Come Follow Me – Doctrine and Covenants 2; Joseph Smith—History 1:27–65

by Kerry Muhlestein, Ph.D.

Malachi’s promise of Elijah’s return must be of great import, for it is cited in every book of scripture. The version recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, found in Section Two, is a very small paraphrase of what Moroni told Joseph Smith when he first appeared to him. It is also found in the Joseph Smith History account of that visit (JSH 1:38-39). There is a significant difference between how Moroni quoted it to Joseph Smith and how it is preserved in Malachi or the Book of Mormon. That difference has to do with the use of the word “promise.”

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints typically think of the promise that Elijah would come to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the fathers to the children as being primarily fulfilled in doing what we typically speak of as family history work. This is true, but it is only part of the picture. As we see more fully what is intended by that prophecy, an increased power can flow from doing our Family History work.

For a number of years now I have been intensively studying the Abrahamic Covenant, also known as the New and Everlasting Covenant. This research has turned into several articles[1] and a book on the blessings of the covenant and the gathering of Israel, due to be released in mid-February of 2021.[2] While doing that research and writing about it, I came to realize that when you are familiar with the Abrahamic Covenant you recognize that it is referred to in the scriptures far more often than we usually suppose. The promise about Elijah is one of those times.

Malachi’s original audience, when hearing of “the fathers,” would have immediately thought of the great Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This, in turn, would have caused them to think of the promises, or covenant, made to those great patriarchs, a covenant to which they were heirs. Thus, they would have understood that prophecy to mean that Elijah would return to help Israelites remember the covenant God had made with their fathers and in turn come to experience the blessings of that same covenant themselves.[3]

Such an interpretation is strengthened when we look at how Moroni quoted that verse. He said that Elijah would “plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers” (JSH 1:39, emphasis added). Note that in this case the emphasis is not on turning our hearts to the fathers, but rather to the promises, or covenant, made to the fathers. In other words, part of Elijah’s Latter-day mission was to help Latter-day Israel remember, and receive in their hearts, the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then turn to their fathers with that in mind. [4]

This certainly doesn’t supplant the idea that this prophecy is about Temple and Family History work. Instead it amplifies it. After all, isn’t that what temple work is really about? Aren’t we trying to make the Abrahamic Covenant available to everyone on the other side of the veil, starting with our own ancestors? Aren’t we trying to use that covenant, especially as it is expressed in the temple sealing ordinance, to seal us all together for eternity? Truly this is what the work is all about.

Understanding it this way enables us to more fully identify with the scriptures. Nephi clearly teaches his brothers that the scriptures are about the House of Israel, and that they are of the House of Israel, and so the scriptures are about them and can be likened to them (see 1 Nephi 19:20-24).[5] This is as true for us as it was for Laman and Lemuel. As our hearts are turned to the covenant fathers, we suddenly read Genesis and Exodus as part of our family history. We see the promises the Lord extended through covenant to Israel in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy as promises that are extended to us as well. We find the entire Old and New Testament are family stories, and that the prophecies in them are very specifically about us. We begin to identify with the scriptures in a new way, which allows them to speak to us more powerfully.

Ideally, when we sense the hope and power that flows into our lives through the covenant, as outlined in the scriptures, we naturally want to share those blessings with others. With our hearts turned in this way, we find an increased fervency in sharing the gospel and doing temple work. We find our ties to our forbearers all the stronger because we realize that we are bound together in part of the grand sweeping story of the great covenant God has made with Israel.

It has been exhilarating to watch these things happen at an increasing rate as the Saints have caught the vision of what President Nelson has been asking them to do. President Nelson has certainly done much to help plant those promises made to the fathers within the hearts of the modern day children of Israel. It is deeply satisfying and enlightening to see how the ancient prophet Malachi and the modern prophet Russell M. Nelson work together with Elijah to make Malachi’s prophecy come to pass. Hopefully, as we continue to do as President Nelson has asked, and study the promises made to the House of Israel, we will continue to see this great prophecy fulfilled more and more in our own lives. Modern and ancient prophets are working hand in hand to bring about God’s prophesied promises.

The reading assignment for this week also contains another story about the changing of hearts. It has to do with the Prophet Joseph Smith as a boy and young man.

We know that during his youth the Smith family was incredibly poor. They suffered financial disasters in the form of poor crops, being defrauded by business partners, and poor decisions about paying rent and building homes, and the loss of a primary bread-winner when Alvin died. They were desperately trying to cling to making a living, both by farming and by taking up every kind of odd job imaginable, such as making and selling barrels, food, and candles, as well as hiring out the boys for any kind of manual labor. They were destitute and falling further behind financially rather than gaining ground.[6]

In the midst of this ongoing family crisis, they were also in the midst of an interesting folk movement. While high religious culture tended to believe that God was not involved in the daily life of mankind, the common folks felt like Deity had a real interest in their lives and well-being. They sincerely hoped and prayed that God would guide them and bring things into their lives that made their lives better. This is not unlike ourselves.

