(Part nineteen of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
While the standard procedure for the First Presidency is to ignore the enemies and critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they do sometimes manifest an awareness of what the devil’s mortal emissaries are saying and doing. As a natural result, President Hinckley occasionally referenced their public and private efforts to disturb or distract, or to diminish or destroy faith in Jesus Christ and His modern prophets. As President Hinckley noted, many of them have targeted Joseph Smith and his First Vision—and (as he notes) while they have had some small success among the weak in testimony, the true and faithful have not faltered.
The below statements and explanations given by President Hinckley over past decades are not exclusive to defending the First Vision only (his defense was much broader than that), but enough is mentioned on that subject to warrant inclusion here. Further, all can be benefited by his prophetic counsel on handling criticism of all kinds. His larger perspective placing the Prophet’s and the modern Church’s critics in their true context in relation to the kingdom of God and eternity is a valuable lesson to all. This prophet knew how to put the devil in his place:
What about the critics of the Church who have been so vocal of late?
We have them. We have always had them. They are not as vociferous as they once were. Noisy as they are, they are not as threatening. People ask whether we are fearful of research of our history. My reply to this is no, of course not, provided it is done with balance and integrity, as has been done by some scholars both in and out of the Church.
However, we are under no obligation to spend tithing funds to provide facilities and resources to those who have demonstrated that it is their objective to attack the Church and undermine its mission. These funds are sacred. They have been consecrated by the faithful to advance the work, and that is the way they will be used.
Our responsibility is to teach the gospel to the nations of the earth, to bear witness of the reality of God our Eternal Father, to declare the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, to testify that Their work has been restored in this dispensation for the accomplishment of Their eternal purposes, and to move that work forward under the mandate given us. This will require our time, our energies, and the resources available to us.
When we are called before the bar of God to give an accounting of our performance, I think it unlikely that any of us will be commended for wearing out our lives in an effort to find some morsel of history, incomplete in its context, to cast doubt on the integrity of this work. Rather, I believe we will be examined on what we did to build the kingdom, to bring light and understanding of the eternal truths of the gospel to the eyes and minds of all who are willing to listen, to care for the poor and the needy, and to make of the world a better place as a result of our presence.
An acquaintance said to me one day: “I admire your church very much. I think I could accept everything about it—except Joseph Smith.” To which I responded: “That statement is a contradiction. If you accept the revelation, you must accept the revelator.”
It is a constantly recurring mystery to me how some people speak with admiration for the Church and its work, while at the same time disdaining him through whom, as a servant of the Lord, came the framework of all that the Church is, of all that it teaches, and of all that it stands for. They would pluck the fruit from the tree while cutting off the root from which it grows. . . .
Not long ago, while riding in a plane, I engaged in conversation with a young man who was seated beside me. We moved from one subject to another, and then came to the matter of religion. He said that he had read considerably about the Mormons, that he had found much to admire in their practices, but that he had a definite prejudice concerning the story of the origin of the Church and particularly Joseph Smith. He was an active member of another organization, and when I asked where he had acquired his information, he indicated that it had come from publications of his church. I asked what company he worked for. He proudly replied that he was a sales representative for IBM. I then asked whether he would think it fair for his customers to learn of the qualities of IBM products from a Xerox representative. He replied with a smile, “I think I get the point of what you’re trying to say.”
I took from my case a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and read to him the words of the Lord expressed through Joseph Smith, words which are the source of those practices my friend had come to admire in us while disdaining the man through whom they had come. Before we parted, he agreed to read the literature I would send to him. I promised him that if he would do so prayerfully he would know the truth not only of these doctrines and practices which have interested him, but also of the man through whom they were introduced. I then gave him my testimony of my conviction concerning the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.
We do not worship the Prophet. We worship God our Eternal Father, and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. But we acknowledge him, we proclaim him, we respect him, we reverence him as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty in restoring to the earth the ancient truths of the divine gospel, together with the priesthood through which the authority of God is exercised in the affairs of his church and for the blessing of his people.
The story of Joseph’s life is the story of a miracle. He was born in poverty. He was reared in adversity. He was driven from place to place, falsely accused, and illegally imprisoned. He was murdered at the age of thirty-eight. Yet in the brief space of twenty years preceding his death he accomplished what none other has accomplished in an entire lifetime. He translated and published the Book of Mormon, a volume of 522 pages which has since been retranslated into more than a score of languages and which is accepted by millions across the earth as the word of God. The revelations he received and other writings he produced are likewise scripture to these millions. The total in book pages constitutes the equivalent of almost the entire Old Testament of the Bible, and it all came through one man in the space of a few years.
