Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Mormonism

Was Joseph Smith truly a prophet of God? Although there are several ways of seeking an answer to this question, an obvious one is to test Joseph Smith’s accuracy in prophecies that were predictive of events to come. If Joseph, speaking in his capacity as a prophet, claimed to say on God’s behalf that something humanly unpredictable was going to happen, and if it did, that would be impressive evidence that he was supernaturally inspired—and would count as evidence that his claim to be a prophet was true. On the other hand, if such predictive prophecies failed to happen as stated, this failure would be evidence against his claim to be a prophet of God.

One of Joseph Smith’s most famous—or notorious—predictive prophecies was a “revelation” that Joseph Smith claimed to receive in 1832 from Jesus Christ concerning the building of a temple in Independence, Missouri. A year earlier, in another revelation spoken there in Independence, Smith had directed the Saints to buy up property in and around a lot near the courthouse in Independence as the future site of the temple:

1 Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.
2 Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.
3 And thus saith the Lord your God, if you will receive wisdom here is wisdom. Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse.
4 Wherefore, it is wisdom that the land should be purchased by the saints, and also every tract lying westward, even unto the line running directly between Jew and Gentile;
5 And also every tract bordering by the prairies, inasmuch as my disciples are enabled to buy lands. Behold, this is wisdom, that they may obtain it for an everlasting inheritance.
6 And let my servant Sidney Gilbert stand in the office to which I have appointed him, to receive moneys, to be an agent unto the church, to buy land in all the regions round about, inasmuch as can be done in righteousness, and as wisdom shall direct. (D&C 57:1-6)

According to this 1831 prophecy, Missouri was “the land of promise” (vv. 1-2); the Mormons’ “city of Zion” was to be in Missouri (v. 2), specifically in Independence (v. 3); and the Mormons’ temple was to be located on a lot near the Independence courthouse (v. 3).

At Kirtland, Ohio, on September 22 and 23, 1832, Smith delivered his infamous temple prophecy:

1 A revelation of Jesus Christ unto his servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders, as they united their hearts and lifted their voices on high.
2 Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the city of New Jerusalem.
3 Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and dedicated by the hand of Joseph Smith, Jun., and others with whom the Lord was well pleased.
4 Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.
5 For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house. (D&C 84:1-5)

In this prophecy, Smith reiterates that Zion was to be a city built in Missouri near its western boundary, at the place where the city of Independence stood at that time (vv. 2-3, cf. D&C 57:1-3). The centerpiece of this Zion would be a temple situated on the lot that Joseph had earlier designated as the site for the temple (vv. 3-4, cf. D&C 57:1-3). According to Smith, this temple was to “be reared in this generation” (v. 4); “this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord” (v. 5).

The apparent meaning of this revelation is that Joseph was predicting that a Mormon temple would be built on the temple lot in Independence, Missouri, before the generation of people living at the time in 1832 had all died.

Unfortunately for the Mormons, they were never able to build this temple. The authorities in Missouri drove the Saints out of the state. In 1841, Joseph Smith delivered another revelation, in which he explained that the Mormons were excused from building the temple in Jackson County, Missouri (the county where Independence was and is the county seat), because their enemies’ opposition there had made it impossible:

49 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.
50 And the iniquity and transgression of my holy laws and commandments I will visit upon the heads of those who hindered my work, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord God.
51 Therefore, for this cause have I accepted the offerings of those whom I commanded to build up a city and a house unto my name, in Jackson county, Missouri, and were hindered by their enemies, saith the Lord your God.
52 And I will answer judgment, wrath, and indignation, wailing, and anguish, and gnashing of teeth upon their heads, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord your God.
53 And this I make an example unto you, for your consolation concerning all those who have been commanded to do a work and have been hindered by the hands of their enemies, and by oppression, saith the Lord your God. (D&C 124:49-53)

Is that it, then? Not really. Joseph’s followers historically have understood his 1832 revelation as a predictive prophecy that a temple would be built on the specified temple lot. Would this not mean, then, that the temple should have been built there within the lifetime of at least some of the people alive in 1832? Ever since it became clear that all of those people had died, Mormons have offered various explanations for the apparent failure of this prophecy. I am going to argue that these explanations do not withstand fair-minded examination.

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 10:42 pm and is filed under Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One comment

Seth R.

This kind of stuff is not without biblical parallels.

Jonah 3:4 – no loopholes in that one. Ninevah will be destroyed. Period. The end.

Didn’t happen.

Ezekiel chapter 26, 27, and 28 the prophet Ezekiel prophesies that Tyre will be conquered and plundered by the Babylonians.

There was a Babylonian siege. But no plunder (Ezek 29:17-20) and the siege was basically unsuccessful ending in a compromise. Almost as if in compensation, God promises Egypt to the Babylonians instead – which is the theme of chapter 29.

Jeremiah prophesies that King Zedekiah would die in peace (Jer 34:4-5). Zedekiah, after watching his sons slaughtered, and having his eyes put out, did indeed die “in peace” in prison.

The prophet Nathan in 2 Sam 7:5-17 unequivocally prophesied to David that through his son Solomon the Davidic empire would be established “forever,” that the children of Israel would dwell in the promised land “and move no more,” and that the “children of wickedness” would no longer afflict them. These things are quite clearly stated. No conditions are attached to these promises, none whatsoever.

Not exactly a big success I guess.

Then in Judges 13:5 an angel promises to Samuel’s mother that Samson would “begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” No matter how liberal or expansive one wants to be with the facts of Israelite history (as recorded in the Bible or elsewhere), there is no way it can reasonably be concluded that Samson fulfilled this prophecy.

Finally, I reject the implied premise here that if a prophet doesn’t “bat 1000” we have to reject him as a prophet. The Old Testament prophets clearly didn’t meet this criteria. You can even argue that Jesus Christ himself didn’t meet this criteria if you want to take a strict view of some of his words about his return.

Final point – the Old Testament paints a picture of a God who responds to what people do. In Jer 18:7-10 God explicitly talks about doing something other than what he earlier declares based on what the people do.

Here’s my thoughts on Joseph’s temple prophesy – I suspect a failed prophesy. I’ve heard the Mormon apologetics about whether this was a prophesy or a directive or what the word “generation” means. And I guess they’re OK. But I tend to lean toward a failed prophesy.

But failed why?

Few options:

1. Joseph goofed

2. God changed his mind

There is scriptural indication of God changing his mind on this one. You’ve already noted D&C 124:49-53. Seems like a good enough explanation to me. But if you want more, other parts of the D&C have God harshly denouncing the people of the Church for the pride, selfishness and rebellion they displayed in Missouri. You could view the failure of the New Jerusalem as basically a parallel to Moses and the children of Israel being sent off to wander 40 more years in the wilderness.

May 14th, 2009 at 6:26 pm

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