Sunday, December 5, 2010

JOD 01-03

For the next installment of our series on the Journal of Discourses, we'll be looking at the third discourse in the first volume. This was delivered by John Taylor (1808-1887), who at the time was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later became the third 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 22 August 1852. The text of the discourse as we have it was, like the previous two we looked at, reported by George Darling Watt (1812-1881). The main theme of Elder Taylor's discourse that day was the mission he served in Europe from 1849 to 1852. By way of clarification, John Taylor was himself European by birth - English, in fact - and served as a mission president in France during this time.

1. Early on in his talk, Elder Taylor speaks of this undertaking from which he's just returned as the beginning of an immense undertaking:

I am not going to preach. I wish to tell my feelings, and look at you, and think about what we have done, and what we are going to do, for it is not all done yet - we have only commenced the great work of the Lord, and are laying the foundation of that kingdom which is destined to stand forever; what we shall do, is yet in the future; we have commenced at the little end of the horn, and by and by we will come out at the big end. (JD 1:16)

In short, then, it may be said that Elder Taylor is helping his audience to keep the big picture clear in mind, and to perceive how their efforts in the present fit into that larger, sweeping narrative. This is something that all Christians - whether Latter-day Saints, Evangelicals, or otherwise - must learn to do. (As a side note, one of the best books I've found from a more Evangelical perspective that does this is The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, and I highly recommend it.) I believe I also detect, in Taylor's comment about 'laying the foundation of that kingdom', more than a mere hint of an affinity with postmillennialism, unless I'm mistaken.

2. Elder Taylor's next remarks show a remarkable sense of indifference to the risk of death - a sense of indifference I might expect from someone more Calvinistically minded, perhaps, but which seems perhaps a bit shocking from a Latter-day Saint. He says:

True, some of our friends have dropped by the way, they have fallen asleep, but what of that? And who cares? It is as well to live as to die, or to die as to live, to sleep as to be awake, or to be awake as to sleep - it is all one, they have only gone a little before us. (JD 1:16)

And later he says:

Some people have said to me, sometimes, Are you not afraid to cross over the seas, and deserts, where there are wolves and bears, and other ferocious animals, as well as the savage Indians? Are you not afraid that you will drop by the way, and leave your body on the desert track, or beneath the ocean's wave? No. Who cares anything about it? What of it, if we should happen to drop by the way? (JD 1:17)

I grant, there is some truth here. The Christian calling is not one for the comfortable, not for those who fear death, because we are in the clutch of one who has triumphed over death, and death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55; Words of Mormon 7:5). Still, part of me wonders whether Elder Taylor has gone a bit too far here. We are to mourn indeed in the face of death, though we do so with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13; cf. also Alma 28:12). I suspect that Elder Taylor's words are influenced by Romans 14:8-9, but I don't see that as declaring a fundamental equity between the two states.

3. I note with interest Elder Taylor's very harsh remarks concerning, well, pretty much every non-Latter-day Saint of his day:

I feel as though I am among the honorable of the earth when I am here; and when I get mixed up with the people abroad, and mingle with the great people of the world, I feel otherwise. I have seen and deplored the weakness of men - their folly, selfishness, and corruption. I do not know how they feel, but I have witnessed a great deal of ignorance and folly. I think there is a great deal of great littleness about them. There is very little power among them, their institutions are shattered, cracked, and laid open to the foundation. It is no matter what principle you refer to - if to their religion, it is a pack of nonsense; if to their philosophy and politics, they are a mass of dark confusion; their governments, churches, philosophy, and religion, are all darkness, misery, corruption, and folly. I see nothing but Babylon wherever I go - but darkness and confusion, with not a ray of light to cheer the sinking spirits of the nations of the earth, nor any hope that they will be delivered in this world, or in the world to come. (JD 1:17)

