Friday, January 9, 2015

Joseph Smith's Letter to Israel Daniel Rupp: By Proving Contraries? "Goe to now, and prove contrarieties"

On 5 June 1844 the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote to thank Israel Daniel Rupp, an historian of Pennsylvania counties and immigrants, who had mailed the Prophet a book: He Pasa Ekklesia [The Whole Church]An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States. Rupp had long projected a work in which sectaries all and sundry would set forth--in their own words--the various religious creeds and practices; the Prophet, with the help of W.W. Phelps, had contributed a chapter. Here is the sound and beneficial -emic approach: the raw data, free of editorial controls. As Rupp says in the preface (p. vi):

In the history, and especially in the creed of the different denominations, the unpredjudiced (sic) reader has a subject for candid investigation, and will be able to draw his own conclusion from authentic data. Though truth and error may be conmingled [sic], still the lover of free inquiry will have nothing to fear. It must be admitted, that many opinions are presented which cannot be maintained by 'Thus saith the Lord;' but as the projector has done his part in giving each sect an opportunity of telling its own story, and in its own way he thus leaves it to a liberal and discerning public.

One wonders whether the Latter-day Saints are among those whose opinions "cannot," by any stretch of the imagination--"it must be admitted"--enjoy the imprimatur of 'Thus saith the Lord'? No matter: Rupp justifies himself by "giving each sect an opportunity of telling its own story" and leaving it for the reader--"the lover of free inquiry"--"to draw his own conclusion from authentic data."

The student may benefit from reading the first sentence or two of each chapter. Joseph Smith's opening sentence takes away the breath:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded upon direct revelation, as the true church of God has ever been, according to the scripture (Amos iii.vii; Acts i.ii).

Original Draft, Redaction, and Nachleben

My purpose is to set forth the plain meaning of Joseph Smith's Letter to I. Daniel Rupp. By comparing the original draft with the redactions, I will show how both editorial interference and scholarly interpretation have obscured that meaning. I also wish the reader to ponder the ease with which Joseph Smith drops references to scripture and proverb alike, abbreviated marks of navigation by which he assures Daniel Rupp of both his love of fair play and his love of truth.

Some readers, following the lead of Professor Eugene England (a man we all knew and admired), have surprisingly attributed to a single phrase in the letter a meaning far beyond what its context warrants. Indeed the phrase has become enshrined as a moment of epistemological profundity on the part of Joseph Smith--a summing-up of his entire experience as seeker of truth.

The claim cannot withstand scrutiny, but matters of documentary Nachleben often catch the imagination, so I will first give the 1905 redaction of the letter as it appears in Roberts, History of the Church VI, 428; then, the redaction as it previously appeared in the History of Joseph SmithThe History of Joseph Smith, composed by official scribes, then edited by George A. Smith and others, ran as a serial in both the Deseret News and the British journal, The Millennial Star. By further comparing these last two with the draft made and preserved in the official record of correspondence by Willard Richards, the reader will safely grasp what the Prophet is saying.

Though much has been made of the Rupp letter by England and others, I can find evidence for use of only the poor 1905 redaction. The 5 June 1844 archived draft copy will doubtless soon appear, transcribed and annotated to a perfection, in the appropriate volume of the the Joseph Smith Papers. A partial transcription of the first paragraph may in fact be found on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site. For now, the curious may consult the digitized draft online. (For some reason or other, the letter does not appear in Dean Jessee's fine edition of the Prophet's known letters: The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.)

History of the Church, 1905

Dear Sir, He pasa Ek klesia, etc., [with ampersand] together with your note, has safely reached me, and I feel very thankful for so valuable a treasure. The design, the propriety, the wisdom of letting every sect tell its own story, and the elegant manner in which the work appears, have filled my breast with encomiums upon it, wishing you God speed.

Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is [not] sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophecy, satisfying all doubt with 'Thus saith the Lord'; yet, 'by proving contraries,' truth is made manifest,' and a wise man can search out 'old paths, wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted through obedience.

I shall be pleased to furnish further information at a proper time and render you such further service as the work and the vast extension of our Church may demand for the benefit of truth, virtue, and holiness.

Your work will be suitably noticed in our papers for your benefit.

With great respect, I have the honor to be,

Your obedient servant,


History of Joseph Smith, as found in the Millennial Star, 1861, p. 736.

Wednesday, 5.
I received a book entitled "The Book of Denominations," and wrote the following acknowledgment:----"Nauvoo, Illinois, June 5th, 1844.

Dear Sir,----He pasa Ek-klesia,' etc., together with your note, has safely reached me; and I feel very thankful for so valuable a treasure. The design, the propriety, the wisdom of letting every sect tell its own story, and the elegant manner in which the work appears, have filled my breast with encomiums upon it, wishing you God speed.

Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophecy, satisfying all doubt with 'Thus saith the Lord;' yet, 'by proving contrarieties, truth is made manifest,' and a wise man can search out the 'old paths' wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted through obedience.

I shall be pleased to furnish further information at a proper time, and render you such further service as the work and vast extension of our church may demand for the benefit of truth, virtue, and holiness.

Your work will be suitably noticed in our papers for your benefit.

With great respect, I have the honour to be

Your obedient servant,


Willard Richards Draft (as kept in the official record of correspondence)

Dear Sir, 'He pasa Ekklesia,' etc, together
with your note, has safely reached me, and I
feel very thankful for so valuable a treasure.
The design, [is good = words crossed out] the propriety, the wisdom
of letting every sect tell its own story; and
the elegant manner in which the work
appears, have filled my breast with encomiums
upon it, wishing you God's speed. Although
all is not gold that shines, any more than
every religious creed is not sanctioned with
the so eternally sure word of prophecy satis-
fying all doubt with, "Thus saith the Lord,
yet, 'by proving contrarieties, truth is made
manifest," and a wise man can search
out the "old paths," wherein righteous men
held communion with Jehovah, and were
exalted, through obedience, which is better than, easier than,
man-made creeds.

First Paragraph

The official draft changes everything; I breathe a sign of relief at 'He pasa Ekklesia': goodbye, the monster 'Ek klesia.' I savor, too, the little things that never made it into print: the underlined Dear Sir. Such underlining conveys attentiveness; I can hear the Prophet's hearty voice all but demanding such notation for moments of emphasis. "Wishing you Gods speed" comes straight from Brother Joseph's heart.

Reading Paragraph Two--the long sentence

History of the Church

Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is [not] sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophecy, satisfying all doubt with 'Thus saith the Lord'; yet, 'by proving contraries,' truth is made manifest,' and a wise man can search out 'old paths, wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted through obedience.

History of Joseph Smith

Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophecy, satisfying all doubt with 'Thus saith the Lord;' yet, 'by proving contrarieties, truth is made manifest,' and a wise man can search out the 'old paths' wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted through obedience.

The reader will note the differences in placement of quotation marks--unfolds a strange punctive dance--and, particularly, in the reading of contraries as contrarieties. A contrariety is quite a different thing than a contrary.

Willard Richards Draft

Although all is not gold that shines, any more than every religious creed is not sanctioned with the so eternally sure word of prophecy satisfying all doubt with, "Thus saith the Lord," yet, 'by proving contrarieties, truth is made manifest," and a wise man can search out the "old paths," wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, and were exalted, through obedience, which is better than, easier than, man-made creeds.

I love the way the long sentence reads prior to editorial tampering. Yes, we can understand why George A. Smith deleted the underlined not in the second phrase: it's a clumsy double negative. But I love its power: not "every religious creed is not sanctioned"--it must be read aloud to be appreciated.

Less clear is the need for eliminating the final relative clause, though it is a bit tricky to pin down the antecedent. The antecedent is neither "obedience" nor does it at first appear to be "old paths": "the 'old paths' wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah." The true antecedent may be found by a slight adjustment in the number of the verb in the relative clause: "the 'old paths' wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, which are better than, easier than, man-made creeds." As we shall presently see, the wording about the "better" and the "easier" "paths" reflects what one of the old prophets calls the "good way," which leads to "rest for your souls." Try this: "the 'old paths' with its 'good way' wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah, which ('good way') is better than, easier than, man-made creeds [the byways]." The path may climb but the soul will not wander: the ease comes from the sureness of the tried way as well as from the joy of communion. The kingly clause rounds out the periodic sentence and much recalls Minnie Hawkins' poem, "The Gate of the Year," in which God's guiding hand--communion--serves "better than light and safer than a known way."

The Prophet, in composing the letter, responds to, even quotes, Rupp's preface and, perhaps, Rupp's note (no longer extant). He thus responds not only in kindness but in kind. The long sentence consists of snippets of quotations serving as navigational hints: an interlocking posy of proverbs and prophets. Just as the Arab cannot open his mouth without quoting the Qu'ran, so the inheritors of Western Civilization knew no speech free of the seasoning grace of wit and Scripture. We would choke on such speech; it does not accord with our style--had we any style. We are glimpsing a semiotics, a peek into how everyday Westerners once organized their universe: how they arranged speech and, by so doing, arranged a cosmos. But it is for us, with our advanced learning and proven capacity for analysis, to decode his sentences and thence to learn to navigate the stream of the spiritually-minded generation that is no more.

