Sunday, July 25, 2010

Church History Q&A: Rebaptism in the Early Church

            Many times in the church we develop erroneous social conceptions of corporal and eternal principles. As close knit communities of Latter-day Saints we can sometimes, without doctrinal substance, develop social norms and taboos which can, because of the context in which they were developed, inherit a spiritual or ecclesiastical authority which the principle does not originally embody.  Such practices can be seen as Cultural Mormonism, which is to be contrasted with Doctrinal Mormonism, in which the substance comes from scripture or prophetic council rather than society or interpretation of doctrine. 

            Some examples of Cultural Mormonism could be the abstinence of caffeine, the former apologetic beliefs and justifications of the ban of the Priesthood from the blacks, the former and continuing stance of anti-evolution, the belief that the hill Cummorah is the same hill that Joseph Smith retrieved the plates out of, the belief that to be a “good Mormon” you must be a democrat. These opinions are not, nor were, inherently wrong but they do not come from official Latter-day Saint Doctrine, but rather through cultural influence.

The Doctrine of Baptism
            The doctrine I will discuss today is that of baptism, one of the most essential doctrines of the Latter-day Saints and all of Christendom.  The word “baptism” come from the Greek baptizo meaning to “dip” or “immerse”. For Christianity (and Mormonism) it is the key initiatory event in conversion and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

            For Latter-day saints baptism and confirmation are an inseparable saving ordinance. A saving ordinance in the Latter-day Saint church is a solemn convent made by the individual with God in order to accept Christ more fully into their life and inherit eternal life. Baptism and Confirmation are the first two initiatory ordinances which starts the process of fully accepting Jesus Christ into their lives.

            Preparatory to baptism the person must first find faith in God, His Son, and His Church. Whey must repent for their sins by recognizing them, confessing them, and forsaking them.  They are then prepared to make convents with God through baptism.

            There are five main purposes for Baptism and confirmation in the church:
  1. To be cleansed from the sins that the individual has repented for previous to his or her baptism.
  2. To covenant with God to follow him, and thus take on a portion of Christ name into our hearts, or to accept Christ (to a degree)
  3. As a saving ordinance, it is necessary prior to the entering into God’s presence
  4. To receive the Holy Ghost as a constant companion
  5. To enter into Christ’s Church

            This process and convents are not a “one time” affair, the same process, promises, and covenants are repeated weakly in The Sacrament of the Lords Supper (Also known as communion, sacrament, or the Eucharist). As one properly partakes of the Lords Supper they recovenant and refresh their baptism. It can be seen as a weekly baptism, a scheduled cleansing appointment.

            There is much cultural Mormonism attached to baptism; this is not so much in explicit writings of the doctrines or practices but rather in the underlying traditions and expectations. These range from the trivial matters of the format of the baptism and refreshments after; to the very serious misconception that baptism erases all sins committed by the person baptized to believing that we fully take upon us the name of Christ when we are baptized.[1][2]

            In this publication I am going to discuss an issue that deals with a topic which not only dealt with social misunderstanding but doctrinal.  This is the topic of rebaptism.

Re-baptism: Then and Now
            Today in the church it is unusual to be re-baptized, virtually the only case of rebaptism is for those who have been excommunicated and thus by necessity forfeit the blessings and covenant that were made at baptism. After undergoing the necessary repentance process the individual can re ovenant with god and get rebaptisd; for those who have been excommunicated reinstates the blessings of baptism, and readmits them into Christ church. Other than these circumstances rebaptism does not occur.

            Imagine that next Sunday in sacrament meeting the bishop gets up and announces that to recommit the ward everyone is going to get rebaptized that Saturday at 1:00pm (refreshments will be served after). I would hazard to assume that there would be more than just confusion and a knee-jerk, jaw-dropping surprise but many would see this as an act of blasphemy, undoctrinal, and a form of apostasy.  However this would have not been the case but 120 years ago. In the early church rebaptism was embraced, encouraged, and practiced by virtually everyone in the church.

Was Joseph Smith Baptized Twice?
            A little known fact is that Joseph Smith himself was baptized more than once. As is well known on May 15th 1829AD Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went to pray on the banks of the Susquehanna River, near Harmony, Pennsylvania received the Aaronic Priesthood under that hands of John the Baptist as heavenly messenger, and was instructed to baptize one another.  Joseph first baptized Oliver in the Susquehanna after which Oliver baptized Joseph. 

