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RS/MP Lesson 40: “How Glorious Are Faithful, Just, and True Friends” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on July 20, 2009

So far as Joseph’s own line was concerned, he was a friend and thrived on friendship. The stories in the “From the Life” portion of the lesson are telling. Richard Bushman gave a forum address a few years back entitled “The Character of Joseph Smith” that nicely fleshes out this subject. (It can be purchased in various formats here.) But I want to leave these experiences and general observations to the side so that I can deal directly with what Joseph has to say in the “Teachings” part of the lesson. There, I think we get a very interesting picture of what friendship meant for Joseph.

True friends ease one another’s sorrows and remain faithful even in times of adversity.

I think the contents of this first section of teachings more or less bears out the title assigned to it. The words that make up this section are taken from Joseph’s exilic reflections on his truest friends (the circumstances are described in the “From the Life” section and in the italicized heading for the first paragraph on page 461). But what strikes me the most in this first section is something that almost escapes one’s notice.

In the third paragraph on page 461, Joseph addresses Hyrum directly (he is writing this in his “journal”—I’ll clarify “journal” in a moment): “Hyrum, thy name shall be written in the Book of the Law of the Lord, for those who come after thee to look upon, that they may pattern after thy works.” On page 462, in the last paragraph beginning on that page, Joseph describes what he’s doing: “I find my feelings . . . towards my friends revived, while I contemplate the virtues and the good qualities and characteristics of the faithful few, which I am now recording in the Book of the Law of the Lord.” Everything Joseph writes in this section was recorded in this peculiar book, the Book of the Law of the Lord. And that is a point that deserves some attention.

James Allen nicely summarizes the historical Book of the Law of the Lord: “For the most part, this large, leather-bound record contains notations of consecrations and tithing for the building of the temple, and 370 pages, covering the period from September 12, 1842, to May 4, 1844, is in William Clayton’s handwriting. But it also contains some manuscript sources used in compiling the History, and about sixty-one pages of this material were written by Clayton, mostly in the third person, and then later transposed to the first person for the sake of the published history. Some of this, however, is also direct dictation from Joseph Smith. A letter to Emma Smith, for example, is there, though presumably Emma received the original and Clayton merely made a copy of it before it was sent. In addition, certain tender reflections by Joseph Smith on the value of his friends, on August 16 and 23, 1842, were dictated directly to Clayton, who recorded them in the sacred record book and later made them available for the published History. Beyond that, the original manuscripts of some revelations that became part of the History as well as part of the Doctrine and Covenants are in the handwriting of William Clayton. Section 127 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is a letter dealing with baptism for the dead, is one example.” (James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship, 118)

Of course, Allen here only lays out the basic details about the archival record called the Book of the Law of the Lord. It seems to have been connected with both D&C 85 and D&C 128, revelations in which Joseph provided instruction about the relationship between the heavenly book and the earthly books, and in which Joseph made clear that one’s inheritance in Zion is a question, at least in part, of one’s name and genealogy being written in the book. Joseph actually began to keep the book in Nauvoo (between 1841-1843), and it seems to have had an especially sacred character for him. The “journal” mentioned in the footnotes for the teachings in this section is, actually, the Book of the Law of the Lord, and Joseph was writing his reflections about his friends directly into that book, thus inscribing them within the Celestial glory merely by his writing their names down.

I don’t know enough to be able yet to reflect on this at any significant length, but I do think it is worth noting that for Joseph, the Celestial kingdom was in large part a question of friendship. It almost seems that friendship—true, unswerving friendship—is one of the most important “requirements” for exaltation. And that is something we ought all to consider very carefully.

Of course, we’ll have to think more carefully about what friendship itself is. And that is something we can do with the teachings that make up the rest of the lesson.

Friendship unites the human family, dispelling hatred and misunderstanding.

The very first teaching of this section (especially the first two paragraphs) already goes a long way toward clarifying friendship for Joseph Smith.

First: “I don’t care what a man’s character is; if he’s my friend—a true friend, I will be a friend to him, and preach the Gospel of salvation to him.” (p. 463) True friendship, it seems, is a question of “preach[ing] the Gospel of salvation.” I recognize of course that we generally tend to try to separate out friendship from preachiness: we are convinced that a good friend does not try to convert one, that a good friend lives and lets live, that a good friend loves someone for what s/he is rather than trying to change him/her. Joseph, apparently, thinks otherwise: if a friend is “a true friend,” then it is my duty to preach the Gospel of salvation to that friend. Genuine love is guided by one’s willingness to deliver the truth to the person loved.

I don’t want this point to go misunderstood. One way of defining love (or charity) is this: love is delivering the truth regardless of the distinctions and classifications the world imposes. Love, in other words, is my announcing the truth regardless of race, gender, age, religion, appearance, character, etc. One shape this takes: love is my announcing the truth regardless of whether the person to be taught is a friend or not. For some reason, we are so much more comfortable preaching to a stranger, to a non-friend. But that means, ironically, that it is precisely our friends whom we do not love: because they are our friends, because we draw that distinction between them and everyone else, we refuse to announce the truth to them. Joseph turns this idea on its head.

If this point has been understood, then the second paragraph of this first teaching can make full sense: “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’; [it is designed] to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.” (p. 463) Now, I think we have a natural tendency to want to sentimentalize what Joseph is saying here, but we need to resist that tendency: Joseph is not saying that friendship—defined as a kind of sappy affection for the people we get on with—makes us tear up in poignant moments. Rather, he is saying that friendship—understood as charity or love, understood as one’s incessant work of announcing the truth—is not only fundamental to Mormonism, but is also intended to cause a revolution! Love, that is, is revolutionary, if it is executed in what might even be called militant rigor.

