Tackling Joseph's Complexities
Topics surrounding Joseph Smith’s life can sometimes be controversial, and they’re not exactly things we can sidestep on a journey to get to know him. So how do we tackle this complexity hundreds of years after his death? How do we make sense of the moments in Joseph’s life that were sometimes controversial? And how do we become stronger for it? We talked to Heidi’s friends, some of whom are renowned historians, who had these very same questions and learned from their experiences how we might find the answers for ourselves.
The Joseph Smith Papers project: JosephSmithPapers.org
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953).
“I have it from God, and get over it if you can” ("History, 1838–1856, volume F-1 [1 May 1844–8 August 1844]," p. 102, The Joseph Smith Papers).
“You never knew my heart” ("Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Thomas Bullock," p. 22, The Joseph Smith Papers).
“All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand” ("History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers).
Heidi Swinton 0:00
By now, I think we're friends. So let's be candid. Joseph isn't always easy. When I first set out to get to know him–to learn about him in such depth that I could really write about him–I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the opinions about him. There were those who didn't like him, and they really didn't like him. And it was disconcerting to me because I've never felt that way.
To kind of gain some balance, every day I would read the Doctrine and Covenants so I can hear the Lord speaking to Joseph–and speaking through Joseph–and that would help me balance out all that rabble that I was reading.
I went through the whole Doctrine and Covenants once, then I went through it twice. And one day I came upon an answer. It was in Section 6. It's a revelation given in April of 1829 to Oliver Cowdery. And here's just a little bit of the background on it. Oliver had asked Joseph if the Lord had a revelation for him, because you know, he was hearing all these revelations and things. And what Oliver kind of wanted to know–what was his part in the restoration? Perhaps hoping for something beyond being the scribe? I don't know. Haven't we all been there, asking the Lord, “What's the big picture for me?”
Well, the Lord revealed Section 6. It's packed with great stuff. But when I got to verse 18, it jumped right off the page. In fact, it did more than that. It was a clear answer to my prayers because it helped me set a course for writing about Joseph Smith.
So if you're worried about what you read, or what you hear, or what's out there about Joseph, listen to what the Lord said to Oliver Cowdery. These are his words, "Therefore . . . stand by my servant Joseph, faithfully, in whatsoever difficult circumstances he may be in for the word's sake." I'd never read that before. But when I read that, I knew what to do. I was just to stand by Joseph, no matter how hard it gets, the Lord said, no matter how difficult the circumstances, no matter how big the issue seemed to me, or the criticisms that seemed to loom, stand by Joseph faithfully.
That was the Lord's message to Oliver. It was the Lord's message to me. And I think it might be the Lord's message to you. As we dig into these concerns that you have about Joseph's life, just remember, stand by him.
Intro Jingle 2:45
(Different guests' voices) The Prophet Joseph. Stand by my servant Joseph. Brother Joseph. Joseph Smith, Joseph. Brother Joseph. Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith. The Prophet Joseph Smith. Brother Joseph.
Heidi Swinton 3:00
Welcome to "Joseph," a Deseret Bookshelf+ original brought to you by LDS Living. And I'm Heidi Swinton, your host. Remember when we began this journey, and our friends spoke of their concerns, and we heard things like “Polygamy,” “Polygamy,” “Plural marriage”? Well, we're going to talk about it. And we're also going to talk about some of the other complexities in Joseph's life that seemed to be out there. Now, we're not going to give you the answers or the explanations. We're not here to solve all of the concerns about Joseph. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't do that. But we can share some of the personal experiences my friends have had that might open up something in your mind that will help you realize we're not the only ones trying to figure this out. And dealing with complexity doesn't need to scare us.
Now, we've already heard a little bit from my friend Jenny Reeder in Episode 2. But I saved the best for now. Because Jenny has really got a feel for the complexity that swirled around Joseph and Emma. She's got powerful insight into these two, and I think you're going to find it so engaging and enlightening.
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Heidi Swinton 4:18
Let's talk about Emma and the significance of Emma in us better understanding Joseph Smith. How does Emma help us better understand him?
Jenny Reeder 4:30
I think Emma shows us a part of Joseph that we probably would never see otherwise. First of all, because they are husband and wife, and they have a very intimate relationship. And she sees him, you know, when he wakes up with bedhead or when he's so tired at night, he can hardly talk. She sees him in a way that nobody else sees him.
I think also that she complements Joseph in a way that is so beautiful. I love that he wasn't an educated man in the ways of the world. She was more educated than he was. And she filled in where he was lacking. And they did so seamlessly. He never felt threatened by her because she knew more or was educated. But she really complemented him. And she helped him, I think, learn how to be a prophet. And I love that. I love how he said that he was a rough stone rolling. And he recognized that, and that he allowed his dear friends and the people around him to work with him. It was a progress. It was a work together. It was–“Let's figure this out.” It wasn't, “I received the binder of the handbook in the Sacred Grove, and this is how it's going to be.” It was, “What do you think of this?” Or, “How do you think we can make this happen?” Or, “What's the best way to help people understand this glorious work?”
Heidi Swinton 6:04
So Emma's standing there, outside their home, as he gets on his horse and goes to Carthage Jail. What was that like for her to see Joseph leaving, and he'd always come back, he'd always found a way to come back. But this time, he wasn't coming back. Now, she probably didn't know that. But I think he did.
