Revelation vs. Order

W V Smith returns with some thoughts about battling socio-religious entropy.

One of the difficulties Joseph Smith struggled with, both in himself and in the Church he founded was the tension between a doctrine of “opened heavens” and creating a functioning hierarchy in Mormonism. There are a lot of issues here, I’m just touching on a few.

The enthusiasm of early Mormonism had a down side: it was difficult to control in terms of the creation of a commonly held system of belief. There is an element of trust that is necessary in funding a knowledge base of doctrine. But if anyone has free access to the heavens, since the canon is not complete, how do you establish consistency? The answer has always been, you create bureaucracy! But this is easier said than done.

Classification of permitted action and speech took all of Joseph’s life to do. And he only laid the groundwork. Besides the drive of restorative revelation to Smith, the need for order led to not just leading elders, but many layers of leadership whose jurisdiction took years to flesh out. As new offices sprouted, like bishop, and then high priest, new guidance was required to understand who ranked who. Some offices seemed to have carte blanche in some situations and not others, such as apostles. They didn’t rank high at home, but abroad they were supposed to be at the top. Even so, they were still occasionally outranked by high councils. Indeed, revelation put high councils ahead of the “traveling” high council on home ground.

But I digress. How does revelation work in an egalitarian system? It doesn’t. Mormonism’s first big crisis is one about who can say what and how much it counts for: Hiram Page’s seer stone. (See D&C 28 for the outcome.) The revelation ranks revelators: Joseph is number one, all the time. Oliver is given a somewhat confusing commission in the same revelation, but that’s beside the point. There is still equal access to God, but there is now unequal recess for giving structure and guidance. With the coming of new church officers, each had to be placed in the revelatory hierarchy. (See Mark L. Staker’s new book, Hearken O Ye People for fun times in early Kirtland, also of course, Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Max Parkin’s well-worn thesis, “Conflict at Kirtland.”)

Joseph was caught in the middle in some ways. He did have initial respect for revelatory claims (even when we might say “wacko” from the get-go). When confronted with claims of revelation, he almost invariably took them seriously. After all, he regarded his own story as outlandish. He fairly measured others revelatory claims or acts against the same yard stick- no, not the Bible. He was not generally shy about calling people out when he found them wanting of course. Adding to the mix was a pre-Mormon heritage of democratic procedure in church administration, flanked by both wings of American Protestants. Sustaining of church officers was in truth an elective vote. It would take generations beyond Nauvoo to finally quench that.

To the point however: the missionary effort. What went on in a literary sense outside Joseph’s immediate reach (and sometimes inside it) was difficult to lasso. And the thoughts of missionaries and hence their preaching was just something you didn’t want to think about too much. Joseph’s frustration over some of this boiled over a bit in a Nauvoo Relief Society meeting. Eliza R. Snow reported:

President Smith continued by speaking of the difficulties he had to surmount ever since the commencement of the work in consesquence of aspiring men, “great big Elders” as he called them, who had caused him much trouble, whom he had taught in the private counsel; and they would go forth into the world and proclaim the things he had taught them; as their own revelations – said the same aspiring disposition will be in this Society, and must be guarded against – that every person should stand and act in the place appointed, and thus sanctify the Society and get it pure-

He said he had been trampled underfoot by aspiring Elders, for all were infected with that spirit, for instance P. Pratt O. Pratt, O. Hyde and J. Page had been aspiring- they could not be exalted but must run away as tho the care and authority of the church were vested with them- he said we had a subtle devil to deal with, and could only curb him by being humble. [Eliza R. Snow Relief Society minutes, page 37. Holograph, CHL (ms 3424).]

Joseph’s brief point about people poaching his info was just the tip of the iceberg. The issue of aspiring to church leadership is a really interesting one, and I want to address it a bit sometime. But also there were concepts that came from the away team that were clearly speculative and infected Mormonism (ok, made it more fun) for many decades.[1]

[1] A classic case is Joseph Robinson. Robinson was a staunch believer from conversion, but his wife didn’t get it. Finally she did and they moved to Nauvoo. Robinson’s perceptive remarks to his family in later years makes for fun reading. How to reconcile Joseph, Brigham and Eliza? Get your own revelation! At least that’s what JR did.


