January 18, 2008

How to "understandingly" read the scriptures

Brigham Young
June 15, 1856 

Brigham stood before the congregation and read a section from the Doctrine and Covenants regarding temporal circumstances and explained:
When revelations are given through an individual appointed to receive them, they are given to the understandings of the people. These revelations, after a lapse of years, become mystified to those who were not personally acquainted with the circumstances at the time they were given.
The revelation that I have been reading may be as mysterious to our children, in a thousand or fifteen hundred years from now...as the revelations contained in the Old and New Testaments are to this generation, and it would be commented upon with the same scrutiny and accuracy; and men would study, year after year, and fret themselves almost to death to find out the mysterious meaning of the revelation given to us their forefathers.
Especially regarding temporal revelations, the meaning can become obscure for future generations. But even for some contemporaries, it seems odd that the great God of the universe would speak about degrees of heavenly glory in one moment and in the very next speak of building houses or managing finances. Are such revelations nothing more than schemes for money? Brigham believed that those most familiar with the circumstances surrounding the revelations have the perspective to best understand those revelations:
It would be strange indeed should people receive such ideas, upon such subjects, as revelations from God, from the Supreme of the Universe, the great Elohim, the Creator and upholder of all things, who is enthroned in eternity in glory and in power, yet who condescends to talk about such matters as building store-houses, sending men to do this or that, to go to this or that land, to gather up money for this or that purpose. And very many would exclaim, "O, it is money, money, money!"

That has been the cry continually from the enemies of the kingdom of God. You know that was the cry in the days of Joseph; "O, he is after money, you can see this is in all his revelations; money, money, money; he wants to get your money! He pretends it is going into the hands of the Bishop to purchase lands, but when he gets hold of it you do not get it again. It is money, money, money, all the time."

The commands to go and buy this or that farm, to build houses, sell out a farm here and rent one there, take a mission to preach the Gospel to the world, gather money to purchase lands, and divide with the poor brethren, are all familiar talk with us, easy to be understood, and without mystery. When Joseph received this revelation, it was as plain to the understanding of the Saints, as are my instructions when telling you what to do.
Occasionally, Joseph Smith recorded revelations which commanded or even chastised individuals by name. Many of these revelations were published in the Doctrine and Covenants. Why publish a revelation warning a specific person by name to avoid lustful thoughts, cease from greediness, or stop neglecting ones family? (See D&C 19; 93; 101, for a few examples):

The Lord said to the people through Joseph, "You must keep the law here, and be careful to repent of your sins." Occasionally a man's name would he mentioned, and he might be pointed out as a pattern for the rest.

Looking at past revelation through the lens of our current understanding can obscure as much as it can enlighten. As Nephi taught, we ought to liken scriptures unto ourselves (see 1 Nephi 19:23), but in the process we should also take caution that we don't forget or completely obscure the original intent of the scriptures in the process. To do so would be "looking past the mark":
When we reflect and rightly understand, we learn how easy of comprehension the Gospel is, how plain it is in its plan, in every part and principle fitted perfectly to the capacity of mankind, insomuch that when it is introduced among the lovers of truth it appears very easy and very plain, and how very ready the honest are to receive it.

But send it abroad and give it antiquity, and it is at once clothed with mystery. This is the case with all the ancient revelations. Those which were received and understood by the ancients are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty to this generation, and men are employed to reveal the meaning of the ancient Scriptures. The people on every hand are inquiring, "What does this scripture mean, and how shall we understand this or that passage?"

