Joseph Smith's 21st Century View of the World - Chapter 1 Excerpt

Chapter 1

Joseph Smith and Latter-day Science

Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject. (Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois, October 9, 1843, History of the Church, 6, p. 50)

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in the early spring of 1836, the strains of a new Latter-day Saint hymn cascaded down from a wooded plateau into the beautiful Chagrin Valley just south of Lake Erie in the state of Ohio. About a thousand voices strong, this congregation was electrified with excitement, and it showed in the enthusiasm with which they sang. Their prophet had just read a lengthy prayer of dedication, received earlier by revelation, invoking the blessings of God on their new temple and on this young flock of converts who had sacrificed so much in money and toil over the last three years to build it. The edifice itself was something of a miracle, an echo of New England church architecture with significant customization to meet the demands of a new and unique theology. The finished work was a wonder to behold, and no doubt the celebrants on that day took pride in whatever architectural embellishment each singer could point to as his or her small contribution. They marveled that in their poverty they could erect such a glorious space in which to worship, the estimated $50,000 cost beyond any sum that most of them could even imagine. As they had entered hours earlier, they could read the plaque above the heavy green doors denoting this edifice as the “House of the Lord.” They had sat enthralled in their new temple for hours on that day, oblivious of the hard, wooden benches and the cheek-to-jowl accommodations, for it was standing room only at the dedication of the Kirtland temple.1

The song the Saints were singing on that day was introduced by the prophet Joseph Smith as “Hosanah [sic] to God and the Lamb,” the last entry in the newly printed hymnbook of the fledgling Church. Many in the congregation had their copies, tiny (3 x 4.5 inch) pocket- friendly editions containing ninety hymns chosen by the prophet’s wife Emma—words only, no notes, no harmonies, no treble clefs. Others may have found the words provided on white satin as the prophet had ordered for the occasion. Today, we know the hymn as “The Spirit of God,” and it is still sung with the same spirit and enthusiasm as on that first rendition in March 1836, although not necessarily to the same tune. It is believed that it was first voiced to the tune Latter-day Saint congregations sing today to “Now Let Us Rejoice.” But in fact, it is the words, not the music, of the hymn that inform our discussion here, and for these we owe a debt of gratitude to an early Latter-day Saint leader of some poetic genius.

William Wines Phelps had joined the Latter-day Saint faith not long after its organization in 1830, and he contributed much to fulfill its publication needs. He authored the words to more than a dozen early Church hymns, including the one described here, as well as other familiar hymns, such as “Redeemer of Israel,” “Praise to the Man,” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Before his conversion, he had served as the prominent New York editor of several newspapers. After accepting the new faith, he served as the Church printer and editor in Jackson County, Missouri, before being physically assaulted along with his family and ejected from that region with all the Saints in 1833. His association with the Church ran into a few snags over subsequent years, as seems commonplace among early prominent brethren, but he died in full fellow- ship in Salt Lake City in 1872, having contributed much over many years to the building of the kingdom.

Among the inspired phrases of Phelps’s hymn sung on the occasion of the Kirtland temple dedication are words that reflect the strong influence of the latter-day prophet under whose tutelage he worked. We find these words in the Church’s current hymnbook, on page 2: “The Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding. . . . The veil o’er the earth is beginning to burst.” It is likely that neither he nor any of those singing those words in March 1836 on that solemn occasion, perhaps with the exception of Brother Joseph himself, could have appreciated the magnitude of that claim so boldly expressed in song. It is only now in retrospect that we can begin to fathom the meaning of those prophetic words, for in very fact the scale of the universe, which is now opening up to us as a result of scientific inquiry, is truly breathtaking, both on the extremes of the very large and the very small. As a scientist, I am struck by how true the words of the song have been manifest. Indeed, it is as if, until the recent historical past, our sight had been hindered by a covering of darkness, a veil, and that gradually over the last few hundred years that veil has begun to melt away, like the fog retreating before the coming of the dawn. Knowledge concerning God’s creations is pushing back the darkness in these latter days.

