Without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence. This is Part 3 in a six-part series on the domestic violence implications of D&C 121 and 132. Find Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 here.

This week we’re going to talk about the end of D&C 121, verses 41-46. This is a very-often-discussed scripture in LDS circles, and I’m going to sidestep the most common points of conversation on it. (What did “reproving betimes with sharpness” mean in the 1830s? Go ask your Sunday School teacher.) 

Instead, let’s talk about the covenant in these verses. What’s it about? What will flow without compulsory means forever? What does this covenant have to do with abuse? (Spoiler: a lot, but it’s mostly not about the survivor.)

The covenant in D&C 121:41-46

The text

I’ve reordered the verses a little bit here. The meaning matches the original, but this reading helps me see it with fresh eyes:

[45] Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly. 

[41] No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.

[…] [45 again][T]hen shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God…. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

The covenant

In the LDS faith, a covenant is a two-way promise between an individual and God: we promise to do a certain thing for God, and, if we do, God promises to do a certain thing for us. So what’s the covenant in D&C 121:41-48?

Priesthood holders promise: We will be filled with charity, and virtue will garnish our thoughts unceasingly. We will/can exercise power or influence only by persuasion, long-suffering, pure knowledge, kindness, gentleness, meekness, precision, and love unfeigned.

God promises: You will maintain the power and influence of the priesthood. The Holy Ghost will constantly be with you. Your authority and power will be righteousness and truth. You will gradually receive more and more doctrine of the priesthood. You will be confident standing in God’s presence. Whatever falls within your priesthood stewardship will endure, and “without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

Now, let’s talk about the implications of this covenant on abuse. 

Survivors, by definition, have no “power or influence” over the perpetrator’s choices. They also have no “power or influence” over the perpetrator’s covenants. Acknowledging that most perpetrators of abuse in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold the priesthood, the covenant in D&C 121:41-46 underscores this. It describes “power or influence” exercised by the priesthood, but no scripture or covenant I’m aware of describes “power or influence” exercised over the priesthood — and certainly not by the non-priesthood-holding, most frequent survivors of abuse, women and children. 

So, when it comes to abuse, this covenant is binding on priesthood holders, and is not really about survivors at all. [1] This includes priesthood leaders at all levels of the church: central leaders who set the church’s tone and formal guidance when it comes to abuse, local leaders and priesthood holders who seek (or have responsibility) to help survivors of abuse, and even perpetrators of abuse themselves.

Priesthood holders fulfilling this covenant: general church leaders

The abuse-related resources and materials church leadership has provided over the last five to ten years have evolved dramatically and grown closer to D&C 121:41-46’s “gentle,” “kind,” and “pure knowledge” ideal. 

As far as I know, the church’s longest-standing intervention for DV is the bishops’ helpline. This helpline reaches lawyers who help the bishop comply with reporting laws and limit the church’s liability. Bishops I have spoken with say it does not reach DV advocates who help the bishop protect the survivor’s well-being. It is also not available to survivors. More recent interventions provide more survivor- and healing-focused support:

In 2018, the church introduced an abuse website with excellent LDS- and non-LDS resources for survivors of abuse, family, friends and leaders (I reviewed it here). This resource in particular is a great example of gentle, meek, loving support that reflects “pure knowledge” about what abuse within families looks like, means for those involved, and how to help.

In addition, revised church lesson manuals no longer exclusively direct women to talk with their bishop about abuse. This guidance previously distanced survivors from professional support and placed responsibility on bishops that far outstripped their training. One of these shifts is visible in the church’s somewhat-recently updated manual on strengthening marriages. Although no explicit support is provided to survivors and abuse is not named, this lesson describes the controlling behaviors and paradigms that constitute abuse and explicitly frames them as the perpetrator’s sole responsibility to change. This comes closer to “pure knowledge” about abuse that “[reproves] betimes with sharpness” than previous church resources.

Until recently, LDS women had no opportunity to be interviewed by other women. This has changed with the introduction of ministering interviews. Many — possibly most — abuse survivors who are ready to share their experiences will likely feel more comfortable doing so within a small circle of women rather than to a male priesthood leader. While Relief Society presidents are not currently authorized to offer authoritative counsel to DV survivors, nor to offer material support without disclosing the abuse to the bishop and receiving his authorization, Relief Society ministering interviews expand the church support structure available to survivors of abuse. Delegating this stewardship to women reflects “meekness” on the part of church leadership per the covenant in D&C 121:41-46.

