Category: Scriptures

“This ordinance belongeth to my house”

Throughout this year, I’ve talked about the development of temple doctrine as a braiding of strands from Joseph Smith’s theology and cosmology.  That continues to be true of the 1840s, when the Latter-day Saints were working on the Nauvoo temple.  Previously, when discussing the House of the Lord in Kirtland, I discussed the idea of beholding the face of God, an endowment of power from on high, preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ, the Zion project, and some practical functions of the temples (in connection with building Zion).  These threads continued to have a place in the Nauvoo Temple but began to be ritualized and some meanings (such as that of the endowment of power) began to shift.  In addition, priesthood, binding or sealing power, and salvation for the unbaptized deceased were added to the braid of temples by the time that 1842 the epistles we are reading this week (D&C 127-128) were written.  Later, binding or sealing into eternal families and the connected concept of plural marriage would likewise be woven into temple liturgy as well, though those are topics for another day. The endowment of power is, perhaps, the key example of a shift in understanding and ritualization of previous hopes for the temple and priesthood.  Originally, the endowment of power seems to have been considered some sort of blessing from God that would be helpful in missionary work.  In its initial rendition, this endowment seems to have been…

“Instituted for travelling Elders”

If you’ve ever asked yourself what exactly is a Seventy, you’re not alone.  In fact, I’d dare to say that the question is one of the more persistent ones throughout Church history.  Based on two brief mentions in the Bible, the idea of the Seventies is laid out in two separate documents in the Doctrine and Covenants and was organized initially in 1835.  Yet, the exact function and role of the Seventies has varied over the years in the Church. The first major mention of the Seventies in our scriptures comes in the 1835 document “On Priesthood” that is now Section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants.  After discussing the “twelve apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ, in all the world,” the document states that: “The seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world. Thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling: and they form a quorum equal in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses or apostles, just named.”  It then adds that: “The seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the twelve, or the travelling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same, in all nations: first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews:—the twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and first unto the Gentiles…

“Adam shall come to visit”

Charles Darwin’s niece once told her son (the famed British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) that: “The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.”[1]  While it is wonderful either way, since the early 20th century, what scientists have come to understand through their studies of evolution has become increasingly important to people to discuss in terms of understanding religion and creation.  Literal readings of the Bible and the histories presented in Genesis underly the idea that organic evolution is not compatible with Judeo-Christianity.  And, for better or worse, a literal understanding of Biblical narratives is a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, influencing the translations and revelations that Joseph Smith produced.  Yet, as the best understanding of the process by which life as we know it was created based on the evidence found in the world around us, evolution is difficult to dismiss.  The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has both features that help with the acceptance of evolution and concepts that make it difficult to embrace the scientific theory—perhaps most notably the concept of a literal Adam. In an 1838 editorial written as a series of questions and answers with Joseph Smith, the Prophet remarked that: “We are the only people under heaven” that believe the Bible, adding that Latter-day Saints…

“They saw the Lord”

What does Jesus look like?  It’s a question that we can only guess the answer to or speculate about, but one that does come up in a religion that embraces using artistic depictions of members of the Godhead.  In general, the scriptures fail to describe his physical appearance in any detail.  Joseph Smith documented several visions where he described seeing Jesus and God the Father, though nothing definitive about their appearances comes from the documents on the subject.  History and archeology give us some clues, all of which are interesting to explore.  At the end of the day, however, we do not really know what Jesus looks like. Several visions are recorded by Joseph Smith, including the dramatic appearance in the Kirtland Temple recorded in Section 110.  Contemporary, first-hand accounts of the 1820s First Vision include the appearance of Jesus, though little in the ways of details.  In 1832, Joseph Smith wrote that he saw “a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day” and that “the <?Lord?> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”[1]  In 1835, he gave little more detail, only noting that “a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame … another personage soon appeard like unto the first.”[2]  The 1838/39 account that is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price today describes them as “two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.”[3]  In 1842, he made…

“To ordain and set in order all the other officers of the church”

