Save Jesus Only! D&C Lesson 32

This week’s Sunday School lesson is about the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum.  The only scriptural text is Doctrine and Covenants Section 135, which I think has been much more important in the cultural and institutional development of Mormonism than your average, run-of-the-mill section.

This section was written (probably by John Taylor) as a kind of eulogy for Joseph and Hyrum shortly after their June 27, 1844, murders in the Carthage jail.  The statement first appears in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published shortly after the murders, and was presumably inserted in that volume by its editor, Taylor.  That it was composed for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants is evident from the first sentence of the text:

To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch.

The “this book” clause would have made little sense if this text had been written for some other purpose.

This makes Section 135’s status as scripture very strange.  The text does not present itself as revelation, after all.  Instead, in terms of genre, it seems to be a blend of journalistic death narrative and eulogy.  The text provides a few details of Joseph and Hyrum’s murders, as well as idealized recollections of their lives.  It does not contain claims to speak with doctrinal authority.

Nor was the text immediately canonized upon publication.  When the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published, according to Woodford’s dissertation on the development of the book, “no action was taken in conference to accept the new edition as scripture” (1974: 56 — this point also applies to sections 103, 105, 112, 119, 124, 127, and 128).  So, while the section was part of the Doctrine and Covenants starting in 1844, it was evidently not canonized per se until some years later.

I think it makes most sense to read this as a very moving personal tribute, rather than as a doctrinal statement.  After all, as far as doctrinal content goes, this section provides relatively little, and of arguably dubious quality, too.  Probably the most frequently used part of this section in Mormon life is the first sentence of verse 3:

Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.

Is this really true, though?  The section credits Joseph Smith with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, missionary work, gathering the Saints, and building Nauvoo.  A contemporary Mormon might want to add priesthood restoration and the temple ordinances to the list, but evidently Taylor saw these as second-tier moments in Smith’s career.

I agree that Joseph Smith did a lot.  Other people, such as Brigham Young or Wilford Woodruff, have done more missionary work, gathered more Saints, and built larger and longer lasting LDS cities.  But none of these contemporary Mormon leaders have produced texts or restored ordinances with anything like the lasting influence of Smith’s life work.

Still, Taylor’s assertion — wonderful though it is as a tribute to a fallen friend — nonetheless seems a bit too sweeping to me.  Let’s just think about one other person here: Paul.  It seems to be the case that Paul was a key person in accomplishing the spread of Christianity beyond Palestine, the opening of Christian worship and membership to non-Jews, and the systematization of Christian belief and doctrine.  The fruits of Paul’s religious efforts arguably include most contemporary Christian believers.  Paul’s writings have also been hugely influential among Christians of all sorts, Mormons most certainly included.  Indeed, Paul’s letters are regularly used as points of reflection in Joseph Smith’s religious writings, canonized and otherwise.

I’m not claiming that Paul has certainly done more for the salvation of humanity than Joseph Smith, but rather that it’s at least plausible that he has.  In fact, I think there’s rather a long list of people who have plausibly done more.   Smith himself might well have emphasized one possible candidate who plays a major role in his religious worldview: Adam, of gardens, falling, and letting humanity exist fame.

The section closes, after its deeply felt and impressive personal tributes, with a ringing statement of the religious significance of Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths (various attacks on Illinois and the USA are suppressed in this quotation, to focus attention on what Taylor saw as the probable positive effects of the murders):

…their innocent blood… is a broad seal affixed to “Mormonism” that cannot be rejected by any court on earth, and their innocent blood… is a witness to the truth of the everlasting gospel that all the world cannot impeach; and their innocent blood… is an ambassador for the religion of Jesus Christ, that will touch the hearts of honest men among all nations; and their innocent blood, with the innocent blood of all the martyrs under the altar that John saw, will cry unto the Lord of Hosts till he avenges that blood on the earth.

By the same token, I guess, Gandhi’s innocent blood is a broad seal affixed to Hinduism; Socrates’s innocent blood is a witness to the truth of the world of forms; William Tyndale’s innocent blood is an ambassador for Lutheranism or heresy or something; and Martin Luther King’s innocent blood will cry for justice for the poor until the Lord overturns their oppression?  By which, of course, I mean that the fact of martyrdom seems historically to be rather dubious evidence for the truth value of a person’s beliefs.  (Although the last bit about Martin Luther King is something that I personally do find probable.)

We don’t practice Mormonism because Joseph Smith died, do we?  The case seems to me to be quite the opposite: Joseph Smith’s death matters to us because we practice Mormonism.  If Joseph had died of a heart attack or a riding accident, it seems to me that Mormon faith would have much the same appeal (or lack thereof) to most contemporary people as it does given Smith’s martyrdom.