So, given these efforts, what does God promise? “An everlasting dominion” of opportunities for growth and engagement that “without compulsory means [shall flow] forever and ever.” The work is never done. There will always be more ways that charity and virtue, through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, pure knowledge, precision and love, can further support abuse survivors’ safety, hope and healing. 

Priesthood holders fulfilling this covenant: perpetrators of abuse

First, let’s distinguish between two different motivations for committing abuse. Many perpetrators of abuse are what we call intimate terrorists. After considering various courses of action, they decide on abuse because it gives them what they want. Their abuse is deliberate and part of a pattern. They may lie about it, hide it, or strategically pretend to change/repent/say they didn’t know what they were doing, but it’s a facade. They live in continued, unrepentant violation of the covenant in D&C 121:41-46, merit the consequences described in last week’s post, and the rest of this section does not apply to them.

However, other perpetrators of abuse engage in situational violence. They don’t want to hurt the person they love and primarily harm them out of…not knowing what else to do. The few perpetrators of violence who genuinely try to break the cycle of abuse generally fall in this category, and the covenant in D&C 121:41-46 offers them a supportive framework for doing so. 

Let’s talk about what that looks like:

When these individuals live up to the covenant in D&C 121:41-46, they will see their relationships transform. This will not happen quickly or easily. Even perpetrators of abuse who genuinely want to change often need guidance and lots of practice to establish new patterns of behavior. Repentant individuals must also acknowledge the impact of their behavior on the survivor. Survivors’ safety, healing and wellbeing matter; no survivor is obligated to maintain a relationship with anyone who has perpetrated abuse against them in the past. 

However, whether in ongoing or future relationships, when a repentant individual establishes a consistent pattern of treating those he lives with and loves with persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, kindness, charity and virtue, without hypocrisy and without guile, this covenant is valid for him.[2] The genuine relationships within his “dominion [can] be…everlasting, and without compulsory means [they] shall flow unto [him] forever and ever.”

Priesthood holders fulfilling this covenant: local church leaders and others

Local, well-meaning priesthood leaders and other priesthood holders are in a unique and challenging position when it comes to abuse. It would be easy (easier, anyway) if abuse were like a burning building — you could fly in on a rescue helicopter, airlift the survivor(s) out, maybe even put out the fire, and then the crisis ends and everyone lives happily ever after.

But an airlift-syle rescue wouldn’t help solve abuse, and most priesthood holders wouldn’t be in a position to stage one if it did. [3] They didn’t start the fire, so to speak, and they can’t usually put it out. Only the perpetrator of abuse is responsible for their actions. Only the perpetrator of abuse can pick up the metaphorical fire hose. And only the survivor knows whether or not it’s safe to leave the house. Not every fire consumes the whole building, and the survivor knows what the perpetrator’s pattern of arson looks like, as well as what traps, land mines or other perils may await outside. So how do you help? [4]

When you can’t make a problem stop, it’s easy to feel powerless to help, like you can’t do anything at all. But, even if you could, making the abuse stop wouldn’t fix the most pervasive, insidious consequence of abuse: lasting damage to the survivor’s will

Physical, sexual and other kinds of harm are tools that cement the perpetrator’s power and control over the survivor. The perpetrator’s goal in using these tools is to take away the survivor’s agency: to make the survivor’s sense of self dependent on the perpetrator of abuse, rather than their own choices, preferences and will. 

Coercing a problem to end doesn’t end the problem of coercion. That’s why airlifting the survivor out of an abusive relationship wouldn’t end the problem of abuse. When and if the survivor’s body mends, their credit and reputation recover, their emotional and spiritual healing are only just beginning. 

The survivor needs to be able to restore the connection between their agency and their sense of self. This is why, while a survivor absolutely needs safety from ongoing abuse, that’s not enough. They need it on their own terms. A perpetrator of abuse can use their tools of power and control to take away the survivor’s agency, but no one else — not even a well-intentioned priesthood holder with a helicopter — can insert their agency to restore it. 

This is where the covenant in D&C 121:41-46 comes in. If flying in on a helicopter generally won’t help, D&C 121:41-44 spells out what will. Engaging with a survivor…

“By persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness…without hypocrisy, and without guile…that [she] may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death”

…directly counteracts the perpetrator of abuse’s compulsory, coercive, duplicitous agenda of demands on the survivor. These aren’t just nice words that describe a good person (though they do that, too). These are concrete, actionable tools against abuse. They counteract it. They support the survivor in restoring their agency: they recognize the survivor’s agency, respect it, elevate it, support it, and establish an environment where the survivor can feel safe beginning to connect their own agency to their sense of self again. 

