Another Prophet Puzzle: Lehi’s Prophetic Call as both Restoration and Apostasy?

Aaron R. (AKA Rico) returns again with some thoughts on Lehi.

In Terryl Givens’ ‘very short introduction’ to the Book of Mormon he describes Lehi’s (first) vision in the following terms: ‘No details of the vision, no particulars of any message, are available to distract from the fact of the visitation itself, given to a man who shares neither the public prestige, nor, so far as we can tell, the national stewardship of his contemporary Jeremiah[1]. Jerusalem then, for a time, has some, perhaps ‘many’ prophets, who do not neatly fit into a clear Church structure. Lehi then takes his family out away from the city, which is their literal and spiritual home, and effectively starts a new religious movement that appears to be far more Christ-centered. Moreover, it has a de-centralised view of revelation and the spiritual gifts and also has a far more multi-faceted view of the nature and locale of Zion. The puzzle then is, if Lehi was a contemporary of Joseph Smith (instead of Jeremiah) could his ‘new’ revelation and direct call be tolerated or incorporated as part of a broader Restoration movement? Or would he be branded an apostate, like Hiram Page [2].

I should note here that I am aware that there was not the same organizational structure among the Hebrews that we have now, but that is entirely my point. For example, Douglas Davies, at the ‘Worlds of Joseph Smith’ conference, discussed whether Mormonism could ever become a ‘world religion’ because ‘the larger the Church grows the more likely it is that an increase in central control will be necessary to maintain its doctrinal and organisational integrity’. This may create problems for the Church. Davies sees the practice of sustaining leaders, which in his view is an expression of testimony, to be a key source of cohesion but it also serves as a control on diversity. This control may allow Mormonism to be global (in the sense of being present in many countries) but not necessarily able to become a world religion, because it cannot tolerate or internalise diversifying traditions. Lehi’s experience suggests that there was such scope in his time. Should we, if we begin with this historical-theological juncture, also accept this possibility?

Further Davies argues, sociologically speaking, that this emphasis on centralised control has tended to lead toward more individualised expression of grace and the love of God which resist the hierarchical expectations of an organisations members and the way they frame access to the spiritual gifts. Davies notes that ‘accepting Jesus’ is central to Protestant theology while denominational differences are peripheral. Mormonism stands in contrast to this, he argues, where denominational differences are as central, if not more so, than accepting Jesus.

If anything, the spiritual trajectory of Lehi and his family suggests the ‘Protestant’ model, which subsequently becomes a ‘Church’ when the need to distinguish that community arises (for safety purposes). Moreover, Stephen Robinson has argued that Nephi’s vision of the great and abominable Church should be understood as an attempt to show that being a member of Christ’s Church is more a matter of who has your heart, rather than who has your records. It is evident therefore that such strands of thought are present in the early parts of the Book of Mormon. According to Givens, this decentralised view of the prophetic gifts persists throughout the Book of Mormon.

This poses a puzzle, a puzzle which is familiar to many of you I am sure. How can we resolve the evident tension between our scriptural sources which provide a space for the priesthood-of-all-believers contrasted with our teachings on priesthood ordination? How can we navigate the difference between personal ministry and institutional calling and/or the conflict between having a Prophet and being a prophetic people?

Notes:

1. Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, p. 14.
2. I do not believe Hiram Page is comparable to Lehi except in the sense that they both claimed revelations from God outside of an organizational structure.

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Comments

  1. I think this really is an interesting topic. Another parallel question is: how long did the priesthood – recognized by God – exist on the earth before The Great Apostasy took full effect. Did it co-exist on earth for a period with the Catholic church, or was it completely gone by then?

  2. Rico, this is a great post (as always). I have never really thought about Lehi in that light.

    I think there is very little room for that in our Church today. It is correlated and hierarchal structure where loyalty to the person above you is perhaps valued more than much else.

