A Prophet's Reward
We quoted in the previous chapter from Justin Martyr on the importance of living prophets for a true church. In an autobiographical account, Justin recalls that his own conversion to Christianity began when a certain old man addressed the following words to him in the course of a philosophical conversation:
“A long time ago there lived certain men—much older than any of those so-called philosophers we have been talking about; blessed and righteous men, beloved of God. And they spoke by the Holy Spirit, foretelling those very things which are now coming to pass. They are called prophets. They are the only men who have ever seen the truth of things and told it to men without making any timid concessions to public opinion, without seeking to make an impression on people, and without being in the least influenced by concern for what other people might think of them. But, being filled with the Holy Ghost, they simply reported those things which they had seen and heard. The writings of those men survive to this day, and anyone can derive the greatest benefit from them, and learn from them about the beginnings and endings of things, and all such matters as philosophers are supposed to know. For it was not their wont to build up a case by formal argument, but simply to report the truth as reliable witnesses, without any disputation at all.”1
When Justin reported this conversation to a group of philosophy students, at this point of the story, he recounts, they burst out laughing—it was just too funny for words. But Justin remained unmoved, for he saw clearly that only by revelation from outside could man be freed from his fearful confinement within the narrow cell of his own limited experience.
Years before, the mysterious Clement had reached the same conclusion. “Wishing to learn something,” he recalls in the first part of the so-called Clementine Recognitions, “I frequented the schools of the philosophers, where, however, I heard nothing but dogmatic assertions and equally dogmatic refutations endlessly put forth—formal disputations, artfully constructed syllogisms, and subtle conclusions. . . . Neither side ever brought forth proof that really convinced me inside, because the statements and definitions of things passed as true or false not from the actual nature of things or the real truth, but always according to the skill and cleverness of the people putting them forth.” 2 It is like manna from heaven when this Clement has his first gospel conversation with Peter, who begins by explaining to him why a prophet is necessary. Peter compares the world in which we live to a great house filled with dense smoke—blinding smoke produced by human unbelief, malice, ambition, greed, etc. Because of this smoke, the people who live in the house can see nothing clearly, but we must imagine them groping about with weak and running eyes, coughing and scolding, bumping into each other, tripping over furniture, trying to make out a bit of reality here and there—a corner, a step, a wall—and then trying to fit their desperate and faulty data together to make some kind of sense.3
The image is a good one. It reminds us of Plato’s comparison of this world to a cave in which men see only shadows, and to Aristotle’s comparison, in the first book of the Metaphysics, of the human mind to the eyes of a bat that can see only the most crassly obvious things and them only in a sort of half-light. Especially it recalls Job’s declaration that we can know nothing in this world, where our days are only a shadow (Job 8:9). In the same sense, Origen compares the human intellect at its brilliant best with a tiny little candle, a feeble spark that can hardly light a foot of the way ahead.4 And Tertullian likens the philosophers to men stumbling and groping about in the dark. Once in a while, he says, they do “stumble on the truth by a happy accident,” but it is inexcusable for a Christian to follow such blind and unreliable guides, since he has something far better—a revelation from heaven.5 That is exactly the moral of Peter’s lecture to Clement in the Recognitions. There is only one possible way to get any sure knowledge either of the building or its builder, and that is to consult one who has come from the pure air of the outside where he has viewed the house with clear detachment and spoken with its builder. Such a clear view comes only by revelation and can only be conveyed to men, Peter insists again and again, by a true prophet. As an example, he cites the case of Abraham. (We cannot here examine the nature of the document from which we are quoting; suffice it to say for the present that it is a genuine fragment of very early Christian belief.) At a time when the whole world was plunged into darkness because of sin (Peter is reported as telling Clement), a righteous man, Abraham, attempted to gain a knowledge of the Creator by studying “the reason and order of the stars.”