It all puts us in an odd spot.  Given the fact of Joseph and Hyrum’s martyrdom, it would seem churlish and disloyal of us not to celebrate and commemorate them.  Yet in the end, I doubt that their martyrdoms are qualitatively different, in character or effect, from any other deaths in the service of the truth.  Perhaps we should consider broadening our martyrdom horizons a little bit?  Let’s not forget the courage and sacrifice of the Smith brothers; but might it not possibly deepen our appreciation of those sacrifices to celebrate them in parallel with some of the many others of their kind?

Comments

  1. No real comments. Great post. I agree.

  2. I always thought in the end, it was God that brought forth the Book of Mormon, D & C, etc. though I feel oddly like a heretic saying it. Whenever I think about that statement I keep thinking, Moses was killed for taking credit for less.
    That said, I can’t carry the thought throught to the point of criticising our celebration of Joseph’s life and death. The idea that there is actually any kind of hierarchy of who did more for mankind outside the Savior, and that it takes away from the accomplishments of one to recognize another seems like folly to me from the very start.

  3. I think this text does play into the whole notion of what it means to be a Mormon. But you’re right that Joseph’s and Hyrum’s deaths are not qualitatively different than other deaths in the cause of truth.

    Also, you say that this text is best viewed not so much as doctrinal, but more as a tribute from a friend. I agree, if you’re looking only at the text. However, the statement that Joseph Smith is second only to Jesus in salvific work has taken on a life of its own; it’s grown wings in that it has been quoted approvingly several times in General Conference in the ensuing years.

  4. I note the fact that despite quibbles about the process, this is canonized scripture. Interpret as you will what that actually means, but hardly seems something that can be so easily minimized and dismissed as this seems to suggest. Presenting the historical development and uniqueness of the section hardly makes it as exceptional as suggested. Read through the Old and New Testaments and one finds many a different type of text that “does not present itself as revelation” that eventually became canonized scripture.

  5. Yeah, JNS, take that!

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jamal, I don’t dispute that it’s scripture. It’s in the book, so it’s scripture. But as you point out, scripture is diverse. The Song of Solomon is also in the canon. We have to read texts for what they are, even if they’re canonized.

    Doc, I agree that the hierarchy of salvific achievement is an odd notion.

    Hunter, I agree that the statement has taken on a life of its own in Mormon culture. I’m not sure that means its usage doesn’t deserve scrutiny — maybe the line’s cultural importance makes scrutiny more relevant.

  7. StillConfused says:

    I view the statement in terms of a eulogy. It is a bit of hyperbole in rememberance of someone who has passed. That is all that I take it as. I still retain the right to make my own determinations as to who I feel makes the most impact on the world… if that can be narrowed down.

  8. Well, to be perfectly up-front JNS, I am admittedly playing a bit of devil’s advocate here. So why stop now?! Yes, Song of Solomon is in the scriptures, but as we all know, Joseph Smith officially de-canonized it, so I don’t think there is any way we can honestly put D&C 135 in the same bucket. I think the more sensible approach is to acknowledge it as inspired scripture approved by the Prophets since and in our day as such, but also acknowledge that our individual interpretation of what that means may vary to each of us as dictated by the Spirit in our searches for God’s light.

  9. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jamal, Joseph Smith didn’t de-canonize the Song of Solomon — he just marked it as not inspired. He subsequently quoted from it in two (I think) D&C sections. That isn’t quite as clear-cut as your comment suggests. Anyway, if Joseph’s opinion from his unpublished notes is our yardstick, we’re still in a muddle about Section 135, which he obviously never read…

    Regarding the piece as scripture is clearly right, because it’s in the scriptures. Calling it “inspired” is trickier; not everything in the scriptures is necessarily inspired, and as far as I know Taylor never called this text inspired. That said, I’d certainly agree that the text is important.

  10. Touché!

  11. Clay Whipkey says:

    JNS,

    I hope you continue with this series. Nice work.

  12. I’m wondering if other people besides Mormons classify the murders of Joseph and Hyrum as “martyrdoms.” When I sent Darius an artistic rendering of Joseph at Carthage, he e-mailed me back a concern: “We can’t use this in the doc. Joseph has a gun.” I e-mailed him: “He DID have a gun.”
    What qualifies one to be a martyr? If you resist death, are you disqualified?

  13. Totally agree that a ranking of who saved the most is silly.

    Now, if we can pretend for just a moment that it’s not silly, and that the person who has done the most really matters, then I think we’re leaving out the trump card: vicarious ordinances.

    If those are counted, inasmuch as JS revealed those ordinances, he has either already surpassed Paul, or will at some future point.

  14. We’ve had that debate here before, Margaret, and I think it’s a dead horse. The conclusion I recall reaching previously is that he’s a martyr by most reasonable definitions:

    1. a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion.
    2. a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause.

