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The Alleged Fifty-Six-Year Second-Coming Prophecy of Joseph Smith:
An Analysis

by
Malin L. Jacobs

First published on the SHIELDS Web Site on July 13, 1997
Revised December 28, 1997


See also the Response to Dick Baer by John A. Tvedtness, items number 25 & 43


This morning, I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that "a prophet is always a prophet;" but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.

Joseph Smith, Feb. 8, 1843 1


Introduction

Prophets are allowed not only to have personal opinions, or even misunderstandings, but also to express them.  It is up to those who hear the words spoken by a prophet to listen carefully, use their intelligence, and discern with the spirit whether a prophet is acting as a prophet or expressing his own views.2  Critics of the LDS faith demonstrate time and again that they do not comprehend this simple principle.

A favorite pastime of anti-Mormons is to list the alleged false prophecies of Joseph Smith as evidence that he was not a prophet of God.  One of their favorites is the supposed prophecy of Feb. 14, 1835, that Jesus' second coming would be in fifty-six years, or in 1891.  The primary evidence usually presented consists of a reference to a sermon preached by Joseph Smith, as recorded in the seven-volume History of the Church edited by B. H. Roberts, and statements by three prominent LDS church members.  In addition, anti-Mormons will sometimes present as evidence statements in blessings given to individuals that the one being blessed would see the Lord, or statements that some of those present at a meeting, or of the then rising generation, would not taste death until after Christ comes.3

A typical presentation of the primary evidence is given by Ed Decker and Dave Hunt in their repository of supposed "overwhelming evidence"4 against the church, The God Makers.  The non-bold-face footnote numbers in the following quotation are theirs.

On February 14, 1835, Oliver B. Huntington recorded in his diary that Joseph Smith had said that "God had revealed to him that the coming of Christ would be within 56 years."47  The official History of the Church records the same false prophecy.48  From that point on, the "Saints" fell back upon the vain hope that if not before then, at least no later than February 14, 1891, all would be well in "Zion."  In 1886 the Millennial Star quoted Apostle Moses Thatcher's statement:  "...the time of our deliverance will be within five years; the time indicated [by Joseph Smith's "prophecy"] will be February 14, 1891."49  Mormon writer Klaus J. Hansen makes this staggering admission:

...in 1890 there was a widespread belief among Church members that Joseph Smith's prediction of 1835, that 56 years would "wind up the scene," would be fulfilled.  But such enthusiasm was short lived.  In 1903, Benjamin F. Johnson...could not conceal his disappointment when he remarked that "we were over 70 years ago taught by our leaders to believe that the coming of Christ and the millennial reign was much nearer than we believe it to be now."50 5

Curiously, in a chapter which is devoted to alleged false prophecies, and which has the title A Non-Prophet Organization, Decker and Hunt neglect to quote this supposed "prophecy."  Instead, they refer the reader to their footnote 48 of chapter 15, which, instead of quoting the prophecy, merely refers the reader to the History of the Church where, supposedly, the prophecy may be found.  The only statements actually provided by these "scholars" are from others who supposedly believed that Joseph Smith prophesied the second coming would occur by 1891.

Statements attributed to Joseph Smith about the Second Coming

But did Joseph Smith actually speak such a prophecy?  We do not have a transcript of Smith's sermon where the prophecy supposedly was given.  What we have is a record of the sermon compiled from the personal records of some of those who were there.6  While those in attendance were able to hear Smith's exact words, we are not so fortunate.  We are getting our information third-hand, first through the filters of the minds of those who recorded what they recalled of the sermon, second through the filters of those who combined the accounts into a single narrative, and third through the filter of B. H. Roberts' mind.  This is a very important point.  If one is to convict Joseph Smith of false prophecy, one must first be very sure that he actually uttered a prophecy.7

The History of the Church provides the account of the meeting held on Feb. 14, 1835.  The specific reference to Joseph Smith's sermon states:

...and it was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh--even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.8

This statement does not quote Smith verbatim, nor does it say that he prophesied the time of the second coming.  Instead, it states:

    ...even fifty-six years should wind up the scene. (Italics added)

One of Decker & Hunt's sources quoted above, Klaus Hanson, incorrectly states that Joseph Smith said that fifty-six years would wind up the scene.9  There is a great deal of difference between should and would.  The world of works critical of the LDS faith is littered with such sloppy scholarship.

We have no way of knowing whether the word should is Joseph Smith's or that of one or more of those who remembered the sermon in their diaries or journals.  In either case, the use of should instead of would or will suggests that instead of prophesying, either Joseph Smith was expressing a personal opinion, or many of those who heard him considered him to be expressing a personal opinion.  This suggestion is made much stronger when we examine accounts of meetings where Joseph Smith clearly prophesied.  For example, the record of a meeting held just thirteen days later in Kirtland on Feb. 27, 1835, quotes Joseph Smith as follows:

Here let me prophesy.  The time will come, when, if you neglect to do this thing, you will fall by the hands of unrighteous men.10

Instead of prophesying in the Feb. 14 meeting, Joseph Smith apparently expressed a strongly-held personal opinion.  Where did he get the idea that fifty-six years might bring the second coming?  He said:

I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:

Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.

