Your October Conference Prep: Textual Origins of LDS Priesthood Organization, Part XVII. Elijah.

Besides the “priesthood revelations,” other important texts defined how the Mormon hierarchy worked and to some degree the associated terminology and theology. Standouts among them are LDS D&C 102 and 112 in the current edition. The first of these concerned the high council system, a formal group taking the place of ad hoc groups of high priests rendering judgement on items of policy, doctrine, procedure, finances and other matters. The high council was a kind of judicial/legislative group that heard cases of complaints between church members, directed funding, regulated local church structure and tried appealed cases from lower forms of discipline like bishop’s courts.

Early high councils called people on missions, directed scattered church units and created new ones and even sent high councilors to distant parts to give information or direct proceedings (part of that probably stemmed from the fact that high priests were relatively rare in regions away from church headquarters — the pecking order). The history of high councils and their structure is a study unto itself that we have neither time nor space for here.

D&C 102 is important as both a guide to present day high council procedure and to some degree a model for general church leadership. For example, when a string of church presidents became incapable of functioning for significant periods during their tenure, D&C 102 was cited as reasoning that allowed the counselor(s) in the presidency to act as president.[1] Language was careful not to suggest any kind of coup, but 102 is quite clear on how high council business may be conducted. While 102 did not contemplate the twelve apostles as the 12 councilors in the document, it was not a terrible leap, since their body was referred to as the traveling high council in revelation.[2]

D&C 112 spots the Twelve Apostles of the church as second in command to the presidency in a fairly natural reading.[3]

D&C 112 was given in 1837, but not published until 1844. It did not appear in print during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.[4] Indeed, its release was too late to be seen by most church members as an authoritative reference during the succession meetings of August 1844 though it did circulate in ms copies from 1837.

Another revelation, and the one from which this segment draws its title, is the April 3, 1836 vision (D&C 110) experienced in the Kirtland temple. This revelation is not organizational per se, but in the narrative of Mormon priesthood it finds a place of prominence. Indeed, Brigham Young saw it as a defining element for the top leaders of the church. It, like section 112 was not published prior to Joseph Smith’s death. More remarkably, it was not circulated prior to his death. Key revelations were nearly always hand copied in early days and shared by missionaries and others (the earliest version of D&C 112 that I know of is in a letter). This one was not, nor was it ever openly referenced in Smith’s lifetime.

Some were evidently told of (perhaps just some of) its contents, but it was treated either as a kind of private blessing or simply mysterious in terms of meaning (and some of it at least, remains that way). It is ironic, given the emphasis the event has received in the modern church, that neither Smith nor Cowdery ever spoke of it, at least publicly. W. W. Phelps appears to have known of the vision, but perhaps not in detail. Warren Cowdery, Oliver’s brother, recorded the two men’s third person account of the vision. Oliver did not mention the revelation in his recounting of foundational events in his testimony in returning to Mormonism after Smith’s death. Smith does not report the experience in his letter on baptism for the dead (excerpts of which appear in D&C 128) which details his visions through the years, including rather esoteric events like the voices of Michael and Raphael(?). Willard Richards copied the Cowdery entry into the manuscript history of the church. Except for this silence, the experience has parallels, at least in reporting, to the John the Baptist visitation. However, while the Baptist was reported as making physical contact, the 1836 vision offered only verbal announcements.

D&C 110 does not appear in print until November 6, 1852 in The Deseret News following Orson Pratt’s famous speech on the subject of polygamy. Pratt referenced the revelation in his speech. I haven’t seen a public acknowledgement of the vision prior to that.

Elijah, the final person to appear in the vision, is a person of some moment in Mormonism and he became the masthead of Mormon family theology. Given that Smith may have been initially ignorant of the future position of Elijah theologically, it is clear that he was on board by 1844.[5] Why not mention the fact that the ancient one from Tishbi had made an appearance, since he seems to be at the center of things by the time of Nauvoo? A number of reasons present themselves but none seem very forceful.[6]

Aside from this mystery, there are a few things about the vision that beg explanation. Of the four angelic persons who make an appearance, all but one seem to offer a fairly obvious reason (from the present vantage point) for their visits. The one that is strange is the next to last. Elias. Joseph Smith had a record of identifying biblical figures (like Noah or Adam) with angelic figures (Gabriel and Michael in these cases). The game here is to guess the alternate moniker for Elias. It’s an awkward name because most everyone, including Joseph Smith, knew that Elias was merely the New Testament name for Elijah. On the other hand Joseph had revelations on the books suggesting a biblical identity for various people called Elias. The situation increases in complexity when we see that it’s an official name in Mormonism as well, that is, a name that identifies both a class of historic persons and an office having to do with restoring lost information or authority.[7]

But the final vision of D&C 110 featuring Elijah is the (often implicit) center-piece of much of modern Mormon preaching and practice. Elijah is seen as the foundation of temple authority and that in turn is visioned as the ultimate liturgical goal of Latter-day Saints (somewhat strangely I think, Elijah makes no appearance in temple ritual). The sealing doctrine was founded on Elijah by Smith himself, and sealing praxis, aside from the John Taylor years and the associated post manifesto die-down of polygamy perhaps, was tightly controlled by the First Presidency. Among all other issues of authority and procedure, Elijah sits at the center from the death of Joseph Smith on, and therefore the April 3, 1836 vision defines who sits at the controls of the present day church.[8]

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[1] Gordon B. Hinckley may have been first to use this idea publicly.

[2] High councils grew to function somewhat independently of a stake president, possibly as a result of D&C 112 which permits the traveling high council its own president. Prior to that, leadership circulated among the apostles in turns. The use of D&C 102 in the modern context illustrates the way the founding prophet applied biblical texts. It is not a new way of doing things.

[3] The use of Marsh’s name may have been distracting in a succession argument I suppose. Also the “in all the world” language continued to play havoc with jurisdiction, ironically. After Joseph Smith’s death however, the apostles, particularly Brigham Young, repurposed the phrase to suggest universal authority over everything, not just church function away from central units (stakes).

[4] See the summary of printing history at the JSPP site.

[5] Consider his speeches of August 1839, October 1840, August 1843, January 1844 and March 1844.

[6] Important in this matter: polygamy. But its relationship to D&C 110 is obscure. I’ve left D&C 132 out of this discussion, though it clearly forms part of the Elijah mystique in Mormonism. Perhaps another time.

[7] Our own Sam Brown offers his take on Elias in a Dialogue article. Samuel Brown, “The Prophet Elias Puzzle,” Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39/3.

[8] Andrew Ehat’s masters thesis, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question,” Brigham Young University, 1982, points to this idea. Dated and perhaps too narrow, it’s still worth a read. William Marks, a blip on the succession radar screen for an 1844 moment never had a chance. He was in on the templum salvificum and Council of Fifty, but he missed the other leg of the stool: polygamy. (Stake presidents were succession wusses after D&C 124.) Finally, I recommend Sam Brown’s recent book from Oxford UP, In Heaven as it is on Earth for help in understanding the context of early Latter-day Saint tributaries to the Nauvoo theology.

Comments

  1. Ah, but wasn’t the authority of the high priesthood to seal up people from the get go (grin)?

  2. I call this whole thing, the flowering of the high priest hood. Hasn’t caught on as yet.

  3. Is this the final part of this series? I thought you said there were two more after part XVI. I’ve been compiling them to read them all together…

  4. I was going to do a summary post, but it got out of hand and I ran out of time. So, I’m calling it good with this one.

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