Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
The Death of Lehi
During the month of June 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery pushed hard to complete the translation. Reflecting on the dictation at his father’s house, David Whitmer said: “It was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long, and they worked from morning till night. But they were both young and strong and were soon able to complete the work.”1 Whitmer’s description notwithstanding, the last month of dictation was crowded with other activities: holding meetings, preaching, receiving revelations, baptizing, securing a copyright for the Book of Mormon, and visiting Palmyra twice to make arrangements to have the book printed.
It was probably during the first days after his and Cowdery’s arrival in Fayette that Smith received three brief revelations for David Whitmer and his two brothers, Peter Jr. and John (Doctrine and Covenants 14, 15, 16; hereafter D&C). They were received through the seer stone in response to the Whitmers’ anxiety “to know their respective duties, and having desired with much earnestness that I should enquire of the Lord concerning them.”2 Peter and John were called to preach repentance and to bring souls to God, much as Samuel and Hyrum had been called the previous month, but David was to “assist” in the work and was promised the Holy Ghost “that you may stand as a witness of the things of which you shall both hear and see” (D&C 14:8; cf. Ether 5:2-3). Although this seems to foreshadow David’s participation as a Book of Mormon witness near the end of the month (D&C 17), it may allude to his call to the apostleship, which was to follow shortly (D&C 18:9).3 Regardless, by now, Smith had assessed David’s propensity for charismatic experiences and singled him out for future use.
It was also soon after Smith’s arrival that his brother Hyrum came to Fayette to offer himself for baptism. Joseph baptized both Hyrum and David in nearby Seneca Lake. On the same occasion, Cowdery baptized Peter Whitmer Jr. and perhaps John Whitmer.4 These baptisms formed the nucleus of a budding church, but the formal organization of the Church of Christ was still ten months off. However, as Smith anticipated while dictating the Book of Moroni in Harmony the previous month, the situation in Fayette demanded that he move from theory to practice.
In contrast to their reception in Harmony, Smith and Cowdery “found the people of Seneca County in general friendly and disposed to enquire into the truth of these strange matters which now began to be noised abroad. Many opened their houses to us in order that we might have an opportunity of meeting with our friends for the purposes of instruction and explanation. We met with many from time to time, who were willing to hear us, and wishful to find out the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and apparently willing to obey the Gospel when once fairly convinced and satisfied in their own minds.”5
The two principle participants in the Book of Mormon project, Smith and Cowdery, felt confident enough to baptize believers but were not yet sufficiently confident to organize a church. They awaited God’s commandment as they had done before their baptisms. According to Smith’s 1838-39 history, the angel who had appeared in conjunction with their baptisms promised Smith and Cowdery that they would receive additional authority in the future.6 Anticipation of this is evident from the Book of Moroni where the Nephite twelve receive verbal authorization to baptize (3 Ne. 11:21-22) and are then ordained under Jesus’ hand with the additional power to impart the Holy Ghost to others (Moro. 2:1-3). Moroni refers to the Nephite twelve as the “elders of the church” who “ordained priests and teachers” (3:1).7 In the context of 3 Nephi, Smith and Cowdery seem to have considered the authority to baptize to imply apostleship since only the Nephite twelve were given that authority (11:18-27; 12:1). If they were apostles, were they elders? Was the office of elder meaningful only in the context of a church organization?
Smith states that he and his Fayette faithful “had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the Chamber of Mr. Whitmer’s house in order more particularly to seek of the Lord what we now so earnestly desired.”8 The answer came in the form of a revelation through Smith. As he recalled: “We had not long been engaged in solemn and fervent prayer when the word of the Lord, came unto us in the Chamber, commanding us; that I should ordain Oliver Cowdery to be an Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, And that he also should ordain me to the same office, and then to ordain others as it should be made known unto us, from time to time.”9
There is conflict between Smith’s account and David Whitmer’s memory about what happened next. Smith says that he and Cowdery were told to defer their ordinations until “our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our thus proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers, or not.” This occurred on 6 April 1830.10 In other words, authority to baptize came from God, but the office of elder was a function of church government—in this case, a democratically confirmed appointment. Whitmer remembered otherwise. He reported that he was baptized, confirmed, and ordained an elder by Smith in June 182911 and that they were “as fully organized—spiritually—before April 6th as we were on that day.”12 Because Whitmer mistook the 9 June 1830 conference for the church’s organization, his memory of the ordinations may be incorrect as well.13 If ordinations did not occur as Whitmer remembered, June 1829 nevertheless marked the beginning of the church’s organization.
The discrepancy in dating points to a philosophical difference between Smith and Whitmer regarding church governance. While Smith has the ordinations occurring within the context of a church organization, Whitmer traces them to a pre-institutional period. Whitmer reluctantly accepted the rapidly developing hierarchical church organization but in later years expressed misgivings and even idealized the period when authority was charismatically based and less structured. His memory may have been affected by his anti-institutional, egalitarian sentiment, which he undoubtedly inherited from his German Reformed background, but his views were nonetheless shared by other charismatics in Fayette who were suspicious of organized religion and would resist Smith’s efforts to formalize church government.
