Divine Guidance Led Joseph Smith III to Become Prophet of the Church

By Pamela Price

The Prophet Joseph Smith III

The Prophet
Joseph Smith III

This painting shows Joseph at about forty-eight years of age, as he appeared while he lived at Plano, Illinois, and was president of the Church and editor of the Saints’ Herald and other Church publications. The picture appeared as a black and white engraving in Edward W. Tullidge’s Life of Joseph the Prophet (between pages 742 and 743). Price Publishing Company had the picture prepared in color.

The saints are familiar with the accounts of the heavenly visions which were experienced by Joseph Smith, Jr., in Palmyra’s Grove, which caused him to become the founder of the Restoration Movement. However, little is known about the important visions and revelations which led his son, Joseph Smith III, to take his place as prophet-president of the Church.

There are similar patterns in the lives of both Josephs. Both were farmers. Both sought God as a result of reading James 1:5 which says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Both were led by visions and revelations. Both were young when the manifestations came to them, and both were led to become the prophet-president of the Church.

“Young Joseph,” as he was affectionately called, had two distinct visions and a definite revelation which guided him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He grew up in Nauvoo with his mother, Emma; his stepfather, Louis C. Bidamon; his adopted sister, Julia, and three younger brothers—Alexander, Frederick, and David. He worked at farming with his stepfather and brothers, and studied law with the intention of becoming an attorney.

Joseph III’s First Vision

A drawing of Joseph Smith III in 1853 at age twenty by Fred Piercy

A drawing by Fred Piercy of Joseph Smith III in 1853 at age twenty—about the time Joseph had the first vision which helped him make the choice between leadership in the LDS and RLDS Churches. Color tinted by Jan Willey.

During the year 1853, when he was twenty years of age, Joseph III had an experience which helped him to decide what his life’s work should be. In it he was shown a vision in which he saw both a busy city scene, in which he could have renown; and in contrast, a wide expanse of thrifty, peaceful, villages—in which he would live a simple, humble life. He was told that he must choose between them.

Just prior to the vision, Joseph became very ill from an attack of fever, which caused him to lose thirty-three pounds in two weeks. During the time that he was recovering, he had much time to think of his future work.

Joseph wrote:

It was during this summer [1853] and fall that I had the first serious impressions concerning my connection with the work of my father. That spring, if my memory is correct, there was a large emigration to Utah; a part of which was camped at Keokuk, twelve miles below Nauvoo, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. A delegation of them visited Nauvoo, and with one of them, whose name if I learned it, I do not now remember, I had a long conversation respecting Mormonism. I had talked with many upon the matter; but had never taken the subject into very earnest consideration.

This person urged that I was possibly doing a great wrong in allowing the years to pass by unimproved. I stated to him that I was ready to do any work that might fall to my lot, or that I might be called to do. I had no fellowship with the leadership in the Salt Lake Church, and could not then give my sanction to things there; my prejudices were against them.

In the summer and fall several things occurred that served to bring the question up; my sickness brought me near to death; my coming of age, and my choice of a profession were all coincident events; and during my recovery I had opportunity for reflection, as for weeks I could do no work. One day, after my return to health was assured, I had lain down to rest in my room; the window was open to the south and the fresh breeze swept in through the trees and half closed blinds, I had slept and woke refreshed; my mind recurred to the question of my future life and what its work should be. I had been and was still reading law under the care of a lawyer named William McLennan, and it was partially decided that I should continue that study.

While weighing my desires and capabilities for this work, the question came up, Will I ever have anything to do with Mormonism? If so, how and what will it be? I was impressed that there was truth in the work my father had done. I believed the gospel so far as I comprehended it. Was I to have no part in that work as left by him?

While engaged in this contemplation and perplexed by these recurring questions, the room suddenly expanded and passed away. I saw stretched out before me towns, cities, busy marts, courthouses, courts, and assemblies of men, all busy and all marked by those characteristics that are found in the world, where men win place and renown. This stayed before my vision till I had noted clearly that choice of preferment here was offered to him who would enter in, but who did so must go into the busy whirl and be submerged by its din, bustle, and confusion.

In the subtle transition of a dream I was gazing over a wide expanse of country in a prairie land; no mountains were to be seen, but far as the eye could reach, hill and dale, hamlet and village, farm and farmhouse, pleasant cot and homelike place, everywhere betokening thrift, industry, and the pursuits of a happy peace were open to the view.

I remarked to him standing by me, but whose presence I had not before noticed, “This must be the country of a happy people.” To this he replied, “Which would you prefer, life, success, and renown among the busy scenes that you first saw, or a place among these people, without honors or renown? Think of it well, for the choice will be offered to you sooner or late, and you must be prepared to decide. Your decision once made you cannot recall it, and must abide the result.”

No time was given me for a reply, for as suddenly as it had come, so suddenly was it gone, and I found myself sitting upright on the side of the bed where I had been lying, the rays of the declining sun shining athwart the western hills and over the shimmering river, making the afternoon all glorious with their splendor, shone into my room instinct with life and motion, filling me with gladness that I should live. From that hour, at leisure, at work or play, I kept before me what had been presented, and was at length prepared to answer when the opportunity for the choice should be given. (The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1952], 3:254–255. Hereafter referred to as RLDS History of the Church.)

