Joseph Smith and the Gospel Dispensation
These few thoughts on the phenomenon of the “gospel dispensation” have been drawn in part from the writings of Elder Bruce R. McConkie (“This Generation Shall Have My Word Through You” in Sperry Symposium Classics, The Doctrine and Covenants, 36-37). We all know that salvation comes only in and through the Savior. He is the “Firstborn of the Father”—that is he was the first spirit born to our heavenly Parents in the premortal world. Of all the intelligences, he was most like unto God. He became, under the direction and authority of the Father, the Creator of all things. We look to him. Our faith centers in him, and in the Father through him.
Second to Christ stands Michael, who led the armies and hosts of heaven during the rebellion and war in premortality. He, being foreordained so to do, came to earth as the first man of all men. He became the presiding high priest over all the earth. The next person in this hierarchy is Gabriel, who came into this life as Noah. After that, we have insufficient information about the order of priority. The Doctrine and Covenants does make mention of the angel Raphael (D&C 128:19-21) who appeared to Joseph Smith to declare his dispensation and to present his priesthood keys. Elder Bruce R. McConkie supposed that Raphael is Enoch (Ensign, April 1980, 23), and it has even been speculated that he brought to Joseph the keys of resurrection. Next in the line of priesthood priority come other men singled out from among the hosts of heaven who were foreordained to be the heads of dispensations.
Dispensations are those periods of time when the plan of salvation, the eternal word of God is “dispensed” to men on earth. How many there have been we do not know. Perhaps there have been ten. But maybe there have been twenty or even more. These do not include those periods of time sometimes referred to as dispensations in the sense that John the Baptist and Paul and some of the other prophets had special appointments. Rather the gospel dispensations are great eras or periods of the earth’s history when the Lord, through one man, gives his word to the whole world and makes all the prophets, apostles, seers, and administrators of that period subject to, and testifiers of what came through that one individual. Elder McConkie refers to these other prophets as “supplemental prophets to echo the message and proclaim the truth and get as much into the hearts of men as they are able to receive.” This means that the head of a gospel dispensation stands as one of the ten or twenty greatest spirits who have so far been born on earth.
It seems likely that the Lord has singled out certain men, who had special spiritual qualifications and capabilities in the premortal world, to come to earth in periods of turmoil, wickedness, rebellion, and evil, to be lights and guides to the world. This gives us a little perspective of what was involved in the life, status, and calling of the prophet Joseph Smith.
We may thus summarize this earth’s priesthood line of authority. The Lord Jesus Christ presides. Then follow Adam and Noah. Thereafter, the dispensation heads. Each of these is the primary revealer of Christ for his day. Under the dispensation leader comes the other prophets, apostles, and general leaders of the Lord’s kingdom. All these lead the elders of Israel—the wise, good, and sagacious men who have the spirit of light and understanding.
Each and every prophet is a special witness of Christ. Every prophet or apostle who is not head of a dispensation is a reflection, an echo, an advocate, and a supporter of the dispensation leader.
As we view the prophet Joseph in this perspective, we stand in awe of him. He was selected by the Lord to lead perhaps one of the very most challenging dispensations. This great and final dispensation that will never end or be taken away until the Lord’s second coming in glory.
In our dispensation, Joseph Smith has given three great truths to the world that, it might be argued, take precedence over all things restored during this final dispensation. They have more of an influence on the salvation of men than any others, and without the knowledge of them, men cannot be saved.
- The first great truth is the true nature of God and the Godhead. A knowledge of God is the greatest truth in all eternity. God is an eternal Man. He has a body of flesh and bone. We are his literal children. We are of his species. We have the capacity to grow to become like him and he expects it of us. But there must needs be an opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2:11), and the opposite of the knowledge of God that has come through Joseph Smith is the greatest heresy in the sectarian world—that God is a spirit nothingness that fills the immensity of space. In truth, Joseph Smith came to reveal God in a period of almost total spiritual darkness, in a day when men no longer knew the nature and kind of being whom they should worship.
- The second great truth is that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of the world. His grace, mercy, and eventual salvation come only to this who obey the laws and ordinances of the everlasting gospel. Having first discovered who God our Father is and how we relate to him, it is then most important to know about Christ and the salvation that is in him. The heresy and perversion of this truth is the common sectarian concept that people are saved by grace or confession alone. “Works” or obedience to the Lord’s commands are of secondary importance.
- The third most important thing in all eternity is to know about the gift of the Holy Ghost, and also to know about the nature and reality of ongoing revelation. The Holy Spirit of God is a revealer or revelator who reveals spiritual truths. He is the justifier and sanctifier who forgives, cleanses, and perfects human souls. It is through him that the gifts of the Spirit are available to the faithful, so that they can have in their lives what apostles and prophets and great men al all ages have had in theirs. The heresy that exists in the sectarian world in this area is that the heavens are sealed, that there is no revelation, that there are no miracles, and that there are no gifts of the Spirit.
- Michael J. Preece