The Spirit of Elijah

Mention of the Spirit of Elijah in Latter-day Saint discourse is not uncommon. Interestingly, modern conceptions of this spirit are actually that, i.e., relatively modern. We typically associate the Spirit of Elijah with genealogical fervor and the passion that many people, Mormon and gentile alike, have for family history. This perspective seems to be the result of taking a concept that Joseph developed by translating/expanding scripture and then decades later reapplying the term to the original, unmodified text.

Our most famous Elijah reference is that found in Malachi 4:

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

See this discussion for the development of Joseph Smith’s perspective on these verses. In short Joseph taught that the word “turn” actually should be “bind or seal.” Consequently, he taught that the Spirit of Elijah was the ability to seal people up into eternal life and administer in all the temple ordinances:

Now for Elijah, the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations ordinances, oricles powers & endowments of the fulness of the Melchezedek Priesthood & of the Kingdom of God on the Earth & to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances belonging to the Kingdom of God even unto the sealing of the hearts of the hearts fathers unto the children & the hearts of the children unto the fathers even those who are in heaven…

This spirit of Elijah was manifest in the days of the Apostles in delivering certain ones to the buffitings of Satan that they may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, they were sealed by the spirit of Elijah unto the damnaton of Hell untill the day of the Lord or revealtion of Jesus Christ Here is the doctrin of Election that the world have quarreled so much about, but they do not know any thing about it, The doctrin that the Prysbeterians & Methodist have quarreled so much about once in grace always in grace, or falling away from grace I will say a word about, they are both wrong, truth takes a road between them both. for while the Presbyterian says once in grace you cannot fall the Methodist says you can have grace to day, fall from it to morrow, next day have grace again & so follow it, but the doctrin of the scriptures & the spirit of Elijah would show them both fals & take a road between them both for according to the scriptures if a man has receive the good word of God & tasted of the powers of the world to come if they shall fall away it is impossible to renew them again, seeing they have Crucified the son of God afresh & put him to an open frame shame, so their is a possibility of falling away you could not be renewed again, & the power of Elijah Cannot seal against this sin, for this is a reserve made in the seals & power of the priesthood (1)

A search of Journal of Discourse and Collected Discourses (discourses spanning from 1852-1898) yields only two instances of the Spirit of Elijah and, in both cases, the speaker does not use it in the modern sense. E.g., Orson Pratt taught in 1872:

It is a dispensation to restore all things, it is the dispensation of the spirit and power of Elias or Elijah, “to seal all things unto the end of all things” preparatory to the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2)

It is not until the turn of the century that the now common usage appeared as an aperent misapplication of the phrase to the “untranslated” Malachi verses:

The temple-building spirit manifested among the Latter-day Saints is the spirit of absolute unselfishness; it is the spirit of Elijah, the spirit by which the feelings of the children are turned toward the fathers, and the feelings of the fathers are directed toward the children; for no man stands upon this earth alone. (3)

Now I wonder where they got that from! Surely the spirit of Elijah has spread out over the world, and it is “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest the earth be smitten with a curse.” (4)

Personally, I don’t mind the modern usage of the Spirit of Elijah. The deep desire for some people to do family history is no doubt inspired. It is, however, important to understand what Joseph meant by the term as well.
______________

  1. Wilford Woodruff Journal in WoJS, pg. 327-329
  2. JD 15:53. Note however that Orson seems to conlate the Spirit of Elias and the Spirit of Elijah which Joseph taught were distinct powers (see discourse in fn 1). The other entry was Parley Pratt in 1853 (JD 1:13).
  3. James E Talmage Conference Report April 1912, pg. 126
  4. Walter P. Monson Conference Report April 1915, pg. 51

Comments

  1. I wonder whether you could draw parallels to changes in angelologies and explanations of the supernatural. In its original sense, this spirit was a sacerdotal-metaphysical extension of a mighty angel, now spirit is more like a Zeitgeist or a figurative inspiration for a group of people. This parallels changes in sacred language about angels for temple dedication prayers.

  2. That is an interesting comment, smb. I am not familiar enough with the change in reference in dedicatory prayer usage to be able to comment specifically, but I think I may generally and I would tend to concur.

  3. Journal of Mormon History 32:2 (Summer 2006), 173-196.

  4. Thanks. Alas, I don’t have that volume and it is not on the DVD they sold last year…I’ll have to wait until I am close to a library that carries it.

