Thousands of years ago, Joseph (the son of Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament) prophesied:
Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins…and unto him will I give power to bring forth my word…for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation…and out of weakness he shall be made strong.
My theme tonight is the encouraging statement in that prophecy that “out of weakness, he shall be made strong.” How can “weakness” lead to strength? How did that happen for Joseph Smith? What does this mean for us today?
Though strong of body and character, Joseph Smith was weak by just about any other earthly measure. Nonetheless, through him—an obscure plough-boy living in frontier America— the Lord restored the fullness of His gospel for the blessing of all mankind. The history of the Restoration accomplished through Joseph Smith is a witness that the Lord can do His work,3 and that he does it through the weak things of the earth.
At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that the Lord would call upon the weak things of the earth to accomplish a mighty work. To appreciate why the Lord calls the weak, remember that the Lord says his work must be accomplished in His own way 5 and by the power of His Spirit: His ways, in other words, not our ways. Those who perceive themselves to be “strong” do not turn wholeheartedly to the Lord for guidance. Instead, they rely on their own wisdom and their own understanding, “the arm of the flesh.” As a consequence, they are left to their own strength; and they will find in the end—to their dismay—that their strength is insufficient.6
You will recall from your own study of the Book of Mormon that when the Nephites went into battle “in the strength of the Lord,”7 they prevailed. When they boasted in their own strength,8 they failed—and failed miserably. There is ample scriptural evidence that those who turn to the Lord in faith, with full purpose of heart, are blessed with His power. Ammon, who knew something of that power, declared: “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.”9 This, then, is the potential virtue of weakness: if it motivates us to turn to the Lord and seek His help in faith with the determination to do His will, we will be sustained and strengthened by Him who has all power in heaven and earth.10 The Lord will sustain and strengthen us by his matchless power so long as we recognize our dependence upon Him.11
From the time of his youth, Joseph Smith approached the Lord on these terms. He recognized his weakness and sought the help of the Lord in faith and with the determination to do His will. In his fifteenth year, Joseph longed for forgiveness of his sins, and could not find a church that satisfied his yearning. He wrote of his weakness in coming to a decision:
though my feelings were deep and often poignant…it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.12
Joseph did not know which church was true, and also knew that he did not have the ability to determine the truth on his own. Fully aware of this weakness, needing wisdom that he did not have, he went into the sacred grove to learn where he could find the Church of God—and not just to make a journal entry on the subject! He inquired so that he could do something about it, so that he could join that church.13 In response to that humble, sincere petition made with real intent, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph. In so doing, they delivered him from the power of the evil one and prepared the way for the Restoration.
Joseph Smith did not contest that he was a “weak [thing] of the world.”14 Years later, the Lord addressed him in this way: “my servant Joseph Smith…unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.”15 Joseph described himself as “an obscure boy…who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor.”16 He was born into a low social stratum, with limited formal education, and raised in a family that scratched out a living from the land in rural New York. His first attempt at writing his history underscores the weak position from which Joseph was called to the work. Let’s read together—in his own handwriting dating to 1832—Joseph’s description of his youth (see fig. 1):
I was born in the town of Charon in the State of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the Christian religion. At the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required their exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic.17
I like reading Joseph’s own handwriting; it makes me feel that he is personally speaking to us. As much as I enjoy reading this, I am not sure that he would have received high marks from an English teacher on this composition. Joseph felt keenly his weakness due to his lack of formal education. He later lamented what he called “the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”18 Some of you may feel trapped in like fashion at the time of mid-terms!
Despite Joseph Smith’s limited education, he was still given large tasks to accomplish. The Lord called him to translate a large book of scripture, and by the gift and power of God, Joseph translated the Book of Mormon—all 588 pages of it as originally published—in less than ninety days; less than ninety days in which he also had to take time to sleep, eat, seek employment, endure persecution, receive the Aaronic and then the Melchizedek Priesthood, receive several revelations now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, travel, and secure the copyright for publication of the Book of Mormon. Any thinking person would conclude it to be impossible for the educationally weak Joseph to have accomplished such a thing on his own, and the explanations some have come up with are much more difficult to believe than the true explanation: God inspired him to translate by the gift and power of God.19 Emma, Joseph’s wife, frankly acknowledged her husband’s limitations. Late in life, she gave an interview in which she countered the accusation that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself. Emma said he was incapable of doing that. She later recounted that, at the time he translated the golden plates,
Joseph Smith…could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well- worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to anyone else.20
When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made any mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. Even the word Sarah he could not pronounce at first, but had to spell it, and I would pronounce it for him.
