December 27, 2007

"The joy which filled my bosom in reading that sacred record"

Parley P. Pratt April 7, 1856 Samuel Smith, often referred to as the first missionary of this dispensation,[1] set out with the newly printed Book of Mormon for sale. Since it came off the press the Book of Mormon played a part in the conversion process of Latter-day Saints, though not always in the way contemporary Mormons might think. The Book of Mormon appears to have been somewhat neglected by early members of the Church. So far in my reading of the Journal of Discourses I have noticed a disparity in how often it is actually quoted in comparison with the Bible. Noel Reynolds explained that "writings in the early years of the Church contain remarkably few references to the Book of Mormon." Early converts steeped in a Biblical tradition were more apt to use the Bible in their preaching perhaps because of familiarity, or even because it was easier for their listeners to accept. Even when the Book of Mormon was cited, it was typically in reference to Biblical prophesies.[2] Terryl Givens argued the Book of Mormon was seen more as a sign that the heavens are open than a doctrinal exegesis.[3] Even Joseph Smith rarely quoted actual verses from the book.[4] Regardless of the reasons, the Book of Mormon received enough neglect to warrant a divine mandate: repent and remember the Book of Mormon (see D&C 84:54-57). References to the Book of Mormon still remained few, but interest in the book grew gradually until President Ezra Taft Benson declared the need to "flood the earth" with it. Since then, the Book of Mormon has held a prominent place in the Church; readership seems to have increased, publications on the book and references from it in General Conference have ballooned.[5] With that background in mind, consider this remarkable sermon by Parley P. Pratt which gives one of the fullest treatments of the Book of Mormon thus far in the Journal of Discourses. This sermon was given during the April conference marking the 26th anniversary of the founding of the Church, and Parley saw the growth of the gospel as reason to rejoice:

My brethren, sisters, and friends,[6] I have rejoiced in the return of this anniversary of the rise of the Church, and to see so many of those that we have reason to believe love the truth, assembled in general conference; in beholding and seeing the faces of so many as were assembled on yesterday, and as are here today; to feel the spirit, behold the unanimity, and the good feeling that appear to exist, and the dispatch with which we are enabled to transact business; and in reviewing the past, looking at the present, and contemplating the future, my heart has been cheered. I have been highly edified and interested, and have had reason to rejoice in looking at the Saints...who have met to rejoice and reflect upon the things of God. I have rejoiced while listening to the edifying discourses which have been delivered. I have not heard anything more useful and more to the point for a long time than the discourse on yesterday in the forenoon; it was practical and instructive in all its points, just the advice and counsel that are needed at the present time; nor have I been less edified and instructed in the remarks made, as I conceive in the spirit of prophecy, in a great measure, that flowed from my brother yesterday in the afternoon, a parting discourse as we may call it, as he expects soon to depart to a foreign land on the other side of the ocean.
The brothers would not meet again in mortality; Parley was killed the following year on a mission to the Southern states.
I have also been led to reflect much in contemplating that this is the twenty-sixth year since the restoration of the Church of God, visibly as an organization upon the earth. Twenty-six years have rolled away in the experience of this Church, and it naturally leads the mind to contemplate upon the past, and past events will rise in review, the memory will fall back upon them and whether we look at the past, the present, or the future, the mind cannot but view it, if it is constituted like mine, or influenced by the same spirit that mine is influenced by, with pleasure and delight.
His thoughts turned to the Book of Mormon, which he first read in 1830 while traveling as a Campbellite preacher. He describes his conversion experience:
Twenty-six years ago, the coming summer, mine eyes glanced over the Book of Mormon, and I afterward heard the voice of the servant of the Lord and enjoyed the smiles and the blessings of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum, and received under their hands and those of Oliver Cowdery the Priesthood, or a portion of it, and the keys and power of the same, they having received it by the ministering of angels, to be carried through to all the people of the earth; and at that time all the people of this Church upon the face of the earth, could have been assembled in the vestry of this Tabernacle without being much crowded.