Jenny Reeder 6:31
Yeah, I think he did. And I think she also may have known it. We know that before he left, she asked him to give her a blessing. And he didn't have time. So he said, “You write it down and I'll come back and sign it.” And it's this beautiful blessing. And it's a pleading for discernment and understanding and support of her husband. And I think there are hints in that blessing that may suggest that she did understand that. And I think–of course, I don't have a source to tell me this–but I imagine that she watched him and maybe her kids were gathering around him waving goodbye to their father. But she watched him drive away.
And I believe that he came back at one point just to give her another kiss and left again. And I think she probably was telling herself, “He always comes back. He'll be back. I'm going to believe that he's going to come back. What if he doesn't come back? What am I going to do?” And we know that when she finally was able to see his body when they brought his body into the Mansion House, she said, "Oh, Joseph, have they finally taken you?"
Heidi Swinton 7:39
Yeah. Such a hard time for them. So what about Joseph and the early days of the church troubles you? What's hard for you about it? And have you resolved it, or is it still out there?
Jenny Reeder 7:58
That's a really good question, and I like these hard questions. I think the hardest question for me was polygamy. And as I wrote about Emma, I really, really tried to understand and come to an understanding. And I think I came to one, and I don't know if it was just what I wanted it to be or if it was really just a placeholder for me. And I've learned that you sometimes have to have placeholders.
But I really believe understanding Joseph and his understanding of the house of Israel and the Abrahamic Covenant, but also understanding his need to include everybody, to include his family, and to include people that didn't have families or they didn't have a worthy priesthood holder husband, to include those in this great patriarchal chain, this great house of Israel.
And so I really, really believe that he was trying to bring these other women into this larger family and make them a part of this and allow them access to the priesthood that can only come with those covenants. I think that's what he did. And I think that initially, Emma saw that and rejoiced in it. They welcomed orphans into their home and raised them. And these orphans could become a part of their family, or young women that that weren't married could become a part of their family. And I believe that that was an incredible idea.
I think the trouble came when there started to be gossip, and people started manipulating this idea of plural marriage. Joseph didn't even use that word. He didn't use the word polygamy, he used the word–well, we don't know actually what word he used because they didn't write it down. But I like to think he used the word “Expanding his family” and the “Sociality.” We know he used that word. So the trouble came when other people started manipulating this idea and using it to their benefit. And Emma started hearing gossip and beginning to question herself, and I think that's where the trouble came.
Heidi Swinton 10:20
As we've talked about Joseph, anything that's come to your mind that really you have hung onto when times have been hard, perhaps? What have you hung onto in relationship to Joseph Smith that has helped you through a difficult time?
Jenny Reeder 10:36
You know, there are certain things that I've learned from Joseph that have really helped me to hang on in difficult times. And I think one of those is the fact that Joseph also had difficult times. I love his pleadings from Liberty Jail, where he says, “Oh, God, where are you? Why must I feel separated from you, and where's the pavilion that covers your hiding place?” Because I too, have felt those, whether it be with my health or with my family, I have felt that aloneness and it is so deep. But I know that because the Lord spoke to Joseph and said, “I am here, and these things will work together for your experience,” that he says the same things to me. And that I can grow and stand and breathe and learn from that, and cover others with that knowledge and that understanding.
I also believe that every single one of us kind of needs to have that experience for ourselves. And that's why we're here in a mortal world, a fallen world. Just as Adam and Eve were. Just as Joseph had his times, and Emma had her times in that fallen world. And that when we can in our reaching be reached by Jesus Christ. I also am filled with the joy and the amazement that Oliver Cowdery expressed, that we are fellow servants and that He will provide a way for us.
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Heidi Swinton 12:25
I love Jenny's idea of us being fellow servants with Joseph. You know, I think because she has spent so much time in his life and Emma's life, that I think she almost feels like she's a part of that. And I wonder if it wouldn't make a difference for us if we could reach out and feel like we're working side by side with them as well, as fellow servants. We'd probably have a little more willingness to see each other's humanity and cut a little bit more slack.
Here's something to think about. What would it take for you to feel like you're a fellow servant with Joseph? That you're part of this work of the Lord, and that Joseph's right there and you're standing right with him? I find that when I set myself aside and I focus on the work and what the Lord would have me do and on the covenants that I've made, and on building his kingdom, instead of thinking about myself, my concern seemed to diminish in importance.
So I'm wondering, have you had that experience? And if so, what are you going to do about it? Now, for the most part, what I'm hearing in this podcast–and not just in this episode–and not just from Jenny, but in all the stories we've heard from our guests, is how a personal experience helps our guests gain a greater perspective of Joseph. It is kind of like they can internalize it. And I really hope you're feeling that too.
But if you're still a little concerned about some of the complexities, I think this next discussion we're going to have with Rick Turley is going to help piece together some of Joseph's life. Now, Rick Turley is an expert at this. He's been the Church Historian. He's been the managing director of the Church History department. He's a really well-known author and writer. And in all of that, he's just so accessible in the way that he talks. So I think you're going to enjoy this. As a historian he's going to show us how spotty the record can be about Joseph, but as a believer, he's going to show us how exercising some patience and some faith can fill in the gaps. So here's Rick.
