Batter my heart, three person’d Prophet

I steal this line from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, 14 as a way of approaching one of the more interesting and challenging points of Joseph Smith’s role as Prophet of the Restoration: his role as a mouthpiece of revelation.  I believe that the different rhetorical voices Joseph Smith took while expressing revelation have deep significance for how we should approach the Doctrine and Covenants.

First, a couple of disclaimers: this is too big a topic for a blog post, and I am beholden to Jason Lindquist’s article in the Summer 2005 issue of Dialogue, "Keywords: Joseph Smith, Language Change, and Theological Innovation, 1829-44."  In that article, Lindquist mentions "…while some passages in the Doctrine and Covenants give direct voice to Deity…other revelations are clearly grounded in Joseph Smith’s own personal language choices."  Thinking on that paragraph has caused me to wonder about the meaning of these language choices and voices.

As I scan the D&C, God’s will is made known to the saints through Joseph in a number of different ways, which I will neatly categorize into three groups: first, the voice of the Lord himself; second, the voice of historical ecclesiastical figures; and third, the voice of the Prophet, in letters and prayers.  I believe it is tremendously important to distinguish between these voices, although admittedly I am not sure of why, as I will explain later.

First group: the voice of the Lord.  One of the greatest messages of the Restoration is that once again someone can proclaim with authority, "Thus saith the Lord."  When Joseph’s revelations speak with the voice of God, we must listen.  It is the most authoritative, the most definitive utterance possible to mormons, and as such, those revelations are the most important, even taking precedence over prior utterances of the Lord.  These revelations are the foundation of our ordinances and practice, and they are what set us apart as a people.  What is the rhetorical effect of speaking as God?  You tell me.

Second group: the voice of prophets past.  Joseph translated the Book of Mormon (query as to whether that work counts as one of his revelations).  But more than this, Joseph received revelations elucidating the works of Old and New Testament prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Enoch and John, adding to their words and placing their revelations in a 19th century context.  What happens when a modern prophet retells the stories of Biblical prophets?  What does it say about both the modern prophet and the ancient ones?  We can make the argument that Joseph didn’t change what these prophets said, he simply revealed all that they originally said.  But even this act is not without rhetorical consequence, I believe: it is an expression of confidence by the Prophet of the Restoration, to come into his own as a reteller and restorer of all things.

Third group: the voice of the prophet.  This group is somewhat diverse: Joseph wrote letters, songs, and prayers, some of which are in the D&C.  Some letters are doctrinal clarifications, such as D&C 128; others are dedicatory prayers, such as D&C 109.  It is interesting to me how some of these writings are canonized and others not; it makes me wonder about how to tell when a prophet is speaking as a prophet.  I have some questions.  When Joseph spoke for himself, what does that mean?  Why is D&C 128 an epistle, and not a letter?  Are these revelations deemed such because Joseph indicated that they were, or were they rendered revelations posthumously (the answer to this question varies from revelation to revelation)?  These are the most intimate pieces of the prophet we have, where his personality are most evident.  They are an interesting study of the mouthpiece himself, and reflect Joseph fulfilling a role as a prophet in his own right, speaking with his own voice.

Ultimately, I’m sure someone will remind me that none of these categorizations matter.  We need to obey the commands given in the revelation, regardless of their source – on that point we all agree.  But I don’t believe that D&C 1:38 completely negates the importance of the speaker.  From a rhetorical standpoint the distinction is crucial.  I’m not sure where to go from here, though.  What do these different revelatory voices mean to you?

Comments

  1. I forget who it was, but I know there is a thesis around that goes through each section of the D&C and gives the skinny in depth on what the background is…One of these days, I’ll get a copy.

    I think there is a tremendous value in understanding the voice of the prophet. Instead of it being a two-dimensional flat work, it becomes a rich three dimensional body with contours and dynamism. It becomes to us, what it was to those who received them from the mouth of the prophet.

