Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
During December, our thoughts may turn to a wintry day in a small farmhouse in Vermont where Joseph Smith Jr. drew his first breath in 1805. Or we may ponder a hot, muggy Thursday afternoon in June 1844 when the Prophet drew his final breath.
During his lifetime, Joseph Smith was many things—a dutiful son, a loving father, a kind neighbor, a visionary community leader. In addition, he was a prophet of God.
From the beginning, prophets have had specific duties. Noah built an ark. Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage. Joshua let the Israelites into the promised land. Lehi and Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem about an impending exile. Peter and Paul took the gospel to the nations of the earth. No matter what specific assignments they have, all prophets stand as witnesses of the Lord.
Joseph Smith was no different. He received numerous assignments from the Lord. Nevertheless, his greatest and most important role as a prophet was to be a modern witness for Jesus Christ. In 1820, Joseph Smith recorded, “It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. 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 1:17).
In 1832, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon testified, “For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:23).
In 1836, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery testified, “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah” (Doctrine and Covenants 110:2-3).
Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry can easily be divided into two separate but related duties.
First, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. He did this primarily through bringing forth the Book of Mormon and establishing the Church of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon and the Church focus on the Atonement of Christ, repentance, salvation, and eternal life. This first assignment saw its culmination in the restoration of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, which allow us to enter the celestial kingdom. This is called the “fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Second, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as the “maker and finisher of our faith.” He did this primarily through the revelations he received, beginning in 1832, regarding exaltation and eternal lives (see Doctrine and Covenants 76, 84, 88, and 93). This last assignment saw its culmination in the temple, in which Latter-day Saints receive the ordinances of the Church of the Firstborn that allow them to come unto the presence of Elohim.
All the blessings and promises we announce to the inhabitants of the earth come through and by Jesus Christ—God’s own son. Certainly, it is all “good news.” Without Jesus Christ, we have nothing. Joseph Smith said on May 12, 1844, just a few weeks before he was murdered, “The Savior has the words of eternal life—nothing else can profit us” (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980], 365).
As we listen to Joseph’s witness of Jesus Christ, we hear the voice of Jesus because “Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer” (William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” Hymns [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 27).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Joseph Smith received a revelation the day the Church was organized in Fayette, New York (USA), in April 1830, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). The Prophet’s efforts have provided Church members and interested historians a number of primary sources that allow us to reconstruct his remarkable life. Certainly, anyone interested in Joseph Smith would like to have more material—more letters, minutes, diaries, and other items from his pen, but given the historical realities of nineteenth-century life, we are fortunate to have a rather large body of material to draw from as we study his life and ministry.
These important documents are preserved in various repositories in the United States, including the Church History Library in Salt Lake City and the Community of Christ Library-Archive in Independence, Missouri. In the past, historians had to travel to these archives to study the documents in order to prepare interpretive essays and books. Because of space limitations, they could reproduce only extracts from these primary sources—an act of interpretation itself, leaving the reader only a taste of what the original sources reveal.
Beginning in the 1970s, Church leaders and scholars realized it would be helpful to provide accurate transcriptions of these primary sources to a larger audience and to help preserve these fragile documents from frequent handling. After a rather long road, the Church announced it would publish two thousand primary documents relating to Joseph Smith’s life and ministry in a thirty-volume set, The Joseph Smith Papers, organized by specific types of material, including journals, documents, histories, administrative papers, revelations and inspired translations, and legal and business items.
Drawing from a variety of public and private collections, including those in private possession, these important records will provide a window into the story of Joseph Smith and, as a result, the early world of Mormonism. Church historian and recorder Elder Marlin K. Jensen opined, “The study of these historical sources, particularly in their earliest forms, provides students of Joseph Smith with an enriched understanding of the Prophet’s life and the development of the restored Church” (forthcoming July 2009 Ensign article).
