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RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 4: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 11, 2008

Well, as it turns out, I won’t be teaching lesson 4. When I arrived at opening exercises yesterday, the “week 2 instructor” approached me confessing that he had just remembered that he had only just remembered that he was on for teaching. I told him that I was prepared to teach in his place, and he offered to teach lesson 4 for me in a few weeks (because of ward conference, we were only coming to lesson 2 yesterday). So, as it turns out, I had the opportunity to teach lesson 2 instead of lesson 4. However, I’ve had such a marvelous time writing out a post on each part of the lesson, that I might do that at least more often, if not every time in the future…

At any rate, I certainly will continue onward today with part 4 of this four-part series on lesson 4. Again, see here for part 1; here for part 2; and here for part 3.

The scriptures cheer and comfort us and make us wise unto salvation.

This last section of the lesson, as the heading makes clear, moves from the more specific focus on the Book of Mormon to a series of teachings on the broader topic of the scriptures generally. Richly and significantly, though, there is no less a focus, with this broadening of theme, on the Abrahamic covenant. As it turns out, in fact, there is a powerful development of the earlier theme. There is a great deal to think about in these final words.

The first teaching comes from a First Presidency circular in 1840 in Nauvoo. While the focus of the letter as a whole can be said to be on the strengthening of the institution, it is in the passage here quoted that that focus is stretched beyond recognition. The first sentence, which comes as the climax of the institutional focus, is worth quoting in full: “Connected with the building up of the Kingdom, is the printing and circulation of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, . . . and the new translation of the [Bible].” (The original, by the way, lists also Emma’s hymn book, which has been cut out with the ellipsis. I see the wisdom in cutting this from the quotation, since while Emma’s hymn book was assembled in connection with D&C 25, that is, with a revelation, the current one is not so directly “inspired,” and so cutting it would probably prevent some confusion: I’m sure the Brethren are not too excited about having some of the more musically inclined in the Church using this manual to make the claim that the hymns from the current hymn book are on the same didactic level as the scriptures. But I also think it is worth making note that Emma’s hymn book was understood as being quite profoundly connected with the building of the Kingdom….)

While this first sentence can be read as suggesting that the scriptures themselves are unfortunately to be caught up into the sweep of the institutional (especially with the next phrase: “It is unnecessary to say anything respecting these works…”), the teaching clearly presses beyond this with its next claim: “they are calculated to make men wise unto salvation, and sweep away the cobwebs of superstition of ages, throw a light on the proceedings of Jehovah which have already been accomplished, and mark out the future in all its dreadful and glorious realities.” The language here is unmistakably that of the Enlightenment, which quite automatically puts someone like me (who studies Continental thought) on edge: is Joseph giving himself to the unfortunate rationalism of the Enlightenment here? Yet, it is precisely this sort of thing that forces me to think more carefully about what is really at work in the Enlightenment, or in Enlightenment thinking. And such a rethinking of the Enlightenment turns out to be… well… rather enlightening.

One must admit, from the very start, that there is something peculiar about Joseph’s employment of Enlightenment jargon here: perhaps no word was then (and for the subsequent century or so) more commonly attached to Mormonism than “barbarism,” the Enlightenment epithet to be used against whatever is counter-Enlightenment. In other words, Joseph’s teaching here makes an important counter-claim: what would appear to be barbarous turns out, in fact, to be the most enlightening of all. The lucidity of the scriptures, that is, reveals (how enlightening!) the relative obscurity of Enlightenment thinking, and thus gives to be seen that the apparent lucidity of modern thought is an assumed lucidity that only attempts to disguise the real obscurity that inhabits it.

This is, of course, a powerful undercurrent in all of Mormon theology (think Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology, for example, or even Brigham’s statements about the sheer simplicity of his teachings concerning Adam), one that is rooted in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. But, as an undercurrent, it is all too often only felt and not thematized. If I get off on a tangent here, however, explicating this counter-Enlightenment, this post will run to an unfortunate length. So I will let off here with a half-promise that I will write up a full post about the theme (half-promise: I would very much enjoy taking up the theme at some length, but I want to hear a word or two of encouragement or interest before I try to find the time to do it). But I will point out that the last part of this first teaching again confirms the parallel with Enlightenment rhetoric, when Joseph speaks of the saints vying “with each other in their zeal for sending them [the scriptures] abroad throughout the world, that every son of Adam may enjoy the same privileges, and rejoice in the same truths.”

The mention of “every son of Adam” begins to shift the focus in the direction of the patriarchal (eventually Abrahamic) covenant, and the next teaching makes this point as clear as can be: the scriptures are sent forth “so that the honest in heart may be cheered and comforted and go on their way rejoicing, as their souls become exposed and their understanding enlightened by a knolwedge of God’s work through the fathers in former days, as well as what He is about to do in latter days to fulfill the words of the fathers.” The “then-and-now” theme of this passage is a bit surprising: one naturally expects the mention of “God’s work through the fathers in former days” simply to be doubled with a reference to “what He is about to do in the latter days,” but Joseph decides to go on to link the latter days explicitly to the former days: “to fulfill the words of the fathers.” This connecting back up is of major importance, and it deserves thematic treatment.

A helpful parallel to this focus is the curious phrasing of D&C 2, Moroni’s “retranslation” of Malachi 4:5-6. Rather than there being a kind of mutual turning of fathers to children and children to fathers, as in Malachi, Moroni pictures Elijah coming and planting in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, so that the hearts of the children will turn to their fathers. The entire focus is on the present turning to the past. Joseph’s understanding of scripture seems to be along these lines: the point of having these ancient texts is not just to show that the gospel is eternal, or to provide examples of faith or diligence. Rather, the scriptures are to lay bare the promises and covenants given to the fathers so as to call the present generation to be sealed into that lineage, to receive through that sealing the very same privileges and blessings. I can, of course, go on at some length about this theme as well, but I hope I’ve done enough of that here and in other relatively accessible places to be able to pass from this theme for now.

