Tag Archives: Joseph Smith

Hymn #27: Praise to the Man

Today marks 170 years since Joseph Smith was martyred at Carthage Jail in Illinois. It’s been a long time. To put it into perspective, the United States has only been a country for 238 years, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence seems like it was forever ago.

What has happened in 170 years? Did Joe Smith’s little band of followers–those darn Mormons–just fall apart and disappear without him, as I assume his assassins hoped might happen?

We all know the answer to that is a big fat NO.

According the 2013 statistical report given in last April’s General Conference, there are now over fifteen million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over 100,000 missionaries–including full-time and church service missionaries–are currently preaching the gospel and serving communities in need. 141 temples dot the globe with several more in various stages of completion.

The stone “cut out of the mountain without hands” of which Daniel once spoke continues to fill the earth. “The God of heaven” has “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed.” Indeed “it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”

Joseph Smith restored God’s kingdom to the earth. With his First Vision and subsequent visits from divine messengers, he opened the last dispensation. He received the necessary priesthood keys to provide each of us with the ordinances of salvation. What a great responsibility! What a sacred and honored duty! “Hail to the Prophet” indeed!

But here’s the thing. Even as we praise him, we acknowledge that Joseph Smith was just a man. We often hear him referred to as “the boy Joseph”; he was so very young, after all. Even this hymn of praise does not paint him as anything but what he was: a hero, a martyr, a prophet, yes, but at the end of the day still just “Brother Joseph.”

He was a man like any other man. He made mistakes and struggled under the weight of his calling and wondered, as we all sometimes do, “O God, where art thou?” (see D&C 121). This makes it easy for skeptics to find fault with him, claiming that such a flawed mortal could never have done what he claimed to do. Why would a perfect God use an imperfect man to restore His gospel? How can the church be true if Joseph Smith himself was not above reproach? Why do we believe in a prophet who is just so…human?

To anyone who asks such questions, I respond as Alma does:

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls. (Alma 37:6-7)

God does great things with imperfect people like Brother Joseph. Like you. Like me. Those statistics I cited above are not the result of wishful thinking or magic powers. A great deal of sacrifice from so many of God’s children has gone into building His kingdom in these last days.

Joseph Smith’s legacy gives me hope that I too can play a role in this great work. I may never commune with Jehovah in this life, and I certainly wasn’t “blessed to open the last dispensation.” But I do have a purpose here. I believe I was foreordained to accomplish amazing things. I believe you were too. If we can fight in the “conflict of justice” with the same faithfulness Joseph Smith showed, we too can “mingl[e] with Gods” and be “crowned in the midst of the prophets of old” someday.

Each of us has divine potential. Each of us has a place in proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the saints, and redeeming the dead. Each of us has something to contribute, however small or simple.

After all, a 14-year-old boy who was willing to ask the right question at the right time has helped bring about the salvation of millions.

So what small and simple things will you do today?

Hymn #26: Joseph Smith’s First Prayer

Sacred Grove

Is there a God?

If so, how can we know about him? Does he care about us enough to communicate with us? Do any churches teach true doctrine? Is there any way we can discover truth about God, if he even exists? How can we know what he wants of us?

Questions like these may have been on the mind of Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820. They are certainly on the minds of many, many people today. The faith of millions rests on their answers. When fourteen-year-old Joseph walked into a grove of trees near his home, he didn’t expect to change the world. He simply had questions, and believed that God would answer them.

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (James 1:5)

What an answer he received! In response to Joseph’s simple prayer, a light descended from heaven and rested upon Joseph. God the Eternal Father and his son Jesus Christ personally visited Joseph Smith. They answered his questions. He knew, then, that there is a God. He knew that God can and does communicate with us. And he knew that at that time, no true church existed on the earth.

Joseph would eventually receive many other revelations. He would be taught true doctrine and directed to reestablish Christ’s church, with the same divine authority it held anciently. He would translate the Book of Mormon, a second witness of the divinity of Christ alongside the Bible. He would become the first divinely appointed prophet in this era. This vision was the beginning of a marvelous work, a pivotal moment in history.

But none of that had happened yet. After Joseph’s vision, he did not immediately establish a church. He did not yet have knowledge or the authority to do so. He had much yet to learn. After his vision, he just had a few more answers. He wrote this about that time:

I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned—that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but to continue as I was until further directed. I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided. (Joseph Smith: History v26)

The primary lesson we should earn from Joseph’s first vision is not that all the churches were wrong, or that a Restoration was necessary. These are true, but they’re not the main point. The main point is this:

We can learn truth from God, through revelation.