Let's at least sort out what the Prophet quotes: what reflects Rupp's preface and what may be original with him--only then can we get at the germ of the idea. We, accordingly, try our own hand at editing and set out the punctuation marks as follows:

Although "all is not gold that shines," any more than every religious creed is not sanctioned with the so eternally "sure word of prophecy" satisfying all doubt with, "Thus saith the Lord," yet "by proving contrarieties, truth is made manifest," and a wise man can search out the "old paths," wherein righteous men held communion with Jehovah and were exalted through obedience, which [paths and communion] is better than, easier than, man-made creeds.

The periodic sentence places emphasis on the communion and exaltation of the righteous with their God. Direct revelation from God trumps man-made creeds.

One sentence yields five quotations, two of which are proverbs, three Scripture. What could be more commonplace than "all is not gold that shines"? or "by proving contrarieties, truth is manifest"? The proverbs carry things along; Scripture carries the point: "Thus saith the Lord" stands for the prophetic mandate, what Peter calls "a more sure word of prophecy" (2 Peter 1:19). The proverbs bid us compare and test the coin of religion; Scripture assures us that on some money the imprimatur of God shall be found: the more sure word, the seal, of prophecy.

All this has something to do with certain "old paths," but what are they? Why does the Prophet reduce all wisdom to a pair of words surrounded by quotation marks? Wouldn't that be obscurantist? Blakean perhaps? Not at all!

When I first saw "old paths," nothing came to mind. Not so, with our amazing 19th century countrymen: Daniel Rupp would have recognized the hint in a trice--he would have known his Jeremiah cold:

Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).

Here we are instructed to find the more "sure word", even the "Thus saith the Lord": and this is the word of the Lord---forget the man-made creeds and ask instead for the old paths and the good way. Jeremiah communed; Joseph Smith communes. "God did not speak: He speaks!" Mormonism is not, as the saying runs, 'a new religion as religions go'--aggiornamento pending. No. Mormonism walks the old paths. Here is the testimony of Joseph Smith couched in the words of Jeremiah--words that dropped from the lips of the Prophet at the very moment of dictation--words he walked by and, by which, he found rest to his soul despite the roar of opposition or paradox.

Once Joseph and Jeremiah navigate the reader onto the "old paths," the letter begins to speak with both clarity and depth. We commune with Jehovah--Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah--and enter into our exaltation.

Proving Proving Contrarieties

We come now to the case of proving contraries, that is, proving contrarieties, and the philosophical spin first put on that crystalline phrase by Professor Eugene England. He acknowledges the Prophet's praise for Rupp "for letting each church 'tell its own story' and then putting those presentations together for comparison, because By proving contraries, truth is made manifest." So far, so good.

But England leaves firm ground when he goes on to say: "For me this is a climax of tragic awareness in the man. . . Part of the Prophet Joseph's moral and spiritual heroism is focused for me in his growing insight (and willingness to risk all, including his life, on that insight) that tragic paradox lies at the heart of things and that life and salvation, truth and progress, come only through anxiously, bravely grappling with those paradoxes, both in action and in thought. In the next few days, after facing in writing the 'contrary' nature of existence, he grappled in violent action with perhaps the central human paradox, public responsibility versus private integrity--community versus individual values, and he paid with his life," England, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, ix.

Though these are wild words, that the Prophet boldly and decisively faced constant opposition is not in dispute, and the reader may profit by the questions here raised. Yet England's insights into paradox, and his adoption of Proving Contraries as motto, may prove to be less descriptive of Joseph's mind than of his own--mayhaps they speak to Everyman: "I have been as true to his example, as I know how as I have chosen what experiences to grapple with," Ibid., ix.

Eugene England's philosophical reading of the truism has proved influential and popular, and examples abound in print and on the Internet. Some see everything in Mormon culture and theology as exemplified in proving contraries, including the supposed "contrary"--soon to be "proved" or "reconciled" or whatever--of "Mormon" and "Feminism" in an activist and disloyal "Mormon Feminism." The phrase purportedly also hastens the work in which--by dint of a blameless intellectual sorting out of contraries--the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage will be reinterpreted to draw the perfunctory applause of an old and fleeting world. Another oracle of Jeremiah comes to mind: "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (2:13; see now Elder Quentin L. Cook, "Lamentations of Jeremiah: Beware of Bondage," Conference Report, October 2013).

Whether misapplied or not, the phrase is now without hesitation ascribed to Joseph Smith--the one "quote" everybody knows. An article on "Intellectual History" so enshrines the epistemological breakthrough: "The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that it is 'by proving contraries that truth is made manifest,'" Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

As one of two quotations introducing his thoughtful book about the Latter-day Saints, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Brother Terryl Givens supplies:

"By proving contraries, truth is made manifest"--Joseph Smith.

According to Brother Givens, "there was something deliberate and almost systematic about Joseph Smith's working by contraries. I have always been fascinated by Hegel's view of a tragic universe as one in which the highest Goods often come into fatal collision with each other. This view seems amply borne out in Joseph's thought" ("Reflections on People of Paradox by the Author," 28 Nov. 2007 interview of Givens by Ben Huff, ""; cf. Tertullian against Marcion).

Again: "Yet Mormonism, a system in which Joseph Smith collapsed sacred distance to bring a whole series of opposites into radical juxtaposition, seems especially rife with paradox--or tensions that only appear to be logical contradictions," Givens, People of Paradox, xiv.

I think I know what the author is saying here. Given the oppositions framing creedal Christianity--spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, God and man--a new Christian vision in which all these (apparent!) oppositions collapse certainly shall shut the mouths of kings (see Isaiah 52:15). . . Some shutting of mouths, some shock reverberating through two millennia of scholastic enterprise, does seem prerequisite to grasping Joseph's vision. For Latter-day Saints that shock both resides and resounds in the symbolism of a trumpeting Moroni--a blast, like Gabriel's, sufficient to wake the dead!

Back to our busy little saw.

As these few examples show, the phrase about "proving contraries" represents, for many, a theologoumenon or an epistemological breakthrough, as conscious summing-up of the Prophet's life and thought. Brother Joseph was, at the last, promoting paradox; for through paradox the (perforce intellectual) Christian disciple comes to truth. Nothing of the sort.

The motto, "Proving contrarieties," smacks of truism, that is to say, the saying reduces, or encapsulates, ideas bruited about for centuries by the philosophers and theologians: Tertullian, Pascal, Knox, St. Gregory of Nyssa, writers of religious pamphlets, and so on. Now the phrase does partake of two possible meanings, and the reader must consider context. When Professor Neander (writing in 1851) tells us that Marcion tries to prove a contrariety between the Old and New Testaments, he means that Marcion seeks to establish an irreconcilable difference. John Knox uses the phrase, as we shall see, in the sense of assessing opposing propositions. But how odd to take a little snippet set in quotation marks, misread or ignore its plain contextual meaning, and make of it a governing philosophy for a Prophet who gave us whole books of new scripture. The Book of Mormon teaches that truth is made manifest by the power of the Holy Ghost to every humble soul who prays with real intent, having faith in Christ. Revelation flows to the prayerful, not to the victor in the battle of philosophical reasoning over conundrums.

Rosalynde Welch nails it: "Gene used ["the 'proving contraries' quote"] as the basis for a theory of holy dissent; Givens seems to want to use it as the basis of an organizational system for a somewhat disorganized corpus of revelation. I've never actually seen the quote in situ, and it strikes me at first reading that it could mean something quite different from what either has proposed" (from comments section in "Reflections on People of Paradox by the Author").

In light of Sister Welch's astute comment, we observe how England starts with the plain reading of proving contraries, veers from that plainness by directly adding "or paradoxes," and ultimately changes the sense of "proving" or "testing" into something resembling a corrida de toros (i.e., the horns of a dilemma):

"And there we have, clearly stated, I believe, the heart of the tragic quest. We do indeed live in a universe where it is only by proving, or testing, contraries or paradoxes, that truth is made manifest. Fifty years earlier, William Blake, certainly another prophetic tragic quester, had said, 'Without contraries is no progression, ' and warned, 'Whoever tries to reconcile [the contraries] seeks to destroy existence,'" Dialogues with Myself.

Blake and Lehi join minds here; not Blake and the truism. England notes something of Blake in what he calls "Lehi's law": "It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things" (2 Nephi 2:11); he incorrectly ascribes a truism to Joseph Smith.

Again: "Joseph Smith, also with inspired perception, wrote, in a letter just before his death, 'By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.' By 'prove' he meant not only to demonstrate logically [!] but also to test, to struggle with and to work out in practical experience," Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, 4 ("Lehi's law," 2).

"The suffering and loss--and ultimate gain--that are made possible by testing fundamental paradoxes certainly defines the tragic events of Joseph's life," Eugene England, "Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest," Dialogues with Myself,  10 (and p. 11).

While the fundamental oppositions of which Lehi and Brigham Young speak flow clear as night and day, I can't grasp what England means by testing a paradox--does he mean it in Blake's sense of reconciling contraries? or in finding that a given paradox is none at all?--and just what is Blake getting at?--neither do I see how any such testing, or reconciliation, can bring about both loss and gain. Perhaps an answer to the last may be found in the revelation about Oliver Granger, one of the least, who rises again, "when he falls" (Doctrine and Covenants 117; see President Boyd K. Packer, "The Least of These," Conference Report, October 2004).