I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.  I believe the coming of the son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.11

Joseph Smith made this statement at a conference held at Ramus, IL, on April 2, 1843.  Sometime prior to Feb. 14, 1835, he had asked the Lord when the second coming was to take place and was given an ambiguous answer.  He stated apparently as his opinion that it would not be before 1891.  Joseph commented on this subject at least twice more over the next several days:

I earnestly desired to know concerning the coming of the Son of Man & prayed, when a voice said to me, Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou are 85 years old thou shalt see the face of the son of man.  Therefore let this suffice & trouble me no more on this matter.12

I was once praying earnestly upon the subject. and a voice said unto me. My son, if thou livest till thou art 85 years of age, thou shalt see the face of the son of man.--I was left to draw my own conclusion concerning this & I took the liberty to conclude that if I did live till that time he would make his appearance.--but I do not say whether he will make his appearance or I shall go where he is.--I prophecy in the name of the Lord God.--& let it be written. that the Son of Man will not come in the heavens till I am 85 years old 48 years hence or about 1890.13

On March 10, 1844, Smith again mentioned the second coming.  This sermon was recorded by several of those who heard it. Here is some of what was recorded:

But I take the responsibility upon myself to prophesy in the name of the Lord, that Christ will not come this year as Miller has prophecyed, for we have seen the bow. and I also Prophecy in the name of the Lord that Christ will not Come in forty years & if God ever spake by my mouth he will not in that length of time & Jesus Christ never did reveal to any man the precise time that he would come, go & read the scriptures & you cannot find any thing that specified the exact time he would come & all who say so are fals teachers.14

The Saviour will not come this year. nor 40 yrs to come.15

--The Messiah will not come this year--upsets Millerites the Messiah will not come for 40 years and he told the people to write it a very large and attentive congregation— 16

--And that the Revelation of the Son of Man from Heaven, would not be in this year, nor the next, and he would say to his Millerite friends, that it would not be in forty years to come.  He uttered all this in the name of the Lord, and said we should go home and write it— 17

From the above citations it seems clear that Joseph Smith did not prophesy that the second coming would be in fifty-six years.  Rather, in 1835, based on the revelation he had received, and which is recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17, Joseph Smith held the opinion that the second coming would be sometime within the next fifty-six years.  Upon reflection, as recorded in 1843, he concluded that the second coming would not occur before 1891, but left open the actual time of Christ's return.  On at least two additional occasions prior to his death in 1844, he publically explained the ambiguous nature of the revelation he had been given on the subject.  These public explanations, which acknowledge the ambiguousness of the revelation, were recorded by several who heard them.

Statements by LDS Quoted by Anti-Mormons that Appear to Support their view that Joseph Smith Prophesied the time of the Second Coming

The Oliver B. Huntington Evidence

The complete fifty-six-year-prophecy paragraph of Oliver B. Huntington's Autobiography18 states:

On the 14th of Feb. 1835, Joseph Smith said that God had revealed to him that the coming of Christ would be within 56 years, which being added to 1835 shows that before 1891 and the 14th of Feb. the Saviour of the world would make his appearance again upon the earth and the winding up scene take place. In connection with this event, was related by my brother Dimick Huntington, the fact that when Joseph and Hyrum Smith submitted in their feelings to consent to give themselves up to the state mob at Nauvoo Illinois, after they had passed the Mississippi River.  Joseph said "if they shed my blood it shall shorten this work 10 years".  That taken from 1891 would reduce the time to 1881 which if the true time within which the Saviour should come much must be crowded into 6 years.19

Since Huntington says that "much must be crowded into" the six years before 1881, this paragraph must have been written in 1875, forty years after the supposed prophecy was uttered.

In February, 1835, Huntington was either nine or eleven years old.20  His family joined the LDS church in 1835 in Missouri, and it wasn't until 1836 that they moved to Kirtland, Ohio.21  Consequently, regardless of when he actually penned his reference to the supposed fifty-six-year prophecy, he could not have been present at the meeting where the prophecy was supposedly uttered.  His statement is late hearsay that is at best second-hand.  Yet how do Decker & Hunt present this evidence?

On February 14, 1835, Oliver B. Huntington recorded in his diary that Joseph Smith had said that "God had revealed to him that the coming of Christ would be within 56 years.22

Since, as Decker and Hunt tell us, The God Makers was thoroughly researched and documented,23 they must have read the entry in Huntington's autobiography, yet they chose to present it as if it were first-hand contemporary evidence (the most valuable type of evidence) rather than late hearsay (much less valuable).

All Huntington's statement demonstrates is that he believed that Joseph Smith had prophesied that the second coming would be in fifty-six years from 1835.  Since his belief is late hearsay, it is not of much value as evidence that Joseph Smith actually made such a prophecy.

The Moses Thatcher Evidence

Moses Thatcher was born in 1842,24 so he could not have been present at the 1835 meeting.  He would have been only about a year old when Joseph Smith commented about the fifty-six years in 1843.  We have seen that the account of the Feb. 14, 1835 meeting does not contain a transcript of Joseph Smith's sermon, nor does it contain anything actually unambiguously identifiable as a prophecy.  Consequently, any ideas Thatcher may have had concerning Joseph Smith's views of the second coming were either hearsay or an assumption on his part.

An examination of the source for Thatcher's sermon reveals a number of interesting things.  Here is Thatcher's statement as presented by Decker & Hunt:

In 1886 the Millennial Star quoted Apostle Moses Thatcher's statement: "...the time of our deliverance will be within five years; the time indicated [by Joseph Smith's "prophecy"] will be February 14, 1891." 25

Thatcher's statement is incorrectly referenced.  The reference provided by Decker and Hunt (Millennial Star XV:  205)26 contains nothing by him.  Indeed, Millennial Star XV:  205 is dated March 26, 1853, some 33 years before Thatcher preached this sermon.  What this reference does contain is the account of the Feb. 14, 1835 meeting as part of the Star's then ongoing presentation of the History of Joseph Smith.27  The only way this mistake could have been made was if Decker and Hunt never read their alleged source.

The actual source for Thatcher's statement is Abraham H. Cannon's journal.28  In juxtaposition with the other sources used by our critics, Thatcher's statement certainly appears to be referring to the second coming of Christ, as supposedly prophesied by Joseph Smith on Feb. 14, 1835.

