The Signs of the Times

By: J. Stapley - August 23, 2005

Signs of the Times, by Joseph Fielding SmithIn between October 14, 1942 and November 18, 1942, Joseph Fielding Smith gave a series of six talks sponsored by the Sisters of the Lion House Social Center. Only the first discourse was delivered at the Lion house. Attendance was so great that the subsequent events were held at Barratt Hall. In response to popular demand, Elder Smith supplemented his notes and published them with Press of Zion Printing Co. as The Signs of the Times.

The book is a gem and deserves an investigation by any serious scholar of Mormon eschatology. The remarks of this post will focus on Mormon beliefs concerning the restoration of the Jews to Palestine.

The Signs of the Times is important on many fronts. It stands at the prologue of the Modern Era. The British Empire has primed Jewish Zionism with its 1917 declaration and Jews have settled several Hebrew speaking communities in Palestine. World War II is raging.

While Zionism had captured the prophetic strain of Mormons early in its development (1), Joseph Fielding Smith represents a marked shift from 19th century conceptions of the Jewish Restoration. In Lesson Three, Restoration of Israel and Judah (pg. 45), Elder Smith focuses onymously on the issue. At the beginning of the discussion, Smith cites 2 Nephi 30:7 and 2 Nephi 10:5-7:

5 But behold, thus saith the Lord God: When the day cometh that they (that is the Jews) shall believe in Me, that I am Christ, then have I covenanted with their fathers that they shall be restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance.

6 And it shall come to pass that they shall be gathered in from their long dispersion, from the isles of the sea, and from the four parts of the earth; and the nations of the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of Me, saith God, in carrying them forth to the lands of their inheritance.

7 Yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them, and their queens shall become nursing mothers; wherefore, the promises of the Lord are great unto the Gentiles, for he hath spoken it, and who can dispute?

19th century belief was stoked by modern revelation and typified by authorities such as Wilford Woodruff and the Pratt brothers who taught that Mormon missionaries would eventually cease to teach gentiles and deliver the Gospel expressly to the Jews (2). This was perhaps first instructed by Joseph Smith to the twelve just after their 1835 organization (3). This view was prominent enough to be included in the 1902 official publications of the Church (4). While I submit that his analysis of Wilford Woodruff is inconsistent with recorded discourses, Arnold H Green argues in BYU Studies (Jews in LDS Thought (1994) vol. 34) that there were three different views of Jewish conversion in the 19th century:

Reading their newly revealed scriptures in light of such developments, nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints articulated three main and enduring theological positions regarding the Jews’ status. All three positions included the ideas of judgment, lineage, and return: Orson Hyde and Wilford Woodruff saw the promises made to the lineage triggering a return which would lead to conversion. Parley and Orson Pratt urged Christianization as necessary for removing the judgment on the Jewish lineage and thus permitting the Jews’ return. And Brigham Young disassociated return from the removal of judgment on lineage and from conversion. Instead, he associated conversion with the Second Coming.

In the his address, Joseph Fielding Smith states that the verses in Nephi are definitive; however, he asserts that Reform Judaism’s tolerance of Jesus as a great Rabbi is a requisite fulfillment of the Book of Mormon passages. He quotes extensively from Jewish authors that view Jesus as a Rabbi and concludes with a summation entitled “Nephi’s Prophecy Fulfilled.” Smith then recounts the gathering of Jews to Palestine in the early 20th century as the literal gathering of Israel in fulfillment of ancient and modern prophecy.

While a plurality of views existed up to the 1940’s, it seems that by the later portion of that decade the view that Jews would not be restored to the gospel in mortality became preeminent, with Elder McConkie taking the most extreme position.


  1. The Jew, His Past, Present and Future Improvement Era (1904) vol. 7
  2. D&C 107:33; D&C 133:8; JD 7:187; JD 18: 65; JD 18:220-221; Millennial Star 14 (September 18, 1852), pg. 468.
  3. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 2 pg. 200:

    They are the Twelve Apostles, who are called to the office of the Traveling High Council, who are to preside over the churches of the Saints, among the Gentiles, where there is a presidency established; and they are to travel and preach among the Gentiles, until the Lord shall command them to go to the Jews.

  4. Questions and Answers, (1902) Improvement Era vol. 5


  1. Nothing substantive to say other than….

    …J, your site is breathtakingly beautiful to look at.