When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered, “Yes,” he replied, “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.21
Against the backdrop of this history, please look at page one of Joseph’s first journal (fig. 2), dated November 27, 1832 (the day he purchased the journal). Remember, this was written approximately three years and five months after he had concluded the translation of the Book of Mormon. You will note that he writes, and then strikes-out, the following words:
Joseph Smith Jrs Record Book Baught for to note all the minute circumstances that comes under my observation22
I have personally handled this diary more than once. As I have held it and read these crossed-out words, I have imagined Joseph seated in a rustic setting in frontier America, penning the opening sentence, and then thinking: “No, that’s not quite right, let me try again.” So, he strikes out the sentence, and writes:
Joseph Smith Jrs Book for Record Baught on the 27th of November 1832 for the purpose to keep a minute acount of all things that come under my observation etc.- -23
Finally, probably not entirely satisfied with the stilted, halting language he had just penned, he writes:
oh may God grant that I may be directed in all my thoughts Oh bless thy Servent Amen.24
I sense in this sentence Joseph feeling his inadequacy, his weakness, and calling upon God in faith to direct him in all he does.
Now, contrast the above journal entry written in November 1832 with a copy of an original manuscript page of the Book of Mormon (fig. 3), translated more than three years before (sometime between late May and early June 1829).
Please note the flowing prose, without punctuation, without strikeouts. This was not a composition. This was dictated, word by word, as he looked into instruments the Lord prepared for him, using a hat to shield his eyes from extraneous light in order to plainly see the words as they appeared.25 Contrary to one who translates with the use of a dictionary, as it were, the translation was revelation flowing to him from heaven, and written by scribes (with the inevitable scrivener errors). As you can see, there is a vast difference between the translation of the Book of Mormon and the journal entry: one is the product of Joseph the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, and the other (his journal) was a product of Joseph Smith, the man. If you look closely at the underscored letters written on this original manuscript of the translation, you will read words which must have been encouraging to Joseph:
“There is a vast difference between the translation of the Book of Mormon and the journal entry: one is the product of Joseph the Prophet, Seer and Revelator, and the journal was a product of Joseph Smith, the man.”
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.26
Just before these words, he had translated the following:
But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.27
Yes, a theme of the Book of Mormon is that the weak who humbly seek the Lord in faith are made strong, even mighty, in the work of the Lord.
This strengthening will occur even in seemingly small things. Joseph, a poor speller, corrected Oliver’s first spelling of the name “Coriantumr.” The first time it was dictated,28 we find in the original transcript that it was spelled by the scribe (who was Oliver Cowdery at that time) as “Coriantummer.” This was reasonable, since there are no English words that end in “mr.” However, Joseph—who was a weak enough speller to accept the spelling the Lord gave to him (and not tell the Lord that there are no words that end in “mr”), corrected the spelling in the same line (that is, during the translation), so that it ends as it now appears in the Book of Mormon. We now know that while this is poor spelling in English, it is perfectly good Egyptian spelling and fits well into the Old World setting. Most readers of the Book of Mormon—then and now—do not know this, nor would Joseph have known this but for revelation. The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon is one example of how Joseph was made strong, and the result is a marvelous work and a wonder.29
The miracle of the translation of the Book of Mormon by one who could not even spell the name of the city where he was born, is a witness that the Lord can do His work and that Joseph was, out of weakness, made strong by the Lord who called him. I believe there is another, more personal lesson: if you and I will, like Joseph, recognize our weakness and turn in faith to the Lord with all of our heart, with the determination to do His will, we too will be made strong out of weakness. The hope this truth inspires is something we can offer to this burdened world.
Joseph was not a mythical hero who lived above it all. No, he experienced the challenges, personal weakness, and vicissitudes associated with mortality: a severe illness in his childhood required excruciating surgery without anesthesia. His oldest brother Alvin (whom Joseph loved and adored) died when Joseph was still living at home. His and Emma’s first three children died at birth; altogether, only five of their eleven children survived childhood. He was brutally attacked and beaten on various occasions. He was hounded with vexatious lawsuits. He never seemed to get out of financial duress, and hired out as best he could to provide for his family. His remarkable spiritual gifts gave him strength in his spiritual, but not temporal, labors.30
Joseph humbly admitted his imperfections; indeed, he remarked that in his youth he: …frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature.31
Later in his life, he told the saints in Nauvoo that,
he was but a man and they must not expect him to be perfect; if they expected perfection from him, he should expect it from them, but if they would bear with his infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, he would likewise bear with their infirmities.32
Joseph never pretended to be perfect or infallible, yet pulled no punches in acknowledging the power of God wielded through him when acting as a prophet: “When I speak as a man it is Joseph only that speaks. But when the Lord speaks through me, it is no longer Joseph Smith who speaks; but it is God, and let all Israel hear.”33
So, out of weakness, Joseph was made strong—strong enough to do more (save Jesus only) for the salvation of mankind than any other prophet in all history. And, his miraculous work was accomplished roughly during the age span we see represented here tonight! He received the First Vision when 14 years old, received the visitation from Moroni at age 17, and completed the translation of the Book of Mormon at age 24. Elder Oaks has observed:
over half of the revelations in our Doctrine and Covenants were given through the Prophet while he was 25 or younger. He was 26 when the First presidency was organized and 30 when the Kirtland Temple was dedicated.34
His “incredibly rapid acquisition of knowledge and maturity” (to quote Elder Oaks) and, I would add, growth in spiritual power, is stunning. Our unchangeable God, who is the same today, yesterday, and forever, will likewise make you strong out of weakness—even in your youth—if you will turn to Him in faith with full purpose of heart, as did Joseph.
Yes, the Lord knows how to do His work.35 In an act of celestial irony, the Lord gave us weakness to facilitate our becoming strong in the only way that matters in time and eternity: that is, through Him. Moroni records:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.36
If I understand this verse correctly, I am given weakness so that I may be humble; and if I acknowledge my weakness by humbling myself before God and seeking His help by bending my will to His, He will make weak things become strong unto me. My humility before God, then, is the essential catalyst for the strength and power of God to manifest itself in my life. In short, we must “consider [our]selves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility.”37
From the time of his youth, Joseph Smith understood that a great key to cultivating humility is to seek our Father through sincere, open, and heart-felt prayer. Daniel Tyler, an early Church member, recalled a time in Kirtland where many (including Joseph’s brother William) had rebelled against the Prophet. It was a time of overwhelming difficulty for the Prophet Joseph Smith. Brother Tyler was present in a meeting held during that time, where the Prophet prayed with the congregation for the Lord’s help. Brother Tyler described the experience in these words:
I had heard men and women pray…from the most ignorant, both as to letters and intellect, to the most learned and eloquent, but never until then had I heard a man address his Maker as though He was present listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. Joseph was at that time unlearned, but that prayer, which was to a considerable extent in behalf of those who accused him of having gone astray and fallen into sin, that the Lord would forgive them and open their eyes that they might see aright—that prayer, I say, to my humble mind, partook of the learning and eloquence of heaven. There was no ostentation, no raising of the voice as by enthusiasm, but a plain conversational tone, as a man would address a present friend. It appeared to me as though, in case the veil were taken away, I could see the Lord standing facing His humblest of servants I had ever seen. Whether this was really the case I cannot say; but one thing I can say. It was the crowning, so to speak, of all the prayers I ever heard.38
We can learn something from this account on how to humbly approach the Lord and seek His help in prayer.
