Sunday Evenings with the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132. Part 5: Ancient Roots and a Death Penalty?

This is part 5 of a series of posts on Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, Joseph Smith’s July 12, 1843 revelation on marriage. Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 are here, here, here and here respectively. Part 6 is here.

Section 132 opens with a prologue explaining its origin, much as section 76, does. Since section 132 has had little variation over its published or manuscript life, I will use the text of the 2013 edition here.[1]

1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—

2 Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.

3 Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.

4 For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.

5 For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.

6 And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.

The preamble text does at least two things: first, it links the terms “a new and an everlasting covenant” (see part 4) with the “doctrine of their having many wives and concubines.” Second, verses 3-5 define a threshold of knowledge beyond which one cannot reverse course. Once crossed, attempting to pretend this “covenant” does not exist opens the door to damnation. It was not a new idea that loss of innocence implies jeopardy. But I believe this threshold idea was especially directed toward Emma. Evidence that it was used as a convincing tactic on other occasions in Nauvoo is sparse, though other expressions about jeopardy may have been deployed.[2] Later in the revelation we see this more explicitly as the denial of the highest joy in heaven.

Verse 5 is interesting for its repetition of Joseph’s April 2 declaration found in section 130: “there is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven . . . “

Verse 1 gets some further explanation later in the revelation, but it suggests language found in some of the headings for various editions of the revelation. I mean by this the way the revelation has been clothed in increased certainty by tying it to Joseph’s early career, when his actions are often perceived as founded on closely packed miraculous events. This worked against “Reorganite” literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here, the July 12 revelation seems linked in an obvious way to the Bible revision work, itself associated with so many early revelations of cosmological significance.

William Clayton’s 1874 affidavit (see part 2 of the series) reads as saying Joseph has known the content, if not the precise text of the revelation, for some time. I don’t think there is much doubt that Joseph had been thinking about the parameters of such a text. In this case however, I believe the question apparently assigned to Joseph in verse one, was, brother-of-Jared-like, actually a relayed question from his brother Hyrum.[3]

Reminiscent reports (for example, Charles Smith–see part 13 and note 1 there) suggest that it was Hyrum asking for clarification and that this text acknowledges more recent activity, not an early question of Joseph Smith, asked, say, during the Bible revision work more than a decade in the past. It also seems certain that Joseph had vouchsafed to Hyrum, and no doubt others, that he has a revelation “in the bag,” citing safety concerns as preventing its being written down. While the much earlier incident involving Fanny Alger is sometimes folded into an argument that the July 12 revelation is a very early text, I believe Alger and the July 12 text are unrelated except perhaps in a very general sense and I think the text of the revelation reveals it to be a compilation of various thematic elements, modified and joined in the July dictation.[4]

In Utah, stories were propagated regarding the idea that both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith knew of the “principle” as early as 1830-1 and even that Cowdery went off on his own and took another wife without Joseph’s ok. I suspect these stories were founded on rumors based on Cowdery’s behavior when the 1830 Lamanite missionaries passed through Ohio. (See note 4 in the link. For background, see here.)

There is, on the other hand, some information suggesting that certain ideas found in section 132 were circulating years before its first writing. For example, William W. Phelps wrote to his wife Sally during his Kirtland stay (hence, long before sealing/polygamy in Nauvoo):

A new idea, Sally, if you and I continue faithful to the end, we are certain to be one in the Lord throughout eternity; this is one of the most glorious consolations we can have in the flesh.[5]

Early convert Orson Pratt offered that when Joseph was living in Hiram, Ohio at the John Johnson home, he told the Johnson’s of an inquiry about polygamy (early 1832).[6]

The question about the Patriarchs is not unnatural, given the enterprise of restoration, and Joseph was typically unfettered by much of received Protestant interpretation. For example, that interpretation generally saw Abraham, et al. as men whose moral weakness or cultural tradition made them examples of the foibles of human nature, not unwavering guide posts on the path to maximum reward in the afterlife. The 1843 revelation on the other hand places Abraham and other ancients beyond reproach.[7] Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in particular are depicted as “gods” in the 1843 text.

Finally, the meaning of the word “law” in this particular revelation was historically interpreted as a part of the context of authorized polygamy. This is important in understanding other portions of the text of the revelation. Yes, the law has to do with sealing, but its main thrust centers on the threshold of knowledge. Legitimate (Joseph Smith authorized) polygamy in Nauvoo was that knowledge.[8]

Next time: the rules of permanence.

———-
[1] In going through the text, I take it as an assumption that Joseph Smith dictated the revelation. I think the evidence for this is strong and in my view virtually irrefutable (see part 1 for some of this). I’m aware of critics of the revelation who wish to find evidence in the text that Joseph Smith was not its source—by virtue of what they see as contradiction with other scripture or church literature. There is a broad range to this sort of thing, but it tries to fight this war at the expense of seeing deep and immeasurably broad and cohesive conspiracies of silence among men and women who spent their lives in faithful sacrifice for their beliefs. Moreover, these kinds of critiques of the revelation are not driven by scholarship but by an almost Puritan-like fear of canonical boundaries. I’m not going there in the text commentary in the series.

