Back-Row Questions: Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 28

The sufferings of the Missouri period really bring out the Old Testament in our faith.  Lesson 27, which we talked about last week, focused on texts that really struggle with the problem of evil, a recurrent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible.  Lesson 28 is in many ways much more personal and poignant, focusing not on the logical problem of why the Saints get the short end of the stick, but instead on Joseph Smith’s need for personal comfort and reassurance.  Will the wicked triumph in the end?  Will his friends abandon him?  Both Joseph’s prayer as reported in Section 121 and the revelations of comfort offered in that section and the next show a man deep in depression and reaching out for hope.

Verses 1-6 of Section 121 are one of the many texts that should help persuade people to abandon the idea that Joseph Smith was some kind of semi-verbal, half-intelligent scarecrow.  These verses, which are written in Joseph’s voice as his prayer that provokes the revelation in the rest of the section, are beautiful.  Just read along with me for a moment:

O GOD, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?  How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?  Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?  O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.  Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs.  Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.

See?  Good, beautifully worded stuff, especially if we’re willing to overlook the awkward political claim regarding “unlawful oppressions.”  Furthermore, the passage is studded with literary allusions, particularly to the Psalms.  For instance, the reference to God’s pavilion appears as an appeal to Psalms 18:11, 27:5, and 31:20.  The 27:5 allusion strikes me as particularly poignant: “For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion…”  The reference to God as maker of “heaven, earth, and seas,” rather than the more common and streamlined “heaven and earth,” is also a reference to various Old Testament passages.  Of these, a particularly relevant and resonant possibility appears to be Psalms 146, which contains an invocation of God as the one who “made heaven, earth, and sea, and all that therein is” (vs. 6), followed by praise of God as the one “which executeth judgment for the oppressed; which giveth food to the hungry.  The LORD looseth the prisoners…” (vs. 7).  Smith’s Hebrew studies in Kirtland also make the mention of Sheol a possible reference to the Psalms, as that place is mentioned various times in the book — and Smith at this point would have known that references to “hell” in the KJV of the Old Testament are in fact mentions of Sheol.  I imagine a possible allusion, among many other options, to Psalm 139:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.  (vs. 7-8)

 

So the prayer is filled with allusions, many or most of which are plausibly references to passages from the Psalms which celebrate God’s eventual vindication of the unjustly persecuted righteous.  The prayer contains structural allusions to the Psalms, as well, particularly in its rhetorical repetitions.  Indeed, the text arguably contains a modest chiasm, formed around the following key words and themes: GOD, pavilion, hand and eye, suffering and Sheol, hand and eye, pavilion, God.  This pattern of repetitions centers around the theme that God will be roused from inactivity due to the unjust sorrow of His Saints — the rhetorical theme of the section as a whole.  Whether this chiasm is taken seriously or not, the rhetorical structure of allusion and repetition in this prayer is clearly complex, sophisticated, and thematically integrated.  All in all, this is not the work of a man lacking in verbal aptitude.

Abandoning the claim that Smith lacked skill with words may cause trouble for some lines of argument in favor of the divine nature of the Book of Mormon.  Even if we accept that Smith was good with language, it’s nonetheless possible for a believer to argue that he didn’t have the right set of knowledge to compose the narrative (or, of course, he may have composed the text as fiction with God’s blessing).  But it just isn’t reasonable to argue that he was the kind of person who couldn’t put a noun and a verb together — and any line of argument in favor of the Book of Mormon as scripture that revolves around this claim needs reconsideration.  At the same time, when we recognize Smith’s skill with words, we render the famous Spaulding theory all the more problematic.  So Smith’s verbal talent gives with one hand, even as it takes with the other.  (What’s given and what’s taken depends on where you sit, I guess.)

Section 121 not only shares beautiful language and themes regarding the rectification of unjust suffering with the Psalms.  It also shares my least favorite feature of the Psalms: a very high ratio of vengeance to comfort.  God tells Joseph Smith that all his sufferings will be but a small moment, true.  But He also waxes pretty eloquent about the terrible things He intends to do to Smith’s enemies and their children.  They’ll be swept from under heaven!  Their prospects shall melt away!  They’ll never, ever have the priesthood!  Their basket shall not be full!  Is this meant to comfort Joseph?  I can see why he might wish for such things, but this line of thinking is hard for me to reconcile with the prototypically Christian message of Matthew 5:44:

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…

Of these two attitudes toward enemies — hope that God smites them, and soon, or love them and pray for them — the approach in Matthew just seems better to me.

