Ignoring Commandments and Blessing Future Apostates: D&C Lesson 29

Section 124 opens with a commandment that Joseph Smith blew off.  In the early verses, God commands Smith to:

immediately to make a solemn proclamation of my gospel, and of this stake which I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace.
This proclamation shall be made to all the kings of the world, to the four corners thereof, to the honorable president-elect, and the high-minded governors of the nation in which you live, and to all the nations of the earth scattered abroad.

immediately to make a solemn proclamation of my gospel, and of this stake which I have planted to be a cornerstone of Zion, which shall be polished with the refinement which is after the similitude of a palace.  This proclamation shall be made to all the kings of the world, to the four corners thereof, to the honorable president-elect, and the high-minded governors of the nation in which you live, and to all the nations of the earth scattered abroad.  (124: 2-3)

But Joseph never wrote the proclamation!  Parley P. Pratt wrote it, in 1845 after Smith was murdered, in an apparent attempt to retroactively fulfill this instruction on which Joseph hadn’t followed through.

The reasons for Smith’s failure are varied and of interest in themselves.  The revelation seems to have caused part of the problem, for God instructs,

And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant Robert B. Thompson help you to write this proclamation, for I am well pleased with him, and that he should be with you; let him, therefore, hearken to your counsel, and I will bless him with a multiplicity of blessings; let him be faithful and true in all things from henceforth, and he shall be great in mine eyes; but let him remember that his stewardship will I require at his hands.  (124:12-14)

All well and good that he’s to receive a multiplicity of blessings!  After this revelation was received in January, 1841, Thompson began work on a draft of the proclamation.  However, his progress was interrupted by his death of tuberculosis in August of that year.  Now, it’s possible that Thompson failed in some spectacular way to “hearken” to Joseph Smith’s council between January and August of 1841, although the historical record doesn’t seem to record such an event, instead showing Thompson during that period engaged in real estate transactions with the Smith family, accompanying Joseph to a trial, and being appointed to work with Joseph’s brother Don Carlos on the newspaper Times and Seasons.  Obviously not definitive, but this isn’t the sort of thing that strongly suggests a rift between Smith and Thompson.  So maybe death by tuberculosis is itself a multiplicity of blessings?

Anyway, Thompson’s ill-fated involvement with the proclamation obviously slowed matters down.  How seriously did Joseph Smith take the instruction to “immediately” write this proclamation?  So much so that, other than a single conversation with a scribe on the subject later in 1841, he was willing to wait two more years before appearing to worry about the matter.  Finally, in late 1843, he assigned Willard Richards, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, and W. W. Phelps to write the thing — but even then the assignment was evidently of priority such that Smith’s odd presidential campaign was allowed to supersede fulfilling this revealed calling.

Among the problematic issues here, to me, is the fact that Smith was evidently not particularly interested in participating in the process of composing this proclamation, even though the revelation calls him, at length and in rather florid language, to take the lead on the project.  God promises to give Joseph the power of the Holy Ghost during the writing process, which is nice of Him but seemingly irrelevant if Joseph’s entire participation is to consist of delegating the job to someone else.

Really, this isn’t a big deal; the proclamation was never going to influence kings, presidents, and governors in any case.  But it still bothers me because, despite myself, I tend to imagine Joseph’s attitude toward his revelations more or less as Richard Bushman described it: fanatically devoted to fulfilling predictions and instructions.  To see the man get a solemn instruction from God and then put it on the back burner for more than three years until his death is just discordant with that expectation.

As a side note, the Proclamation that Pratt finally wrote to try to make good on this instruction?  A hum-dinger!  Let’s say that, in comparison with most successful missionary approaches, this text is a bit, well, blunt.  Perhaps my favorite line?

You are not only required to repent and obey the gospel in its fulness, and thus become members or citizens of the kingdom of God, but you are also hereby commanded, in the name of Jesus Christ, to put your silver and your gold, your ships and steam-vessels, your railroad trains and your horses, chariots, camels, mules, and litters, into active use, for the fulfillment of these purposes. (pg. 3)

Why don’t we use that in the first discussion anymore?  (This text evidently wasn’t any more successful as a missionary tool in the 19th century than it would be in the 21st; the Millennial Star on October 15, 1845, cautioned missionaries against too frequent a use of the text  “so as not to unnecessarily to expose themselves to difficulties and persecution.” [Cited here.])

In verses 16-21, we get a string of blessings and even predictions regarding people who, from the point of view of the contemporary Utah church, all became apostates.  The notorious John C. Bennett is blessed in verses 16 and 17; the trickiest bit here is God’s statement that, “I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue…”  Hmm.  Bennett was always a deceiver; it’s strange that God would “accept” that.  Lyman Wight, who founded a Latter Day Saint successor church in Texas after Joseph Smith’s death, gets blessed in verses 18 and 19.  Particularly noteworthy is God’s promise that, “when he shall finish his work I may receive him unto myself…”  I ask in all sincerity: how did that work out, then?

In verses 20-21, George Miller gets blessed.  Miller, after Smith’s death, initially accepted Brigham Young’s leadership, subsequently transferring his loyalties to Lyman Wight and then to James J. Strang.  God offers the following statement and prophesy about Miller:

…my servant George Miller is without guile; he may be trusted because of the integrity of his heart; and for the love which he has to my testimony I, the Lord, love him…  Let no man despise my servant George, for he shall honor me.

Sounds good to me!  I guess you can honor God with integrity and without guile in whatever branch of the Latter Day Saint movement you belong to.

Section 124 then continues with a lengthy passage, skipped by the lesson reading assignment, in which God commands the construction of a temple.  (Why was this omitted from the lesson?)  Then, because why have one major building project when you can have two, God also commands several people to fund and build a free hotel that Joseph Smith and his descendants can run “from generation to generation, forever and ever” (vs. 59).  Not an inconvenient revelation to receive!

