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RS/MP Lesson 29: “Living with Others in Peace and Harmony” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 23, 2009

After the theological weight of the last few lessons, I was surprised by the relative lightness of this one. The result: my notes will be quite a bit shorter this week. Indeed, the majority of what I have to say will regard only the last section of the lesson. That said, to work!

From the Life of Joseph Smith

“One of the desires of the early Latter-day Saints was simply to be allowed to live their religion in peace.” (p. 339) This, I think, is crucial to understanding early as well as contemporary Mormon history: Mormonism has been characterized through and through by what Marvin Hill has called a “quest for refuge.”

But what shape should that take in practical terms, or what did it mean for Joseph?

By striving to be peacemakers, we can live in greater harmony and love with others.

Unfortunately, this first section for the most part does not represent Joseph’s teachings at all. As footnote 2 explains, the great bulk of this section was taken from an editorial written under Joseph’s direction, but in which we don’t find anything directly from Joseph’s hand. So it’s basic message—not only live and let live, but actively seek to establish peace—is, while true, not exactly an insight into Joseph’s thinking on these matters.

Indeed, the most authentically representative piece we have in this section is the one-sentence snippet that concludes it: “We want to live in peace with all men.” (p. 343) But again: what shape should that take in practical terms, or what did it mean for Joseph?

We can cultivate peace by honoring one another and refusing to find fault.

Here we have the shortest section in the lesson, one much more representative of Joseph’s teachings, but one that is perhaps too brief to give way to a probing investigation. It might be best to regard this second “teachings” section as a kind of turn toward Joseph, a turn that will come to fruition in the third and final section of the “teachings” portion of the lesson.

But what does this turn to Joseph give us? In the end, I think it gives us a kind of subtractive task: we have got to be careful, in all our efforts to establish peace, to do so by confession rather than by critique. In terms of the fourth paragraph on page 344: “Let . . . all Saints be willing to confess all their sins, and not keep back a part.” Evil speaking of others, as the remainder of the teachings in this section make clear, does not bring about peace (it could only result in a pax romana, if it could accomplish anything like peace); but serious and sincere confession does a great deal.

Of course, confession is only a first step. And so we must turn to the final and richest, most representative final section of the lesson.

We can cultivate harmony in our communities by respecting the freedom of all people to believe according to their own conscience.

Here at last we get Joseph more or less unedited. The teachings gathered into this last section are Joseph Smith without apology, and they are quite representative of his discourses in Nauvoo especially. What do they say?

The guiding principle, of course, is found in the eleventh article of faith, quoted first, on page 344: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Joseph wrote these words, as is well known, in an 1842 piece called the “Wentworth Letter,” written to a newspaper editor who had inquired about Mormonism. It nicely introduces this section.

The first full paragraph on page 345 is representative: “I have the most liberal sentiments, and feelings of charity towards all sects, parties, and denominations; and the rights and liberties of conscience, I hold most sacred and dear, and despise no man for differing with me in matters of opinion.” The language here is essentially revolutionary: Joseph is drawing on the rhetoric of American revolutionary thought. This becomes more explicit in the third full paragraph on the same page: “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.” Joseph, it should be recognized, was dandled on the knees of two grandfathers who had served in the Revolutionary War, and thus on the knees of two men who had believed in universal liberty, a liberty blind or indifferent to the differences people proclaim so loudly.

This takes it most radical shape in the second full paragraph on page 345: “I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination [as for a Mormon]; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”

This same spirit runs through all the teachings of this last section: “We ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves . . . against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between the and their God.” (p. 345) “[A]ll men are, or ought to be free, possessing unalienable rights, and the high and noble qualifications off the laws of nature and of self-preservation, to think and act and say as they please.” (p. 345) “All persons are entitled to their agency for God has so ordained it. . . . Since the God of heaven has left these things optional with every individual, we do not wish to deprive them of it.” (p. 346) “In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights.” (p. 346) “No man is authorized to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.” (p. 346) And so on.

The question, however, that must be put in response to all this: How can one subscribe so emphatically to “American pluralism” (as these teachings would seem to do) and yet believe that there is one truth? In other words, don’t Joseph’s “most liberal sentiments” effectively suggest that we should simply “live and let live,” that everyone has her or his truth, and that we should simply live our own without pushing it on others? Is it possible for faith and charity to co-exist?

Joseph is quite clear on this point: “Although I never feel to force my doctrine upon any person, I rejoice to see prejudice give way to truth, and the traditions of men dispersed by the pure principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (p. 346) For Joseph, not only are charity and faith not opposed to one another, it is difficult to see how charity could be separated in any way from faith. Charity is, for Joseph, precisely this desire to see truth embraced by everyone, his recognition that anyone can be taught, can understand, can change and embrace the gospel; and so it is Joseph’s willingness to preach the gospel to everyone. But such a charity would, of course, be compromised by adding to it any element of force: so soon as the universal offer of the gospel is accompanied by human compulsion, its actual universality is compromised, and the faith becomes vain.

