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RS/MP Lesson 2: “God the Eternal Father” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on January 13, 2008

Now and again over the past couple of years, I have found myself cringing when I hear the Mormon conception of deity tossed off publicly as if it were the first order of business or as if it were the place to begin thinking about Mormon theology. Whenever possible or appropriate, I have tried, on these occasions, to suggest that Joseph’s revelations to the saints about the nature of God came at the very end of his ministry for a reason: these truths are, in a sense, the last thing to talk about, not the first! But then, some months ago, I was asked with a day’s notice to speak in sacrament meeting (standing in for someone who had had, last minute, to drive across the state to a hospital in Seattle for his recently adopted Cambodian daughter). The topic was the Holy Ghost, and this happened to be just after the discussions we had here on the blog on the nature of the Spirit. True to form (and especially with so little time!), I didn’t prepare my words at all, but went to the meeting the next morning praying for the Spirit. I learned a great deal on my feet that day, and the Spirit came in shockingly great power. One of the many things I learned (the rest will have to be gleaned from my notes on the lesson below) was that the Mormon conception of deity is in fact the very first thing that has to be taught, that my reticence had been misguided. Of course, I think I only began, that morning as I taught from the pulpit, to recognize what that conception really amounts to; and of course, I’m convinced that it should only be taught first when it is taught truthfully, as Joseph taught it, as the scriptures teach it, and that with power.

This lesson from the Joseph Smith manual takes the same road: first and foremost, as if it were the very foundation of Mormon theology, the Mormon conception of deity is presented. I’m convinced this is the only way to approach everything else Joseph Smith had to say. I hope, then, that the following notes will help to make quite clear what Joseph is trying to tell us. And I hope that this lesson is taught, all across the Church, in the most revealing way possible: if it is taught carefully, I think this lesson alone can call people to the most vital work of the kingdom. But enough introduction: to the lesson itself!

I will discuss this lesson in the several parts outlined in the manual.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

It is certainly interesting that a lesson on the relationship between the Father and the Son begins with the relationship between a father and a son, between Joseph Sr. and Joseph Jr. But there is—and it seems to me that this is absolutely vital—a very real gap between the points of view of these two men. The understanding of God held by Joseph’s father is presented through the (not always trustworthy) eyes of William Smith (Joseph’s brother). That understanding is primarily negative: “My parents, father and mother, poured out their souls to God, the donor of all blessings, to keep and guard their children and keep them from sin and from all evil works. Such was the strict piety of my parents.” The emphasis here is on God as the only one powerful enough to ward off evil and depravity. The world, in such a point of view, is little less than a place of misery, the valley of the shadow of death. This is emphasized again by the (almost Puritan) hymn William cites as being sung every night in the Smith home, the first two full stanzas of which run as follows:

The day is past and gone,
The ev’ning shades appear;
O may we all remember well
The night of death draws near.

We lay our garments by,
And on our beds we rest;
So death will soon disrobe us all
Of what we here possess.

This is to be contrasted with Joseph Jr.’s remarkably positive take on the world exemplified in the passage next quoted from his 1832 account of the First Vision: “I looked upon the sun, the glorious luminary of the earth, and also the moon rolling in its majesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses; and the earth also upon which I stood, and the best of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters; and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty, with power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceedingly great and marvelous, even in the likeness of him who created them.” The Prophet Joseph saw the world in terms profoundly reminiscent of Genesis 1 (a kind leitmotiv in this lesson, as will become clear), the earth as created in goodness rather than the earth as fallen by the depravity of man. Even as a youth, then, Joseph seems to have approached the world through the first chapter of the Bible, with an eye to “a Being who maketh laws and decreeth and bindeth all things in their bounds.”

Importantly, this first section of the lesson turns next to one of Joseph’s last (and certainly most famous) sermons, the King Follett discourse, which amounts, in the end, to a lengthy commentary on Genesis 1:1. A whole section, later in the lesson, will be quoted from this discourse, but in the beginning, only a snippet is cited, one that provides a profound summary of everything to come: “I am going to inquire after God, for I want you all to know Him, and to be familiar with Him . . . . You will then know that I am His servant; for I speak as one having authority.” From the very beginning and all through this lesson, the emphasis is on this point precisely: it is the one who can teach the true nature of God that teaches with authority, that is received as God’s servant, that is recognized as a true messenger. The teachings Joseph lays out over the course of this lesson are clear and powerful, but they must be attended to carefully. Who is the God of Joseph Smith?