After the long break, we get more blessings for future apostates (from the point of view of the Utah church).  William Law and Sidney Rigdon get promises and commandments here.  These texts are most interesting, I think, as a window into how each of these men was seen as of the founding of Nauvoo.  Law was a total action hero, on the evidence of this section — which talks about him healing, doing exorcisms, and raising the dead.  In light of later events, we sometimes lose sight of how important and trusted Law really was.

Rigdon, by contrast, was clearly already on the outs.  His revelation is mostly about how he really, really shouldn’t send his family to live anywhere other than Nauvoo.  My understanding is that the tension between Smith and Rigdon that one can sense here was never really resolved through the rest of Joseph’s life.

Once again, though, the most interesting bit of text is one that the manual omits; verses 91-96 describe Hyrum Smith’s calling as Church Patriarch.  These verses on their face give the Patriarch the sealing power as well as hierarchical status equivalent to that of the President of the Church.  Of course, as with any other text related to Mormon leadership and succession, there are other readings of this passage, both principled and post hoc.  Nonetheless, this is a really interesting passage, and it’s too bad the lesson manual omits it.

Section 126 is really inane to me as scripture.  I mean, this is an entire revelation telling Brigham Young to make like a disgraced CEO or politician and spend more time with his family.  As bureaucratic management?  This revelation seems perfectly reasonable.  I’m glad that Young got to stay home and not travel so much; he’d certainly done a lot of travel.  But is this a message of spiritual value for the ages?  Really not.

The really interesting question about Section 126 is: why is this in our scriptures?  It wasn’t included in LDS editions of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876, and it’s never been included in RLDS editions.  I think the section was probably added due to the rivalry of the era between the Utah Mormons and the Reorganized branch of the Saints.  In that context, this revelation might be interpreted as somewhat bolstering Young’s succession claim by generalizing the revealed role of the Quorum of the Twelve beyond its position of leadership over missionary work and branches organized in the mission field.  By relieving Young of the duty to travel as a missionary, this section might be read as authorizing a different and, perhaps, broader role for him.

The problem?  It doesn’t.  The revelation just tells Young to supervise missionary work from home.  Which makes this a pointless section of the Doctrine and Covenants, unless you’re engaged in the high school yearbook game of maximizing the number of times your name shows up in the book.

While there are a lot of Mormons who love key sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, I don’t think I know many people who love the book as a whole in the way that some people love the Book of Mormon, say, or the Gospel of Luke.  This lesson’s readings may well show a key reason why: the Doctrine and Covenants contains a lot of material that, while perhaps interesting from a historical perspective, is rather meager in devotional or spiritual terms.  Heaven help the teacher trying to build a lesson primarily around these texts!

The lesson manual recommends, in addition to these passages, a few excerpts from the too-painful-by-half book Our Heritage, including a somewhat telegraphic account of the founding of the Relief Society.  If I were teaching Sunday School based on this lesson, I’d take a clue from that and focus the lesson on the founding and history of the Relief Society.  Much more fertile soil than these D&C sections!

***

This post is a continuation of the Back-Row Questions series.  For a brief explanation of the series, as well as extended commentary (both critical and supportive) regarding its tone, see this post.

Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    After reading this, I have three thoughts:

    1. It shows how fallible even the prophet Joseph Smith is. The Lord repeatedly chastened him through his life and the D&C. No, he didn’t do all things he was commanded. Was he still a prophet? Yes. Was he perfect? No.

    2. It reveals agency. All these men were given promises if they obeyed, but they didn’t. They had agency to choose not to.

    3. This section reminds me of patriarchal blessings. Patriarchal blessings are promised blessings predicated on worthiness. So many of the promises “don’t come true”. Does it mean the Lord is a liar? No, just that people have agency and are fallible.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Also, I taught a Primary class about Zion’s Camp on Sunday. I found it interesting that the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to round up 500 men, but then immediately says something like, “But I know that men do not always obey my commands”. Therefore, he asks for 300 and then 100. He gave the command of 500 knowing they would not obey it. I suspect it is similar with this section of D&C – the Lord gives the promised blessings knowing that they likely won’t be received. But, He can still covenant and do His part – he can give them a chance to prove faithful.

  3. ” the Doctrine and Covenants contains a lot of material that, while perhaps interesting from a historical perspective, is rather meager in devotional or spiritual terms”.
    I believe Talmage tried to fix this (?) Is there anything to read on this?

  4. You subversive, you.

    I’ll claim this comment was forged should anyone in my ward ever see this, but I believe that Our Heretic is finding increased favor as an alternate title among Sunday School Teachers Who Know.

  5. The OP makes it clear that the situation is a little more complicated than Stephanie and others often describe.

    Robert B. Thompson doesn’t appear to have done anything to disobey and the Lord doesn’t appear to have been a very good judge of John C. Bennett’s character.

  6. If you look at the Kirtland Council Minute Book on the calling and duty of the Twelve, a revelation telling them to stay home is wildly significant.

    It is to bad we don’t get to discuss Hyrum.

  7. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    J., it isn’t a revelation telling the Twelve to stay home, but rather telling Brigham Young to supervise their duties from home — it’s a one-off permission to fulfill duties in a less intensive way, not a change in mission.

    Stephanie, a reasonable point of view.

    Bill, right, the hit rate is not quite 100%.

    Ardis, thanks for that; a brilliant comment, as always. Just because this is the internet and some readers are less perceptive than others, let me note that subversion isn’t the goal here.

  8. JNS, is it possible that Joseph understood the value of the revelation to be in its assertion that Joseph had the authority from the Lord to write this proclamation? That is, no one expected the proclamation to do much good vis-a-vis the particularly named kings and governors. And so, the value of the revelation was in its didactic purpose to the other hearers (and readers) that Joseph was the Lord’s chosen one, and that the kingdom of God was being established. ??

    I guess I’m just not as nonplussed as you at the idea that Joseph could leave this writing assignment behind. The revelation did the trick, no?