These first two teachings, then, would seem to bring together two rather different themes, two rather different tasks the scriptures take up: on the one hand, there is a work of demythologization, so to speak (not of demythologizing the scriptures, but of demythologizing the rest of our thought: the LDS scriptures are intended to break us of our neurotic obsession with the mythological, the mystical, the transcendental, etc.), and there is, on the other hand, a work of focusing us on the patriarchal theme of covenant (wrapping us up in the promises of the ancients, and thus of handing us over to a history recast by the immanent workings of a personal God who sits in council with our fathers). The outsider can only see a contradiction here: demythologization coupled, so to speak, with the most bizarre myth of all! And yet I think there is something more to be seen here.

I’d like to take up the Book of Mormon, since that is the overarching theme of the lesson, in order to think this curious pairing. The two, apparently contradictory, themes here seem almost to alternate in the Book of Mormon. The two books of Nephi are entirely taken up with the patriarchal thematic, but then this theme almost entirely disappears from the text until 3 Nephi, when Christ comes to the Nephites and Lamanites and restores the importance of those teachings. In the interim, while the patriarchal thematic disappears, the Book of Mormon obsesses with a double work of demythologization, announced in the inaugurating speech of Jacob (in Jacob 1-3): real enlightenment and the sweeping away of all mythology (even Enlightenment mythology, in a sense, in chapters like Alma 30!) is to be effected by recognizing and rejecting the two great temptations of unchastity and wealth. Sex and money, or, more positively, the paired laws of chastity and consecration, are what take up the entire horizon of the Book of Mormon from Jacob through the first chapters of 3 Nephi.

But doesn’t this mean that it is not entirely impossible to see the connection between the two themes of Joseph’s first two teachings here? The laws of chastity and consecration are preparatory to the patriarchal thematic, and scripture takes up the twin tasks of demythologizing or even dereligionizing us (anthropologists have been showing us for a century that myth and religion are thoroughly given to little more than sex and money) and then instructing us in the covenants and promises given to our fathers and mothers, beginning with Adam and Eve. (Of course, for anyone familiar with the temple, the intertwining of these two themes should not be entirely foreign: the laws of chastity and consecration are universally to be understood as the preparation for passing through the veil and into the council of the fathers, perhaps particularly for receiving the ordinances that seal us into that lineage and those promises.)

Thinking all of the above, it seems to me, preinterprets the third teaching here, taken from the 1834 circular (in which I see very little of Joseph), which I will handle just by quoting a single line: “We believe that God condescended to speak from the heavens and declare His will concerning the human family, to give them just and holy laws, to regulate their conduct, and guide them in a direct way, that in due time He might take them to Himself, and make them joint heirs with His Son.” Isn’t that a marvelous way of stating all I’ve been arguing above?

The last teaching of this section and of this entire lesson, finally, seems almost out of place. Joseph here speaks to the Twelve, and gives them an “important Key.” Though the scriptures, and the Book of Mormon is named among them, are mentioned, the focus is not on texts, but on betrayal: “see to it that you do not betray heaven; that you do not betray Jesus Christ; that you do not betray the [the original reads “your”] brethren; that you do not betray the revelations of God . . . .” Spoken in 1839, there is obviously some connection here to the difficulties in Kirtland and Missouri during the 1837-8 apostasy. But this passage also takes up a common theme in Joseph’s teachings: loyalty is far more important than correct ideas, is far more important than perfect obedience, is far more important than stellar performance. Loyalty is, for Joseph, perhaps the most important attribute one can develop.

While the theme of loyalty in Joseph’s teachings is something that can be studied elsewhere, what I’d like to point out here (and finally by way of conclusion!) is the really strange way this loyalty is inflected at the end of this last teaching: “see to it, that you do not betray . . . any other [revelation] that ever was or ever will be given and revealed unto man in this world or that which is to come.” Since the Book of Mormon, Bible, and Doctrine and Covenants are mentioned immediately before this, Joseph can only be understood as having reference to “one knows not what.” That is, Joseph is summoning the Twelve (and all of us, of course) to an absolute fidelity to revelations that have been received but of which we know nothing, and to revelations that have not even been received yet. How is that to be understood?

But perhaps this last point is quite simple, really. One must be faithful to God, must confess complete ignorance, must always be seeking further light and knowledge, must always be receiving and entertaining true messengers, and must never forsake them. The focus, that is, is on messengers more than it is on messages: loyalty to true messengers trumps everything. Though we are all ignorant, and though all of our ideas are most likely mere idols, yet we can be so faithful to every true messenger that it hardly matters what we don’t know: those messengers to whom we have been infinitely faithful will teach us what we lack, will guide us in the right ways, will forgive us all our trespasses, and will take us right to heaven itself.

At times I think it is this lesson above all else that needs to be shouted from the housetops to the Latter-day Saints.

3 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 4: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Amen! And feel free to crank out that Enlightenment post.

  2. Cocoa said

    Thank you for all four of these posts relating to the lesson on the Book of Mormon. I’ve recently been called to teach in Relief Society and am having a hard time transitioning from the previous 13 years of teaching in Primary. I can’t pull out a flannel board story or have the sisters color a picture. :D

    You’ve provided a lot of ‘meat’ to chew on and have helped me to solidify some points I wanted to bring out when I teach on Sunday.

  3. Thanks for your posts! You’ve given me some food for thought as I have been preparing my own lesson from this chapter.

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