            This baptism, although achieving the first three aforementioned purposed of baptism and confirmation, did not however allow entrance into Christ restored church as the Restored church was not yet organized on the earth. The next year, April 6th 1930, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized and both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith got rebaptized into Christ church.

Rebaptisms in the West
            Some may point out that the hypothetical situation I posed and the example of Joseph Smith are not analogous as the example of Joseph Smith had a logical and practical reason behind it while the hypothetical situation merely purports baptism as merely a whimsical desire to be more committed to the gospel. This whimsical desire however was a very valid and accepted reason to be rebaptized in the middle to late eighteenth century.

            After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the succession on Brigham Young, and the forced exodus out of Nauvoo Illinois the Saints headed west eventually to end up in the Great Salt Lake Valley. As the church settled into the Rockies a decision to emphasize rebaptism was made. This was done for two main reasons. The first reason was that the records of the church were somewhat scanty as the time and there was some uncertainty about the validity or existence of Baptisms or Baptismal Records, thus a mass rebaptism effort would allow for security in baptism and a chance to document and redocument baptismal records. The second reason as described by the prolific journalist and future President of the church Wilford Woodruff:

On this day the Twelve were re-baptized. Why? Because the Church, having broken old ties in the East was, in a way, experiencing a new birth. Because, owing to conditions of life on the plains, regular Church routine could not always be observed. For this reason for non-observance of certain regulations were made by the people and accepted by their leaders. But now those who stood at the head of the Church wanted a gesture of support to themselves and a sign that willing obedience would be given to the rules of the Church. This was affected by re-baptism.
(Wilford Woodruff Journal, August 6, 1847.)
            On August 6th 1847, Brigham Young, The Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency lead the way into this new age by setting the example and getting rebaptized as a sign of commitment to the ideals of the church and to Jesus Christ himself.

            Rebaptisms continued to be preformed not only as a sign of recommitment but also in preparation for major life commitments or spiritual experiences such as marriages, temple endowments, temple dedications, or entering into the United Order. At one point there were rebaptisms preformed for those who were in failing or poor health in faith that they would be healed. Rebaptism became so common that the Ward Membership Forms placed a section for rebaptisms in 1877.

            The practice was heavily endorsed by the church to the point that Joseph Fielding Smith in 1878 gave instructions to bishops regarding those being endowed that “No person, male or female, should be recommended for these ordinances, unless they have first renewed their covenants by baptism.”[3]

            Baptisms in this manner are just as effectual in it’s purpose as is the taking the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  If we wished to we could be baptized every week at church, and every time we would be baptized all of the sins that we had truly repented of would be washed away.  Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lords Supper are essentially one and the same, the only difference is that the Sacrament it only effectual to those who have already been baptized and made those covenants with God, while those who are not baptized are encouraged not to partake in the covenant-ordinance. As Paul taught to the Corinthians:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
(KJV, Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
            The practice of rebaptism in the early west became struck by cultural Mormonism. Although rebaptisms are a good doctrinal idea, and could provide a greater, more dramatic, more public sign or repentance the idea of rebaptism ceased to be thought of as a sign repentance and opportunity to receive forgiveness and it became in the minds of the people a form of repentance and the act of forgiveness. Just because one gets baptized does not mean that they have repented, nor does it mean that they are cleansed from all their sins.

            This idea of baptism persists to this day in cultural Mormonism.  I have been to many baptisms, particularly baptisms of those who are young, where a member of the church in a talk proclaims that the baptized is now totally clean of all their since, or that they are the cleanest person on earth. While to a extent this can be true baptism does not guarantee total forgiveness any more than the sacrament guarantees it. Baptism without repents in ineffectual and hallow, void of reason or meaning.

            For this cultural misinterpretation the practice of rebaptisms, rebaptisms was later discouraged and eventually against official policy. In the Church History in the Fullness of Times manual for the formal religious education of the church (The Church Educational Services (CES)) it explains this period of time:
Church leaders also discontinued the long-standing practice of rebaptism. Oftentimes Latter-day Saints had been rebaptized in conjunction with important milestones, such as marriage or entering the United Order or sometimes for improvement of health. These rebaptisms were recorded on Church membership records. The First Presidency grew concerned that some members were substituting rebaptism for true repentance. In 1893, stake presidents were instructed not to require rebaptism of Saints wishing to attend the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and in 1897 the practice of rebaptism was discontinued altogether. As President George Q. Cannon explained, “It is repentance from sin that will save you, not rebaptism."
(Salt Lake City, Utah : Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992, 1989.)

