Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"The Interposition of Their All-Wise Creator" (Book of Mormon: Mosiah 29:19): the American Revolution, George Washington's Letters to the Jewish Congregants of America, and the Freedom of the Mormon Pioneers

There is not a man upon the earth that has put his trust in God, but what can say that he delivered him. I know that has been the case with me, emphatically so (John Taylor)


From the Book of Mosiah I cull a telling phrase: The interposition of their all-wise Creator.
http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/29.19-20?lang=eng

What do I mean by a telling phrase? I mean a place of scripture that lends coherence and order to our growing knowledge of gospel principles. Marking words and phrases that encapsulate doctrines and principles serves us so well as do footnotes, chapter headings, indexes, concordances.

Interposition of the all-wise Creator becomes such a telling, summary, encapsulating phrase for a principle of salvation: rescue from bondage and oppression, especially political oppression.

Such a meaning for interposition is connotative, as a look at the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear. From "The action of placing something or oneself between, the fact of being placed or situated between; intervention" we come to "The action of interfering or intervening in a matter; intervention between persons or in a person's behalf; interference, meditation." Next consider interpose: "To put forth or introduce (action, authority, etc.) in the way of interference or intervention."

Interposition sometimes mediates, and thus reconciles; it also blocks, justifies, protects. A tribune interposes a veto; a senate interposes its authority. "The Senate came not betweene nor interposed their authoritie to stop the course intended against him" (1606 tr. Hist. Twelve Caesars 13). On the other hand, there were "Noble Dames, who in old time, interposed themselves as Mediatrices, betweene the Romans and Sabines" (ibid., Annot. 36). In the first instance the Senate may, if it chooses, interpose in order to shield; in the second, interposing precedes reconciliation; entreaty before treaty. The idea of one person interposing on behalf of another, whether by assertion of status or authority or not, thus bespeaks rescue from unrightful or oppressive action and deliverance and thus an asserting or establishing of one's just claims and rights.

Different still is action "By the immediate interposition of Providence" (Junius). In Milton's Paradise Regained even Satan acknowledges Jesus' rescue: "A shelter and a kind of shading cool Interposition, as a summer's cloud" (http://www.oed.com).

The Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress both used the word interposition in calling for a Day of Fasting and Prayer--prayer for rescue. And George Washington also speaks of divine interposition in his several letters to Jewish American congregants when comparing their latter-day deliverance from tyranny to the ancient deliverance from Egypt.

In like manner, Israelite congregants in Ancient America, sought for an "Egyptian" deliverance from the despotic rule of their own kings and the further oppression of the Lamanites.

King Mosiah in his Written Word summarizes the evils inherent in monarchy and calls for a new arrangement of public affairs (Mosiah 29). Mosiah considers monarchy and bondage as near-synonyms (he's been translating Ether!), and to illustrate the point he doesn't need to go outside the experience of his own people, a part of whom came to him as refugees from Lamanite bondage. These Nephites had known oppression under the rule of their own king, Noah; then, after military defeat, under the subjection and bondage of the people of King Laman, a people of much greater strength and number.

The Written Word states:

For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!

Yea, remember king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people. Behold what great destruction did come upon them; and also because of their iniquities they were brought into bondage (Mosiah 29: 17-18).

The theme is the subjection of one people by another more numerous, prosperous, and mighty people.

And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator, and this because of their sincere repentance, they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now (Mosiah 29: 19).

The interposition of the all-wise Creator signals release from a bondage imposed by a superior political power.

The following verse (20) sets out the pattern by which such release becomes possible. The pattern conveys the gospel principle:

But behold, he did deliver them because they did humble themselves before him; and because they cried mightily unto him, he did deliver them out of bondage;

The verse shows a curious parallelism in both notionality and grammar (the dative pronouns):

a. He did deliver them
b. because they did humble themselves before him
b (or c?) and because they cried mightily unto him
a. he did deliver them

I call the parallelism curious for its repetition of the word because, a repetition that holds--then ineluctably draws--the action of humility into that of prayer, even the progressive harmonic of the liberating chord of mighty prayer. Mosiah clearly views the action of humility and that of mighty prayer as one; yet he also hints at the irony or paradox in which lowliness produces might. There are indeed two steps in the darkness required of the saints for their deliverance, but the first, kneeling, step, humility, springs from potential to realize the second. As the Prophet Joseph writes, to "wax strong in the presence of God" is a good work of humility prerequisite to grant of priesthood sceptre (Doctrine and Covenants 121). Helaman later notes the same irony when impoverished and oppressed saints "wax stronger and stronger in their humility." Such an surprising idea of what constitutes strength is a principal teaching of the Book of Mormon from 1 Nephi on. And where is the good Christian pilgrim who, upon discovering such fountains of the spiritual, will discount a book that thus reveals to its depths the true doctrine of humility? Answer--note it well: Not to be found in all Christendom (Royal Skousen also notes the chiastic parallelism in Mosiah 29:19).

