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RS/MP Lesson 11: “The Organization and Destiny of the True and Living Church” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on June 3, 2008

[I apologize that I’m a few days behind on this one—I spent all of last week at the Oregon Coast with extended family and spent the few precious hours I could get for study on Alma 30-31 for the Alma 32 seminar. But, late though it is, here are my notes on lesson 11 (I’ll have lesson 12 up by Sunday; I promise).]

This lesson is a bit more scattered than most in the manual thus far. In the “Teachings of Joseph Smith” portion of the lesson: the first section is dedicated to narrative history, the second section to testimony, the third section to organizational details, the fourth to persecution, and the last to the individual’s subjective place in the work. In a sense, then, what follows is a handful of different little lessons.

The true Church of Jesus Christ was organized by Joseph Smith in the dispensation of the fulness of times

The first section of the lesson proper, as mentioned above, is given to historical narrative, the story of the actual organization of the Church and the first few months following. What permeates the two accounts excerpted for this purpose is the common theme of restoration, that is, of a specifically ancient thing being brought about all over again. For example, on page 138: “[W]e dismissed [from the official organization meeting on April 6th, 1830] with the pleasing knowledge that we were now individually members of, and acknowledged of God, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ,’ organized in accordance with commandments and revelations given by Him to ourselves in these last days, as well as according to the order of the Church as recorded in the New Testament.”

This reflection concludes the narrative of the actual organization of the Church, and what seems to have been so striking for Joseph at least was that the ancient was again recurring, that there was some kind of connection with the ancients. This becomes even clearer in the further reflection on page 139: “To find ourselves engaged in the very same order of things as observed by the holy Apostles of old . . . ; and to witness and feel with our own natural senses, the like glorious manifestations of the powers of the Priesthood, the gifts and blessings of the Holy Ghost, and the goodness and condescension of a merciful God unto such as obey the everlasting Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, combined to create within us sensations of rapturous gratitude, and inspire us with fresh zeal and energy in the cause of truth.” The emphasis is on a kind of unifying of dispensations, a bringing together of the ancient faithful with the modern faithful.

What must not be missed, it seems to me, is that this bringing together is effected primarily through the gifts of the Spirit. Not only does the snippet quoted just above from page 139 emphasize that, but also this from page 138: “We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present, that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The HOly Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree—some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.” But if it is particularly the manifestations of the Spirit that united the moderns with the ancients, this unification cannot be separated from what Joseph calls in the last phrase of the teaching on page 139 “the cause of truth.” Truth: if one can here draw on the previous lesson on the gifts of the Spirit, it would then seem that the truth is a question of so many signs, signs that are unite the latter days with the former days, us with the ancients, and so the whole human family at Adam-ondi-Ahman. Would it be too much, then, to suggest that there is, buried in Joseph’s narratives concerning the organization of the Church, the theme of the gathering together of all dispensations through the ordinances of the temple, etc.?

Christ’s Church is organized according to the order of God

Indeed, it is.

The Church is led by the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Quorums of the Seventy

This section perhaps seems quite straightforward at first: it is essentially a brief description of the several quorums that make up the general authorities. But there is a good deal more at work here that deserves discussion, primarily because there seems to have been major institutional developments in the hierarchy of the Church at a number of points in our history. In other words, the historian might take issue with the way this section is laid out, pointing out things like: the First Presidency can be said to be a rather different kind of organization after Joseph’s death, as evidenced by Brigham’s and then several of the Twelve’s serious consternation about a reorganization of that presidency; Joseph’s description of the Twelve here was right at the time, but things have since changed, because Joseph made them part of a centralized hierarchy (of which they were not originally a part) after the 1841 mission to England; the seventies (besides the first quorum) were local quorums who attended to the work of the ward/stake missions for many years rather than general authorities as they are now. In a word, the historian might suggest that this stringing together of things is a bit ideological, a semi-dishonest way of bringing together what only look like confirmations of the way things presently are.

But I think there is a good deal more to think about here (there is so much more than facts to talk about!). For example, while I agree that there are some important differences between the First Presidency (-ies) of which Joseph was a part and the First Presidencies that have led the Church after his death, the differences are historically and theologically important rather than practically or institutionally important: the differences call for further reflection, but do not at all suggest any kind of disingenuity on the part of the Brethren. More importantly, perhaps, I’m not sure I at all agree that there was an institutional redefinition of the Twelve in 1841. It is certainly clear that the Twelve suddenly seemed to have a centralized position whereas they had before been assigned as the Traveling High Council, but I don’t see why this shift should be divorced from the effective disappearance of Missouri from immediate institutional plans. That is, if Joseph had by 1841 finally given up on getting a strong foothold in Missouri any time soon, the Standing High Council of Zion that undeniably is the hierarchical center of Church organization as laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants effectively ceased to be, and the entire Church became the Church abroad, over which the Twelve has hierarchical jurisdiction. The Church remains—and will remain until there is a Standing High Council in Jackson County—the Church abroad, and the Twelve remain at the center of the hierarchy. And again, though there have been changes in a number of ways in the quorums of the seventy over the years, there has never been a disconnect between the calling of the seventy to assist the Twelve in the building up of the Church abroad, and so those changes are essentially immaterial. The shift from local seventies to general authority seventies is a mere shift in approach, but not a structural redefinition in any way.

