Note: The following was originally printed in the July/August 2019 edition of our bimonthly newsletter. To request a free subscription to Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Fifty years ago, millions of people watched in awe as the first man, Neil Armstrong, stepped on the surface of the moon. But how many are aware that a man destined to become Mormonism’s 10th President, predicted that would never happen?
According to page 99 of the 2012 LDS Church Almanac, Joseph Fielding Smith, the nephew of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, “spent his entire life in Church service. During nearly three-quarters of a century, he was a missionary, Church historian, president of the Genealogical Society of the Salt Lake Temple, an apostle, and Church president.” Smith became the 10th “prophet, seer, and revelator” of the LDS Church on January 23, 1970, following the death of David O. McKay.
Smith was also a prolific writer and authored numerous books dealing with LDS history and doctrine, including Essentials in Church History: A History of the Church From the Birth of Joseph Smith Until the Present Time, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and The Way to Perfection. In 1954 the three-volume set of Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith was published by Smith’s son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie. At the time, McConkie was serving as a Seventy in the LDS Church. In 1972, McConkie would be ordained as an LDS apostle.
As a Mormon theologian, Joseph Fielding Smith had a column in the LDS publication Improvement Era called “Your Question.” In this column Smith answered questions that were sent to him from members of the LDS Church about items of history and doctrine. Due to the many requests to have his responses put into book form, Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the LDS Church, compiled his answers in what came to be known as Answers to Gospel Questions. The first edition of this five-volume set came out in 1958.
Volume two of the first edition of Answers to Gospel Questions, chapter 43 (page 189), contained a question regarding “Guided Missiles and Interplanetary Travel.” The two-paragraph question read as follows:
A group of us were discussing the recent scientific developments in relation to guided missiles, rockets, earth satellites, and the prediction of interplanetary communication and travel, and we wondered what our view should be towards such things. We realize that as long as we are doing all we can to further the work of the Church and to keep the divine commandments, we have nothing to fear from these developments.
We are curious, however, as to whether such discoveries can be interpreted as part of prophecy; not just the world being in turmoil; but something necessary to the literal fulfillment of a definite prophecy. Specifically, do you believe the knowledge necessary to travel in space is a prerequisite to the return of the Ten Tribes or the City of Enoch? Some members of our group have expressed the belief that God will not allow man to obtain a knowledge of space travel prior to the second coming of our Lord.
Smith began his response by assuring this individual “that the trend of science in developing guided missiles, or even the sending of passengers to the moon and other planets” should not trouble this person “in the least.” He said, “That war will eventually come is inevitable, but we should have faith in the Lord that he will protect those who humble themselves and keep his commandments” (190).
Then, in a section sub-titled “Signs in the Heavens,” Smith wrote this:
The Savior said that preceding his coming there would be signs in the heavens. No doubt there will be appearances of commotion among the heavenly bodies. We are informed by prophecy that the earth will reel to and fro. This will make it appear like the stars are falling. The sun will be darkened and the moon look like blood. All of these wonders will take place before Christ comes. Naturally the wonders in the heavens that man has created will be numbered among the signs which have been predicted—the airplanes, the guided missiles, and man-made planets that revolved around the earth. Keep in mind, however, that such man-made planets belong to this earth, and it is doubtful than man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet. The Lord will permit men to go just so far and no farther; and when they get beyond the proper bounds, he will check them. (190-191)
Of course, on July 20, 1969, Smith’s prediction proved to be false when the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed a man on the moon. In current editions of Answers to Gospel Questions, the portion of the quotation I have emphasized in bold-face was quietly removed.