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Question: Was Joseph Smith's prophecy that the Independence, Missouri temple "shall be reared in this generation" a failed prophecy?
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Question: Was Joseph Smith's prophecy that the Independence, Missouri temple "shall be reared in this generation" a failed prophecy?
Jesus Christ used the very same terminology in Matthew 24:34: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled"
There is a double standard of interpretation that critics use against Joseph Smith, since Jesus Christ used the very same terminology. Matthew 24:34 quotes Christ as saying, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Luke 21:32 repeats this prophecy. The term "these things" refers to wars, famines, the sun being darkened, and even the "stars falling from heaven." Some of "these things" occurred during Christ's time period. Some have continued since then. Some have escalated into our time. Some have not occurred yet.
So we must ask, since Joseph Smith is charged with false prophecy concerning "this generation," did Jesus Christ utter a false prophecy? Absolutely not! So, if Joseph Smith uttered a false prophecy about "this generation," then so did Christ. It has been many centuries longer from the time of Christ until now, than it has been from the 1830's till today.
The word "generation" has different meanings. According to scripture, the word "generation" can have reference to a time frame, a people, or even a dispensation. Without specific wording which would indicate exactly what the word "generation" means, it is dishonest to accuse one (Joseph Smith) of false prophecy, while accepting another (Jesus Christ) when both use it in a general form.
Joseph Smith's revelation in D&C 84 may appear on the surface to be a failed prophecy, but a more informed reading reveals that it may not have been a prophecy, and if it is, its fulfillment is still in the future.
When the scriptures use words such as "this generation," "a little season," "nigh," "soon to come," "quickly," and "in due time," it can mean several years, or even centuries
The main problem critics have in interpreting D&C 84 is timing. They cannot understand that when the scriptures use words such as "this generation," "a little season," "nigh," "soon to come," "quickly," and "in due time," it can mean several years, or even centuries. They have no problem with accepting a long time when the Bible makes these statements, but they refuse to interpret Joseph Smith with the same standard. To criticize such terminology is to claim the Bible false. The four hundred years of Israel's Egyptian captivity was a "little season" to the Lord. All the scriptural terms of time (nigh, shortly come to pass, at the doors, about to be, soon to be, in due time, not many days, a little season, near, close at hand, time will come, not many years, and generation) are not specific in numbers of years. Most of them are conditional. To say that "next generation" as used in the Bible can mean thousands of years, and turn around and say these very same words mean only a hundred years when used in the Doctrine and Covenants is hypocritical. Scripture comes from one source, God. His prophets write as they are inspired by the Holy Ghost. The Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Bible use the same terms, with the same meaning, because they come from the same source. You cannot interpret one in one way, and another in a different way. When the Lord wants something accomplished, it will be done, in the Lords time.
On 20 July 1831 Joseph Smith recorded a revelation identifying Independence, Missouri, as "the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse" (DC 57:3). Joseph and Sidney Rigdon dedicated a site for the temple on 3 August 1831. The following year, Joseph received another revelation concerning the gathering to Zion:
2 [T]he 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 (DC 84:2-5, (emphasis added)).The Saints were expelled from Jackson County in late 1833, before they could make any progress on the temple. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to return to reclaim their lands. After they settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph recorded another revelation rescinding the earlier commandment to build the Independence temple:
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....
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 (DC 124:49,51).
It is unclear from the wording of the 1832 revelation whether Joseph Smith meant it to be a prophecy or a commandment
When he declared the "temple shall be reared in this generation," it's possible that he meant this as a directive (Compare to the ten commandments: "thou shalt.." and D&C 59:5-13). If this is the case, D&C 84 is not actually a prophecy. Webster's 1828 dictionary noted of "shall":
In the second and third persons [i.e., when applied to another person], shall implies a promise, command or determination. "You shall receive your wages," "he shall receive his wages," imply that you or he ought to receive them; but usage gives these phrases the force of a promise in the person uttering them. 
Thus, "shall" indicates a promise or command—and, LDS theology (with its strong emphasis on moral agency) always holds that man is free to accept or reject the commandments or promises of God, and that God will often not overrule the free-agent acts of others which might prevent his people from obeying. In such cases, God rewards the faithful for their willingness and efforts to obey, and punishes the guilty accordingly.
If the revelation is meant as a prophecy, the timeline for its fulfillment depends on what Joseph meant by "generation"
Typically we consider this to mean the lifespan of those living at the time of the revelation. However, in scriptural language "generation" can indicate a longer period of time.
During his ministry in Jerusalem, Jesus revealed the signs of his second coming, and prophesied that "this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:34). All those who heard his prophecy died nearly 2,000 years ago, so evidently Jesus meant "generation" to mean "age" or some other long period of time. It's possible that Joseph meant the same thing in his revelation about the Independence temple, and therefore the time period for its fulfillment is still open.