However, as quoted in The God Makers, the statement is misleading.  The authors omit the first part of the sentence (as indicated by the use of ellipses).  The complete sentence reads:

"It is my belief, that the time of our deliverance will be within five years, the time indicated will be Feb. 14, 1891." (Emphasis added)

The words in italics were omitted by the authors of The God Makers.  True scholars use ellipses to eliminate extraneous material not pertinent to the point they are trying to make.  Unlike our anti-Mormon authors, scholars don't use ellipses to change the meaning of the quoted material.  From the complete sentence it is clear that Thatcher was expressing a personal opinion and not an official position of either the LDS church or its leadership.  However, since he specifically mentioned the Feb. 14, 1891 date, it is reasonable to assume that he had reference to the fifty-six-year comments of the Feb. 14, 1835 meeting.  But while Thatcher may have believed that the second coming of Christ was only five years in the future, he did not explicitly say so in this sermon.  In the very next sentence he continued:

"And that the man raised up will be no other than the Prophet, Joseph Smith, in his resurrected body."29

So not only was Thatcher expressing a personal opinion, but that opinion didn't explicitly mention the second coming of Christ.30

Thatcher's 1886 sermon was considered controversial from the day it was preached, even in the quorums of the First Presidency and Twelve.  Wilford Woodruff, who was in St. George when the sermon was preached, was sent a copy of it.  He noted in his journal that "comments have been made" about it.31  First Presidency counselor George Q. Cannon disagreed sharply with several sections of Thatcher's sermon and privately "corrected" some of his teachings.32  In addition, at the time Thatcher preached his sermon, he was out of harmony with the First Presidency and the rest of the Apostles.  His differences with the Twelve continued and increased for a number of years until they became public.  Finally, the church published a pamphlet discussing the situation.33  In this pamphlet, Lorenzo Snow commented as follows:

It should be known that the disaffection of Moses Thatcher dates back to a time long before political difficulties could enter into the matter.  President Woodruff has stated publicly that Moses Thatcher had not been in full harmony with his Quorum since the death of President John Taylor.  Trouble was had with him before that time.

In 1886 he proclaimed in public discourses ideas and predictions not endorsed by his brethren.  At Lewiston, Cache county, notes were taken of his utterances and published on a fly-leaf.  He was subsequently written to by President Taylor, and his answer is on file.  While he claimed that he had not been accurately reported, he gave his own language, under his own hand, to the effect of predictions of events to occur within five years, which have failed of fulfillment and which were founded on erroneous interpretations of Scripture.  He wrote for publication a sort of retraction which really took nothing back but merely charged partial errors in the report of his extravagant remarks.34

In anti-Mormon circles, the views expressed in Moses Thatcher's 1886 sermon at Lewiston are believed to be representative of those of the LDS church leadership of the time.  However, the evidence demonstrates just the opposite.  Instead of endorsing Thatcher's views, the LDS leadership disavowed them.

As evidence of a false Joseph Smith prophecy of the second coming of Christ in 1891, authors Decker and Hunt have used a controversial sermon that was disavowed by the LDS church leadership and that does not explicitly mention such a prophecy or the second coming of Christ.  It is clear from their mistakes and omissions that Decker and Hunt haven't read at least one of their sources, and have either copied a misrepresented account of Thatcher's sermon, or have themselves misrepresented it.  A careful examination of their sources and how they use them allows for no other conclusion.

The Benjamin F. Johnson Evidence

Decker and Hunt quote Klaus Hansen quoting Benjamin F. Johnson that:

We were over 70 years ago taught by our leaders to believe that the coming of Christ and the millennial reign was much nearer than we believe it to be now.35

Benjamin F. Johnson was born in July of 1818,36 so he would have been sixteen years old in February, 1835.  His family moved to Kirtland in June of 1833.37  Despite his acceptance of the gospel, owing to the objections of his father, he was not baptized a member of the church until the late spring of 1835.38  He could have been present at the 1835 meeting and heard Joseph Smith's remarks, but to date no one has provided evidence for this.  Even if Johnson were there, his statement provides no evidence that Smith uttered a prophecy specifying the time of the second coming.  Johnson made his statement in 1903, sixty-eight years after the prophecy was supposed to have been made.  In 1903 he was eighty-five years old. Sixty-eight years is a long time to remember details of a sermon.

There is evidence that Johnson was hazy on details in his 1903 reminiscences.  Johnson made his statement in a sixty-four page letter to George F. Gibbs which was written between April and October, 1903.39  On at least seven occasions in this letter Johnson remembered things incorrectly.40  His errors ranged from wrong dates to the exaggeration of the significance of events to the apparent contradiction of things he had previously said.  But even if Johnson's statement is taken at face value, "taught by our leaders" does not equal "Joseph Smith prophesied," especially in light of Smith's own comments on the ambiguous nature of the second-coming revelation.  Nor can Johnson's statement be taken to mean "universally taught by ALL our leaders."  At best it means that an imminent second-coming was taught by some LDS leaders.  While Johnson says that back in the early days of the church many LDS (leaders and laymen alike) were expecting the second coming soon, he does not say a date was prophesied.