    Even for something as inconsequential as the order of meetings on Sunday – if a bishop feels strongly that it should be one way for his particular ward, but the stake president feels differently for the stake, the stake president “wins” for the sake of uniformity.

    I think someone with Lehi’s experience would be branded an apostate in our Church today and would have his temple recommend revoked.

  3. Another great and clear example of this is Samuel the Lamanite. Not only was he not the leader of the “church” at the time–Nephi was the high priest at the time–, he seemed to come from outside the organization to tell the Nephites (aka, the supposed true people/church) to repent, giving specific revelations that were unknown to the Nephites. The desire to downlay Samuel among the Nephites is perhaps evidence by their later exclusion from their records about specific fulfillments of Samuel’s prohecy.

  4. I had never considered this (haven’t read Givens book yet), but I also thought of Samuel the Lamanite and also Alma the elder, who both came from outside the organized church at the time.

    I suspect that we will always have this tension in the church as we both revere and respect the hierarchical authority structure, while celebrating and recognizing the individual right to revelation. In my experience, it mostly works as long as both schools of thought are respected by the other. I have usually found that to be the case, with rare exceptions. I know others experience may be different, but when I have served in PH leadership positions, my leaders have always been very open and respectful of giving people serving with them leeway in their stewardship. Where I have seen it go wrong seems to happen more at local auxiliary or quorum levels, where an auxiliary president, or an EQ President may impose his or her decisions moreor less unilaterally. That still to me has been not a common occurence.

  5. What if Lehi was subject to Jeremiah and both are still prophets kind of like we have today where the Twelve Apostles are sustained as prophets, seers and revelators? I would imagine that Elder Andersen is “subject” to Pres. Monson.

  6. (5)
    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that Lehi had never even met Jeremiah . . . as long as we’re speculating.

  7. I think it is somewhat tenuous to draw analogies between the “church” in pre-exilic Jerusalem and the modern Restoration. Moreover, I think the reading of the Hiram Page incident doesn’t get at what was really happening (I highly recommend Robin Jensen’s thesis for what I believe is a very important analysis of that event).

    Now, to the heart of the post, I think that contrasting priesthood hierarchy and ordination with priesthood of all believers doesn’t particularly function well with the existing data. Now, there are arguments to be made from the Book of Mormon (but not Smith’s revelations) about ordination. The Whitmerites are prototypical of this, I think.

    However, you seem instead to be interested in charisma – prophecy, power, etc. These are the spiritual gifts promised to all believers and are only regulated by the Church (for church purposes). You don’t need to be ordained to experience the gifts and power of God.

  8. Let’s also not confuse ancient offices of the priesthood with modern ones (like Prophet). High Priests and Prophets in the Old Testament were not holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

    See: D&C 84:24-25

  9. #152

    As long as we are speculating he may have met Lehi else why would Jeremiah mention other prophets? It could go either way though

  10. I don’t think Lehi was “breaking off” from the tradition of Jeremiah–but rather from the apostasy of his day. I think Lehi shows how the Lord can direct one group of people toward a specific mission without putting said group at odds with the mainstream prophetic leadership.

  11. 10
    I agree. The interesting thing however, is that Lehi makes no mention of a directive from Jeremiah. And Jeremiah makes no mention of Lehi at all.

    How would the church membership today view a man, taking his family, another man’s family, and a complete stranger into the woods . . . and then to a far off land, to start a new covenant people. I believe if that were to happen [without the express written consent of the church], it would be viewed as an apostate group of people.

    On the other hand, to respond to the speculation in (9). If a man were to do that, under the directive of the first presidency, it would be very unlikely that that wouldn’t be mentioned in their writings. i.e. if Lehi was acting under the command of Jeremiah, wouldn’t it be mentioned somewhere in 117 pages that Nephi wrote? (yes yes, Lehi wrote another number of chapters we have no record of – but somewhere, I imagine Joseph would have talked about it; especially given the fact that Joseph found it important to mention Lehi’s lineage as per revelation from said pages).