He gives a rare synopsis of some of the content of the Book of Mormon that brought him joy; most notably, Christ's visit to the Nephites in the book of 3 Nephi:
The joy which filled my bosom in reading that sacred record, waking up our minds and giving us the knowledge of the past dealings of God with the inhabitants of this vast western hemisphere, and of a nation of people as ancient as that of Abraham or of the Jaredites, and giving us a knowledge also of a branch of scattered Israel led away from the land of their fathers 600 years before Christ, and the glorious fact, the most important of all others in the book, that the risen Jesus in his glorified immortal flesh and bones set his feet upon this western hemisphere and ministered publicly to thousands and thousands of the Nephites, blessed them, revealed to them his Gospel in its fulness, and was glorified in their presence, and thousands of them had the privilege of bowing at his feet, of bathing his feet with their tears and of kissing them, and of handling him and seeing and beholding the wounds that were pierced in his side and his hands and feet, and of hearing the words of salvation and the commandments of God from his own mouth, and then from day to day they had the privilege of assembling in general conference and hearing his prophesyings, and his remarks on the prophecies of the Prophets referring to himself and to others, prophecies also concerning this our day, and the coming forth of this work to us, and the visions that should appear and be given at the opening up of this dispensation; all these things received in faith in my heart, and by the spirit of knowledge and of light and of understanding, and of hope and joy, and charity filled my heart in a way that I never can express to any being; to have the same joy understood, it must be experienced.
Parley saw in the Book of Mormon a pattern which unfolded in his own experience. The Book of Mormon openly proclaims that God still speaks to His children, and that all can ask and receive, knock, and have the mysteries opened. Hope, joy, charity; these things were experienced rather than merely read about. Alma describes the change that comes over a person, and compares it to the growing of a tree. He explains one will feel swelling motions (see Alma 32), which I believe Parley has described in different words above. Parley said this type of knowledge exceeded mere physical evidence. Since that initial converting experience, Parley said the seed continued to grow, and it increased his faith that Joseph Smith, who translated the book, was indeed a true prophet of God:
Nor have I been disappointed in my hopes since I embraced this Gospel. After twenty-six years of progress-progressive fulfilment of the things spoken by that Redeemer to the Nephites, and the things written by his commandment and brought forth unto us, I not only believe but I realize and know by the Spirit of the Lord as well as a man knows anything that he sees and hears, and better too, for a man might be deceived in seeing or in hearing, but I know these things by that light that reflects on the understanding, and in which there is no mistake, nor deception. By that I knew that the work was true and that Joseph Smith, the finder, translator, and the restorer of the Priesthood upon the earth, was a Prophet and an Apostle of Jesus Christ;a restorer, raised up according to that which is written, to bring back and commit unto the person appointed, those covenants, those keys, those ordinances, that Gospel and plan of salvation which were had in old times, but which had been suspended and lost from the enjoyment of the people; I say, that he was such, I had a knowledge and an understanding.
Parley does something interesting here, something missionaries and Latter-day Saints still do: He tied his testimony of the Book of Mormon as a true book to the divine calling of Joseph Smith. If the Book of Mormon is true, he reasoned, then Joseph was a true prophet:
He was only about twenty-four or twenty-five years old when I first met him, and I became intimately acquainted with him and his brothers, and with his father's house, and I remained so, as far as I was not separated by foreign missions, until his death; and did I not know, and do I not know and bear testimony that he lived and that he died an Apostle and Prophet of Jesus Christ?