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Heidi Swinton 14:55
What is there that you've had to exercise patience or faith in Joseph Smith with?
Richard Turley 15:00
Mostly the sources. If you've gone to a bookstore and looked at all of the volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers that we've now produced for the public, they can be very daunting. You look at them and go, “That's a lot of material to study.” And it is. I don't know what it is, 20,000 words or something like that in printed form, and far more than that online. And you might think that's a lot of material to study, which is true except that we don't have nearly as much from Joseph's mouth personally as we would like, particularly on some of the more challenging subjects. And so I'm challenged by taking the subjects that are available and figuring out how you get from point A to point Z.
Heidi Swinton 15:44
Give me an example.
Richard Turley 15:46
Well, any number of topics. Take something as simple as the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith left very little information about how he translated the Book of Mormon. On one occasion, he was invited to stand up and tell the world about that in a meeting. And he basically got up and said it was not intended for the world to know the details. What he did tell us was that it was done by the gift and power of God. Now witnesses to the translation process have described in detail how they saw it unfolding, but Joseph never left an account. So you have various witness accounts. But you don't have Joseph's own mouth describing in detail what happened.
So you have to take the existing evidence and try to put it together and, at the same time, recognize what sometimes I think non-historians have a difficult time accepting, and that is that history cannot give you all of the answers. It was famously said by one historian that of all the things that have ever happened, only a relatively small number are observed. And of the things that are observed only a small number are recorded, and of the things that are recorded only a few of those, only a small number of those records survive, and of the ones that survive, only a certain number have been discovered, and of the ones have been discovered, only a certain number have been read. And so when you begin to look at it that way, you realize that the evidence from history doesn't leave you with this full-length motion picture in 3D that allows you to see everything with a complete surround soundtrack. Instead, what you get is you get little glimpses here and there. And then you have to figure out all the parts that fit in between.
And I think sometimes we're impatient, and we expect absolute answers from history, when all history can give you is some ideas on what probably happened with the need to be able to say, but we're not absolutely certain. That lack of certainty bothers people, particularly in the world in which we live in which people tend to be binary. You know, we live in a world of computers, and people are on/off, yes/no, they expect everything to be zero or absolute. And they have a difficult time dealing with what's in between. The reality is that much of life and many of our own experiences aren't black and white, they're gray. And much of history is the same way. And we need to learn to be able to interpret things with all those shades in between.
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Heidi Swinton 18:12
Rick has a gift for looking at the past and making sense. Did you feel that? The good news is that you don't have to be a historian or a scholar to find the answers to your questions. You know, that's the whole purpose of this podcast. We're trying to talk, all of us together, to gain a greater perspective and understanding of Joseph. And perspective is a spiritual gift. You can ask for it. And if there's one thing I know for certain, it's the when the Lord tells us to ask and you shall receive, he really means it. And to prove that point, let's go from a dedicated historian to a young woman from Hong Kong, who is just beginning her journey.
Mercedes Ng 18:55
My name is Mercedes Ng, and I'm originally from Hong Kong. I was born and raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I decided to come to the US when I was 16 just for new environment.
Heidi Swinton 19:16
Mercedes served with us in the Hawaii Temple Visitor Center, and she spoke Mandarin and Cantonese and English. I would call that she was full-service. She could talk to anybody. She's had her own journey coming to know Joseph, and you may identify with where she's been, and where she's going.
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Heidi Swinton 19:35
Mercedes, let's talk a little bit about Joseph Smith. What's the significance of Joseph Smith in your life? Your personal life?
Mercedes Ng 19:45
That's a great question. He has been a great reminder to me that, you know, God can do great things through small and simple things and through his imperfect children. Like all of us.
Heidi Swinton 20:00
Is there anything that you sometimes say, “Whoa, wait a minute. I'm not so sure about that,” when it comes to Joseph Smith or the early days of the Restoration, but primarily Joseph Smith? Anything that just sort of hangs out there and you're not sure about?
Mercedes Ng 20:15
Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah, even in seminary or institute, my teacher, they brought up the topic of plural marriage. And I understood that, I understand that it's a commandment given by God, but I personally still do not fully understand it. And sometimes it is hard for me to be okay with that commandment, because to me, I don't know, it's still a little bit hard for me to accept it. I used to be afraid of learning more about certain kinds of sensitive topics about Joseph Smith and also about church history. And sometimes it bothers me. But at the same time, I don't want anything like that to bother my relationship with my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
And so I kind of just started learning more on gospel topics on lds.org. And it kind of really answered some of my questions. But I think it's interesting that even some of the church historians, they didn't have all the answers to this topic as well. And from that, I've tried to accept and be okay with that, because I still know that God loves me, even though I have an imperfect knowledge of the past history that occurred in the church and with Joseph Smith. But at the same time, I think that as long as I have that testimony and foundation in the fact that God loves us and Christ atoned for me, and that He loves me personally despite my inadequacy. I think that's how I resolved that fear of mine of learning more about sensitive topics of Joseph Smith and Church history.
I think that Joseph's imperfection also shows how much he relied on God with his divine mission. And I understand that it can be a big turnoff, you know, to a lot of people seeing that Joseph Smith wasn't perfect and therefore he was not a prophet of God. But to me, I feel like just learning more about his life and the great things that he did, it was very relatable, and how we all have our own imperfections.
