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RS/MP Lesson 14: “Words of Hope and Consolation at the Time of Death” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on July 14, 2008

I found this lesson at once deeply satisfying and oddly frustrating. To a great extent, this is because its title and general subject matter suggested to me that it would serve a particular purpose for me personally, but it failed for the most part to do so. As such, I focused (and will focus here) on the one stretch of the lesson that escaped that “most part”: the teachings of pages 174-176. I’ll provide a few thoughts on the remainder of the lesson quite briefly at the beginning here, essentially to get those parts out of the way.

The “most part”

“From the Life” in this lesson is little more than a list of deaths Joseph and Emma encountered. They are all quite familiar stories for anyone acquainted with the basics of Joseph’s life. I’ll pass them by entirely here.

Pages 176-178 are given to the extraordinary and infinitely reassuring doctrine that children lost to death during this life will be given to their (exalted) parents in the hereafter to raise. The teaching is beautiful, but more or less the same idea is repeated over and over again in the few pages, so I won’t dwell on it here. (One gets the sense that the editors of the manual were concerned to secure without question the fact that Joseph actually taught this point. Is there some history about this question that I’m not familiar with?)

The final teachings, on pages 178-179, have a few interesting points, but again they seem to me for the most part just to elaborate a well-known doctrine: God has purposes in taking some saints early in their lives, and they have work to do on the other side of the veil. Again, it is a marvelously comforting point, but rather straightforward and well-known. Again I’ll excuse myself from any kind of sustained discussion.

I would like, then, to spend the remainder of my time focused on the first section of Joseph’s teachings in the lesson: pages 174-176.

When beloved family members or friends die, we have great comfort in knowing we will meet them again in the world to come

These three pages of instruction come from only two discourses: the famous King Follett Discourse of April 7th, 1844 and the less famous but equally powerful discourse of April 16th, 1843.

The first paragraph on page 174 comes from the beginning of the former. Joseph began this enormous discourse (of several hours’ length) thus: “Beloved Saints: I will call the attention of this congregation wihle I address you on the subject of the dead.” I think there is already a vital point here: Joseph does not speak on the subject of death but on the subject of the dead. The non-Mormon interpreter of Mormonism Douglas Davies points this out in his book The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Mormons are less concerned with death as such than they are with the dead, and there is something absolutely amazing about this point, perhaps particularly from a philosophical point. A word or two of explanation.

Philosophers have, since at least Socrates and Plato, recognized that death is of enormous philosophical importance: death is what most perfectly distinguishes me from anyone else, since no one can die in my place. As such, it is when I come to realize the reality of my death that I finally claim myself as myself: death authenticates me. (Jan Patocka does a marvelous job of analyzing this point in the history of philosophy.) Socrates said that the most ethical and authentic life amounts to melete thanatou, which could be translated “the practice of death,” “the care of death,” or even (somewhat creatively) “living-for-death.” To live well, one must learn how to die well.

However, some thinkers have begun—and importantly, always in the name of Paul, whether they are atheists or not!—to point out that it is precisely this exaltation of death that may have led philosophy astray from the very beginning. In a sense, this is a Freudian point: one becomes obsessed with death (one develops a “death drive”) precisely because one cannot receive commandments from one’s father(/Father) in the shape of a gift (or grace). That is, living-for-death or authentic/ethical living is a way of avoiding grace in the hopes of remaining in control of one’s self. Of course, the scriptures—and, as pointed out above, especially Paul—preempted Freud on this part by a few thousand years.

Joseph’s shift from death (always meaning “my own death”) to the dead, then, must in my opinion be understood as being grounded in an embracing of life, as odd or ironic as that might sound. That is, for Joseph life is an orientation to the dead. It became clearer and clearer as Joseph taught more and more in the Nauvoo period that the dead cannot be disentangled from the fathers/mothers: love for the dead is an effective reversal of the Oedipal (that is, natural or in Greek psychical) situation in which wo/man finds her/himself. To love the dead is to live, in fact, to live by grace.

This can, of course, be read into the sections I’ve glided over so quickly above. But I want to look now at what Joseph has to say about all of this in the two discourses that make up pages 174-176.

The remainder of the first paragraph on page 174 deserves a bit of attention. Joseph says: “I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas.” I think it is worth noting how subjective this sounds: Joseph does not offer up a revelation, but his ideas, the thoughts he has had. Of course, he goes on immediately to mention the Spirit, but in an importantly peculiar way: “I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas, so far as I have ability, and so far as I shall be inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject.” Notice here that, even as he will says he will speak “as . . . inspired by the Holy Ghost,” he does not exactly say that he will speak what the Spirit inspires him to say, but “as . . . inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject: Joseph receives a kind of ratification from the Spirit to dwell on these ideas, but the ideas are his.