Joseph Smith provided the world with concrete evidence of his prophethood in the Book of Mormon, as Terryl Givens explained on the PBS documentary The Mormons:
What Joseph does there, see, he takes a very important step from which he would never, never retreat, and that is that he creates a foundation from which it is virtually impossible to mythologize or allegorize the foundations of Mormonism. What that means is that it puts the Book of Mormon in a position in which it is very, very hard to find a middle ground, because [with] many of the stories of the Bible we can say, "Well, we don't know that God really wrote with his finger on the tablets of Moses," or, "We don't know that Moses really spoke face to face with God." One can take a kind of distance and say it's the message of the Bible that's important; that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, and salvation is through him... The same is not true in the case of the Book of Mormon. It's not [just] the message in the Book of Mormon which is true; it's the message about the Book of Mormon. If Joseph really was visited by an Angel Moroni and really was given gold plates, then he was a prophet, and he has the authority to speak on God's behalf. That's how the logic worked.[7]
His testimony of the Book of Mormon as inspired, of Joseph Smith as true prophet, continued to Brigham Young as successor and to the priesthood authority as held in the Church.[8] Interestingly, Parley's brother Orson brought up the Book of Mormon just 6 days after this discourse; saying he felt "disposed to read" from the Book in his discourse,
...for I highly esteem the Book of Mormon, as I presume do all the Latter-day Saints. But many lay it upon the shelf and let it remain there for a year or two, consequently they become careless concerning the dealings of the Lord with the Former-day Saints.
He tied the reading of ancient scripture to the testimony of living prophets:
It is my belief that if this people more carefully read the oracle of the ancients, they would be directed more diligently to attend to the Living Oracles. We are commanded to search the Scriptures for instructions, but I fear that we neglect this counsel too much, and become careless. In consequence of such neglect, the Lord reproved this Church some years ago, and said that the whole Church was under condemnation, because they had neglected the Book of Mormon; and He told them that unless they would repent, they should be held under condemnation, and should be scourged, and judgments should be poured out upon them. If you would read these things in the Spirit, and call upon God to give you His Spirit to fix the sayings of the Prophets upon your minds, you would do good and derive benefit therefrom. If the Saints will give most earnest and diligent heed unto the instructions given in those books which have been preserved, and especially to the instructions which are given by our President, they will prosper and be blest in all things.[9]
Faith in prophets and apostles were appendages to that initial testimony of Christ and the Book of Mormon as another witness of Him. Keeping that testimony vibrant takes effort. As Alma asked, once you have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, can ye feel so now? (see Alma 5:26):
Has it become dim and waxed cold in my heart, or departed from it? I say unto you no! But if it be possible for a man to rejoice more than I rejoiced twenty-six years ago, I say if it be possible, then I rejoice more to-day than I did on yesterday and more than I did twenty-six years ago-and why? Because my heart is larger; it was full then, it is full now, and although outwardly and according to the flesh, and in the world I may be in tribulation and sorrow, and care, and labor, and anxiety, yet in Jesus Christ there is peace, in the fulness of the Gospel there is joy, in the Spirit of God there is gladness; and whether we look to the past we rejoice with thanksgiving, and whether we look to the present our hearts seem to grow larger, and whether we look to the future there is hope and a fulness of joy, and we increase in understanding-and why? Because the Spirit that is in us sheds forth in abundance in our souls joy and satisfaction, and the Gospel inspires us with a degree of knowledge and light, and certainty in regard to what we are about, in regard to the work we are engaged in and the prospects that lie before us.
God's grace through the Holy Ghost fills us; the change of heart doesn't come as the mere result of our own works, but in a relationship of growth with God leading us and changing us on the way. Parley said the Book of Mormon was an instrument in bringing about that process.[9] For all Parley knew, he also knew he wanted to know more. But he knew enough to feel satisfied while seeking for further light and knowledge. As Nephi told the angel he knew not the meaning of all things, (see 1 Nephi 11:17) so Parley explained:
We know for what we labor, although in the flesh, subject to mortality and its weaknesses; we may be partially asleep, or in other words we may know in part, comprehend in part, prophesy in part, and hope in part, not seeing and realizing the fulness, nor the thousandth part of the fulness that will be consummated in the progress of this work. But after we see enough of it to serve us for the time being, and we enter into it with sufficient comprehension to rejoice with a heart full of joy and of satisfaction, it inspires us to act with all our heart, might, mind and strength.