And even in the scriptures we see the prophets had their own moments. They had their ups and downs. But at the same time they rely so much on the strength of their Savior and being able to go through all the trials and overcome all the challenges that they faced. And that was something that really drew me, I don't know, kind of led me to respect and honor Joseph as a prophet of God even more. I'm still working on it. But I really want to have that humility and also the strength to always, always rely on the Savior in everything that I do.
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Heidi Swinton 23:43
It's easy to identify with Mercedes, isn't it? She has such a lovely way of outlining concerns without getting tripped up by them. And she's proof positive that age is not a factor in our ability to understand and work through complexity. I hope you're starting to feel that it's possible for you to make sense of–and even to sit in–some of the gray areas regarding Joseph.
But it's also okay if you're not there yet. I want to go back to some of our friends that you've already heard from who might give you some more insight, some more clues as to how you can be on the front lines of this wrestle and work through things. One of those is my friend Karl Anderson. Now we've heard from Karl in our last episode, but what you don't know about him is that he's had his own questions. And I loved when I talked to him that he was willing to share an experience of his own that was an “Aha,” moment. So you're going to love this. So here's Karl's story.
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Karl Anderson 24:51
I had an experience speaking in a ward one night in a fireside. At the conclusion, I talked about Joseph Smith. I had a prompting, and the prompting was read John Taylor's tribute to Joseph Smith from the Doctrine and Covenants, and then bear testimony to it. Well, let me tell you, Heidi, I read John Taylor's tribute to Joseph when I was young, quite young. And I thought, well, Joseph's just been martyred. And John Taylor's feeling, you know, sympathy. And I thought, you know, John Taylor said that no one did more than Joseph, any person other than the Savior. And I thought, well, gee, Moses parted the Red Sea. John the Baptist, wow, you know, it was said to him, no greater man was born.
And so, I'm at the pulpit, and I'm arguing with this voice, saying, you know, I've never really fully bought into that. Isn't that terrible? I hate to say it, Heidi. And there's the voice, again, saying, “Read it and bear testimony.” And I still argued a little bit. The third time–“Read it and bear testimony.” So I read it. And all of a sudden I looked at it, and it didn't say he was greater than any of the others. All it said is he's done more than any other man.
And all of a sudden it flooded into my mind what he had done. Over 1200 pages, Heidi, of scripture that he gave the world in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price. No one ever has done more than that. And look at what we learn about the Savior and our tender feelings. I love the Savior, but I wouldn't be able to love Him like, you can't love Him until you know Him. And it was through Joseph Smith we get to know Him and the revelations. Well, see, that's what he's given the world.
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Heidi Swinton 27:23
You know, let me just refer you back to Section 135:3 that Karl was referring to. It says this, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord," now this is John Taylor speaking, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it." That's a pretty broad statement. But I think Karl's right. He's done more, save Jesus only. Well, let me take you back to Karl. He's talked about John Taylor. And now he's back to talking about Joseph Smith.
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Karl Anderson 28:02
I have a favorite Joseph Smith quote, and I don't hear others ever give this. I mean, there are some wonderful quotes you can read. But the one I've loved best from Joseph Smith, he got frustrated when he was being criticized, and he said, responding to where did you get all of this, he just simply said, “I got it from God. Get over it, if you can.”
Heidi Swinton 28:36
I've never read that.
Karl Anderson 28:38
I love that quote. “I got it from God, get over it, if you can.” That was Joseph. He tried, he did his best. He wasn't concerned what others thought. I just feel for him. He did his best. He tried. Joseph was just the Prophet. It's the Savior we look at. Joseph was a conduit through which it came. But we need to look at all he did is the work of the Savior.
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Heidi Swinton 29:10
Get over it. It's pretty strong. But I love it. And sometimes we just need to take things head on. And I think that's what Joseph was doing. Don't you just want to invite Karl to dinner, and have him sit down at the table and just tell you everything he knows about Joseph Smith, everything he knows otherwise? He's just so interesting to listen to. And maybe you could fill him in with some of the insights that you've received as you've been listening to this podcast, thinking or pondering about things we've talked about.
My goal is that you'll say what Joseph said when he went back home after he'd been in the grove, and he'd seen the Father and Jesus Christ, and he'd heard those words, hear him. He leans up against the fireplace in his home, and his mother looks over at him and I bet he didn't look like Joseph looks every day. And she said "Is everything okay?" And he looks at her and he says, I've learned for myself. That's what we want to have happen here. We want to have everyone who's listening say, I've learned for myself about Joseph Smith.
Maybe we should invite Matt Grow to our dinner, too. Matt is the managing director of the Church History Department. He's a prolific writer and thinker, and just a genuinely honest-hearted soul. And what I love about him is that he gets the same place Carl does. He sees Joseph is God's chosen servant, His Prophet, but his journey to get there is different.
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Heidi Swinton 30:48
I loved your description that you'd spent the last 10 years of your life with Joseph Smith. What was that like?
Matt Grow 30:55
You know, it's been terrific. With some historical figures, the more you study them, the less interesting they become, or the less you like them. But that hasn't been the case with me working on Joseph. And I think the same is true with my colleagues on the Joseph Smith papers. And I have spent the last 10 years working pretty intensively on Joseph. We read his mail, we look at his journals, we dive into his lawsuits and try to understand his businesses. And we try to understand his revelations and his spiritual experiences. And he's just so interesting. And for me, the more that I become acquainted with Joseph Smith, the more I like him. The more that I believe that he had the experiences he said that he had, that he was who he said he was, that he was sincere.