We do not need to rely on the word of others to vouch for the truth. Yes, we have prophets, priesthood leaders, parents; yes, we have scriptures, seminaries, and sunday school. All of these things can guide us toward truth. But ultimately, our Heavenly Father expects us to come to him with questions. He wants to teach through revelation. He wants to enlarge and clarify our understanding of the things we have been taught. This is true for all people, but especially true for those who have received the Gift of the Holy Ghost after baptism. If we expect to participate in God’s work, we must learn to receive guidance directly from God if we expect to do his work.

We must learn to receive revelation, just as Joseph did.

Hymn #21: Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

Often when I read scriptural accounts of past ages, I tend to imagine the events as I would the events of a fictional novel. Conceptually I know it’s true, but in some ways scripture seems more like a fairy tale. Prophetic leaders with divine authority parting oceans, calling down fire, or raising the dead is all well and good in the ancient past, but that time seems so distant from today.

As a life-long member of the Church, I sometimes forget just how remarkable our message really is. We proclaim that God speaks now, both to prophets and to his people. We proclaim that prophets long dead returned in angelic form to give authority and direction to Joseph Smith. We proclaim that the Father and the Son literally appeared to a boy, instigating the literal Restoration of an ancient Gospel. We proclaim healing blessings through priesthood power, and sealing power in holy temples. We preach repentance to a wicked people who know not God.

It’s like we’ve been thrust right into the middle of a scripture story.

And really, I think that’s the point. God’s interaction with humanity is no different today than it was anciently. The same priesthood power, the same blessings, and the same covenants are again available on the Earth. This feels like a scripture story because it is a scripture story—it’s the continued story of the Father teaching and preparing  and tutoring his children.

So yes! Come! Listen to a prophet’s voice! Leave behind the erring schemes of days now past, and follow in the straight and narrow way. If the very God of the all creation is truly directing prophets in our day, how grand a message we carry!

Of course, prophets aren’t always popular in their own time… even among those who profess the same religion as the prophet. The Israelites murmured against Moses. The Nephites sought after riches instead of righteousness. The Jews crucified Christ himself. What heed do we give to God’s prophets today?

Just a few weeks ago, we had a spectacular General Conference, in which prophets, seers, and revelators addressed the entire world in a way inconceivable to ancient prophets. Modern technology brings them closer than ever to Alma’s wish to “cry repentance unto every people.”

Do we listen? Or does the message come in one ear and out the other?

We are told to search the scriptures, to read them repeatedly and ponder their message. I would suggest that the same direction applies to the messages of modern prophets. We have more access than ever before to the words of God’s chosen messengers. Should we not treasure up those words just as we do other scripture?

But perhaps you do. Perhaps you do take the time to read and re-read the messages of General Conference, along with your other scriptures. Lest we get complacent, let’s read the fourth verse of this hymn:

Then heed the words of truth and light
That flow from fountains pure.
Yea, keep His law with all thy might
Till thine election’s sure,
Till thou shalt hear the holy voice
Assure eternal reign,
While joy and cheer attend thy choice,
As one who shall obtain.

Our goal is not merely to do “well enough” or to be “pretty righteous.” God’s invitation to us is to keep His law with all our might, to seek the assurance of having our calling and election made sure. (It may not surprise you to learn that the fourth verse was written by Bruce R. McConkie, who was known for addressing this topic often.) Joseph Smith taught this:

“I would exhort you to go on and continue to call upon God until you make your calling and election sure for yourselves, by obtaining this more sure word of prophecy, and wait patiently for the promise until you obtain it.”

This may seem a lofty goal to some—and assuredly, it is. But God has grand plans for his children, and he lets us participate in them just as fast as we are able. He does not seek to withhold blessings from us; rather, he seeks to draw us ever closer to him, seeking to pour out blessings beyond what we can even receive. There is no room for complacency in God’s plan of salvation; no matter how much we learn and how much we emulate his Son, we still have so much more to learn.

The Gospel has been restored, and we are in the middle of a “marvelous work and a wonder.” Let’s participate fully in that work, not skimming lightly on the surface, touching only where it suits us. Prophets have been sent. Christ’s gospel is spreading throughout the world, as is the authority to administer its attendant covenants. The world is being prepared for Christ’s second coming. This is a momentous time.

