RS/MP Lesson 13: “Obedience: ‘When the Lord Commands, Do It’” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on July 3, 2008
I think I will ignore the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section of the lesson entirely this time and jump immediately into the actual teachings of Joseph Smith. By the way, this lesson quotes extensively from one source that is clearly not the words of Joseph Smith: the last two paragraphs of p. 163 and everything from the last paragraph of p. 164 through the end of the lesson come from an 1834 epistle entitled “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland, to Their Brethren Abroad,” and it is quite clear that the words were written by one of the other early leaders of the Church. That is not, of course, to say that they aren’t quite interesting and helpful, but there is good reason, I think, to separate these teachings off from the others. I’ll take the lesson in two parts, then: the words of others, and then the words of Joseph.
From “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland, to Their Brethren Abroad”
This epistle is worth reading in its (rather lengthy!) entirety (it more or less opens the second volume of the History of the Church). While the style of argumentation is clearly not Joseph’s, it does provide an interesting glimpse into the theology of pre-1835 Mormonism (that is, of Mormonism before the development of a centralized institution). The two paragraphs on pp. 163-164 (the first of which begins with “The law of heaven…”) are a good example. Very much at the root of the thinking of the author, there, is a gospel framework like that of Alma 12-13 (or, quite similar in theological bearing, the epistle to the Hebrews): the gospel is a question of the revelation of certain laws, which, received and obeyed, serve as preparatory to entering into the Lord’s rest.
In the teachings extracted from this same circular on pp. 164-168, this “law-leads-to-rest theology” is interwoven with the heavy pre-1835 emphasis on a particular interpretation of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and it makes quite a bit clearer the “Christian primitivism” that is behind the “law-leads-to-rest theology” (again: it is worth reading the entire epistle to really catch what is at work here). I want to offer a few thoughts on each of these clarifications, two points of importance that perhaps cannot ultimately be so clearly disentangled from each other.
The last paragraph on p. 164: “In the 22nd chapter of [Matthew's] account of the Messiah, we find the kingdom of heaven likened unto a king who made a marriage for his son.” The feast at the wedding is then linked up with the concluding scenes of John’s Apocalypse, “the sayings of John in the Revelation where he represents the sound which he heard in heaven to be like ‘a great multitude,’ or like ‘the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to Him,’” etc. The following paragraph adds this: “those who keep the commandments of the Lord and walk in His statutes to the end, are the only individuals permitted to sit at this glorious feast.”
That this eschatological feast is Adam-ondi-Ahman as the saints then understood it seems quite obvious to me. Thus this question from the next page (166): “Reflect for a moment, brethren, and enquire, whether you would consider yourselves worthy [of] a seat at the marriage feast with Paul and others like him, if you had been unfaithful? . . . Have you a promise of receiving a crown of righteousness from the hand of the Lord, with the Church of the First Born?” Here things seem to get their clearest: at this eschatological feast, the Lord Himself will be present, as well as ancient figures like Paul, and the saints will be crowned “with the Church of the First Born” (note that this phrase is drawn quite directly from Hebrews).
But if the referent—Adam-ondi-Ahman—is rather obvious, it is not entirely clear what that event meant for the saints before 1835 (which is when Joseph added a good deal of material to what is now D&C 27, published what is now D&C 85, revealed the order of the Kirtland Temple, began to speak of the keys and orders of the several priesthoods, etc., etc., etc.). The next few paragraphs—indeed, the remainder of the lesson—are quite helpful however, because they turn to the question of the place of the ancient saints in this story.
From the second paragraph on p. 166: “The ancients, though persecuted and afflicted by men, obtained from God promises of such weight and glory, that our hearts are often filled with gratitude that we are even permitted to look upon them.” Glorious promises were made to the fathers, but there is a problem, as the next paragraph shows: “we cannot claim these promises which were made to the ancients, for they are not our property, merely because they were made to the ancient Saints.” Here enters the theme of “Christian primitivism.” It is perhaps quite difficult for us now to recognize how serious a question something like a restoration was to the earliest members of the Church. For them, the announcement that the same promises that were given to the ancients were being given all over again was overwhelming. Hence this from the same paragraph: “yet if we are the children of the Most High, and are called with the same covenant that they embraced, and are faithful to the testimony of our Lord as they were, we can approach the Father in the name of Christ as they approached Him, and for ourselves obtain the same promises.”
It fascinates me that these teachings so closely approach the language Joseph will eventually use to describe the meaning of Adam-ondi-Ahman: we and the ancients are to be bound together by covenants and promises, the hearts of the children turning to the fathers, the hearts of the fathers having turned long since to the children, etc. But it should be noted at the same time that a rather important gap remains between this articulation and Joseph’s subsequent explanations: things are not here laid out in terms of a family relation. That is, there is a kind of individuation, a setting up of a parallel: we can receive the same things they did, but we thus become equal or parallel to the ancients, not explicitly bound to them. A single word emphasizes this point quite nicely (so to speak!): property.
