Gospel Doctrine lesson 11: “The Field Is White Already to Harvest”

The lesson manual lists a dozen sections for study this week, but I thought I would focus on section 4 because of its significant place in Mormon culture.

As a missionary I resented having to memorize and recite D&C 4. It seemed to me to encourage conformity and thoughtlessness. As I’ve had more experience with a variety of religious traditions, I can see that the memorization and recitation of scripture is a nearly universal practice. I may resist the internalization of a text for the purpose of sharing an internalized belief, but I should probably recognize that as an aspect of religious practice.

D&C 4 is a fascinating study in a text appropriating existing texts. In other words, the section uses language extracted directly from other sources and in the new context gives it new meaning. Many of the phiases from the section that we associate directly with missionary work come from sources with less specific meanings.

 1 Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.

a marvelous work:’ This comes from Isaiah 29, which the LDS chapter heading suggests is an outline of the restoration of the gospel. As a result, the reference to Isaiah here is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the same kind of thing Christ did during His ministry.

children of men:’ The phrase shows up 26 times in the Book of Mormon and 23 times in the Old Testament. Of those, the use that is closest in its use in section 4 is from Psalm 107, where this chorus is repeated three times:

Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! (v. 15, 21 & 31).

Using this specific Hebrew Bible way of talking about people reinforces the bona fides of the early restoration.

 4 For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;

the field is white already to harvest‘ comes from John 4:35:

 Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.

What I found interesting is that the field is white is used in our modern reading as a direct metaphor for missionary work, and yet from its source it seems to be about doing the work of the Father more generally.

thrusteth in his sickle:’ There is a lot to be said about the image of the sickle in the Bible, perhaps starting with Joel 3:13:

Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: come, get you down; for the press is full, the fats overflow; for their wickedness is great.

But equally significant is the angel with the sickle in Revelation 14. However, in both of these cases (if I read them correctly), the sickle is used to remove the wicked rather than to harvest the elect, which is how (I think) we read it today.

 5 And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.

The ‘faith, hope and charity is familiar, but the ‘eye single to the glory of God‘ is a phrase that shows up a lot in the D&C and only once in the Bible:

Luke 11:34 The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.

More modern translations use the word ‘healthy’ instead of ‘single,’ but it an interesting use of imagery based perhaps on this reading from Luke. On the other hand, ‘an eye single to his glory’ appears in Mormon 8:15.

 6 Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.

This list of the virtues of a Christian servant is quite similar to the list found in 2 Peter 1:4-8, and similar lists exist elsewhere, including 1 Corinthians 13. I quite like the idea of such a list. I find it useful in my own life just to have these words and the connected concepts dished out in this way, and I could very happily have a whole lesson having the class identify the ways in which these specific virtues relate to the building of the kingdom.

7 Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

The source of this should be fairly obvious, but the difference between Matthew 7:7 and JST Matthew 7 might be interesting to look at in the light of how this scripture is read as being primarily about sharing the gospel.

As you look through the other sections mentioned in the lesson, you will see these phrases repeated again and again. While the revelation to Joseph Smith, Sr. here is fairly general as it applies to service in the kingdom (aside from the way we read the field and the sickle imagery), in the other sections directed to other early members, the language is tied to crying repentance, and so by association we see this section as specific to missionary work.

So what do we learn by this close reading? The revelation to Joseph Smith, Sr. uses a lot of language identical to both the Book of Mormon and later sections of the D&C, but also from the Bible. It establishes a set of linguistic motifs that run throughout the D&C, tying modern revelation to the ancient. In content, it provides a succinct but dense guide to individuals wishing to be of some use to God.


  1. This is a very useful look at D&C 4. I didn’t mind memorizing and repeating it in German as a missionary. For one thing, I found I could use it to “prime the pump”, so to speak, for the German, i.e., reciting it out loud before heading out to do missionary work got the language juices flowing.

  2. Nice study, Norbert. I’ve never looked at it that closely, though I did memorize it.

  3. I have always detested the recitation of the YW Theme but found this much less onerous as a missionary. Perhaps because it seemed more purposeful; definitely better writing!

  4. Incidentally, I think many who did not serve a mission have no idea how this section is used on missions! They would be surprised at how many people have it memorized.

  5. Interesting stuff, Norbert. Thanks!

    I grew up Catholic. While I didn’t detest reciting D&C 4 in a monotone voice each week on my mission, it certainly reminded me of mass; I would often begin and end the D&C 4 recitation by making the sign of the cross. When I was a district leader, I would shake it up and assign someone to read their favorite verse or two of that section and share their related feelings/testimony.

  6. After nearly two years of reciting D&C 4 in unison at various missionary meetings, I often suggested reading D&C 12 in unison instead. That was a refreshing change with more or less the same substance; just more fun because of the references to a “two-edged sword.” http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/12?lang=eng

  7. Like you Kilmer, I have come to appreciate the value of memorization. In particular I have attempted to memorize some quite lengthy passages of scripture and found that a rewarding experience.

    I also appreciate this approach to the text. The Hardy’s (Grant and Heather) have spoken about how variations on a musical theme is a useful way of thinking about some forms of prophetic writing, in that there is often a core-text that forms the baseline (theme) from which the new author adds and supplements the words of other authors as well as there own (variations). The NT writers do it in the gospels and JS clearly did it here as well. Your post also raises the question of how far we should use the context of those previous words to inform the reading of the more recent reinterpretation. For example, can we use the Psalms that Jesus quotes while on the cross to provide insight into what he was trying to say on the cross?

  8. I don’t have any problem with memorizing it. However, the interpretation of “the field is white” in my mission was that France is chock-full of people completely ready to join the church, and that the only thing keeping this miraculous harvest from happening was my own personal imperfection. I would like to nominate “the field is white” as the winner in the categories of the most often misinterpreted and the most stupidly misinterpreted scripture in the church because of the needless psychological pressure resulting from its misuse. That would be a good blog series and “the field is white” would win the blog series prize.

  9. Paul, I think you’re right about the field and sickle imagery being misused. However, ‘avoid the appearance of evil’ would win the prize in that contest.

  10. Norbert, you may be right. Unfortunately there are many very strong candidates in the hypothetical contest.

  11. Rodney Ross says:

    I like your analysis a lot. During my mission (almost 50 years ago), I became very tired of repeating the section, but at times a little spark would come into my mind and I would ponder verses 4 and 5 and wonder how I stacked up against them. There is benefit in repetition!

    I have a different view of your sickle analogy. Probably all of us have seen people baptized who we thought shouldn’t have been, but the Lord has us harvest the wheat with the chaff and tares. Then He has a winnowing process in which He separates the wheat kernels from the chaff burns the chaff. The harvest is our job, the winnowing is His. Scary to think we could be chaff. Beyond the reality of the analogy however, in His miraculous way he can change the chaff and tares into wheat!

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