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RS/MP Lesson 44: “The Restoration of All Things: The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on October 3, 2009

I found this lesson to be… well… odd. I think it gathers together some very nice statements, but it is more given to what one might call form than to what one might call content. That is, when I got to the end of the lesson, I felt inspired to focus more of my efforts directly on the work of the kingdom, but I found that I could not—on the resources of the lesson alone—answer the question, “What is the work of the kingdom?” I could, of course, provide my own answers to that question, and I could tell myself that all the previous lessons in the manual should be understood to be (at least) a set of resources for answering that question, but I nonetheless found—and still find!—the question somewhat unsettling. And I think the reason is this: the vision Joseph provides in the teachings gathered into this lesson is so much larger than any description of the work I could provide in answer to the question.

So let me suggest that this lesson presents a kind of massive, perhaps unanswerable question, in the end: How do we make sense of the lack of balance between the vision of the Kingdom as Joseph presents it and the way we talk about the Church as a day-to-day work? With that question constantly in mind, I’ll offer some notes on the lesson (jumping right over the “From the Life” part of the lesson).

In this last dispensation, all the authority, ordinances, and knowledge of earlier dispensations have been restored.

I was surprised by the first paragraph in the “Teachings” portion of the lesson, because it is the first time I’ve come across Joseph Smith (implicitly) claiming that the “Great Apostasy” was a question of truth and not just authority being lost. He says: “It is in the order of heavenly things that God should always send a new dispensation into the world when men have apostatized from the truth and lost the priesthood” (p. 510). Of course, there are several ways one could downplay the implications here about the apostasy. For example, Joseph makes no positive statement about what was lost during the apostasy as such. Indeed, his intention is not to point to the bad of the or any apostasy, but to point to the gracefulness of God in overcoming apostasy by launching new dispensations. Or again, is it of significance that Joseph uses the word “truth” rather than the word “knowledge” or “doctrine”? Perhaps he meant to suggest, not that the apostasy is a question of have lost this or that theological idea (say, the nature of the Godhead), but that the apostasy is a question of rejecting the continuing pursuit of truth, of thinking that one has already got all the truth one will ever need to know. (On this reading, Latter-day Saints are individually, all too often, very much in danger of apostasy!)

But most important, I think, is the way that Joseph Smith connects “apostatiz[ing] from the truth” and the “los[s] of the priesthood.” He here seems to describe a two-stage process, in which one first turns from the truth (preferring something else over the truth itself) and then as a result one loses the priesthood. Here one might point to D&C 121, where one’s relationship to the “principles of righteousness” determine the status of one’s “authority or priesthood.” And yet it seems to me that there is something else that must be noted in Joseph’s teaching: the truth cannot be disentangled from the priesthood, as Joseph describes things. Does this mean that one should understand the word “truth” here to have reference to, say, certain things revealed concerning the priesthood in the temple, such that apostatizing means abandoning one’s temple covenants? Or what? But I want to leave this question a bit open for the moment, so as to allow the other quotations making up this first section of the “Teachings” to provide the outlines of an answer.

The next teaching (also on page 510) comes from section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants. There we have Joseph announcing that the last dispensation is to work out “a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories,” all to “be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time.” This welding together of priesthood keys, offices, and ordinances, however, is to be intertwined also with “those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent.” Again it is a question of weaving together the priesthood and truth. Interestingly, here the priesthood half of the equation is a question of priesthood keys and ordinances that have been around in former dispensations, all restored and gathered together, while the truth half of the equation is a question of truths only yet to be revealed, things that have never been known in history. If this can be taken to inflect the pairing of truth and authority in the first paragraph of the section, it would seem that the priesthood has been lost while it has been the possibility of the greatest truths being revealed that has been rejected. In other words, in light of this snippet from the D&C, it is possible to suggest that the apostasy was not a question of losing truth, but of ceasing to care that much more will be known, and the loss of the priesthood followed from that. This, at any rate, is a possibility.

The next teaching (yet again on page 510) is a bit surprising. Yet again it is a question of authority (“the ancient order”) and truth (“those things . . . which have been hid from before the foundation of the world,” etc.), and the way they are cast seems to repeat what appeared in the previous teaching. However, here they are put to an important task: the priesthood and the possibility of receiving never-yet-known truths will be restored to “His servants, to prepare the earth for the return of His glory, even a celestial glory, and a kingdom of Priests and kings to God and the Lamb.” There are at least two ways this can be understood. On the one hand, it might simply be that the restoration of all these things will prepare the people themselves for the advent of the Savior and the redemption of the world—the priesthood and the truth being aimed at perfecting those who receive it. On the other hand, it might mean that the truths and the keys restored will allow the servants of the Lord to do the work of preparing the earth for celestial glory, their task being to redeem the earth. Which of these is the preferable reading, I don’t know. But I find myself intrigued, at the very least, by the latter of them: how might the keys and striking truths revealed in the last dispensation give us to redeem the earth itself? Here I think Joseph’s vision of things might be getting a bit larger than we can usually take in.

