Joseph Smith, a True Prophet of God
By Evan A. Fry
Joseph the Martyr
This painting is the well-known portrait of Joseph Smith, Jr., which was painted at Nauvoo, Illinois in 1843.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep‘s clothing; but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits; for do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (Matthew 7:24–25)
All ancient prophets were once modern, and it has always been the fate of modern prophets to be anathematized and to have their message rejected by the very people who should have been most eager to receive it and most responsive to it. It has been the fate of modern revelation from the days of Noah until now to be disbelieved, reviled, and rejected of men who need its message most. Noah, who was a “modern” prophet in his day, preached one hundred and twenty years to a skeptical, unbelieving, perverse, hardhearted, and adulterous generation, and in the end saved only his own immediate family. Moses gave the people the law direct from the finger of God on Mount Sinai; he confounded the magicians, the wise men, and the Pharaoh of Egypt as evidence of his prophetic mission; yet the people under him followed him reluctantly, frequently complained and rebelled and deserted. Elijah, in spite of his power in calling down a three-year drouth upon the land, was regarded as a slightly crazy impostor.
Jesus Himself was rejected first by the very people who should have been looking for and expecting Him—the guardians and interpreters of the Jewish law. Their knowledge of the law of Moses and of the old prophets should have made them know Him and welcome Him when He came, but they were so steeped in their own erroneous traditions and faulty interpretations, and so skeptical that anyone in their day could be the Christ, that they crucified Him. Paul preached from those same books of law and prophecy to people whose knowledge of them should have made them happy to accept Christ, but he was beaten, imprisoned, and slain for his pains, at the instigation of the very religious leaders who should have been most familiar with the law Paul preached.
This condition has always obtained in the world. People have always seemed to believe that the only good prophet was a dead prophet. Like the people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, they kill the prophets who are contemporary among them and garnish the sepulchers of those prophets their fathers killed before them. It is significant that many modern, contemporary religious leaders who find it easy to shed tears about Noah’s 120 years of fruitless preaching, or Christ’s rejection, or Paul’s persecutions are utterly blind to the fact that Jesus said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it shall be also at the coming of the Son of Man.” Just as the people rejected Noah’s prophetic ministry, so shall the people of latter days reject the prophetic ministry which is sent to them.
When Joseph Smith first put forward his claim of a prophetic revealment and proclaimed it to the world, the religious leaders of the world did not even listen to him, but behaved as such people have always behaved—began persecution without any real investigation of the message, and appealed to ancient prophets for anathemas against the modern. In the early nineteenth century, many years after the beginning of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry, a favorite text of his religious opponents and persecutors was the text we have given in Matthew: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing; but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” They did not mean by resorting to this text that there were good prophets and bad, or real and genuine, but rather that anyone who declared himself to be a prophet was a false prophet.
A careful and reasonable examination of the text will prove this to be true; that if there are false prophets, there must also be their opposites, existing side by side with them. Unless there are true prophets, there is no standard by which we may judge a false prophet. If there are no true prophets, there would be no need for a false prophet to assume the garb of a true prophet in order to deceive, nor indeed would it be possible to do so. There can be no counterfeit coin unless there is a genuine coin to which the counterfeit may be compared to show its counterfeit qualities. If there were no genuine coinage, there would be no need to take any pains at disguising or perfecting a counterfeit coin, for just any old coin would do.
Jesus warned against false prophets who would come in sheep’s clothing. If they came disguised in sheep’s clothing, it was that they might look like genuine sheep, and enter stealthily in among and deceive the flock. But bear in mind that the sheep disguise would be ineffective unless there were some real sheep. Genuine prophets wear sheep’s clothing, too—the genuine article. That’s why the false prophet adopts that garb, in order that he may pass as a sheep among sheep and deceive the people.
But in 1830 when Joseph Smith advanced his prophetic claims, there was not a single church in Christendom that claimed to have a prophet or to believe in a modern, contemporary prophetic ministry. The only good prophets were the dead ones. The coinage had run out, and not a single example of it still existed. The sheep had all died, so the world didn’t even know what one looked like. There was nowhere in the world a single denomination or a single individual who even claimed to be the genuine article. Yet people charged Joseph Smith with donning the sheep’s clothing, so that he might deceive the people into thinking he was the real article. “Beware of false prophets” thundered the pulpiteers of the nineteenth century, who never stopped to realize that if there were false prophets there must also be genuine ones by which to prove the false ones false.
