For the very first installment of our series on the Journal of Discourses, we'll be looking at the first discourse in the first volume. This was preached by Brigham Young (1801-1877), the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The discourse in question was delivered in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 16 January 1853. The text as we have it was reported by George Darling Watt (1812-1881), the principal editor of the Journal of Discourses (and who was later disfellowshipped and excommunicated after casting his lot with the LDS splinter group led by William Godbe (1833-1902)). The main theme of President Young's discourse that day was salvation.
1. As I begin my way through the text, one of the first things that catches my eye is that Brigham Young says that he dislikes referring to us as "fallen beings" but prefers to say "subjected intelligence", and clarifies that this is subjection to "law, order, rule, and government" (JD 1:1). My first question here is, what objection does Young have to the notion of us as "fallen beings"? While it is true that the Bible itself never refers to our state as 'fallen', Alma 42:6 says that after Adam's sin, "man became lost forever, yea, they became fallen men"; Alma 42:12 refers to "this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience"; and Alma 42:14 plainly states that "we see that all mankind were fallen". It seems that describing humans as 'fallen beings' is not simply permissible but is in fact a description countenanced by the LDS scriptural canon, and so I'm not certain what to make of Brigham Young's dislike of the term here. As for my second question, it seemed initially that "subjected intelligence" would be a term serving the same function, more or less, as 'fallen beings'. But is Young saying that we would not be subject to any law or government if there had been no sin? This doesn't seem to be the case, because if memory serves me rightly, in LDS thought there are eternal laws and principles that are necessarily true, even independently of the will, character, and nature of our God. And so it seems that 'subjected intelligence' as a description cannot have any negative connotations, nor a postlapsarian sense. Am I reading Young rightly here?
2. Brigham Young quickly goes on to say:
There is not a person in this world, who is endowed with a common share of intellect, but is laboring with all his power for salvation. Men vary in their efforts to obtain that object, still their individual conclusions are, that they will ultimately secure it. (JD 1:1)
At first, this seemed rather shocking to me, until I read a bit further and got a better sense of what Young means. It seems that, as an initial sense of the word 'salvation', President Young is using a rather broad conception that includes even temporal prosperity, security, peace, etc. And it is then in this sense that all humans seek 'salvation'.
3. After describing people in many walks of life and their respective searches for salvation as enduring happiness and fulfillment, Brigham Young notes:
The Latter-day Saint, who is far from the bosom of the Church, whose home is in distant climes, sighs, and earnestly prays each day of his life for the Lord to open his way, that he may mingle with the brethren in Zion, for he supposes that his happiness would then be complete, but in this his expectations will be in a measure vain, for happiness that is real and lasting in its nature cannot be enjoyed by mortals, for it is altogether out of keeping with this transitory state. (JD 1:2)
My first observation here is that Young powerfully captures an aspect of the early LDS experience. In this time, many Latter-day Saints were concentrated in the Utah Territory, but quite a few were in distant lands as a result of ongoing missions elsewhere in the world. I can imagine that those Latter-day Saints longed to be among their fellow believers (hence the creation of the Perpetual Emigration Fund). But already, President Young warns that even dwelling in the new promised land is not enough to secure lasting happiness, because that cannot be achieved in this mortal life; the reason is that this life is marked by fleeting pleasures and continued tribulations, and we await a permanent state to come. Here, I think that Brigham Young is quite on the mark.
4. The next block of text that stuck out to me is this:
How difficult it is to teach the natural man, who comprehends nothing more than that which he sees with the natural eye! How hard it is for him to believe! How difficult would be the task to make the philosopher, who, for many years, has argued himself into the belief that his spirit is no more after his body sleeps in the grave, believe that his intelligence came from eternity, and is eternal, in its nature, as the elements, or as the Gods. Such doctrine by him would be considered vanity and foolishness, it would be entirely beyond his comprehension. (JD 1:2)
The first thing I want to note is that this 'philosopher' is not merely any non-LDS person, but is someone who limits his understanding to what can be directly perceived. In short, the man seems to be an atheist and perhaps materialist precisely because he is a strict empiricist. Second, note that this person is specifically said to have persuaded himself over many years that there is no afterlife, no enduring spirit, nothing more to life than the biological; what seems to be perhaps implied in President Young's rhetoric is that a humble and intelligent person seeking wisdom and open to God's guidance would most naturally conclude the opposite, which is the truth. My third note is that the contrast presented here is between the atheistic naturalist on the one hand and an adherent of the LDS view of human nature on the other, in which there is a wholly uncreated, unoriginated element that forms the core of intelligent life, and that this inner 'intelligence' is co-eternal with God himself. (This quote also implies the doctrine of the plurality of gods, which Joseph Smith taught in his King Follett Discourse [7 April 1844] and even moreso in his Sermon in the Grove [16 July 1844]. But as it's only tangentially implied, I won't go into it now here.) I wish to raise, simply as a theoretical third alternative, the position that there is such a thing as a created spirit that has a beginning but, because of the sustaining power of God, will not have an end. Discussion of the early LDS critique of created intelligence must wait until a more pertinent discourse.
