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RS/MP Lesson 46: “The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on November 3, 2009

A remarkably concise “From the Life” section opens this lesson. It covers the basics concerning the martyrdom. But there is, of course, much more to say. Allow me, on this point, just to recommend pages 537-561 of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. And with that, let me move on to the “Teachings.”

God protected Joseph Smith until his earthly mission was complete.

The first section in the “Teachings” portion of the lesson is primarily a short recapitulation of the previous lesson, which focused on Joseph’s understanding of his own mission (and so included a number of teachings in which Joseph asserted that he would not be taken before he had finished his mission). But it also makes a few nice points that deserve attention.

In the first paragraph on page 531, Joseph effectively introduces the theme of the subsequent section of the lesson: “my mission in this life” is not only to establish the Kingdom, but to establish it “so firmly . . . that all the powers of earth and hell can never prevail against it.” I’ll have much more to say about this theme in the next section.

In the fourth paragraph on the same page, Joseph ties the question of truth to the question of exaltation: “he that is afraid to die for the truth, will lose eternal life. Hold out to the end, and we shall be resurrected and become like Gods, and reign in celestial kingdoms, principalities, and eternal dominions.” I like this. It makes clear a consistent theme in the Book of Mormon—namely, that salvation (or exaltation) is a question of one’s relationship to death. Joseph nicely adds to that theme, though, the fact that what must determine one’s relationship to death is, specifically, truth. This has, of course, been a relatively consistent theme throughout the manual, because Joseph has a good deal to say about truth.

I should also say something about the last paragraph on the same page, a snippet taken from one of Joseph’s letters to Emma on the day of his martyrdom. I don’t know, however, that I have much to say, but it does emphasize the fact that Joseph knew what was about to happen, and that he understood his mission at that point to be at its end.

But let me turn to the next section.

Before his death, Joseph Smith conferred upon the Twelve Apostles every priesthood key and power that the Lord had sealed upon him.

I really like this section, and in part that is because I like the fact that, even though the historicity of what its several assembled quotations claim has been questioned relatively consistently by historians, the Church has put these quotations together and called the membership to faith on this point, regardless of what the historians say. That is, I like this section because it nicely forces the issue of faith and truth—faith that the Twelve indeed were the true successors to Joseph Smith at his martyrdom, and, so, trust in the memories and statements of the Twelve about the occasions through which that succession was set in order. As with the visits of key-bearing angels to Joseph and Oliver, dispassionate, disinterested, and immediately contemporary accounts do not exist, and we are expected to trust figures like Brigham Young, Parley Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff, without evidence. In short, I like the fact that what is gathered here is presented quite straightforwardly as truth, and so that we are called to trust it, to have faith that things happened as these men say they did.

I should point out, moreover, that the event these several figures describe is still of crucial importance. The Church has, since the death of Joseph, been under the guidance of the Quorum of the Twelve. Though it is true that the Twelve have, beginning in 1847, ordained “new” First Presidencies, it is nonetheless true that these First Presidencies have come from the Twelve, which distinguishes them and the structure of the Church from the way things were before Joseph’s death. This is because Joseph’s First Presidency was established years before the Quorum of the Twelve was organized, and was established by canonized, direct revelation: that the First Presidency has, since Joseph’s death, been organized by the Twelve means that we are still—collectively—working out our fidelity to the claims that these apostles are making in this section, because we are still guided and organized by the Twelve.

All of this perhaps calls for a few remarks about the succession crisis, so that what I have to say below about these teachings makes a bit more sense. Joseph Smith did not publicly explain what would happen in terms of leadership when he died, and no revelation had spelled it out explicitly. Moreover, the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants that did spell out the nature and status of the Quorum of the Twelve seemed to give them a relatively minor role, compared to that of the First Presidency: they were a traveling high council, and they did not have any authority in the standing stakes of Zion (see D&C 107). To complicate things even more, the last few years of Joseph’s life saw the introduction of a number of ordinances and organizations that were not known to the general membership of the Church. And, still more, the Quorum of the Twelve was, for the most part, absent from Nauvoo when Joseph was killed, because they were out on a mission, campaigning for Joseph’s presidency. The result of all of this was a justified confusion when Joseph died.

A number of contenders emerged after Joseph’s death, the most convincing of which—next to the Twelve—was Sidney Rigdon, Joseph’s counselor in the First Presidency. Within only a few years, other contenders emerged who were even more successful, particularly James Strang. Eventually, of course, the most successful contender was the RLDS Church (which did not form until 1860), especially after Joseph Smith III (the oldest son of Joseph Smith) became its prophet.