At any rate, a few notes for the historically curious, primarily to suggest that the teachings, as laid out in this section of the lesson, stand as they are laid out: I don’t see any reason to call them or the Church’s stringing them together into question.

Although the forces of evil may seek to destroy the Church, ‘no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing

Now we get on to the fun stuff. This section returns, in a sense, to the question of truth raise above: here one finds Joseph’s famous “standard of truth,” according to which “the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent,” etc., and one reads Joseph speaking of “the spread of the truth into various parts of our land,” etc. But it is this truth that brings upon the Church persecution, the idea presumably being that because the truth bears the burden of its own… well… truth… the only response that can be made to it is violence. But I think there is something more subtle and profound happening in the teachings here than just this.

The three paragraphs that begin with the last paragraph beginning on page 142 are remarkably interesting. Joseph here offers an interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed that grows into a tree in the branches of which the fowls come to lodge. (Interestingly, this is from 1835, though Joseph returned to this same interpretation in 1839 in what I think is his most important discourse: the “Before 8 August 1839 Discourse.” What is the connection?) The three paragraphs are organized thus: the first is given to the parable itself; the second is given to Joseph’s interpretation; the third is given to the theme of persecution. Since the first is clear (and famous) enough, let me deal with the relationship between the second and third paragraphs.

Joseph’s interpretation is that the seed is the Book of Mormon, which is planted in the ground like a seed. When it “spring[s] up in the last days, or in due time,” it becomes the Church (as a tree), and the fowls that come down to lodge in its branches are God’s “powers, gifts, and angels.” (In the 1839 discourse, Joseph emphasizes primarily angels, identifying them as the ancient holders of the priesthood who come to pass along their keys, etc.) The picture of the truth that Joseph here describes is again, as it was in the first section discussed above, a question of interdispensational relations, of keys and signs/gifts of the Spirit being passed from one dispensation to another, and all of that rooted in the coming forth of a translated text.

What this effectively does, I think, is to weave together a picture of faith or fidelity: faith is to be faithful to the emergence of a text or to the text itself, one that was brought with and whose interpretation is guided by the visitation of angelic messengers from the past who hold and deliver up keys and powers, all connected in some way with the priesthood. Faith is thus (here) a question of one’s relation (1) to a text and (2) to the messengers who bring it.

The question this raises when one turns to the third paragraph is this: What does all of this have to do with persecution? Why, that is, does fidelity to a text and the messengers who bring it invite violence?

I’m tempted to leave that as an open question. It might be wisest for now. But I’ll confess that I have a great many thoughts on the subject. Perhaps they’ll be forced out of me in the discussion that (I hope) follows the post.

We each have the responsibility to strengthen the Church and do our part in building up the kingdom of God

This is getting long, so I’ll be relatively brief here. I see this last section as bringing together the question (all over again) of the ancients, the angels, the holders of keys of former times, etc., with the question of individual subjectivity. What a remarkable statement this is, from page 144: “let every man, woman and child . . . act as if success depended on his individual exertion alone”! This work is radically subjective, and we wager ourselves in our fidelity to the message that angels have begun again to visit the earth and to restore keys, etc. That is, we wager ourselves in looking forward to the event in which all of these visitations will be gathered together in one: Adam-ondi-Ahman. That singular event is what I think Joseph means when speaks of the “one common cause” that is “the cause of God” and ultimately the cause of “truth.” And it obliterates what Joseph marvelously calls “party feelings, separate interests, exclusive designs.” What language! If this is a question of radicalism (of radical fidelity), then we must be careful never to let our radicalism become a party (which is why consecration can never be communism, for example), nor can we any longer allow for subjectivity in the old modernist sense, according to which I am some kind of separate being with my own interests, nor can we allow for any kind of exclusion by design. This work is singular (who else is speaking of Adam-ondi-Ahman?), but it is nonetheless universal.

In a word: it is true.

14 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 11: “The Organization and Destiny of the True and Living Church” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Thank you Joe.

    I am teaching this lesson a week from Sunday, and I appreciate your insight and enthusiasm for this chapter. I was feeling a bit underwhelmed after the first reading.

    I am now feeling that the whole message of truth tends to be polarizing with little if any middle ground. To understand the message of the restoration is to understand that one must take one side or the other eventually. In a way, I think perhaps that enemies of the churh may ‘understand’ our message better than those who think the church is a ‘good’ church – or one of many belief options.

