Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 34: “The Power of Forgiving” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on April 21, 2009

This lesson is heavily anecdotal: most of it could have come under the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section (though most of it, of course, does not). It climaxes with the beautiful story of William W. Phelps’s repentance and return to fellowship, the last lines of which make up the italicized introductory snippet for the lesson on page 391.

Given all the above, my notes this week will be a bit different from what they usually are. My usual form of analysis will be employed in dealing with the teachings primarily on pages 393-394. For the remainder, I will provide just a bit of contextualization.

Joseph Smith on Forgiveness

The “Teachings” portion of the lesson begins with this: “One of the most pleasing scenes that can occur on earth, when a sin has been committed by one person against another, is, to forgive that sin; and then according to the sublime and perfect pattern of the Savior, pray to our Father in heaven to forgive [the sinner] also.” (p. 392) In some sense, it was this “scene” that drove Joseph’s entire life—nothing touched him so much as the ability to forgive.

Indeed, for Joseph, forgiveness was the very essence of love, and it was something to be ventured even when it wasn’t necessarily deserved: “be ready to forgive our brother on the first intimations of repentance, and asking forgiveness” (p. 392); “I freely forgive all men. If we would secure and cultivate the love of others, we must love others, even our enemies as well as friends.” (p. 393)

At the root of this, it seems was Joseph’s conviction that angry feelings were, at bottom, always motivated by merely “frivolous things” (p. 393), a mere consequence of their being “mortals.” (p. 393) And so he asks: “We loved them once, shall we not encourage them to reformation? We have not yet forgiven them seventy times seven, as our Savior directed; perhaps we have not forgiven them once.” (p. 393) This self-frankness is vital.

Joseph’s entire modus operandi, in fact, was this: “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness.” (p. 394) Joseph had his faults—including a very real temper—but much of his “success” cannot be detached from his recognition that it is love (and we have barely begun to think about what love really is) that gets people doing things.

Running through several of Joseph’s teachings here is a thread that deserves attention: the importance of the face-to-face encounter, and its connection with the theme of covenant. As he says on page 394: “When you and I meet face to face, I anticipate, without the least doubt, that all matters between us will be fairly understood, and perfect love prevail; and the sacred covenant by which we are bound together, have the uppermost seat in our hearts.” Or again on pages 394-395: “And I will now covenant with you before God, that I will not listen to or credit any derogatory report against any of you, nor condemn you upon any testimony beneath the heavens, short of that testimony which is infallible, until I can see you face to face, and know of a surety; and I do place unremitted confidence in your word, for I believe you to be men of truth. And I ask the same of you, when I tell you anything, that you place equal confidence in my word, for I will not tell you I know anything that I do not know.”

Joseph seems to see, in these snippets, a very real power in the face to face encounter. He at least seems to suggest that it is the lack of a meeting in the flesh that tends to create dissensions and misunderstandings—and that there is something about the flesh, about meeting in the flesh, that allows love to conquer. There is, I think, something quite powerful at work here. What is it about the face to face encounter, a meeting in the flesh, that allows love to conquer?

Moreover, what of the place of covenant in all this? Joseph speaks in the first snippet above of the covenant that already binds them and that will prevail when a face to face encounter is again possible. In the second snippet, he offers up a covenant that he will refrain from making accusations or assuming anything until that face to face encounter takes place. To what extent is covenant enacted in the face to face encounter, by the very nature of the latter? And should these teachings be taken to imply that the implicit covenant of the fleshly encounter should be extended into relationships of absence so as to maintain the love that prevails when we come face to face? There is, I think, a great deal to think about here.

And what else can be said about the teachings on these several pages? It can be asked, I think, what Joseph means by forgiveness. I have my own thoughts about what forgiveness really amounts to, but I wonder what Joseph had in mind. Is it simply to love someone enough to continue doing everything possible to exalt and strengthen her/him? Is it more? Is it less? Is it something else entirely?

I wonder.

Joseph Smith as Forgiving

As I mention above, most of this lesson is anecdotal. Three stories make up the bulk of the lesson. The first is the one recounted on pages 391-392, in the “From the Life” part of the lesson. It is told by Daniel Tyler, and I think it more or less speaks for itself. The second is the story concerning William Smith, which is a bit more complicated. And the third is the story concerning William W. Phelps, which also more or less speaks for itself, though I will have a few words to say about it.

Regarding William Smith, I think it is best if I just provide a few resources for getting the whole story, since it was a rather complicated situation:

For William’s character and life, see: the Wikipedia entry, and especially the two Dialogue articles linked to at the bottom of the page.

For the story of William’s quarrel with Joseph, see History of the Church, 2:333-354; and Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 299-303. For the primary source, see Joseph’s journal entries from December 12th, 1835, through January 3rd, 1836. These have been published in several places: Scott Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith; the older and the brand new editions of the Joseph Smith Papers Project; and a few other scattered publications. Reading especially the journal entries for this whole affair is helpful. There one finds Joseph’s most intimate thoughts about the whole thing, and there one sees especially how much it really hurt Joseph to have the whole thing happen.

But all of that said, I want just to offer a word on the Phelps story that concludes the lesson.

The story itself is rather straightforward: W. W. Phelps had abandoned Joseph and the Saints during the unfortunate Missouri debacle. But, in 1840, he approached Joseph by letter asking for forgiveness. Joseph’s letter of response to him, quoted in full in the lesson on pages 396-398, is worth reading again and again. It perfectly embodies Joseph’s love and model of forgiveness: “Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.”

I think it is striking that it was Phelps would later wrote Praise to the Man. Again: “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness.”

4 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 34: “The Power of Forgiving” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. […] primarily on pages 393-394. For the remainder, I will provide just a bit of contextualization. Read the rest of this entry » at http://feastuponthewordblog.org Comments […]

  2. JerryYoung said

    Regarding William Phelps and “Praise to the Man”, it is held that for many years the tune used was “Hail to the Chief”. If one reviews the stanza in Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake”,we can find the inspiration for the words:
    “Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances,
    Honor’d & bless’d be the evergreen Pine,…..”

  3. Robert C. said

    I’m just now catching up on some of these lessons. Regarding the enfleshed, face-to-face encounter, I think this is, an many ways, what Jean-Luc Marion is trying to think through (following Levinas of course) in his 4th meditation of The Erotic Phenomenon. The idea, it seems, is that there is a kind of immediacy of experience when we experience things in the flesh. Words can easily fall into gossip and deceit and misconstruals (all subject to mediation by our minds and memories), but sensory experience is immediate and much harder to deny. To deny God directly to his face, seems to be the only unforgivable sin, not just a poor job remembering or being faithful to a prior experience. Perhaps….

  4. Hi hun, nice blog! I really like this post.. I was wondering about this for a while now. This cleared a lot up for me! Do you have a rss feed that I can add?

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