    To me, however, the application (or not) of that word does not have major significance in how I think or feel about the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. The only ones who get worked up about it are the extremists on either side of the issue. Joseph doesn’t need that label to be given him like a merit badge.

  15. Mike Parker says:

    JNS,

    According to Robert Woodford’s dissertation on the textual development of the Doctrine and Covenants (the standard work to date), section 135 was included in the 1844 D&C, wherein it was known as Section 111.

  16. Mike Parker says:
  17. Short quiz.

    Of the following men, who is unique? They all died for their cause, but one is very, very different from the others.

    Gandhi
    Socrates
    Joseph Smith
    William Tyndale
    Martin Luther King

    The way one answers tells something about taker of the quiz.

    I would answer this quiz by choosing Joseph Smith. Why?, he is the only prophet on the list. A prophet is very, very different from other men.

  18. re #12

    *What qualifies one to be a martyr? If you resist death, are you disqualified?

    There is an article in the latest copy of the Ensign which I haven’t read that might, but probably does not, shed any light on those questions.

    Possible threadjack:

    BTW, did anyone get August’s edition of the ensign in its nice see through packaging highlighting a lead article on the front cover called ‘The Path to Martyrdom, p.52′ – I did wonder what kind of magazine my postman (I’m in Britain – where an actual person delivers the mail through an actual postbox in the door) thought he was delivering to me.
    Luckily the rest of the magazine looked very, shall we say Western. If the magazine was called ‘Muslim Monthly’ with a featured article like that, I’m sure I’d be in Guantanamo by now.

    Just saying.

  19. #17: Re the most unique:

    They are all unique in their own way. Looking it as an outsider, however, how much impact did the various people have on other lives? Joseph Smith is a prophet to us, but to the vast majority of the world, he wasn’t.

    Martin Luther King: Certainly tens of millions of people of various races. I think without him, we likely wouldn’t have Obama, for example.

    Joseph Smith: 13 million members, plus those that have died, possibly less the 50% who are not active. But certainly less than 20 million I would guess

    Socrates: certainly his ideas influences many. I have no idea how to quantify this

    William Tyndale: significant impact. Over 1 billion Christians. How many would have been Christian without Tyndale’s work? Don’t know. Would the Bible have eventually been in English anyway? Likely. But certainly a significant impact towards bringing people closer to Christ.

    Gandhi: Likely over 1 billion Indians have directly been impacted by Gandhi for the better. Plus others who have drawn on his example and ideas, like MLK and others

    I agree with the sentiments – it is hard to measure “impact”. I would offer that we, as LDS members, as obviously a bit biased. If an independent observer looked at this list, I would bet they’d choose Gandhi or Tyndale.

  20. Let the Hindus tell the world about the importance of Ghandi. We are Mormon. We talk about Joseph Smith. We’re not going to make the Vedas part of the canon. Get over it.

    Aren’t there any Mormon blogs that 1) don’t wring their hands about being Mormon and 2) are worth reading? If not, then I’m washing my hands of the whole bloggernacle.

  21. MC, you get what you pay for. Try to relax, Pilate.

  22. Thanks for confirming that this post is worth exactly what I paid for.

  23. On the other hand, at least you have the benefit of wasting everyone else’s time with your stupid complaints. Seriously, you’re an ass.

  24. Mark Brown says:

    It is worth pointing out that the visitor center on temple square has an exhibit which recognizes Tyndale, among others, as an important part of the restoration.

    There is also a First Presidency statement from March, 1978 which recognizes Ghandi as an emissary of God to His children.

  25. Mike Parker, I know the section was included in the 1844 D&C edition. The point is that the new texts included in that edition wasn’t formally canonized or accepted as scripture by the church.

    Margaret, I agree that the gun is a point of dissonance. Shooting back isn’t very much “like a lamb to the slaughter.” That said, I don’t think shooting back inherently disqualifies one as a martyr.

    Scott B., regarding vicarious ordinances, Wilford Woodruff probably gets a lot of the credit there. Which puts him back in the running, I guess. And, again, would Joseph Smith have revealed such ordinances without the work and legacy of Paul? An unanswerable question, to be sure — but that’s the point.

    Jared, I’d echo Mike S.’s point. I’d also suggest that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and possibly the other two have clearly prophetic traits. If you mean that Joseph Smith was the only person on the list who was the President of the LDS Church, I agree.

    barcelo, nice story. “Martyrdom” has taken on some other meanings recently.

    MC, I have no idea what you regard as being worth reading.

  26. There is a lot you can read in the Bible, BoM, D&C where you could say, “is this really scripture/revelation?”

    When you look at the NT, as a series of letters (or really memories/hearsay accounts of letters?) you can ask the same question about it being revelation from God (ie, God didn’t say, “write this verse in Corinthians down for me would ya?”)

    But obviously the broader, any good is from God take, not to mention the fact that this particular letter is from the Lord’s Apostle qualifies it as scripture.

