Or "The Saints, the Mortar, and the Clay ."
August 17, 1856
If prophets are puppets, if the word of God came (or comes) through them undiluted and pure, why the variation in style? Revelation through Isaiah sounds different than it did through the apostles in Acts. Compare Gordon B. Hinckley to Brigham Young. Much of what I've read from Brigham Young's discourses- the vast majority- carries a strong pragmatic, authoritative, but also prophetic spirit, occasionally indulging in concepts that seem very foreign to today's Latter-day Saints. One characteristic of Brigham is that he rarely minced words. In this particular discourse (Aug. 17, 1856) he talked about why he was more apt to preach improvement rather than praise, giving some sermons an air of condemnation rather than congratulation. Brigham seemed as concerned here (if not more so) with orthopraxy (correct practice of religion) as he did with orthodoxy (a correct understanding of doctrine).1 Brigham wasn't one to give "smooth things"; he preferred to speak hard things and allow the Spirit to provide any needed consolation:
When I rise before you, brethren and sisters, I often speak of the faults of the people and try to correct them; I strive to put the Saints in a right course and plead with them to live their religion, to become better and to purify themselves before the Lord; to sanctify themselves, to be prepared for the days that are fast approaching. I do this oftener than I speak of the good qualities of this people, and I have reasons for this which, perhaps you would like to hear.
The froward and disobedient need chastisement, the humble and faithful are sealed by the Spirit of the Gospel that we have received. I have not time nor opportunity to caress the people, nor flatter them to do right; nor often to speak well of them, portraying their good qualities.There are times when prophets must speak forthrightly, bluntly, in condemning wicked acts. In the contemporary Church, physical and sexual abuse, pornography and other less-than-comfortable subjects are approached in General Conference.2 These leaders must feel to sorrow, like Jacob, because their words may pierce hearts with deep wounds (Jacob 2:35). It is these weightier talks that sometimes receive the sharpest criticism. The speakers must know they will likely offend someone, no matter what subject they speak about. Are there people in the Church today, who as the Israelites condemned by Isaiah, are like
children that will not hear the law of the Lord:
The consolations of the Holy Spirit of our Gospel comfort the hearts of men and women, old and young, in every condition of this mortal life. The humble, the meek, and faithful are all the time consoled and comforted by the Spirit of the Gospel that we preach; consequently, their comfort, happiness, joy, and peace must be received from the fountainhead.
As Jesus says, “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye have peace,” so we say to ourselves, so we say to the Saints; in the Lord ye have joy and comfort, and the light of truth which shines upon your path. The Holy Ghost reveals unto you things past, present, and to come; it makes your minds quick and vivid to understand the handiwork of the Lord. Your joy is made full in beholding the footsteps of our Father going forth among the inhabitants of the earth; this is invisible to the world, but it is made visible to the Saints, and they behold the Lord in His providences, bringing forth the work of the last days.3In his often employed rhetorical style of question and answer, Brigham said he was sometimes led by the Spirit to comfort:
The hearts of the meek and humble are full of joy and comfort continually; do such need comfort from me?
Yes, if any mourn, perhaps a few encouraging words from me would give them consolation and do them good. I am always ready to impart what I have to this people, that which will cheer and comfort their hearts, and if the Lord will lead me by His Spirit into that train of reflections and teaching, I am more willing and ready to speak comforting words to this people, than I am to chastise them.Even then he worried about flattering the congregation "in iniquity"; something he found abhorrent:
But I hope and trust in the Lord my God that I shall never be left to praise this people, to speak well of them, for the purpose of cheering and comforting them by the art of flattery; to lead them on by smooth speeches day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, and let them roll sin as a sweet morsel under their tongues, and be guilty of transgressing the law of God. I hope I shall never be left to flatter this people, or any people on the earth, in their iniquity, but far rather chasten them for their wickedness and praise them for their goodness.The Lord would praise and comfort the Saints if they would keep His commandments, and Brigham took a moment to express his love for the Saints:
The Lord praises you and comforts you, if you live as you are directed; if you live with your life hid with Christ in God, you do receive, from the fountainhead, life, joy, peace, truth, and every good and wholesome principle that the Lord bestows upon this people, and your hearts exult in it, and your joy is made full. This people are the best people upon the face of the earth, that we have any knowledge of.He, like current LDS prophets, sought to walk a fine line between admonishing the Saints to "shake off the chains with which [they] are bound" (2 Nephi 1:23); not simply saying that "all is well in Zion" (2 Nephi 28:25) while still remembering to "succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees" (D&C 81:5). The difficulty today is compounded by realizing that Church leaders are addressing a much more global audience, rather than a concentrated body of Saints in the Great Basin. The variety of dispositions, superstitions, cultural mores, levels of gospel knowledge, and many other factors may encourage leaders to give relatively "general" council in General Conference.
Brigham used two homespun parables to describe the difficulty of teaching the Saints. First, he compares the Church to a batch of mortar which a mason is preparing for use. A glance at Wikipedia explains:
Mortar is a material used in masonry to bind construction blocks together and fill the gaps between them. The blocks may be stone, brick, breeze blocks (cinder blocks), etc. Mortar is a mixture of sand, a binder such as cement or lime, and water and is applied as a paste which then sets hard. Mortar can also be used to fix, or point masonry when the original mortar has washed away.New converts and differing dispositions among the Saints represent the ingredients of the mortar which require the whole batch to be mixed and remixed:
You who understand the process of preparing mortar know that it ought to lay a certain time before it is in the best condition for use. Now, suppose that our workmen should work over a portion and prepare it for use, and when it is rightly tempered, suppose someone should throw into the mixture a large quantity of unslacked lime, this would at once destroy its cementing quality, and you would have to work it all over and over again.