...Whoa. Those are some rather scathing comments! I have to say, this seems to be roughly the same tone of polemic that can be found in much purportedly 'anti-Mormon' writing; here it is simply used by a Latter-day Saint rather than against them. In this passage, it seems that Elder Taylor has virtually nothing good to say about the people he encountered on his mission. He calls their religion - and most likely would say the same of mine - a "pack of nonsense" and a bunch of "darkness, misery, corruption, and folly", representative of the harlot of Babylon and without hope. I can only here remark that, thankfully, there are Latter-day Saints alive today who do succeed in manifesting to others the spirit that they wish others to manifest to them - which is not what we have in this quote. But those, I suppose, were polemic-charged times for all parties involved. On another note, though, John Taylor has some very unflattering things to say about his experiences in France, so my main question for Latter-day Saints who have served a mission is, would you say these sorts of general statements about the people of the mission fields in which you worked?

4. Elder Taylor's next interesting remarks concern the matter of preaching:

Some people think that preaching is the greatest part of the business in building up the kingdom of God. This is a mistake. [...] Anybody can preach, he is a poor simpleton that cannot, it is the easiest thing in the world. But, as President Young says, it takes a man to practice. (JD 1:18)

My first question for those of you who have preached - or, for Latter-day Saints, those of you who have delivered talks at Sacrament Meeting - is, would you agree with John Taylor that this is 'the easiest thing in the world'? That aside, though, I think Elder Taylor's point is that it's one thing to talk the talk and quite another to walk the walk, and the latter is the tougher of the two - and that certainly seems true to me.

5. A bit further along, Elder Taylor said something else that caught my attention:

We [i.e., Latter-day Saints] are becoming notorious in the eyes of the nations; and the time is not far distant when the kings of the earth will be glad to come to our Elders to ask counsel to help them out of their difficulties; for their troubles are coming upon them like a flood, and they do not know how to extricate themselves. (JD 1:19)

It has been 158 years and several months since Elder Taylor originally delivered this address. Has this thus far happened? Have the 'kings of the earth' begun to regard leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as particularly wise counselors? I mean, perhaps they are in fact that - it's not my place here to pass such judgment - but have the political rulers of the world begun to recognize this as a significant truth? And, if not, do you think it will come to pass in the next few decades?

6. The next passage that really caught my eye was this, which I think it a quite well-worded quip that expresses the relationship between mission and exaltation from an LDS point-of-view, and has thought-provoking underlying principles applicable beyond merely an LDS perspective as well:

Some people talk about doing great things; but it is not a great thing to travel a little, or to preach a little. I hear some of our Elders saying, sometimes, that they are going to do great things - to be rulers in the kingdom of God, Kings and Priests to the Most High, and are again to exalt thousands of others to thrones, principalities, and powers, in the eternal worlds; but we cannot get them out of their nests, to travel a few miles here. If they cannot do this, how will they ever learn to go from world to world? (JD 1:19-20)

So one question I have for my Latter-day Saint readers who've been on a mission is, after reading this quote, do you feel as though your mission experience has helped to prepare you in some way for your future exaltation?

7. After discussing some unfortunate (but seemingly rather mild) harassment from English clergymen, Elder Taylor goes on to speak of his arrival in Paris, where he took a leading role in the translation of the Book of Mormon from English into French. Despite it being a translation of a translation (assuming the common LDS view on the Book of Mormon's origin), Elder Taylor was able to say:

We have got a translation of the Book of Mormon, as good a one as it is possible for anybody to make. I fear no contradiction to this statement from any man, learned or illiterate. I had it examined and tested by some of the best educated men in France. [...] I have made some little alterations, that is, I have marked the paragraphs, and numbered them, so as to tell where to refer to, when you wish to do so; and in some instances where the paragraphs are very long, I have divided them. The original simplicity of the book is retained, and it is as literal as the genius and idiom of the French language would admit of. (JD 1:21)

Elder Taylor also made mention of the periodical he founded in France, L'Etoile du Deseret, of which he explains:

It contains articles written on baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the necessity of gathering together, and all the leading points associated with the religion we believe in, that there may be evidence forthcoming at anytime and place, in the hands of the inquirer. If men should be there, not acquainted with the language, and individuals should make inquiries of them relating to the doctrines of their religion, they have nothing to do but hand them this Number or that Number of the "Star of Deseret," containing the information they wish. This will save them a great deal of trouble in talking. (JD 1:21)

It seems, then, that Elder Taylor's mission was an ambitious and productive one! One thing I'm wondering is whether the French translation he did is the one still in use in France, or whether it has perhaps been superseded by a later one. And another thing I'm wondering is whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still has anything comparable to L'Etoile du Deseret that fulfills some of the same purposes - and, if so, how widely is it used in the way Elder Taylor mentions here?

