Section 121: The Spirit of the Priesthood
After Joseph had been forced out of Kirtland in January 1838 due to increasing apostasy and threats on his life, he made his way to Far West, Missouri. After his arrival there on March 14, 1838, the Church was blessed with several peaceful and prosperous months. A spirit of optimism resulted as crops were planted, plans for a temple in Far West were made, and as many as twelve thousand saints gathered in Missouri. Not all were gathered in Far West, Caldwell County. Other significant settlements were also established in Adam-ondi-Ahman (shortened to “Diahman”), Daviess County on the north, and Dewitt and Carroll Counties on the east. On March 29, 1838, Joseph wrote to members still remaining in Kirtland, “The saints at this time are in union; and peace and love prevail throughout; in a word, heaven smiles upon the saints in Caldwell. . . . We have no uneasiness about the power of our enemies in this place to do us harm” (HC, 3:115).
Caldwell County, the reader will recall, was created specifically for Mormon immigration. It would seem that many native Missourians expected that such immigration would thereafter be limited to Caldwell County and that the saints would not gather in significant numbers to any other Missouri county. Although Joseph Smith made some effort to keep LDS immigration centralized, by and large the saints did not feel constrained to settle only near Far West and rightly viewed such restrictions as a violation of their constitutional rights to purchase land wherever it was for sale and to settle wherever they pleased. We will see that trouble with the mobs began not in the saints’ population centers but in the smaller settlements outside Caldwell County.
In July 1838, conditions in Missouri were peaceful. Three months later, on October 27, 1838, the Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued the “extermination order.” What happened to cause this? Who were to blame? The saints? The Missourians? Let us look at the history of the period and the precipitating factors.
The Missourians feared that the Mormons might be able to exercise political control over the districts where they settled, since they were a cohesive, single-minded group that were likely to vote as a block. This fear manifest itself in August 1838, during the Missouri state elections. Some of the following material will be extracted from Orson F. Whitney’s account of the period recorded in the History of Utah, August 1838 – March 1839, volume 1, 142-64. Some of these materials will be quoted, and some will be adapted for our use.
William P. Peniston was a candidate for representative to the legislature from the district. Peniston had been prominent in anti-Mormon activities himself and feared the political clout of the Mormons. He thus started a major campaign to try to prevent the saints from voting. He labeled the Mormons as “horse thieves” and “robbers,” and his “party” stood ready at any time to become a mob to counter any attempts of the Mormons to vote.
The Church denied his allegations and insisted upon their right to vote. On August 6, 1838, twelve unarmed Mormons traveled to Gallatin, the Daviess County seat, to vote. Peniston’s mob of more than a hundred men set upon the Mormons who stoutly defended themselves. Clubs, stones, and fists were used, and even knives were unsheathed by some of the assailants. No lives were lost, but several on both sides were wounded. The Mormons withdrew without voting, and the election proceeded.
This incident, particularly as exaggerated and distorted by incendiary speeches and articles in the local press, contributed to a general anti-Mormon conflagration in the area. All of Daviess County and some surrounding areas were aroused by the rumor of the “riot at Gallatin.” The Missourians began organizing and arming themselves. We will come back to the brewing storm produced by the Gallatin incident in a moment, but first let’s consider other possible reasons for the rising anti-Mormon sentiment in Missouri.
One contributory factor was a speech delivered by Sidney Rigdon at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1838, in Far West. He delivered an emotional oration in which he declared an end to persecution of, and mob rule over, the saints. With indignation he declared “from this day and this hour we will suffer it no more. . . . The man, or set of men who attempt it, do it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us, it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them until the last drop of their blood is spilled; or else they will have to exterminate us, for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.” He did add that the saints would never become the aggressors or infringe upon anyone’s rights, but that the saints would “stand for our own until death” (B.H. Roberts 1:44).
It is understandable why this kind of speech might be given by a people who had been cruelly persecuted—it was simply the expression of a justifiable human emotion. But the effect of the speech, which was printed by the saints in their newspaper, was overtly inflammatory. It presented almost a war-like posture which was disconcerting to the Missourians.
The suspicions and fears thus produced among the Missourians were furthered by rumors that a secret organization existed in the Church called the “Danites,” whose members were bound together by secret oaths and covenants and whose avowed purpose was seeking vengeance against enemies of the Church. The rumor held that this secret society functioned under the leadership of Joseph Smith himself.
The apparent truth about the Danites has been advanced by Dean C. Jessee and David J. Whittaker after their study of the personal journals of Albert Parry Rockwood who joined the Church in Kirtland in 1837 and lived in Missouri in 1838. (“The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Parry Rockwood Journal [1838-39],” BYU Studies 28:1 .) Rockwood’s journal suggests several important facts about the Danites that have been previously been misunderstood:
- The actual origin of the “Army of Israel” dates well before 1838. It goes back to Zion’s Camp in 1834 (see D&C 105:31). Then the militia operations of the Church were tied to divine injunctions to redeem Zion, a central part of Joseph Smith’s mission to establish the latter-day kingdom of God in Missouri. It is clear that Zion’s Camp was established as a defensive or protective operation for the saints in Missouri who had been evicted from their homes in Jackson County. This militia operation seems likely to have been the precursor for the Danites.
- Rockwood’s account of the organization of the Danites indicates that it involved the entire Mormon community. Its structure consisted of companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds. Various groupings of the Danites provided all kinds of community service, not just bearing arms. Some groups of Danites were to build houses. Others were to gather food or care for the sick, while still others were to help gather the scattered saints into the community. Working in groups, the Danites served the interests of the whole community. It was hardly a secret organization working under the cover of darkness.
- Rockwood reveals that the name Dan came not from the warrior tribe of Dan (Genesis 49:16-17; Deuteronomy 33:22; 1 Chronicles 12:35) as critical sources have alleged, but rather from the book of Daniel, “because the prophet Daniel has said the saints shall take the kingdom and possess it forever” (Daniel 2:44). Early Mormons consistently used the book of Daniel in their own self-understanding of the mission of the Church (see especially D&C 65:2). The “stone cut out without hands” was to fill the whole earth. This stone was, in their minds, the kingdom of God, and this belief evidenced their urgent and immediate millennial expectations. The kingdom of God was not to be established by bloodshed or lawbreaking (see D&C 58:19-22; 98:4-7; 105:5).
- It seems clear that the original intent of the Danites was to more fully organize modern Israel into an integrated community with each person contributing to the benefit of the whole. It is clear also that that a more radical fringe of the Danites was organized and spirited by Sampson Avard. Under his direction some of the Danites may have become involved in some illegal activities such as stealing from Mormon dissidents. As soon as Avard’s role in the Danites was discovered by Joseph, he was excommunicated from the Church. It is unfair and entirely inaccurate and misleading to equate the Danites with this radical fringe led by Sampson Avard. Avard would later show his true apostate colors and testify as the star witness against the prophet Joseph in Richmond, Ray County, in November of 1838 just prior to Joseph’s incarceration in Liberty Jail. In that testimony he painted a sinister picture of the Danites as a secretive, militaristic organization operation outside the law. He characterized them as a band of armed men bound by secret oaths who had engaged in illegal activities against non-Mormon neighbors. Thus was born the fallacious legend of the Danites.