This belief intertwined with another interesting belief of the time. Many believed that those who had lived in the area before them had buried treasure underground. Among many New York inhabitants, tales of buried treasure were common. As we can all imagine, when someone who believed God would help them also came to believe that in the ground round about them there was buried treasure, the two beliefs combined to convince them that God would help people find that buried treasure. There were even local pastors who lead their congregations in praying – and then searching – for buried treasure.[7] While the sophisticated looked upon the practice with disdain, many good and simple folks fervently believed that God would help them find treasure as a way of providing the blessings he wanted to grant them.

Now put yourself in the position of the Smith family. You were in desperate need. You believed fervently in God and were convinced that he cared about you and would help you in your need. Then one family member learns he is favored of God. He learns that God truly interacts with him. Would you not naturally think that God would want you to use this gift to help take care of your family? Wouldn’t you have faith that God would help you meet the desperate needs that your devout family so fully felt?

This is exactly what happened with Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr.[8] They were both convinced that there was treasure, and that God helped some people find that treasure. And they both believed that God spoke with young Joseph and that he had a special relationship with God. They started working with other treasure hunters in the area, believing God would help them find success.

It seems quite likely that this was some of the “levity” young Joseph was guilty of while with “jovial company” (JSH 1:28).  Whether this specific habit was part of what he was thinking of or not on that momentous September evening, he certainly began to pray fervently because he felt that his actions had not been in keeping with the gravity of the relationship he had with God.

Ironically, the answer to his prayer was not only an angelic visit, but was also that he was told that he was to be entrusted with a buried treasure. He was informed that though this treasure was literally buried gold, its true worth was in what was written on the gold, not the gold itself. He was informed that he would be tempted to help alleviate his family’s financial difficulties by means of the gold plates, but was simultaneously instructed that he “must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building up his kingdom” (JSH 1:46). He was also told that the plates were “not deposited here for the sake of accumulating gain and wealth for the glory of this world.”[9]

It seems to me that God had created the perfect tutoring situation for Joseph Smith Jr. His family was in great financial distress. They believed God would help them find buried treasure that would alleviate their difficult circumstances. Then an angel came and told Joseph where buried treasure was to be found, but also told him that not only could he not use that treasure to help his family. Further, he couldn’t even think about it, or desire it, in that way. When he first went to get the plates he was told that it was his having thought about them in the wrong way that prevented him from obtaining them.[10] This was a crash course in developing a pure and selfless heart and a mind single to the glory of God. Those were characteristics that the Prophet would need during his ministry, and God put him in a developmental crucible at the beginning of his ministry that was designed to create just that kind of heart. This was the first in a long list of Abrahamic sacrifices the Prophet would be asked to make.

Joseph’s heart did not change immediately. By several accounts, including his own, he continued searching for treasure for some time.[11] Josiah Stowell hired Joseph Smith to help him find silver specifically because he heard that Joseph was good at finding treasure.[12] Eventually Joseph was put on trial because Stowell’s relatives felt that Joseph was taking advantage of Stowell, something that Stowell denied in court.

The records we have of that trial are later recollections of someone who very much disliked the Smith family, and thus we must take them with a grain of salt. Still, this late remembrance states that Joseph Smith Sr. testified that they were coming to realize that they should not use Joseph Jr.’s heavenly gift for such a mundane purpose as searching for buried treasure.[13]

Elsewhere we learn that just before finally obtaining the plates Joseph Smith Jr. was severely chastised by an angel, but that he felt like the angel had helped him come to understand finally what he needed to do to obtain the plates.[14] This angelic visit is probably the same one that Martin Harris recalled in a different way. Harris said that Joseph had been told that he needed to quit the company of the money diggers.[15] This makes a great deal of sense. Joseph was not only being taught that he could not think of the plates as a way to help his family’s finances, but that he could not think of his relationship with God or his seeric abilities in that way either. Indeed, Joseph needed to come to completely forget himself when it came to using his God-given gifts. He could only think of God’s glory and building God’s kingdom. Whether they were the same event or two different circumstances, not long after being chastised by an angel and learning that he needed to stop doing things with those who were searching for buried treasure, Joseph finally obtained the plates.

