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RS/MP Lesson 10: “Prayer and Personal Revelation” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on May 10, 2008

I’ll leave the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section out of my comments this week: marvelous experiences, but they don’t seem to me to shed any light on the teachings in the lesson. So far as the “Teachings of Joseph Smith” section goes, in this chapter, I find it interesting that so much of the material comes from the pre-Nauvoo era. That is, at least so far in this manual, rather unusual: because Joseph wrote and spoke publicly much more often in Nauvoo than in New York, Ohio, or Missouri, and because many more saints were keeping a careful record of what Joseph had to say in Nauvoo than previously, a great deal more of Joseph’s teachings have survived from the Nauvoo era, and the lessons in the manual reflect these facts generally. This lesson, however, is an exception. In fact, nearly half of the lesson’s teaching come from a single letter Joseph wrote to his uncle in 1833. The result: this lesson provides, the section on personal revelation excepted, a view primarily of Mormonism minus the “Nauvoo theology.” But I imagine that I should explain what I mean by that just a bit.

It is common for historians, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, to see Joseph as essentially coming out of his shell in Nauvoo. Pre-1835 Mormonism is generally portrayed as focused on Christian primitivism: the saints gathered to Zion, sought spiritual gifts, denounced the world at large, and waited for the dawn of the millennium. 1834-1839 Mormonism is generally portrayed as passing through an era of bureaucratization: the orders of the priesthood were announced, the quorums and councils were organized, spiritual gifts were discouraged, Kirtland became more focal than Zion, and apostasy flourished while the increasingly totalitarian church tried to reign it in. 1839-1844 Mormonism is generally portrayed as Joseph’s innovative period: now in Nauvoo, Joseph emerges from the complex hierarchy as a commanding personality. Only now does Joseph begin to announce (publicly and in secret) doctrines and revelations that distinctively mark the oddness of Mormonism: the patriarchal order, baptism for the dead, a new endowment, sealing ordinances, plural marriage, the plurality of gods, and so on. Joseph, the story is usually told, essentially reinvented Mormonism in Nauvoo, adding doctrines, changing directions, inventing new ideas, and building up a genuine theocracy.

Now, in one sense, there is little to argue with in this picture: the historians all talk this way because the historical record suggests that this is precisely what happened. In fact, the difference between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) can be said to be grounded in this reading of the history: the Utah church followed Joseph’s Nauvoo innovations, while the Missouri church rejected those innovations as so much betrayal of the pre-Nauvoo teachings.

And yet, I think there is something fundamentally flawed with this reading. So much of what Joseph suddenly began to teach in Nauvoo can be found in revelations and writings of ten or more years before: nothing, in a sense, was new. I see Joseph, not beginning to expand Mormon theology and practice in radical ways, but rather finally realizing that the quorums and the councils were never going to look carefully enough at the revelations to see what they really meant, and so he began at last to take it upon himself to expound their meaning. In other words, I do indeed see a shift in Nauvoo, but it is not a shift of teachings, doctrines, or ordinances; rather, it is a shift in Joseph’s im/patience with the interpreters of the scripture he had provided the saints. Though they had been called as so many Aaron’s to Joseph’s Moses, he finally saw that they would never stop dancing around the golden calf until he ground it, strewed in on the waters, and made them drink it.

Now, I bring all of this up for two reasons. First, I think it is important to see why the Nauvoo teachings in the lesson manual generally are so much more rich and explicit than the pre-Nauvoo teachings included there. But second, I think it is also important to see that the pre-Nauvoo teachings contain the Nauvoo teachings in them, that they “anticipate” the Nauvoo teachings, if only they are read carefully. Reading the pre-Nauvoo teachings carefully should not only reveal that Joseph’s Nauvoo teachings were all the time at work in his instruction, but should also help to clarify what the Nauvoo teachings mean. And all of this clarification is vital, I think, for making sense of what Joseph does in the first major teaching in the lesson, found on pages 128-130.

