The Training of a Prophet Part 2: Joseph Smith

How did Joseph Smith learn to be a prophet? Last week I spoke of prophetic apprenticeships in the scriptures and how Joseph trained the apostles and prophets of this dispensation—training that has been passed on to the current apostles and prophets. The question arises, however: where did he get his training from?

“It would appear, then, that though he seemed alone, he was alone only as was Moses on Sinai; as Jesus on the Mount of Olives. As with the Master, so with the prophet, his instructions came not through man-made channels but direct from God, the source of all intelligence.”

David O. McKay keenly observed this question and stated: “Many years ago Joseph Smith, a mere boy between fourteen and fifteen years of age, declared that, in answer to prayer, he received a revelation from God. . . . The result of this declaration was his immediate ostracism from the religious world. In a very short time he found himself standing alone.

“Alone—and unacquainted with the learning and philosophy of his day!

“Alone—and unschooled in the arts and sciences!

“Alone—with no philosopher to instruct him, no minister to guide him! In simplicity and kindness he had hastened to them with his glorious message; in scorn and derision they had turned from him saying it was all of the devil; that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the Apostles; and that there would never be any more of them [see Joseph Smith—History 1:21].

“Thus he was left alone to embark upon the ocean of religious thought, having rejected every known vessel with which to sail and never having built one or even having seen one built himself. Surely if an impostor, the bark [or ship] he could build would be indeed a crude one.

“On the other hand, if that which he built possesses an excellence and superiority over that which the learned professors and philosophers had given to the world during the preceding hundreds of years, men will be forced, at least, to say in surprise, whence hath this man his wisdom!

“It would appear, then, that though he seemed alone, he was alone only as was Moses on Sinai; as Jesus on the Mount of Olives. As with the Master, so with the prophet, his instructions came not through man-made channels but direct from God, the source of all intelligence. He says: ‘I am a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel were never heard on me until the Lord took me in hand. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.’ [History of the Church, 5:423.]” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay [2003], 96-97.)

It was the Lord who ultimately oversaw Joseph Smith’s training, as Joseph himself stated, but how was the training done? How did the Lord take a chisel to the young prophet? President John Taylor gave us a key part of the answer when he stated: “when Joseph Smith was raised up as a Prophet of God, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi and others of the ancient Prophets who formerly lived on this Continent, and Peter and John and others who lived on the Asiatic Continent, came to him and communicated to him certain principles pertaining to the Gospel of the Son of God. Why? Because they held the keys of the various dispensations, and conferred them upon him, and he upon us. He was indebted to God; and we are indebted to God and to him for all the intelligence that we have on these subjects.” (Journal of Discourses 17:374-75; 8 April 1875.) Since no mortal prophets were available, God imported them, so to say. Joseph received his prophetic training from angelic beings sent by God—particularly the angel Moroni.

Angelic Training

Joseph “seemed to be as familiar with these people [ancient apostles and prophets] as we are one with another.”

The idea that Joseph was trained by angels brings up the question: what is an angel? While I was serving a mission, one investigator objected to the Book of Mormon because he claimed to have done research and found things that led him to disbelieve. One thing he said was that the initial stories that were told claimed that Joseph saw the spirit of a dead warrior guarding ancient treasure—apparently a folklore motif—and that it evolved into an angel from God visiting Joseph with the plates. Well, for those familiar with the story and with Mormon theology, there didn’t need to be an evolution—Moroni was an angel sent from God who had been a human being on the earth prior to that time. He was a prophet-warrior who was assigned to watch over the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon during his mortal life. The reason why my friend was confused is that there are differences in LDS views of what angels are from mainstream Christianity beyond just clipping their wings. While most of Christianity views angels as a separate class or species of beings from humans, Mormonism believes that “the angels are of the same race and descent as men, whether in body or in spirit…. They are of the family of Deity in different degrees of progression and are ‘in the image and likeness’ of the Most High” whom we believe to be an exalted man (“Who and What are the Angels?” Improvement Era, edited by Joseph F. Smith and Edward H. Anderson, August 1912, No. 10, 951, emphasis added). Angels are human beings who haven’t entered into this life yet, have gone through life and live as spirits in the Spirit World, or are resurrected beings.

