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RS/MP Lesson 8: “The Everlasting Priesthood” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on April 13, 2008

The material in this lesson is so good that I worked through the whole thing in two days (it usually takes me a week or so!). And, though my wife and I had a baby yesterday (our third, a little boy), I have the time this morning (while Mommy and Baby sleep, and while Grandma and Grandpa still have the other two kids) to write up my thoughts on the lesson. Good timing, and a great lesson! So, to get on with things…

From the Life of Joseph Smith

The introduction to this lesson is fascinating. Since the introductions to the lessons in this manual primarily work systematically through Joseph’s life, what comes next after the visit of John the Baptist is, of course, the bestowal of the Melchizedek priesthood. But the introduction pursued this theme in a rather interesting way. First, it makes explicit mention of the opening of Joseph’s and Oliver’s scriptural understanding after their visit with the Baptist (a point that deserves far more attention than it usually receives), and then it implicitly connects this to their expectation of further priesthood keys.

This seems especially important because this introduction (as well as the subsequent teachings in the lesson) broadens the meaning of the visitation of Peter, James, and John: their visit is not portrayed (as it often is) as the “second half” of the visit from the Baptist, but rather as the first of a series of visitations from angelic figures bringing keys related to the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This broadening of that visit, by making the visit of Peter, James, and John a beginning rather than an ending, is, as I say, implicitly connected to the expansion of Joseph’s and Oliver’s ability to read scriptural texts: they had been given, through the keys with which the Baptist had endowed them (see lesson 6), the clue to knowing what the scriptures are saying… and what they seem to be saying (boy, does this run through the D&C!) is that the Melchizedek Priesthood is a question of a whole series of keys, is a question primarily of recognizing, trusting, 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 (body).

The point, in a bit less philosophical language: the visit of a first true messenger seems to have provided Joseph and Oliver (much more, by the way, needs to be said about this pairing of Joseph and Oliver) with the interpretive keys to see that scripture is primarily about receiving keys (understood in a very broad sense) from true, heavenly messengers. This vision of things permeates the remainder of the lesson.

Teachings of Joseph Smith

Besides the first one-liner, the entire first section is taken from a single discourse, what remains, in my opinion, the single most important discourse Joseph ever gave. It is referred to as the “Before 8 August 1839” discourse, and it can be read in full here. (It can be read in TPJS, etc., but this link provides the text as it is found in the original notes, not as it has been cleaned up and/or reinterpreted slightly by later editors.) The little one-liner that opens the section is well placed, since it summarizes most everything to come: “There has been a chain of authority and power from Adam down to the present time.” But it is time to get down to business.

“The priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation. He obtained it in the Creation, before the world was formed, as in Gen. 1:26, 27, 28. He had dominion given him over every living creature.”

First things first: it should be noticed that Joseph sees Adam receiving the priesthood right in Genesis 1. Several points should be made about this. First, this follows Joseph’s near obsession with that single chapter, a point that should not be overlooked (someone needs to write a book about Joseph’s almost exhausting treatment of Genesis 1). Second, it is clear that Joseph is reading Genesis 1 as essentially a non-historical event: it happened “in the Creation, before the world was formed.” Third, his ordination to the “First Presidency” amounted to his being given dominion over every living creature: priesthood seems to be, here, a question of one’s relationship to the earth, of one’s royal responsibility to make sure that the creation is well tended.

This perhaps begins to explain why it is that Noah “stands next in authority to Adam in the priesthood”: not only was he “the father of all living in his day,” but “to him was given the dominion” (there are ancient legends, of course, about Noah receiving the garment given to Adam in the Garden of Eden, which gave him dominion over the very animals of the earth: they would come and prostrate themselves before him… one is, of course, reminded of Lewis’ marvelous treatment of this theme in The Chronicles of Narnia: the talking beasts of Narnia know that things are always best when their king is a genuine “son of Adam”). Adam and Noah are, then, linked together in one of the most important statements in this lesson: “These men held keys first on earth, and then in heaven.” This point deserves careful attention.