As the story is usually told, the Saints discovered where they should go when Brigham Young, during a debate of sorts between him and Sidney Rigdon, rather miraculously took on the appearance and voice of Joseph Smith. Some historians have cast some doubts on that event, especially because no contemporary accounts of the experience exist: everything comes from reminiscences years later. But whatever happened on that occasion after a miraculous fashion, it is clear that Brigham won the day, and it is also clear why: the Twelve presented themselves as having received all the keys pertaining to the ordinances of the temple. On those grounds in particular, the Twelve succeeded Joseph: the Church as a whole became a traveling Church, following the traveling high council, because they were convinced that only the Twelve could give them the ordinances Joseph had been talking about (the endowment and sealing ordinances, etc.), as well as the ordinances Joseph had not been talking about.

It is for all these reasons that the claims in this section of the lesson are so important. The Twelve made their case for succession on the grounds that Joseph had bestowed upon them everything necessary to carry off the work for which he had laid the foundation. And so they had to point to the event when Joseph had given those keys. These quotations come from the various accounts of that experience. But even before looking at those, let me begin with the last statement in this section, beginning at the bottom of page 534. This is a snippet from Brigham’s discourse during the “debate” with Sidney Rigdon. And it is vital to make sense of all the above contextualization: “Joseph conferred upon our heads all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away, and no man or set of men can get between Joseph and the Twelve in this world or in the world to come. How often has Joseph said to the Twelve, ‘I have laid the foundation and you must build thereon, for upon your shoulders the kingdom rests.'” This is the case Brigham made as early as August of 1844. The rest of the quotations here point to the event in which that conferring of keys took place.

With all of that contextualization, I don’t know that there is a whole lot to say about each individual statement. They more or less speak for themselves. The first (first paragraph on page 532) has Wilford Woodruff explaining long training sessions with the Twelve, and the second (second paragraph, same page) has the same Wilford Woodruff describing in particular the event in which Joseph bestowed “every key, every power, every principle of life and salvation that God has ever given to any man who ever lived upon the face of the earth.” The statement from the Twelve, announced to all the world immediately after the debate with Sidney Rigdon, etc., also describes the event (last paragraph on page 532, all the way through the second full paragraph on page 534), adding the curious detail that it was necessary that a whole quorum assume the keys because “Your enemies cannot kill you all at once, and should any of you be killed, you can lay your hands upon others and fill up your quorum.” On page 534, Parley P. Pratt describes Joseph as having bestowed “all the ordinances, keys, covenants, endowments, and sealing ordinances of the priesthood” on the Twelve.

At any rate, we continue in that succession. And I think we are bound to be faithful to this event of bestowal. Without it, I’m not sure where we would stand.

The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum lived great and died great for their testimonies of the gospel.

This section is simply section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants, John Taylor’s canonized account of the martyrdom. It is quite familiar to the Saints, so I won’t make any general comments on it, instead taking up particulars here and there that I find intriguing.

Taylor’s account opens with the words, “To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch.” This book? He has reference to the Doctrine and Covenants. John Taylor, as one of the printers in the Church, had been hard at work during 1844 on producing a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph’s death had slowed things down a bit—particularly because Taylor had been present in Carthage during the attack, and had sustained very serious errors. When he came back to the task of finishing up and publishing the Doctrine and Covenants, he added this announcement of the martyrdom, and described it, as quoted above, as sealing the testimony of the book. I find this extremely significant, particularly for making sense of the Doctrine and Covenants as such.

I find it particularly interesting that Taylor made it a question not only of Joseph’s death, but also of Hyrum’s. Might this be read in light of the inclusion for the first time, in that edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, of what is now section 124? Let me explain. For the most part, the Doctrine and Covenants must be considered to be Joseph’s book. Indeed, if it is anybody else’s along with him, it would probably have to be Oliver Cowdery (especially if it is the Book of Mormon that is being sealed along with it). Joseph received the revelations, and Joseph translated the book. The only other person to play a consistent role in the revelations and especially the reception of keys (though these events were not yet included, in narrative form, in the Doctrine and Covenants; that would be the work of Orson Pratt in 1876) was Oliver Cowdery.

However, D&C 124 is a curious revelation, one of very few received in the Nauvoo period (as distinct from visions and the like). At a crucial moment in it (verses 91-96), however, Hyrum is appointed to take the place of Oliver Cowdery: “he shall receive counsel from my servant Joseph, who shall show unto him the keys whereby he may ask and receive, and be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood, that once were put upon him that was my servant Oliver Cowdery.” Since Oliver had abandoned Joseph during the Missouri crisis, someone needed to take his rather odd place in the kingdom. And that was Hyrum.