Not only are angels humankind, but there is often significance in the specific angels who visit. President Joseph F. Smith also taught that: “When messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow-beings and fellow-servants. The ancient prophets who died were those who came to visit their fellow creatures upon the earth. They came to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; it was such beings—holy beings if you please—who waited upon the Savior and administered to him on the Mount. The angel that visited John, when an exile, and unfolded to his vision future events in the history of man upon the earth, was one who had been here, who had toiled and suffered in common with the people of God. … In like manner our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful, and worthy to enjoy these rights and privileges, may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction, to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1970, pp. 435–36.) Angels are often beings who we knew and loved or those who have worked in the Kingdom of God during their lifetimes.

The angels who appeared to Joseph Smith fall under this category. For example, John the Baptists was a prophet in the time of Christ who came to Joseph to confer priesthood keys. Peter, James, and John were apostles called by Christ who also came to Joseph to confer the Melchizedek priesthood. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet of some note who visited Joseph and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple. All of these angels had been prophets and ministers during their lifetimes and now served in angelic capacity.

What role did these angels have in the restoration of the gospel and in preparing Joseph Smith to be a prophet? They were critical in the transfer of knowledge and priesthood keys. We mentioned several who came and delivered priesthood authority to Joseph Smith, and there were others who came for that purpose as well (see. D&C 110; 128:20-21). Transfer of knowledge was important as well, from the very start. Joseph told one lady who had seen (but offended) an angel that: “that was an angel of the living God. He came to you with more knowledge, intelligence, and light than I have ever dared to reveal.” (Mary Elizabeth Rollins. 1905. “Remarks by Sister Mary E. Lightner who was sealed to Joseph Smith in 1842.” Address to Brigham Young University, April 14, 1905, in “Papers, 1865–1914,” BYU Special Collections, Vault MSS 363, folder 6, p 3.) One example of knowledge received from angels that we learn about is that portions of the endowment were given to Joseph by angels (See John W. Gunnison, The Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake [Philidelphia: Lippincott and Grambo, 1852], 59-60; Women’s Exponent, vol. 7, no. 14, 15 December 1878, 105; H. Donl Peterson, Moroni Ancient Prophet, Modern Messenger [Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 1983], 165). The angels that visited President Smith transferred vital knowledge and keys to him, laying the foundations of this dispensation.

How close was he with these angels, and who visited him? We have snippets here and there of his familiarity with angels—from mention in one account of the First Vision that “I saw many angels in this vision” (Joseph Smith, “History of the Church,” [MS, LDS Historian’s Library] A-1, p. 120-122) to describing Paul in detail (see Words of Joseph Smith, 59) and John Taylor’s comment that Joseph “seemed to be as familiar with these people [ancient apostles and prophets] as we are one with another.” (JD 21:94.) He had lots of experiences visiting with angels. One member of the Church went through the records and compiled a list of all the angels mentioned as having visited the prophet at some point or another and came up with at least 59 (List and references compiled by H. Donl Peterson, quoted by Bruce E. Dana in Prophetic Teachings on Death, Angels, and Heavenly Manifestations, [Springville, UT: CFI, 2011], 101-103). Reprinted here, the list includes:

1)     God the Father—JSH 1:17; HC 1:5; D&C 76:20

2)     Jesus Christ—JSH 1:17; HC 1:5-6; D&C 76:20-24; D&C 110:2-10

3)     Moroni—JSH 1:30-49; JD 17:374

4)     Elijah—D&C 110:13-16; JD 23:48

5)     John the Baptist—D&C 13; HC 1:39-40

6-8)      Peter, James, John—D&C 27:12; D&C 128:20; HC 1:40-42; JD 9:376; 18:326

9)     Adam (Michael)—HC 2:380; 3:388; D&C 128:21; JD 18:326

10) Noah (Gabriel)—D&C 128:21; JD 21:94

11) Raphael—D&C 128:21

12) Moses—D&C 110:11; JD 21:65

13) Elias—D&C 110:12; 27:6; JD 23:48

14) Joseph, son of Jacob—D&C 27:10

15-17)   Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—D&C 27:10; JD 21:94

