by Truman G. Madsen
The written and spoken words of the revelations to Joseph Smith are clear, direct, and unequivocal, yet his teachings are difficult to characterize or summarize, since they do not fit easily into traditional theological categories, and they always presuppose that more can, and probably will, be revealed by God. Audiences eagerly listened to the Prophet’s bold proclamations and reasoning on hundreds of topics, although his was not a work of systematic analysis or synthesis. His teachings, sayings, counsels, instructions, blessings, responses, and commentaries from 1820 to 1844 are scattered over thousands of pages of revelations, scriptures, histories, journals, letters, and minute books (see Joseph Smith: Writings of Joseph Smith).
The teachings of Joseph Smith may be approached in many ways. Some collections arrange them topically; other commentaries focus on the historical settings of his revelations and discourses; still others compare published versions with recorded recollections of his sayings. In any case, one finds continuity and consistency rather than conspicuous breaks or reversals.
The record shows that Joseph Smith’s access to sources and his own understanding entailed growth processes. He said in 1842, two years before his death, that he had “the whole plan of the kingdom” before him (HC 5:139). But it is not clear how early in his life the “whole plan” reached maturity in his mind.
Some of his teachings now have scriptural status; others are authoritative but not sustained as scripture. As he himself explained, a prophet is not always a prophet, but “only when he was acting as such” (TPJS, p. 278). Careful scholarship will distinguish original utterances of the Prophet from later accretions; also, some statements that he did not make or endorse have been published under his name. The following sketch treats his revelations, his scriptural translations, and his most characteristic sayings as comprising his teachings.
Joseph Smith never claimed to establish a new religion but to initiate a new beginning, a restoration of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (TPJS, p. 121). He anticipated “a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories…from the days of Adam even to the present time” (D&C 128:18). This restoration would encompass “all the truth the Christian world possessed” (TPJS, p. 376)—including much that had been lost or discarded—and, in addition, revelations “hid from before the foundation of the world” (TPJS, p. 309). His teachings were often in contrast to postbiblical additions, subtractions, and changes. He said that he intended “to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world” (TPJS, p. 366).
The following are selected from among the dozens of topics and insights that typify the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
GOD AND DIVINITY. Joseph Smith taught that God is properly called Father. He is a glorified, exalted person, with personal attributes. Jesus Christ is the mediator between man and God. He is not identical with God, but has become like the Father. This strips away the mystery of many classical creeds. This doctrine is refined anthropomorphism, and it permeates ancient and modern scriptures.
Because God is the preeminent person, he may be approached, encountered, and known. He is subject to, and involved in, man’s struggles. He can be trusted to move, act, respond, love, serve, and give. From the presence of God and his Son proceeds forth a Spirit that gives light to everyone who comes into mortality. This light is in all things, gives life to all things, and is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God (D&C 88:13). (See Teachings About the Godhead home page)
TRUTH. Experience points to a plural universe. The highest knowledge is of things, existences, in all their varieties (D&C 93:24-25). The revelations to Joseph Smith speak of independent spheres of existence and an array of glorious degrees (D&C 76; cf. 88:37). Thus, any mystical thrust toward metaphysical union in which individuality is lost is abandoned.
SCRIPTURE. The Prophet taught that the scriptures are the written records of revelatory experiences. He rejected equally the dogmas of verbal inerrancy, of “merely human” origin, and of allegorical excess in interpreting the scriptures. The limits of the canon are fluid, as they were originally in early Judaism and Christianity. Scripture, spoken or written, is light to those who are quickened by divine life and light. The need for living prophets to supplement, clarify, and apply the written sources to contemporary needs is continual. “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (TPJS, p. 194). (See Scriptural Writings home page)
CREATION AND COSMOS. Joseph Smith’s teachings have been characterized by the word “eternalism”: “Every principle that proceeds from God is eternal” (TPJS, p. 181). The “pure principles of element” and of intelligence coexist eternally with God: “They may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed” (TPJS, p. 351). God created the universe out of chaos, “which is Element and in which dwells all the glory” (WJS, p. 351). “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (D&C 93:35). God is related to space and time, and did not create them from nothing. Change occurs through intelligence. The universe is governed by law. There were two creations: All things were made “spiritually” before they were made “naturally” (Moses 3:5). Through his Son, God is the Creator of multiple worlds. God is the Father of the human spirits that inhabit his creations. His creations have no end. (See Creation home page)
NATURE OF MAN. As eternal intelligence, “man was in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29-30). But his unfolding from grace to grace is dependent on the nurture of God. Because of the gospel and the Atonement, the children of God are heirs of all the Father has and is, and can become gods themselves (D&C 76:58-61; 84:35-39; 88:107).
Spirit is refined matter. Individual spirits “existed before the body, can exist in the body; will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it” (TPJS, p. 207). Thus, extreme dualism between spirit and matter is rejected.
