ted lyon

Joseph

In the Twentieth Ward, Teddy remembered “twenty or twenty-five people who seemed very old to me … women in black dresses trimmed with white collars and cuffs. They wore small black bonnets tied under their chins with black silk ribbons. The men were dressed in black suits and ties, and practically all had full beards and gray or white hair.” These people were known as the “Old Nauvooers.” … They had all lived in Nauvoo as children or youth and carried pioneer zeal to every testimony meeting. … Teddy felt as though the other testimonies were somewhat less dynamic and convincing than those of the Old Nauvooers.

Growing up around those who had personally known the Prophet, Teddy sensed the dramatic impact that Joseph had on them. Joseph Smith was a living heritage for them, not a dead and distant prophet. Teddy began to realize that he too should know Joseph intimately.

“Young as I was, I was impressed by the love and respect these people had for Joseph Smith, based on an intimate relationship with him and a closeness to him. Although these people had known Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith, who was then president, these leaders were referred to as ‘president of the Church,’ while the Old Nauvooers referred to Joseph Smith with two more endearing names: ‘The Prophet,’ or ‘Brother Joseph.’ What impressed my young mind about Joseph Smith from their talks was his concern for people and their problems, and the personal contacts they had experienced with him.”

T. Edgar Lyon Jr., T. Edgar Lyon: A Teacher in Zion, pp. 25

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Reading this made me want to go back and start reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling all over again. Joseph Smith had to have been one of the most dynamic religious leaders to have ever lived. Despite his faults and the controversies of his life, I am fascinated by him and the legacy he left.

I was speaking with a close friend yesterday who has recently gone through a crisis of faith. During that period, he lost all faith and respect for Joseph Smith because of the many historical accounts that are difficult to reconcile. My friend has since begun to slowly reconnect with his faith, even going so far as to voluntarily attend a Joseph Smith-themed institute course this semester at his local university. As we were talking he said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever again be able to say for sure that Joseph was a prophet, but I want to believe he was a good man, even an inspired man, who left a meaningful and enduring legacy for the world.” I appreciated my friend’s honesty as I, too, try and figure out for myself to what esteem I hold Joseph in my own life.

The assertion often made by ex-Mormons and anti-Mormons that Joseph Smith was nothing more than a power-crazed con artist and sexual predator completely misses the mark, in my opinion. The man, like all men, was far too complex to put into such convenient, simple-minded “boxes”. Choosing to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the shades of gray inherent within all individuals is much more taxing than simply assigning labels such as “good guy” or “evil guy”. On the same token, I will acknowledge that the nearly flawless image of Joseph most church members imagine today is also lacking. I can’t help but feel that perhaps Brigham Young, who knew him well, described him best:

“He never professed to be a dressed smooth polished stone but was rough out of the mountain & has been rolling among the rocks & trees & has not hurt him at all. But he will be as smooth & polished in the end as any other stone, while many that were so vary poliched & smooth in the beginning get badly defaced and spoiled while theiy are rolling about.”

I love the humanity of Joseph Smith. I love the symbolically wart-faced, yet endearing Joseph portrayed in Rough Stone Rolling much more than I do the polished white statue of him found in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. The more we are able to talk about Joseph in human terms, looking at his life and legacy from a holistic approach, the more personable and relevant his story can become in our life. Indeed, is this not why we love Christ? It was Isaiah who, describing the Messiah, poignantly said, “[W]hen we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him … Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” It is the humanness of Christ and his understanding of human needs and suffering – which he intimately experienced himself throughout his life – that makes him so endearing and personable.

I do not mean to excuse Joseph for his mistakes, nor to ignore the conundrums of history; but when I read accounts from people like the “Old Nauvooers” who personally knew Joseph as a man who was intimately “concerned for people and their problems” and a man who left a “dramatic impact” on their lives forever, I can’t help but contemplate in awe just who this man was and what compelling a legacy he created for me and so many others in the world.

Baptism

[B]aptisms could not be rushed. Investigators had to feel the spirit, gain a firm testimony, and demonstrate commitment by personal study and regular attendance at meetings for several months before being baptized. At one point, Lyon noted that he and his companion engaged a good family who participated every week for three months, “though of course we will not baptize anyone until they have been investigating the gospel six or eight months.” This waiting period before baptism was a general Church practice, a matter not left to the discretion of the individual missionary or mission. Gone were the days of Wilford Woodruff, who baptized scores of people after just one night of preaching. Missionaries carefully nurtured their contacts for months, gave them many reading assignments, and attentively shepherded their progress.

T. Edgar Lyon Jr., T. Edgar Lyon: A Teacher in Zion, pp. 55

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I think it’s really interesting to observe how views on baptism vary from person to person, and even from age to age. The above passage offers a snapshot of missionary work in the Netherlands in the early 1920s. How times have changed.

I’ll be honest – I really wish the church practiced a more stringent baptism policy. Not because I don’t want people to come into the church; rather because history has shown that, more often than not, quickie baptisms don’t last (e.g., baseball baptisms in England, collapsing stakes in Chile, etc.). Of course, there are exceptions, and there always will be. But as a general principle, I think we do ourselves and the baptized individual a disfavor by focusing narrow-mindedly on the speed and quantity of baptism. It has the potential to be one of the most significant spiritual experiences in someone’s life, and ought not to be rushed.

It frustrated me to no end as a missionary that baptismal numbers were constantly stressed while retention remained a taboo subject. I’m hoping for the day when the church can get over its bloodlust for baptisms and focus more on retaining more of the people actually taught. Gordon B. Hinckley’s inspirational Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep was a major step in the right direction, but we’re still not there yet.