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RS/MP Lesson 16: “Revelation and the Living Prophet” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on August 10, 2008

A number of historical facts open this lesson, collectively painting up a picture of how much access the saints had to the revelations of the Prophet up until the publication of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. I think they more or less stand, though, without comment, so I will turn to the actual teachings of the lesson.

God has always guided His people and His Church through revelation

The fourth paragraph on page 195 seems to me to provide a basic framework for approaching the remainder of the lesson. There, Joseph quotes what might be said to have been his favorite scripture during the Nauvoo era: Revelation 19:10, which states that the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus. Joseph comments: “Whenever salvation has been administered, it has been by testimony.” The paragraph as a whole, in fact, essentially equates revelation with testimony: revelation is testimony. What does this tell us about revelation?

The question, really, is this: what is testimony? Note: not “what is a testimony?” but “what is testimony?” Testimony is always a question of an event or an encounter: someone has seen or encountered something, has heard or witnessed something, and so can offer up a word about what has been seen or encountered, heard or witnessed. Testimony is one’s subjective announcement that something happened or that something is. And revelation, it seems quite obvious to me, takes the same shape or structure: to offer up a revelation is to testify to what one has seen or encountered, heard or witnessed. That is, revelation is fundamentally subjective: it cannot be offered up as an objective fact, but as a subjective truth.

Of course, one only offers up testimony because what one has seen or encountered, heard or witnessed, in some sense breaks with what is generally known: there would be no reason to testify if what one has been privy to were already common knowledge. Testimony—and hence, revelation—breaks with the ordinary, with the everyday, with the known or indexed. Truth, in fact, always breaks with the known facts, with things as presently understood: one subjectively testifies and so breaks the hegemony of the objective. Revelation is always progressive, always functions as a recasting of what is objectively known.

These preliminary comments, it seems to me, open the way toward reading the remainder of the lesson. It is precisely in that revelation breaks with what we think we already know that “one truth revealed from heaven is worth all the sectarian notions in existence.” And it is in that revelation is tied to the event that it is the “rock” upon the Church is built. And it is in this sense that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded upon direct revelation.” And it is in that objective knowledge will never be enough that we believe in all God has revealed, all that He now reveals, and that we believe He will reveal still more.

Two other teachings from this first section, though, deserve a word or two of further comment. First, in the second paragraph of the section, Joseph explains that there are two ways we try to get out of revelation: “We may spiritualize” or “express opinion.” The latter, I think, is simple enough: we tend, as Latter-day Saints, to oppose revealed truth to so much opinion. But I wonder whether we realize that we are far more apt to spiritualize and consider what we say as if it were revelation than we are to express opinion and regard it as authoritative. That is, while we tend to recognize the distinction between opinion and revelation quite easily, it is far more difficult for us to recognize the massive difference between the spiritualized and the revealed. I think this deserves more thought.

Second, the last two paragraphs of the section are of some interesting. In the first of these, Joseph offers a kind of remnant theology that ties the ancients to the moderns through the question of revelation. Very interesting. In the second, Joseph gives a brief summary of the events that make up the grounds for the revelations of this dispensation. Not only does this confirm the evental structure of revelation, but one ought to pay attention to the historical implications of the order in which Joseph presents the list of events. Also very interesting.

The President of the Church is appointed to receive revelation from God for the Church; individuals may receive revelation for their own responsibilities

This section can be broken into two major parts: the first paragraph (the second full paragraph on page 196) and the last three paragraphs (the last two full paragraphs on page 197 and the one that spans pages 197-198) on the one hand, and the rest of the section on the other hand. I’ll deal with the first of these two parts first.

These several paragraphs all deal in one way or another with what might be called “council theology.” That is, they deal with the role or place of councils in the Church and Kingdom. The first of these paragraphs in fact deals with the most divine council of all: “the grand rule of heaven is that nothign should ever be done on earth without revealing the secret to his servants the prophets, agreeable to Amos 3:7.” It is often pointed out that the Hebrew word (sod) translated “secret” in that passage from Amos literally means “council”: God does nothing except He reveals His council (not counsel, but council!) to His servants, the prophets. This is agreeable as well to Joseph’s many discourses in Nauvoo, where no messenger is sent but by Adam’s authority, as He presides over the council of the fathers/mothers in heaven as now constituted, etc. This begins to establish something of the order of the kingdom.