The result was that Joseph and Hyrum took the place of Joseph and Oliver, and what is now D&C 11 was finally fulfilled: Hyrum finally took the place that had been appointed him from the very beginning. The last couple of years of Joseph’s life in Nauvoo, then, Hyrum rose like a rocket in the eyes of the Saints. Joseph often touted him as a prophet, even claiming that Hyrum had more authority in the Church (but not the Kingdom) than he did—something that led to some confusion after Joseph’s death, since the newly assigned Church Patriarch thought that meant that he was at least equal to, if not superior to, the Twelve. Hyrum essentially became the person who had received keys from John the Baptist; Peter, James, and John; Moses, Elias, and Elijah; and so on. And Hyrum sealed his own testimony with his blood right alongside Joseph.

Joseph Fielding Smith taught (and this can be found somewhere in Doctrines of Salvation, volume 2 I think) that Oliver should have died in Carthage with Joseph, but that Hyrum took his place and died for him. A bit of a sobering doctrine.

At any rate, that John Taylor sees the twin martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum to be a sealing for a book he was just publishing is significant. It seems he saw their bond as significant, and as defining the nature of the Doctrine and Covenants in some way. With D&C 124 appearing in that publication for the first time, one wonders whether that volume itself didn’t give to Hyrum a unique place, a place that was then doubly marked by the announcement of the martyrdom.

At any rate, the construction of the 1844 D&C cannot be understood without making reference to the role what is now D&C 135 plays in defining that record. Might it be, in fact, that this “sealing” document of the record is what, more than anything else, slowed the reception of to-be-canonized revelations in subsequent years?

I’ve already said a good deal here about D&C 135, so I’ll comment on only one other part of it. On page 536, one finds the story of Hyrum’s reading Ether 12:36-38 just before he and Joseph left for Carthage. I think this is a crucial point that is far too often overlooked. Joseph and Hyrum thus cast their death in a typological mold, and all that can be said historiographically about the martyrdom might be trumped by this curious intertwining of the event with scripture. What can be read into Hyrum’s reading?

I should mention, of course, that Elder Holland talked about this reading in his recent General Conference talk (what a talk!), and that he held up the very copy of the Book of Mormon we’re talking about here. At any rate, on to the text.

The passage comes from a rather lengthy tangent, written by Moroni in the middle of his abridgment of the Jaredite record (in the Book of Ether). Moroni is here grappling with his fallenness, with the fact that, when he writes, he is forced to recognize his weakness. The result is that he finds himself constantly worried that the Gentiles—who are the key to the unfolding of the events the Nephites had prophesied of from the beginning—will entirely dismiss the Book of Mormon. Nicely, though, this concern forces Moroni into a long, prayerful conversation with the Lord. The three verses Hyrum read mark one of Moroni’s final moments in this conversation, as well as the conclusive response of the Lord.

The passage brings together three of the richest themes in all of scripture, in my humble opinion: (1) the question of what it is to write, (2) the theme of weakness/strength, and (3) the complex of the Abrahamic covenant. I would like to comment on all of this at great length, but I will certainly get too far afield if I do so. Instead, then, I will make just a few brief comments.

Moroni comes at the end of a thousand years of prophesying concerning the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Though much of the Book of Mormon (the “historical” books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman) does not deal with this topic, it was a primary concern in Nephi’s writings, and became again a primary concern of the Nephites when the Savior himself returned to the theme. The basic story is something like this: the coming forth of the Book of Mormon will be the event that launches the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, and the event will take place through the unearthing of the Book of Mormon by the Gentiles; the Gentiles will then deliver that book to the scattered Israelites, and eventually to the Jews, all of this so that the Bible itself will take on a distinct role; finally, all of this will lead to the final events—all overseen by the Father Himself—entailed by the ancient covenant to Abraham. The problem, though, is that Moroni, looking at the possibility of these events, and being the first person to be able to read the book that will go forth (remember that Mormon only wrote it immediately prior the last battle of the Nephites and Lamanites), finds himself relatively unconvinced that it will serve the prophesied purpose. And as he adds his own contributions to the record, he realizes that he can barely write, that he is forced to recognize how awkward and constrained (Mark Twain’s words) his writing ultimately is. This is what gets him to talk with the Lord.

