Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

As I mentioned when discussing the introduction, today’s section (“The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith”) isn’t originally part of the Book of Mormon either, being an edited extract from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, which was added in later editions (presumably for additional context). I bring this up as when reading through this today, one of the principal things to come to mind actually happens to be one of the things that was edited out:

The first paragraph as given in Testimony is as follows:

“On the evening of the … twenty-first of September [1823] … I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God. …

While here is Joseph Smith-History 1:29, which these lines were taken from (with the bits edited out in bold):

In consequence of these things, 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.

I don’t think there’s any great significance in the editing decisions themselves. After all, it’s hardly like JS-H was being hidden, especially since readers are being referred to there “for a more complete account”. Whoever edited the passage was clearly trying to abbreviate a significantly longer passage so that it would fit, and so removed things that could either be regarded as not strictly necessary (“above-mentioned”, retiring to bed etc), or which were part of the back drop of the wider JS-H text (the reference to the first vision Joseph Smith had already experienced, and his praying for forgiveness for his sins which he speaks about in JS-H 1:28). However, while reading today I couldn’t help but think of his motivations for praying as he did that night.

Something similar happened with the first vision too. Joseph Smith appears to have had several motivations for praying as he did then: as recorded in JS-H, there was his confusion over the Churches, and then as several other of his accounts record (and which is alluded to in D&C 20:5) there was again a concern for personal forgiveness of sins. Of course, much as with Moroni’s visit, the first vision ended up being about so much more. In both cases, the spiritual experience that Joseph received addressed so much more than what he was asking about.

I wonder about this. I wonder if sometimes we have a tendency to reduce our model of spiritual experiences down to transactional events. That is, even if we are careful to avoid thinking of God as some sort of Santa Claus (that is, we avoid the tendency for our prayers to devolve into simply asking for things we want), we can still approach spiritual experiences in which we produce the question, we meet certain conditions for an answer, and then God provides the answer as if he were a spiritual cash machine and the initiative is entirely on our part. I wonder if we sometimes forget that God himself has agency, more so than we do, and he has his own plan (indeed a crucial part of faith is accepting his own plan over ours). As part of that, we may have questions, but he may well provide answers to questions we haven’t asked. The two experiences Joseph had here are examples of this, and I think there are other scriptural examples too of revelation not being doled out according to certain preconditions, but at divine initiative (Moses and the burning bush, the angelic visitations to Zacharias and Mary, Saul & the road to Damascus and I think many more). I think also of my own experiences, and indeed of the most powerful were those that did not simply address the questions I had, but went far beyond it and addressed questions I didn’t have.

Of course, perhaps the very fact that Joseph was on both occasions seeking divine guidance in faith, even if about personal matters, meant that he was ready to also receive divine guidance about bigger matters too, which takes me onto the other thing that came to mind while reading (and which wasn’t edited out), namely the matter of motivation:

But what was my surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as before; and added a caution to me, telling me 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. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.

Our motivations appear to be of crucial concern to both the Lord and to the adversary. But while the adversary would seek to use our motivations to manipulate us into doing evil, the Lord wants us not only to do good, but for good motives too (Moroni 7:6). What we want and how badly we want it appears to have great power and influence on our course through life, the gospel and our eternal destiny (see Alma 29:4). In Joseph’s case, his desires in relation to the plates not only has to be right, but not clouded by any desires, in order for him to receive them at all. And I think that sometimes too that can be the case for us: there may be some kind of blessing, or responsibility, or something that God would have us obtain, but which we can only obtain if our desires and motivations are right before him.

Of course, changing or purifying said motivations may not always be straightforward!

Edit: I’d originally mistakenly attributed the adding of this excerpt of JS-H to the 1981 LDS edition (which added the “Introduction”), however upon checking, the 1920 edition has a very similar extract entitled “Origin of the Book of Mormon”. So while not original to the Book of Mormon, and I’d argue very much added for context, it was added earlier than 1981. The “Brief Explanation About the Book of Mormon” also seems to date from the 1920 edition, where an earlier version appears as “Brief Analysis of the Book of Mormon”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s