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RS/MP Lesson 9: “Gifts of the Spirit” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on May 4, 2008

The great majority of this lesson comes from a single editorial published in the Church’s Nauvoo periodical, the Times and Seasons. I’ll confess I was disappointed to see this, because many of the editorials published while Joseph was editor of the paper were not written by Joseph. This one, however, I was pleased to discover, seems actually to have been his work. The style of argumentation, the manner of using scripture, and the conclusions drawn are much more like Joseph’s recorded sermons and canonized writings than other editorials cited in the manual thus far. I’ll proceed, then, with the assumption that everything in this lesson came from Joseph himself.

That said, I will begin with just a word or two about the introductory material (“From the Life of Joseph Smith”). These early lessons, of course, use the introductory sections to tell the history of the Prophet, and the focus of this particular introductory material is the gift Joseph had to translate the plates (thus grounded the subsequent teachings about the “gifts of the Spirit”). I was a bit surprised to find a kind of apologetic spirit in this introductory section: a case is made for Joseph’s inability to have put something like the Book of Mormon together. The argument that the Book of Mormon is too complex for Joseph to have written it is certainly interesting, but I’m less than perfectly comfortable with it: Joseph was quite a person, and I’m not sure we do him justice when we present him as an ignoramus who could never have done something like write the Book of Mormon himself. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t at all mean to suggest that he did write it! I wholeheartedly believe Joseph translated, rather than wrote, the Book of Mormon. But I worry about the argument’s credibility, about the unfortunate side effects it might have. At any rate, I’ll leave off the introductory material with that expressed concern and turn to the actual teachings.

This lesson, it seems to me, is best approached by taking a look first at a snippet from pages 118-119: “Various and conflicting are the opinions of men in regard to the gift of the Holy Ghost. Some people have been in the habit of calling every supernatural manifestation the effects of the Spirit of God, whilst there are others that think there is no manifestation connected with it at all; and that it is nothing but a mere impule of the mind, or an inward feeling, impression, or secret testimony or evidence, which men possess, and that there is no such a thing as an outward manifestation.”

I think this paragraph nicely summarizes the thrust of the entire lesson: there are two extremes, two dialectically intertwined opposite positions, which completely misunderstand the Spirit and its gifts. I don’t think it is simply that these two positions form a false dichotomy (that is, I don’t think Joseph means to teach just that the Spirit can be both outwardly and inwardly manifest), but rather that they are an opposition that is fundamentally distracted (or even deconstructed) by the operation of the Spirit—by the giving of the gifts of the Spirit.

The distinction that undergirds the two positions is the split between the outward and the inward, the public and the private, the physical and the mental. Though we as Latter-day Saints often enough employ this distinction, not only does this particular lesson dismantle it, much of Latter-day Saint scripture calls it radically into question. I really like the term I used above (which I borrow from Jean-Luc Marion): “distraction.” The opposite positions are inseparably connected like the two ends of the needle of a compass, and they are oriented in a particular way (North-South, for example). But the gifts of the Spirit come up against the distinction like a magnet to the compass, and the initial orientation of the distinction is distracted as the compass goes haywire. What results is first a disorientation and then a reorientation according to the gift.

The remainder of the lesson, then, can be read as working out two critiques: first, it levels a critique against the “inward” interpretation of spiritual gifts; second, it levels a critique against the “outward” interpretation of spiritual gifts. I think it is important to see that both critiques are undertaken in the course of the lesson: it might otherwise be too easy to focus on one of the critiques—say, the critique of the “outward” interpretation—and so to believe that Joseph understood the gifts of the Spirit to be, say, inwardly manifest. (I fear that this lesson will likely be taught across the Church as suggesting that the gifts of the Spirit are all inward, since the longer critique is leveled against outward manifestations, and because an inwardizing of the gifts of the Spirit can make us feel a good deal more comfortable about the fact that we do not at all see the work of the Spirit in our lives. That is, I worry that teachers will choose the one critique and ignore the other entirely—thus misunderstanding the aim of Joseph’s teachings here—in order to help themselves and their students to feel that “all is well in Zion” rather than to help them ask themselves: Am I at all involved with the Spirit? What gifts have I been given?)

