Gospel Doctrine lesson #10: “This is my voice unto all”

We are very pleased to have Emily U, from Exponent, as our guest for this post on Lesson 10. 

Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.

Section 25 is remarkable because it is the only revelation in the Doctrine & Covenants given to a woman. It’s also remarkable because Latter-day Saints trace the origin of their hymnals to this section. It begins with addressing Emma Smith and concludes with “this is my voice unto all,” so there is universally applicable advice in the section, but there is also prophecy that seems to be just for Emma.

The Teacher’s Manual and the Student Manual take different approaches to this section, and have different perspectives. The Student Manual provides some historical context and gives commentary on each verse. The manual suggests that verse 16 (“this is my voice unto all”) “has application to all, especially women.” I am grateful the Teacher’s Manual doesn’t tack on that qualifier, but begins with discussion of how “husbands and wives should support and comfort each other” (emphasis mine). The fact that the Lord uses some version of the phrase “my voice unto all” in other revelations given to individuals (D&C 61:36, 82:5, and 93:49) further negates the irksome view that it’s especially important for women to comfort their husbands, not the other way around.

The Teacher’s Manual gives quite lovely quotes by Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith regarding Joseph and Emma’s life together, and it may be worthwhile to read them. But Gospel Doctrine isn’t the Marriage & Family Relations class, and if I were teaching this lesson I’d steer the discussion in the direction of how we can comfort and console friends and relatives other than just our spouses. Rather than focus on Joseph and Emma Smith as examples of how we can learn to be more loving and supportive, perhaps these questions could spark a discussion about supporting loved ones.

Verses 5 and 9 use the word “calling” to describe Emma and Joseph’s role in comforting and supporting each other. Have you ever considered your responsibilities to your loved ones as a calling? Would thinking about relationships in that way change the way you relate to your loved ones? What does it look like to provide comfort and support in everyday ways?

Here is one thought on what it looks like to comfort and support loved ones. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke frames this as guarding another person’s solitude – not as in leaving them lonely, but as in protecting what is best in them. I think you could substitute “close relationships” with “marriage” here:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” – From Letters to a Young Poet

Following Emma’s call to comfort her husband in verse 5, she is also called to be his scribe in verse 6, and in verse 7 she “shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures and to exhort the church according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit.” Her calling as the first Relief Society President clearly fulfills this prophecy, and I think her call to expound the scriptures and exhort the church has implications for our current Relief Society presidents. When Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society in 1842 he said, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time” [1], which echoes the prophecy of verses 7 and 8.

Verse 11 contains the well-known instruction to “make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be used in my church.” The slim volume that came of this verse contained (in text only) 90 hymns, 30 or 40 of which seem to have been written by Latter-day Saints, and the remainder of which were Protestant [2]. In Emma’s modest preface, she wrote “In order to sing by the Spirit, and with the understanding, it is necessary that the church of the Latter Day Saints should have a collection of “Sacred Hymns,” adapted to their faith… it is sincerely hoped that the following collection, selected with an eye single to his glory, may answer every purpose till more are composed, or till we are blessed with a copious variety of the songs of Zion.” [3] She was also mindful of verse 12: “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.”

I think Mormons often hold Jesus’ warning against vain repetitions in prayer (Matthew 6:7) as important to the exclusion of what verse 12 is saying. We value extemporaneous prayer to the near total exclusion of the written prayer, and I think we suffer because this. I love this poem by Steven Wright, called “Borrowed Words,”

It is a justifiable theft
This praying of borrowed words.
My own words gave out years ago
Like the wind when a ship hits the doldrums.
I drifted
Prayerless
Until I learned to borrow words.

Now the pleas of Heman and Solomon,
The plaints of Asaph and David
Propel me on
As they leap from my lips
Heavenward.
Carried by Christ.

They were his words first,
Borrowed by psalmists
And borrowed back when
Hanging on the cross he cried,
My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Surely, my God,
Thou wilt not forsake me
If I borrow Thy words
And offer them back to Thee.

So for us, hymns are our opportunity to borrow the words of a poet and offer them to God as prayer. I know I don’t always feel like praying, so it’s good to know God accepts my singing as a form of prayer.

Praying can be a deeply personal thing, and probably the most personal of prayers will still be private, extemporaneous communication with God. But if songs of the righteous are also prayers, I think a diversity of hymns is essential for them to feel like prayers to the greatest number of people. Even with our 323 unique hymn titles in the current hymnal, I don’t think we’ve yet achieved the “copious variety” that Emma Smith hoped for. I think it would be wonderful if the next edition of the hymnal doubled in size to include newly composed hymns and more existing hymns from other Christian traditions.

Verses 13 and 14 tell Emma (and us) to “lift up thy heart and rejoice” and to “beware of pride.” I am glad the Teacher’s Manual lists several more examples of individuals in the Doctrine & Covenants who were warned about pride. It also quotes Ezra Taft Benson on pride; I’d suggest reading C.S. Lewis on pride as well.

Notes:

[1] As quoted in Derr, Jill Mulvay, Cannon, Janath Russell, and Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach, Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society, (Deseret Book 1992): 1.
[1] Davidson, Karen Lynn, Our Latter Day Hymns, (Bookcraft 1988): 9.
[2] Taken from my reprint of A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints published by F. G. Williams, & co, 1835.

Comments

  1. Emily, thank you for being our guest. I appreciated your thoughts on borrowing words for prayer through our hymns. Most of the time I find the lyrics in our hymns quite didactic and, at times, lacking in feeling. However I suspect that I might find them more enriching if I approached them in this way.

  2. Thanks for adding to this series, Emily. The poem is great stuff. Ronan loves you. (Chastely, from afar.)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for these great notes. I’ll probably incorporate some stuff from this article (be sure to click on PDF to see the illustrations): http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=21&num=1&id=635

  4. I really like your take on verse 12, and the poem is wonderful.

  5. Thanks for the love :)

    Aaron – I hear you. There is no way “Come Away to Sunday School” is ever going to feel like prayer to me. But some of the better ones, definitely.

    Kevin – wish I could be there for your lesson. I was disappointed the manual totally left out a discussion of hymns, so hopefully most teachers will do as you are doing and give them due attention. That’s a great resource from Dr. Hicks.

  6. Emily U, apropos nothing really, but last Sunday I was re-reading LTU’s ‘Lusterware’ during Priesthood and came across a poem by Eliza R. Snow, which I must have read before, but which surprised me. We would not, as Ulrich suggests, find this in the hymnal now:

    Think now when you gather to Zion,
    The Saints here have nothing to do
    But to look to your personal welfare,
    And always be comforting you.

    Not only are our hymns sometime missing the poetic but they also miss this type of raw honesty as well.

  7. lindberg says:

    #6 — That was in the hymnal until the 1985 edition.

  8. Great link Kevin. Thanks!

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