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RS/MP Lesson 12: “Proclaim Glad Tidings to All the World” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on June 6, 2008

In this fascinating collection of teachings, we get a sense for what Joseph understood to be happening in the event of preaching, what he took to be the essence of missionary work. And let me point out that I use the word “essence” here for a reason: Joseph’s teachings as gathered here are relatively abstract, dwelling on what might be called the structure of preaching rather than on the content, the aim, the result, or the techniques of preaching.

But I personally find this relatively abstract, structural approach quite helpful. It is likely that the actual structure of preaching is what ultimately must ground any reflection on the content, aim, result, or techniques: if we are not aware of what is actually happening when preaching is undertaken by the Spirit, then I’m not sure how we can expect ever to see how to undertake to do it ourselves. In a word, what I hope to explore in working through this lesson is what it is to preach, and with the intention of understanding in light of that structure how it is that I or we might go about doing it.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

After a brief report of a thwarted-and-then-recovered baptismal service within the first months after the organization of the Church and the initial call to teach the Lamanites in the Missouri area, the introductory part of the lesson records an example of Joseph’s own preaching. The experience was reported by Parley P. Pratt and occurred in Philadelphia in 1839. Both the time and the place of this occurrence are of some importance: this is after the entire Missouri affair, which means that Joseph had finally emerged from a kind of self-imposed latency in which he had encouraged others to step forward and handle the Church (there is a good deal of history here that I’m summarizing rather poorly); and it took place in a rather large Eastern city, where Joseph the farm kid who had been wowed by the beauty and evil of New York City would have to speak to Americans in terms other than what he wont to employ when speaking to the sorts of people who made up the ranks of the Church. Giving some latitude for Elder Pratt’s perhaps excessively laudatory point of view, Joseph seems to have performed quite well.

Significantly, Joseph’s message seems to have focused on the several divine manifestations that grounded the beginnings of the Church. That is, his focus seems to have been primarily on events, in fact, on the event (in the singular): “He commenced by saying: ‘If nobody else had the courage to testify of so glorious a message from Heaven, and of the finding of so glorious a record, he felt to do it in justice to the people, and leave the event with God.'” (p. 150) Several points in this brief description deserve attention.

First, what of this “If nobody else…” business? One might be justified reading into these words an explicit recognition on Joseph’s part of his then-underway emergence from latency: no one else seemed to recognize that the universality of the gospel was rooted in actual events, and so it was necessary for Joseph to begin to do things the “right” way. What was preaching like at the time? Was it excessively logical? Textual? Historical? In what way did it ignore the founding events?

Second, there is this question of “the courage to testify.” Whatever was not being done in preaching as it was then being practiced (if it is indeed right to see Joseph as speaking condemningly), Joseph seems to characterize it as a lack of courage: to fail to root the emergence of Mormonism in the universal singularity of an event was to shy away from something, or at least to allow oneself to be ruled by some kind of fear. What was it that was feared? Or what was avoided and why? And whatever it was wasn’t feared or avoided, it would seem that the preacher claims a kind of radical subjectivity, underscored by the radical courage that must be claimed. What kind of subjectivity is this that inhabits Joseph’s preaching?

Third, the “glorious message” cannot be disentangled from the “glorious record,” the Book of Mormon. The event, it must be always be recognized, was a textual event, in fact, an event of translation. Joseph seems to have seen Mormonism as primarily a kind of reworking of everything in the world in light of a translation. For Joseph to take up this testimony is for him not only to claim that the book, as true, grounds the truth or validity of a particular organization; it was also (and more importantly) to claim that the sudden emergence of this supplementary (and—let’s face it—unnecessary) text amounts to a textual revolution: every other book must be reread or even rewritten in light of the Book of Mormon.

Fourth, Joseph undertakes his preaching “in justice to the people”! Here one can perhaps recognize how Joseph the farm boy could speak to an urban congregation: his message was universal, and its being declared in subjectivated faith was (and remains!) an act of justice. The preaching, then, even as it is powerfully subjective, cannot be disentangled at all from the encounter with the people: the book was translated, and that event has universal bearing, and so must be preached. Justice is to be accomplished in nothing less or other than preaching.