Heidi Swinton 31:54
What's been hard for you about Joseph? Has it been smooth sailing all the time? Or as you've studied his life, as you've prayed about it, as you've worked with his materials, has there been anything that just niggles at you?
Matt Grow 32:09
Oh, sure. You know, Joseph is a complicated figure. This is a man who, in his 30s, has a fistfight with his brother that leaves him pretty injured. Right? I mean, this is a man that that could be given to anger. This is a man that lives in a very different culture than our own. So definitely, there's been times that I've studied Joseph, I've thought, why did you have to do that? Or couldn't you have said that in a different way? That would have would have made it easier for us who are trying to understand you? So certainly, there's these cultural gaps.
And, you know, there are these questions about Joseph in the early Saints that people struggle with, even those of us who have these testimonies of Joseph as a prophet, there can be moments where we think, "Hmm, I need to think about that one for a little bit." You know, whether it's the use of a seer stone, and what does that mean, and how does that work? And what did that mean to Joseph? Or whether it's something like plural marriage. That's just so foreign to us. To think about plural marriage is just such a cultural leap for us. And it requires, I think, patience to understand and thought to understand, and trying to understand it from their perspective, not just from our own.
Heidi Swinton 33:39
Well, even Brigham Young had trouble with it.
Matt Grow 33:41
Heidi Swinton 33:41
When he first heard about it.
Matt Grow 33:44
Even Joseph Smith had trouble with it. Right? It's not like Joseph Smith felt, you know, had some thought about plural marriage. "Oh, that sounds amazing. Let's do this." No, the records indicate that Joseph had spiritual impressions about plural marriage very early after the Church is organized, and he's hesitant. And like you say, Brigham is hesitant. Brigham young is hesitant. All the early Saints are hesitant. I can't think of a single historical record where one of the early Saints has introduced to plural marriage and they think, "That's awesome."
Heidi Swinton 34:19
Yeah, “Dandy. Sign me up.”
Matt Grow 34:22
And both men and women, right? Sometimes we think well, of course, the women were going to be hesitant and have lots of questions. But the records from men like Brigham Young, like Heber C. Kimball, like John Taylor, like Wilford Woodruff, like Parley Pratt. The records clearly indicate that they all felt troubled, they all felt hesitant. So we shouldn't be surprised that we feel troubled about it as well.
Heidi Swinton 34:50
You talk about concerns. How did you come to resolve some of them? And what would you say to people who aren't there yet? Who are still wrestling with this issue or that issue?
Matt Grow 35:03
That's a great question. And for me, it has really been–first of all–to remember, what's most important? What are the primary questions? What are the secondary questions? What questions probably don't really matter very much?
For me, the primary question is, do I believe, through both intellectual study and spiritual study–do I believe that Joseph was called to be a prophet? Do I believe that the Book of Mormon is a divine book? Right, those are primary questions.
Then there are secondary questions. A secondary question would be, well, how was the Book of Mormon translated? Was it through seer stone? Was it through the interpreters that were found with the plates? What was the exact process? Like that's an interesting question. But it's much less important than that primary question of have I felt through the Spirit that the Book of Mormon is divine? So on the secondary questions, my advice would be to be patient, to seek out good sources. Everyone's an expert on Joseph Smith on the internet. And there's a lot of argument on the internet for Joseph, against Joseph. You're going to get a lot of heat in those conversations, but probably not a lot of light. And so seek out good sources.
And I would say that the Church has produced a lot of sources, and some people are suspicious about what the Church produces. You're just trying to defend Joseph. But I would say as someone who's worked on those projects for the last 10 years, there's a deep commitment among the historians who work on those projects and among the leaders of the Church that Joseph is presented as he was. That we don't need to be embarrassed about Joseph. We don't need to be ashamed about Joseph. We can present him as he was. We can present him as the records tell us that he was. We don't need to hide things. We don't need to twist things. We don't need to manipulate the facts. We can say, “Here are the facts.” “Here are the documents. Go to the Joseph Smith Papers' website. It's all there. You want the original documents? Here it is. You want the transcript? Here it is. You want the footnote that tells you in depth about this particular topic? Here it is.”
There's a saying I love from a British novelist. "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." And we don't want to be ugly tourists when we go to the past. For me, that means we have to be humble and realize that there's a lot about past culture we don't understand. There's a lot about the pressures on Joseph at a particular moment that we don't understand. There's a lot that they just think about things differently. They just approach problems differently than we do. Because they lived in a very different time and place and culture than we. So I think we need to be humble tourists in the past. And trying to really understand the perspective of those people in the past. That doesn't mean that we have to accept everything about the past, that we can't condemn things about the past just like we're going to be condemned in the future about things that we do now. Maybe it's our fossil fuel-driven economy, or maybe it's factory farms, or who knows exactly? Doesn't mean that we can't condemn things about the past. But we should seek to understand and be patient in that understanding.
Heidi Swinton 39:03
How does Joseph Smith draw you closer to Jesus Christ?
