Friday, January 9, 2015

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

On June 5, 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote to thank Israel Daniel Rupp, an historian of Pennsylvania counties and immigrants, for mailing him 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. And the Prophet, with the help of William 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 scriptures (Amos iii.vii; Acts i.ii).

Original Draft and Redactions

My purpose is to set forth the plain meaning of Joseph Smith's Letter to I. Daniel Rupp. By comparing the original draft of the letter with the published redactions, all can see how both editorial interference and scholarly interpretation have obscured that meaning. We might also 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.

Following the lead of Eugene England (a man we all knew and admired), some attribute to one proverb found in the letter--by proving contrarieties, truth is made manifest--a significance far beyond what the context warrants. England enshrines the saw as a moment of epistemological profundity on the part of Joseph Smith--a summing-up of his entire experience as seeker of truth. While the claim cannot withstand scrutiny, the letter, as a whole, remains invaluable and merits a careful reading.

To clear the way for such a reading, we can start with the version cited by Eugene England, the familiar 1905 redaction of the letter, as it appears in B.H. Roberts's edited version of the History of Joseph Smith, published in book form as History of the Church (VI, 428). The reader can then compare that second redaction of the letter to its first, as found in the History of Joseph Smith, which ran as a serial in both the Deseret News and The Millennial Star. The published history was originally compiled by official scribes as the Manuscript History of Joseph Smith and included Willard Richards's History Drafts. George A. Smith and others edited the manuscript for publication. Another official history, a running chronology known as the Journal History, includes an undated clipping of the letter taken from the Deseret News and has the note: "original on file." Finally, we come to the draft scribed by Willard Richards and preserved in the official record of correspondence (as also noted in his History Drafts 5 June 1844--"Nauvoo (see file) Smith"). (Full discussion of primary sources underlying the serialized History of Joseph Smith may be found on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site.)

Though much has been made of the Rupp letter by England and others, I find evidence for scholarly use of only the tertiary 1905 redaction. The 5 June 1844 archived draft copy will doubtless soon appear, transcribed and annotated to  perfection, in the appropriate volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. A partial transcription, with some telling errors, already appears on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site. For now, the curious may consult the digitized draft online. The letter curiously does not appear in Dean Jessee's fine edition of the Prophet's known letters: The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Update, 27 January 2016: In the Online Joseph Smith Papers, the journal entry for Wednesday, 5 June 1844, recorded by Willard Richards, includes: "Recevd the Book of Denomiatins [I would query the transcription of this last word]--aswed by letter--wrote I. D. Rupp (on File)" (Joseph Smith Papers, Journals 3:272). Journals 3:272 n 1240 shows the following misreading of the much emphasized word contrarieties: "contrarreties." (The second r should be read as an i.) How the poor, contrary word has suffered at the hands of transcribers and editors!

History of the Church, 1905 (B.H. Roberts)

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 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, serialized in the Deseret News and Millennial Star, 1861, p. 736 (President George A. Smith)

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: "Nauvoo (see file) Smith"):

Dear Sir: 'He pasa Ekklesia,' etc, together
with your note, has safely reached me; and I
feel very thankful for so valueable 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 prophesy [prophisy?] 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 [t?= crossed out] obedience, which is better than, easier than, men = [man =?]
made creeds.

First Paragraph

Examination of Richards's original 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 (B.H. Roberts)

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 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 (George A. 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 both 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, I can understand why George A. Smith deleted the underlined not in the second phrase: it makes for a clumsy double negative. But I love its power: not "every religious creed is not sanctioned."

Less clear is the need for eliminating the final relative clause--"which is better than, easier than, man-made creeds"--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 discovered by a slight adjustment  in the number of the verb (from "is" to "are") found 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's 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, not now extant, sent with the book. 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 proverb and Scripture. We would choke on such speech today; it does not accord with our style, had we any. We are glimpsing a semiotics, taking a peek into how everyday Westerners once organized their universe by arranging their speech. Such arrangement constitutes and orders, as it also decorates, a cosmos. It only remains for us, with our advanced learning and proven capacity for analysis, to decode the prophetic sentences and thence to learn to navigate the stream of the spiritually-minded generation that is no more.

Let's at least sort out when the Prophet is quoting and when he is not. Only then can we get at the germ of the idea:

"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. Again: "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 scriptures (Amos iii.vii; Acts i.ii)."

The involved sentence--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 indeed 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? even Blakean? Not at all!

When I first saw "old paths," nothing came to mind. Not so with our amazing 19th century countrymen: Daniel Rupp recognized the hint in a trice--he knew 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; cf. President Thomas S. Monson, "Ponder the Path of Thy Feet"; "Guided Safely Home" in Conference Report, October 2014).

