I remember sitting in the temple during my mission to Oklahoma and thinking to myself, “What if it’s all a lie?” It was 2005 when the Church celebrated the 200th birthday of the prophet Joseph Smith and the 175th anniversary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was sitting in the house of the Lord, feeling animosity, fear, and anguish. I didn’t have a term for it back then, but this would be the beginning of my faith crisis.
Oklahoma is part of the “Bible Belt,” a region of the southern United States known for its diverse, socially conservative nature. It is a place where there is a different Christian church on every corner, versus my home state of Utah, where there is a church on every corner, but it’s all the same church.
The doctrines taught among the churches in the South are very different from one another, but there were some things they shared—their love for the New Testament (from different versions of the Bible), their love of Christ, and their misunderstanding of and disdain for members of the Church, especially missionaries.
This was difficult at times when knocking on doors and being told, “My pastor told me about you Mormons,” or meeting those same pastors and preachers in the street and hearing “all about [our] church,” as they proceeded to tell us all about the fraudulent history of our Church, from seer stones and polygamy to seemingly horrific claims, many of which I learned were true—and some greatly exaggerated.
For a 20-year-old young man who left for a mission right out of high school, it began to wear on me. “You are vile,” spewed one man as we walked past his home. After making eye contact and approaching him for a friendly discussion, he said, “Don’t bother! You young missionaries are like venom. With your zeal and your confidence, you walk around destroying people’s faith in Christ, because you teach them to worship Joseph Smith.” And before we could even respond, he retreated into the safety of his home.
His words echoed in my head. The experience weighed on me. That experience, combined with many others and my experience in the Oklahoma City Temple, ate at me for years. It was difficult enough teaching people who already knew of and loved Jesus without having to convince them that we didn’t worship the prophet, but revered him as a special witness of Christ.
It would be almost 12 years later, preceding my disciplinary council, that I would reveal my abhorrence of Joseph Smith as I sought to find healing. It began when we moved to a new state and the missionaries knocked on our door. My family was out of town and I invited the elders to come in and share a message. By that point, I had built years of secret transgression and silent hostility toward the Church, but found no harm in indulging in a short courtesy call from the missionaries to the new family.
The Beginning of My Healing
They asked to share a new short video produced by the Church called, “Ask of God: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” It combined at least nine recorded accounts of the First Vision written by Joseph and his friends as delivered to various audiences. It was just over 6 minutes, but it was the first time in a long time that I had felt the Spirit. It brought back some previous personal revelations I had concerning the Restoration, and it led me to want to change.
You can imagine my ambivalence, coming out of a faith crisis and recently returning to the Church, hearing President Nelson say during this past general conference, “In the springtime of the year 2020, it will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision. . . . Thus, the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year. General Conference next April will be different from any previous conference….”
Hearing this brought back a lot of old, deep-rooted feelings. But even stronger than that, the Spirit reminded me of what I have recently regained: a testimony of Jesus Christ, through the prophet Joseph Smith and the truths that were restored through him.
I continue to hear people mock and ridicule members of the Church for following our leaders with phrases like, “I only follow Jesus.” It leaves me scratching my head and screaming inside, “You only know about Jesus because of the record of apostles and prophets!” and it has me wondering if any of those making this claim would have followed the apostles and prophets in ancient times. We have the testimony of special witnesses in our time who are commissioned to bear witness of the Living Christ and to invite us to change and to follow Him.
It is equally frustrating hearing detractors from the Church spew out condemnation toward “the sheeple” who follow the prophet and proudly declare, “I am not a sheep,” while in the same breath proclaiming, “I will follow (insert the name of a popular detractor here) anywhere.” What an incredible announcement of faithlessness upon a backdrop of testimony from Christ affirming “I am the Good Shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep…my sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:14).
Now it may appear that I am being harsh toward others who make this claim, but I was this person for a time. Suffering quietly in despair, I would tell myself that my life is between me and Christ, that I don’t really need the living oracles to work out my salvation and that I will figure it out when I get there. I put in a lot of effort to convince myself of things contrary to what I truly believed, but it was never enough.
Ready to Rejoice
So how do I feel going into this next year where the Church will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first visitation of God the Father and Jesus Christ to a young boy in upstate New York on a beautiful spring morning in 1820? I feel the Spirit. I feel the same Spirit I felt when I moved forward with repenting, knowing it would lead to formal Church disciplinary procedures.
I feel the same Spirit I felt when I sat in council with my brethren and was told of my excommunication. I feel the same Spirit I felt when I was surrounded by my friends and family shortly after being rebaptized and confirmed a member of the Church and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is the same Spirit that has gotten me and my wife through the painful adversities regarding the compromised health of our kids and the grief of waiting on the Lord for some answers.
I feel the Spirit of the Lord testifying to me that as we celebrated the 200th birthday of Joseph and the 175th anniversary of the Church in 2005, we were celebrating Christ. I feel the Spirit of the Lord testifying through a living prophet that as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of when God the Father bore simple testimony of his own Son, Jesus Christ, instructing the boy prophet to, “Hear Him,” that we are rejoicing in the fact that the Lord has revealed Himself in our time to prepare us for His triumphant return by calling a prophet and establishing His church as He did in ancient times.
I feel the calm, loving and patient influence of the Spirit telling me that healing has taken place in my heart and I am ready to rejoice with the Saints as we study and ponder these events and the sacred restored time and as we accept that Joseph Smith revealed Christ to us in our modern day.
Two Great Truths
We rely unequivocally on the testimonies of prophets and apostles that have come to us throughout history, as we would know nothing of Christ and His divinity without prophetic men who have revealed eternal truths to us time and time again. Christ is found throughout ancient texts, and we can be truly grateful for those testimonies. But we can be equally grateful for modern prophets and apostles who testify and witness to us of God’s will for our day and age. We link those called and authorized with Christ, and if we follow them and their counsel, we are following Him who laid down His life that we may live.
On the 100th anniversary of the organization of the first Quorum of Twelve Apostles in modern times, Heber J. Grant and his counselors published the following statement:
“Two great truths must be accepted by mankind if they shall save themselves: first, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Only Begotten, the very Son of God, whose atoning blood and resurrection save us from the physical and spiritual death brought to us by the fall; and next, that God has revealed to the earth, in these last days, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, His holy Priesthood with the fulness of the everlasting Gospel, for the salvation of all men on the earth. Without these truths man may not hope for the riches of the life hereafter (Improvement Era, April 1935, pp. 204-5).
As we move toward this next General Conference of the Church and celebrate 200 years of restored truth, organization, and an active voice of God through living prophets, we can have the Spirit testify personally to us of this visitation from God and His Beloved Son to the boy prophet in modern times. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught “that in testimony meetings in our day we link the name of Joseph Smith with that of Jesus Christ….” and revere him as “a revealer of the knowledge of salvation [in our time].”
After more than a decade of silently loathing Joseph Smith, I have found myself understanding him with all of his flaws and imperfections, and with his divinely chosen call as prophet of the restoration.
I get to move forward with more faith than ever toward these anniversaries with a firm testimony that as I follow the words of Peter, James, and John, I am following Him who commissioned them to go forth and teach in ancient times. As I follow Joseph Smith and the revealed words through him, I know that I belong to the true Church of Jesus Christ that contains the fullness of the everlasting gospel and the doctrine of Christ.
As I accept the invitations of President Russell M. Nelson and other apostles, I am accepting an invitation to find, follow, and know the Living Christ, whom we declare, worship, and love. We have a lot to be grateful for in finding salvation through Christ and for those who have revealed Christ to us in both modern and ancient times.