Turning to section 122, Joseph Smith is told, in the voice of God, that “thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors” (D&C 122:3).  On its face, this statement appears to be completely false.  During Smith’s lifetime, Latter-day Saints were indeed turned against him by the statements of his former allies.  In fact, there were many such episodes; notable and particularly well-documented instances in which the witnesses of disaffected Saints led at least some others to leave the faith after the time of this revelation include the John C. Bennett affair, as well as the situations involving the eventual publishers of the Nauvoo Expositor.  Since Smith’s death, this pattern has by no means ended.  Among the many hundreds (at least) of disbelieving current or former Mormons who have contributed to the subsequent departure of other believers I might notably mention Jerald and Sandra Tanner, as well as Fawn Brodie.

So, okay.  Mormons are turned away from their belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet due to the influence of former believers.  It happens all the time.  What, then, are we to make of the revealed statement traitors would never lead Smith’s people to abandon him?  We obviously have the option of regarding this as “wishful revealing,” I guess.  Alternatively, we can choose to read the passage in ways other than its face meaning.  I can see three major options here.

First, we can redefine “thy people.”  Maybe Smith’s people consist exactly of the group of people who do not abandon him.  That is, those who do abandon Smith were never his people to begin with.  In this case, the problematic statement isn’t really a prophecy; instead, it’s a tautology.  This perspective has its own difficulties.  For me, the deepest of these is that it makes it impossible for Smith to know, at any time until everyone has died, who exactly his people are.  Surely Smith’s anxiety at the time of this revelation was about the group of friends and family members he had left behind in northern Missouri, and not for some abstract and indefinable subset of that group!

Second, we can reconsider the term “abandon.”  Perhaps the people I’ve mentioned above didn’t abandon Smith in the necessary sense.  One might conceivably connect this word with the popular saying that former Mormons may leave the faith but that they can’t leave the faith alone.  At least some of the people disaffected by the statements of former believers may continue to wrestle with Smith’s prophetic claims, even if they no longer have faith in those claims; if this is the case, then perhaps they haven’t abandoned Smith in the necessary sense.  This approach also strikes me as implausible because an awful lot of the people who lose faith in Mormonism don’t seem to become anti-Mormons, but instead do seem to simply lose interest in Smith’s prophetic work altogether.  However you define abandoning Smith, it surely goes on every day.

Third, we can reconsider the category of “traitors.”  Perhaps Bennett, the Higleys and Laws, the Tanners, Brodie, and so forth shouldn’t be seen as traitors at all.  Each of them, and others like them, certainly continued to wrestle with the influence and legacy of Joseph Smith through the period during which they may have persuaded other believers to lose faith.  With the notable exception of Bennett, each of these individuals seems to have been motivated by sincere religious disagreement with Smith, more than by personal motives of revenge (although the two may have coexisted to some extent).  One might well regard the writings of these people after their breaks with Smith as an ongoing struggle with their relationship to Mormonism and its prophet, and in that sense one might not consider them as traitors at all.  This solution seems at least as problematic as the first two; if these people, and Bennett in particular, don’t count as traitors, I’m sure that Joseph would have asked if anyone possibly could count.  Yet while this solution is unpersuasive, it at least has the Christian virtue of encouraging faithful Mormons to think kindly of their opponents.

Verse 6 of this section is often regarded as a prophetic description of Smith’s arrest prior to his murder in Carthage, Illinois:

 

If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee… 
In fact, this is not a prophecy of the future, but rather a description of the recent past, a fact that can be easily verified by considering the age of Smith’s son in the passage.  In March of 1839, when this revelation was received, Joseph Smith III — Smith’s oldest living son — was six years old.  By 1844, young Joseph was 10.
So this passage was about Smith’s Missouri arrest, and not the more famous one in Illinois.  But I find it fascinating that casual readers are led to the confusion.  The Missouri arrest, coming as it did in the middle of chaos, a near-civil war with non-Mormon neighbors, and complex and rapidly shifting lines of allegiance and dissent among the Saints, serves as a neat literary foreshadowing of Smith’s eventual murder.  In fact, Smith’s life, if considered as a whole, fits pretty nicely into the mold of a classical tragedy.  His rise to power and prominence is complicated by dissonant notes from the very beginning — conflicts with neighbors, alienation of followers, expulsion from one gathering place after another.  These dissonances grow in volume in tandem with Smith’s power and success, until finally both reach a peak and the one is broken by the other in Carthage Jail. 
If Joseph Smith is a tragic hero, what’s his tragic flaw?  Classically, the hero’s tragic flaw ought to be closely intertwined with the crises through his life, and obviously with the cause of his death.  In Smith’s case, it seems to me that the best candidate would be a marked tendency to escalate conflict rather than to seek reconciliation and compromise.
What personal texts these are!  They feel like a window right into Smith’s subjectivity.  You can’t help but love and pity him as you read.

Comments

  1. I think “thy people” could be read as “thy Church.” While some individuals may leave, it is something completely different for the Church to abandon him.