We must not over think such things. Sunny Joseph, as his friends relate, was ever fond of saw and wit and verse. Let's see: "A stitch in time saves nine"--Joseph Smith. When Rachel Ivins demurred at a request to sing on the Sabbath, Brother Joseph joked "The better the day, the better the deed." I love the wit; he learned the saw at his parents' knees. We don't speak Scripture, parley proverb, or tattle in truism today--but here's the point: the denizens of the 19th century not only spoke in the homely way of homily, they set their course by it. What talk do we set our own course by?

That there are paradoxes in Mormonism nobody denies. Joseph Smith once put forth a little florilegium of his own proverbs and paradoxes--and these are paradoxes indeed--though he never put the document out as a revelation. And for ought I know, People of Paradox rightly titles a study of Mormon culture and theology. Yet as most readers of the Rupp letter must see and certainly have seen, "proving contraries" means nothing more nor less than "putting opposing religious opinions to the test." We take up Rupp's book, and sit down and dispassionately read. Here Joseph spells out no tragic Hegelian vision, no coincidentia oppositorum--nor even paradox. Even so, paradox attends all lives: another truism.

At 12 Joseph wrestled with the different religious propositions as also with the individual proposition of profession versus practice--and the wrestle lasted for years--but at the last, he "had found the testimony of James to be true--that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided," Joseph Smith--History 1:26. A man might obtain Truth--Absolute Truth (cf. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "The Inexhaustible Gospel," 18 Aug. 1992, BYU Speeches, for the idea of various "orders" of independent truths).

Truth may be manifest and known through the testing, assessing, weighing, or "proving" of contrary or opposing propositions or systems of belief: "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21; prove comes from Wycliff). Professor England also latches on to this place as a theologoumenon about an never-ending work of paradox in which a contrary of "certitude" v "doubt" takes center stage. He accordingly unpacks "The paradoxical words of Paul" with fervor: "'Prove all things': consider all things; look at all possibilities; examine your inherited prejudices and evaluate again even your cherished beliefs; be open to what might be a new understanding--a new faith . . . give yourself to the possibilities that begin to prove out; live the faith that is given you in your seeking--however deeply you continue to test that faith and examine others," Dialogues with Myself, 39.

Such a rhetorically charged reading moves the reader--intellectually; yet we must never forget Paul's follow-up: "Quench not the Spirit." Though finding much to admire in Brother England's reading of Paul, I hold to a tenet of Latter-day Saint doctrine: Faith is not a matter of a never-ending round with doubt. Faith and Doubt do not coalesce in the Christian mind. If we "Quench not the Spirit," Faith Quenches Doubt. That's Paul. That's Joseph Smith: a man more simple than we know, a man whose simple faith passeth all understanding (see also Galatians 5:17 and its "contrary").

Paul, in the finishing touches to his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, is not setting forth theology. No. The finishing touch comes from the store of proverb and of scripture. Paul is quoting. That is to say, A word or two before you go: Rejoice evermore. Always give thanks. Never stop praying. Don't discount prophetic gifts [yet] Test all things, keep the good. Don't quench the Spirit's fire, etc. ("Early Christian writers thought Paul was dependent on a saying of Jesus not recorded in the NT," Abraham J. Malherbe, Anchor Bible 32B: The Letters to the Thessalonians, 333; the supposed saying reads: "be practiced money-changers"; "quench not the Spirit" matches language used of the Delphic Oracle, 335).

Authorship, Originality and Meaning

"Try the spirits" (= Prove the spirits) makes up the topic of an essay in the Nauvoo periodical, Times and Seasons, during the Prophet Joseph's tenure as its editor. Such pieces may or may not have been penned by Joseph Smith; others, most notably John Taylor, may have collaborated or even composed the whole. Authorship, in such cases, becomes an either/or: the doctrine was one, the editorial purpose was one--and no contrariety.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter:

The phrase about proving contrarieties was current at Nauvoo, as divers places in the Times and Seasons make clear:

1. "By proving contrarieties truth frequently appears. So with the religion of Jesus, its beauties and glories often shine, when its revilers are endeavoring to expose what they may denominate, its deformities" ("Opinion," Times and Seasons, 1 September 1842, vol.3, no. 21, p. 901).

The piece is unsigned. Joseph Smith was the editor of the journal in 1842, and pieces were often signed ed, but the authorship of even these signed contributions remains something less than clear. Did the Prophet write the little opinion piece as well as the various editorials? Did Taylor? Did they collaborate? Did either coin the phrase in question?

2. "The Infidels have advertised for a convention at New York on the 4th of May next.--All in order: men ought to prove contrarieties and bring out the truth thereby," (Times and Seasons, 15 April 1845 Vi, 7, 878, John Taylor [ed.]). John Taylor shows no concern whatsoever about giving atheism its day; absolute truth will make manifest through debate and study.

3. Again, from the Nauvoo Neighbour, 1844 (History of the Church VII, 177), speaking of the new Mormon periodical in New York City, The Prophet: "Nor should the country be less magnanimous: by comparing opinions, and proving contrarieties, truth manifests itself,"  John Taylor (ed.).

4. Times and Seasons, Sept. 2, 1844:

"In 1835 there was published in London, a 'Book of the Denominations.' This publication, of about 700 pages, contains an account of nearly sixty different sects, all serving God under various creeds, ceremonies and expectations. Truly was it said, 'when the shepherd is smitten the sheep will scatter.' To obviate the objection, however, so often made to revelations, as believed by the Latter Day Saints, we have though [sic] it advisable to make an extract from the writer's preliminary remarks. It is not all gold that shines, neither is every pile of rubbish destitute of jewels: By proving contrarieties, truth often manifests itself so clearly that he that runs may read, and he that reads may understand."

What of this Book of the Denominations? In the "preliminary remarks," we read "of the differences and contrarieties of opinion" (John Styles, The Book of the Denominations; or, the Churches and Sects of Christiandom, in the nineteenth century, "Preliminary Essay," p. 3). (Note the title, Book of the Denominations, in the redaction of the Rupp letter in the History of Joseph Smith--a clear error.) "Contrarieties of opinion"--maybe Styles wrote the Rupp letter.

From this last piece, as from all this accumulated evidence of John Taylor's fondness for phraseology about gold not being all that shines as well as for "proving" sectarian, even infidel, "contrarieties," we might with reason conclude that Brother Taylor also wrote the letter to Mr. Rupp. Taylor must, at very least, have contributed to the letter or, on the other hand, have been profoundly influenced by it. Still, I don't think he composed the letter--there's something of Joseph Smith in the style (or Styles!)--but I have no doubt Taylor heard the letter read.

"Proving contrarieties" was often at the tip of the tongue at the Times and Seasons--and clearly at all times and seasons--, and it makes not a whit of difference whether the editor was, at one time, Joseph Smith or, at another, John Taylor--or whether both together. The Rupp letter is Joseph's, but it might as well have been Taylor's--and no contrariety here.

Here's one scenario: The book arrived by post; the question of its being advertised immediately arose; Taylor was invited to the office to hear Rupp's note read, together with a reading of Rupp's preface and of the chapter on the Latter-day Saints; whereupon, the brethren entered into a brief discussion of the book's merits; Brother Joseph, delighted with the book, then dictated a letter to Willard Richards; Richards read the letter aloud, then edited for corrections. Brother Joseph was off to the prairie for the balance of the day--as the official history relates--so the book was put into Taylor's hands in preparation for running an advertisement in the Neighbor. The letter may have included a phrase a two of Taylor's contribution, or perhaps even culled from Rupp's note--as from his preface, At any rate, both book and note were forthwith put into Taylor's hands, for in the Nauvoo Neighbor, under date of 26 June 1844, we find the following advertisement:

"We take pleasure in announcing the above valuable work, by J.D. Rupp, as worthy an extensive patronage. It certainly exceeds all the histories extant, in point of intrinsic merit, as to the true creeds, beliefs, discipline, and multifarious modes, by which men try to serve God; even the 'Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,' speaks for itself, as organized by direct revelation. The wisdom of the work consists more especially in giving every denomination an equal chance to furnish their own 'reason for a hope hereafter,' whether the Lord hath revealed the secret according to Amos the prophet, or not. Every sect is its own witness. Such a work is actually worth its weight in gold. The author has our blessing for his success."

There you have it--in what are presumably Taylor's own words--yet not a hint of shining gold or proving contrarieties. So much for our scenario. (We do have valuable, wisdom, gold, however.) The wording of the advertisement differs entirely from that of the letter, though the shape and order of the ideas is the same. At any rate, without the letter in hand, or well in mind, the advertisement would not read as it does.Though the idea of Taylor as author of the Rupp letter has merit, other scenarios, including the possibility of other sources for the phrase, do come to mind.

The ideas so phrased were perhaps everywhere current--we'd have to read a lot of 19th century journalism to find out. The oldest place to look is an essay by John Knox, "On Predestination," an essay well known to Americans, in which the verb of proving applies to contrarieties: "Goe to now, and prove contrarieties," (David Laing (ed.), The Works of John Knox, "On Predestination," V:371, and also see 370; Edinburgh, 1895, orig. pub. 1560).