In this same period he established an organization which for almost a century and a half has withstood every adversity and challenge, and is as effective today in governing a worldwide membership of more than three and a half million as it was 145 years ago in governing a membership of three thousand. There are those doubters who have strained to explain this remarkable organization as the product of the times in which he lived. That organization, I submit, was as peculiar, as unique, and as remarkable then as it is today. It was not a product of the times. It came as a revelation from God.
Joseph Smith’s vision of man’s immortal nature reached from an existence before birth to the eternities beyond the grave. He taught that salvation is universal in that all men will become the beneficiaries of the resurrection through the atonement wrought by the Savior. But beyond this gift is the requirement of obedience to the principles of the gospel and the promise of consequent happiness in this life and exaltation in the life to come.
Nor was the gospel he taught limited in application to those of his own and future generations. The mind of Joseph Smith, tutored by the God of heaven, encompassed all mankind of all generations. Both the living and the dead must have the opportunity to partake of gospel ordinances.
Peter of old declared: “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Pet. 4:6.) In the case of the dead there must be vicarious work if they are to be judged according to men in the flesh, and in order to accomplish this they must be identified; hence the great genealogical program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was not established to satisfy the interests of a hobby, but to accomplish the eternal purposes of God.
Within the space of that twenty years preceding his death, Joseph Smith set in motion a program for carrying the gospel to the nations of the earth. I marvel at the boldness with which he moved. Even in the infant days of the Church, in times of dark adversity, men were called to leave homes and families, to cross the sea, to proclaim the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His mind, his vision encompassed the entire earth.
Now, I hope you will pardon my speaking in a personal vein for three or four minutes. It was twenty years ago, at the October conference, that I was sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. Previously, for two and a half years, I had served as an Assistant to the Twelve. These have been eventful years, during which four great and inspired men have presided over the Church—David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball. They have been years in which the Church has moved out across the world in a remarkable way. They have been years in which millions of members have been added. They have also been years in which strong voices have been raised against us. We have been criticized, but this criticism has in no way deterred the progress of the work. In fact, it has brought many to our defense and our support, and in some instances it has added to our numbers.
For more than a century and a half, enemies, critics, and some would-be scholars have worn out their lives trying to disprove the validity of that vision. Of course they cannot understand it. The things of God are understood by the Spirit of God. There had been nothing of comparable magnitude since the Son of God walked the earth in mortality. Without it as a foundation stone for our faith and organization, we have nothing. With it, we have everything.
Much has been written, much will be written, in an effort to explain it away. The finite mind cannot comprehend it. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit, experienced by countless numbers of people all through the years since it happened, bears witness that it is true, that it happened as Joseph Smith said it happened, that it was as real as the sunrise over Palmyra, that it is an essential foundation stone, a cornerstone, without which the Church could not be “fitly framed together.”
There are those who criticize when we issue a statement of counsel or warning. Please know that our pleadings are not motivated by any selfish desire. Please know that our warnings are not without substance and reason. Please know that the decisions to speak out on various matters are not reached without deliberation, discussion, and prayer.
We have critics both within and without. Although they are vocal and have access to the media, they are relatively few in number. If we were entirely without criticism, we would be concerned. Our responsibility is not to please the world but, rather, to do the will of the Lord, and from the beginning the divine will so often has been contrary to the ways of the world.
These worldly ways appear to be on a course that should be of concern to every thoughtful man and woman.
Let not any voices of discontent disturb you. Let not the critics worry you. As Alma declared long ago, “Trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14). . . .
As surely as this is the work of the Lord, there will be opposition. There will be those, perhaps not a few, who with the sophistry of beguiling words and clever design will spread doubt and seek to undermine the foundation on which this cause is established. They will have their brief day in the sun. They may have for a brief season the plaudits of the doubters and the skeptics and the critics. But they will fade and be forgotten as have their kind in the past.
Meanwhile, we shall go forward, regardless of their criticism, aware of but undeterred by their statements and actions. Said the Lord even before the Church was organized:
“Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail. …
“Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.