On numerous occasions, the prophet Joseph made it clear in his revelations that knowledge was a central power through which God’s designs for the latter days would be achieved. A poignant episode later in the prophet’s life illustrates this point quite markedly. While enduring the misery of a cold, dark, comfortless jail cell in Liberty, Missouri, in winter of 1839, Joseph asked in great anguish, “Oh God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1) Perhaps you know the story—the Saints had been driven from their homes, indeed from the whole state of Missouri in the cold of winter, and the whole Church had been brought down to near destruction. Joseph and others had spent the entire winter in an unheated, unfurnished dungeon. In answer to Joseph’s plea, what comfort did the Lord have to offer? If we turn to Doctrine and Covenants 121, we find the answer:

  • First, the Lord invokes the immensity of time—“thine afflictions shall be but a small moment,” he says, and the hope of the enemies of the Saints “shall be blasted.” (verses 7 and 11)

  • Second, he comforts Joseph and the Saints with promises of great knowledge. (verses 26–33)

  • Third, he gives promises and exhortations regarding priesthood. (verses 34–46)

    While we usually focus our attention on this last topic, notice that a significant part of the comfort the Lord offers is to be derived from knowledge. He offers up these promises:

All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ. And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times— . . . How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints. (D&C 121:29–31, 33)

Can knowledge really be a source of comfort? What value and com- fort do we find as Latter-day Saints in knowledge? Surely, we’d all agree that knowledge of the gospel itself can comfort and inspire. But can so-called secular knowledge do so as well? When you stop and think about it, it should—that is, when you consider that all truth comes from God. He doesn’t make the distinction between sacred and secular truth—to him it is all one; it is all truth. In this work, as we pursue various topics together, I trust that you will find examples wherein both sacred and secular knowledge can be both a comfort and inspiration to you as it has been to me.

The coming forth of gospel truth in the latter days has been paralleled by an explosion of scientific truth. In certain respects, these two fields of knowledge have found harmony since Joseph Smith’s time in ways that only now are we coming to appreciate. This is the underlying theme of this work. It has been motivated in part by my personal con- cern that too often we tend to dwell on areas where science and religion appear to conflict. And this has been a source of consternation and a test of faith for many. I say “appear to conflict” because in fact we must recognize that there can be only one truth, and where science and religion intersect and overlap in their claims, those who value both as reliable sources can rightly expect them to harmonize. Herein I will endeavor to provide a few examples where, in recent times, past areas of apparent conflict have been wondrously resolved, so that where once there was disharmony, a new harmony has arisen. And thereby we may entertain hope and faith that where apparent conflicts remain, with the gathering of new knowledge in both science and theology, those seeming discontinuities will be resolved like the ones that have already found resolution.

The reader may in fairness ask where my personal bias lies, given that I am both a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints and a scientist. By nature, I have always been curious to get to the heart of understanding in all areas of knowledge—hence my proclivity toward a scientific career since childhood. The Latin root of the word science is knowledge, and it is only in the last couple of hundred years that science has taken on the connotation of what we can more strictly term natural science, embracing fields like chemistry, physics, biology, and so on. I think of myself as a scientist in the broader sense of the word and look for true knowledge wherever I can find it. This attitude echoes that of the most famous of Latter-day Saint chemists, Henry Eyring: “Here is the spirit of true religion, an honest seeking after knowledge of all things of heaven and earth.”2 Indeed, a valuing of knowledge as a fundamental aspect of Latter-day Saint theology goes right back to the very roots of the restoration, when the prophet Joseph remarked, “In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings, because he has greater knowledge . . .”3

We are blessed to live in a day when knowledge is expanding, and the veil of darkness which obscured our vision of the true nature of the world and our place in it for so many centuries is being lifted. As this process unfolds, new insights in both science and theology resolve old questions in some cases and raise new questions in others. In this work we shall explore some of these questions together, and in the process, seek faith that in the end, knowledge derived from both areas of understanding will find perfect harmony under one complete framework of truth. In particular, we shall see that on several key points, Joseph Smith was remarkably prescient in his understanding of the natural world, anticipating the science that we have now come to understand in the twenty-first century.


1. Details about the construction and dedicatory services of the Kirtland temple may be found in Elwin C. Robison, The First Mormon Temple, Brigham Young University Press, 1997.

  1. Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, Deseret Book, 1983, p. 3.

  2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, 1973, p. 288. More fully documented collections of Joseph’s teachings are available in two more recent sources: the volume prepared by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Religious Studies Monograph Series, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980; and The Joseph Smith Papers, available online at