By Rex E. Lee
Rex E. Lee, “Dedication Remarks,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), xvii–xx.
Rex E. Lee
Rex E. Lee was president of Brigham Young University when this was published.
Today we not only dedicate a building, we also honor a man—and not any ordinary man. Joseph Smith’s life and work are as central to the Restoration, and to the welfare of humankind, as the learning that will occur in this building is central to the mission of our university.
From the days of my youth, one of my favorite hymns has always been “Praise to the Man.” I like the music, I like the words, and I love the central message. I bear testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. And indeed, among those of us who are absolutely convinced of the reality of the Restoration, reference to the “Prophet” means either the currently living prophet of the very first, the man who was “blessed to open the last dispensation.” He was great in his own right and even greater because of the responsibility that our Heavenly Father placed on him. Joseph Smith—so very much of the total body of truth, the reality of which we testify, including the Book of Mormon and the principles of revelation and priesthood authority, ties back to this man whom the Lord chose to initiate the dispensation of the fullness of times.
In one sense, of course, this is a new building. In another sense, it is not. For fifty years we have had a Joseph Smith Building. For that half century it was not the exclusive but the principal focus of our religious education. And for much of that time it was the center of large segments of our BYU life. It was the place where we ate our meals, worshipped our Maker, and carried on our social life. So many of my indelible BYU memories are tied to that building. Today we have met to dedicate its replacement.
One of the most prominent physical features of the original Joseph Smith Building was a three-part vertical mural installed, as I remember, in 1954 in the stairs leading from the foyer to the second floor. It depicted three aspects of Joseph Smith’s character and life. The three—head, heart, and hand—were obviously taken from our official BYU song written by Annie Pike Greenwood in 1892. The mural itself is presently “in storage.” I have no idea whether its three panels will ever find a place in this building, and I express no view on that issue. But on the occasion of this dedicatory ceremony, I would like to make just a few comments about the three aspects of the Prophet’s life and character that are demonstrated by that three-part mural.
The head, the heart, the hand: Joseph Smith was not only the central person in the Restoration (the fulfillment of which is the principal objective of this university), he is also singularly exemplary of the intellectual as well as the spiritual dimensions of what we do here. He was a true scholar, a true intellectual, one who was fascinated not only with knowledge but with the learning process itself.
An entry in the Prophet’s diary dated Tuesday, 22 December 1835, reads: “Continued by studys O may God give me learning even Language and indo[w] me with qualifycations to magnify his name while I live.” His account the preceding day contains an entry that further reveals his scholarly instincts. After first observing that he “Spent this [day] in indeavering to treasure up know[l]edge for the be[n]ifit of my Calling,” he then observed that “the day pas[s]ed of[f] very pleasantly” (Jessee 177). Both of those diary entries are short and, at first glance, seemingly inconsequential. But to anyone who has experienced the frustrations and joys of scholarly effort, they tell us much about the man who wrote them over a century and a half ago.
The Prophet also had a heart. The year 1838 may have been as difficult as any that he or the Church was ever required to endure. That was the year of the extermination order, incarceration in Liberty Jail, and betrayal by close friends and associates. One of those who betrayed the Prophet during that fateful year was William W. Phelps, who wrote the words to another famous hymn, “Redeemer of Israel.” But in 1838, Phelps testified against the Prophet in a proceeding that resulted in Joseph and others being committed to Liberty Jail. Two years later, on 29 June 1840, this same Brother Phelps, then penitent and poverty-stricken, wrote to the Prophet:
I am alive, and with the help of God I mean to live still. I am as the prodigal son, though I never doubt or disbelieve the fulness of the Gospel. . . . I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed. . . . Says I, “I will repent and live, and ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten me to death, yet I will die with them, for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me, yea, it is bigger and better than all Babylon.” . . . I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. . . . I have done wrong and I am sorry. The beam is in my own eye. I have not walked along with my friends according to my holy anointing. I ask forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ of all the Saints, for I will do right, God helping me. (History of the Church 4:141–42; hereafter HC, also in Jessee 471–72)
Within a remarkably short time, given the circumstances of t he mail service in those days, the Prophet responded. He stated among other things: “Believing your confession to be real and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday and an expression of their feeling was taken, when it was unanimously resolved that W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.” And then he closed by quoting this couplet: “Come on dear Brother since the war is past, For friends at first are friends again at last” (HC 4:163–64; also in Jessee 472–73).
And now the hand. In volume 27 of the Juvenile Instructor, published in 1892, the following account is related by Brother Andrew Workman:
I was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, July 15th, 1824. Joined the Church in Overton County, Tennessee, March, 1842. I saw the Prophet Joseph for the first time in May of the same year. He was with about a dozen others on the stand in a meeting. I knew him as soon as I saw him. Although I was young I knew him to be a man of God.
A few days after this I was at Joseph’s house; he was there, and several men were sitting on the fence. Joseph came out and spoke to us all. Pretty soon a man came up and said that a poor brother who lived out some distance from town had had his house burned down the night before. Nearly all of the men said they felt sorry for the man. Joseph put his hand in his pocket, took out five dollars and said, “I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do you all feel sorry?” (641)
The head, the heart, the hand—the ability and the willingness to think, to feel, and to help others. Each is important to all who would be true daughters and sons of our Heavenly Father. But it is also true that Joseph Smith as a total person was greater than the sum of the parts, even parts as integral and important as head, heart, and hand. Joseph Smith was a man who “communed with Jehovah,” a man whose mission it was to “wake up the world for the conflict of justice” (Hymns #27). Today we dedicate a building that bears his name. May we also dedicate our lives to the kingdom he brought back to the world for the last time, and to those principles and beliefs that he taught and that are the mainstays of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
History of the Church. 7 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980.
Hymns. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
Jessee, Dean C., comp. and ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984.
Workman, Andrew. “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Juvenile Instructor (Oct 1892) 27:641–42.