18) Enoch—JD 21:65

19-27) 12 Jewish Apostles—JD 21:94

28-39) 12 Nephite Apostles—JD 21:94; 3 Nephi 19:4

40) Nephi—JD 21:161

41-44)  Seth, Methuselah, Enos, Mahalaleel—JD 21:94; HC 3:388; D&C 107:53-57

45) Jared (Bible)—HC 3:388; D&C 107:53-57

46) Lamech—JD 18:235

47) Abel—JD 18:325; HC 3:388

48) Cainan—HC 3:388; D&C 107:53-57

49) Zelph the Lamanite—HC 2:79; Times and Seasons 6:788

50) Alvin Smith—D&C 137; HC 2:380

51) Mormon—JD 17:374

52) Paul—TPJS 17:374

53) Eve—Oliver B. Huntington Diary, Part 2:214 (Located in L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah)

54) Alma—JD 13:47

55) Unnamed angel—as to wine in sacrament; D&C 27; HC 1:106

56) Unnamed angel—sent to accept dedication of temple (Life of Heber C. Kimball, 106)

57) Unnamed angel—commanded polygamy, JD 20:28-29; Eliza R. Snow, biography and family records of Lorenzo Snow, 69-70

58) Many angels—Wentworth Letter, HC 4:537

59) Satan, as an angel of light—D&C 128:20; JD 3:229-30

All these hosts of ancient prophets and other angels visited Joseph Smith during his lifetime. Undoubtedly, however, the most influential and long-lasting tutor he received to prepare him for his prophetic role was the angel Moroni. One article author counted 22 visits of this angel to the prophet from the years 1823-1829 (H. Donl Peterson, “Moroni—Joseph Smith’s Tutor,” Ensign January 1992;–joseph+smith’s+tutor)—crucial years in Joseph’s preparations to lead the Church. It could be argued that this mentor was his master in a prophetic apprenticeship.

Moroni—Mentor of the Prophet

Moroni was a prophet-warrior from the Book of Mormon with the mission of protecting the plates that that record was on.

Who was this Moroni? He was the son of Mormon—the prophet-historian who compiled and abridged most of the Book of Mormon. Both father and son were also military leaders of the Nephites during their final struggle for existence (Mormon 6:12) and beheld their people’s destruction (WoM1:1; Mormon 8:2-5). Both were prophets and Moroni inherited his father’s task of record-keeping: finishing off his father’s record, abridging the record of Ether, and compiling a few other documents of note in his own record, as well as writing the title page for the volume (Mormon 6:6; 8:1). The final prophet of the Nephites, he was one of the loneliest of all prophets, recording that “I am alone. My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go” (Mormon 8:5). “I make not myself known to the Lamanites lest they should destroy me… because of their hatred they put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ. And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.” (Moroni 1:1-3.) Mormon lore has him as one who traveled the American continents, dedicating future temple sights, and finally hiding up the golden plates that the record was on for the prophet of the restoration to discover.

In the years between what the record records and his visit to the Prophet, Moroni had an active part in preparing the world for the restoration. At some point, he was resurrected (see HC 3:28) and, (according to one apostle) acted as a guardian angel for America—inspiring Columbus to reach the Americas, assisting the army of George Washington achieve victory in the Revolutionary War, and helping America grow “and all this to open and prepare the way for the Church and kingdom of God to be established on the western hemisphere, for the redemption of Israel and the salvation of the world.” (see Orson Hyde, JD 6:368; July 4, 1854.) “The keys of the stick of Ephraim” (the Book of Mormon) were committed to Moroni (see D&C 27:5), and it was his job to nudge events into place so that it could come forth in the proper way.

