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RS/MP Lesson 28: “Missionary Service: A Holy Calling, a Glorious Work” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 9, 2009

I want to take this lesson in exactly reverse order.

We seek opportunities to teach the gospel and bear testimony of its truthfulness.

This last section in the lesson (pp. 333-336) gives a few examples of Joseph Smith’s missiological opportunism: wherever he was, he took advantage of the situation to preach the gospel. We find him in New York City taking advantage of a chance conversation, in Michigan preaching in a school house, in Missouri teaching those who scorned him as he was taken prisoner, and in Carthage Jail the day before his martyrdom announcing his testimony to the guards on duty. And then still more: “If they reject us they shall have our testimony, for we will write it and leave it upon their doorsteps and windowsills.” (p. 334)

The lesson here is obvious.

We teach the gospel as directed by the Spirit.

This much-touted point perhaps seems clear enough. But Joseph gives it an important nuance: the Spirit serves specifically to help us “become all things to all men.” (p. 332) That is, Joseph Smith seems to have seen the role of the Spirit in missionary work as one of helping us to catch the local nuances, the particular circumstances, and the concrete differences that prescribe one’s approach to preaching.

This, it would seem, follows from the idea that the true missionary is constantly learning from the Spirit: “your minds will expand wider and wider, until you can circumscribe the earth and the heavens, reach forth into eternity, and contemplate the mighty acts of Jehovah in all their variety and glory.” (p. 333) The Spirit gives one to know both the whole and the particular, the universal and the singular, the abstract and the concrete.

Missionary work would be impossibly ideological without it.

We teach the simple truths of the gospel with humility and meekness and avoid contending with others about their beliefs.

If we are quick to point out the opportunistic spirit needed in missionary work, and if we almost equally quick to point out the importance of the Holy Ghost’s role in preaching, we are much slower to point out what Joseph Smith is teaching here. I’ll take each paragraph from this section in order.

First, we find Joseph saying: “Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone.” (p. 331) This is a relatively straightforward point, but it can be misunderstood. Joseph here does not declare the “mysteries” bad or unapproachable (indeed, he elsewhere commands the Saints to take them up quite seriously). Rather, he tells missionaries that such topics have no place in preaching the gospel. Why? Quite simply: the mysteries can only be sorted out once one (1) believes (that certain events took place: the First Vision, the visit of Moroni, etc.) and (2) repents (allows the reality of those events to change the way one sees everything else: repentance is, in Greek, metanoia, a new view of the world accomplished through a changing of one’s mind). The task of preaching is to announce the events; the task of the believer is then to see how those events open up the mysteries, etc.

Second, we find Joseph explaining that threats and mysteries fall into the same category, so far as preaching goes: “I spoke and explained concerning the uselessness of preaching to the world about great judgments, but rather to preach the simple Gospel.” (p. 331) One need not fully believe in order to obey out of fear: one might obey just in case, in order not to be caught a fool. Genuinely productive fidelity does not result from hearing that there is a judgment event still to come; it comes from hearing that certain graceful events have already happened.

Third, and now Joseph really gets on to the important stuff: the elders are “not to contend with others on account of their faith, or systems of religion . . . and all who observe [this] not, will pull down persecution upon their heads, while those who do, shall always be filled with the Holy Ghost; this I pronounced as a prophecy.” (p. 331) Not only do we avoid the mysteries and the judgments in our preaching, but also the particularities of the religions of those to whom we preach. Truth does not deconstruct the false, it distracts our attention from it. To fight against falsehood is, as Joseph points out, to invite persecution; to promote the truth is be filled with the Holy Ghost. In preaching, we must concern ourselves with announcing certain events and drawing their immediate conclusions, not with pointing out the flaws in everything else.

