I recently attended sacrament meeting in the Mormon settlements, where a passionate orator discussed the power, through covenants, that we have to bind the Lord. I have been sheltered from this doctrine for several years, but when he held up his hands bound like a prisoner’s to demonstrate how we bind God, I instantly recognized a longstanding tradition in both official and folk Mormonism. While my response to this doctrine, other than several miserable months on a mission in the American South, has generally been one of revulsion, my understanding of the historical contexts of this tradition have matured substantially since I last encountered it on my mission in the early 1990s.
The view that humans can command God is one that is most traditionally associated with magic. Douglas Davies has rather graciously referred to this Mormon tradition as “manipulationist,” by which he means that some LDS believe that they can gain control over God by token of an idiosyncratic reading of “covenants.” For a Christian tradition which defines God axiomatically as incontingent, such a view is a serious heresy. Such a view even strikes many Latter-day Saints as heresy–my mother quotably rejected this teaching with a phrase I have treasured for almost 20 years–”God is not a vending machine.”
Today I want to reflect on what I believe is a more persuasive and spiritually powerful reading of the binding of God, even as I confess that the manipulationist view has roots in the Mormonism of Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith thought a great deal about the meaning of the word “bind.” Almost invariably he used the term to describe an indissoluble union, a relationship impervious to the vagaries of mortality. In 1844, during an influential sermon on Elijah, Smith announced that the KJV had got the end of Malachi wrong: “turn” in that scripture would be better rendered “bind or seal.”. This was the patriarchal priesthood intimately associated with the immortal prophet Elijah, and it was the sacred power by which a welding link would be forged to bind together all the generations of humankind. As Joseph Smith worked out the meaning of the Restoration and the temple through the early 1840s, he often returned to the question of binding, most often as a description of permanent relationships.
The early Saints and their leaders sought and identified various avenues to secure such bound relationships with God and each other, from baptism for the dead to the Order of Zion, from patriarchal blessings and their associated priesthood to the topical administration of cleansing liquids and olive oil, from celestial marriage to the Law of Adoption, from missionary and congregational covenants to the “new and everlasting covenant.” In each of these ritual and symbolic systems the Saints struggled to hope that they could continue to love each other, to belong to each other and to God forever.
With Jonathan Stapley, I have been exploring the framework of adoption for a pair of essays we hope will become the standard account of this complex of beliefs and rituals. Fundamental to this complex of beliefs is the glorious proclamation of Romans 8:14-17:
as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
When I think about binding God, this is the image that fills my soul with light. That God has adopted me, that he will claim me–bedraggled, bemused, bedeviled me–as his son, that he will allow our relationship to be the tender and overwhelming and often ineffable relation of parent to child. This to me is the great promise and reassurance of the possibility that God is willing to be bound to us.
Of course this is not the scripture that LDS who hold to the manipulationist tradition adduce in support of their belief. The scripture most often used to push the binding of parent and child into manipulationism is D&C 82:10, an 1832 revelation relevant to the building of the Missouri Zion.
I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.
This proof-texted verse does the lion’s share of the work for the manipulationist view. A little work to contextualize this scripture, though, secures a dramatically less manipulationist reading. The verse prior to the proof-text makes clear what was intended.
I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to you for your salvation.
What Joseph Smith appears to have been communicating was that God would save his children, that as the early believers participated in the church covenant, they entered God’s family. Abandoning God’s family would imperil salvation. While this is far from Calvinist orthodoxy, this contextual Arminianism is a far cry from the manipulationist view.
While the verse preceding the proof-text situates God’s binding as the promise of salvation (and only salvation) to God’s family, the verse following emphasizes the sense of binding as relationship. According to the requirement of the revelation, several participants in the early Zion experience in Missouri were
to be bound together by a bond and covenant that cannot be broken
The human covenant seems here to be a reflex of the divine covenant, and in this context, “a bond and a covenant” refers to mutual commitment, to the establishment of a durable relationship.
In my times of yearning and struggle, when I most hunger for God’s presence, it is the promise of a “bond and covenant that cannot be broken” that buoys me up. It is not the promise of blessings, the prospect that if I insert my dollar bill God will dispense a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, the belief that I will command God by mere token of my accomplishment of certain basic behavioral tasks. It is the knowledge that God’s spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God, that he has blessed me with the spirit of adoption that helps me believe that there could be a place for me in heaven, that I could be bound to God and those I love and hope to love.
1 I use the term to describe the highly Mormon areas of the Wasatch Front–basically Davis County, the Jordan areas, and Utah County.
2 It’s in his Culture of Salvation. I don’t have time for scholarly references today, particularly as I’m writing most of this on my handheld during the Primary program at church.
3 Personal communication to the author, 7 August 1990.
4 In my personal devotions and my scholarship, I believe/argue that Smith was using a Calvinist caricature as a strawman in some of his crucial sermons.
5 People have been asking when we will be done, and I confess that I’m slowing things down by being overcommitted. We’d like to be done with both essays by early 2010. Note that Kathleen Flake is working on a
parallel project on sacred kinship–all three of us are on a proposed panel for MHA 2010.