Matt Grow 39:09
It's a great question. I think this has come to my mind more powerfully in the last year than it had before. If Joseph were to be able to communicate one thing I think about his life, I think it'd be his testimony of Jesus Christ. If he were here, I think that he would say the Joseph Smith Papers are interesting. But if you want to really know me, read the revelations. Read the Book of Mormon. And I think we learn more about Jesus Christ from those revelations and from the Book of Mormon than just about anywhere else. I mean, it's difficult to compete with the Gospels of the New Testament, right?
But think about what we learn about Jesus from the Book of Mormon and from the Doctrine and Covenants. The amount of truth that comes through Joseph Smith, the amount of beautiful descriptions of Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation from the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants just really speaks to me. And I think Joseph would want us to have that central to his life. Everything else is way less important, I think, to him than that.
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Heidi Swinton 40:43
I think that's right. Joseph Smith saw himself as a servant of Jesus Christ. He saw himself as part of the whole Restoration coming through him, moving from him to others. It was never about Joseph. His imprint is all about being a faithful disciple of the Lord and Savior. And I think that's what Matt was telling us.
I think that's what we need to take into our own hearts. As we look at Joseph, we need to put him in the context of he was called of God. And what does that say to you? And what does that mean? Joseph once was asked to describe himself. And he didn't say, "I am Joseph, Prophet of the Restoration." He said, "All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand." Because what he really saw was that he was here with a heart filled with love for the Savior. And with hands totally committed to his work. So when we look at Joseph through that lens, a good heart and a good hand, we realize he was doing his best. And his best was really quite remarkable.
So given what Matt taught us, let's go to our good friend, Steve Harper. Now, Steve Harper, remember him? He's the one who said that Joseph cracked open the heavens. And he's going to talk to us about some of those gray areas. You know, sometimes things don't come quickly.
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Heidi Swinton 42:13
In this quest that you've had what's been difficult for you? Have there been any stumbling blocks, things that you just kind of had to say, "Wait a minute, let me process this," as you've studied Joseph Smith and his life.
Steve Harper 42:27
Yeah, I'll tell you the first one chronologically in my life, and then I'll tell you the biggest one, if that's all right. So chronologically, the first one is at age 14, I'm the same age that he was when he had his vision. And I'm not nearly so worried about the gospel of Jesus Christ as he was at age 14, I'm sorry to say. But I was preoccupied with mundane and superficial things.
But I was eating breakfast one morning with my father, and we were looking at an issue of the church newspaper from May 1985. And you might remember that in this issue there was a letter that was purportedly from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. And it told Stowell how to find a buried treasure guarded by a clever spirit. And I'd never heard anything about that sort of stuff. I mean, now I have. Now I've studied the folk culture of early America and those sort of things aren't unusual. But at that point in my life, that was really unusual. Never heard that.
And I said to my father something like, “Why don't they teach me that at church?” I was somewhat disturbed by it. I don't mean to overstate that. I didn't feel disillusioned or betrayed the way some people do. But I truly felt somewhat disturbed. And that was the beginning of complexity, right? That was the beginning of a Joseph Smith that wasn't just the simplified cartoon, caricature version. And it turned out that that letter wasn't even true. It was a forgery. But it in some ways does represent a more complex version of Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith did use a seer stone and a divining rod, perhaps to search for buried treasure. And, you know, I understand all that stuff now. And I've come to terms with all that, studied it very much and understand it in context. But at age 14, that was a little disorienting.
So that was the earliest challenge when it came to Joseph Smith. And by far the biggest one for me–and an enduring one–is plural marriage. I've read the books on plural marriage, and I've read all the source documents that I can find about the origins of plural marriage. And I remember speaking at a stake leadership training session, about a decade ago, in a stake here in Provo.
I'd been invited to come and be the expert to help everybody understand all these complicated topics. And I started off the talk by going sort of through a top 10 controversial issues. I was just going to give this overview and tell people kind of the received wisdom about them. And when I got the plural marriage, I had a stark experience. I regard it as a revelation. I heard the Spirit of the Lord say to me, “You don't know what you're talking about.” And that left me short.
There I was in front of the congregation supposed to be the expert. And the Lord was saying to me, “You don't know what you're talking about.” And I know that's true. I really know that I don't understand plural marriage, I'm not sure what to do with it. I've read the revelation in Section 132 lots and lots and lots of times. I know what the revelation says, I know what the other documents say. But I am convinced that the last verse in that revelation holds a key. It says, in verse 66 I think it is, the Lord says, I will tell you more later, let this suffice for now. And I have been trying to figure it out without that further light and knowledge. And I've become quite convinced that I'm not going to be able to figure it out until we get more explained later. So the most challenging issue for me is plural marriage. And the earliest one then was that introduction to this kind of folk culture from that early letter.
Heidi Swinton 47:01
Yeah. I love that you heard words. I just I love that just speaks to my heart.
Steve Harper 47:08
That doesn't happen often. And usually it's sharp, like–I'm scared of it, Heidi, because it's usually just the wonderful warm feeling. But when the Lord needs my attention in a direct way, and a rebuke with it, He sometimes gives me three or four words like that. I don't hear him in my ears, but they're crystal clear.
Heidi Swinton 47:31
I've had that experience. And I know exactly what you're saying. How do you think Joseph Smith lines up with ancient prophets? You know, we look at Isaiah and Moses and Noah, and Christianity across the world will recognize their prophetic mantle. But then we say Joseph Smith was a prophet. And they say, I'm not so sure about that. How does he stack up with prophets of other dispensations?
