The Rapture and Joseph Smith

The recent prediction of the “rapture” by an obscure elderly radio preacher (for yesterday!)[1] opens up some fun considerations. Like most premillennialist Christians in the antebellum period, Joseph Smith wanted to know when the second coming of Christ would take place. Enthusiastics of all sorts made predictions, one of the most prominent being William Miller. Smith made his own based on an 1832 experience. Joseph’s earnest prayer about the eschaton or final events was answered by an audible voice which declared that if the Prophet lived to age 85, he would see Jesus.

At first, Joseph felt this provided a clear estimate for the beginning of Christ’s reign on earth. His remarks at a February 14, 1835 meeting suggest this. Since Joseph’s birthday was in December, 1891 was the obvious target year for the big event. As time went on, Joseph began to see this experience in a different light, eventually using it, in good mathematical sense, to provide a “lower bound” on the date of the parousia. Nothing could happen before 1890.

Joseph also addressed the question of predictive ability. Could the “date” of the event be known? Or could it at least be estimated within a short time period? Existing reports suggest two possible answers.

1. While the date could not be determined in Joseph’s time, when the time was actually (not poetically) near, the Saints would be made aware since the information would be communicated to them.

2. No one can pin down the exact date (ala “no man knoweth day or the hour”).

The first bit of information is illustrated by James Burgess’ report of Joseph 6 April 1843 discourse:

Christ says no man knoweth the day or the hour when the Son of Man cometh. This is a sweeping argument for sectarianism against Latter day ism. Did Christ speak this as a general principle throughout all generations Oh no he spoke in the present tense no man that was then liveing upon the footstool of God knew the day or the hour But he did not say that there was no man throughout all generations that should not know the day or the hour. No for this would be in flat contradiction with other scripture for the prophet says that God will do nothing but what he will reveal unto his Servants the prophets consequently if it is not made known to the Prophets it will not come to pass;[2]

and then Wilford Woodruff’s account of a 10 March 1844 sermon:

Jesus Christ never did reveal to any man the precise time that he would come, go & read the scriptures & you cannot find any thing that specified the exacthour he would come & all that say so are fals[e] teachers.

While Joseph moderated the meaning of his early experience, many of his followers failed to clue in on the somewhat subtle change in interpretation. Hence the 1891 date held on with folklorish persistence. WIth the increased pressure by federal authorities on church leaders over politics and polygamy, many saw 1891 as the date for God to rescue his people from persecution.

There was plenty of anxiety over the year 2000 (or 2001 depending on your counting preferences). And at least some Latter-day Saints believe that D&C 77 sets an inexorable time-table. I find it interesting that Joseph seems to have been pretty flexible about such things in his later career.

—————————–
[1] The guy wasn’t alone in his belief. One retiree cashed in his 140K 401K (is there something to that?) and bought thousands of signs to place around Manhattan.

[2] Burgess had a tendency, I believe, to flesh out his own memories of Joseph’s speeches, and possibly add interpretive remarks. So take this in that light.

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