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RS/MP Lesson 5: “Repentance” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 29, 2008

I want to take this lesson in something like reverse order. That is, I want to dwell first on the teachings of Joseph, and then I’d like to look at the “examples” drawn from his life. Hopefully the richness of taking the lesson this way will make clear, in the end, why I’ve chosen to take this path.

Teachings of Joseph Smith

All of the teachings in this lesson are drawn either from Joseph’s Nauvoo sermons (when Joseph was constantly under fire, due to the influence of apostates) or from particular encounters in 1835 (during much of the strife that tore the Church to pieces between 1834-1838). This fact is, in and of itself, of some significance for the interpretation of the teachings presented in this lesson: Joseph is constantly trying to put out fires here, sometimes even the fires in his own soul.

The very first teaching is exemplary: “I shall speak with authority of the Priesthood in the name of the Lord God. . . . Notwithstanding this congregation profess to be Saints, yet I stand in the midst of all characters and classes of men. . . . We have thieves among us, adulterers, liars, hypocrites. . . . The Church must be cleansed, and I proclaim against all iniquity.” Wilford Woodruff, in his account of this sermon, opens it thus: “Joseph the Seer arose in the power of God; reproved and rebuked wickedness before the people, in the name of the Lord God.”

The context of this sermon is of utmost importance: John C. Bennett, Joseph had recently discovered, had been seducing women in Nauvoo with the claim that Joseph had had a revelation that he (Bennett) could sleep with anyone as a privilege of being in the First Presidency. That this was going on at the same time that Joseph was, secretly, instituting celestial (that is, plural) marriage means that it was very easy for the saints to become quite confused: gossip easily mingled Bennett’s claims with rumors of Joseph’s doing the will of the Lord, and it was quite necessary for Joseph to separate publicly the sheep from the goats. Joseph’s self-assessment in the middle of the sermon is profound: “Search your hearts, and see if you are like God. I have searched mine, and feel to repent of all my sins.” His personal relationship to God was remarkable.

But it should not be missed that there is a corporate sense about Joseph’s sermon as well: he was condemning apostate individuals, but precisely in the name of saving the whole people, of establishing a community. This emerges again in the second teaching (the second to last paragraph on page 72): “Iniquity must be purged out from the midst of the Saints; then the veil will be rent, and the blessings of heaven will flow down—they will roll down like the Mississippi River.” This was given to the Relief Society, whose task it was to prepare for the ordinances of the temple and the place those ordinances would have in establishing the Kingdom of God—an actual community. The last teaching on page 72 is also from a sermon that focuses on the corporate nature of the community of the Saints: Joseph dwells there on the ability to keep secrets, to be faithful to counsel, to be true to the heads of the Church despite changes in program or even subtle shifts in revelation. This teaching, in fact, can be taken to show how repentance is itself a way of reconciling oneself with a community particularly: “Let not any man publish his own righteousness [a profoundly individualistic act], for others [the community] can see that for him; sooner let him confess his sins, and then he will be forgiven, and he will bring forth more fruit.” This is made clear as well by the massive excerpt from Joseph’s letter to Harvey Whitlock on pages 75-6.

What this act of repentance—even as a return to the divine community, the community of the (true) saints—really amounts to appears, I think, most clearly on page 73. Joseph discusses in a rather interesting sermon (it should be read in full) what one should learn from the experience of watching an infant die: “We should take warning and not wait for the death-bed to repent; as we see the infant taken away by death, so may the youth and middle aged, as well as the infant be suddenly called into eternity. . . . [I]t is the will of God that man should repent and serve Him in health, and in the strength and power of his mind, in order to secure His blessing, and not wait until he is called to die.” The meaning of this teaching deserves some attention.

This is especially the case since it seems, in a sense at least, to contradict one of Joseph’s teachings later in the lesson, in fact the very last paragraph of the lesson: “There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.” Does this latter teaching not suggest that even death-bed repentance is acceptable, so long as it is genuine? But perhaps that is all Joseph is saying in the earlier teaching: death-bed repentance is usually insincere? Rather, I think there is a far more interesting way to arrange these two teachings in relation to one another.