This ordering of things continues in the three paragraphs that conclude the section: “The Presidents or First Presidency are over the Church; and revelations of the mind and will of God to the Church, are to come through the Presidency. This is the order of heaven, and the power and privilege of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” This is of some importance, given the statements in the Doctrine and Covenants about ancient councils of three, etc.: the First Presidency plays a much more unique role in the work of the Kingdom than we often talk about, and this passage begins to point in that direction. These first two points, then, establish something like the two sides of the veil: there is the council in heaven (presided over by Adam, etc.), and there is the principal council on earth (the First Presidency), and they are in constant contact. The last two paragraphs then provide a kind of framework for the ordering of the “remainder”: “It is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instructions for those in authority, higher than themselves.” Everyone else, that is, falls into a particular level in a necessary hierarchy.

But I would like to turn to the larger bulk of this section: the passage beginning with the third full paragraph on page 196 and running through the sixth paragraph on page 197. These all deal with the conference of September 1830 and the deception of Hiram Page.

It is common enough for historians to portray this event as the one in which Joseph Smith realized that he would have to reign in his followers, that is, as the one in which Joseph decided effectively that he would have to have some kind of absolute power in the Church. However, these very paragraphs provide a very different understanding of things. First of all, it is important to note in the large paragraph on page 196 what Page’s “revelations” were about: Joseph describes them as being “entirely at variance with the order of God’s house, as laid down in the New Testament, as well as in our late revelations.” Page’s “revelations” were not superfluous prophecies, esoteric doctrines, or historical texts translated anew; they were replacements of the Articles and Covenants of the Church.

Second, the whole affair seems to have had more to do with the relationship between Joseph and Oliver than between Joseph and the “average” member of the Church: D&C 28 (from which the passage in the lesson liberally quotes) commands Oliver to sort the matter out; it does not speak directly to Hiram. Moreover, the revelation also attempts to establish a Moses-Aaron relationship between Joseph and Oliver; but this was nothing new: the revelations to Joseph and Oliver had been working out this kind of relationship between them for over a year. The whole revelatory affair seems to have had more to do with Oliver’s attempt to invert the relationship God had set them in than with Joseph’s suddenly realized need to keep rival prophets under his thumb.

What is most crucial is that Joseph’s role as prophet at this point was quite different from what Hiram Page was claiming to have: Hiram was trying to reorganize the Church, but Joseph is declared to have received “the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed.” These are two entirely different orders. The timing is important, especially given the order of events laid out in the last paragraph of the previous section: Joseph and Oliver had only just received the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and Oliver was already misunderstanding what those were. The whole situation is rather delicate and complicated, but the point should be clear: the conference was a question of Oliver’s training, not of Joseph’s ascendency.

The President of the Church conveys the word of God to us for our day and generation

The bulk of this section is given to a rather famous story about Brigham Young: asked to testify by Joseph, Brigham said “There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now, when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me,” etc. The point, of course is quite clear.

But it must, of course, not be taken in the wrong way. It is perhaps too easy to take Brigham’s statement to mean something like: “We don’t need to study the scriptures seriously, because we have General Conference every six months”; or “If the Brethren aren’t saying it, it doesn’t matter whether it can be found in the scriptures, it is either irrelevant for now or simply not true.” These kinds of attitude of course entirely miss the point. Brigham was not responding to those who study the scriptures but those who would “confine” themselves to the scriptures alone: it would be a great mistake to take only the scriptures and so to reject the modern prophets, but it would be just as great a mistake only to take the modern prophets and to reject the scriptures. The written and the spoken word must work together.

We sustain the President of the Church and other Church leaders by praying for them and heeding their counsel

This section opens with a description of the sustaining of the leading councils during the Kirtland Temple dedication. Most interesting, however, is Joseph’s statement on page 200, recorded by Eliza R. Snow: “Joseph Smith said, if God has appointed him, and chosen him as an instrument to lead the Church, why not let him lead it through? . . . Does [God] not reveal things differently from what we expect?” That, it seems to me, is a remarkably profound lesson: if we hear the prophet and learn nothing, we are apparently deaf. Just like: if we read the scriptures, and we are not shocked by what we find there, we are entirely missing the point. The words of prophets, ancient and modern, are supplementary to what we already know, though it is too easy for us to ignore the shocking reality of what is being said, and so to pass it off as something we’ve heard before.