This first teaching, more than two pages in length, is drawn from a letter Joseph wrote to his uncle in 1833. It is essentially a defense of the existence of modern revelation. The argument, it would seem, is simple and common enough for the Latter-day Saint: God revealed things anciently, so why would He not do so now? The proof Joseph offers: no ancient prophet, according to the scriptures, depended alone on the revelations given to his/her forebears, but instead sought out a personal manifestation; one would presumably be entitled/encouraged to do the same today. Simple enough, no?

But I think there is something very subtle happening here, something remarkably radical. The teaching begins and ends with an important phrase: “in a proper manner” at the beginning of the teaching is echoed by “in the manner they did” at the end of the teaching. This assumption that there is a particular “manner” in which revelation is sought and received runs through the whole of the teaching, quite powerfully put on display in this snippet: “But all the peculiarity that I can discover in the [ancient] man, or all the difference between him and men in this age, is that he was more holy and more perfect before God and came to him with a purer heart and more faith than men in this day.” (pp. 128-9)

The argument, then, is not quite as straightforward as it first appears: the argument as I first laid it out above can be quite misleading. That is, to say that “no ancient prophet depended alone on the revelations given to his/her forebears, but instead sought out a personal manifestation” is too easily to suggest that scripture can be dismissed in the name of modern revelation. Indeed, such an attitude can be found often enough among the Latter-day Saints: scriptures matter far less, the claim goes, than what is being said right now by our living prophet.

But Joseph is saying something much more subtle: even as revelation to another will not “purchase an assurance for me, or waft me to the regions of eternal day with my garments spotless, pure, and white” (p. 129), they nonetheless provide for me the pattern, the “proper manner”, after which I am to seek revelation. That is, revelation received by another, whether anciently or modernly, does nothing for me except to provide for me the pattern according to which I can approach God to receive my own revelation. The emphasis is less on the ancient/modern split than it is on the radical subjectivity of revelatory experience: it is not so much that modern revelation in the Church is necessary, but that I myself must be receiving revelation.

This understanding of scripture (and any revelation given to another) is revolutionary: rather than taking the scriptures as a source of authority, doctrine, or even personal inspiration, Joseph understands them as fundamentally narrative in orientation. That is, the scriptures tell so many stories in order to provide us with the pattern by which one can obtain revelation from God. Our task in reading them is to seek and sort out these patterns, to come to an understanding of the narratives well enough that we can see how God deals with one, and how one ought to deal with God. The scriptures are thus, for Joseph, something to be reenacted, something to be brought to life. Joseph’s concluding rhetorical question says it all: “And will not the Lord hear my prayers and listen to my cries as soon as he ever did to theirs if I come to him in the manner they did?” (p. 130) Our task, then, is remarkably difficult: we are to come to understand the scriptures well enough to allow them to shape the way we approach God.

The next section of teachings, “We can make everything we undertake a subject of prayer,” confirms this in an interesting way. After a few teachings that suggest rather simply that everything ought to be made a subject of a prayer, a bit of a prayer spoken by Joseph himself is quoted. Interestingly, it hardly makes any mention of “everything we undertake.” Rather, it is simply a powerful, sincere prayer of petition. But what might too easily be missed is the profound language of the scriptures: animating this prayer is the very idea Joseph presents in the letter to his uncle. That is, he asks for “the faith of Elijah,” hopes for revelation “as the dews upon Mount Hermon,” etc. Joseph, in the very act of prayer, attempts to enact the scriptural narratives.

Attaching this scripturally enacting prayer to the several injunctions to pray about everything is rather significant, I think. Everything we do ought to be rewritten, so to speak, by our prayerful enactments of the scriptures. Joseph is essentially modeling for us here what it means to “liken” the scriptures: we are to live scripturally, and so everything we do will be inflected by the patterns of the scriptures. Prayer, as Joseph teaches it here, becomes a way of allowing every detail of our lives to become involved in a profound typology, oriented to the God that speaks in the scriptures. Those books, physical and inert, become a kind of template that disorients and reorients us, that questions the world we have created and attempted to close up.