Miscellaneous Blessing-Type Evidence

John Farkas has posted an article on the Berean Christian Ministries Internet site41 that, in addition to the Feb. 14, 1835 remarks of Joseph Smith, presents several different types of secondary evidence that Joseph Smith prophesied the time of the second coming of Christ.  The relevant portion of Mr. Farkas' discussion of the fifty-six year "prophecy" consists of statements in blessings given to individuals that the one being blessed would see the Lord, and statements that some of those present at a meeting, or of the then rising generation would not taste death until after Christ comes.42

Mr. Farkas' examples of apparently unconditional blessing statements that the blessed individual would live to see the Lord consist solely of those who later apostatized and were excommunicated (Lyman E. Johnson, John F. Boynton, and William Smith).  While Joseph Smith did not himself give the blessings, he was present and endorsed them.  Mr. Farkas states that "In all three cases the prophetic element of these blessings proved false."  He ignores the LDS view that all blessings are contingent upon continued keeping of the commandments, and that there is no promise when one disregards the commandments and demonstrates unfaithfulness,43 as all three of these men did.  Consequently, as far as the LDS are concerned, "In all three cases the prophetic element of these blessings" did not prove to be false, but was nullified by the three men's unfaithfulness.

Mr. Farkas misinterpreted a statement of Martha Thomas.  He quotes her:

...He was enquiring of the Lord concerning his second coming, the answer was, 'If you [Martha Thomas] live to be (I think it was eighty) years old you will see the face of the Son of God.44  (The emphasis is Mr. Farkas'.)

This is supposed to be another instance of Joseph Smith blessing someone that they will live to see the second coming. However, the name Martha Thomas in brackets is not in the original, but is a mistaken editorial "clarification" of Mr. Farkas. Thomas was not referring to herself, but to Joseph Smith.  This statement is merely another account of the ambiguous revelation given to Joseph Smith about the second coming, not a prophecy of Joseph Smith that Thomas would see the Son of God if she lived to be eighty.45

Concerning the idea that some might not taste death until Christ comes, the LDS understand that to be the case with John the Revelator and three of Christ's disciples described in the Book of Mormon, who have become known in the LDS culture as the Three Nephites. I know of no reason why the same might not be true of others alive at the time of Joseph Smith, including the then rising generation, if their desires and faithfulness warranted it. In discussing the Three Nephites, Wilford Woodruff used the exact same phraseology as Joseph Smith when he stated:

Three of the Nephites, chosen here by the Lord Jesus as his apostles, had the same promise--that they should not taste death until Christ came, and they still remain on the earth in the flesh.46

This example demonstrates that the fact that a prophet said that some then living would not taste death until Christ came does not necessarily mean that the second coming would be within one human life span of the time of the statement.  Apostle Woodruff's comments are especially important as Mr. Farkas later on quotes an 1889 "prophetic opinion"47 of President Woodruff that:

Many of these young men and maidens that are here today will, in my opinion, if they are faithful, stand in the flesh when Christ comes in the clouds of heaven.  These young people from the Sabbath schools and from the Mutual Improvement Associations, will stand in the flesh while the judgments of the Almighty sweep the nations of the earth as with a besom of destruction, in fulfillment of the revelations of God, and they will be the very people whom God will bless and sustain.  Therefore, I say, our young men cannot begin too quickly to qualify themselves by treasuring up wisdom and calling upon God and getting the Holy Priesthood; for they have got to stand in holy places while these judgments are poured out upon the earth.48 [emphasis added]

While it is clear that Wilford Woodruff, along with many LDS of the times, believed that the second coming was close at hand, it is also clear that he was expressing a personal opinion and not claiming any prophetic inspiration.

Oliver B. Huntington commented as follows about two specific "not taste of death" blessings:

Joseph once told W. W. Phelps and wife that they should never taste death.

The manner of fulfilment of that promise is rather singular.  They supposed, and so did all that knew of the promise, that they were to never die, but the Lord does business in his own way and his way is not the way of a man.

Before Brother Phelps died he lost all his judgement, lost all his mind reason, consciousness and all sense.  He knew nothing, not even his name, nor how to eat, thus being unable to taste of anything; not even death.  His mind gradually dwindled, withered and dried up.  His wife was killed instantly, so quickly that she had no time to taste of death.  She was killed as she was dipping up a bucket of water from the ditch, a gust of wind hurled a board from a house and it struck her on the neck breaking it instantly.  She never tasted of death nor even felt the blow.49

The only evidence of apparent substance provided by Mr. Farkas is a statement from the autobiography of Luman Shurtliff that:

At the April conference, 1840, the Prophet Joseph, while speaking to some of the elders on this matter said they were mistaken; the Lord would not come in ten years, no, nor in twenty years, no, nor in thirty years; no, nor in forty years, and it will be almost fifty years before the Lord will come".50

Mr. Farkas notes that there is no mention of this in the conference minutes.  I suspect the reason is that Shurtliff was in error in assigning Joseph's remarks to the 1840 conference.  His autobiography was written in 1872, many years after the event.51 His description of Joseph's comments are remarkably close to comments Smith made during the April, 1843 conference:

I have no doubt of the truth. were I going to prophecy I would prophecy the end will not come in 1844 or 5 or 6. or 40 years more there are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death till christ comes.52

The above is, in fact, quoted by Mr. Farkas earlier in his discussion, but he apparently did not notice the similar phraseology, nor take cognizance of the fact that Shurtliff's autobiography was written twenty-nine years later.53  Rather than being evidence of yet another occasion where Joseph Smith supposedly expounded the second coming by 1891, Shurtliff's statement appears to be another account of the 1843 conference sermon.