And then what does God promise? “Thy confidence shall wax strong in the presence of God…The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth.” And, from an abuse standpoint, I think some of the covenant’s blessings do actually accrue to the survivor, as well. Their “dominion” over their own bodies and agency “shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto [them] forever and ever.”

I hope these discussions have been helpful in preparation for D&C 121 in Come Follow Me this week! Next week we’ll start our discussion of D&C 132. You won’t want to miss it.

****

[1] The Beyond the Block podcast this week notes that these conditions of priesthood use are binding on God as a priesthood holder, too.

[2] There are a number of (unregulated) intervention programs for perpetrators of abuse in the U.S. The best ones check in with survivors regularly in safe settings (the perpetrator cannot access and will receive no report) to see if what the person is saying within the program matches their private behavior. This can help program facilitators tell which perpetrators are covering up intimate terrorism vs which ones are actually trying to grow beyond using situational violence within their relationships.

[3] If the survivor is an autonomous adult. This is much more complicated for survivors of child abuse and vulnerable adult abuse, who have limited personal and/or legal agency and must depend on others. Those who help these survivors must balance the need for survivors to restore their stolen agency and sense of autonomy with the survivor’s lack of full personal and/or legal agency.

[4] In addition to the resources below, I wrote a support guide for bishops dealing with abuse here.

****

If you suspect you or someone you know may be experiencing abuse, the following resources are available to call or chat 24/7. Abuse is never the survivor’s fault:

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. It is important work. I especially like your attention to supporting the survivor in restoring their agency.

    With respect to the charge to priesthood holders, I think we too often lump the entire litany together, when I find the real world doesn’t work like that. Here, quoting myself from a work in progress:
    “[I]n my experience, true bullies are unusual and a majority of bishops and stake presidents don’t want confrontation and don’t like being a disciplinarian. Their problem is less about being a bully, and more about making something happen. Most bishops and stake presidents believe in gentleness, kindness, and love unfeigned (referring to D&C 121:41 and 42) but are less attuned to the virtues of patience and long suffering. They feel called and obliged to be men of action even if it’s not their natural inclination.”

    Instructing a survivor in what to do now is not as likely to restore their agency as is listening and witnessing and mourning with them. If we want people to be self-realized individuals with power in themselves, patience and long-suffering is important too. Furthermore, taking the active tell-them-what-to-do role runs the risk of substituting ecclesiastical abuse for physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

  2. May I add another source of abuse, severe mental illness such as bipolar and the personality disorders. That is where I have experienced abuse, from both men and women. I do not have any answers to that since some seem to have no good treatments.
    I would like to bring up the problem faced by LDS survivors of marital abuse. That is the difficulty or even inability to obtain a sealing cancellation. You have no control over your life when this choice is taken from you. The abuser uses this sealing to manipulate and stay in touch. The anger over your powerlessness builds and builds, particularly if your bishops are unsupportive or even mocking. And when the anger finally explodes, many are injured. I know that from personal experience.

  3. And may I add financial abuse. After 40 years I ran out of money and he left. Thank goodness. It is easily hidden.

  4. @Christian — excellent points. Looking forward to your upcoming work. In and around my social work training, men’s socialization as “fixers” often comes up — the opposite of patience and “sitting with.” I have a lot of respect for the many men — especially bishops — who work against that socialization toward the virtues in this section when it comes to their ministering and pastoral care.

  5. I’ve received a couple of personal messages along the lines of “what about this covenant and women?” Particularly, in some cases, based on recent General Conference talks that point to women acting “by virtue of the holy priesthood” when they perform service in their callings, etc.

    To respond to that on a couple of levels:

    On one level, I wrote it that way because when we think of people acting by virtue of the priesthood, 9 times out of 10 we’re thinking about someone acting in a priesthood capacity (eg giving blessings) or office (eg bishop giving counsel), and I’m directing this series toward a practical, lived LDS experience as it relates to abuse / these scriptures.

    On another level, it was particularly important to me to highlight that any survivor of abuse has been deprived of agency and so has little-to-no realistic capacity to act, “by virtue of the priesthood” or otherwise, which is why this covenant isn’t really about them. As most adult survivors are women, and the scaffolding of institutional support in the church is led, guided and primarily staffed by men, approaching the topic this way put a barrier around victim-blaming — a particularly thorny, prevalent problem when it comes to abuse.

