Bob Dylan, Joseph F. Smith, and the Price of Revelation

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.


  1. marginalizedmormon says:

    This is beautiful. Your book will be a very good one to read.

  2. Steve, this means a lot to me. Thanks.

  3. Christopher J. says:

    “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.”

    Amen. This is great, Steve, and I look forward to reading your biography of JFS.

  4. This was incredible. I am likewise excited for the book. It also reminded me of this from Matt Godfrey remarking on a similar time in JS’s life:

  5. Thanks. I’m glad it was worthwhile reading

  6. Excellent. BTW, “the heavens as brass” is a KJV allusion to Deu 28:23. The line is “And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

    Deu 28 contains a series of curses for violating the Mosaic covenant, in parallel to the blessings for keeping it. I doubt that was common knowledge, but perhaps the phrase had entered everyday-English, as so much of the KJV did.

  7. HJG used the brass trope much later in the struggle to understand the church’s role in welfare issues.

  8. JFS knew he was quoting the Hebrew Bible. He did that constantly. But I doubt he knew about the blessing/cursing context

  9. Steve, as you are probably aware, it wasn’t just the children. In writing in his journal on the death in 1875 of George A. Smith, cousin and mentor, Joseph F. Smith seems almost paralyzed by grief for several days. I agree he was perhaps singularly qualified by experience to receive D&C 138.

    Looking forward to your book, as well. We’ve needed an new biography of JFS for some time.

  10. Kevinf, you’re right. It most certainly was not just the children. And I assume by “some time” you mean forever.

  11. I was being diplomatic. :)

  12. Fantastic.

  13. Wonderful insight. I will be sharing this with others.

  14. Great stuff, Steve. The more excerpts you offer the more I want to read your forthcoming book. Even though it wasn’t entirely uncommon to lose multiple children back then it is still bitter-sweet in a way to have a father’s view of it. It so often revolves around the mother’s loss and we forget that the father ever had a stake in the child. I’m humbled, and that doesn’t happen a lot.

  15. Steve, you’re completely right. Hyrum Mack’s death was a devastating, unexpected blow. When Hyrum didn’t respond to priesthood blessings as expected, it was already too late. His death was seemingly an inexplicable–from the father’s point of view–tragedy that Joseph F. never recovered from.

  16. Wow, powerful. Thanks, Steve.

  17. Bradley Kime says:

    You had me at “Bob Dylan.” Brilliant stuff. Can’t wait for the book.

  18. My chapter in the RSC’s volume on JFS touches on this. Unfortunately, it got cut down from 18 pages to 12. I’m excited for the bio!

  19. J. Stapley says:

    Taysom, this is really powerful stuff, both your presentation if JFS’s experiences and your argument. Thank you. Also, as an aside, that is pretty amazing letter writing.

  20. Really gorgeous. Please let some parts of your book not be this good, lest we all die of envy.

  21. RockiesGma says:

    Bro. Taysom: This was so moving and instructive. I, too, love reading of a Father’s perspective of loss and grief. Thank you for teaching of the thoughts and experiences that surely must have played a preparatory and tutoring role for D&C 138.

    But thank you far more for helping me to see how revelation may come to a prophet ONLY after great, deep, mortal experience that requires profound, sustained yearning for insight into the mind and will of God. I grew up being taught that the prophet communed with the Savior almost daily by stepping into the Holy of Holies to see what was to be done in and for the church today. Then, when the revelation came in 1978, and later reading how it came about, I realized that previous Bishops, SP’s, and High Councilmen (as they were called back then) may not have been quite correct on how a living prophet receives revelation.

    I’ve often wondered, concerning the pro and con arguments for women being ordained, why the prophet wouldn’t just do as Pres. Kimball did and take the matter to the Lord. It seemed — forgive me — simple enough. Then we’d know the mind and will of the Lord in this day for this matter, and those who struggle with this issue could, perhaps, find peace, or celebrate as we did in 1978. I remember exactly where I was and can still feel what I felt that wondrous day!

    So what I’m trying to say is that you’ve shed further light and knowledge on the hard work of experiencing and laboring to understand experience, of feeling pain deep enough and long enough, of mourning or suffering the plight involved, as well as impacts involved for the church, among other things, for a prophet to be able to commune with God for answers or revelation to profound issues. I can discern now that if need is not felt or understood, or even thought to be real or valid, the deep, deep yearning just wouldn’t be there.

    I may not be expressing this very well, so I’ll just end by saying I think I understand revelation for a church better than before this post, and I’m truly grateful. God bless and keep our prophet dear. And you, too.

  22. For what it is worth, I’m glad to see people realizing that fathers grieve as well.

  23. I don’t know that it is so much that I didn’t think father’s grieved the loss of their children, it is just that the standard narrative in The Church is the mother’s loss. It is refreshing to see another angle–one so integral to JFS’ later experience as a Prophet.

    My father is a former Marine, and practically as gruff as they come yet I have seen him cry enough to know that men are just as capable of experiencing loss.

  24. Beautiful and thought-provoking. Thank you.

  25. George Tate described similar anguish and compassion in investigating the history behind D&C 138 (BYU Studies 46, no. 1, 2007). A monograph will be welcome.

  26. this is an amazing post. well done. didn’t know JFS was such a poet and deep feeler.

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