Finally, in the year 1823, Joseph Smith was ready to begin being trained by this prophet of old. He recorded that “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.” (JSH 1:29) “On a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room; indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire; the appearance of which produced a shock that affected the whole body; in a moment a personage stood before me surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded.” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 439.) “[He was] standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.

“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do.”

“He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant…. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.” (JSH 1:30-32.)

The messenger did not wait long to let Joseph know who he was and what he was there for: “He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.” (JSH 1:33.) He also declared that he was “sent to bring the joyful tidings that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence, that the time was at hand for the Gospel in all its fullness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the Millennial reign.” (TotPotC: JS, 439.)

Having informed Joseph who he was, what Joseph was going to be called to do, and what the central subject of his teaching that night would be, he informed Joseph about his first major objective: the Book of Mormon. “I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, and of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was made known unto me; I was also told where were deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgement of the record of the ancient Prophets that had existed on this continent.” (ibid.)

Moroni did tell him that God had forgiven his sins (TotPotC: Joseph Smith, 57) and went on to share an extensive message with Joseph about the restoration of the gospel. From the official Joseph Smith account, he mentions that “he commenced quoting the propheies of the Old Testament”, such as Malachi 3 & 4; Isaiah 11; Acts 3:22-23; and Joel 2:28-32 with commentary and explanation (JSH 1:36-41). These were the texts the clergy used to teach about the millennium during his lifetime, and either due to his familiarity from church attendance or his memory of the event itself, he noted small deviations from the King James text (see Richard L Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 44). In addition to those verses and chapters, Joseph noted that “he quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here” (JSH 1:41) and that that Moroni “explained many … prophesies.” (1835 account.) Joseph did not make it clear what those scriptures were, but Oliver Cowdery offered a secondary account of the vision in which he shared many more scriptures.

An excellent article on the subject was published in the August 1990 Ensign by Kent P. Jackson as “Moroni’s Message to Joseph Smith” (–joseph+smith’s+tutor). In it, he discusses the scriptures mentioned and points out the categories that seem to have been discussed. Included were:

  1. Apostasy and scattering
  2. The calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith
  3. The opening of the heavens during the Restoration
  4. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon
  5. The restoration of the priesthood and of the sealing keys
  6. The gathering of the elect
  7. Destruction and purification prior to and during the Second Coming
  8. Deliverance for the faithful
  9. The Second Coming
  10. The premillennial and millennial state of the faithful

It seems that Moroni’s message was a fairly comprehensive one directed towards Joseph that the Second Coming and there gathering of Israel were to take place soon and that there was to be preparation for them to take place. Joseph was informed that he “was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation” (TotPotC: JS, 439) and instructed in things relative to that call. Oliver Cowdery recorded that while Moroni was speaking, a vision was also opened to Joseph’s mind, so that he was permitted to see marvelous manifestations relative to what was being taught. (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Apr. 1835, p. 112.) Moroni concluded the first visit with a warning that Joseph was not to show the plates to anyone or face destruction and he was shown in vision the place where they were buried (see JSH 1:42). Joseph was beginning to learn of his role and the events of the Restoration of the Gospel.

“The visitation of Moroni to Joseph Smith holds an important place in our church history. With Moroni’s appearance, the process of restoring lost truths and educating the Prophet gained great impetus.”

Moroni came two more times that night and once more the next morning, each time repeating the same message with additional information and warnings. The second time he came, it seems that Joseph was worried about the end of the world, so Moroni “informed [him] of great judgments which were coming upon the earth, with great destructions by famine, sword, and pestilence; and that these grievous judgments would come on the earth in this generation” after he had “related the very same things which he had done at his first visit, without the least variation.” (JSH 1:45). The third visit included the same teachings with a warning “that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich” and an admonition that “I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God” (JSH 1:46). The fourth visit came the next day after Joseph had attempted working in the field. Again, the same message was repeated for a fourth time, and the angel told Joseph to tell his father (JSH 1:49) “and that ‘He will believe every word you say to him’” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley [1958], 79). The repetition allowed the message to sink in and gave Moroni a chance to offer more instructions according to Joseph’s needs after each visit.

