As noted in my last Back-Row Questions post, the D&C manual really stops revolving around the scriptures after it reaches the death of Joseph Smith. Lesson 36 epitomizes this; the text for the lesson is Chapter 7 in the Our Heritage manual, and it doesn’t involve any material from the scriptures. I really have nothing to say about this lesson. It’s a good week to serve in the Primary, I guess.
Lesson 37, on the other hand, offers an actual scriptural reading assignment: Doctrine and Covenants 21; 43:1–7; and the ninth Article of Faith. These are intended, I guess, to indicate our proper attitude and behavior toward the presidents of the church. Yet there’s at least a bit of tension between this purpose and the texts in question. These texts on their face are about Joseph Smith’s role, not about the role of the office of president of the church. Consider D&C 21: 1-2:
Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ, being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith.
So Smith is characterized as seer, translator, prophet, apostle, and elder, a series of titles that are offered in conjunction with his inspiration to found and establish the church. Obviously, that founding role is Smith’s alone. It’s noteworthy that Smith is also the only sacred translator in the LDS tradition, and arguably the only seer. On the other hand, he’s clearly not the only apostle or the only elder. Regarding the title of “prophet,” it’s somewhat unclear how readily we ought to extend that label to others. This section, really being about Smith only, offers no guidance.
Note also that this context of personal blessing to Joseph Smith is the frame for the following verses, sometimes used in the LDS community much more broadly to refer to all church presidents, all general authorities, or even all priesthood leaders:
Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith. For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.
The text of the revelation here is, as argued above, about Joseph Smith. Do the same promises apply regarding, for example, Thomas S. Monson? Maybe. Who am I to say? But if they do, we know that through some other revelation beyond D&C 21, and we should probably cite that revelation directly instead of referring to this narrower and technically inapplicable text.
Verse 9 offers an interesting anticipatory summary of Joseph Smith’s prophetic message:
For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.
In essence, then, the core of the message we are to receive from Smith as if from God himself is the idea of the substitutionary Atonement, with residual echoes of anti-Semitism. The key elements of the message are: (1) crucifixion as payment for the sins of the world; (2) remission of sins; (3) the need for a contrite heart. How many Mormons would announce this as the center of the Spirit’s message to humanity today? This certainly represents a distinct, and probably substantially past, moment in how we conceptualized the core message of the gospel.
Regarding the residual echoes of anti-Semitism, note the “sinful men” phrase. Of course, the people most likely to be historically responsible for any crucifixion at the time of Jesus Christ were the Romans, and if they (Pontius Pilate and cronies) are the sinful men in question, then there’s no issue here. But this reads to me as at least a distant echo of the historically dubious but once politically useful tendency in the Gospel of John and throughout much of later Christianity to attribute Jesus’s death to wicked Jews. Even if this is only an unintended reflection of other hateful textual traditions, it’s still troubling to me.
The section ends with an instruction that either Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdrey (the poor grammar makes the identification almost totally obscure) is to be “the first preacher of this church unto the church, and before the world, yea, before the Gentiles; yea, and thus saith the Lord God, lo, lo! to the Jews also.” Jewish people are valued enough, or perhaps surprising enough as targets for missionary efforts, to rate two lo’s and an exclamation mark, it seems. In fact, the D&C refers explicitly to Jews in at least 16 different passages — which is quite a reasonable amount of discourse considering that the early Saints had fairly modest connections with actual Jewish people. There is probably a rigorous study of these references and of early Mormon attitudes regarding Jewish people and Judaism, but I don’t know where to find it.
D&C 43: 1-7 seems to utterly destroy the idea that Joseph Smith had a successor, other than possibly one of his sons. Consider verses 3-7:
And this ye shall know assuredly –— that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me. But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him; for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead. And this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations or commandments; and this I give unto you that you may not be deceived, that you may know they are not of me. For verily I say unto you, that he that is ordained of me shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before, to teach those revelations which you have received and shall receive through him whom I have appointed.
Note especially this phrase: “none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him.” This passage seems to command us to disregard all commandments and revelations given by anyone not explicitly ordained by Joseph Smith to give commandments and revelations. Most of Smith’s succession claimants based their argument in some instruction or ordination given by Smith, but really only his son, Joseph Smith III, claimed to have been ordained and appointed in this way by his father. The other arguments, based on position in the First Presidency (Rigdon), assignment to establish Zion in Texas (Wight), angelic ordination combined with letter of assignment (Strang), position in the Quorum of the Twelve combined with temple ordinances (Young), etc., are all poor fits for this requirement.
One might work around this based on the phrase, “until he be taken,” although I’m not entirely sure whether this works. On the one hand, the grammar of the D&C is often confusing, and it could be the case that the sentence beginning with “But verily, verily, I say…” has an implied qualification limiting its applicability to the period up to Smith’s death. Yet that opening phrase is so sweeping and emphatic that it seems to me as if the text is pointing away from this possibility and requiring Smith to appoint and ordain his successor, whether Smith’s departure from office is due to death or to apostasy.
Even on this reading, of course, one needn’t conclude from this that these leadership succession options were therefore wrong. But it may suggest that Young’s succession might have been to an office other than the one Joseph Smith held, an office to which Young was never appointed by Smith and an office without the calling to issue commandments and revelations. Or maybe this section became inoperative when Smith died without satisfactorily clarifying succession in the case that his brother Hyrum died with him. Invigorating and puzzling reading, in any case!
The 9th Article of Faith is nifty, if a bit epistemologically circular and possibly a bit falsified by other scriptures. The Article says:
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
This might be epistemologically circular in the following sense. If we follow common tradition and regard God as being by definition truthful in his statements, then what this Article really says is that we believe the things that we know to be true about the Kingdom of God. Well and good, and I’m sure most people would aspire to the same position. But how do we know those things to be true? Because they’re revealed by God, obviously — but how do we know that? Ultimately because of the Holy Ghost, presumably. But how do we know that the Holy Ghost experience is from God? I guess fundamentally because the scriptures say so. But how do we know the scriptures tell the truth? Rinse, repeat.
The partial falsification of this statement comes from D&C 19, in which God tells us not to really believe scriptural statements that describe endless, eternal, everlasting, etc. punishment. Perhaps a friendly revision:
We believe all that God has revealed, except for the parts that He’s revealed that we shouldn’t believe, all that He does now reveal until/unless he reveals otherwise, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.