Another important factor in the anti-Mormon feeling was simply religious bigotry which doubtless was fueled by Satan’s urging. The Mormons were different in their beliefs and form of worship, and this spawned mistrust and resentment.
Many have suggested that the fact that the saints were largely easterners, many of whom had feelings against slavery, was also a factor. The saints were an industrious, hard-working people who watched out for one another, and these qualities were somehow threatening to some of the Missourians among whom the saints lived.
The sum total of these smoldering embers culminated in a raging conflagration by the end of October. The fuse was perhaps lighted by the incident at Gallatin mentioned above.
When Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs learned of the situation in Daviess County, he directed the Missouri militia to muster and put down the insurrection. General Alexander Doniphan and others were dispatched, and they marched to the camp of the mobocrats near Diahman and ordered them to disperse. The mob protested that they were merely acting in self-defense. Doniphan then went to Diahman and conferred with Colonel Lyman Wight, commanding the Mormon force, “the Host of Israel.” He found them willing to disband, but only if the enemy would also disperse and also surrender any of their (the mobocrats’) number accused of offenses against the laws, to be dealt with by legal authority. The prisoners and weapons taken by the Mormon militia were delivered up at the demand of General Doniphan. On September 15, Doniphan returned to Gallatin to join his fellow generals Atchison and Parks.
The report of these officers to the governor was essentially that affairs in Daviess County were not so bad as rumor had represented, and that the governor had been misled as to the intent of the Mormons. The Mormons, so far as could be learned, had been acting on the defensive, showing no hostile intent or inclination to resist the laws. They (the generals) reported that on their arrival in Daviess County, they found a large body of Missouri men from other counties who had not been called out by proper authority. These were armed and in the field to assist the people of Daviess County against the Mormons. This mob of Missourians, they observed, were still threatening to drive the Mormons out by force.
The scene now changed to Dewitt in Carroll County. Enraged at being thwarted in their designs upon Diahman, the mob army moved to Dewitt and laid siege to that town on October 2. The church’s commander in Dewitt, Colonel Hinkle, waited forty-eight hours and then ordered the fire returned. The bombardment continued at intervals for nine days. During that period, Joseph made his way into Dewitt through much difficulty and danger from Far West. He found the saints in Dewitt thoroughly defeated by the Missourians. Their provisions were exhausted. Their cattle and horses stolen.
Their houses burned; and they themselves were threatened with death if they attempted to leave town.
With the help of non-Mormon friends in the area, an appeal was made to Governor Boggs in behalf of the beleaguered saints. The Governor replied that the quarrel was between the Mormons and the mob, and that they should “fight it out.”
Finally the Mormons were permitted to evacuate Dewitt, which they did on October 11. The homeless refugees fled to Far West. Now some eight hundred strong, the mob army turned again to Diahman.
The Battle of Crooked River was fought on the 25th day of October. Crooked River is a town located in northern Ray County about half way between Far West and Richmond. A band of Missourians had been committing atrocities in that vicinity. They had captured three Mormons and had boasted of their intent to put the three to death on the following night. Colonel Hinkle dispatched Captain David W. Patten (see commentary for D&C 114) to rescue the three and to disperse the troublesome band of marauders. Leaving Far West about midnight, the fearless Captain Patten and his company of seventy-five men came upon the Missourians at day-break. Patten ordered his men to charge, and the mob was scattered and fled across the river. They left the three prisoners behind and abandoned their camp to the victorious Mormons. However, Captain Patten and two others were fatally wounded. One of the Missourians was killed.
Two days later on October 27, 1838, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued the infamous order to Major General John B. Clark, giving him command of an overwhelming force of militia, to proceed at once against the Mormons. “Their outrages are beyond all description,” said the Governor, and “they must be exterminated or driven from the state.”
Among the first fruits of the evil edict of Missouri’s chief executive was the Haun’s Mill massacre. Haun’s Mill was situated on Shoal Creek, about ten miles due east of Far West. Here dwelt recently arrived immigrants who were awaiting an improvement in the war-like conditions before continuing on to a more permanent settlement. On October 30 at about four o’clock in the afternoon, a company of 240 Missourians fell upon the little settlement and butchered in cold blood, without warning or provocation, seventeen men and boys. The bodies were stripped and mutilated. The camp was then plundered, and horses and wagons were driven off.
Meanwhile, an army of nearly three thousand Missourians, commanded by General Lucas advanced upon beleaguered Far West. The entire region surrounding Far West was now overrun by marauding bands, who were shooting, burning, and plundering, wherever Mormons were to be found. Saints who survived these raids fled into Far West looking vainly for safety.
The inhabitants of the doomed city, their mails having been stopped, had not yet heard of the Governor’s extermination order, and they supposed the army of General Lucas to be an overwhelming military mob. Though greatly outnumbered by the besieging force, they prepared to make a vigorous defense by hastily throwing up some rude fortifications.
It was at this critical juncture that Colonel George Hinkle, who was commanding the defenders at Far West, earned himself a place in infamy by entering into negotiations with General Lucas. Without consulting his associates or the church leadership, he agreed upon a treaty, the terms of which were:
- The Mormon leaders were to be delivered up to be tried and punished.
- The members of the Far West Militia were to surrender their arms.
- An appropriation was to be made of the property of all Mormons who had taken up arms to help cover the damages said to be caused by them. This was afterward construed to cover all the expenses of the militia in making war against the saints.
- The Mormons, as a body, excepting such as should be held as prisoners, were to forthwith leave the state. The prisoners were to include all Mormon participants in the Crooked River battle who were to be tried for murder.
The observance of these conditions, it was agreed, would avert bloodshed. The alternative was an immediate assault upon the city.
Under the pretense of arranging a conference between the Church’s leaders and the besieging generals, and without notifying those leaders of the treaty he had entered into, Colonel Hinkle on October 31, delivered up to General Lucas the following persons who had been demanded by the Missourians: Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt, Lyman Wight, and George W. Robinson. Later were added to the list: Hyrum Smith, Amasa M. Lyman, and others. They were placed under strong guard as prisoners of war. Parley P. Pratt, in his autobiography, described the arrest of this group of Mormons:
As we approached the camp of the enemy, General Lucas rode out to meet us with a guard of several hundred men. The haughty General rode up, and, without speaking to us, instantly ordered his guards to surround us. They did so very abruptly, and we were marched into camp surrounded by thousands of savage looking beings, many of whom were dressed and painted like Indian warriors. These all set up a constant yell, like so many bloodhounds let loose upon their prey, as if they had achieved one of the most miraculous victories that ever graced the annals of the world. If the vision of the infernal regions could suddenly open to the mind, with thousands of malicious fiends, all clamoring, exulting, deriding, blaspheming, mocking, railing, raging and foaming like troubled sea, then could some idea be formed of the hell which we had entered.