[2] It appears from (perhaps tainted) testimony that the rascal John Bennett used powers of persuasion “no sin under these privileged circumstances” etc., while Clayton suffered over the angst of wife Margaret (first wife Ruth does not complain, at least in Clayton’s record). There doesn’t seem to be a salvific threat over revoking the marriage (covenant) with Margaret. A single rule is difficult to apply perhaps. On the other hand, if things were not properly done, either against Joseph’s rulings about who took who, or how many or often or other more murky things, bad things might come along. Clayton wrote:

This A.M. Prest J. took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly & badly since I camea and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things she thought that if he would indulge himself she would too. He cautioned me very kindly for which I felt thankful. He said [Robert B.] Thompson professed great friendship for him but he gave way to temptation & he had to die. Also bro [Vinson] Knight he gave him one but he went to loose conduct and he could not save him. Also [Brigham Young] had transgressed his covenant & he pled with the Lord to spare him this end & he did so, other wise he would have died. [Brigham] denied having transgressed He said if I would do right by him & abide his council he would save my life while he lived. I feel desirous to do right & would rather die than loose my interest in the celestial kingdom

a Joseph had journeyed toward Dixon with Emma to visit her family. Hyrum had alerted Clayton to the presence of Missouri officers on the way to apprehend Joseph. Clayton rode Joseph’s horse “Joe Duncan” day and night to meet Joseph on June 21, 1843, halfway between Wassons, Ill. & Dixon, Ill. The curious statements about death play into the seriousness of the “destroyed in the flesh” clause later in the revelation. These sorts of penalties certainly fit the Old Testament context of polygamy. Robert B. Thompson was another of Joseph Smith’s clerks and although Thompson did not leave a journal like Clayton’s, apparently Joseph enfolded him into the secrets of polygamy before Thompson died in August 1841. In Joseph’s mind, Thompson’s death was a result of his “giving way to temptation.” The context suggests this meant Thompson went out on his own in taking a wife or wives not authorized by Joseph.

Many Latter-day Saints simply saw polygamy as “not for them” and don’t seem to have suffered any disadvantage from their own perspectives. For example, Newman Bulkley. Bulkley converted as a teen (ca 1837), was forced from Missouri, married in Nauvoo, and drafted into the Mormon Battalion. He wrote later in life: “Now the tide towards Mormonism was growing stronger, this time because of their belief in poligamy. I was content with one wife.” Bulkley was no dissident, and was a well-known pioneer and visionary of Springville, Utah. (Newman Bulkley journal/autobiography, CHL.)

[3] Hyrum, a leader in the effort to detect and expose polygamy in Nauvoo up to 1843, was converted to the idea by Brigham Young, who explained that Joseph had many wives. Polygamy meant Hyrum could be sealed to both his deceased wife (Jershua Bareden) and his living wife (Mary Fielding). The prospect of preserving both unions in the hereafter was a side of polygamy he had a not considered, and it reflects the developing nature of sealing concepts.(Newel and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 141-2. At the same time, this aspect of section 132 has been somewhat troubling in modern times. See part 14 of the series (Thanksgiving!).

[4] On Alger’s puzzling place in the polygamy panorama, see Hardy, Works of Abraham, 42-4, and Bushman, RSR, 323-7. Also see, Don Bradley in The Persistence of Polygamy and generally, part 3, note 2.

[5] Phelps Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, BYU. For a contextualized view of ideas surrounding sealings and polygamy, see Samuel Brown, In Heaven as it is on Earth (Oxford, 2012).

[6] Journal of Discourses 13:193. Given the way Cowdery’s misstep followed him for years, I believe it unlikely that Joseph’s conversation in 1832 broached anything like a specific suggestion. Even the broad suggestion that an Abraham-Hagar union was God-approved let alone God-commanded may have bordered on the scandalous at this point. W. W. Phelps wrote to Brigham Young in 1861 that Joseph gave an 1831 revelation to the effect that the “Lamanites” would become “white” by virtue of the Mormon men taking Indian women as multiple wives (a not unheard of idea at the time). I think Phelps may have been exaggerating or misremembering for several reasons and the structure of his remembered text reflects this. But that issue takes us too far from the subject. See Hardy, Works of Abraham, 34-7 for the “revelation.”

[7] Protestants often preached that Abraham’s lie about Sarah was a fault, where Joseph dictated a revelation (Book of Abraham 2:22-25) “saving” Abraham’s character. The Book of Abraham assigns the lie to God’s commandment—not an unusual position in Nauvoo where what was community moral law might be ignored under special conditions. John Bennett’s claims that Joseph espoused a Divine Command Ethic isn’t at odds with the text, or for that matter, the Book of Mormon itself.