A revelation received about this time addressed the problem.14 Apparently responding to Cowdery’s concerns, the revelation directs followers to “rely upon the things which are written,” meaning the Book of Mormon, “for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church, my gospel, and my rock. Wherefore, if you shall build up my church, upon the foundation of my gospel and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you” (D&C 18:3-5). In the same revelation, Jesus addresses Cowdery and David Whitmer directly, declaring: “I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called” (v. 9). The two men were being called to the apostleship, which included authority to preach, baptize, and organize churches. At this point, it is important to note that they were charismatically called to the office and were not ordained as apostles.
Through this revelation, Cowdery and Whitmer were also given specific instructions on how to organize a church:
First, they were to preach repentance and salvation through Jesus Christ (vv. 10-17; cf. v. 41). Hyrum had been told the previous month that he “need not suppose that you are called to preach until you are called” and to “wait a little longer, until you shall have my word, my rock, my church, and my gospel” (D&C 11:15, 16). As the translation drew to a close, the present revelation declared: “Behold, you have my gospel before you, and my rock, and my salvation” (18:17).
Second, as apostles, Cowdery and Whitmer would be guided by the Holy Ghost, “which manifesteth all things which are expedient” (v. 18; cf. v. 32). In other words, they were to preach through the power of the Spirit.
Third, they were to baptize believers in the name of Christ (v. 22; cf. vv. 29, 41).
Fourth, all those who were baptized were to take upon themselves the name of Christ (vv. 21-25). In this way they become “The Church of Christ” or “Jesus Christ” (cf. 3 Ne. 27:1-10).
Fifth, they were to organize missionary activities by calling twelve apostles (vv. 26-39). These apostles were to be chosen by Cowdery and Whitmer, but the wording of the revelation—specifically that they were to be “ordained of me” (vv. 29, 32)—is ambiguous as to the manner of being called. Nevertheless, these apostles were to be institutionally rather than charismatically appointed. Moreover, the implication is that a calling through Smith would be sufficient: “And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it. … Wherefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words” (D&C 18:33, 36).
Sixth, repeating information found in the Book of Moroni, the twelve apostles, or elders, would have authority to ordain priests and teachers (v. 32; cf. Moro. 3:1-4).
Even at this early period, Smith conceived of church governance in hierarchical terms. Significantly, he placed himself at the head of the church, with Cowdery and Whitmer under his direction. In giving Cowdery and Whitmer the task of choosing apostles, Smith singled himself out and diminished the significance of Cowdery’s role. Cowdery would now be linked with Whitmer rather than with Smith. Still, Cowdery and Whitmer were to receive great power in this new church, for the institutionally called apostles would derive their office and authority from the two who chose them. At the bottom of the power structure were the priests and teachers, who in turn derived their office and authority from the twelve apostles.
Cowdery evidently resisted this arrangement. Shortly after Smith received this revelation, Cowdery received one of his own concerning “how he should build up [Christ’s] church and the manner thereof.”15 The revelation is an amalgam of issues regarding church discipline extracted from 3 Nephi, Moroni, and section 18 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which Cowdery calls the “articles of the Church of Christ.” Curiously, the revelation fails to mention twelve apostles and applies apostleship only to himself, deleting Whitmer’s name from the Pauline-like call in Smith’s revelation (cf. D&C 18:9). Instead of giving twelve apostles the authority to ordain priests and teachers (v. 32), Cowdery would retain that authority for himself.
Moreover, there is a hint of a rift between Smith and Cowdery. The latter saw himself as an equal to Smith since they were both given authority to baptize. In Smith’s revelation, Cowdery is told: “And now, marvel not that I have called [Smith] unto mine own purpose, which purpose is known in me” (D&C 18:8). Cowdery’s revelation concludes in a defensive way: “And now if I [Cowdery] have not authority to write these things judge ye; behold ye shall know that I have authority when you and I shall be brought to stand before the judgment seat of God. … I am an Apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Behold I have written the things which he hath commanded me for behold his word was unto me as a burning fire shut up in my bones and I was weary with forbearing and I could forbear no longer. Amen [cf. Jer. 20:9].” The allusion to Jeremiah showed that Cowdery had fulfilled the requirement of Smith’s April 1829 revelation of a burning in the bosom. The biblical passage declares: “[God’s] word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones” (cf. D&C 9:8). According to early convert Ezra Booth, Smith rejected Cowdery’s revelation as one that had been inspired by Satan.16
By resisting the expansion of the apostleship to others, Cowdery probably hoped to preserve his status as co-founder of the movement with Smith. Conversely, Smith was creating a structure with himself at the head. Smith’s revelation instructed Cowdery to rely on the Book of Mormon, but the two men interpreted the Book of Mormon differently—Smith believing that the calling of twelve apostles in 3 Nephi was a perpetual office in the church, whereas Cowdery saw the apostleship as a charismatic calling, not a church office, and believed the need for twelve special witnesses was limited to Jesus’ ministries in the Old and New Worlds. Cowdery considered himself an apostle because he had seen Jesus and the gold plates in vision; Whitmer was therefore not an apostle. It may have been this conflict that prompted Smith to lay aside the subject of a distinct quorum of twelve apostles for more than five years, and then only after Cowdery had been ordained assistant president of the church.17 Instead, in April 1830, Smith would link the apostleship to the office of elder (D&C 20:38).