    As per the translation of the Book of Mormon, I think that if we consider all the pieces that Joseph “translated” we have to consider that translate = received by revelation.

  2. …let me just add that we no longer live in a time when regualar revelations are announced to the Church. By approaching the Prophet, we gain intamacy with the propogation of revelation.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    J., it is a debatable question as to whether we live in a time when regular revelations are announced to the Church. Certainly the days of “thus saith the Lord” seem to have passed, for the most part; Justin may be able to find for us the last time that this type of phraseology was used.

    I think however that one of the points of Joseph’s different voices was to teach us that divine knowledge and teaching doesn’t have to come strictly through voice #1; it can be through more intimate, personal voices.

  4. Excellent point, Steve. Realizing that some things that are canonized are things he said while talking extemporaniously, opens the door for our modern ecclesiastical communications…I’ll have to think about that.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    I can report that the article is now available for free at the Dialogue website, under electronic products.

  6. Also adding an interesting element to the conversation is Blake’s expansion theory which most all thoughtful member accept to one extent or another. This would modify and complicate who’s voice is really being heard in each category.

    1) The voice of the Lord would seem, under some versions of the expansion theory, to be concepts given from the Lord to Joseph’s mind and then given in his voice. This would certianly seem to challenge the thesis that those “thus saith the Lord…” passages are really God’s actual words. This reminds me of the passage in D&C 1:24 as well as section 67, both revelation given at about the same time.

    2) The voice of prophets past would seem to be really complex. Take for instance the BoM: most expansionists would agree that the words of past prophets are there, however there is an awful lot of Joseph in there as well. One also wonders how much, if any, of the voice of the Lord is there as well. Does God simply “butt out” and let the ancient prophet be responsible for the entire content originating outside of Joseph? This would seem to double the amount of fallibility which COULD creep into such revelations.

    3) The voice of Joseph doesn’t seem to be too effected by the expansionist theory. One does, however, have to wonder whether Joseph simply saying something without attributing revelation to it should really count as revelation. Of course he could simply be relating a revelation he received in the past, but by then lots and lots of inferential interpretation and corruption is likely to have crept in.

    Recognizing these differences is important, if only to recognize what types and amounts of human fallibility could have crept into any given scriptural passage. It also helps to better understand the context in which the revelations were given and should therefore be understood.

  7. “My sheep hear my voice.”

    I believe that’s the reason why some people recognized when Joseph Smith spoke/wrote with divine authority and others didn’t.

    Even today, when people read the Book of Mormon, some people recognize those prophetic voices whispering from the dust with divine authority, and others just get bored.

    It is why, when people read 3rd Nephi chapters 11 through 26, some recogize that the Savior actually spoke those words to those people back then, and some just say “It’s copied from the Bible.”

  8. Jeffrey makes some excellent points (#6)

    I am of the opinion that all revelation comes through same variation on the theme of “pure knowledge to the mind”. Therefore, the words “thus saith the Lord” are simply rhetorical devices and not sure markers of God’s own personal language choices. Many of you have had experiences of receiving clear revelation — things like “stop now, turn around and go to place X and say Y”. That is pure knowledge to the mind and whether one later records it with the preface “thus saith the Lord” is completely irrelevant — either God said it or he didn’t.

    I believe all revelation must pass through language filter of the person/prophet that delivers it to us. That means the processes of your 1-3 are probably all variations on the same thing. They are all pure knowledge to Joseph’s mind that he then describes in English. Yes, I recognize that some of those revelations also entailed visions, but I don’t think that fact changes the basics of the process.

    This model I believe puts more revelatory responsibility on each of us as well. We need to get revelation ourselves concerning the pure knowledge Joseph received to ensure we understand the message properly. I think we need to be more like Nephi in this respect – when he heard the dream/vision his father had he went to the source to get the same thing himself.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Geoff, so “thus saith the Lord” is just verbiage to you? That’s interesting. I agree that it’s not necessarily relevant to whether we should obey or not, but there is a significant linguistic difference IMHO.

