never fool me in this way again; I’ll warrant them.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, 254-255.)
Joseph Smith’s personality had the same effect on the Saints. His positive attitude attracted people to him. After his death, his wife Emma, wrote a letter to one of their sons and said, “I do not expect that you’ll be able to do much more in the garden than your father could, and I never wanted him to go out into the garden to work for if he did it would not be fifteen minutes before there would be three or four or sometimes a half dozen men around him and they would tramp the ground down faster than he could hoe it up” (cited in We Talk of Christ, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, 86).
One reason for his influence on people was the love and compassion he showed them. On one occasion he said, “Sectarian priests cry out concerning me, and ask, ‘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” (History of the Church, 5:498).
Illustrative of one of the hundreds of kind deeds Joseph Smith did for others, is an incident involving John E. Page. Elder Page was called on a mission to Canada but delayed leaving Kirtland because he was destitute of warm clothing. President Thomas S. Monson described what happened:
We demonstrate our love by how well we serve our God. Remember when the Prophet Joseph Smith went to John E. Page and said to him, “Brother Page, you have been called on a mission to Canada.”
Brother Page, struggling for an excuse, said, “Brother Joseph, I can’t go to Canada. I don’t have a coat to wear.”
The Prophet took off his own coat, handed it to John Page, and said, “Wear this, and the Lord will bless you.”
John Page went on his mission to Canada. In two years he walked something like 5,000 miles and baptized 600 converts. (See Andrew Jenson, “John E. Page,” The Historical Record, 5:572.) He was successful because he responded to an opportunity to serve his God. (“How do we show our love,” Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, Jan. 1998, 2.)
Joseph and Emma Smith’s kindnesses to others won the hearts of many. Jane Manning James (a freeborn black woman from Connecticut) walked a thousand miles with her extended family to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1843, to join the Saints. She described her experience meeting Joseph and Emma and being the recipient of their benevolence and kindness:
Yes, indeed, I guess I did know the Prophet Joseph. That lovely hand! He used to put it out to me. Never passed me without shaking hands with me wherever he was. Oh, he was the finest man I ever saw on earth.
….I…think about Brother Joseph and Sister Emma and how good they was to me. When I went there [to Nauvoo] I only had two things on me, no shoes nor stockings, wore them all out on the road. I had a trunk full of beautiful clothes, which I had sent around by water, and I was thinking of having them when I got to Nauvoo, and they stole them at St. Louis, and I did not have a rag of them.
….Sister Emma she come to the door first and she says, “Walk in, come in all of you,” and she went upstairs, and down he comes and goes into the sitting room and told the girls that they had there, he wanted to have the room this evening, for we have got company come. I knew it was Brother Joseph because I had seen him in a dream. He went and brought Dr. Bernhisel down and Sister Emma, and introduced him to everyone of us, and said, “Now, I want you to tell me about some of your hard trials. I want to hear of some of those hard trials.” And we told him. He slapped his hands.
“Dr. Bernhisel,” he said, “what do you think of that?” And he said,
“I think if I had had it to do I should not have come; would not have had faith enough.”
[The family stayed with the Smith’s for a week until they were all settled in places to stay.]
He [Joseph Smith] came in every morning to see us and shake hands and know how we all were. One morning, before he came in, I had been up to the landing and found all my clothes were gone. Well, I sat there crying. He came in and looked around.
“Why where’s all the folks?” “Why brother,” I says, “they have all got themselves places; but,” I says, “I haint got any place,” and I burst out a-crying.
We won’t have tears here,” he says.
“But,” I says, “I have got no home.”
“Well you’ve got a home here,” he says, “Have you seen Sister Emma this morning.”
“No, sir,” I says.
So he started out and went upstairs and brought Sister Emma down and says, “Here’s a girl who says she’s got no home. Don’t you think she’s got a home here?”
And she says, “If she wants to stay here.”
And he says, “do you want to stay here?”
“Yes, sir,” says I. “Well, now,” he says, “Sister Emma you just talk to her and see how she is.” He says, “Good morning,” and he went.
….I did not talk much to him, but every time he saw me he would say, “God bless you,” and pat me on the shoulder. To Sister Emma, he said, “go and clothe her up, go down to the store and clothe her up.” Sister Emma did. She got me clothes by the bolt. I had everything. (Jane Manning James, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal, 16:552, 1905.)
As President Gordon B. Hinckley declared: Joseph Smith “is our prophet, our revelator, our seer, our friend. Let us not forget him. Let not his memory be forgotten…God be thanked for the Prophet Joseph Smith” (Ensign, Dec. 1997).