Meanwhile, work on the translation was moving forward rapidly. The superscription to Nephi’s second book,18 like the first, does not mention theology and barely touches on history—An account of the death of Lehi. Nephi’s brethren rebel against him. The Lord warns Nephi to depart into the wilderness. His journeyings in the wilderness, &c. Again, the introduction hints that Smith had limited recall of the historical material in the lost manuscript and was still uncertain about what the religious content would be.
The first part of Nephi’s second book contains Lehi’s dying exhortation to his sons (2 Ne. 1-4). Reflecting an American self-image, Lehi declares America to be a “land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands” (1:5), and prophesies that “none [shall] come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord” (v. 6). Lehi says that God “hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” (v. 5). Similar to Nephi’s prophecy that “the seed of my brethren” would remain the lone inhabitants of the New World until Columbus discovered them and paved the way for religious refugees (1 Ne. 13), Lehi declares that “it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance” (v. 8). While this statement precludes apologetic attempts to incorporate known Asiatic populations with the Lamanites,19 Lehi did not exclude the subsequent migration of other Israelites like the Mulekites (Omni 1:14-16):
Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever. (1:8-9)
Lehi states that God will hold back the immigrants from other nations until Lehi’s seed “dwindle[s] in unbelief” and “reject[s] the Holy One of Israel, the true Messiah, their Redeemer and their God” (1:10). Afterward “the judgments of him that is just shall rest upon them. Yea, he will bring other nations unto them, and he will give unto them power, and he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten” (vv. 10-11). Some writers want to escape the historical implications of this prophecy and follow John Sorenson’s assertion that “this land” refers to a limited region of Mesoamerica and that the “other nations” are the Asiatics “waiting in the wings” to overrun the land.20 However, “this land” of Lehi’s inheritance included the area of Protestant (specifically non-Catholic) colonization, namely the future location of the United States, where the New Jerusalem would be built (3 Ne. 20:13, 22; 21:4, 23-25; Ether 13:4, 6; D&C 54). Although Laman and Lemuel were rebellious, the period of “dwindling in unbelief” did not occur until after Jesus’ visit to the Nephites, at which time Jesus told them that “this is the land of your inheritance” (3 Ne. 15:13). After more than a generation of peace and unity, the Nephites and Lamanites “dwindle in unbelief” (1 Ne. 12:23; 13:35; Alma 45:10-12; Ether 4:3). Finally, the Lamanites are not “scattered and smitten” until after Columbus discovers the New World and European gentiles invade North America (1 Ne. 12:22; 13:14). Although Lehi’s prophecy is consistent with Smith’s belief that “the Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians,” or his report that the angel had said “the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham,”21 it is problematic for some readers today because it excludes Asiatics who would have inhabited America at the time of Lehi’s arrival.
Consistent with the beliefs of many of Smith’s contemporaries, Lehi declares, much as Moroni did in Ether 2:7-12, that God has “consecrated” America to be a “land of liberty,” that as long as the people obey the commandments, they will never be “brought down into captivity” (1:7). Lehi utters the following dictum, which Smith intended to serve as a warning to Jacksonian America: “If iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever” (v. 7). Here Lehi breaks into a revival-like sermon that is directed at his sons but is also intended for latter-day America: “O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe. Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth” (1:12-14).22
Interestingly, Lehi’s declaration about an “eternal gulf of misery and woe” indicates that he accepted his son’s interpretation of the river of water in his dream (see 1 Ne. 15:26-30). Smith could only hope that his aging father would renounce his Universalism and eventually declare with Lehi: “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (1:15).
Lehi issues another dictum: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my [God’s] commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (1:20; cf. Mosiah 1:7; 2:22, 31). This not only explains the cyclical events of Nephite history but gives definition to Joseph Sr.’s financial reversals, the ebb and flow that the history of the Smith family took. Joseph Jr. must have believed it was his father’s Universalism and lack of concern for the commandments that brought periodic hardship to the family. In later years, Lucy would shift the blame for her family’s misfortunes to evil and designing men. In Joseph’s mind, this would not have been possible if his father had been more diligent in obeying God’s commandments.
Lehi asks his sons to be united, exhorting them to “arise from the dust, my sons, and be men, and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye my not come down into captivity” (1:21). This will not happen in the Book of Mormon, but it was Smith’s wish for his own family. While Joseph Sr. had seen his entire family at the tree of life, consistent with his Universalist beliefs, Lehi understands that the rebellious members of his family will “incur the displeasure of a just God … unto the destruction, yea, the eternal destruction of both soul and body” (v. 22).
Nephi defended his father repeatedly, and now it is Lehi’s turn to defend Nephi, exhorting his other sons to “rebel no more against him, whose views have been glorious” (1:24). With possible insight into the dynamic between Joseph and his brothers, Lehi defends the manner in which Nephi has addressed them: “Ye have murmured because he hath been plain unto you. Ye say that he hath used sharpness; ye say that he hath been angry with you; but behold, his sharpness was the sharpness of the power of the word of God, which was in him; and that which ye call anger was the truth, according to that which is in God, which he could not restrain, manifesting boldly concerning your iniquities” (v. 26). Before speaking to his sons individually, Lehi closes his general comments by promising to bestow his parental blessings only upon those who obey Nephi (1:28-29). Like the biblical Joseph and Nephi, Joseph Smith’s brothers may have resented the favored status he received from their father.23
Addressing the servant Zoram, Lehi describes him as a “true friend” to Nephi and promises that his descendants will “dwell in prosperity long upon the face of this land” (1:30-32). Of course, this is conditional, for as Smith already knows, the Zoramites will become notorious apostates holding beliefs not unlike the Presbyterians in Smith’s family (Alma 31).