Now I wish, my brethren and sisters, for us to understand things precisely as they are, and not as the flitting, changing imagination of the human mind may frame them.
Brigham felt the Bible was in the same vein as the revelation he just read from the Doctrine and Covenants. This was an astonishing thing, to hold up a new revelation as something equal to the Bible itself. Brigham apparently felt both old and new were easy to understand:
The Bible is just as plain and easy of comprehension as the revelation which I have just read to you [from the Doctrine and Covenants], if you understand the Spirit of God—the Spirit of revelation, and know how the Gospel of salvation is adapted to the capacity of weak man. If you could see things as they are, you would know that the whole plan of salvation, and all the revelations ever given to man on the earth are as plain as would be the remarks of an Elder, were he to stand here and talk about our every day business. I want you to understand this, that you may know how to understandingly read the Bible and the revelations delivered to you in your own generation, and how to honor your religion and your God.
How do we "understandingly" read the revelations? This is a topic that deserves much deeper analysis,1 but for the sake of brevity and the purposes of this blog I'll include what Brigham recommends first. He recommended faith:
When you read the revelations, or when you hear the will of the Lord concerning you, for your own sakes never receive that with a doubtful heart. This is a matter that I have frequently impressed upon the people here; I have exhorted them from year to year upon this very point, and have asked, why do you receive the counsel of God with doubtful hearts when you are taught the way of life and salvation, when things are made so plain and easy to you that you cannot misunderstand them? Why do you admit of such unbelief in your hearts and feelings as to say—"This or that is beneath the notice of the Almighty, and say that He does not deal in such simple, small, and every day affairs"?
This concept of approaching the revelations in faith was especially troubling to some of the ministers contemporary with Joseph Smith. For example, Alexander Campbell, leader of the "Disciples of Christ" and former friend of Sidney Rigdon, decried the notion of approaching new revelation in faith:
And when the plates of Nephi should be dug out of the earth, he declares that men should ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, 'If these things were not true.' 'If with a sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, such prayers are made, ye shall know the truth of all things.' —p.586. The testimony of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, asserting that they saw the plates, is appended. They also testify that they know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice has declared it unto them... [The Book of Mormon's] external evidences are, first, the testimony of the prophets Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris; who saw the plates and heard the voice of God; who are disinterested retailers of the books. I would ask them how they knew that it was God's voice which they heard - but they would tell me to ask God in faith. THAT IS, I MUST BELIEVE IT FIRST, AND THEN ASK GOD IF IT BE TRUE!2
Likewise, contemporary critics such as the so-called Mormon Research Ministry expressly encourage people not to pray about the Book of Mormon:
When I refuse to pray about the Book of Mormon's authenticity, I am often accused of not believing in prayer. The truth is, it is because I do believe in the sacredness of prayer that I don't pray about Joseph Smith's 19th century novel. As a committed Christian who believes explicitly in biblical guidance, I see praying over the Book of Mormon as nothing less than sacrilegious. Nowhere does the Bible ever direct the believing Christian to take any religious book and pray about the truthfulness of its contents.3
This attitude was anticipated by Nephi:
And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.

But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul (2 Nephi 32:8-9).
What is the use of the revelation instructing the Saints to build the Nauvoo House or the one calling Edward Partridge to be a Bishop (D&C 41; 124)? "Away with the boring revelations about basic gospel living," we might say, "we want the mysteries." To that, Brigham responded:
Why do you admit of such unbelief in your hearts and feelings as to say—"This or that is beneath the notice of the Almighty, and say that He does not deal in such simple, small, and every day affairs?" You may now be inclined to say, "O, this is too simple and child-like, we wish to hear the mysteries of the kingdoms of the Gods who have existed from eternity, and of all the kingdoms in which they will dwell; we desire to have these things portrayed to our understandings."...

If you say that you want mysteries, commandments, and revelations, I reply that scarcely a Sabbath passes over your heads, those of you who come here, without your having the revelations of Jesus Christ poured upon you like water on the ground.
Even still, Brigham felt the Saints were somewhat "hindered" in their communication with the divine:
What hinders us in living as close to our religion as do the angels?

Angels do not hinder us, God certainly does not, and we ought to say to devils, "You shall not." But in the midst of this people there is a set of theives [thieves], idolaters, drunkards, whoremongers, and vile persons. It may be asked, "Shall we not draw the dividing line soon?"4

Yes, some will in due time get line enough to send them to hell. Many are pleading for revelations; do you suppose that Saints lack revelations?

They have plenty of them, and they are stored in the archives of those who have understanding of the principles of the Priesthood, ready to be brought forth as the people need.
Brigham warned the Saints not to seek more knowledge from God than they were willing to abide by. He believed some revelations were withheld to protect those who aren't prepared to accept new teachings, and that we ought not expect much more until we live up to what we already have:
There is one principle that I do wish the people would observe, that is, do not ask God to give you knowledge, when you are confident that you will not keep and rightly improve upon that knowledge. It is a mercy in God that many are as ignorant as they are, for were it not so they would not be borne with as they are. Do not ask for revelations to dictate you in this, that, or the other, unless you are sure that you can obey them. Do not suffer yourselves to falter in your faith, and to say that the door of revelation is closed, for I tell you that there are now too many for your good, unless you hearken more diligently than you have hitherto, unless you apply more closely in your lives what is revealed and live your religion more faithfully.
Apparently, Brigham didn't desire to indulge the Saints much, lest they become "slothful, and not a wise servant" (D&C 58:26). He wanted each Saint to receive personal revelation enough to confirm what they heard from leaders, and also to direct them in their daily lives; advice we would all do well to observe:
A great many come to me and say, "I wish to do exactly as the Lord shall direct through you, brother Brigham."

