Guest blog by Richard E. Bennett, professor of Church history and doctrine.
The success of the Protestant Reformation owes everything to the translation and printing of a book. Surely the efforts of such early martyrs as John Wycliffe and of later reformers such as William Tyndale and Martin Luther to print and disseminate the Holy Bible were indispensable to the ultimate success of the Reformation, also made possible by the previous invention of movable type and the printing press by Johann Gutenberg. No amount of book burnings those many years ago, which tried to destroy the power of the written word, could hold back the oncoming printed tide of religious change.
So, too, the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in large measure depended on the power and printing of another book. On this, the 165th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, it is appropriate to pause and remember its causes. Historians continue to offer a variety of immediate explanations: the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, Missourians anxious at extradition, Thomas C. Sharp and the issue of separation of Church and state, the intrigue of John C. Bennett and a cadre of other disgruntled former Latter-day Saints, plural marriage?the list goes on.
However, it may be instructive to remember that in Doctrine and Covenants 135, John Taylor, who was an eyewitness to the event, attributed it not to any one of these things but rather to the power of the pen?or press?specifically to the publication of two new books of scripture. As John Taylor stated, it was the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants that “cost the best blood of the nineteenth century to bring them forth for the salvation of a ruined world” (D&C 135:6).
The published herald and evidence of the truthfulness of the Restoration was ever the Book of Mormon. More than any other factor, it was the Book of Mormon which distinguished the rise of the early Church of Jesus Christ and converted a foundation of loyal and devoted membership upon which the Church was built?and later thrived. Said Parley P. Pratt:
I read it carefully and diligently, a great share of it, without knowing that the priesthood had been restored?without ever having heard of anything called “Mormonism,” or having any idea of such Church and people.
There were the witnesses and their testimony to the Book, to its translation, and to the ministration of angels; and there was the testimony of the translator; but I had not seen them, I had not heard of them, and hence I had no idea of their organization or of their Priesthood. All I knew about the matter was what, as a stranger, I could gather from the book: but as I read, I was convinced that it was true; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon me while I read and enlightened my mind, convinced my judgment and riveted the truth upon my understanding, so that I knew that the book was true, just as well as a man knows the daylight from the dark night, or any other things that can be implanted in his understanding. (In Journal of Discourses [Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1858], 193–94)
And even before Pratt met with Joseph Smith, he visited with his brother, Hyrum, who unfolded to him “the particulars of the discovery of the Book; its translation; the rise of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and the commission of his brother, Joseph, and others, by revelation and the ministering of angels, by which the apostleship and authority had been again restored to the earth” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985], 22).
“Parley Pratt’s experience with the Book of Mormon was not unique,” President Gordon B. Hinckley commented in much more recent times. “As the volumes of the first edition were circulated and read, strong men and women by the hundreds were so deeply touched that they gave up everything they owned, and in the years that followed not a few even gave their lives for the witness they carried in their hearts of the truth of this remarkable volume” (“A Testimony Vibrant and True,” Ensign, August 2005, 3).
And if the work of these two brothers?loyal to each other as they were to the message of Cumorah?began with the Book of Mormon, it ended with it. The final scripture the two men read together before they were shot to death in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, was not from the Bible but from the Book of Mormon.
The same morning, after Hyrum had made ready to go?shall it be said, to the slaughter??he read the following paragraph, near the close of the twelfth chapter of Ether, in the Book of Mormon, and turned down the leaf upon it:
And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou has seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. And now I . . . bid farewell unto the Gentiles; yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood. (D&C 135:5)
“He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!” (135:3).