Sunday, February 22, 2015

Blessing the Family: Joseph Smith's Prophetic Priority

Joseph Smith did not shrink from the imperatives of editors. Editors of Church periodicals, having at least his tacit approval, polished sermons, letters, epistles. While latter-day readers may be grateful for the polishing, what Brother Joseph originally said or dictated, rough and unpolished though it might have been, often exceeds in expressiveness and significance, even doctrinal import, what made it into print.

Some of the original wording--the Rough Stone--sheds light on what President Russell M. Nelson calls "prophetic priorities" ("Sustaining the Prophets," Conference Report, October 2014). To get at the heart of these priorities requires study, some comparison, reflection, and prayer--the effort we all bring to our daily study of Scripture. Because the doctrine of the eternal nature of the family, that is, the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage between a literal son and a literal daughter of Heavenly Parents, is a prophetic priority in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, we gratefully receive any words of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his apostolic associates that may encourage covenantal commitment to Father's plan for families. After all: "Our sustaining of prophets is a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to uphold their prophetic priorities. Our sustaining is an oath-like indication that we recognize their calling as a prophet to be legitimate and binding upon us" (President Russell M. Nelson).

Consider Joseph Smith's Epistle to the Twelve in England (15 December 1840). The Times and Seasons published extracts from the Epistle for its readership, nearly the entire letter in fact, and the extracts show considerable polishing. The following words about love are among the Prophet's best known:

"Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race," Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 426; 434 n. 2; History of the Church 4:227; Times and Seasons 1 January 1841, 258.

Now consider the same words as originally dictated and (probably) first read by the Twelve:

Love is one of the leading characteristics of Deity, and ou[gh]t to be manifested by those who aspire to be the Sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole of the human family.

The Prophet continues:

This has been your feeling and caused you to forego the pleasure of home, that you might be a blessing to others, who are candidates for immortality and who were but strangers to the principals [sic] of truth and for so doing I pray that Heavens choicest blessings may rest upon you.

"The whole human race," though once considered the polished edit, reflects less of Brother Joseph's prophetic priorities than does "the whole of the human family," or with a new touch of editing: "the whole human family." The 19th century editors found the repetition of family awkward and dull; elegant variation was the norm. Yet the second occurrence of the word brings the idea to fruition and balances the sentences. One word: family for race may make all the difference both in time and eternity.

A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world anxious to bless the whole of the human family.

A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world anxious to bless the whole human family.

Vivid, balanced, and memorable--and think of the heart of the man who could dictate sentences like that.

Here is a man charged with the active "keys of the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham" (Doctrine and Covenants 110). In framing the idea of blessing the family, the Prophet Joseph places the sentence emphasis on how that blessing, ceaseless, moves first from the one--alone--to the whole, and so evokes Abraham when he was called "alone" (ahad), blessed, and commissioned to extend his family ministry, his family blessing, to all the earth (Isaiah 51:2). Joseph's repetition of the word family, the thematic emphasis, frames the whole in One Eternal Round.

But in what sense were the Twelve, newly arrived in their first overseas mission, and admittedly among "strangers and foreigners" an ocean away, also administering a family blessing?

Brother Joseph here invites us, as he then invited the Twelve, to see missionary work as family work. And, tellingly, he chose this same occasion to introduce the Twelve to the doctrine of baptism for the dead, that is, for our kindred dead. Temple work is family work and "the field is the world" (Matthew 13:38). Apostles of Jesus Christ today emphasize that missionary work and temple work are One Work. Why is this so? Because the Father's Eternal Family is One Family. The Book of Mormon addresses "the whole human family of Adam" (Mormon 3:20). "One Lord, one faith, one baptism"--and, "hearts knit together in love," one family.

In our English scriptures we find an array of choices in the wording of Abraham's Covenant, from "And in thy seed shall all families of the earth be blessed" to "all the families of the earth," "all the nations of the earth," "all the kindreds of the earth," and even "all generations after thee." The King James translators of Genesis gave us both families and nations for mishpachot; in Acts 3:25 they render patriai as kindreds. Then Elias, a heavenly messenger who lived in Abraham's own era, appears to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and clarifies by all generations the staggering scope, both syn- and dia-chronic, of the whole. "All generations after thee" prefigures the opening of a multi-generational work of salvation in God's Temple which ultimately also embraces All generations before thee (Doctrine and Covenants 110:12). Elijah next bursts upon our view, and the generational sweep reduces, turns inward, to a heartfelt reunion of parents and children (Malachi 4:5-6).