The next section, “When we pray in faith and simplicity, we receive the blessings God sees fit to bestow upon us,” further clarifies this by making clear that what is received through such prayer is “the Spirit of the Lord” and “the best gifts.” As everything is oriented by God through prayer that reenacts scriptural narrative, the gifts of the Spirit are poured out, and our little constructed worlds are distracted by the remarkable reality of the gift. Even and especially one’s relationship to others is distracted by the gift: “Pray not with covetous hearts that ye may consume it upon your lusts,” says Joseph, and “Virtue is one of the most prominent principles that enables us to have confidence in approaching our Father who is in heaven in order to ask wisdom at his hand.” (p. 131) Covetousness vs. virtue, mimetic desire vs. magnanimity (patience, longsuffering, love unfeigned, etc.): prayer distracts the petty way in which we dwell with others and thus gives us confidence in approaching prayer.

Finally, the last section of the lesson, “We can receive personal revelation through the Holy Ghost,” turns from pre-Nauvoo teachings to Nauvoo teachings. Joseph’s revolutionary way of reading the scriptures now comes to fruition as he lays out what it is to receive the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, things the saints had never quite understood. There is too much in this single last page of teachings for me to take up without doing violence to their richness here, especially given how long these notes already are. But were I to have the task of teaching this lesson (I won’t: I’ll be in Virginia!), I would quickly work through all the above so as to have as much time as possible simply to dwell in these last teachings: how did Joseph understand the experience of being reoriented by the Spirit/gifts of the Spirit? How does that Spirit rewrite everything (cf. the teaching that regards the Holy Ghost as “the oldest book”)? And then, the most difficult question of all: what is the pattern of this or that narrative that must be enacted to have these experiences?

That is a question that ought to occupy us all our lives.

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 10: “Prayer and Personal Revelation” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Seth R. said

    Overall, I’m pretty happy with this manual. And this is a great lesson. Thanks for your breakdown of it. I appreciate the work you guys are doing on this blog.

  2. RuthS said

    This is a really interesting perspective. I was particularly interested in the perception you mentioned vis a vis the Nauvoo period and what preceded it and how it is all of the same piece. A quick look at the Chronological Order Of Contents of the Doctrine in Covenants reveals that only 4 sections of the D & C were given at Nauvoo. The vast majority of revelations contained in the book were received at Kirtland and other places in Ohio. Beginning in February of 1831 until July of 1837 all but seven of the sections were revealed in Ohio.

    After the Missouri persecutions Joseph’s enemies never gave him any peace. His time was taken up with many things that had not been issues in Ohio.

    Discovering the pattern, now wouldn’t it be nice if that were a little more easy.

  3. Thanks for putting your notes up. They helped me organize my thoughts as I was preparing my Elders’ Quorum lesson for this afternoon. In particular, I appreciated your thoughts on the “proper manner” to seek revelation through prayer, and how the scriptures provide the template for us.

  4. A.J. said

    I love reading your blog. It always helps to hear another person’s perspective on the lessons. THANK YOU for taking the time to do this!

  5. joespencer said

    Glad to help, all. I’m thrilled to know these notes make any difference. :)

  6. Vicki said

    I use your lessons in MY lesson planning every month! Thanks for all the work you do! Vicki

  7. […] accepted beliefs, doctrines, and practices, one can see amazing breadth in belief. One can receive personal revelation and doesn’t necessarily need believe that when the brethren speak, the thinking is […]

  8. lianlyan said

    this lesson is so amazing, I use this lesson every months, when I have some difficult task to perform my assignment, thank you very much for your help. May God bless you all.
    Your little friend, lianlyan

  9. Hello there! This blog post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I am going to send this information to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a great read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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