In the treatise Knox compares his ministry with that of true prophets; that of his Christian adversaries with false. God allows both to thrive, but no contradiction in His will--for it will all redound to the blessing of His elect.

"Is there, therefore, any contrarietie in God's will? None at all. For the divers respectes and endes being considered, the same consent shall now be found in this apperent contrarietie, which hath remained from the encrease of God's church. For in all ages hath God willed his true Prophetes, with all boldness and constancie, to susteine the cause of his simple veritie, how odious that ever it was unto the world. And in their contrarie, he hath raised fals prophetes, to whom he hath given the efficacie of errors (for contrarie purposes I grant), to witt, that his people may be tried, his faithfull servantes exercised and humbled, and, finally, that such as delyte not in veritie may be given over to beleve lies. Goe to now, and prove contrarieties."

Goe to now, and prove contarieties.

Love of Fair Play

The Prophet's letters open a window onto his teachings, thoughts, and character. A comparison of his Nauvoo letters ultimately becomes essential to understanding any one of them. Further insights into the Rupp letter can be gleaned by comparing it to letters sent to Joel H. Walker, James A. Bennett, and so forth.

Joseph Smith dealt quickly with matters of business, and letters were hurriedly composed, a first thing to keep in mind: "and according to my custom I answer off hand," he writes to Joel H. Walker. The sentence suggests hurried dictation rather than delegated scribal composition, though we cannot tell how much of the content was dictated, how much touched up or composed by his scribes. By "off hand," Joseph means "off the cuff," and the phrase carries nothing of the nuance it has today. Also suggesting business in a hurry is the Prophet's polite manner of including snippets from the sender's letter in his answer. The custom shows that he attends--a rare virtue--that the letter was fresh in his mind, and that he hoped to address specifics set forth in its contents.

The Nauvoo letters are not preachy but businesslike and decorous--with the occasional jolt of emotion. They evince a marked politeness, demonstrate that the respondent has read and weighed the sender's letter, and smilingly conclude with an encomium of virtue and honor--the high note--no peroration but a jot of homily.

Mr. Rupp struck the Prophet as being about as fair-minded a man as anyone could be. And in his reply to Rupp, as elsewhere, we find a fundamental characteristic of Joseph Smith, perhaps the most fundamental characteristic: he responded to fair play. He celebrated the "honest in heart" and the tolerant, those willing to give him, or anyone else, a courteous hearing. Joseph Smith believed in the marketplace of ideas. He rejoices over the idea of the thoughtful reader carefully and logically working through each chapter of Rupp's -emic book, comparing sect by sect--and all to scripture. "Without compulsory means" is the signature of the Prophet's views on power and on the mind (see Doctrine and Covenants 121: 46).

This particular window onto character--love of fair play--may seem to be an old familiar view to the Saints, but if so, it bears repetition as being most valuable. Few who have heard the name of Joseph Smith would so imagine him. How could a prophet-founder also be a proponent of free, careful, and logical thought and speech? Why would a man having his own message to propound encourage all to study the doctrines and creeds of the Baptists, Presbyterians, Millerites, and a dozen others? Wouldn't that be counter-productive? Yet Joseph Smith never sought to limit inquiry or reflection.

"Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls."

The 11th Article of Faith, which duly appears in the submitted article, "Latter Day Saints," enshrines the love of tolerance and fair play: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

For a current official statement about the principles enshrined in the 11th Article of Faith, see 27 January 2015, News Release, LDS Newsroom: "Mormon Leaders Call For Laws that Protect Religious Freedom." Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contributes four principles of religious freedom and tolerance.

Here are the first two:

We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.

We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.

Note: The ideas found in the above online essay are my own. Doubtless many have noted the same, and I would be glad to so acknowledge, but I do not wish to convey the notion that any of my essays, in any way, reflect an official statement of the teachings or practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neither am I an employee of the Church or of any of its educational organizations.

What anyone writes on a Web page that allows for editing is not only subject to change, it is very easy to change. And I often purposely put out an unfinished symphony just to have something to have a go at later on. All of which makes of this Web page a rehearsal, a classroom, an open studio, a painting done al fresco on the plaza wall.

Notes: To prove contrarieties does not always mean to assess contrary arguments; the phrase can be used in the sense of to show or to establish contrarieties, that is to say, irreconcilable differences. See Augustus Neander's History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles, vol. 2: Marcion tries to prove a contrariety between the Old and New Testament.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Foundations of Faith: Treasures from the Historical Collections of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It is Tuesday, September 2, 2014. I came to the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to look at a copy of Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.

The inside doors were locked because guests were visiting, and I was requested to return at 1:30pm.

To my surprise a new exhibit was on display, and members of the general authorities had been the visitors. The entire First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ and most of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came to launch the exhibit. Relief Society leaders came in an hour or so later.

The Brethren seemed to be enjoying the visit, lingering about the treasures. When the door opened about 1:40, I went to find my book. But I couldn't resist peeking at the treasures fitted into little black cases tucked up against the far wall. Drawing near to one, lights came on in a flash--treasures!

Because I was first in, I might as well jump a review of Foundations of Faith. The press comes tomorrow, and Friday marks the official opening, but I have a few thoughts of my own I wish to share.

To select from the vast archives but a very few treasures clarifies the matters of deepest import to every member of the Restored Church: the Foundations of Faith. Copies of translations of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, at the end of the exhibit, suggest how Latter-day Saints may continue to build on those firm footings.

Most lovely of all seems to me the battered 1832 record book of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Here, written partly in Brother Joseph's own hand, in bold character, we glimpse the first record of the Visitation of God--"I am the Lord of Glory"--of Moroni declaring the coming forth of new scripture, and of other heavenly messengers restoring priesthood authority. I had seen the book before. Here it is again!

Then there is a page written in the hand of Oliver Cowdery: the dictated Book of Nephi, translated from the golden plates by the "sight and power" of God.

I found printing plates for the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham. I had seen these before, along with a papyrus showing Min's Daughter tete-a-tete with a strolling snake (Oh the glory!) in a prior, untrumpeted exhibit. I saw a copy of Elder Franklin D. Richards' first edition (1851) of what he called the Pearl of Great Price. The booklet was opened to Abraham Chapter 3; facing, was a large unfolded page with the hypocephalus and Explanation: A Fac-simile from the Book of Abraham. No. 2. Franklin Dewey Richards is my lineal ancestor, and I rejoice at his love for the translations and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In his last doctrinal discourse, June 16, 1844, Joseph Smith quoted from Abraham Chapter 3 and said he got it "by translating the papyrus now in my house."

The exhibit booklet also prominently features Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, and states:

"The Pearl of Great Price was canonized by unanimous vote at the general conference on October 10, 1880."

It continues as Scripture today.

The exhibit will last five years. After these expire, the Book of Abraham, including Joseph Smith's inspired Explanation of Facsimile 2, will still be "canonized" by The Church of Jesus Christ.

Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, life-size in plate and print as a big bold circle, stands forever as one of the Treasures of The Church of Jesus Christ. Its accompanying Explanation is inspired Translation, and is Scripture.

I am put in mind of the last book of Hugh Nibley (posthumously completed by Michael Rhodes).

One Eternal Round opens with a question: The Fatal Mistake?

"From time to time various critics of the Prophet Joseph have triumphantly announced the discovery of his most egregious blunder. All proclaim that the supreme indiscretion of Smith was the publication of three Egyptian documents, Facsimiles 1, 2, and 3 of the Book of Abraham, along with his own supposedly inspired interpretation of them. Even more daring, though attracting less attention, was the accompanying autobiography of Abraham to which the facsimiles were illustrations. And yet every one of these attempts to discredit the Prophet has struck out."

Hugh Nibley calls, one by one, the three strikes of 1860, 1912, and 1967. While much criticism, both triumphantly announced and supremely proclaimed, continues in 2014, it but repeats the previous attacks, especially that of 1967. That last attack "was supposed to deliver the fatal blow to the Book of Abraham. Instead, it opened astonishing paths of research that vindicate its authenticity," One Eternal Round, 2.

The exhibit, officially opening Friday to the public and free of cost, affirms the foundational claims of The Church of Jesus Christ. Online videos about the exhibit and the history of the Church will also be available starting Friday.

After reviewing both treasures and booklet--and I leave the visitor to discover the specifics--I come to one conclusion: the following true points of doctrine lie at the heart of the Restoration forever:

Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in 1820.

Moroni came to Joseph Smith as a messenger of restoration and further witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Divine messengers restored priesthood authority so that saving ordinances might be shared with all who have faith unto repentance through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Mormon is the Word of God, and many translations of this additional Testament of Jesus Christ flood the earth today

The Doctrine and Covenants contains the revelations of Christ to Joseph Smith and his prophetic successors.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith were unjustly and unlawfully persecuted and put to death for "telling the truth," for bearing testimony of Jesus Christ and proclaiming His Word.

The Pearl of Great Price teaches the Father's Plan of Happiness and testifies of Jesus Christ as Creator and foreordained Redeemer of all mankind.