  9. I’m with Stapley on wanting to talk more about Hyrum. In my SS class last week, after I had given the main points of Section 121 in fifteen minutes (this is a class for teenagers, and the common response to a probing question is “Uhhm”, followed by a shrug, we played a game. It’s a sort of Mormon Trivial Pursuit. One of the questions was, “Who held Joseph Smith’s leg and stayed with him almost constantly during his leg surgery and recovery?” The answer was Hyrum. I thought that was very sweet. I hadn’t known, or hadn’t remembered. (Oh please don’t tell me it’s not true!) The story of brotherhood is always a good one.

  10. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Hunter, that’s definitely possible. What do you see as the purpose that was fulfilled? If it’s to show that Joseph receives revelations, then any revelation will do — including one with more content, right?

    Margaret, definitely. I’m always sad that our focus regarding church history becomes as narrow as it sometimes does. There were lots of early Mormons whose stories are well worth telling and retelling.

  11. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    By the way, it has become clear that some questions linger about this series. So, let me try again to explain what I think I’m up to.

    There are a lot of things about the scriptures that I find challenging, irritating, maddening, or otherwise problematic. If these were basically any other text, I would just read around these aspects and focus on the material I find useful and valuable. But these aren’t any other text; these are my sacred books. As such, it seems to me to be disrespectful to read around the problem areas.

    This series is about trying another approach. What I’m doing here is wrestling with the text. When there are things that I love, I say so and talk about why — see particularly last week’s entry for some examples. When there are things that I have a hard time with, I’m taking them on. I’m not going to pretend to have answers for everything that’s hard; for many of these texts, I don’t yet know answers that seem satisfying. But I am going to pay the text the reverence of taking it all seriously.

    When that process makes me frustrated, I’ll express that frustration. There are jokes and asides in this series for this purpose. In much Mormon and ex-Mormon discourse, humor is used as a way of indicating complete disrespect for a text or interlocutor. I find this unfortunate, and a terrible demeaning of humor. In this series, jokes and throw-away lines are used as a way of engaging with the text, not as a way of suggesting that it doesn’t deserve our attention.

    I am not opposed to these texts, and I am certainly not writing with any intention of undermining faith. I’m writing as an expression of faith. I believe that taking our sacred texts on and working through them frankly must bring us closer to God. That’s what I think this series will do for me.

    What do I think it will do for the reader? For some people, it’ll just be boring; I’m sorry about that. For others, these posts may be an invitation to do their own close reading of the text. I expect that many or most such readers will reach different conclusions than I do. That’s wonderful! Please share.

    I realize that some readers are aggravated or offended by my wresting with the scriptures. I don’t really understand this reaction. I suppose, to these readers, I plead for empathy. Please understand that I don’t have ulterior motives here, and I’m not trying to oppose or destroy anything. It may be the case that we read the scriptures very differently; please at least understand that I’m trying to read them as well as I can and with the goal of drawing closer to God, even though I don’t always find the way through the maze.

  12. I love this series. I like that you take on these strange passages directly. I like asking, “Why is this scripture in here?” and I like seeing people, such as those you talk about being referred to in the scriptures, expressing their humanness. I few years ago I was asked to give a sacrament talk on Joseph Smith (it was the year of his birthday celebration). I gave one called “The Weakness of Joseph Smith.” I said that those were the ways I related to him. That he was so human and still could do so much good gave me hope. It still does.

  13. Thank God for the revelations that are published in the D&C. In gospel doctrine class a couple of weeks ago we were informed by respected teacher that Joseph Smith in the infancy of the church received a revelation to establish a temple near the Susquehanna River and a foundation was started which is there today. His source was a book by Wilford C. Wood. I couldn’t find anything on this in the History of Church or by a Google search. Does anyone have any information on the Susquehanna temple?

  14. nonSugarCoatedReality says:

    Why don’t we use that in the first discussion anymore? (This text evidently wasn’t any more successful as a missionary tool in the 19th century than it would be in the 21st; the Millennial Star on October 15, 1845, cautioned missionaries against too frequent a use of the text ‘so as not to unnecessarily to expose themselves to difficulties and persecution. — J. Nelson-Seawright

    Standby. The last missionaries will give you your first discussion. And yes, there is subtext in this post.

    1 Nephi 14:7 For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand [5 wise] or on the other [5 foolish]—either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction, both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the devil, of which I have spoken.

    “Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggested that these [antelope] symbolize their mission to ‘provide oil for the lamps of those who go forth to meet the Bridegroom . . . ; and that as lamp stands they shall reflect to men that light which comes from Him who is the Light of the World’.” NTSM.

    Isaiah 14:32 What shall [INSV exclusion] then answer the messengers of the nation? That the Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it.

  15. nonSugarCoatedReality says:

    Corrected post.

    Why don’t we use that in the first discussion anymore? (This text evidently wasn’t any more successful as a missionary tool in the 19th century than it would be in the 21st; the Millennial Star on October 15, 1845, cautioned missionaries against too frequent a use of the text ‘so as not to unnecessarily to expose themselves to difficulties and persecution. — J. Nelson-Seawright

  16. I am not opposed to these texts, and I am certainly not writing with any intention of undermining faith. I’m writing as an expression of faith. I believe that taking our sacred texts on and working through them frankly must bring us closer to God. That’s what I think this series will do for me.

    I think it is difficult for many to see this as your purpose given how you are writing these posts — I understand you are mystified at how people could possibly sense any kind of “tone” in these posts and so this comment is meant to help you understand why these posts are raising these “tone” issues that you have alluded to by providing the link at the bottom of the original post. As a side note, I haven’t seen people complaining about your tone on this particular thread but this draws in that discussion from the linked thread in your original post, proceeding based on the assumption that people would have the same complaints here. I assume you will be interested in hearing more about why the “tone” here is grating to some. If that is an incorrect assumption, please excuse my long-windedness and overly earnest attempt to make this clear below.

    Please understand that I don’t have ulterior motives here, and I’m not trying to oppose or destroy anything.

