Quoting errancy

By creedal amnesty, Mormons are biblical errantists. That is, we believe that while canonical, the Bible has errors in it and does not represent the Word of God verbatim. I think, however, that when it comes to our modern scripture, we tend to err on the side of inerrancy. It is hard to argue with the voice of the Lord. The issue is further complicated when modern revelation quotes the King James text. If the Lord is quoting it, it should be the correct “translation,” no? Well, not according to Joseph.

Several years after his theophany, Joseph again sought out the Lord. The response was visitations of the Angel. We don’t have much from these visits, but we have, in section 2, part. Quoting Malachi 4:5-6:

1. Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
2. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
3. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

It is fitting that Joseph’s ultimate theology would be based on this initial instruction. Modern Mormons typically associate these verses with the Spirit of Elijah, the chimera of prophet, Holy Ghost and genealogist. An important observation is that this modern concept didn’t exist until the twentieth century and stems from a colloquial interpretation of the scripture (see here). For Joseph, this scripture meant something very different. His perspective was, however, years in development.

The year that the Church was organized, Joseph once went to go fetch some wine for the sacrament. Newell Whitney noted that Joseph returned having had an angelic visitation and quickly recorded vs. 1-4 of section 27 that proscribes the purchasing of wine or “strong drink” from their enemies. In the coming months, he received further light and recorded the subsequent verses that list all the prophets with whom the Lord will sit down and drink wine at his coming. Among them are “Elijah, unto whom [the Lord] ha[s] committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse.”

Later in Kirtland, when receiving the fullness of the priesthood keys as recorded in section 110, Elijah stood before Joseph and described the purpose of his conferral: “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse.”

It is not until the Prophet’s maturity in Nauvoo that we see some willingness to depart from the King James. While evading arrest in 1842, Joseph had his scribe record two epistles to the Saints as he was unable to publicly preach. The results were section 127 and 128. His purpose was to preach on baptism for the dead and again he turned to Elijah:

17. And again, in connection with this quotation I will give you a quotation from one of the prophets, who had his eye fixed on the restoration of the priesthood, the glories to be revealed in the last days, and in an especial manner this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel, namely, the baptism for the dead; for Malachi says, last chapter, verses 5th and 6th: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

18. I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other…

Here we see that Joseph isn’t particularly pleased with translation that Moroni, the Lord, and Elijah himself used. Three months after revealing the fullness of the temple ordinances, on the 21 January, 1844, Joseph preached by request on the subject of Elijah:

The Bible says “I will send you Elijah before the great & dredful day of the Lord Come that he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the Children & the hearts of the Children to their fathers lest I Come & smite the whole earth with a Curse,” Now the word turn here should be translated (bind or seal)

On March 10th, 1844, Joseph preached in public his most important sermon on the topic:

Now for Elijah, the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations ordinances, oricles powers & endowments of the fulness of the Melchezedek Priesthood & of the Kingdom of God on the Earth & to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances belonging to the Kingdom of God even unto the sealing of the hearts of the hearts fathers unto the children & the hearts of the children unto the fathers even those who are in heaven.

…This spirit of Elijah was manifest in the days of the Apostles in delivering certain ones to the buffitings of Satan that they may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, they were sealed by the spirit of Elijah unto the damnaton of Hell untill the day of the Lord or revealtion of Jesus Christ (WoJS. The whole discourse is very important and well worth reading.)

As is explained repeatedly in this discourse, Joseph taught that the Spirit of Elijah and the Power of Elijah (or the sealing power) are the same thing. Now, I haven’t looked at the Hebrew to know or not, but Joseph believed that the hearts of the children should not be “turned” to their fathers in genealogical fervor, but that we should be sealed to them.

I find Joseph’s doctrinal progression inspiring. Approaching 100 years from the time of the last that knew the prophet, we sometimes forget his dynamism. Perhaps after revising the revelations for publication in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, redacting the Bible and studying Hebrew, Joseph was the greatest errantist among us.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Nice post, J.

    On the Hebrew underlying KJV “turn,” the word is the hiphil or causative form of shub. The basic verb means “to turn”; in the hiphil, it means “to cause to return; to bring back.”

    This is usually understood as some sort of familial, intergenerational reconciliation. Joseph’s reading has the germ of this idea, but on steroids.

    Another way to understand it is that those of all generations must repent and turn back to God. The NET takes this tack:

    He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me,10 so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment.”11

    I comment on the Hebrew verb shub briefly here.

    Note that the verb shub is repeated three times in Malachi 3:7, where it has a repentance context. This may be related to the usage in 4:6; I haven’t thought enough about it to try to figure out what the relationship is. The KJV of that passage follows:

    Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept [them]. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the LORD of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?

  2. Thanks Kevin, especially for the exegesis. That really does add a different flavor to the text for Mormons.

  3. I don’t think there’s really anything like inerrancy, even on a practical level. But I do think people look askew when people simply reject a passage of scripture, especially in modern revelation, because it doesn’t mesh with their preconceptions. That is we accept errancy but I think the burden of proof is definitely on those claiming something is wrong. Further, because some see others simply downplaying scripture, I think many Mormons tend to overreact the other way a tad bit too much.

    But I think people are more than willing to accept that something was erroneous, especially if there are some significant GAs backing up that newer reading.

  4. Well, they overreact in the other direction when their hobbyism is challenged.

  5. Ebenezer Robinson says:

    You’re right, Clark. The REAL belief in inerrancy is not for the scriptures, but rather for the preachings of the GAs.

    Great post, J.

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