The word appears twice here. On p. 166: “And though we cannot claim these promises which were made to the ancients, for they aren ot our property . . . .” And then on p. 167: “They [the same promises] will be communicated for our benefit, being our own property (through the gift of God) . . . .” It is tempting in some ways to level a serious critique against the use of such a capitalistic term in the midst of these teachings, but I think that would be to miss the point (as the “through the gift of God” business begins to make quite clear). What can be read in this pairing of two separable properties is the complete unanticipation on the part of the earliest leaders of the Church of the familial chain that really grounds the structure of the plan of salvation. In order to come quite clearly to grips with what Adam-ondi-Ahman means, and with what obedience has to do with it, it is necessary to take a look at what Joseph would eventually teach.
Joseph’s Teachings on Obedience
Two teachings on p. 164, both from Joseph Smith himself, make an interesting connection between the themes of Adam-ondi-Ahman from the circular discussed above and the later familial teachings of the Prophet. The first comes directly from D&C 130: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
Now, first things first: this verse has been interpreted in quite a number of different ways. For example, it is common to understand this verse to suggest that every blessing is attached to a particular law (this particular blessing being attached, say, to the law of tithing, that particular blessing being attached, say, to the Word of Wisdom, etc.), and so that no blessing is going to be received unless it is by obedience to that particular law. Another reading of the verse is also quite common: there is a single law decreed, namely, that of obedience, and all blessings come through one’s obedience to all laws, through one’s general obedience (but not that this blessing comes through that law, or that blessing through this law, etc.).
These interpretations are very nice, but I wonder if they don’t both miss the point of the verse. I had not seen this possibility at all until I read through this lesson, though, because it is only here that I’ve seen this teaching paired with the one that follows it on p. 164: “All blessings that were ordained for man by the Council of Heaven were on conditions of obedience to the law thereof.” This is a remarkable clarification of the passage from the D&C. What does it suggest?
First, it displaces the sort of undeniable but essentially unknowable anteriority of the law’s decree by giving that decree a locus: it cannot be separated from the work of “the Council of Heaven.” Second, it clarifies the blessings at stake: they are not blessings in the sense of moments of serendipity, but “blessings that were ordained for man by the Council of Heaven,” blessings over which the gods, goddesses, and angels gathered in council wager their decisions. Third, the meaning of the law itself is clarified: “the law thereof” seems best read, it seems to me, as referring back to “the Council of Heaven,” such that the law here is “the law of the Council,” whatever that might mean.
These clarifications, I think, greatly adjust the meaning and place of obedience. The Council of Heaven together ordains blessings, arranges a way for those blessings to be communicated to those on the earth (sending angels, etc.), and then dispenses blessings on conditions of obedience to that Council’s decreed law. It is not, it seems to me, that there is some metaphysical law of cause-and-effect that makes it impossible to receive any blessing without one’s having performed a particular work in advance (a rather scientific and undeniably works-oriented way of understanding obedience), but rather that anyone receiving a messenger or a message must come to receive that gift—that manifestation of grace—in obedience to the Council, as something given by the “living constitution,” and not as some abstract or metaphysical requirement. In other words, obedience is, as Joseph clarifies things here, a question of the fathers and mothers of ages past, with the promises they have received, extending those promises to their children on earth by sending messengers that must be received as having been sent from within that familial structure—and the blessings to be received are the blessings of the covenant.
This reworks in a fascinating way what had been written so many years earlier in the circular discussed above: it is not that the ancients serve as a kind of model, but that they are our parents who send us commandments and covenants through angelic messengers. Our relationship to them, that is, is familial: we have the natural (man’s) tendency to set ourselves up in relation to the revelations in an Oedipal way. Or, another way to say the same thing: we have the tendency to regard the commandments given us by the fathers/mothers as an injunction to work, as bound to a threat, as a kind of economy. And so it seems to me that the rest of what can be read in this lesson works to clarify how we can obey commandments without becoming involved in an economic relationship with God and/or our fathers/mothers, that is, how we can obey commandments without turning the gift or grace into the execution of so many slavish works.
In the very first paragraph of the teachings in this lesson, a powerful distinction is drawn: “We may tithe mint and rue, and all manner of herbs, and still not obey the commandments of God. The object with me is to obey and teach others to obey God in just what He tells us to do.” (p. 161) Joseph makes it clear here that there is a difference between obedience and dutiful over-exaction. To be obedient is not to be honorable, but to act upon the commandment actually given. From the third paragraph on the same page: “We have been chastened by the hand of God heretofore for not obeying His commands, although we never violated any human law, or transgressed any human precept; yet we hvae treated lightly His commands, and departed from His ordinances, and the Lord has chastened us sore.” To be a “good person” or an “honorable citizen” is not to be obedient to commandment. It might in fact be a cover-up, a way of pretending to be obedient so as to avoid having to keep the actual commandments. It is far too easy to be pious and far too difficult actually to study scripture; far too easy to have perfect attendance at meetings and far too difficult to live the law of consecration; far too easy to magnify a calling and far too difficult to teach somebody truth, etc.
