Every major biographer of Joseph Smith has concluded that while Joseph’s claim to direct revelation from God might be readily balked at by the casual observer; dismissal of Joseph as a mere charlatan, liar, opportunist, or ego-maniac is a position ignorant of the facts. A balanced view of Joseph Smith is in touch with the palpable reality of almost constant inspiration in Joseph’s prophetic work. In Terryl Givens words, “Many Modern Mormons imagine a relatively linear process of doctrinal development in the church’s early years, with Smith revealing each new doctrine to the church in orderly sequence. Smith, however, viewed himself as an inspired eclecticist, pulling truths not only from heaven, but also from his culture and his contemporaries.”
Joseph was seemingly, a bottomless vessel for knowledge. He was a sponge for what he termed “Light and Truth”. He thrived on the inspiration of extemporaneous speech. We also know he drew enormous revelatory power from physical objects; especially those he perceived to be ancient, mysterious, or tied to the dead.
The Nephite plates and the Chandler papyri are the most notable examples, but Joseph probably had a similar relationship with the multiple “seer stones” he possessed and the Jupiter talisman he wore throughout his life. It’s interesting to consider that he also created holy objects which he similarly imbued with power and from which he drew inspiration: notably the garment of the holy priesthood, which was not only revealed to him in a vision, but was also a process and endeavor of design over several weeks, and in collaboration with a woman named Elizabeth Warren Allred (who could actually sew).
Joseph seemed to long for the spiritual world to be truly physical. Indeed he eventually taught that it was. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8) It was the making of abstract concepts, into tangible realities that attracted so many to the Mormon faith. Joseph took biblical ideas like Zion and the gathering of Israel, and transformed them into real and unprecedented social movements. It was these kinds of literal manifestations of biblical concepts that attracted and energized converts like Brigham Young.
A detailed study of Joseph’s recorded history yields a fascinating perspective, unavailable to those who do not engage it so intimately. One of the remarkable things I have noted is that to Joseph Smith, “Doctrine” was a fluid concept. Much has been made of some of the more strident changes in doctrine that occurred in the single decade that compassed the majority of Joseph’s ministry. The 1830 Book of Mormon’s fairly unambiguous anti-Masonic sentiments and its clear injunction against polygamy seem downright foreign in Mormon Nauvoo only 10 years later, when Joseph embraced the “ancient rituals” of the craft, synthesized them into the temple rites, and began among the twelve, the secretive practice of plural marriage in what he termed “the New and Everlasting Covenant”, himself taking at least 33 known wives.
But those changes didn’t happen overnight.
Joseph expected that the church and its doctrine would evolve. I employ that word purposefully. I suppose that if Joseph Smith had lived long enough to encounter the undeniable facts of biological evolution, his doctrine would likewise evolve to embrace its demonstrable truths. That is a truly remarkable quality that was not shared by many of his associates. His ultimate successor, Brigham, was particularly given to zealotry, intransigence, and stubbornly literal interpretations of revealed doctrines. On a few notable occasions Brigham was sternly reoriented in his views by Joseph and encouraged to seek the revelations of God in a manner more ignorant of his own human understanding. Brigham, who loved the logic of a closed system and the comfort of unchanging answers, struggled to do so for most of his life.
Many Mormons are startlingly unaware of the period in church history referred to as the apostolic interim. Most are familiar with the story of a meeting in Nauvoo centering on the issue of succession in the leadership of the church, but are ignorant of many of the details. The prophet’s counselor Sidney Rigdon, a man named James Strang, and a few others spoke to advocate for their right to assume the prophet’s role, many using language that suggested a “caretaker” status until Joseph’s oldest son could assume the responsibility of leading the church. The place of the Twelve in the leadership of the church was not as clearly established as it is understood to be today, and many felt that Joseph’s remaining counselor in the first presidency ought to succeed until Joseph’s oldest son (the recipient of a well-known blessing under the hands of his father designating him to take up Joseph’s mantle) was old enough to assume those responsibilities. Still others felt the rightful successor was William Marks, president of the high council in Nauvoo (essentially a Stake President, but understood in the Nauvoo era to be a very high religious authority). Marks sought no such advancement, and declined to speak to that purpose. He likewise though, believed that it was Joseph III’s right to ascend to the Presidency of the church, and he advocated for the boy, eventually joining the reorganized church under his leadership.
When the time came for Brigham to speak on behalf of the Twelve, some reported (albeit, many years later) that they saw him assume the countenance, features and/or the voice of Joseph. Many took this as a sign of his right to preside. It’s important to remember that Brigham acted mostly out of a need to keep the church organized and prepared in the uncertain days following the martyrdom. He was a gifted and proven leader, especially in a “boots on the ground” situation such as the saints seemed to have. But it is impossible to ignore the personal and political motivations Brigham also had in consolidating power.
