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RS/MP Lesson 45: “Joseph Smith’s Feelings about His Prophetic Mission” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on October 30, 2009

This lesson is a wonderful collection of some of Joseph’s most revealing “autobiographical” statements. I’ll simply take up each section in turn, offering reflections.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

I think the introductory part of the lesson, this time around, is quite helpful. It nicely sets up the situation in which Joseph began to talk so much about his prophetic calling. Opening with Joseph’s 1842 statement that had “now accomplished those things [the things he was assigned to accomplish,” making him “as liable to die as other men,” the introduction then goes on to spell out the increasing danger in Nauvoo at the time, culminating with Joseph’s Rocky Mountain prophecy (a prophecy historians—perhaps needlessly—have doubted should be attributed to Joseph Smith).

This increasingly tense situation in Nauvoo, the lesson points out correctly, gave Joseph’s sermons “a sense of urgency” in especially the second half of the Nauvoo experience. And almost all of what follows in the actual lesson material must be read in this light.

The introductory part ends with a nice rounding out that shows that Joseph hadn’t, because of his urgency and concern, ceased to be Joseph: his kindness and humanity continued.

Prophets teach what God reveals to them; we strive to understand and give heed to their words.

To speak a bit frankly, the title of this section is terrible. The teachings in this section amount more to something like: “Because we don’t strive to understand and give heed to the words of the prophets, they eventually stop teaching what God reveals to them, finding that we aren’t at all prepared for such knowledge.” Indeed, this section contains some of Joseph’s harshest sayings. And for that reason, I find this section glorious!

The first two paragraphs (found on page 520) have Joseph describing the nature of his visionary experience during the Nauvoo period. He explains that “visions . . . roll like an overflowing surge before [his] mind,” but that, for all these visions, he despairs of being able “to express [his] feelings once to [his] friends!” As the second full paragraph on page 521 makes clear, this frequency of visionary experience and Joseph’s inability to communicate what he was seeing was, in essence, something new to him: “Some people say I am a fallen Propeht, because I do not bring forth more of the word of the Lord. Why do I not do it? Are we able to receive it? No! not one in this room.” It seems, from this, that something significant had changed in Joseph’s prophetic “style.” During the Kirtland era, Joseph Smith was something of a revelation machine: not only was he receiving revelations for what would become the Doctrine and Covenants at a rate that varied from daily to weekly to monthly, it seems that these revelations came through him rather than to him. That is, it seems Joseph was, in Kirtland, primarily a medium for the revelations the Saints needed. By Nauvoo (and perhaps in Missouri before that?), Joseph’s role as prophet had changed in important ways. Rather than being the channel for written communications from the Divine, Joseph became something of an apocalyptic, having visions that rolled like an overflowing surge before his mind. He found now that his task was not simply to dictate the content of revelation to scribes, but, instead, he said: “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints of God comprehend the visions” (p. 520). The reason he was being called a false prophet was because he now found that his prophetic work had changed in fundamental ways. But if he said less to the Saints about his revelatory experiences, it was because, as he says, the Saints were not prepared for what he was seeing.

This he explains in two rather poignant paragraphs on page 520. First, he says: “There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle. Even the Saints are slow to understand.” His point here seems quite straightforward: though he is constantly receiving intelligence from the Lord, it is almost impossible to get this kind of knowledge into the heads of even the Saints. In the next paragraph: “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.” This is harsher still, but also rather illuminating. Joseph clarifies his prophetic activity. Kirtland was Joseph’s long attempt, not so much to provide revelations to the Saints, but to prepare the Saints so that they could receive revealed truths quite directly. But his experience is that the Saints can’t handle such truths. For when Joseph gives such truths to them, they, as he says, fly to pieces like glass.

And aren’t we in the same boat today? “General Conference is always the same thing, every time.” Isn’t the reasoning quite clear? We will fly to pieces like glass every time something new comes along.

The really disconcerting thing Joseph says about all of this comes at the end of the same paragraph just quoted: “How many will be able to abide a celestial law, and go through and receive their exaltation, I am unable to say, as many are called, but few are chosen.” For all our misplaced optimism (Odds Are, You’re Going to Be Exalted, the title of a recent Deseret Book publication reads), Joseph seemed to be concerned that our very stagnation is evidence that we aren’t doing so very well. Building up the Church is one thing—and it is, of course, something we do very slowly—but being able to handle the apocalyptic is another, and we aren’t doing a whole lot in that register.

So where are we? Precisely where the Saints in Nauvoo were. And so we ought to pay attention to Joseph’s word, from page 520: “Had I inspiration, revelation, and lungs to communicate what my soul has contemplated in times past, there is not a soul in this congregation but would go to their homes and shut their mouths in everlasting silence on religion till they had learned something.” The point, quite straightforwardly: if we were to discover what and how much Joseph learned in his revelatory and visionary experiences, we would finally shut up about how much we think we know about the gospel, and we would remain in silence until we had learned something directly from God, learned something we could actually say something positive about. In a word, all of our pretense of religious knowledge is so much arrogance.