    As far as the comparison between JS, Paul etc. You can argue all day. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. One side says Paul converted more and led to the conversion of more after his death. The other side says they were both great, but perhaps the meaning being Pres. Taylors statement is that JS was commissioned to restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ which would never be taken from the Earth again.

    It’s important for the true/full Gospel to remain on the earth until the Millennium don’t you think? Could that make it “more important” in terms of the priority? Either way you slice it, both were great and praising one does not diminish the other.

    Paul very well may be the greatest missionary the world has even known, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the statement about JS.

    I don’t think it’s really worth getting all excited about.

  27. I certainly agree all of the men on the list (#17) made huge contributions. However, there is only one who is a prophet, seer, and revelator. That is the uniqueness I was pointing to.

    Maybe a modern day comparison will make the point.

    If I have a $1,000,000, I’m a millionaire. If I have a $1,000,000,000, I am a billionaire.

    Joseph Smith’s contribution, according to D&C 135, in terms of dollar–makes him the second largest contributor to human-kind, second only to Jesus Christ.

    I believe this a fair assessment of Joseph Smith’s, he was much, much more than a millionaire.

  28. Jared, I’m not sure I follow the argument in your #27. I agree that D&C 135 says that Joseph Smith did more than anyone other than Jesus for salvation. But this discussion is about whether that text is to be taken as a doctrinal statement or as an expression of grief and celebration. As such, that statement can’t really be used as evidence of the proposition that a list of contributions is possible and Joseph Smith lands in second place.

    I’m puzzled, by the way, that you seem to regard holding church office as more important than everything else one can accomplish in this life put together?

  29. Minor thread-jack.

    Mark (#24):
    Can you point me to the Statement about Ghandi? I’m unfamiliar with this. I know there’s a Feb ’78 statement that mention Muhammad and Confucius specifically, but I’ve never seen the Ghandi statement. (I ask this because I teach world religions and am fairly familiar with what’s been said. I’d be very interested to see this.)

  30. It’s not hard, JNS! He’s saying that Jesus was a trillionaire.

  31. JNS–

    I guess what I attempting to say is that the Savior was the only one out of all of God’s children capable of accomplishing an atonement. There was only one being with the capacity-Jesus Christ.

    When it comes to a man like Joseph Smith, a prophet, seer, and revelator –I think that he, and a hand-full of others had the capacity to accomplish what needed to be done in restoring the gospel for our day.

    As a spirit being he was chosen because of what he had attained to in that realm. The magnitude of doing what needed to be done in mortality to restore the gospel was matched by his capacity as a spirit being. I doubt there were many others who were candidates, he was chosen because of ability/capacity.

    In short, none of the other men on the list could have been called to be a prophet, seer, and revelator of the stature of JS because they didn’t have the capacity.

    JS was unique because of his capacity/ability, and the Lord gave him the calling to restore the gospel in these last days because he had shown himself capable of doing so.

    With that said, I accept D&C 135 as revelation, not hyperbole at an emotional moment.

  32. “he was chosen because of ability/capacity.”

    Jared,

    Where is this written in scripture? Or are you simply presuming to know God’s mind on the matter?

  33. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Of the following men, who is unique?”

    Jared,

    Everyone is unique in their very own very special way.

    Socrates is the only man on the list who thought that suicide by poison was better than execution. What is more like a ‘lamb to the slaughter’, fighting back or suicide, seeing that lambs neither fire guns nor serve themselves hemlock? Does your answer change if the lambs are dancing on the head of a pin? ~

  34. Mark Brown says:

    Replying to Keith, # 29,

    Keith, I apologize. My previous comment was inaccurate.

    The First Presidency statement I had in mind was from February 1978, not March, and it mentioned both Confucius and Muhammed, but not Gandhi. Sorry.

  35. #32 Dan–

    I think the scriptures cited and the reasoning presented in the following quote are useful.

    “Men are not born equal,” said Elder Bruce R. McConkie. “They enter this life with the talents and capacities developed in preexistence. Abraham saw in vision the spirit hosts of men before they were born, `and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones.’ It was of that select and talented group that the Lord said: `These I will make my rulers.’ And to Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, one of the greatest of the Lord’s earthly rulers, the comforting word came: `Thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.’ (Abr. 3:22-23.) Alma tells us that those who are faithful high priests in this life were in fact `called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works’ while they yet dwelt in his presence. (Alma 13:3.) To Jeremiah the Lord said: `Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.’ (Jer. 1:5.)” (New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 34).

  36. I suspect that if (without the prior canonized status of section 135) there were to be a Proclamation to the World, agreed upon by correlation committee/FP/12 about the Martyrdom/Assassination/Lynching of Joseph Smith, it would not include language about the ranking of Joseph in terms of what he accomplished. Frankly, that passage of 135 reminds me of the disciples who asked Jesus who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    And, as others have pointed out, what difference does it make if Joseph was the “greatest” or if John the Baptist or Moses or Nephi or Deborah or Mary was the “greatest”?