In camp we were placed under a strong guard, and were without shelter during the night, lying on the ground in the open air, in the midst of a great rain. The guards during the whole night kept up a constant tirade of mockery, and the most obscene blackguardisms and abuse. They blasphemed God; mocked Jesus Christ; swore the most dreadful oaths; taunted Brother Joseph and others; demanded miracles; wanted signs, such as “Come, Mr. Smith, show us an angel.” “Give us one of your revelations.” “Show us a miracle.” “Come, there is one of your brethren here in camp whom we took prisoner yesterday in his own house, and knocked his brains out with his own rifle, which we found hanging over his fireplace. He lays speechless and dying. Speak the word and heal him, and then we will all believe.” “Or, if you are apostles or men of God, deliver yourselves, and then we will be Mormons.” Next would be a volley of oaths and blasphemies; then a tumultuous tirade of lewd boastings of having defiled virgins and wives by force, etc., much of which I dare not write; and, indeed, language would fail me to attempt more than a faint description. Thus passed this dreadful night (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 203-5).
The heart had been decisively taken out of the saints’ resistance, and the next day the Mormons were compelled at gun point to sign away their property to pay the expenses of the war waged upon them. They had made no agreement to do so, but Hinkle had made it for them. The town of Far West was given up to pillage. Nameless crimes were committed by the ruthless soldiery and their yet more ruthless allies, the mob guerrillas. Women were sexually abused, some of them until they died, within sight of their agonizing husbands and fathers who were powerless to protect them.
On the evening of November 1, General Lucas convened a court-martial, consisting of the principal officers of his army and seventeen Christian preachers. By a majority vote of this kangaroo tribunal, Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners, none of whom were permitted to be present during their trial, were sentenced to be shot at eight o’clock the next morning in the public square at Far West in the presence of their wives and children. General Doniphan refused to assent to this decision, denouncing it as “cold-blooded murder,” and he threatened to withdraw his brigade from the scene of the proposed execution. This caused Lucas and his murderous colleagues to hesitate, and finally to reconsider their action. On the morning set for the execution, they decided, in lieu of killing the prisoners, to parade them in triumph through the neighboring counties.
A poignant description of this moment in history was written by Joseph himself:
Myself and fellow prisoners were taken to the town, into the public square, and before our departure we, after much entreaty, were suffered to see our families, being attended all the while by a strong guard. I found my wife and children in tears, who feared that we had been shot by those who had sworn to take our lives, and that they would see me no more. When I entered my house, they clung to my garments, their eyes streaming with tears, while mingled emotions of joy and sorrow were manifested in their countenances. I requested to have a private interview with them a few minutes, but this privilege was denied me by the guard. I was then obliged to take my departure. Who can realize the feelings which I experienced at that time, to be thus torn from my companion, and leave her surrounded with monsters in the shape of men, and my children, too, not knowing how their wants would be supplied; while I was taken far from them in order that my enemies might destroy me when they thought proper to do so. My partner wept, my children clung to me, until they were thrust from me by the swords of the guards (HC, 3:193).
After being taken to Independence, Missouri, where they were paraded before the populace of that town, they were taken to Richmond, Missouri, where they were held for three weeks. While there, they were subjected to conditions and circumstances that were both humiliating and degrading. While in Richmond, an incident occurred which has been preserved for us by Parley P. Pratt:
In one of those tedious nights, we had lain as if in sleep, till the hour of midnight had passed, and our ears and hearts had been pained, while we had listened for hours to the obscene jests, the horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies, and filthy language of our guards, Colonel Price at their head, as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder, robbery, etc., which they had committed among the “Mormons” while at Far West and vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force wives, daughters, and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of men, women, and children.
I had listened till I became so disgusted, shocked, horrified, and so filled with the spirit of indignant justice, that I could scarcely refrain from rising upon my feet and rebuking the guards, but I had said nothing to Joseph or anyone else, although I lay next to him, and knew he was awake. Of a sudden he arose to his feet and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words:
“Silence! Ye fiends of the infernal pit! In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I shall die this instant!”
He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained, and without a weapon, calm, unruffled, and dignified as an angel, he looked down upon his quailing guards, whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet until an exchange of guards.
I have seen ministers of justice, clothed in ministerial robes, and criminals arraigned before them while life was suspended upon a breath in the courts of England. I have witnessed a congress in solemn session to give laws to nations. I have tried to conceive of kings, of royal courts, or thrones and crowns and of emperors assembled to decide the fate of kingdoms. But dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 210-11).
While in Richmond, several apostate Mormons testified against the prisoners. These included Samson Avard, George M. Hinkle, William W. Phelps, and John Whitmer. The witnesses tried to portray the Church as a temporal organization hell bent on filling the earth and subduing all other peoples. On this type of testimony the Missourians tried to base a charge of treason.
During their trial in Richmond, another apostate, William E. McLellin, and some others plundered and robbed the houses of some of the saints in Far West including the house of Sidney Rigdon and that belonging to the widow of David W. Patten. He further disgraced himself by coming to the jail in Richmond and asking the sheriff for permission to have the “privilege” of flogging the Prophet. “Permission was granted on condition that Joseph would fight. The sheriff made known, to Joseph, McLellin’s earnest request, to which Joseph consented, if his irons were taken off. McLellin then refused to fight unless he could have a club, to which Joseph was perfectly willing; but the sheriff would not allow them to fight on such unequal terms” (Millennial Star, volume 36, 808-9).
On December 1, 1838, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were removed to Clay County and placed in the jail at Liberty, Missouri. This jail was a two-story structure approximately twenty-two feet square, built of rough-hewn limestone. Inside the outer wall was another wall of oak logs. The two walls were separated by a twelve-inch space filled with loose rock, the whole presenting a formidable barrier four feet thick. The interior of the jail was divided into upper and lower rooms. The lower, or dungeon, was lighted only by two small windows grated with heavy iron bars.
In Liberty Jail the captives continued to be treated with great barbarity. Brother Alexander McRae later related that “our food was very coarse, and so filthy that we could not eat it until we were driven to it by hunger.” On more than one occasion, the prisoners felt that their food was poisoned, and on at least one occasion the guards claimed that they were being fed cooked human flesh which the guards referred to as “Mormon beef,” implying that it was from the body of one of their slain comrades.
Sidney Rigdon was released apparently within a few weeks of being imprisoned because of ill health. He apparently had uncontrolled epilepsy and suffered repeated seizures. The chronicity of this illness is not known, but it has been suggested that it had its beginnings when Sidney was brutally mobbed with Joseph in 1832 in Hiram, Ohio (see commentary for section 81). Another possible cause of Sidney’s health problems was an accident he had when he was a boy. He was dragged by a horse for a considerable distance with his foot caught in the stirrup. He sustained severe head injuries in this mishap. Even though he was not mentally incapacitated, his brother noted a distinct personality change thereafter. Later, in Nauvoo, Sidney manifest some paranoid thinking. He came to believe that Joseph was trying to destroy him. When he worked as a postmaster, he opened and read all of Joseph’s mail, both incoming and outgoing. One cannot help wondering if Sidney eventually apostatized because of a mental unbalance caused by organic disease of his brain rather than by ideological differences with the Church.