Section 107 has one of the more complicated histories out of the documents presented in the Doctrine and Covenants.  It is not a single revelation, but rather a few that were compiled together and expanded in significant ways, with the individual portions reflecting their original context and some of the later context of the time in which it was combined into the document we experience today.  It is, as Richard Lyman Bushman put it, “it is best understood as an archeological site, containing layers of organizational forms, each layer created for a purpose at one time and then overlaid by other forms established for other purposes later.”[1]  It is, in many ways, a capstone document in the Doctrine and Covenants meant to provide structure and organization to the Church.  And, in providing some of that structure, Section 107 helped laid the foundation for the institution of the Church to function and thrive in enduring ways past Joseph Smith. There are several sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that effectively functioned as the handbook of the Church at the time they were developed.  As some of the most prominent among them, we have the following: Section 20 (Articles and Covenants) D&C 42 (the Law) D&C 84 (On Priesthood) D&C 86 (On Priesthood) D&C 88 D&C 102 (Minutes of the organization of the High Council of the church of Christ of Latter Day Saints) D&C 107 (On Priesthood) Most of these sections were…

“I the Lord have suffered the affliction to come upon them”

During an episode of the popular British Sci-Fi show, Doctor Who, the titular character confronts a woman who has engaged in a series of witch hunts in seventeenth century Britain.  The witch hunter explains her view that she is required to: “Kill the witches, defeat Satan.  As King James has written in his new Bible, thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”  To this, the Doctor responds: “In the Old Testament.  There’s a twist in the sequel: Love thy neighbour.” This conversation plays into a standard caricature of the God of the Hebrew Bible being a fierce, punishing God and the God of the New Testament being a loving, compassionate God.  Yet, that view fails to capture the complexity of God’s personality.  When I was teaching Gospel Doctrine a few years back and we were in the Pentateuch, a brother in the ward made a similar contrast to the Doctor, stating that the Law of Moses was all about rules and punishment, while the Christian religion was all about love.  To make his point, he contrasted the general Law of Moses with Jesus’s statement that: “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[1]  Afterwards,…

“The constitution of this Land”

The attitude of Latter-day Saints towards the United States government has historically been paradoxical.  As Dale Morgan wrote: “The Mormons had a profound respect for government and governmental forms, but disrespect for and outright distrust of ‘the damned rascals who administer the government.’”[1]  Church leaders have encouraged beliefs that inculcate support for governments, yet we also have a history of conflict with the government in the US.  In addition, there are some Mormon doctrines that deemphasize the need for government that are held in tension with pro-government beliefs.  This tension was manifested in nineteenth century Utah’s conflicts with the United States.  It has also surfaced more recently in the worldview of individuals such as Ezra Taft Benson and Cliven Bundy.  At its core, this paradox is rooted in the conflict born of a people who believe that the Constitution of the United States of America is inspired of God suffering from intolerance and corruption in the United States of America. The Prophet Joseph Smith believed that governmental forms should be respected, especially the Constitution of the United States of America.  An 1835 summary of belief that was included in the Doctrine of Covenants (Section 134) outlined the basic attitude of Latter-day Saints towards governments by stating that: “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments.”[2]  In…

“Concerning the building of mine house”

The temples of the early Latter Day Saint movement were a place where several strands of Joseph Smith’s theology and doctrine were braided together.  In the summer of 1833 (in the revelations we are studying this week for “Come, Follow Me”), we can see that braiding happening.  Referencing some major topics we’ve already discussed this year, we can see the idea of beholding the face of God, an endowment of power from on high, preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ, the Zion project, and some practical functions of the temples (in connection with building Zion).  Each of these had become a component of how the House of the Lord in Kirtland and Zion were meant to operate. The endowment of power from on high was one area of particular concern to the early Saints.  They had been promised in early 1831 that when they relocated to Kirtland, Ohio, they would be blessed with the law and an endowment of power akin to the one that the early Christians received on the day of Pentecost.[1]  The law was given in a series of revelations that spring, but the endowment of power proved more elusive.  Ordination to the high priesthood at a conference in 1831 and the meetings of the School of the Prophets functioned as earlier endowments of power, but the Saints continued to look forward to the construction of the House of the Lord as a place…

“That you may understand and know”

