There is an apocryphal story about John Taylor that was shared by Leonard Arrington:
Shortly after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in June 1844, a prominent eastern visitor to Nauvoo[, Illinois] was being ‘shown around’ by Apostle Taylor. He remarked to Brother Taylor that he sincerely regretted the murder of the head of the Mormon Church. Brother Taylor got a twinkle in his eye at this reference to the ‘head of the Church’ and replied, ‘Yes, and isn’t it wonderful that on the on the third day he arose from the tomb and came back to administer to the Saints’ (Leonard Arrington Journal, 14 May 1973).
It’s a fun play on expectations, but also goes to the point that Jesus Christ, rather than Joseph Smith, is at the heart of the Latter-day Saints’ religion. In a recent interview with historian Keith Erekson at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, he pointed out ways in which Joseph Smith taught about Jesus Christ and about God. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
Keith Erekson, drawing on his experience with the Joseph Smith Papers Project (which recently published its final volume), wrote:
Joseph’s revelations restored plain teachings about the character of Jesus Christ. For example, readers of the Old Testament encounter a Jehovah who often appears in its pages as vengeful, angry, petty, willing to enact genocide on a whim. Plagues, lightning, and famine are the visible signs of this god’s presence.
In the Book of Mormon, by contrast, when the brother of Jared approaches Jehovah for assistance, he is startled to see the hand of God before seeing all of Jehovah, a being who is eager to reveal Himself and minister personally.
He also explained his perspective that:
The Apostle Paul describes our understanding of the things of God as “see[ing] through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If Jesus is the light by which we live and see, then perhaps Joseph—and all of the prophets God has called—is the glass.
However little we can comprehend—however “darkly” God’s grandiose messages can be conveyed through the prison of language—we nevertheless see a little through the teachings and ministries of living prophets. That little points us to deity for direct communion.
Joseph repeatedly emphasized the plain truths of the plan of salvation and gospel of Jesus Christ. Through his pen (and the pens of his scribes) poured forth thousands of pages of records of ancient peoples and modern revelations. Indeed, there is much that we know about the Savior because of Joseph.
Joseph helps me draw nearer to God because for him, the plain and precious message of deity could be found everywhere. It was “a voice of mercy from heaven” as well as “a voice of truth out of the earth.” There were “glad tidings for the dead” as well as “a voice of gladness for the living and dead.”
The plain and precious truths about the plan of salvation and the gospel of the Lamb were so expansive as to be a cause of courage and rejoicing. The earth would “break forth into singing” while the dead would “speak forth anthems of eternal praise,” and every heart would “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:19, 22).
There are echoes of a couple other authors in what Erekson is saying here. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said that: “I want to know anyone who knows God, and the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost, and can lead me to Them. I want to take Joseph’s testimony and bear it to millions. Through him millions shall know God again and receive the saving ordinances of the Gospel of His Son.” He added that: “No man in ancient or modern times has been the agent or vehicle through which so much scripture and other supporting material has been written regarding the message and reality of Jesus Christ,” and through these and other visions and revelations he recorded, Joseph Smith is “the supreme witness of the Lord Jesus Christ in this dispensation” (Jeffrey R. Holland. “Knowing Brother Joseph”— Logan Institute of Religion Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional Utah State University Spectrum, January 29, 2012). Like Erekson, Elder Holland rejoiced in the witness and truths about Jesus Christ taught through Joseph Smith’s revelations, history, and translations.
BYU professor Truman G. Madsen also reflected on Joseph Smith as the glass through which we can see God:
[Joseph Smith] has no stature at all except in his ties with the Master. Much modern scholarship deals with the window frame and the window rather than the vista. Many have claimed to see through Joseph Smith; I am among the number…. For the things that matter most, however—and what mattered most to him and those who surrounded him was the way of the prophets and ultimately the way of Christ—he is not only clear; he is transparent. (Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 4.)
Like Keith Erekson, Jeffrey R. Holland and Truman G. Madsen expressed that they were drawn to Joseph Smith and his writings and revelations because of his ability to draw them closer to Christ.
In the interview, Keith Erekson shared a few examples in the scriptures that Joseph Smith produced that teach us more about Jesus and about God. One in particular is the account of Enoch found in the New Translation of Genesis (i.e., the Book of Moses).
In the Old Testament, Jehovah looks unmoved by selfishness and brutality, greed and ambition, sadness and tragedy. He eliminates the entire population of the earth, save eight.
However, in the book of Moses, when Enoch sees the future sufferings of the world in vision, he is startled also to see Jehovah’s tears: “How is it that thou canst weep,” he asks, “seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?”
The Lord responded that the people of the earth “are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency,” and yet they chose to become “without affection, and they hate their own blood.”
The weeping of Jehovah and His revelation of its cause prompts Enoch to weep with Him. “That single, riveting scene,” declared Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “does more to teach the true nature of God than any theological treatise could ever convey.” When we see no respite to our personal pains or to larger structural injustices such as racism or discrimination, there is immense comfort in knowing that He weeps with us.
It’s one of the most stunning examples of how Joseph Smith’s translations teach us about God and about Jesus Christ.
For more on how Joseph Smith testified of Jesus Christ, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk to read the full interview.