Also quoted by Mr. Farkas, Joseph immediately went on to say:

I was once praying earnestly upon this subject. and a voice said unto me. My son, if thou livest till thou art 85 years of age, thou shalt see the face of the son of man.--I was left to draw my own conclusions concerning this & I took the liberty to conclude that if I did live till that time Jesus he would make his appearance.-- but I do not say whether he will make his appearance or I shall go where he is. I prophecy in the name of the Lord God, and let it be written -- the Son of Man will not come in the clouds of heaven till I am eighty-five years old....54

Thus, Mr. Farkas' own reference makes it clear that Joseph Smith did not view his revelation as a prophecy of the time of the second coming.  Mr. Farkas continues Joseph's remarks:

...After two days, etc., -- 2520 years; which brings it to 1890. The coming of the Son of Man never will be --never can be till the judgements spoken of for this hour are poured out: which judgements are commenced. Paul says, 'Ye are the children of the light, and not of the darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief in the night.'  It is not the design of the Almighty to come upon the earth and crush it and grind it to powder, but he will reveal it to His servants the prophets.55

Joseph's "...which brings it to 1890" does not magically turn his negative statement that Christ would not come until he was eighty-five years old into a prophecy of the time of the second coming.  The prophecy was not that the second coming would be by 1891, but that the second coming would not occur until Joseph was eighty-five years old.  Since Joseph had just finished saying that he did not know whether Christ would come or he would go where Christ was, this prophecy can only mean that Christ would not come before the end of 1890.56  After that, who knows?  At best the prophecy was conditional upon Joseph's living to be eighty-five.  Since the condition was not met, Joseph's fifty-six year statements do not brand him a false prophet.

Conclusion

What are we left with as evidence that Joseph Smith falsely prophesied that the second coming of Christ would be in fifty-six years, or in 1891?  Not much.  We have the account of the Feb. 14, 1835 meeting, where the prophecy supposedly was uttered.  Unfortunately for false prophecy hunters, this account contains no such prophecy.  This fact explains why instead of quoting an actual prophecy, Decker and Hunt provide only a footnote to a reference that the average reader of their book is not likely to be able to check.

Joseph Smith himself stated that he didn't know what to make of the Lord's revelation about the second coming, which hardly constitutes a prophecy, false or otherwise.  Huntington's evidence is hearsay, and forty-year-old hearsay at that.  Thatcher provides no evidence, though Decker and Hunt try hard to use it as such.  Since Johnson says nothing about a prophecy, his statement about what some LDS leaders may have taught is worthless as corroboration that Joseph Smith made such a prophecy without the support of Huntington and Thatcher, who provide no support.  Blessings of those who fell away from the church are no evidence, since these people didn't fulfill the necessary condition of faithfulness.  Considering the LDS view of the condition of John the Revelator and the Three Nephites, statements that someone would not taste death until the Savior came are not evidence of false prophecy.  Oliver B. Huntington's discussion of the Phelps' "never taste death" blessings is evidence that other interpretations of such blessings besides that the blessee will not die are, in at least some cases, reasonable.

Finally, it is readily explained why many LDS believed that Joseph Smith prophesied the second coming in 1891, when in fact he did not.  Some of those who were present at the Feb. 14, 1835 meeting either didn't listen carefully, or following the false notion that everything uttered by a prophet is prophecy, took as such Joseph Smith's expression of his personal opinion that fifty-six years should wind things up, with the Lord possibly making his appearance in 1891.  They passed this view on to others, and the rumor spread.  Joseph Smith's own explanations in 1843 and 1844 of the ambiguous nature of what the Lord had told him were ignored by most.

Joseph said that the second coming would not come before 1891.  He also said it would not come until he was 85 years old. In addition, he said that if he lived until he was eighty-five years old, Christ would make His appearance.  Finally, Joseph even left it open as to whether or not this possible appearance would be the second coming.  The most that Joseph Smith can be said to have prophesied concerning the second coming is that it would not come before 1891, which prophecy was fulfilled.

The first century Christians also believed the second coming was imminent,57 and had to be reminded that it was not going to be soon.58  In the absence of an explicit prophecy, and given Joseph Smith's own statements about the ambiguous nature of the fifty-six years revelation, early LDS expectations of an impending second coming have no bearing on Smith's status as a prophet.  Anti-Mormons, and Christian Fundamentalists in general, insist upon letting the Bible speak for and interpret itself, but they refuse to let Joseph Smith speak for and interpret himself.

If one looks at all the available evidence, it is easy to see that Joseph Smith never prophesied a time of the second coming.  It is also easy to understand how rumors that he did utter such a prophecy would arise and spread.  However, accounts and records of Joseph's sermons which were made at the time he preached them are infinitely better evidence than dim second-hand accounts of his sermons that were recorded forty to seventy years later.59


NOTES


1.  B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Second Edition, Revised (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1967) V: 265.  This work is generally known and referred to as the History of the Church.

2.  Sometimes it is obvious when a prophet is acting as a prophet.  "Thus saith the Lord...," "I prophesy in the name of the Lord...," or some similar phrase, are pretty good indications that he is acting as a prophet.  Without some such statement it is not clear whether he is speaking for God or expressing his own views.  That is why discernment by the spirit is so necessary.

After reading the first version of this paper, anti-Mormon writer John Farkas, of Berean Christian Ministries, objected to this view as follows:

"While I can understand the concept expressed here by Mr. Jacobs, I reject a claim that 'personal opinion' can be given at an official Mormon Church meeting."

This raises the question of just what, for the purpose of deciding whether something expressed is a personal opinion, constitutes an "official Mormon Church meeting."  In Mr. Farkas' view are "official" meetings limited to General Conferences?  All sessions or only some?  Is a ward Sacrament Meeting an "official Mormon Church meeting?"  How about a regularly scheduled and officially sponsored Mormon youth meeting, that begins and ends with prayer?  If these are not "official Mormon Church meetings," what are they?

What if the person speaking in whatever Mr. Farkas considers to be an "official Mormon Church meeting" specifically expresses his view as an opinion?  Two examples of just such expressions are discussed in this paper.  By what authority or accepted principle does Mr. Farkas correct these speakers that their explicitly stated opinions are not really opinions at all, but prophetic utterances that all LDS are obliged to regard as such?  Would Mr. Farkas accept the view that, because something was said by a pastor of whatever church he attends, that, despite being expressed as an opinion, the members of that church are bound to regard the saying as doctrinally or administratively binding on the members of that congregation?