As months passed, various efforts were made by legal process to free the prisoners. Among those actively engaged in their behalf were Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who, being comparatively unknown by the Missourians, had escaped arrest and incarceration. The prisoners also had other friends in high places, including General Doniphan and Judge Hughes of the supreme court of Missouri who both favored their release. It was conceded by many that they were illegally held, but owing to the prevailing prejudice, the prisoners’ friends were powerless to do much for them. During this period, an interesting term was coined for non-Mormon friends of the Church. They were referred to as “Jack Mormons.” The term was actually coined by Thomas Sharp, the editor of an anti-Mormon publication, the Warsaw Signal. Today we have changed the meaning of this term to be almost opposite that of its original usage.
Again and again the captives were put on trial, but nothing was proved against them. All of the prisoners but Sidney Rigdon were remanded to jail for the entire winter of 1838-39, and they remained incarcerated a total of four and a half months. On April 16, 1839, while being transferred for arraignment from Daviess County to Boone County, the prisoners were allowed by their guards to escape, and they eventually made their way to Quincy, Illinois.
While Joseph and the others were in Liberty Jail, the burdens of assuming leadership of the Church and leading the saints out of Missouri were capably assumed by Brigham Young, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve. Under his guidance, the saints migrated eastward back across the Mississippi River. By April 20, 1839, nearly all of the saints, variously estimated to number from twelve to fifteen thousand, had left the state of Missouri. Many settled in the town of Quincy, Illinois, and its surrounding area, but a few settled in the then territory of Iowa. The saints in Quincy were warmly received by those who lived there.
Acknowledgment for the following is given to Brother James R. Christianson and his essay “A Ray of Light in an Hour of Darkness” found in Studies in Scripture, Volume One, The Doctrine and Covenants. Some of his materials will be quoted and others adapted for our use.
The long winter months spent in captivity were distressing to Joseph. His own miseries were compounded by reports that the saints in general were suffering greatly. The Lord blessed him, during this period, with comforting insights into the overall perspective of his mission and that of the kingdom of God. It was during these months, while helplessly separated from family and friends, that he experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of his life. It was here, at least partly, in the unmerciful fires of persecution that he was steeled and molded into a fully mature and confident prophet of God.
By March 1839, most of the saints were safely in Illinois. Though their future was in doubt, they were, at least for the moment, safe from further persecution.
On March 19, 1839, Joseph received letters from Emma, from brothers Don Carlos and William, and from Edward Partridge. The letters in general were positive in their tone, reassuring the Prophet that his family and the saints were well and expressing the hope that they might all be soon reunited. The following day, March 20, 1839, the Prophet dictated a seventeen-page letter with Alexander McRae serving as scribe (Caleb Baldwin did some transcribing as well). The letter was addressed to the saints in general and to Bishop Partridge in particular. The letter was signed by each of the five prisoners. After reviewing and correcting his epistle, Joseph determined that he had more to say, and proceeded to dictate twelve additional pages. These pages were not dated.
This letter (actually the combination of both letters) has been called “one of the greatest letters ever penned by the hand of man.” It was sent to Emma with instructions that she and Joseph’s extended family read it first and then share a copy with the Church. The letter was first published in the Times and Seasons in May 1840. In 1876 Orson Pratt in Salt Lake City took scissors and paste and excerpted portions of it which he divided into three different sections. These have become sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The entire letter, before Orson Pratt extracted portions of it, may be found in the History of the Church, volume 3, 289-305.
These three sections, “literarily” speaking, are a new high water mark for the Doctrine and Covenants. Note particularly the exquisite discourse comprising the last twelve verses of section 121 and the vocabulary and expressions of verse 5 of section 123.
D&C 121 The Spirit of the Priesthood
D&C 121:7-10 Thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee.
D&C 121:18-22 Wo unto them . . . who swear falsely against my servants. They have offended my little ones.
D&C 121:33 What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven.
D&C 121:34-37 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven.
D&C 121:39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men.
D&C 121:41-43 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion and long suffering.
D&C 121:45-46 Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly.
1 O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
verse 1 “O God, where art thou?” By the time he wrote his letter, Joseph and the others had been in Liberty Jail for nearly four months. The language and tone of these first few verses suggest that Joseph is feeling a modicum of despair—that God has withdrawn himself from Joseph and the saints. Joseph pours out his heart to God, praying for deliverance for himself and for the scattered and persecuted saints.
“where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place” A pavilion is a movable tent, like the tabernacle that traveled with Moses and the Israelites in the desert and represented the dwelling place of God with Israel.
2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
verse 2 “the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants” These are the wrongs committed against the saints. Joseph prays, in effect, “How long will you continue to allow the atrocities committed against thy people?”
“thine ear be penetrated with their cries” How long before you will hear and respond to their cries for thy help?
3 Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?
verse 3 “how long . . . before thine heart shall be softened” Implicit in this phrase is the unstated fact that the Lord’s heart is hardened against the saints because of their collective disobedience in Missouri.
“and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them” Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary, aside from being “entrails . . . of man,” also defines “bowels” as “the heart,” “the interior part of anything,” or “the seat of pity or kindness; hence, tenderness, compassion” when used in a scriptural sense.
4 O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.
verse 4 “maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are” Maker of all things in existence.
“the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol” Benighted means morally ignorant, unenlightened. Sheol is the Hebrew word for the grave, the spirit world, or the realm of the dead. It is often translated as hell.
“let thine eye pierce . . . thine ear be inclined” Please see and hear and take notice of us.
“let thy pavilion be taken up” Not only does the Prophet plead to see the dwelling place of God (verse 1), but he pleads for its covering panels to be raised or removed to reveal the presence of the Lord himself.
5 Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs.
verse 5 “avenge us of our wrongs” Avenge the wrongs wrought against us. This prayer for justice was answered by the great destructions in Missouri at the time of the Civil War (see D&C 87:1-3).
In an uncanonized portion of his letter, Joseph further lamented the treatment the saints had received in Missouri thus:
But, oh? the unrelenting hand! The inhumanity and murderous disposition of this people! . . . it cannot be found among the heathens; it cannot be found among the nations where kings and tyrants are enthroned; it cannot be found among the savages of the wilderness; yea, and I think it cannot be found among the wild and ferocious beasts of the forest—that a man should be mangled for sport! women be robbed of all that they have—their last morsel for subsistence, and then be violated to gratify the hellish desires of the mob, and finally left to perish with their helpless offspring clinging around their necks.
But this is not all. After a man is dead, he must be dug up from his grace and mangled to pieces, for no other purpose than to gratify their spleen against the religion of God.
They practice these things upon the saints, who have done them no wrong, who are innocent and virtuous; who loved the Lord their God, and were willing to forsake all things for Christ’s sake. These things are awful to relate, but they are very true. It must needs be that offenses come, but woe unto them by whom they come (HC, 3:290-91).
6 Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.
verses 7-33 These verses were from the first letter Joseph sent through Emma to the Church, dated March 20, 1839. According to Joseph, these words were whispered to him by the divine voice of inspiration. They are the principal part of God’s answer to the questions and pleas of Joseph and the Church in verses 1-6.