Now, let me be clear on what I’m suggesting by noting this: I do not at all mean to suggest that what Joseph goes on to teach is not true (far from it!), but to point out what it means for Joseph to teach by the Spirit. For Joseph, to teach by the Spirit is not to have words magically provided him from beyond, but to be told in the moment by the Spirit whether or not to share what he has himself worked out of the truth. When he calls on the Holy Ghost a moment later in the same paragraph, it is “so that I may set forth things that are true and which can be easily comprehended by you, and that the testimony may carry conviction to your hearts and minds of the truth of what I shall say.” Joseph is less interested in providing a well-worded bit of revelation than he is of communicating what he has come to understand through his own strugglings with the Lord and with the scriptures. This is, I believe, an important clarification of what Joseph did in his public sermons (and particularly in this King Follett Discourse).

All that said, most of Joseph’s most radical ideas in the King Follett Discourse are not cited in this lesson. Rather, the implications of those ideas are what are included. It is interesting, then, that so much of this first paragraph has been included, especially when it might seem to be beside the point. But I’ll assume, since it appears in the lesson, that there is something to be learned here: might it be that one cannot fully understand what Joseph has to say about the dead without understanding Joseph’s subjective, almost radically subjective, position as teacher? Unless we realize that Joseph is here offering not some kind of “absolute revelation” but what he has come to understand as he has worked through translations, revelations, study, prayer, and suffering, we may treat what he has to say too lightly, or miss its ultimate import. These are teachings that cannot be simply placed before the world as the basics of Mormon metaphysics, or as simple facts to be taken as the ground for Mormon theology: what Joseph teaches in the King Follett Discourse cannot be disentangled from Joseph’s subjective position with respect to the dead.

The second paragraph, then: the dead dwell in a kind of parallel kingdom, “a place where they converse together the same as we do on the earth.” As such, death (as the possibility of the impossibility of being) is obliterated entirely: the dead “are only separated from their bodies for a short season.” Moreover, the death of the wicked is reason for “hope and consolation” according to the third paragraph, and even should be regarded as an “occasion to rejoice” according to the fourth paragraph. Again, this must be understood as inseparably connected to Joseph’s own subjective position with respect to the dead: Joseph is offering up his thoughts, not a revelation or commandment. That is, Joseph is offering up what he has come to understand of the nature of God and wo/man, and he suggests that such an understanding means that death should be a time of rejoicing!!! (The original texts from which paragraph four is derived make it clear that Joseph said this of not only Elder King Follett, but all the righteous dead. It has been a bit bungled in the transition to the History of the Church, and thence into the manual.)

Joseph’s subjective position here is again placed center stage in the first full paragraph on page 175: “I am authorized to say, by the authority of the Holy Ghost, that you have no occasion to fear,” etc. This is something Joseph wants to say, and the Spirit has given him license to do so. The second paragraph on that same page finally comes back to Joseph’s very own situation: “I have a father, brothers, children, and friends who have gone to a world of spirits.” But Joseph anticipates meeting them shortly (this discourse was given only two and half months before Joseph’s death). Death is, for him, an opportunity to meet up with the righteous dead, to enjoy “an eternity of felicity” with them, and to rest from persecution, etc.

Joseph’s doctrines—and they are unquestionably his—make it possible to see what death is, or really, make it possible to see that death is nothing, or at least, nothing but comfort.

In the remaining paragraphs of pages 175-176, Joseph describes the scene of reunion that will occur at the resurrection: “If tomorrow I shall be called to lie in yonder tomb, in the morning of the resurrection let me strike hands with my father, and cry, ‘My father,’ and he will say, ‘My son, my son,’ as soon as the rock rends and before we come out of our graves.” Interestingly, Joseph goes on to describe this scene as somewhat surprising: “And when the voice calls for the dead to arise, suppose I am laid by the side of my father, what would be the first joy of my heart? To meet my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, and when they are by my side, I embrace them and they me.” Joseph doesn’t picture himself being swept up into the arms of an arriving Jesus first, but first to mingle with his loved ones, to mingle with the saints. “The expectation of seeing my friends in the morning of the resurrection cheers my soul and makes me bear up against the evils of life.” To rise from the dead is not to be raptured away to heaven, but to join one’s loved ones and together to meet the Savior.