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, for both iron rod and Liahona. Jeremiah communed; Joseph Smith communes. "God spoke not: He speaks!" Mormonism is not, as we now everywhere hear, 'a new religion as religions go'--and political aggiornamento pending. No. Mormonism walks the old paths. Here is the testimony of Joseph Smith couched in the words of Jeremiah--inspired utterance dropping 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. Words he walked by--and which he clearly often pondered. In an earlier letter (November 13, 1843), to editor James Arlington Bennett, the Prophet had spoken of the power of the "new revelation," found in the Book of Mormon, to "make plain the 'old paths.'"

Once Joseph and Jeremiah navigate the reader onto the "old paths," the plain message of the letter stands revealed. 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. England acknowledges the Prophet's praise of Rupp "for letting each church 'tell its own story' and then for putting those presentations together for comparison, because By proving contraries, truth is made manifest." So far, so good.

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," Eugene England, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, ix.

Though these are wild words, that the Prophet decisively faced constant opposition is not in dispute, and the reader may benefit by the questions England raises. 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: "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 open-ended, "philosophical," reading of the contraries has proved influential and popular, and examples abound in print and on the Internet. Some now see everything in Restoration culture and theology as exemplifying a gloriously indefinable proving of contraries. We have the supposed "contrary"--soon to be "proved" or "reconciled" or whatever--of "Mormon" and "Feminism" in a strain of 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). The "fountain of living waters" is direct revelation; the "cisterns" are the creeds and philosophies of men. Theology, paradoxically, often "holds no water."

Even more surprising is the misattribution: the saying 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, "").

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 instances show, "proving contraries" represents, for many, either a theologoumenon or an epistemology, the conscious, and consciously mysterious, summing-up of the Prophet's life and thought. And represents is the operative verb, for it is as Symbol that the utterance works its magic. 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. The phrase reduces ideas about contrariety bruited about for centuries by the philosophers and theologians: Aristotle and his Medieval commentators, Tertullian, Pascal, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Given that deep origin, proving contrarieties retains the idea of setting out the irreconcilable or, sometimes, merely an opposition; degraded into proverb, it may also connote any consideration of opposing argument. In other words, worlds separate enantiosis and probare contrarium from our proving contrarieties.

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, heretic, seeks to establish an irreconcilable (see Augustus Neander's History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles, vol. 2). In Observations on Some Sermons Lately Preached by Sundry Divines, pub. 1762, we read: "How constantly the Remarker, to answer any sinister purpose, make scripture or any Thing else clash and contradict itself, and seem to prove Contraries" (p. 47). "To answer any purpose," "seem to prove [establish] Contrarieties?" There's a lesson for all in these words, and as we shall see, that old Scot, John Knox, foxes out the inherent ambiguity of the phrase in flat challenge to the reader on the question of whether any of God's unaccountable dealings with men can ultimately prove to be an irreconcilable.

Yet 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.

Sister 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 keen-eyed comment, we note how England starts with the plain, proverbial reading of proving contraries, veers from that plainness by directly adding "or paradoxes," and so changes the sense of "testing" into that of "establishing" or "showing" by "making scripture or any Thing else clash and contradict itself," to "answer" any "purpose" or proposition he might set down (as Professor Neander puts it). "Sinister" England was not, so what was he about? England, as any good teacher might, wished to stir thought, challenge complacency, and promote charitable deeds in the gospel spirit--we know this man.

Continuing: "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 perhaps 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), while he incorrectly ascribes a truism to Joseph Smith and creates a theoretical worldview.

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 innocent of philosophy, I do know better than to confuse a contrariety with a paradox. A good dictionary proves helpful here. It's also unclear how anyone can know that for Brother Joseph prove signifies: 1) reconcile, 2) test, 3) demonstrate, 4) struggle with, 5) work out practically.

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 a risk-it-all quest to undo the existent? or in finding that a given paradox is none at all?--and just how well does England grasp Blake's dark saying? 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 overthink such things. Sunny Joseph, as his friends relate, was ever fond of saw and wit and verse and pun. 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 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 out the document as a revelation. And for ought I know, People of Paradox rightly titles a study of Mormon culture. Yet as nearly all readers of the Rupp letter must see and certainly have seen, "proving contrarieties," here, signifies "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, no cabala--nor even paradox. Even so, paradox attends all lives: another truism.

At 12 Joseph wrestled with both the different religious propositions and also with the matter of Christian profession versus Christian walk--and the wrestle lasted for years--but at the last, he "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, assessment, 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, unsurprisingly, also takes 1 Thessalonians 5:21 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").