Though we have a living prophet, we seldom let him function as one. And I think that holds as much today as in the days of Nauvoo. Still we are blessed with an inspired prophet who could say, with Joseph, “I testify that no man has power to reveal it but myself—things in heaven, in earth and hell” (p. 521), but we don’t bother with that sort of thing so much.

Although prophets are men with human frailties, they are called of God to teach and lead His people.

This relatively short section has a few points I want to highlight just briefly. Mostly, it gathers statements from Joseph about his being human. And this, of course, is a pretty familiar theme for most. However, he draws a few helpful distinctions, I think.

First: “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught” (p. 522). I like this because it draws an important distinction between the prophet and the revelation: we can trust scripture (say, the D&C), but we shouldn’t take that to imply that the revelator is in any strong sense perfect.

Second: “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing” (p. 522). This, too, I think is helpful: even though the prophets are not perfect, we should be careful about our concerns with them, since we are likely to call them out only on things where they have made no actual mistake.

Third: “if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them” (p. 522). There is a nice reciprocity here: if we expect perfection from the prophets—and in our terms—we had better be prepared to come under their judgment as well.

Nicely summarizing all of this is this statement from the top of page 522: it “is the darkness and ignorance of this generation” that leads to criticisms of the prophet, because such criticisms betray the fact that we “look upon it as incredible that a [mere?] man should have any [dealings] with his Maker.” That says it all.

Despite opposition, prophets fulfill the missions given to them by God.

This section, obviously, gathers Joseph’s several statements about the fact that God would not allow him to be taken until he had accomplished the mission for which he was sent: “I shall triumph over my enemies: I have begun to triumph over them at home, and I shall do it abroad” (p. 522); “I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely” (p. 523); “I prophesy and bear record this morning that all the combined powers of earth and hell shall not and cannot ever overthrow or overcome this boy, for I have a promise from the eternal God” (p. 523); “God will bear me off triumphant” (p. 523). (It should be noted that the third of these statements is a bit ambiguous. This passage has been taken by some to have reference not to Joseph [with the phrase “this boy”], but to Joseph Smith III, Joseph’s oldest surviving son. Some on the occasion itself seem to have taken him to refer to Joseph Smith III’s rightful position as the succeeding prophet—as if Joseph were designating his successor on the spot. Here I’m following the interpretation that the manual obviously offers, though I want to leave the door open to other interpretive possibilities.)

If all this is straightforward enough, though, I want to select out a few other statements found in this section, statement it might be too easy to pass over because of the overarching intention of the section.

“All those that rise up against me will surely feel the weight of their iniquity upon their own heads” (p. 522). I like Joseph’s logic here. It is not that he will retaliate against his enemies, nor is it that the Lord will come out and vex them. Rather, those who rise up against Joseph eventually weigh themselves down with their own iniquity. And this means that, for Joseph, enemies are enemies only because they choose to suffer in their sins, not because they oppose him personally. There is a kind of un-enthusiasm in Joseph’s words, even as he is at his most bold.

“If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out: I have no doubt of the truth” (p. 523). This is so beautifully put, I feel I shouldn’t add anything to it, except to say: it is all a question of truth.

“I am a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me until the Lord took me in hand” (p. 523). This is, of course, similar to Joseph’s famous metaphor of the rough stone rolling down the hill. Here, it seems to be more a question of building a temple. And what is most striking is what Joseph says at the end of the statement: “I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.” It is beautifully put: whatever learning we do, it ought to be that of heaven—even if it is in the (secular) classroom.

“I have got all the truth which the Christian world possessed, and an independent revelation in the bargain” (p. 523). This, it seems to me, is a very nice summary of Mormonism: it is a recasting and so a redemption of all of Christianity undertaken in the name of a (series of) new event(s). Joseph came not to destroy Christianity, but to fulfill it.

Prophets love those they serve and desire to lead them well, even if doing so requires reproving them.

This last section offers two relatively short teachings and then takes up a lengthy quotation from Joseph’s famous King Follett Discourse. The two short teachings are quite straightforward, finding Joseph telling the Saints that he loves them enough to go to hell with them (though of course his plans in hell would be to turn the devil out and make of it a celestial kingdom), and that he loves them enough to stamp out iniquity consistently. With that, though, let me turn to the longer quotation here and finish up these notes there.

The quotation from the KFD comes from scattered moments in the discourse, starting with some of Joseph’s first words on the occasion, and concluding with some of his last words on the same occasion. I’ll take up each paragraph in turn.

