Section 2 is largely a quotation of the fathers/children/hearts text from Malachi. I like this passage for a number of reasons. It’s graceful in style, to start with. I also like the image of reciprocity across generational lines that it conveys: new generations get the blessings of old generations, and in return they honor their forebears. This is a very different image regarding respect for past generations from the sometimes superficial and bureaucratic geneology mode of gathering the bare minimum of information necessary to perform proxy ordinances.
Also, remember last week when I wondered why the temple text in Section 124 was skipped in the lesson manual? Question answered! They saved it up for this week. We suffered last week so that we might have an excess of textual riches this time around.
In reading through the temple-related text in 124, I’m struck by the fact that here, as in the Old Testament, the temple is intimately connected with geographic, bureaucratic, and cultural centralization. The rise of the Jerusalem temple among Jewish people is key at least in part because it may have corresponded with the delegitimization of sacrificial rituals carried out in any other place, even if those rituals are done in honor of the one God. To note the change, as well as the way that differing perspectives on the centralization of sacrifice are recorded in the Old Testament, compare these two passages:
The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.” (Exodus 20: 22-26)
These instructions clearly suggest that animal sacrifices can be made in any location. At the temple or tabernacle, there’s no need to construct an altar from scratch for each sacrifice, because there’s already an altar. These instructions would be moot. Note especially the passage I italicized, which tells people to make sacrifice everywhere that the one true God is remembered and worshiped.
Contrast this with Deuteronomy 12:13-14:
Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.
This is a temple text, commanding centralization of ritual and worship, with the necessarily attendant centralization of authority, geography, and culture. Quite a change, and one reiterated in Mormon history.
For Mormons, this movement from dispersed ritual practice toward centralization through the construction of a temple involves baptisms for the dead, rather than animal sacrifice:
But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me. But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God. For verily I say unto you, that after you have had sufficient time to build a house to me, wherein the ordinance of baptizing for the dead belongeth, and for which the same was instituted from before the foundation of the world, your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me; for therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained, that you may receive honor and glory. And after this time, your baptisms for the dead, by those who are scattered abroad, are not acceptable unto me, saith the Lord. For it is ordained that in Zion, and in her stakes, and in Jerusalem, those places which I have appointed for refuge, shall be the places for your baptisms for your dead. (D&C 124:31-36)
At the time this revelation is given, it is evidently the case that baptism for the dead is practiced in a decentralized way, but once a temple is built, this will no longer be acceptable. The centralizing impulse of this change is made explicit in the phrase that “those who are scattered abroad” will not be able to participate in the ritual. They will have to gather to the centerplace of the church — in Illinois or later the American West, and hypothetically in Jerusalem.
But, of course, we don’t physically gather anymore. By a neat trick, we have over roughly the last generation allowed centralized decentralization by building temples all over the place. Quite the evolution!
The rest of the temple text is somber, beautiful, and distinctively Mormon. A favorite bit for me is this: “If ye labor with all your might, I will consecrate that spot [where the temple is built] that it shall be made holy” (v. 44). I love the idea that our collective hard work consecrates the product of that work.
The section then turns back once again to the theological problems of Missouri. Were the Saints cursed because they didn’t build the commanded temple in that state? Did people who perished in Missouri die there because they were sinful? What about the people who seem to have gotten away with a genocidal attack on the Saints? In brief, the answers are: no, not necessarily, and multi-generational cursing. I will say that this is a more forgiving and merciful aspect of God, with respect to the Mormons, than we saw in earlier chapters on the same theme.
In verse 1 of section 127, Joseph Smith proclaims his innocence. Well, really, that’s understating it. He shouts from the rooftops that he’s not just innocent but innocent from any notion of not being innocent. Specifically:
…my enemies, both in Missouri and this State, were again in the pursuit of me; and… they pursue me without a cause, and have not the least shadow or coloring of justice or right on their side in the getting up of their prosecutions against me; and… their pretensions are all founded in falsehood of the blackest dye…
It may well be the case that Smith was innocent of the major charges against him, although it’s at least ambiguous. But to say that he was being pursued and prosecuted “without a cause” is just to go too far. This letter was written in September 0f 1842, about four months after someone (plausibly Orrin Porter Rockwell) shot and tried to kill former Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs. John C. Bennett was at the time spreading reports that Joseph Smith had offered a cash prize to anyone who would kill Boggs. All of this may well have nothing to do with Smith, but it at least gives the Missouri legal system a legitimate reason to be interested in him.
Verses 6-9, which instruct the Saints on how to keep proper records regarding baptisms for the dead, raise a puzzle: why is careful bookkeeping on Earth regarding sacred ordinances so important to God? The revelation tells us to be careful about witnessing, and so forth, so “that in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven” (v. 7). Wouldn’t anything we do be recorded in heaven, in any case? Section 128 offers some further discussion on this point:
Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the power of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the ordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead. (v. 8 )
This seems very strange indeed to me. We are to be judged out of books written by people, and that which isn’t written down by priesthood holders won’t be written down in heaven? So anything we do that isn’t written down doesn’t count? I think we read this as only applying to ordinances, and that’s plausible. But it’s also problematic; what about ordinances among nonliterate peoples in past ages?
All of this is just superficial, though, compared with the underlying weirdness of proxy ordinances. According to the passage I just quoted, the dead will be judged according to “their own works,” whether those works are done by them personally or by “their own agents.” I understand that we can do deeds by proxy; no problem there. But when a deed is done in our name and we didn’t directly act to bring it about? How is that our own deed?
I understand that, given the constraint that a certain set of ordinances need to be done by people with mortal bodies in order for a person to be saved, proxy work for the dead appears as a plausible solution to the problem of people who die without the gospel. Because of that conditional plausibility, the texts in this week’s lesson — as well as much Mormon discourse on the subject — speaks as if proxy ordinances were rationally explicable. This isn’t really so, and the reason is that the constraint is not currently understandable, I think.
We are told that God prepared ordinances “from before the foundation of the world.” Why not prepare ordinances that spirits can perform on their own behalf? Or why not waive ordinances for people who, in some sense, come to the faith after their death?
All of this leads us to the ineffable mechanics of ordinances themselves. If ordinances are necessary even for the dead, this suggests one of two possibilities. First, God may be pathologically inflexible, rigidly enforcing His freely and arbitrarily chosen commandments even when they no longer make sense, and when some degree of flexibility would dramatically enhance His children’s prospects for salvation and progress. Second, the ordinances may be important for salvation in some way that goes beyond the legalistic; God may not have the option of waiving them, because they achieve some kind of transformation without which salvation is impossible.
If the second option is right, what is that transformation? How does, for example, the process of going under water while some words are said accomplish this irreplaceable change?
Without answers to these questions, baptism for the dead cannot really be put on a rational footing. Baptism for the living can; one can appeal to the community-forming effects of ordinances, as well as their potential as symbols that help people change their ongoing lives. Obviously, neither of these effects is particularly present for proxy ordinances.
The whole topic strikes me as a puzzle, one which is of a piece with that of the Atonement. A key question for many Mormon accounts of the Atonement is: why can’t God just forgive repentant sinners? Here, the relevant variant of that question is: why can’t God just accept conversion without ordinances when those ordinances aren’t available? Without an answer to this question, we must instead accept that proxy ordinances are strange and are something that we take purely on faith.