This is another installment in a series of posts based on the monthly themes from, “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for January, February, March and April.
The topic for May is “Prophets and Revelation.” (By the way, this topic highlights the genius of providing this curriculum on-line, as some of the links point to messages that were given just weeks ago in general conference. Never has Church curriculum been so agile and timely.) One of the links points to Boyd K. Packer’s most recent testimony, “These Things I Know.” I am struck by the sincerity of his concluding words:
Of all that I have read and taught and learned, the one most precious and sacred truth that I have to offer is my special witness of Jesus Christ. He lives. I know He lives. I am His witness. And of Him I can testify.
It is instructive to set that simple but very direct testimony next to another address by Pres. Packer, speaking in general conference in 2007. He is discussing what it means to be a special witness:
I was called to meet with President David O. McKay. He took both of my hands in his and called me to be one of the General Authorities, an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
A few days later, I came to Salt Lake City to meet with the First Presidency to be set apart as one of the General Authorities of the Church. This was the first time I had met with the First Presidency—President David O. McKay and his counselors, President Hugh B. Brown and President Henry D. Moyle.
President McKay explained that one of the responsibilities of an Assistant to the Twelve was to stand with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a special witness and to bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ. What he said next overwhelmed me: “Before we proceed to set you apart, I ask you to bear your testimony to us. We want to know if you have that witness.”
I did the best I could. I bore my testimony the same as I might have in a fast and testimony meeting in my ward. To my surprise, the Brethren of the Presidency seemed pleased and proceeded to confer the office upon me.
That puzzled me greatly, for I had supposed that someone called to such an office would have an unusual, different, and greatly enlarged testimony and spiritual power.
It puzzled me for a long time until finally I could see that I already had what was required: an abiding testimony in my heart of the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that we have a Heavenly Father, and that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer.
… I have the witness that would qualify me for the calling I have. I’ve had it since I met the First Presidency those many years ago.
Next, Pres. Packer quotes Marrion G. Romney, who, speaking of an experience of being touched by the Holy Ghost while gazing at the night sky “as a missionary boy in Australia,” said that “he did not know any more surely then as a member of the First Presidency that God the Father lives; that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father; and that the fulness of the gospel had been restored than he did as a missionary boy 50 years before in Australia.”
More recently, David A. Bednar has spoken to a similar theme, distinguishing between the “immediate and intense” appearance of light, and the “subtle and gradual discernment of light.” He pointedly quotes yet another prophet, Joseph F. Smith:
As a boy I would frequently ask the Lord to show me some marvelous thing… But the Lord withheld marvels from me and showed me the truth line upon line…. He did not have to send an angel from the heavens to do this…. By the whisperings of the still small voice of the Spirit of the living God, he gave to me the testimony I possess, and by that principle and power he will give to all the children of men a knowledge of the truth that will stay with them, and it will make them to know the truth as God knows it, and to do the will of the Father as Christ does it, and no amount of marvelous manifestations will ever accomplish this.
…It is not by marvelous manifestations unto us that we shall be established in the truth, but it is by humility and faithful obedience to the commandments and laws of God.
Our current leaders are certainly not ruling out the possibility of God manifesting himself openly and directly (indeed, elsewhere in the curriculum—see Elder Christofferson’s talk—this point is clearly made), but they seem to be teaching that this is not a trend, even among the apostles. We are living in a period when direction from heaven is to be had through the subtle and quiet operations of the Holy Ghost rather than by glorious, open visions or commanding voices that are “as the rushing of great waters.” Even a witness as emphatic as Elder Holland’s most recent one still stops well shy of Smith’s and Rigdon’s 1832 ocularity, as they exclaim, “We saw him, even on the right hand of God” (D&C 76:23).
I have a friend who in all candor tells me that he finds this idea troubling, disappointing. Why, he asks, don’t our prophets act like prophets used to? Where are the gifts of old, the signs and wonders from heaven and new books of scripture that we still want to associate with the titles of “prophet, seer, and revelator”? It seems cold comfort to observe that Mormonism is not unique in its shift from charismatic gifts to routinized institutional protocols, whereby the Handbook of Instructions gets more regular updates than the revelations in the canon. Is there anything uplifting to be said about this?