This series of visions are among the most significant in the Restoration of the gospel. “In the years after his First Vision, Joseph Jr. said little about his spiritual development. He had no sense of mission, no emerging prophetic identity…. If Joseph initially understood the First Vision as his conversion, similar to thousands of other evangelical conversions, this vision wrenched Joseph out of the ordinary track.” (Rough Stone Rolling, 42-44.) It is significant that in the 1835 account of the events of the Restoration, the First Vision was told as the background story to “a relation of the circumstances, connected with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” (see Joseph Smith, “History of the Church,” [MS, LDS Historian’s Library] A-1, p. 120-122), and that most of the early saints were more familiar with this vision than the appearance of God and Christ to Joseph in the Sacred Grove. That story would take its place as the founding story of Mormonism in the late 1800’s. Until that time, the appearance of the Angel Moroni was generally referenced as the start of the Restoration. (James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History Volume 7 [1980]: 43-61.) While the First Vision was Joseph’s introduction to revelatory experiences and his message to the world, Moroni’s visit was where the work began.

The visit is also where he began to be tutored to be an ancient prophet. One writer noted that: “It is significant that Moroni trained Joseph Smith by teaching him from the scriptures. It may be that the Prophet’s great love for the Bible was a by-product of this experience, because for the rest of his life he taught others by using the scriptures….  In using the words of ancient Israel’s prophets to instruct the messenger to modern Israel, Moroni symbolically tied the gospel dispensations together—the actual realization of which is a major goal of the Restoration. Moroni, an Israelite prophet, was the first emissary to provide the link between ancient dispensations and the dispensation of the fulness of times.

“The visitation of Moroni to Joseph Smith holds an important place in our church history. With Moroni’s appearance, the process of restoring lost truths and educating the Prophet gained great impetus. Under the care and instruction of that great prophet of ancient America, the Prophet Joseph Smith received training and guidance that ultimately will lead to the restoration of all things. To all this Moroni’s first visits were a prelude—an instructional session from which Joseph Smith and all of us have learned the course that we are to pursue as we continue in the Lord’s service.” (Kent P. Jackson, “Moroni’s Message to Joseph Smith”, Ensign August 1990.)


Joseph’s training continued at the Hill Cummorah

Moroni’s influence and tutoring continued on from there. “According to the early account of this experience published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Satan apparently tried to exert great influence on Joseph during the walk to the Hill Cumorah, two to three miles distant, to obtain the sacred relics. Joseph told Oliver Cowdery later that ‘it seemed as though two invisible powers were influencing, or striving to influence his mind.’ One urged him to get the record and treat it as he had been commanded, seeking the glory of God. The other influence urged him to get the record to make himself wealthy and important. The instruction he had received, to ‘pray always—which was expressly impressed upon him, was at length entirely forgotten, and … a fixed determination to obtain [the plates] and aggrandize himself, occupied his mind when he arrived at the place where the record was found.’ (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, pp. 157–58; spelling modernized.)

“On the west side of the Hill Cumorah, near the top, Joseph located the large stone he was seeking. When he pried this stone lid away, he saw, inside a box, the sacred items spoken of by Moroni.

“He tried three times to take them out of the box, but suffered progressively stronger shocks that deprived him of much of his natural strength, until he exclaimed in frustration, ‘Why can I not obtain this book?’

“’Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord,’ was the answer. For a fifth time within twenty-four hours, Moroni stood before him. ‘In an instant,’ Oliver recorded, ‘all the former instructions, the great intelligence concerning Israel and the last days, were brought to his mind, … but he had failed to remember the great end for which [the gold plates] had been kept, and in consequence could not have power to take them into his possession and bear them away.’ (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, pp. 197–98.)