So, please. Come, listen to a prophet’s voice. Listen, and heed.

Hymn #4: Truth Eternal

In John chapter 8, we have record of one of my favorite teachings in all of scripture:

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

In the following verses, Jesus first indicates that the promised freedom will make us free from sin. Crucially, though, when we are free from sin through the Son of God, Christ indicates that the truth ultimately leads us to Eternal Life, the greatest of all gifts of God. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

The fourth hymn in our hymnal is titled “Truth Eternal.” In it, we sing of the same Truth that Christ taught his disciples, the truth that brings freedom.

Truth eternal, truth divine,
In thine ancient fulness shine!
Burst the fetters of the mind
From the millions of mankind!

Truth is not new; it is an unchanging constant from the beginning. When the fulness of truth was restored by Joseph Smith, it was the same ancient truth that has been taught by prophets through the ages, the truth that frees each of us from sin.

Of course, this eternal truth does nothing for us on its own. Truth cannot free us from sin, or exalt us, unless we act upon it. We rejoice to have the ancient truths restored to the Earth, but that alone is not enough. With knowledge comes responsibility, responsibility we willingly accept as we make various covenants. We should not think that through simple membership in Christ’s church, we will be burst free of the fetters that bind us. That blessing requires action from each of us. It requires following through on the covenants we have made.

Truth again restored to earth,
Opened with a prophet’s birth.
Priests of heaven’s royal line
Bear the keys of truth divine!

This restored makes powerful and significant claims. It is appropriate, then, that the veracity and authority of it was restored not just through visions, but actual visitation by those who administered this same truth anciently. What a marvelous claim to make!

The visitations of Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Elias, Elijah, Moses, and surely many others lend divine authenticity to the restored Gospel. Though it can seem simple in our day-to-day lives, the restoration of the gospel was a divinely orchestrated event that speaks of careful planning and specific intent. When we take this truth into our lives and when we seek to share it with others, we are participating in a grand event. As has been said, it is a marvelous work and a wonder.

Truth shall triumph as the light
Chases far the misty night.
Endless ages own its sway,
Clad in everlasting day.

We frequently sing hymns that speak of the great battle that is currently raging over the hearts and beliefs of people worldwide. How encouraging it is to know that truth will triumph. In the face of our own frailties and weaknesses, God is still able to prevail. There is no reason for despair, no reason to abandon a sinking ship. In the end, all will know the truth, the truth that, if they will accept and act upon it, will make them free.

Hymn #19: We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet

This is the hymn that we, more than any other, associate with the leader of our church. We sing it at General Conference after he speaks to us. We sing it when he visits our local congregation (if we’re lucky enough to have him visit). I had a missionary companion who would listen to the song every morning. He would turn it on, look at me with an excited look on his face, and say, “Prophet song!”

I was set to write an essay about prophets for today. I was ready to tell you about the unique role prophets play in the gospel as watchmen, and about the sustaining power of continuing revelation. I read through the lyrics of the hymn, excited to find quotes that told us about the incredible gift of a living prophet.

A close reading of those lyrics, however, shows that the hymn is much less about prophets than we might be led to think. Listen to the first verse, excluding the first two lines:

We thank thee for sending the gospel
To lighten our minds with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee
And love to obey thy command.

I see themes of gratitude, obedience, truth and light, but not much about prophets. Adding the phrase “we thank thee, O God, for a prophet” certainly sheds a different light on the verse, but it seems to me in this hymn, we’re grateful for the entirety of the gospel, of which a living prophet is just one part. It’s not that we’re not grateful for him–after all, our gratitude for him is in the title–it’s that we’re not only grateful for him.

The gospel provides an anchor for us. We receive conflicting and changing messages in life, and having something constant to cling to helps us to stay pointed in the right direction. There’s a reason the gospel, the word of God, is described in scripture as an iron rod. It is strong, unshakable, and provided for us to hold to. It doesn’t just help us to stay put, either; it leads us to our final destination of God’s presence.

When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us
And threaten our peace to destroy,
There is hope smiling brightly before us,
And we know that deliv’rance is nigh.

We are grateful for the gospel in its entirety because we know that obedience to it will bring us through the challenges of life. We can look those trials in the face with a smile, knowing that God will bring us through to the other side. We know He can be counted on to fulfill His end of the bargain, so long as we keep up our end. We can count on Him because, as we sing, “we’ve proved him in days that are past.” He has always, in every case, been there to support us (though perhaps not in obvious or expected ways), and we know that He always will be.