    The fluency of Joseph Smith with the Bible as you have shown in the opening prayer, is a great example. I tend to think that the bumbling illiterate Joseph caricature isn’t particularly historical; I do think that he grew quite a bit between the time of the plates and his incarceration in MO.

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    J., maybe regarding people=Church. But that shares the same problem that any particular person might or might not be really part of “the people.” Presumably still sort of cold comfort.

    I’m sure Joseph’s composition skills developed a lot; he had a lot of practice. But it’s nonetheless probably true that verbal aptitude has a more stable component as well as a learned component, and that Smith must have had the innate ability in spades.

  3. No, I think that it is just different. Saying that some people or an individual may abandon is categorically different than saying the Church won’t abandon. I don’t see the need to determine whether a person or group is genuinely part of the Church.

  4. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    But, J., the text doesn’t say “the Church,” but rather “people.” It seems to me that the concern was about friends turning against Joseph due to the activities of Oliver Cowdrey and others, no? I agree that the Church reading is possible, although not certain — but it seems likely somewhat disconnected from what Smith was probably most worried about.

  5. re #4.–My reading from the beginning of section 121 is that Joseph is primarily concerned with the well-being of the larger body of the Church, who have had crimes/atrocities/whatevers done to them (at least in Joseph’s view) unjustly. In that context, it doesn’t seem disconnected at all to me to think that his concern, which is addressed with the “thy people” statement, would be about the Church as a whole (or some large subset) abandoning him under the weight of persecution.

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Scott B., a large subset still raises the same concerns — lots of people did leave the church during the Missouri-to-Nauvoo transition, as I recall. In any case, I’m not sure about using 121 to interpret 122. If we read the early verses of section 122, we really seem to be dealing with descriptions of different categories of individuals: fools, the pure in heart, the wise, the noble, the virtuous, thy people, traitors. In any case, if this is read as a statement about the church as a whole, it’s pretty poor comfort. Under that reading, we could perhaps reword the statement as follows: Don’t worry, Joseph, no matter how much success traitors have against you, at least a couple dozen Saints will stay faithful. If that’s what the text intends, then it’s pretty terrible…

  7. J., I have to agree with J. on this one re: “The People”.

    I have always been bothered by the uneducated 14 year old argument, since Joseph seemed to be very articulate and further was not 14. I think it mainly comes from confusing his “3rd grade education” with his overall learning and from transposing his age at the first vision with his age at translation.

    I am interested in the concept of a tendency to escalate conflict rather than seek compromise. I think one could argue that while this was Joseph’s great weakness, it was also a great strength to him in that it was his capacity to hold to truth that made him such a powerful tool in God’s hands.

    Perhaps I am simply internally harmonizing the text to my beliefs, but I have always seen the punishments from God to be mainly figurative here and elsewhere.

  8. JNS–I should have been more clear with what I meant by “large subset.” What I meant was “the Saints in Missouri” or “the Saints in Illinois” or now, the “Saints in Utah.” Certainly lots of people left Joseph, but none of those groups entirely abandoned him, or even a majority, IIRC.

  9. These two sections are two of my favourite sections in the D&C, and they really helped me get through a very spiritually difficult time of my life.

    http://www.ourthoughts.ca/2007/10/21/my-faith-crisis-story/

    I like the parallel between Joseph Smith’s experience and Jesus’s experience (Mark 15:34). I also like the parallels between these experiences and Psalms 69.

    Preparing this lesson for this Sunday has really helped see these scriptures is different light.

    Compare D&C 64:33 with D&C 121:7. Also, compare D&C 90:24 with D&C 122:7. I have lots of others, but I don’’t have my scriptures with me.

  10. So in order to make make sense of the prophesy in Section 122, we have to reinterpret the words “thy people” and “traitor.” I agree with JNS that these reinterpretations don’t seem to fit the original context. Couldn’t this same technique be used to make any statement true, a la Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons:

    “Well, he’s kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace ‘accidentally’ with ‘repeatedly,’ and replace ‘dog’ with ‘son.'”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lionel_Hutz

  11. Kim, I’d guess that the parallel with Psalm 69 may also not be coincidental. My hypothesis is that Joseph Smith was probably involved in intensive reading of the Psalms in search for comfort during the time frame of these two revelations.

    For D&C 64:33 and 121:7, I’m not sure I really see the specific connections. For D&C 90:24 and 122:7, the connection regarding the idea that bad experiences will benefit Joseph Smith are clear and constructive; thanks for pointing them out.

  12. Mark Brown says:

    JNS,

    While I agree with your conclusion that the caricature of Joseph Smith as an unlettered hick is inaccurate, how do we account for the assertion made by Emma, that her husband couldn’t compose a single sentence without assistance?

    Nicd work, by the way. I appreciate these posts, and hope they grow into an ongoing series.

