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The western part of New York State in the early 1800s was known as the "Burned Over District." The fervor over religion was intense. Many religions sent ministers seeking converts to their flock. So much so that no one, it was supposed, was left to convert. It was a time and a place of theological turmoil.
This is the setting into which Joseph Smith, Jr., son of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, was born. His large family found themselves in the heart of this religious revival, wanting to live good lives but not sure which of the competing churches was the right one to join. Members of Joseph's family leaned toward different religions, but none felt certain that theirs was the true Church of Christ.
Members of the Mormon Church share their feelings and testimonies about Joseph Smith, the Prophet.
As a young man of fourteen years, Joseph already had a desire to find the truth. Like the rest of his family, he was deeply religious, and when the time came for him to be baptized, Joseph had to decide which of the many Christian denominations to join. After careful study, he still felt confused. He later wrote, "So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was [ … ] to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong [ … ] In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?" (Joseph Smith-History 1:8, 10).
Joseph turned to the Bible for guidance. He read,
This verse deeply impressed him. He decided to pray about what he should do, with simple faith that God would hear and answer him.
In the spring of 1820, Joseph went to a grove of trees near his home and knelt in prayer. He described his experience: "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me [ … ] When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other-This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17).
Watch how God restored the fulness of His gospel to the earth through Joseph Smith, the prophet (19:15).
This vision of Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ was the beginning of Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet of God. He was told that none of the churches on the earth had the fullness of truth. Over time, Joseph Smith was chosen to establish Christ's Church and restore the priesthood, or the authority to act in God's name. He was led by God to an ancient record and given the ability to translate it into English. This record is called the Book of Mormon. He continued to pray and receive revelation for the Church throughout his life. These revelations were compiled into a book of scriptures referred to as the Doctrine and Covenants and shows that God still leads His children today. Joseph Smith formally organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830.
Sometimes, when we reach a position of responsibility, we feel like we don't need help anymore, but Joseph Smith relied on the Lord more and more after he was called as a prophet. He knew that his responsibility was not to spread his own teachings, but to pass along the things God revealed to him. Most of the text that makes up the Doctrine and Covenants is God's answers to Joseph Smith's prayers and questions. He asked God to clarify parts of the gospel and asked for guidance about how he should lead the Church and the growing number of Mormons. God told him to call apostles, prophets, and other leaders to oversee the Church.
Early Mormons endured serious persecution because of a perceived commercial, political and religious threat to their neighbors, so Joseph and the people he called to assist him had to lead multiple Mormon migrations to friendlier areas of the country. Despite all of the suffering they endured, early members of the Church built temples, did missionary work, built thriving cities and some served in the United States military as they migrated west. Years before Joseph died, the Lord directed him to organize the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and eventually he bestowed upon them all the keys, rights, and authority necessary to lead the Church. Following Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young, then the senior Apostle on the earth succeeded him as the second prophet and president of the Church. The prophet today, Thomas S. Monson, is the authorized successor to Joseph Smith. He and the Church’s other Apostles trace their priesthood authority back to Jesus Christ in an unbroken chain of ordinations through Joseph Smith.
One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life. Even though Joseph was often persecuted and sometimes imprisoned on false charges, his first thoughts were always for his family. He wrote to his wife, Emma, while he was imprisoned in Missouri,
Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives. When his life was in jeopardy, Joseph relied on his faith in Jesus Christ not only to sustain himself, but his wife and children as well.
We sometimes think that dying for a cause is the purest display of devotion, but living for something is usually much more demanding. Joseph Smith did both. He wore out his life in God's service, suffering derision and violence for the things he believed. He did not die in public with the sympathy of the world; he was shot by a mob while he was locked in a jail on false charges.
He showed his devotion to God in life and in death. It was said of him, "he lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and . . . has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood" (Doctrine and Covenants 135:3).
He did God's work until the day his life was taken and we honor him for his faith, humility, and devotion. We are grateful for the Church he helped establish, the scripture he translated, the revelations he received and the things he taught that help us understand the ways of God.
The faithful way Joseph Smith did his work during his brief life inspires us to fulfill our own responsibilities, however large or small they may be.