    I think the statement is true as spoken by John Taylor and perhaps for most LDS. From President Taylor’s perspective, Joseph had done more for the salvation of humankind than any other except Jesus. For me, though, it is probably my parents and my wife who have done more than anyone (other than Jesus).

  37. Jared’s right — the section is scripture and it’s up to each of us to figure out what to make of it. I think his reading of it is the conventionally accepted one.

  38. In fact, no man, save Jared only, has done more for the benefit of the Bloggernacle.

  39. The thought that I had when I read this was that this verse has been repeated by prophets, seers, and revelators in our day as well, so that to me lifts it beyond just a nice tribute.

    I was interested to see just how often this verse has been mentioned, and it showed up a lot.

    As a side thought, I think another thing that sets Joseph Smith apart from any other person who played a role in the unfolding of God’s work of salvation is that he brought in the dispensation of the fulness of times — the dispensation that many prior prophets looked toward. The culminating dispensation. I can’t remember who recently talked about this…ah, just looked it up…Elder Christofferson, quoting JS:

    “The building up of Zion is a cause that has interested the people of God in every age; it is a theme upon which prophets, priests and kings have dwelt with peculiar delight; they have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day in which we live; and fired with heavenly and joyful anticipations they have sung and written and prophesied of this our day.”

    I get the sense that this last dispensation is pretty big stuff. Probably bigger than we realize.

    At any rate, if many prophets and apostles and other leaders had not quoted this so often, I might be able to agree with you, but since they have, I end up just taking it more at face value. I don’t think it’s saying that it’s all a competition of who does more, but more a statement about what this latter-day dispensation means in the plan of God and how much has been and will be accomplished because of the foundation that the Lord was able to lay through the Prophet Joseph.

  40. (A quick glance at the references made of this scripture at scriptures.byu.edu was interesting in mulling over this.)

  41. I laugh at the very notion that Socrates’ blood could be considered innocent by ANYONE, especially in comparison to Joseph Smith! I truly have seen everything now.

    What we must keep in mind is CONTEXT. Joseph Smith was foretold of throughout the scriptures by Joseph of Egypt, Isaiah, and Ezekiel as a “choice seer,” one who would unite the “stick of Judah” and the “stick of Ephraim.” We take for granted what this means in these days if we look at Section 135 and its tribute to Joseph Smith and write it off as pure sentiment.

    It’s NOT just simpering sentiment. It’s the truth.

    The fact of the matter is that Joseph Smith was called to bring this world out of the dark ages, the Great Apostasy. By accepting his role as a prophet, he accepted the call to be physically tortured throughout his life, to have his children as good as murdered, his peace removed by long stays in prisons, his reputation permanently tarnished in the press, and his sacrifice mocked and belittled by those who once called him friend and brother. If it was your life, you’d certainly think differently.

    Sure. Nevermind all of the records left behind of people who were thankful to have met Joseph Smith because he served them with love and sincerity–including the men that were there with Joseph when he died! Nevermind that he died as he lived–which for those that have never known his trials, that thought means absolutely nothing because they could NEVER know his heart.

    We would do well to be VERY careful about what we say of Joseph Smith. He is our brother, and he has given us a gift that I testify is second ONLY to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. And because Joseph and Hyrum Smith died martyrs’ deaths, their blood sealed the sacred role of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. The promises and prophecies of those texts are valid and will be honored by the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and Heavenly Father.

    And as such, making light of the person whose blood has sealed them has got to be one of the most FOOLISH things we could possibly do as Latter-day Saints. I don’t know why we do this in our corners of the Bloggernacle, but it HAS to stop. We will be held accountable for what we did with the name of Joseph Smith in this life.

    Surely we can do better than this.

  42. I’m glad someone mentioned Moses …

    I think if we were going to put together a ‘Mormon’ hierarchy of ‘who has saved the most’ – we would have to add Moses to the list.

  43. Antonio Parr says:

    Comparing the salvific roles of Joseph Smith or Paul or whoever to the role played by Christ is like comparing the light of the moon to the light of the sun. The sun (and the Son) are the sources of light. Moons and prophets, respectively, merely reflect those lights.

    Even though the light of a full moon brightens up the evening landscape, and even though a prophet can provide great insight into spiritual truths, the source of their light and glory is, respectively, the sun/the Son. Ultimately, we may be doing our prophets a disservice by pondering where they stand in the hierarchy of the works of the salvation, as they surely would want us to direct our focus and praise towards the Son of God, whose singular atonement provides us liberty from physical and spiritual death.

    solo deo gloria

  44. I try to interpret this in my chapter 10. I think that, while this post makes reasonable sense in 2009, it is radically presentist as a discussion of the document in its original milieu. We should be careful to keep them separate.