  12. “How can we resolve the evident tension between our scriptural sources which provide a space for the priesthood-of-all-believers contrasted with our teachings on priesthood ordination?”

    By empowering all in the temple with a priesthood-of-all-believers?

    “How can we navigate the difference between personal ministry and institutional calling and/or the conflict between having a Prophet and being a prophetic people?”

    I don’t see a difference or a conflict. I have a personal ministry right now that has nothing to do with my institutional calling, and I support the Prophet while striving to be a prophet in my own sphere.

    Oh, and Lehi was very typical of his time and culture – and pretty much every other time and culture throughout history when people had plenty of available land to which to flee and an economy that would support nomadic movement. Apostates are whatever the power structure of the time deem them to be, just as cults simply are relatively
    smaller threats to the establishment that are labeled by that establishment. Lehi was an apostate cultist, plain and simple – as was every charismatic dissenter in our scriptural canon (including Moses and Jesus, Nehor and Amalikiah, etc.). The only difference seems to be their “success” – or lack thereof in the cases of Elijah and Lehi and all the others that are mentioned only in passing as a grouped whole by the established leaders.

  13. Alex T. Valencic says:

    152 (11) We don’t know if Lehi made mention of directives from Jeremiah or not. Remember, we don’t have Lehi’s record. We have Nephi’s very sparse record of what his father did, which is only presented so as to give us a framework for what Nephi was writing about, and why he was writing it.

    To the OP, I don’t see the “evident tension” that you see. I see a difference between the Church being very organised post-Restoration and a church that was very non-organised in the time leading up to Christ. I am pretty certain that the first inkling we have of a church organisation in the ancient Americas was after Alma called priests and teachers. And I don’t think the early church organisation as established by Christ existed until after His mortal ministry had concluded (i.e. I don’t recall reading about anything beyond apostles and seventies until Ephesians), although I am willing to admit to being wrong on this one.

  14. Perhaps the best answer I can think of right now is the uniformity of personal revelation. Certainly, disagreements may arise, but the “final” word must often come from the Spirit Himself- spoken directly to all parties involved.

    Even so, having guidelines in place are also needed to add consistency in our lives today. Ray, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I am curious what you mean by “spheres.” How are clashes avoided when these spheres conflict and overlap?

  15. I don’t really see much tension here. Both Jeremiah and Lehi (and other prophets contemporary to both of them) were calling the people of Jerusalem to repentance in a situation where apostasy had taken its toll on both a doctrinal and hierarchical level. This is more analogous to Samuel the Lamanite’s or Abinadi’s preaching. In Abinadi’s case, the priests of King Noah were probably properly installed in a hierarchical sense but had apostatized in terms of doctrine and practice. They had corrupted the religious law to which they were subject. Take a look at The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon for a good treatment of how the priests of King Noah conformed in many outward aspects to their religiously ordained roles but had corrupted the essence of key provisions of the commandments and provisions applicable to those with a charge to sit in judgment on others.

  16. Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

    #7 – I agree that the link is tenuous which is part of my point, one which I clearly did not express very well. I sense that is dificult to draw lessons about priesthood leadership, service and power from religious communities so differrent from the one we current live in. Although I agree with the idea in principle (that all people have access to such gifts) it seems evident to me that the hierarchy does seem to suggest that it monopolizes those gifts, in that if they were exercised – the leaders decide whether they are of God or not.

    #12 – Again, Ray I also concur that the temple promises such blessings but that also is contained within a Church structure, which is exactly why to me Lehi (being typical of his time) is problematic. Can I use him as a role model now or not? Could I retain my membership in a Church I love if I were act as Lehi? If not, then I would suggest that there is a very real tension here.

    #13 – Your certainly right about Alma. I would argue that Church’s become necessary when the people live admidst others of differing values. It is created as a protection.