Next, Lehi addresses his son Jacob, whom he describes as “my first-born in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness” (2 Ne. 2:1). Jacob was another of Lehi’s obedient sons who, in childhood, “suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren” (v. 1). Indeed, Laman and Lemuel were tyrannical and brutal toward their younger brothers. Nevertheless, Lehi promises Jacob that he will “dwell safely” with Nephi and predicts that his “days shall be spent in the service of [his] God” (v. 3).
Jacob may represent Joseph’s younger brother Samuel, who was Joseph Sr.’s first-born after his departure from Sharon, Vermont.24 Samuel was the first of the Smith brothers to be baptized. At the same time, Jacob seems to have characteristics that describe Cowdery. Jacob has seen Jesus in vision (2:4) and stands with Nephi as a second witness to Christ the Redeemer (11:3), much like the apostles Smith and Cowdery. Jacob was “called of God, and ordained after the manner of his holy order,” and “consecrated” by Nephi (6:2), which made him subordinate to Nephi. While Jacob’s brother is singled out to be a king over the New World theocracy, Jacob will nevertheless minister to the church. Like Cowdery, Jacob delivers the first recorded sermon to the church (6:1-10:25).25
Continuing his address, Lehi turns to doctrinal matters: the Fall, the Atonement, and free will—subjects that deeply divided Smith’s parents. Lehi’s discourse exhibits leanings towards Methodism, in keeping with Smith’s own sentiments, while at the same time taking issue with Joseph Sr.’s Universalism and Lucy’s Calvinism. In contrast to Calvinistic predestination—the belief that salvation is limited to God’s elect—Methodists were advocates of Arminian free will and believed that salvation is free and available to all humankind through acceptance of Jesus as savior. Unitarian-Universalists were Arminians but believed that salvation was unconditional and therefore not dependent on an atonement.
Lehi sounds like an Arminian when he declares: “And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free” (2:4). Unlike Smith’s Universalist father, Lehi argues for the necessity of a messiah, using Pauline language: “And by the law no flesh is justified; or by the law men are cut off. … Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah. … [who] offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, … and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered” (vv. 5, 6, 7; cf. Acts. 13:39; Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). Much like Abinadi (Mosiah 15:9),26 Lehi expounds what is known as the satisfaction theory of the Atonement. Lehi understands that in becoming the “first fruits” of the resurrection, Jesus will overcome death for all humankind (2:8, 9; cf. 1 Cor. 15:20), but that after the resurrection, all humanity will need to stand before God to be judged according to their works (v. 10). Speaking directly to Joseph Sr.’s Universalism, Lehi declares: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. … If ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness, there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not, there is no God” (2:11, 13). Continuing his discussion of opposites, Lehi rehearses the events leading up to the Fall. In opposition to the tree of life, God placed in the Garden of Eden the tree of “forbidden fruit” (2:15). Adam and Eve would not have been free agents, Lehi argues, without the enticement of opposites (v. 16).
In discussing Eve’s temptation by the serpent, Smith introduces two foreign elements to the story. First, in referring to the serpent, Lehi adds parenthetically: “yea, even that old serpent, who is the devil, who is the father of all lies” (2:18). It is doubtful that a sixth-century B.C. Jew would connect the serpent in Genesis with the devil. The concept of a personal devil, and the connection between serpent and devil, will not appear until New Testament times, which explains why Lehi’s language parallels Revelation 12:9 (cf. Rev. 20:2).
Second, Lehi’s explanation of the serpent-devil’s origin is anachronistic. He states: “I … must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God” (2:17). Lehi’s supposition about an angel comes from Isaiah 14:12, which in poetic language describes Lucifer’s fall from heaven (cf. 2 Ne. 24:12; D&C 76:25-26). The identification of Lucifer with the devil is post-biblical. The passage in Isaiah is imbedded in a taunt parable predicting the fall of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (14:4-21). The ancient prophet draws on the Canaanite myth regarding the “Day Star” (Vulgate, “Lucifer”) wanting to rise above all other stars, only to be cast down to hell by the sun. Jesus uses Isaiah’s imagery to describe both the fall of the city of Capernaum and the devil (Luke 10:15, 18), but nowhere in the New Testament is Lucifer a synonym for the devil. Nineteenth-century Bible commentator Adam Clarke complained about this common misinterpretation of Isaiah 14:12:
Although the context speaks explicitly concerning Nebuchadnezzar, yet this has been, I know not why, applied to the chief of the fallen angels, who is most incongruously denominated Lucifer, (the bringer of light!) an epithet as common to him as those of Satan and Devil. That the Holy Spirit by his prophets should call this arch-enemy of God and man the light-bringer, would be strange indeed. But the truth is, the text speaks nothing at all concerning Satan nor his fall, nor the occasion of that fall, which many divines have with great confidence deduced from this text.27
Nevertheless, Lehi reveals that “because [the devil] had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind” (2:18). Therefore, he tempted Eve, saying: “Partake of the forbidden fruit, and ye shall not die, but ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil” (2:18).28 In consequence of their rebellion, Adam and Eve were driven from the garden (v. 19) and, “because of the transgression of their [first] parents,” “all men … were lost” (v. 21). Instead of dying immediately, humans were given “a state of probation” in which to repent and prove their obedience to God (v. 21). This view of life, as we have seen already in connection with the teachings of Alma (Alma 12:24; 42:4),29 troubled Universalists.