  45. Thomas Parkin says:

    Paradox,

    No one on this thread, that I’m aware of, fails to love and appreciate Joseph Smith. For someone calling himself Paradox, you might be a little slow to catch irony.

    We worship Christ, and coming to know Him is essential to our salvation. Joseph restored the important tools relevant to that. I think we were several centuries out of the dark ages before Joseph was born, however.

    I’m not sure that it matters much where he ranks among prophets. I find the whole conversation a touch silly. ~

  46. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Sam MB, I’ve made this point before regarding other posts in this series, but I’ll make it again: these posts aren’t about original meanings, but rather about contemporary meanings. For contemporary Mormons, I think what these texts mean today is at least as important. The presentist orientation is deliberate and built in.

    Antonio, right on.

    DavidH, right on.

    m&m, I guess I don’t agree that widespread usage validates a reading. It seems to me that there are instances (“fishers of men” comes vividly to mind) in which lots of General Authorities perpetuate something that’s clearly a misreading or misuse of the original text.

    Jared and Steve, I think we all agree that the passage is scripture. This post is really about trying to work out how I can read it as scripture, so I think I’m in line with Steve’s comment. I agree that Jared’s reading is widespread, but for the reasons discussed above, I nonetheless find it problematic.

    Paradox, I think this section is the truth because it is a powerful expression of John Taylor’s sentiment. The two categories needn’t be radically opposed as you suggest.

    Regarding your rebuke and challenge that we do better, well. I’m doing the best I can. Maybe you should teach me.

    Regarding “dark ages,” etc., isn’t this sort of unhelpful anti-Catholic Protestant historiography? The New Testament canon that we use today is a product of the “dark ages,” and many Mormon ideas about the Godhead were first and/or best systematized during that period. It was also a time of economic progress, and a crucial period for the formation of the European cultural traditions that most of us in this discussion rely on. It seems to me that one can accept the idea of the apostasy in the sense of the loss of priesthood keys while still accepting the clear historical evidence that there were lots of good, thoughtful Christian believers who contributed in many ways to the contemporary Mormon world throughout the so-called “dark ages.”

  47. Steve Evans says:

    Antonio speaks the truth.

  48. Eric Russell says:

    What’s up with the use of the word we? We misuse it often enough, but we seem to be going downhill of late. I realize that we intend the word as a show of solidarity with whatever community or individual we’re criticizing, but when we so obviously don’t include ourselves in the intended audience, it comes off more as subversive than sincere. I think this is something we need to work on.

  49. Eric, that’s the best comment we’ve — sorry, I’ve — ever written.

  50. Paradox and Antonio Parr: Saying that John Taylor’s major impetus was a loving tribute to the Prophet Joseph does not invalidate the statement. (When a child hugs his dad and says, “You’re the best dad in the world!” we wouldn’t stop and say, “Oh, you’re just being silly and sentimental. I hereby reject your interpretation because it is based on love and it has no basis in demonstrable reality.” Ahem.)

    So, why are you both so quick to write-off the implications of this interpretation of the statement about Joseph?

  51. Hunter, I think you’re reading Paradox backwards. She takes the statement at face value. Unless you’re just addressing the notion that eulogies aren’t necessarily false, in which case okey-dokey.

  52. And one more question: There are several commenters here who question the validity of setting up a literal hierarchy/comparing salvific works. I certainly do, too. But isn’t this rejection of a literal comparison (viz., $1 million versus $1 bazillion, or the light of the moon vs. the sun) an implied acceptance of the interpretation that John Taylor was being rhetorical?

    JNS: I agree that *widespread* use of a saying doesn’t make it true, but inclusion in the canon, and later (many) ratifications of it by the general leaders of the church probably puts it within the realm of generally accepted truth. By saying this, I don’t think it requires one to accept Taylor’s statement as literal and capable of scientific analysis, though. You?

  53. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    I’m going to briefly engage in the technical science of Hunter hermeneutics. My reading of Hunter’s #50 is that it recognizes how Paradox reads the statement, but suggests that a reading of the statement as emotional and relational rather than absolute doctrinal truth is also a way of taking the statement at face value. This perspective allows Hunter to affirm the statement without adopting a spurious attitude of worship toward Joseph Smith.

  54. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Hunter, I haven’t meant to argue that the saying or this section aren’t true; from my point of view, the discussion here is about the sense in which they’re true. So, to self-plagiarize:

    I think this section is the truth because it is a powerful expression of John Taylor’s sentiment.

    That is, I think this section is a true expression of how Joseph Smith’s loss felt to John Taylor and others at the time. It’s valuable and worth reading for that reason. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to quote the line as a way of subordinating people to Joseph Smith, belittling Gandhi (!), etc. In other words, I think we agree.

