Friday, 17 July 2009

The Joseph Smith Papers

The July 2009 issue of the official Mormon Ensign magazine carries an article by Elder Marlin K Jensen, Mormon Church Historian, writes about The Joseph Smith Papers, a collection of “all journals, diaries, correspondence, discourses, revelations, written histories, notices, and legal papers…generated or directed to be created [by Joseph Smith]” He writes:

“The manuscript revelation books contain many of the earliest known copies of the revelations received by Joseph Smith and provide insights into the revelatory process”

Hmmm! “The revelatory process?” What do you think that means? Jensen explains:

“The editing and updating of revelation texts in the early years of the Church demonstrate the process of continuing revelation to Joseph Smith. The revelation manuscripts reveal how men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error. In some instances, when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding. Thus, as his doctrinal knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter. The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”

Lets see if we can get from this paragraph an understanding of the “revelation process” and why God should need to change his mind about changing his mind:

  • “men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error.”

In other words errors in transmission were a real possibility and it was already a struggle to pass on faithfully what Joseph Smith said. Mormons bring to the Bible the charge that it has been transmitted carelessly and that “many plain and precious parts” were taken from it (1 Nephi 13:29). Notwithstanding this claim the Bible we have today is unquestionably accurate and reliable, having been transmitted faithfully. Even in the lifetime of Joseph Smith, however, errors were already creeping into documents that were solely in the possession of and entrusted only to Mormons.

  • “when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding.”

I wonder what they have in mind here? Perhaps they have in mind the 1833 revelation in which the Mormon god says of Joseph Smith:

“And he has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon], and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (Book of Commandments 4:2)

In the revised 1835 version it reads:

And you have a gift to translate the plates and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4)

Didn’t I read somewhere that, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind” (Nu.23:19) Mormonism introduces itself to the world as a restoration of those teachings and principles lost because of changes to Scripture and tampering with doctrine. Now we have a prophet who cannot control his own revelation in his own lifetime and a god who cannot make up his mind.

  • “as his [Joseph’s] knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter.”

So when Joseph heard his god say that he should only have one gift he misunderstood because his god actually intended that this should be the first gift in many. That lets his god off the hook but leaves Joseph’s hearing with much to be desired. If we approached the Bible in this way every Mormon would see it as clear evidence of apostasy.

  • “The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”

Clearly! I mean I can just see God saying, “Oh, I had a bad day and I wasn’t thinking right. Look I meant to say…”

Mormons are traditionally a record keeping people but this has often come back to haunt them as faithful saints have kept meticulous records that have subsequently embarrassed the church. Mormons today, when confronted by such historical evidence, will offer the lame defence, “That was just his opinion”. Even on a more “official” level, records of early church proceedings have been kept, the best known example of which is the 26 volume Journal of Discourses, containing “the words of the Apostles and Prophets, as they were spoken in the assemblies of the Saints of Zion”.

The first volume is presented as something, “the value of which cannot be estimated by man…for the purity of doctrine, simplicity of style, and extensive amount of theological truth which they develop…a source of light, information, and joy…these sermons will be most valuable, as a gauge of doctrine, a rule of rectitude, and a square to life, furnishing at the same time an extensive repository of historical information.” (JOD, vol.1, Intro.)

What place does this invaluable source of doctrine and history have in the modern Mormon Church? It is regarded with suspicion and although Mormon apostle George  Q Cannon called the Journal a “Standard Work of the Church” (an epithet reserved for Mormon scripture) in the introduction to volume eight, it carries no more authority than the personal journals of the day that continue to embarrass the church.

It will be interesting to see how the Mormon Church handles the Joseph Smith Papers, how Mormon scholars interpret their founding prophet and how officially involved Mormon leaders will become in endorsing and quoting them. Experience has shown that “official” Mormonism is confined to the four “Standard Works” and all other writings become historical curios as they are published and then left on the shelves of the few Mormons who will buy them, never reading them but simply happy that they are there as proof of the restoration. I doubt they will carry any more authority than other writings of the day although certainly Mormon watchers may find plenty of food for thought.


Seth R. said...

Look, I can see why this would be a problem to a fundamentalist Mormon view. And that is a widely held paradigm among Mormons, sure...

But I don't see that Mormonism itself needs to be held to its fundamentalist versions. That's not the only way to approach this religion.

Let's take out the fundamentalist baggage and boil down the "Restoration's" main claims and message:

1. Bible has possible flaws and stuff we need TODAY is missing from it. That's a two part claim - don't merge both into one claim.

2. We need modern revelation - both personal and for the Church as a whole TODAY to supplement and interpret past scripture for our times.

Nothing Elder Jensen said is a problem for those core claims.

Yes, it is a problem for a Mormon who is looking for inerrant scripture or inerrant prophets. Some Mormons are like that - just like their Evangelical and Protestant counterparts.


Get rid of inerrancy as a requirement. After all, it really isn't even scriptural to begin with. We don't really have any compelling reason to keep it.

So chuck it.

Problem solved.

Seth R. said...

