In July 1972, shortly after President Harold B. Lee was ordained prophet, seer, and revelator of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he went to the sacred precincts of the Salt Lake Temple. There he stood before the portraits of the ten powerful men who had preceded him. Gazing at the pictures he thought of each man’s individual role and calling. All of them displayed diverse talents, yet each was bonded by covenant and desire to do the will of the Lord and promote the welfare of his people. (See Conference Report, October 1972, p. 18.)
Quite possibly these earlier presidents had thoughts similar to those of President Lee as they contemplated their calling and predecessors. No doubt their thoughts often turned to Joseph, the martyr.
Several latter-day prophets have known Joseph Smith. Some, like Brigham Young, knew him as a friend, neighbor, and mentor. To others he came in dreams and visions, as he did to Wilford Woodruff. And to all he has given solace and inspiration in directing the affairs of Christ’s church.
The respect and awe with which the other prophets have characterized Joseph reveals a great deal about the young leader.
Joseph characterized himself in these words:
“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctorcraft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus will I become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty. …” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, [Deseret Book Co.: 1961], p. 304.)
Brigham Young often spoke of his great love for the Prophet, and he died with the Prophet’s name on his lips. A few classic excerpts from his discourses reveal his love and admiration for Joseph:
“I honor and revere the name of Joseph Smith. I delight to hear it; I love it. I love his doctrine.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 216.)
“When I saw Joseph Smith, he took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth; and he took the earth, brought it up, and opened up, in plainness and simplicity, the things of God; and that is the beauty of his mission.” (JD, vol. 5, p. 332.)
“If Jesus lives, and is the Savior of the world, Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, and lives in the bosom of his father Abraham. Though they have killed his body, yet he lives and beholds the face of his Father in heaven; and his garments are pure as the angels that surround the throne of God; and no man on earth can say that Jesus lives, and deny at the same time my assertion about the Prophet Joseph.” (JD, vol. 1, p. 38.)
John Taylor was in the room when the mob broke in to assassinate the Prophet at the Carthage Jail. Though he was wounded, he recovered and later became the third president of the Church. He knew Joseph in life, witnessed his death, and provides one of the most poignant tributes offered about the Prophet.
“I testify that I was acquainted with Joseph Smith for years. I have traveled with him; I have been with him in private and in public; I have associated with him in councils of all kinds; I have listened hundreds of times to his public teachings, and his advice to his friends and associates of a more private nature. I have been at his house and seen his deportment in his family. I have seen him arraigned before the tribunals of his country, have seen him honorably acquitted, and delivered from the pernicious breath of slander, and the machinations and falsehoods of wicked and corrupt men. I was with him living, and with him when he died, when he was murdered in Carthage jail by a ruthless mob … with their faces painted. I was there and was myself wounded; I at that time received four balls in my body. I have seen him, then, under these various circumstances, and I testify before God, angels, and men, that he was a good, honorable, virtuous man … that his private and public character was unimpeachable—and that he lived and died as a man of God and a gentleman. This is my testimony.” (The Gospel Kingdom [Bookcraft: c. 1943], p. 355.)
Wilford Woodruff was with Joseph before and after his death. He traveled thousands of miles with him and often acted as scribe for him—it was Brother Woodruff who wrote the revelation given through Joseph Smith concerning the Civil War. (See D&C 87.) In the Millennial Star he recounts the delightful and revealing first meeting with the Prophet Joseph:
“Before I saw Joseph I said I did not care how old he was, or how young he was; I did not care how he looked—whether his hair was long or short; the man that advanced that revelation was a Prophet of God. I knew it for myself. I first met Joseph in the streets of Kirtland. He had on an old hat, and a pistol in his hand. Said he, ‘Brother Woodruff, I’ve been out shooting at a mark, and I wanted to see if I could hit anything;’ and says he, ‘Have you any objection to it?’ ‘Not at all,’ says I; ‘there is no law against a man shooting at a mark, that I know of.’ He invited me to his house. He had a wolf skin, which he wanted me to help him to tan; he wanted it to sit on while driving his wagon team. Now, many might have said, ‘You are a pretty Prophet; shooting a pistol and tanning a wolf skin.’ Well, we tanned it, and used it while making a journey of a thousand miles. This was my first acquaintance with the Prophet Joseph. And from that day until the present, with all of the apostacies that we have had, and with all the difficulties and afflictions we have been called to pass through, I never saw a moment when I had any doubt with regard to this work. I have had no trial about this. While the people were apostatizing on the right hand and on the left, and while Apostles were urging me to turn against the Prophet Joseph, it was no temptation to me to doubt this work or to doubt that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God.” (Millennial Star, vol. 53, pp. 627–28.)
