Rehearing/Rereading Joseph Smith: Brigham and Brigham.

When Joseph Smith died, he left a many-pronged collection of doctrine and practice that had yet to be brought together and made coherent as message and marching order for the coming generation of Latter-day Saints. One small part of that thrust was Joseph’s teaching about the nature of man. Over the last near decade of Smith’s life he had developed ideas that led him several different directions with regard to the nature of human beings and their relationship to God.

Joseph found meaning in a truly heterodox notion, regarding men and women as eternal beings, each person having an infinite past, an uncreate past, a consciousness with punctuated equilibria but without beginning (or ending). Contextually, his sermons really leave little if any wiggle room on this point.

But this idea, while it was used by him to offer partial hope and reconciliation to the grieving survivors of the dead (your loved one still lives on of necessity) needed to be folded into other doctrines and practices that Joseph left behind. The most important of these, at least to his closest confidants, was the temple liturgy and its associated ideas.

Over a fairly short period, a fascinating synthesis, trailing from these two doctrinal patches, was developed by some inheritors of Joseph’s mantle. This interpretive synthesis took Joseph’s language (sometimes with a tweak or two) and reread it in a different way. When Joseph said the individual had no beginning, the new reading became that the process of salvation had no beginning. Where Joseph had offered temple liturgy to the privileged few who would then offer it to others when the temple was completed, this became a process of not only eternal significance to the individual, but a process that had no beginning or end, a process taking place throughout the infinite creation of God, on worlds without end. To put it another way, where Joseph postulated that the individual was eternal, always existing, never beginning or ending, the synthesis no longer focused on the isolated person, but on the salvific system. Instead of “there never was a time” when a man or woman (their spirits/minds) did not exist, the synthetic doctrine became, “there never was a time” when spirits somewhere, sometime did not exist as part of the universal eternal plan.

Mormonism became a *religion* without beginning or ending or bounds-the religion of the universe. The synthesis continued: the sealing of men and women portended the propagation of beings in eternity. Spirits, persons, could not be eternal and yet come into being, but the system could be eternal, always working, without beginning or end. Brigham and the apostles coming together over the combining of these two peaks of Joseph’s teaching made a place for both in a single synthetic powerhouse.

But the death of the first generation after Joseph led to a generation of historian-leaders.[1] And those leaders or at least some of them, were bound to see the seam in this synthesis when they took the documents of the past as their guide to the founder’s ideas. That seam became apparent as history, resurrected and universally available at the beginning of the twentieth century, took the place of that first generation of apostle witnesses in Utah.[2]

In the vanguard of that new/old knowledge was Brigham H. Roberts. Roberts, loyal to both his new understanding of Joseph but also Joseph’s successors whom he also regarded as prophetic leaders, sought and found his own synthesis. Man was both eternal, uncreate, and yet the literal child of God- the uncreate “intelligent being” was clothed in a spiritually begotten body of “spirit.” Eternal (Joseph) yet a spirit child of God (Brigham). Roberts became a missionary for the idea. Though not received with friendly smiles from all his colleagues, a nucleus of Church leaders took up the banner of this new synthesis.[3]

Any new idea with traction in an established movement, whether one that is very much top-down like Mormonism, or one that is loosely bound like separate congregations of some Protestant denominations, say, can cause interesting effects on the future of that organization. And in this case, several traditions developed in Mormon literature founded on both the two syntheses here and also the gradual maturation of historical studies of Mormonism.

Virtually every long-lived movement has such synthetic processes at work. This has been the story of a few in Mormonism. [And can you guess what TV program that line comes from?] [4]
——————–
[1] Mormonism finds much of its meaning in its founder’s experiences (along with the sacred texts that came with those experiences) – in his history and claims about that history. It is natural, when the eyewitnesses passed on, that people would look to and try to understand and derive meaning from a careful study of that history and the truth claims that surround it.