7 My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
verse 7 When Orson Pratt extracted portions of Joseph’s letter for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants, he selected some of the finest materials, but he rejected some eloquent and meaningful materials as well. For example, in the History of the Church, note the paragraph which immediately precedes verse 7:
We had been a long time without information; and when we read those letters [those from Emma, Don Carlos, and William Smith, and Bishop Partridge] they were to our souls as the gentle air is refreshing, but our joy was mingled with grief, because of the sufferings of the poor and much-injured saints. And we need not say to you that the floodgates of our hearts were lifted and our eyes were a fountain of tears, but those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison without cause of provocation, can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling; it brings up in an instant everything that is passed; it seizes the present with the avidity of lightning; it grasps after the future with the fierceness of a tiger; it moves the mind backward and forward, from one thing to another, until finally all enmity, malice and hatred, and past differences, misunderstandings and mismanagements are slain victorious at the feet of hope; and when the heart is sufficiently contrite, then the voice of inspiration steals along and whispers, my son, peace be unto thy soul . . . .
This letter is the product of a mighty prophet of God. It is his counsel to the saints. Certainly it contains inspired thoughts and concepts, but it is not a revelation containing the direct words of God in the format of “thus saith the Lord” which is found in many sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. Note, however, that Orson Pratt’s editing causes verse 7 to appear as if it were the Lord speaking to Joseph in his hour of affliction. One cannot, however, deny the influence of the Lord’s revelation in the letter.
“thine afflictions shall be but a small moment” Joseph was imprisoned from his arrest on October 31, 1838 until his “escape” on April 16, 1839. This his “small moment” of affliction, during which he was actually imprisoned, was about five and one half months.
8 And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.
verse 8 “if thou endure it well” It is clear that suffering here in mortality can have the effect of lifting one spiritually or, in other circumstances, of tearing one down. What factors determine whether the suffering produces growth or spiritual deterioration? Surely the attitude with which we engage the suffering is an important factor. It would seem that when afflictions occur, we must, like children, submit willingly, meekly and humbly to the chastening hand of the Lord. Then he will exalt us. On the other hand, if suffering fills one’s soul with resentment and anger, then there is less chance of its producing spiritual growth. Some might even use their suffering for personal gain— constantly seeking attention and sympathy from others. This too, may mitigate the amount of spiritual growth which results from suffering.
It is interesting to contrast the experiences of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in Liberty Jail in regard to enduring it well. They both were imprisoned and accused falsely for the sake of their religion; however, although Sidney was released months before the Prophet, he was clearly a broken man. He complained at the time that he had suffered more than the other saints, more than even Jesus Christ himself (Times and Seasons 5 [October 1844]: 667). He was never again a strength to the kingdom and, in fact, did many things to obstruct its progress from that time on. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, when he left prison in Missouri, went to Nauvoo, led the saints in building a great city there, and continued to serve faithfully as the Lord’s anointed prophet until his death at Carthage, Illinois, in June 1844. In fairness to Sidney Rigdon, however, we must acknowledge that he may have suffered significant depression or other mental illness which contributed to his dysfunction (see the commentary on Sidney in the introductory commentary for this section).
9 Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.
10 Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job.
verse 10 “Thou art not yet as Job” You haven’t yet “got it as bad as Job had it.” At least you still have faithful friends. Although he was innocent of wrongdoing, Job was accused of sin by his wife and his closest friends. All of them accused him of having secretly caused his own misfortunes by some hidden iniquity, and they all urged him to confess his guilt (see Job 4:7-8, 17; 8:6, 20; 22:5, 23). The friends and family of Joseph Smith, however, stood by him in misfortune and continued to believe in his innocence and good character.
11 And they who do charge thee with transgression, their hope shall be blasted, and their prospects shall melt away as the hoar frost melteth before the burning rays of the rising sun;
verse 11 “hoar frost” Hoar is an old English word for “white.” Hoar frost is the white frost which covers the branches of trees in the morning. It melts immediately when the rays of the sun strike it.
12 And also that God hath set his hand and seal to change the times and seasons, and to blind their minds, that they may not understand his marvelous workings; that he may prove them also and take them in their own craftiness;
verse 12 “God hath set his hand and seal” Like a king pressing his signet ring into the wax of a proclamation to make it official, so God has set his seal to what is prophesied here concerning the enemis of the saints.
“to change the times and seasons” In other words, to intervene in history and arrange events so that they bring about the result predicted by God. The wicked will not discern the hand of God at work in the events of history until it is too late to avoid destruction.
13 Also because their hearts are corrupted, and the things which they are willing to bring upon others, and love to have others suffer, may come upon themselves to the very uttermost;
verse 13 “may come upon themselves to the very uttermost” This is a necessary corollary of the Golden Rule (see Matthew 7:12). What the wicked have sought to inflict upon others, they will inevitably suffer themselves.
14 That they may be disappointed also, and their hopes may be cut off;
15 And not many years hence, that they and their posterity shall be swept from under heaven, saith God, that not one of them is left to stand by the wall.
verse 15 “not many years hence” At least a partial fulfillment of this prophecy came about with the judgments and destruction that began with the Civil War twenty-two years later.
“not one of them is left to stand by the wall” This expression is an adaptation of an Old Testament expression that refers to male offspring. In the Old Testament, males are those who “pisseth against the wall” (1 Samuel 25:22). In other words, they will become deficient in male posterity.
16 Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.
verse 16 “Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed” To “lift up the heel against” is a biblical expression that describes unfeeling violence against someone (see Psalm 41:9). It is used in the Bible to characterize the enmity of Judas and Satan toward Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah (see John 13:18; Genesis 3:15). In this verse, however, the pronouns they and them indicate that “mine anointed” is meant to be plural and, therefore, refers to all the saints who have received sacred anointings, rather than only to the Savior or to the prophet Joseph.
verses 17-22 These verses seem to be directed specifically at apostates who turned against the Prophet and the saints in Missouri and who sought to protect themselves from the mobs by swearing to false charges against their former friends. Without repentance, individuals such as these would be severed from the blessings of the temple (see verse 19), the bounties of the earth (see verse 20), and from any right to or blessing of the priesthood for themselves and their posterity (see verse 21). These are the same curses inflicted upon Cain. For Cain, the land would not yield its strength (Moses 5:37). Martin Harris was threatened with the same sort of things if he would not repent (D&C 19:33). Among those that might be included here were Thomas Marsh, Orson Hyde, and William W. Phelps. Although these three individuals eventually repented of their treachery, were forgiven by the saints, and returned to the Church, they could never undo the hardships they had earlier caused their friends by their betrayal in Missouri. Many others who turned traitor to the saints to save themselves never did repent and return, including, for example, Sampson Avard and William McLellin. Joseph Smith taught:
From apostates the faithful have received the severest persecutions. Judas was rebuked and immediately betrayed his Lord into the hands of his enemies because Satan entered into him. There is a superior intelligence bestowed upon such as obey the gospel with full purpose of heart, which, if sinned against, the apostate is left naked and destitute of the Spirit of God, and he is, in truth, nigh unto cursing, and his land is to be burned. When once that light which was in them is taken from them, they become as much darkened as they were previously enlightened, and then, no marvel, of all their powers should be enlisted against the truth and they, Judas like, seek the destruction of those who were their greatest benefactors (Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 67).