Mr. Farkas' view is anything but reasonable.  However, his opinion doesn't really matter here.  As far as the LDS are concerned, as first enunciated by Joseph Smith, a prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such, and not everything said by a prophet is to be considered prophecy, even if it is said in an "official" LDS church meeting.  This does not mean that the prophet's words should be ignored.  Everything the prophet says regarding the Lord's work is important, whether stated in official meetings or not.  Mr. Farkas's e-mail supplied a number of statements of LDS leaders about the importance of the prophet's words, and how we are to follow them.  In every case Mr. Farkas supplies, however, the words in question express things that the church members are to do.  He provides not a single example concerning doctrinal teachings, or any examples that could be said to properly apply to explicitly stated opinions.  There is a rather large difference between sayings that are important in one way or another, and sayings that are actual prophecy.

Mr. Farkas notes that I did not supply a reference for the view that prophets can express personal opinions in "official Mormon Church" meetings.  References should not be necessary for things that are self-evident.  When a speaker states something as an opinion, there is no obligation for a hearer to take it as anything else.  For Mr. Farkas' and those of a similar mind's edification, here are two references concerning the necessity for discernment of the spirit on the part of the hearer of the prophet's words:

Joseph Smith noted that "a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such" (TPJS, p. 278), and Brigham Young taught that the responsibility of discernment lies with individual members of the Church (JD 9:150).  When Nephi's brothers wanted to know the truth of his prophecies, he told them that the Lord says, "If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you" (1 Ne. 15:11).  These modes of evaluating a prophet's teachings are still valid.  Jesus promised his disciples, "When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth…and he will shew you things to come" (John 16:13).  These prophetic gifts of the Holy Ghost have been restored and are available to all worthy individuals.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (1 Cor. 12:3). Indeed, the spirit of prophecy was, and is, "the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 19:10).  Moroni promised all who will believe and partake of the spiritual gifts available that the truthfulness of spiritual things can be ascertained through serious intent, study, reflection, and prayer:  "And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things" (Moro. 10:3-5; 1 Ne. 10:17-19; Moro. 7:12-18; D&C 9).  The validity and value of prophetic teachings, past and present, may thus be known.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.3, PROPHECY (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1992)

Nor is it enough for the ministry to be inspired of God, the lay members of the church no less than the ministry have a right to it--to the people as well as to the priests is the Holy Ghost promised; and the people have need of it as well as the ministry; for "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned." Hence the importance of those who listen being inspired by the same spirit as those who teach.

B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, Vol.1, (Salt Lake City, Utah, The Deseret New Press, 1911): 160

3.  Such is the case with Mr. Farkas, who has put up a site on the World Wide Web to contend for his idea of the Christian faith, which, of course, excludes the LDS.

4.  Ed Decker & Dave Hunt, The God Makers (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1984): 12.

5. The God Makers: 227.

6. See Dean C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith I:  XI-XXXV for a general introduction to the methods used to compile Joseph Smith's history, including accounts of his sermons.

7. This is an extremely important point.  In his critique, Mr. Farkas insists that since God called the meeting, anything that was said or done at that meeting has more than ordinary significance.  Specifically Mr. Farkas says:

Joseph Smith said that the meeting had been called because God had commanded it.  The statements and blessings at this meeting were not made casually over the dinner table.  They were made at a meeting called by God and were made in the name of God.  This is what was said at this meeting:

President Smith then stated that the meeting had been called, because God had commanded it;....and it was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh - even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.  (History of the Church 2:182, i.e. the Lord should arrive by February 16, 1891)

This was not just the casual opinion of Joseph Smith.  He obviously was acting as a prophet of God at an official Mormon Church meeting.

Nobody said that Joseph Smith expressed a casual opinion about the second coming.  Some opinions are educated and well thought out.  However, they are still opinions, and may turn out to be incorrect.  Mr. Farkas' entire discussion is moot for the simple reason that the statements he attributes to Joseph Smith in the Feb. 14, 1835 sermon are not Joseph Smith's statements.  They are not a transcript of the sermon.  They are a short summary of his remarks compiled years later from the diaries and journals of several of those who were present and heard him speak.  Convicting someone of false prophecy on the basis of a non-transcript composite account of a sermon compiled some years after the sermon was preached (the first printed account of the sermon was in 1853) would seem to be a dangerous practice, especially when that account doesn't explicitly say that the statement in question was a prophecy, and when the account uses less-than-definite terminology (should instead of will).

8.  History of the Church II: 182.

9.  Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1966: 76.  The God Makers: 227 and The God Makers: footnotes, chapter 15, note 50.

10.  History of the Church II: 199.  For additional examples of explicit prophesying in meetings see History of the Church II: 309; III: 390; V: 139, 157, 232, 255, 324, 394, 526; VI: 17, 58, 299, 566.

11.  Doctrine and Covenants 130:14-17.  This was recorded by William Clayton on April 2, 1843.

12.  Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980): 172.  Recorded by Willard Richards in Joseph Smith's diary for April 2, 1843.

13.  The Words of Joseph Smith: 179-80.  Recorded by Willard Richards in Joseph Smith's diary for April 6, 1843.

14.  Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff Journal Typescript (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1985), 2: 365-6, March 10, 1844.  See also The Words of Joseph Smith: 332.

