Saturday, April 12, 2014
(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-10-14)
My late friend Davis Bitton, a Princeton-trained professor of history at the University of Utah, was a specialist on France.
But he was also an expert on the history of Mormonism and the Latter-day Saints, presiding from 1971-72 over the Mormon History Association and serving from 1972 to 1982 as assistant historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Among his many Mormon-related publications is a volume of essays titled “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives.” It focuses not on the biography of Joseph Smith itself, but on the prophet’s image, particularly after his death, among believing Mormons and unbelieving non-Mormons.
That image has varied wildly. John Taylor, a close associate who was seriously wounded in the same vicious attack that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith, ranked theirs as “the best blood of the 19th century” (see Doctrine and Covenants 135:6). Others, during Joseph’s lifetime and since, have depicted him as one of the very worst men in history.
It seems obvious to me that, when evaluating Joseph Smith, the judgments of contemporaries who knew him best ought to be given special emphasis. With that in mind, I draw from “Knowing Brother Joseph Again” four testimonials concerning the prophet. They come from two men and a woman who knew him very well.
The first, dating to 1837, comes from Wilford Woodruff, the great missionary, apostle, and journal-keeper who would later become the fourth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There is not a greater man than Joseph standing in this generation,” he said (see "Wilford Woodruff’s Journal," Scott G. Kenney, April 9, 1837, 1:138-139). “The gentiles look upon him and he is to them like a bed of gold concealed from human view: they know not his principle, his spirit, his wisdom, virtue, philanthropy, nor his calling. His mind like Enoch’s swells wide as eternity. Nothing short of a God can comprehend his soul.”
The second, recorded at Salt Lake City, comes from Jane Manning James, who, as a young free black woman, had been employed as a servant in the Smith household at Nauvoo, Ill. In other words, she saw the Smiths at home, when they weren’t on public display, and at their least formal. In 1905, she reminisced about her reaction to Joseph Smith’s assassination by an anti-Mormon mob in June 1844.
“When he was killed, I liked to a died myself, if it had not been for the teachers, I felt so bad," she said (see "Reminiscence," by Jane Manning James, Young Women Journal, December 1905). "I could have died, just laid down and died; and I was sick abed, and the teachers told me, ‘You don’t want to die because he did. He died for us, and now we all want to live and do all the good we can.’ ”
The third, which dates to 1853, comes from Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith to become the second president of the LDS Church:
“When Martin (Harris) was with Joseph Smith, he was continually trying to make the people believe that he (Joseph) was the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. I have heard Joseph chastise him severely for it, and he told me that such a course, if persisted in, would destroy the kingdom of God. ... This people never professed that Joseph Smith was anything more than a Prophet given to them of the Lord, and to whom the Lord gave the keys of the last days, which were not to be taken from him in time, neither will they be in eternity” (see "Journal of Discourses," Vol. 2:127, Brigham Young, April 17, 1853, page 110).
The fourth, dating to 1855, also comes from Young:
“I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up and ordained, and to whom He gave keys and powers to build up the kingdom of God on earth and sustain it," he said (see "Journal of Discourses," Vol. 3:51, Brigham Young, Oct. 6, 1855, page 137).
Brigham, sometimes nicknamed “the American Moses” and “the Lion of the Lord,” was a strong and decisive leader. He wasn’t intimidated by the challenge of bringing his people across the Rocky Mountains into the unpopulated, semi-arid and forbidding Great Basin. He was anything but a shrinking violet.
In Joseph Smith, though, he found a man to whom he willingly submitted, a man at whose feet he was humbly willing to seek instruction. And this deference continued throughout his life.
On Aug. 29, 1877, after decades of heroic leadership, Brigham lay on his deathbed. Significantly, his last words were “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” He had missed the prophet for more than 30 years, but the two friends, it seems, were about to be reunited.
Monday, April 7, 2014
(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-3-14)
Baptized in 1831, Tennessee native William E. McLellin was ordained a member of this dispensation’s original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835. He was only 29 years old at his ordination, but he was already an experienced missionary, schoolteacher and self-taught physician and among the most astute members of the small, humble Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Unfortunately, he broke with his leaders in the wake of the Kirtland financial difficulties of 1837 and was excommunicated in May 1838.
McLellin quickly became an active, even irascible, opponent of the church and was personally hostile — to the point, apparently, of seeking to do violence — to Joseph Smith.
Significantly, though, after the prophet's martyrdom in 1844, McLellin affiliated himself continually with various splinter factions that claimed to represent the Restoration. He moved from group to group until his death in Independence, Mo., in April 1883.
He did so, notwithstanding his personal complaints, because he continued to believe in the Book of Mormon.
“When a man goes at the Book of M.,” he wrote in 1880 to James Cobb, a Utah-based critic of Mormonism who had sought his support, “he touches the apple of my eye. He fights against truth — against purity — against light — against the purest, or one of the truest, purest books on earth. I have more confidence in the Book of Mormon than any book of this wide earth!”
A significant source of McLellin’s confidence in the Book of Mormon was his direct personal familiarity with its witnesses.
“When I first joined the church in 1831,” he told Cobb, “soon I became acquainted with all the Smith family and the Whitmer family, and I heard all their testimonies, which agreed in the main points; and I believed them then and I believe them yet. But I don’t believe the many stories (contradictory) got up since, for I individually know many of them are false.”
He met three of the witnesses — Martin Harris, David Whitmer and Hyrum Smith — when they passed by his house in the late summer of 1831.
He later reported having walked several miles with them and having “talked much” not only with them but also with other knowledgeable church members during that summer. “I took Hiram the brother of Joseph,” he recalled, “and we went into the woods and set down and talked together about 4 hours. I inquired into the particulars of the coming forth of the record, of the rise of the church and of its progress and upon the testimonies given to him.”
This was, plainly, a careful and searching interview, conducted by an intelligent, skeptical man who, as his subsequent story shows, could be quite independent-minded. However, the next day, based on what he had learned from Hyrum Smith and others, “I rose early and betook myself to earnest prayer to God to direct me into truth; and from all the light that I could gain by examinations, searches and researches I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the Book of Mormon.”
Thereupon, having made an informed and prayerful decision, McLellin asked Hyrum Smith to baptize him.
“When I thoroughly examine a subject and settle my mind,” McLellin reflected in his 1880 letter, “then higher evidence must be introduced before I change. I have set to my seal that the Book of Mormon is a true, divine record, and it will require more evidence than I have ever seen to ever shake me relative to its purity. I have read many ‘Exposes.’ I have seen all their arguments. But my evidences are above them all!”
"It is hard to imagine someone better positioned to evaluate the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses than William McLellin,” said historian Steven Harper in "Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses." “He spent much of his life disaffected from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had no interest in sustaining it. Yet as he wrote of his 1831 experience with the book and its witnesses, he was bound by the evidence to acknowledge its truth and validity.
"He not only knew the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses, he knew some of them personally and interviewed them intimately. He was no fool, no dupe. And he was positioned to know whether the witnesses were fools, dupes or conspirators. So well informed, McLellin chose to believe the testimonies of the witnesses were truthful.”