The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008) was recently released just in time to celebrate the Prophet’s remarkable life on the anniversary of his birth on 23 December. Next year an important volume in the Revelations and Translations series will appear as the second published volume. In this volume, the earliest known copies of Joseph Smith’s revelations will be carefully reproduced. Elder Jensen observed, “Joseph seemed to regard the manuscript revelations as his best efforts to capture the voice of the Lord condescending to communicate in what Joseph called the ‘crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language’ of men” (July 2009 Ensign article). The series will continue from there.
When I recently picked up the first volume at the BYU Bookstore, I plowed into the book—some five hundred pages. First, it is an attractive volume, well made—printed on high quality paper and designed to last a lifetime of repeated handling. It includes meticulous transcriptions of the original sources; a variety of visual images (maps, photographs of individuals, and examples of some of the documents); carefully prepared charts (including a detailed chronology, genealogical table, ecclesiastical organization); a remarkable glossary; well-written introductory essays to each document; thoughtful annotations of the texts; and well-researched geographical and biographical directories. It is truly a treasure and worth every penny it cost ($49.95). Although I was familiar with the documents published in this first volume, the annotations and introductions brought to life the meaning and importance of the documents. I found myself marking passages that caught my attention. For example, on 1 April 1834, Joseph Smith wrote, “My Soul delighteth in the Law of the Lord for he forgiveth my sins” (p. 37). Many such entries will surprise and delight readers.
Readers do not begin at page 1 and read straight through to the end in the same kind of way we do with a biography. This is a documentary project—the type of effort loved by academics and appreciated by those who love to have an original copy of their grandfather’s diary or their mother’s personal letters. There is something about such documents that allow us to touch the past in a way that an interpretive work cannot do.
The Joseph Smith Papers will provide a personal and intimate look at the life of Joseph Smith. Historians will carefully comb through the volumes in order to provide new, fresh perspectives on the Prophet. Already The Joseph Smith Papers offer new insights, correct past assumptions, and get us closer to the original world of Joseph Smith, the latter-day Prophet. It is truly a good time to be alive!
For an overview of the project, see http://josephsmithpapers.org/Default.htm.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The most recent National Geographic (December 2008) arrived this past week with a cover story announcing the “Real King Herod.” During the Christmas season, we often reflect on Herod because of the story preserved in Matthew: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).
While I found the article insightful, I challenge a few claims. Although the National Geographic author argues that Herod was “almost certainly innocent of this crime” (40), there is significant evidence that Herod, like other Hellenistic kings and the Roman emperors themselves, killed anyone thought to be a threat to the political stability of the kingdom. Matthew’s account is a firsthand, early Jewish source for some of the events in the first century, recorded well before Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, began writing the story of the First Jewish War against the Romans (AD 66—70). Matthew’s story highlights Herod’s motives and tactics that accord with other primary sources, so historians should certainly be cautious about rejecting him while reconstructing the life of Herod.
Nevertheless, this article does provide some important insights to Herod’s reign beyond the few incidents noted in the New Testament. First, it brings to a much larger public the details of the discovery of Herod’s tomb earlier this year. Ehud Netzer, a prominent Israeli archeologist, had been looking for Herod’s tomb for thirty years before its monumental discovery. Second, this interesting article reveals, through word-pictures and reconstructed drawings of some of Herod’s most significant construction projects, that Herod was a master builder. His greatest achievement for his nation and for Judaism was the reconstruction and expansion of the temple, later known as Herod’s Temple, in Jerusalem.
This article helps us picture the world of Jesus as we become familiar with the people and places he visited. Shortly after Christ was born, Joseph and his mother Mary presented him to the Lord, according the Torah commandment, in the temple at Jerusalem (see Luke 2:22-40). There, a godly man and woman found him in the temple built by Herod and identified him as the long-promised Messiah. Herod the Great ruled Judea and adjacent territories as a client-king of the Roman Empire—the world that witnessed the birth of God’s Son, a world that has nearly vanished away. Only through the efforts of archaeologists and scholars like Ehud Netzer has that world become partially visible again. The recent discovery of Herod’s tomb southeast of Jerusalem adds another tile into the reconstructed mosaic of the world of the New Testament.