Lesson 5: “This Is the Spirit of Revelation” #DandC2017

This is a really interesting set of revelations we have to discuss. They are primarily the responses to Oliver Cowdery’s efforts to help translate the Book of Mormon (D&C 6, 8, and 9). The lesson manual includes a link to a helpful write-up on “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift” from Revelations in Context. There are a lot of things to talk about here, but I’d like to focus on one particular narrative.

It is easy to sneer at the poor fools that engage in “magic.” But let’s not be so hasty. Perhaps your class has had a chance to discuss Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones in the translation of the Book of Mormon already, and consequently his seeric past. While seer stones seem exotic and foreign, I’ll bet other forms of divination are more familiar. If you grew up in a rural area, you might have seen someone use a divining rod to find a good spot to dig a well. Maybe you have yourself engaged in “bibliomancy.” This is where you take a book (frequently the Bible) and randomly open it to a page and find meaning in the text. As a missionary I was aware of various divination techniques to find, for example, a good place to tract, and I know some Mormons who have picked up on the new agey crystal pendulum stuff.

Does God work this way? Read the link above to Oliver Cowdery’s Gift or read the JSPP earliest text of Section 8. If we were to discuss this in terms of History or Religious Studies, we would generally bracket the question of whether God (assuming that there is one) really dips the rod to point to water, or opens the Bible to answer your question. Instead we might talk about what these ritualized acts do in the world of the believer. But we are believers—believers who because of our enlightenment heritage are disinclined to view God in the machine. I’m a chemist for heaven’s sake. So what do I do with the early text of section 8?

I guess we all start out viewing God in or as a machine. The world just makes so much more sense (or its at least so much more bearable) if there are rules that we can count on (ask Job’s buddies). We need to make sense of the chaos and we need to find the right path from an infinite set of possibilities. Cast the lots of my life. Open the book to sooth this pain. Bend the branch so that I might drink.

But God is no machine (ask Job). From D&C 9:

Behold you have not understood, you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me;

Um, yeah. That is pretty much what you told me to do. You told me that “whatsoever ye shall ask to tell you by [the machine] that will [the Lord] grant unto you that ye shall know.”

behold I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you: therefore, you shall feel that it is right; but if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought, that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong

I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t what Joseph Smith was doing this whole time. Putting that aside, are you saying that I am the machine? I’m going to have to think about that for a while.


  1. We (humans; believers) really want an interventionist God. But straightforward reflection as well as deeper contemplation in the areas of theodicy and epistemology suggests to me — and everyone I know well enough to discuss this — that the best we can discover in humans and in God is not a machine with predictable inputs->outputs but rather unreliable, even capricious, intervention, and unreliable, even capricious, understanding, memory and faith. I wonder whether caprice satisfies anybody.

  2. As far as caprice: are you saying that “eternal variety is the spice of eternal life”?

    The human mind craves the basic knowledge gained from stimulus input & subsequent response. Biologically, we are wired for it (the primary reason why we remember pain more than pleasure is to avoid future pain). Even though the Lord, in D&C 130, told us about the “law irrevocably decreed” – it is difficult to draw straight lines between “laws” and “mortal blessings” – though we try so hard (e.g., gospel of prosperity).

    As far as bibliomancy, I would refer you to the video Special Witnesses of Christ, where President Monson talks about comforting a dying man by randomly opening the Book of Mormon to Alma. His comment was “God turned the pages” or something like that.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Caprice is, I think, unsatisfying to most people. And the hard thing (I know, I know, confirmation bias) is that it doesn’t resonate with many peoples experiences. But maybe the dark glass of Paul, and the cry of JS in prison are more palatable frameworks to get to a similar theodical end.

  4. I still think of it all as a machine. The problem is that the machine turns out to be much, much more complex than we often realize or can easily understand. Have you not ever had an experiment where the results were completely unexpected turn out to have a result you didn’t expect? The chemistry wasn’t wrong, there was just some miniscule variable you hadn’t anticipated.