    Comment by Ronan — 8/24/2005 @ 7:30 am

  2. Yes, J., it’s talented guys like you that keep bloggers like me forever tinkering with our templates, mumbling things like, “Darnit, why can’t I make my site look as good as his site?”

    WWII caused a lot of religious thinking. I’m halfway through (well, stalled in the middle of) CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, another such booklet written during the war, and also itself a series of radio lectures that were later developed into a book. The theme was general belief in the Christian God (which never comes easy in modern Europe, especially during times of general slaughter) rather than eschatology.

    Comment by Dave — 8/24/2005 @ 9:51 am

  3. Thank you very much, gentlemen. Who cares about content anyway 🙂

    Dave, I didn’t know about Mere Christianity‘s history (haven’t read it, though I should). That would be an interesting study – a look at general religous discourse durring the war…

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/24/2005 @ 11:18 am

  4. All these factoids about differing and changing beliefs and prophesies about the specific events surrounding the last days and the Second Coming serve to deepen my belief in the contingent and unknowable state of the future. I am increasingly convinced that God is not making things happen, nor does he specifically and exhaustively know what we free agents will do. Rather, he has a general plot in mind for the planet (based on all the others that have gone before) and that we are generally following that plot — albeit in our own unique way. While God may not foreknow every choice of free beings, he is prepared for each.

    This hearkens again back to our discussion of the possible contingent timing of the Second Coming.

    Comment by Geoff J — 8/24/2005 @ 12:50 pm

  5. I may be missing the obvious (in which case, please correct me), but by what calculus does Joseph Fielding Smith equate Reform Judaism’s “accepting Jesus as a great Rabbi” to Nephi’s claim (speaking Messianically) that the Jews will accept “that [Jesus is] Christ”?

    Am I undervaluing the prominence of “great Rabbi”?

    Comment by Justin H — 8/24/2005 @ 1:56 pm

  6. Justin H., I would agree. Smith introduces the topic with:

    I wish to say something now about the Jews and see if they are beginning to believe in Christ or not, and if they are now commencing to gather to their promised land in fulfillment of these predictions.

    He then gives several pages of quotes on how Jesus was a great Rabbi. He then concludes with:

    This shows the changed feelings of the Jews today, and we see that Nephi’s prophecy is being fulfilled.

    I think that it is a huge (and unsupportable) stretch to consider Reformed Judaism a fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy. I think that there was such a fervent belief that the contemporary return of Jews to Palestine was a fulfillment of prophecy that they had to address Nephi’s prediction and this was the best possibility.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/24/2005 @ 2:15 pm

  7. I think JFS’ claim is problematic. Reform Jews liberalize things too much to fit the BoM claims. Perhaps Messianic Jews, although that movement hadn’t really got going solidly in his lifetime.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/24/2005 @ 2:52 pm

  8. I asked a Palestinian Mormon friend whether the Jews’ return to Palestine was a fulfillment of BoM prophecy. She said, “No, because they haven’t accepted Christ yet.” For her, Zionism is not the “return of the Jews” her religion (Mormonism) looks forward too. An interesting, if predictable perspective.

    Comment by Ronan — 8/24/2005 @ 3:24 pm

  9. I was about to say that I really like how you did your footnotes. Any chance you could put together a bibliography plugin? 🙂

    Ronan, if you’re talking about Sahar, I have wished she’d participate in the blogs a bit. She’s great.

    I’m going to have to re-read this post now. I’ve gotten too distracted to write properly.

    Comment by danithew — 8/24/2005 @ 3:51 pm

  10. Yeah, Sahar.

    Comment by Ronan — 8/24/2005 @ 3:59 pm

  11. Just out of curiosity, do you think Hyde’s priesthood roll in the gathering ought affect how we judge his judgments on the meaning of the gathering?

    Too bad that paper isn’t available online.

    (BTW – is it just me or is BYU Studies’ web site amazingly slow?)

    There is one from a prior year available online though:

    Jews in LDS Thought

    The author there notes that even within the Book of Mormon there are three views of the conversion. The first, invoked by some of the scriptures you quoted at BCC, is that the conversion takes place first. The second, following 3Ne 20:29-30, “imply a sequence of return followed by a delayed conversion and final inheritance.” The last one comes from 2 Ne 30:7-8 and is a return triggered by the Jews “beginning to believe in Christ.”