15.  The Words of Joseph Smith: 335.  Recorded by Willard Richards in Joseph Smith's diary for March 10, 1844.

16.  The Words of Joseph Smith: 336.  Recorded by Thomas Bullock in his diary.

17.  The Words of Joseph Smith: 336.  Recorded in the John Solomon Fullmer papers.

18.  Anti-Mormon writers often refer to this document as a diary or journal, implying that the events and statements therein were recorded on a regular basis as they happened.  However, it is actually an autobiography written years after many of the events occurred.

19.  Oliver B. Huntington, Autobiography (Typescript, Brigham Young University Special Collections) II: 129.

20.  Susan Easton Black, comp., Membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 1830-1848 (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University), LDS Collectors Library '97 CD-ROM, entry for Oliver Boardman Huntington.  It is unclear what year Huntington was born.  The primary date given is 1823, which would have made Huntington eleven years old at the time of the February 14, 1835 meeting.  However, an alternate year of 1825 is given, which would have made him nine years old at the time of the meeting.  See also Huntington's Autobiography I: 1, LDS Collectors Library '97 CD-ROM. Huntington gives his birth year as 1823.

21.  Hyrum L. Andrus, comp., Mormon Manuscripts to 1848, A Guide to the Holdings of the Harold B. Lee Library (Provo, Utah: Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University: 1977): 81.

22.  See note 5.

23.  The God Makers: 16-17.

24.  Andrew Jenson, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1907), I: 127.

25.  See note 5.

26.  Referred to in The God Makers as footnote 59 for chapter 15.

27.  A search of volumes XLVII, XLVIII, and XLIX of the Millennial Star (1885, 1886, 1887) turned up only one sermon preached by Moses Thatcher, in the Oct. 1885 General Conference.  This sermon is not the sermon quoted from by the anti-Mormons and had nothing to do with the fifty-six years or second coming.  Thanks to Stan Barker for searching these volumes of the Millennial Star for sermons of Moses Thatcher.

28.  Abraham H. Cannon Journal, October 14, 1886.  The sermon was preached at Lewiston, in Cache County, Utah. Cannon apparently wasn't present to hear Thatcher's sermon, for he notes in his journal that this account is from an original in the hands of W. F. Burton.  At the end of the account is the date August 3, 1886, which is probably either the date of the sermon, or the date that Burton wrote the account.  So this account of Thatcher's sermon is at least second-hand.

29.  A hand-written reference to Millennial Star XV:205 appears between the two sentences in Abraham Cannon's journal.  It is not clear whether the entry is Cannon's or Burton's.  This is the source for the idea that Thatcher's sermon appeared in Millennial Star XV: 205.

30.  The sermon deals with Thatcher's belief in the upcoming collapse of the U.S. government and the destruction of the railroads, which would have once again isolated the saints from the rest of the world.  This isolation is what Thatcher considered to be the deliverance of the saints.

31.  Wilford Woodruff Journal 8: 402, August 31, 1886.

32.  Abraham H. Cannon Journal, August 20, 1886, as quoted in Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1985: 68).

33.  The Thatcher Episode: A Concise Statement of the Facts in the Case. Interesting Letters and Documents. A Review of M. thatcher's Claims, Pleas and Admissions. (Salt Lake City, Utah, Deseret News publishing, 1896).  Hereafter referred to as The Thatcher Episode.  I am grateful to Elden Watson for bringing this document to my attention.

34.  The Thatcher Episode: 25.

35.  See note 5.

36.  Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life's Review (Independence, Missouri: Zion's Printing and Publishing Co., 1947): 7, as provided on the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.

37.  My Life's Review: 14-15.

38.  My Life's Review: 19-20.

39.  Dean R. Zimmerman ed., I Knew The Prophets:  An Analysis of the letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1976).  The letter (without Zimmerman's notes) is also available on the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.

40.  Zimmerman, notes 9.9 (p. 22), 9.13 (p. 23), 11.3 (p. 26), 19.19 (p. 31), 26.1 (p. P. 38), 28.19 (p. 41), 42.22 (p. 54). This notation refers to the page and line of the original letter, and the page in Zimmerman where the note occurs.  For example, note 9.9 (p. 22) is a note discussing page 9, line 9 of the original letter, and is found on page 22 of Zimmerman.

41.  Referencing articles that appear on the Internet is difficult, as the actual printed-out number of pages depends on the settings and font size of the browser used, and the article content can change as often as the webmaster uploads a new version.  Rather than citing page numbers as they appear with my particular browser settings, the quotations from the article are referenced to their original sources.  This discussion reflects the contents of the Berean Christian Ministries website article THE SECOND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST - WHEN? as of July 11, 1997.

42.  Not every item Mr. Farkas brings up is discussed here.  Mr. Farkas' chart showing how many statements were made using second-coming phraseology is irrelevant.  Other than helping to explain Joseph Smith's comments concerning Millerite expectations, Millerite views on the second coming are also irrelevant.  We readily acknowledge that Joseph Smith and many, if not most of the LDS of the last century thought that the second coming was imminent, and would probably occur by 1891. The issue is not what Joseph Smith or anyone else believed, but whether Joseph Smith prophesied when the second coming was to occur.  He didn't.

43.  The following statements are typical:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

Doctrine and Covenants 130: 20-21.  Hereafter referred to as the D&C.  See also HC V:323-324.  This was one of a number of items of instruction that Joseph Smith gave to the church on 2 April 1843.

I shall not address you on doctrine but concerning your temporal welfare inasmuch as you have come up here assaying to keep the Commandments of God I pronounce the blessings of heaven & earth upon you. & inasmuch as [you] will follow counsel & act wisely & do right these blessings shall rest upon you so far as I have power of with God to seal them upon you I am your servant.

Joseph Smith Diary, 13 April 1843.  Recorded by Willard. Richards. See The Words of Joseph Smith: 190.