17 But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves.
18 And those who swear falsely against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death—
19 Wo unto them; because they have offended my little ones they shall be severed from the ordinances of mine house.
20 Their basket shall not be full, their houses and their barns shall perish, and they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them.
verse 20 “they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them” President Harold B. Lee said in general conference, “I remember hearing President [Heber J.] Grant on several occasions say: ‘Whenever certain individuals who are not living good lives begin to compliment me and to speak well of me, I say to myself, Heber J. Grant, what’s the matter with you; you must not be doing your duty, or this kind of people wouldn’t feel so kindly toward you’” (CR, October 1947, 11-12).
If a man is encouraged by his associates to apostatize from the Church, and he does leave the Church, he cannot count on the continued friendship of those who encouraged his fall.
21 They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.
verse 21 “They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them” Again, as has been discussed previously, we do not believe that a man is guilty of sin because his father sinned. The Lord does not punish a man because of his father’s sins. Unfortunately, however, a man born into an apostate household has a great disadvantage in hearing and believing the gospel in this mortal life. The son of an apostate father is likely to become indoctrinated by his father’s evil point of view. The son, however, will be judged on his own merit and not for his father’s misdeeds (the reader is referred to the section entitled “Three factors in the judgment” in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 19, The Essence of the Lord’s Atonement).
President Spencer W. Kimball explained how apostates bring this curse upon themselves. “Among church members rebellion frequently takes the form of criticism of authorities and leaders. They ‘speak evil of dignities’ and ‘of the things that they understand not’ says Peter (2 Peter 2:10, 12). They complain of the programs, belittle the constituted authorities, and generally set themselves up as judges. After a while they absent themselves from church meetings for imagined offenses and fail to pay their tithes and meet their other church obligations. In a word, they have the spirit of apostasy, which is almost always the harvest of the seeds of criticism. . . . Such people fail to bear testimony to their descendants, destroy faith within their own homes, and actually deny the ‘right to the priesthood’ to succeeding generations who might otherwise have been faithful in all things” (Miracle of Forgiveness, 43).
22 It had been better for them that a millstone had been hanged about their necks, and they drowned in the depth of the sea.
23 Wo unto all those that discomfort my people, and drive, and murder, and testify against them, saith the Lord of Hosts; a generation of vipers shall not escape the damnation of hell.
24 Behold, mine eyes see and know all their works, and I have in reserve a swift judgment in the season thereof, for them all;
25 For there is a time appointed for every man, according as his works shall be.
verse 25 “there is a time appointed for every man” All persons upon the earth have a time appointed for their personal judgment, a time when they will answer to God for what they have done in the flesh. For most, this time occurs at death, when they are subjected to the “partial judgment” and assigned to either paradise or prison (“hell”) in the world of spirits. In his book Gospel Doctrine, Joseph F. Smith taught of this “partial judgment” which occurs at the time of our death (448). In this judgment, which is meted out by the “gatekeeper”—surely and necessarily Jesus Christ himself— all will be assigned to a either a state of paradise or a state of prison. This is a vital judgment since all assigned to paradise will continue on to their exaltation, and most all of those assigned to prison will eventually inherit a lesser degree of glory in the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms. Apparently those who have not received the gospel will be judged by the Lord according to how they would have responded had they received it (D&C 137:7-9). Surely other judgments will follow involving those in spirit prison prior to their resurrection.
For some others, this time of judgment will come in connection with the second coming of the Savior, when they will or will not—depending upon their works—be preserved through the fire of his glory as the earth is changed from a telestial to a terrestrial state.
verses 26-32 These verses describe some of the blessings to be enjoyed by those who inherit the coming millennial kingdom. Every one of their questions will be answered through the revelatory power of the Holy Ghost, even questions not answered for great prophets in previous dispensations, even questions to which the angels themselves have desired to know the answers (see 1 Peter 1:12). This privilege will be granted to all saints (see D&C 101:32-34).
26 God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;
verse 26 “the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost” The mysteries revealed by the Holy Ghost are unspeakable in more than one sense of the word. First, words may simply lack the power to express some things one may feel and know by the Spirit. Second, some information, though known to many in the Church, is received by a covenant that it be kept sacred and unspoken except in special times and places. Third, individuals who receive doctrinal knowledge directly through the Holy Ghost that has not been revealed to the Church generally and is not already available in the scriptures receive it with a strict commandment to keep it to themselves (see Alma 12:9). It is a serious breach of trust for one so favored to make this kind of personal revelation public, for this function is the prerogative of the prophet alone as he may be directed by the Lord (see D&C 43:3-5).
27 Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
verse 27 “Which our forefathers have awaited . . . as held in reserve” We sometimes forget that while all things revealed in prior dispensations will be restored in this dispensation, the opposite is not true. That is, many aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ that we already enjoy were withheld from former-day saints, and it will be in this dispensation only—the dispensation of the fulness of times—that every question will eventually be answered.
28 A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.
verse 28 “A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld” The use of the future tense here, together with linking this time to the coming judgment (see verse 25) and the fact that not everything has yet been revealed to the Church (verses 28-32), all indicate that the time for all things to be revealed has not yet occurred but should probably be associated with the second coming of Christ.
“whether there be one God or many gods” This is the first mention of the plurality of Gods—see also verse 32. How are we to regard these mentions of the plurality of gods? Is this a pronunciation of doctrine—a confirmation that there is, in fact, a plurality of gods? Some have suggested that this reference was not a pronouncement of doctrine or a revelation in itself but rather as an example of the kind of question that will be answered when the proper time comes. Others feel that this reference was fulfilled and that the question was answered in the King Follett Discourse. These verses are in the original letter, but were excluded from the Times and Seasons account. Because of this, some have erroneously assumed that this “doctrine” was added later.
29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
verse 29 “All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers” These terms are used in the New Testament to indicate different spiritual powers—usually understood as different spiritual ranks, glories, or types of angels or other heavenly beings (see Romans 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; 6:12; Colossians 1:16; 2:10, 15). The terms are also used in D&C 132:19 in a manner that suggests grades or degrees of spiritual power inherited by those sealed up with Christ in the new and everlasting covenant. All spiritual powers, both good (as in this verse) and evil (see Ephesians 6:12), function by divine permission or authority, and all are subject to Christ and will be subject also to those who rule with him.
30 And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—
31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—
verses 31-32 These verses promise to the earthbound righteous scientist eventual answers to all of his queries regarding the ultimate questions of astronomy, physics, and all fields of science.
“and all their glories, laws, and set times” A beginning of this information has already been given to this dispensation in the books of Moses and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price (see, particularly, Abraham 3 and the Explanation to Facsimile 2). As the explanation to figures 9-21 in Abraham Facsimile 2 specifically states, however, the time for all such things to be revealed has not yet arrived.
32 According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest.
verse 32 “the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods” The idea of the premortal heavenly council was common in the ancient Near East and can be found in Psalm 82:1, Job 38:7, and elsewhere (see Revelation 12:7-9; 1 Enoch 8-11; Jubilees 10; see also John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 35-49).