Met by the discomfiting juxtaposition of the lowly and the mighty, we are now prepared for an encapsulation of principle about true power, a general principle of universal application, or a thus we see:

and thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him (20).

Again, what we find here is a telling phrase: the Interposition of the all-wise Creator, followed by an explanatory, or summary verse, that taken together encapsulate principle:

1. Such Interposition works with Power
2. The Power works interposition for men after an action of Trust
3. That Action of Trust, or faith-in-action, unavoidably consists in humility and mighty prayer.

For more details we might turn to Mosiah's larger narrative of the deliverance itself in which the Christian may find much to ponder and to discover. But our encapsulation of the principle becomes a key. We unpack the principle with the following succinct statements:

1. Man through weakness and sin is brought into captivity and bondage, including political bondage.
2a. The Interposition of the all-wise Creator alone brings the "power of deliverance."
2b. If not, there can be no deliverance. Any state of bondage hardens into permanence.
3. Such interposition works by divine Power.
4a. But such Power is brought into play only after an action of men.
4b. That action is Trust, the essential elements of which are humility and mighty prayer.
5. Trust in God is therefore the sole means of obtaining God's interposition and thus accessing his power.
Without such Trust there can be no deliverance. This applies to "all cases."
6. And, "in all cases," Trust invites Interposition and thus brings Power, which always results in Deliverance. This is the "Power of Deliverance" of which Nephi also speaks in 1 Nephi 1:20.

Political deliverance is clearly seen to operate on principles similar to those found in the doctrine of the Atonement, that is to say, Reconciliation and Deliverance from sin. Christ is the Interposer.

We succinctly summarize the principle we entitle the Interposition of the all-wise Creator:
Trust in God brings about the Interposition of an all-wise Creator.

We turn from logic to image. The action of the Lord working "with his power" is described as "extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him." We are to picture men and women kneeling and crying out in mighty prayer, and then, by way of simile, the arm of mercy is extended. They take the Lord by the hand, they rise, and come to Him. The arm of mercy is also, without paradox, an arm of protection, the arm being for the ancients the symbol of power. There can be no enemy in the presence of the Lord's extended arm of mercy. Thus we see that Interposition belongs to the doctrine of Mercy. Here is the doctrine of the Atonement in conjunction with the principle of Interposition in cases of political bondage.

In the current edition of the Book of Mormon, the words each appear exactly above the other, in logical order:

Power
Mercy
Trust

Drawing a circle around all three also "encapsulates" the principle, as if "encircled in the arms of mercy."

We turn to parallels in 18th and 19th century English usage in order to show the beauty and goodness and correctness of Mosiah's teaching, which courses far beyond the understanding of the theologians of Brother Joseph's day.

Consider the following notes on the Exodus from Rev. Dr. Thomas Scott's A Commentary on the Whole Bible (Deuteronomy V 35-40), a book much read by the Prophet Joseph's contemporaries:

"Nothing had occurred in the history of the world at that time, and nothing has taken place during much more than three thousand years since, that at all resembled the interposition of God, to deliver one nation out of the midst of another more powerful nation, which had long enslaved it, by two unarmed men, entirely through miracles, and contrary to all human probability; or that has any thing like his dealings with them at Sinai and in the wilderness. The very singularity of the transactions, though attested beyond all reasonable doubt, gives a plausible pretence for skepticism."

I call attention to three things:

1) The similarity of language and idea to Mosiah 29
2) The claims of uniqueness for Israel's political deliverance by means of divine interposition
3) The plausible pretence for skepticism (read Mosiah to overcome any shadow of skepticism--that is what the Book of Mormon is for)

In another footnote on the same page he has the phrase "all-wise Creator."