I need to make one more post here, so I can get an email subscription to comments going.

I've been gone a while Mike. Nice to drop in on occasion though. Cheers.

Mike's 4 Tea said...

Its good to see you back Seth. I hope you stick around for a while.

I appreciate your remarks. The problem I have is, as always, that my remarks are aimed at what you call "fundamentalist" Mormonism since that best represents what Salt Lake Mormons have always believed. The "enlightened" view you espouse is interesting but experimental and I suggest quite unorthodox.

You do oversimplify in your comments, overlooking the fact that innerancy is not a Mormon concept and so needn't be defended but unerring leadership is a Mormon promise.

The question you must ask yourself is how wrong does a man have to be before you question his claims? How far down the road of accepting him despite his failings do you travel before words no longer mean anything?

Seth R. said...

Don't know... but since none of the Mormon prophets I'm aware of have really hit that threshold, it's kind of a moot point to me.

I could be just projecting my own biases here, but it seems to me that most of the "follow the prophet" stuff taught in the LDS Church today is mostly assuming POLICY leadership and not DOCTRINAL leadership.

When a Mormon talks about following the prophet, it seems that the unspoken assumption is usually policy-oriented.

By contrast, when a Protestant talks about Mormonism and "follow the prophet," they usually seem to be assuming doctrinal leadership.

Ships passing in the night, really.

And, if you want, it seems to me that "unerring leadership" is very much a contested concept when you are talking about doctrine and what it means to be a Mormon. None of our scriptures talk about unerring prophets. The Doctrine and Covenants even talks about how to counter a prophet who has gone astray (can't remember the passage, but it is in there).

Doctrinally, we just don't have the equivalent of papal infallibility.

That doesn't stop folk doctrine from assuming that the prophet is infallible. No more than it stops people from falsely attributing quotes about pre-earth life to Apostle Boyd K. Packer that he never said and has explicitly denied.

People will have their folk doctrines. But that doesn't really make me feel bound by them in any sense, even if they are popular and widespread.

Mike's 4 Tea said...


I was sharing your thoughts with a good Christian friend who also left the Mormon Church for reasons of doctrine and she remarked, "That's the trouble with us Mike. We took Mormonism altogether too seriously".

The problem you present is that this ministry and others like it are aimed at dealing with Mormonism and not the views and beliefs of individual Mormons. The purpose is to help Christians and others understand and think clearly, in light of Bible teaching, about what they will meet on the doorstep when Mormons call.

The missionary discussions are more conservative in this respect and so the need remains to deal with Mormonism as we do.

Inevitably there will be those free spirits like yourself on whom the mantle of Mormon teaching lays very lightly but I suppose we speak to those TBMs who regard all such developments and teachings of the Mormon Church as we discuss very seriously and are prepared to defend everything that falls from the lips of the General Authorities to their last breath.

I have noticed recently however that there are an increasing number of liberal thinkers around in Mormonism than there were. I wonder where the Mormon Church will go from here?

I reckon it must go the way of the Community of Christ as it divests itself of an increasing number of once foundational teachings - or it must do what it has done in the past and at some point reign in free thinkers with another round church courts and excommunications.

Seth R. said...

I also wonder if the Community of Christ folks would agree with your assessment of them divesting themselves of "a number of once foundational teachings."

Item of interest - Kevin Barney over at By Common Consent seems to be on this same wavelength and put up a post you might find interesting:

Mike's 4 Tea said...


The CofC has its own blind spots so can't complain. They deny the whole polygamy thing, insisting it started with BY. Strange when you consider that some of old Joe's revelations were conveniently received to assuage the wrath of Emma, paean of the RLDS, who complained bitterly about his other "wives".

I enjoyed the blog. Of course it is typical of a Mormon (liberal or otherwise) to put up a straw man (infallibility/inerrancy) and then take the reader to a place where the words of the prophets mean nothing. Isn't this a case of the tail wagging the dog?

I was a Mormon in the Seventies and Eighties when the words of the prophets meant a great deal. I wonder if I would have become a Mormon in the first place if the missionaries said, "We have a prophet but he's not up to much and we don't pay a great deal of attention."

The claim of Mormomism on the doorstep is that Christendom is apostate and Mormonism is a restored and much more dependable Christianity. Now it seems there is a growing band of apostates in the Mormon Church so what are we to make of that? Which sort of brings me back to my point about more liberal ways or church courts.

Seth R. said...

I'd kind of like the LDS Church to be a place that accommodates a variety of views.

But I do get tired of being called a heretic or apostate in my own church.

Maybe it's not me who's the heretic here.

Maybe it's the McConkie-ite neo-orthodox LDS who are the real apostates within the religion. People who have wrested the original religion to fit their own "fundamentalist" agenda.

Maybe what is pejoratively termed "liberal Mormonism" is actually a corrective restoring the true faith.

Is that not a possibility?

Note: I use "fundamentalist" in scare quotes because I'm aware that it's a pejorative term in some quarters that obscures more than it illuminates. I'm trying to flesh out an unformed idea here.