The last teaching beginning on page 510 reiterates in a nice summary the distinction between “things that have been revealed in all former dispensations” and “also other things that have not been before revealed,” making it abundantly clear that there is more to come in the last dispensation than has before been made known.

The last four paragraphs of this first section of the “Teachings” (all found on page 511) all come from the same occasion. After quoting Ephesians 1:9-10, Joseph provides some explanation. The really striking line in it, in my opinion, is this from the third of the four paragraphs: “God purposed in Himself that there should not be an eternal fullness until every dispensation should be fulfilled and gathered together in one.” What on earth does this mean? In fact, a series of questions: How does “an eternal fullness” differ from “a fullness”? How does the development of an eternal fullness break with the gathering together of all other dispensations? Why is this break, whatever it amounts to, something that God purposed in Himself, and does that imply that it might have been otherwise? Might it be helpful to suggest a distinction between a “finite fullness” and an “eternal fullness”? Or is an eternal fullness simply a question of everything being revealed without an apostasy on the horizon? Is the eternal fullness more than or roughly equivalent to the collection of all previous dispensations?

I haven’t, in the end, the slightest idea of how even to begin with this teaching. But I will suggest at least this: Joseph’s vision of what this last dispensation amounts to is much larger than the vision we tend to have on a day-to-day basis in the Church.

Joseph Smith holds the keys of the dispensation of the fulness of times.

This relatively short section mostly makes clear what its title states, as made clear in the teaching in it (on page 511): “I . . . hold the keys of the last kingdom, in which is the dispensation of the fullness of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy Prophets since the world began, under the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” But more is said here than might at first appear. Joseph here connects his unique position with his singular relationship to the sealing power (note the mention of Elijah’s visit in several teachings from the previous section), thus suggesting a connection between his claim to hold the keys of the last dispensation and what is said in D&C 132:7, which speaks of “him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred).” All this talk of the massively expansive vision Joseph had for the last days apparently cannot be disentangled from his unique position with regard to the sealing up of the whole human family. Whatever the priesthood and the truth amount to, they must be inflected by this overarching work.

This must be, I think, what Joseph means when he goes on to say in the next teaching (spilling over onto page 512) that he “intend[ed] to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world”! His task was to lay the foundation of that work, and it was revolutionary. So it is that he could further say (also on page 512): “I have the whole plan of the kingdom before me, and no other person has.” And so his mother could later recall him saying: “I forever will them [the keys of the last dispensation] in time and eternity.” Whatever this work and its expansive vision amount to, it is Joseph’s work.

But what is that work? If it is clear it has something to do with sealing, and so with both priesthood and truth, what can be said about what that work amounts to?

This final dispensation is of such vast importance that it requires the complete, unselfish dedication of the Saints.

The last section in the lesson says the most about how important this unclarified work is, and it perhaps offers at least a few clues as to what that work itself amounts to. The first paragraph of this section (found on page 512) explains that the work of this dispensation is “almost beyond the comprehension of mortals,” a “theme which has animated the bosom of prophets and righteous men from the creation of the world down through every succeeding generation to the present time.” But what shape does it take? The only clue Joseph provides us in that same paragraph is this: “all things shall be restored, as spoken of by all the holy propehts since the world began; for in it will take place the glorious fulfilment of the promises made to the fathers.” Where does this put us? At the very least, it is clear that the Abrahamic covenant is at the center of things, but Joseph has nothing to say here about what that covenant and its fulfillment are. What does it have to do with mentioning the gospel to the bagger at the grocery store, or with reciting the First Presidency message from the Ensign while visiting another member’s home for a few minutes, or with helping someone cope with death or drug abuse for that matter?

In the next paragraph, Joseph goes on to say that the “work which has to be accomplished int he last days . . . will call into action the energy, skill, talent, and ability of the Saints, so that it may roll forth with that glory and majesty described by the prophet; and will consequently require the concentration of the Saints, to accomplish works of such magnitude and grandeur” (pp. 512-513). But what works? And what energies, skills, talents, and abilities? Concentration on what? Again, from page 513: “It will be necessary for the Saints to hearken to counsel and turn their attention to the Church, the establishment of the Kingdom, and lay aside every selfish principle, everything low and groveling; and stand forward in the cause of truth, and assist to the utmost of their power, those to whom has been given the pattern and design.” Maybe we get a bit closer here. It is clear here that the work is a question of following counsel, of assisting those who have received revelations concerning what is to be done. Is it then only a question of being a “good member of the Church”? But then Joseph tells us that it will require the setting aside of every selfish principle, our desire to perfect ourselves or to be good, responsible members of the Church presumably included. It is a selfless task of getting to work that is called for, not the constant task of self-improvement. What is the work to which we are called?

