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…
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…