    Again, the problem is how you’ve written this, not necessarily with your “close reading of the text” or your hope that others will follow in a similar effort at deconstruction. You aren’t just asking dry questions, you’re making fun! (Aren’t you? — making fun is a legitimate purpose in writing something as you note in comment # 11. It’s just that some readers who sense that is what’s going on here see themselves, and not the texts, as targets — and they’re taking umbrage by commenting on the “tone”.) Statements such as the following sarcastic asides (not to mention the title of the post) — or statements that seem to be making fun — are going to continue being an obstacle in convincing people that you “are not opposed to these texts” and are not writing with an intention of “undermining faith” in the texts as revelations from God or in Joseph Smith’s role as a prophet receiving revelations from God in writing these texts:

    But Joseph never wrote the proclamation! It’s kind of the exclamation point that conveys a sense of sarcasm/making fun, coupled with the “vibe” of the rest of the paragraph — Pratt’s “apparent attempt” to rectify Joseph Smith’s “ignoring” of a commandment. But, personally, I follow you here. Perhaps if Joseph Smith himself would have immediately followed through on the commandment upon Thompson’s death, England’s (and some other countries’) majority religion would be Mormonism today. Truly, a lost opportunity, not unlike others’ failure to render strict obedience to God’s commandments elsewhere in the scriptures.

    All well and good that he’s to receive a multiplicity of blessings! . . . . So maybe death by tuberculosis is itself a multiplicity of blessings? The first sentence here is very easily read as sarcasm/making fun. Thompson died so obviously, in your reading (apparently), he didn’t receive a multiplicity of blessings, which is what the last sentence strongly implies albeit in a sarcastic expression querying whether we should be learning from this passage that death by tuberculosis is a multiplicity of blessings. On a substantive note, I would just like to ask you why you seem to harbor an implicit assumption that one promised a multiplicity of blessings shouldn’t die the same year from tuberculosis. To turn your sarcastic question back on you, “So perhaps a promise of a multiplicity of blessings is equivalent to a promise that one won’t die of tuberculosis?” We don’t know whether Thompson himself felt a multiplicity of blessings in his life before he contracted the disease/died or whether the multiplicity of blessings referred to a larger realm of existence than just mortal life, etc. To many unknowns to criticize this aspect, I would think.

    How seriously did Joseph Smith take the instruction to “immediately” write this proclamation? So much so that, other than a single conversation with a scribe on the subject later in 1841, he was willing to wait two more years before appearing to worry about the matter. Finally, in late 1843, he assigned Willard Richards, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, and W. W. Phelps to write the thing — but even then the assignment was evidently of priority such that Smith’s odd presidential campaign was allowed to supersede fulfilling this revealed calling. This is just a very flippant way to go about analyzing the question posed in the first sentence, which on its own is just a dry, unobjectionable question. You own up to that in your comment # 11, but I’m not sure everyone, particularly on earlier threads, has read your comment # 11. The bolded portions attempt to highlight to you where a reader would see you making fun with relation to Joseph Smith’s compliance with a commandment. You have stated it was your intention to express your frustration and exasperation in this way. You done this very well here and your point is very well taken: Joseph Smith did not obey the revealed commandment here with the precision that one would have expected him too given his record at other times of being “fanatically devoted to fulfilling predictions and instructions.” Maybe Joseph Smith should have been more consistent and obeyed with more exactness and, in light of that, maybe we in our lives should be more consistent and obey with more exactness — is that something you think we should draw from this? Or are you more saying that this isn’t exactly a revelation at all? As noted, a missed opportunity to be sure. In light of your presentation and despite your assertion that such a proclamation by Joseph Smith wouldn’t have mattered, I am persuaded to think that it is reasonably certain that if only Joseph Smith himself would have followed this commandment with precision, the world trajectory of Mormonism would have been completely different as kings, queens, rulers, presidents and magistrates accepted the Gospel with their populaces following shortly behind.

    A hum-dinger! . . . Why don’t we use that in the first discussion anymore? These just sound sarcastic, which seems to be making fun of the proclamation and the outcome of the commandment in D&C 124.

    In verses 16-21, we get a string of blessings and even predictions regarding people who, from the point of view of the contemporary Utah church, all became apostates. The notorious John C. Bennett is blessed in verses 16 and 17; the trickiest bit here is God’s statement that, “I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue…” Hmm. Bennett was always a deceiver; it’s strange that God would “accept” that. Lyman Wight, who founded a Latter Day Saint successor church in Texas after Joseph Smith’s death, gets blessed in verses 18 and 19. Particularly noteworthy is God’s promise that, “when he shall finish his work I may receive him unto myself…” I ask in all sincerity: how did that work out, then? You might be asking this in all sincerity but you chose to use the vehicle of literary sarcasm to discuss it. Sarcasm is often used and has the purpose of making fun. People who genuinely think this is a revelation from God and that, therefore, there must be factors involved that we don’t know about that caused things to turn out differently (and who just take that on faith, not demanding to know a reason for everything) will understandably note your tone and be bothered by it, despite your expressed intention to use humor to express your frustration. Your choice of presentation is having exactly the effect one should assume such techniques would have: It is grating on the orthodox who view this as a revelation and it is expressing what seems to be your suspicion that this section probably isn’t really a revelation but something written by Joseph Smith and cloaked with the status of revelation. Your reply might rightly be that, if it grates on the orthodox, then that’s their problem for being orthodox! But that might not be as constructive as acknowledging that saying some things in some ways isn’t agreeable to the orthodox. At any rate, your point is well taken — may very well be true, you’ve argued very persuasively — but it’s natural that many a “TBM” might be crestfallen at this line of argument. It just depends on what a given reader has invested in believing that every word in the Doctrine & Covenants comes straight from God’s mouth. I think you see the value in these posts as trying to debunk that particular assumption. Hopefully you can put yourself in the shoes of people who countenance that assumption and see your “tone” through their eyes, even after their allowance for your decision to use humor — for some people their religion is not a laughing matter.