    I mentioned the ratification history to note that there’s no evidence that John Taylor intended this text as a revelation. Of course the text has subsequently been canonized, but it wasn’t treated as revelation when it was written. It’s certainly scripture, even so.

  55. jns, duly noted. In 2009, the statement is rather radically anti-pluralistic, a stance many have moved away from, at least in rhetoric if not in substance. I would only add that the presence of a historically contextual reading may allow us to experience the text in 2009 as a mode of connecting with the earliest LDS, which could soften some the strangeness of the claim made in the 1844 martyrological obituary for those reading it in 2009.

  56. JNS: “In other words, I think we agree.” Yep!

  57. I guess I don’t agree that widespread usage validates a reading.

    So you think prophets requoting the words as written (some say John Taylor said the words, but others end up using them as their own) don’t constitute something of significance? I’d be curious why.

  58. That question shouldn’t be read in an attacking way…I just would be interested in more thoughts about your response.

  59. I personally think later prophets quoting the statement approvingly DOES constitute something of significance, and I don’t read JNS to be saying otherwise.

    (That “something of significance” could mean, though, that later prophets accepted John Taylor’s admiration for Joseph Smith without their having necessarily accepted a literal system that analyzes a hierarchy of salvation-related works.)

  60. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    m&m, I do think it’s significant. But I don’t think it necessarily tells us the best or most insightful reading of a scripture. In my view, top church leaders read in much the same way we do, although they have different callings and are probably in need of different kinds of answers. I’d offer a vaguely remembered anecdote here, in which some member of the Twelve talked about rehearsing some kind of talk in front of BYU religion faculty members. He noticed that, when he used some scripture in a certain way, several of the religion folks frowned. He asked them why, and one explained that the scripture in question didn’t mean what the speaker had used it to mean. So the member of the Twelve changed the talk not to use that scripture. Sorry I can’t source this or provide names or details at all! Don’t treat it as evidence, but rather as an illustration.

    Note, by the way, that I don’t object to the words as written. My complaint, to the degree that I have one here, is about using those words to demean people other than Joseph Smith or to overfeed our tendency toward a cult of personality regarding Joseph.

  61. Amen m&m # 39

  62. Re #60:

    It’s BKP’s All-Church Coordinating Council talk (1993).

  63. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Thanks, Justin. Here’s the quote from Elder Packer:

    Only last Friday while putting together some things for a presentation, I read part of it to some brethren from BYU. I noticed they looked at one another at one place in my reading, and I stopped and asked if there was a problem. Finally one of them suggested that I not use a certain scripture that I had included even though it said exactly what I wanted to convey. How dare they suppose that a member of the Twelve didn’t know his scriptures! I simply said, “What do you suggest?” He said, “Better find another scripture,” and he pointed out that if I put that verse back in context, it was really talking about another subject. Others had used it as I proposed to use it, but it was not really correct. I was very glad to make a change.

  64. I have to confess that those words have always rubbed me the wrong way. JNS’s last paragraph in #60 echo my own thoughts on this.

  65. Ron Madson says:

    Have lost all interest in promoting any form of “Joseph” worship or for that matter protecting or promoting his legacy. John the Baptist summed it up best “I must decrease that he might increase.”

  66. ummquestion says:

    “The New Testament canon that we use today is a product of the “dark ages,” and many Mormon ideas about the Godhead were first and/or best systematized during that period.”

    In the most generic sense the “dark ages” applies to the period between the fall of the Roman Empire (approx 400-500 AD) and the early middle ages (800-900 AD). Most scholars place the origin of the texts of the New Testament somewhere between AD 45 and 138 AD-which means they were “produced” before the dark ages. The King James Version of the New Testament wasn’t commissioned until the 1600’s-which means it was “produced” after the dark ages-so on what exactly do you base your view that the canon we use today is a product OF the dark ages?

    You state that section 135’s “status as scripture is strange” because it does not present itself as a “revelation after all.” I find your statement to be strange considering that “scripture” is defined as the “words either written or spoken by holy men when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” If John Taylor was indeed a holy man, and was “moved upon” by the Holy Ghost to write (or while he was writing) what we know as section 135-it is scripture by definition. The Holy Ghost is not only a revelator, but a testifier and a sanctifier as well.

    “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

    I see the key to understanding what John Taylor meant being the word “salvation”. Salvation as the world knows it and as Joseph Smith taught it are two very different things. Jesus Christ was chosen to offer salvation to all mankind. Joseph Smith was chosen to restore the only principles, the only power, and the only ordinances through which human beings have access to Christ and His salvation. If you combined every good work done, or every wise thing taught or proclaimed by Socrates, Tindale, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, it would not result in the salvation/exaltation of even one human being.