This is precisely like what we have to do with this people; when a new batch is mixed with the lime and sand which were prepared ten days ago, before it is fit for use it has to be worked all over with the ingredients and proportions that were used to make the first. Some think this rather hard, but they have to be worked over because they are in the batch.4The second parable, more familiar and often employed by Heber C. Kimball, was of the clay and the potter's wheel. New converts and differing dispositions among the Saints make up a lump of clay which needs to be worked and reworked:
Again, they are in the mill, and like the potter's clay which brother Kimball uses for a figure, they have got to be ground over and worked on the table, until they are made perfectly pliable and in readiness to be put on the wheel, to be turned into vessels of honor.
Now, suppose, when it is in this good state, that somebody should throw in a batch of unworked clay, it would spoil the lot, and the potter would have to work it all over; the clay that was prepared has to be worked over with the unprepared.
This principle makes many feet sore, and some are starting for the States, and some for California, because they will not be worked over so much, and we cannot set a guard over the mill to keep the new clay from being thrown in. You may say that that is my business; no, it is my business to throw in the new clay, and work it over and over, and to use the wire to draw from the lump any material that would obstruct the potter from preparing a vessel unto honor.Brigham viewed some of his harsh preaching as separating the wheat from the chaff, to use another figure.
I do not wish you to think that I chastise good men and good women; chastisements do not belong to them, but we have some unruly people here, those who know the law of God, but will not abide it. They have to be talked to; and we have to keep talking to them, and talking to them, until by and by they will forsake their evils, and turn round and become good people, or take up their line of march and leave us (JD 4:22-23).Those who desire only smooth things are likely to be disappointed or offended.5 To those who feel that Conference is a repeat of general moral platitudes and wish for new developments and exciting new doctrine from the pulpit at each General Conference, consider the words of Eugene England:
Conference is a time for feeling more than for ideas...Those who go looking for dramatic new doctrine or new policy are apt to continue to be disappointed (I too have gone yearning, hoping to hear that announcement about the priesthood being extended to all). [This essay was written in 1973, five years before the priesthood was extended to all men regardless of race.] Those things will come in statements from the First Presidency day by day as the revelations come.
Conference will continue to be a kind of rite, a shoring up of faith and confidence, of feelings of unity and achievement... Going to conference made it possible for me to feel more strongly than ever that the great soul-satisfying truths of the gospel and my experiences of love and growth in the Church are much more important than the things that give me trouble.6Bear in mind the speakers are addressing the whole lump, with the new rougher bits as well as the older.
Sociologist and Latter-day Saint Armand Mauss discussed the distinction of orthodoxy/orthopraxy in an interview regarding his book The Angel and the Beehive:
Much that the LDS Church advocates for the behavior and “life-style” of its members is about boundary maintenance, which is very important for any people or community seeking to maintain a distinct identity. For Mormons, living in a certain way is more important than believing in a certain way. We can infer much more about what or who a person is from what he does than from what he believes (or claims to believe). Furthermore, beliefs can always be changed by teaching and by the promptings of the Holy Spirit (either in this world or in the next world, according to Mormonism). Certain kinds of behavior, however (such as sexual sin) can have consequences in this life that can never be entirely mitigated by later repentance. Ideally, people will learn both correct belief and correct behavior from membership in the LDS community, but it is the behavioral boundaries that really define the Mormon identity. I don’t know if that’s quite what your question was getting at, but that’s what first came to mind ("Armand Mauss on The Angel and the Beehive: Implications of Mormon Assimilation and Retrenchment," Morehead's Musings, Jan. 9, 2008).
See, for example, Richard G. Scott, "To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse," and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "A Matter of a Few Degrees" from the April 2008 General Conference.
Because prophets aren't perfect, and can sometimes include opinion with doctrine and counsel, it becomes the opportunity of Latter-day Saints to listen to the prophets and also seek revelation regarding the teachings they receive. Take, for example, the words of President James E. Faust:
As a means of coming to truth, people in the Church are encouraged by their leaders to think and find out for themselves. They are encouraged to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to such knowledge of the truth as their own consciences, assisted by the Spirit of God, lead them to discover ("The Truth Shall Make You Free," Ensign, September, 1998).
I find this parable particularly apt, given that a Zion community is designed to operate with one heart and one mind (see Moses 7:18). The Saints themselves act as mortar to bind together the Church as a community, a family, a kingdom, a people, a house of faith, a temple.
In October 1855 Heber C. Kimball talked about Brigham's tendency to chastise:
I am thankful that the time has come when brother Brigham is disposed to lift the veil and expose the iniquities of men, if they are not willing to expose them themselves. I know they were exposed in the days of Joseph, and brother Brigham, myself, and many others were with him and stood by him to the day of his death, and do still (JD 3:160).We would be wise to avoid offending, but also must realize that the truth may "cut" to the very center. For an interesting discussion see Michael Ash, "The Sin Next to Murder: An Alternative Interpretation," Sunstone, November 2006. See also my blog post "Giving and Receiving Criticism." For more on Brigham's preaching style see "Preaching pitchforks from the pulpit."
Eugene England, Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience, p. 111-112.