Joseph puts it this way: “I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.” (p. 345) Truth indeed cuts its own way, accomplishes its own work: we have merely to announce it, and those who seek truth will find it.

To sum things up, to live in peace—to exercise charity—is (1) universally to announce the truth while (2) confessing one’s sins and (3) refusing to exercise control or compulsion or dominion in any degree. Charity is, in a word, revolutionary.

10 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 29: “Living with Others in Peace and Harmony” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. […] RS/MP Lesson 29: “Living with Others in Peace and Harmony“ […]

  2. Wesley Church said

    can you give me a citation for the dandling on their knees? I know both his grandfathers served during the Revolution, but I would like a good citation to use.

    thanks

  3. joespencer said

    The quotations I employed in this regard come directly from the lesson, page 345. If you want more information about his grandparents, the best sources are Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism and Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage.

  4. SeekingFutherLight-n-Understanding said

    Asael[father of Joseph Smith Snr]gave his service in the Revolutionary War, enlisting in July 1776 under Captain John Nesmith, in Colonel Joshua Wingate’s Regiment of New Hampshire troops. They were mustered for Canada service, and marched to join the northern armies under Thornton and Bartlett. (New Hampshire Revolutionary Rolls 1; 342, 349.)

    http://www.josephsmithsr.com/bio/SMITH.html

  5. SeekingFutherLight-n-Understanding said

    Lucy Macks father faught in the revolutionary war on a number of different enlistments…. “I enlisted in the service of my country, under the command of Capt. Henry, and was annexed to a regiment commanded by Col. Whiting, I marched from Connecticut to Fort Edwards; there was a severe battle fought at the half way brook, in the year 1755.

    It should be noted that at the time of his enlistment Soloman Mack was twenty-three years of age.

    Soon after he left the above command he enlisted under Captain Israel Putnam’s company, Colonel Bagley’s regiment from Pomfrey, Conn. in 1753.”

    http://www.josephsmithsr.com/bio/MACK.html

  6. joespencer said

    Seeking, thanks for doing this research!

  7. SeekingFutherLight-n-Understanding said

    Not a problem Joe,
    the question pricked my own interest in Josephs ancestors and what influence they had in his life. I guess I had never really considered Josephs gradparents before but as I calculated it Asael Smith, lived until 1830 when Joseph was 25years old, and his other grandfather , Solomon Mack lived until 1820 when Joseph was 15 years old. I was not able to take the time to determin how much time they lived in the same areas (Vermont) but I hazard to say that they would have definately had influence in his early life.

  8. Liberty said

    I believe we are overlooking the importance of the second section “We can cultivate…” Does it not introduce some hints of the power of cooperation vs. the problems of competition? Just a thought…

  9. CL said

    Since Joseph Smith often used scribes, etc to record his thoughts, revelations, translations, etc, I think it may be wrong to say that the first section “for the most part does not represent Joseph’s teachings at all”. If it was written “under his direction”, I would think that it most likely does represent his teachings!

    If you reference the original source, the Times and Seasons

    at http://patriot.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/NCMP1820-1846&CISOPTR=8375&REC=10

    you can see that he clearly signed the bottom of the article as ” With due consideration, I am the friend of all good men, Joseph Smith.”
    After all, the manual we are studying is entitled “The Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith”.

  10. joespencer said

    CL,

    Thanks for the link. And thanks for looking at that one in particular more thoroughly. Because of the language in the article, etc., I’ll confess I still imagine that this one was “ghostwritten” (likely by W. W. Phelps). But you’re certainly right to say that, to some extent, it doesn’t matter.

    As for me, I’m interested in locating specifically Joseph’s teachings because I find that his teachings alone provide the genuine contours of his thinking. I don’t at all mean to disparage others’ teachings, even and especially those that came to be attributed to Joseph; but I do think that if we take as Joseph’s teachings that did not, strictly speaking, originate with him, we are likely to become somewhat muddled about what Joseph Smith himself was going after. I recognize, of course, that there is a real danger there of overemphasizing Joseph and underemphasizing the thought and revelations of others. But that’s a risk I’m generally willing to assume.

    My notes are, as always, very much inflected by my own interests and concerns (something that should be evident in the fact that I do not write up lesson plans, only notes, analyses, and thoughts).

    Re: your point that “After all, the manual we are studying is entitled ‘The Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith'”; I respond:

    Yes, but the manual itself is at pains often enough, at least in the footnotes, to warn us that the task of sorting out what Joseph himself had to say and what others said on his behalf, at times with and at times without his approval, is less than a simple affair. The title undoubtedly announces the overarching aim of the manual, but the footnotes give us an insight into the difficulty of accomplishing such a task, as well as counsel us to be careful about what we take as the Prophet’s word.

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