Firstly, he was on notoriously shaky ground with the prophet’s widow, Emma Hale Smith, primarily over polygamy. Joseph had deeded to himself (often via Emma) much of the property of the church, and Brigham wanted the authority to reclaim it. Emma was by all accounts, very reasonable, in light of the not-insignificant debts of Joseph which she also inherited. She parted graciously with the assets she did not need to satisfy Joseph’s creditors, but in Brigham’s mind it all belonged to the church, even her home. Secondly, Joseph had probably begun to waiver with regard to plural marriage. He allegedly confided in William Marks (a stalwart and vocal opponent of the practice) that he felt he had made a grave error in instituting “the principle” and feared it would prove to be the church’s undoing. Marks offered his enthusiastic support to the prophet, but was almost immediately set upon by practitioners, including Brigham, wielding threats regarding his interference in the matter. Brigham, while initially mortified by the suggestion, was at this point, “all in” on polygamy. He had at least five wives by the time of the martyrdom and had marital relations with all of them. Brigham was an especially ardent lover and keeper of rules. The thought that he may have committed sexual sin in following Joseph’s direction to take other wives would be so appalling to consider that if it even occurred to him, he was unlikely to dwell on it. In any case he had a vested interest in the continuity of the practice and took many steps within the Quorum of the Anointed and the Council of Fifty to ensure its continuance, marrying nine new wives in the two months after Joseph’s death, including four of Joseph’s plural widows; and performing the sealings of hundreds of plural marriages in the brief period before the saints abandoned their temple in Nauvoo for the trek West.
Upon the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham finally became ordained as President of the church, but largely downplayed his role as a prophet, seer, and revelator, openly denying any kind of special access to revelation. Brigham famously reported, “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet…” and in other place, said, “I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a Yankee guesser.” It was not until 1864, a full twenty years after Joseph Smith’s death, that a new First Presidency was officially organized. That’s not to say that Brigham was ever uncomfortable invoking “Thus saith the Lord”. He did so often, even before he was President of the church. Brigham’s boldness earned him the moniker, the “Lion of the Lord”. He steered the church through many of its most challenging ordeals, not the least of which was a grueling walk to a Zion in Utah.
Some of the saints had experience in overland expeditions, as Joseph’s gatherings had happened in several places over time. The church moved from its infancy in Western New York and Pennsylvania, to Northern Ohio, then to Missouri where the saints endured historic persecution and were expelled from the state under threat of “extermination”. They finally found a home in 1840 in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi. Joseph built a Mormon empire in Nauvoo, and dominated public life there until, in Fall, 1844 tensions internal and external had again reached a boiling point. William and Jane Law, high profile members of the church became infuriated over the covert assassination attempt on Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs (which William claimed Joseph had bluntly taken credit for ordering) and more especially perhaps, over their first hand run-in with Joseph’s polygamy. With several other apostates they made a heavy investment in a printing press, and published the one and only issue of The Nauvoo Expositor. Incensed, by the “spurious lies and fowl accusations” of The Expositor, Joseph (acting as mayor) and the Nauvoo city council summarily ordered the destruction of the press, which was carried out immediately.
The affront to constitutionally protected freedoms was appalling. Neighbors who had been exceedingly patient with the saints who had arrived like refugees from Missouri, began to lose their cool. Many Illinois lodges had become angry over Joseph’s reckless instruction of freemasonry (in the form of the Endowment) to dozens of non-initiates, including women. The unrelenting rumors of polygamy and spiritual wifery, threatened to undo all that Joseph had built. Joseph had no shortage of enemies. He was charged with the unlawful destruction of property, arrested, mostly as a matter of protective custody and placed in a jail in the neighboring county seat of Carthage. Joseph and a small number of companions would spend three nights in the jail before the morning of June 27th, 1844, when members of the local militia, the Carthage Greys, commenced an attack on the jail and killing both Joseph and his brother Hyrum. Brigham was in England when he got the news that Joseph and Hyrum were dead and he returned for Nauvoo with no delay, calling the rest of the Twelve to return as well.