Fourth: “Rail not against the sects; neither talk against their tenets. . . . Be meek and lowly of heart, and the Lord God of our fathers shall be with you forevermore.” (p. 331) This would seem to be much the same teaching as the paragraph preceding it, but there is an important difference: to rail against other religions is now clarified as an instance of pride, and as being a kind of departure from the work of the ancients, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the covenant. Humility is key, and humility is the confession of the truth, while pride is the desire to fight against the false.

Fifth, then, Joseph speaks of a “Key”: “Be honest, open, and frank in all your [dealings] with mankind.” (p. 332) The gospel cannot be preached by deception, in any form. If the gospel is indeed true, there is nothing about it that needs to be hidden. Any question asked can be answered honestly, even if the most honest answer is: “I have no idea.” One should be honest about the very weaknesses of the gospel, of the Church: our weakness is our strength. We should be quick to confess that what we’re saying sounds crazy, that there are details we ourselves can’t make sense of, that there are answers we are still waiting for. We should be honest that the gospel requires faith rather than knowledge. Honesty goes a long way in winning the hearts of the guileless, while deception in any form converts only other deceivers.

Finally: “Preach short sermons, make short prayers, and deliver your sermons with a prayerful heart.” (p. 332) Amen.

Missionary service is a holy work; faith, virtue, diligence, and love enable us to do this work.

After the one-liner—“After all that has been said, the greatest and most important duty is to preach the Gospel” (p. 330)—and its important implications (to be converted is to preach!), this section is taken from a single letter written to the Twelve in England in 1840. Because of its somewhat flowery language, one could say that the three paragraphs making up the bulk of this section thus say relatively little; but I think there is something quite remarkable lurking within these teachings. Indeed, I think one finds here the most interesting and important implications to be drawn in this lesson. I will take up these three paragraphs, then, at some length.

The first and third paragraphs (the second full paragraph on p. 330 and the last paragraph that begins on the same page but spills over onto p. 331) are relatively simple: each has one point I’d like to dwell on.

From the third paragraph first: “Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”

Obviously, the immediate historical circumstances are some help in interpretation here: the Twelve had left their families to serve for a time in England (where they baptized 6,000 people!). And so it makes a good deal of sense for Joseph to commend them for not being “content with blessing [their] famil[ies] alone,” ranging instead “through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” Joseph’s teaching confirms the worthiness of their sacrifice.

But I think there is more happening here as well. The timing of all of this is quite significant: the Twelve were sent out at the beginning of the Nauvoo era, and their return would mark significant changes in the structure of the Church. The collective work of the Twelve in England, it is often pointed out, created a previously non-existent sense of profound unity among those in the quorum: through the work they did together in England, the Twelve finally stopped seeking ascendancy over each other, etc. Moreover, they had sacrificed the opportunities to be with their families for a much lengthier period of time than had been experienced in the Church to that point. When they returned to Nauvoo, collectively united and having recognized that there is extra-familial work to do, Joseph announced that it was time to have the Twelve move into their rightful place in the Church hierarchy, standing next in authority to the First Presidency. The hierarchical place we now understand the Twelve to have was born then.

More significantly still, I think, is the fact that this shift in the hierarchical structure of the Church was attended with the bestowal of the endowment, the sealing ordinances, and other, still higher temple ordinances for the Twelve. I don’t think the shift in hierarchical structure and the sacrificial extra-familial focus of a now united quorum can be separated from this bestowal of higher ordinances: the Twelve had lost their life to find it, and they had discovered that their own families were indeed a part of a much broader “whole human race.” That is, they had demonstrated without knowing quite what they were doing that they were willing to live Abrahamically, Adamically.

In other words, I think it is possible to read a kind of hint of all of this in Joseph’s words to the Twelve in England: to range through the whole world seeking to bless the whole human race is to recognize that the whole plan of salvation is a question of Adam’s family, not of one’s own—of universal import, not of local concern. The Twelve were thus prepared for the teachings of the temple, which would involve them in a vision of the plan of salvation that was fully universal and comprehensively Adamic.