Fifth, at last, Joseph says that he will “leave the event with God.” What he meant by this is not entirely clear to me. It is at least clear—again—that his focus is on the event as an event. And it is also clear that the event has a kind of autonomy or untouchability or truth for Joseph: it was not something that could be altered, but rather what alters everything else. But what, I wonder, does it mean to leave such a thing with God? Is this a dismissal of teleological preaching, that is, of preaching with a particular aim or intention? Is this a declaration of a fidelity that refuses to totalize the untotalizable, to name the unnameable? Is it a veiled appeal to transcendence, or precisely the rejection of transcendence? I wonder…

But whatever ought, in the end, to be read into this brief account, it is clear that here we have what I will call the “perfect” model of preaching: this is what it ought to be. The teachings in the remainder of the lesson articulate this very model.

Teachings of Joseph Smith

Joseph’s teachings begin with several paragraphs about the revelation of wicked that cannot be disassociated from the preaching of the event: “Who but those who can see the awful precipice upon which the world of mankind stands in this generation, can labor in the vineyard of the Lord without feelig a sense of the world’s deplorable situation?” (p. 152) To preach the event faithfully is to reveal that the world has been, in all the meanwhile, distracted (by death/the threat of death?): “you see the great extent of the power and dominion of the prince of darkness, and realize how vast the numbers are who are crowding the road to death without ever giving heed to the cheering sound of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (p. 151) But the “truth of these facts” (p. 151) must give way to the “light and truth of the everlasting Gospel from the rivers to the ends of the earth.” (p. 152) Joseph’s wish: “Oh, that I could snatch them from the vortext of misery, into which I behold them plunging themselves, . . . bringing them to unfeigned repentance.” (p. 152) It is self-deception in which the world finds itself, a structural self-imposition that makes repentance effectively impossible (so long as one is deceived, how can one see the need to repent?), and Joseph’s entire aim is to preach “in all fidelity and righteousness before Him, that our influence may be felt among thenations of the earth, in mighty power, even to rend the kingdoms of darkness asunder, and triumph over priestcraft,” etc. (p. 152)

Preaching would seem then to be—structurally—a question of disrupting self-deception, of bringing light to the darkness that clouds over a distracted world. It is thus, as Joseph explains further along in the lesson, a question of rendering effectively indifferent many of the differences that determine the thinking of the world: “Therefore we believe in preaching the doctrine of repentance in all the world, both to old and young, rich and poor, bond and free”; or again: “I will proceed to tell you what the Lord requires of all people, high and low, rich and poor, male and female, ministers and people, professors of religion and non-professors.” (p. 154) Such an indifferentiating of the differences that distract the world from the voice heard in the gospel must be accomplished, it would seem, through a kind of deciding of the undecideable: “It is the acceptable year of the Lord,” Joseph announces. (p. 154) Such a faithful announcement, precisely because it distracts the play of differences that determine the world’s encyclopedia of knowledge, breaks the impossible bonds of self-deception: “It is the acceptable year of the Lord; liberate the captives that they may sing hosanna”! (I want to dwell on the singing here, with its connections to the idea of the collapse of the tongue of men by the eruption of the tongue of angels, etc., but I’ll forbear.)

Of course, it must not be understood that such faithful preaching undoes or does away with the world’s encyclopedia of knowledge; rather, it recasts it or reinterprets it: “We don’t ask any people to throw away any good they have got; we only ask them to come and get more.” (p. 155) The work of preaching is a work of typological rereading: in light of this (antitypical) event (of translation), what other texts need to be rewritten (that is, retranslated)? It is in this sense that Joseph can speak of “the force of truth,” a force that forces everything to take on a different meaning after the translation of the Book of Mormon. (p. 155) But “force” does not imply that there is no subjective acceptance necessary for the hearer. Rather, “the force of truth” only “tak[es] a deep hold in the hearts and affections of all those who are noble-minded enough to lay aside the prejudice of education, and investigate the subject with candor and honesty.” (p. 155) The force is the power of (the weakness of) the message when it is preached in the power of the Spirit. Only those who are so trapped within self-deception that they cannot approach the message with “candor and honest” will reject that power.

And so the work goes on, since, as the last teaching in the lesson, drawn from D&C 123, points out: “There are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.” (p. 156)

3 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 12: “Proclaim Glad Tidings to All the World” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Rick Hartman said

    My reading of the phrase, “leave the event with God” suggests a similar principle proclaimed by nearly every other prophet who has ever lived. They are preaching the gospel as they know it, bearing their solemn witness, to people who may (or may not) accept it, and then declaring that they have thus ‘washed their hands of the blood of the people’. They have done their part, proclaimed repentence, told it like it should be told (as they have been commanded to do), no holds barred, and then allowing the Lord to judge how the people respond and change (or not).

    Does this explanation ring true to anyone else?

  2. Joe Spencer said

    Rick,

    I very much agree.

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