What seems to me to be the earlier teaching—that death-bed repentance is not the will of God—is not so much focused on sincerity or acceptability as it is focused on the meaning of repentance as an act. Death-bed repentance is, obviously, quite obviously, set in motion by death: its impetus is lack or fear, the negative recognition that one might suffer eternally. One wagers, then, absolutely nothing: one has everything to gain, but nothing to lose. Repentance while one is still “in health, and in the strength and power of his mind” is much different: one offers oneself, when one repents without death on the horizon, in a truly radical wager. The healthy repenter, to coin a phrase, wagers everything, wagers life as well as eternity. The point, then, does not particularly seem to be that death-bed repentance is insincere—it may be the most sincere fear one has felt in one’s entire life!—but that it offers so little to God that there is not enough (or just barely enough) for Him to do something with. Inasmuch as one must become the icon/image of God through the dispensation of grace, there must be some kind of flesh left, still, in which God can show Himself. The youth at fourteen, seeing God in the sacred grove, can do a bit more for the kingdom—for the building up of a community—than can the eighty-five-year-old expiring on the sick bed who offers up a penitent word of prayer.

The point, then: repentance is a wager, a radical reenvisioning of the world, of life, of everything, and one that therefore responds to a summons to work. Repentance is not—at least for Joseph—an equaling of the balances, a one-by-one disposal of regretted acts or words. This is made quite clear in what is the shortest and most revealing teaching in this lesson, on the bottom of page 73: “Repentance is a thing that cannot be trifled with every day. Daily transgression and daily repentance is not that which is pleasing in the sight of God.” Now, you, as much as I, have been taught that daily transgression is a fact of life, and that daily repentance is therefore a virtue to be sought . . . but Joseph thinks otherwise: we ought to offer ourselves up to God in the most radical wager of all, thereby letting Him use us constantly for the buliding up of His kingdom on earth (consecration, anybody?), and that all of our lives, if possible. That, and perhaps nothing else, so far as Joseph was concerned, is repentance.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

This understanding of repentance, as a wager of oneself in the work of God, can be brought back to the historical material of the first part of the lesson. The manual is clearly trying to work, bit by bit, through the life of Joseph Smith: the chapter previous to this one deals with the translation of the Book of Lehi, and the four following this one deal with the bestowal of the priesthood by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John. This chapter, then, focuses on the loss of the Book of Lehi and the sore repentance through which Joseph had to pass. The bits and pieces of the story that are recounted on page 71 are of some importance, especially in light of the model of repentance worked out above.

In 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 detail (the links connect back to my rather lengthy discussions of these points). The transfer of the 116 pages from Joseph to Martin underscores the essential equality that at least Martin saw in their relationship (whether Joseph so saw it is a complex question). That equality, or at least that partnership, came more and more to obscure the more fundamental relationship that underpinned the work of translation: the relationship between Joseph and Moroni (I discuss the relationship with Moroni in part 1 of lesson 4, and the relationship with Martin in part 2). That obscuring came to its fruition, eventually, with the transfer of the manuscript itself. In the end, then Joseph’s work of repentance cannot be separated from the different places of these two relationships.

If, through the course of the joint work of translation, Joseph had begun to become “we” (Joseph and Martin), that collective disappears immediately as Joseph learns of the missing manuscript: “Oh! My God, my God. . . . All is lost, is lost. What shall I do? I have sinned. It is I that tempted the wrath of God by asking him for that I had no right to ask. . . . How shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?” Not only is the sheer number of I’s in this passage startling, but the movement, in the last part of it, from the relationship with Martin to the suddenly reintervening relationship with Moroni is of some significance: Joseph is returning to the angel who had brough him the keys of translation.

