Interpreting History, Part 9

History and doctrine are linked. To alter history is to alter doctrine. You can see the links throughout scripture. Just one example from the New Testament illustrates the point:

Jesus was confronted by the Pharisee lawyers and accused of breaking the law. He and His disciples had taken plucked wheat (labor of harvesting), then rubbed them in their hands (threshing), and eaten it on the Sabbath. (Luke 6: 1-2.) As His explanation Jesus reminded the accusers of an earlier incident involving King David and his men. They had eaten the showbread which, under the law, was forbidden to be eaten by any but a priest. (Luke 6: 3-4.) This incident involving David was the precedent Jesus pointed to as justification. (1 Sam. 21: 1-6.) The law said only Aaron and his descendants could eat this bread. (Lev. 24: 5-9.) However, Jesus relied on an incident from history to justify His and the disciples’ conduct. If the history showed it could be done, then Jesus questioned the “righteousness” of complaining about the matter.

There are hundreds of other examples to draw from, but this illustrates the point. History is the mill whose grist is the stuff from which we construct doctrine. It matters. If we do not comprehend it, we cannot sort through the dangling statements that get tossed about unanchored. We do not understand their original real meaning. One of the problems of fourth phase Mormonism is the apparent corruption of our vocabulary. We use the same words as the first phase, but we have adopted altogether different meanings for them. Meaning arises from context. Context comes from history.

Joseph gazed into heaven for more than five minutes. He knew more than if you had read everything that had ever been written on the subject. (TPJS p. 324.) He was succeeded by Brigham Young, who lamented he had never seen an angel or entertained a heavenly being. Therefore, it is important to study Brigham Young’s qualifications in contrast to Joseph Smith’s qualifications. If you understand Joseph had the heavens opened to him a number of times, including several audiences with both the Father and Son, you put Joseph’s remarks into one category. If you understand that Brigham Young never had a similar experience, then you put Brigham Young’s into another category. When Joseph is contradicted by Brigham, the first effort should be to reconcile or attempt to harmonize the two men’s statements. If you cannot reconcile them with one another, you can use the knowledge you have about each of them to choose which one you will rely on. The same would also be true of others. We study the history to learn what the qualifications are/were for any of God’s chosen leaders, what God showed to them, whether the heavens have opened to them, and exactly what they knew, or did not know when they contradict Joseph.

History must be true to be useful. If it is inaccurate or incomplete we can reach one conclusion only to find we have made a mistake because there was much more (or less) to the event. The events on August 8, 1844 are critical. If there was a transfiguration of Brigham Young on that day, then we can assume God was directly involved in solving the succession dilemma. If there was no transfiguration of Brigham, then God was not directly involved, and the outcome is a product of our common consent and still binding on the saints. Although binding, if the transfiguration did not happen, then the “precedent” is administrative and voluntary, and not a sign of God’s desire to have the precedent followed forever thereafter. It is nothing more than an agreement among the saints on how to proceed

This is important. Before June 27, 1844, the question of who would succeed Joseph Smith as the church president was known. Joseph’s successor would be Hyrum Smith, but Hyrum died with Joseph. Before June 27th, the question of what was to be done upon the death of both Joseph and Hyrum was never contemplated. There was no answer to the question.

In the debates of August 8th no one urged the provisions of Section 107 as a revealed outcome for succession. The language of that revelation has since become the scriptural basis for how we proceed, but it was not thought to be relevant in the first debate over succession. Section 107 is anything but a definite answer to the question. If you adopt our system, and then use 107 to justify our system, it seems to fit, but there is another, more relevant solution found elsewhere. Doctrine & Covenants 43: 3-4 was used to appoint Hyrum Smith to succeed Joseph. The appointment was made by revelation in Section 124: 94-95. This was the scriptural pattern, and the pattern followed in the case of Hyrum.

Brigham Young’s arguments at the time were not as clear about succession as we have made them by our adopting the method of apostolic succession based on seniority. Brigham Young admitted that Joseph Smith’s sons had a right to be the church’s leader and he was only a caretaker awaiting their development. He explained that since they had never converted to the church, they were not able to lead, and so he served in their absence.

History and the scriptures allow for a different method for succession. In the final analysis it is nothing more than the common consent of the church that has elected Brigham Young and all his successors to the offices they have held. Our last descendant of Hyrum Smith, occupying the office of Patriarch to the Church, is now 105 years old, emeritus, and not likely to be succeeded when he passes. The Smith Family male line will be out of the top level of the hierarchy. Of course, there are female line descendants who are there, including Elder Ballard. But direct male line descendants are gone or will be when the Patriarch Emeritus passes on.

Does that matter? What was the point of having that office? Was it important to the church’s organization? Why was Hyrum the successor to Joseph? Why did Brigham Young expect a son of Joseph to come and preside over the church? Does history shed any light on these questions? Do they even matter? What purpose was originally served and does that purpose remain today? Why was the Patriarch sustained as a “prophet, seer and revelator” in general conference right up until he was made emeritus? Could a general conference sustain him as the church’s president, or does the system presently preclude anyone other than the nominees of the sitting president from being considered? Why did the local congregations once choose their own bishops? When did that change? Why did it change? Does the original history matter? Once we give common consent to what is done, are we accountable for the changes that occur?

There are a lot of interesting history-based questions that could be explored. But the questions themselves require us to study something that no longer even gets mentioned.

Well, I’ll be wrapping this up in Part 10.