Abraham, Enoch, Adam, and Moses were ancient prophets who saw Jesus face-to-face. From Him they received essential and saving truths about the organization of the earth and other heavenly places in Christ as the Eternal Home of the Father's spirit sons and daughters. These prophets taught their posterity about the universal Creator and His "worlds without number."

The Book of Abraham, written in Egypt on papyrus, is true--a "correct translation" says Joseph Smith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will never back away from that eternal truth.

Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ teach and warn today as anciently (Elders Franklin D. Richards, Parley P. Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff, later President of the Church, are examples).

The Relief Society is an order or organization set up under prophetic direction and operating with
priesthood authority.

Brigham Young held the keys of the priesthood after the death of Joseph Smith, and was a prophet of God and apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

President Thomas S. Monson, prophet and apostle, holds and exercises the same priesthood keys in our day.

As Robert Frost says: "You come too."

2 September 2014
Church History Library

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I learned it by translating: Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham: Or, Just How Boring Can 'Scholarly' Condemnation Really Be? Yawn.

I  Reasoning, Learning, and Revelation
"I learned it by translating," Joseph Smith told his hearers at the Grove eleven days before his Martyrdom: "I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house." The statement reveals Joseph's childlike capacity for receiving knowledge from any channel God might open for investigation and advancement. "I learned a test[imony] about Abraham and he reasoned concern[in]g the God of Heaven." "Abraham reasoned thus": "suppose we have two facts; that supposes that anot[he]r fact may exist," etc. (16 June 1844, Thomas Bullock reporting, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 380).

Translation required of Joseph re-flection: to bend his mind to reasoning upon spiritual truth. That same pattern--"I began to reflect"--led to the First Vision of the Father and the Son. Further knowledge lay ever ahead. He must "study it out in [his] mind" (see Doctrine and Covenants 9). His mind must reach the mind of Abraham.

Abraham envisions the order and governance of the stars and, by reasoning, perceives a like order of intelligence among the spirit sons and daughters of God. He reasons concerning the God of Heaven:

Abraham 3: 16-19: "If two things exist, and there be one above another, there shall be greater things above them"; "Now, if there be two things. . ."

Reasoning leads to a spiral stairway of "Revelation upon Revelation" that we ascend toward a "Fulness of Light and Truth":

19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

If we will exercise our own capacity to reason "out of the scriptures" and pray to the Father in faith, we also may continue to learn truths about the dealings of God with men (see Acts 17:2). We may gain further light about the purposes and messages of prophets, seers, and revelators. Perhaps we, like Joseph, may learn a testimony about Abraham--and his book.

II  The Sacred Record 

So it is that in his last Sabbath sermon, Joseph claims learning the contents of Abraham Chapter 3 from writing found on some portion of the Egyptian papyri in his keeping. While I can only surmise how prophets received, wrote, or translated any of our scriptures--and scripture remains an article of faith--I don't see wiggle room here: Joseph is quoting Abraham 3:16-19.

The specificity about Chapter 3 and "papyrus now in my house" calls to mind a journal entry, written in the Prophet's own hand, under date of Sunday, 20 December 1835: "Brothers Palmer and Tailor Came to see me I showed them the sacred record to their Joy and sati[s]faction [the f in satifaction likely doubles for both s and f]" (Joseph Smith Papers, Journal I: 135). The entry tells us what Joseph himself, not his scribes or associates, called at least that portion of the papyri which purported to be "The Book of Abraham, written by his own hand on papyrus": The Sacred Record. We do also have a letter in which William W. Phelps, scribe, uses the same designation. Citing Phelps's letter, Hugh Nibley shows how, even from the beginning, the Saints cherished the hieratic "Record of Abraham" (a label also appearing in the journal) as Sacred Scripture. They made no fuss over "canon" as they eagerly anticipated translation.

Brother Joseph likely considered the entire Egyptian purchase sacred by virtue of its wonderful antiquity alone; he understood some of it as voicing Scripture. "I, Abraham" catches the breath away. Imagine translating that! For Hugh Nibley, the phrase sounds a trumpet blast. Sharon Keller speaks in ecstatic tones of stumbling across the wording of the Priestly Blessing of the Hebrews in hieroglyphs. I could show Professor Keller another like parallel--but Abraham!

Sharon R. Keller, "An Egyptian Analogue to the Priestly Blessing," M. Lubetski, et al. (eds), Boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern World, 338-345; cf. Spell for the Protection of the Face of a Newborn, V. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808 and Its Cultural and Religious Setting, 166 . 

Sacred Record signifies Scripture, and Abraham's record was to be a scripture no less holy than the books collected in the Bible or in the Book of Mormon. By calling the Abraham papyrus a sacred record, even the sacred record, Joseph Smith was making plain his intent to add the finished translation to the bursting canon as scriptural co-equal with all that came before. The intent to finish never realized, we might imagine bitterness and regret in Brother Joseph's last sermon: Abraham lost again; instead the Prophet glories in a verse or two, as if he had just emerged from his Translating Room with the fresh news from heaven. The Latter-day Saints, even now, have hardly glimpsed the treasures of Joseph Smith's Translating Room.

III  This High Gift

No matter who does the translating, no matter the method, we're going to get "I, Abraham" from whatever portion of the papyri Joseph called the Sacred Record. Words on papyrus remain words on papyrus. Yet when we come to visions, revelations, and doctrines, any translator other than a seer must fall short. Scripture must be transmitted even as it was once "sealed up"--"in its purity." How Joseph read, how Joseph learned, and, then, how he translated cannot be grasped. The Book of Mormon calls prophetic translation "this high gift": "And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can." "For he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date" (Mosiah 8: 13, 14, 16). Such mysteries of God, as Nephi learned, can only be revealed by the power of the Holy Ghost (1 Nephi 10:17-19).

After first looking into the Urim and Thummim, Joseph exclaimed, "I can see anything" (so Joseph Knight reports, Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith, 60). What might further use reveal beyond that "anything"? The Seer eventually came to possess what Brigham Young called "the eye of the Lord." Wilford Woodruff thus delights in recalling how Joseph Smith did not require the Urim and Thummim to translate the record of Abraham from the papyri. Joseph the seer could "see anything." The vision of the Almighty is all Urim and Thummim: "The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:8).

Though Joseph Smith never discloses how the "high gift" of "sight and power" effected the translation of either the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, the two share the element of the tangible. Different, at first blush anyhow, appear the translations of the Bible (including the Book of Moses), the Parchment of John (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7), Sections 45 and 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and so on. Hugh Nibley deems these last to be translations in the best dictionary sense of transmissions, that is, transmissions of lost records not in the keeping of the Prophet Joseph. Prophetic translations of tangible records are also no more nor less than transmissions, and the same applies to any other translation made by any other person. Here is no stretch: Hugh Nibley's definition of translation as transmission comes from the dictionary and is denotative. Whatever we call the inspired reading, the essence of it all becomes the meeting of mind with mind--a meeting to which any reader is earnestly invited. But the transmission or meeting or reading, however mediated, always reflects the word once concretely engraved, penned, painted. Beyond the record, there were also the "hints of things" in the Prophet's mind--the transmission of ancient ideas perhaps never spoken nor recorded--ideas that belong to what the Pearl of Great Price calls "the record of heaven" (see Hugh Nibley, "Translated Correctly?," The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyrus: An Egyptian Endowment--the classic essay about Joseph Smith and translation as transmission).

IV  Records of Ancient Date

So do "all records of ancient date" have to be physically present in order to be translated? In the case of both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, Joseph had in his keeping at least a portion of the pertinent ancient records, written in various kinds of Egyptian script. Whether these were complete or fragmentary or lacunose (that is, in the case of the papyri), we cannot know (see Michael D. Rhodes, "I have a question," Ensign, July 1988, 51-53). We do know one thing: He had plates and he had papyri.

Yet Joseph also had the King James Bible and, for a fleeting, visionary moment, the Parchment of John--or at least the idea of such a physical parchment. So translation, for Joseph, ever anchors in either direct contemplation, or at least in the idea, of text. There always had to be text, the touch or trace of the human mind; however fragmentary, lacunose, recopied, reworked, redacted, translated to death, corrupt, or otherwise humanly imperfect--or even lost--that text might have been. Text and Sight--and Power; Human Text and the Divine Word; Prophet reaching to Prophet across the distance of both man's time and the special reckoning of seers (see Doctrine and Covenants 130:4-8).

Joseph translated by, in, and through what Paul calls "the Mind of Christ." Accepting that, glibly pouring on adjectives about "conventional" or "literal" or "word-for-word" or "scholarly" translation, which do not shed light on any kind of translation whatsoever, amounts to little. The adjective supplied by Joseph Smith himself, in a prepared statement about the papyri and mummies, is correct: "a correct translation" of what he insists are the "preserved" "writings of the fathers" of which he was "in possession" (History of the Church 2:348ff.) "For the records have come into my hands"--here's a concrete statement; though, in this case, the words are Abraham's, not those of his latter-day double. "The records of the fathers, even the patriarchs. . . the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands" (1:28, 31). Joseph, so translating, knew whereof Abraham spoke. "Preserved" is the word best describing the Record of Abraham in Joseph's hands. Accident or miracle, the Lord can do such things. As He told aged Abraham, He delights in the impossible, which is why we call him "a God of miracles."