The critique of the “inward”

“The Church is a compact body compsed of different members, and is strictly analogous to the human system . . . . All members of the natural body are not the eye, the ear, the head or the hand—yet the eye cannot say to the ear I have no need of thee, nor the head to the foot, I have no need of thee; they are all so many component parts in the perfect machine—the one body, and if one member suffer, the whole of the members suffer with it: and if one member rejoice, all the rest are honored with it.” (pp. 117-118)

Joseph is here drawing on 1 Corinthians 12 (which he quotes at some length in this passage: I’ve cut that out with an ellipsis). He uses two phrases here that at first made me a bit uncomfortable: “the human system” and “the perfect machine.” Something about the reduction of the body or even the person to the technological “system” or “machine” deeply disturbs me. But I imagine that the point here is not reduction (who could accuse Joseph of having dismissed the vitality of the body?!?!?) but metaphorical expansion. Why compare the body (“strictly analogous,” says Joseph!) to the systemic, to the mechanical?

The richness of these metaphors is perhaps revealed in the subsequent comment that “if one member suffer, the whole of the members suffer with it,” etc. The metaphors put on display the profound interconnectedness of the body: while it is perhaps too easy for us to see a disconnect between one of our toes and, say, our left ear, the mechanical character of the system or machine does not allow for such a disconnect. The machine is, by its very definition, so many connected parts, the construction of a set of reactions: the movement or adjustment of any particular piece affects the rest of the machine. The same is true of a system—a word that is often applied in linguistics to an entire language: to tamper with a single “part” of a system is to affect the entirety of the system.

Now, if the body is the church, and we are all members of that system or machine, then it cannot be said that the gifts of the Spirit are merely inward. For a gift of the Spirit to be given to me, the entire body of the church must be somehow affected: the entire system is shifted in orientation. There is, that is to say, a communal or corporate aspect of spiritual gifts. As Paul says, they are given so that all may be edified in all. And this means that the Spirit does not affect me in a merely internal way: it is not a private or mental experience that has nothing to do with the rest of the Church. Real gifts of the Spirit bind me to the community, indeed, affect the community.

But, as Joseph goes on to explain, this does not mean that the gifts of the Spirit are therefore public, physical, outward.

The critique of the “outward”

“All the gifts of the Spirit are not visible to the natural vision, or understanding of man; indeed very few of them are. . . . Few of them could be known by the generality of men. Peter and John were Apostles, yet the Jewish court scourged them as imposters. Paul was both an Apostle and Prophet, yet they stoned him and put him into prison. The people knew nothing about it, although he had in his possession the gift of the Holy Ghost. Our Savior was ‘anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows,’ yet so far from the people knowing Him, they said He was Beelzebub, and crucified Him as an impostor. Who could point out a Pastor, a Teacher, or an Evangelist by their appearance, yet had they the gift of the Holy Ghost?” (p. 120)

This argument is so straightforward that it perhaps needs little comment. The gifts of the Spirit, in order to appear, “require time and circumstances” (p. 121): they are summoned into operation by accidental encounters, not by necessity. And they are thus hardly so many “outward manifestations,” meant to put on display from the very moment one is confirmed the outward power of the Holy Ghost. Joseph makes this very clear by discussing the “only two gifts that could [theoretically] be made visible—the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy” on page 121. He points out that, though they result in a kind of public display, yet they accomplish nothing in outward manifestation: “if a person spoke in an unknown tongue . . . they would say that it was gibberish; an dif he prophesied they would call it nonsense.” Hence, Joseph says, “The greatest, the best, and the most useful gifts would be known nothing about by an observer.”

At least a major point Joseph is trying to make here is that the gifts of the Spirit are not to be taken as a proof of any kind: the gifts are immanent rather than transcendent. That is, they are not some kind of divine guarantee that one is worthy, spiritually attuned, or what have you. Rather, the gifts are immanent in the work of the kingdom: one needs and receives no guarantee, but rather receives the gifts as so many helps to get the work done.

Hence, the gifts of the Spirit—the Holy Ghost itself—are not “outward manifestations” at all.

So what are the gifts? They ought to be sought after (see the teachings on p. 117) and they have certainly been promised (see the teachings on p. 118), but they have not been promised, nor should they be sought after, for either private or public purposes. They are not a facet of my “personal relationship with God,” nor are they to be taken as publicly guaranteeing the truth of the work: rather they are so many helps to get the work done. Perhaps it could be said that they are much like the truths revealed in the endowment: for the covenants that bind the saints not to disclose certain truths to the world, it is clear that these truths are not exactly public (they certainly cannot be cited as a kind of guarantee of the truth of the Church!); but for their universality (as truth) and for the communal experience that is the endowment, these truths cannot be said to be private either. I doubt it is a coicidence that “endowment” simply means “gift.”

