On Tuesday, April 6th, 1830, in a small log cabin belonging to Peter Whitmer Sr, Joseph Smith Jr and five other men* organized the Church—a little more than 50 men and women, total, were in attendance.
Joseph later recorded:
“Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our Heavenly Father, we proceeded, according to previous commandment, to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these several propositions they consented by a unanimous vote.”
History of the Church 1:78
It was a momentous occasion. Not only for the Kingdom of God on Earth… but for 24 year old Joseph Smith. It was both the culmination of the work of his life to-date and the start of a work that would only end in his death, a mere 14 years later. That same day, Joseph would look on as his father—a stubbornly areligious man—was baptized nearby.
During the meeting, Joseph received a revelation that would become D&C Section 21, where the Lord calls Joseph a prophet, seer, translator, apostle of Jesus Christ, and an Elder of the Church.
Sidney Rigdon remembered the events of that day, saying:
“I met the whole church of Christ in a little old log house about 20 feet square, near Waterloo, N.Y. and we began to talk about the kingdom of God as if we had the world at our command; we talked with great confidence, … although we were not many people; … we saw by vision, the church of God, a thousand times larger; … the world being entirely ignorant of the testimony of the prophets and without knowledge of what God was about to do.”
Times & Seasons,1 May 1844, 522–23
Today, 187 years—and literally millions of baptisms later—that little Church continues… Sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling, sometimes faced with utter destruction.
In the study guide for Lesson 9, students are asked:
How might your life be different if the Church had not been restored or if you were not a member of the Church?
As I think over my life and think of those who influenced me—my mom, a lapsed conservative Lutheran; my classmates, many of whom were deeply religious—I can’t help but think that I would have most likely joined the Catholic church, by way of dalliances with various evangelical movements.
As I came to understand my orientation, but without the spiritual courage afforded me by my Mormon faith, I would have likely drifted from the faith or taken my own life, convinced of my worthlessness in the eyes of God.
It’s a sobering thought.
I am indeed grateful for my Mormon faith—which teaches me to approach God with confidence, to seek answers to my prayers, to trust in the whisperings of the Spirit, and to see myself and others as veritable Children of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ.
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Lesson 9 is largely concerned with D&C sections 20 & 21, and dwells a great deal on the blessings of Church membership. I could review the lesson in depth, but instead, I’d like to offer supplemental questions for your consideration… feel free to offer your responses, below, in the comments.
1) The lesson states that its purpose is, in part:
…to help [class members] appreciate the blessings of Church membership, and to encourage them to show the Lord their gratitude for membership in His Church.
1a) What are the differences between membership in the Church, membership in the community of faith, and membership in the Kingdom? When do they align? When are they at odds?
1b) How might gratitude for membership in the Church improve our walk before God? Is membership in the Church ever a burden? How so?
2) The lesson makes a great deal of the growth of the Church—as have countless general authorities over the years…
2a) How does the current slowing of Church growth color your testimony of the Restoration?
2b) How are we to understand the story of the Kingdom that Shall Not Fail and the Stone Cut without Hands in Daniel 2? Is it the Church? Is it the Gospel? Are the two synonymous? How does the triumphalism of this story contrast with the circumspection of Christ calling his flock to be “the salt of the earth”—ever the minority?
2c) D&C Section 65 seems to favor a triumphalist vision of the Church filling the whole earth… what might that look like? What dangers does growth pose to the Church? the Gospel? Is all growth good—is there such a thing as bad growth?
3) The lesson asks how the coming forth of the Book of Mormon paved the way for the restoration of the Gospel. Is the restoration of the Gospel synonymous with the organization of the Church? Is a testimony of the Book of Mormon necessarily a testimony of today’s Church—of today’s leadership?
4) In D&C Section 21, the Lord speaks of Joseph’s mission and calls upon those gathered to “receive [his words], as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith”. The lesson makes two bold claims: that “while the statements in D&C 21 were spoken about Joseph Smith, they also apply to the prophets who have succeeded him”; and they directly equate receiving a prophet’s word with obedience.
4a) How does the Lord’s description of Joseph’s ministry—and, specifically, the idea that his words should be received as though from the Lord’s mouth—be squared with Joseph’s actual ministry? Were all his words the Lord’s? Was the Lord granting Joseph a form of infallibility—or was He doing something else?
4b) How might the call to receive Joseph’s words in “patience and faith” inform the interpretation of this verse? Are we to exercise patience and faith—as the lesson implies—because sometimes hearing the word of the Lord is difficult—or is patience and faith required because what we hear often falls short of what we understand about the Lord?
4d) Is it at all appropriate to apply the things said about Joseph, in this section, to all “the prophets who have succeeded him”? To what extent have modern presidents of the Church succeeded Joseph? How have they exceeded him? How have the fallen short?
4e) How does hearing a prophet’s words, heeding his words, and obeying his words differ? How important are the differences? Does the Lord weigh them differently?
4f) What have modern prophets said about obedience? What is the value of talking about obedience? What is the danger? How are we to understand the extra-scriptural maxim that “obedience is the first law of heaven”? What does that even mean?
4g) The lesson conflates serving the Lord with obeying the prophet. How are these different things? How are they the same? How can we tell the difference?
5) The lesson refers students to additional reading materials, including chapter 2 of Our Heritage: A Brief History of Our Faith. In the section on the organization of Church, the authors comment:
The elements present at that meeting in 1830 continue in the Church today: exercise of the law of common consent, singing, praying, partaking of the sacrament, sharing of personal testimonies, bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, ordinations, personal revelation, and revelation through priesthood officers.
5a) What is the law of common consent? How was it manifest in the founding and how do we see it evinced today? Why is common consent important?
5b) Is consent possible when the only acceptable answer is “aye (I consent)”? What is the relationship between consent and sustension‡?
6) The title of the lesson is “The Only True and Living Church” (a reference to D&C 1:30).
6a) What does it mean for a church to be “true”? We throw that word around a lot, but it doesn’t seem to have a clear definition. Is the Church “true” like the Book of Mormon is “true”?
6b) What does it mean for a church to be “living”? How can we distinguish living churches from dead or dying ones?
6c) What role does consent have in the life of a church? Obedience? Revelation? Inspiration?
6d) What does it mean to declare the Church to be the only true and living church, in light of repeated reminders of the light and truth found in other faith communities?
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Paul calls upon us to put away childish things… including the need for pat or simple answers. As we embrace the Church we inhabit, the Gospel we need, and the leaders we love and sustain, we must also embrace the complexity that comes with being awakened to our own frailties in the face of God’s great and marvelous work.
I hope the questions above inspire each of us to wrestle with hard questions—as Jacob wrestled with the angel—that we, too, might win a new name and a rich inheritance.
‡ Sometimes new words must be coined.