2005: Praise to the Man

Sharon Vermont and Religious Memory, Part 3

“Today I’ve come to celebrate,” declared LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley shortly after arriving at the snow-covered Joseph Smith Memorial on December 22, 2005, a century after Joseph F Smith dedicated the original monument. “A sense of history overwhelms me,” he proclaimed during a commemorative speech delivered via satellite feed to Mormon believers across the world the next day. “I feel like I am straddling the centuries. Two hundred years ago, on this very day, in this very place, there was born a child” who “became the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Yet, while Hinckley in many ways reiterated the testimony of his predecessor in 1905, speaking of Joseph Smith’s restoration of revelatory and priesthood power, his purpose in visiting the prophet’s birthplace was not to refashion church narratives in the wake of abandoning marital practices once deemed essential to Latter-day Saint identity, but to testify to the continued vitality of the church’s mission—and message—to the larger world.[1]

Since becoming the new Latter-day Saint Prophet in 1998 after the death of Howard W Hunter, Gordon B Hinckley endeavored to bolster the missionary presence of the LDS Church in the world. Speaking to the body of the faithful in 1999, he urged members to “double” the “number” of converts they brought into the church on a yearly basis, while also calling on members to make a greater effort to retain those whom received baptism. During the remainder of his time as President, Hinckley bolstered requirements for potential missionaries who wished to serve, and helped oversee the revision of lessons which missionaries gave once they arrived in the field.[2]

Hinckley self-consciously tied the church’s continued missionary efforts to Joseph’s legacy in 2005, taking the occasion to remind believers that the Book of Mormon, which Joseph translated at the opening of his prophetic career, had now been “translated into 77 languages,” and continued to “inspire . . . millions across the world.” Indeed, Hinckley continued, “the church, which began with [but] six members, [had] blossomed into a vast family of believers in more than 160 nations, with some twelve million members.” Just as miraculous, the Relief Society, a woman’s religious association founded in 1842 by Smith, had “become the largest women’s organization in the world.”[3]

To Hinckley, the success of the work started by Smith appeared nothing but Providential. But then, so too was Joseph’s early childhood. Though his early life seemed to be marred with setbacks, with his father going bankrupt shortly after his birth in Sharon, Vermont, the Lord, Hinckley posited, nonetheless continued to direct their path Economic disappointment in Sharon, and later Norwich, Vermont, eventually led the family to Palmyra, New York, where Joseph would see God the Father and Jesus Christ in a secluded grove of trees. “It appears,” Hinckley rejoiced, “that it was all part of the plan of the Lord to get them where they needed to be” so that Joseph could see God the Father and Jesus Christ in vision and eventually spread the restored gospel throughout the earth. In Hinckley’s eyes the humble homestead found in Sharon Vermont, and the granite monument which now graced the landscape now signified God’s continued providential guidance of a church established two centuries before.[4]

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[1] Gerry Avant, “Memorializing Prophet who was born here,” Church News, 12/31/2005, 9; Gerry Avant, “Joseph, the Seer: Commemorating 200 years,” Church News, 12/31/2005, 3.

[2] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” General Conference, (April 1999) LDS.org, accessed 7/24/2018.

[3] Avant, “Joseph the Seer,” 6.

[4] Avant, “Joseph the Seer,” 6.