President Woodruff said, “Joseph visited me a great deal after his death and taught me important principles.” One time he was visited by both Joseph and Hyrum Smith when he was on his way to England on a ship, and, in his words, “Among other things he told me to get the spirit of God; that all of us needed it.” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff [Bookcraft: 1946], p. 288.)
In a talk given on October 19, 1896, Brother Woodruff said:
“Joseph Smith continued visiting myself and others up to a certain time, and then it stopped. The last time I saw him was in heaven. In the night vision I saw him at the door of the temple in heaven. He came to me and spoke to me. He said he could not stop to talk with me because he was in a hurry. … I met half a dozen brethren who had held positions on earth, and none of them could stop to talk with me because they were in a hurry. I was much astonished. By and by I saw the Prophet again and I got the privilege of asking him a question.
“‘Now,’ I said, ‘I want to know why you are in a hurry. I have been in a hurry all my life; but I expected my hurry would be over when I got into the kingdom of heaven, if I ever did.’
“Joseph said, ‘I will tell you, Brother Woodruff. Every dispensation that has had the priesthood on the earth and has gone to the celestial kingdom has had a certain amount of work to do to prepare to go to the earth with the Savior when he goes to reign on the earth. Each dispensation has had ample time to do this work. We have not. We are the last dispensation, and so much work has to be done, and we need to be in a hurry in order to accomplish it.’” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 288–89.)
Lorenzo Snow had a close personal relationship with Joseph Smith, and he obviously understood the Prophet’s calling. President Snow characterized Joseph in the following manner:
“Joseph Smith, whom God chose to establish this work, was poor and uneducated, and belonged to no popular denomination of Christians. He was a mere boy, honest, full of integrity, unacquainted with the trickery, cunning and sophistry employed by politicians and religious hypocrites to accomplish their ends. Like Moses of old, he felt incompetent and unqualified for the task—to stand forth as a religious reformer in a position the most unpopular—to battle against opinions and creeds which have stood for ages, having the sanction and support of men the most profound in theological lore; but God had called him to deliver the poor and honest-hearted of all nations from their spiritual and temporal thralldom. And God promised him that whosoever should receive and obey his message, and whosoever would receive baptism for the remission of sins, with honesty of purpose, should receive divine manifestations—should receive the Holy Ghost—should receive the same Gospel blessings which were promised and obtained through the Gospel, as preached by the ancient Apostles: and this message, this promise, was to be in force wherever and to whomsoever it should be carried by the Elders, God’s authorized messengers. So said Joseph Smith, the uneducated, the unsophisticated, the plain, simple, honest boy.” (Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow [Deseret News Press: 1884], p. 243.)
One man who was capable of great insight into the life of Joseph Smith was Joseph F. Smith, brother Hyrum’s son, who still had memories of the Prophet as an uncle as well as a prophet. Having been only a child when the Prophet’s assassination took place, he recalls Joseph in this way:
“As a child I knew the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a child I have listened to him preach the gospel that God had committed to his charge and care. As a child I was familiar in his home, in his household, as I was familiar under my own father’s roof. I have retained the witness of the Spirit that I was imbued with, as a child, and that I received from my sainted mother, the firm belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; that he was inspired as no other man in this generation, or for centuries before had been inspired; that he had been chosen of God to lay the foundations of God’s Kingdom as well as of God’s Church; that by the power of God he was enabled to bring forth the record of the ancient inhabitants of this continent, to revive and reveal to the world the doctrine of Jesus Christ, not only as he taught it in the midst of the Jews, in Judea, but as he also taught it, and it was also recorded, in greater simplicity and plainness upon this continent, among the descendants of Lehi. As a child I was impressed, deeply with the thought, and firmly with the belief, in my soul that the revelations that had been given to and through Joseph the Prophet, as contained in this book, the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, were the word of God, as were the words of the ancient disciples when they bore record of the Father and of the Son.” (Sermon, Salt Lake Assembly Hall, July 8, 1917.)
