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RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 2: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 9, 2008

This is part 2 of a four-part series on Lesson 4 from the Joseph Smith manual. See part 1 here.

The wisdom of the Lord is greater than the cunning of the devil.

Building on the chronology of the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” introduction, this section deals with the loss of the 116 pages. It should be noted that this lesson does not press beyond this event into the subsequent work with Oliver Cowdery: lesson 5 deals with repentance (taking obvious advantage of the event of the loss) and then lesson 6 moves on to Joseph and Oliver’s experience with John the Baptist. (Lessons 7-10 build on the several events during the remainder of the translation, in fact: a lesson on baptism, a lesson on the higher priesthood, a lesson on the gifts of the Spirit, and a lesson on prayer and personal revelation. Lesson 11 moves onward into the organization of the Church.) I like this approach for a number of reasons. But for now, let me just revel in the fact that it gives us the opportunity to focus in some detail on these two accounts of the loss of the manuscript.

Of course, a great deal has been written by historians and biographers on this event. Whether critical or supportive, the best analysts recognize at least one major consequence of the experience: it was through this event that Joseph gained his revelatory voice. Section 3 of the D&C is the earliest revelation we have from the prophet (of course he had angelic and theophanic encounters before that, but this was the first time he received a revelation that was immediately recorded as a revelation). Though this section of the lesson is not drawn from section 3 (it does, it should be mentioned, reference section 10, received shortly after section 3 and in close connection to the same event), it seems worthwhile to me to take the two accounts presented as a good place for thinking about the emergence of Joseph’s revelatory/prophetic voice. What was at stake in that development?

The first of the two accounts is taken from the History of the Church, and it is filled (like much in the first part of the History of the Church) with language that appeals to the psychoanalyst in me. The account turns on the interplay between freedom and desire. “Some time after Mr. Harris had begun to write for me, he began to importune me to give him liberty to carry the writings home and show them….” Two interesting points here. First, there is an echo in the first phrase I’ve italicized of the famous revolutionary dictum: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Whether or not this allusion is intentional, it is interesting: Joseph finds himself confronted with the classic claim of American freedom, one that stands over against the strict word of God. Second, Joseph’s phrasing does not suggest that Martin wanted to show the manuscript pages to a few people only, but that he wanted to “show them” quite simply. The lack of an indirect object here is odd, and it gives the phrase a kind of exhibitionist flavor (in more than one sense of the term): Martin seems to want to set up a museum display, to put on a show or to set up an exhibit so that any curious bypasser can stare at their work. That this exhibitionism is intertwined with a desire for freedom is interesting: there is something neurotic about Martin’s desire, something (clinically) exhibitionist in the less fortunate sense of the term.

This is curiously confirmed in the language Joseph uses to describe Martin’s response to the Lord’s “No!”: “However he was not satisfied with this answer, and desired that I should inquire again.” The wording points (classically) to neurosis: the “No!/name” of the Father only secures Martin’s transgressive desire by disallowing any real satisfaction. And Martin’s neurosis is, as mentioned above, peculiarly exhibitionist: the law of the Father, singling out the work of his pen, fills him with the desire to show off that very work, to expose it (or even himself, inasmuch as he sees himself mirrored in his work: there is a Hegelian flavor about the relationship between Joseph and Martin that deserves attention but can’t receive it here… though I’ll probably have to come back to it in the second account below). That this neurotic (or, one could say, “natural,” even psychical) exhibitionist desire is important because it reveals Martin’s mimeticism: in putting the manuscript on display, Martin can reclaim normality and boast that he has the same freedom he sees in his fellow Americans (having been given liberty). Martin’s desire to mirror everyone else of course reduces the work of the 116 pages to an object, in fact to a mirror, in which he seems to see himself reified.

But this desire is frustrated again and again, and when the Lord finally allows Martin to satiate his apparent desire, it is only under certain conditions: Martin is not given the liberty he asks for, and he is not given the opportunity simply to show the pages (no exhibit is to be set up). A kind of social contract is established: “I [note that it is Joseph, not the Lord] required of him that he should bind himself in a covenant to me in a most solemn manner that he would not do otherwise than had been directed. He did so.” Of course, we know the rest of the story: Martin broke his oath and so “by strategem” the manuscript was stolen from him (it could only slip from his hands so soon as he tried to use it to unite mimetically with everyone else), and Joseph was left under condemnation.

The revelation that emerged from this situation can perhaps be understood as the Lord’s response to normality, to the mimetic desire for liberty (liberalism in its dialectical relation to conservatism?), to neurosis and exhibitionism, to law-induced desire. Indeed, a few snippets from D&C 3 are quite… revealing: “Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men…. if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires…. how oft you have transgressed the commandments and the laws of God, and have gone on in the persuasions of men. For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God…. Except thou do this, thou shalt be delivered up and become as other men, and have no more gift…. thou deliveredst up that which was sacred into the hands of a wicked man….” The theme is clear: the Lord is not at all interested in liberal/conservative freedom (both functions of mimeticism), nor does he respect the naturally wicked desires of men: his “gift” distracts all these fallen “conditions” and moves on with His own “work.”

This theme of work is at the heart of the second account, taken from the 1830 preface to the Book of Mormon. Historians have often made reference to this preface, especially because it was never reprinted after the first edition of the Book of Mormon: it is often taken as evidence that Joseph was quite worried, even after the Lord provided him with a way to avoid the influence of those who had stolen the manuscript, that some kind of effort might be made to destroy the influence of the Book of Mormon. It has also, interestingly, been taken as providing evidence for Joseph’s authorship (rather than translation) of the book. But there is something else entirely that can be read into the preface: the theme of work. (It is worth, by the way, comparing the preface with D&C 10: much of the language is simply borrowed from that revelation. The language of both is also worth comparing with the discussions of the Gadianton robbers in Helaman: there are a number of phrases unique to the Helaman stories and these two documents.)

