Joseph Smith’s Sermon of February 5, 1840
November 17, 2010 13 Comments
A recent broadcast from lds radio featured Ron Barney and Jeff Cannon of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, on Joseph Smith’s visit to Washington, D.C. in late 1839, early 1840. While no diary was kept during the journey, there were letters sent from Washington by Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee, and an account of meeting(s) with President Martin Van Buren survive in the memoirs of Illinois democrat John Reynolds who introduced Smith and Higbee to Van Buren. Van Buren, the epitome of political savvy at the time, held a states rights view of US politics and excused himself from intervention in the Mormon question on that basis. As Reynolds put it, Joseph left Washington a “red hot Whig.” While Joseph was in the East, he did take the opportunity to deliver several sermons to both Latter-day Saint congregations and to other interested parties.
On February 5th, Joseph delivered a speech to a group of Washingtonians,
one of whom was Aaron Burr biographer Matthew Livingston Davis. Davis penned a letter to his wife in New York regarding the discourse, which was may have been intended for publication in one of the several newspapers for which Davis was a correspondent.[But see the comment below!] Whatever the purpose, the original ended up was in the hands of the Mormons and came west with them to Utah. It’s first imprint was in the Deseret News of 27 July 1854, based on a copy of the letter from the manuscript history of the Church as provided by historian’s staff.
The account is remarkable for several reasons,
being a report by an experienced writer/reporter it probably it contains a number of verbatim statements. We also find in it a fairly early example of Joseph’s maturing cosmology/ontology. The hallmark of Nauvoo theological tension: the place of the individual in the cosmos and the role of the individual in the corporate “sealed” kingdom is illustrated in its beginnings. Davis reports Joseph as saying:
I believe that God is eternal. That He had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or End. I believe that the Soul is Eternal. It had no beginning; it can have no end . . .
Davis added the following interesting remark after his quotation: “Here he entered into some explanations, which were so brief that I could not perfectly comprehend him. But the idea seemed to be that the soul of man, the Spirit, had existed from Eternity in the bosom of Divinity; and so far as he was intelligible to me, must ultimately return from whence it came-“
To reinforce this unique idea,
Davis adds: “He said very little of rewards and punishments, but one conclusion, from what he did say was irresistible. He contended throughout, that every thing which had a beginning must have an ending; and consequently if the punishment of man commenced in the next world, it must, according to his logic and belief have an end.”
While Joseph would make some refinements from these ideas, mainly in the suggestion that God was not always God, but progressed to that point, he was uniform in his support of the idea that the individual has necessary permanence.
The Washington speech is remarkable in several ways, first that Joseph was quite forthright in this his ultimate heresy. Man was the ontological equal of God. He could have hardly placed a bigger religious target on his back than that. The interesting bit about this is that while he repeats this quite a number of times before his death, it never did find a prominent place in the litany of offenses offered by Mormonism in the 19th century. Why? I think the reason is found here. (For the full account of Davis, see here.)
Be that as it may, I find Joseph’s ideas a refreshing departure from most of religious history, however uncomfortable they may have been to those inside and outside the Church. A situation which remains today. Talk about current events. With the publication of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the issue of man’s ontological position came up in discussions in prominent circles in Salt Lake. The fact that a division of opinion still exists is a tribute to the conservatism present in LDS leadership (and that division is represented in the Encyclopedia if you look carefully). A deeply embedded ethic in that exclusive group, it has been both an advantage to Mormonism as well as a heavy inertia that makes appropriate change wait its turn.
My prejudice in favor of Smith’s ideas is motivated less by history than by testimony, but nevertheless, I have a deep interest in how Mormon theology has shaken out over the centuries (ok, we are coming up on 200 years of Mormonism). I wonder what issues the future Church will find compelling in another century. Anybody got a seer stone?
 As Barney and Cannon observe, the town was pretty unimpressive. On Washington, D.C., see Howe, What Hath God Wrought.
 One wonders if the topics addressed were in any way motivated by the political purposes of the trip, and if so, how would they have been received in that sense.
 Joseph is rather unique even among believers in human preexistence. Few theologies of the past have allowed that the individual soul is uncreate.