“Wherefore an angel, assisting him by vision, taught him more fully in the things he had begun to understand. . . . Now as this Abraham, desiring to know the cause of things, was deeply pondering upon them in his mind [lit. revolving them with intense concentration], the True Prophet appeared to him, even he who alone knows the hearts and minds of men; and he taught him the knowledge of godhead (divinitatis scientiam), and he showed him both the origin and the end of the world, and the immortality of the spirit (animae), and the ordinances (instituta) by which men must live to please God; and he showed him the resurrection of the dead which was to come, and the judgment which is to come, with the reward of the good and the punishment of the bad, explaining to him how all things are governed by a just law. And having instructed him correctly and fully in all things, he returned again to his invisible dwelling-places.” 6
This true prophet, Peter explains, was Jesus Christ, the same who had brought this knowledge to the earth in his own day. He insists before all things that “faith in religious and holy matters requires the presence of a true prophet, so that he might tell us also how we are to understand everything.” 7 Someone is almost sure to protest that this smacks of authoritarianism, and Peter sees the point. In the dealings of men with each other, any assumption of infallibility or even superiority is sheer arrogance; we mortals are all highly fallible. For that very reason, Peter insists, it is all-important to prove that a prophet is a true prophet and not one of the swarming impostors. We must, he says, “before all things try the faith of the prophet by every possible test.” A prophet is no ordinary person; he makes no ordinary claim; and he does not ask people to believe him, but to test him. God is not authoritarian: He asks no one to believe; but invites the world, as his prophets do, “Prove me herewith.”
When the Lord was upon his earthly mission, he greatly angered and upset men by forcing them to decide whether he was a true prophet or not. Early in his mission he was met by certain devils who begged him to leave them alone: “They cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?” The devils could not ignore him; his mere presence was a “torment” to them. And it was the same with men, for when the people of a nearby town heard what had happened, “behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw him, they besought him that he would depart out of their coasts” (Matthew 8:29, 34). Apparently his presence made men as uncomfortable as it did the devils, for while the Lord was in their midst, they could not be neutral regarding him. Only after he had left the earth could Christians have an “open mind” regarding Christ’s mission. Of such people he said through his prophet John, “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). The Lord insists that we make up our minds one way or another regarding his calling.
Before considering the test of a true prophet, we must make clear the fact that a prophet is a witness, not a reformer. Criticism of the world is always implicit in a prophet’s message of repentance, but he is not sent for the purpose of criticizing the world. Men know the world is wicked, and the wickedest ones often know it best. To denounce human folly has been the avocation of teachers and philosophers in every age, and their reward, surprisingly enough, has not been death but usually a rather handsome fee. The age of Christ, like the nineteenth century, was a remarkably tolerant one as far as ideas were concerned. On the one hand we find quacks, impostors, and miracle mongers flourishing throughout the Roman empire; and on the other, traveling philosophers and high-powered professors indulging in the most unsparing and outspoken criticism of all established institutions, sacred and profane, while the world applauded. It was not the Sermon on the Mount that drove men to crucify the Lord. It was not for their moral tirades that the prophets of old and the Apostles were stoned. In the age of Apollonius and Dio Chrysostom people liked nothing better than to sit in fashionable congregations while being scolded by picturesque crackpots. No Christian writer ever made such devastating attacks on prevailing manners and morals as the pagan satirists did; no Christian apologist ever debunked heathen religion as effectively as Cicero did—with perfect safety. Ovid was banished, not for criticizing the corruption of the times, but for being too lenient toward it, thereby thought the authorities, encouraging vice.
What, then, did Christ and the Apostles do and say that drove men into paroxysms of rage? They performed tangible miracles such as could not be denied, and they reported what they had seen and heard. That was all. It was as witnesses endowed with power from on high that they earned the hatred of the world, of which John speaks so much: “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness” (John 3:11).
“Many good works have I shewed you from my Father [says the Lord on one occasion]; for which of those works do ye stone me?
“The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
“Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
“Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand” (John 10:32—33, 36, 39).
On another occasion the enraged multitude cried, “Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?” (John 8:53.) When Christ in reply said that Abraham had actually seen His day and rejoiced, while he was before Abraham, “Then took they up stones to cast at him” (John 8:53—59).