[2] One could see some parallels here with the print revolution and the Bible I suppose. Latter-day Saints are born (again ;) with a natural tension in their lives. A loyalty to present prophetic leaders, and a loyalty to what past leaders have claimed as truth (I include sacred texts). This is perfectly natural and logical. Sometimes that loyalty leads to paradoxical results, in part because of synthetic processes like the one illustrated here. Mature believers have learned perhaps that while the prophetic voice is to be trusted, the people that give that voice are in fact human. They do display the tip of the iceberg that is God, but only the tip. And the synthesis of different views of that iceberg should be seen with some flexibility (one might say, the cloak of charity as Joseph put it). Perhaps in a sense, this is related to Nephi’s “likening.”

[3] The apostles were more or less of divided opinion on the idea. That division appears to remain.

[4] The above is brought to you by a synthesis of a small part of chapter 7 of an in-progress book.

Comments

  1. This reevaluation after the death of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries is particularly evident in the liturgy of the Church. Take baptism for health, for example. By the first decade of the twentieth century, you have younger leaders asking, “why do we do this again?”

  2. Margaret Young says:

    I’m always excited about posts I can turn towards a discussion of race issues (hoping not to threadjack). One thing I’ve heard proponents of the priesthood restriction (those who believe it was a result of revelation) say is that Brigham Young would not have done something contradictory to what Joseph would have done; that one of his main objectives was to keep with Joseph’s trajectory. Of course, a few things interfered in that particular trajectory (such as Southerners bringing their slaves to Utah), but the idea has held that Brigham was too loyal to Joseph to go counter to him, and therefore, there must’ve been something about the restriction said in an unrecorded meeting– to the Council of the Fifty, for example.
    Of course, after BY’s death in 1877, when ELijah Abel was petitioning again for the endowment, John Taylor asked no questions about what Brigham had said, only about what Joseph had said–and got contradictory answers.

    WVS, I am wondering how the reframing of the doctrine of spirits’ eternal nature into the eternal nature of the “salvific system” was influenced by the canonizaton of the PofGP. That particular book of scripture is such a significant element in the endowment. I have not seen a text of the endowment as Joseph presented it in the Red Brick Store, so I don’t know what additions were made during BY’s term of service or later. I’d be interested to know (with careful phrasing, of course).

  3. J., language is key. In your work on the transition liturgical forms you have noted a lack of pointed authoritative texts. Roberts’ battle was almost entirely one regarding texts. He (correctly) argued his case from textual reliability (though I don’t know if he understood just how right he was). Margaret’s comment is apropos. Roberts would eventually appeal to the PGP (too late).

  4. Margaret, I’m sitting in a theater waiting for play to begin. I’ll get back to you.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Behold the birth of the Roberts tripartite theory! Interesting exposition.

  6. I can’t pretend to understand half this stuff, though it is interesting.

    Regarding your third footnote:
    “The apostles were more or less of divided opinion on the idea. That division appears to remain.”

    I’m intrigued by the last sentence there. Do we know what current church authorities think about these issues? I have been under the impression that modern leaders don’t really discuss these kinds of metaphysical things anymore. Am I wrong? If so, when did they stop?

  7. WVS, that is right. As you show, the texts are the key.

  8. I am wondering how the reframing of the doctrine of spirits’ eternal nature into the eternal nature of the “salvific system” was influenced by the canonizaton of the PofGP. That particular book of scripture is such a significant element in the endowment. I have not seen a text of the endowment as Joseph presented it in the Red Brick Store, so I don’t know what additions were made during BY’s term of service or later. I’d be interested to know (with careful phrasing, of course).