In contrast to mainstream Protestantism, Lehi goes on to teach that the Fall served a good purpose and was according to God’s will: “And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. … And they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. … Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2:22-23, 25). Just like Nephi beheading Laban, Smith’s Adam finds it necessary to violate God’s commandment against eating of the tree of knowledge in order to fulfill a higher law and bring about a greater good. Smith was not the originator of what is sometimes called the “fortunate Fall,” but for more than obvious reasons, he was attracted to this otherwise obscure idea.
The essence of what probably attracted Smith to this doctrine is set forth in the words of fifth-century theologian St. Augustine: “The works of God are so wisely and exquisitely contrived that, when an angelic and human creature sins … it fulfills what He willed.”30 English poet John Milton portrayed Adam as uncertain if he should even repent of his sin, since by it, God had produced so much good that otherwise would have remained undone: “O goodness infinite, goodness immense! / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good; more wonderful / Than that which by creation first brought forth.” In order that “much more good … shall spring” from his sin, Adam—in Milton’s construction—decides to delay repentance and trust in God’s mercy.31 Unlike Eve, Adam transgressed willfully and knowingly, bringing both spiritual and physical death upon himself, but all for the good of humankind. For Smith to argue that Adam violated God’s commandment to bring about a greater good, and at the same time act according to God’s will, justified the contradictory actions of Smith’s own mission.
Lehi declares that “the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall” (2:26). This redemption makes humans “free forever” in the sense that they can choose either “liberty and eternal life” or “captivity and death” (vv. 26, 27). Smith’s idealized father implores his sons to “look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments” and choose “eternal life” and not “eternal death” (vv. 28, 29). This version of Arminian free will would have been difficult for most Universalists, especially the idea that God would give human beings free agency and then punish them for exercising it.32
Lehi next addresses his son Joseph, “my last-born … in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee” (3:1). This corresponds to the birth of Don Carlos in Norwich, Vermont, where the harsh conditions forced the Smiths to move to western New York. Carlos missed the worst years of the family’s afflictions—the financial crisis in Tunbridge and Randolph, the typhoid epidemic in Lebanon, and the hunger in Norwich. By giving Lehi’s youngest son the name Joseph, there may be a subtle hint that Joseph Smith wished he could have traded places with Carlos.
Lehi blesses Joseph that his “seed shall not utterly be destroyed” (3:2-3). Since Joseph’s posterity is numbered among Nephi’s (D&C 3:17; 4 Ne. 1:36, 37; Morm. 1:8), the subject of survivors is confusing. Despite previous predictions of the absolute destruction of all the Nephites (Mosiah 12:8; Alma 9:24; Hel. 7:24; 15:17), Mormon and Moroni created a problem by allowing for the possibility of survivors (Morm. 6:15; 8:2; Moro. 1:2). Lehi’s words may have been an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction (see also 1 Ne. 13:30; 2 Ne. 9:53).
Lehi tells his son that he is a descendant of the patriarch Joseph who was sold into Egypt by his brothers (3:4). Drawing on an unknown source, Lehi says the ancient Joseph received a promise from the Lord that “out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel” (v. 5). Lest there be confusion about the identity of the “righteous branch,” Lehi adds that this is “not the Messiah, but a branch which was to be broken off” (3:5), but he struggles here with his metaphors because of the predictions referring to the Messiah as the “Branch” (Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12; cf. Isa. 4:2). The other branch, says Lehi, will be “remembered in the covenants of the Lord that the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing them out of darkness unto light—yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom” (3:5). Lehi’s unknown source is likely Smith’s expansion of Genesis 50:24-25 wherein ancient Joseph predicts about his posterity: “God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land.” When Joseph Smith “restores” the text of Genesis 50, probably in 1832, he not only inserts 2 Nephi 3:5-15 but clarifies 2 Nephi 3:5, adding that the severed branch “shall be carried into a far country” (JST Gen. 50:25). The original prediction pertained to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, but Smith expands it to include the latter-day Indians in America.
Lehi adds a direct quote from ancient Joseph, which again has no parallel in Genesis:
Thus saith the Lord unto me [Joseph]: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers. (3:7)
Confronted by Cowdery’s aspirations of being a revelator to the church, Smith inserts himself into Book of Mormon prophecy as “a choice seer,” foreordained to fulfill God’s “commandment” to perform “a work” that will convert the Indians. This passage asserts that the modern seer will be a descendant of the ancient Joseph and share the same lineage with the Indians. While many in Smith’s day speculated about the diffusion of Israelite blood throughout Europe, Smith moved from theory to certainty and named his Israelite tribe. This was familiar to Cowdery; his father was part of a group in and around Middletown, Vermont, that in the early 1800s not only predicted the end of the world but, by using divining rods, determined each other’s Israelite lineage.33
In the fertile environment of Fayette, Smith looked beyond his work as translator and began to consider his role as church leader. Only the previous March, he seemed content to accomplish the work at hand, as indicated in a revelation dictated at the time: “[Smith] has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (Book of Commandments 4:2).34 In almost identical words in the Book of Mormon, placed in the mouth of ancient Joseph, Smith now makes a subtle change: “And I will give unto him a commandment that he shall do none other work, save the work which I shall command him. And I will make him great in mine eyes; for he shall do my work” (2 Ne. 3:8, 11; emphasis added). Ancient Joseph declares that this latter-day seer “shall be great like unto Moses” (v. 9). In other words, he will become the leader of a religious movement.