Every blessing the Lord proffers to his people is on conditions.  These conditions are: "Obey my law, keep my commandments, walk in my ordinances, observe my statutes, love mercy, preserve the law that I have given to you inviolate, keep yourselves pure in the law, and then you are entitled to these blessings, and not until then."

Brigham Young, August 31, 1873.  Journal of Discourses 16:162.

But I want to tell you that there would be very few Patriarchal blessings unfulfilled, if those who received them would remember that no blessing can be vouchsafed unto the children of men, excepting through their faithfulness in keeping the commandments of God.

John W. Taylor, Conference Report, October 1900: 32

...here is a truth that should be always present and clear to the minds of the Latter-day Saints: that the blessings which are promised them, whether it be in holy ordinances or in the words of the servants of God, or in the revelations direct from the Most High, they are all predicated upon this great thing; that we shall do the things which are commanded.

Charles W. Penrose, Conference Report, April 1924: 12

But all of these blessings are contingent upon this mandate given to us in the 107th Section and the 99th verse of the Doctrine & Covenants: "Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence."

Joseph L. Wirthlin, Conference Report, October 1952: 83

All these blessings are contingent upon remembering the sayings and walking in obedience.

Spencer W. Kimball, October 1973 conference, The Church News, Conference Issues 1970-1987: 15

All of these sources are found on the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.

In his critique, Mr. Farkas chastised me for not having references dated before the year 1900.  This revision contains three earlier references, two of which go back to Joseph Smith in 1843.  Mr. Farkas tries to discount one of these, D&C 130, by stating:

This alleged revelation was received April 2, 1843.  Does it apply to the blessings given to apostles in 1835.  I don't see how it can be.  Because of the date this revelation was given, Joseph Smith must not have been aware of it when the blessings were given, hence he must not have had in mind any contingent action on the part of the recipients.

Mr. Farkas is not a careful researcher.  He states that D&C 130 is a revelation received April 2, 1843.  Both the D&C and the HC refer to this section not as a revelation received on April 2, 1843, but as items of instruction that Joseph Smith gave to the LDS people on April 2, 1843.  Joseph Smith obviously had received these principles before he gave them to the LDS people. Verses 14-17 go back to at least Feb. 14, 1835, because these verses describe the revelation that formed the basis for the Feb. 14, 1835 expression that fifty-six years should wind up the scene.  In addition, verse 12 specifically dates the information in verses 11-12 to 1832.  These two examples show that at least some of the items expounded to the LDS people in 1843, and recorded in D&C 130, were received many years earlier.  There is no reason to believe otherwise for the information contained in verses 20-21.

44.  Mr. Farkas' source for this statement is the Martha Thomas autobiography, in Daniel Thomas Family History, 1927, pages 32-33, as provided in the 1992 LDS Historical Library.  See also the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.

45.  Again Mr. Farkas' carelessness is demonstrated.

46.  G. Homer Durham, ed. Discourses of Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City Utah: Bookcraft Inc. 1969): 95 as provided on the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.  These comments were part of a sermon delivered on September 5, 1869, at the funeral of Apostle Ezra T. Benson.

47.  Mr. Farkas seems to be unaware that the designation "prophetic opinion" is that of the editor of the Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, and not an official position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Or perhaps he felt that if the Mormon editor regarded Woodruff's statement as "prophetic opinion," then all Mormons must also regard it as such.  In any case, he milks the editorial comment "prophetic" as hard as he can to convince his readers that there really is something prophetic about President Woodruff's opinion.

48.  Discourses of Wilford Woodruff: 255, quoting the Millennial Star 51: 595-596.

49.  Oliver B. Huntington, History of the Life of Oliver B. Huntington Written by Himself, 1878-1900: 9.  Copy of Typescript in possession of author.  This statement was written in either 1880 or 1881, as a reference to 1879 appears on page eight, and an entry written Dec. 24, 1881 appears on page eleven.  Huntington's views thus were expressed long before anti-Mormons were making an issue of the so-called fifty-six year prophecy, and so is not simply a rationalization created to deal with an anti-Mormon objection.

50.  Luman Shirtluff, Autobiography, Typescript (Provo Utah: Brigham Young University Library Special Collections): 44, as provided on the LDS Collector's Library '97 CD-ROM.

51.  Shirtluff, Autobiography: 10 where he states that it has been forty-four years after an event that occurred in 1828.

52.  History of the Church V: 336.

53.  More evidence of sloppy research on Mr. Farkas' part.

54.  History of the Church V: 336.

55.  History of the Church V: 336-337.

56.  For additional discussion of this point, along with other interesting ideas, See Richard L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith and the Millenarian Time Table," BYU Studies 3/3-4 (spring-summer 1961):55-66.  This article is available from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies as FARMS Reprint AND-97a.

57.  Matthew 24:34.

58.  2 Thessalonians 2:1-3.

59.  Concerning Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, all but one piece of evidence presented in this paper were available before The God Makers was written.  That one piece is the Autumn 1985 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (see note 28). Even in this case the original source, the Abraham H. Cannon Journal, was available.  While some of the sources used in this paper are now on a CD-ROM that was not available when Decker and Hunt wrote their book, those sources were available and had been used by anti-Mormons for years prior to the writing of The God Makers.  In fact, the entire chain of evidence used by Decker and Hunt can be found in more detail (along with lesser-value not-taste-of-death evidence) in Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, Fifth Edition (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987): 187. Although the fifth edition was published in 1987, this particular page is identical to that in the previous editions and so was available to Decker and Hunt.  Upon comparing the evidence in The God Makers and Shadow or Reality, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that they did no primary source research on the fifty-six year prophecy, but merely cribbed from the Tanners without giving them credit.