God is the Loving Father of All Mankind and the Source of All that is Good

Four quotations make up this subsection, the first and last from the Nauvoo period, the second and third from the Kirtland era. I like this arrangement: the earlier teachings (pre-Elijah, I’ll call them) are bound about with later (post-Elijah) teachings. This mention of Elijah is of some importance: the first quotation comes from an article on baptism for the dead. It is thus gathered into Joseph’s profound reflections and teachings on baptism for the dead, with its continual connections to the council in heaven (still going on, conducted by the fathers who received promises, etc.). The emphasis here, of course, is on God’s fatherhood: “the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring.” This point must not be lightly passed over: God seeks out His family, seeks to exalt them by the ordinances of the temple by making them His heirs. This same theme arises in the fourth quotation here, which occurred in a discussion of the promises made to the fathers: “the Saints have cause to rejoice and be glad, knowing that ‘this God [the God of the fathers, of the covenant] is our God forever and ever, and He will be our Guide until death.'” The emphasis, from beginning to end, is on the God who spoke to the fathers, who exalted them and gathered them into His council so that they could, as Joseph puts it in his “Before 8 August” discourse, counsel together about how to save their children. (More on this theme below.)

This council theology thus surrounds the two passages from the Kirtland era. The first of these, as is immediately visible, echoes the 1832 account of the First Vision that appears in the introductory section discussed above: God’s “wisdom is alone sufficient to govern and regulate the mighty creations and worlds which shine and blaze with such magnificence and splendor over our heads, as though touched with His finger and moved by His Almighty word . . . . The heavens declare the glory of a God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” Again there is an echo of Genesis 1, but perhaps more directly here of D&C 88 (the language of the 1832 account of the First Vision is likewise curiously reminiscent of D&C 88; importantly, the account and the revelation were penned within weeks of each other). This connection to D&C 88 is interesting, since the third quotation here comes from a letter written to W. W. Phelps, attached to which was a copy of D&C 88, sent for initial publication in the periodical being published in Jackson County. Though this little quotation is the shortest in the lesson, it is actually quite telling: it comes from a letter that is profoundly condemnatory. The point of this quotation is not that God sees all of our good intentions, but that He “knows the [wicked] hearts of all living”: Joseph was sending D&C 88 to Brother Phelps, not only for publication, but also, as he explains in the letter, to show him that the Lord had revealed the necessity of building a temple in Kirtland precisely because the brethren in Zion were rejecting the truth. These two passages from the Kirtland era, then, might be taken together to emphasize that God’s revelatory power, His work with our fathers in the council of the gods, can take on two radically opposed manifestations: for those who follow the messengers sent to them, God is a marvelous father; but for those who reject those messengers, God is a fearful judge.

When We Comprehend the Character of God, We Comprehend Ourselves and Know How To Approach Him

This double vision of the God in council is helpful for making sense of this next section, one lengthy (though chopped up) quotation from a single discourse, the King Follett discourse. The emphasis throughout this quotation is on what it means to come to know God, to come to see His work in the council as the work of a father, of the Father. But a word or two about the discourse itself is in order.

The King Follett discourse was given during general conference in April of 1844, and was given as a belated funeral sermon on behalf of Elder King Follett, who had died during the construction of the Nauvoo temple. Joseph Smith had been more and more under fire over the past couple of years, both from within and without the Church. The unstable politics of the Mormons brought Joseph into disfavor with the general public, but it was the rumors of plural marriage that were most damaging, since it had led to several defections and a great deal of disturbance in the city. Much of the discourse addresses the apostates, lets them know what their future is, and calls them to their senses. It is in this light that the tiny snippet of this discourse quoted in the introductory materials for this lesson must be understood: Joseph is telling the people that if he can reveal the very nature of God as it reads in the scriptures, then he speaks with authority and not as the scribes, and hence, all persecution against him should cease. The quotation that makes up this section of the lesson is somewhat more complex than just that, however. It is worth noting also that the King Follett discourse as we read it today is pieced together from the notes of four different listeners. I have attached a Word document that shows the original notes of these four listeners for the parts of the discourse excerpted here and a color coded copy of the part in the manual showing which parts were drawn from whom. The amalgamated version of the discourse was prepared in 1856 by one of the Church historians.