So what does all of this have to teach us about missionary work? At the very least, it suggests that the very desire to do missionary work is a manifestation of one’s relationship to the ordinances of the temple. Too often, we talk about the temple as if it focused us solely on our own family, when it actually does the opposite, in a sense: the temple enables us to orient the family to a much larger project, namely, the salvation of the whole family of Adam. Sealing is not a reason to spend all of one’s time with one’s own “eternal” family, but an injunction to take one’s family into the whole world, converting and building up everything possible.

All of this, I think, makes it possible to address the point I’d like to notice in the first paragraph: “Be assured, beloved brethren, that I am no disinterested observer of the things which are transpiring on the face of the whole earth; and amidst the general movements which are in progress, none is of more importance than the glorious work in which you are now engaged.” Joseph was “no disinterested observer,” I would think, because he was concerned for the whole family of Adam. But the most promising work then in progress—still in progress—was—is—missionary work. Only that will exalt the family of Adam. Joseph’s vision was global, universal. I hope ours is too.

Finally, the second paragraph (the last full paragraph on p. 330). Stuck between Joseph’s two hints of the Adamic focus of the missionary work then underway, this teaching is remarkably helpful for both situating Joseph’s odd homefront role in all of this and making sense of how the mission to England fits into the broader scope of early Church history.

However, because this is itself caught up in important ways in the historical issues, it would be best to take this paragraph along with the introductory “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section. The two, then, taken together:

From the Life of Joseph Smith (and the third full paragraph on p. 330).

The introductory part of the lesson describes Joseph’s rather sudden and somewhat surprising opening of the mission to England during the height of the Kirtland difficulties (the “Kirtland apostasy”). This first one, headed up by Heber C. Kimball, baptized 2000 people in the first year and a half, and it was followed by a mission undertaken by the whole quorum of the Twelve, this one baptizing another 6000 people.

Sudden and surprising that Joseph undertook to direct affairs in this way, and yet it undeniably paid off. As the manual points out, Joseph said of this time: “In this state of things, God revealed to me that something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.” (p. 327) Things in Kirtland had become so precarious that it seemed to Joseph as if the Church were at its end. Something new had to be done, and that something new was accomplished with remarkable success. The Nauvoo era, following on these two missions, benefited greatly from the constant flow of converts.

What is so interesting to me is what Joseph says about this whole affair in his letter to the Twelve on p. 330 (the third full paragraph): “The spread of the Gospel throughout England is certainly pleasing; the contemplation of which cannot but afford feelings of no ordinary kind in the bosom of those who have borne the heat and burden of the day, and who were its firm supporters and strenuous advocates in infancy, while surrounded with circumstances the most unpropitious, and its destruction threatened on all hands—like the gallant bark that has braved the storm unhurt, spreads her canvas to the breeze, and nobly cuts her way through the yielding wave, more conscious than ever of the strength of her timbers, and the experience and capability of her captain, pilot, and crew.” I want to take this paragraph apart.

It should be noted that the remarkable success of the missions to England most immediately caused Joseph to reflect on the difficulties faced between 1837 and 1839—including the Kirtland apostasy, the abandonment of the Church by many of its most seasoned supporters, the loss of Missouri entirely, months of wrongful imprisonment for the leaders of the Church, death and worse at the hands of mobs while being driven through the winter to Illinois, the resettlement of an entire people in an unhealthy swamp, and so on. Joseph describes those who have come through that awful time as “hav[ing] borne the heat and burden of the day,” being “firm supporters and strenuous advocates,” etc.

This imagery comes, of course, from the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus tells of a man going out to hire workers at intervals throughout the day, contracting with each for a penny’s pay. At the end of the day, the ones who had worked all day are upset when they see that they are paid no more than those who had only come to work in the vineyard during the last hour of the workday. Joseph here, however, inverts this last moment: those who have worked through the whole day and who have borne all the hardest work, he says, can only feel great joy at the success in England, though the newly converted Saints will not have had to go through the refiner’s fire in Kirtland’s last days and Far West’s still more miserable last days.