            Rebaptisms are now against church policy and the history is generally unknown and un-understood. I am not suggesting that we reinstitute rebaptisms as it is against policy, but to understand that rebaptisms of these kinds were and are still valid and effectual. The policy may have changed but the principle has not. Similar cases where policy has been changed but not doctrine would be the doctrine of the Law of Consecration (the United Order), or the doctrine of polygamy.

            Although in my original hypothetical situation there was great (theoretical) opposition to the idea of rebaptism, this animosity was not based on church doctrine or even on church policy but on a cultural Mormonism knee jerk. The issue in this problem is giving authority to cultural norms particular to the Latter-day Saints which do not warrant such authority by the doctrines of the church.  We need to introspectively ask ourselves of our motives and reasons for our beliefs so as to get closer to the “trunk” of the gospel, closer the essence of the gospel and further away from the flimsy branches of opinion, culture, and speculation.

[1] Legrande Richards, A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, Deseret Book Co, 1976,  
[2] Dallin H Oaks, Taking upon Us the Name of Jesus Christ, Ensign, May 1985, 81
[3] Joseph F. Smith to Frederick Kesler, 4 Dec. 1878, in papers of Frederick Kesler, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Gospel Scholarship: Order out of Chaos

"Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?" Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?" (Isaiah 51:9-10).

This verse discusses, among other things, the Creation of the world and how God brought order out of chaos. We will see how the ancient Middle East believed the earth was formed. This article will also show how this Creation motif is re-lived and renewed in the story of the Exodus, the atonement of Christ, and the ordinances we receive.

Isaiah's words reflect the ancient belief that God formed the world out of Chaos:
"And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2).

Here we see that there IS an earth already available for him to work with. There is no ex nihilo creation, or creation from nothing. However, this earth is "without form, and void" or is not organized yet. The earth is steeped in darkness and covered in water.

For the ancients, nothing was more chaotic than darkness and water. Before creating life, God must eliminate chaos by bringing forth light. This light is not the sun, moon and stars, for those are brought forth on the fourth day (vs 14-19).

Instead, on the first day, light was called forth, ordered, and divided from the darkness. The chaos of darkness is not destroyed nor eliminated, but is diminished and held at bay (vs 3-5).

Next, the waters had to be tamed. On the second day, waters on earth were separated from those in the skies. And on the third day land masses jutted up into the air, forcing the waters into the oceans, seas, and rivers (vs 6-10).

As with the darkness, the waters were not destroyed, but controlled. Isaiah's above quote mentions a dragon, or sea serpent, which in the ancient beliefs was slain or defeated by God, in order to bring order and create the earth.

In some traditions there were two dragons, male and female. The Lord defeated one in the Creation, and will defeat the second one in the last days. Isaiah also foresaw this event:

"In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea" (Isaiah 27:1).

Leviathan and Rahab are sea serpents. They caused the waters to be chaotic. In forming the earth, the Lord was able to control, but not totally defeat the monster(s) until the end.

Confusing? Puzzling? Let's let the scriptures explain:
"And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was there place found anymore in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:7-9).

As with the ancient tradition, the serpent, or Satan was not completely defeated until the end:
"And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:2).

In LDS theology, Lucifer sought to replace both Christ and God, recommending a replacement plan that did not require a Suffering Savior nor agency, but would force a chaotic salvation on all (Moses 1:1-4, Abraham 3:23-28, Isaiah 14:12-20).

So, in the beginning, God had to defeat Satan (Adversary) and his chaos in order to form the earth. But he did not totally destroy the chaos, as it was necessary for earth life. Half of the earth is bathed in life and the other in darkness. Water still covers most of the earth.

While a group of elders traveled down the Missouri River, Wilford Woodruff spotted Satan raging upon the waters. The party pulled to the bank, and Joseph Smith asked God the meaning of the vision. The answer is found in Doctrine & Covenants 61.

The Lord preferred them to slow down and preach along the way, because the "the inhabitants on either side (of the river) were perishing in unbelief (spiritual darkness)" (61:3).

The Lord allowed them to travel by river, because he wanted to reveal to them an important concept: "there are many dangers upon the waters and many more hereafter" (61:4). The Lord "decreed in mine anger many destructions upon the waters, especially these waters" (61:5). Here we see Satan connected to the chaos of the waters of the Missouri. The Lord still allows the chaos its place. Still, "he that is faithful among you shall not perish by the waters" (61:6).

