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Being Biblical

By: Steve Fleming - January 20, 2011

I took a directed readings course for one of my last classes at BYU, and one of the books was about colonial New Englanders’ notions of America as a promised land. While that may seem rather innocuous, I was struck by the similarities to Mormon notions and the fact that JS would have been immersed in that culture (no getting around the fact that he would have been influenced by such ideas). When I met with the professor to discuss the book I mentioned my concern and I think he sort of made a joke. But then seeing that I still looked concerned he simply said, “it’s in the Bible.” That made me feel better.

In the process of getting comfortable with finding Mormon-looking ideas in JS’s environment, I’ve wondered why I felt this way. I think the impulse derives from the feeling that the Bible is a legitimate source, whereas other sources may not be. This is a very Protestant approach.

JS seemed to have a different approach though. I want to look at two quotes. [1] The first comes from the heading to D&C 76: “From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.” Here JS goes beyond the idea that important truths were taken from the Bible: he asserts that his revelations suggest that important truths might have never made it into the Bible.

The second comes from the King Follett Discourse: “I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. If I do, I think there are so many over-wise men here that they would cry ‘treason’ and put me to death. So I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today.” [HC 6:307] I now wonder if JS might have been referring to some text rather than his own revelation. What was it that he wanted to investigate? Furthermore JS seemed to be irritated by having to “go to the old Bible.” He wanted to investigate something “not contained in the Bible.” Does the impulse to be biblical put us in the role of the “over-wise men”?
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[1] I have not looked them up in the official sources so if they are problematic, let me know.

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11 Comments

  1. Yeah, the header to 76 doesn’t date to JS. I can see where you are going. I do tend to think however, that a lot of what JS was doing was taking bits of the Bible and expanding them.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 20, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

  2. Joseph often made things biblical. He brought extra-biblical wisdom, light, and knowledge, and then formulated and presented it within a biblical framework or context. I believed it served in orienting the saints of the day in seeing their place in the Eternal Drama of Salvation.

    I think in many ways, Joseph viewed it as reinvigorating, or giving New Life to the Bible itself – instead of leaving it as a dead book, he sought to make it literally the living word of God, infusing it with new and living light, adaptable to the current situation in which the present generation of saints found themselves.

    While this is often used as an item of criticism (“Jo Smith Rewrote himself and his doctrine into the Bible!”), I think it serves as a great example of placing Joseph firmly in the prophetic tradition.

    Comment by David T — January 20, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  3. I think this is an excellent thing to note. When people learn that the endowment has such a strong connection to masonry they freak out. But learning so much has a connection to Protestantism (often incorrect Protestant ideas) bothers no one. It’s not just what is or isn’t Biblical but that larger sense that drawing ideas from Protestantism for better or worse is fine but any other source (including other Christian groups) is somehow bad. It’s very weird to me but probably reflects the underlying cultural position of Protestants in America.

    To me finding out Joseph sought for truth in so many places, whether finding actual truths there or using them as a catalyst for further revelation, was inspirational. It made me think of all the places I’ve found truth and the recognition of so much of value around the world.

    Comment by Clark — January 20, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

  4. The HC paragraph you extracted from is a very interesting one. A fair percentage of it is unsourced (the text added in c1856) but the part you quoted is more or less from Clayton and Bullock. The “old bible” part refers to an “old” bible he had with him at the speech, a polyglot. I mean, I don’t think it was intended as a pejorative thing, rather, a kind of citation of authority.

    Comment by WVS — January 20, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  5. As I understand it, there was little that Joseph taught that was not floating around in religious or other culture somewhere. In 2005 the summer fellows at the Maxwell Institute compiled an extensive Archive of Restoration Culture of ideas tied to Mormonism. http://byustudies.byu.edu/ARC.aspx

    Comment by DavidH — January 20, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

  6. Thanks J., what do you know about the source of that heading?

    I like how you put that David T. I think that’s what he was doing with both DC 76 and the King Follett Discourse.

    Clark, agreed.

    Thanks WVS. It’s not the word “old” that I find as telling as the sentences before that where he expresses frustration that he couldn’t use anything extra-biblical. What was it he wanted to use, I wonder.

    Good point David H.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 21, 2011 @ 1:05 am

  7. Mormon Myopia On Being Bibical
    American Exceptionalism and the Manifest
    the invisible hand and free land

    Yes, God’s Will, served up on our shores, no matter what the cost, with Extra-Bibical Wisdom . . .

    There seems to be a noted lack of comment on obvious forces that swept Joseph Smith to prominence.
    As one not schooled in Mormon History but aware of currents in the American Experience, I must mention the influence of the Mystical Great Awakening, American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and the Jacksonian Era, all shaped Mormonism by default yet Mormonism had no influence on any of these events.
    Without Andrew Jackson Joseph Smith would have been merely a whimper, the notion, magical white people on a new continent, vacant of any reasonable opposing force made this land, bounded by two oceans, a blessing granted by “God himself.” Mormonism sidled in and took its fair share using the trope of murmurs, sounds, rustling curtains and whispers.

    As it is our right to explore those possibilities using the forces of “old scripture” and the invention of new revelations as tools to explore this virgin soil; opening space to explore with new agency upon more agency compounded for dramatic effect on the fringe of the unfolding continent. Freakish festoons of conjured reality boiled forth by making it up as you went along as it has always been done but on the frontier the restraints were few, and possibility –– endless and God could be everywhere.
    With Andrew Jackson anything was possible, including a New Religion recognizable but not too much different but with a Prophet at the Helm who could speak bibically, what’s to stand in the way.
    The Peepstone speaks for itself.
    The Divine Right Rite is undeniably compelling and location location location.

    Comment by gus o. kahan — January 21, 2011 @ 1:39 am

  8. Wow.

    Comment by WVS — January 21, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  9. Looks like it was added in the 1921 edition.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 21, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  10. Yeah, weird comment gus.

    Thanks J. It’s an interesting statement, I’m curious who wrote it. For the purposes of my dissertation, the KFD quote is the important one.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 21, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

  11. [...] last post was a product of where I was at in my research. As I’ve argued in previous posts, I see heavy [...]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Being Biblical Part II — March 11, 2011 @ 10:26 pm