The Book of Mormon teaches in many ways. So I ask, What does the slight similarity of wording in Rev. Scott and Mosiah have to teach us? It shows us how sensitive the Lord is to his latter-day audience. The translation of the Book of Mormon into English is a grand act of mercy, even an embrace. He was addressing a Christian audience deeply familiar with Bible and Christian commentary. He knew their language and their thoughts--and he used their language. I find miraculous the manner in which the Book of Mormon weaves its ideas with the Biblical language of the Authorized Version, together with many bright threads of Semitic and Egyptian usage, and then also patterns after the common language of the day, including even the language of Bible commentary. The Book of Mormon, while still showing marks of antiquity, yet comes to us in the English of Christendom. The language speaks to both the learned who wrote theology and the unlearned who read theological books or merely listened to sermons.

What stands out next is the connotation which the author gives the term interposition of God: not divine intervention generally, but specifically "to deliver one nation out of the midst of another more powerful nation, which had long enslaved it."

We'll have to forgive our commentator for overlooking the great event of his own day that much recalls Red Sea deliverance. Rev. Thomas Scott was British, you see, and a very earnest Anglican and Tory. Yet even his son acknowledges that Scott's little comment on politics entitled, "The Rights of God," as opposed to the "rights of man," bears a something less than apt or prudent title: "probably the title was not well chosen," he says (The Life of the Rev. Thomas Scott, page 207).

Enter the United States of America. To begin with, our own Witherspoon cites the interposition of God in the deliverance of Jerusalem from the armies of Assyria, by way of comparison with what was then happening in America, in 1776.

Interposition is as American as apple pie. The common human condition being (who can deny it?) oppression, divine interposition alone allows any enjoyment of the rights of man. Rights thus follow the humility of fasting and the fervency--a fervency facing desperation--of prayer. No wonder rights were considered "endowed by their Creator"--after all, any enjoyment of the same rights required active divine intervention, an interposition against all odds. Perhaps Rev. Scott knew whereof he spake in his "Rights of God," after all.

We turn, then, to the humility of the lordly Virginia House of Burgesses:

Resolutions of the House of Burgesses Designating a Day of Fasting and Prayer:

This House being deeply impressed with Apprehension of the great Dangers to be derived to British America, from the hostile Invasion of the City of Boston, in our Sister Colony of Massachusetts Bay, whose Commerce and Harbour are on the 1st Day of June next, to be stopped by an armed Force, deem it highly necessary that the said first Day of June be set apart by the Members of this House as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, devoutly to implore the divine Interposition for averting the heavy Calamity, which threatens Destruction to our civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War; to give us one Heart and one Mind firmly to oppose, by all just and proper Means, every Injury to American Rights, and that the Minds of his Majesty and his Parliament may be inspired from above with Wisdom, Moderation, and Justice, to remove from the loyal People of America all Cause of Danger from a continued Pursuit of Measures pregnant with their Ruin.

And who can forget Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty or Give me Death"?

"Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament" (23 March 1775).

The Continental Congress in 1778 spoke of the events of Revolution "so peculiarly marked, almost by direct interposition of Providence"; similar references to interposition are found in the language of the National Day of Prayer 1775.

George Washington in his handwritten letter "To the Hebrew Congregations in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Richmond" writes:

"The power and goodness of the Almighty were strongly manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution; and his kind interposition in our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government. In war he directed the sword; and in peace he has ruled our counsels."

Note the latter-day deliverance of a remnant of Israel from bondage, something not lost on George Washington in another letter to the Sephardic Jewish congregants of Savanna, Georgia:

"Letter to Hebrew Congregations of Savanna, Georgia":

"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United Sates as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of the people whose God is Jehovah."

Friberg's image of Washington in prayer at Valley Forge unfolds as icon. No evidence for the event exists. Here is the true prayer of George Washington; somebody ought to paint Washington signing the Savanna letter.

A description of the Great Seal of the United States by its designer, Charles Thomson, reads (20 June 1782):

"The pyramid signals Strength and Duration: the Eye over it and the Motto Annuit Coeptis allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause" (www.greatseal.com).

I end by posing a series of questions. Are Americans subject to political bondage and oppression today? If so, why? And if Americans are subject to political bondage today, can politics provide a permanent answer? What kind of rescue should we look for? If not political, then spiritual? Does Mosiah suggest both political and spiritual solutions by his calling in his Written Word for a new system of government, one in which the individual answers for his own exercise of conscience?

Spiritual reformation certainly does not preclude a continued striving for good government. Yet without the spiritual, will the sought-for political changes make any difference? What is the true bondage anyhow? What is sin? Who favors sin? (For the answer read Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants.) Whence do our rights derive? All Americans ought to read Mosiah's Written Word. 