There is no doubt that the nascent Prophet had to learn many things during the four years of tutoring he underwent between Moroni’s first visit and when he was allowed to bring the gold plates home. Some of that learning probably took place just by Joseph maturing from a teenager to a young adult. Still, it is my opinion that one of the most significant things the boy prophet learned during those four years was to forget about himself, no matter how great his own needs or those of his family were, and to have a heart and mind that were completely and fully turned towards doing God’s will, and nothing else.

It is remarkable that Joseph was put in a situation that made it specifically hard to turn his heart in that way, and that in a short four years he succeeded in doing so. The question for the rest of us to ask is how we are doing in accomplishing that same task. I doubt any of us have succeeded as well as Joseph Smith did in such a short time. Still, I suspect that God will continue to put us all in situations that will help us work on developing that same attribute. While we may not succeed as well or as quickly as the Prophet did, his example should serve to inspire us to keep trying.

More Come Follow Me resources here.

[1] Kerry Muhlestein, Joshua M. Sears, and Avram R. Shannon, “New and Everlasting: The Relationship between Gospel Covenants in History,” Religious Educator 21/2 (2020): 21–40; Kerry Muhlestein “Recognizing the Everlasting Covenant in the Scriptures,” Religious Educator 21/2 (2020): 41–71; Kerry Muhlestein, “Ruth Redemption, and Covenant,” in Jared Ludlow, Kerry Muhlestein, and D. Kelley Ogden, eds., The Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Proceedings of the 2009 Sperry Symposium. (Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2009), 189–208; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Prospering in the Land: A Comparison of Covenant Promises in Leviticus and First Nephi 2,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 1–10.

[2] Kerry Muhlestein, God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, Inc., forthcoming 2021).

[3] For more on this see Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 15; and Kerry Muhlestein, Scripture Study Made Simple: The Old Testament Text and Commentary in a Single Volume (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2017), 530.

[4] This conclusion has been reached by others as well. For example, see Russell M. Nelson, “Thanks for the Covenant,” in Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, 1988–89 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1989), 1–7, delivered November 22, 1988; Russell M. Nelson, “Covenants,” Ensign, November 2011; David A. Bednar, “Let This House Be Built unto My Name,” April 2020 general conference; David A. Bednar, “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” October 2011 general conference.

[5] See Muhlestein, God Will Prevail, 14-16.

[6] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf: 2006), 46–48.

[7] See Stephen J. Fleming, “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” Church History 77, no.1 (March 2008): 75, 78, 81–82, 87, 92–93, 103; Spencer J. Fluhman, Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2006), 6; Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 18-21; Ronald W. Walker, “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” in BYU Studies 24, no. 4 (1984):450-51.

[8] Much of this portion of the blog post is based on an article of mine. See Kerry Muhlestein, “Seeking Divine Interaction: Joseph Smith’s Searches for the Supernatural,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book, 2011), 76-91.

[9] Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VII,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, 2:198-99.

[10] 1832 History, in Dean C. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 13; Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 83; Oliver Cowdery to William Phelps, October 1835, in Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, 40.

[11] See “Treasure Seeking,” at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/treasure-seeking?lang=eng.

[12] Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 92; Joseph Smith, “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” 7–8, josephsmithpapers.org; see also Elders’ Journal, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1838), 43, josephsmithpapers.org.

[13] William D. Purple, in Kirkham, New Witness, 2:366. Also see Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 34.

[14] Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” 103-04, josephsmithpapers.org.

[15] Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism,” Tiffany’s Monthly, May 1859; as reproduced in Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, The Book of Mormon (Independence, Mo.: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 2 vols., 1942 and 1951), 2:318.

Kerry Muhlestein received his BS from BYU in psychology with a Hebrew minor. He received an MA in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU and his PhD from UCLA in Egyptology. He taught courses in Hebrew and Religion part time at BYU and the UVSC extension center, as well as in history at Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA. He also taught early-morning seminary and at the Westwood (UCLA) institute of religion. His first full-time appointment was a joint position in religion and history at BYU–Hawaii. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He was selected by the Princeton Review in 2012 as one of the best 300 professors in the nation (the top .02% of those considered). He was also a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford for the 2016–17 academic year. He has published six books and over fifty-five peer-reviewed articles and has done over eighty academic presentations. He and his wife, Julianne, are the parents of six children, and together they have lived in Jerusalem while Kerry has taught there on multiple occasions. He has served as the chairman of a national committee for the American Research Center in Egypt and serves on their Research Supporting Member Council. He has also served on a committee for the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and currently serves on their board of trustees and as a vice president of the organization. He is the co-chair for the Egyptian Archaeology Session of the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is also a senior fellow of the William F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research. He is involved with the International Association of Egyptologists, and has worked with Educational Testing Services on their AP world history exam.

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