Saturday, May 6, 2017

Odds and Ends from One Chapter in Martin Harris's Biography

One of the projects I’ve been working on at BYU Studies is the edit of a biography of Martin Harris. All sorts of inadvertent insights can be found in a project like this. Let me offer three as a sampling from one particular chapter.
The first has to do with a phrase in the D&C that’s often misunderstood by today’s Mormons. It appears in three places—section 42, verse 33; section 51, verse 3; and section 82, verse 17.  I’ll quote section 51 here. “Wherefore, let my servant Edward Partridge . . . appoint unto this people their portions, every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs.” I often hear this expression used to explain that under the law of consecration everyone received as much as they needed and wanted. The only problem with this interpretation is that it assumes a modern meaning for the word wants. Generally, in the early 1800s, this word referred to what a person lacked, not what he or she desired.
To illustrate this usage, let me refer to an experience of Joseph Smith in Kirtland. On December 9, he asked God to bless Noah Packard for his gift of twelve dollars. He then listed others who had given him money. Among these was Martin Harris’s brother Emer, who donated one dollar. Joseph recorded, “My heart swells with gratitude inexpressible when I realize the great condescension of my heavenly Father, in opening the hearts of these my beloved brethren to administer so liberally to my wants. And I ask God, in the name of Jesus Christ, to multiply blessings without number upon their heads” (History of the Church, 2:326–27, emphasis added). Obviously, Joseph wasn’t asking the Lord to bless people for giving him what he wished for. Rather, he was referring to those who had provided what he lacked.
Next insight. About this same time, Martin’s other brother, Preserved (a fascinating name for anyone’s child, by the way), was prosecuted before a Church court because he was fairly well-off and hadn’t been very generous in imparting of his substance to the poor. During the trial, Jared Carter testified that Preserved “has been in a situation to know the liberality of the Saints, being one of a committee to build the Lord’s House. P. Harris donated some, but too little for one who knows & intends to do his duty in this respect—seeing so many loud calls have been given for the rich to assist the poor, he knows . . . that he has [not] assisted.” Joseph Smith testified that he and Oliver Cowdery had called on Preserved and explained the need of assistance to the poor and the purchase of property in Zion. Preserved replied “that he had promised [his wife, Nancy,] that if she would come to this place, he would settle down and not remove again, & therefore he could not help us as we wished in building Zion [in Missouri].” At the conclusion of Joseph Smith’s remarks, the accused was given an opportunity to speak for himself. Preserved said that “he had a considerable [amount of] property in hand—has helped the poor some—got his property by hard work. Some that are liberal with other’s property do not labor to get much to give to the poor themselves; he may have failed in some things, but has done as he felt before God.” After discussion, the council decided that the charges be fully sustained and that “the hand of fellowship is withdrawn from him until he shall see that the course he is pursuing is contrary to the gospel of Jesus” (Kirtland Council Minute Book, June 16, 1836). Preserved did not alter his course and therefore did not remain with the Church. We often hear it explained in our classes and lessons that living the law of consecration was all a matter of free will. Nobody was forced to give up their property. While this may be true in one sense, it is also true that you could be cut off from the body of the Saints for being less generous than the leadership expected, as the case of Preserved Harris indicates.
Final insight. On the evening of December 16, 1835, Joseph attended a debate about gospel topics sponsored by his brother William. At the conclusion of the event, and apparently reacting to the intensity of the exchange of views that had just taken place, Joseph questioned “the propriety of continuing the [debate] fearing that it would not result in good.” A discussion of the issue followed. Feeling reproved, William opposed any such closure and demanded that another gospel question be debated. His demand was refused. Known for his volatile temper, William physically attacked his brother Joseph. The assault required that Joseph be rescued by others in attendance. William was brought before the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, of which he was a member. After confessing his error, he told them, “It would be better for them to appoint one, in the office, that would be better able to fill it.” He wrote a letter of apology to Joseph and repeated his willingness to withdraw from office. “You know my passions and the danger of falling from so high a station,” he wrote. “I feel afraid, if I don’t do this, it will be worse for me some other day.” Joseph responded with his own letter, writing, “You desire to remain in the Church, but forsake your Apostleship. This is the stratagem of the evil one. . . . But by maintaining your Apostleship, in rising up and making one tremendous effort, you may overcome your passions and please God” (History of the Church, 2:334–35, 338–44).
It occurred to me when I read this that in today’s Church, with our sensitivity to the Protestant notion of grace, we would expect Joseph to counsel William to repent of his sins and rely on the saving grace of Jesus to lift him above his weakness. But in Joseph’s theology, apparently through “tremendous effort” we can overcome our passions and please God. I don’t know quite what to make of this, because I have had very little success with either program. But I find it intriguing that Joseph seemed to view herculean effort sufficient to reform our flaws and place ourselves in better standing with God. This seems at odds with our current theology of grace.
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Let me mention here that I am going to take a bit of a break from blogging for a season. I am working on a couple of other writing projects (one being a novel) that I need to devote more time to. So, when things slow down a bit, I’ll resume a more regular blogging schedule. Thanks for your interest in my musings.


  1. It has been less than 24 hours since I last heard "you're so generous with other people's money" as an excuse for not giving a **** for the millions who could be denied any kind of health coverage after recent events. They say that while believing that the Church's plan has nothing whatsoever in common with a government plan that would reach all, not just Mormons. Thanks for reporting this early parallel.

    (I always read, but have never commented. Thanks for your good work.)

  2. Please write your novel as quickly as possible. Your voice here will be missed.

  3. Thanks, Ardis and Anonymous. I'm not actually writing a novel, just revising an old one to hopefully make it more marketable in today's bizarre political context. We'll see. Anyway, it shouldn't take too long.

  4. Excellent post. I only hope that people stop citing HC and cite JSP instead. E.g., your "blessings without number" quotation is here.

    Also, it's interesting that the 3 witnesses did not choose William Smith. Joseph overrode their choice of Phinneas Young because he wanted to keep William close to him.