And so this from p. 164: “How careful men ought to be what they do in the last days, lest they are cut short of their expectations, and they that think they stand should fall, because they keep not the Lord’s commandments.” The context in which Joseph wrote this is of some significance. It comes from a letter to W. W. Phelps in late 1832. Phelps had written to Joseph to complain of all the saints moving from Kirtland to Zion (Jackson County, Missouri) who were not entering into the United Order and living the Law of Consecration. Joseph responded with a letter that contained D&C 85 (which is worth reading again and again and again) and with extended frustrations about the inability to communicate the truth. But he also responded with this snippet quoted here: we can go to Zion and establish a place and eventually find out that we are not to inherit a space there. The law of consecration had been commanded, and the people thought the whole idea was to get to a certain place, not to live a certain law. I’m frightened by how much that sounds like our own attitude toward the temple: “I go to the temple. I’m fine.” “Yes, but do you live the law of consecration?” “Oh, well. That’s very nice and so forth, but this is the real world, my friend.” “Yes, but do you live the law of consecration?” “Well, but I’ve only accepted it, not promised to live it yet.” “Oh! Is that all you promised to do?” “Right. We’ve got to wait for the Brethren to ask for our fortunes in the meanwhile.” “I wonder how well you’ve been listening when you’ve gone to the temple.” Etc.
Again, then: “Any man may believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and be happy in that belief, and yet not obey his commandments, and at last be cut down for disobedience to the Lord’s righteous requirements.” But what does all of this aim to communicate? Does it not just suggest that it is entirely up to me to be perfect, to do all the works necessary to save myself? NOT AT ALL!!! Rather, I think it is all a clarification of what it means to obey, and how obedience is only possible as an act of grace. There are two “normal” ways we respond to the gift of any particular commandment, given to us in an act of self-abandonment: (1) we dismiss it or define ourselves against it; (2) we immediately give ourselves to guilt. It is obvious, so far as the first one fo these two responses goes, that something is wrong: clearly, we shouldn’t rebel against God. But there is something equally wrong with the second: obedience out of guilt is not obedience. It is to take God as our employer, to be watching over our shoulder to make sure that He doesn’t punish us for not doing things right on the job, to be worried that He might fire us. If number (1) here is essentially to reject the relationship of grace offered to us, number (2) here is to accept it only on our own terms: we would rather be servants or slaves than sons and daughters, something like the prodigal son on his way home.
This point deserves clarification. Obedience is a familial relationship. But that is too difficult, and in at least two ways: (1) suddenly, we are not our own, and we have to stoop low enough to accept a gift; (2) the desires, intentions, aims, purposes, and works of a Father and/or fathers/mothers are inscrutable, and we know we will often be left in the dark. To become a servant or slave—that is, an employee—is so much easier: we will be given certain tasks that, once accomplished, no longer weigh on us; we’ll be free whenever we have finished what we’ve been asked to do. To be a servant is to maintain one’s essential independence, but to be a son or a daughter is to be tied forever to the work.
Now note: an employee/servant/slave is not obedient. The employee either fulfills the assigned tasks or does not, and so receives payment or does not. There is no question of relationship, because the employee is guided by the work and task at hand, not by the employer. One receives one’s paycheck for what one has done, not for one’s love of the employer. This is not obedience. To be obedient to God’s commands or to the revealed commands sent by the Council of Heaven is entirely different affair.
Which leads to the last teaching I want to comment, the first paragraph on p. 162. It is worth reading in the original (cf. Words of Joseph Smith), since it was actually delivered to the Relief Society, and much of the wording was changed long before it came into this manual.
“When instructed, we must obey that voice [I like the anonymity here], observe the laws of the kingdom of God [rats! even the law of consecration?], that the blessing of heaven [notice how this language connects up with the talk of the Council of Heaven] may rest down upon us. All must actin concert, or nothing can be done, and should move according to the ancient Priesthood [there is so much that could be said about this little bit I've italicized; read it again and again]; hence the Saints should be a select people, separate from all the evils of the world [economy, etc.]—choice, virtuous, and holy. The Lord [is] going to make of the Church of Jesus Christ a kingdom of Priests [see what all of this leads to!?], a holy people, a chosen generation, as in Enoch’s day [rats! the law of consecration indeed!], having all the gifts [oh no! not grace!] as illustrated to the Church in Paul’s epistles and teachings to the churches in his day.”
The work—the work of a family that stretches from Adam and Eve to the last woman and man on earth—must go on.