The thrust of the quotation is that an understanding of God is absolutely connected to an understanding of man. In a sense, this is best represented by this statement from the first paragraph: “The great majority of mankind do not comprehend anything, either that which is past, or that which is to come, as it respects their relationship to God.” Helpful here is the fact that William Clatyon’s alternative reading for this sentence turns “past” and “to come” to “the beginning” and “the end”: what is in question here is the fact that a true understanding of God opens up the meaning of man’s place in things by clarifying the meaning of two major events, the creation and the redemption, the council at the beginning and the council at the end (Adam-ondi-Ahman?). This double focus on creation and redemption will come up later in the lesson.

Immediately after this first point, Joseph returns to the language of Genesis 1, now in a curious way that is, I think, ultimately quite revealing: men who do not understand the purposes of God “know but little above the brute beast, or more than to eat, drink and sleep. This is all man knows about God or His existence, unless it is given by the inspiration of the Almighty.” Joseph’s move here is interesting: man, if he does not come to be, as Genesis 1 puts it, the image of God, remains a function of the creative work just preceding the creation of man; that is, man remains a beast. This becomes especially important given the last full paragraph on page 40: “That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who uphohlds all worlds and all things by His power [note the language, again, of an ordering God: Genesis 1 as much as D&C 88 is again relevant], was to make Himself visible,—I say, if you were to see Him today, you would see Him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and receive instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.” One must notice how this echoes the earlier passage: Adam’s being created as more than a mere beast consists primarily in his being created in the “image . . . of God” and in his receiving “instruction” from God, instruction presumably “given by the inspiration of the Almighty” as it is phrased in the earlier passage.

In a word, Joseph is doing little more than commenting on Genesis 1 here: the order of things laid out in the creative work—the creative work undertaken by the council, as Joseph spells out at great length in parts of the discourse not here quoted, all of which is a retranslation of Genesis 1:1 from the Hebrew—gives man an understanding of his place in things, teaches man that he is more than a (natural) beast precisely in that he is in the image of God, that is, precisely as God “is an exalted man” who “sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” Another way to put this same point, then, is that it is precisely as and in that God reveals the creation to His children that He makes it possible for them to understand what they are, a pattern that is followed for Adam, Enoch, Abraham, the brother of Jared, Job, (Second) Isaiah, Lehi, Daniel’s three friends, Christ, John, Joseph Smith, and everyone who goes through the endowment today. It is through this endowing knowledge of the creation, then, that one can “begin to know how to approach Him, and how to ask so as to receive an answer.” The knowledge given in the endowment, inseparable from the creation, would seem to have, then, a double function: one is enabled to come to the presence of the Father (pass through the veil), and one is enabled to pray in a truer fashion (to ask so as to receive an answer).

Joseph’s “first object” indeed!

In the Godhead There Are Three Separate and Distinct Personages

Four brief quotations all emphasize one and the same point here: the Godhead is three separate and distinct personages. This might seem a bit lightweight after the material in the King Follett discourse, but it is vital to the logic of the lesson. After the important relationship between creation and redemption—all to be taken within a double revelation that is something like the endowment—it is necessary to begin to reveal how it is that the Godhead as a whole is involved in making that revelation happen. The passage quoted from D&C 130:22 is of some importance in laying out the basics here: there is emphasis, on the one hand, on the similarity between the Father and the Son (they have bodies of flesh and bone, tangible as man’s), and there is emphasis, on the other hand, on the distinction between the two and the Holy Ghost (the latter is a personage of Spirit). A kind of “division of labor” is thus established: the Father and the Son are bound to each other in the flesh, but the Holy Ghost plays a somewhat different, ultimately peculiar role. The importance of this way of parsing the Godhead will become clear in the final section.