If I had the word of the Lord I would not dare give it to them, unless I knew it was an absolute duty. They never would obey it, because they are taught the word of the Lord here all the time, but do they hearken to it?
Those who have wisdom within themselves, who have in possession the spirit of the Gospel, know what they hear from this stand. They know truth from error, they are satisfied, and never ask the Lord to give them more revelation, but to give them grace to observe and keep what they have received.
Brigham wanted the Saints to be worthy of the promptings of the Spirit, that they could live by the light of revelation without being compelled by "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots," though they have their place:
Will you repent of your sins, and go to and do that which you know you ought to do, without being commanded of the Lord, and thus be compelled to do it, or be damned? Will you live so as to know the voice of the Good Shepherd when you hear it, or are you determined to live so as not to know the difference between that voice and the voice of stranger?
In this I fear for the people. I have explained and commented upon these seemingly small items, though in reality they are of much importance (JD 3:333-342).
We could tie in the temporal revelation aspect more fully, which Brigham addresses next. But I'll spare you, this post is long enough as it is.  

Scriptural exegesis is a complex issue; this post is calculated to specifically address it only from the standpoint of this particular Brigham Young discourse.

Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 7 February 1831.

"Mormon Research Ministry" website article, "Praying About the Book of Mormon - Is it Biblical?", accessed January 18, 2008. The article makes the case that it is not biblical to pray about the Book of Mormon. This article is similar to Campbell's in arguing against a straw man as follows: "I have even been told that if a testimony of the Book of Mormon is to be gained, the person must want it to be true. This strikes me as odd given the fact that my faith in the Bible did not come in such a manner. In fact, because of the strong message the Bible had for me as a lost sinner, I didn't want the Bible to be true." While some zealous member of the Church might have told this writer they must "want" it to be true in order to receive an an answer, the Book of Mormon itself exhorts readers to ask with a sincere heart and real intent having faith in Christ (Moroni 10:3-5). To me, sincerity and an open mind are required. You must want to know if it is true, rather than merely wanting it to be true. James instructs any who "lack wisdom" to "ask of God," and if you are sincere and ask in faith, God will not upbraid or punish you (or see the question as "blasphemy,") but will answer you. (see James 1:5-6). Likewise, in 1 John 4:1: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." As Brigham said in the above-quoted sermon: "There is one principle that I do wish the people would observe, that is, do not ask God to give you knowledge, when you are confident that you will not keep and rightly improve upon that knowledge" (JD 3:337-338). Joseph Smith's visions and recorded revelations invite the Christian world to believe in contemporary revelation. Richard Bushman said: "Joseph aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Did Christians truly believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past? ...And if revelation in the present was so far out of the question that Joseph's claims could be discounted without serious consideration, why believe revelation in the past?" See Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, 272-273. Such new revelation can make some Christians uncomfortable. Perhaps they see it as a threat to biblical doctrine or history. New revelation can call into question old revelation. Perhaps some feel new revelation is superstitious or makes religion seem silly. There are many reason a contemporary believer in God may disbelieve in Joseph Smith's claims to revelation.

By mentioning "drawing the dividing line," Brigham seems to indicate ridding the territory or Church of unsavory characters. I surmise he had the upcoming "Mormon Reformation" in mind, when Saints were recommitted to live gospel principles, missionaries were sent to LDS settlements, rebaptisms were somewhat frequent, and an general overhaul of the church occurred. He realized in the gospel, as in the Utah territory, a great variety of people must learn to coexist, as the wheat and tares grow up together:
The good and evil are mixed together, the wheat and the tares are growing together, the wise and foolish virgins are traveling on together. Some of the people are actually foolish, and they think that the Lord looks upon sin with a great deal of compassion, and are thinking, "O, if I should do this or that I will be forgiven. Yes, I will go and tell it all to the heads of the Church and get their forgiveness, and pass on in my wickedness." Do you wish your friends to stay here, and all to be Saints indeed?
Now some children are wicked and their parents righteous, and again children may be Saints and their parents wicked. There are good people who have wicked brothers and sisters, and they say, "Let us be forgiving, let us hold on to them, if we have compassion, perhaps they will do better and repent of their sins, and yet be Saints." Is this not the feeling of every heart? It is, more or less. Who is there entirely void of these compassionate feelings?
Father, save your son if possible; save your daughter, parents, if it is possible; brothers, save your brethren, if it is possible; save your sisters, if it is possible; save this man, or that woman, and let us have mercy on them, we will be compassionate on them (JD 3:338).
For more on this subject, see Brigham's Dream: The Parable of the Sheep. See also Ardis Parshall, "Random Reasons Why I Like Brigham Young: Two," KeepAPitchinIn.org, 19 August 2009.