  13. Mark Brown says:

    As for the question of what “thy people” means, I think it is possible to understand it simply as a majority of the people. When we say that “the people want _______”, we clearly don’t mean 100% percent of them, and the sentence still makes sense.

  14. Left Field says:

    I can’t recall ever hearing anyone associate 122:5-8 with Carthage. The association with Liberty seems obvious since that’s where he was and the passage is describing ongoing events. But perhaps if people mentioned Joseph being in jail, they may have been thinking of Carthage, while I assumed they were referring to Liberty.

  15. Joseph Smith translated the BoM in 1829, and Section 121 was written in 1839, ten years later. I would imagine that his writing ability was much better by 1839, considering his numerous experiences not just in translating but also in receiving, and writing, revelations. If he was considered an “unlettered hick” earlier in his life, he certainly grew in knowledge and ability.

  16. Mephibosheth says:

    I don’t know how much we gain by arguing that Joseph was a literary ignoramus, but yeah, there are some other factors to consider. The date on this revelation is 1839. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, so Joseph had plenty of time in the interim to improve, especially since he was doing lots of reading and writing, studying Hebrew, etc. during the Kirtland era. In addition to Emma’s commentary mentioned above, also recall the brouhaha over publishing the revelations because of all the grammatical and language errors in them (D&C 67).

    One of my Honors classes at BYU had an opportunity to look at some early Mormon documents in Special Collections. I remember thinking that Joseph’s block letters often looked like a little kid had scrawled them out and crossed out words and hardly had a noun and verb agree. But contrast this to say the opening verses of D&C 132 and yeah, I think that Joseph’s skills improved somewhat over the years.

  17. JNS,

    In D&C 121:7, the Saviour says that the trials of the Saints will be for a small moment.

    In D&C 64:33, the Saviour says that great things come out of small things.

    The connection I am trying to make is that these afflictions will make the saints great (perhaps spiritually stronger, or more virtuous [in the literal sense of the word], etc).

  18. And for the record, JNS, I too am amazed at all the Psalm-allusions in these chapters. I have to wonder if the prayer in D&C 121 was written or if it was transcribed.

  19. Regarding JS’s compositional ability, I have always thought his denunciation of the written word in his 27 Nov. 1832 letter to Phelps was, itself, rather stylish:

    “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”

    The context of the above quote makes makes his statement even more ironic, and his future attempts at record-keeping all the more significant. Identifying JS’s writings through the corpus of work by his scribes, particularly by the Illinois period, is a treacherous task indeed.

  20. I think your “thy people” interpretation here is being too literal, J. Sort of like Jesus being born (however many) years ago is taken by some to literally assign Jesus’s Happy Birthday.

    I think it’s a general reassurance to Joseph that he will not be abandoned or bereft of caring friends.

  21. Jim Donaldson says:

    Also remember that this letter was sent over the signature of all (5, right?) of the imprisoned leaders, not just JS, sort of “To the whole Church from the Guys in Jail.” My guess is that it was a collaborative project and writing it together was how they passed the time—nothing much else to do. It is very long, including many personal and topical bits, and was radically edited by Orson Pratt at the request of Brigham Young for inclusion in a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1870s, I think. I can’t check the HC right now, but I think I’m close.

  22. Regarding the literary ability question, let’s remember that there’s an important distinction to be made between verbal ability and writing, especially among less-educated people. Indeed, this distinction is hardly foreign to Mormon thought; consider Ether 12:23:

    Lord, thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing…

    Isn’t it plausible that Joseph Smith was terrible at writing words on paper but nonetheless gifted with language in verbal contexts such as dictation, sharing visions, and sermonizing? This seems to me to be the direction that the historical record points.

    As to the point that Smith’s writing style developed over time, I’m sure that’s true. And in fact, I think the texts being discussed here are more polished and sophisticated than most earlier Mormon texts. But the point about basic verbal aptitude nonetheless stands.

    Regarding the “people” question, my sense is not that the text promises that no Mormons would ever abandon Joseph, but rather that “traitors” would be totally ineffective in their goal of attracting people away from Joseph. Given that second message, the promise does seem to me to be about individuals rather than the majority of the group. (And in fact there would have been more direct ways to say it if it were a claim about the loyalty of the majority rather than the ineffectiveness of traitors.)

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments; this is a neat discussion.

  23. “‘traitors’ would be totally ineffective in their goal of attracting people away from Joseph.”

    I think that’s made readily apparent in verse 33:

    “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.”

  24. Narrating and writing are not the same. Brigham Young’s writing style changed dramatically when he got a secretary. You can say things you can’t necessarily write or spell.

  25. But it just isn’t reasonable to argue that he was the kind of person who couldn’t put a noun and a verb together — especially as he developed.

    There was a time when he took the back seat to others, often, when it came to public speaking. He made an amazing transition, and this is a great example of his voice, as he began to find it.

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