At first, this last point seems backwards: Joseph just said that Adam had obtained the First Presidency in the council itself, before the world was, but now he says that Adam and Noah held keys first on earth and then in heaven. What is happening here? Certainly, the idea of foreordination could be summoned: they were only foreordained in heaven before mortality, but they received actual keys for the first time on the earth. Actually, a teaching from page 107 might help even more on this point: “God will not acknowledge that which He has not called, ordained, and chosen. In the beginning God called Adam by His own voice. ‘And the Lord called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and hid myself.’ [Gen 3:9-10] Adam received commandments and instructions from God: this was the order from the beginning.” Adam seems only to be called and ordained “officially”—actually, in the flesh—when he saw that he was naked: it was only as he became a fully fleshed being on earth that he could receive the keys/signs that rewrote his flesh typologically, that rewrote the fall as the atonement (again: see lesson 7). He thus held (carried, bore) the keys first on earth.

Then, we are told, in heaven. This is clarified, I think, in the second section of the teachings, which is also entirely drawn from the “Before 8 August 1839” discourse. There, on the bottom of page 105, Joseph speaks of “those men to whom these keys have been given,” and then explains (now on the top of page 106): “These men are [now] in heaven, but their children are on the earth. Their bowels yearn over us.” Those who received keys anciently on earth (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc., etc., etc.) have long since passed into heaven, where they have apparently joined the council of God: they watch over their children, decide as a council—since “their bowels yearn over us”—what to do or whom to send in order to exalt their children. As Joseph goes on immediately to say on page 106: “God sends down men for this reason. . . . All these authoritative characters will come down and join hand in hand in bringing about this work.” The council sends messengers from among its ranks to deliver keys, etc. (cf. Moroni 7:29-32 and Isaiah 6:1-13).

Joseph’s reinterpretation of the parable of the grain of mustard seed amounts to an explanation of these themes (a marvelous one). In the lesson manual, because it draws on the edited discourse, Joseph’s explicit mention of the Book of Mormon drops out, so let me try to reconstruct what I think he was saying. The mustard seed itself seems to have been the Book of Mormon, which, planted, eventually becomes a large tree or the gathered saints; the fowls who come down to lodge in the branches are, as Joseph says clearly, the angels, these ancient holders of keys, signs, etc. What a picture! The Book of Mormon—brought by a true messenger who brought keys to Joseph (cf. D&C 27:5)—opened the possibility for the ancients (fowls) and the moderns (branches) at last to intermingle, for, as Joseph says on page 106, “We cannot be made perfect without them, nor they without us.” (Notice that Joseph does not seem to have understood this to have reference to our unbaptized dead, but to the ancient holders of the keys who have got to come down and “join hand in hand [with us] in bringing about this work.” This seems even to be the case in D&C 128:18, where the phrase appears canonically: a clear reading of that verse would suggest that the “they” with whose perfection “we” are intertwined is not the unbaptized dead, but the ancient authoritative figures who come as messengers, etc.)

On pages 104 and 105, all of this business is connected to the double event of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Double: it is an event that opened the beginning of history (the council was held just before Adam’s death, Christ appeared and delivered up all of the keys to Adam), and it is the event that will bring history to an end (the council will again be held, Christ will again appear, but this time Adam will deliver the keys back up to Christ, though he “retains his standing as head of the human family”). In the early council (is there any chance that this council can be equated, or at least connected, with the council in heaven?), Adam “foretold what should befall them [his posterity] to the latest generation” (D&C 107 notes that this massive prophecy was written up in a sealed book, like the book held in the heavenly council itself, over which Enoch holds the keys). In the final council still to come, all who have held keys throughout that prophesied-of history “will have to be there” to deliver up their stewardships to Adam.

Thus it is that, as Joseph teaches on page 107: “God set the ordinances to be the same forever and ever, and set Adam to watch over them, to reveal them from heaven to man, or to send angels to reveal them,” though “Adam . . . cannot receive a fullness until Christ shall present the Kingdom to the father, which shall be at the end of the last dispensation.” Thus far the teachings gathered in the first three sections (up through the middle of page 108).

The fourth section of the teachings (pages 108-109) have some marvelous teachings I do want to touch on briefly, but I will leave the last two sections out, both for time’s sake and for the fact that they add little to the overarching themes already under discussion.

