The King, the Maiden, and the True Successor to Joseph Smith

The King, the Maiden, and the True Successor to Joseph Smith August 26, 2021


Edmund Leighton, “The King and the Beggar-Maid” (1898)
Wikimedia Commons public domain image




This parable, from the Philosophical Fragments of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), has long been a favorite of mine:


Imagine there was a King who loved a humble maiden. She had no royal pedigree, no education, no standing in the royal court. She dressed in rags. She lived in a hovel; she lived the ragged life of a peasant. But for reasons no one could quite figure out, the King fell in love with this girl in the way the kings sometimes do. Why he should love her was beyond explaining, but love her he did, and he could not stop loving her.


One day there awoke in the heart of the King an anxious thought: “How in the world is he going to reveal his love to this girl? How could he bridge the chasm that separated the two of them?” His advisers, of course, told him that all he had to do was command her to become his queen, and it would be done. For he was a man of immense power, every statesman feared his wrath, every foreign power trembled before him, and every courtier groveled in the dust at the King’s voice.


This poor peasant girl would have no power to resist; she would have to become the queen!


But power, even unlimited power, cannot command love. The King could force her body to be present in the palace, but he could not force love to be present in her heart. He might be able to gain her obedience this way but coerced submission is not what he wanted. He longed for intimacy of heart and oneness of spirit, and all the power in the world cannot unlock the human heart—it must be opened from within.


So he met with his advisers once again and they suggested he try to bridge the chasm by elevating her to his position. He could shower her with gifts, dress her in purple and silk, and have her crowned the queen. But if he brought her to his palace, if he radiated the sun of his magnificence over her, if she saw all the wealth, pomp, and power of his greatness, then she would be overwhelmed. How would he ever know if she loved him for himself, or for all that he had given her? And how could she know that he loved her, and would love her still if she had remained only a humble peasant? Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king only wished to forget—that he was the king and she had been a humble maiden?


Every alternative he came up with came to nothing. There was only one way. So one day the king arose, took off his crown, relinquished his scepter, laid aside his royal robes, and he took upon himself the life of a peasant. He dressed in rags, scratched out a living in the dirt, groveled for food, and dwelt in hovel.


He did not just take on the outward appearance of a servant, he became a servant–it was his actual life, his actual nature, his actual burden. He became as ragged as the one he loved so that she could be his forever. It was the only way. His raggedness became the very signature of his presence.


And so it is when God seeks to gain the freely-given, uncoerced love of human beings.


He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  (John 1:10-11)




And yet, sometimes, things are revealed with apparent clarity.  This comes from Carol Cornwall Madsen, Emmeline B. Wells: an Intimate History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017), 49-50.


Could the church survive the loss of its murdered prophet, many wondered, and if so, who should now govern it?  It was not long before several made claim to that position, while others left the church to develop their own forms of Mormonism.  Some, disillusioned and apprehensive, simply left Mormonism altogether.  But the majority stayed the course, and in August, when Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gathered the Saints together in the grove near the uncompleted temple, Emmeline and [her first husband] James [Harris] were among the many who “were present at the memorable meeting of August 8, 1844, when the mantle of Joseph Smith fell upon Brigham Young,” as he accepted leadership of the church.  “When Brigham Young rose in the midst of the people,” Emmeline recalled, “most of them rose to their feet,” and those who had known the prophet, she continued, “declared in a loud voice, as loud as they could almost, that it was the prophet Joseph himself risen again. . . .  It was a transfiguration real and convincing.”  As a memory only, either Emmeline may have absorbed others’ testimonies of the event, or she was indeed one of the claimants of its authenticity.  Years later, she remembered it (writing in the third person) as “another abiding testimony for the young girl who was passing through such fiery ordeals.”


The so-called “transfiguration” of Brigham Young is a matter of some controversy.  There are, so far as we currently know, no contemporary accounts of it.  But there are lots and lots and lots of later reminiscences, from a large number of widely scattered people.


I wrote a brief column about the matter back in 2013:


“Event convinced Saints of Brigham Young’s mantle”


Incidentally, the online article to which I linked in that column is no longer available — presumably because it has now been published in updated form in the second, revised edition of John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820-1844, a book that, even in its original edition, I considered one of the most faith-promoting works of Mormon scholarship that I had ever read.


Here’s a column that I wrote regarding the new revision:


“New edition of ‘Accounts of Divine Manifestations’ is a significant work of Mormon scholarship”


Posted from San Diego, California



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