    Section 135 is not a revelation about martyrdom. It is a testimony. It is a declaration that Joseph Smith’s blood will stand as a witness when those who persecuted him are judged, and that the work he devoted his life to is the Lord’s work. It is a statement that another “testament” has been given to the world and that it is “in force” even if the men who gave it are dead.

    “Note, by the way, that I don’t object to the words as written. My complaint, to the degree that I have one here, is about using those words to demean people other than Joseph Smith or to overfeed our tendency toward a cult of personality regarding Joseph.”

    When you say “our tendency” you imply that not only do you belong to a group of people who use Taylor’s words to demean others and who are prone to worshiping people they have deified, but that your audience does to.

  67. When you say “our tendency” you imply…

    When you say “you imply”, I infer that you must be psychic. I could be wrong, of course. I sometimes infer things that others did not imply. If so, please forgive my presumptuousness.

  68. ummquestion, if you think that no Mormons ever use Taylor’s words to devalue others, you haven’t read the discussion of Gandhi above in this thread! But of course I don’t mean to say that all or most Mormons do this. I do think it’s a danger inherent in literalistic readings of the text.

    Regarding our canon’s origins during the dark ages, you missed the step I was referring to: the formalization of the list of New Testament books that we use today as the New Testament. As you probably know, there were tons of books that were used as scripture in one place or another during the early Christian period. Some of them were pseudonymous, while at least a few were written by their notional authors.

    Most of these books are not today regarded as scripture. The list of books we currently use didn’t emerge until about the 4th century A.D., when it was formed by the initiative of Augustine of Hippo and accepted through a series of synods on the canon. You might regard this as a bit too early to count as the “dark ages,” but it’s at least close and many Mormons would doubtless include the period.

    Regarding principles, ordinances, etc., I think this might be overstated by a bit in your comment. The principles can be taught in the spirit world, right? The ordinances can be given by proxy. What can’t be done at any other time or in any other way is living a good life in mortality. So people who help to do that are helping to save and/or exalt others in the deepest and truest way, I think the gospel would affirm.

  69. Plenty of talk about comparisons between Paul and Joseph Smith. However, a name mentioned in this great article is Adam. I have always felt slightly confused by this statement, because if you are going to compare the value a prophet brings to people (which is what the statement is doing) then Adam the co-creator. The three pillars of eternity as outlined by Elder McConkie and others are the creation, the fall and the atonement. Two of these pillars Adam was an integral and central figure of. Adam’s actions allowed the plan of SALVATION to take place. Through his direct actions he bought into the world procreation, knowledge, the ability to become like God. Not only that but the significant role Adam will play at the commencement of the Millenium. Surely if we are comparing prophets Adam has to be second only to The Saviour!

    Aside from this I think this particular verse in the D&C is an emotional one written by a man who was with Joseph at Carthage, a great friend of the prophet. I’m sure if you asked Aaron about Moses or Elisha about Elijah you may well have received a similar statement.

  70. ummquestion says:

    To JNS-
    “The principles can be taught in the spirit world, right? The ordinances can be given by proxy. What can’t be done at any other time or in any other way is living a good life in mortality. So people who help to do that are helping to save and/or exalt others in the deepest and truest way, I think the gospel would affirm.”

    Indeed the principles can be taught in the spirit world-but who is necessary to teach them? Righteous Saints who have been given the authority to teach. The ordinances can be given by proxy-but who is necessary to perform them? Righteous Saints who have already obtained them. Without the restoration of the principles, keys and authority required for living mortals to obtain the ordinances of Salvation, there would have been no way for the dead to obtain them either. Living a “good life” in mortality is not enough to achieve salvation/exaltation. The gospel affirms that the Terrestrial kingdom will be populated with people who “lived a good life in mortality” even after they have heard the principles and had a chance to accept the ordinances.

    I am thankful for all who teach and model things that help others to become holier human beings. Joseph Smith taught people to “live good lives” too, and had that been the extent of his mission then in a comparison of the number of people personally influenced during their lifetimes he would probably come in far behind men like Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

    But Taylor isn’t talking about good examples, he’s talking about salvation. He is not referring to a temporal condition; he is talking about an eternal one. The new and everlasting covenant God revealed through Joseph Smith caused all others “to be done away” with. God chose Joseph Smith to establish and explain and proclaim the things He had “commanded to be kept from the world in the day that they were given” and only THEN were they “to go forth unto all flesh”. God had “renewed and confirmed upon [them]” things “not for [their] sakes only, but for the sake of the whole world.”

    I understand that some might grant more awe and reverence to the man (Joseph) than they do to his message, and that is unfortunate. But for me personally, it is not possible to “overstate” the importance of the glorious restoration of the principles and ordinances that all who wish to dwell again with God the Father and Jehovah must obtain. After all, without them-the whole earth was destined to be cursed and utterly wasted when the Lord comes again.

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