Sunday Evenings with the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 132. Part 12: Canon.

This is part 12 of a series of posts on Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, Joseph Smith’s July 12, 1843 revelation on marriage. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, the follow-on post, part 13, is here.

Canon

Historically, Protestants struggled with language that styled ministers as “prophets” or that preaching was “the word of God” in some sense, instead segueing to phrases like “nearly prophetic” or “approaching the heavenly word itself,” etc.[1] Biblical text, often described as inerrant, a kind of guarantee against God’s Providence, had a certain purity attached to it. This purity made its trustworthiness durable. For all this to work, the Bible must not be susceptible to interpretation—or for many, even historicization—it must be possible to “read” the Bible in a kind of “obvious to all of good will” way, and see its shining truths, beyond dispute. And as a result, commentary on Scripture, preaching from Scripture, and so on, walked the boundary of that awful gulf between the Word of God and His Inscrutable Will.

You gamble with God's Word like a rogue. -ML

You gamble with God’s Word like a rogue. -ML


Scripture footnotes have therefore been a point of controversy since Gutenberg. Luther’s dictum: sola scriptura, “the Bible alone,” was a Protestant article of faith since the reformation. Not only did it define a zone where God’s freedom to do whatever he wished was curbed, great care had to be exercised in avoiding what was a recipe for anarchy. Enter Joseph Smith, a symbol of the bad old days of uncertainty who, ironically, went into the grove with heavy uncertainty.

From that moment, Joseph Smith’s God was not limited to the Bible, though the Bible was always a beacon, a beginning, a foundation for Joseph’s work. But even so, Joseph Smith as Prophet demolished the boundary of safety.[2]

However dangerous scriptural interpretation may be, it has existed, often in ignorant subtilty, since Luther and Calvin and before them.[3] A part of that interpretation has been footnotes. Entrances to the forbidden for the unwary, or helps for the faithful, as you please, they offer a window into the thoughts of the annotator and hence perhaps a view of the impact of scripture in the life and times of that annotator.

Phillip Barlow observes (see note 2 below) that the additions Mormons have published with their scriptures (footnotes, dictionaries, indices, guides, etc.), while carrying their own warnings that they are not “scripture,” naturally suffer from the logic of proximity: if the church put it there, it must be better than anything else available, reliable, not suffering from the “alternate voice” taint. Hence, when someone settles the discussion with a reference to the LDS Bible Dictionary in your Sunday School class, beware of stepping off the canonical bus and offering some nuance, or God forbid, a view from the “philosophies of men.” With that, I declare this extended preamble done and now it’s back to the topic of section 132.[4]

Expanding the Mormon Canon

The 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was not the end of Orson Pratt’s contribution regarding the July 12 revelation (see part 3). He was also commissioned by church leaders to produce a footnoted version of the D&C. That version was produced in Britain with the help of some capable missionaries who did a lot of “grunt work” in the production. When the pivotal 1921 edition came around, Pratt’s annotation work was significantly altered or erased, and a bit of historical insight to the text of section 132 was, in effect, hidden. Here I want to point out just a few of Pratt’s footnotes to the section and make a few observations about their possible meaning for Latter-day Saints embarking on the “Raid.”[5]

What's wrong with a little selfie once in a while?

What’s wrong with a little selfie once in a while?


One thing Pratt does generally is offer some of his own publications and pamphlets as references—explanations (and we should be aware that the term “standard works” at the time included a wider/different selection of texts than the usual four books we identify by that title at present). His missionary helpers were probably familiar with some of these standards like, “The Absurdities of Immaterialism.”

One of Orson’s notes in the first portion of D&C 132 (up to vs. 16) reads, “all ordinances must be properly attended to in this world, or they will be invalid and of no effect in the world to come.” This is interesting since it seems to foretell Joseph Fielding Smith’s take on Elijah. For him, Elijah’s mission was not just to provide for the sealing of marriages or proxy work for the dead, but to provide the signet of approval and permanence of all the salvific sacraments (baptism, confirmation, etc. see part 6). JFS’s idea has merit, not least because it alludes to Joseph Smith’s seminal discussion of such things in October 1840. One slight historical caveat exists in that the 1836 Elijah visit/vision did not became public knowledge until 1852, long after Joseph Smith’s introduction of and preaching about the nature and power of sacraments.[6]

In verse 22, Pratt adds the note to “lives”: “continuation of posterity in the eternal world.” (See parts 8 and 10 for example.) In verse 27 at “commit murder”, Pratt inserts, “after having received so great light, if a person murders, there is no forgiveness.” This I think may be thin ground, if one counts Joseph’s other remarks on the subject.