The emphasis in the fourth section is on the relationship between the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood and all other offices, orders, aspects, or callings of the priesthood. A nice summary statement is this, from the bottom of page 109: “All priesthood is Melchizedek; but there are different portions or degrees of it.” That language is helpfully masonic: one has to progress through the several degrees of the priesthood, etc. This progression, though, is something rather curious: the heavy emphasis in this section on the “without father, without mother” way of talking about the Melchizedek priesthood might almost be read to suggest that the order of the Melchizedek is to disrupt the familial (or patriarchal, in the feminist sense) history of the world. This deserves a careful explanation!

There is, of course, a natural order, a “way of all the earth” that is absolutely miserable, and it unfortunately goes by the name “family.” It is perhaps too easy for us as Latter-day Saints to get romantic or sentimental about the family, equating the miserable reality of everyman’s Oedpial suffering with the sealed, loving, exalted family that God can create. There is a fallen order of the family, and that is certainly what prevails on the earth (it is, I think, what calls for feminist, Marxist, Freudian critiques, etc.—and what justifies them). And there is an exalted, redeemed, atoned for order of the family, something radically other than the fallen (Oedipal) order of the family (something that can be said to be an answer to the feminist, Marxist, Freudian critiques—what takes them seriously but presses beyond them). The language Joseph uses over and over again in speaking of the Melchizedek Priesthood seems to suggest that it is this order of the priesthood—this order of visiting messengers, of angels coming to rewrite one’s flesh—that disrupts the fallen family and introduces the redeemed family. Messengers come not to give us our fallen families forever, but to rewrite them, to give us the antitype (the Father and the Son bound by the Holy Ghost: see lesson 2) that can make our own families types and shadows of God’s. That, it seems to me, is quite a vision, in fact, quite a mystery.

And Joseph tells us, right in this lesson: “I advise all to go on to perfect, and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness.” I think I agree. But I also think it is vital to catch that he pairs that injunction with this clarification: “A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the priesthood is for that purpose.”

Are we watching for messengers anymore? I hope we are! If we aren’t, “it is because of unbelief, and all is vain” (Moroni 7:37).

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 8: “The Everlasting Priesthood” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Congrats on the new baby!

  2. I find your comments on the fourth section fascinating, but it’s left me thirsting for more.

    there is an exalted, redeemed, atoned for order of the family, something radically other than the fallen (Oedipal) order of the family (something that can be said to be an answer to the feminist, Marxist, Freudian critiques—what takes them seriously but presses beyond them).

    Please expound! You are saying that messengers are coming to give keys which will transform the family, but what is the role of woman in all this? You must have some idea, since you say this order answers feminist critiques. To my feminine eyes, you seem to have written the entire post from the point of view of a male, with the woman asleep in the back bedroom, babe in arms. Are we to wait patiently while angels interact with men on our behalf, bringing to pass our salvation? What place have I in this rewritten family of God, which you describe as “the Father and the Son bound by the Holy Ghost?” In other words, what is the use of me watching for messengers?

  3. Kim M. said

    Ooh… interesting ideas.

    I can’t help but see the woman’s role of receiving messengers as nothing more noteworthy than what we typically call “personal revelation.” Are women’s messengers primarily revealing information of building Zion in their own homes?

    For example: an inspired Visiting Teacher brings a fantastic message that teaches me about the importance of peace in the home and keeping my children from fighting. Isn’t that the message I should be looking for? There is a messenger who delivers something vital to me that improves my parenting, etc.

    Or are we talking about something more significant (although what could be more significant)?

  4. joespencer said

    BiV, very important questions. I’ll “defend” myself simply by saying that I was writing a commentary on Joseph’s teachings as laid out in the manual (and after sleeping on the Daddy bed at the hospital!). That is to say, I think there are good answers to the questions you’re raising—answers that can be drawn from Joseph’s teachings and the D&C especially—but that they cannot be culled from the material in the lesson.

    I should also clarify that “feminist thought” for me means something like “French philosophical feminist thought”: I don’t know whether Joseph or LDS scripture answers questions put forth by American or “political” feminism, and for two reasons: (1) I don’t follow American/”political” feminism at all; (2) it wouldn’t particularly concern me that there is no good Mormon response to American/”political” feminism (note the word “particularly”…).