The Luminous Cloud Vision

Two years passed, during which time Joseph III studied law and worked at various jobs, including farming. Then God gave him another vision which definitely answered the question of whether or not he should go to Utah and become a part of the church there. He wrote:

In the fall of this year [1856] three events transpired that had much to do with deciding my course religiously and aiding me to answer the question, What part in my father’s work, if any, I was to take. For a number of years I had been more or less intimate with the family of Christopher E. Yates, a friend to the saints. . . . With one of his sons, Putnam, circumstances had made me well acquainted. He had crossed the plains a number of times, had been in Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah, and in California. He and I had frequently discussed Mormonism; that is, some parts of it, and he had persistently insisted that I could do a great and an excellent work by going to Utah, and as he put it, “taking the lead away from Brigham; breaking up that system of things there,” or to “fall in with the style of things there, become a leader, get rich, marry three or four wives and enjoy yourself.”

Though not a religious man himself he thought it might be a duty that I owed the people of Utah. He further thought, that from his experience in Utah, and the expressions he had heard among the people there, that I would be received with open arms and could succeed.

To this I replied as best I could, until the question, Why not go to Utah? There are the men who were with my father, or a great many of them. There, a large part of the family; there, also, seem to be the only ones making profession of belief in Mormonism who appear to be doing anything. Does not duty demand that I go there and clear my name and honor of the charge or ingratitude to my father’s character? Is not polygamy, against which you object, a correct tenet? Is not your objection one of prejudice only? These and a thousand others of similar import were suggested, and added their weight to the difficulty of the situation.

In the height of it, the words suggested to one who had gone before me came to me with force; “If any lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Why not I? Was I not in a position to need wisdom? And was I not destitute of sufficient to enable me to properly decide?. . .

I believed that He who had enabled my father to decide which of all [the Churches] should receive his attention, could, if he would, enable me to decide whether I should, or should not, have anything to do with Mormonism; and if so, what. I proceeded upon this conclusion.

A year or two before this we had raised an excellent crop of wheat, upon a piece of land lying in the south of our meadow, and this man Yates had assisted in doing some of the work. While engaged in it we had some conversation about Utah. After this, I did not see him for some months.

One day, while pondering these questions (and here, unlike some, I cannot certainly state whether morn or even, only that the sun was shining,) I suddenly found myself [in vision] sowing this [same] piece of land to wheat. My brother and this Mr. Yates I saw [in vision] harrowing the wheat after my sowing. In passing over the land I met Mr. Yates as he drove to and fro, and our conversation was upon this Utah subject; and the same arguments and statements were repeated by him [as had actually happened previously]. To these I was urging again my reluctance to move, and the question was again presented, Why not go to Utah? I paused, rested the bag of grain that I was carrying across my shoulder, upon my knee, and turned to answer him.

I heard a slight noise like the rush of the breeze, that arrested my speech and my attention. I turned my gaze slightly upward and saw descending towards me a sort of cloud, funnel shaped, with the wide part upward. It was luminous, and of such color and brightness that it was clearly seen, though the sun shone in its summer strength. It descended rapidly and settling upon and over me enveloped me completely, so that I stood within its radiance. As the cloud rested upon the ground at my feet, the words “Because the light in which you stand is greater than theirs,” sounded in my ears clearly and distinctly. Slowly the cloud passed away and the vision closed.

A few days after this occurred I met this man Putnam Yates, and had a conversation with him in which he again urged upon me the idea of going to Utah; and my answer was in exact accordance with what I had seen. (RLDS History of the Church 3:256–259)

The Polygamy Question Answered

The question of whether or not polygamy was of God, was answered apparently in the same vision in which the luminous cloud appeared. Joseph related:

The other question, “Is polygamy of God?” was as distinctly and definitely answered to me, as was the one referred to above; and the answer was, “No,” and I was directed that I was to have nothing to do with it, but was to oppose it. . . .

The question of my going to Utah in order to fill the destiny appointed me was now disposed of, and I was prepared for two events that occurred subsequently to what is here related. . . . I was visited by George A. Smith and Erastus Snow [officials of the church in Utah]. . . . I was at this visit asked if I did not intend to come to Utah to see them there, the question being supplemented by the statement that they were looking for me to come; that I had many friends there, who had been friends to my father; that they thought I ought to be with them, and felt a great desire to see me among them.

To this I replied that I might some day visit them when a railway was completed that I could go and come without let or hindrance.

“But,” said Elder Snow, “we want you to come and stay:’ In reply to this I stated that I could not do that in the sense conveyed, so long as such things were taught and practiced there as I had reason to believe were taught and practiced."

“You refer to plurality,” said Elder Snow; and I answered him, “Yes, I refer to the doctrine of polygamy as it is called in the States."

“Why, you believe in the Book of Mormon, do you not?” inquired Elder Smith.

I replied to him, “I believe in the book; but do not believe the construction that you Utah people put upon it.”