The Godhead Is in Perfect Unity, and God the Father Presides

The first of these four quotations again lays emphasis on the movement of revelation, of endowing man with knowledge. This knowledge is now, however, given a different slant: not only does one learn of creation and redemption, one learns also of how this double function is wrapped up in the nature of the Godhead. The key sentence from the first quotation: “Any person that had seen the heavens opened knows that there are three personages in the heavens who hold the keys of power, and one presides over all.” How that relation plays out is, however, far more explicitly laid out in the next two quotations.

The second and third quotations (third and fourth paragraphs in the section) are actually (at least, according to Ehat and Cook in Words of Joseph Smith) two different records of the same teaching during the same discourse. They might fruitfully be compared as such. The emphasis is on an “everlasting covenant” that was “made between three personages before the organization of the earth.” Again the council is the primary focus, the work of the fathers/Fathers together deciding how to exalt their children. But these three form a very particular relationship: “These personages . . . are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Witness or Testator.” The similarity between the first and second Gods as distinct from the third (laid out in the preceding section… see above) is important here, because it marks off a pairing that is already familiar from earlier teachings in the lesson: there is a pairing here of creation and redemption, all over again. The Father and the Son are bound in a covenant that relates the beginning to the end, the creation to the redemption.

But, of course, this relationship is only solidified in the tertiary work of the Holy Ghost, the “Witness or Testator.” The latter of these words is helpful, as it is a Latin word that refers to a complex Roman religious phenomenon. When a covenant was made under Roman law, the two covenanting parties had to establish the covenant with a third party present (not unlike in our own system of things). This third person sealed up the covenant, made it good by being able to present testimony, a Latin word (testimonium) that literally means “the mind/record of the third stander.” The Holy Ghost (and now I come back to the subject of my talk of some months ago) is what seals up the Father and Son, establishing the covenant that unites the work of creation (beginning) to the work of redemption (end). This Holy Ghost is sometimes called “the Holy Spirit of Promise” (or “the promised Holy Ghost” as the phrase in Greek in Ephesians might just as well be translated), understood in the Church as what seals covenants so that they are unbreakable due to the faithfulness of God (so long as one does not thereafter break the very order of godhood by shedding innocent blood; cf. D&C 121:34-46 as well as D&C 132).

What emerges here, then, is an understanding of what is at work in the threesome of the Godhead: the Father and the Son are bound in covenant by the sealing power of the Holy Ghost. To put it in language still more familiar to Latter-day Saints: Father and Son are sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise. This is, in a word, the language of the sealing ordinances we are all quite familiar with: Joseph’s God is a sealed family, a father-son relation bound in the Spirit. It is thus an overturning of the natural (psychical) father-son relationship correctly unearthed by, say, Freud, one that is a relationship of enmity and murder, sexual (carnal, sensual, devilish) tension and contention. Paul lays this out in 1 Corinthians 15 with precision—and with specific reference to Genesis 1: there is the natural (or psychical) and there is the spiritual, the latter being a function of life (of the resurrection) and the former a function, ultimately, of death. The sealing up of the Godhead itself is the establishment of a foundation upon which all other sealing takes place: we are to be sealed into the family of God—such is the Abrahamic covenant, anyway—in order to be exalted, in order to become as God is.

The remaining two paragraphs in the lesson emphasize this same point all over again. The heavy language of John’s several teachings in the last paragraph is perhaps especially helpful: the Father and the Son are united in the double work of creation and redemption (Genesis 1 is being understood, I believe, as at once the beginning and the end, as the creative work of the council from the very beginning as well as the reading of the seven-fold book of life at Adam-ondi-Ahman, the vision from the very beginning of the last or eschatological Adam who is, without reserve, the image of God). And all of this is the work of the council (Whom shall I send? Here am I, send me!), and it is a work of sending angels as messengers: “Everlasting covenant was made between three persons before the organization of this earth [in the council] and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth.” I don’t know that Joseph could be any clearer.

It is, I think, this picture that Joseph taught with such authority. In a sense, I think it is this that makes Mormonism Mormon, that separates our doctrine from the teachings of any other people or church: we speak of God as a sealed family, a Heavenly Father and Mother with a Heavenly Son, all sealed up by the Holy Ghost as the Holy Spirit of Promise, and all gathered in council with the Gods to decide what angels and messengers to send to gather up the elect, one by one, by sealing them into that same family. It is, in my humble eyes, the most glorious vision possible. I hope and hope and hope that we as Latter-day Saints can begin to get this vision and to go about this work. I have a hunch that we might actually begin to move toward “a better world” if we can do so.