Let us examine the implications of this text further. The false prophet assumed his sheep’s clothing in order that he might appear like the true prophet, and deceive the people by the similarity of appearance. Did Joseph Smith try to make himself as nearly like other religious leaders of the day as possible? That would have been the method of a false prophet, who was trying to deceive. But Joseph was as far from most religious leadership of his day as one pole is from another. His prophetic ministry began with the statement that all the creeds were an abomination in the sight of God, thus challenging every sect in the Christian world. That kind of statement was not calculated to insinuate him inconspicuously into the religious flock because of his similarity to other leaders and teachers. He sought no favor or flattery; he was no hypocritical deceiver, attempting to deceive by imitating the genuine. He imitated no one—challenged all. He donned no make-believe fleece to make himself appear like others.
Almost everything he did and said was in direct contrast or opposition to all the established religious teaching of his day. He renewed to his followers the promise of Jesus, that “These signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:16–19). The secular leaders raged and said all such things were done away. He promised the spiritual gifts promised by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, and the world cried “imposter” and insisted that those things were done away, too. He declared that God still spoke through prophets, and the churches who had no prophets, with whom they could compare this ... prophet, denounced him as a sham and a fraud.
He denounced the doctrine of infant damnation, which was in several of the creeds, and pointed to the Bible for proof that “of such is the kingdom of heaven”—but they cried “fraud” and stopped their ears. He denounced the idea of a hell of eternal fire and brimstone, where sinners suffered torments forever and ever, and taught instead that hell is a prison house, a house of correction, where the wicked learn the error of their ways—a prison house which in the end, according to Revelation 20:14 shall, together with death, be cast into the lake of fire and destroyed when there is no longer any use for it. He taught that men should be rewarded according to their works, not with either heaven or hell, with no intermediate choice, but with a glory of the sun, a glory of the moon, or a glory of the stars according to their deserts (1 Corinthians 15:41).
He taught that there would be probation after death for the heathen and those who died without the law, in order that these might learn and have opportunity to accept or reject the gospel, as indicated in 1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:5–6, and also in John 5:28. But again those who should have known their Bible best cried “false prophet” and rejected his words. In a day when there was scarcely a church or a Christian who believed in the literal, physical, and imminent second coming of Christ, Joseph Smith affirmed this doctrine and was told by his critics that the second coming would be only spiritual.
“By their fruits ye shall know them.” The churches which denounced Joseph Smith as a false prophet have now discarded infant damnation; have adopted a belief in the gift of tongues, healing, and even prophecy; have modified their ideas of hell to conform more nearly with his; have in many cases accepted the idea of probation after death; and now almost to the last man believe in the second coming of Christ. Many of his prophecies in other and totally unrelated lines have been fulfilled, but time forbids that we should enumerate them to you.
But some people still reject Joseph Smith as a prophet on the grounds that he was a corrupt, immoral man. The record still stands. He was never convicted in a court of law, though arrested numerous times. His wife, Emma, swore almost upon her deathbed that she was the only wife he ever had and that the charge that he was responsible for polygamy was an infamous lie; and she of all people should know. Men disagreed with him, left him, reviled him, slandered him, but no one has ever proved that he was dishonest, immoral, or profane. . . .
So, although we say and believe that Joseph Smith was a great and good man, we say further that even though you may not believe so, that he is to be judged after all by the fruits of his prophetic mission. We charge you to examine that mission carefully, lest you, too, become one of those who kill and persecute the living prophets, and lay wreaths on the sepulchers of those who lived centuries upon centuries ago. Beware of false prophets, yes—but beware also of the sin of rejecting the true prophet, who comes to you in genuine sheep’s clothing, by comparison with which the false prophet is disclosed for what he is.
(The Saints' Herald [April 18, 1942]: 15–17)
Prints of this painting are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.