By my count Joseph Smith has added 868 pages to the LDS canon by means of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. All other prophets since Joseph have accumulated a grand total of 13 pages by means of the Doctrine and Covenants and Official Declarations.
Perhaps the drought of canonized revelations since Joseph Smith is not a result of a wayward church, the membership not respecting the current revelations, or God not having more to reveal, but simply that we are missing Joseph. Joseph Smith, from what I can tell, was an anomaly. His unique personality, character, and logic allowed him to speak in the voice of God with confidence and authority. Joseph was and is different from every other President of the Church that has succeeded him. And I propose that Joseph, himself, may be the key to why we have seen the screeching halt to the expansion of our scriptural canon.
A Difference of Process
In order to support my hypothesis the process of revelation must be clarified.
Common understanding of revelation THROUGH Joseph:
- God wants to tell his people something.
- God literally speaks to Joseph (there are words involved).
- Joseph repeats those words to the scribe.
- Members of the Church accept and canonize God’s word.
In my mind Joseph’s creation of canonizable revelation may have been something like this:
- Joseph has a question or his mind is aroused due to his environment.
- In his searching he received inspiration, feelings, impressions, visions etc.
- Joseph was convinced that the enlightenment was from God.
- Joseph chose to record and give voice to the communication from God in written form. The pattern he followed was that of the Biblical language, the word of God given to those that predated him. He would have to “translate” his impressions and concepts into language.
- Members of the Church would resonate with the new revelation, accept it, and vote it in as scripture.
The process I propose above is in contrast with the common understanding. The above process depends heavily on the revelator in the process and final outcome of the revelation. The common understanding treats the revelator as purely a vehicle, implying that anyone could fill this roll since the prophet is simply being told what to say.
Scholarly Quotes Supporting this Modified View of Revelation
Blake Ostler is known for his books on Mormon Theology. In a book review for FARMS, he outlines how the inspiration of scripture is experienced by prophets calling it “human coparticipation with God.”
…the inspiration of scripture is not experienced by the prophet/writer free of human interpretation, cultural biases, and conceptual limitations. In Latter-day Saint scripture, revelation is experienced from within a divine-human relationship that respects the personhood and free agency of the prophet/writer. The human cognitive categories that the prophet/writer uses to organize reality and make sense of his experience are not obliterated by the revelation, and thus the revelation expresses both God’s inspiration and the prophet’s personality and limited understanding. The ultimate reality in Mormon thought is not an omnipotent God who causally determines passive and powerless prophets to regurgitate his words as dictated. God acts on the prophet/writer and imparts his will and message, but receiving the message and expressing it are, at least partly, up to the individual, who is also free to act for himself. In this view, scriptural inspiration is not an intrusion of the supernatural into the natural order. It is human coparticipation with God in creating the scripture.
– Blake T. Ostler, Bridging the Gulf, Farms Review of Books, November 1999 p. 125-126
Takeaway: Prophets work with God in the creation of scripture.
The editing process uncovered Joseph’s anomalous assumptions about the nature of revealed words. He never considered the wording infallible. God’s language stood in an indefinite relationship to the human language coming through the Prophet. The revealed preface to the Book of Commandments specified the language of the revelations was Joseph Smith’s: “These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” The revelations were not God’s diction, dialect, or native language. They were couched in the language suitable to Joseph’s time. The idioms, the grammar, even the tone had to be comprehensible to 1830s Americans. Recognizing the pliability of the revealed words, Joseph freely edited the revelation “by the Holy Spirit,” making emendations with each new edition. He thought of his revelations as imprinted on his mind, not graven in stone. With each edition, he patched pieces together and altered the wording to clarify meaning. The words were both his and God’s.
– Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling, p. 174
Takeaway: Revelations are of God, but influenced by the prophet’s ability to communicate through language.
Brant Gardner/Steven Pinker
Brant Gardner, the author of The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, explained his hypothesis for how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Gardner explains that his hypothesis revolves around a concept called “mentalese”, a word created by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist. I am assuming that Gardner expects Joseph’s revelations outside the Book of Mormon were received in similar, if not the same fashion, due to the way that the Book of Mormon was translated— sans plates.
Steven Pinker, explains the relationship of the mind to language: “We have all had the experience of uttering or writing a sentence, then stopping and realizing that it wasn’t exactly what we meant to say. To have that feeling, there has to be a ‘what we meant to say’ that is different from what we said” Pinker coined the term mentalese to describe the process:
“Mentalese [is] the language of thought in which our conceptual knowledge is couched. When you put down a book, you forget almost everything about the wording and typeface of the sentences and where they sat on the page. What you take away is their content or gist. (In memory tests, people confidently “recognize” sentences they never saw if they are paraphrases of the sentences they did see.) Mentalese is the medium in which content or gist is captured….Mentalese is also the mind’s lingua franca, the traffic of information among mental modules that allows us to describe what we see, imagine what is described to us, carry out instructions, and so on.”
I hypothesize that mentalese, or the prelanguage of the brain, holds the answer to how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. According to this hypotheses, divine intervention implanted the plate text in Joseph’s brain in the brain’s native prelanguage.
– Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, pp.274-276
Takeaway: Joseph seemed to be verbalizing metalese, or the prelanguage of the brain.
Joseph’s Unique Attributes
I believe that the Presidents of the church since Joseph have probably not had the same attributes as Joseph and have struggled, or simply not attempted, to create canonizable revelations as Joseph was so consistently able to do. It takes something special to say “this is what God is saying.” If you want a powerful speech on why Joseph Smith was a prophet in every sense of the word look no further than Profile of a Prophet by Hugh B. Brown. Those special attributes that Joseph possessed are rare and probably not likely to be seen in subsequent prophets and apostles.
Here is a brief list of some attributes and my assessment of the strength of Joseph and subsequent prophets and apostles.
|Attributes||Joseph Smith||Subsequent Prophets and Apostles|
|Dedication to the Church||Strong||Strong|
|Open to Change||Strong||Weak|
|Assimilation of Outside Ideas||Strong||Weak|
|Adherence to Policy or Structure||Medium to Weak||Strong|
|Imagination/Creativity||Strong||NA (No idea)|
|Ability/Willingness to Speak with Absolute Authority “Thus saith the Lord”||Strong||Medium to Weak|
One way to describe Joseph would be to call him a maverick. He truly was “an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party” as Merriam-Webster defined the term. He cut his own path and was not beholden to any prior modern prophet. Can you imagine someone like Joseph rising through the ranks of LDS leadership today? I want to say yes, but I am inclined to say no. Attributes such as conservatism, dedication, sacrifice, adherence to policies etc. are what qualify you for a position in the Church today. Today we have great maintainers, but potentially weak expanders.
Joseph, was in a sense, truly born to be a prophet. He had or gained all the attributes needed to speak the words of God. That voice resonated with his followers to the point of making his words canonized and Mormonism legitimized. I believe that it unlikely we will see a modern-day prophet that will add to the scriptural canon as Joseph did.
I understand that there are other influences or concepts not covered in the post that would hamper the reception of new revelations as canon today. Some potential examples are size of the church, increase in policies and regulations, culture, etc. Just too much to cover.