I steal this line from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, 14 as a way of approaching one of the more interesting and challenging points of Joseph Smith’s role as Prophet of the Restoration: his role as a mouthpiece of revelation. I believe that the different rhetorical voices Joseph Smith took while expressing revelation have deep significance for how we should approach the Doctrine and Covenants.
First, a couple of disclaimers: this is too big a topic for a blog post, and I am beholden to Jason Lindquist’s article in the Summer 2005 issue of Dialogue, "Keywords: Joseph Smith, Language Change, and Theological Innovation, 1829-44." In that article, Lindquist mentions "…while some passages in the Doctrine and Covenants give direct voice to Deity…other revelations are clearly grounded in Joseph Smith’s own personal language choices." Thinking on that paragraph has caused me to wonder about the meaning of these language choices and voices.
As I scan the D&C, God’s will is made known to the saints through Joseph in a number of different ways, which I will neatly categorize into three groups: first, the voice of the Lord himself; second, the voice of historical ecclesiastical figures; and third, the voice of the Prophet, in letters and prayers. I believe it is tremendously important to distinguish between these voices, although admittedly I am not sure of why, as I will explain later.
First group: the voice of the Lord. One of the greatest messages of the Restoration is that once again someone can proclaim with authority, "Thus saith the Lord." When Joseph’s revelations speak with the voice of God, we must listen. It is the most authoritative, the most definitive utterance possible to mormons, and as such, those revelations are the most important, even taking precedence over prior utterances of the Lord. These revelations are the foundation of our ordinances and practice, and they are what set us apart as a people. What is the rhetorical effect of speaking as God? You tell me.
Second group: the voice of prophets past. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon (query as to whether that work counts as one of his revelations). But more than this, Joseph received revelations elucidating the works of Old and New Testament prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Enoch and John, adding to their words and placing their revelations in a 19th century context. What happens when a modern prophet retells the stories of Biblical prophets? What does it say about both the modern prophet and the ancient ones? We can make the argument that Joseph didn’t change what these prophets said, he simply revealed all that they originally said. But even this act is not without rhetorical consequence, I believe: it is an expression of confidence by the Prophet of the Restoration, to come into his own as a reteller and restorer of all things.
Third group: the voice of the prophet. This group is somewhat diverse: Joseph wrote letters, songs, and prayers, some of which are in the D&C. Some letters are doctrinal clarifications, such as D&C 128; others are dedicatory prayers, such as D&C 109. It is interesting to me how some of these writings are canonized and others not; it makes me wonder about how to tell when a prophet is speaking as a prophet. I have some questions. When Joseph spoke for himself, what does that mean? Why is D&C 128 an epistle, and not a letter? Are these revelations deemed such because Joseph indicated that they were, or were they rendered revelations posthumously (the answer to this question varies from revelation to revelation)? These are the most intimate pieces of the prophet we have, where his personality are most evident. They are an interesting study of the mouthpiece himself, and reflect Joseph fulfilling a role as a prophet in his own right, speaking with his own voice.
Ultimately, I’m sure someone will remind me that none of these categorizations matter. We need to obey the commands given in the revelation, regardless of their source – on that point we all agree. But I don’t believe that D&C 1:38 completely negates the importance of the speaker. From a rhetorical standpoint the distinction is crucial. I’m not sure where to go from here, though. What do these different revelatory voices mean to you?