Today we walk in the sunlight of goodwill. There is a tendency on the part of some to become indifferent. There are those who drift off seeking the enticements of the world, forsaking the cause of the Lord. I see others who think it is all right to lower their standards, perhaps in small ways. In this very process they lose the cutting edge of enthusiasm for this work. For instance, they think the violation of the Sabbath is a thing of unimportance. They neglect their meetings. They become critical. They engage in backbiting. Before long they have drifted from the Church.
There have been makers of threats, naysayers, and criers of doom. They have tried in every conceivable way to injure and destroy this church. But we are still here, stronger and more determined to move it forward. To me it is exciting. It is wonderful.
We are witnessing the answer to that remarkable pleading. Increasingly the Church is being recognized at home and abroad for what it truly is. There are still those, not a few, who criticize and rebel, who apostatize and lift their voices against this work. We have always had them. They speak their piece as they walk across the stage of life, and then they are soon forgotten. I suppose we always will have them as long as we are trying to do the work of the Lord. The honest in heart will detect that which is true and that which is false. We go forward, marching as an army with banners emblazoned with the everlasting truth. We are a cause that is militant for truth and goodness.
Our critics at home and abroad are watching us. In an effort to find fault, they listen to every word we say, hoping to entrap us. We may stumble now and again. But the work will not be materially hindered. We will stand up where we fell and go forward.
We have nothing to fear and everything to gain. God is at the helm. We will seek His direction. We will listen to the still, small voice of revelation. And we will go forward as He directs.
His Church will not be misled. Never fear that. If there were any disposition on the part of its leaders to do so, He could remove them.
We are not without critics, some of whom are mean and vicious. We have always had them, and I suppose we will have them all through the future. But we shall go forward, returning good for evil, being helpful and kind and generous. I remind you of the teachings of our Lord concerning these matters. You are all acquainted with them.
There is another aspect of this matter. There is rampant among us a spirit of criticism. Perhaps it is a part of the age in which we live. We are constantly exposed to the writings of newspaper columnists and the opinions of radio and television commentators. Their major objective, it seems to me, is to find fault. They are critical, sometimes viciously so. They are critical of political figures. They are critical of church leaders. None of us is perfect; all of us occasionally make mistakes. There was only one perfect individual who ever walked the earth. Men and women who carry heavy responsibility do not need criticism, they need encouragement. One can disagree with policy without being disagreeable concerning the policymaker.
I would plead with you women, young and old, to restrain your tongues in criticism of others. It is so easy to find fault. It is so much nobler to speak constructively.
We live in a society that feeds on criticism. Faultfinding is the substance of columnists and commentators, and there is too much of this among our own people.
Critics may wear out their lives in trying to deny or demean or cast doubt, but all who ask of God in faith have the assurance that by the voice of the Spirit will come the certainty that this work is divine.
Now there is another matter I wish to mention. And perhaps I could repeat a few lines that I spoke on another occasion:
We now seem to have a great host of critics. Some appear intent on trying to destroy us. They belittle that which we call divine.
In their cultivated faultfinding, they see not the majesty of the great onrolling of this cause. They have lost sight of the spark that was kindled in Palmyra which is now lighting fires of faith across the earth, in many lands and in many languages. Wearing the spectacles of humanism, they fail to realize that spiritual promptings, with recognition of the influence of the Holy Ghost, had as much to do with the actions of our forebears as did the processes of the mind. They have failed to realize that religion is as much concerned with the heart as it is with the intellect.
We have those critics who appear to wish to cull out of a vast panorama of information those items which demean and belittle some of the men and women of the past who worked so hard in laying the foundation of this great cause. They find readers of their works who seem to delight in picking up these tidbits, and in chewing them over and relishing them. In so doing they are savoring a pickle, rather than eating a delicious and satisfying dinner of several courses.
We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. … But the mistakes were minor, when compared with the marvelous work which they accomplished. To highlight the mistakes and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest. A man may have a blemish on his cheek and still have a face of beauty and strength, but if the blemish is emphasized unduly in relation to his other features, the portrait is lacking in integrity.
There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building his perfect society. If some of them occasionally stumbled, or if their characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much. …
I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts in their proper context, with emphasis on those elements which explain the great growth and power of this organization.
There is promise, given under inspiration from the Almighty, set forth in these beautiful words:
“God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost.” (D&C 121:26.)
