The Mormon God doesn’t thunder any more. There was a time when his revelations through Mormon prophets were designed to reverberate across the world. During a special conference of the church at Hiram, Ohio, November 1, 1831, God gave his ‘preface’ to the newly compiled prophecies, originally published in 1833 as The Book of Commandments. An enlarged edition was published in 1835 under its current title of Doctrine and Covenants. The preface begins:
‘Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily, I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.’ (D&C 1:1) before declaring ‘a voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.’ and boldly announcing, ‘Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments.’
At a conference of the church at Fayette, New York, January 2, 1831, a ‘revelation’ through Joseph Smith began:
‘Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I AM, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made; the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes…’ (D&C 38:1-2) before promising, ‘The Saints are to be given power from on high and to go forth among all nations.’
Promises of power, warnings of calamity, and a man for the moment in Joseph Smith.
Joseph and Beginnings
The Mormon God once seemed anxious to answer Joseph Smith’s every question on just about any issue, and with celestial authority, from the profoundly eternal to the ridiculously mundane. Section 89 sees Joseph Smith asking God’s advice concerning his wife, Emma’s complaint about the brethren chewing and spitting tobacco:
‘Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation…’ (D&C 89)
Doctrine and Covenants 91 is six verses long:
‘Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha…’ it begins, before going on to say some of the Apocrypha is good and useful, some of it not, which is not so much a revelation as pretty much the common understanding of the Apocrypha.
Doctrine and Covenants 132, on the other hand, is the basis for Mormon cosmology, speaking of the ‘Celestial family,’ telling how men become gods, and the law regarding plural marriage:
‘Verily, this saith the Lord…prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all this who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same. For behold, I reveal unto you a new and everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.’ (vv 1-4)
Of course, having a word from the Lord, and spoken with such final authority, is useful as your community grows, your ambitions grow with it, and individuals question your judgement. This is no better illustrated than in seeing how Joseph Smith dealt with the ‘murmurings’ of his long-suffering wife.
In July, 1830, barely 3 months after the establishment of the church, Emma was told:
‘Hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God, while I speak unto you, Emma Smith, my daughter…a revelation I give unto you concerning my will; and if thou art faithful and walk in the paths of virtue before me, I will preserve thy life, and thou shalt receive an inheritance in Zion…murmur not’ before the Lord goes on to give Emma the role of a comforter to her husband, assuring her that Joseph’s enterprise would not leave her desolate, telling her not to worry about ‘the things of this world.’
Clearly, Emma’s concerns were very much about the things of this world. I imagine the conversations around the dinner table about where the next meal was coming from and what was in prospect for a young woman hitching her wagon to the life of an itinerant prophet of the Lord.
In July, 1843, in anticipation of Emma’s reaction to the revelation on plural marriage, Doctrine and Covenants 132 warns:
‘And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me…For I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice; and I give unto my servant Joseph that he shall be made ruler over many things…And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and I will destroy her if she abide not my law.’ (vv 52-54)
Well, that’s Emma put in her place.
Brigham and Beyond
The only revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants delivered by Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young, still spoke of, ‘The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeying to the West…’ (D&C 136) This is when Brigham Young’s reputation as the ‘American Moses’ was born, as he led the Mormons in their trek West to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Strangely, during a period of great upheaval and terrible sacrifice for the saints, God appears to have been silent.
Only two revelations more were added to the sections of this book of revelations. Section 137 reports a vision given to Joseph Smith in January 1836, of the Celestial Kingdom, section 138 a vision given to Joseph F Smith, in October 1918. Both were canonised in a General Conference of the church as additions to the Pearl of Great Price. They became sections in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1981.
Yet, the Mormon God did still thunder, as the Saints established their lives far west of their origins. Examples can be found in the controversial Journal of Discourses. Originally intended as a record of ongoing guidance from the Lord. It was described by its publishers as ‘deservedly [ranking] among the standard works of the Church…’ (JOD, vol.8, Preface) and came with the endorsement and approval of no other than the First Presidency.