It is thus that Joseph speaks of “learn[ing] how to live and to die.” He compares it to something of a sleepover: “When we lie down we contemplate how we may rise in the morning; and it is pleasing for friends to lie down together, locked in the arms of love, to sleep and wake in each other’s embrace and renew their conversation.” And so it will be in the resurrection: we must learn to die in the middle of praising God together, to die entirely engaged in the work, so that we will rise to do the same. This must be what Joseph means when he says: “This has been a warning voice to us all to be sober and diligent and lay aside mirth, vanity and folly, and to be prepared to die tomorrow.” We need to get to work, so that we can lie down in the midst of our labors, and rise again in the same way.

Again, this entirely distracts the “individual” or “individualizing” meaning of death: death is but another night’s sleep, and if we lie down “locked in the arms of love,” we will so rise in the morning as well. So much more important than our own deaths is the death of our loved ones, and we direct our entire world toward them: so far as we can exalt them, we will find ourselves rising in “the morning of the resurrection” with them. We without them cannot, of course, be saved, nor they without us. The living and the dead must be completely intertwined.

And so we are called upon by the fathers and mothers who have received ancient covenants, who whisper to us in the texts they left behind. Our relative ignorance of the scriptures, and our refusal to read them seriously and constantly, is a sign of how focus we are on our own deaths, of how little we love the dead without whom we cannot be saved. Our constant postponement of the work of the temple, of seeking out our dead to perform ordinances on their behalf, is another sign of how much more we are concerned with our own (meaningless) deaths than we are with exalting the dead who have gone before. Our reticence to do anything like missionary work is a show of how blind we are to the fact that such a great majority of the people we see every day are more or less the walking dead, and we are so very wrapped up in our own pointless lives, our own pointless livings-toward-death, that we take no notice of the fact that these people all around us need life. Again and again and again, we reveal that we are obsessed with (our own) death and are not at all interested in life. Again and again and again, we manifest that we are not interested in the exaltation of which Joseph Smith spoke.

Indeed, all too often, it seems that we find Joseph’s words comforting just because we think they mean that we can have all our selfish desires fulfilled in the resurrection. But, given Joseph’s subjective position in teaching these most remarkable truths, it is clear that we are entirely resisting the influence of the Holy Ghost that authorized him to tell us things he had learned only through so much tribulation and work. We are, as we tend always to do, treating lightly the things we have received.

But I hope we can rethink a few things.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 14: “Words of Hope and Consolation at the Time of Death” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Nice thoughts, Joe. In a real sense, when we do not fully walk up to our covenants, we suffer our lives to be taken. We show ourselves not to be walking an eternal path, but a path where that life is forfeit. To my chagrin, I know I’ve spent way too much of my own time here on earth walking that dark path.

  2. Hans said

    Great post and insights. Keeping in mind the theme of Joseph’s obsession with the dead and not death itself helps me understand better why he encouraged people to not wear black to funerals. As you so eloquently put it, he viewed death as a blessing and natural progression to exaltation.

  3. Hawkgrrrl said

    Wow. I too have been thinking a lot abt JS’s communal salvation focus. You are spot on. Frankly, we don’t hear enough of this. Thanks for help on a tough lesson.

  4. sscbm said

    Thanks for your insights, Joe. In the response from Hans, he tells of Joseph encouraging people not to wear black to funerals. Do you or anyone else know of a reference I can cite stating this? Thanks for the lesson help; it’s greatly appreciated.

  5. robf said

    I’m struck by something from D&C 121:44, that about showing a faithfulness stronger than the chords of death. There seems to be something powerful there. In re-reading the story of the missionary Ammon, perhaps it was this faithfulness stronger than the chords of death that was able to penetrate the heart of Lamoni and prepare him to hear the gospel message. We seem to be called to a position in respect to death that is different from that of the world, and that we need to be able to show that, and when we do, the power of that will speak to the hearts of others.

    That’s the gospel, right? The good news that is stronger than the chords of death?

  6. Kim M. said

    That’s certainly one of our favorite missionary tactics.

    I’m going to go ahead and assume that you mean “cords” of death, not “chords” (despite my preference for the latter!)

  7. robf said

    We just had this lesson on Sunday. I was struck how the material affirmed the teaching that children who die will be resurrected as children and raised to adulthood in righteousness after the resurrection. In the past this teaching was kind of murky and could easily be relegated to the realm of speculation or folk doctrine. But here it is, reemphasized in an official Church publication in the 21st Century. Its almost like a brand new revelation!

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