In Easton’s Bible Dictionary of 1897, the English word “generation” is variably defined with reference to the KJV text:
Gen. 2:4, "These are the generations," means the "history." 5:1, "The book of the generations," means a family register, or history of Adam. 37:2, "The generations of Jacob" = the history of Jacob and his descendants. 7:1, "In this generation" = in this age. Ps. 49:19, "The generation of his fathers" = the dwelling of his fathers, i.e., the grave. Ps. 73:15, "The generation of thy children" = the contemporary race. Isa. 53:8, "Who shall declare his generation?" = His manner of life who shall declare? or rather = His race, posterity, shall be so numerous that no one shall be able to declare it. In Matt. 1:17, the word means a succession or series of persons from the same stock. Matt. 3:7, "Generation of vipers" = brood of vipers. 24:34, "This generation" = the persons then living contemporary with Christ. 1 Pet. 2:9, "A chosen generation" = a chosen people. The Hebrews seem to have reckoned time by the generation. In the time of Abraham a generation was an hundred years, thus: Gen. 15:16, "In the fourth generation" = in four hundred years (comp. verse 13 and Ex. 12:40). In Deut. 1:35 and 2:14 a generation is a period of thirty-eight years.
So, the nineteenth-century understanding of KJV Biblical/religious usage of "generation" includes such variations as:
- all the descendants of
- succession or series of people from same stock
- race, posterity
- one hundred years
- thirty-eight years
Contemporary with Joseph Smith, Webster's 1828 dictionary defined "generation" as:
...2. A single succession in natural descent, as the children of the same parents; hence, an age. Thus we say, the third, the fourth, or the tenth generation. Gen.15.16. 3. The people of the same period, or living at the same time. O faithless and perverse generation. Luke 9. 4. Genealogy; a series of children or descendants from the same stock. This is the book of the generations of Adam. Gen.5. 5. A family; a race. 6. Progeny; offspring. 
Webster relied heavily on examples drawn from the KJV of the Bible in his definitions. Thus, when those of Joseph's era used Biblical language speaking of "generations," they understood multiple potential meanings. Whether these shades of meaning were intended by the original biblical authors is immaterial; they reflect the usage of religious English in Joseph's day.
Note the double standard of interpretation critics use against Joseph Smith, for Jesus Christ used the very same terminology
Let's look at what Jesus himself said to the people of his day concerning prophecies of His second coming. Matthew 24:34 quotes Christ as saying, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Luke 21:32 repeats this prophecy.
What are "all these things," and have they come to pass?
- Many shall come in Christ's name, deceiving many (Matthew 24:5, Luke 21:8)
- Wars and rumours of wars (Matthew 24:6, Luke 21:9-10)
- Famines (Matthew 24:7, Luke 21:11)
- Pestilences (Mathew 24:7, Luke 21:11)
- Earthquakes (Matthew 24:7, Luke 21:11)
- Apostles killed (Matthew 24:9, Luke 21:16)
- Many shall be offended (Matthew 24:10)
- Many shall be betrayed (Matthew 24:10)
- Men will hate one another (Matthew 24:10)
- False prophets will deceive many (Matthew 24:11)
- Iniquity shall abound (Matthew 24:12)
- Love of many shall wax cold (Matthew 24:12)
- Gospel shall be preached in all the world (Matthew 24:14)
- Distress of nations (Luke 21:25)
- Men's hearts will fail them because of fear (Luke 21:11)
- Sun shall be darkened (Matthew 24:29, Luke 21:25)
- Moon shall not give her light (Matthew 24:29, Luke 21:25)
- Stars shall fall from heaven (Matthew 24:29, Luke 21:25)
- Sign of the Son of man shall appear (Matthew 24:30, Luke 21:27)
Some of "these things" occurred during Christ's time period. Some have continued since then. Some have escalated into our time. Some have not occurred yet. So we must ask, since Joseph Smith is charged with false prophecy concerning "this generation," did Jesus Christ utter a false prophecy? Absolutely not! But, according to the critics' rules of interpretation, he did, because "this generation" passed away without "all these things" being fulfilled. So, if Joseph Smith uttered a false prophecy about "this generation" so did Christ. I have never read anything from anyone who is a critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that attacks Jesus Christ, or the Bible, for making a prophecy of "this generation" which has not yet occurred. Yet it has been many centuries longer from the time of Christ until now, than it has been from the 1830's till today. It should be noted that D&C 84 does not say the "people now living," it says "this generation." The word "generation" has different meanings. According to scripture, the word "generation" can have reference to a time frame, a people, or even a dispensation. Without specific wording which would indicate exactly what the word "generation" means, it is dishonest to accuse one (Joseph Smith) of false prophecy, while accepting another (Jesus Christ) when both use it in a general form.