The humanists who criticize us, the so-called intellectuals who demean us, speak only from ignorance of this manifestation. … They have not heard it because they have not sought after it and prepared themselves to be worthy of it. …
Do not be trapped by the sophistry of the world which for the most part is negative and which seldom, if ever, bears good fruit. … Rather, “look to God and live.” (Alma 37:47.)
Brethren, the Church is true. Those who lead it have only one desire, and that is to do the will of the Lord. They seek his direction in all things. There is not a decision of significance affecting the Church and its people that is made without prayerful consideration, going to the fount of all wisdom for direction. Follow the leadership of the Church. God will not let his work be led astray.
Do not fear concerning the Church. We have had mentioned in this conference some of our critics. They mock that which is most holy to us. They jest over and hold up to ridicule that which has come by revelation from the Almighty. Any man who tries to find humor at the expense of that which is sacred to another is deeply flawed in character. Shame on those who stoop to such actions in the name of fun and on those who witness and laugh. Simple courtesy would dictate a decent respect for that which is sacred to neighbors and associates in one’s society.
The Lord himself has said, “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit.” (D&C 63:64.)
As has been indicated, there are a few who have taken it upon themselves as their mission to belittle and demean and destroy the faith of the weak, with a badly flawed argument that we are not Christians.
To all of these we have a twofold answer, quietly spoken. The first is this: Would a true follower of Christ, a follower of him who was the epitome of love and mercy and consideration, so seek to injure another?
The second: We ask only that we be judged by our fruits. Said the Master:
“Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
“Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. …
“Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matt. 7:16–18, 20.)
By that standard we are willing to be judged.
At a time when we were under far more intensive siege than we are today, President Joseph F. Smith stood at this pulpit in this Tabernacle and said:
“We thank God for His mercies and blessings; and I do not know but what we owe in some small degree gratitude to those who have bitterly opposed the work of the Lord; for in all their opposings and bitter strife against our people the Lord has developed His power and wisdom, and has brought His people more fully into the knowledge and favor of the intelligent people of the earth. Through the very means used by those who have opposed the work of God, He has brought out good for Zion. Yet, it is written, and I believe it is true, that although it must needs be that offenses come, woe unto them by whom they come; but they are in the hands of the Lord as we are. We bring no railing accusation against them. We are willing to leave them in the hands of the Almighty to deal with them as seemeth Him good. Our business is to work righteousness in the earth, to seek for the development of a knowledge of God’s will and of God’s ways, and of His great and glorious truths which He has revealed through the instrumentality of Joseph the Prophet, not only for the salvation of the living but for the redemption and salvation of the dead.” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1908, pp. 2–3.)
And so we let the matter rest there.
Be faithful to the gospel. Be faithful to the Church. We have all about us those who are seeking to undermine it, to look for weaknesses in its early leaders, to find fault with its programs, to speak critically of it. I give you my testimony that it is the work of God, and those who speak against it are speaking against him.
But the adversary has not been unmindful of it. The building and dedication of these sacred edifices have been accompanied by a surge of opposition from a few enemies of the Church as well as criticism from a few within. This has brought to mind a statement of Brigham Young in 1861 while the Salt Lake Temple was under construction. Evidently when someone with previous experience was asked to work on the Salt Lake Temple, he responded, “I do not like to do it, for we never began to build a Temple without the bells of hell beginning to ring.”
To which Brigham Young replied, “I want to hear them ring again. All the tribes of hell will be on the move, if we uncover the walls of this Temple. But what do you think it will amount to? You have all the time seen what it has amounted to.” (In Journal of Discourses, 8:355–56.)
Yes, in these recent times we have felt much of opposition, but we have also noted the frustration of those who have tried to stop this work. We have been strengthened, and we have moved forward under the promise of the Lord, who said: “I will not suffer that they [the enemy] shall destroy my work; yea, I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil.” (D&C 10:43.)
I was handed a tract the other day. It was written by a critic, an enemy of the Church whose desire is to undermine the faith of the weak and the unknowing. It repeats fallacies that have been parroted for a century and more.
What is all of this of which I speak? It is the lengthened shadow of the hand of God. It is the lengthened shadow of a mighty prophet, Joseph Smith, who was called and ordained to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times spoken of in the scriptures. His numerous critics, now as in the past, spend their lives in trying to explain him on some basis other than the one which he gave.
Of what credibility, I ask, is their estimate in comparison with the opinions of those who were at his side in laying the foundations of this ever-growing, ever-strengthening cause?