In the first paragraph (the last paragraph on page 524), Joseph essentially tries to reveal and so to reverse the “natural reaction” to prophetic announcement. He says: “If I am so fortunate as to be the man to comprehend God, and explain or convey the principles to your hearts, so that the Spirit seals them upon you, then let every man and woman henceforth sit in silence, put their hands on their mouths, and never lift their hands or voices, or say anything against the man of God or the servants of God again.” Again: “If I am bringing you to a knowledge of Him, all persecutions against me ought to cease.” What is so peculiar about these two sentences is that the exact opposite is usually what happens: so soon as someone announces an essential truth about God, they are persecuted or at least hated for what they have said. Either Joseph is profoundly deluded, or he is doing something curious here that deserves some analysis: why does he think that his being enabled, by the Spirit, to announce the truth should stop rather than exacerbate the fury of his enemies?

In part, the answer comes in the next paragraph (the first paragraph on page 525): “I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to me by the revelations of Jesus Christ; and I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life as they are given to me, you taste them, and I know that you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know that it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more.” Here it is clear that Joseph understands the truth to have universal appeal. That is, he seems to believe that, if the truth is laid out clearly enough, it will be recognized or believed by absolutely everyone. There is something beautifully egalitarian about this, and Joseph seems here to be laying out a kind of universalism that deserves closer attention.

This same universalism appears in the first line of the next paragraph (the second paragraph on page 525): “I have intended my remarks for all, both rich and poor, bond and free, great and small. I have no enmity against any man.” Again, it is clear that Joseph is working with a kind of universalism: the truth is no respecter of persons and so is offered free to all. But, even as Joseph says this, it is clear that he understands—and so must have understood way back in the first paragraph quoted from the sermon—that announcing the truth always entails punching a hole in the self-knowledge his hearers pretend to possess. The proof comes in the next sentence: “I love you all; but I hate some of your deeds. I am your best friend, and if persons miss their mark it is their own fault. If I reprove a man, and he hates me, he is a fool; for I love all men, especially these my brethren and sisters.” Here it seems abundantly clear that Joseph recognizes that, so soon as he announces a truth (and hence, announces something that his hearers have not yet heard), he inevitably points out where they have fallen short, and so he necessarily calls them to repentance. Indeed, one might say that the announcement of truth bears as its real if invisible halo a call to repentance. That Joseph is here trying to clarify that any call to repentance on his part (any announcement of truth) amounts to an act of love shows that he is quite aware of the kind of anger and hatred the truth can inspire. This, it seems to me, makes it clear that Joseph meant, with the first paragraph of the quotation, to attempt to reverse this natural response, to try to connect the truth with leaving Joseph alone.

Concerned still about all this, Joseph says in the next paragraph (the third paragraph on page 525): “You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.” Here, it seems to me, Joseph makes an important clarification on the second paragraph of this quotation. Whereas with his analogy of tasting honey it seems that Joseph understands the truth to be something like “self-evident,” here it is clear that he sees it as being acquired only through a process of experimentation, something along the lines of what is spelled out in Alma 32. He wants to make clear that all the truth he announces can only be announced in weakness, and that it is something no one is bound to believe. He can only hope that his hearers will take the seed he’s offered, plant it, and see what happens. In the meanwhile, as he clearly recognizes, he’ll have to face the danger of enemies who cannot receive such a seed.

On this count, it is important that Joseph follows with a kind of prophecy (now in the last paragraph on page 525): “I cannot lie down until all my work is finished. . . . When I am called by the trump of the archangel and weighed in the balance, you will all know me then. I add no more.” Recognizing that his words can only be offered in weakness, and recognizing that they are likely to bring opposition, he prophesies that he will nonetheless be protected until his work is finished, and warns that the truth will someday—even if apocalyptically—be confirmed. For now, he can only offer the truth with the hope that the Saints at least will see it as reason to break their hearts and seek the truth themselves.

And that same injunction remains. Joseph should still rend our hearts with the truth.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 45: “Joseph Smith’s Feelings about His Prophetic Mission” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. Blake said

    Joe: Thanks for this excellent commentary on the lesson.

  2. […] statements. I’ll simply take up each section in turn, offering reflections. Read the rest of this entry » at feastuponthewordblog.org Leave a Comment No Comments Yet so far Leave a comment RSS feed […]

  3. Jim F said

    This is one of your best lesson notes, Joe. Thanks.

  4. […] RS/MP Lesson 45: “Joseph Smith’s Feelings about His Prophetic Mission” (Joseph Smi… […]

  5. […] http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2009/10/30/rsmp-lesson-45-joseph-smiths-feelings-about-his-prophetic… […]

  6. Joe said

    Great information. Really enjoyed your insight.

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