Steve Harper 48:00
He's the greatest revelator of all of them. I tell my students Joseph Smith was not a perfect revelator, he's just the best one the world has ever seen. And I think that's relatively easy to substantiate. I think Moses and Isaiah were here, they'd say amen to that. So all the prophets are eccentric in their day. They're anomalies. They're weird. I've been reading the book of Jeremiah lately, and he was persona non grata in Jerusalem, and there abouts, right? He made lots of enemies. And prophets are not particularly popular in their time and place. And they're often regarded as problems, problematic. So that's true for Joseph as well.
As you know, Moroni tells him when he's 17 years old, “Son, your name will be known for good and evil among every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” And of course, you and I live in a moment in time when that's literally true, because of the information age. So, Joseph is a great revelator. He's the revealer of Jesus Christ. He has revealed more pages about Jesus Christ with more clarity about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Atonement of Jesus Christ than any other revelator before him or since. And when President Nelson says to us, “When I sing, ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,’ I mean Joseph Smith,” I think that's a good indicator of how Joseph stacks up with his peers.
Heidi Swinton 49:49
One last question for you. You go to the next life, and the first person you get to meet is Joseph Smith. What are you going to say to him? He's going to look at you and he's going to know you. He's going to know those books on the shelves. But what's Steve Harper going to say to him?
Steve Harper 50:08
You know, I'm probably not going to have a good answer to this. I hear him say that line out of his last General Conference talk, “You never knew me.” Right? “You're a punk, you presumed to know what I was thinking and feeling. You got on a podcast and told people you knew what I was all about. You never knew me.” So I'm a little worried about that possibility.
And I think it is, to be serious. I think it is true that despite my quest, my lifelong quest, I have this sense that I have not plumbed the depths of Joseph Smith. I know that. He's deeper than I am. I can read all of his journals, all 1500 plus pages of his journals, right? I can read all his revelation texts, all the letters to him and from him, his discourses. And we can get to know a ton from that. But there is an elusive depth to him that I have not yet captured. And he knew it too. When he spoke for the last time in conference, he said, “You really don't know me, you don't know my heart, and I can't really explain myself to you. I'll never be able to.”
And so he said, though, in that conference talk, “Look, when we meet in that setting you're talking about, Heidi, when we meet there, you'll all know me then.” So I think that the likeliest thing that's going to happen there is I'm going to want to be in that meeting. Wow, there's no where I'd rather be than in that meeting. But I hope–and think it's the case–that I will keep my mouth shut, and watch and learn. I won't want to embarrass myself. My big brother used to say to me, “You can keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool. Or you can open it and remove all doubt.” And I will not want to open my mouth in that meeting, I will just want to listen and get to know him. And hope that I have not misrepresented him.
Heidi Swinton 52:28
And maybe like those who knew him well, I feel like shouting "Hallelujah" to think I ever knew the Prophet Joseph and yet, still so much to uncover and understand about him. And much of that comes from the spirit revealing it to you. Not found anyplace else. So I think that's why in the next life, we will grasp things we don't even grasp now.
Steve Harper 52:55
I'm counting on it.
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Heidi Swinton 52:59
Like Steve said, when the record is silent here, we can seek the Spirit of the Lord to give us understanding and to give us peace. I think we've all been there. We've been in that waiting room where we're just waiting for our turn to have this resolved. It reminds me of the scripture in Philippians. "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."
In other words, you're going to have that understanding. It's going to come through Jesus Christ, that's the only source of truth that we can really count on. And that's another huge piece of the puzzle of Joseph's complexity. The Spirit has to be a part of the equation, or the picture just doesn't come together right. And what's so amazing is that the Spirit is going to prompt us, it's going to lead us from one step to the next.
Maybe all the answers won't come at one time. And all the gray areas won't turn into brightness at one time. But when we gain a testimony of Joseph Smith through the power of the Spirit, with Jesus Christ speaking to us, it might not come immediately, but it will come. And it will come in the right way so that our hearts can embrace it and understand it and hang on to it. And here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about.
Let's sit down with Dallyn Vail Bayles again. No, I'm not going to have him sing. But he opened up with me when we were talking about an experience that he had when he was in Nauvoo that connected him to Joseph in a very personal way and about a very complex situation. And I want you to hear it.
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Heidi Swinton 54:50
Has there ever been anything that has sort of tripped you up? Has there ever been any specific thing or a jumble of things that you kind of said that I don't know about that?
Dallyn Vail Bayles 55:02
Sure, sure. Absolutely. I mean, there are always going to be doctrines or principles or even events and things in Church history that that don't quite sit right with you. I think for me, one of the first ones was polygamy, you know? And I remember just thinking about this, like, Ah, what is this and why? And I felt okay about it, you know? I felt at peace. I was like, don't worry about it right now is kind of the answer that I got.
And then, interestingly enough, when I was back in Nauvoo doing the Nauvoo pageant, I started to look more intensely into my family history. And I came to find out that I was related to an amazing woman by the name of Eliza Maria Partridge Smith Lyman, that's a long name. She was Edward Partridge's daughter. She's my fourth great grandmother. And I started to read her journal. And I was just like, this woman is amazing. She is fierce, she tells it like it is. And she's very proper. But I loved reading her words, because she was right there in the unfolding of the restoration.