    Sounds good to me! I guess you can honor God with integrity and without guile in whatever branch of the Latter Day Saint movement you belong to. This is straightforward sarcasm which appears to be borne out of exasperation with the text and is thus consistent with your statement in comment # 11. Nothing wrong with being exasperated; it’s just that a lot of people don’t like sarcasm, unless of course they’re dishing it out. In any event, you are probably right that one can honor God with integrity and without guile in whatever branch of the Latter Day Saint movement you belong to — the question becomes one of saving ordinances/priesthood power, perhaps something that you’ll be addressing in a future post. Also, it is unclear why a blessing and promise given cannot be forfeited by one’s subsequent actions; in fact, my impression has been that the possibility of this occurring is very commonly assumed in Mormonism. Perhaps my barometer is somewhat off on what Mormons have and currently believe, though, and so perhaps there actually is some tension here and a valid argument that this isn’t a revelation from God but rather some hopeful prose of Joseph Smith’s. That idea doesn’t affect my testimony but I think it’s appropriate to note that it might well affect some other people’s testimony, though we might agree that it’s not particularly good that something like this should affect anyone’s testimony. But hopefully it is easy to see why such people would take umbrage and complain about “tone”.

    Then, because why have one major building project when you can have two, God also commands several people to fund and build a free hotel that Joseph Smith and his descendants can run “from generation to generation, forever and ever” (vs. 59). Not an inconvenient revelation to receive! Since this is dripping in sarcasm, it carries the air of making fun of this Section. It is difficult to guess what else this is trying to say except to express your suspicion that this is an attempt by Joseph Smith to abuse his position to get those who have subscribed to Mormonism as a religion to build a free hotel for himself and his posterity. If you meant something different by this portion and its sarcastic delivery, feel free to clarify/explain. Still, you might have just presented it straightforwardly without the sarcasm (despite your desire to use humor to express your frustration) and then people would get your drift without feeling made fun of (for believing, on their part, that this is an actual revelation) and then they would have had no basis for making complaints based on “tone”. Your choice to use humor might have been a little risky, in the end. As noted, it’s just because some people don’t see their religion as a laughing matter — whether such seriousness about the sacred is heatlhy or not is perhaps a different question entirely.

    Well, not sure I need to go any further — I am certain I have said far far too much already. To close, let me just note that, for me, personally, your explanation in # 11 was enough to explain the sarcasm and posture of making fun of the text and implicitly of people who believe in it uncritically as revelation simply because it is in the D&C:

    When that process makes me frustrated, I’ll express that frustration. There are jokes and asides in this series for this purpose. In much Mormon and ex-Mormon discourse, humor is used as a way of indicating complete disrespect for a text or interlocutor. I find this unfortunate, and a terrible demeaning of humor. In this series, jokes and throw-away lines are used as a way of engaging with the text, not as a way of suggesting that it doesn’t deserve our attention.

    This point about humor and your intention to use it is well taken but in my opinion it should still be easy for you to see why the “tone” that such sarcasm and making fun creates is difficult for many to swallow and they’re going to call you on it, particularly if they aren’t longtime readers of BCC and don’t know what you’re up to.

  17. gst-wannabe says:

    13: Larry, with all due respect to a teacher who cared enough to do outside reading, this is a good illustration of how teachers get in over their heads when they don’t read enough.

    There is no truth to the persistent legend of a temple foundation near the Susquehanna or anywhere near the town that was called Harmony in Joseph’s day. I’ve tried unsuccessfully in the past few minutes (and don’t have more time this morning to keep looking) for an article published within the last couple of years that goes through the history of Wood’s mistake — something about a square marked on an old map as “Mormon temple” and finding the (log?) remains of an old schoolhouse (old, but much too recent to have been there in 1829) at that spot, and Wood’s assuming he had found something that nobody else in the entire history of the church had ever guessed at.

    There’s no particular reason you should believe me when I can’t point you to an authoritative source — but as a general course of safety in such matters, if you can’t find any mention of such an important thing in the D&C, the lesson manual, the Institute and other standard helps that Gospel Doctrine teachers usually use, the easily available BHRoberts History of the Church, then there’s a good chance that somebody has made a bad mistake somewhere. Why, with all the resources the church has put into locating and marking early sites, would they overlook the “first” temple of this dispensation? Why wouldn’t our manuals ever talk about such a wonderful thing? Why would you be unable to find any reference to it in the standard histories of the church? Asking questions like that can help you weed out a teacher’s enthusiasm for arcana from real history.

  18. Perhaps God is not as omniscient as we think. If we believe God sees the entire future, then we have an issue with Lyman Wight and others, who were faithful at the time. We have an issue with someone being given a command to assist Joseph in writing a proclamation, only to die a few months later.
    But if the future is unclear to God, then these things are automatically resolved.
    How it applies to John C. Bennett? Maybe God wasn’t peeking into Bennett’s spare bedroom?

  19. {sigh} I knew that changing my name to make a silly joke yesterday was going to come back to bite me. I am, of course, the ardent admirer of gst, and author of the last comment.

  20. Grr, I mean comment 17.

  21. Left Field says:

    I know exactly what you mean, Ardis. I changed my name for my vanilla comment on the cannibal thread, and wondered how many comments I would make with that in the name field before I would remember to change it. This gives me an opportunity to change it back.

    –Still loving vanilla, but no longer “Vanilla Lover”

  22. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    John, thanks in particular for the careful dissection of the post. I think you may have what I’d regard as an overly encompassing concept of “making fun.” For example, I certainly did make light of the final Proclamation that came out of the Section 124 instruction. It didn’t work out very well, as the Millennial Star warning suggests. I agree with you that, if Joseph Smith had taken a more active role, it would probably have been much better. Perhaps the world would be far more Mormon than it is today; I certainly can’t know that not to be the case. My guess that it didn’t matter that much is driven at least in part by my desire to see Joseph in the most charitable light possible; I’d rather see him as having ignored something unimportant than as having ignored something crucial to human history. But as a matter of history and biography, this is one of many examples that really should make us careful about describing Joseph as generally highly obedient to instructions in his revelations; this seems to have been true in some narrow areas but not in general. That doesn’t make him bad; we all do the same thing.