"Is any thing too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14)

V  Genuine Translation

Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon as "a literal translation," even "a genuine and literal translation" of the last plate in the bound record . In only one other instance does the Prophet identify the original locus of a particular chapter of scripture: his statement about translating Abraham Chapter 3 "from the papyrus now in my house." In other words, Visit my house, and I'll be glad to show you the very hieroglyphs. And note how Joseph, more or less, correlates one plate to one page. Here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as symbols, wherein each contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica. No. Joseph, comparing the Egyptian writing on the plate to "all Hebrew writing in general," sees all hieroglyphs, formed or reformed or whatever, as a "running" script. "Running": nothing could be more clear (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 60-61).

So we do see Joseph Smith taking pains to supply the right adjectives. "The English version" "of the very last leaf" of "the original Book of Mormon" is a "genuine and literal translation" from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Book of Abraham aims to be "a correct translation." Further, the English version of the Book of Mormon title page "is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man." Some Church members wonder whether Joseph Smith himself composed the Book of Abraham solely as an inspired vehicle for introducing a transcendent doctrine--a symbolic link to a symbolic rather than an historical past. Those few so supposing would describe prophetic "trans-lation" as an ingenious re-imaging or re-imagining of the ancient scriptural heritage--a justifiable theological enterprise--and, by so describing, think to save and detach inspired comment and composition from the imperatives of scholarship. It doesn't take much imagination, though, to hear the Prophet's frank response: Neither is the Book of Abraham "a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation."

As for the revealed explanations of the three Book of Abraham facsimiles, these, too, are not a composition "of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation"--the imprimatur of Joseph the Seer lies powerfully upon them.

We are not talking about translation of correspondence or of state or legal documents from, say, Italian into Spanish, a labor which may seem to be conventional, or, at times, perhaps, even literal. No. We are talking about translation from ancient and classical languages, what we term dead languages. For the remainder of the children of men, those whom angels, says Moroni, do not visit, translation from dead languages requires training in the use of dictionary and grammar (however fragmentary and often misleading) and ever involves the student in leaps of imagination.

Scholarly translation of dead languages thus often amounts to spectacular guesswork. The hundreds of Bible "translations" so attest. And Hugh Nibley, citing the "experts," shows how such intuitive leaps especially apply to those who work with Egyptian ("Translated Correctly?"). Yet other ancient scripts defy even decipherment. (Scholarly translation also connotes the dryasdust.)

Where the salvation of the human family is at stake, neither scholarly "translation" nor scholarly bafflement will do. The difference between all others who translate from dead languages and the Prophet Joseph is that living touch with mind, with idea, with gospel truth, which requires neither dictionary nor grammar. The God of Abraham is not the God of the dead but of the living. Joseph translated the languages of the Living, and with living tongues of fire.

Not that the merely human endeavor deserves despite. Joseph Smith studied Greek, Hebrew, and German; he also pondered and preached from Elias Hutter's old polyglot New Testament (Nuremberg, 1602): Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German. A convert had given Brother Joseph the Testament in Nauvoo, and he seemed to treasure it in the same way he treasured the papyri. He naturally tried his hand as student translator and even at emending unclear places, an irresistible game for any student of Biblical languages, and he made his mistakes as all students must. But even while wrapped in study, he sought the further inspiration of God.

Study weds faith in the journal entry of 19 January 1836: "Spent the day at school; the Lord blessed us in our studies. This day we commenced reading in our Hebrew Bibles with much success. It seems as if the Lord opens our minds in a marvelous manner to understand His word in the original language." A breathtaking prayer follows: "And my prayer is that God will speedily endow us with a knowledge of all languages and tongues" (see Joseph Smith Papers: Journal I:164). "All languages" evokes Mosiah's "all records which are of ancient date"--and beyond.

The Nauvoo discourses show several such translations, emendations, or transcendent explanations of Greek, Hebrew, and even German words and phrases. Salvation becomes a matter of heaven and hell; yet "salvation," "heaven," and "hell" bear interpretive cargoes of connotation and comment. Joseph sought to set words free. He wondered about the origin of paradise: "find the origin of Paradise--find a needle in a hay mow" (11 June 1843, Willard Richards report, The Words of Joseph Smith, 211). The word comes from the Persian (a walled garden), but Joseph didn't need to know that to translate. Knowledge of Persian, could he have attained to that grace, would have availed nothing. Translation required translation: Joseph, like Paul, knew a man who had been caught up to the spiritual world--and that rapture more than sufficed. Paradise signified "a world of spirits," not heaven, as the divines would have it.

Words like paradise and hell--and perhaps a dozen other English words in the Authorized Version--with all their accumulated signatures, were, at essence, made-up words: "a modern word," he says. They were signifiers pointing to nothing a seer might glimpse yonder. "Five minutes" scanning heaven would overthrow all dusty books, he claimed. Uninspired translators foisted such words on the language, and in the language they were destined to remain as stumbling blocks. If the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is, then surely hell is what the ministers describe. Here is translation short-circuited, a parody of itself: cultural tradition not thought, not transmission.

To get at the true meaning of translation requires cutting new channels of thought. "You must study it out in your mind," while waiting on the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 9). We encounter Sheol, a word which the eager Hebrew student translates, well, Sheol. . . or grave or pit. "Sheol--who are you? God reveals. means a world of spirits--I don't think so says one. Go to my house I will take my lexicon" (211). We go with Joseph and look at his lexicon: "the lower world, the region of ghosts, the orcus or hades of the Hebrews" (Josiah W. Gibbs lexicon; see Journals I:107 n. 159). Note the marriage of lexicon and revelation, "by study and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88). "A world of spirits," in place of grave or pit, may not seem an earthshaking translation of Hebrew Sheol, but it opens upon a brave new world. Sheol is not hell; Paradise not heaven--both signify another place along the way to immortality and eternal life. Joseph saw Sheol, knew Sheol--and that seeric certainty, now confirmed by the lexicon, is what he translates. It remains for us to wrestle with the implications. And note how fascination for Hebrew words, and what they may signify, when glimpsed in their purity, matches what we see in Book of Abraham Chapter 3 and in the Explanations of the facsimiles. For Brother Joseph, the lexicon carries the seeker beyond translation by tradition; we enter into a purer realm of language, a realm free from the splintered light show of learned commentary, a realm where signifiers point at what seers saw--then God reveals.

Many Germans congregated at the grove where he preached. But that only encouraged Joseph to translate Luther's Bible in startling new ways. He would boldly ask his German hearers to weigh-in, even on his pronunciation, and they would respond.

Joseph never claimed to speak German, though he daringly read from the Hutter polyglot before thousands; neither did he fuss over the possibility of contradiction from some crotchety grammarian. There is some fun in it all--yet, without hesitation, he shared his surmisings about this or that verse. He is clear, when so discoursing, about the two-step act of prophetic translation; even when the second, spiritual step, interwoven as it is with sessions of prayerful thought, can neither be reached or replicated, unless his listeners also work by faith.

The method remains mysterious, as mysterious as thought itself, though the result of such translation recalls the lost-wax technique of casting precious metal objects. We are left with the treasured wonder alone, a substantial idea that can be weighed, tested, admired. The Prophet simply could not rest with the fragmentary knowledge and imaginary flights of scholarship; he always sought greater light and knowledge; worked at it until he got it; then freely shared his revelations and translations with a spiritually thirsting world (see Neal A. Maxwell, "How Choice a Seer," October Conference 2003; For the Hutter polyglot, see ).

VI  By revelation or translation, as the case may be

Just so nonsensical as the revolving door of adjectival qualification appears the oft-celebrated but never elucidated idea of an object, say, some old mummy or random papyrus roll, serving as a "catalyst" to revelation or translation. Difficulty spurs contemplation and contemplation invites revelation--but Abraham came along as a complete surprise! The records "have fallen into our hands"--accident or miracle--and, astonishingly, "purport to be the writings of Abraham, while in Egypt." The word purport, as every reader notes, clarifies the relation of papyrus to Abraham: something penned on the papyri, and understood by Joseph Smith, is making a claim. Claim and papyrus and translation are one in Joseph's hands.

The Prophet does give us, already in 1831, a book of Abraham, complete with textual expansions on, and emendations of, Genesis. This fresh Genesis Abraham forms part of his New Translation, the Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Bible from the King James Bible. But do such changes to the Genesis narrative prove the Bible to have served as some sort of metaphorical "catalyst?" Joseph translated with a clear idea or two in mind: 1) the English Bible is often obscure and even obscurantist; 2) the Bible, in any tongue, does not contain all the writings of the prophets necessary for our salvation. Beyond the tangles of transmission, translation, and archaic English, there were precious writings lost. Nephi lays out the matter in great plainness. And though Joseph in Egypt prophesied the restoration of much of God's word, he never said to expect plate-bearing angels at every turn (2 Nephi 3).