    Anyway, nice review.

  2. joespencer said

    Glad to help, Eric. Best of luck in teaching!

  3. Scott F said

    I appreciate reading your weekly thoughts regarding the lesson. I am curious what your thoughts are on how the mustard seed conversation leads to/ ties into persecution.

  4. sara g. said

    I am so happy I ran across your post. i have been assigned to teach in R.S. this Sunday and having read through chapter 11 twice I felt like I was jumping around in my thoughts as to what I would present. I was happy to see you had thought much on the lesson and your enthusiasm spread ! I don’t know that people can really imagine themselves there; where the early saints were and what they felt… what would it have been like to have been apart of the church when there were 60 members! Thank you for taking the time to share.

  5. BrianJ said

    Joe, thanks for what you’ve done here. As I was reading the manual, I couldn’t get my mind off the sequence of some events leading to the organization of the Church: AP, MP, BoM, Church registered, Apostles called, Kirtland Temple dedicated. I don’t really know why that stuck with me, so I plan to bring it up in class and see what others think.

  6. Brent said

    Joe, What differences are there between the 1st presedency when Joseph Smith was the prophet, and after his death?

  7. Robert C. said

    Regarding your question of violence, I think the most common response you’d get in the Church would be that the devil wants to stop the work b/c it’s true. I think there’s merit in that response, esp. if it’s elaborated on in terms of the way the situation (i.e., the wordly kingdom) is actually challenged by the truth procedure of the Restoration—kind of a D&C 121 effect, that the truth will undermine the authority of those who hold authority and desire it for authority’s sake.

    At the same time, I’ve been wondering a fair bit about the sense in which the Kingdom of God can simply be built in the midst of the worldly kingdom. I’ve been reading Bryan Christopher’s Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower. Christopher has an interesting and well-supported thesis that the OT and NT are consistent in teaching that worldly powers are “ordained by God” in the sense that we should obey them, but that they also have responsibilities to establish justice and peace, and if they do not fulfill these duties, then the prophets will call them to repentance and they are subject to critique (and, possibly, disobedience in such cases).

    But Christopher focuses on the Christian’s duty toward worldly power, not the reverse case which you are asking about, and I’m anxious to draw more thoughts from you on this. More specifically, I don’t understand how you can suggest that persecution is inevitable, and yet you don’t want to call those who want to build Adam-ondi-Ahman a party—in what sense is it not a party if others take up the opposite position (of wanting to oppose those who build Adam-ondi-Ahman, doesn’t the opposition de facto create two parties?)?

  8. joespencer said

    Robert, I’ll have to give you a promise on this one (so that I can get to the Alma 32 project this morning!).

    Brent, a brief word of response.

    The First Presidency was organized in 1832, three years previous to the organization of the Twelve. It was understood then (and ought still, I think, to be understood) as a quorum entirely separate from the Twelve, this latter having its parallel in the Standing Quorum in Zion. The First Presidency was understood as a quorum that presided over the two governing quorums of twelve (the Twelve Apostles and the Standing High Council). After Missouri essentially disappeared for Joseph, he more or less disassembled the First Presidency, albeit through a series of steps. When Joseph died, the Twelve became the presiding quorum of the Church because there was no Standing High Council and no First Presidency. The Church then went three years without a First Presidency at all. In 1847, when the issue began to be raised, many of the apostles were very opposed to it. Discussion went on for some time, and the question was whether there could be another First Presidency after Joseph’s death. The issue was settled and Brigham became the president of the Church when it was understood that it would only be a temporary quorum: the quorum of the presidency would disband when Joseph’s successor was prepared to take the position. Brigham in fact often made statements about David Hyrum Smith, who he understood to be the next president in line, saying essentially that he was only holding the place until David would repent of his connections with the RLDS Church and come join the saints.

    What seems, then, to have happened (and I’m always very open to counterargument! I’m only piecing things together all the time, so don’t take this as a definitive argument by any means!) is this: the Twelve, as a united quorum, decided to create what might be called an “Acting-as-First-Presidency,” which has continued down until the present. If that is to point to some distance between the First Presidency in which Joseph stood as president and the First Presidencies since then, it is not to point to much of one: the acting president of the Twelve is no less authoritative than the actual president. So what I’m saying should not be taken in any way as a suggestion that the Twelve did something inappropriate, or that the First Presidency today or yesterday is somehow “less true” than the one Joseph set up. It is merely to point out that there is some difference in its structural relationship to the priesthood and in a few particulars of office.

    Does that make sense?

  9. BrianJ said

    Joe, very helpful summary, though I’m not sure about this line:

    “…an “Acting-as-First-Presidency,” which has continued down until the present.”