The Lord tells ancient Joseph that the latter-day seer will take the Book of Mormon, which confirms the Bible, to the Indians: “Wherefore, the fruit of thy loins shall write; and the fruit of the loins of Judah shall write; and that which shall be written … shall grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bring them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord” (3:12). Besides converting the Indians and supporting the Bible, Smith hopes his book will end the kind of sectarian controversy that had divided his home and community.
Any doubt as to the identity of this “choice seer” is dispelled when ancient Joseph predicts: “And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father” (3:15). This gives Joseph Smith authority over everything concerned with the restoration of the primitive gospel. The insertion of such a prophecy at the beginning of Nephite history creates a puzzle. Had later seers known about the prophecy of ancient Joseph, they could have addressed their latter-day translator in a more intimate way. In giving instructions to the future translator, Moroni could have called him by name (Ether 5). Alma might have mentioned in his discussion of the latter-day “Gazelem” that the name of the “servant” with the “stone” would be Joseph (Alma 37:23). Jesus could have said that Joseph, the son of Joseph, was the latter-day “servant” of whom he spoke (3 Ne. 21:9-11).
Concerning the latter-day Joseph Jr., ancient Joseph declares: “And he shall be like unto me” (3:15). Besides sharing the same name, both are seers and interpreters of dreams; both suffer from sibling rivalry; both are favored sons with their fathers; both bring salvation to their families.35
Ancient Joseph declares that he is as certain of the coming of the latter-day Joseph as he is of the coming of Moses (v. 16). In fact, the latter-day Joseph will be like Moses, mighty in writing but not in speech (3:17-18). Therefore, God will “make for him a spokesman” (v. 18), by which, of course, Cowdery is intended. God declares to ancient Joseph: “I will give unto him that he shall write the writing of the fruit of thy loins, unto the fruit of thy loins; and the spokesman of thy loins shall declare it” (v. 18). Again, Smith is asserting his preeminence over Cowdery by comparing their relationship to that of Moses and Aaron.
Ancient Joseph continues, seeming to predict that the Book of Mormon will be buried and uncovered, in words that allude to Isaiah 29:4: “And it shall be as if the fruit of thy loins had cried unto them from the dust; for I know their faith. And they shall cry from the dust; yea, even repentance unto their brethren, even after many generations have gone by them” (3:19-20). Smith has already connected Isaiah 29:4 with the Book of Mormon (Morm. 8:23; Moro. 10:27), but in placing words into the mouth of ancient Joseph, he creates a serious anachronism. This situation is further complicated by linking Isaiah 29:4 with the phrase “I know their faith.” Smith had previously used the phrase in connection with Isaiah 29:4 when Moroni declared: “Those saints who have gone before me, who have possessed this land, shall cry, yea, even from the dust will they cry unto the Lord. … And he knoweth their prayers, that they were in behalf of their brethren. And he knoweth their faith. … And behold, their prayers were also in behalf of him that the Lord should suffer to bring these things forth” (Morm. 8:23, 24, 25). Moroni’s words were in turn inspired by a revelation Smith received in May 1829, shortly before dictating Moroni’s prediction (D&C 10:46-52; emphasis added).36 That ancient Joseph would use a similar combination of words seems unlikely. Later, Smith expands Isaiah 29, reworking the entire chapter into a prophecy about the Book of Mormon (2 Ne. 27).37
Lehi then utters a prophecy concerning a latter-day leader who will appear “among” the Indians: “And there shall rise up one mighty among them, who shall do much good, both in word and in deed, being an instrument in the hands of God, with exceeding faith to work mighty wonders, and do that thing which is great in the sight of God, unto the bringing to pass much restoration unto the house of Israel, and unto the seed of thy brethren” (3:24). Some commentators have interpreted the words “rise up … among them” literally, asserting that the latter-day leader would be a descendant of Lehi’s son Joseph. However, this is better understood as a reiteration of the prediction regarding the latter-day Joseph, the son of Joseph, whom God will “raise up” from among his lineage (3:6). Again, Smith is portrayed as the leader of the restoration, not Cowdery or anyone else.
Lehi closes his address to his youngest son by bidding him to remember the words of his “dying father” (3:25). He then calls together the children of Laman and Lemuel and warns them of God’s curse upon the wicked (4:3-9). Nevertheless, he leaves his blessing with them, promising that they will “not utterly be destroyed; but in the end … be blessed” (vv. 6, 9, 10). The final blessing is saved for Lehi’s son Sam, who is promised that he will be numbered with Nephi’s seed (4:11), which perhaps explains the absence of Sam’s posterity (Samites) in Nephite history, as opposed to Jacobites and Josephites, who are mentioned (cf. D&C 3:17; 4 Ne. 1:36, 37; Morm. 1:8).