    All of this is to say that Mormon feminism is yet to come of age (again, that is: Mormon feminism was quite a thing in the 19th century). I’d love to see that happen—and I hope I’m doing all I can to promote it, push it along, etc. (a friend and I… Kim M. in fact!… are working up a feminist reading of Helaman 1-2 right now, hopefully for publication, and I’ve just submitted last week for publication a paper on how the feminine structure of the reticent prophet gives way to prophetic narrative history, based on a Lacanian reading of Jonah…).

    So… short answer: I think you had better watch for messengers! We need more Huldahs, more Abishes, more Deborahs, more Emmas! I wholeheartedly believe there “is room for Heavenly Mother” in LDS discourse, but we have got to begin to do the feminist hermeneutics that will lay a groundwork for developing a faithful Mormon feminism.

  5. JennyW said

    BiV, I know Joe already responded, but I’ve been thinking about your question and hope you don’t mind a thought of two of my own. First, I wanted to stress the point Joe made about “feminist thought” here being implicitly “French philosophical feminist thought.” The French feminism of the 1970-1990s is really quite a different thing that what we normally think of as feminism in America. I think Joe was saying that their critique of the patriarchal order / phallogocentrism, while valid (or at least interesting) given the current, fallen, conception and construction of the family, ultimately will be something which we move beyond (or perhaps through) because the nature of the exalted family is fundamentally different from our current conception of the family. Their critique, to some extent, won’t apply anymore, because the categories of husband and wife, which are shaped by our received fallen understanding, will be radically altered (kings/queens, priests/priestesses–these relationships are different …). But we won’t get to that point if we don’t take the feminist critique seriously and engage their thought with Mormon thinking (IMHO).

    Reading Joseph’s words here in the manual can be tricky, because Joseph is speaking in a received discourse of patriarchy, and yet their are textual indications that what he is ultimately talking about points toward this “redeemed family” that Joe discusses. For example, on p. 109 we have “The power of the Melchizedek Priesthood is to have the power of ‘endless lives;’ … that priesthood is a perfect law of theocracy, and stands as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.” Endless lives implicitly suggests both male and female participants, as does the end of the paragraph. Later on that page we have “I advise all to go on …”, with the emphasis on “all.” And on page 111 we have Eliza R. Snow reporting on teachings concerning the priesthood, which begins with Joseph giving instructions “respecting the different offices, and the necessity of every individual acting in the sphere allotted him or her.” These little “gaps” in the text leave room for the possibility of a more inclusive or expanded understanding of both the priesthood and the individual responsibility of everyone, regardless of gender, to seek after further light and knowledge.

    Adam and Eve are taught together; I prefer to assume that promises of messengers, revelation, etc., are contingent upon my desires, my seeking and asking, as opposed to my gender. Jose makes a cry for more “Huldahs, more Abishes, more Deborahs, more Emmas!”, which I second. We know there were prophetesses–I add that they sought, knocked, asked, and then received. How often do I ask the Lord to teach me, or send me a messenger? How often do I recognize when He has done so (and realize the implications of His response)? Probably not often enough … (all right, descending from soapbox …)

  6. joespencer said

    We need more JennyW’s as well! Which is to say that I second all she said. :)

  7. JennyW said

    Goodness, you think I’d proofread before I hit “submit.” Second paragraph should have read “and yet there are textual indications”; in the third paragraph, “Jose” should really just be “Joe” without the latin flair … but thanks for the kind words, Joe.

  8. Robert C. said

    I too second Jenny W’s second of Jose’s comment (I take it that Jose is Joe’s alter ego that can only be discerned by reading the unconscious subtext of Joe’s writing…). And congratulations on the new arrival to all of you: Joe, Jose, father, husband, mother, siblings, and all other actual and possible alter egos, personalities, etc.

  9. Andrew said

    Thank you for your blog. I found your lesson useful again.
    You said that “the council was held just before Adam’s death, Christ appeared and delivered up all of the keys to Adam.”
    Where did you get this from? I would like to read about it.
    Thanks

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