Interestingly, the word “work” quite obviously has reference to the Book of Mormon. This is of some importance, because it perhaps gives us a sense of how we ought to interpret revelations given during these years: D&C 4, for example, might have reference primarily to the Book of Mormon when it speaks of a “great and marvelous work” coming forth. The word “work” appears three times in the preface: it is first mentioned in close connection with Joseph (“to destroy me, and also the work”), subsequently in connection with Satan (“Satan would stir up the hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work”), and finally as belonging to the Lord Himself (“I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work”). These three instances nicely place three characters at the heart of the drama.

Two things should be immediately noticed about this… casting… so to speak. First, Martin is missing. Indeed, he is not so much as even hinted at in the preface. Second, Satan has come onto the stage, which is of some importance since he did not at all appear in the 1838 History of the Church account analyzed above. The other two characters, of course, remain the same. Several questions can be asked, then. Why is Martin replaced, so to speak, with Satan here? Or rather, since the 1830 preface was written long before the 1838 history, why is Satan replaced later with Martin? Does the distance in time and the consequent differences in circumstance have anything to do with the replacement? What does this replacement imply about the place of Satan, or about the relationship (if I can say that) between Martin and Satan? Perhaps more importantly, how does the replacement change the relationship between the Lord and the problem: how is “the Lord versus Satan” different from “the Lord versus Martin”?

I have a few thoughts about each of these questions, but let me summarize them in two statements. First, I think it is important to recognize that Satan is here quite obviously connected with Martin because there is, all over again, a focus on mimetic conformism: Satan’s entire “design” is to get people riled up, to “stir up the hearts of this generation” so that they form into angry mobs with violent intentions. In a sense, this lets Martin off the hook: though he was never allowed again to help in the work of translation, his sin is understood as something “natural,” as something to be forgiven because he knew not what he did. Martin’s failures are assigned, perhaps, to his unconscious desires. He must be forgiven… but Satan, as the instigator of this mimeticism, cannot be forgiven. But he can be distracted: “I will shew [very interesting word… a kind of divine exhibitionism here?] unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil.” Martin must be forgiven, and precisely because that grace will call him out from among the wicked. This point leads to the second: the whole event thus becomes a kind of cosmic battle between God and Satan, but not on a level playing field. Satan’s work is, in the end, too simply frustrated: his cunning is nothing before the wisdom of the Lord, and the Lord can simply subvert Satan’s designs in a moment.

Perhaps most important of all, then, is the theme of forgiveness here, the revelation that the natural desire to be given liberty is to be forgiven as we are distracted by the work: “Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing.” Joseph is forgiven, purely out of grace, and is so “again called to the work” (D&C 3:10). That work—here a text!—distracts the wisdom and naturally neurotic desires of the world so that people can be forgiven in grace and be drawn into the Lord’s service: when we finally give up our desires for liberty, we find (ironically) that we are at last free. But the freedom to be found in the Lord’s work (in His service or even slavery) is not the freedom we were looking for: we are free, finally, from “all men,” from the wicked desires of the mob, from our own desire, from our unconscious struggles, so that we can do the work and build the kingdom. What a marvelous work, then, it is!

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 2: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. cherylem said

    Wow Joe. This is great stuff to me.

  2. joespencer said

    I’m sure, Cheryl, that you are catching how much Girard is playing in my thinking (even as I am, of course, modifying him according to my four discourses scheme). :)

  3. Jim F. said

    Like Cheryl, I find this very exciting. I enjoy reading it and the thoughts it provokes. I’d have to think long and hard about how to convert this into a lesson for a priesthood class, but it is great fun for me individually.

  4. joespencer said

    Thanks, Jim. Since I will be teaching this lesson in priesthood (though not for a few weeks yet), I will be thinking long and hard about how to convert this into a lesson for a priesthood class! I’ll be interested to see where the Spirit takes things over the next couple of weeks as I think…

  5. cherylem said

    Yes, Joe, I saw the unmistakeable imprint of Girard on your thinking.

  6. Robert C. said

    Fascinating Joe. Your teaser line about the similar phrasing regarding the Gadianton robbers is esp. interesting to me. I’ve only listened to your first podcast with Kim on Helaman, though I’m hoping to catch up this week, but I’ll be esp. interested to hear you guys take up this theme, esp. as it relates to this idea of sacredness/secretness vs. exhibitionism that you touch on here. I’ve wondered a lot about the parallels between the secret combinations and divine sacredness, but I can’t say I’ve come to any very satisfying understanding (though maybe that desire itself is what I should be questioning!). At any rate, I’d love to hear any preliminary thoughts, or sketch of your thoughts (or others thoughts) on this….

  7. joespencer said

    Interesting, Robert. You’ve actually mistaken what I meant, I think, in my teaser: because D&C 10 deals with the stealing of the manuscript, it is the thieves who are described in terms very reminiscent of the Gadianton passages in Helaman 2 and 6.

    But I do think there is good reason to look carefully at this theme, given the claims of many Missouri and Nauvoo apostates that Joseph had begun to introduce secret combinations into the Church…

    More thoughts soon, I hope.

  8. […] RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 2: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith&nbs… […]

  9. […] part, this must be read in light of lesson 4, parts 1 and 2, where Joseph’s relationship to Moroni and the Abrahamic covenant is spelled out in some […]

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