In addition to being a prophet, Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as the Mormons), was also a small businessman. He oversaw the general store in Nauvoo, Illinois. This was more of a side occupation than a career choice, since Joseph Smith was told in a revelation, “And in temporal labors thou shalt not have strength, for this is not thy calling” (D&C 24:9).

On January 5, 1842, he wrote a letter to Edward Hunter, a collateral ancestor of mine. Part of it reads:

Joseph Smith Mormon“Our assortment [at the Red Brick Store] is tolerably good—very good, considering the different purchases made by different individuals at different times, and under circumstances which controlled their choice to some extent; but I rejoice that we have been enabled to do as well as we have, for the hearts of many of the poor brethren and sisters will be made glad with those comforts which are now within their reach.”

“The store has been filled to overflowing, and I have stood behind the counter all day, dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas and New Year’s dinners, for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, etc., etc.; and to please myself also, for I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.”

(“Chapter 37: Charity, the Pure Love of Christ,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, [2007], 423–34. To read the full letter in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, click here.)

Joseph Smith enjoyed being a businessman. He would have serious issues with the melodramatic depiction of capitalists as oppressors, swindlers, cheats, and so forth. Joseph Smith loved “to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all.”

This is more than a heartwarming cliché about enjoying a career choice. It also shows Joseph Smith’s approach to life. The Servant-Leadership movement began in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf. But Joseph Smith pioneered the same concept one hundred and thirty-five years earlier.

Servant-Leadership is based on humility: Joseph Smith understood that he had to be a servant to everyone. Of course this idea of servanthood goes back to Christ. The moral of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Joseph Smith exemplified this in his business dealings. He was not in it for profit, but to help people:

“I have stood behind the counter all day, dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas and New Year’s dinners, for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, etc.”

So what would it be like to walk into a store and have a prophet (or the president or the pope) clerking for you? Or to go into in a restaurant and see him busing tables? Something like this happened to me a few years ago. My stake president (the leader of a group of congregations, akin to a diocese) owned a hardware store. I walked in, he got me the broomstick I needed, we chatted a bit, and then I left.

But you see the humility of my church leader. Even though he was higher up than I was in the Church hierarchy, he still served me. We were on equal footing, not only as customer and businessman, but also as children of God.

The examples of Joseph Smith and my stake president Michael Ahlander reflect the example of Jesus Christ. His Atonement was the greatest act of Servant-Leadership in the history of the world.

Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle and leader in the Church, taught:

“His atonement is the most transcendent event that ever has or ever will occur from Creation’s dawn through all the ages of a never-ending eternity.”

“It is the supreme act of goodness and grace that only a god could perform. Through it, all of the terms and conditions of the Father’s eternal plan of salvation became operative.”

“Through it are brought to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Through it, all men are saved from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment.”

“And through it, all who believe and obey the glorious gospel of God, all who are true and faithful and overcome the world, all who suffer for Christ and his word, all who are chastened and scourged in the Cause of him whose we are—all shall become as their Maker and sit with him on his throne and reign with him forever in everlasting glory.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” Ensign, May 1985, 9.)

Christ is the great example, not only for Christians, but also for businessmen. One leader of our Church called Him “the Inconvenient Messiah.” Losing potential business is inconvenient. But in some cases, it is the right thing to do.

Spencer W. Kimball, the twelfth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told this story about a small businessman who closed shop on Sunday:

In a stake recently I interviewed a man for an important position in the stake reorganization. And I said to him, “What is your occupation?” And he said, “I operate a service station.” And I asked, “Do you operate on the Sabbath?” His answer was, “No, I do not.” “Well, how can you get along? Most service station operators seem to think they must open on the Sabbath.” “I get along well,” he said. “The Lord is good to me.” “Do you not have stiff competition?” I asked. “Yes, indeed,” he replied. “Across the street is a man who keeps open all day Sunday.” “And you never open?” I asked. “No, sir,” he said, “and I am grateful, and the Lord is kind, and I have sufficient for my needs.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 227.)

Gospel principles are compatible with business principles, and when push comes to shove, they are the commanding principles.

For example, Christ’s Third Temptation involved money. Howard W. Hunter, the fourteenth president of the Church, explained:

In his third temptation, the devil casts away all subtlety and scripture and all deviousness and disguise. Now he staked everything on a blunt, bold proposition. From a high mountain he showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them—the cities, the fields, the flocks, the herds, and everything nature could offer. Though they were not his to give, Satan offered them all to Jesus—to him who had lived as a modest village carpenter.

With wealth, splendor, and earthly glory spread before them, Satan said unto him, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:9) In a final ploy Satan was falling back on one of his false but fundamental propositions, one which resulted in his leading one-third of the hosts from heaven and continues to direct his miserable efforts against the children of men here on earth. It is the proposition that everyone has a price, that material things finally matter most, that ultimately you can buy anything in this world for money. …

In power and dignity, Jesus commanded, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10) Anguished and defeated Satan turned and went away. “And when the devil had ended all the temptation,” Luke adds, “he departed from him for a season.” (Luke 4:13) Matthew tells us that “angels came and ministered unto him.” (Matt. 4:11) (“The Temptations of Christ,” Ensign, Nov 1976, 17ff)

I am grateful for Christ’s example. He put obedience over money, setting the pattern for both laymen and businessmen. Once we put Christ in His proper place as Lord, thorny business decisions will take care of themselves.

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