5. Brigham Young goes on to say that no man can offer "words of eternal life" apart from the influence of God's Spirit, but rather "when the Lord gives His Spirit to a person, or to a people, they can then hear, believe, and be instructed" (JD 1:3). This sounds to me rather reminiscent of the Wesleyan teaching of prevenient grace, at least in a certain respect. (I'm quite confident that, given the LDS commitment to free agency, a comparison with a more Calvinistic viewpoint would be misleading here.) Left to our own devices, and without the activity of God's Spirit, none of us would be capable of responding to his summons to accept the good news; only the activity of God's Spirit can enable the reception of this word.
6. Brigham Young goes on to point out that a community in which everyone wholly devoted themselves to the gospel would be one with "a resting place for the Holy Ghost" and "a habitation of the Father and the Son" (JD 1:3). And Young goes on to lament:
Let me ask, what is there to prevent any person in this congregation from being so blessed, and becoming a holy temple fit for the indwelling of the Holy Ghost? Has any being in heaven or on earth done aught to prevent you from becoming so blessed? No, but why the people are not so privileged I will leave you to judge. I would to God that every soul who professes to be a Latter-day Saint was of that character, a holy temple for the indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (JD 1:3)
In other words, there are only two truly relevant parties to this: the human party, and the divine party (the Godhead). And there's no problem with the divine party, because Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are perfectly willing to indwell the believer. So the only one who can stop you from experiencing this blessing is you; you are your sole potential obstacle in this matter. And that seems perfectly consonant with what Paul says in Romans 8:38-39. Furthermore, I pray Brigham Young's prayer, not only for Latter-day Saints, but for Latter-day Saints and for my own Evangelical brothers and sisters, that they may receive that blessing by yielding to God's abundant grace.
7. Brigham Young later goes on to deliver a denunciation of some 'Elders of Israel' who exhibited an attitude that can unfortunately affect people in all sorts of positions:
If Elders of Israel use language which is not proper for the lips of a Saint, such Elders are under condemnation, and the wrath of God abides upon them, those who do it have not the love of truth in their hearts, they do not love and honor the truth because it is the truth, but because it is powerful, and they wish to join with the strongest party. (JD 1:4)
In light of what preceded it, by "language which is not proper for the lips of a Saint" Brigham Young appears to mean things such as backbiting, gossip, and curses (as opposed to blessings, which he says should fill the mouths of the members of a truly Christian society such as Zion is intended to be). Thus, 'Elders of Israel' who do such things are under God's wrath and condemnation because they show that they don't really love truth. Brigham Young's analysis of their situation is interesting. They profess to love the truth, but underneath the mask don't actually love or honor the truth. They love it on the surface, not in their hearts. Why? They love the truth for the sake of power. In short, these people are loving the truth as an instrumental good, not as an intrinsic good. For them, power is the real intrinsic good. But Brigham Young says - and here I must agree - that truth must be regarded as good for its own sake; the mere seeking after power is not the Christian way. Think how many there are who try to treat truth and righteousness as instrumental goods in order to gain power or some other self-seeking 'intrinsic' good; is this not the very fault of Simon Magus?