“The world is changed. … Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it. … And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.  History became legend.  Legend became myth.  And for two and a half thousand years, the [true Gospel] passed out of all knowledge.  Until, when chance came, it ensnared another bearer.” While not the same, the overall character of the opening monologue for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is compatible with the Latter-day Saint view of the Great Apostasy.  It was, after all, a time of loss and change.  As B. H. Roberts summarized: “The time came when through a combination of circumstances—through the bitter and relentless persecutions which came upon the early Christians, both from the heathens and from the Jews, by which persecution, continuing through three long centuries, the servants of God were slain,” leading to a time when individuals did “engraft upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ heathen notions of God, and accepted part of the heathen mythology and blended this with fragments of Christian truth still held by them, until the plain and simple Gospel, as delivered to the people by Jesus and the Apostles, lost all semblance of its former self.”[1]  As a result, “nothing remained but fragments of the gospel; here a doctrine and there a principle, like single stones fallen and rolled away from the ruined wall; but no one able to tell…

“This is the light of Christ“

As one of Joseph Smith’s largest revelations, Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88 (or, as Joseph Smith called it, “the Olieve leaf which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise”) has a lot of different talking points.  As historian Richard Lyman Bushman wrote: “Nothing in nineteenth-century literature resembles it.  … The ‘Olive Leaf’ runs from the cosmological to the practical, from a description of angels blowing their trumpets to instructions for starting a school.  Yet the pieces blend together into a cohesive compound of cosmology and eschatology united by the attempt to link the quotidian world of the now to the world beyond.”[1]  The majority of this Olive Leaf revelation was recorded on 27-28 December 1832, with the end section being recorded as a separate revelation on 3 January 1833 that became so closely associated with the December revelation that they were eventually combined into one document.  Among the topics that moved beyond the mundane world of the now is a metaphysical discussion towards the beginning of the December revelation about Jesus the Christ and light. This portion that discusses Jesus and light has given rise to the idea of an interesting entity in Latter-day Saint through—the light of Christ or Spirit of Christ.  The revelation states that: “I now send upon you another comfortor, even upon you my friends; that it may abide in your hearts, even the holy spirit of promise.  … This comfortor is the promise which I give unto…

“These two Priesthoods”

Words can be a bit slippery, particularly when we use them in different ways over time.  Take, for example, the use of the word “ordinance” in the Church.  In its most basic sense, an ordinance is an authoritative order; a decree or a piece of legislation (think of a city ordinance).  It seems very possible that many of the time when the word occurs in the Doctrine and Covenants, the word is used in this manner, referring to the laws or decrees of God.  On other occasions, the term may be used as an appointment or commission (in what is now an archaic use of the word).  In the Church today, however, it is generally used to refer to religious rites like baptism, confirmation, endowment, etc.  Hence, it becomes tricky when interpreting statements like the one in the important 22-23 September 1832 revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants, Section 84) that “in the ordinences thereof the power of Godliness is manifest and without the ordinences thereof, and the authority of the Priesthood, the power of Godliness is not manifest,” whether ordinances refers to the laws of the Gospel, an appointment as a result of priesthood ordination, or the sacred rites of the Gospel.[1]  Gratefully, at least there isn’t much confusion about whether ordnances is the intended use in the Church when the term ordinance is used. Priesthood is another word that is a bit difficult to pin down.  While we know it generally refers to…

“This is Elias”

In both the Vision studied recently (D&C 76) and the first revelation studied this week (D&C 77) there is a mysterious figure referenced as Elias.  Throughout the remainder of his ministry, Joseph Smith would use this name-title to refer to individuals who served as forerunners with preparatory or restorative responsibilities.  But, at times, it also seemed as though he had a specific individual in mind, possibly drawing on references to the name Elias used in the King James Version of the New Testament.  Who was this person?  How did Joseph Smith understand his role? The revelation now known as D&C 77 was recorded in March 1832.  As Joseph Smith worked on his New Translation of the New Testament, he came to the Revelation of St. John the Divine and dictated a series of questions and answers to explain some of the symbolism in that book.  On two occasions, the text refers to Elias.  In answering the question, “What are we to understand by the angels ascending from the east Rev 7. Chap. & 2 verse?”, the text responds: “We are to understand that the angel ascended from the east is he to whom is given the seal of the living God over the tweleve tribes of Israel … this is the Elias which was to come to gether to gether the tribes of Israel and restore all things.”[1]  In answering the question, “What are we to understand by the little book which was eaten by John as mentioned in the 10th. Chapt. of Rev“,…