Rather than give us all the answers, the Book of Mormon gives us important insight into receiving answers for ourselves. To me, the greatest power in the book is its invitation to each individual to seek for themselves. Joseph Smith's experience is to become our own. The Book of Mormon, being revealed by God, demonstrates the process of revelation in the way it came forth, and within its pages the process is repeated again and again. Footnotes: [1] See Saints Without Halos for more information on Samuel. [2] See Noel B. Reynolds, "The Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century," BYU Studies, vol. 38 no. 2, pp. 7-47. The jury is still out on this issue, however. Not all sermons- especially at the lower levels of the Church- were recorded. I wonder how often journals discuss the Book of Mormon or principles therein, as well. It has been argued (I was apprised by a post on the blog Juvenile Instructor) the Book of Mormon was used more in print than in sermons, that references to it are often made in publications like the Evening and Morning Star. Jan Shipps, through Richard Bushman, argued:
Jan Shipps has argued that the Book of Mormon was one of the great foundation pillars of early Mormonism, and I agree (”The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History”, 16, in New Views of Mormon History, edited by Davis Bitton and Marueen Ursenbach Beecher).
Steven C. Harper argued that the Book of Mormon provided a crucial and tangible tool for early Mormon converts who were persuaded both by empirical and revelatory evidence, and that the Book of Mormon played a large role in many early conversion narratives. See "Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts," Religion and American Culture, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 99-118.
[3] See Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, Oxford University Press, USA (March 14, 2002). [4] Richard Bushman mentioned he thought it odd that after completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith seemed to "set it aside," so to speak and move right along. He adjusted his conclusion, realizing that Joseph, rather than simply setting the Book of Mormon aside, actually continued the Book of Mormon tradition by bringing forth new records (such as the Book of Abraham, and the inspired translation of the Bible). See Bushman, "The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History," Believing History, 65-78. [5] President Benson's key address on using the Book of Mormon was "Flooding the Earth with the Book of Mormon," Ensign, November, 1988. For more on the development of the usage of the book, see Reynolds, "The Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century," BYU Studies, vol. 38 no. 2, pp. 7-47. [6] James E. Faust became fond of sometimes addressing the saints as "brothers, and sisters, and friends." For example, see "The Light in Their Eyes," General Conference October, 2005, and "This is Our Day," General Conference April, 1999, among others. [7] Givens' quote is from Helen Whitney's PBS documentary The Mormons. He continues:
One can't take a kind of distance and say, "Well, maybe he was an inspired dreamer; maybe he was an inspired visionary," because from day one he points to the physicality of those plates, meaning that the foundations of Mormonism are located in real space and time, not in a prophet's interior world... There's no question that the church rises or falls on the veracity of Joseph Smith's story. Now, as a consequence, some people, for example, the Community of Christ, their president made a statement a few years ago in which he said, "History as theology is perilous." You don't want, in other words, to found all of your beliefs and hopes and religious values on a historical account that may prove to be spurious. To which my reply is yes, history as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ's resurrection is a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That's the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that's a reality that we just can't flee away from. ...What we have is an unmediated presentation of gold plates to us through one prophet figure...It is its strength...
[8] If the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph is a prophet. This testimony tied to the priesthood authority, which continued with Brigham Young and so forth, as Parley explained:
And from the day of [Joseph Smith's] death, or long before that until the present, I have been intimately acquainted and associated with the Apostles of this Church and kingdom under all circumstances, whether in sickness or in health, whether in the midst of life or in death, whether in prosperity or adversity; whether abounding or suffering want; whether by sea or land; whether in the midst of peace or of mobs and oppression. And do I not know that President Young and his counselors and the other Apostles associated with him in this Church, hold the keys of salvation? That they hold that authority which administers life and salvation to the obedient and the humble, and which to reject is condemnation, wherever it exists, to every soul of man upon the earth? Yes I do know it, and I do this day bear testimony of it, and of that glorious Gospel in its fulness which was restored to the earth twenty-six years ago, that filled my heart with joy and charity and love for my fellow men, and with a desire to do good, and to impart the truth as it is revealed (JD 3:308-309).
[9] Orson Pratt, JD 3:344-354. More to come from Orson's discourse in a future post. [10] For more on the role of grace in changing our hearts, see "You Find What You Seek."