    The Pearl of Great Price came along as an anthology of JS’s lesser known revelations in 1851 in England. It wasn’t actually published in the US until after Brigham Young’s death. Probably about 10,000 English copies circulated (gradually) among British Saints over a 25 year period. But Brigham had worked out his integration of JS’s ideas well before the PofGP could be said to be an influential text I think (it was not canonized until Taylor’s inaugural). That is not to say that elements of it particularly from the JST weren’t known and used. The Red Brick store endowment certainly evolved over time. Even BY claims that Joseph gave out a sort of skeleton system and asked BY to fill it in. It’s clear that the dramatic presentation emphasized different elements over time. Nobody seems to have written down the RBS version as far as I know, but maybe J. knows more here. There are recitals of the late 1845 – early 1846 temple version in some aspects. Also there were some exposés-hard to judge reliability. I don’t think there was an “authorized” endowment script until just before BY’s death (not everything was written down then either). With multiple temples coming online a complete script was finally made to assure uniformity.

    Of course, after BY’s death in 1877, when Elijah Abel was petitioning again for the endowment, John Taylor asked no questions about what Brigham had said, only about what Joseph had said–and got contradictory answers.

    Since John Taylor the tradition is to quote little or nothing from your predecessor. I did an (incomplete) survey of that some time ago. Presidents very rarely quote from their predecessors, with the occasional exception of Joseph Smith himself. I think this has been a conscious (though unspoken) decision. In Taylor’s case he more or less detested Brigham as a personality, so it wasn’t hard to do. As you know, there simply is nothing contemporary from JS on priesthood and race, unless you make a very tortured use of the Book of Abraham and JST. Joseph was no paternalist though a political segregationist.

    Brigham was too loyal to Joseph to go counter to him, and therefore, there must’ve been something about the restriction said in an unrecorded meeting– to the Council of the Fifty, for example.

    Brigham was way too loyal to JS to run counter to him, while he was alive. To suggest that Brigham was too timid to go his own way in Utah is pretty ridiculous. Assigning something to an unrecorded meeting based on the idea that Brigham wouldn’t venture his own agenda is not just akin to making historical judgements by coin toss, it’s much worse. (Think Adam-god.)

  9. Jenni, some of the current group have tipped their hands. For example, Elder Nelson hangs in with the Brigham Young version, Elder Scott with the Brigham Roberts version. Not everyone has a known position in the top 15. Some though assert, “I don’t know.” When Joseph Fielding Smith was Church president, I wrote to him asking about the issue. The whole presidency actually each signed the letter. That is a cool letter, just for the non-machine signatures. Unlike DOM, JFS did not like to make doctrine or policy in private letters. ;-)

  10. Excellent write-up, WVS. Fascinating stuff. I’m slowly working on an article that explores the dynamics of interpreting Joseph Smith’s theology during the decade after his death as a more fruitful way to engage early Mormon thought. I posted the intro to my recent MHA paper on the topic here.

  11. Thanks, Ben, and thanks for the link. My argument here more or less shaped my treatment of the impact of Joseph’s protology as frozen in King Follett 2. But I don’t really run with it much, only in the sense of Robert Hume’s 2005 paper in Bib. Soc. Amer. (Aims and Uses of Textual Studies). As it is, the treatment of KFD is 350 pages. Needs some kind of hatchet job, but I don’t have the heart.

  12. Bill (#8), that is right, Woodruff and Young hammered out the endowment in 1877, but all the rituals were not written down until the 1920s when the temple liturgy was reformed. I’ve heard rumors of a long lost (and subsequently found) Nauvoo manuscript, but I don’t think we’ll get verification of that any time soon. Otherwise, it is as you have said.

    I’ve heard Esplin comment to on the idea that there wasn’t nearly as much antagonism between Taylor and Young and Samuel W. Taylor suggests. I’ve not looked into it enough to know though.

  13. Re: Taylor-Young, I know Sam had an axe to grind there, I was just going on some stuff Lorenzo Snow said and a few chunks of clerk records like the sugar blowup and some other things like a bit of name-calling in private. But Taylor was loyal to Young doctrinally pretty much it seems while Young was alive. OP (and maybe PPP if you could have pinned him down) butted heads of course. If you find out more about a Nauvoo ms, I’d like to know.

  14. Keep it coming sir. Keep it coming.

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