  5. I fully agree with you J.
    I think we sometimes run into unexpected roadblocks with our current view of sealings and families. As much as this is a beautiful part of the church, I have found my mind much more expanded by Joseph’s grand vision for mankind. I found this quote by Richard Bushman to be mind openning.
    “All I know is that Joseph Smith was preoccupied with sealing—not just husbands to wives, but childrens to parents, and one generation to another. He wanted to lock people into relationships—not necessarily sentimental relationships but ones of mutual obligation and cooperation. Our preoccupation with romance blocks us, I think, from understanding what he was getting at. I am sure he had affection for his wives, but marriage as a culmination of a powerful attraction was not his point. He saw marriage as the formation of a relationship that would in some way make people responsible to one another. All of this was connected in turn with raising up a people. Another element is his concern for lineage—that priesthood comes down by lineage. Forming the right kinds of line or being linked to the right lines facilitates that transmission.”
    Source: On the Road with Joseph Smith

  6. Staples: I think I have a copy at home. I’ll look.
    Doc: Richard is right on with that paragraph.

  7. Greg Prince, in Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, p. 35-42, has some interesting analysis, including a slightly different version of the Wilford Woodruff quote you used in the post (he cites Woodruff’s journal and Ehat and Cook). Here’s a paragraph from p. 35:

    From an obscure figure in the early years of the Restoration, Elijah emerged as the dominant figure both in priesthood and in afterlife theology. At the time of Smith’s death in 1844, Elijah’s importance was second only to that of Jesus Christ. … [I]t is necessary to examine the references to Elijah according to the time at which they were written. For example, the account of Moroni’s 1823 visit to Joseph Smith, which included a promise of Elijah’s return, was not written until 1838 and reflects the theology of the later date.

    In a footnote, he adds that what we now have as D&C 2 wasn’t written until 1838 and was actually published only in 1842 (in Times and Seasons). It didn’t show up in the D&C until the 1876 edition.

  8. That is a good point, Dave; one that I failed to mention in the linked post above (i.e., that section 2 was written in the late 1830′s). Still we have revelations in 1830 and 1836 that use the same language quoting Malachi…so I’m not as hip to the placement of Section 2 into Joseph’s Nauvoo theology as Prince seems to be. I do agree that the publication in 1842 of what we now call section 2 does reflect Joseph’s ultimate theology. Despite any disagreement, Prince’s treatment is very important.

  9. I agree that a) Prince’s book is an important contribution, and b) he has pushed a little too hard to get Elijah to fit into his evolutionary hermeneutic of Smith’s theology. Elijah, as the complex combination of Baptist-like harbinger of the Millennium and immortal patron of the death conquest, had an early important role in Smith’s theology.

  10. Stapley may be right about the absence of the particular phrase “Spirit of Elijah” from Mormon discourse before the late 19th century. However, the concepts behind Malachi 4:5-6 definitely show up in the Journal of Discourses. For evidence of this, see this beta website. As a side note, the phrase “Spirit of Elijah” does not appear in Malachi, but it does appear in 2 Kings 2:15. According to the web site I linked to above, only once in the last 150 years has a speaker at General Conference cited this verse when talking about the “Spirit of Elijah.” It would be interesting to figure out how this phrase entered LDS usage if nobody in the Journal of Discourses ever cited this verse in 2 Kings.

  11. Sterling, I really think it goes back to the prominence of those Malachi verses. They show up prominently in four different sections of the D&C. After everyone that knew Joseph died, new interpretations popped up that used Joseph’s own language.

  12. Shar Golding says:

    Enjoying your comments! Refreshing to see the JD used on an LDS site. The calling of Elija in part is the sealing keys. In the Bible the genealogy back to Adam was very important. As it is in the Lectures on Faith by Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was sealed back to Adam it was a literal sealing not a spiritual one. The Mormon church has had to make it a spiritual sealing because no one is sealed back to Adam anymore (your calling and election made sure). Everyone goes to the temple and gets sealed to their father but if their father is not sealed back to Adam what is the point? In Joseph and Brigham’s day people were sealed to Joseph and Brigham. That has stopped why?

    Shar

  13. Shar, I don’t think you are quite accurate in your representation of Nauvoo theology. If you are interested in the practice of people being sealed to others than their family members, I recommend Irving’s article, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1900″ in the Spring 1974 issue of BYU Studies, which is available for free on their website.

  14. Shar Golding says:

    J.

    Thanks for sending me to The Law of Adoption article. However, I do not agree. I don’t think you can “refine” an eternal Law of God.

    What are your thoughts on the sealing of the 144,000? Also, is it spiritual or literal?

    Shar

  15. Shar, you are conflating different sorts of sealings. If you are in Utah, check out Andrew Ehat’s thesis from one of the university libraries.

  16. Shar Golding says:

    J.
    I was not aware of different sealings. You are sealed correctly or you are not.

    Ehat Page 297 The Words of Joseph Smith
    “The Prophet taught, moreover, that such a patriarchal priesthood of kings and priests would have to be established by sealing children and parents back through Abraham to Adam in order to fulfull the mission of Elijah. When this was accomplished, the order within the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom would then be etrnally set.”

    What Ehat thesis did you have in mind?

    Shar

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