A while back, a few of us — J. Stapley, Roasted Tomatoes, Steve Evans and Matt Bowman (of Juvenile Instructor fame) — got together via email to talk about what the phrase “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed” really means. The answers will shock and surprise you! The first part of the roundtable discussion follows, below. The second part, in which Steve is reproved betimes with sharpness, will be posted in another day or so.
Steve: Esteemed Knights of the Roundtable, I received this email earlier today, which I think is a good starting point for our discussion:
I did a search on BCC and didn’t see any discussion of this topic. Specifically, who is “the Lord’s Anointed” and what exactly is this “evil speaking” we aren’t supposed to engage in. Accurately identifying specific problems in an individual’s behavior in a dispassionate manner is entirely in keeping with D&C 121:43, so that is obviously not “evil speaking” regardless of whom the Lord’s anointed is.
I had a run in with a counselor in my Bishopric here yesterday and I [took him to task]. He had the nerve to accuse me of being in danger of violating my Temple covenants because I was holding him to task for doing something wrong. The notion that he is “the Lord’s Anointed” [doesn't make sense to me]. When I went to look at the Scriptures on this matter “the Lord’s anointed” was always the hand-picked chosen one who was literally anointed with literal oil by a prophet (the clear example here is David’s refusal to kill Saul).
…What I am interested in is the historical interpretation/application/utility of this passage in the LDS context.
I guess some general background for the (literally) uninitiated: evil-speaking of the Lord’s anointed is discussed in the temple as an unholy practice that we are to refrain from doing. Regarding this gentleman’s query, I have only some banal ideas. First, I believe he’s right that the Bible (maybe not the BoM) takes “anointed” literally for the most part: literal oil on a literal head. Paul might be inclined to take anointing in a non-literal fashion, but I think he’s the exception. If that is our guideline, we are talking about an odd group in Mormonism. Who are the anointed ones in our religion? I have a feeling Stapley might know, at least as a beginning.
“Evil-speaking” is a little easier for me as a student of language: “ill-speaking” might be a better rendering, or backbiting or gossiping for modern usage. It is interesting to note, from my view anyways, that under a 19th century interpretation, much of what makes a speaking “evil” is not the content, but the context: taking one’s bishop to task could be evil speaking, depending on how it’s done — a face-to-face conversation is probably just fine, but a gossipy email probably isn’t.
Nowadays I fear the inquiring gentleman’s bishop might be right, that ANY criticism of one’s leaders might be deemed evil by some.
Thoughts? I would like to talk about early Church applications of this phrase. Does anyone have a sense of when it would have become part of the Endowment presentation? How has the meaning shifted over time?
Roasted Tomatoes: An excellent set of questions, Steve, and a great starting point for discussion. Regarding the question of who the Lord’s Anointed is or are, there are four perspectives that I want to quickly offer. First, “anointed” is the English translation of “messiah” or “Christ.” If we take the phrase “Lord’s Anointed” strictly as a reference to this, then, it might simply be the case that the covenant not to “evil-speak” of the Lord’s Anointed is a covenant to honor the person of Jesus Christ.
Second, the Old Testament uses the phrase to speak of God’s chosen kings of Israel, contributing a central element to the development of the theory of the divine right of kings. This usage may seem irrelevant in LDS discourse, but it is not. Joseph Smith was the first Mormon who was anointed to be a king over the whole world, under the auspices of the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo. Some of his successors, in the Utah church and in other branches of the Restoration movement, received the same ritual; however, it is my understanding that the LDS church discontinued this ritual at about the turn of the 20th century. John Taylor may have been the last LDS church leader to receive anointing as a divinely-selected king. Under this interpretation, the covenant forbids us to speak evil of these few founding church leaders.
Third, the Old Testament and occasionally other scriptures use the phrase to refer to people who are given a specific task by God. The speaker may be a prophet (in the Old Testament sense, which often may not have included hierarchical leadership within the church organizations of the day), as in Isaiah 61:1 (“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek…”). However, there are occasional passages in which anointing by God appears to be available as a sort of balm to believers in general, even if they are not prophetic or kingly, as in Psalm 23:5 (“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”).
Fourth, LDS temple ritual involves the washing and anointing of every adult as a ritual offered before the Endowment. Is it legitimate to refer to all adults who have received these washings and anointings as “the Lord’s Anointed”? Surely these people have been literally anointed with oil. There is also scriptural precedent for this usage, in the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland temple, where “thine anointed ones” is used as a parallelism for “thy saints.” Likewise, historically, the group of people who received the washings, anointings, and Endowment ritual before the completion of the Nauvoo temple were called the “Quorum of the Anointed.” Hence, we are justified in interpreting the covenant in question as being of general reference.
Which of these four usages should we adopt? I would suggest a broad perspective that uses all of them, although it may well be the case that the fourth usage entails the first three. In any case, it is clear that scriptural and historical precedent exists for treating “the Lord’s Anointed” as a broad, inclusive group — and therefore for regarding the covenant in question as a vow of communal solidarity rather than of hierarchical subordination.
Stapley: For me, there are two parts of it; first, what does evil speaking mean? The early Mormon’s preferred theological dictionary (Matt and Sam have done some awesome work on this volume, which is forthcoming and I am sure Matt has further insight here) has an entry on “evil speaking,” which I think is helpful. John Wesley, who is the father of Methodism also had a popular sermon on the topic. Both are useful in understanding what the term means in context.