Man is free to resist or to embrace either the powers of God or those of evil. God, man, Satan, and his hosts are independent. One cannot force another. (See Mankind)
PLAN OF SALVATION. Finding himself in the midst of spirits and glory, God saw fit to institute laws whereby his children might advance like himself and have glory upon glory (see Plan of Salvation). “At the first organization in heaven we were all present, and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the Plan of Salvation made, and we sanctioned it” (TPJS, p. 181). Like embraces like (D&C 88:40); harmonies are restored: knowledge replaces ignorance, sanctity replaces sin, and life replaces death.
FALL. The Prophet rejected the traditional theory of original sin and returned to the doctrine of man’s innocence before the Fall. Adam and Eve transgressed, as planned, to open the way for the contrasting experiences of mortality. The Fall was not inevitable, but free. All men and women are, in their infant state, innocent before God. It follows that infant baptism is unnecessary, that accountability comes later (at the age of eight), and that accountability for sin is personal, not inherited (D&C 68:25-27; 93:38). One becomes what one chooses to become.
God himself has a body “as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22), and the human body is a temple. “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body” (TPJS, p. 181, 297). Redemption is of the whole soul, meaning spirit and body. (See Fall of Adam home page)
ATONEMENT. The power of redemption is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the unfolding drama, the Son inherited the fulness of the Father; he was not “eternally begotten,” nor were two absolutely unlike natures inherent in the person of Christ.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to reconcile the demands of justice and mercy. Christ responded to this need in a voluntary act, a descent in order to ascend (D&C 88:6).
Christ could not have known, except by experience, the depths of compassion. He suffered pains and afflictions and temptations “that his bowels might be filled with compassion according to the flesh,” for only thus could he “succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). Gethsemane was the place and time of his most intense suffering for mankind; the cross was its final hour (D&C 19:16-20; JST Matt. 27:54).
Christ saves men from their sins, not in them. He does not impute righteousness where there is none. One who seeks to become a law unto himself and abides in sin cannot be sanctified unless he repents (D&C 88:35).
The infinite Atonement is intended to bring life and redemption to all the children of the Eternal Father, including those of other worlds who “are saved by the very same Savior of ours” (T&S 4:82-85).
KNOWLEDGE. Intelligence, as light and truth, is the glory of God (D&C 93:36). Mind is eternal, with access to the vast reaches of the eternities, and knowledge is essential to salvation: “One is saved no faster than he gets knowledge” (TPJS, p. 217); and he gains knowledge of the truths of the gospel no faster than he is saved—that is, no faster than he receives Christ into his life. “Knowledge through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the grand key that unlocks the glory and mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (TPJS, p. 298). “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them” (TPJS, p. 149).
Knowledge of God and divine things comes through the Spirit. Revelation includes the visible presence, visions, dreams, the visitations of angels and spirits, impressions, voices, prophetic flashes of inspiration and light, and the flow of pure intelligence into mind and heart. Such direct communications are essential to the religious life of every person. At least one gift of the spirit is given to each person of faith. “It is impossible to receive the Holy Ghost and not receive revelation” (TPJS, p. 256). “No man can know that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost” (WJS, p. 115). “No generation was ever saved or destroyed upon dead testimony neither can be; but by living” (WJS, p. 159). Within limits, these experiences can be verbalized and communicated.
PURPOSE OF LIFE: JOY. “Happiness is the object and design of our existence” (TPJS, p. 255). “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom” (TPJS, p. 181). Glorified bodies have powers and privileges over those who have not, and to be denied or separated from the body is bondage. The combination of spirit body and physical body can maximize joy (D&C 93:33-34).
God’s glory is to work for the benefit of other beings. Likewise, man cannot find himself until he loses himself in the Christlike desire to elevate, benefit, and bless others (PWJS, p. 483). Even in mortality, members of the family of God may begin to experience the joy that will be in full hereafter (TPJS, p. 296). (See Purpose of Life)
TRIALS AND AFFLICTION. Evil and pain are real, losses are real, temptation is real, overcoming is real. Both risk and reward attend the mortal experience. These are the conditions of soul growth. God’s purpose is to lift his children, but he cannot do so without their cooperation; nor can he intervene in a way that removes the need for experience, even bitter experience.
Life is a trial, a probation: “All these things shall give thee experience” (D&C 122:7). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a similitude of the Father’s sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son. One cannot attain the heirship of the Son without being willing to sacrifice all earthly things. The overcoming of such trials is the foundation of perfected love, and until one has perfect love, one is liable to fall (TPJS, p. 9). The view that all suffering in the world is punishment for sin is “an unhallowed principle” (TPJS, p. 162). The Saints must expect to wade through much tribulation, but afflictions may be consecrated to their gain. (See Suffering in the World)
PRIESTHOOD. Priesthood is authority and power centered in Christ. It is conferred only by tangible ordination, by the laying on of hands of one having authority. Joseph Smith taught the importance of priesthood keys: Jesus Christ “holds the keys over all this world” (TPJS, p. 323). John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah, and Elias held various keys of priesthood functions and restored them to the earth by conferring them upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Priesthood is not indelible; it can be lost. It is not infallible; only under the influence of the Spirit can one speak for and with the approval of God.