A Scriptural Prank

One day while I was serving my mission, my companion told me that he knew the name of the Holy Ghost.  I told him I was doubtful, but he insisted that it was Eden.  He opened his scriptures to Doctrine and Covenants, Section 80, pointed to Eden Smith’s name, and told me to look at the footnote (2a).  I did so and was surprised to see that it indicated that Eden Smith was indeed the Holy Ghost.  I found this very confusing and worked on puzzling out this mystery for a minute or two before finally figuring out what was going on (much to my companion’s amusement).  I’ve shared the image below and will let you do the same.

“They cannot come worlds without end”

One of the methods that paleontologists use to understand the age of a fossil in relation to other fossils at a site is by looking at layers, or strata.  The basic idea is that layers build up over time, with organisms becoming part of the sediment layers as the organisms die and get buried while the sediments continue to build up, then become fossilized over time.  Since layers build upwards, older layers will generally be found lower in the strata levels, with the newer layers being superimposed on top.  Thus, each layer provides a snapshot of what was living (and dying) at a given time period, with fossils found deeper in the layers coming from earlier periods and fossils found higher in the layers coming from more recent eras.[1]  A question that become important in interpreting Joseph Smith’s revelations is whether we can approach studying the ideas presented in them in a similar way—with each revelation functioning as a fossilized snapshot of a dynamic and evolving theology—or whether every revelation should be treated as an individual presentation of a unified, unchanging theology. A doctrinal debate in the Church that is heavily impacted by which route you take in interpreting Joseph Smith’s revelations is the idea of progression from kingdom to kingdom in the afterlife.  In other words, after resurrection and judgement, can individuals who were assigned to the Telestial Kingdom continue to progress and repent to the point that they…

“Exhortation to the churches”

It can be easy at times, when studying the early history of the Church through the lens of the Doctrine and Covenants, to forget that there was a whole life and existence in the Church outside of the main gathering places in Ohio and Missouri.  We spend so much time following Joseph Smith and his companions that the lives of those not immediately around him can fall by the wayside.  Even when studying later periods, it can be easy to forget that there were times during the mid-1800s that the majority of Church members actually lived in Britain rather than the US.  Not that focusing on the Doctrine and Covenants in this way is bad (they are scriptures after all), but at the point in the Doctrine and Covenants where we’re at, we do catch glimpses and reminders that the Church was larger than its headquarters and that the branches outside of those areas needed tending to stay aligned with what was happening at the focal points. A few examples stand out from the revelations we’ve been studying these past few weeks.  When Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon were commanded to travel to Cincinnati in an August 12, 1831 revelation (D&C 61), they were told to “lift up their voices unto god against that People,” then “from thence let them Journy for the congregations of their brethren for their labours even now are wanted more abundantly among them then among the…

“Whoso forbideth to abstain from meats”

It’s a well-known grammar joke that punctuation can save lives, since there is a difference between saying: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and: “Let’s eat Grandma!”  Punctuation and grammar do make a difference, as Oakhurst Dairy found out the hard way a few years ago.  In a legal case about overtime for drivers and a state law in Maine, the debate centered on the grammar of the law, which required time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, with exemptions for: The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods. The lack of a comma after “shipment” allowed the truck drivers to argue that the law only made an exemption for packing for distribution (along with packing for shipment) rather than distribution of the products being part of the exemption, which meant the company hadn’t been paying them appropriately for overtime.  They won the case, costing the dairy company $5,000,000.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the law was changed soon afterwards to read that the exemptions included “storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” the products.[1] Discussion of whether the Doctrine and Covenants endorses eating or not eating meat can come down to grammar and punctuation choices.  The two main sections that come into the debate are Section 49 (a 7 May 1831 revelation) and Section 89 (a 27 February 1833 revelation).  In…