8. Elder Taylor discusses also the difficulties that his mission faced in a country that had so recently endured the French Revolution, and this quotation I found quite forceful:

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Brotherhood," was written almost upon every door. You had liberty to speak, but might be put in prison for doing so. You had liberty to print, but they might burn what you printed, and put you into confinement for it. The nations of Europe know nothing about liberty, except England; and there it is much the same as here, that is, liberty to do right. (JD 1:22)

It's a highly unfortunate thing, I think, that the early Latter-day Saints faced so much active persecution in their early days. The founder of my own denomination, Jacob Albright (1759-1808), faced much the same thing for daring to preach the need for repentance and true conversion. Hopefully we can continue to work together towards a future in which those liberties are fully safeguarded in a way that they were not then, even in a France that laid them such exuberant lip-service.

9. Elder Taylor then goes on to make some remarks, once again, on the religious world with which he was confronted, and the picture he paints is not so pretty:

Infidelity prevails there to a great extent, and at the same time a certain kind of religion, a sort of Catholicism; not the Catholicism that was, but which is. Men have got sick of it, and look upon it as moonshine and folly. [...] I declare, personally, that if I could see nothing better than what is called Christianity there, I would be an infidel too; and I say the same also in regard to Protestantism. The Protestants talk a great deal about Catholic priests, but I believe they are much more honest in the sight of man, and will do more for their pay, than any Protestant minister you can find. [...] The idea of taking Protestantism among the French people is nonsense, for one Catholic priest could prevail over fifty Protestants. The Catholic priests are more intelligent, they know the basis upon which their church is founded, and they can reason upon principles the Protestants cannot enter into. Protestants can do very well when they have got a mass of their own people about them. (JD 1:22)

I wonder whether this impression was really true of the religious scene of France at the time, and whether anyone would argue that it really holds today as well in any significant way. I'm not inclined to give any more credit to this appraisal by Elder Taylor than I am to early Protestant and Catholic negative appraisals of the nascent Latter Day Saint movement. I suspect that Elder Taylor is here alluding to the fact that Roman Catholic ecclesiology of his day had some principles in common with that of the Latter-day Saints - which is why 'branch' imagery is so commonly used in early LDS criticisms of Protestantism, and still is today, despite the fact that a sophisticated Protestant thinker can easily see that this begins from the assumption of an ecclesiology that, say, an ecumenically minded Evangelical Christian would be unlikely to share in the first place.

10. After a few curious anecdotes, Elder Taylor goes on to say this about missionary work in a place like nineteenth-century France:

It is among this people we have got to introduce the Gospel. When they come to see it, they rejoice in it, but we do not preach religion much to them, for a great many of them are philosophers, and, of course, we must be philosophers too, and make it appear that our philosophy is better than theirs, and then show them that religion is at the bottom of it. (JD 1:23)

I'm reminded here of the immense resurgence in recent years of theistic, and specifically Christian, involvement in analytic philosophy, and particularly in analytic philosophy of religion, which has seen a major shift lately in favor of a strong case for theism. Sound Christian philosophy, and even Christian philosophical theology, is quite alive and well, and it serves good purposes outside of merely helping us to clarify and sharpen our awareness of the contents and implications of our beliefs. It is my hope that there will someday be a growing interest in philosophical theology among Latter-day Saints as well - much as we saw, of a sort, in Parley Pratt's discussion of the human spirit.