And now, speaking of prayer, I touch on another matter. Last April, I spoke to the regional representatives of the Church, as I have done for a number of years on each occasion when they have come for general conference. These are training meetings where the regional representatives get information that they may carry with them across the Church. There is nothing secret or hidden about what is done there.
However, recently I heard that someone had secured a copy of my talk, looking upon that as a singular accomplishment, as if it had been given in a secret and sinister manner, designed to keep it from the world. This is nonsense.
I am led to this subject by a letter, which I read only Friday, written by a New York evangelist who with diatribe and hate lashed out against the Prophet Joseph, calling him a wicked imposter, a fraud, a fake, and a deceiver and declaring that he was undertaking a national campaign to prove it. I do not know whether anything will come of his campaign; whatever happens, it will not be significant. It may topple a few of the weak, but it will only strengthen the strong. And long after this man and others of his kind have gone down to silence, the name of Joseph Smith will ring with honor and love in the hearts of an ever-growing band of Latter-day Saints in an ever-increasing number of nations of the earth. . . .
And so, while in Nauvoo the other day I reflected on the preparation for prophethood: I reflected on this amazing Joseph Smith. I cannot expect his detractors, including the writer of the letter I read on Friday, to know of his prophetic calling by the power of the Holy Ghost; but I can raise some questions for him and other critics to deal with before they can dismiss Joseph Smith as a false prophet. I have time for only three of many that might be asked: first, what do you do with the Book of Mormon? second, how do you explain his power to influence strong men to follow him, even unto death? and third, how do you rationalize the fulfillment of his prophecies?
Here is the Book of Mormon. I hold it in my hand. I read its words. I have read Joseph Smith’s explanation of how it came to be. To the unbelieving it is a story difficult to accept, and critics by the score have worn out their lives writing books intended to refute that story and to offer explanations other than the one given by Joseph Smith. But their critical writing only has the effect of stimulating scholars to dig the deeper, and the more deeply they dig the greater the accumulation of evidence for the validity of the story.
To return to my first question to the critics: What do you do with the Book of Mormon? It is here to be handled and to be read with prayer and earnest inquiry. All of the work of all of the critics throughout the hundred and fifty years of its presence has lacked credibility in the cold light of fact and has been without effect on those who have prayerfully read the book and received by the power of the Holy Ghost a witness of its truth. If there were no other evidence for the divine mission of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon would stand as an irrefutable witness of that fact. To think that anyone less than one inspired could bring forth a book which should have so profound an effect for good upon others is to imagine that which simply cannot be. The evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon is found in the lives of the millions, living and gone, who have read it, prayed about it, and received a witness of its truth.
My second question to the critics: How do you explain Joseph’s power to influence strong men and women to follow him, even unto death? Anyone who has any doubt about Joseph Smith’s power of leadership need only look at the men who were attracted to him. They did not come for wealth. They did not come for political power. They were not drawn by dreams of military conquest. His offering to them was none of these; rather, it concerned only salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It involved persecution with its pains and losses, long and lonely missions, separation from family and friends, and in many cases death itself. . . .
Question three to the critics: What of his prophecies? There were more than a few, and they were fulfilled. Among the most notable was the revelation of the Civil War. You are familiar with it; it was spoken on Christmas Day, 1832. There were many high-minded men and women who deplored the institution of slavery then common in the South, and there was much talk of abolition. But who but a prophet of God would have dared to say, thirty-nine years before it was to happen that “war [would]be poured out upon all nations beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina” and that “the Southern States [would]be divided against the Northern States”? (D&C 87:1–3.) That remarkable prediction saw its fulfillment with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in 1861. How could Joseph Smith have possibly foreseen with such accuracy the event that was to come thirty-nine years after he spoke of it. Only by the spirit of prophecy which was in him.
Or again, consider the equally remarkable prophecy concerning the movement of our people to these mountain valleys. . . .
Great was his vision. It encompassed all the peoples of mankind, wherever they live, and all generations who have walked the earth and passed on. How can his critics, past or present, speak against him except out of ignorance? They have not tasted of his words; they have not pondered him and prayed about him. As one who has done these things, I can echo the words of John Taylor who was with him at Carthage Jail when he was killed and who in his account of that tragedy wrote this appraisal: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).
To these I add my own words of testimony that he was and is a prophet of God, raised up as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to usher in a new and final gospel dispensation.