The opposite attitude is described int he second paragraph on the same page: “We trust that you desire counsel, from time to time, and that you will cheerfully conform to it, whenever you receive it from a proper source.”

Those who reject the living prophet will not progress and will bring upon themselves the judgments of God

This last section is perhaps the most interesting. Its theme in the first few paragraphs is this: “But they could not endure the new revelation: the old we believe because our fathers did, but away with new revelations.” Note that the rejection Joseph describes here is not exactly a question of the content of the new revelation: it is not that one cannot handle what is said; it is rather that one cannot handle that something new is said. Another way to put the same point is this: what disturbs us about new revelation is primarily the fact that it questions what we take as already established, that it questions the establishment. As Joseph says in the following paragraph “It was too much. It showed the corruptions of that generation.”

This last point is indeed important: running like a scarlet thread through the revelations of the Restoration is the idea that revelation is primarily a revelation of wickedness, that the purpose of seer stones and the like is to put on display the wickedness of this or that generation. Revelation is disturbing less for the new it introduces than for the implicit critique it wagers against us: we receive revelation not as a step forward, but as a reason to be ashamed of the past. And of course, since we don’t like to be ashamed of the past, revelation tends to cause violence.

Indeed, the last two pages of the lesson primarily gather about a question something like the following: How or why was Jesus crucified?

People have always, says Joseph, “cherished, honored and supported knaves, vagabonds, hypocrties, impostors, and the basest of men,” in fact, received them—the “false prophets”—as “true” prophets. These, we think, do not question the establishment, do not critique us or tell us we’ve done wrong, certainly never ask us to change in any way. And so we cherish, honor, and support them. Joseph says, Dostoevsky like, that our own “generation would reject [Christ] for being so rough” in His teachings. We are, Joseph says, “too wise to be taught,” and we effectively “seal up the door of heaven by saying, So far God may reveal and I will believe.” But, as Joseph explains, “Jesus was crucified on this principle.”

This is serious business. We are interested in the scriptures only insofar as the confirm what we already know, and we will open them only to cite proof for our position. We listen to the prophets as a kind of token that we are Latter-day Saints, but if they tell us to change, we wonder where they get the nerve to command. And yet: “Jesus was crucified on this principle.”

What are the prophets saying that we’re missing? How are they unsettling our conformity, our comfort, our complacence? I hope we open our eyes and ears….

4 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 16: “Revelation and the Living Prophet” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Hawkgrrrl said

    Wow. Great lesson, one we all need.

  2. […] has to move to Missouri).  For those who are teaching, you may also enjoy the excellent essay at Feast on the Word blog by […]

  3. Robert C. said

    I missed some of our lesson on Sunday, so it’s easy to give it the benefit of the doubt, but the part of it that I heard started down a path that made me rather nervous—realizing many of the fears that Joe expressed above. In particular, the emphasis was a rather lopsided emphasis on following the revelations and counsel that our leaders receive, without any discussion of the importance of seeking revelation for ourselves in our own spheres of stewardship.

    Since I missed this counter-point discussion in the lesson (that I hope was discussed; cf. p. 197), let me express here my concern that we focus on Brigham Young’s statement about living prophets as a way of excusing ourselves for engaging in serious study of scripture. I think it’s far too easy for us to obey in a way that is slothful, to obey in a way that is basically relieved that someone else is telling us what to do because it relieves us of the responsibility of trying to seek revelation for ourselves. Joseph Smith’s example, as well as Nephi’s, was to seek out God themselves. Nephi esp., following Lehi’s dream, is a good example of how we can do this in a way that does not challenge Lehi’s patriarchal/priesthood authority. This is the model of obedience we should emulate, not just sitting back waiting to be “command[ed] in all things” (D&C 58:27) rather than “first seek[ing] to obtain [God’s] word” (D&C 11:21), “seeking diligently to learn wisdom and to find truth” (D&C 97:1), “seek[ing] the face of the Lord always” (D&C 101:38), etc.

  4. […] has to move to Missouri).  For those who are teaching, you may also enjoy the excellent essay at Feast on the Word blog by […]

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