January 16, 2008

"Each moment is set apart to its act"

Brigham Young June 15, 1856 Brigham Young believed individual righteous acts could combine over time to create a tapestry of righteousness; the sum total of one's existence. We become what we do, essentially. With some pioneer science, he makes the following comparison:

Chemists who are familiar with analyzing matter, inform you that the globe we inhabit is composed of small particles, so small that they cannot be seen with the unaided natural eye, and that one of these small particles may be divided into millions of parts, each part so minute as to be indiscernible by the aid of the finest microscopes. So the walk of man is made up of acts performed from day to day. It is the aggregate of the acts which I perform through life that makes up the conduct that will be exhibited in the day of judgment, and when the books are opened, there will be the life which I have lived for me to look upon, and there also will be the acts of your lives for you to look upon. Do you not know that the building up of the kingdom of God, the gathering of Israel, is to be done by little acts? You breathe one breath at a time; each moment is set apart to its act, and each act to its moment. It is the moments and the little acts that make the sum of the life of man. Let every second, minute, hour, and day we live be spent in doing that which we know to be right.
We walk by faith in everyday decisions, and God allows a lot of leeway in personal preferences. There isn't a "more righteous" flavor of ice cream, for example. It is up to us to discern righteousness, with the aid of the Holy Ghost, in our day-to-day living. It is not "meet" to be commanded "in all things," we "should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness" (see D&C 58:26-27).
If you do not know what to do, in order to do right, come to me at any time and I will give you the word of the Lord on that point. But if you wish the word of the Lord on your nonsensical, foolish notions and traits, be pleased to keep away from me, for I know too much about such characters for them to pass before me unobserved. Mankind are weak and feeble, poor and needy; how destitute they are of true knowledge, how little they have when they have any at all. We have need to increase in knowledge and understanding, and to apply our hearts more to wisdom. How necessary it is for us to live our religion so as to know ourselves better, and to know how to live better in accordance with the religion we have embraced. To know how to gather up the sons and daughters of Abraham, and to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, how necessary it is for you and I to live our religion, and not be slothful and negligent in fulfilling our duty (JD 3:333-344).
God said the power is "in us," to be "agents unto [our]selves" (see D&C 58:28). Our goal, then, in righteous living, is to keep the Spirit of God with us. Brigham recommended scripture study as something to invite the Spirit:
The Book of Mormon, of Doctrine and Covenants, the Old and New Testaments all corroborate the fact that then you receive the Spirit that gives you light, intelligence, peace, joy, and comfort, that it is from God.
President Henry B. Eyring echoes this sentiment often, as he did at a BYU-Idaho fireside in January, 2005:
My prayers to receive the help of the Holy Ghost have been strengthened by pondering the record of the scriptures. And so has been my ability to recognize the message which the Holy Ghost brings... the words of inspiration from the Holy Ghost are words the Savior used. When I read the words spoken by the Savior in the scriptures, I grow in my capacity to recognize inspiration from the Holy Ghost. For that reason my personal scriptures tend to wear out unevenly. I go most often to those places in the Book of Mormon, in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in the Bible where the Lord is speaking. By doing that I can better recognize the voice of the Spirit when the Savior’s words echo easily in my mind. Just as pondering the scriptures invites the companionship of the Holy Ghost, so does doing the things we have been told to do and doing them promptly. We are promised that the scriptures and the Holy Ghost will tell us all things that we should do. When we go and do what we have been told and do it the best we can, we qualify for more instructions of what to do. If we do not act, we will not receive further instructions.[1]
As Brigham said, we "breathe one breath at a time; each moment is set apart to its act, and each act to its moment. It is the moments and the little acts that make the sum of the life of man. Let every second, minute, hour, and day we live be spent in doing that which we know to be right." Footnotes: [1]
Elder Henry B. Eyring, “Raise the Bar,” Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional, January 25, 2005.