    However, I’m not making light of the revelations. The sarcastic comments related to them are not meant to suggest that they are failed efforts in the way that Pratt’s Proclamation was. Rather, they highlight and bring into focus the trouble areas in the text. This is why, I think, focusing on the jokes is a mistake — I think people’s discomfort arises because I’m engaging head on with areas that are hard for me, and the jokes are a tool for that. In other words, the “tone” complaints are generally really about the substance; they’re about the fact that I’m trying to deal with the many things about these texts for which I don’t have good answers.

    Regarding Lyman Wight and George Miller, you see sarcasm where it doesn’t exist. I’d genuinely love to know whether God saw Wight as having finished his work, and it seems entirely plausible to me that Miller acted with integrity and love for God in his peregrinations through the Latter Day Saint world — a point that, in my view, would remind us to treat our cousins in other traditions with respect.

    On the question of whether these are revelations, and what that means, I have little to offer. Are these the verbatim words of God? I think maybe not always, but if they are, they raise tricky questions about God’s nature and knowledge, questions we ought to think through. Are they human expressions of a divine inspiration? Maybe. Is that enough to count as revelation? Certainly, from my point of view. But if this is right, then it ought to change how we read the texts, and it ought to demand an active, engaged, and sometimes critical position from the reader. After all, our job on this reading is to find ways to reconstruct the divine inspiration that motivates the human and probably imperfect text. Are these texts a transcript of a human attempt to find God? Also, maybe, and for me that could also count as revelation. Again, with attendant implications for how we read.

    My point is that, regardless of our theory of where revelations come from and what they mean, we have a responsibility to read seriously and with full engagement. If we simply suspend our understanding and engagement when we run into things that don’t make sense or seem wrong, we’re failing as readers and letting the revelations down.

  23. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Note, by the way, that complaints (as well as supportive remarks) about tone and purpose this week have come through email rather than in the blog discussion thread.

  24. I confess that I am totally baffled at the backlash to these backrow posts. I agree with Steve P’s characterization that they represent an attempt to take on “these strange passages directly.” The fact that JNS isn’t just glossing over the language is, itself, kind of a tribute to the text, no?

    Making fun or being sarcastic? I don’t think so.

  25. Mark Brown says:

    Latter-day saints are used to having an escape hatch handy when we deal with uncomfortable verses of scripture. Our articles of faith require us only to believe something that is translated correctly.

    I think part of the discomfort some of us may feel about JNS’s treatment of these D&C lessons is a result of the text being so immediately available to us, and we have no place to dodge or equivocate. The text is written in more or less modern English and is part of American culture. We cannot fall back on the excuse of errors in translation or misunderstanding of Greek or Hebrew culture as we can with our other sacred works. We have no other choice but to confront the text head-on.

    Since I have a black belt in seeing what I want to see and overlooking everything else, I appreciate the way these discussions bring out points I have previously ignored.

  26. john f.

    I agree completely with JNS regarding the appropriatness of using jokes, throw-away lines, and sarcasm as an effective means of publicly wrestling with something difficult to hopefully get a better understanding. It does not really matter that the material that is the object of the jokes is considered a bit more sacred or special to you, or anyone else for that matter. I’m surprised you don’t see that. Sarcasm and jokes are just the most effective way of attempting to gain a better understanding of things difficult, particularly of a religious nature. In fact, I am so convinced of that fact that I am going to incorporate this ‘tone’ in my marriage when I bring up ‘difficult’ things that involve her. If she objects I will just remind her that what she is REALLY objecting to is the content rather than the delivery. I’m sure she will then understand that I am only trying to highlight and bring into focus trouble areas and that the jokes are just a tool.

    Yes, I see the irony.

  27. Mark Brown says:

    The thing is, when somebody takes himself too seriously, gentle humor probably is the best way to approach problems. There is nothing biting or bitter about the humor employed in the post. So the question then becomes: Do LDS people sometimes take themselves too seriously? The question answers itself.

  28. I guess that’s why Sonny’s # 26 works.

  29. Scott B. says:

    Mark, the fact that this is the 3rd post in this series, and we’re still explaining/complaining about the use of sarcastic humor in them need not be an indicator of people taking themselves too seriously. It may instead be an indicator that the jokes just aren’t funny, or at least not understood to be jokes. If a comedian (not saying JNS is such) constantly has to explain his punch lines, is the audience entirely to blame? Apparently so, in this case.

  30. JNS,

    I haven’t been able to directly engage this section yet, but I appreciate the “back row” discussions you have been sharing with us. I can understand why the tone is putting some people off. Heck, I had to read this one twice before I felt more comfortable with it. However, you are making me look more closely at some of these, and even though I don’t always agree with your conclusions, it’s an interesting series. As has been pointed out, the Doctrine and Covenants is a different sort of scripture for us, and presents some different challenges.

  31. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Scott, I don’t think people are regularly failing to understand my ironic comments. They’re just upset that the comments are made. I think there’s a cultural divide here, where some people belong to a culture in which any humor about a religious topic implies complete and utter dismissal of that topic, whereas others — me included — belong to a culture in which humor is a tool people use to talk about serious as well as trivial things. This cultural divide in particular may be geographic — I’ve been living outside the Mormon Corridor for a long time. Or it may have to do with differing educational paths, or something else. Who knows? Cultural difference doesn’t imply better or worse, but it does require efforts at mutual understanding. I’d ask that people who are offended try to read with charity; I certainly promise to return the favor.

    Sonny #26, my wife and I indeed do use humor to talk about issues that arise in our family. It works pretty well; I’d recommend it. Although I heartily object to the claim that the texts in question are more sacred to John F. than they are to me. Not so!