Part of Brigham’s strategic advantage in the succession crisis came by his place in the Quorum of the Anointed. Brigham was among the first initiates into the Nauvoo temple endowment, he and his wife Mary Ann Angell were sealed for eternity and administered their second anointing, among the earliest of any of the saints. Brigham was also sealed as an adopted son to Joseph Smith. And as president of the Twelve he became the de facto leader of the Anointed Quorum. One of Brigham’s best arguments for denying the presidency to Sidney Rigdon is that Rigdon had never received the second anointing, considered the crowning ordinance of the temple, which called into question his authority to administer the church, as he lacked “the fullness of the priesthood”, bestowed in that ritual. Brigham began holding weekly meetings of the quorum (which included both men and women) in either the red brick store or the temple to strategize and plan for the completion of the temple and the administration of the rites to as many members as could receive them before the saints must leave Nauvoo.
In the first of these meetings (and many subsequent) Brigham instructed all present to wear their shields (garments) both day and night. The survival of Elder Willard Richards, who was present at the martyrdom “without a hole in his robe”, was popularly attributed to his being the only one of the four men present who was wearing his garment. Elder John Taylor likewise survived, but only barely, as he was “shot full of holes”. The relationship of Joseph and others to the garment was initially, what members today would consider extremely casual. Joseph wore it with some regularity outside of the temple, but would “lay it aside” frequently for a variety of reasons including hard or extended labor or merely “the heat of the afternoon”, the reason he had apparently removed it in Carthage jail. Most members who had received the garment were similarly casual, and some only wore it for temple work.
This “shield” episode is particularly instructive when it comes to understanding the relationship Brigham had to the temple and how it differed fundamentally from Joseph’s. There’s a well known statement of Brigham Young’s that most endowed members are familiar with because it’s quoted (albeit incompletely) in the instructions predicatory to the endowment:
Your endowment is to receive all those ordinances, in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you; to lead you back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs, and tokens pertaining to the holy priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.“
I think it is incredibly significant that those words have been excluded from the temple instruction, because those six words encapsulate Brigham’s literalist philosophy with regard to the salvific nature of priesthood and temple ordinances. As far as Brigham is concerned, if you possess the key words, the signs and tokens of the priesthood, which are given in the endowment, and can reveal them as prescribed, you literally possess the means to lay claim on your exaltation. A seal is a seal is a seal. From the day that Brigham was “anointed and sealed up to eternal life”, with his second wife Mary Ann, he appeared to never again have any doubt about his ultimate destiny as an heir of eternal life. When Brigham spoke in favor of the Twelve assuming the leadership of the church, he held the promise of temple ordinances above the saints, who had long been eager to receive the promised blessings… noting that only he and his associates could pass them on, and that the saints salvation hung in the balance. “We have an organization that you have not seen… We have all the signs and tokens to give to the Porter [gatekeeper of heaven] and he will let us in.”
The obvious suggestion being that he will not let you in unless you have them too.
I have significant doubts that Joseph held the same view of the temple rites he revealed. The washing and anointing was a promise of inheritances based on receiving and keeping the covenants entered into in the endowment. The masonic elements of the endowment can be viewed as having many purposes, but the least credible of these, in my opinion, is that they are a straight forward, liturgy of names, signs and secret handshakes, that if memorized and performed properly, will assure the initiate of their eternal rewards.
First of all is the problem that the at least some of the relevant content was altered by Brigham in 1850 and later in 1990. Which is the correct series of tokens, names, and signs? The version Joseph revealed? Brigham’s? Or President Hinkley’s?
Second is the extremely central Mormon principle of moral agency. So central was the agency of man, that God cast a beloved son from heaven for seeking to destroy it. If a person can memorize a sequence of words and actions (which is readily available on the internet) and guarantee an inheritance in the Celestial kingdom, worlds without end… agency kind of ceases to be a relevant principle.
But the most troubling difficulty involved with Brigham’s view is how it neglects or even possibly negates the Book of Mormon’s doctrine of salvation “only in and through the merits and mercy and grace of the holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8); a fundamental teaching of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph declared to contain the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My next four posts will focus on how we receive salvation only in and through the atonement of Christ in great detail, but suffice it to say for now, that I believe our actual covenants with Jesus (the ones made in our hearts, not our mouths) will be pivotal in our eternal destiny. When it comes to ordinances, the words we spoke, the gestures we made, the clothing we wore, and the symbology of the ritual, were only important insofar as they led us to make those covenants.
I like to think of the physical elements of the endowment as symbolic of the Lord getting a better, firmer hold on me as I make and keep greater covenants, all culminating in my covenant to consecrate all that I have and am to Him. The God I worship has many names and many faces and I can learn them all if I seek and follow His true messengers. It’s about learning to put my faith in a sure place. Most of all, it teaches me that our Heavenly Parents have a plan for my happiness and Eternal life in Their presence, as with all the other Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.