“Joseph proceeded to pray, and the pall of darkness that had blurred his spiritual vision was dispelled. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Joseph saw a vision of contrasts. Initially, the heavens were opened and ’the glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him,’ Oliver Cowdery’s account continues. As Joseph ‘stood gazing and admiring,’ Moroni abruptly changed the scene. Joseph ‘beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates.’ Then Moroni explained the contrasts:

“’All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one. Behold, whatever entices and leads to good and to do good, is of God, and whatever does not is of that wicked one: It is he that fills the hearts of men with evil, to walk in darkness and blaspheme God; and you may learn from henceforth, that his ways are to destruction, but the way of holiness is peace and rest.’ (Ibid., p. 198.)

“Joseph was told to return to the hill one year later, when Moroni would again meet him and teach him more.” (H. Donl Peterson, “Moroni—Joseph Smith’s Tutor, Ensign Jan. 1992).

Moroni had tried to prepare Joseph for what was to come with the messages the night before. Joseph still fell into temptation, but he gained more understanding of Moroni’s message as a result. To further the learning, Moroni had used visions, words, and discipline that reinforced what Joseph was learning.

As a result of Joseph’s disobedience, he was denied the plates. Moroni had devoted his life’s work to preparing them and had watched over them for a very long time. He wasn’t about to give them to someone who he could not trust to take care of them. Joseph’s mother related that the angel told him they would remain deposited “until he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only till he was willing but able to do it.” (Lucy Smith,Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Liverpool, England: S. W. Richards, 1853) In the meantime, Joseph had to be prepared to receive the plates.

“Each time [I returned] I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.”

It is interesting because the 1838 account makes it sound like Joseph was told up front that it would take four years to get them, but other accounts make it seem like he felt that he would be given them as soon as he was ready. In fact, at the one year anniversary when he returned to the hill, Joseph “fully expected to carry them home with him” and actually was allowed to remove the plates. The problem was that he wondered if there was anything else of value in the box (if he couldn’t use the plates to get gain, perhaps he could find something else to do so) and set the plates down to check. He didn’t see anything, so he covered the spot back up, and turned to grab the plates, only to find that they were gone. Greatly alarmed, he knelt down and “asked the Lord why the Record had been taken from him.” Moroni appeared once more and reminded him that he had not done as he had been commanded. Apparently Joseph had been told in a former revelation, “not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands, until he got into the house and deposited them in a chest or trunk, having a good lock and key.” But “contrary to this he had laid them down with the view of securing some fancied or imaginary treasure that remained.” (Lucy Smith,Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Liverpool, England: S. W. Richards, 1853, pp. 85–86.)

Moroni instructed Joseph and then told him to dislodge the stone cover. There the Prophet, reassured, saw the plates again. He reached to get them, but “he was hurled back upon the ground with great violence.” When he recovered he was alone. Once more, Moroni was tutoring the Prophet in obedience and motives, and once more, Joseph was denied the plates.

He continued to return to the hill and receive instruction from the angel. He records that “each time [I returned] I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.” (JSH 1:54.) Moroni was teaching him and preparing him not just for the Book of Mormon, but for leadership in the Lord’s work in the last days. To aid him in doing so, it seems that Moroni brought in guest instructors. Joseph records that he had “many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days” (TotPotC: JS, 439) and Orson Pratt stated that “during these four years he was often ministered to by the angels of God, and received instruction concerning the work that was to be performed in the latter days.” (JD 15:185.) The visits to Cumorah prepared Joseph for what was to come.