KFD notes.doc

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 2: “God the Eternal Father” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Joe Spencer said

    My not knowing how to attach a file is now obvious to everyone. If anyone would like the document I mention in the post (the original sources for the relevant portions of the KFD with a color-coded scheme showing how the part in the manual was pieced together), just feel free to let me know and I’ll pass it along to anyone.

    [Fixed. –Robert C.]

  2. Michele Mitchell said

    Thank you, Joe. In our RS Lesson #1 today I was feeling so grateful for what Joseph Smith has taught me about the Father and the Son — and you have added the Holy Ghost’s role that I was overlooking. I want to re-read your thoughts. And I would like the file you reference. How do we do it?

  3. cherylem said

    I have to say that doing the BOM together with Joseph Smith together with hopefully reading some church history seems to me to be a rich period of study. This could be an outstanding year.

  4. Robert C. said

    Thanks again for these notes, Joe.

    Here’s the quote from the lesson that most jumped out at me (b/c of my recent fascination with contracts vs. covenants (my emphasis):

    While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes ‘His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ [Matthew 5:45.]

    I also appreciated your suggestion to compare the different accounts of the “9 March 1841” discourse in Ehat and Cook. I’m intrigued by McIntire’s account of Joseph handing President Law his cap with the note “in Giveing you this Gift is not giving myself.” A lot of my interest (again) is in thinking about how Joseph’s teachings on light and the Holy Ghost (esp. in D&C 88) compare and contrast with those of Thomas Aquinas regarding partcipation (and the way the racical orthodox thinkers have appropriated Aquinas’s notion of participation).

    With this relation to D&C 88 in mind, I’m very curious about the way the words “testify” and “testimony” are used in that section. There, Christ testifies to the Father of our cleanness (v. 75) and we (applying this to ourselves) are to “testify and warn the people” (v. 81) and to “bind up the law and seal up the testimony, and to prepare the saints for the hour of judment which is to come” (v. 84; cf. Isa 8:16—studying the use of the following key term “signs” in Isa 8, Gen 1, and D&C 88 would also make for very fruitful study I think…). So, in what sense do these testimonies compare to the role of the Holy Ghost as “Witness or Testator”? My direction of thinking here is rather Thomistic: is it the Spirit that makes all real communication (the tongue of angels, as it were) possible, and the flesh that makes the Father and Son distinct-but-similar(/typological) personages? So, we are created in the image of God in that we have a tangible body like God, but our likeness comes about by the gift(s) of the Holy Ghost? Much to think about here, methinks….

  5. brianj said

    “So, we are created in the image of God in that we have a tangible body like God, but our likeness comes about by the gift(s) of the Holy Ghost? “

    Oooo, I like that.

  6. Joe Spencer said

    Robert, I am very intrigued by the whole handing the cap to President Law thing as well. Joseph’s words are remarkably difficult to unravel there. Especially his reference to a “pristhood”… is he saying that there is a gifting priesthood, or a priesthood that is uniquely tied to the Holy Ghost, or what? I wanted to do more with that in the lesson notes, but I thought it might distract. Much to think about there. And taking up signs as you suggest… I’d be very interested to see what might come of such a study.

    I’m with Brian, by the way, with his “Oooo, I like that.” Very, very interesting way of putting things.

    Cheryl: no kidding! Joseph and the Book of Mormon… * swooning sigh *

    Michele, I’ve e-mailed you the notes.

  7. Robert C. said

    (I’ve added Joe’s document to the end of his post, a very helpful color-coded-by-source version of the King Follett discourse notes.)

  8. Erik van Eeden said

    Thanks Joe,
    Very helpful and clear
    this knowledge is the basis for our faith.
    Keep it on

    Erik van Eeden, The Netherlands, Europe

  9. […] suggest, is the understanding of the Godhead articulated in chapter 2 (see my analysis of chapter 2 here): a rather complicated intertwining of creation and redemption, of Father and Son, is unfolded as […]

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