11. Elder Taylor next looks at his turn to Germany as a new focus, and his role in assisting with the German translation of the Book of Mormon as well as a German equivalent to L'Etoile du Deseret titled Zions Panier. Taylor also makes some remarks about Bible translation:

I have often heard old men in this country splutter a great deal about the meaning of odd words in the Bible, but this only exhibits their folly; it is the spirit and intention of the language that are to be looked at, and if the translator does not know this it is impossible for him to translate correctly, and this is the reason why there are so many blunders in the Bible. I believe the English Bible is translated as well as any book could be by uninspired men. The German translation of the Bible, I believe, is tolerably correct, but some of the French editions are miserable. (JD 1:24)

The historic LDS view of the Bible as we have it today is, of course, a notorious point of controversy between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, and this isn't the place to get into a full-blown discussion of it. I can only remark that it seems quite important to understand both the meanings of individual words (in whatever languages are relevant at the moment) and the spirit of the language. Since I don't believe in 'inspired translation' in the sense that Elder Taylor seems to suppose here, I don't think that that's anything against the Bible translations that we have. And while no translation of a literary work can be perfect - and, indeed, I have even known Latter-day Saints who have said that Joseph Smith's inspired translation of the Book of Mormon was similarly imperfect - I'm also skeptical of the allegations of numerous translator-introduced blunders (or, at least, numerous such blunders that are not significantly reduced in the most modern English translations).

12. The remainder of the message appears to mostly concern the conclusion of Elder Taylor's time in Europe, during which he has seen the rise of the Second French Empire under Napoleon III. There are also a few other disparaging references to the French philosophers he encountered (and, frankly, given the trends in Continental philosophy at that time, I can't really say I blame him). There are only two more quotes I'd like to focus on. This first is this:

I never ask the Lord to do a thing I could do for myself. We should be acquainted with all things, should obtain intelligence both by faith and by study. We are instructed to gather it out of the best books, and become acquainted with governments, nations, and laws. The Elders of this Church have need to study these things, that when they go to the nations, they may not wish to go home before they have accomplished a good work. (JD 1:27)

This is, as I read it, very sound counsel that both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals (and others, of course) would do quite well to take to heart. Learn about all things; go to good books to gather knowledge; study things out, reason about them, and trust in God. And that will be useful to equip us all for our task of making disciples of all nations.

13. The final comment I thought was interesting - and I won't make any real comment on this one - was something he said about the United States:

We cannot know anything about the blessings and privileges we have as Americans, without becoming acquainted with the condition of other nations, this is one of the greatest countries in the world, but they (the Americans) do not appreciate their privileges. (JD 1:28)

What do you think of this? (I would be especially interested to hear from Latter-day Saints or Evangelicals who live in other nations.)

On this note, I conclude my initial survey of the third discourse in the Journal of Discourses, and I look forward to feedback. I close with the words with which Elder Taylor concluded his speech:

And I pray that the blessings of God may rest down upon all the Saints [and other disciples of Christ], worlds without end. Amen. (JD 1:28)


  1. For #5: LDS President George Albert Smith discussed giving to those in need in Europe right after WWII with US President Harry Truman. Truman was shocked that the LDS were not interested in getting repaid for it.

  2. Thanks for the information, Erstwild!

  3. One thing I've always loved about President Taylor is the humble way he'd get his point across.

    To address point 3. Many of the earlier missionaries faced quite a bit of harassment from the English citizens. As they lived among the poorer residents they witnessed on a regular basis the lack of refinement. I'm sure coming from Salt Lake City where there was a certain spirit amongst the people and going to a place that lacked the same spirit resulted in a major culture shock. President Joseph F. Smith wrote to his sister while on his mission "They are meanest specimens of humanity. Some could do no worse if they should send for his Satanic Majesty's lowest imps, and would be gainers by odds to send for Beelzebub, himself."

    Point 4- Having given a few talks in Sacrament and as a missionary, it's not always easy to preach to others. It can be done but it takes quite a bit of time to become comfortable with it. I agree that the "talk the talk and walk the walk" may be implied here.

    13- This part struck me as well. I have friends who live in Europe and Australia. My Grandmother was born and raised in England. Many of them long for the same freedoms and blessings we enjoy as Americans. Yet we tend to take those liberties for granted. Something we need to work on before those blessings are taken away.