The communication from the Lord, however, is all about weakness and strength. Moroni is given to understand that the desire to fix the prophesied events in advance, to try to ensure that they happen, is an attempt to hide one’s essential weakness. Moroni is taught that he must allow the Book of Mormon, in all its weakness, to proceed in whatever fashion it will, to cut its own way, so to speak. His task is only to have been faithful, hopeful, and charitable in the meanwhile. To write the Book of Mormon, in essence, had to be a task without an end, a task that could be undertaken purely out of faith, hope, and charity, and not out of any desire to ensure that this or that event took place. So it is that Moroni finds himself able, at long last, to bid farewell to the Gentiles, allowing them to take up their own work of faith, hope, and charity.

Joseph and Hyrum, it seems, found themselves in the same situation as they left for Carthage. They had done their work, and though there was inevitably the temptation to want to ensure that things went in the right direction after they were gone, they had to recognize this temptation as a temptation. They had, that is, to refuse still to try to commandeer the work in the name of ensuring that it happened in a certain way. The work they set forth had still to remain weak, essentially weak. If they attempted to make it strong, it would only be a betrayal of the work itself. And so they could bid farewell.

We are, it would seem, still in the process of unfolding the truth of the essentially weak foundation. I hope we continue faithful.

Joseph Smith fulfilled his earthly mission and sealed his testimony with his blood.

I want to say only one thing about one of the several statements making up this last section (they speak, for the most part, for themselves). I find the statement by Wilford Woodruff on page 537 fascinating: “it was required of [Joseph Smith], as the head of this dispensation, that he should seal his testimony with his blood, and go hence to the spirit world, holding the keys of this dispensation, to open up the mission that is now being performed by way of preaching the Gospel to the ‘spirits in prison.'” This, I think, is a beautiful way of understanding the martyrdom. It was necessary, not so much because the earthly work had to be sealed by blood, but because Joseph had a task to undertake on the other side of the veil, specifically, of using the keys he had received to break open the prison gates for the spirits who had been bound there. It is certainly a Wilford Woodruff kind of approach to things, and I find it beautiful.

At any rate, here we are, in the void left behind by Joseph’s death. Let us remain as weak as he, as faithful, hopeful, and charitable. To do anything else, it seems to me, would be to betray what he has left us.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 46: “The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. BrianJ said

    Joe, that is an interesting way to interpret the statement “required [to] seal his testimony with his blood.” I never liked that statement because, frankly, it made no sense (how I and others read it): why should whether someone is martyred or not reflect on the truthfulness of their mission? I don’t have any plans to be martyred; does that mean my life will ultimately be a farce?

    So I really like how you change the interpretation of this quote, though I confess that maybe I like it so much because it saves me from having to deal with the standard interpretation rather than liking it because it is, in fact, what Woodruff (and John Taylor) meant.

  2. […] Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. And with that, let me move on to the “Teachings.” Read the rest of this entry » at feastuponthewordblog.org Leave a Comment No Comments Yet so far Leave a comment RSS feed […]

  3. Tom D said

    When describing Elder Taylor’s injuries received in the Carthage Jail you say that he “had sustained very serious ERRORS”. I think you meant INJURIES.

    This is a nice, thoughtful post. I particularly agree with the still current importance of apostolic success. However, I would point out that we do not have to take the truth of this only on faith. We can and should seek individual testimonies of this. At the least we should seek our own testimony that the current prophet (Thomas S. Monson now) really is called of God.

  4. joespencer said

    Tom, thanks! I did indeed mean injuries. Now I’ll be wondering what that Freudian slip meant….

    I agree that we should seek our own testimonies that the current prophet is really called of God, but I think that still means we continue in faith, though the tangle between faith and knowledge is a topic for another time. :)

  5. Jim F. said

    Joe, as you always do, you give us more good things than we can chew at one sitting. But I disagree mildly with one thing you say: we are expected to trust figures like Brigham Young, Parley Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff, without evidence. That seems too strong. I don’t have certainty, but I do have evidence. I have, for example, the character of Brigham Young and the witness to that character by those who knew him. I have the fact that the majority of the saints followed him. There is considerable evidence, but not evidence that is by itself convincing. I assume that is probably what you mean.

  6. joespencer said

    Thanks, Jim. I should have said “without conclusive evidence.”

  7. Alyssa said

    Thanks, Joe. You’ve really helped me to generate some thoughts for my upcoming Relief Society lesson on this chapter. I struggle with a few of these lessons sometimes because (initially, at least) they sometimes feel like they do “speak for themselves,” as you put it. Because of that, I sometimes find it difficult to find discussion points in the lesson. But you’ve given me some great food for thought that would be good to discuss with my fellow sisters. Thanks for spurring on my thinking. (And thanks for reminding me of the reference to this moment in Elder Holland’s recent address. Pure teaching gold!) :)

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