Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 19: “Stand Fast through the Storms of Life” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on October 2, 2008

I think this is the most straightforward lesson I’ve yet read in this manual. This is at least in part due to the fact that almost every quotation is drawn from pre-Nauvoo sources (primarily letters, interestingly); but it is perhaps also a consequence of the nature of the subject. What follows, then, is: (1) an analysis of the construction of the lesson itself, tied to a brief discussion of the overarching topic of the lesson; and (2) an analysis of especially the first section of the “Teachings” portion of the lesson.

Of the lesson’s construction

As I mentioned above, this lesson cites primarily pre-Nauvoo sources: of the twenty-three sources cited in the course of the lesson, only four are from Joseph’s Nauvoo sermons or writings. The result is that most of the lesson focuses on a very particular kind of “storm.” The teachings primarily concern the sort of persecution the saints encountered in Ohio and Missouri—not the rather complex sort of persecution the saints subsequently faced in Nauvoo and especially in Utah.

A second point: as also mentioned above, it is interesting that so much of this lesson’s material is drawn from letters, rather than sermons, editorials, or other manuscripts. Nine of the twenty-three sources are letters written by the Prophet—a much higher proportion of the lesson than in any previous lesson in the manual. This emphasizes, I think, the highly personal or interpersonal nature of the topic under discussion: encouragement to suffer through tribulation is offered in the moment it is needed and to the person specifically who is suffering through such trials. There is relatively little reason to make this subject the theme of a public discourse.

Of course, this last point could be taken to suggest that there is relatively little reason to make this subject the theme of a chapter in a published manual. The relatively short length of this particular lesson, the less-than-startling material it contains, and the simple non-presence of Nauvoo teachings in the lesson—all of this points to the fact that there is indeed relatively littler eason to make this subject the theme of an entire chapter or lesson in the manual.

Or rather, might it be said that the way the lesson is itself constructed ought to tell us something about how we as a people tend to talk about trials? Of forty-seven lessons in the manual, only a single chapter is dedicated to what all too often becomes the primary theme of our own gospel discussions: trials in our personal lives. And the one lesson that is dedicated to the subject is (1) quite short, (2) emphatic about the point that encouragement is given in a relatively personal, individualized way, and (3) somewhat disconcerting in that it suggests that Joseph and the early saints went through much more difficult tribulations than do we currently. Might we read this lesson as offering a kind of corrective to our over-emphasis on personal trials?

Indeed, the “storms of life” to which Joseph refers are generally questions of religious persecution: the difficulties faced in Ohio and Missouri are usually what is under discussion. The attitude in such circumstances to which Joseph summons the saints is rather straightforward: though “We know not what we shall be called to pass through before Zion is delivered and establish,” yet “Our trust is in God, and we are determined, His grace assisting us, to maintain the cause and hold out faithful to the end.” (p. 233) This kind of fidelity opens up real possibilities where none appear: “Frequently, when to all human appearances, nothing but death presented itself, and destruction [seemed] inevitable, has the power of God been manifest, His glory revealed, and deliverance effected.” (p. 234)

But that said, I want to turn to one particular section with what seems to me the richest theological implications in the lesson.

Those who follow Jesus Christ will be tried and must prove themselves faithful to God

If there is anywhere in the lesson where the earlier and later teachings of the Prophet are juxtaposed in a revealing way, it is in this first section of the “Teachings” portion. This section quotes six different sources, each quotation being a paragraph in the lesson. The first two of these quotations are from letters written in 1833; the third and the sixth are both from discourses given during the Nauvoo era; and the fourth and fifth are both from letters written right on the border between the earlier and the later (they come from letters written by Joseph from Liberty Jail). Taking all of these together, it should be possible to sort out in at least a preliminary way how Joseph’s discussions of persecution and how it is to be handled changed over the course of his prophetic career.

The 1833 quotations are quite similar in their dependence on Revelation 7:13-14, a passage that connects having one’s robes washed white in the blood of the lamb with passing through great tribulation. Both of these teachings were written into letters written by the Prophet from Kirtland to leaders in Jackson County, Missouri, and right at the height of the first persecutions in the latter location. There is a kind of theoretical detachment about the teachings: though Joseph had himself faced serious persecution at this point (cf. the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section!), his response to the pleading leaders of the Missouri saints is relatively dispassionate, perhaps even formulaic. Joseph seems to have been taking comfort—perhaps even in his own bouts with persecution—in the Apocalypse’s claim that tribulation is a necessary step along the way to salvation.

This early theoretical detachment, however, disappears in the two quotations from Joseph’s Liberty Jail letters (paragraphs four and five). The abstract generalities of the Kirtland/Missouri era (“all people,” “he that will,” etc.) become a concrete “we” and even “I”: “Beloved brethren, we say unto you . . . we have been tried”; “For my part, I think I never could have felt as I now do, if I had not suffered the wrongs that I have suffered.” Moreover, there is a shift from a kind of abstract pattern justified merely by its presence in scripture (one must suffer tribulation to be cleansed) to a rather interesting theological speculation, one that is common to both of the Liberty Jail letters quoted in the lesson. From the fourth paragraph: if we “shall have kept the faith, . . . it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham, and that the ancients will not have whereof to boast over us in the day of judgment, as being called to pass through heavier afflictions; that we may hold an even weight in the balance with them.” This linking up of the modern with the ancient is, of course, a rather consistent pattern in Joseph’s teachings, whether early or late. He articulates it in the fifth paragraph as well: “Trials will only give us the knowledge necessary to understand the minds of the ancients.” What is at work in this curious teaching?

Elsewhere in Joseph’s theology, one finds the connection between the ancients and the moderns to be a question of angelic visitation (the ancients are sent to visit the moderns to bestow upon them keys, etc.) or of sealing ordinances (the ancients must be sealed to the moderns through the ordinances of the temple). On occasion, though, the connection seems to be more a question of a pattern, a thematic repetition: what the ancients did, the moderns must do, if they are to receive like blessings. The present teaching seems to be a variation on this last way of viewing the connection, but it is unique in a number of ways. What is perhaps most striking is that there is a kind of balancing: Joseph desires to “hold an even weight in the balance with them.” There is a kind of matching up of ancients and moderns through the pairing of experiences: if the moderns do not suffer as the ancients, then what?

But whatever can be read into these teachings, they are not the end of the trajectory. The third and sixth paragraphs of this section of the lesson provide teachings from the Prophet after the Nauvoo era had finally begun. From the former: “Men have to suffer that they may come upon Mount Zion and be exalted above the heavens.” Here again it is a question of the ancients and the moderns, but it is a question of their meeting on Mount Zion. The theme is that of Adam-Ondi-Ahman, perhaps especially as Joseph articulated it in his “Before 8 August 1839” discourse. There, at the last day, the ancients and the moderns will meet up, seal up the whole of the human family as Christ appears to receive the kingdom from Adam, etc.

Which is to say that it all becomes a part of the Abrahamic covenant, associated with a massive trial. As the sixth paragraph explains: “It is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance int he Celestial Kingdom of God.” Persecution and suffering is a part of the experience of proving faithful to the covenantal promise.

Taking the entire trajectory traced in this singular section, one could say that what Joseph at first identifies as a kind of abstract scriptural pattern eventually becomes something one must live in order to make some kind of a connection with the ancients, a connection that is eventually clarified as being caught up in the purposes of the covenant and its eventual consummation at Adam-Ondi-Ahman.

Trials in our everyday lives? Or something much greater, perhaps?

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