But there is an important implication here that can too easily be passed over: those who have abandoned the Church during the the 1837-1839 period are those who would have complained about not receiving more. Or perhaps: he is suggesting that they left less because of the intensity of the experiences the Church was facing than because they were concerned about those who were coming into the Church after them.

This is, I think, an important insight. Joseph seems to have recognized that it was less opposition that caused trouble for the Saints (indeed, opposition generally breeds intense loyalty) than internal change. Those who had been united with Mormonism from its earliest times had watched as revelation after revelation altered what they had at first understood to be the spirit and intention of the Restoration. The collapses in Kirtland and Far West were only the last straw, the slight nudge that was needed to push people out.

And this, I think, is one of the most important points that can be taken from this lesson: revelations come as so many instances of grace, and whenever we balk at them, it is because we believe we are to be saved by our own works. What a climactic beginning to the lesson! :)

4 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 28: “Missionary Service: A Holy Calling, a Glorious Work” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. john jackman said

    And this, I think, is one of the most important points that can be taken from this lesson: revelations come as so many instances of grace, and whenever we balk at them, it is because we believe we are to be saved by our own works. What a climactic beginning to the lesson! I don’t quite understand your point. Would you help me understand this a little better by giving me some clarification? Thanx!

  2. JerryYoung said

    Joe Spenser:
    Thanks for the in-depth results of your study of this chapter.
    Of the many promised blessing of this dispensation is the counsel to not rely on “scripting” what we will say (or do, but to rely on the Holy Ghost to give us what to say when needed. My engineer (retired)training and non-member growing-up experience had me count on my own structured planning and self-reliance. It took quite a while to gain the humility to instead trust in such external guidance. But I have been blessed with many promptings and learned to follow even when “reason” seemed to point alternatives. Many of these were encountered in my career work, family history pursuits, our couple-mission, and recently in employment specialist service.
    Joseph’s teachings endorse the reliance on promptings.
    In the January Ensign, President Eyring’s “Let Us Raise Our Voice of Warning” concludes with four bits of the first section of D&C (4,19,23,28)and cites these as assurance for missionaries.
    Thanks again for your help in pondering this chapter.

  3. joespencer said


    My apologies. I worried that I was wrapping things up too quickly at the end.

    What I mean is that those who walked away from the Church during the 1837-1839 disasters are those who could not receive new revelations as gifts, apparently because they were too concerned to maintain what they had already received. They knew the revelations they had already received, and they were determined to keep all the “rules” they had thus been given, and they thus felt relatively comfortable with themselves because, you could say, they knew what they had to do (what works they had to accomplish) to be saved. But the emergence of a new revelation means that one didn’t know what one had to do to be saved. And so one is faced with a rather uncomfortable alternative: either (1) we are saved by our works, though we don’t know what works have to be done until they are all revealed, and God doesn’t seem to be doing that with the rapidity we’d like; or (2) we are saved by grace (revelations are grace). I would guess that for many who left (or still leave) the Church, since (2) is what we are certainly not after, and because (1) gives us a capricious God, they chose to leave.

    Something like that, anyway.

  4. BillTozer said

    Many thanks for your ‘enlightening’ of my mind concerning the affairs of the early church. We are so used to our present well ordered church we fail to apreciate the rapidly developing young church with new revelation on an almost daily basis – we have seen how modern major changes in policy have sent many spinning out of the church – and through your writings can now see how this would effect the oringinal members.

    I would refer to your handling of the phrase “become all things to all men.” (p. 332) and would ask you put the phrase into the orignial context 1 Cor: 18-23, and 1 Cor: 10:33. Where Paul,surley the most wonderful missionary of all time, says to reach others first you have to make them your friend and you do that by reaching inside of yourself to find a common ground with them – and to please them – having done that you can now present your messsage.

    Read Paul – the original ‘How to make friends and influence people’ example to us all.

    Keep the lessons coming – I enjoy them so much.

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