While Hugh Nibley insists on Joseph translating from tangible plates and papyri, no matter how he did it and no matter whether he sometimes--"taking flight"--saw and translated beyond the records, the "true meaning" of translation accords with Joseph's role as transmitter. Joseph Smith brings the words of truth, temporally and spatially scattered throughout all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples, back again. (He also "brought the Priesthood back again.") The missing records, found on various media and written in various tongues, were all once as tangible as the plates and papyri, but through the miraculous transmission we have them in English alone. For that matter, with the sole exception of one Egyptian vignette, the facsimiles of two other vignettes, and a transcription or two of a few reformed Egyptian characters--a trace of the genuine article--we have Mormon and Abraham in English alone. As Nibley put it: The Book of Mormon is the only ancient text written in a modern language (see "Translated Correctly?").

Joseph Smith's lifelong study of scripture repeatedly opened the windows of heaven--from 1820 on. When young Joseph read James 1:5, the Holy Ghost, prompting, impressed upon him the desire to pray for wisdom, but shall we label the Epistle of James the catalyst of the Restoration?

A catalyst, you will recall, "is a substance that alters the rate of reaction with other chemicals, but does not itself undergo any permanent change." Joseph changed the Bible. Though "widely used in metaphor to suggest any agent of change," catalyst lends itself to misuse, which prompts a new style guide to warn: "Beware this weasel word" (The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, Syntax and Style for the 21st Century). Fancy words replace the need for thought.

Two are the restored books of Abraham; two, the modes of translation; yes, but where and how exactly does the catalyst come into play in either case? The notion of either printed Bible or penned papyri as catalyst dissolves into thin air. Catalyst takes its rightful place among "Words owing their vogue to the joy of showing one has acquired them" (Fowler, "Vogue Words," q.v.). When it comes to papyri and Abraham that joy simply exceeds all bounds. Why? One word, evoked as if by magic, solves all--in catalytic flash--rendering further thought unnecessary. Another "joy": "pure revelation" (as opposed to what?) also fails to hit the mark. Let's arrive at an axiom: Prophetic translation belongs to that class of things we "cannot understand" (see Jacob 4:14). We desire things we cannot understand and, in "the solemnity of science," concoct words to process ideas rather than to ex-plain them (Follett, "Scientism," q.v.). We need a plain word: Scripture prompts, hints, suggests, awes, inspires.

Even in the New Translation of the Bible, the Prophet worked from text seen and from (the idea of) text unseen. Had he then known Hebrew, had a critical text of the Hebrew Bible or anything even remotely like an Urtext or Laban's Brass Plates been available to him, he certainly would have worked with the better texts. The English Bible was not just a symbol of the prophetic past; it was his only available avenue to it at the time. No wonder he so treasured the gift of the Polyglot: it gave him wings! He came to prefer Luther's Testament to the Authorized Version. As for Abraham, some of his writings, copied onto papyri, happened to be extant; then available, sold, bought, and read--even "by revelation or translation, as the case may be," as Elder Bruce R. McConkie puts the matter with plainness. And there we can let it rest.

VII  Treasure in the Field

There is a law of efficiency. We must ask why Joseph, inefficiently, "encouraged some of the Kirtland Saints to purchase four mummies and the papyri for $2,400, a large sum when money was desperately needed for other projects" (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith, 186). Couldn't the catalyst have quickened things up? inspiration struck? Couldn't an angel have brought the rolls, perhaps Abraham himself, rather than the shadowy showman, Chandler? A righteous man from Abraham's day visited the Kirtland Temple just months later; he could have brought Abraham's record, when he restored Abraham's priesthood keys. Or, could not a visionary glimpse of a concrete but lost autobiography of Abraham serve the prophetic sight so well as purchased papyri? Yes, and yes--but no. We mustn't miss the point. The papyri signified: like the plates, they came as link and sign.

Joseph purchased the costly rolls and mummies solely because some bold writing on the rolls, again, a specific title which he claimed to understand, purported to contain the writings of Abraham while in Egypt: The Book of Abraham Written by His Own Hand upon Papyrus. That's the ancient title, and worded in the ancient idiom, says Hugh Nibley. And he with the "high gift" read that title and--"for joy," went out and raised $2,400.

VIII  The Records Have Fallen into Our Hands: Now What?

Why was a surviving physical instance, in plates or papyri, of the ancient word requisite for some of our scriptures and not for others? Gold plates attest to the reality of a lost and fallen people.
There is a pattern: the 24 gold plates left in plain sight by Ether attest the Jaredite fall. The records, solid and surviving, vividly link us to wipe outs, past dispensations, and the prophets of Christ. And vitally, for the affirming of a new dispensation, the plates also served as the objective evidence to the 11 men permitted to stand as Book of Mormon witnesses.

As for the papyri, Joseph Smith, in good faith, put them on public display in both Kirtland and Nauvoo. All were invited to examine the papyri and to find out for themselves what the hieroglyphs and figures conveyed. Hugh Nibley makes much of the matter of the open display and forthright invitation. If the Prophet had lived to see the closing decades of the 19th Century, many of the learned men of the times would have had the opportunity to see the collection, discuss it with the Prophet, and chime in on its significance.

The papyri proclaim to the world that Joseph Smith had 1) nothing to hide, 2) was willing to have his ideas and translations weighed in the balance of the learned, and 3) welcomed the participation of the learned in the open-ended quest for further light. Though never describing or disclosing his method, Joseph Smith also never hesitated to publish his readings to a world agape. He never feared the test. Nothing about the Prophet's publication of the Book of Abraham shows contempt for scholarly method or for the 19th Century discovery of Ancient Egypt. He played fair--and the papyri so attest.

Some fuss over the lack of reference to Abraham in the extant Joseph Smith papyri, including the three facsimiles of Egyptian vignettes. Though descriptions of the roll containing Abraham's writings do not, at all, match the scrap we call the Book of Breathings, Hugh Nibley does note a parallel, peculiar and specific in wording, tying the title of that book to Abraham 2:24-25. (Joseph Smith emphasizes titles.) Isis makes a Book of Breathings for her brother, Osiris, so that his soul may live. Just so, Sarah in Egypt, and in Egyptian idiom, intervenes for Abraham that his soul may live. As for Facsimile 2 (the hypocephalus), its hieroglyphic text 1) addresses the god as both "noble" and "great"; 2) features (so Nibley) a prayer for rescue, that is, resurrection; and 3) hints at "the name of this great god" (Figure 1), who came into existence in; 4) "the first time" and thence; 5) "came down" to save Osiris so-and-so. The match between the prayers and labels on this and other hypocephali and the phraseology and themes of Abraham again partakes of the peculiar and the specific. I don't think so, says one. Go to my house, and I'll take up the lexicon: "The name of the great one is Kolob" answers to "The name of this great god."

Why gather such evidence? The marriage of history and scripture teaches us to better love both scripture and history. Love of truth "as it really is" heralds no injurious purpose, breathes no coercive air (see Doctrine and Covenants 93). In the pursuit of the things of the Spirit, all sorts of surprises turn up. Nowhere in Hugh Nibley's writings do we find the word apologist. A better label for the man is sharer. Of evidence, Brother Nibley simply says: We need to show we're still in the game, so the honest in heart will be willing to take a second look.

While Latter-day Saints have no obligation to prove anything to anybody, we are not going to stand by while persons learned or unlearned drum boring, self-righteous condemnation. And after 50 years the repetition of answered objections does start to bore. Besides, such repetition has never moved the scriptural foundation of faith. Abraham talked with God face-to-face.

We invite thorough, thoughtful, patient assessment of every particle of data and of every thread of argument. Forget the label apologist. We are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shouldering a mandate to share His Gospel with the world (Matthew 28:19-20).

You might as well attempt to terrify God upon His throne (to borrow a phrase from Brigham Young),
as to terrify Latter-day Saints with the tentative "conclusions" of scholarship. Hectoring cannot replace quiet thought or balanced discussion. Scripture endures--and as the Book of Abraham itself shows, it can span the millennia.

No matter how it was read, and no matter just how much of Abraham's or of Joseph's writings Joseph Smith kept, Abraham did deposit a record in Egypt. What we now have in translation is the fragment of a record claiming to have been built up around yet older records--a trace of library, as Borges would have it. And that is why the papyri, drawn inexorably to the Latter-day Joseph and held in his hands as tangible sign of Restoration, had to contain a portion of the words of the fathers.

One thing exceeds all else in importance. Both plates and papyri, reflections the one of the other, came to light as modern, tangible testators of the resurrection. Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: And "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Mark 12:32, and see esp. JST Mark 12:32). No matter how the Prophet translated plates, parchment, papyri, no matter the instruments he used--or whether he used any at all--no matter the lacunae; the very survival and attestation of at least some of the writings of Nephi and Moroni and of Abraham and Joseph, though merely abridgments, copies, or even traces, stand as material witness of a new dispensation and as an earnest of the resurrection. The recovered vignette of Facsimile 1 so concretely depicts Abraham's deliverance from death on the altar. And as cloud cumulus, all the Joseph Smith papyri, which came to light after being hid for millennia in a Theban tomb, also serve as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Other like scriptural witnesses will yet make their like appearances.

Copyrighted by Val Sederholm, 2014



Saturday, May 31, 2014

Zenephi and Zat Mormon Girl (Mormon 9:16)

A family member once asked about the Book of Mormon name Zenephi. I was stumped. Later it hit me. Following a common Egyptian name pattern, z3 (son) + Personal or Divine Name, Ze + Nephi yields Son of Nephi. The name might also designate a Nephite Prince. According to Jacob, the kings, in patriarchal order, all took the name of Nephi, the first king and protector, and thus were known as Second Nephi, Third Nephi, and so on. Might Son of Nephi designate the heir to the throne--the Son of Nephi--the prince royal?