Daniel Becerra on 3rd and 4th Nephi

Within the Book of Mormon, 3rd and 4th Nephi are arguably some of the most important portions of the book, with their focus on the in-person ministry of Jesus Christ among the children of Lehi and what followed because of that ministry.  Daniel Becerra, author of the book 3rd, 4th Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring to share some of his insights from the process of writing his theological introduction to the books.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview, with excerpts and some discussion, but if you want to read the full interview, you can head on over to Kurt Manwaring’s site here. Daniel Becerra is a scholar of early Christianity who is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU.  As he explained in the interview, his background played an important role in how he approached the Book of Mormon: “My training is in early Christian literature and my research focuses on moral formation, so I am very interested in how Christians understand perfection as well as in how they conform themselves to this ideal. I think the shape of my volume reflects this.”  He added: I … tried to situate the teachings of 3–4 Nephi within the larger tradition of Christian theological thought. I was pleasantly surprised at how much more I was able to get out the Book of Mormon when I started reading it in conversation with other…

“Provide for him food & raiment”

As a missionary, I occasionally found myself in the uncomfortable experience of listening to my companions talking about how proud they were to be part of a Church where every calling is performed on a voluntary basis, with no compensation—from the top leaders on down to the local level.  My discomfort was caused because, in general, the missionaries in question were not aware that general authorities do receive a stipend—something that Church members became more aware of in light of the 2017 MormonLeaks documents, which indicated that the living stipend for Church leaders was up in triple-digit figures.[1]  There are legitimate reasons for full-time Church leaders to receive a stipend, but because the Book of Mormon speaks out so heavily against “priestcraft” (portrayed as the idea of paying people for Church service), we have a strong bias against the idea of receiving money for the ministry.  Yet, the Doctrine and Covenants provides direction and precedent for supporting Church leaders using Church money so they can focus on their work in the Church. One of the central sources of antagonism in the Book of Mormon (at least in the Book of Alma) are the followers of Nehor, who practiced priestcraft.  At the very outset, Nehor’s practice of charging for preaching is portrayed in negative terms: “And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed the word of God … declaring unto the people that every…

“Endowed with power from on high”

The revelations we are studying this week continue with themes found in revelations from throughout 1830, such as an imminent Second Coming and the gathering, but also set up an expectation for an endowment of power that would be an important theme for much of the remainder of Joseph Smith’s ministry. After the conversion of a significant number of people in Kirtland and the subsequent arrival of Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge in New York to meet Joseph Smith in December 1830, a set of revelations were recorded that indicated that the headquarters of the Church should shift to Ohio for the time being.  On 30 December 1830, a revelation stated that: “A commandment I give unto the Church that it is expedient in me that they should assemble together at the Ohio.”[1]  Three days later, after requests for further information about this command to move to Ohio, another revelation came that drew upon a significant amount of eschatological imagery, stating that: “The day soon cometh that ye shall see me & know that I am for the chains <?vails?> of vails of darkness shall soon be rent & he that is not purified shall not abide the day,”[2] but added that: “ if ye are prepared ye need not fear.”  It went on to state that it is in preparation for that time that the commandment to gather to the Ohio was given, “that ye might escape the power of the enemy & be gethered unto me…

“The gathering of mine Elect”

Change and continuity create an interesting tension in the Church.  I explored this in a previous post as the tension of believing in an everlasting, unchanging gospel that we have had restored to us and the belief in ongoing revelation and changes to adapt and evolve the Church to our current circumstances.  Changes can be disconcerting with the first of those two beliefs in mind because it demonstrates that the Church’s beliefs and practices are not unchanging and static.  One of the ways we minimize the perception of change, however, is to continue to use terminology that was important—words and phrases that were previously used—but to collectively change what we mean when we use that terminology.  The concept of gathering the Elect to Zion is a case study in the process of shifting use of terminology. The September 1830 revelation that we are studying this week (now Section 29) demonstrates how gathering was understood in the earliest days of the Church.  The revelation opens with an announcement that Jesus Christ “will gether his People even as a hen gethereth her Chickens under her wings even as many as will hearken to my voice & humble themselves before me & call upon me in mighty prayer.”  It discusses missionary work and prayer, then states that the elders the revelation is addressing “are called to bring to pass the gethering of mine Elect … wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the father that they shall be gethered in…