  32. Ardis: Right back atcha.

    All: I, for one, object to any attempted humor about matters of religion.

  33. Mark Brown says:

    Scott, do you think the humor JNS uses here is any different in tone that the humor GA’s use in conference to make a point about rotten hometeaching statistics? Let’s face it — GA jokes are usually pretty lame. If you or I told them, our listeners would just groan and roll their eyes, but in conference everbody laughs like they are the funniest things they have ever heard. We are conditioned to do so, and we are conditioned to talking about scripture in hushed and reverent voices. I continue to believe that we aren’t used to somebody talking about scripture in the way that the post does, and that is the only reason there objections. I appreciate that looking at scripture in our traditional way has many advantages. But I also think that there are advantages to this approach.

  34. JNS,
    “Although I heartily object to the claim that the texts in question are more sacred to John F. than they are to me. Not so!”

    Agreed. I should have stated that differently.

    “my wife and I indeed do use humor to talk about issues that arise in our family. It works pretty well”

    So do we—about some things. Other things, especially of a sensitive nature, I would put my life on the line if I resorted to sarcasm and throw-away lines. And I think that highlights something important. Not all subjects can be approached the same way. My wife adored her now deceased father. If I talked about him, or something he said before he passed away, in any manner that comes across as flippant, I think I would be out of line. I think many readers here perhaps feel similarly about how topics in the scriptures, D&C or otherwise, are discussed.

    But have you noticed that for the most the content of your post is not being discussed nearly as much as the delivery? Is there perhaps a way to bring up the important issues you bring up in a manner that is not off-putting to a significant portion of the audience?

  35. JNS #11 and john f #16, and others replying to the tone of this series:

    I’ve little to add on the topic of this post, but I do want to record my support and appreciation for this Back Row series. It’s some of the most interesting and compelling writing to come from the blogs in quite some time.

    I understand john f’s analysis of the tone, and I think he gently and effectively explains why some take exception to it. I want to be charitable and offer some way around those exceptions, but I don’t think it is possible to please everyone and still accomplish what I think is significant about these posts – namely, that they allow us to engage with the text in a way that devotional writings and revered tones do not. The humor and the side comments can be jarring to some, but I find them to be endearing and, in effect, they give permission to readers to truly wrestle with the text.

    Too often in our religion it feels as though serious questions and analysis are frowned upon. Answers that are difficult to come by are, well, difficult! It makes us uneasy, and we are too nice to make anyone else uneasy. Thus we entertain our questions quietly, sitting among our friends on Sunday and feeling as if we are the only ones with questions. I suspect that many suffer by putting on a smile and offering scripted answers, never understanding that the person next to them is doing the same. Putting off the questions, hoping to find peace. Each of us alone. Together.

    If a direct tone, humor, and even sarcasm can break down the barriers, stimulate thought, and encourage us to wrestle with the scriptures, I tend to think that such an approach does a service to the text. Such an engagement does wonders for stimulating thought, and turning hearts and minds of the readers to God. It causes us to confront the maze, acknowledge it, and find our way through it. But at least we are doing it together, a real community of saints.

    I’m looking forward to more from this series.

  36. Before I could accept the humor used here, I had to be convinced that JNS had a genuine respect for the scriptures, and trust that he wasn’t merely piling on the ridicule. That convincing and trust didn’t come with the first reading. In fact, it has come very gradually as JNS has demonstrated in the *comments* that he isn’t taking cheap shots.

    JNS displays a particular — and peculiar — form of trust that the scriptures can and will stand on their own no matter what pummeling he gives them. He and the scriptures are like two brothers who engage in good-natured roughhousing, knowing that neither will go far enough to hurt the other.

  37. Scott B. says:

    Scott, do you think the humor JNS uses here is any different in tone that the humor GA’s use in conference to make a point about rotten hometeaching statistics?

    Yes, I do. The basic difference is that I can usually tell that they are using humor without them explaining it after the fact.

  38. I think “Back Row Questions” is not a bad title for this series. Also good might have been “Holy Scriptures Peanut Gallery.”

  39. Scott B. says:

    JNS, I apologize for being a prick here. I disagree with certain elements, but that is neither here nor there. Clearly others are enjoying the posts, so I will concede that we’re talking preferences and not appropriatenesses.

  40. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think the post was offensive in any way. What is wrong is wrong with asking hard questions about odd bits of scripture or using a little humor about them.

    Sometimes I think Joseph Smith wrote a little too much for his (and our) own good. I imagine if much of what goes on in leading the church now were written down it would be 1) boring, like some D&C sections are and 2) disturbing, like when the prophet follows inspiration but things still don’t turn out as he’d planned.

  41. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Scott B., I really don’t think you or anyone else is “being a prick.” I understand that there are people who don’t like the way I’m writing these posts.

    Sonny, I agree that it’s disappointing how people focus more on their offense or lack thereof regarding these posts than on the content. Perhaps that’s partly because some people are turned off by the writing, although some comments here suggest another reason. Engaging in discussion of the substance is harder work and at least sometimes requires taking the time to go back to the texts and read. Kevinf makes this point above when he says,

    I haven’t been able to directly engage this section yet…

    Responding one way or another to the writing style doesn’t require any work beyond reading this post, and it revolves around less effortful emotional response as much as more intensive forms of reasoning. In a blog context, I’m not surprised — although I am a bit sad — that there hasn’t been a massive outpouring of discussion about the details of the text. Much of the substantive discussion that there has been, particularly regarding the second post in the series, has been really great.

    Rory, hugs!

    Ardis, double hugs! Thanks so much. Taryn, Artemis, and I are going to be in Utah in a few weeks; if you’re available, we’d love to treat you to a lunch sometime.

    gst, good alternate title! You have my express permission to think of the series with either name.

  42. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Emily, hugs to you, too!

    (Hugs to Sonny, Scott, John, et al., as well.)

  43. Scott B., I really don’t think you or anyone else is “being a prick.”

    I rest my case re the difficulty of interpreting tone; I assure you I was 100% prick in my comment.