But one of the things that fascinated me because I found out she was one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. And so I started thinking, well, Grandma, how did you feel about this? You know, what are your thoughts about polygamy? I think this is what we need to know. Thankfully, she actually goes into great detail about her thoughts on this. I'd like to just share with you what her words were, because I found them very inspiring to me.
She said, "After time, my sister Emily and myself went to live in the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith." And this was in Nauvoo by the way, they were in the Mansion House. "We lived there about three years. While there, he taught to us the plan of celestial marriage, and asked us to enter into that order with him. This was truly a great trial for me. But I had the most implicit confidence in him as a prophet of the Lord, and not but believe his words. And as a matter of course, accept of the privilege of being sealed to him as a wife for time and all eternity."
Then she goes on to say how she was just amazed, honestly, that she was able to abide by it. She said, "I thought my trials were very severe in the line. And I am often led to wonder how it was that a person of my temperament could get along with it and not rebel. But I know it was the Lord who kept me from opposing his plans. Although in my heart, I felt that I could not submit to them. But I did. And I am thankful to my Heavenly Father, for the care he had for me in those troublest times."
She even went on, like later in her life, I think was the 1860s or '70s, when there was a big anti-polygamy movement, Congress was threatening to lay down some anti-polygamy laws and how that was going to affect Utah and such. Anyway, she was asked to give a speech at one of the rallies for that. And to hear her testimony of this principle that she lived. Her absolute confidence that Joseph Smith was teaching a divine principle, and that it was true. As I read those words, and as I thought about this, my grandmother who actually had to live through it, actually live that principle, and just to hear how, you know, it was hard for me. But I just knew that he was a prophet of God. That's where she started, you know? She started with what she knew. I knew he was a prophet.
Therefore, she acted in faith, and she moved forward. I know it was hard for her. I know, she endured so many trials, but she continued to hold to that testimony that she had. And it's from the beginning, just that he was a prophet of the Lord. And so she's alright with it. And so I thought, all right, I can be okay with this, too. I know it may have been hard. But when in the world has there not been something hard that the Lord has called us to do? And believe in and push through?
These are important moments for us. When we're challenged by things from Church history, or other policies or doctrines of the church that don't quite sit well with us. It's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to grow as we seek the answers that we need. Those are sacred moments, sacred times when we struggle, and we rely upon the Lord for answers and for help and divine guidance. And I know that it comes. I know it comes. It did for Joseph, it did for my grandmother, and it did for so many countless other members of the Church who were called upon to do hard things, and to believe in things that didn't quite sit right with them perhaps at first. But they continued on trusting and believing that he was a prophet of God.
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Heidi Swinton 1:00:05
Have you sensed how some of our friends have helped us gain some new understanding to the complexities of Joseph's life? Jenny gave us the idea of viewing Joseph as a fellow servant. And Rick helped us remember how important it is that we choose our sources wisely. And that we recognize that the way to piece things together is through the power of the Spirit. And that reminded us that history is a foreign country. And they do things differently there. I love that reminder that we cannot overlay on the past the way we see things in the present. And then from Karl, we understand that while Joseph was friendly, he wasn't totally concerned with making friends. His whole focus was on the cause of Christ. And he never let go of that, no matter what happened. And Dallyn's story is simply a tender reminder, that as we work through things, the Spirit will bring to our understanding a sense of peace and composure.
So let's take a minute, you and me, to talk about where we are right now. And what you're thinking about Joseph, how you're feeling about it, and what's your next step? Here's an idea for where you might go next. Think about the issues regarding Joseph that still bother you. Write them down, and then pray about them.
If there's anything we learned from Joseph, for the hundreds of revelations that he received, for the experiences that he had, time and time again, it's that in opening our hearts in prayer, the Divine reaches down and the heavens open. Questions concerning Joseph are not new. But be careful with the sources that you turn to. Make sure that where you're looking, you're going to feel enlightened, and you're going to feel light, and you're going to feel hope, and you're going to feel the Spirit.
A good example of that is go to the scriptures, and you'll see so many types and patterns that fit Joseph as well as other prophets, and then go to the primary source for all truth. And that is–go to the Lord. My dearest hope is that you'll settle Joseph's divine calling in your mind and in your heart, and that you'll move forward. And in the process, you'll stand by him faithfully.
Our next episode–you're going to love this–we're going to take a little bit of a different approach. We're going to go across oceans and continents and countries and we're going to talk to people from other places. And you're going to see how Joseph, his very life, his experiences, his teachings, influence us even today.
Here's a thank you to all my friends–and now they're your friends, too. Mercedes Ng, Rick Turley, Jenny Reeder, Matt Grow, Dallyn Vail Bayles, Steve Harper, and Karl Anderson. Who knew I had so many friends? And they had so much to say. Didn't you love it?
If you want to learn more about them, be sure to check out our show notes at LDSLiving.com/Joseph. Joseph is a Bookshelf Plus original written and hosted by me, Heidi Swinton. Produced by KaRyn Lay, Erika Free and Katie Lambert. Our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. Derek Campbell at Mix At Six Studios did our sound design and mixing for this episode. And remember, stand by Joseph.