    He mentions some of the other issues, such as the rise of Reform Judaism as well.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/24/2005 @ 4:09 pm

  12. Clark,

    I haven’t done enough investigating to know for sure, but it seems to me that those scriptural passages which refer to the Jew’s return to their homeland generally speak of such as being contigent upon their conversion–variations in sequence notwithstanding. While on the other hand, those passages that we look to as evidence of a much later conversion seem to be found in contexts having to do with something other than the Jew’s return per se (such as the two witnesses or the Lord’s appearance on the Mt. of Olives, etc).

    Perhaps upon further study I’ll learn that such a dichotomy doesn’t really exist, but I get the feeling that it does–even if only to a mild degree.

    The point I’m getting at is that perhaps the difference between the two boils down to one being more literal while the other is more eschatological.

    Comment by Jack — 8/24/2005 @ 4:50 pm

  13. Interesting question, Clark. I think that as palestine has been dedicated 7(?) times in this dispensation there is a lessening of the particular focus on Hyde. It is noteable that while there he did try to convert some people. But maybe.

    I’m not sure what paper you are refering to. The one you link to is the paper I cite in the post. BYU Studies does have all their stuff online here if there is another paper that would shed some light on this.

    Jack, now it is my turn. I don’t know what you are meaning by eschatological.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/24/2005 @ 4:57 pm

  14. I must have been confused. There were three papers on the topic from around the same period. Only one was available as a PDF.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/24/2005 @ 5:24 pm

  15. Interestingly, there are two gateways for BYU Studies PDFs, one only has some available the other has them all. It is a little unwieldy because you have to scroll to the bottom of the menu and select “printer version” or something like that. Oh, and yes, their server is on the blink.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/24/2005 @ 5:30 pm

  16. J.,

    Wasn’t it Clark who asked you that over at BCC?

    I’m not sure, but it seems like those passages that are clear about the Jew’s conversion along with their return have to do more with the Lord fulfilling his covenants respectively to the various remnants of Israel than with painting a general picture of the winding up scene–though the fulfillment of the covenants is certainly part of the winding up, or “eschatological” scene.

    Comment by Jack — 8/24/2005 @ 5:54 pm

  17. Indeed it was; I was smiling as I typed. I was interested in your distinction between literal and eschatalogical. Thanks for the explanation. 🙂

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/24/2005 @ 6:01 pm

  18. The problem is that the term eschatological just means “end times” so both narratives are eschatological. Thus my confusion.

    However I’m open to visions of end times not necessarily being picky about time and order. Just compare some of the visions in the D&C with Revelation.

    My point over at BCC is that the actions of the prophets in defending Jerusalem and Israel and the Jews from their enemies despite apparently not being converted yet might be a sign for how we act towards Israel. (Not to necessarily bring that debate here)

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/24/2005 @ 6:41 pm

  19. Just to add that I tend to get nervous when people start interpreting any prophecy too narrowly. Even without taking Blake Ostler’s view of limited foreknowledge and thus fallibility, there is the issue that the prophecies are pretty vague. They sound clear in reverse – look at the prophecies for Christ’s first appearance. But when you stop and think about it most are pretty darn ambiguous.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/24/2005 @ 6:42 pm

  20. “The problem is that the term eschatological just means “end times” so both narratives are eschatological.”

    Is that all the word means? Maybe, technically speaking. But I think (or thought) it’s fuller meaning has to do with how the entire history of the world culminates in the “end times”. Thus, something like the latter chapters in the Book of Moses are escatological in nature because of how they give (somewhat of) an overview of important events which culminate in the Lord’s final return and the earth entering into its rest.

    IMO, the Book of Mormon usually doesn’t go quite that far. Most of the time it is concerned with prophetic fulfillment that has to do with promises made to those specific people, or that specific branch of Israel–albeit, the prophecies are sometimes set in a larger context having to do with the whole of Israel. But the focus is generally on the promises made to the seed of Lehi.

    So why is it that the Book of Mormon–more than other records–speaks of the Jew’s conversion being concurrent with their return? Why the difference? I’m not really sure, but one thing that comes to mind is that while the BoM speaks much of lineage it also has a strong theme of “inclusion” that (imo) is calculated to work against the House of Israel’s pride because of their fix on lineage. Perhaps the BoM prophets were concerned that their people (as well as any other branch of Israel who might get their hands on their records) understand clearly that their restoration is predicated upon their belief in Christ and NOT their lineage. Thus the BoM, when speaking of prophecies, is more concerned with converting people to Christ than with affirming the primacy of lineage because of the fulfillment of promises made to faithful ancestors. I think for that reason it comes across less (there’s that BIG word again) “escatological” to me.

