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.