January 14, 2008

Age of the Earths in Eternity

Brigham Young June 22, 1856 In the Journal of Discourses you can usually expect to run across some interesting speculations from the early brethren, Brigham Young not excepted. Despite some of the more unorthodox declarations, Brigham believed the gospel itself was relatively simple:

The Gospel is simple, it is plain. The mystery of godliness, or of the Gospel, is actually couched in our own ignorance; that is the cause of the mystery that we suppose to be in the revelations given to us; it is in our own misunderstanding-in our ignorance. There is no mystery throughout the whole plan of salvation, only to those who do not understand.
Still, there is much we do not understand or have full revealed knowledge regarding. While discussing the infallibility of the Bible, Evangelist Craig Blomberg distinguished between two types of knowledge: "natural," or "general,"and "special."
A few Evangelicals would...argue that only in Scripture can utterly reliable truth on any topic be found, but they are in the decided minority. Most recognize truth in "natural" or "general" revelation (everything God has left in creation for humans to discover) as well as "special" revelation (God's direct communication to humanity through angels, prophets, Christ, or Scripture.)[1]
In a similar way, many Latter-day Saints would include scientific questions such as the age of the earth in a non-salvatory realm of information. Good to know, interesting, but not immediately pertinent to salvation. With the scriptural understanding that we lived as premortal spirit children of God before we entered this mortal state, little detail is known about our "primeval childhood." How long were we there, how long did the process of creation take? LDS theology is unique in leaving the door open instead of insisting upon a literal 6-day creation process (or even 6,000 exact years):
We understand, for it has long been told us, that we had an existence before we came into the world. Our spirits came here pure to take these tabernacles; they came to occupy them as habitations, with the understanding that all that had passed previously to our coming here should be taken away from us, that we should not know anything about it. We come here to live a few days, and then we are gone again. How long the starry heavens have been in existence we cannot say; how long they will continue to be we cannot say. How long there will be air, water, earth; how long the elements will endure, in their present combinations, it is not for us to say. Our religion teaches us that there never was a time when they were not, and there never will be a time when they will cease to be; they are here, and will be here for ever.
Brigham Young taught, on several occasions, that time itself is in eternity:
I will give you a figure that brother [Orson] Hyde had in a dream. He had been thinking a great deal about time and eternity; he wished to know the difference, but how to understand it he did not know. He asked the Lord to show him, and after he had prayed about it the Lord gave him a dream, at least I presume He did, or permitted it so to be, at any rate he had a dream; his mind was opened so that he could understand time and eternity. He said that he thought he saw a stream issuing forth from a misty cloud which spread upon his right and upon his left, and that the stream ran past him and entered the cloud again. He was told that the stream was time, that it had no place where it commenced to run, neither was there any end to its running; and that the time which he was thinking about and talking about, what he could see between the two clouds, was a portion of or one with that which he could not perceive. So it is with you and I; here is time, where is eternity? It is here, just as much as anywhere in all the expanse of space; a measured space of time is only a part of eternity (JD 3:367-368).
In June of 1830 during his inspired translation of the Bible, Joseph Smith recovered a vast cosmology, said to come from the record of Moses:
And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten (Moses 1:33).
Despite this declaration, the Lord told Moses he wouldn't go into detail on any system other than the one to which Moses belonged:
But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them (Moses 1:35).
In April of 1853 Brigham briefly discussed his views on the worlds:
We see the spangled vault of the starry heavens stretched over us; but little is known of the wonders of the firmament. Astronomers have, by their researches, discovered some general facts that have proved useful and instructing to the scientific portion of mankind. The phenomena of the motions of the heavenly bodies, and their times and seasons are understood pretty accurately. But who knows what those distant planets are? Who can tell the part they play in the grand theatre of worlds? Who inhabits them, and who rules over them? Do they contain intelligent beings, who are capable of the happiness, light, glory, power, and enjoyments that would satisfy the mind of an angel of God? Who can tell these things? Can they be discovered by the light of science? They cannot. Let every intelligent person seriously contemplate this subject, and let the true light of reason illuminate the understanding, and a sound judgment inspired by the Spirit of Christ be your guide, and what will be your conclusions? They will be what mine are-that the Lord Almighty reigns there; that His people are there; and that they are, or have been, earths to fulfill a similar destiny to the one we inhabit; and there is eternity; and as Enoch of old said- "Thy curtains are stretched out still." (JD 2:122).
If we could hie to Kolob... Footnotes: [1] Craig L. Blomberg, Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide, 37.