Again I don’t want this point to go misunderstood. It is too easy to understand the idea of “announcing the truth” as a kind of self-righteous or even overly confident fideism. I don’t think Joseph has anything like that in mind. What makes this clear is the fourth paragraph of this section, where Joseph says: “That friendship which intelligent beings would accept as sincere must arise from love, and that love grow out of virtue, which is as much a part of religion as light is a part of Jehovah.” (p. 463) Joseph recognizes the possibility of friendship, defined as he defines it, slipping into a kind of insincerity, and it is doubtless this that underlies our desire not to announce the truth to our friends because they are our friends. But Joseph also thus provides us with the means to avoid such a dereliction of friendship: friendship must be rooted in a love that issues from virtue. But what is virtue?

Joseph’s most famous passage on virtue, and one that deserves rereading again and again, is the last part of D&C 121. There Joseph explains that authority does not come by virtue of the priesthood, but by one’s actual virtue, that is, by one’s “persuasion,” “long-suffering,” “gentleness and meekness,” and “love unfeigned.” Again by one’s “kindness,” “pure knowledge,” lack of “hypocrisy” and “guile.” (D&C 121:41-42) To announce the truth is not to declare unfeelingly that so things are and they cannot be understood otherwise. Actually, announcing the truth in love and virtue usually takes the shape of something like: “I know this sounds crazy, and I can’t blame for thinking it does, but I genuinely believe—at least I live my life in light of the fact—that this New York frontier bumpkin was visited by an angel.” The militancy that makes this kind of truth-telling revolutionary is its militant endeavor never to announce the truth without recognizing the weakness of that truth (its non-intuitiveness, its foreignness, its near impossibility), never to preach the gospel without recognizing that it is Christ who is good, not my own understanding of Christ.

If we can preach the truth in that kind of humility, I suspect we just might indeed revolutionize the world.

Saints of God are true friends to one another.

Joseph echoes this again in the following section, especially in a teaching in the only full paragraph on page 465: “Oh, that I could be with [the Saints]! I would not shrink at toil and hardship to render them comfort and consolation. I want the blessing once more of lifting my voice int he midst of the Saints. I would pour out my soul to God for their instruction.” Notice here that again friendship—now amongst the Saints as much as with non-members—is a question of desiring to instruct, of desiring to announce the truth. But again, it is only to be offered along with “toil[ing] and hardship to render them comfort and consolation.” Joseph very much had a clear vision of what it was to be a friend to the Saints.

Indeed, Joseph suggests, on page 464, that our friendship as Saints is “a foretaste of those joys that will be poured upon the heads of the Saints when they are gathered together on Mount Zion.” Everything we do in preaching the truth to one another, and everything we do by way of friendship, anticipates Zion. So it is that Joseph can say, on page 466, that he “would esteem it one of the greatest blessings, if [he is] to be afflicted in this world, to have [his] lot cast where [he] can find brothers and friends all around [him].”

But I want to get on to seems to me to be the most powerful teaching in this lesson, one I will only cover by posing a question. It is from the first full paragraph on page 464, and here Joseph emphatically echoes D&C 121 again, which I’ll quote in a moment. He says, writing to an old friend: “Our first ties are not broken; we participate with you in the evil as well as the good, in the sorrows as well as the joys. Our union, we trust, is stronger than death, and shall never be severed.” This question of friendship and love being stronger than death deserve a great deal of attention.

As I say, this echoes D&C 121. Let me quote the relevant passage before dealing with the idea at length. It is again while Joseph is talking of the “virtue” that underpins preaching the truth, but he now explains that one must announce the truth even “with sharpness” so that it will not be misunderstood, but always “showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward” the preached to. But here Joseph provides the reason that there must always be an increase of love shown: it so that the preached-to “may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:43). Again it is a question of friendship and love being stronger than death. What does this imply?

The question, really, is this: What is the relationship (or non-relationship) between love and death? It is a question that, it seems to me, we shall be answering the rest of our lives.

4 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 40: “How Glorious Are Faithful, Just, and True Friends” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. JerryYoung said

    Joe, thank you for for another insightful exploration of the subject. You have given much to ponder.

    In my study of Joseph’s friendships, I cane upon the stories involving steamboater Dan Jones and Joseph. Daniel has been an aside with the Carthage drama. Unfortunately I’m a prankster and came across the incident of the “drunk Prophet” prank the Prophet played on Dan.

    I’m sending out a challenge to our HP Group to nurture a slighted friendship. In our busy lives, sometimes friendships get slighted.
    The object is to have us in tune with the Prophet’s principle when I present the the chapter in a couple of weeks.
    The “rules” require face-to-face; no e-mail, Twitter, texting, FaceBook, snail-nail, eHarmony, telephone, using Home Teaching, etc.


  2. Ethan said

    Great insights. We just had a really good discussion in Elder’s today and much of it came from your post. THANKS!

    We delved quite deeply into what makes a Zion society function at its most basic level, namely, friendships that are founded on sincere love and virtue (and therefore trust). It’s amazing that Joseph Smith was able to do the things he did socially in such short time, that I think is his greatest legacy. Much of his success came from his finesse with inter-personal relationships and the way he got people to internalize the building up the Kingdom and Zion on Earth as a gateway to eventual Celestial society. I think all of us left class today ready to make Zion a reality in our communities.

    Well done, I look forward to your next post.

  3. Your thoughts about true friends sharing the truth with each other echo the very thoughts I had as we went through this lesson in Relief Society today. I think that we can be true friends by offering gospel solutions lovingly to our friends when they tell us about their problems.

  4. useful articles…

    […]RS/MP Lesson 40: “How Glorious Are Faithful, Just, and True Friends” (Joseph Smith Manual) « Feast upon the Word Blog[…]…

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