In the matter of plural marriage, especially, the church came under enormous pressure to change its policy and practice. But Brigham Young had made clear that, ‘the only men who become Gods, even Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.’ (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p.269) Heber C. Kimball was once told by Joseph Smith that if he did not practice polygamy ‘he would lose his apostleship and be damned.’ (Life of Heber C. Kimball, p.336) Kimball went on to quote Joseph, at various times, saying:
‘The principle of plurality of wives never will be done away with. You might as well deny ‘Mormonism’ and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives…. I speak of the plurality of wives as one of the most holy principles that God ever revealed to man, and all who exercise an influence against it, unto whom it is taught…will be damned…the curse of God will be upon them.’
The Mormon God would have his way though the whole world stood against the one true church, and revelation would continue to be assertive and dogmatic. Read more here.
Mormon Revelation in Abeyance
By 1890, perhaps because brought to heel by the Federal Government over the issue, the Mormon God sounds eerily muted, Mormon revelation less sure. In October 1890 the Mormon prophet declared an end to the practice of plural marriage. Yet this did not come with a ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ but with:
To Whom it may concern:
…Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise.
There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.
President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Known as Official Declaration 1, this was not added to the main body of revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, not given a section number, but is an appendage to that collection. So, indeed, is the 1978 Official Declaration 2, announcing an end to the race bar to the Mormon priesthood, which announcement is just as dry and muted:
To Whom It May Concern:
On September 30, 1978, at the 148th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the following was presented by President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church:
In early June of this year, the First Presidency announced that a revelation had been received by President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church. President Kimball has asked that I advise the conference that after he had received this revelation, which came to him after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple, he presented it to his counselors, who accepted it and approved it. It was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it, and was subsequently presented to all other General Authorities, who likewise approved it unanimously.
The church’s most recent statement, The Family, a Proclamation to the World, known as the Proclamation on the Family and issued in September 1995, hasn’t even found its way into the book. The Proclamation begins:
‘WE, THE FIRST PRESIDENCY and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.’
The first proclamation was a simple announcement that the church was going to comply with the law. This isn’t surprising since they faced bankruptcy because of the penalties suffered for defying that same law.
The second is not a revelation, but an announcement that a revelation was received. We have no idea what God is meant to have said to Spencer W Kimball, only the outworking of it. Neither does the proclamation make mention of the enormous social pressure placed on leaders by those inside and outside the church at the time.
The third proclamation is a simple statement of a faith position such as any Christian denomination or Church might issue. It seems the Mormon God has not spoken, ‘Thus…’ for a very long time.
Mormonism’s Thunder Silenced
The recent death of Mormon prophet Thomas S Monson has seen significant changes at the top. Notably, Deiter Uchdorf, the most popular and progressive member of the first presidency of the church for many years, finds himself back in the quorum of the Twelve. The new prophet, Russell M Nelson, a 93-year-old former heart surgeon, has reaffirmed expectations he will likely uphold the church’s traditional teachings. As though to press home his point, the smooth-talking Uchdorf has been replaced by straight-talking Dallin H Oaks, former jurist.
The church currently faces the challenges of pressure from the LGBT community, a rising movement to include women in the exclusively male priesthood, and other issues. They will need men like this, who are determined to uphold the traditional teachings of the church, if the church isn’t going to roll over and embrace liberal ideals, as has the Reorganised Church, the Community of Christ.
Nevertheless, the Mormon God doesn’t thunder any more, and I anticipate church policy will continue to be channelled through official statements. You can see another one here. And we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Mormon Scripture to be added to. Mormon leaders will, no doubt, continue to encourage the saints to ‘keep the faith’ but it will be done through anecdotes, life-building principles, and comforting folk wisdom with which generations of Mormons have become comfortable and familiar.
Mormon prophets once delivered prophecy, now they deliver policy.