I want to offer two observations that I have found both challenging and oddly helpful. The first is a feature of the idea of “dispensation” that we often overlook in the Church. We speak of dispensations as times during which divine truths are revealed to humanity. The opening of a given dispensation is often necessary because previously revealed truths have been lost due to apostasy. We find this pattern occurring throughout sacred history, with periods of apostasy coming about as the inevitable outcome of human weakness and arrogance. We seldom pause, though, to ask what it is that permits human folly to take over to the extent that it does. The uncomfortable idea is that God, by deliberate inaction, by lack of intervention—and therefore a kind of absence—has allowed such periods of darkness to come about. God is not the direct cause of apostasy, but its absent preventer, and this seems to be a recurring pattern.
Other Christian traditions have been more up front about their notice of this cycle of dispensation and apostasy than we tend to be. The widely influential Protestant Scofiled Reference Bible (1909), for example, stated that, “A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (p. 5), and the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements adds that “Each dispensation has its point of beginning, its test, and its termination in judgment due to humanity’s continual failure.” 
The “test,” of each dispensation is, I take it, a sometimes very lengthy quiescence on the part of God following an initial period of self-manifestation to some portion of humanity. I won’t go into specific examples here, but the Scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, seem to show this pattern very clearly. What is less obvious, perhaps, is whether Latter-day Saints today believe that the “test” part of this dispensational pattern applies to us—to our privileged dispensation. After all, is not the dispensation of the fullness of times supposed to be different from every other in that it will culminate in Christ’s return in triumph? Do not the prophets and apostles now have a greater measure of physical security than in the past, and are we not assured that the Lord will not suffer them to lead the Church astray? This brings us to the second observation I wanted to offer.
There is a parable that we never talk about. It is one of only three in the Doctrine and Covenants, right in the middle of one of our most important revelations—“The Olive Leaf.” Section 88 expounds, among other things, on the pervasive nature of the Light of Christ and on Christ’s role in the creation and redemption of his Father’s kingdom; on the manner of God’s governance of all the universe by law; and on the relationship that all intelligent beings bear to that law. There is a discussion of the vastness and yet perfect order of God’s creations, or “kingdoms,” including the earth and all the planets. And then, the Lord says this:
(46) Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand? (47) Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
(51) Behold, I will liken these kingdoms unto a man having a field, and he sent forth his servants into the field to dig in the field. (52) And he said unto the first: Go ye and labor in the field, and in the first hour I will come unto you, and ye shall behold the joy of my countenance. (53) And he said unto the second: Go ye also into the field, and in the second hour I will visit you with the joy of my countenance. (54) And also unto the third, saying: I will visit you; (55) And unto the fourth, and so on unto the twelfth.
(56) And the lord of the field went unto the first in the first hour, and tarried with him all that hour, and he was made glad with the light of the countenance of his lord. (57) And then he withdrew from the first that he might visit the second also, and the third, and the fourth, and so on unto the twelfth. (58) And thus they all received the light of the countenance of their lord, every man in his hour, and in his time, and in his season— (59) Beginning at the first, and so on unto the last, and from the last unto the first, and from the first unto the last; (60) Every man in his own order, until his hour was finished, even according as his lord had commanded him, that his lord might be glorified in him, and he in his lord, that they all might be glorified.
(61) Therefore, unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms, and the inhabitants thereof—every kingdom in its hour, and in its time, and in its season, even according to the decree which God hath made.
(62) And again, verily I say unto you, my friends, I leave these sayings with you to ponder in your hearts, with this commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall call upon me while I am near— (63) Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you….
As I said, there is an odd silence surrounding this parable. It doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name. I am calling it the Parable of the Twelve Servants, because that seems less of a mouthful than “The parable of the man sending his servants into the field and visiting them in turn,” which is the phrase used in the chapter summary of our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. There are no footnotes or cross-references to the main body of the parable; and, so far as I am able to discover, it has not been cited in general conference since Orson Pratt used it in the 1870s and 80s to make a case that there were children of God inhabiting planets besides our own. Pratt has been followed by a few other commentators since then in making this same point in various publications, but no one has ventured beyond that to guess at the real point of the story. Why this stunning lack of attention? Is there something disquieting about it that we would rather not talk about?
