SHARON, Vt. — Despite the challenges it faces in its continued spread around the globe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is fulfilling the prophecy of its founding prophet more than 150 years ago that it would "fill the whole Earth."
And as it does, Joseph Smith's teachings about the life of Jesus Christ and God's plan for the salvation of all men will continue to be ultimately known only through personal revelation, according to the historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a member of the church's Quorums of the Seventy, told hundreds gathered Sunday at a chapel near Smith's birthplace that Smith's legacy includes restoration of priesthood power to Earth. His other myriad teachings — including a health code and the law of chastity — testify to his prophetic gift but are understood in their eternal significance only within the broader context of the restored gospel of Christ.
As the final speaker at the 40th annual conference of the Mormon History Association, he said Smith's contributions to scriptural canon — including a translation of the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and compilation of the Doctrine and Covenants "stand alone in the annals of the religious world."
For all their scholarly appeal, he said, Smith's works can only ultimately be understood "by the power of the Holy Ghost testifying" to each person individually that Smith was who he claimed to be — a prophet of God who restored Christ's gospel to Earth.
Of interest to Latter-day Saints and scholars alike, information about Smith's life and work will be more readily accessible than ever before when the LDS Church launches a new Web site in mid-June at josephsmith.net. "It will contain content of considerable substance," he said.
Work is also under way on the Joseph Smith Papers project at Brigham Young University, a multi-volume work being compiled in conjunction with the LDS Church that Elder Jensen said is "the most important historical project of our generation."
The project is an attempt to gather, catalogue and reference every document Joseph Smith ever produced or created, either personally or through dozens of scribes he worked with throughout his life.
Alexander Baugh, professor of religion and an editor for the project, told a standing-room-only crowd on Saturday that the rough draft of the third volume in the series was just completed last week, covering the years 1834-35. Some 26 letters by Smith are included in that volume, along with 14 revelations — six of them canonized — as well as eight of Smith's discourses and seven recorded blessings.
Some of the documents include statements by Smith that early Latter-day Saints could not possibly comprehend the ultimate future reach of their fledgling faith into the world at large. They provide intimate details of Smith's life not previously widely known outside the scholarly community, including the text of a blessing Joseph Smith Sr., gave to his son Joseph and letters chronicling personal conflict between Joseph and his younger brother, William.
Some of the papers also provide evidence that a second "Zion's Camp" was anticipated by Smith after the first march from Ohio to Missouri by a large group of LDS men was first completed in 1834. The second march never actually materialized, but its symbolic movement of priesthood power over geographic space and time was analogous to the wide reach of the church's missionary force today.
MHA president Donald Q. Cannon said the church is now present in 143 nations, with nearly 10 percent of its 12 million members living in Mexico alone. Yet rapid growth — particularly since World War II — has not come without cost, said Cannon, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University.
In many parts of the world, retention rates for new converts are "very low and providing leadership has proved difficult." Cultural problems and differences have been exacerbated when "things couldn't be done according to the Utah model."
Cannon's son, Brian, was a missionary in Tahiti 25 years ago and wore his suit "twice — once on his way out and again on his way home." The heat and geography proved the attire impractical, giving way to short-sleeved shirts and sandals, he said.
And Latter-day Saints in the Philippines found the massive air conditioning units installed on their meetinghouses were much too costly to operate. Besides, "they were uncomfortable with the cold air.
"Yet despite the challenges and problems, the gospel has moved steadily forward" throughout its 175-year history, which is being commemorated throughout the church this year, along with the bicentennial of Smith's birth.
"Mormonism has penetrated every continent and swept every clime," Cannon said. "Joseph Smith got it right in his prophetic statements about the globalization of Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has indeed become a global church."
In recognition of the faith's importance in the secular realm of tourism, Vermont Gov. James Douglas thanked MHA members personally on Saturday night for coming to his state in honor of their founding prophet.
He said "cultural tourism" is a growing trend that has definite economic implications for Vermont, and Smith's birthplace in Sharon, Vt., attracts thousands of visitors annually.