The lesson goes on to cite D&C 3, with its equally starting frequency of thou’s: “Thou art Joseph, and thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord, but because of transgression, if thou art not aware thou fall. But remember, God is merciful; therefore, repent of that which thou hast done which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work.” The keys were restored—and with them, the relationship between Joseph and Moroni: “The angel was rejoiced [!] when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and said that God was pleased with my faithfulness and humility, and loved me for my penitence and diligence in prayer, in the which I had performed my duty so well as to . . . be able to enter upon the work of translation again.”

Three interconnected themes emerge from this history, all of them very significant, I think.

First, repentance is, for Joseph, a return to the relationship with ministering angels, to the context of the Abrahamic covenant and the work of receiving keys from ancient visitors. Thus repentance is a double movement, with regard to community: it is a departure from community in the (Girardian) mimetic sense, from community as a mob, and it is an entrance into community in the divine sense, into community as the heavenly council (to commune with the gods, with the fathers/mothers, etc.).

Second, this movement from earthly community to heavenly community expresses itself through the singular first person: one claims a very real subjectivity, a personality, in that one becomes a messenger (onself as another?). Repentance is a reconciliation that calls the boundaries of the self(ish self) into question, but that nonetheless bestows on one a very real kind of subjectivity, one that is justified in speaking of “me,” even with the word “I.”

Third, this subjectivity is, as a servile subject ought to be, called to work. Sin frees one from the work, gets one out of the work that is Zion; and repentance restores one to it. It is thus that repentance is fundamentally a wager: one gives the autonomy of the natural man in order to take up the work of the kingdom, in order to build up Zion, in order to dwell iconically in the world.

It is a marvelous message, and one that I have hardly done justice to here.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 5: “Repentance” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    I’m glad that Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo period is so heavily emphasized in this manual, as I think some folks had started to think that those teachings were maybe too speculative, when in fact they appear to be the most fully developed and expansive of his teachings. They completely rock my soul.

    This idea of repentance that Joseph Smith taught is very different from the CTR version we get in Primary, and rarely transcend as older members. By focusing on the “sin as stain” model, we tend to think as long as we keep our noses clean, or use the gospel as a hankie to clean up with when we mess up. Does this narcissism lead us to do exactly what we are urged to leave behind–narrow self-serving? Are we called to merely keep our own noses clean, or to help in the work of wiping other dirty noses?

  2. NathanG said

    I really like the “repentance as a wager” concept.

    I’ve felt for some time that if I’m busy doing the Lord’s work, I have no time for sin. If on the other hand, I spend my time sinning, I have no time to do the Lord’s work (is this not an enemy of God?) If I am trying to repent of my sins, it is more than just turning from my sins, I now have time that was spent in sin that needs to be put to some use. If that time is not turned to something productive, what fills that void?

    Repentance should be more than a mental exercise of attributing magnitude of offense to an action and returning that magnitude of repentance plus interest (which discussions of restitution often sound like). Repentance should involve both the heart and the mind. Repentance should be a change of heart (which shouldn’t really be a daily event). We can have a daily change of actions as we recognize incorrect things, but repentance as a change of heart probably isn’t a daily activity.

  3. Jim F said

    Joe, thanks for the way in which you’ve organized this. Its focus on repentance is wonderful.

  4. joespencer said

    Thanks, all.

    Rob, I couldn’t agree more with your comments on the Nauvoo focus of the manual.

  5. robf said

    Today I taught the Enos story to the 10 and 11 year old primary class, and was struck by how completely the Enos wrestling with God story fits this view of repentance as entering the presence of God to help with the work of the covenants. Especially Enos’s struggles in the Spirit to ensure the ongoing blessing of the covenants for his immediate (Nephite) and extended (Lamanite) kin.

  6. Robert C. said

    I finally found time to read this—thanks again Joe for posting the thoughts of your research on this. I’ll be interested to hear more from you on this theme of individuality (or should I say “single subjectivity,” or something else?) vis-a-vis various communities (heavenly and worldly, or are there 2 wordly communities to think about here following Celestial, Terrestrial, Telestial?).

  7. joespencer said

    I’ll also be interested to hear more from me on this theme of individuality. I’ve been working, now and again, on a paper on this very topic. I’m waiting for it to come together, though, in order to see what I really think about it all.

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