An introductory page of the Doctrine and Covenants contains this statement about Joseph Smith: "He was taught by many angels; … God had a special work for him to do" ("Explanatory Introduction," fourth paragraph).
If there have ever been prophets whom we might dare to call ordinary or typical, Joseph was certainly not one of them. Though he was tutored in quiet and subtle ways, as countless others have been, he was also groomed by open ministering from "many" heavenly beings over a period of years.
It is fair to ask: Why were such unusual preparations focused upon Joseph? One answer may be in the very nature of his "special work."
His assignment was anything but ordinary, even for a prophet. We can hardly find another time in history so laden with the depth and width of his challenges.
He was not to simply straighten out bent truths that had suffered somewhat in recent generations. He was to start everything over again, after ages of twisting.
On one hand, Joseph faced a desperate and raging adversary who overlords a host of evil ones in the spirit realm.
On the other hand, there towered before Joseph long-entrenched obstacles in the mortal world. Those with roots in the political sector had huge influence. Others were driven by passionate religious bias, and yet others by rabid unbelief.
Centuries of thick darkness had programmed strategic persons and forces with a reflex to ridicule, to sue at law and to bully with violence. It was all "ready" for the restoring Prophet, even before he was born into the world.
In the very first moments of mentoring, Joseph Smith was given this stunning measure of the corrosion that awaited him: "… all their creeds were an abomination" in God's sight (Joseph Smith — History 1:19). There was nothing moderate about this assessment. And yet it came not from Joseph, but from the mind of him who knows all things.
The restorer's resources would need to be as extensive as his task, his support system more potent than the sprawling chaos poised to ambush his nearly impossible mission. In that long list of resources, there shone three sets of priesthood keys — powers that you and I would not have imagined: the keys to gather a great people; the keys to assemble, from among that people, covenant families; and the keys to seal those families against death itself, that they may remain joyous and intact forever (see Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16).
No matter where else in the vast universe these overarching rights might be in use, they were gone from this earth. Joseph could not use them, nor convey them to his successors, unless heavenly beings first conveyed the keys to him.
Thus, the temple in Kirtland was not simply to be the first in a list of many temples, but to be a kind of artery to the temples that would follow. It was as the umbilical to a developing child, or the circuit box serving a whole house.
To our limited way of figuring things, it might seem that this transaction could be carried out casually, in some makeshift setting. But in the mind of God, the bestowal demanded a special building, a temple whose construction would stretch the Lord's little church just beyond known limits.
The Kirtland temple would serve a range of purposes, from worship to academic study to civic events. But these lesser uses didn't justify the sacrifices that gave it birth. The return of long-prophesied keys, and the infinite blessings offered to every human being as a result — these made it a latter-day bargain.
Wayne E. Brickey, who lives in Gallatin, Mo., is a retired Church Educational System teacher and curriculum writer and has been a tour guide to Holy Land and Mormon history sites. His novel "Before His Manger: The Long Wait for Christ's First Coming" is serialized in weekly segments Fridays on MormonTimes.com.