The D&C manual runs into a kind of genre divide when Joseph Smith dies; there is no longer a constant series of canonized revelations with which to partner a discussion of church history. Some lessons, such as 34, have a directly relevant section to take advantage of, while others, like 35, do not. Both lessons are really built around extra-canonical materials, which makes my project awkward: I’m only talking about the canon, but it just isn’t the center of the discussion anymore.
For lesson 34, the text is section 136, Brigham Young’s one contribution to our scriptures. This revelation is often celebrated for the organizational details in the first sixteen verses. I guess that’s okay. The organizational ideas seem good to me, and I heartily approve of the section’s concern for the well-being of the poor during the migration to Utah. The one note of ambivalence I have regarding this material is that the revelation was more or less redundant, as these organizational principles had largely already been adopted before the Saints even arrived at Winter Quarters. I guess the message is something like: do what you’re doing, only more so?
Verses 20-30 offer a Mormon ten commandments, none of which involve whether or not it’s okay to cook a kid in its mother’s milk:
- Seek ye; and keep all your pledges one with another; and covet not that which is thy brother’s.
- Keep yourselves from evil to take the name of the Lord in vain, for I am the Lord your God, even the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; and my arm is stretched out in the last days, to save my people Israel.
- Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another.
- Cease drunkenness; and let your words tend to edifying one another.
- If thou borrowest of thy neighbor, thou shalt restore that which thou hast borrowed; and if thou canst not repay then go straightway and tell thy neighbor, lest he condemn thee.
- If thou shalt find that which thy neighbor has lost, thou shalt make diligent search till thou shalt deliver it to him again.
- Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.
- If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
- If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful.
- Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands and I will do my pleasure with them.
I think these are pretty good commandments! Let’s compare and contrast with the two major Decalogues from the Old Testament. First, the all-time greatest hits of the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus 20: 2-17.
- I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
- You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
- Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work -—- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
- Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Depending exactly how much overlap you see between the two commandments about other people’s possessions in the Brigham Young 10 commandments and the commandment against stealing in Moses’s edition, I see an overlap of between 20% and 40% between the two lists. The divergence is all to the credit of the Brigham Young version, in my opinion. Its concern with social harmony and individual emotional state seems to in a sense both contain and supersede the narrower concerns regarding murder, adultery, and so forth from the older commandments.
Now let’s consider Moses’s other, far less celebrated Decalogue, from Exodus 34 (according to that chapter, these and not the more famous commandments are the contents of the famous stone tablets and the basis of the Mosaic covenant):
- See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles (for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.
- You shall not make cast idols.
- You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.
- All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
- Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.
- You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.
- Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
- You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
- The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
- You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
I think that list probably has 0% overlap with Young’s revealed commandments.
Comparing the three Decalogues, I really do think Brigham Young’s version is the most powerful. Let’s carve a giant stone version of it and stick it in the Utah State Capitol building!
So, the rest of the section circles back to the deep preoccupation of the last half of the Doctrine and Covenants: why do so many bad things happen to the Saints, and what is God going to do to their persecutors? In brief, the answer this time is: chastisement for the Saints, and vengeance for everybody else. Cheerful!
Lesson 35’s overall framing story is a celebration of the efforts to rescue the Willie and Martin handcart companies. It draws the broader lesson that rescuing people is a prototypical Mormon trait. This is unseemly. You can’t justly talk about the rescue efforts regarding the handcart companies without also talking about why the Willie and Martin folks ended up in trouble in the first place. In brief: Mormon leaders helped them get into a miserable and often fatal jam, and after some delay and confusion Mormon leaders then helped get the survivors out again. I feel that, as a matter of moral balance, we almost ought to assign Will Bagley’s recent article on the handcart disasters as Sunday School reading, as well.
Fortunately, there are no canonized texts about handcarts. So I can now disregard that framework and simply talk about the scriptures connected with the lesson. They’re a kind of general hodgepodge. The lesson first asks us to read D&C section 4, in which Joseph Smith, Sr., is given the missionary zone conference cheer. Actually, the section isn’t self-evidently about missionary work. We read the text about the field being white and ready to harvest in those terms, and that seems to be right in about half the scriptural texts which use this kind of imagery. For the other half, the harvest refers to the coming of God’s apocalyptic kingdom.
Could such an idea be implied in Section 4? Why not? The text defines thrusting in the sickle as serving God, no more or less. One way that the early Saints certainly saw themselves was as helping God prepare for the end times by building His kingdom. Missionary work would obviously be a component of that kind of effort, but clearly not the whole.
Now we jump to 18:10-16, a passage which is unarguably about the moral priority of preaching the gospel and converting people. Because Jesus died and was resurrected, we are told, therefore everyone can repent and come to him. So every soul is precious, and helping save one makes everybody joyful. I think this passage is good as an exhortation to missionary work. On the other hand, as a theological statement regarding atonement and repentance, it’s no end of puzzling. Here, Gethsemane vanishes from the story entirely, and Jesus’s atonement seems to consist entirely of his death and resurrection. This is much more Pauline than most Mormon thought, I think. But the real perplexity comes from the causal links: Jesus dies, which causes it to be possible for people to repent and come to him in verse 11. In verse 12, Jesus’s resurrection causes the same outcomes. In both instances, the causal logic is left entirely mysterious. Although perhaps not a lot more mysterious than any other text about the atonement, so I guess I’ll leave it at that.
Now we jump to a single verse, 52:40. I really love this verse:
And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.
Amen. That verse deserves lesson after lesson of its own; it’s simple to think about but extremely hard to live. Let’s all repent and renew our discipleship.
Section 81:5-6 offers a narrower and less ringing endorsement of the same idea. If something is worth saying well, I guess, it’s worth repeating badly to Frederick G. Williams. We also get 138:58, which I guess is intended to suggest that doing temple work for the dead is just as good as missionary efforts or helping the poor — but also easier to fit in before that morning business meeting!
The manual also assigns a few pieces of the Book of Mormon. I’m touched by the inclusion of 3 Nephi 18: 31-32, which says:
But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered. Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.
It’s neat that the manual goes out of its way to find a passage commanding us not to shun excommunicated people. A good reminder, I think.
Finally, the lesson includes material from Moroni 7 that quotes 1 Corinthians 13. All in favor of love? Count me in.
Even though I don’t like the Willie and Martin frame for lesson 35, the set of scriptures chosen for the lesson adds up to a powerful reminder that we ought to devote our lives to helping others. So anybody who comments on this post: for shame. Put down your computer and go help somebody!