    #15 – So are you arguing that a similar situation would not happen now because we have no such hierarchical and doctrinal apostasy. Would you then say that God’s dual-response (call to repent and send out a righteous remnant) was intended to ensure his purposes were fulfilled?

    Thanks again.

  17. There may be some deeper stuff going on here when you factor in what role King Josiah’s “reforms” might have played. Was Lehi preaching against key aspects of King Josiah’s reforms? What I see in the Book of Mormon is an Old Testament legacy that reaches further back in terms of the law than what you get with those Jews returning from Babylonian captivity.

    As to your comments # 16, the prophets mentioned as contemporary to Jeremiah seem to have all been proclaiming repentance and warning of destruction. It doesn’t seem like they were stumping for followers in a denominational sense. They were all Jews trying to get the Jews to return to the law and righteousness. Lehi, as a righteous Jew, was inspired to raise his voice in support of the same message that Jeremiah was proclaiming. Jeremiah was imprisoned; Lehi fled Jerusalem with his family and then had to stay away in self-imposed exile (that happened to correspond to God’s warning to him to leave Jerusalem) after Nephi murdered Laban and took the brass plates. Perhaps others fled Jerusalem following similar promptings. This seems to be the case to some extent for Mulek and his entourage. In their isolation wandering through the Arabian deserts and crossing the ocean, these practicing Jews received continuing revelation by which they learned how messianically focused the whole program really was and even came to learn the name by which the Messiah would be known and the manner of his birth, etc.

    So it’s really God working through various people and groups to accomplish the purposes that were relevant at that time. This whole thing works better if you look at what occurred as providential history.

  18. #17 – I think that provides an interesting framework for considering these ideas. Thank you. I guess my only problem now is how to take these narratives and apply them to my current situation, using the BoM as my guide. It seems to me that we do not have a consistent story or process for this idea of apostasy and restoration, but rather it is contingent and open. I am open to this idea but it seems that it still poses this same problem of who, where and when can the people/church be called to repentance. Are restorations only acceptable when there is a complete apostasy (i.e. JS) or can they happen when there is a partial apostasy (i.e. Jeremiah still being a force). Can such prophetic models (such as lehi) be applied to a situation where have a completely different organisational structure? Can prophetic pronouncement come from the bottom-up or even from outside? However it is very possible that I have mis-understood.

  19. I don’t think you need to view Jeremiah as Lehi’s superior, necessarily, unless I am missing something. They were contemporaries at a time and in a system in which various prophets were in the land warning of Jerusalem’s imminent destruction. The key might be that these prophets weren’t looking for followers of their own to set up their own religions or denominations. They were seeking to convince a corrupt hierarchy to return to righteousness and therefore to purify the ordinances and the temple. It is much more analogous to the various protestant reformers preaching simultaneously against the decadence and corruption of the Catholic Church in the 1500s. Luther is Jeremiah and Melanchton is Lehi etc.

    This doesn’t really fit into our framework of Restoration in the Latter-days at all because in the case of the Restoration we view that as something much further than a Reformation. Most Mormons believe that the priesthood authority was completely gone, not just held by corrupted officials, so it had to be returned miraculously and then the church had to be re-established entirely to give better effect to New Testament Christianity, with relevant modifications appropriate for the time period and situation of the latter-day church.

    As to partial apostasy, we have numerous General Authorities preaching repentance and restoration every General Conference and at other times in the addresses they give to the world, members and non-members alike.

  20. And what of Hagoth, the builder of ships, who took many people to the islands of the sea in the Book of Mormon? No provision seems to have been made to send someone with them who held Priesthood Keys. Maybe it did happen but went unrecorded. In any case, you have alot of people moving around and the difficulty of supplying them with Gospel leadership.

    Then of course you have the Three Nephites to this very day who seem to operate way outside “the box.” No one wants to talk about them and so they have gone the way of folklore.

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