Prophethood is a tough racket. At least it is when it comes time to put on the “revelator” hat. In 1832, Joseph Smith said that the process of receiving revelation “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.”
Other prophets have suffered differently for their revelatory glimpses. I am currently working on a biography of Joseph F. Smith for the University of Utah Press. One of the things that becomes obvious almost immediately is that Joseph F. Smith was acutely acquainted with death from the time of his father’s murder 1844 until the death of JFS’s favored son in 1918, just months before JFS himself died. The decades in between were liberally sprinkled by the loss of many children. JFS grieved deeply the loss of each one. On August 26, 1883, JFS wrote to his sister Martha Ann that “Once more, and now for the sixth time, by the inexorable will of an inscrutable providence, we have been called upon to part with one of our dearest, most precious treasures. This time the pitiless monster, death, has chosen for his ‘shining mark,’ our beautiful, intelligent, bright and lovely little Albert Jesse [2 years old]….[Despite] scalding tears, the heavens were brass above our heads. Our cries and tears fell alike to the earth and were buried this day with the lifeless form of our hearts treasure in the grave! And yet not all were buried, for our cry would ascend: why is it so? Why, God, did it have to be? And still our tears soak the earth to releave, if not to bury, our heartache in its lifeless bosom.”
This would not be the last time that JFS buried a child who had died in his arms. It would not be the last time that he found the heavens as brass over his head. I think now of what we know as Doctrine and Covenants 138. The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead. We’ve studied it’s theology we’ve contextualized it and given a nod to the role of World War One and Smith’s own impending death. But we have not, I think, yet reckoned with the full cost of that revelation. It seems to me that the gift we were given in that text was extruded from Joseph F. Smith, dead child by dead child, over the course of decades. God did not kill those children so that we could have this revelation. But God certainly used those experiences to deepen the well of yearning that a prophet seems to need in order to see beyond himself and into the heart and mind of God. That revelation cost this prophet dearly. In 2009, Bob Dylan told an interviewer that “It took a while to find this thing. But then again, I believe that things are handed to you when you’re ready to make use of them. You wouldn’t recognize them unless you’d come through certain experiences. I’m a strong believer that each man has a destiny.” I think Joseph F. Smith would understand that sentiment. I cannot look at that revelation the same way anymore. In it resides the buried treasures lost by a prophet. In it we see the brass heavens break. Finally.