    In the complexity of computers (my field), this happens all the time. We call them bugs. We’ve long passed the complexity of computing where we can make “perfect” code, with no bugs. We just do the best we can trying to fix the worst, often making new problems in our wake.

    To me, God’s “code” for the universe really -is- perfect. He knows every particle/wave/quark/etc well beyond what we’ve ever been able to understand thus far. I don’t think Joseph’s stone worked just because he asked, but part of a combination of that particular stone, that particular person, and a myriad of other variables (a particular ion bombardment travelling the universe?) that made it work. it didn’t for Oliver, because Oliver (and others) needed to work differently.

    I know it borders on God being “ineffable”, but the idea is that we -will- be able to understand it all, eventually.

  5. Yes, the dark glass (and JS’ cry, and brass heavens) may be more palatable. However we get there, something ought to be said. The confirmation-biased answers to prayer that are so often preached unintentionally and unnecessarily make me (and I hear many others) feel like a slacker, a failure, a sinner, an outsider to the class of “child of God.” The constant and predictable intervention described is just too much different from life and God as I experience them.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I think most people feel the same way in the pews if they stop to think about it, Christian.

  7. Two comments. First, I agree that the answer Joseph received for Oliver about studying it out in your mind and asking God if it is right does not describe at all how Joseph translated. I mean, he didn’t even look at the plates. He was pretty much getting text on a serving tray, not working it out in his mind like a real translator.

    Second, I heard a great bibliomancy story at a recent missionary report. Well, it was actually BookofMormonancy. This missionary was apparently having trouble with a companion, so he popped open his Book of Mormon to seek wisdom, and his finger landed on the following verse: “And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him” (1 Ne. 4:12). Everyone laughed, but the missionary added, “True story.” He didn’t say if he follow through on the inspiration.

  8. Regarding God as machine, I saw a quote some time ago—can’t remember where—that I find helpful. “God is more like a slot machine than a vending machine.”

    That pretty much sums up my experience with prayer.

  9. Media of personal revelation (ranked):
    1-When the light turns green
    2-The aforementioned “Bible dipping”
    3-Things political pundits say that I already agree with
    4-Magic 8 ball

  10. Geoff - Aus says:

    In our world of alternative facts, perhaps it is more important than ever that we not only study things out in our mind, but google all we can find, before we spread what we hear.
    I have already had a member of my HP group, (in Australia) quote Trump about late term abortions meaning “ripping babies from the womb in the 9th month”. This was fact checked when Trump said it, as untrue. It is still untrue but he was not queried or corrected.

  11. Cool, I think. At the end of the OP, are you saying that the magical objects~machines obviate the need for effort? Or that they are one (among many) means to an end? I don’t know if this is a legitimate quote from Joseph Smith, but it’s intriguing: ”I used the Urim and Thummim until I became one.”

  12. J. Stapley says:

    I just read through Janiece’s write up for this lesson. It is excellent:


  13. J. Stapley says:

    Swisster, I think those are all good questions we should be thinking about. RE: that quote, I don’t think it is legitimate.

  14. Nope, no machines here. Perhaps God and His world is a machine but the point of leaving Him and that world for this one was so that we could experience the caprice.

    I was listening to an AofM podcast where Brett McKay was interviewing a Navy SEAL about their training methods. He said when they showed up for training a few minutes late the first day the instructors worked them extra hard all day. So the next day everyone made sure to show up on time and the instructors worked them even harder than the day they were late. The injustice is deliberate; it’s designed to develop resilience when faced with an enemy that doesn’t play by the rules or a situation that doesn’t go according to plan. There is no referee on the battlefield.

    People could make sense of the injustice in this world if it was more equitably distributed. What makes it so hard is the injustice of the injustice. Some people suffer way more than others, and if the growth that comes from those trials is part of our purpose in coming here then those who suffer less will have to make up the difference some other way. But perhaps experiencing the capriciousness is just as significant a part of our mortal experience.