Joseph Smith: Prophet, Seer, and Revelator

Address delivered at the BYU Founders Day Exercises

Thursday, October 6, 1941

by President David O. McKay

[1] President Harris, members of the Board of Trustees, Commissioner West, members of the Faculty and students of Brigham Young University: I am indeed happy to be with you on this the sixty-sixth anniversary of the founding of this great institution. I am grateful for the opportunity to be present at the dedicatory services of this beautiful edifice, this temple of learning—a joy in architecture, ideal in adaptability and utility, so significantly named the Joseph Smith Building.

As a member of the first Presidency, I bring to you greetings from President Heber J. Grant, who undoubtedly deemed it unwise to undertake the trip from Salt Lake City. He was present at two meetings in his office yesterday, but is not feeling sufficiently well, I am sure, to assume the great responsibility that would be his were he present. Also, I express to you the greetings of President Clark whose duties have called him from the State at this time.

In considering the subject assigned me: Joseph Smith: Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, I first thought it would be advisable to consider one by one the prophecies of Joseph Smith and deal with their fulfillment to take up, also, his clarity of vision as a Seer and his powers of revelation. But these things you students can follow once we establish the fact the Joseph Smith was inspired of the Lord.

If we can be inclined to believe and later receive a testimony that Joseph Smith was inspired of God, confidence in his prophetic power [2] will follow inevitably, and his exposition of doctrine will seem reliable in the midst of theories that change about every five years.

Born in the lowest ranks of poverty without book learning and with the lowliest of all human names, he, Joseph Smith, had made for himself at the age of thirty-nine, a power upon the earth. Of the multitudinous family of Smith, none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or evil, is potent today and the end is not yet. So writes Josiah Quincy in his article on Joseph Smith in Figures of the Past.

I wish to take exception to one of this historian's phrases: "He had made for himself at the age of thirty-nine a power upon the earth." Joseph Smith did not make for himself, neither did he of himself become, a power in the earth. Only through God's help and guidance did he become such.

Let us look at the conditions socially and politically when that young man began his quest for the truth.

Man's Desire and Efforts for Social Betterment

I think every progressive age of the world has had intellectual and socially-minded leaders who have sought a better way of living than that which was theirs. The good life, so important to man's happiness, has been the quest of the ages. To sense the need for reform has been easy, but to achieve it has been difficult and often well-nigh impossible. Ideas suggested and proposed by the wisest of men have seldom been practical, often fantastic, yet in most cases the world in general has been made better by the dissemination of new ideas, even though the experiments proved failures at the time.

In this respect, the nineteenth century, as the present one, was no exception. The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a [3] general feeling of social unrest and many observing people, back about 1805, 1820, and 1830, became dissatisfied with the social and economic conditions; and thinking men sought for remedial changes.

In France, for example, the fanciful theories of Francois Charles Fourier were circulated. He attempted to outline the future history of our globe and of the human race for eighty thousand years. Today his books are not even read.

Robert Owen's Schemes

About 1777, that is a few years before Joseph Smith's birth, there was a man born in England by the name of Robert Owen who came of worthy parentage. He was a man of exceptional ability, shown in the fact that when he was only about nineteen years of age he is reported to have had two hundred men under him in his factories in Manchester. About this time he became dissatisfied with the churches. He was a religious man but he decried the departure of the churches from the simple teachings of Jesus. Economic conditions offended him also. He saw little children, and had some of them in his factories, working who were only eight and ten years of age. He introduced a law which required the prohibiting of little children from working at night and limiting others to ten hours a day. That gives you an idea of conditions then and of labor problems. His soul rebelled against this and he sought something better.

He won the confidence of leaders, and the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria's father, became Robert Owen's patron. So this man had high ideals. He was religious at heart. He was desirous of establishing some conditions which would at least ameliorate some which were almost unbearable in society at that time. With a fortune back of him, he came to the new world about 1823. Note the date. He purchased, I forget how many acres of land in what became New Harmony, Indiana, and established what he hoped [4] would be an ideal society. Within three years he lost two hundred thousand dollars of this fortune, and that was a fortune in those days, and his experiment failed.

He returned to England, continued to work, tried other schemes, social and religious in nature, but they also failed. Even the cooperative system that is now in England is not the same as he had visioned. Now students, I wish you could keep this in mind—the date, his aspirations, his wealth, his popularity with influential men, legislators, royalty. And what has become of it all?

The Great Experiment

A few years later, George Ripley, a Unitarian minister conceived a plan of plain living and high thinking. He had as his associates such able men as Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose poems you have studied and are studying in this school, Charles A. Dana, afterwards Assistant Secretary of War in the President of the United States' Cabinet, John S. White, and other equally able and sincere.

Ralph Waldo Emerson styled the wisest American, visited Brook Farm, and undoubtedly offered suggestions regarding it.

Now those were able men, inspired by high ideals. Ripley's impulses were really religious rather than economic and were due to an impulse to ask for withdrawal from the sordid world rather than a desire to establish a new society. He and his associates became the founders of what was known as the Great Experiment to make the work an agreeable place in which to live. It came to an end in 1846.