At least some of the instruction was on how he ought to be living. Around the time that Joseph was preparing to receive the Book of Mormon, he was involved in treasure seeking. He apparently had a seer stone that he was already familiar with and was used it in company of other treasure seekers, or “money-diggers” to find things. Perhaps that was part of why he struggled for so long to overcome desire for using the plates or other hidden objects for gain—it was something he had been raised to do. Martin Harris remembered Joseph saying that “the angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal.” (quoted in Rough Stone Rolling, 51.) Joseph continued to work with them, but seemed to do so somewhat unwillingly—dragged into it by his father to support the family. The money-diggers would trouble him when he had the plates (feeling that they deserved a share of the “treasure”) and his involvement with them still troubles his reputation today. The angel had warned him and tried to get him to stop this endeavor to minimize these effects and to help him be in the right mind-set to get the plates.

It seems that while Moroni was a good tutor, he was also a strict one. While Joseph was known to rebuke those he loved and needed to train, he probably learned it more from the angel than anyone. Sometime before the fall of 1827, Joseph returned home one evening later than usual. His family was concerned, but he told them he had been delayed because he had just received “the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life” from Moroni. He said that as he passed by the Hill Cumorah, “The angel met me and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do.” He then related that because of the reprimand, “I now know the course I am to pursue, so all will be well.” (In Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 100–101.) The messenger wasn’t afraid to rebuke so as to put Joseph on the course he needed to be.

Finally, the September following the rebuke, Joseph was given the plates with a charge and warning to be careful with them and not lose them.

The Translation of the Book of Mormon

The process of translation itself taught and trained Joseph further in the ways of being a prophet, seer, and revelator.

The influence of Moroni continued throughout the period Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. In addition, the process of translation itself taught and trained Joseph further in the ways of being a prophet, seer, and revelator.

When Joseph was given the Book of Mormon, he was also given “two stones in silver bows-and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, [which] constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim… and… God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.” (JSH 1:35.) He used these stones and other seer stones in the process of translating the Book of Mormon and receiving other revelations in the early years. He himself never tried to describe how they worked, so we are largely left in the dark on that subject, but somehow he was able to learn through these stones. It seems that they were largely used to facilitate divine communication during this period of learning, because later on he gave up using the device because he had become acquainted with “the Spirit of Prophecy and Revelation” and no longer needed it (Orson Pratt quoted in Rough Stone Rolling, 142). In the meantime, the Urim and Thummim were used for translation and revelation.

Early on during the translation process, Joseph’s scribe and financial provider pressed the boy prophet to take some of the pages they had translated to show his wife. Joseph inquired two times of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and received the answer both times that he must not. He continued to inquire, however, and the Lord finally agreed on strict terms to let Martin take the manuscript. The Lord, however, “was displeased with Joseph Smith for his constant importuning, and took from him the Urim and Thummim after the departure of Martin Harris with the partial translation form the plates” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials from Church History, 55). Moroni was the Lord’s messenger who took the seer stones from the young prophet. When Joseph found out that Martin had broken his agreement and lost the pages, Joseph cried out: “Oh! My God, my God…. All is lost, is lost. What shall I do? I have sinned. It is I that tempted the wrath of God by asking him for that which I had no right to ask…. How shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?” (TotPotC: JS, p. 71). In looking at Joseph’s relationship with Moroni, it is interesting to note he was concerned with being rebuked by his tutor almost above all else. Joseph had tempted the Lord and was learning from his mistake.

The loss of the 116 pages was a painful experience for Joseph, but the Lord and His messenger used it as another teaching opportunity. The next day Joseph returned to Harmony, where, he said, “I commenced humbling myself in mighty prayer before the Lord… that if possible I might obtain mercy at his hands and be forgiven of all that I had done which was contrary to his will.” (TotPotC: JS, p. 71.) At some point, the Urim and Thummim were returned to him temporarily so he could receive a revelation that thoroughly chastised him for negligence and for “setting at naught the counsels of God” but also comforted him that he was still chosen to perform the work of translation if he repented (D&C 3). He did repent and he was permitted again to translate. He said: “the angel rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and said that God was pleased with my faithfulness and humility, and loved me for my penitence and diligence in prayer in the which I had performed my duty so well as to… be able to enter upon the work of translation again” (TotPotC: JS, 71). “Rebuked by the Lord and corrected by Moroni, he was always submissive, repentant, and energetic. He faced despair when the 116 pages were lost, but from that experience he learned obedience and was later able to say, ‘I made this my rule: When the Lord commands, do it.’ He also learned valuable lessons about controlling his motives and purposes and was, therefore, able to keep his ‘eye single to the glory of God’ (D&C 4:5) and channel his energies and thoughts toward building the kingdom.” (Church History in the Fullness of Times [2003], 49-50.)