[8] In May 1842, nine men received a proto-temple endowment (Joseph Smith Papers, Journals 2, May 4, 1842) but it is 1843 that largely enacted a theoretical place for women in Mormonism, a place foreshadowed by the 1842 founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo and Joseph’s attendant sermons–pronouncements. After the 1843 revelation on the nature of exaltation and its requirement that women and men participate together, the endowment of 1842 was expanded, now including female and male characters (Adam and Eve) and opening a new coed organization, the Anointed Quorum (also called, “the priesthood” or “the quorum” “the holy order” and so on) consisting of those who had received the endowment. By the fall of 1843, Emma, after a tumultuous summer (insisting that Joseph reject his wives and at least forcing him to abandon the Partridge sisters by their own account) was reconciled to Joseph. She then acted, as the 1842 Relief Society instructions suggested, as a presiding authority in the system, ordering and delivering the “washing and anointing” of the female endowees and probably participating in an expanded dramatic presentation that followed those preliminaries. Emma received the endowment on or sometime prior to September 28. Emma also participated in the “fullness of the priesthood” anointings that took place. (See Bushman, RSR, 497. JS journal Sept. 28, 1843.)

Comments

  1. I think I agree with all of your points in this post, WVS. Particularly the bit about the relationship between Alger and the text is important, I think. There is a context to this revelation and it is very important.

  2. For footnote 6, I haven’t read Hardy yet. Does he or some other source you know discuss Ezra Booth’s 9th letter in relation to this apparent 1831 idea? He said, “it has been made known by revelation, that it will be pleasing to the Lord, should they form a matrimonial alliance with the natives; and by this means the Elders, who comply with the thing so pleasing to the Lord, and for which the Lord has promised to bless those who do it abundantly, gain a residence in the Indian territory, independent of the agent. It has been made known to one, who has left his wife in the State of New York, that he is entirely free from his wife, and he is at pleasure to take him a wife from among the Lamanites.” Do we know who Booth is talking about here?

  3. Hardy mentions the Booth letter in a footnote. Booth is generally pretty accurate, but I am unaware of any other sources that elucidate the details of what was going on. Like WVS, I generally view the Phelps document as a post-Nauvoo pseudepigrapha, albeit one apparently incorporating some ideas from early 1830s.

  4. Jacob H., what J. Stapley said. Hardy, by the way, is essential reading for Mormon polygamy in general. I’m not on board with those who claim Phelps was a liar, attempting to curry favor or just appear important. On the other hand, I’d say Phelps’s writing after JS’s death, and in some ways, even before his death, may possibly be classed as “honorable pseudepigraphy.” Phelps was, for most of his career, an admirer of Joseph Smith, a hopeful insider who basked in the glow of the prophetic mantle. I believe he saw himself as a contributor, a bearer, though perhaps an amplifier, of Joseph’s work. Booth is a useful source, but his letter does not seem to precisely confirm Phelp’s claim, however it does offer some insight about what some people were thinking. Booth, in a sense, is the dark reflection of Phelps.

  5. That is another important point, WVS (I also didn’t mean to put words in your mouth above, sorry for not just waiting for you to comment). Phelps’ ghostwriting before JS’s death (and really his whole biography) is really important context to this text.

  6. J., comment when the spirit moves you on my stuff. That’s blanket permission.

  7. Thank you both! I’ve only got one of the Kingdom in the West series so far, but they’re on my list. Would you consider Van Wagoner’s book on the subject worthwhile to read as well?

  8. If you must make a choice, Hardy is better, but its purpose is different. Van Wagoner is dated, but useful.

  9. Hardy’s In Solemn Covenant is great as well.

  10. As usual, fascinating information! Thank you.

  11. One question: how might Brian Hales’ recent books affect Carmon Hardy’s conclusions? For example, Hales has argued quite strongly that some of the traditional perspectives have become outdated because of the new documentary information he and Don Bradley have turned up. Where do you feel Hales’ new books fit in the scholarly study of plural marriage?

  12. ricke, can you give us some examples of the insights this new information offers?

  13. As you may know, Hales and his researcher, Don Bradley, claim to have collected and published every single document bearing on Joseph’s polygamy in the three-volume series Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Although I own them, I haven’t read the books yet; however, I have heard Hales discuss his findings in several venues. He claims there are new documents that strongly indicate that Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger was a marriage, not an affair — and that it happened later than is commonly believed. His also claims that the new documents should affect how Nauvoo polyandry is interpreted. Hales feels that any scholar of Joseph’s plural marriages will need to take into account this collection of documents, or risk being out-of-date. For example, there was apparently a vigorous exchange between Gary Bergera and Hales at the recent Sunstone event in which Hales accused Bergera of ignoring the new documents – in favor of more traditional, negative interpretations of Joseph’s activities and motivations.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,688 other followers