To paraphrase Buck, “evil speaking” is 1) to speak severely without just cause, 2) to speak beyond measure, or 3) to speak out of bad principles or wrong ends. Wesley also describes it as gossip or backbiting. I think all of these encompass well the proscribed practice.
As to who the Lord’s Anointed are, I think it is impossible to extricate the injunction from the context of, as JNS points out, the Anointed Quorum. When Joseph delivered the temple rituals, he created a select group and organized a quorum. You had to be voted into the quorum and then you would receive initiatory temple rituals. This Anointed Quorum was formally organized in 1843 but the foundation was laid with the first rituals being administered to a small group in the spring of 1842. The Quorum serviced as the inner circle for Joseph’s controversial teachings (e.g., polygamy). In 1842 Joseph was dogged by critics (including several former members of his inner circle) and Quorum functioned as a stabilizer for Joseph and the Church.
With this in mind, it is easier to see how the principles of the School of the Prophets and the Kirtland rituals were recapitulated in the Anointed Quorum. Here was a group, bound by covenant to sustain and support each other and retain confidentiality. D&C 109 refers to those who participated in the Kirtland anointings as “thine anointed ones” in the prayer of dedication. This culminates in Nauvoo with the rituals that are the basis for our modern temple experience.
Joseph could rely on them, as we should be able to rely on each other.
Matt Bowman: I’m going to follow Stape here and talk about “evil speaking.” The concept has a long and complicated history within Protestant thought, and was an-oft commented upon issue in the evangelical world of Joseph Smith’s time. Several New Testament verses are relevant here – Wesley is preaching from Matthew 18 (“If thy brother sin against thee, go and tell him his faults in private”), but there were others. The Puritans and their evangelical descendants were particularly fond of Titus 3:2 (“To speak evil of no man”) and James 5:12 (“But above all things, my brethren, swear not.”). The great Puritan divine Richard Baxter preached a celebrated sermon series called “Cases and Directions against Backbiting, Slandering, and Evil Speaking,” and both Calvin and Luther meditated upon the concept.
All of these thinkers, and I hasten to point out, Charles Buck of Theological Dictionary fame, produced a convoluted set of rules for judging what was “evil speaking” and what was not. This task was complicated by two things 1)the reality of hierarchy both within and without the Church, and 2)the power that Protestants invested in language itself. For Baxter, to speak even true evil of one’s parents or a monarch was to violate the Fifth Commandment by doing them dishonor. Similarly, Richard Bushman notes the complicated system of honor that infused the early Republic and made Joseph Smith and others particularly sensitive to slights that might affect standing or social capital. To Americans in the early republic evil speaking – particularly backbiting, or what we might call gossip – was not merely a personal slight; it destroyed the authority of leaders and thus eroded the coherency of society and the effectiveness of organizations. Thus were Hamilton and Burr willing to kill each other. For Joseph, notoriously thin skinned but also a man bent on erecting his own society with a complicated system of duties, offices, and ranks, these things mattered.
All this had a corollary in the world of Protestantism generally and evangelicalism of the early Republic specifically. Evil speaking not merely destroyed social organizations but also harmed souls – and not merely that of the speaker. For Protestants the spoken word had power; it was the means God had ordained to convert the world (Matthew 10:7). It could serve as a sacrament, a channel for God’s grace to enter the world and transform people and society. Thus, it was particularly important that religious language be kept pure, and those ordained to preach be respected. This theory of preaching was sometimes called “heraldic;” evangelicals emphasized that the preacher himself was minimized in favor of the message he carried; that he spoke not by his own learning but merely let the Word of God flow through him. Nineteenth century Mormon leaders at times made similar claims. Heber Kimball, for instance, claimed “When you hear my voice, and it is dictated by the Holy Ghost, you hear the voice of God through me,” (JD 12:190) In the same sermon, Heber denounced those who spoke against the Lord’s anointed, which he defined as the Twelve on their mission to preach and spread the Gospel. (JD 12:189).
However, there were times and places when naming evil was not merely appropriate, but necessary. Buck spends the first half of his entry outlining these; the most important for him is that of the minister in the pulpit. Naming sin publicly, denouncing evil, was the first step in the evangelical conversion process. The sinner had to be made aware of his or her state of condemnation before God; it was then appropriate for one with a calling to preach to speak evil of sinners. As Baxter said, “You may on all meet occasions speak evil of the sin; and of the persons when you have a just call; but not at your own pleasure.” Wesley similarly observes that in some cases a sinner should be denounced “before the Church.” Evil speaking, then, was both a sin against one’s fellow Christian and against the order of things God had erected; a perversion of the true proclamation of the Word of God. Baxter thus worries that evil speaking would corrupt those who heard it and make them also evil speakers, a sort of reversal of the conversion process. Thus, the injunction against evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed could be interpreted as a defense of the Word itself, flowing through the structure erected for it, or perhaps an indication that the Lord’s anointed – those endowed – have passed through the conversion process, past conviction of sin and surrender to Christ and have moved onward toward sanctification. This is not a bad description of the endowment, actually. This interpretation, of course, also emphasizes the responsibility of those anointed to be true vessels for the Word themselves.