  10. Jason Lindquist says:

    Hi all, thanks for the inviation to post, Steve. Btw, I’ve heard great things about you from Brian & Shannon (Keeley) Gibson, who I know from the old days.

    It is hard to know where to begin responding to this interesting question. I think the first thing I would say is to agree that Steve’s third category is important and worth thinking about. Because although it is certainly true on some theoretical level that “none of these categorizations matter” when it comes to what Latter-day Saints can consider revelation, I think differences in prophetic linguistic and personal styles _are_ highly important to many of us on a personal level. A couple of instances:
    1) Some of the most moving and oft-cited passages from the D&C are those given voice by Joseph Smith, often before he has even received any revelation (“And where is the pavilion that coverth thy hiding place?” [D&C 121: 1 - etc]: are the first six verses a prelude to revelation in that they are the prayer that results in revelation? Or are they themselves revelation since they are part of the D&C?) Thus, Joseph’s unique voice seems to stand out to us and connect with us in some important way.

    2) It is hard to argue that there isn’t real power in individual contemporary prophets/apostles communicating in unique ways to different people: although we will certainly have more great prophets able to say “thus sayeth the Lord” after Pres. Hinckley is gone, surely no other prophet will be able to bring the same unique combination of humor and optimism that Pres. Hinckley does (I guess in this regard I disagree w/ J. Stapley’s suggestion that the days of “thus saith the Lord” are past).

    I guess if I were to cross into speculation, I’d say that there is some unique principle that I/we might _only_ be able to learn from revelation given _through_ Pres. Hinckley, or through Joseph Smith, etc, and that one way that uniqueness is evident is in their distinctive language choices.

    I’ll be interested to see where the thread goes and hope to check in again soon.

  11. Steve: Geoff, so “thus saith the Lord” is just verbiage to you?

    Yup, it’s just verbiage to me. Slapping a “thus saith the Lord” in front of a revelation does not make it more true or more reliable and omitting the “thus saith the Lord” does not make it more suspect. The revelation either reflects God’s opinion and truth or it doesn’t — regardless of the language used. Our responsibility to receive personal revelation (a la Nephi’s example) on it is paramount. I’ve also argued in several places that it is that personal revelation that changes us anyway — not Joseph’s or any other prophet’s revelations.

    It is somewhat ironic that I led that last comment agreeing with Jeffrey. He and I have had somewhat colossal debates over the general subject of “thus saith the Lord” at our blogs.

    Jason: I/we might _only_ be able to learn from revelation given _through_ Pres. Hinckley, or through Joseph Smith, etc, and that one way that uniqueness is evident is in their distinctive language choices.

    First, welcome to the Bloggernacle!

    You make a very interesting point. I think that we might do well to separate the message from the messenger. Obviously Eternal truths are (by definition) fixed. However you may have a point that certain messengers are better equipped to deliver certain truths better than others. There may indeed be some truths of God that Pres. Hinckley is the best messenger to deliver in a way that penetrates the hearts of the most people possible — perhaps better than any that preceded or that will follow him.

    The fact that the same Sunday school lesson is given by tens of thousands of different messengers each week with wildly varying results seems to be strong evidence of this. The messenger is very important.

  12. Geoff J.: Jeffrey makes some excellent points

    Has anyone seen Geoff J and Jeffrey G. (GJ>JG>GJ) in the same room together?

  13. Its not a very pretty picture. It is not unusual for threads to easy surpass 100 comments between the two of us.

  14. No Jeff, you are Geoff. Doctroholics come only one per generation. I’m checking your IP’s. New Cool Busted!

  15. I brief and shallow overview of what we both belief and post on might lend some evidence to this equality. However I soon comes to realize that though we post on the same topics we rarely agree on any of them.

    We defend different versions of: Adam-God, Free will, Revelation and Multiple Mortal Probations. If only I could get Geoff to post on evolution a couple of times. ;-)

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