The Church of Jesus Christ Organized

About 1820 religious excitement led Joseph Smith to seek the right church, the proper mode of worship, the right way to live. The desire to know impelled the youth to seek the Lord in earnest prayer. One result [5] of the answer to his prayer was the organization of the Church in Peter Whitmer's home on Sunday, April 6, 1830. In that organization may be found the comprehension of the whole plan of man's salvation.

Now I wish to consider that organization as one evidence of his inspiration. Joseph Smith did not have the backing of any prominent men. He had no wealth. He had around him no influential legislators nor men who were styled the wisest thinkers of the time—elements surrounding these others that would be contributing factors in achieving success.

Joseph Smith, as Josiah Quincy said, was very humble financially speaking. He was not schooled in the literature of the day. He did not have prominence in the society in which he moved; so it seems to me we may state as fundamental these three facts: (1) That Joseph Smith was unschooled and unacquainted with men and things. Undoubtedly, he had never heard of Fourier's philosophy, the Owen experiment nor any other scheme, religious or economic for the betterment of social conditions. (2) That the original members were practically unknown, they were financially poor and had no political or social standing. (3) That Joseph Smith did not claim to organize the Church by his won wisdom, but by divine direction in accordance with the order of the Church as recorded in the New Testament.

For over one hundred years, this organization has survived financial panics, social upheavals, and religious turmoil; and today stands as a means of supplying the highest needs of mankind as it conforms to the best concepts of men who understand government and who are seeking social utopias.

World Today Seeking Better Conditions

Considered politically, the world is upset at the present time in its opinion as to the best form of government. We are just witnessing the downfall of monarchies. Rising from those monarchical ruins are coming the dictatorships of the proletariat in Soviet Russia, the Fascist regime in Italy [6] with Mussolini as chief dictator, Naziism in Germany, and Democracies as exemplified chiefly in Great Britain and her dominions, and in the United States.

It is apparent that men are seeking for a better form of government than most nations now have. Will they find it in a government by dictatorship or a government by the people or in a combination of the two? Kirkpatrick, in his book on sociology, says: "Efficiency and progress are favored when the government is such that the local community has a good deal of responsibility for his own affairs and the central government has final authority to legalize those institutions and rules of procedure which have been shown to be preeminently useful."

Fundamental Phases of Government Found in Church

A careful analysis of the organization of the Church reveals the fact that it imposes all the strength of a strong central government and every virtue and necessary safeguard of a democracy. First, it has the authority of the Priesthood without the vices of priestcraft. Every worthy man in the organization is entitled to a place and a voice in the governing quorums. Second, it offers a system of education universal and free in its application; the safety valve, the very heart and strength of a true democracy. Third, it offered a judicial system that extends justice and equal privileges to all alike, applicable to the poor and to the millionaire. Fourth, in its ecclesiastical grouping, its efficiency and progress are enhanced because every local group attends to its own affairs and yet each is closely united with the central government so that every mode of procedure proved useful and beneficial to the people may be adopted without delay for the good of the entire group. Truly from the standpoint of efficiency and progress, the Church of Christ has that form of government for which the nations of today are seeking. [7]

Church Patterned after Teachings of Christ

As Recorded in the Gospels

Charles A. Ellwood, author of Man's Social Destiny, declared that the religions of the future cannot be based upon historical Christianity, but must, in order to avoid misunderstanding, go back to the teachings of Christ as recorded in the Gospel.

Is it not significant that a young man only twenty-four years of age, unlearned in regard to social systems of his age or of any age in the United States, should have understood one hundred and ten years ago what leading thinkers realize today as the great need in religious government and instruction?

The religion of the future must go back to the teaching of Christ as recorded in the Gospel says the sociologist of 1930. The Church of Jesus Christ was organized in accordance with the order of the Church as recorded in the New Testament, said Joseph Smith one hundred ten years ago. The practical and beneficent workings of this organization prove its divine authenticity. Here I should like to particularize but time will not permit.

Church Founded Upon Revelation

There are other features associated with the establishing of Christ's Church which I desire to mention. One is the outstandingly distinguishing feature of his Church; viz., divine authority by direct Revelation. The appearing of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith is the foundation of this Church. Therein lies the secret of his strength and vitality. That is true and I bear witness to it. That one revelation answers all the queries of science regarding God and His divine personality. Don't you see what that means? What God is, is answered. His relation to His children is clear. His interest in humanity through authority delegated to man [8] is apparent. The future of the work is assured. These and other glorious truths are clarified by that glorious First Vision.

Man's Social and Spiritual Needs Supplied

Following such a declaration of divine guidance, the world may justifiably expect to find in the organization of the Church superior opportunities to supply the social and spiritual needs of men.

Now you students can prove that such is the case—that fraternity, education, judicial procedure, social and economic advantages are superior to those found in any other organization. We do not say that ourselves. Economists and sociologists so declare, one of whom, Dr. Thomas Nixon Carver, has stood in this school several times giving addresses.

