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RS/MP Lesson 7: “Baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on April 10, 2008

Let me apologize twice in advance. First, I’m getting this lesson up a few days later than I would have liked to, something I can blame on my recent trip to Utah for the SMPT conference. (I’m hoping that this doesn’t put me too much further behind on next week’s lesson as well. I’ll try to have it up as soon as possible after Sunday.) Second, partly because of how little time I’ve had for getting this ready, but also partly because of the layout of the lesson itself, this post will be a bit more philosophical than my others. I don’t anticipate this being the start of a trend: Joseph seems to me to wax a bit more philosophical in the most interesting teachings in this lesson, and so I’m going to respond in suit. That said…

The very first teaching in the “Teachings of Joseph Smith” section is simply remarkable (on p. 91, just under the heading “The ordinance of baptism is necessary for exaltation”). It deserves careful attention.

The teaching comes, as the footnote explains, from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on March 20, 1842 in Nauvoo. The entire discourse deserves attention (it can be found in TPJS on pp. 196-201, in the fourth volume of the History of the Church on pp. 553-558, or, more helpfully I think, in Ehat and Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith on pp. 106-136).

As is Joseph’s wont, this sermon dwells, immediately before the quoted material, on themes drawn from Genesis 1: in this case, he addresses the idea that God places bounds about things, and that he does so by giving/making/instituting signs (cf. Genesis 1:14, a fascinating verse, to say the least, and one that needs to be reread in light of Joseph’s teachings here). Thus it is that the teaching in the lesson opens with the idea that “God has set many signs on the earth, as well as in the heavens.” Joseph goes on to identify baptism as one of those signs: “Upon the same principle do I contend that baptism is a sign ordained of God, for the believer in Christ to take upon himself in order to enter into the kingdom of God.” Baptism is, Joseph explains in the very language of Genesis 1:14, ” a sign . . . which God has set,” one that is apparently read (so to speak) by God and the angels: “Baptism is a sign to God, to angels, and to heaven.” This last statement is fascinating to me: Joseph seems to have understood baptism to be a sign employed before God, angels, and other witnesses; a covenant that had to be undertaken a particular way (according to a particular sign) for it to be recognized by the attending divinities. Significantly, this first teaching concludes with the claim that the covenant, overwritten by this particular sign, is what results in the gift of the Holy Ghost (I’ll come back to this point of the gift below).

The lesson returns to this discourse later in the lesson: first, the teaching that begins at the bottom of page 94 and continues onto page 95 (a rather brief excerpt), and second, the teaching that begins with the first full paragraph on page 96 and continues through the first paragraph on page 97. I want to look at the latter of these two.

There, Joseph continues with his discussion of baptism as a sign by taking up more directly the theme of “the gift of the Holy Ghost”: “What if we should attempt to get the gift of the Holy Ghost through any other means except the signs or way which God hath appointed–would we obtain it? Certainly not; all other means would fail. The Lord says do so and so, and I will bless you.” This perhaps seems straightforward enough, but a few strange points need to be highlighted. What of the pairing of “the signs” and the “way”? And what does it mean to obtain the gift of the Holy Ghost through “signs”? How does baptism as a sign enable the possibility of a gift (a question I’ll be returning to below)?

More complex still is Joseph’s continuation, because, without a break, he immediately begins to discuss temple themes: “There are certain key words and signs belonging to the Priesthood which must be observed in order to obtain the blessing.” This is, of course, Joseph’s usual way of summarizing the endowment in his 1842-44 discourses, and it is very similar to Brigham’s oft-quoted “definition in brief” of the endowment: “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John Widtsoe, p. 416) The question: what does this mention of the endowment have to do with the “sign” of baptism or with the the freeing up, through signs, of the gift of the Holy Ghost? To put this question in the form of a statement: perhaps we ought to be looking quite carefully for baptism in the endowment, something I have personally found quite rich and rewarding, though it is something I hardly discuss so openly here!

But Joseph’s teachings get richer still: it is precisely here–grounded in the connection between baptism taken as a sign and the meaning of the endowment–that Joseph explains (for the first time?) the distinction between the Holy Ghost and the GIFT of the Holy Ghost. The teaching itself: “There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius recieved the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the Gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized.” It is thus, for Joseph, the imposition of the sign of baptism that establishes the possibility of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and thus what marks the difference between experience the influence of the Holy Ghost and receiving it as a gift. Hence, again with the connection between the sign and the gift. What is happening here?