Being a son to the Prophet’s beloved brother obviously offered additional insight into his loving, fatherly character. In speaking of his namesake’s love of children he said:
“One marked illustration of his character, was his love for children. He never saw a child but he desired to take it up and bless it, and many times he did so bless, taking them in his arms and upon his knee. I have myself sat upon his knee. He was so fond of children that he would go far out of his way to speak to a little one, which is to me a striking characteristic of true manhood. He had alike true love for the human race. I know, and have known from my childhood, that he was a prophet of God, and I believe in his divine mission with all my heart; and in the authenticity and inspiration of the revelations which he received, and the Book of Mormon which he was instrumental in bringing forth.” (Improvement Era, vol. 21 [December 1917], p. 168.)
Heber J. Grant often expressed his admiration and respect for the Prophet in his talks. He recognized what miraculous works had been accomplished by the dynamic young seer. While speaking at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake he said, “Joseph Smith has been ridiculed and characterized as ‘old Joe Smith.’ I stand before you today a mere boy (39 years old), and yet Joseph Smith was martyred when he was a year younger than I am. This ‘old’ man accomplished in a very few years a great and marvelous labor. When we contemplate what he did, considering the opportunities of education that he had, it is indeed a marvel and wonder.” (Remarks, Salt Lake Tabernacle, January 26, 1896.)
To this he added his testimony, saying, “Joseph Smith was the instrument in the hands of the living God of restoring again to this earth the true plan of life and salvation.” (Improvement Era, vol. 41 [September 1938], p, 519.)
Present-day prophets often wonder what their predecessors envisioned the Church to be in the future. George Albert Smith pondered this very question when he said, “I wonder if that great man, Joseph Smith, who gave his life that the Church might be organized and carried on as the Lord intended, could see the Church as it exists today, with its branches established in all parts of the world, and realize that each day since he was martyred, since he laid down his life and sealed his testimony with his blood, the Church has become stronger than the day before?” (Improvement Era, vol. 48 [November 1945], p. 634.)
David O. McKay was a teacher by profession and as a prophet; he displayed this quality in both his sermons and his life. Many times he recognized the deft talent displayed in the teachings of Joseph Smith. One tribute said:
“When Joseph Smith taught a doctrine, he taught it authoritatively. His was not the question whether it agreed with man’s thoughts or not, whether it was in harmony with the teachings of the orthodox churches or whether it was in direct opposition. What was given to him he gave the world irrespective of its agreement or disagreement, of its harmony or its discord with the beliefs of the churches, or the prevailing standards of mankind; and today, as we look through the vista of over one hundred years, we have a good opportunity of judging of the virtue of his teachings, and of concluding as to the source of his instruction.” (Gospel Ideals [An Improvement Era Publication: 1953], p. 81.)
Joseph Fielding Smith was the fourth member of the Smith family to serve as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition to serving as an apostle and prophet he was a prolific writer and historian. Besides compiling the important teachings of his great-uncle, he offered many insightful statements on the Prophet. One testimony he offered was given in a talk commemorating the Prophet’s birthday. He said, “… since this is the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, I feel inclined to say a word about him, about his mission. As one of the greatest of all the prophets, he presides over the last dispensation and no prophet has been given a greater mission, save perhaps it could have been Adam; and no prophet in the past has done more for the salvation of the human family, in my judgment, than did Joseph Smith the Prophet.” (Take Heed to Yourselves [Deseret Book Co.: 1966], pp. 273–74.)
On another occasion he said, “Do I love the Prophet Joseph Smith? Yes, I do, as my father did before me. I love him because he was the servant of God and because of the restoration of the gospel and because of the benefits and blessings that have come to me and mine, and to you and yours, through the blessings that were bestowed upon this man and those who were associated with him in the restoration of the dispensation of the fulness of times.” (CR, April 1960, p. 73.)
A succinct, graphic summary of the life of Joseph Smith was provided by President Harold B. Lee when he characterized him in this way:
“Joseph Smith was the one whom the Lord raised up from boyhood and endowed with divine authority and taught the things necessary for him to know and to obtain the priesthood and to lay the foundation for God’s kingdom in these latter-days.” (CR, October 1972, p. 18.)