Other conversation took place of a general character, mainly between Elder Snow and myself, until they left, the interview lasting some two and a half or three hours.

Not more than three or four weeks elapsed after the visit of Elders Snow and Smith when I was visited by Elders Samuel H. Gurley and Edmund C. Briggs, sent as delegates from the Reorganized Church at Zarahemla, Wisconsin, with a commission to deliver what they believed to be the word of the Lord to me. (RLDS History of the Church 3:259–260)

Joseph Was Directed by Revelation
To Join the Reorganization

After receiving the above visions which made him certain that he was not to go to Utah or embrace polygamy, he now sought for the answer to the last remaining question, “To which body of believers shall I unite myself?” He later gave some of the circumstances surrounding a revelation which gave him the answer. He declared:

I sought earnestly to determine where to cast my religious lot. . . . I made the whole matter a specific study and subject of prayer, laying it before the Almighty in the plain question: “To which body of believers shall I unite myself!” When the answer came I could make no mistake, for clearly and specifically I was directly told to unite myself to the Reorganization. (Saints’ Herald, April 2, 1935. pp. 432–433)

Joseph explained further:

During the year 1859 the question of my connection with my father’s work was finally determined. I became satisfied that it was my duty. The queries heretofore referred to were one by one being settled; until the final one, where and with whom should my life-labor lie? was the only one left. This was determined by a similar manifestation to others that I had received to this effect: “The Saints reorganizing at Zarahemla and other places, is the only organized portion of the church accepted by me. I have given them my Spirit, and will continue to do so while they remain humble and faithful.”

This was in the fall of 1859, and in the winter I resolved to put myself in communication with the brethren of the Reorganized Church. (RLDS History of the Church 3:263)

The Fulfillment of Joseph III’s First Vision

Apostle Heman C. Smith

Apostle Heman C. Smith, RLDS Church Historian, who with Joseph III, authored the first four volumes of the RLDS History of the Church. Heman was the grandson of Apostle Lyman Wight, the husband of Vida E. Smith who wrote the hymn "The Old, Old Path," and the father of Inez Smith Davis who wrote The Story of the Church.

Joseph’s visions and revelations led him to accept the prophet-presidency of the Church. He was ordained in 1860 and served as prophet for fifty-four years. In 1897, forty-four years after his first vision in 1853, wherein he was informed that he must choose between renown in a metropolis or a humble rural life, the vision was fulfilled. By this time the Church’s headquarters had been moved to Lamoni, Iowa, and there he saw the actual peaceful prairie scene that he had beheld in his vision. There also Joseph III and the Church Historian, Apostle Heman C. Smith, as coauthors, wrote and published the first four volumes of RLDS Church History One day as Heman and Joseph III worked together, Heman read Joseph III’s account of the first vision and then questioned the Prophet.

Heman later wrote:

The Herald Office, Lamoni, Iowa

The Herald Office, Lamoni, Iowa. Built in 1881 (first, without the annex on the left), this building served as Church headquarters, housing the General Church offices, archives, and printing plant until it was destroyed by fire in 1907. From an upper window in this building, Joseph showed Apostle Heman C. Smith the same scene which Joseph had seen in his vision in Nauvoo in 1853.

I turned to President Smith and said: “Have you ever seen, in fact, the fair scene thus presented to you in vision?” We were in the editorial room in the southwest corner of the upper floor of the old Herald Office building in Lamoni, Iowa. He replied, “Take your place at the south window there and you will see the scene presented to me, only my view seemed to be more extensive."

From about the time of President Smith’s exploring trip there seemed to be new life infused into the spirit of gathering, until, not only to the south of the spot where he bade me stand and look, but to the north, east and west, there appears in very deed the “hill and dale, hamlet and village, farm and farmhouse, pleasant cot and homelike place,” “betokening thrift, industry and the pursuits of a happy peace” of this happy people with whom President Smith chose to cast his lot, and for whom he spent a busy and devoted life, to which our present possibilities and prospects are largely indebted. (Heman C. Smith Journal of History [Lamoni, Iowa: The Board of Publication of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, April 1916], 9:164–165)

Saints today should take courage from the history of these visions and their fulfillment. God has invested much in His Church, and He has not brought it this far to have it fail and allow Satan to have the victory. Let us assist during the present crisis in His Church by praying for guidance, as did Joseph, Jr., and Joseph III. Let us move only in obedience to the mind and will of Almighty God. In the meantime, we can be assured that when the Lord moves in great power to set His Church in order, that it will not be done in secret, known only to a few self-chosen men.

Instead, many will be informed by the Holy Ghost, as in the days when the Reorganization began. While Young Joseph was being directed by visions, the saints in independent Restoration branches were being informed by dreams, visions, prophecies, and tongues that he would become their prophet.

Since God does not work in secret, the saints who are faithful can expect the same gifts of the Spirit to be poured out in their midst in the future, to prepare them to accept the true leadership which He shall send, and to be warned against false leaders. In this way His saints will be led in the right direction, and not be deceived.

(Vision 3:5, 24–25, 31; 104:10)