And as soon as the Apostles said, “We are his witnesses of these things,” the council and the high priests “were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them” (Acts 5:32—33; italics added). Again, we are told that the multitude “were cut to the heart” when Stephen accused them of rejecting what had been brought “by the disposition of angels” (Acts 7:53—54). But the last straw was when he had the effrontery to say, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him” (Acts 7:56—58). If Stephen had spent his life, as innumerable philosophers have, denouncing the vices and follies of the age, he might have died peacefully in bed. But those fatal words, “I see,” were his death warrant. And what did Paul say to make the Jews cry out in utter horror: “Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live,” as “they . . . cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air?” (Acts 22:22—23.) What indeed? These were the unforgivable words that made him unfit to live: “Suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest” (Acts 22:6—8). Paul could have won his audience over by speaking as a scholar, but when he bore witness to what he had seen and heard, he was asking for trouble.
To come down to modern times, why were people so furiously angry with Joseph Smith? It was not for being a reformer or rebuking a naughty world. In his day, the most popular preacher was the one who could denounce the manners of the times most fiercely and paint the most lurid picture of the wrath to come. Nobody led militant campaigns against even the most rabid preachers of hellfire or swore to drink their blood. We have said that the world in which Jesus lived was full of quacks and impostors who carried on unmolested. So in the time of Joseph Smith, the country was full of strange separatist cults with strange social programs and strange moral practices such as the Mormons were falsely accused of, but no one thought it virtuous to burn their settlements or shoot them on sight. In what did the modern prophet’s deadly offense consist? In the summer of 1833 a much-publicized mass meeting was held in Missouri to protest the admission of Mormon immigrants into Jackson County, and this was the official objection: “The committee express fears that . . . they will soon have all the offices in the county in their hands; and that the lives and property of other citizens would be insecure, under the administration of men who are so ignorant and superstitious as to believe that they have been the subjects of miraculous and supernatural cures; hold converse with God and his angels, and possess and exercise the gifts of divination and unknown tongues.”8 Charles Dickens, as is well known, was very favorably impressed by the Mormons he saw both in America and England, but one thing about them he could not tolerate: “What the Mormons do,” he wrote in 1851, “seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense,” because “it exhibits fanaticism in its newest garb,” namely, “seeing visions in the age of railways.”9 That put them in the same class with the prophets and Apostles of old. “We know Abraham is our father, and Moses is our prophet, but who is this guy?” “Abraham is dead, and the prophets are dead—who do you think you are?”
Before we even consider the question of whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet or not, the uniqueness of his position deserves respectful attention. Because, true or false, he was the first man since the days of the Apostles to claim the things that real prophets claim. The modern prophets who excited the laughter and contempt of the world exactly as the ancient prophets shocked and amused the friends of Justin were the first men since ancient times to talk of what they had seen and heard in the presence of God and angels. What could they expect but a prophet’s reward?
1. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 7, in PG 6:492.
2. Clementine Recognitions I, 3, in PG 1:1208.
3. Ibid., I, 15—16, in PG 11:1214—15.
4. Origen, Peri Archon I, 1, 5, in PG 11:124.
5. Tertullian, De Anima 2, in PL 2:689—91.
6. Clementine Recognitions I, 32—33, in PG 1:1226—27.
7. Ibid., I, 16, in PG 1:1215.
8. Jeffersonian Republican, Missouri, August 17, 1833. Other accounts of the meeting and resolution, differently, but more vehemently worded in the Missouri Intelligencer and Boon’s [sic] Lick Advertiser for August 10, 1833, and History of Missouri (St. Louis, 1876), 105. Here, incidentally, is a reference to Joseph Smith’s first vision ten years before that story is supposed, by Arbaugh and others, to have been invented in Nauvoo.
9. Charles Dickens, “In the Name of the Prophet—Smith!” Household Words (July 19, 1851): 385 (emphasis added).