Again Joseph goes on to wax eloquent about the importance of the work: “prophets, priests and kings” have been “fired with heavenly and joyful anticipations” in looking to this dispensation, and so they have “sung and written and prophesied of this our day” (p. 513). Moreover, “generations yet unborn will dwell with peculiar delight upon the scenes that we have passed through, the privations that we have endured, the untiring zeal that we have manifested,” etc. (p. 514). And again: it is “a work that God and angels have contemplated with delight for generations past” (p. 515). Indeed, but what is to be done? If it is indeed “a work that is destined to bring about the destruction of the powers of darkness, the renovation of the earth, the glory of God, and the salvation of the human family,” what is it that we ought to be doing?

As I said at the outset of these notes, there is a part of me that wants simply to say that we can go back through everything else in this manual to get a glimpse of what we ought to be about. But I’m also concerned that the vision too often escapes us, even in the very formatting of a manual like this. What is the work of the last days, that thing that unites us all and about which we vainly boast all too often? What have we to do if we are ever to bear off this kingdom triumphantly?

And if Joseph has given us a clue in all this by pointing at the very least to the sealing keys that have been restored, have we even begun to think about the sealing ordinance? About love as it is understood in a revelation like D&C 132? About what it is to seal up the entire human family (and not just me, my wife, and my kids)? About how all of this recasts everything else we read in the scriptures? About how this inflects the very pursuit of truth?

I wonder.

6 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 44: “The Restoration of All Things: The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. JerryYoung said

    As always, thanks Joe for your analysis and insights.
    You stimulated thinking about the linking of Truth and the apostasy.
    I recalled chapter 22 (Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths); these sections of that lesson:
    The gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth; the faithful accept the truths God has revealed and put aside false traditions.(Mormonism is truth)
    Gaining knowledge of eternal truths is essential to obtaining salvation.(Not saved in ignorance)
    We obtain knowledge of eternal truths through diligent study and prayer. (Ponder, meditate, explore)
    We gain knowledge of eternal truths a little at a time; we can learn all things as fast as we are able to bear them. (Steps of truths to truth)
    Chapter 44 seems indeed to prompt us to reconsider many of the previous chapters in light of the Prophet’s emphasis on the supernal nature of truth. Again, thanks for you sharing of perspective.

  2. Jim W. said

    I too appreciated Joe’s thoughtful analysis.

    As I read this lesson, it helped me to consider these four areas as the subject of Joseph Smith’s description of what was being restored, revealed, or otherwise coming forth in the dispensation of the fullness of times:

    1. Spiritual truth
    2. Secular and scientific truth
    3. Spiritual power (priesthood, keys, ordinances)
    4. Political or temporal power

    In the quote on p. 510 from D&C 128:18 (“those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world”), it seems to me that Joseph Smith was also talking about scientific discoveries, etc. (#2), not just spiritual truth (#1).

    Political power (#4) is the least discussed by Joseph Smith, but I think it informed his thinking as well. For Joseph Smith, this political power could be establishing a political kingdom preparatory to the Millennium or even the actual Millennial Reign of Christ.

    Finally, as I was considering this lesson I listened to a Sousa march on the radio. Here’s the connection. A Sousa march features theme A in the first part and theme B in the second part. The reprise combines themes A and B, which are heard together. (Sousa marches are usually much more sophisticated than this, but you get the point.) The reprise is the dispensation of the fullness of times when the various themes from previous dispensations are combined and heard together. Previous dispensations had some (all?) of the themes but they were not heard together as they are in this dispensation. This explains why ours is the dispensation earlier prophets “earnestly desired to see” (p. 513). Or should we say “hear”?

  3. […] offer some notes on the lesson (jumping right over the “From the Life” part of the lesson). Read the rest of this entry » at http://feastuponthewordblog.org Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)RS/MP Lesson 4, […]

  4. JerryYoung said

    Your other blog series about Satan and the Priesthood ties to this chapter. The chapter speaks to the foreordained (on God’s side)to do His works in this dispensation. From that blog, we consider the foreordained on Satan’s side.
    It is another reason to not feel smug about being in this dispensation, but another evidence that this dispensation has more trials (certainly different)and challenges than any other. A previous chapter dealt with being valiant (in the testimony of Christ)which can help us through the refining fire of these days.

  5. Kate said

    I do not necessarily have any thought provoking intelligence to impart, but do want to thank you for teaching me each week as I prepare to teach my Relief Society. This type of discussion is right up my alley, and while I may not know the answers to your wonderings, it has helped me to grow spiritually and intellectually.

    Thanks!

  6. Veronica said

    Saw this late in the day. But had to say as I was studying I felt like building the kingdom was definitely stated as the work to be accomplished with special emphasis on gathering every nation, kindred, tongue and people. It has been my understanding that performing sealing work in the temple is one way that the gathering will take place as we are all sealed together. We are savior’s on mount zion as we do temple work so is that how we are saving the human family? No time to research but wanted to ask.
    This is a great site that I just found today. Thank you for your insight.

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