I've been reading the biography "Rough Stone Rolling" by Richard Lyman Bushman and I'm again impressed by the enormity of what Joseph Smith Jr. did and the complicated (and yet uncomplicated...) person that he was.
From the introduction:
Joseph Smith is one of those large Americans who like Abraham Lincoln came from nowhere. Reared in a poor Yankee farm family, he had less that two years of formal schooling and began life without social standing or institutional backing. His family rarely attended church. Yet in the fourteen years he headed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith created a religious culture that survived his death, flourished in the most desolate regions of the United States, and continues to grow worldwide after more than a century and a half. In 1830 at the age of twenty-four, he published a second Bible -- an entirely new revealed work to stand beside the traditional scriptures. He built cities and temples and gathered thousands of followers before he was killed at age thirty-eight.
What had I done by 24? Moved away from home...Finished college... What will I do by 38?
Smith is interesting for what he was as well as for what he did. He was the closest America has come to producing a biblical-style prophet -- one who spoke for God with the authority of Moses or Isaiah. He was not an eloquent preacher; he is not known to have preached a single sermon before organizing the church in 1830. But he spoke in God's voice in revelations he compiled and published. A revelations typically began with words like "Hearken O ye people which profess my name, saith the Lord your God." Many thought him presumptuous if not blasphemous, and he made no effort to prove them wrong. He did not defend his revelations or give reasons for belief. He dictated the words and let people decide. Everything he taught and most of what he did originated in these revelations.
He did not try to prove or defend himself -- he simply stated truth and "let people decide."
The question of this book is how such a man came to be in the age of railroads and the penny press? What was the logic of his visionary life?
I think the answer to that lies in something Joseph himself said when it was remarked that he had "too much power to be safely trusted to one man." Joseph responded, "in a rich, comical aside, as if in hearty recognition of the ridiculous sound they might have in the ears of a Gentile" that perhaps in another person's hands "so much power would no doubt be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet!" (Bushman 7)
Whether or not you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, you have to admit he had an amazing historical impact. I think this is best qualified by the words of Josiah Quincy Jr., a successful railroad executive and mayor of Boston (and not a Mormon), who was puzzled by his visit to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and wrote: "It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to the interrogator may be thus written: Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet."
I do believe Joseph was a prophet. The weaknesses of his character, as well as the strengths, confirm this to me. Even an extraordinary man, with flaws, inadequacies, and power of his very human will alone, could not have done it. Only one endowed with power from heaven could accomplish what he did -- to organize and re-establish the kingdom of God to "roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth"(D&C 65:2) and "never be taken again" (D&C 13:1).
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah