So, let me tell you about something very important that happened in 1820, in the northeastern part of the United States. There was a family named Smith; a very common name, one of the most common names in the English language. The father’s name was Joseph and there was a Joseph, Junior. Joseph Smith. Joe Smith. You can’t get much more common than that!
This family, although they believed in God, did not have a lot of interest in organized religion. They worked very hard for a living, and in the evenings would sit around the fireplace or around candlelight and read from the family Bible. Not much different than many other rural families in the early 1800s.
It was in this period of time, that there began to be a religious revival in the northeastern United States. Preachers from many different Protestant religions were coming out to the less populated areas and holding meetings and revivals. These preachers came out to gain new followers and build up their churches. There were Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a few other denominations. There were groups that were dissatisfied with any of the prevalent Protestant sects and formed their own alternative churches. Members of the Smith family were interested in hearing what these various preachers had to say and attended their meetings as often as their time and work schedules would permit. Being laborers and having to work long hours to maintain a living for a large family, the Smiths had very limited time. And, as it would happen, there were meetings all through the week, not just on Sundays.
Although some members of the family (and it was a large family - nine children) began to lean toward one denomination or another, Joseph Smith, Sr. had no interest in any church. Nevertheless, he was a God-fearing man. Although the Smiths did not attend any specific church regularly, they prayed individually and together. They read the Bible together and tried to live by its teachings, according to their understanding of its precepts.
During the aforementioned revival, not everyone in that large family was converted to the same religion. Part of the Smith family was converted to the Methodist Church, some went to the Presbyterians. Joseph Sr. did not join any. Joseph Jr. was partial to the Methodist religion, but he wasn’t really sure about any of them. He went to meetings held by many different preachers. He believed in the teachings of Jesus. He believed that men and women should love each other and treat each other with kindness. The preachers from the different churches also taught these basic principles: that people should treat each other with love and respect, that they were all brothers and sisters, children of God. But it turns out they really didn’t practice very well what they preached. The followers of the different denominations, including their various preachers, pastors, etc., all argued with each other. Each one felt that he or she was right, and those who did not believe in his or her particular brand of religion was condemned to Hell. They were not very friendly towards one another, and there was a lot of rivalry.
Joseph Jr. was only 14 years old at the time, and he was perplexed. It’s very impressive to me that a 14-year-old boy would have any interest in religion anyway. That was, and is, the exception to the rule. I know that when I was 14 years old (and those of you who knew me when I was that age can attest to this) I had absolutely no interest in religion, especially the religion in which I had been raised. To me my family’s religion was a series of rules and restrictions that took away my freedom, kept me from doing the things that I liked to do. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the principles or the precepts that were taught. I just didn’t like the restrictions. And I think there are a lot of people who don’t like organized religion for that same reason.
Although society and societal mores were somewhat different in the early 1800s, deep down I don’t think people were all that different from today. I don’t think you could have found very many 14-year-old boys that were excited about religion or going to church. Like I say, I was no different at that age.
But Joseph was different - he thought a lot about these things. He thought about the things that he read in the Holy Bible. He believed many of the things that were taught by the various ministers at the meetings and revivals that he attended. But because each one taught the scriptures so differently, and espoused differing opinions about what was important, he ended up just being very confused. He didn’t know who to believe. And he wanted to know. He really wanted to know. He wanted to know the truth. Who was God? And what did God have to do with him? What was he supposed to be doing with his life? What religion could teach him the right way to live and be happy? Who could show him the meaning of life and what happens after we die? These are questions that have intrigued and befuddled the most erudite thinkers of every age. Now imagine a 14-year-old boy with what amounted to a third-grade education wrestling with these kinds of deep philosophical quandaries.
He thought about these things as he worked each day. The Smiths were a farm family and had to labor long and hard for their living. They bought a tract of land in Western New York, in the Township of Palmyra. They had to clear the land in order to farm it. In other words, it was wooded land and they had to remove the trees, stumps, large rocks - everything that would impede them from planting and harvesting. These were strong, hard-working people, including Joseph.
One day Joseph was reading in the New Testament, and came across the following verse in the Book of James:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
Joseph later wrote that no scripture ever had a greater effect on him than that one did. He said that as he read it, it entered into his soul in a powerful way, as no other verse of scripture ever had, and he couldn't stop thinking about it. It kept coming back to him over and over again It absorbed his thoughts, not for a few minutes or for a few hours, but for days. He thought and he pondered, “What did this mean? What is it that I need to do? How do I ask of God? Was James talking about prayer?”
He finally realized that to follow James’ counsel he needed to pray; to ask God to help him to understand the things that he could not understand. He had some simple questions, and he needed some simple answers. He wanted to know what his standing was with God (Did God know him? Did God love him? What should he be doing in this life to get closer to God? Which of all the churches was true; which was His church?)
Have you ever asked these questions? Did you find the answers? How did you find the answers? Joseph believed what he read in the Bible, and fully expected to get an answer directly from God, by praying. To find out what happened when Joseph followed the counsel given by James, and prayed, come back for my next post on Monday, August 23, 2021.