“The Eternal God of all other gods” is none other than our own Heavenly Father, the Father of spirits, and the Father of Jesus Christ. There is likely no intent in this verse of describing any other or any higher deity. Because God is also called a “God of gods” in the Bible (Deuteronomy 10:17; Psalm 136:2), it will be seen that this verse does not in itself supply any information about the nature of God or about the premortal council that is not already found in the Bible—nor likely was it intended to. These would be topics appropriate for “a time to come” (verse 28). It is true, however, that Joseph Smith introduced the subject of the “plurality of gods” in remarks made at the funeral of King Follett in Nauvoo on April 6, 1844.
Joseph likewise taught that through the grace of God and the ordinances of the gospel, human beings, as literal children of God, could progress to become like Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3-4; 1 John 3:2) and ultimately like our Father in Heaven. In this instance, the “plurality” of gods consists of the members of the Godhead and also those who through the gospel of Christ take upon them the divine nature to become joint heirs with Christ of all that the Father has (see 2 Peter 1:3-4; Romans 8:17; D&C 84:38). Joseph Smith taught that to truly understand either ourselves or God, we have to know that we and God are of the same species, and he is literally the Father of our spirits (see Hebrews 12:9), that he was once as we are now, and that by following his example as revealed through the Son of God, we can become in the future as he now is (see Philippians 2:5-6). It should be noted that there is perilously little in any of this—except by inference and supposition—to support any detailed doctrine of divine beings other than our Heavenly Parents and their exalted children. And because we do not have Joseph Smith’s explanation of just what he intended to convey in his statements in Nauvoo on the plurality of gods, which are still technically outside the standard works, they should probably be understood as a small beginning rather than as the expansive completion of latter-day revelation to be received on this topic.
“reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof” We are succinctly reminded that the occasion for answering every question of the type exemplified in verses 28-32 will be the “time appointed” (verse 25) or the “time to come” (verse 28), when all that is unknown will be made known in the day of judgment and resurrection.
33 How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.
verse 33 “How long can rolling waters remain impure?” This phrase suddenly introduces a new idea into section 121 without a transition. It is helpful to look at the paragraph in the History of the Church which precedes verse 33: “But I beg leave to say unto you, brethren, that ignorance, superstition, and bigotry placing itself where it ought not, is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of this Church; like the torrent of rain from the mountains, that floods the most pure and crystal stream with mire, and dirt, and filthiness, and obscures everything that was clear before, and all rushes along in one general deluge; but time weathers tide; and notwithstanding we are rolled in the mire of the flood for the time being, the next surge peradventure, as time rolls in, may bring to us the fountain as clear as crystal, and as pure as snow; while the filthiness, floodwood and rubbish is left and purged out by the way. How long can rolling waters remain impure? . . . .“
Look also at the paragraph which follows verse 33: “What is Boggs or his murderous party, but wimbling willows upon the shore to catch the floodwood? [As far as I can determine, Joseph’s intended meaning for the word “wimbling” here is unknown, but it certainly doesn’t sound like a very positive term.] As well might we argue that water is not water, because the mountain torrents send down mire and roil the crystal stream, although afterwards render it more pure than before; or that fire is not fire, because it is of a quenchable nature, by pouring on the flood; as to say that our cause is down because renegados, liars, priests, thieves, and murderers, who are all alike tenacious of their crafts and creeds, have poured down, from their spiritual wickedness in high places, and from their strongholds of the devil, a flood of dirt and mire and filthiness and vomit upon our heads.” [“Roil” means to stir up a liquid and make it cloudy, muddy, or unsettled.]
In summary, then, the ignorance, superstition, bigotry, and lies of those who apostatize or otherwise fight against the Church have often hindered the prosperity of the Church. But even though they muddy up the water for awhile, the stream rolls on and is eventually cleansed again. The apostates who are the floodwood and rubbish are left behind. And who is it that catches them and prevents them from continuing downstream? It is the “wimbling willows” upon the shore—in other words, those who are without the Church who are its critics.
verses 34-46 These verses form the theme of section 121—“The Spirit of the Priesthood.” Simply stated, these verses declare that many have hands laid upon their heads in the premortal world and have been foreordained to receive the priesthood. However, only a relative few will so honor their priesthood and live the gospel here on earth that they will provide significant leadership in the kingdom and be able to utilize their priesthood power in this life and earn exaltation in the life to come.
According to Elder John Carmack, Joseph Smith in these verses established “a constitution for the individual in exercising the priesthood” (“Missouri Era,” 4). At the end of the Missouri period, Joseph had witnessed many, who had been called to the kingdom, wither away or use their calling in wickedness and thus fail to become elect. Certainly, if there is a “constitution” defining the necessary terms and uses of individual priesthood power, it is in these verses.
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
verse 34 “there are many called, but few are chosen” The moment of one’s calling may be when spirit hands are laid upon our spirit heads in the premortal world and we are foreordained to certain works in mortality, or it may be when we are called to service here in mortality in the Lord’s earthly kingdom. It is not sufficient, however, merely to be called. The call is merely God’s invitation to serve. To be chosen or elected is to be sealed up to exaltation in God’s heavenly kingdom, and this can come only after one has responded to the call and has magnified that call. The time between the call and the choosing is one’s time of probation, or testing. Being “chosen” usually occurs after a lifetime of faithful endurance, though some receive this blessing while still in the flesh (see 2 Peter 1:10, 18-19).
“And why are they not chosen?” This verse, when placed in context in Joseph’s letter, specifically warns against one particular form of unrighteousness. The reader should note the thoughts in the History of the Church that preceded the recording of verse 34 in that record:
And if there are any among you who aspire after their own aggrandizement, and seek their own opulence, while their brethren are groaning in poverty, and are under sore trials and temptations, they cannot be benefited by the intercession of the Holy Spirit, which maketh intercession for us day and night with groanings that cannot be uttered. We ought at all times to be very careful that such high-mindedness shall never have place in our hearts; but condescend to men of low estate, and with all long-suffering bear the infirmities of the weak. Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen . . . (3:299).
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
verse 35 We are reminded by this verse that the vital struggle here in mortality is between our “natural” self and our “spiritual” self. See The “Natural Self” and “Spiritual Self” in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 5.
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
verse 36 “the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven” A man holding the priesthood has the authority to act for God. Under certain well-defined circumstances God allows the priesthood holder to borrow his divine power in order that the man may accomplish his objectives. And what are those circumstances? The priesthood holder is empowered to do only what God would do in a given situation. When the priesthood holder moves outside those limits, his connection to God’s power is broken, and he is no longer authorized or empowered to exercise the priesthood (see also D&C 46:30). It is impossible to use the power of God to do wickedness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
verse 37 “but when we undertake to cover our sins” Those who hold the priesthood must either constantly and repeatedly repent of their sins and continuously improve spiritually, or they may cover their sins and pretend to a worthiness they do not possess. The latter course causes one’s priesthood to be withdrawn. Should such a man, though unrepentant, subsequently be called upon to exercise his priesthood in an appropriate manner, the ordinance he performs will be recognized by heaven for the sake of those who are blessed. However, the unworthy priesthood holder will be held accountable, as were the sons of Eli (see 1 Samuel 2:12), for polluting his sacred calling.
