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Joseph Smith’s name ‘had for good and evil among all nations’

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In the mid-1950s, Elder John Groberg, a future general authority but then a young missionary from Idaho, was serving on the remote island of Tafahi, near the larger island of Niuatoputapu in the South Pacific kingdom of Tonga.

To his surprise, he quickly discovered that those he was teaching had never heard of the Great Depression, the Korean War, then-famous sports figures or the period’s internationally celebrated movie stars. They recognized neither the names of prominent world leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev and Charles de Gaulle, nor, for that matter, the names of the countries those men led — the United States of America, the Soviet Union and France. But, although not a single resident of the island was then a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they did know the name of Joseph Smith.

The Prophet Joseph Smith is the founder and first president of LDS Church, and he also translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates and died a matryr.

When Elder Groberg mentioned Joseph Smith, he later recalled, their faces lit up immediately. Everyone looked at him, and the father of the family with whom he was visiting said: "Don’t talk to us about that false prophet! Not in our home! We know all about him. Our minister has told us!”

Elder Groberg says he could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He immediately thought of Moroni’s prediction to the young prophet, recorded in Joseph Smith—History 1:33, “that (Joseph’s) name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”

“To me,” recalls Elder Groberg, “this was a direct fulfillment of prophecy.”

“I am convinced,” he writes in his memoir “The Other Side of Heaven,” “that you could hardly get a place more remote, more out of touch with modern civilization, than the little island of Tafahi. The people there knew nothing of the great leaders of the day — political, economic or otherwise — but they knew the name ‘Joseph Smith.’ In this case, they knew it for ill, at least to begin with. I spent the next few days explaining more of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith and before we left, a few of them knew his name for good.”

I’ve had similar experiences. In the late 1970s, for example, while I was studying in Cairo, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel farther south into Africa to the remarkably beautiful nation of Kenya. I resolved in advance that I would pick up a Bible in Swahili while I was there, so that I could learn something about that interesting language.

One day, I found a Christian bookstore in the capital city of Nairobi and went in to look around. I was surprised to see two entire bookshelves loaded with materials critical of the LDS Church and of the claims of its founding prophet. I’m not sure, but there may well have been more books on those shelves than, at the time, there were Latter-day Saints in all of Kenya. I thought this oddly flattering, but I, too, thought immediately of Moroni’s prophecy.

Roughly two decades later, in the late 1990s, I found myself chatting with the abbot of a monastery deep in the mountains north of Beirut. At one point, wanting to show me that he knew something about my church, the abbot pulled a copy of the Book of Mormon from his bookshelf.

Today, temples of LDS Church stand in such places as the Ukraine, Ghana, Samoa, Taiwan, Peru, France and Australia, with additional temples announced or under construction in locations as diverse as Haiti, Thailand, Italy, Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast. Some say that Mormonism is the largest Christian denomination in the predominantly Buddhist country of Mongolia. Today, Tonga, the island kingdom in which Elder Groberg served, is roughly 50 percent Latter-day Saint.

It’s easy to take such things for granted. But, in September 1823 (when Moroni first visited Joseph Smith) or even in 1838 (when Joseph Smith—History was written), the prophecy would have seemed transparently absurd to almost anybody hearing it. How likely was it that an obscure and poorly educated farmer’s son on the early 19th-century American frontier would become internationally famous? And, besides the Book of Mormon, how many American books published in 1830 are still read today? James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Water Witch,” perhaps? Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s “A Tale of Our Times”?

For me, Moroni’s prophecy has been fulfilled.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.