Soon after blessing his family, Lehi dies (4:12); and “not many days” afterwards, Laman and Lemuel become “angry” with Nephi (v. 13), who explains that the details of this dispute are recorded on his other plates (v. 14). This may allude to material that was in the lost manuscript. Instead of this, Smith offers an introspective psalm of Nephi’s composition (2 Ne. 4:15-35). Aside from his struggle with the Spirit over the slaying of Laban, the character of Nephi has remained transparent, two-dimensional, and predictable until now. Unlike his previous self-righteousness in preaching to his older brothers, Nephi suddenly reveals his sense of weakness and his spiritual conflicts, bringing complexity to an otherwise wooden character.
Through Nephi, Smith reveals that his theology is not that of an extreme Arminian, but rather, one that retains the Calvinistic concept of human depravity: “Notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me” (4:17-18; cf. Hel. 12:4-8). The obvious borrowing from the New Testament aside (cf. Rom. 7:24; Heb. 12:1), one wonders why the obedient Nephi would suffer such anguish and psychological conflict. In fact, the description seems appropriate for Joseph Smith, who despite his desire to serve God, struggles with the flesh: drinking, fighting, womanizing. Reflecting on his past—the period just prior to the angel’s appearance to him—Smith once confessed that he “frequently fell into many foolish errors and displayed … the corruption of human nature” which resulted in “the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.”38 One sees in this an inner struggle between the saint that Joseph wanted to be and the man he was.
Despite the burden of guilt, Smith will continue to trust in God. As Nephi declares: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (4:19). Nephi recounts the many ways in which the Lord has sustained him despite his sinful nature (vv. 20-25). Most significantly, he reveals that God has given him “knowledge by visions in the nighttime” and that, as a result of his prayers, “angels came down and ministered unto me” (vv. 23, 24). In other words, despite feeling guilty and remorseful, Smith’s receipt of revelations, or at least his moments of intense charismatic experience, were for him an indication that God forgave him and sanctioned his methods.
It is likely that Smith—through Nephi—defended himself against the criticism of those who detected the human side of the would-be prophet. David Whitmer recalled that “the unbelievers frequently attempted to confound the faithful few by asking them if they supposed ‘that fool boy’ could write anything, or that God would select such a wretch as a medium of communicating His will. The ready answer was that God was not very particular as to the instruments used to accomplish certain desired ends, and that devils as well as angels had their places in His economy.”39 It is interesting that, rather than deny Smith’s wretchedness, Whitmer defends God’s ability to work through whomever he chooses.
Perhaps providing a clue as to the nature of Smith’s wretchedness in Fayette, Nephi reveals that the sin that troubles him most is anger towards his enemies: “And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (4:27). One constant in Smith’s personality is his intolerance of criticism and resulting harsh responses. Fayette provided favorable soil for Smith’s budding church, but it was not without its challenges, both internally and externally. Smith recalled that his work at the Whitmer home was frequently interrupted by “numerous inquirers,” some of whom came “for the purpose of putting hard questions, and trying to confound us.” Smith specifically remembered that “several learned Priests … came for the purpose of disputation,” but that the Spirit guided him and Cowdery in what to say, “so that although unlearned, and inexperienced in religious controversies, yet [they] were … able to confound those learned Rabbi’s of the day.”40 It is unlikely that these exchanges were dispassionate, and the pressure to speak by inspiration to confound enemies may have produced feelings of frustration and anger in Smith. Perhaps he allowed his anger to get the best of him to the point of public displays that were unbecoming of a prophet, which would have drawn criticism both from followers and enemies. Indeed, there was good reason for ancient Joseph to include in his prediction of the latter-day “choice seer” the apologetic phrase “out of weakness he shall be made strong” (3:13).
Smith had reason to pray with Nephi: “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul. Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions. … O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin? … O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! … Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy” (vv. 27-29, 31, 33). The point Smith hoped to make was that if Nephi could succumb to sin and still be an inspired prophet, so could he.
1. James H. Hart to Editor, 18 Mar. 1884, Bear Lake Democrat (Paris, ID), 28 Mar. 1884 (see Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 5:108; hereafter EMD).
4. Ibid., 23 (EMD 1:81). On John Whitmer’s possible baptism in June 1829, see Diedrich Willers Jr., Centennial Historical Sketch of the Town of Fayette, Seneca County, New York, 1800-1900 (Geneva, NY: W. F. Humphrey, 1900), 47 (EMD 5:293); see also Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Book Store, 1981), 25.
6. Note that Smith’s history states only that the angel, identified as John the Baptist, “acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchisedeck, which priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us” (18). It does not state that this additional authority would be given to them personally by the three apostles.
11. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: D. Whitmer, 1887), 32 (EMD 5:200). Whitmer told Edward Stevenson that he had been “ordained an Elder [the] last of June ” (Edward Stevenson, journal, 2 Jan. 1887, 28:128, LDS Church Archives [EMD 5:187].
14. The revelation published as Section 18 in modern editions of the Doctrine and Covenants was received in June 1829 on or before Cowdery’s letter of 14 June 1829 which was influenced by the revelation (see Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 29).