Not long ago, someone criticized the Prophet Joseph Smith in my presence. I told the person that I viewed the criticism as lacking understanding and based upon an incomplete and non-critical evaluation of evidence. I added that in so saying, that individual was simply fulfilling prophecy.
When Joseph was 17 years old, Moroni told him in 1823 that “God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”39 I am confident that many thought at the time that such a claim was evidence of delusions of grandeur; yet today, the name of that obscure farm-boy from upstate New York in the early 1800s is known around the globe, and of him both good and evil is spoken—just as Moroni prophesied.
Just before he and Joseph went to their deaths at Carthage, Hyrum read aloud to Joseph and the others in the room from the Book of Mormon you see here (fig. 4) and then folded the page shown which contains the following words:
And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, they garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.40
Sadly, the Gentiles did not have charity: Joseph and Hyrum were martyred. However, Joseph and Hyrum took comfort in knowing that because they had seen their weakness and had been faithful, they would be made strong even in the life to come.
Thus, in a very real, literal sense, it is out of weakness that Joseph was made strong: motivated in part by his weakness, he sought the will and knowledge of God in faith, determined to act according to the will of God. He approached our Father in Heaven on these terms throughout his life, and as a result, he received the First Vision, translated the Book of Mormon, received priesthood keys, organized the restored Church of Christ, and brought to this earth the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we have seen tonight, the Prophet Joseph grew in strength; he was not made mighty in a moment. It came to him, and will come to you, line upon line, here a little, there a little.41 So, do not be discouraged; the process of being made strong will be gradual and require our steadfast determination to follow the Savior and abide by His will, come what may.
“The Prophet Joseph grew in strength; he was not made mighty in a moment. It came to him, and will come to you, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
In following this pattern, we are following the Lord’s example, who stated in the premortal council in Heaven: “Father, thy will be done…” At the time of His great atoning sacrifice, He pled for the cup to be removed, but humbly added, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”42 As an amen to His mortal mission, the Risen Lord confirmed: “I came into the world to do the will of the Father.”43 If we wish for the Lord to make us strong out of our weakness, we can do no less.
This has practical application for each of us here tonight. Some are—or should be— preparing for missionary service; others are returned missionaries; still others are newly-married. In each circumstance, you will come face-to-face with your own weakness: insecurity, sin, and character flaws. We have learned tonight what to do with our weakness: seek the Lord in faith, humbly willing to do His will—come what may. To the degree we approach the Lord on these terms, we will receive of His strength, and out of weakness will be made strong. By following this pattern, the Lord will make you a strong missionary; He will help your life come into order and sooner or later give you the privilege and blessing of being sealed to a worthy mate; and you who are married will become by His power good spouses and good parents.
Now, as you press forward, you will make mistakes. Mind you, deep sin may be avoided, but mistakes are inevitable. Joseph Smith’s call to restore the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ did not insulate him from mistakes. For example, he lost the first 116 pages of translation because he paid greater heed to Martin Harris than to God. Joseph was disconsolate over this misstep. But in his despair, he did what he had always done: he sought the Lord in faith, determined to follow the Master. As he pled for the Lord’s forgiveness, the Lord reminded him: “remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work.”44 He did not let the translation out of his possession again. If you have allowed weakness to pull you away from our Savior, repent; return to God. Learn from your experience and be faithful to the Lord. As you do so, He will forgive and call you again to the work
Joseph was reminded on that occasion of the Lord’s promise to strengthen the faithful: “You should have been faithful; and [the Lord] would have extended his arm and supported you against all the fiery darts of the adversary; and he would have been with you in every time of trouble.”45 So it is with you. God’s extended arm will support you against all the fiery darts of the adversary if you will simply be faithful. Indeed, He will extend His arm and support you in every time of trouble.
Let me share a personal story that can help you understand what it means to us for God to extend His arm and support us: Several years ago, I was hiking in the North Central Cascades of Washington with our oldest son Jonathan. It was night, and we came to a part of the trail that bordered a steep cliff on the edge of an abyss. At that point, Jonathan (who was 10 or 12 years old at the time) became fearful and dared not go on. I urged him forward, but he refused. I then took him by the hand, and with the other hand on his shoulder, I said: “Jonathan, I am your dad; I will not let you fall. I will grip your hand and take two steps. You then will take two steps, and together we will cross this section of the trail.” I then took two steps, his hand in mine. He then took two steps. I reassured him, and then took two more; he followed with two steps, and in that fashion we crossed that part of the trail.
