Saturday, December 18, 2010

JOD 01-06

For the sixth installment of our series on the Journal of Discourses, we'll be looking at the sixth 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 11 July 1852. The text as we have it was reported by George Darling Watt (1812-1881). The major themes of President Young's discourse were knowledge of the doctrine of Christ, the contrast between religions of men and the religion of God, Joseph Smith, and persecution, among others.

1. Brigham Young quickly finds himself on a controversial note, bearing witness that no non-LDS person could possibly have knowledge of certain basic things. For instance, President Young says:

Who are the individuals that can say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and that he lives? Can the Christian world? They cannot. (JD 1:37)

I hate to be a bit of a controversialist here myself, but... yes, we can. I can, and many of the other Christians I know can. I have the well-attested testimony of the Scriptures to the veracity of the gospel and to Christ's glorified and risen life - and beyond this, I also have the direct witness of the Holy Spirit to myself that Jesus lives and that the good news of the kingdom is true. I have received it from the Holy Spirit both through publicly available means and through the Spirit's private witness to myself; I have directly encountered the power of God in manifold ways. And I am not alone. (And even if I did not have that private witness from the Spirit, still I would know that he lives and that the gospel is true, because my belief in it is both true and also warranted by many means.) So here, it seems, President Young made claims that were far too strong, for Latter-day Saints do not have a monopoly on this witness.

2. Brigham Young continues with a larger unit I will leave together:

Permit me, my hearers, brethren and strangers, to say to you, there is not that man that hears the sound of my voice this day, that can say that Jesus lives, whether he professes to be his disciple or not; and can say at the same time, that Joseph Smith is not a Prophet of the Lord. There is not that being that ever had the privilege of hearing the way of life and salvation set before him as it is written in the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon, and in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, by a Latter-day Saint, that can say that Jesus lives, that his Gospel is true; and at the same time say that Joseph Smith was not a Prophet of God. That is strong testimony, but it is true. No man can say that this book (laying his hand on the Bible) is true, is the word of the Lord, is the way, is the guide-board in the path, and a charter by which we may learn the will of God; and at the same time say, that the Book of Mormon is untrue; if he has had the privilege of reading it, or of hearing it read, and learning its doctrines. There is not that person on the face of the earth who has had the privilege of learning the Gospel of Jesus Christ from these two books, that can say that one is true, and the other is false. No Latter-day Saint, no man or woman, can say that the Book of Mormon is true, and at the same time say that the Bible is untrue. If one be true, both are; and if one be false, both are false. (JD 1:38)

To virtually all of this, I must once more respectfully disagree. I have known numerous people who have in all sincerity read both the Bible and the Book of Mormon and have sought earnestly the truth of the matter, and yet have come to believe that the Bible is true and that Jesus Christ lives, and yet that the Book of Mormon is not true scripture and that Joseph Smith, for all his virtues, was not a prophet who faithfully carried out a divine commission to speak on God's behalf. As I say, I know a number of truly honest, sincere, godly counterexamples to Brigham Young's categorical negative - and I, too, for my part am compelled to say the same, having read and studied out these things with faithfulness and yet receiving a testimony of the truth of the orthodox teaching as enshrined in the traditional creeds rather than in the views of the Latter Day Saint movement. So here, while I do have quite a bit of respect for Brigham Young, I must say that I find these words of his to be untrue, and am myself among the evidences of its untruth.

3. Moving on, Brigham Young makes some very peculiar comments about the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions. He states that it would be simple to, within just a few years, reach the full depth of their teachings and have no further to go; but that this is wholly untrue regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the only one the teaching of which cannot be circumscribed (JD 1:39). To this, I simply must disagree and suggest that perhaps President Young did not fathom how deep the orthodox tradition likewise is. I have seen elsewhere instances of Brigham Young espousing fundamental misunderstandings of basic orthodox teaching. With all due respect, I would suggest that this indicates that, contrary to his statements here, President Young considerably overestimated his grasp of it. There is a great deal of depth in Latter-day Saint teaching, but also in more traditional Christian teaching. I do not here venture a statement as to which is deeper, if either; but neither should be underestimated.

4. After an excursus to trumpet his pride in the LDS faith, President Young turns to the tragic history of persecution that was inflicted upon their people (JD 1:40-41). (While it would be a gross oversimplification to portray the early Latter-day Saints as either exclusively innocent victims or the villains they were portrayed as in popular caricature, it cannot be denied that a great deal was done to the Latter-day Saints that should grieve the hearts of every person attuned to an awareness of basic human dignity.) He talks about the lynching of Joseph Smith, about the many failed lawsuits against him, and about the sufferings of the Saints in Missouri, Ohio, and elsewhere. Having already objected to some of Young's statements, I certainly don't want to quibble here. There is a grave depth to the capacity for evil that is had by those who were made to be mirrors of glory and yet permitted themselves to become warped - and that is seen very clearly in the way in which Latter-day Saints have been treated.

5. Finally, Brigham Young closes on a wholly agreeable note, where he announces his willingness to rebuke evil no matter where he finds it - whether outside the Church or within it - and declares that he will do so regardless of the cost. And this is, I believe, a proper attitude for Christian leaders to have:

I am aware, as well as brother Kimball, if my body fall into the dust, I am laying it down to abide the penalty of the law broken in the fall of man; for dust I am, and unto dust I must return. It is all right to me; I have seen a great many times that I would like to have this body lie down, but as long as the spirit and the body hold together, my tongue shall be swift against evil, the Lord Almighty being my helper. Though it may be in "Mormon" Elders, among the people in or out of the Church, if they come in my path, where I can chastise them, the Lord Almighty being my helper, my tongue shall be swift against evil; and if evil come, let it come. If for this my body shall fall, let it fall; when they have destroyed the body, then they have no more that they can do; that is the end of their power, and of the power of the devil on this earth; but Jesus Christ has power to destroy both soul and body in hell. I thank you for your attention. May the Lord bless you. Amen. (JD 1:41-42)

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