  44. Ardis,

    I share your acceptance that JNS is not merely piling on the ridicule and that he is genuine.

    However, I do not think that the humor/sarcasm/throw-aways aimed at the text is only way, or the most effective way, of starting a public dialogue among predominantly fellow believers.

    I actually enjoy discussing difficult issues. I just am particular about the manner in which they are discussed and framed. But I do need to remember that they are not my posts and I am just a commenter, so I should just keep my mouth shut.

    Other than that, I really enjoy and learn from JNS’s posts.

  45. JNS,

    Hug reciprocated. :-)

  46. Mephibosheth says:

    I’m not surprised — although I am a bit sad — that there hasn’t been a massive outpouring of discussion about the details of the text.

    Ok, I’m totally confused now. These questions are jokes, or not? You really expect someone to sit down and put together a convincing case on whether or not Robert B. Thompson received a multiplicity of blessings between January and August of 1841? In the immortal words of Kip Dynamite: “Like anyone could even know that.”

  47. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mephibosheth, actually, I’d love it if someone did!

    There are deeper issues than that here, though. What do we do when unconditional predictions, such as the claim that George Miller “shall honor me,” seem in light of traditional readings not to have come true? Should we readjust our understanding of what is entailed in honoring God, an approach that seems reasonable to me? Should we regard revelations as error-laden or perhaps more useful as a statement of current spiritual situations than as an account of future events? Maybe a good move. These questions come up over and again in Section 124, and are not a joke. And so forth! I’d love to hear what other people think after seriously engaging these sections. Particularly if they discover passages of real value that I didn’t highlight, point them out!

  48. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    By the way, regarding the tuberculosis death, there really is more to talk about here. Thompson’s tuberculosis seems likely to have been contracted due to his work on the church newspaper, Times and Seasons. According to the obituary written by Thompson’s widow:

    In May, 1841, he became associated with Don Carlos Smith in the editing of the Times and Seasons. On the 16th of August he was seized with the same disease of which Don Carlos had died on the 7th. The attachment between them was so strong, it seemed as though they could not long be separated. (History of the Church 4: 351)

    In other words, it seems plausible that Thompson and Smith may have both died due to work conditions at the Times and Seasons offices, which might plausibly make Thompson’s death a direct consequence of his attentiveness to Joseph Smith’s council. It’s possible that Thompson was so attached to Don Carlos that following him quickly in death might have been a blessing, I suppose. But it also seems plausible that the “multiplicity of blessings” line might be better read as a statement of Thompson’s close and beloved standing in the church than as a prediction of future events.

  49. To prove that I can be responsive to the text…

    The notorious John C. Bennett is blessed in verses 16 and 17; the trickiest bit here is God’s statement that, “I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue…” Hmm. Bennett was always a deceiver; it’s strange that God would “accept” that.

    The full verses of interest are here, with my emphasis added:

    16 Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive acounsel.
    17 And for his love he shall be great, for he shall be mine if he do this, saith the Lord. I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue, and will crown him with blessings and great glory.

    There are a mighty number of “ifs” in there, if you ask me. I don’t know about the George Miller case, but I don’t really see any problem with assuming that the Lord ultimately either did _not_ accept JCB’s works, or that they were accepted in the same sense that a baptism performed by a missionary to later leaves the Church is not rendered empty and meaningless.

  50. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Scott, thanks for that. Regarding the Bennett thing, what strikes me as difficult is that God talks about accepting the “work which he hath done,” and about accepting that work if he keeps up with what he’s been doing. If we view this with the strong concept of discernment that sometimes arises in Mormon culture, it seems surprising that there aren’t stronger warnings about changing course — indeed, no warnings about changing course. The revelation seems to presuppose that Bennett is currently on the right course. I find that hard to square, and it perhaps suggests that a weaker concept of discernment might sometimes be useful. Or something else; I don’t really know.

  51. It’s funny, because I read all of the conditionals in there as an indication of, maybe not outright suspicion, but at least discernment from the Lord and/or JSJr. How much worse would that passage read without those conditionals? The fact that the Lord keeps on saying “if” over and over drives home the point that nothing is etched in stone, doesn’t it?

  52. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Scott, I agree; the conditionals make future promises depend on future behavior. What’s interesting and perhaps problematic is the missed opportunity for correction regarding past and present behavior. Would this revelation look strange if given to a nearly perfect man? Not really! All of those conditionals regarding future behavior would apply to anybody. Other revelations (think Martin Harris’s tendency toward adultery, for example) are very forthright in calling people out regarding past and present misdeeds, and such statements strike me as notably absent here.

  53. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    By way of comparison, consider that the Robert Thompson material also contains three conditions:

    let him, therefore, hearken to your counsel, and I will bless him with a multiplicity of blessings; let him be faithful and true in all things from henceforth, and he shall be great in mine eyes; but let him remember that his stewardship will I require at his hands.

    But I don’t read any suspicion of Thompson, nor is there evidence that suspicion would have been appropriate. I’m not sure that we’re necessarily justified in reading the “ifs” regarding Bennett in a more serious way regarding past and present behavior than the conditionals involved in most other blessings.

  54. I know that this is now a dead thread–the most recent post having been made an internet lifetime ago. Please forgive my ignorance of blog decorum. Having just now read this thread (post?) I simply must respond–even if I am speaking into the void.

    I love D&C 124. One of my true favorites. Tone of the original post aside, I see the history of the events surrounding this revelation as having transpired very differently. That aspects of the revelation were not fulfilled is clear. Having said that, I don’t see any particulars of this revelation as having been blown off (nor do I believe there is documentary evidence of this–the old argument from a lack of evidence issue), I see no promises made in ignorance, and I see the failure to fulfill prophecies as invariably tragic.

    Not speaking of the quality of the prose itself, I believe the combination of the content of this revelation and its complex individual outcomes makes for a poignant and supremely emotional story.

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