    So as it relates to the Israelis–either a) this gathering is not THE gathering, or b) the only reason there has been any gathering is because some have, in fact, believed in Christ.

    Comment by Jack — 8/24/2005 @ 10:27 pm

  21. That’s “eschatological” with an “h”. Wow, that’s the biggest word I know–except for supercali, er, supercalifra, er, superca–whatever the infernal thing is.

    Comment by Jack — 8/24/2005 @ 10:30 pm

  22. Well I didn’t mean my definition to be exclusive. (It was afterall only a single sentence) But even with deeper meanings, I don’t see how that resolves things.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/25/2005 @ 1:02 am

  23. Clark,

    Sorry if my comment came across as a challenge. That wasn’t my intent. I think you’re probably right that my “definition” doesn’t really help to resolve anything. Still I wonder, why the conflicting themes between the prophecies–given that the texts are accurate?

    Comment by Jack — 8/25/2005 @ 12:40 pm

  24. Orson Pratt resolved it by saying that a good amount of Jews would convert, but not the majority and so the other prophices refer to the unconverted portion.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/25/2005 @ 12:45 pm

  25. Oh, I didn’t take it as a challenge. (There’s that pesky problem of the internet – tone gets obscured) Rather I think that regardless of what sense of end time or eschatology one invokes, I don’t see how it explains the contradictions on these points.

    As for the texts being accurate, one must ask what that means? Can we separate out the question of accuracy without first establishing their purpose and aim?

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/25/2005 @ 3:34 pm

  26. “As for the texts being accurate, one must ask what that means? Can we separate out the question of accuracy without first establishing their purpose and aim?”

    You’re right. I certainly wouldn’t try to determine their accuracy by measuring them against each other. My mentioning “accuracy” was only a rhetorical way of saying that the differences probably don’t have to do with inaccuracy.

    As far as “establishing their purpose and aim” goes, I think that’s what I was trying to do–or at least trying to point out some differences in purpose and aim. That’s why I think a text like John’s Revelation which is (imo) more eschatological in nature than the BoM (generally) will probably focus less on the impetus behind the Jew’s return and more on the events themselves which lead to the finishing of God’s work.

    Comment by Jack — 8/25/2005 @ 5:35 pm

  27. Interesting as I tend to read the relevant passages from Nephi as being the same vision as John had. And we just have only fragmentary parts of Nephi’s vision and a distorted and perhaps corrupt version of John’s vision.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 8/28/2005 @ 12:06 am

  28. I agree, Clark.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 8/28/2005 @ 9:49 am

  29. I share the same notion. Though, one has to wonder at the striking differences between the two. The symbology (mostly derived from the ancient temple) in the Book of Revelation is (literally) out of this world–and I don’t think it has only to do with the idea that John’s portion of the vision touches more on elements which are “other worldly” than that which is found in the BoM. There are references made to specific people in specific times and places on the earth that are just as symbolic in nature as those dealing with the “heavens”.

    Comment by Jack — 8/29/2005 @ 6:03 pm

  30. I don’t mean to intrude or anything, but my dad has this book,”The signs of the times” and I am reading it.
    In the 8th discussion, “The great and dreadful day of the lord”, near the end Smith discourses on the zionist movement. He refers to a man by the name of Arthur Michelson, who wrote “The Jewish Hope” published in LA i think.
    Now I have been scanning the internet trying to find it. Does anyone have any idea of where i could find the article?

    Comment by Stephen — 6/4/2006 @ 3:46 pm

  31. Stephen, that is an interesting thing. The full citation is The Jewish Hope, Vol. 22, Issue No. 9, September, 1950. The Jewish Hope was a Jewish publishing house in LA and Michelson was the editor. I couldn’t find any archives, but I will see what I can do.

    Interesintingly the orignal book stopped at discussion 7.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 6/4/2006 @ 5:23 pm

  32. OK, I found out a little bit more. The full title is the Jewish Hope Publishing House. It seems as if Mr. Michelson was a Christian Jew and used his publications as a means of evangelizing.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 6/4/2006 @ 9:41 pm

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