So what is my task? I am to seek the gifts of the Spirit, yes, but precisely as I go about the work of building the kingdom, of exalting my family and those around me, of consecrating everything I have to the work. The gifts of the Spirit distract any individualistic aims that might compromise the work, just as they distract any political (“public”) aims that might also get in the way. The gifts inscribe me, at last, in the realm of the Spirit, in the kingdom of God that has got to be built.

Or, so it seems to me. :)

11 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 9: “Gifts of the Spirit” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. NathanG said

    I read the editorial today as recorded in “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” completely coincidentally. Two things struck me and I’m not sure they are included in the lesson manual.

    “We believe in it [this gift of the Holy Ghost] in all its fullness, and power, and greatness, and glory; but whilst we do this, we believe in it rationally, consistently, and scripturally, and not according to the wild vagaries, foolish notions and traditions of men.” This also seemed to set a theme for what he was trying to accomplish.

    As for the outward, as you have mentioned, Joseph seemed to focus on how there is no outward manifestation that is a proof of anything, for the only two likely outward gifts can be accounted as foolishness by other observers. However, he also seems to comment that the outward manifestations of the gifts will be discerned by the Spirit and so others can enjoy the gifts when they are part of the organism or machine if they are attuned to the Spirit to aid in that understanding. As an example he mentions that if the scribes and Pharisees had recorded the day of Pentecost they would have described people drunken with new wine, but the Apostles were able to recognize the gift of the Spirit for what it is.

  2. Douglas Hunter said

    I am teaching ch9 & ch10 together this week. I find that a comparative approach often leads to a greater appreciation of the uniqueness of Mormon theology and of JS as a religious leader.

    I was listening to an interview with Yaroslav Pelican the other day about the importance of Creeds.

    Anyway, in CH 9 the Articles of Faith are quoted early in the lesson. I take the AOF as our creedal statement so my introduction to the lesson will be about creeds and what makes the AOF unique among them. In particular that what is asserted as fundamental belief in the AOF includes a dynamic between the human and the divine that is still unfolding both institutionally and individually. Its my understanding that this is somewhat extraordinary for Creedal statements. Further looking at ch9 in the creedal context can be seen as reinforcing Christ’s emphasis on our situation being one in which we are situated with a commitment to both God and to the human community. The idea of Gifts serves the dual commitment in interesting ways. Our commitment and relationship with the divine allowing us to better serve the community. Finally as usually I am drawn to the mystical aspect of the concept of the gifts in that knowing what they are and how to use them is a result of our subjective experience of the divine.

  3. Jim F. said

    Douglas Hunter: You are no doubt right that the AOF have become our creed. However, Daniel Graham of the BYU Philosophy Department, argued at this year’s meetings of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology that D&C 20:17-36 appears also to be a “Mormon creed.” Looking at those verses may help you develop the theme you propose.

  4. douglas Hunter said

    Jim, too bad I didn’t see your note until after I presented the lesson. Anyway, its not hard to see why Daniel would make that argument. D&C 20:17-28 in particular, does have a lot in common with other creedal statements including the language found in verse 23&24 and it’s general concision. I’m going to guess that someone has already done some research into this area and found a number of Mormon scriptures that can be said to be creedal in nature. I like the comparison between creedal statements because of how clearly it points out the differences between Mormon thought and that of other groups. Both the AOF and D&C 20 start with God and Jesus but then move to our role as believers. This aspect is absent from the creedal statements I’ve read from other groups. Getting back to Pelican he discussed the importance of creeds in uniting people over time in belief, as providing something constant across generations and across geography. For us, considering the young age of the Church that our creeds don’t have the same historical significance as other creeds, but since our creeds include specific language about gifts and our individual roles, I’m sure someone could make the case for a different kind of unity.

  5. […] teaching on page 139 “the cause of truth.” Truth: if one can here draw on the previous lesson on the gifts of the Spirit, it would then seem that the truth is a question of so many signs, signs […]

  6. Hampers said

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  8. hampers said

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