Prophets are an important part of this protective aspect of the gospel, of course. The Lord protects us by warning us of dangers ahead, and He does that through a prophet. While the gospel gives us general counsel, a prophet can give us specific counsel relevant to our unique situations. Ancient scripture can warn us about the dangers of dishonesty and theft. A modern prophet can counsel us against online piracy and copyright violations.

So we’re grateful for our prophet, but grateful for him as a part of the gospel as a whole. We are blessed to have that truth in our lives to guide us in the right way. We rejoice in that gospel, and “bask in its life-giving light.” We know that as we are obedient to the principles we’ve been taught (by a prophet, no less!), we can go on to eternal perfection and the happiness that will accompany it.

We’re grateful for the gospel, and we’re grateful for all of it.

Hymn #25: Now We’ll Sing with One Accord

This is a hymn we don’t often hear in church. I don’t think I’ve ever sung it in sacrament meeting, although it turns out that I have at least heard it once. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang this hymn during the April 2009 General Conference. WordPress doesn’t allow us to embed the video here, sadly, but you can view it here. You should, or at the very least, listen to the hymn via the link we’ve provided at the top.

Notice anything unusual about the hymn? The rhyme scheme is unique among the hymns we’ve talked about so far this year. While most LDS hymns follow an ABAB scheme, this hymn uses AAABCCCD. The fourth and eighth line of each verse don’t rhyme with anything else in the verse, causing them to stand out from the rest of the lyrics. Perhaps even more interesting is that the fourth lines of the first, second, and third verses all rhyme with each other, and they in turn rhyme with the last line of the fourth verse. It’s an unorthodox technique that serves to tie the verses together, while drawing attention to the non-rhyming lines within each verse.

So why those lines in particular? How do they tie this hymn together? Well, first we’ll have to start with understanding what this hymn is all about. The first two lines tell us that “now we’ll sing with one accord/for a prophet of the Lord,” and those attentive enough to review the topics found at the bottom of each hymn will see that the prophet in question is Joseph Smith. (Even if you hadn’t, you could be forgiven for assuming the hymn was about Joseph Smith; “the prophet” virtually always refers to Joseph Smith within LDS psalmody.) We sing about his role as restorer (“brought the priesthood back again”) and as translator (“for the Gentile and the Jew/he translated sacredly”). We sing boldly, as we do with many of the hymns of the restoration. The claim of a modern-day prophet is a bold one, as are the claims of continuing revelation and restored authority from on high, and the tone of the hymn reflects that boldness.

So we’re singing about the restoration and Joseph Smith; what about those four lines in each verse that tie the hymn together? Let’s take a look at them and see. In verse one, the line that sticks out is “cheers the Saints as anciently.” We receive revelation and guidance from the Lord as did His faithful in years past. That’s cause for cheer. It’s easy to feel adrift in a sea of conflicting messages. The clarity of the gospel message helps us to keep our bearings straight, and it brings us joy.

In the second verse, the special line is “in its ancient purity,” referring to the restored authority of the priesthood. It was restored through Joseph, yes, but the authority is the same as it ever was. It is the authority of God given to man to direct His work as though He were here. It was given to men in ancient times, and it is given to us today. The line in the third verse dovetails with that theme nicely: “He translated sacredly.” Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, a book of scripture that shows us that God spoke to more than one group of people. He translated the book not because of his expertise in Meso-American languages, or because of his mastery of ancient scripture, but because he received authority from God to do so. It’s the same authority held by ancient prophets like Moses and Abraham, and it’s the same authority held by modern prophets like Thomas S. Monson today.

The hymn concludes with the line “purer for eternity,” referring to Zion. It will spread throughout the earth during the Millennium as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And again, it has little to do with our own efforts (though we do, and will, work toward building the kingdom) and instead much to do with the power of the Almighty. This is His work, and it will not fail. The gospel has been restored to Earth, never to be taken again.

We sing about Joseph Smith, but these lines that stick out in the middle of each verse remind us that when we sing about him, we sing about the power of God, restored through him. Joseph is no longer with us, gone nearly 170 years now, but the church thrives. We revere him, but we worship the God who made the restoration he accomplished possible. And so when we sing this hymn, we sing about a great man, but also about great men to come (“prudent in this world of woes/they will triumph o’er their foes”) as they are given inspiration, guidance, and authority from on high.