"The salvation of the whole human family is interdependent and connected--like the roots and branches of a great tree" (Elder Quentin L. Cook, cited in R. Scott Lloyd, "Roots Tech Conference: 'Our Father's Plan is about Families,'" LDS Church News, 20 February 2015, italic added). It is as though Joseph Smith "being dead, yet speaketh": "Once we have received them for ourselves and for our families, we are obligated to provide the ordinances vicariously for our kindred dead, indeed for the whole human family" (Hebrews 11:4; Elder Boyd K. Packer, "Covenants," Conference Report, April 1987). The telling phrase, the whole of the human family, or the whole human family, signals both the doctrine and also the work of the Eternal Family and appears in the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Joseph F. Smith, John A. Widtsoe, and the living prophets and apostles. Wilford Woodruff, in the dedicatory prayer of the Salt Lake Temple, petitioned "that as one great family united in thee and cemented by thy power we shall together stand before thee" (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, 178).

The name of the great and eternal family is Israel, covenant Israel, or, in other words, the sons and daughters of Christ. All families of the earth find home in Christ's covenant Israel.

We live in a time of hastening: "Behold, I will hasten my work in its time" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:73). What work? The salvation and exaltation of the family. When Latter-day Saints fully grasp the work that lies at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the momentous power of family will revolutionize the world.

Anchored at home, "we move into the future with quiet confidence" (President Boyd K. Packer, "The Reason for Our Hope," Conference Report, October 2014). At times, brim with love, we "[forgo] the pleasure of home" to bring "home to God" the whole human family (see Alma 40:11). And in so doing our journey may not take us physically farther than the FamilySearch pages on our laptop or a nearby House of the Lord. Even so, in divine discontent, in Amulek-like anxiety (Alma 13:27), we consecrate our time and energy and entertainments and, at large with love, range through time and space to bless God's Eternal Family.

And so we fulfill the works of Father Abraham, the same are the works of love, the law of grace.

A famous Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:2) sums up the matter:

"Why did Abraham have to go forth to the world?

At home he was like a flask of myrrh with a tight-fitting lid. Only when it is open can the fragrance be scattered to the winds" (see Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 442-443).


For the Epistle to the Twelve:
Joseph Smith Papers Project Web site
Dean Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, "To the Twelve," 15 December 1840.

Richard Bushman, Dean Jessee, "Smith, Joseph: The Prophet," Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The famous quotation, in this encyclopedia article, is restored to read "of the whole human family."

Restored to read: "the human family": History: "Joseph Smith and America's Future," The Joseph Smith and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society Web site, updated 12 February 2015.

The following paragraph expresses doctrinal ideas generally understood by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though I do not intend it to be understood as a complete, official, or authoritative statement of that doctrine:

"The dispensation of the gospel of Abraham" (Doctrine and Covenants 110:12) signifies the dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to Abraham, or "the dispensation of the gospel in which Abraham lived," being that measure of revelations, covenants, promises, blessings, priesthoods, keys, and privileges associated with the gospel of Jesus Christ as delivered to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 155). The messenger who brought the keys of that dispensation, with all its covenantal promises, to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery bears the name Elias, the Greek transcription of Hebrew Eliyahu or Elijah.

Why Elias? Why don't we today use one name, per the original Hebrew, for both messengers? Because the message, the revelation or bestowal, builds from one degree to another--even to the fulness. The keys of the sealing power, brought by the Elijah of 2nd Kings and Malachi embrace the fulness of the Priesthood. The Abrahamic Elias is a First Elijah whose commission of revelation and keys comes to a fulness with the coming of the Second Elijah. Covenantal Proffer and Covenantal Promise precede Covenantal Sealing. Baptism and Confirmation show a similar gospel pairing (See Elder David A. Bednar, "Clean Hands and a Pure Heart," Conference Report, October 2007, for discussion of the "dual requirements" of the "twofold blessing").

A Prophetic Priority

"The salvation of the human family": Joseph Smith (ed.) or John Taylor, "The Temple," Times and Seasons editorial (2 May 1842), History of the Church 4:608-610.

"The Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring"; Joseph Smith (ed.) or John Taylor, "Baptism for the Dead," Times and Seasons editorial, 15 April 1842, 759; History of the Church 4: 595-596.

"The Gospel will save the whole human family"--"if": Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 39.

"Reach the whole human family": Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 291 (Discourses of Brigham Young, 389).

"God feels interested in the welfare of the whole human family": John Taylor, 9 October 1881, Journal of Discourses 22:291.

"The whole human family, from eternity to eternity": President Joseph F. Smith, Deseret News, 7 May 1883, 98, citedTeachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 47.

"To be not only saviors for ourselves but measurably, saviors for the whole human family": Elder John A. Widtsoe, The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine (October 1934), 189.

As these familiar citations make clear, the phrase, the whole of the human family, expresses consistent, foundational doctrine in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Copyrighted by Val Hinckley Sederholm, 2015