Doctrinal Interpretation

Joseph Smith attended church and heard proclaimed doctrines current at the time. Let us consider his attitude toward some of these. Had he been desirous of selfishly building up his influence, he would have concurred with the ministers of the day. That would have been the easy and popular thing to do. But what are the facts? One prominent doctrine of that day was predestination. He, Joseph Smith, would read from the Westminster Confession the following: Election to eternal life is not founded on foresight on faith and obedience, but is a sovereign act of God's mercy whereby according to the counsel of his own will, some men and angels are predestined to everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men thus predestined and foreordained are truly and unchangeably destined and the number is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. That doctrine was satirized by Robert Burns in these words: [9]

O Thou wha' in heaven doth dwell

Wha' as it pleases best thysel'

Sends ane to haven and ten tae hell

A' for they glory

Anv no' for any guid or ill

they've done afore Thee!

The Prophet decries this predestination theory and says over one hundred years ago, mind you, to every man is given an inherent power to do right or to do wrong. In this he has his free agency. He may choose the right and obtain salvation, or he may choose evil and merit abomination, but one man is not predestined to do evil and another predestined to do good.

It is interesting to note that seventy years after Joseph Smith made that statement, the Presbyterians in general assembly on May 22, 1902, by a vote of six hundred to two, adopted the unanimous report of a revisions committee which had been at work on the subject two years, and this is what they say: Following this broad statement are two overtures, the first disclaims any doctrine of predestination and asserts clearly that god loves all mankind and does not rejoice in the death of any sinner and that no man is condemned except on the basis of his own sin. Suppose that seventy years later it have been proved that predestination was right. The world would have declared Joseph Smith a false prophet. Well, now since the wise men have declared in their wisdom that the doctrine is wrong, why will they not give due credit to that young, fearless, inexperienced man who declared a truth when it was believed untrue.

Henry Van Dyke said in 1902: The Presbyterian Church today does not believe that some men are created to be saved and others to be damned, and to guard that against misapprehension on the subject. I wish to say unmistakably that God has not put any barrier between any human soul's salvation.

[10] Now one more illustration: The old school taught by the churches, which the boy Prophet condemned or with which he could not be affiliated, said regarding little children—Infants who come into the world are not only destitute of knowledge, righteousness and holiness, but have a natural inclination to evil and only evil. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, Little children are holy and are sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ. In 1902, note the date, in the same assembly to which I have just referred, the creed was revised to read: all who die in infancy are chosen of God and saved through His Spirit. The Reverend Henry Van Dyke commenting upon that said: The Presbyterians today believe all who die in infancy are saved by Jesus Christ.

And do students, brethren, and sisters, as we contemplate the environment in which that young boy, in the year 1820, lived; look into his soul yearning for the truth; when we realize his declaration that in answer to his prayer God the Father and His son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him and said that these churches are wrong, they teach for doctrine the commandments of men, we behold a youth who is fearless in accepting and declaring the truth though it brought upon him responsibility and the condemnation of the ministers. He knew persecution, tar and feathers, imprisonment and death, but the Church founded by the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for whom the Church is named, through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith, stands today as a monument to the inspiration of God to that young man.

Eternal Nature of Covenants Revealed

Divine inspiration is manifest not only in the complete organization of the church and in its effective workings; not only in the harmony of his declaration of Authority with the teachings of God in all ages; not only with the clarity of vision regarding doctrine; but also in his glorious [11] announcement of the eternal nature of covenants and ceremonies and the opportunity of salvation for every human being. The Church is not exclusive but all inclusive to every soul who will accept its principles. The prayer of the selfish—

O God bless me and my wife,

My son John and his wife—

Us four and no more.

had no place in the prophet's heart; but rather that all mankind shall be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. Even they who died without law shall be judged without law. To this end is the ordinance of salvation for the dead revealed.

The Eternity of the Marriage covenant is a glorious revelation, giving assurance to hearts bound by the golden clasp of Love and sealed by authority of the Holy Priesthood that their union is eternal.

Other covenants also continue with eternal progress, throughout the ages of Eternity.

Joseph Smith could not have accomplished all this of his own wisdom, intellect and influence. He could not have done it.

In conclusion I repeat, other men with noble aspirations, with power and popularity, failed utterly in attempting to establish their ideas. Joseph Smith was favored intellectually by inspiration. Brother Joseph felt he was chosen of Almighty god to establish in this dispensation the Church of Jesus Christ which he, as Paul, declared to be the power of God unto Salvation—social salvation, moral salvation, spiritual salvation.

You students and the tens of hundreds of thousands whom you represent as the youth of Israel, hear the responsibility first of comprehending the significance and magnitude of this the Lord's work; and, secondly, the responsibility of carrying it to a world now war-torn, but in which there are [12] millions of honest hearts, yearning for better conditions than those under which they live.

If the people of today were to ask, as men did in the Savior's time, Whence has this man wisdom? we unhesitatingly declare: He received it from on High.

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!

Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer—

Blessed to open the last dispensation;

Kings shall extol him and nations revere.

God bless you that you may feel this deeply in your hearts, that this power will so shape your minds that you will maintain the standards of truth and integrity of the Church, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Address of President David O. McKay for the BYU Founders Day Exercises, October 6, 1941. Birgham Young University, Provo, UT.

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