  1. an ongoing tension in many religious traditions. Jonathan Edwards is a useful figure for the first great awakening. He was constantly torn. John Wesley had the same issues. Check out William Davenport some time for some nice color. And of course modern Mormonism struggles with similar problems even now. mb and I are trying to finish up a paper that looks at some of these issues–it’s pretty complicated, as you rightly point out.

  2. Mark D. says:

    I think the modern Mormon consensus is that people can be inspired about anything, but only the leadership has the authority to determine what should be taught in Sunday School.

  3. Who is Joseph Robinson, and where can I read his revelation you refer to?

  4. StillConfused says:

    Where does it leave a member if they honestly do not believe all or many of the revelations of the early prophets?

  5. Ooo…why the Joseph Robinson teaser with no info and no link? I hate it when people do that! Makes me SO angry. And interested! Definitely interested.

  6. 1844 I will now proceed to relate a heavenly vision and revelation which was given to me, Joseph L. Robinson, on the subject of polygamy in Nauvoo…
    The History of Joseph Lee Robinson

  7. Thanks, BiV, you beat me to it. He has others in there too, relating to the cognitive dissonance he experienced over Nauvoo/SLC theology.

    On point smb. Protestantism is full of that sort of thing.

    Mark D. righto. You can be inspired about anything, you just have to keep your mouth shut about the parts that don’t apply to your precinct.

    Dane, you got the info from BiV’s link.

    StillConfused, I like Joseph F. Smith’s claim before the Senate committee: Any Saint can hold their private beliefs. Believe what parts you can. Just steer clear of teaching heterodoxy from the pulpit. And keep your praxis in bounds (sex outside of marriage is the main thing). And revelation is a tricky thing, as reading JLR will show you. (g)

  8. BiV, WVS,

    I think I read the correct prophecy, the one in which Joseph L Robinson see the shaft of light (the straight and narrow path to life) and heard the voice explain to him that polygamy was a true principle with the purpose of raising seed unto the Lord.

    WVS, it seems to me that JLR was claiming personal revelation which corroborated the prophet’s. He claimed that the reason he’d received it was because of what he’d heard the prophet say. It doesn’t seem that he was aspiring — it sounded more like he’d been contemplating the concept and received personal reassurance (‘course, I haven’t read the whole “journal”, but that’s the impression I got). This seems to follow the pattern we’re currently taught in church — that we should seek personal revelation which corroborates our leaders. I seem to be missing how his experience illustrates Joseph’s difficulty with “great big elders”.

  9. Oh, and BiV, thanks for the link!

  10. W. V. Smith says:

    Martin, that’s one revelation, but not the one I was referring to. One of his many revelations refers to his reconciliation of Joseph’s teaching regarding persons being without beginning and the Utah teachings regarding spirit birth. While his revelation relieved his own angst over the contradiction, it did so by slashing and burning JS (hyperbole button). Personally, I think Roberts was the fair way to go.

    JLR was not taking JS’s private communications and going out to do a little plagiarism. He is only an illustration of the potential problem between revelation for everyone and hierarchy. Do you trust Joseph, and Joseph Lee? The question is rhetorical of course. But there is always that Hiram Page tension lurking out their.

  11. W. V. Smith says:

    Ooops. Joseph *or* Joseph Lee.

  12. He essentially pulls a BY. Bah. (grin)

  13. Pardon my lapse–it’s James Davenport, not William.

  14. So I shouldn’t show off my seer stone at fast & testimony meeting? (grin)

    Have we lost eternal persons to BY’s doctrines? It’d be sad if this is the way it will remain. :-(

  15. W. V. Smith says:

    Tod, let me know when you’re going to show it off. I want to be there.