The events described by Mosiah work prophetically to describe the history of the oppressions suffered and pioneering undertaken by the Latter-day Saints--and our future history as a people.

Speaking in 1882 of another singular transaction of deliverance in modern times, President Joseph F. Smith said:

"A wonderful event has occurred in these last days among this people, an event many times more wonderful than the marching of the children of Israel from Egypt to the holy land. . .What has happened in this dispensation? This people have crossed deserts that are beyond comparison with those traversed by the children of Israel. . . and they performed a journey nearly four times as great as that performed by the children of Israel--which occupied them forty years--in the course of a few months."

The pioneers were brought to a barren land of promise, but the first promise was that of freedom from political oppression not of milk and honey (though these were to come as well). Political oppression? We correctly say the pioneers found their freedom to worship in the West, but it was much more than that. Along with freedom of worship came attendant all those other freedoms "also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen" (see Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience).

"God led this people from the midst of their persecutors, delivered them from prison bars and fettering chains, delivered them from bondage, brought them out here and made them free--as free as any people upon the earth. I am at the defiance of the world to-day, to show me a equal number of people any where that enjoy greater freedom or liberty at this moment than the Latter-day Saints do. . ."

Look over the scene in 1882: the serfs of Russia, the ethnicities locked into empires, the manifold subjects of colonization in Asia and Africa, the ravaged American South, the workers of the industrialized world, the hapless wretches of New York City, and so on, and then consider the situation of the Latter-day Saints in the Rocky Mountains.

"We were led out of bondage by the power of God." All political rights enjoyed by Latter-day Saints today--any Latter-day Saint and in any stake or branch of Zion--flow from that moment when "The angels of God and the power and presence of the Almighty accompanied us" (Journal of Discourses 24:156).

Given the signal power of deliverance so divinely rendered, what, then, is that freedom we enjoy? According to President Smith, there is much of degree and of nuance when it comes to God's deliverance of his people from oppression (and in the mid-1840s that oppression had reached its wrenching fullness):

Since 1847 "this people have been comparatively, to a great extent, free from malicious courts, from imprisonments, from chains and fetters, from mobocracy, and from injury by persecution, and they have thriven, prospered, multiplied, built and inhabited, planted and reaped the fruits of their labors and rejoiced in them ever since."

"And we have never been in bondage since, and we need not have been under what bondage we are if we had only done our duty, kept the commandments of the Lord, followed the counsels of his servants implicitly and without doubt in our minds, [then] we would have been as free to-day as we were the moment we set foot in these valleys.

As free as these valleys: "For ye are the children of Israel, and of the seed of Abraham, and ye must needs be led out of bondage by power, and with a stretched-out arm

(Doctrine and Covenants 103:17; Joseph F. Smith, Provo Tabernacle, 3 December 1882, Journal of Discourses 24, 155-7, italics added and original spelling maintained; the sermon first came to my attention in Ezra Taft Benson, This Nation Shall Endure, 39-40).




Notes

John Taylor, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: John Taylor, 145.

Primary Sources (Virginian House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry, George Washington, etc.) available on Internet. Specific places of citation on Internet to be added here.

For a full exploration of the Power of Deliverance, please read the talks of the same name by President Henry B. Eyring (15 January 2008: speeches.byu.edu) and Elder L. Tom Perry (General Conference, April 2012).

As we search for principles embedded in the scriptures, how fortunate we are if we also seek and find descriptive tags, labels, legends, titles, or short-cuts that encapsulate, name, order these doctrines or principles. Hugh Nibley used to tell his students how perfectly arranged, even in layout and mise-en-page, the Book of Mormon is for the purpose of teaching eternal truth--it could not be bettered.

One thing to note: doctrinal places are flagged by words, flag words so well as by telling phrases--and single words signal doctrines, without always need of fuller signal or telling or title phrases. When we see the word faith we're going to find, without further ado, either a concise definition or a telling example elucidating the doctrine of faith; repentance evokes, well, repentance. To be sure, there are vital scriptural definitions of doctrines, words, verses, sermons. And we do have a telling Book of Mormon phrase: the Doctrine of Christ. The phrase labels, encapsulates, the first four principles of action in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, doctrines are clearly set out--basic truth told clearly and concisely. Principles, on the other hand, often require effort to sort out (Elder Richard G. Scott). We exert our minds to grasp them, then to summarize.

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