At the time this revelation was given, Joseph Smith was preparing a people to enter into the presence of the Lord. In 1829 he had received priesthood authority from heavenly beings. The following year he had revealed that the Lord intended to gather his Saints in Ohio so that that they might be “endowed with power from on high” (D&C38:32). In 1831 another revelation contained “a promise. . . unto you that have been ordained unto this ministry, that inasmuch as you strip yourselves from jealousies and fears and humble yourselves before me. . . the veil shall be rent and you shall see me and know that I am“ (D&C 67:10). In 1832, just a few months prior to the “Olive Leaf,” a revelation on the priesthood (D&C 84) made clear that “the priesthood held the sacral power to bring people into the presence of God” and that “in the ordinances thereof the power of godliness is manifest”. Then, with the “Olive Leaf,” all of the anticipatory language of the previous revelations crystalized into a “great and last promise” (D&C 88:66–68) that the Lord was willing to appear personally to those who became sanctified and had their eye “single to God.”
With all of this as background, the parable of the twelve servants, preceding this promise as it does, serves to highlight the specialness of the opportunity that the Saints at that time were being afforded. The Lord, it seems to be saying, makes his rounds, from one kingdom—meaning from one world or planet—to the next; and while he is ministering in person to one kingdom, the others must of necessity wait their turn. With the calling of Joseph Smith and the opening of a new dispensation, and now with a temple being built, the message to the Saints was to prepare themselves, because their turn to enjoy the actual presence of the Lord was soon coming. It was a window of opportunity that would open for a time and then close again. In the spring of 1836, upon the dedication of the Kirtland temple, the day of the Lord’s appearing to some of the Saints did come, attended by other heavenly manifestations to many others.
But if there is a positive aspect to the parable of the twelve servants—namely, that the Lord will come in person to visit each of his kingdoms in turn—there is also the more troubling indication that, after a period of time (an hour, in the parable, but perhaps something less definite in Earth time), he would withdraw and be absent from that kingdom as he went on to another. Perhaps what makes us uncomfortable in this parable is the intimation that the season of open visions and apocalypses has passed for the Church, and that we are to be treated just like every other dispensation in having to pass through a period of testing, just doing our best with what we have been given for a while.
What might that mean? It might mean that for the time being we will need to rely—both as individuals, and as a people—on the scriptures we have and on the very subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit that Christ promised he would send his disciples when he left them in Jerusalem. It might mean that the Church’s unprecedented use of new communication technologies and travel to weave the global Church together will prove crucial. And it might deepen our gratitude for science, the arts, and other faith traditions, since these can be a means of gaining insight and knowledge to address timeless needs, discover beauty, and enrich our spiritual lives. For me, it lends a more solemn hue to the recent emphasis on councils at all levels in the Church as a means of collectively detecting and triangulating the Spirit’s whisperings. There is something remarkable in the way Joseph Smith, or the Lord through him, prepared his people well in advance for the day when the charismatic moment of the restoration would pass. He did this by establishing, during his lifetime, a system of councils for the governance of the Church that is still in place. The Prophet’s relief at being able to roll off the responsibility for the kingdom from his shoulders to that of the Twelve has been well documented.
So, I don’t believe we should be afraid of failing this test, if that is what it is. There are rich promises held out to people of covenant in this dispensation. By it’s very presence in our canon, the parable of the twelve servants assures us that, even as the pattern of God’s presence and quiescence continues, Christ has not left us comfortless, and the master will come round again. But until then, we are also on notice that if we begin to set aside or even simply misinterpret the subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit, there is no guarantee that God will come thundering from the heavens to set us straight. It behooves us, therefore, to watch and pray always.
1. Scofiled Reference Bible (1909), 5; Arrington, F.L., “Dispensationalism,” in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988).
2. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 310–15. See D&C 109 & 110.