Summer Review: Joseph Smith’s Dispensational Transition

[A prerequisite to understanding this post is a solid reading of its base text here.]

In Joseph Smith’s “first” King Follett discourse (March 10, 1844) he codifies a bit of Mormonism that had been fluttering around its edges from the beginning: the transition from beginning the movement to fleshing it out. There are many ways this plays out between 1820 and 1844. As Pete Crawley astutely observed:

It seems clear that this idiosyncratic, informal quality of the theology of the Mormons, this delicate equilibrium between the authoritative and the personal, the canonical and the inspirational, derives from the Church’s earliest years. Mormonism’s first decade saw a fundamental transition, a passage from a loosely organized, anti-creedal, familial group of “seekers” to a Church defined by unique doctrines, led by a prophet. This passage brought a set of the earliest attitudes to the point of equilibrium that has maintained to the present day. Here history is particularly useful, for the features of this equilibrium as well as its importance in the modern Church are illuminated by an examination of the passage that brought it into being.[1]

Crawley paints a picture of Mormonism emerging from a background of restorationism – a going back to basics movement from the likes of Charles Finney and Alex Campbell’s brain-trust (Walter Scott, et al.) eschewing creedal statements in favor of, “the Bible.”[2]

Crawley continues:

Although Mormonism was strikingly primitivistic during its earliest months, it differed from other primitive gospel movements in a number of ways, e.g., in its rejection of the infallibility of the Bible and in its possession of the Book of Mormon, a new volume of scripture. But more fundamentally it differed from them in that in the midst of this egalitarian, anti-creedal group stood a man who spoke with God. Other primitive gospelers—Elias Smith, for example—had initiating visions. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, continued to receive revelations. Inevitably as new converts sought the revealed will of God through him, his stature in the developing church would grow to a point of overwhelming preeminence and his revelations would take on the weight of scripture and become part of an expanding body of dogma. Indeed this extraordinary position of Joseph Smith was explicitly acknowledged the day the Church was formally organized in a revelation which designated him a “seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (BofC xxii, D&C 21). Thus embryonic Mormonism embodied intrinsic tensions which over the next eight years would grow to the point of rupture.

Crawley’s “rupture” refers to the eventual wholesale departure of the original New York founders, like the Whitmers and Cowdery. Their dissatisfaction and departure is seen in part as a manifestation of tension between founding practice and developed hierarchy. David Whitmer, decades later (1885) would claim that he found Joseph’s hierarchical and scriptural innovations both unnecessary and wrong: a departure from the purity of original Mormonism.[3]

To wit:
In Joseph’s March 1844 sermon, he lays out a theology/angelology that portrays his own journey in Mormonism:

1. The Spirit of Elias. Angelic classification whose members act as “openers of the way” or John the Baptist-like characters as well as restorers of authoritative practice, etc. Joseph clearly plays this role with his initial revelations like the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, etc.

2. The Spirit of Elijah. Elijah infuses power, keys, authority, especially the “sealing” power, welding generations into a great familial whole and so on, not simply a harmonizer of family disunity – an expressed view of the Malachi 4 passage in Smith’s time. The first century apostles are Elijah in Joseph’s view. The Elijah spirit (power) can be manifest/used in other ways.

3. The Spirit of Messiah. The creative power, the Christology of Mormonism and the follow-on principle of deification behind much of Joseph’s ideas on the nature of God. Without saying so exactly, Joseph expands on this in the “second” King Follett discourse.

Joseph characterizes these classes in several ways, for example, Elias = John the Baptist, Elijah = the Malachi chap. 4 Elijah, Messiah = Christ (of course).

Elias is the Greek form of Elijah, an idea Joseph clearly understands, taking a second characterization of the class from Malachi chap. 3. The usage is one of dividing roles, not persons. As we shall see, one person could be all three.[4]

The tale is much more complex than this, but this much suffices for the point. Joseph himself is Elias, Elijah, Messiah. Not the class identifier perhaps (although some have argued otherwise in the case of “Elias”), but certainly we see his own career reflected in the way he divides the angelic duty.[5]

Joseph doles out the sealing power: he controls its use. He is Elijah.

Joseph leads the way to exaltation: he is Messiah. He creates/founds the kingdom, a shadow of the creations of God/Christ. Marks the path, etc. While Joseph may have been uncomfortable with that analogic language, it was not an unusual kind of comparison among Mormons (or for that matter in romantic characterizations of men like Luther for example), though they used other words. Brigham Young:

I never had the feeling for one moment, to believe that any man or set of men or beings upon the face of the whole earth had anything to do with [Joseph Smith], for he was superior to them all, and held the keys of salvation over them.

The March 10 sermon has remarkable depths which I have only superficially plumbed in my (as yet unfinished) critical examination in the book. After all, I’m not writing a commentary on JS’s sermons. That is a role I feel uncomfortable in assuming myself. But contextually, it is a rich text, one that deserves much deeper examination than I give here. By that, I don’t mean the standard Mormon scripture chase. This sermon does (presently) unappreciated cultural work in Mormonism despite the paradoxical fact that it has more or less disappeared from view. I’ve been stuck on it for more or less a year and it still yields new ideas. If only we had a descent transcript.[6]
———-
[1] Peter L. Crawley, “The Passage of Mormon Primitivism,” Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought winter 1980, p. 27. Available online at dialoguejournal.com/archive.

[2] Of course, such a move became mired in its own arguments almost immediately.

[3] As Mark Staker has noted, Whitmer’s memory here is pretty selective. For example, see Mark L. Staker, Hearken, O Ye People Kofford, 2010: 152, etc.

[4] Those interested in JS’s use of “Elias” in other ways are referred to Sam Brown’s Dialogue paper “The Prophet Elias Puzzle.” (Fall 2006). Available online at dialoguejournal.com/archives.

[5] We have to remember that JS has a much broader idea of “angel” than might be found among his contemporaries. The biblical angels are none other than post-mortal, (or pre-mortal) manifestations of the prominent biblical figures: Noah = Gabriel (an Elias!), for example. Further, mortals can be invested with the same authoritative positioning (priesthood) found in immortal angelic ministers. They are only different life stages for Joseph. Classifying Joseph with his own angelic parsing is perfectly reasonable.

[6] <grin> I’m not trying to be a snob here. Really. There’s a lot of stuff going on here that defies my own ability to classify. Sam Brown’s paper mentioned above gives some context for how Elijah was seen in antebellum America and that is a good starting point. Elijah still plays a surprisingly visible role in contemporary Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam. He is still an archetype of apocalyptic setting to rights and restoration of glory. The Rabbi’s saw Elijah in a role like that of Enoch.

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4 Responses to Summer Review: Joseph Smith’s Dispensational Transition

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Agreed on all points. This is one in particular where more and better concurrent reports is a terrible thing not to have.

    • WVS says:

      Reports, yes. Woodruff is fine, but I’ve grown to distrust him a little. Not in the sense of his being deceptive of course. More in his Mormonesque but silent redaction.

  2. rpoulton says:

    Do you see any connection between March 10, 1844 and August 27, 1843?

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