    By not sure, I mean that I’m not sure whether at some point the 12 collectively said, “Okay, this First Presidency thing we have going now is from now on to be regarded as the same as the original one that Joseph headed.” Surely this topic at least came up during the Woodruff/Canon/Grant/et al “disputation” era. At any rate, the First Presidency today does not portray itself—and the Church as a whole does not view it—as anything different than a bona fide First Presidency.

  10. joespencer said


    Very good points, and I certainly agree with your last statement. In fact, I not only agree that the First Presidency doesn’t portray itself as otherwise than a bona fide First Presidency, I would go further to say that it isn’t otherwise: I entirely believe that the First Presidency is a bona fide First Presidency. My point is to suggest that there has been a shift in structural function between what Joseph called and what we usually call the First Presidency. I anticipate that changing when (if? as some people suggest) we eventually involve ourselves again in a Missouri-located Zion, etc.

    But to respond more directly to the Woodruff/Cannon/Grant/et al discussion: yes, I agree. And I have not looked closely enough at Lorenzo Snow’s revelation in the Salt Lake Temple at the time he became the president of the presiding Twelve. What might Christ have said (we have the story only because a daughter of President Snow recounted his mentioning it to her)? And again, Jan Shipps’s reading of the unique role of Joseph F. Smith in the history of the Church—something that can’t really be denied, I think: D&C 138, the second manifesto, the Smoot hearings, the three First Presidency statements on doctrine, the first signifiant post-Brigham changes to the endowment, the revelation on correlation, etc., etc., etc., all point in the direction of a kind of rehabilitation of the Church under President Smith). And yet, until there is a Standing Council, I’m not sure that the First Presidency can be what it was under Joseph. That is, we are and remain an unanchored Church in the wilderness, under the direction of the Twelve because we are abroad still.

    Much to think about. But I do hope this much is clear: I do not see any of the differences I’m asserting, nor our distance from Jackson County, Missouri, to be the sign of any kind of apostasy or failure on the part of the Brethren! In fact, I say all of this, as I understand things, to their defense against claims like Quinn’s in The Mormon Hierarchy: The Origins of Power, where there is a kind of muddle at the time of Joseph’s death, followed by advocacy and dispute, and settled by a quasi-veiled change in hierarchical structure. I think things are much clearer, honest, and straightforward than that, if we only take a look at the scriptures, etc.

    Hope this is clear.

  11. BrianJ said

    much clearer, Joe. You’re saying that the current First Presidency is not exactly the same as the first First Presidency because there is no Missouri-Zion or Standing Council (among other things).

  12. joespencer said

    Yup. That’s the primary point I’m trying to make: it’s a structural question, not a question of legitimacy at all.

  13. Robert C. said

    Joe, do you think “the Church in the wilderness” is apolitical because it’s still in the wilderness, but that this will change once a Standing Council is established? On the one hand, it seems there’s a not-too-uncommon belief among Mormons that when Zion is established we will live under a theocratic regime. Another, different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) belief seems to key in on Joseph Smith’s statement that the Constitution would hang by a thread but be saved by the elders of Israel—see 6 May 1843 discourse in Ehat & Cook, footnote 1, or the chapter on “Country: The Constitution: Elders of Israel” in Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. I’m not sure there’s any particular story that’s been proposed along these lines, but my sense is that the general belief is something like the following: there will be lots of calamities in the last days including economic disaster in the U.S. and that the Constitution will be in particular jeopardy then and the elders of Israel will play a significant role in defending the Constitution and its underlying principles—all of this will occur sometime before the theocratic version of Zion is established, which may or may not occur immediately after the main events of the Second Coming occur (as, say, BRM has generally outlined them).

    I’m just trying to get you, Joe, to respond to the earlier question about politics, by sketching what I expect is a counter view for you to respond to (a view that I think used to be somewhat common, say during Pres. Benson’s tenure, but probably much less common now)….

  14. joespencer said

    Thanks, Robert, for returning to your question, and thanks for this (more helpful) way of putting it.

    Inasmuch as “political” means “statist” or “related to dispute and advocacy over inclusion,” I don’t think Mormonism will (maybe I should say: should) ever be political. But inasmuch as “political” has reference to fidelity to an (ahistorical) event, I think Mormonism is through and through political.

    This is not, of course, to suggest that Mormonism somehow escapes the political, but that it doesn’t work according to it, that it effectively ignores it. But everything Mormonism does can still, of course, be read or interpreted politically. There is inevitably a politics of Mormonism, but to sever that politics from the apolitical fidelity of Mormonism to the event (of Adam-ondi-Ahman, for example) is to miss what orients that politics.

    So will the Kingdom be built in the midst of a historico-political world? Absolutely. In fact, I think it must be: fidelity to the event amounts, in the end, to a radical reworking of the situation, and hence, of the historico-political world. The new Mormon history is thus doing the right project the wrong way: we very much ought to be writing history, but we ought to be doing it radically.

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