Through the translation, Joseph learned many of the truths of the Restoration. It was when he read about the Savior’s visit to the Nephites that he pondered on baptism, leading him to ask and receive the priesthood. Also, though he primarily quoted from the Bible, Joseph drew on the ideas and teachings of the Book of Mormon in his own ideas and teachings. The Book of Mormon’s ideas and words shaped Joseph as a teacher.

Moroni continued on assisting and directing Joseph from time to time. When he needed to move north to the Whitmer home to finish translation, Moroni carried the plates there to keep them safe (see Andrew Jenson, ed., The Historical Record, vol. 6, May 1887, pp. 207–9). When Joseph had finished the portion he was assigned to translate, “according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, [and] I delivered them up to him,” Joseph wrote. (JS—H 1:60.) It was Moroni who appeared with the plates and other sacred relics to the first set of witnesses (History of the Church, 1:54–55; The Testimony of Three Witnesses, Book of Mormon) and delivered the plates to Joseph to show the Eight Witnesses (Biographical Sketches, pp. 140–41). Years afterwards, Joseph drew upon his experiences with Moroni to create the garment: one pioneer recalled that, “the Prophet came to my grandmother, who was a seamstress by trade, and told her that he had seen the angel Moroni with the garments on, and asked her to assist him in cutting out the garments.” (Eliza Munson, history  Ms d4558, #5, 1-2, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT.) His presence was a continuing influence in the Prophet’s life.


“Moroni instructed Joseph in how to perform his task, helping as the young Prophet persevered in learning his role.”

It seems that after about 1829, Moroni had few if any visits with Joseph (at least that he shared about), but the influence the ancient prophet had on the young seer was vastly important in his growth. “Moroni displayed amazing patience. He wrote the last portion of the book, he knew the language and the culture of the Nephite recordkeepers, he knew the Lord. But ‘line upon line; here a little, and there a little’ (Isa. 28:10), Moroni instructed Joseph in how to perform his task, helping as the young Prophet persevered in learning his role….

“Joseph Smith’s six years of advanced training were anything but ordinary, for his tutors were celestial beings who taught eternal truths that would never change or become obsolete. Whereas much of man’s formal education is tentative, wrong, or outdated within a few years of graduation, Joseph said of his own education: ‘Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.’ (History of the Church, 6:50.) This was the quality of the heavenly instruction Joseph Smith enjoyed.” (Ensign Jan. 1992.)

While most prophets in our day receive their training through prophets and apostles who have already been called, Joseph Smith had none available to him and learned the trade, so to speak, from prophets of the past. In particular, Moroni served as his mentor during the years of preparation for the founding of the Church. Angelic beings played a central role in Joseph’s training, linking the Prophet (and by extension, future prophets) back to the dispensations of the past.

One comment

  1. […] So we may see that prophets and apostles can have their training from other prophets and apostles. In the Bible, we see such examples of prophetic apprenticeships in the stories of Joshua with Moses and Elisha with Elijah. In modern times, an outstanding example is the training Brigham Young went through with Joseph Smith. All of today’s prophets and apostles can trace their training back to the original Quorum of the Twelve, who were in turn trained by Joseph Smith. That is why the system we have for succession in the Church works well. The questions, however, then become, “how was Joseph Smith trained?” and “how exacting was that training compared to the Quorum of the Twelve?” For more reading on that subject, click here. […]

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