Joseph Smith taught many truths about Jesus Christ that stemmed from his First Vision and other revelatory experiences. For example, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said that Joseph’s depiction of a weeping Jesus in the Book of Moses reveals more about the true nature of Christ than any theological treatise. In this interview, historian Keith Erekson draws on the Joseph Smith Papers to explain what the Prophet taught about the Savior.
Keith Erekson wrote more about this topic in the book, Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character.
Table of contents
- Joseph’s teachings
- False views
- Narrow vision
- Imperfect language
- Plain teachings
- Book of Mormon
- Book of Moses
- Christ-centered messages
- Joseph Smith Papers
- Nearer to God
How did Joseph’s revelations about Christ align with his time?
Joseph Smith was not the first Christian, or the only Christian, or the only person seeking a New Testament church, or the only person to read the Bible, or the only person to pray for help—or even the only person of his generation to have an experience with heavenly visions.
None of the standard superlatives apply. Many of the ideas he held and precepts he taught were echoed by his Christian contemporaries. The differences might be summarized as the combination of agency and frequency and intensity.
The Resurrected Jesus Christ (the agent) called Joseph as His prophet, giving Joseph repeated manifestations and messages that authorized him to do more and more of God’s work.
Do Latter-day Saints ever falsely view the Savior compared with the teachings of Joseph?
In a letter to a recent convert in 1839, Joseph observed “how easily falsehood gains credence in general, rather than truth,” and most “especially in taking into consideration the plan of salvation; the plain simple order of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In the twenty-first century, with 200 years of open heavens behind us, I think there continue to be ways that Latter-day Saints still miss the mark. Sometimes we want to turn Christ’s gospel into a checklist of ordinances and then get frustrated when “enduring to the end” takes a long time, challenges our faith, and pulls at our heartstrings.
Some ignore the “ongoing” part of the Restoration by trying to grasp onto some specific moment in the past as THE moment of truth—what was known in Joseph’s lifetime, what was done before the Manifesto, how the youth program worked when I was growing up.
Often we forget Jesus as the main character and central actor of Church history. Christ forgives sins. It is His voice recorded in the revelations. People left their homelands and gathered to Zion because they found Him.
How do we sometimes look too narrowly at the way plain and precious truths have been restored?
I think we look too narrowly at the way plain and precious truths about the gospel of the Lamb have been restored when we imagine that somewhere there was one perfect text of the Bible from which a few words were removed that have thankfully been added to the footnotes of the Church edition of the Bible.
In what ways did Joseph Smith have an expansive view of the word of God?
Joseph held a far more expansive view of the word of God—one that did not turn on the simplicity of a few extra words, the presence of a comma, or the nuances among prepositions. God was not a shadow evidenced by words on thousand-year-old pages.
For Joseph, He is a living, active presence in his life and history. The word of God was not simply good advice, but it was sharp and powerful, and caused changes in the present.
Explain the context behind Joseph’s statement that imperfect language is a “little prison almost.”
The immediate situational context of this statement came in an 1832 letter from Joseph in Kirtland to W. W. Phelps in Missouri. It was difficult to lead a body of Saints living hundreds of miles away only by sending letters that arrived weeks later.
The larger gospel learning context was manifest in Joseph’s expressed desire for a time when he and Phelps might “stand together and gase upon Eternal wisdom engraven upon the hevens” and “read the round of Eternity to the fullness and satisfaction of our immortal souls.”
Those kinds of experiences with the divine don’t render well in human language. Language itself is the problem because it is incapable of describing the majesty of God.
So Joseph opined:
Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.Joseph Smith, Letter to William W. Phelps, 27 November 1832.
Share an example in which Joseph’s revelations revealed plain teachings about Jesus Christ.
Joseph’s revelations restored plain teachings about the character of Jesus Christ. For example, readers of the Old Testament encounter a Jehovah who often appears in its pages as vengeful, angry, petty, willing to enact genocide on a whim. Plagues, lightning, and famine are the visible signs of this god’s presence.
In the Book of Mormon, by contrast, when the brother of Jared approaches Jehovah for assistance, he is startled to see the hand of God before seeing all of Jehovah, a being who is eager to reveal Himself and minister personally.
How does the Book of Mormon add personal details about the life of Jesus (in Alma 7)?
The New Testament narrates the life of Jesus of Nazareth from His birth to Mary, through His baptism and ministry, to His crucifixion and Resurrection.
But it is the Book of Mormon testimony of Alma that adds the precious, personal details that “he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” so “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12).
What is unique about the way Jehovah is presented in the book of Moses?
In the Old Testament, Jehovah looks unmoved by selfishness and brutality, greed and ambition, sadness and tragedy. He eliminates the entire population of the earth, save eight.
However, in the book of Moses, when Enoch sees the future sufferings of the world in vision, he is startled also to see Jehovah’s tears: “How is it that thou canst weep,” he asks, “seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?”
The Lord responded that the people of the earth “are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency,” and yet they chose to become “without affection, and they hate their own blood.”
The weeping of Jehovah and His revelation of its cause prompts Enoch to weep with Him. “That single, riveting scene,” declared Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “does more to teach the true nature of God than any theological treatise could ever convey.” When we see no respite to our personal pains or to larger structural injustices such as racism or discrimination, there is immense comfort in knowing that He weeps with us.
What would Joseph say about the idea that Christ-centered messages come only from the Bible?
From Joseph Smith we learn that it is a modern error to assume that “Christ-centered” messages come only from the Bible or ancient scripture. To Joseph, the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the Messiah of the New was also a Living Christ, both visible and describable.
“His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun,” records Joseph’s journal of the Lamb’s 1836 visit to the Kirtland Temple.
His voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: ‘I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father.’Doctrine and Covenants 110:3-4
What are some Joseph Smith Papers sources you used to write your chapter?
I also regularly use the index to original sources for the popular book, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith.
How has Joseph Smith helped Keith Erekson draw nearer to God?
The Apostle Paul describes our understanding of the things of God as “see[ing] through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If Jesus is the light by which we live and see, then perhaps Joseph—and all of the prophets God has called—is the glass.
However little we can comprehend—however “darkly” God’s grandiose messages can be conveyed through the prison of language—we nevertheless see a little through the teachings and ministries of living prophets. That little points us to deity for direct communion.
Joseph repeatedly emphasized the plain truths of the plan of salvation and gospel of Jesus Christ. Through his pen (and the pens of his scribes) poured forth thousands of pages of records of ancient peoples and modern revelations. Indeed, there is much that we know about the Savior because of Joseph.
Joseph helps me draw nearer to God because for him, the plain and precious message of deity could be found everywhere. It was “a voice of mercy from heaven” as well as “a voice of truth out of the earth.” There were “glad tidings for the dead” as well as “a voice of gladness for the living and dead.”
The plain and precious truths about the plan of salvation and the gospel of the Lamb were so expansive as to be a cause of courage and rejoicing. The earth would “break forth into singing” while the dead would “speak forth anthems of eternal praise,” and every heart would “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:19, 22).
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About the interview participant
Keith A. Erekson is the director of historical research and outreach for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He previously directed the Church History Library, and is the author of several books and articles, including How to Dispel Latter-Day Myths and Making Sense of Patriarchal Blessings.
- What Have Scholars Learned about Joseph Smith?
- Is This a Photo of Joseph Smith?
- How Much Do You Know About the Book of Abraham?
- What Did Joseph Teach in the King Follett Sermon?
- How Did Freemasonry Influence Joseph Smith?
Teachings of Joseph Smith resources
- Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character (Deseret Book)
- Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith)
- Sources for Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith Papers)