The opportunity for the fulness of priesthood blessings is conferred on both men and women when they make and keep unconditional covenants with Jesus Christ and then with each other as husband and wife (see Fatherhood; Motherhood; Priesthood Organization home page).
In THE CHURCH of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith explained and established the roles of apostles, prophets, bishops, Evangelists, pastors, teachers, and so on, in analogue to their New Testament functions. He dissolved the distinction between laity and a priestly class: All priests, teachers, and administrators are lay people, and all worthy laymen are priesthood holders.
ORDINANCES. Joseph Smith restored and taught a progressive series of ordinances that confer spiritual enlightenment and power. These ordinances were “instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world” (TPJS, p. 308). “Being born again comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances” (TPJS, p. 162). All essential ordinances, from baptism to temple marriage, involve prayer, covenant making, and divine ratification. (See Priesthood Ordinances home page)
TEMPLES. Some ordinances pertain to the holy temple, where “the power of godliness is manifest” (D&C 84:20). Temples embody and manifest sacred truths, “the mysteries and peaceable things” (D&C 42:61). They will enable the children of God to overcome the corruptible elements of their lives and enter the realms of light and fire, the presence of the Father and the Son. All of the temple functions and powers are reestablished today, with the authority of the high priesthood: baptism for the dead, the holy Endowment, and the sealing of families are their essence. “We need the Temple more than anything else,” Joseph Smith taught (Journal History, May 4, 1844).
All temple ordinances point to Christ. The temple is presently, as it was anciently, his sanctuary, endowed with his glory, blessed with his name and ultimately with his presence. Christ is a living temple, and through him one may become a living temple (D&C 93:35; cf. Rev. 21:22). (See Teachings About Temples home page)
MARRIAGE, FAMILY, AND HOME. Reversing the Augustinian tradition that celibacy is preferable to marriage in this life and universal in the next, the Prophet taught that the Christlike life reaches its zenith in marriage and parenting. The greatest prophets and prophetesses are also Patriarchs and matriarchs. The highest ordinance is marriage, when king and queen begin their eternal family kingdom: The symbols are ordination, coronation, and sealing. (See Teachings About the Family home page)
SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL THOUGHT. In the earthly government of God, a theodemocracy is contemplated: a covenant kingdom led by Jesus Christ, the benevolent King of Kings. The kingdom of God on earth is to become like Enoch’s city of Zion, with utopian thought and culture realized in a community of the pure-hearted.
Joseph taught a law of stewardship and consecration. All the earth is the Lord’s; property in Zion is, in effect, held in trust for the establishment of Zion. In the infancy of the Church, the Saints tried to live this economic system and failed, foundering on what it was designed to overcome: greed, covetousness, jealousy. Consequently, the Prophet was instructed to substitute the law of tithing to prepare the Saints to live this higher law.
“The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God” (TPJS, p. 147). The protections of constitutional government should extend to all (see Politics: Political Teachings). Wilford Woodruff recalled Joseph Smith’s saying “that if he were the Emperor of the world and had control over the whole human family he would sustain every man, woman and child in the enjoyment of their religion” (Journal History, Mar. 12, 1897). This would allow, without compulsory means, the growth of a kingdom of God eventually to be administered in two world capitals, Jerusalem in the East and the New Jerusalem in the West.
The Church is the body of members who have entered the covenant and formed a community for the perfecting of its individual members. The living prophets, seers, and revelators are the authority nucleus of the kingdom of God, but the Church performs its work in intimate communities: families, wards, and stakes.
RESURRECTION. Eternal family life is perfected only in the highest degree of God’s Celestial Kingdom. In the resurrection and judgment, each body with few exceptions (see sons of perdition) will receive a degree of glory. One’s identity in both spirit and body is secure and eternal. God’s celestial being, perfected and glorified, is the ideal. The earth itself, having been baptized by water and then by fire, will die, be resurrected, glorified (D&C 88:25-26), and rolled back into the presence of God. The beauty, glory, perfection, and powers of a glorified resurrected body are unspeakable: “No man can describe it to you—no man can write it” (TPJS, p. 368). “All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it” (TPJS, p. 296). (See Resurrection of Jesus Christ home page)
ESCHATOLOGY. Joseph Smith uttered many prophetic statements about the future. His eschatology is extensive and inclusive. The gospel will be taught to all mankind, either on this earth or in the world of the spirits, so that all may receive it. The family of Abraham, which has permeated all races of men, will be united. The families of Judah and Joseph will join hands in redemptive fulfillment. Many of these expectations and realizations are beyond the power of man to achieve or to impede. The work is “destined to bringing about the destruction of the powers of darkness, the renovation of the earth, the glory of God, and the salvation of the human family” (TPJS, p. 232).