The sole Zenephi attested in the record holds the stage of history in a single, startling verse, a verse that shouts Libya, Syria, and the Congo, a verse that whispers a portent to the whole world: Bataans everywhere.

And again, my son, there are many widows and their daughters who remain in Sherrizah; and that part of the provisions which the Lamanites did not carry away, behold, the army of Zenephi has carried away, and left them to wander whithersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die (Mormon 9:16).

So don't be surprised when it happens here; for we have been warned.

When the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project became available to me, I turned to Zenephi and found:

"Possibly EGYPTIAN z3-nfy, “son of NEPHI/the chief,” from z3 (=sa) + nfy (q.v.) (RFS)."

Not long afterwards, I asked Robert F. Smith (Bob Smith) about the derivation. He had forgotten about it and, in fact, had lit on another sound derivation. Some time later, to my amusement, the following sentence surfaced on the Web page of The Book of Mormon Onomasticon:

"Val Sederholm suggests EGYPTIAN Z3-Nfy 'Son of Nephi' (RFS)."

A wee correction is in order. Nephi, or Nep-Hi, should reflect not Nfy but the common Egyptian pattern for a Neb.j name (My Lord is X): nb-h', or the like. Derivations from roots such as nfy or nfr fail to convince: Nephi is neither good nor beautiful (nfr). 

It is really Hugh Nibley who first derived Zenephi from Z3-Nb-H'. Brother Nibley owned many copies of the Book of Mormon, and in one such copy (now in the Hugh Nibley Library at Brigham Young University), he marked each Book of Mormon name, as listed in an appendix, with its appropriate letter: H for Hebrew, A for Arabic, E for Egyptian, and so on. It's a small treasure.

Racing down to Zenephi, I found:

Zenephi E

How could it be otherwise? As Hugh Nibley well knew, there is no more common pattern in Egyptian naming than the aforementioned z3 or z3.t + Name (often a theophoric name), Son or Daughter of So-and-So. The famous Sinuhe, as we tend to transcribe the Egyptian Z3-Nht, is Son of the Sycamore, meaning Hathor as the goddess in the Sycamore tree. Sinuhe might as well be spelled Zenuhe. 

Book of Mormon ze- for z3- is right on the money. While it doesn't necessarily follow that every name starting with ze- in the Book of Mormon shows the same pattern, Zenephi could hardly reflect anything else. Consider, too, the following patterned sequencing of names: "The Book of Nephi, the Son of Nephi, who was the Son of Helaman": "Nephi (E) ntj or (H) asher Zenephi ntj Zehelaman.

While there are many such sons--zzz--the narrative yields but two names of women: Sariah and Abish. (Isabel labels but does not name.) Mother Sariah may be understood as either Princess or Prince of Jehovah; Abish, My Father is a Man. Both names now appear in Ancient Near Eastern sources; Abisha, in hieroglyphs, names a Semitic chieftain, clothed in a magnificent particolored robe, bartering goods in Egypt (see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon for references). The Lehites cloaked all women in the aura of royalty, their gracious names not for display. (The women of Mulek and of Jared walk in the same mystique.) Could we know of others, I'd be surprised not to find a princess or two bearing the name of Zet- or Zatnephi (Daughter of Nephi), Abinephi, or Abilehi. Zatjarom, Zatmoroni, Zatmormon. 

I know Zat Mormon girl.

Proud of Itself is the City: Ammonihah, Tenochtitlan, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City

A Nahuatl song, glorifying war as the very fulfillment of the American dream, captures the smugness of a great people in an impregnable city:

Proud of itself
is the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Here no one fears to die in war.
This is our glory.
This is Your command,
oh giver of Life!
Have this in mind, oh princes,
do not forget it.
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?

With our arrows,
with our shields,
the city exists,
Mexico-Tenochtitlan remains.
Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 19 v.-20 r, in Miguel Leon-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 87.

"Songs proclaiming the glory and power of the Aztecs frequently reach an almost mystical exaltation," 86. It is a voice singing eerily from the dust--a voice of warning from the ancient peoples of America to the usurpers of their proud place.

Such boasting is a leitmotif in the Book of Mormon. This great city Jerusalem, or that great city Zarahemla, or this great city Ammonihah united stand as impregnable as heaven and earth to all contest human or divine. The theme of impregnability goes hand-in-hand with the book's insistence on destruction. As Hugh Nibley would tell his classes, that associated theme sounds its trumpet blast in the very first chapter of Nephi (verse 4): "The great city Jerusalem must be destroyed!" For a sense of how destruction goes on to weave its pattern throughout the entire book, he advised us to consult the concordance--and to be prepared for a shock. 

It is Civilization versus God and repentance. Civilization, the state of the great City, must fall in her unrepentant pride (see Revelation 18). The idea reaches a fever pitch in Helaman 13:12-14: "Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla. . . yea, wo unto this great city. . . this great city. . .this great city. . . yea, wo be unto this great city." It is the Echo of History.

The elites of mighty Ammonihah slap Alma with their stolid refrain, "Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man [or one General Authority or one Church] among this people," and ream him out with their cant about their own particular little city and their own particularly novel, lovely, rational ideology being as lasting as earth itself:

Who art thou? And for that matter: Who is God?

"Who art thou? Suppose ye that we shall believe the testimony of one man, although he should preach unto us that the earth should pass away?

Now they understood not the words which they spake; for they knew not that the earth should pass away.

And they said also: We will not believe thy words if thou shouldst prophesy that this great city should be destroyed in one day.

Now they knew not that God could do such marvelous works."
(Alma 9:2-5).

That part about "one day" sums up the degree to which man will tempt God.

In due time--or ten chapters' space--"the people of Ammonihah were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness.

But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness" (Alma 19:9-10).

That last detail shows one everlasting irony: ever that great city stood, even at her peak, at the borders of man and beast--in reach of the wild.

"Nothing beside remains," though its infamy persists:

"And it was called Desolation of Nehors; for they were of the profession of Nehor, who were slain; and their lands remained desolate" (Alma 19: 11).

Perhaps the great lesson about civilization in the Book of Mormon is the utter unawareness of the inevitable fall--the great lesson of never learning the lesson at all, despite all the learned "profession."

For, but a few years later, we hear the Nephite boast sounded again:

Why do you suffer this man to revile against us?
For behold he doth condemn all this people, even unto destruction;
yea, and also that these our great cities shall be taken from us, that we shall have no place in them.

And now we know that this is impossible, for behold, we are powerful, and our cities great, therefore our enemies can have no power over us (Helaman 8:5-6).

One sentence, surcharged with irony, should haunt the memory of every reader of the Book of Mormon:

"And now we know that this is impossible."

It does not take the Lord long to respond.

The Lord acknowledges the great city, even while mocking her wearying pretense:

"Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla. . . yea, wo unto this great city. . . this great city. . . this great city. . . yea, wo be unto this great city" (Helaman 13).

Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire . . .

And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea. . .

And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth.
(3 Nephi 9: 3-5)

Where is mercy? comes the plea. My question is Where is Moronihah? Have you never, in the quiet of a big-city library, contemplated the whereabouts of Alexandria's bookshelf?

There can be no greater irony in the modern history of the Americas than the refrain:

Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?

Speaking of the Great Cities of world civilization, the living Prophet, Thomas S. Monson, concludes:

"In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and a comfortable life; and they lost all--comfort and security and freedom."

"Must we learn such costly lessons over and over again? Times change, but truth persists. When we fail to profit from the experiences of the past, we are doomed to repeat them with all their heartache, suffering, and anguish. Haven't we the wisdom to obey Him who knows the beginning from the end?" ("The World Needs Pioneers Today," Ensign, July 2013). "Doomed?" Doomed.

We remember, too, how the people of that great city Ammonihah, the Nephite answer to Bunyan's Vanity Fair and the Revelator's Babylon, longed to undermine the freedoms of lesser, more complacent cities, cities of the ancient, Pre-Columbian American dream:

"They do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people" (Alma 8:17).

That line of study suddenly becomes the most popular major of every stripe of partisan in Syria, Russia, Egypt, Washington DC, or Venezuela today. But complacency undoes the studious proud and the lazy ignorant alike.

Caught up in their studious dream, lost in their agenda, assured of their power, "in one day," from blue sky to "in Mexico night is falling," the moment of repentance passed. When the sun set, it was not "Like a shield that descends"--"eagles" and "jaguars" to the contrary.

(See additional verses of the triumphant song, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 86).

The site of the lost city, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, nearly the world's greatest city its its time, now also hosts earth's largest city. Together with all other great cities of the world, that Great City Mexico, or that Great City America, again attests, re-born, the struggle between God and Civilization, between the intricacies of ideology and agenda and the simplicities of repentance.


Elder L. Tom Perry, "Obedience through Our Faithfulness," April 2014, General Conference: "While some very intelligent and insightful people might believe our more complex time demands ever more complex solutions, I am far from convinced they are right. Rather, I am of the frame of mind that today's complexity demands greater simplicity."