Joseph Smith and prophetic authority in early Mormonism

Copyright © 2000 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Essays | 1.18.03

The Refiner's Fire, John L. Brooke's illuminating study of the emergence of Mormon cosmology, draws attention to the ways that Joseph Smith's changing understanding of his own prophetic calling transformed Mormon doctrines and practices. Although one could surely ask how a variety of other factors effected change in early Mormonism, Smith's own self-understanding — especially as manifest in the revelations he introduced — must be seen as the central factor in the development of early Mormonism. In this essay I compare Smith's early understanding of his prophetic role as seer and revelator with his later understanding of his prophetic role as keeper of the keys to the mysteries of the kingdom of God. I will argue that the most dynamic factor in the transformation of early Mormonism was the idea of the restoration of the role of the prophet itself.

Smith's prophetic authority was closely linked in the beginning to his possession of extraordinary objects. Joseph Smith already had a reputation for finding treasure using a seerstone when he claimed to have retrieved gold plates and the "Urim and Thummim" — "two stones in silver bows . . . fastened to a breastplate" — from a hill near Palmyra, New York, at the direction of an angel in 1827. "The possession and use of these stones were what constituted seers' in ancient or former times," Smith wrote in 1838, explaining that "God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book."* As he used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, Smith came to understand himself not only as a seer — the possessor of the Urim and Thummim — but especially as a prophet uniquely empowered to receive revelation. In 1829, when Smith was dictating the translation of the plates to Oliver Cowdery, Cowdery apparently attempted to employ the gift of translation using the Urim and Thummim following directions received in a revelation through Joseph Smith (D&C 8). Cowdery failed. Smith declared in a successive revelation that "you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me [i.e., God]," establishing that a divine calling and a proper understanding of the method of translation are required in addition to possession of the translators (D&C 9:7-10, 12). Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 as the translation of ancient scriptures written on gold plates by prophets in the New World. His early reputation had been based on his successful (and unsuccessful) use of his seerstone to find treasure, but his translation of the Book of Mormon established his authority as a prophet.

He also established "the Church of Christ" in April, 1830, declaring that the new church was governed "by the will and commandments of God, which commandments were given to Joseph Smith, Jun., who was called of God" (D&C 20:1-2). Later that year, a controversy arose in the new church when Hiram Page, one of Smith's followers, began receiving revelations through a seerstone concerning church order and the building of Zion. Smith delivered a revelation to Cowdery, the "second elder" of the new church and one of those influenced by Page's revelations, in which the prophet declared that "no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses" (D&C 28:2; my emphasis). Smith's ability to receive revelations was not merely a consequence of his facility with magical objects, but pointed instead to God's restoration of the Old Testament prophetic office. There would be only one Moses among the new chosen people. Hiram Page gave up his stone — as Smith had apparently given up the use of the Urim and Thummim — and the early Mormon community affirmed its commitment to Joseph Smith's prophetic authority.

Brooke sees a shift in the early Mormon understanding of prophetic authority in the resolution of the controversy about Hiram Page's seerstone. "Rather than from magic artifacts, revelation would rise from prophetic authority. With this break with the popular magic of Mormon beginnings, an authority structure began to take shape in the church" (189). The April, 1830, revelation that outlines church order asserts that Smith received

power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, [i.e., by the Urim and Thummim] to translate the Book of Mormon which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them — proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old. (D&C 20:8, 10-11; my emphasis)

The Book of Mormon and the Urim and Thummim were significant because they provided evidence for the restoration of prophetic authority in Joseph Smith, and that authority itself came to be the most vital feature of Mormonism. It was the idea that God had called a new prophet to deliver revelations and to lead his restored church that provided the basic mechanism for radical transformation of early Mormonism.

By the time Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois, he had used this prophetic authority to gather a people first to Ohio and Missouri and then to Nauvoo, Illinois, to establish the New Jerusalem in anticipation of return of Christ. He had inaugurated a communalistic economic order for a time, and survived the failure of the bank he established in Kirtland, Ohio. He introduced temple building, and shortly before his death introduced the basic elements of the rituals that enact the most radical of Mormon doctrines: the divinization of the Mormon elect. He understood his prophetic role as the restorer of the divine order of the ancient world, with its prophets and patriarchs — and, most controversially, with its practice of polygyny. That these innovations were controversial and that his followers were not always eager to adopt them is unmistakable. Many in the early Mormon community recognized that some of the doctrines taught by Smith after 1832 conflicted with the doctrines in the Book of Mormon. Many resisted the changes Smith introduced, and more than a few left the church accusing Smith of fraudulence or of forfeiting his prophetic authority through false doctrine and wickedness.

Remarkably, however, the Mormon community grew as Smith continued to develop the church's practices and doctrines. His most radical doctrinal presentation, delivered at the funeral of King Follett only a month before his own death, provided the key features of the doctrines that Brigham Young would continue to preach. As Joseph Smith continued to develop the more radical features of Mormon doctrine and practice, he also developed an elaborate ecclesiastical organization that conferred authority to exercise holy power in a series of ranked offices. Brooke writes that "as Seer, [Smith] held the keys of the gifts of translation and revelation; the priesthoods held keys to the ordinances and the mysteries" (247). The priesthood structure, revealed through Smith's prophetic office, extended the restoration of divine powers throughout the Mormon church.

As a community of priests endowed with authority by their prophet-king, the Mormons saw Joseph Smith not only as a revealer of divine truths but also as the intermediary initiating them into the kingdom of God. Smith became something more than a prophet; he began to assume the role of a savior. John Taylor, one of Smith's apostles whose account of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith is now part of the Mormon scriptural record, wrote that "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). The prophet-idea, as Joseph Smith developed it in his teaching and leadership of the Mormon community, proved flexible enough to grow from the possessor of a seerstone to the rival of Christ as the savior of humankind.


Written for "Religion in America," Professor David Hall, Harvard Divinity School, May 12, 2000.
1. From the section of Smith's History of the Church that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints canonized in 1880 as "Joseph Smith — History," in The Pearl of Great Price (52, verse 35). back

Works Cited

John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). "The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: containing revelations given to Joseph Smith ... with some additions by his successors in the presidency of the church." Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d.
The Pearl of Great Price. "The Pearl of Great Price; a selection from the revelations, translations, and narrations of Joseph Smith, first prophet, seer and revelator to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d.

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Philocrites | Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton