Abide #10: Doctrine and Covenants 98-101

  • We will be discussing each week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.”

  • It had been three years since the Latter-day Saints began to settle in Jackson County, Missouri––the place that the Lord revealed would be Zion. There were now more Saints in Missouri than Ohio and they made up a third of the county. The Saints were from the North and Missouri became a slave state 10 years earlier with the Missouri Compromise. Tensions simmered as W.W. Phelps and a protestant minister, Benton Picksley, traded jabbs labeling each other false prophets. In the same issue of the church newspaper, W.W. Phelps printed an article entitled, “Free People of Color.” The article quoted the Missouri code regarding proselytising amongst enslaved people and formerly enslaved people, free people of color whose movements were curved in Missouri. Though the article began to prevent any misunderstanding, misunderstanding was all that came from the article.


    In the 1830’s the church was considered too liberal and too welcoming to too many different peoples. The Missourians claimed the Saints were tampering with their slaves and inviting free blacks from other states to come to Missouri. Phelps attempted to write an extra correction, but it could not extinguish the spark. The article lit a fire under the Missourians which exploded in the town square of Independence. Missouri citizens demanded the Church stop it’s printing operation and close the bishop’s storehouse. Church members refused and things escalated as the townspeople destroyed the Church’s printing press and ransacked Phelp’s home. Bishop Edward Partridge and new convert, Charles Allen, were then tarred and feathered in the town square when they would not deny the Book of Mormon. Two weeks later Joseph Smith received the revelation in section 98. 


    My name is Janiece Johnson. I am a Willis Center research associate at the Maxwell Institute and I, along with Joseph Stuart, the Public Communications Specialist, will be discussing each week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and to engage the world of religious ideas. 


    Janiece Johnson: There is a lot going on here. 


    Joseph Stuart: A whole lot. For instance, it’s very interesting to me, as an American Latter-day Saint living today, to understand that the church was perceived as being too liberal and too welcoming to too many people when sometimes, fairly or unfairly, Latter-day Saints are seen as being too insular––that we keep too much to ourselves, that we’re too conservative and that we keep people out. It’s incredible to think, as historians, about change over time but also to think about how what is seen as liberal in one situation is seen as too conservative in other situations. 


    Janiece Johnson: And certainly the situation of the Saints has changed. In the early church there were significant points of tension with how the church acted in respect to women in respect to Native Americans, to Indians, and also to people of color––to blacks, to former enslaved people, to free blacks–– and this all comes to a head in Missouri. And when Joseph receives this revelation there is a lot going on in Kirtland and he doesn’t, he has heard the beginnings of what’s happened with the Saints in Missouri, but he does not know the full extent. And I think that these first three verses of section 98 are really poignant. Joey, do you want to read part of that? 


    Joseph Stuart: Absolutely. It reads, “Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not. Let your hearts be comforted yea; rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament–– the Lord hath sworn a decree that they shall be granted. Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall all be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord” (D&C 98:1-3).


    Janiece Johnson: This idea that affliction can work together for our good, I see these three verses as a balm to those Saints who were in significant distress, perhaps as a balm to us when we are in significant distress. This idea that affliction can come together for our good––that it can be transformed into something different––is really a remarkable thing to think about. Not just the redemptive power of the Atonement, but the transformative power of the Atonement––that affliction can be turned, no matter the source. And here the Lord is very clear that the Saints are at fault. This did not just happen when the Saints were doing what they were supposed to be doing. But the Lord is clear that the Sints brought some of this upon themselves yet it can still be transformed into something good. 


    Joseph Stuart: Now, no Latter-day Saint, or any person for that matter, should go out looking for affliction. I don’t think anyone would but it still feels like an important thing to say. We apply balm often when we have been burned or when something has happened to us that we have to ride out spiritually. And I love that you use the word balm because I think about being able to replenish ourselves with the living water––with Jesus Christ. The next three verses speak to the Constitution of the United States. It reads, “Verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them. And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land” (D&C 98 4-6).


    Janiece Johnson: I love that, “befriending the law.” The language there is kind of fantastic. How do we befriend a law? What do you think?


    Joseph Stuart: Well, I think it is understanding the law and using it to one’s advantage, is how I read this section. It’s maybe somewhat ironic that the Latter-day Saints are involved in the first major freedom of religion case that goes to the United States Supreme Court in 1878 in a case entitled Reynolds v. United States which talks about whether or not it was constitutional for Latter-day Saints to practice polygamy under the idea that it was protected by the freedom of religion cause. Now this is something that you can read about more in Sally Gordon’s classic study, The Mormon Problem. Sally is not a Latter-day Saint but is sympathetic and cuts through the melarke, you might say, surrounding the case. But there are real questions in here that the Saints have including: aren’t we protected by the constitution to be able to live our religion the way that we choose to? It seems important to me that those who are tarred and feathered in Missouri, that you mentioned at the beginning, are asked to renounce the Book of Mormon before their attack. And I can understand a Latter-day Saint in Missouri saying, “Hey, I am protected by the constitution of the United States. Why can’t I live my religion? Why can’t I profess my religion?” And this is something that we will see going forward––that the Saints expect legal protection for their beliefs and they don’t find it. And for more on this I would actually recommend Spencer McBrides’ new book entitled, Joseph Smith for President, where he explores how these events in Missouri shaped Joseph Smith’s quest for the United States’s presidency in order to ensure rights for all minorities, including religious minorities. 


    Janiece Johnson: Very good. This tension between vigilantism on one hand and perhaps an unconstitutional law is going to, we are going to see this throughout this period of Latter-day Saint history. And I think that there are a lot of really practical pieces of advice that the Lord is giving the Saints at this point. How are they supposed to deal when they are attacked? And the Lord is pretty consistent, “…renounce war, proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16). Beginning in about verse 23 to 31 we have what Steve Harper has called, “a Latter-day Saint law of just war.” Now just war is a philosophy, mainly a Christian philosophy, which has been expounded and developed over centuries. But when is war okay? 


    Joseph Stuart: Especially for a Christian right? The idea that understanding Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace, when is it permitted to defend yourself?


    Janiece Johnson: If we believe that individuals are children of God, is it okay to kill people? These are heavy questions. And I think that this response that we get from the Lord reveals a lot here. The phrase that we get most frequently is, “Bear it patiently.” Now the Lord says in verse 24, “But if ye bear it not patiently it shall be accounted unto you as being meted out as a just measure unto you” (D&C 98:24). So first thing, we have to be patient. If we fly off the handle at every infraction against us, there’s going to be a problem. The Lord’s going to say, “Sorry, it’s a just measure.” And then that message is repeated, “Bear it patiently. Your reward shall be a hundred-fold” (D&C 98:25). And so we get three times the Lord says, “Bear it patiently.” Offering the person who is offending you, the person who is afflicting you, a time to repent. And then we get to verse 29: “And then if he shall come upon you” again, after the third and fourth time that you have borne it patiently, “I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands” (D&C 98:29). Now I think that this, verse 29, opens the door a little for people to respond back and fight back and there were times that the Latter-day Saints swung that door wide open and rushed through it to fight back. But if we continue it, “…if thou wilt spare him thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness and also thy children and thy children’s children unto the third and fourth generation” (D&C 98:30). In verse 32 the Lord says, this is an ancient law, “This is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles” (D&C 98:32). I’m really intrigued by why Nephi is mentioned here. It is really perplexing to me. As we read Nephi’s own account as he writes, he is justified in all the things he does. But I don’t know, I am really intrigued why the Lord mentions Nephi here. 


    Joseph Stuart: That’s a really interesting point. I wonder if this is something– I know  that I encounter this when I introduce friends and family to the Book of Mormon. Killing an intoxicated man is a really interesting way to open a book of scripture. And I wonder if this is something that Joseph Smith is thinking about even as he’s in the midst of all these other situations. As he continues to publish new editions of the Book of Mormon that have small alterations to them, I wonder if this is something in the back of his mind: How does Nephi killing Laban fit into the idea of justifying violence?


    Janiece Johnson: And the Lord’s message continues to be, “lift a standard of peace.” (D&C 98:34) “I the Lord will fight your battles.” When we get a few revelations later in section 105 the Lord will say to the Saints, “Sue for peace, not only those who have smitten you, but also to all people” (D&C 105:38). This is a very difficult switch for faithful Saints to love peace, to sue for peace, to do whatever we can to let the Lord fight our battles rather than us fight our own battles. This is difficult for the Saints in Jackson County and this is difficult for us today. 


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, one of my favorite sermons is President Kimball’s address, The False Gods We Worship, where he says, “We are a warlike people,” meaning latter-day saints. So, more than a century later, this is still something that we are fighting as a people, the idea that we have a right to stand up for ourselves and that we should be able to act aggressively. 


    Janiece Johnson: He also tells us to not kill the little birdies in that talk, I believe. 


    Joseph Stuart: It also reminds me of something the Lord will say in section 121, where he instructs Joseph Smith and those who are following this counsel, to act in the way that God would. That sometimes you must “reprove betimes with sharpness” only when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and then afterwards “show an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem thee to be thine enemy” (D&C 121:43). It is always about peacemaking. I will also add a plug here that the Maxwell Institute has a book coming out near Thanksgiving by Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher about our Latter-day Saint ethic of peacekeeping and peace building so keep an eye out for that.


    Janiece Johnson: I’m really excited to see that book. Section 99 shifts us back to a missionary section, revelation that’s given to a specific individual. Here it’s given to John Murdock. John Murdock was born in Delaware. He had been a member of a variety of different churches in his lifetime: Lutheran Dutch, then Presbyterian, then Reformed Baptist, then Cambellight. But in the fall of 1830, Julia and John Murdock met Oliver Cowdery as they lived in Northern Ohio. He gave them a Book of Mormon. John read the book and said, “The Spirit rested on me, witnessing to me of the truth.” He read to Julia and was filled with the Spirit as he read. Julia died not long thereafter as she gave birth to twins. The Murdocks had three older children. John and Julia were the twins. Joseph and Emma would adopt those twins in April of 1831. Here John Murdock is given a task––a mission from the Lord. Specifically in this moment, he is called to go to the eastern countries. But the last verse says, “Thou shalt continue proclaiming my gospel until thou be taken” (D&C 99:8). John Murdock will fulfill mission after mission after mission during his lifetime. He’ll go on the mission to the eastern states. He’ll go to Zion’s Camp. He is the first missionary to Australia. This will continue throughout his lifetime.


    Joseph Stuart: There’s something else in the text too that, when I was a Latter-day Saint missionary, I was maybe over-excited about. There may be, actually, an inverse relationship between what missionaries think is cool and what is actually valuable for the people they are trying to reach. But the idea of dusting off your feet. It says that the Lord will fight your battles in this section. He does not say you will win all of your battles. In section 99 verse 4 it says, “And whoso rejecteth you shall be rejected of my Father and His house; and you shall cleanse your feet in the secret places by the way for a testimony against them.” And again this was something that I felt very––actually, I don’t recall ever doing this but thinking, “Oh, well they rejected me, they will get what is coming to them.” And looking back now, that’s something I’m ashamed of. I don’t think that we need to get a little too excited about a testimony standing against somebody else. As Dan Belnap, a faculty member in religious education here at BYU, has written, “There are similarities in both meaning and form between the ancient and modern ritual practice of wiping the dust off one’s feet, but the average Latter-day Saint today does not understand the ancient context as it’s practice in the New Testament.” 17:30 And the average Latter-day Saint today has no need to leave a witness against those who reject them. We believe in a merciful God who will give us chance and chance again to hear the Gospel. We need to act like we actually believe that message. 


    Janiece Johnson: And I think that the Church has done studies and most converts have had an average of something like 12 or 15 interactions with people. For a missionary, and I suspect I did this as a missionary, to think that when someone’s having a bad day and slams the door in your face, that’s it, that’s their chance is the epitome of humor in my mind.


    Joseph Stuart: We shouldn’t be so selfish as to think, “we are the only people that can offer them the Gospel.” Even recognizing that even after death they have the opportunity to embrace it. The Lord never gives up on us. We shouldn’t give up on people so easily.


    Janiece Johnson: And there are lots of other things that we could perhaps focus a little more on in scripture. John Murdock is one of those, through these many missions, John Murdock develops a relationship with scripture. He was converted to the Book of Mormon early. He continues to develop a relationship with that. I think I’ve mentioned before, he actually feels a kinship with Mormon. He feels like they are very similar. We can see this relationship that he has with scripture develop over time to the point where it becomes part of how he expresses himself. We can see evidence of that relationship. Now, let’s move on to section 100. Because in late 1833, all is not well. Joseph’s letters actually really help us understand his specific concerns at the time. He is very worried about the saints in Missouri. He writes, “Brethren, if I were with you I should take an active part in your sufferings. And although nature shrinks, yet my spirit would not let me forsake you unto death. God help me, oh be of good cheer for our redemption draweth near. O God, save my brethren in Zion.” I am really moved by this compassion he has for the Saints. For Joseph, it is a consistently remarkable thing that the Saints will follow him. That they have been converted to the Lord and that they call him a prophet of God and that they will experience these persecutions and afflictions. 


    Joseph Stuart: I understand that as someone who feels very self conscious even recommending what kind of pizza to get at a restaurant if someone doesn’t end up liking it. I can only imagine how heavily this weighs on the prophet’s shoulders and it’s something that I’m reminded about in General Conference. We are often implored to pray for those who have been asked to serve us in recognizing that their burdens are heavy and that we can do our part by praying for them in the same way that they pray for us. 


    Janiece Johnson: That’s really lovely. There is also another great persecution that Joseph will describe in his letters and that is on account of one man. This man Philastus Hurlbut, after he was excommunicated, he repeatedly attacked Joseph. Joseph says a line in a wonderful manner. “The people are running after him and giving him money to break down Mormonism, which much endangers our lives at present. But God will put a stop to his career soon and all will be well.” Philastus Hurlbut’s writings end up in the first anti-mormon book which was published in 1834 by E.D. Hal. But at this point, the Lord says, “Joseph go preach.” Joseph and Sidney stop in Perrysburg, New York to visit Freeman & Holden Nickerson. They had asked––the Nickersons had asked Joseph to come and go with them to upper Canada. And they go to Mount Pleasant, upper Canada, which today is found in southern Ontario, and the Lord says this is an area primed for the salvation of souls. And I think that as we look at this section we get this doctrine of place. Joseph doesn’t want to have to go away; he wants to just be in Kirtland and get stuff done but the Lord says: look, go; there is something I have for you to do here. “I have much people in this place, in the regions roundabout; and an effectual door shall be opened in the regions roundabout in this eastern land” (D&C 100:3). The Joseph Smith papers talk about how this is the most fertile missionary area around those lakes. They have already done a lot of missionary work in the south and now the Nickersons are helping bring them to the North. “I, [the Lord] have suffered you to come unto this place; for thus it was expedient in me for the salvation of souls” (D&C 100:4). 


    Joseph Stuart: I love the idea of sacred space not just being temples or in meeting houses but a place where the Lord can do his work. And that certainly changed the way that I think about my own neighborhood. As I travel for work or on vacation I think: there is something special about each place because God’s children are in this place and all of them have the need to be redeemed in the same way that the Lord promises that Zion will be redeemed. 


    Janiece Johnson: Very good. The Lord doesn’t dismiss Joseph’s concerns and also gives comfort regarding those concerns. In verse 13, “And now I give unto you a word concerning Zion. Zion shall be redeemed, although she is chastened for a little season.” Verse 16, “For I will raise up unto myself a pure people, that will serve me in righteousness.” The principle of Zion, it seems that the Saints in Jackson County thought that the land, the piece of real estate, was Zion and that was it. And the Lord here is teaching them that Zion does not become Zion just because we say it’s Zion. Zion has to be made of a pure people that will serve me in righteousness, so Zion is not just a piece of real estate, but it is also a spiritual state. Hugh Nibley in his book Approaching Zion says, “God has given us the perfect definition. Zion is the pure in heart. The pure in heart, not merely the pure in appearance. It is not a society or religion of forms and observances; of pious gestures and precious mannerisms. It is strictly a condition of the heart. Above all Zion is pure, which means not mixed with any impurities; unalloyed. It is all Zion and nothing else. It is not achieved wherever a heart is pure or where two or three are pure because it is all pure. It is a society, a community, and an environment into which no unclean thing can enter.”


    Joseph Stuart: Good heavens. I love Brother Nibley. In thinking about something later in the section, I think about the commandment to be not afraid. Let not your hearts be troubled, and I’m thinking to myself: how on earth are we supposed to do this? They are very close to being in the middle of a Civil War in Missouri between Latter-day Saints and non-latter-day saints. In addition to the everyday concerns of: how am I going to feed my family? How am I going to plow this field? How am I going to, I don’t know, weld this thing that needs welding? Whatever it is, we all have so many things that we have to focus on at a given time and that’s even if we are fortunate enough to not be in immediate physical danger. It reminds me of the words that Elder Holland gave that we can think of, “The heart as the figurative center of our faith. The poetic location of our loyalties and our values then consider Jesus’s declaration that in the last days men’s hearts shall fail them. “Let not your hearts be troubled” means let not the thing that is in the center of your being fail. Don’t give up. The Lord is with you.”


    Janiece Johnson: Anciently, the heart is the cosmic center of an individual and I love that idea: “let your hearts be comforted.” In section 101, the Lord, again, uses the same language that he used in 100 to say to Joseph, you could go spread the Gospel in Canada. And the Lord says, “I have suffered the affliction to come upon them” (D&C 101:2) regarding the Saints in Jackson County. I have suffered. I have allowed this to happen. I think that this gives me pause. And makes me think about how I consider my relationship with God when I have messed up. When I have sinned. Is God Zeus with a lightning bolt who is just throwing down lightning trying to see how we dance? 


    Joseph Stuart: I really hope not. 


    Janiece Johnson: I don’t think so. “I have suffered; I have allowed this affliction to come upon them. Yet, I will own them and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels” (D&C 101:3). We are still His, even when we mess up, even when we sin, and that pressure. Elder Maxwell talks about affliction coming from multiple sources. Affiliations come because we sin, afflictions come because other people sin against us, and sometimes afflictions come because a loving God is testing us and trying us. But whatever the source of that pressure, it can be turned into something good. Thinking about jewels, it takes a whole lot of pressure to create a jewel, to create something precious out of coal or whatever the source is. But, we are still His. Part of mortality is providing that pressure cooker to see what we become, but we are still His. 


    Joseph Stuart: I can’t think of a better place to end than with that so we’ll leave you with the words of Elder Holland and I hope you have a blessed week y’all. 


    “If God has told you something is right; if something is indeed true for you, He will provide the way for you to accomplish it. That is true of joining the church. It is true of getting an education. Of going on a mission, getting married, any of a hundred worthy tasks in your young lives. Remember what the Savior said to the prophet Joseph in the Sacred Grove. What was the problem in 1820? Why was Joseph not to join any other church? It was at least in part because, ‘They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’ God’s grace is sufficient. The Lord would tell Joseph again and again through those early difficult days that just as in the days of old, these modern children of Israel would be led out of bondage by power and with a stretched out arm. Therefore, he said, ‘Let not your hearts faint. Mine angels shall go before you and also my presence, and in time, ye shall possess the goodly land.’ What goodly land? Your goodly land. Your promised land. Your New Jerusalem. Your own little acre, flowing with milk and honey. Your future, your dreams, your destiny. I believe that in our own individual ways, God takes us to the grove or the mountain, or the temple, sometimes the privacy of our own bedroom or closet, and there shows us the wonder of what His plan is for us. We may not see it as fully as Moses or Nephi, or the Brother of Jared did, but we see as much as we need to see in order to know the Lord’s will for us and to know that he loves us beyond mortal comprehension. I also believe that the adversary and his pinched calculating little minions try to oppose such experiences and then try to darken it after the fact but that is not the way of the Gospel. That is not the way of a Latter-Day Saint who claims as the fundamental fact of the restoration the spirit of revelation.”


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