My wife and I have belonged for (I think) somewhat more than twenty years to a monthly reading group that began in Santa Barbara when some of its founding members were either on the faculty or doing graduate studies at the University of California campus there. Its official (though little used) title is “The Gadianton Polysophical Marching and Chowder Society,” and it’s now based along the Wasatch Front in Utah. Though all of the members of the group are committed adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (e.g., past mission presidents, a former temple president, etc.), our monthly readings are mostly unrelated to Mormonism.
Sometimes, though, we do read books about the Church. (Several members of the group are, themselves, published authors of some distinction, and several times we’ve read books published by one of our own.)
This month, the reading was a volume of essays by the late Davis Bitton, a much-missed former member of the GPM&CS;, entitled Knowing Brother Joseph Again: Perceptions and Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2011). It focuses not on the biography of Joseph Smith itself, but on his varying image, particularly after his death, among believing Mormons and unbelieving non-Mormons.
I draw from Knowing Brother Joseph Again four testimonials concerning Joseph Smith from two men and a woman who knew him well.
The first, dating to 1837, comes from Wilford Woodruff, who would later become the fourth president of the Church:
“There is not a greater man than Joseph standing in this generation. The gentiles look upon him & he is to them like [a] bed of gold conce[a]led from human view: they know not his principle, his spirit, his wisdom, virtue, phylanthropy, nor his calling. His mind like Enochs swells wide as eternity. Nothing short of a God can comprehend his soul.” (Page 6, citing Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. [Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1883-1984], 9 April 1837, 1:138-139.)
The second, recorded at Salt Lake City in 1905, comes from Jane Manning James, who, as a young free black woman, had been employed as a servant in the Smith household at Nauvoo, Illinois, and recalls her reaction to Joseph Smith’s assassination by an anti-Mormon mob in 1844:
“When he was killed, I liked to a died myself, if it had not been for the teachers, I felt so bad. I could have died, jus laid down and died; and I was sick abed, and the teachers told me, ‘You don’t want to die because he did. He died for us, and now we all want to live and do all the good we can.’” (Page 94, citing Jane Manning James, “Reminiscence,” Young Women’s Journal 16 [December 1905]: 553.)
The third, which dates to 1853, comes from Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith to become the second president of the Church:
“When Martin [Harris] was with Joseph Smith, he was continually trying to make the people believe that he [Joseph] was the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. I have heard Joseph chastise him severely for it, and he told me that such a course, if persisted in, would destroy the kingdom of God. . . . This people never professed that Joseph Smith was anything more than a Prophet given to them of the Lord, and to whom the Lord gave the keys of the last days, which were not to be taken from him in time, neither will they be in eternity.” (Page 110, citing Brigham Young, 17 April 1853, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [Liverpool and London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 2:127.)
The fourth, dating to 1855, also comes from Brigham Young:
“I feel like shouting hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up and ordained, and to whom He gave keys to powers to build up the kingdom of God on earth and sustain it.” (Page 137, citing Brigham Young, 6 October 1855, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [Liverpool and London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 3:51.)