Would Jonathan have crossed that portion of the trail that night on his own? Probably not. But once he took me by the hand, he gained confidence. He could and did do a difficult task—so long as he moved his feet. With his hand in mine, he could rely upon my strength, and together we crossed that portion of the trail. Similarly, all those who see their weakness, call upon God in faith, willingly take Him by the hand (metaphorically speaking), and, finally, move their feet where He would lead them—will be made strong. The Lord, who has all power in Heaven and earth, will lend His enabling power, grace, and strength. And, with the matchless power of God flowing to you, you cannot, you will not, fall or fail.46
One final story: William Tyndale, who translated and published the Bible into English in the sixteenth century—and was put to death for it—stated to a cleric opposed to placing the Bible into the hands of common people: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost!”47 In a curious parallel some three hundred years later, Nancy Towle, a famous itinerant preacher in the 1830s, visited Kirtland to personally observe the “Mormons.” She conversed with Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith, and sharply criticized the Church while in their presence. The emotional Sidney responded in kind, accusing her of being “in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity!” According to Towle’s record, Joseph said nothing during this heated exchange until she turned to him and demanded that he swear to her that he had seen an angel. Ever gregarious, Joseph good- naturedly replied to her that “he never swore at all.” Failing to rattle him, she tried to belittle him: “Are you not ashamed, of such pretenses?” she rejoined. “You, who are no more, than an ignorant, plough-boy of our land?” Joseph calmly responded: “the gift has retuned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.”48
Joseph thought of himself as an “illiterate fisherman.” In this, Tyndale’s words were prescient: a plough-boy did grow to know more of scripture than certainly that cleric, and probably more than any man that ever lived, save the Savior only.
Certainly, the restored Church and gospel of Jesus Christ is not the work of Joseph Smith, a plough-boy of the American frontier. Rather, it is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith, the Prophet, who did more than any other man who has lived on this earth to bring us to the saving power of our Lord, Savior, and Redeemer Jesus Christ. As he reflected upon his life, Joseph’s soul may have resonated with Jacob’s observation that “the Lord showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men that we have power to do these things.”49
Each of us here tonight who is a member of the Church covenanted at the time of baptism to serve God.50 We renew that covenant each Sabbath. I invite each of us to recognize our weakness and prayerfully reach out to our Father in Heaven in all humility, just as my young son Jonathan reached for my hand on that trail. How is that to be done? We have learned tonight that the Prophet Joseph Smith sought God through pondering the scriptures; humble, sincere prayer; and willing obedience to the Lord and his ordinances. I invite each here to do the same: ponder the scriptures, humbly pray with real intent, and willingly obey the Lord and his ordinances. As you do so, the Lord will make you strong out of weakness, just as he did with Joseph.51
I know that Joseph Smith was and is a Prophet of God, a humble man made strong out of weakness. I love the Prophet; I love his goodness, his teaching, and his wholehearted devotion to the Master. What a blessing it must have been to have walked in his presence, and experience the power of his teaching and testimony. I envy Brigham Young’s privilege: “I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet.”52 I take solace in the poetic promise that “millions shall know Brother Joseph again.”53 I am profoundly grateful for the Prophet and his humility before the God who made him strong. I am encouraged by his life and what the Lord made of him, and am grateful for the blessings that are ours as a result.
More than that I am grateful for our loving Father in Heaven and the great Plan of Happiness He has provided for us, and especially for the Savior and His Atonement. Joseph Smith was and is His prophet, and restored this, the true and living Church of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is true. The Savior lives, and His Atonement offers the bright, shining hope of good things to come, of forgiveness, healing, strength, and power from on high. I invite—even commend—each of us here tonight, “to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.”54 In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Marcus B. Nash – Source