In verse 63, Pratt adds the note to the souls of men: “that is, the souls or spirits of men to be born in heaven.” Pratt reflects here the notions of Utah theology that sprang up on the trail west from seeds planted in Nauvoo and earlier. I’ve briefly mentioned this in parts 8 and 10 (see the links above).[7]

I think Pratt’s few additions noted here work to provide some support for those engaged in polygamy. Without going into detail, some of the earlier posts in the series should point out why this might be the case.

What else do I find interesting about Pratt’s treatment of the revelation? He inserted very few notes on the Emma-directed portions of the revelation. There are biblical references to the Bible names and events of course, but segments like 52-58 get only two notes, and one of them is to another verse. Emma’s difficulties are clearly a dead issue in Utah aside from the boundary maintenance it performed between the Reorganites and the Utah Mormons. Those difficulties became invisible for most of the twentieth century for obvious reasons. Emma’s rehabilitation in Mormonism during the last few decades studiously ignores polygamy and the equally troubling problems, trials, and for that matter, satisfactions, experienced by Joseph’s other wives.

Excuses, Excuses

Guess who?

Guess who?


I obviously failed in my promise to deliver a modified text for D&C 132, one you can tip into your electronic or hard-copy Doctrine and Covenants or even your antique Pearl of Great Price. I’ll do this next time, but luckily I’ll have some help and advice, delivered by a guest of BCC. Who visits us next time? You’ll have to wait and see.

———————
[1] For example, see Dawn Coleman, “The Antebellum American Sermon as Lived Religion,” in A New History of the Sermon: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Robert Ellison (Leiden, 2010).

[2] In doing so, he left a legacy among Mormon leaders that had a wide range of interpretation: from “written scripture is secondary and not limiting to church prophets” to “no leader may produce revelation that violates the standard works” (a larger body of text for Mormons, to be sure, but nevertheless a new kind of sola scriptura if you will). For more on this, see Phillip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (Oxford, (new edition, 2013)). Joseph Smith was certainly not alone in the category of believers who stretched the canonical boundary.

[3] A book that may have slid by many Mormon bookshelves is David F. Holland’s
Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America
(Religion in America) (Oxford, 2011). I recommend it to all Latter-day Saints not just as a beautiful portrayal of the struggles of orthodoxy, but for its hints at a blueprint of the Mormon understanding of what “scripture” does.

[4] You may see some parallels between the cautionary world of Protestants and Scripture, and the way Mormons have come to see their “Standard Works.” If so, I feel proud. If not, forget it.

[5] The Raid was an insider term for the statutory persecution of Mormons by the US authorities in Utah during the 1880s. It’s effect on modern Mormonism has been terribly underestimated.

[6] Joseph Smith’s narration of visits by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John to confer authority had the appeal of their delivery of the keys of the kingdom. It would be hard to convince early Mormons that their baptisms or confirmations in the name of Jesus were effectively false gateways to heaven. The idea that Elijah was the foundation of all permanence in salvific sacrament has the appeal of a coherent doctrinal capsule, but it’s evisceration of the power of those other angels feels odd. But, even if we accept this interpretation of Elijah’s Mission, even Joseph drew a sharp boundary between authoritative sealing acts and authoritative administration of the Lord’s Supper or baptism. The July 12 revelation supports that distinction in a number of ways and I see that “new” sealing of the revelation as helping to define the nature of Nauvoo: the embodiment of the spirit of Mormonism. Moreover, the position of Elijah as enabler of the linkage of living and dead became a dominant sermon narrative well before Joseph’s death.

[7] On culture and doctrinal evolution see Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia (40/2 (Summer/Fall 2008): 1-26; and Bowman, “Sin, Spirituality and Primitivism: The Theologies of the American Social Gospel, 1885-1917,” Religion and American Culture 17/1:95-126. Also, my forthcoming book on Joseph’s sermons, chapter 7, appendix 1. Ok, you can’t see that, but it is relevant.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Isn’t that William McLellin?

    This is the first time I’ve read Orson’s notes I think. Really interesting, and I agree with you in relation to the paracononicity issues. I think this is amplified in the Mormonism of today.

  2. McLellin it is. This thanksgiving, I’m thankful for BCC in that paracanonicity can be set in its proper place. Or something.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Tremendous. More Pratts, please.

  4. Thanks Steve. The Pratts are securely embedded in all we do here.

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