This makes me want to draw together two rather constantly discussed themes in Continental philosophy: semiotics on the one hand, and givenness on the other. How is it that the play of signs–especially as it happens in baptism, a profound symbol of birth and naming, of imposing the nom du pere (name/no of the father), where one’s flesh is written over with signifiers, is inscribed (as in circumcision) in a particular language, family, culture, etc.–frees up the possibility of a gift? Several other teachings in this lesson might here be taken up quite seriously. For example, why is it significant that one must be baptized as an “adult” (beyond the age of accountability, at any rate)? What does that imply about the signs? What does the inseparability of baptism and the bestowal of the Holy Ghost imply here? What of the gifts of the Spirit discussed in the last teaching on page 97? How do they tie to this question of signs and gifts? Etc., etc., etc.

But, more precisely: How is it that the self-imposition of a sign revealed by an angel–remember that the context the “From the life of Joseph Smith” bit brings into all of this is the visit of John the Baptist and the baptisms of Joseph and Oliver–makes a covenant recognizable/readable for God, angels, and other heavenly witnesses, and in such a way that a (further?) gift becomes possible? What is happening in that marvelous moment? It is a question I will be pondering myself for some time.

I’ll conclude these notes by highlighting the teaching that immediately follows the one I’ve been discussing here, the one in the middle of page 97. Joseph and Brother Higbee wrote in a letter of their interview with President Van Buren: “In our interview with the President, he interrogated us wherein we differed in our religion from the other religions of the day. Brother Joseph said we differed in mode of baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.” Indeed, given Joseph’s way of understanding the link between these two ordinances to be a question of the sign and the gift! Perhaps Joseph’s answer deserves far more careful thought: the sign/gift relationship Joseph seems to have seen at the very border of Mormonism undergirds all else we do in our liturgy. That is, as the same letter goes on to say: “We considered that all other considerations were contained in the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

10 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 7: “Baptism and the Gift of the Holy Ghost” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Signs, tokens, keys. All under-discussed (under-understood?) in our traditional discussions.

  2. Luis said

    When you have the answers, please, share them!!!
    saludos de Chile

  3. JennyW said

    Joe, this is a really interesting reading, thank you. It seems like one might draw the more general conclusion that the way to receive a gift (which in addition to the gift of the Holy Ghost might also include gifts such as the atonement or grace) in the gospel is to first receive signs in/with one’s flesh. Another sign that we need to carefully think through our relationship with the body in Mormonism. And think through 2 Cor. 3:3 again perhaps.

  4. DMPeters said

    We had this lesson yesterday and the question come up about when did Joseph Smith receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost and who laid their hands on his head?

    I have been unsuccessful in finding this information. I understand from the lesson that they were under the influence of the Holy Ghost directly after baptism, but I am also under the impression that he needed the physical act of someone laying their hands upon his head and bestowing it.

    Anyways, if someone can set me straight on this issue I would be grateful.

  5. joespencer said

    Interesting question, DMPeters. I’ve never even thought to raise that question. I’ll dig around (as time permits!) and see what I can find out. I’ll confess I’d find it quite fascinating to find that Joseph never was confirmed…

    Jenny, very apt comments. Again, I’m thinking of the paper at SMPT on dancing, and especially in terms of the endowment, no? The whole of 2 Cor 3 deserves to be read carefully again, so that I can add to your call the need to look carefully at the veiling/reading business at the end of that chapter as well.

  6. robf said

    I thought everyone who was already baptizes was confirmed a member of the church and given the gift of the Holy Ghost when the Church was officially organized on April 6, 1830. I can’t find specific mention that Joseph was confirmed then, but here’s the account in HC.

    Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our Heavenly Father, we proceeded, according to previous commandment, to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these several propositions they consented by a unanimous vote. I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery, and ordained him an Elder of the [p.78] “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;” after which, he ordained me also to the office of an Elder of said Church. We then took bread, blessed it, and brake it with them; also wine, blessed it, and drank it with them. We then laid our hands on each individual member of the Church present, that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree-some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord, and rejoiced exceedingly.

  7. DMPeters said

    I would feel that Joseph was given the Gift of the Holy Ghost, I am just curious who did it and when? As I understand the lesson there is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the Gift of the Holy Ghost; and the latter requires that somebody holding the Melchizedek Priesthood to physically lay their hands upon your head and perform the ordinance. Now Joseph had plenty of opportunity (contact with Melchizedek Priesthood holders) to get that done, but is it ever specifically documented? Or have there been known exceptions to that scenario?

    As to the organization of the church, I can accept at that time he did receive it, but is that stated anywhere specifically that it was so (the way it is written is a little ambiguous)? Also, and I do not know the answer to this, I think the performer of the ordinance (i.e. bestowing the GotHG) must have the Melchizedek Priesthood, but must they have had the GotHG bestowed on them first as well? I am leaning no on that but I am not firm on my answer.

  8. […] and following true messengers who come to provide one with keys, keywords, signs, etc. (see lesson 7), all of which amount to a (typological) rewriting of the fallen human […]

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