In his parting counsel to the Thessalonians, Paul is not setting forth theology. 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 Putting Claims to the Test

"Try the spirits" pleads an essay in the Nauvoo periodical, Times and Seasons, written 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 and Nauvoo Neighbor 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 unclear. Did the Prophet write the little opinion piece as well as the various editorials? Did Taylor? Did they collaborate?

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 in court; 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"? Perhaps Styles wrote the Rupp letter.

From this last piece, as from the accumulated evidence of John Taylor's fondness for phraseology about gold not being all that shines or about "proving" sectarian, even infidel, "contrarieties," we might with reason conclude that Brother Taylor also wrote the letter to Mr. Rupp. Taylor indeed might have either contributed to the letter or, at least, been influenced by it. Still, I don't think he composed the letter--not only was it penned by the Prophet's scribe, there's a lot of Joseph Smith in the style. 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. Joseph was off to the prairie to show land for the balance of the day (as Willard Richards's "draft notes" reveal), so the book was put into Taylor's hands in preparation for advertisement in the Neighbor. The letter may have included a phrase a two of Taylor's contribution, or perhaps 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 June 26, 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, and in quotations of his own choosing--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 general run of the ideas matches. 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 about contrarieties, do come to mind.

The proverb mandating assessment of contrarieties was perhaps everywhere current--we'd have to read a lot of 19th century journalism to find out. Consider John Knox's "On Predestination," a very old work quite current to Americans of Joseph Smith's day, 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, after the proving, 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."

John Knox, sensitive to the various connotation of contrariety, gives the Christian reader both an arduous challenge and a fine play on words: Goe to now, and try to prove an irreconcilable contradiction in God's will (if you can) in His raising up prophets both false and true and Goe to now, and prove all prophets, hold fast to the good.

Goe to now, and prove contarieties.

Love of Fair Play

Joseph Smith's Nauvoo letters open a window onto his teachings, thoughts, and character. The 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. A comparison of these letters ultimately becomes essential to understanding any one of them. Further insights into the Rupp letter can be gleaned by comparing it to those 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 phrase suggests hurried dictation rather than delegated scribal composition, though we cannot tell how much was dictated, how much composed or touched up by his scribes. By "off hand," Joseph means "off the cuff," and the phrase carries nothing of the nuance it has today. Next to note comes 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, however pressed for time, to address specifics set forth in its contents.

Mr. Rupp struck the Prophet as being as fair-minded a man as anyone could be. And in his attentive 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" sums up the Prophet's views on the exercise of both power and reason (see Doctrine and Covenants 121: 46).

This particular window onto character--love of fair play--may seem 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."

An Update--and Updating Rupp

1. 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.

2. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus Christ who live godly--yes, even those who play fair--will suffer persecution. "There will yet be martyrs. The doors in Carthage shall again enclose the innocent" (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, "The Coming Tests and Trials and Glory," Conference Report, April 1980).

A second edition of Rupp's book (1849), entitled, A History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, shows editorial comments, signed I.D.R. In the comments Rupp quotes from the final paragraph of Joseph Smith's letter of June 5, 1844, a quotation exactly matching the draft copy: "I shall be pleased to furnish further information, at a proper time, and render you such 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 paper, for your benefit."

The idea of any "demand" for further information arising from the "vast extension" of the church stirred Rupp's sense of irony: "Smith never redeemed his promises." Days two and twenty parted Promises and Martyrdom. Was there fated, then, to be no Nachleben for the Rupp letter?

Rupp, despite himself, editorializes over how Joseph Smith's choice to quash the Nauvoo Expositor was both "illegal procedure" and "riot," a deed which only built on "a former [that is, longstanding] disregard to the authority of the state": "From a former disregard to the authority of the state on the part of Smith, the people of the vicinity of Nauvoo became much excited--and the question whether Smith, though esteemed a prophet by his own, should set the laws and authority of the state at defiance, became one of fearful import!" The whole thing reads like the Acts of the Apostles: Paul, rioting everywhere, turns the world upside-down. So much for fair play, but it was pretty much over for Mormonism anyhow: "This is the end of prophet Smith. The fate of his followers is reserved for the future historian" (348-349).

"Fate" marks the inevitability of doom--a bad end for all: "But there is this--a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, 'We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain [under God] of our souls'" (House of Commons, 9 September 1941, Winston Churchill).


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.

Source of Letter to I. Daniel Rupp in the Church History Library (a library of "vast extension" indeed):

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Library
MS 155: Joseph Smith collection 1827-1844
Correspondence, 1829-1844
Letters sent, 1844 June
Box 2, folder 8, pages 1-18
1 June 1844-16 June 1844
Digitized Images 5-7

See also

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