8. Brigham Young later links the principle of judgment by works to the urgent quality of progression. As he says:
You will find that this probation is the place to increase upon every little we receive, for the Lord gives line upon line to the children of men. When He reveals the plan of salvation, then is the time to fill up our days with good works. (JD 1:5)
In other words, 'to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, more will be taken away' (cf. Matthew 13:12). And Young applies this to good works, it seems. Those who do good works will, at the judgment, have even greater rewards bestowed upon them; but those who neglect to be active in doing good in the present time will lose out at the judgment and not make any progress. And because it is the goal of our kind to forever make progress, that is all the more reason to become involved in doing good now, because such is the gateway to our future realization of our potential, which is our great goal. And here I think Brigham Young hits on an important theme. While I can't accept certain specifics of the LDS view of eternal progression that rely on distinctive LDS views of the nature of God and man that I as an orthodox Christian must reject, there is nevertheless certainly a sense in which the believer will continue to grow in the love of God forever, and thus to become increasingly glorified without end, for the reflection of God's infinite glory is our telos. But in order to make the most of the age to come, we must make the most of our opportunities in the present age as well. Discipleship is not for the lazy; it's for those who are serious about living by a faith that obeys God's guidance and trusts in his promises. We aren't to trust in our works - our trust is in the faithful grace of God - but nevertheless our faith must become vibrantly alive in the grace-enabled works it naturally bursts forth in, if we don't stifle it. And it is by doing this and beginning to reshape our characters after the imitatio Christi that we take steps on a joyous (though oft-painful in this life) and never-ending process that, in some sense, may eventually be termed 'exaltation'.
9. Brigham Young finally returns to the issue of "the eternal existence of the soul" (JD 1:5). First he says:
The philosophers of this world will concede that the elements of which you and I are composed are eternal, yet they believe that there was a time when there was no God. They cannot comprehend how it is that God can be eternal. (JD 1:5)
It's not immediately clear to me what sort of 'philosophers' Young has in mind here. Perhaps someone else can fill in some of the background. I know of those who would contend that there is no God and that the basic material elements are eternal - such philosophers have indeed lived - but I confess my unfamiliarity with those who hold that matter pre-existed God, that God has a beginning. At any rate, some of what Brigham Young stresses in this section is unobjectionable because his emphasis is on the future-directed eternity of the soul, and most Christians (LDS or otherwise) generally hold that we ourselves will never cease to exist now that we do in fact presently exist. (The real matter of controversy is whether or not this or any other true relevant consideration implies that we never began to exist either.) Further along, Brigham Young makes a reference in what he says next to the notion that faithful Latter-day Saints have in this life been "laying the foundation to become Gods" (JD 1:5), and with this I as an Evangelical must quibble. If by this Brigham Young means - as I'm sure he does - that we have the hope of becoming naturally divine in the same way that the Father or the Son are now divine, then this must be rejected; the divinity of the Father and the Son (and of the Holy Ghost) is a matter of ontology and identity that is incommunicable, and there is a great ontological gult between ourselves and the Godhead because we are of different essential kinds. So in this sense, I must from my perspective within the historic Christian tradition judge Brigham Young's statement to be false. However, nevertheless there is a truth in what he says, because we do have the hope of being invited by grace to share in the unfathomable love that characterizes the inner divine life of the Godhead, and to be glorified by our communion by grace with that Eternal Community to which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit belong by nature. In this sense, one may perhaps indeed dare to say, with a touch of hyperbole and a different manner of speaking, that believers do lay the foundation to become 'gods' - or, rather, that God lays the foundation for us to become 'gods' by participation, and invites us to labor with him. It is Brigham Young's primary contention that, if we could clearly see all of this, we would at last grasp the reasons why we "receive the truth in the love of it, live in it, and continue in it" (JD 1:5).
10. Brigham Young concludes on the note that arbitrarily and uncompassionately passing condemnation on one another is "the height of folly" because, as he says:
I find that I have enough to do to watch myself. It is as much as I can do to get right, deal right, and act right. If we should all do this, there would be no difficulty, but in every man's mouth would be "May the Lord bless you." (JD 1:6)
And here, too, it seems that Brigham Young got it right. Our priority when it comes to fault-finding is quite clearly ourselves - not in the interest of building up an unhealthy sense of guilt or of poor self-worth, but in recognizing that if we are not seeking after righteousness, we are in very little position to help others, and certainly in no position to set up our own personal scruples as the absolute moral law to which all others must kowtow.
On that note, I conclude my initial survey of the first discourse in the Journal of Discourses, and eagerly await the input of others. And so, in Brigham Young's own closing words:
Light cleaves to light, and truth to truth.
May God bless you. Amen. (JD 1:6)