    On a third level, I’m not sure Joseph Smith had women in mind when he wrote that section — his intent seems to have been contrasting a righteous priesthood governance structure of the church with a corrupted governance structure that was mistreating and persecuting the Saints in Liberty Jail and in their surrounding communities. At the time, both governance structures were staffed by men. Certainly time and language can evolve (we’ll talk about that a lot in D&C 132), and events like suffrage formally included women in at least one of those governance structures. However, “women operate using priesthood power, they just don’t have priesthood office” doesn’t really affect the “priesthood as the organizing principle of church governance” Joseph Smith was referring to. This parallel is more apt anywhere the priesthood is used in a governing or presiding capacity — e.g., bishops in wards, presidents in their organizations, fathers (or, in their absence, mothers) in homes. Some of these reasonably include women — RS, YW and Primary presidents as well as mothers without priesthood-holding husbands — but most do not. Of note, interpreting the covenant on this level also suggests the covenant would not apply to priesthood-holding men who do not function in a presiding capacity (a single male Gospel Doctrine teacher, for example).

    On a fourth level, of course, these commenters are right. The section on supporting survivors in restoring their agency, with the analogy of the building on fire, applies equally well to anyone who wants to help — in a way, it’s almost like a how-to guide on baptismal covenants men and women share :-)

  6. May I comment on problems I have seen or experienced. No one wishes to be pitied or judged and may be afraid of even asking for help from their priesthood leaders. Teachings that we should not try to steady the ark, that the leaders know what they are doing, can cause us to be silent toward their mistakes when we should be speaking out so that they can learn. Not that I have found many willing to admit they were wrong. But some will and I have witnessed a change in the last 10 years or so with the senior leaders modifying many practices. In my case, insistence on accountability elicited an apology from one of the senior general authorities for the way I had been treated by several priesthood leaders. But I did need to push back in order to get it.
    The unfortunate result from this lack of understanding is an inability to support my priesthood leaders. I have lost faith that they have the interests of the women at heart. My attitude has changed from immediate belief to prove yourself to me, for about 10 years, and I will consider believing what you say. An unworkable situation to say the least.
    I believe better training of our young men might help. Making it clear only weak men hit women. Only disturbed parents defend their abusive children, because sometimes an entire web of secret keepers exists. Divorce is sometimes the best option and no one should be shamed for getting one.
    As for the mentally Ill, I have no answers. But I believe God might possess them and would be willing to share if we cared enough. After all, somehow we are supposed to get the gospel into North Korea, a country led by a seriously mentally ill man. Do we really love our brothers and sisters there? Enough to find a way?

  7. It is a mistake to define covenant as two-way, two-party, even as contractual. Obedience is to commandment as Responsibility is to covenant. The idea of “obeying” covenant expresses patent misunderstanding of it. When covenant is understood as contract, Bride becomes Harlot. Covenant is a three-party arrangement, and the entire Church, collectively, needs to remedy the confusion.

    The nature of covenant, woman-to-man, and man-to-her-children, is echoed in nature and eternity. Man does not covenant to God hierarchically above the woman, as some men have previously, erroneously supposed. Rather, God consecrates the union of equals. God moves to us when we take hold of each other, “leave father and mother and cleave…”

    Eve chooses Adam because Adam chooses the children (responsibility). Eve usurps the serpent by choosing Adam. Sarah does the same in Egypt with Pharaoh. Moses 7 the same pattern: Enoch intercedes with Mother Earth on behalf of her children.

    When temple ordinances burn off the dross of the Masonic ascension motif, we will see a beautiful Wedding Banquet motif that expresses covenant in such a way that we will be embarrassed for having falsely-practiced fraternal oaths and expressions of covenant that engender abuse. If we use the traditional Jewish Wedding as a template, we will better grasp the idea of covenant-as-responsibility.

    When responsibility becomes our ethos, instead of obedience as our ethic, unrighteous dominion and the ambivalence of abuse will be better exposed. The institution that administers the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the Church-congregation of Jesus Christ, is possessed by the spirit of Lamechian, fraternal oath-making. This is an abomination that will dissolve as we work to reconstruct the temple motif to its proper Wedding Banquet cosmology.

    Until then, “abuse” is an LDS institutionalized setting that is implied throughout, without being intentional or explicit. Thank you for your brave work.

  8. Laura, great series. Two thoughts:

    First, the folks who signed affidavits that landed Joseph and his companions in Liberty Jail were once faithful priesthood holders, so this is not only a priesthood-vs-secular government idea. The “amen to the priesthood” clause applied to those priesthood holders.

    Second, the counsel at the end of the section is a beautiful pattern and bears more teaching. In the end, dominion (our families in the eternities) flow to us without compulsion. The only way that happens in the eternities is if it also happens here. The phrase “without compulsion” is powerful, and to me clearer than us righteous dominion.

  9. *unrighteous dominion

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