“to gratify our pride” Pride wants to rule; priesthood wants to serve. President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Pride does not look up to God and care about what is right. It looks sideways to man and argues who is right. Pride is manifest in the spirit of contention. Was it not through pride that the devil became the devil? Christ wanted to serve. The devil wanted to rule. Christ wanted to bring men to where he was. The devil wanted to be above men. Christ removed self as the force in his perfect life. It was not my will, but thine be done [Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42]” (CR, April 1986, 6, emphasis added).
“to exercise control or dominion or compulsion” Agency is an inviolable principle of the universe. Even God cannot violate it. Priesthood power always operates within the limits of the agency of the governed. It authorizes, enables, and allows. Wickedness inevitably attempts to compel, override agency, and force compliance. If a bishop were to wonder how he might make his ward obey; or if a husband were to ask how he might make his wife obey; then both have already lost their right to preside. Any dominion that is to become everlasting must flow unto its possessor voluntarily or “without compulsory means (verse 46)—for there is no compulsion in the mansions of the Father.
“in any degree of unrighteousness” The priesthood does have the right to preside and govern. But the priesthood alone, unassociated with personal righteousness, does not. The potential to act for God, priesthood authority, can be transmitted by ordination; but power in the priesthood comes from ordination, from personal righteousness, and from the consent of those for whom priesthood authority is to be exercised. The power of the priesthood cannot exist without all three of these elements.
Bishop H. Burke Peterson observed in relation to this verse: “From this I understand that there is a difference between priesthood authority and priesthood power. Power and authority in the priesthood are not necessarily synonymous. All of us who hold the priesthood have the authority to act for the Lord, but the effectiveness of our authority—or if you please, the power that comes through that authority— depends on the pattern of our lives; it depends on our righteousness” (CR, April 1976, 50).
“Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” In contemporary English, to say “amen” to something is generally understood as confirming or affirming it. As an affirmation, “amen” means roughly “so be it,” “thus,” or “even so.” In this phrase, however, a condition applies that gives “amen” a different nuance. The phrase does not mean that the priesthood should not be used unrighteously. Rather it means that that it cannot be so used. It is impossible for the priesthood to be used to empower acts that are contrary to God’s will.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
verse 38 “to kick against the pricks” An ox or other plow animal is turned right or left by being jabbed or pricked with a long, sharpened pole called a goad. When a stubborn animal resists the will of its owner by turning toward and kicking back against the pricking of the goad, all it accomplishes is to injure itself on the sharpened point. The Lord applied this imagery to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul had apparently resisted the subtle promptings of the Spirit as it tried to guide him, and like a stubborn ox, he kicked against the pricking of the Lord’s goad—to his own greater injury (see Acts 9:5).
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
verse 39 Unrighteous men see authority as personal power rather than as an opportunity for service. If they don’t have power, they will try to obtain it by whatever means necessary. This verse points out that positions of absolute authority are dangerous for even the most righteous among us.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
verse 41 The phrase “by virtue of the priesthood” means only or just because of one’s ordination to the priesthood. As we have discussed, ordination alone is not sufficient. Any given member of the Church will respond favorably to a priesthood holder and allow that priesthood holder to have influence in his or her life when he or she perceives that the priesthood holder is selfless and cares only for serving others. It is the righteous virtues and self-sacrifice of an ordained individual that invite others to sustain his leadership. President Spencer W. Kimball remarked, “We have heard of men who have said to their wives, ‘I hold the priesthood and you’d better do what I say.’ Such a man should be tried for his membership. Certainly he should not be honored in his priesthood” (Korea Area Conference Report, March 1975, 52-53).
“love unfeigned” Unfeigned means “not pretended.” Priesthood leaders cannot preside properly over those whom they do not genuinely love.
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
verse 43 “Reproving betimes with sharpness” To reprove is “to correct,” particularly when it is done gently. Most people, if asked the meaning of the word “betimes,” would say something like “once in a while.” “Betimes” actually means early or “at the right time,” or even “before it is too late.” “Sharpness” is probably most aptly interpreted to mean in a focused, specific way not condemning the individual as a whole. McConkie, Millet, and Top in their book Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume IV comment on the word “sharpness” and add a different slant to its meaning: “Testifying with ‘sharpness,’ as Moroni is here using the word, does not mean he was being contentious or mean-spirited. It means direct and to the point. It means not couched in soft, comfortable language but focused on what need to be said more than on how to say it” (359). In other words, we should gently correct, in a timely manner, with truth—the plain and unvarnished truth.
Two principles of correction, then are to reprove early and with direct truth. We may summarize a few additional essential principles of correction as follows: Tell them where they went wrong. Explain the short term and long term consequences of their actions. Teach them how to prevent the problem from recurring. And leave them with hope of forgiveness.
“then showing forth afterwards an increase of love” An obligation equal to that of reproving the wayward—when prompted by the Holy Ghost—is the obligation subsequently to demonstrate an increase of genuine love for the reproved so that he or she knows the reproof came from the Lord.
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
verse 45 “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” To garnish means “to adorn or decorate.”
“then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God” Mosiah 2:38 explains that the guilt of the unrepentant will cause them to shrink from the presence of God in an agony of soul (see also 2 Nephi 9:14). One of the great privileges of faithfulness is the right to confidence that one will be welcomed and comfortable in the presence of God.
“the doctrine of the priesthood” Elder Bruce R. McConkie said that the doctrine of the priesthood is “that we have power, by faith, to govern and control all things, both temporal and spiritual; to work miracles and perfect lives; to stand in the presence of God and be like him because he have gained his faith, his perfections, and his power, or in other words the fulness of his priesthood” (Ensign, May 1984, 32). The doctrine of the priesthood is thus the total of all the knowledge and behavior necessary to become as God, to be exalted and qualified to govern one’s own everlasting dominion.
“shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” As the dews from heaven come quietly and gently, often unnoticed, in the early hours of the morning, so we are promised that the doctrine of the priesthood will come quietly and without fanfare as we learn and practice the lessons taught in verses 35-45.
46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
verse 46 “The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion” Even though the gift of the Holy Ghost is conferred upon a member of the Church, it does not follow that the Holy Ghost will always be with that person. But as we learn and implement correctly the doctrine of the priesthood, as we become more like our Heavenly Father, we enjoy more frequent and increased companionship of the Spirit until eventually he may become our constant companion.
“an unchanging scepter of righteousness” A scepter is a physical symbol of royal power and authority. This phrase implies that the exalted become eternally kings and queens over their own dominions—if they have abided by the conditions described in verses 35-45. The blessings and dominions bestowed upon the exalted will be unchanging and everlasting. They can never thereafter be taken away.
“without compulsory means” This phrase implies that the blessings and dominions bestowed upon the exalted will be unchanging and everlasting. They naturally and inevitably flow to the righteous priesthood holder. They can never thereafter be taken away. They continue to flow unto the individual because of the individual’s voluntary submission to the commandments. No compulsory means are involved. God forces no one.
- Michael J. Preece