Perhaps the best summary of the origins of one of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith’s earlier The Signs of the Times, comes from a couple of lectures given by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He brought the book up as a way to illustrate some doctrine on the atonement of Jesus Christ that he was teaching. He told essentially the same story about Elder Smith twice to two different classes, but since he added some further detail to the second recounting it is also included here:books,
“Years ago , President Joseph Fielding Smith gave a series of lectures for the MIA, and they [the MIA leaders] weren’t quite as smart as they should have been; they didn’t know what a good thing they had, but they caught on pretty quick. He gave the first lecture and it was on the atonement and the nature of the atonement. He said these various things that we’re saying here tonight [that the atonement of Christ applies to an infinite number of worlds]. But they hadn’t been as smart as they should’ve been, so they didn’t record his first sermon. They recorded all the rest. All the rest of them are published in this book The Signs of the Times. But they asked him to write the first one so that it could [also] be published, which he did. And it’s published in his book The Signs of the Times.
“However, he did what any of us [general authorities] would have done; when he rewrote it he left out some things that were true but which you can’t say generally to the world. He left out all of this business about Christ being the redeemer of worlds without number for the very reason that we don’t preach this because it raises more questions than it answers. However, in the course of this lecture that he gave he made this little explanation which is quite helpful: He said the most wicked of all people came to this earth (this is the unpublished version), and also the most righteous. He said Christ came to this earth to work out the atonement for all the earths that there are. Then he said, ‘It’s obvious what happened: Christ then went and appeared on other earths, all these infinite number of earths, and when He appeared He said I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. I was born down there on the earth and went through my mortal probation and worked out my own salvation and on that earth I worked out the infinite and eternal atoning sacrifice and hence salvation is available to you if you become my sons and daughters.’ And he said, ‘The illustration of that is this: Christ worked out the atoning sacrifice in Jerusalem, in the old world among the Jews, and after He had come forth in the resurrection, then He went over to the American continent and appeared to the Nephites and said I am Jesus Christ the Son of God, and I worked out the atonement and it’s past and now salvation is available.’ So he said He appeared to the people on all the worlds and made the announcement on the same basis that He made the announcement to the Nephites that lived on a different continent.
“I thought that was a pretty good illustration that dramatizes to us and crystallizes in our minds how the information goes to this infinite number of worlds He created.
“I repeat: this knowledge just gives us a perspective of the infinite nature of creation and redemption and it doesn’t answer many questions.” (“Atonement of Christ,” unpublished lecture transcript, University of Utah Institute,
27 November 1967; see also
Joseph Fielding Smith, The Signs of the
Times [ Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1970], 1-18.)
In the second lecture Elder McConkie added a little more detail:
“When President Joseph Fielding Smith gave the series of lectures The Signs of the Times, published in a little book they [the MIA] were a little asleep at the switch and didn’t know what a good thing they had and he delivered this first lecture, and they didn’t take it down or record it. But they woke up and all the rest of them they took down so they could be published in a book. They had to have him write down the first one. The first one he devoted to this subject [the infinite atonement applying to other worlds]. But when he wrote it he didn’t put in it what he really said, I guess in wisdom, because you don’t preach this sort of thing because it creates more questions than answers. What he actually said in that first lecture was the doctrine that Christ redeemed all the worlds that He created. His analogy was this—and I thought it was pretty good—he said, ‘He worked out the atonement in Jerusalem and then He came to the Nephites and appeared to them. And He said, I am Jesus Christ. I was over in
Jerusalem; I worked out
the atonement. Immortality and eternal life are now available.’ ‘Now,’ he said,
‘That’s the pattern, and He did it for all the worlds. He went to other worlds
and He appeared on other worlds and He said, Brethren, I’m Jesus Christ, I’m
the Son of God; I was born on the planet earth; I passed through my probation
there. I worked out the infinite atonement there. I was crucified. Now I have
come to tell you this has been done and I want you to feel the nail marks in my
hands and in my feet and know that I am the God of Israel and did these things
on the earth.’ And so he announced to other worlds what he had done on this
earth. That was President Smith’s explanation of how the word was spread
throughout the infinite creations of God of what had happened here. We just
happen to live on the particular earth that was chosen as the one on which the
Son of God would come. But it’s quite apparent that this [atonement] is so
infinite in nature that it applies everywhere.
“Please, let’s not ask any questions about how these things can operate where resurrection and other things are concerned because we just don’t know. I can ask endless questions of myself that I don’t know the answer to about how this can all be. It’s beyond our capacity and what we are hoping to do is limit ourselves to the concept which we don’t preach generally but which isn’t any secret.
“One of the General Authorities heard this doctrine and he said, “I never heard such a doctrine in my life,” and Marion G. Romney said, “I can’t understand that; I was brought up on that doctrine from the moment that I could understand anything in my family that was ever said.” Well, it’s not taught generally but it is known and it is taught and the concept as far as we’ve gone is something that we might well be aware of and understand.” (“Atonement II,” BYU 1967 summer graduate religion class lecture transcript, n.p.)