15. Oliver Cowdery, “A commandment from God unto Oliver [Cowdery] how he should build up his church & the manner thereof. … A true Copy of the articles of the Church of Christ,” ca. June 1829, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church Archives (EMD 2:409-12). The exact date is not given, but it was “Written in the year of our Lord & Savior 1829.” Since the document is, at several points, dependent on Doctrine and Covenants 18, it was probably composed sometime during or following June 1829. Also, it is interesting to note that Smith’s 1838-39 history places section 20—also called “the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ”—in a June 1829 context rather than in June 1830, the date of its composition (Smith, Manuscript History, 29-34 [EMD 1:90]).
18. While Smith’s dictation exhibits a natural division between First and Second Nephi with the following superscription, the creation of two books was an afterthought. Smith at first treated the superscription as the beginning of a new chapter, not unlike the superscriptions that begin chapters 5, 7, 9, 17, 21, 36, 38, 39, and 45 of the Book of Alma. He then decided to create a new book by inserting above the line “second” before “Book of Nephi” followed by “Chapte[r] I.” The division of Nephi’s record into two books probably reflects a natural break in the lost manuscript: First Nephi representing Mormon’s abridgment of Lehi’s record, Second Nephi his abridgement of Nephi’s record.
19. Decades before DNA confirmed the linkage between Asiatics and Native Americans (see Thomas W. Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics,” in Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002], 47-77), John L. Sorenson wrote that “the scientific information is unmistakable. There was definite continuity of population from earlier times into the days of the Nephites” (John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; and Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985], 87). He postulated that the Asiatics “absorbed” Lehi’s descendants so that the Lamanites are now lost in the “biological milieu” of Middle America (89). To the question: why is there no mention of the Asiatics in the Book of Mormon? Sorenson suggested that the Nephites “would have seen all people with whom they came in contact ‘out there’ as ‘Lamanites,’ for in the Nephite scheme of thought at that time, who else could those dark-skinned lurkers in the forest have been? We can be assured that they did not chat with them to check about their ancestry” (84). However, the Nephite contact with Lamanites is not confined to sightings of “dark-skinned lurkers in the forest.” In the century just before the birth of Christ, Alma and the sons of Mosiah spend fourteen years traveling and preaching in the lands of the Lamanites (Alma 17-26). After the Nephite missionaries convert a portion of the Lamanites, the angry Lamanites gather an army from “all the land round about” of all those “who had not been converted” (24:1). When those in the Lamanite army see that those who convert will not resist them and instead die while praising God, more than a thousand of the Lamanite army are converted. Yet, as the Book of Mormon informs, all those who convert, out of this vast army consisting of both Nephite dissenters and Lamanite warriors, are “actual descendants of Laman and Lemuel” (24:29; emphasis added). The point is that Nephite dissenters were too hardened to convert, not that Asiatics were impossible to convert. Despite Sorenson’s assertion, the Nephites know the ancestry of those in Lamanite territory.
21. Joseph Smith to N. C. Saxton, 4 Jan. 1833, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 273; and Joseph Smith, Journal, 9 Nov. 1835, LDS Church Archives (EMD 1:44).
22. Lehi’s phrase, “from whence no traveler can return” (cf. Mosiah 3:25), may be influenced by Shakespeare’s “but that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Hamlet, III, i, 78-80).
27. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible … With a Commentary and Critical Notes (New York, 1811-17), s.v., Isa. 14:12. Universalist Elhanan Winchester devoted an entire chapter to “Lucifer Prince of the Fallen Angels” in his A Course of Lectures on the Prophecies, 2 vols. (Walpole, NH, 1800), chap. 37.
28. Genesis 3:5 reads differently: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (emphasis added). The change from plural to singular “God” in 2 Nephi 2:18 changes the referent; the first implies the deification of humans, the last suggests that humans can acquire an attribute of deity. Smith’s shift is toward a more conservative reading and indicates that his theology at this time was far from the transcendentalism expressed in his later years. Note, however, that in reworking Genesis 3 the following year, Smith retains the plural “gods” (Moses 4:11).
32. Hosea Ballou, for example, argued: “It is certainly reasonable to suppose, that all the agency possessed by man, was given him by his Maker; and that, when God gave him this agency, it was for certain purpose, which purpose must, finally, be every way answered, providing God is infinitely wise. And I cannot think it incorrect, to suppose, that God ever gave any creature agency to perform what he never intended should be done. Then, if any soul is made endlessly miserable, by its agency, it follows, that God gave that soul this agency, for that blessed end. If any wish to make a different use of agency, let them state fairly, that God gave man an agency, intending man’s eternal salvation thereby; but man makes a different use of his agency, from what God intended, whereby the gracious designs of Deity are forever lost!” (Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement [Randolph, VT, 1805], 139).
33. See Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont (Rutland, VT: Tuttle and Co., 1867), 46 (EMD 1:599-600, 603). William Cowdery’s association with the rodsmen of Middletown, Vermont, has been questioned by Larry E. Morris, “Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism,” BYU Studies 39 (2000): 113-18. If Cowdery was not a member of the group, he would have been acquainted with their beliefs.
34. Prior to publication in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Smith altered this passage to read: “And you [Smith] have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4; emphasis added; cf. 43:13).