Sunday, December 12, 2010

JOD 01-05

For the fifth installment of our series on the Journal of Discourses, we'll be looking at the fifth discourse in the first volume. This was preached by Heber C. Kimball (1801-1868), who was not only an original member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles but also, at the time of this discourse, was serving in the First Presidency. The discourse in question was delivered in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 11 July 1852. The text as we have it was reported by George Darling Watt (1812-1881). The major themes of President Kimball's discourse that day were believing the Bible, the Gospel, persecution, and 'spirit-rapping'.

1. Early in the discourse, President Kimball announces - contrary to popular criticisms - that Latter-day Saints do believe in the Bible and that they ought to seek to establish for themselves the truth of the religion they've adopted:

You know that it is generally understood, and perhaps by many of the strangers that are present today, that we do not believe the Bible. That is a great mistake; we do believe it. I can say, as one of the Apostles of old said, and it is my advice and instruction to you - prove all things, and try all things, and hold fast to that which is good. As he exhorted you to prove these things, to investigate them, and reflect upon them, and prove the truth of that which is called "Mormonism," let me tell you, gentlemen, the day will come, if you don't do it, you will be sorry. (JD 1:34)

What he says here is, I think, true but in need of some qualification. First is the issue of believing the Bible, which I take to involve accepting and utilizing the Bible as a proper authoritative source for belief and praxis. This is in need of qualification because there are certain trends in at least contemporary LDS circles that mitigate this proper reliance. For example, I have spoken with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - elders, even - who have said that they "could spend all day proving the Bible wrong". Part of this results from a conviction that the biblical text as we have it today does not correspond well with what God meant for the text to say. Consequently, in discussions with some Latter-day Saints, if I have brought up an apparent discrepancy between the position they've espoused and something stated in the Bible, in many cases the knee-jerk response has been to suggest - without any reference to evidence from textual criticism or translation history or anything of the sort - that the text is simply unreliable at that point. It seems clear to me, however, that if we wish to profess a belief in the Bible, then we ought to submit our opinions to it where possible, and so in the event of a discrepancy, this avenue should only be open if textual or other evidence seems to permit it; otherwise, the task is ours of grappling with the problem directly. That being said, of course Latter-day Saints value the Bible as one of the four Standard Works, and it is very frequently cited/quoted in Church publications, in talks, etc. It would be erroneous to assume, as early critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have, that there has been a replacement of the Bible by the Book of Mormon, and so on that count, President Kimball was quite correct. I also strongly support his invitation for members to investigate for themselves the Church's teachings, which I think must involve not only testing it against personal religious experience but also testing it against the Bible, against sound reason and philosophy, against historical data, etc. All must be taken into account.

2. I must take issue with something else said by President Kimball shortly thereafter:

The people profess to believe the Bible; the whole Christian world profess to believe that book - to believe that it is the Bible, but do they believe what is in that Bible? If they do, they don't practice it. (JD 1:34)

As said, I must object. Unfortunately, President Kimball is short on examples, and I will get to the one he does seem to offer in a little bit. Suffice it to say that, in terms of beliefs and practices that the Bible seems to indicate ought to be continuing throughout the existence of the church, I am not convinced that it is generally lacking in orthodox Christianity.

3. Heber C. Kimball cites one particular case, choosing via caricature to pick on the way baptism is practiced in non-LDS circles:

I have been at the Methodists' meeting many a time, and have followed up their protracted meetings, and sought for religion; and when people were converted to the faith of Methodism, I have seen the priest go to the water because some wished to be baptized in the water, but not because it was at all necessary. One would say I want to be sprinkled; another, I want to have the water poured upon me; and another, I want to be plunged. All right, says the minister, one of these is just as necessary as the other, for none of them are essential to salvation; we only attend to them to satisfy the candidate. Suppose the laws of the United States were made upon this principle, just to suit everybody's fancy and notions, making laws for every one to do just as he pleased - what kind of laws would they be? (JD 1:35)

Now, first, let me say that I highly doubt that these Methodist ministers ever said that the only reason to get baptized was to satisfy the whims of the candidate, as though baptism were a wholly optional affair with no real meaning. That is the impression Heber Kimball gives, but I deem it quite implausible. Nor is this a case of laws just suiting everyone's fancy so they may do as they please. All that varies here is the precise mode of baptism. Everything else remains the same, including the baptismal formulae and the significance of identification with Christ's passion and resurrection, as well as the symbolic enactment of cleansing from sin through that process. But still there's that sticking point of how there can be different forms. (I might note that many Latter-day Saints have told me that with respect to the sacrament of communion, it doesn't matter what the substances are, so long as the symbolism is kept in mind. Any principle-based argument against variation in baptismal mode would seem to be at least equally applicable to the way the sacrament is handled in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) And also, let's remember that this variation in mode is not a novelty, but is in fact very ancient, stemming back perhaps even to apostolic times or immediately thereafter:

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (Didache 7)

Now, note here that variation in the mode of baptism is completely acceptable. There is nothing inherently invalid about baptism by pouring. It isn't as though God looks at it and says, "Well, that one didn't take, so I guess you're out of luck." However, it must be said that there is a definite preference for immersion at this early stage, because this is more proper as a symbolism of dying and rising with Christ. Moreover, most preferable is to do it in 'living water', probably a river or sea, so that it better matches with Christ's own baptism in the River Jordan. So that ought to be what we aspire to in baptism, but less proper forms are not automatically invalid, nor is it the case that this somehow trivializes baptism. In this case, I think Heber Kimball judged incorrectly.

4. President Kimball goes on to bear testimony to his belief that Joseph Smith was truly a prophet and a martyr, and that Joseph's brother Hyrum was a true patriarch, etc. Since these are assertions rather than arguments based on publicly accessible grounds, I can't comment on that. But then he curiously turns to the interesting claim that the rise of the Latter Day Saint movement is disturbing the Powers-That-Be - both the political powers of the day and also the spirit-world, which is "all in commotion" (JD 1:36). Kimball seems to tie this to a sense that the "end of the world" is coming very soon - he doesn't come right out and say it, but that seems to be the underlying tone behind his words. Or does he indicate it? He does, after all, say, "The idea strikes me that the day of the Lord is approaching, and nearer than you think it is" (JD 1:36). I'm not sure exactly what he believed his audience was thinking, but I suspect that it was less than the 158 years between his discourse and our present.

5. I have no real comments to make on this last quote, but it is the conclusion of President Kimball's speech. He affirms the truthfulness of what he has said and seems to disparage 'this generation':

I know if I never go to the United States again, or to Great Britain, my skirts are clear from the blood of this generation. I have received nothing but ill wages for my labor from them; and if ever a man did his duty, I have done it to this generation. I have told you the truth, and whether you are in hell or in heaven you shall know that "Mormonism" is true, and what I and my brethren have told you this day is the Gospel of salvation. So may God have mercy upon you, and save you in His kingdom. Amen. (JD 1:37)

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