The Lord explained that the waters were blessed "in the beginning" or in the Creation as he brought order to them. However, they would be cursed in the last days, even as John the Revelator prophesied. Interestingly, the Missouri River is especially noted as cursed. Here we have the greatest curse/chaos located on the edge of Zion.

In fact, modern revelation tells us that the line between chaos and order will be very visible in the last days. "And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must need flee to Zion for safety." In fact the only people not at war, a man-made chaos, will be those in Zion (D&C 45:68-69).

Satan, the Dragon, will rule the hearts of many, filling them with rage and chaos. Those who turn fully to Christ will go to Zion, rejoicing for the peace and order it provides (D&C 45:71).

There has always been a delicate balance between order and chaos. Lehi explained to his son Jacob that "opposition in all things" is necessary for life to exist. Without it, there is no agency and free will. Nor is there a need for a Savior and atonement to save us from total chaos: Perdition and Outer Darkness, death and hell. We do experience temporary chaos in life, in order to learn, grow, and have personal choice. In the premortal existence, we experienced the chaos of Satan's rebellion, where 1/3 of the host of heaven followed the Dragon (Rev ) and were cast out of heaven. The dark womb and chaotic waters that break forth in new life, creates order from birth. In this life, we struggle with unanticipated events and entropy- the natural flowing of energy and systems from order to chaos. Things break down, requiring us to use more energy to restore order. Even the sun is expected to burn itself out in a few billion years, collapsing into a dark chaotic mass.

God brings new order to those things that accept his infusion of light, life and order. Just as Christ calmed the Sea of Galilee and ordered the waves, "Peace, be still," he can bring order out of our lives. He has formed several levels of heaven (1 Cor 12:1-4) to give each of us blessings according to the level of order and chaos we choose to live with. For those who abide a celestial law or level of order will receive a celestial glory (D&C 88:22-32).

Our sins separate us from God, because in sinning we embrace chaos and darkness. In embracing the atonement of Christ through faith and repentance, we accept order and light. Faith in Christ allows God to defeat the Dragons and Leviathans of life and bring forth in us a new Creation as saints and children of God.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jews and Mormons: Similarities and Differences

(Above is the Latter-day Saint Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City, Temple Square featuring the hexagram, a sign of the Jewish faith)

        To a large extent, Jewish awareness of Mormonism, however minimal, remains negative, due mainly to Latter-day Saint practices widely regarded as offensive in the Jewish community: Missionary work(or proselytizing) and baptism for the dead (namely, posthumous baptism by proxy of non-Mormons, usually ancestors of someone who is LDS). Most Jews are unlikely to be aware, however, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has attempted to respect Jewish sensitivities on both these issues, which are, after all, fundamental practices of Mormonism. In an agreement submitted to Israeli authorities when the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was opened, the president of the church (President Ezra Taft Benson) and the president of Brigham Young University (Elder Jeffery R. Holland) signed a solemn commitment forbidding Latter-day Saints proselyting in Israel, and threatened any student, member of the faculty, or staff violating that commitment with immediate expulsion from the Jerusalem Center and from the country. Similarly, respecting Jewish sensitivity, especially after the Shoah (holocaust), the church agreed in 1995 to stop the practice of baptism for the dead applied in a wholesale manner to Jews (although reaffirming the right of individual Latter-day Saints to baptize their own direct ancestors).

        Therefore, given that Mormonism in not a significant factor in the concerns of most Jews. why do I believe that Jewish-Mormon dialogue is important for both sides? My answer is given on three levels: general, Jewish, and Mormon.

        First, in general, many people of diverse backgrounds today increasingly recognize the urgent need for increased inter religious dialogue and understanding, all the more so in our era of the 'global village' and at a time when the whole world is threatened by fanatical and fundamentalist religiopolitical terror. as radical Catholic theologian Hans Hung has said, without peace among the world's religions, there will be no peace among the nations. In my part of the world in particular, it is an unfortunate fact that religion is rarely a force for peace and is usually used (or abused) to exacerbate conflicts that are basically national and political, and not theological, in nature. we need, therefore, to encourage inter religious dialogue wherever possible, and with whomever possible.

        Second, looking at inter religious, specifically Jewish-Mormon relations, from a Jewish perspective, the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular do not have many friends in the world. Some of the decades-old Jewish alliances with mainline and liberal Christian churches over domestic American agendas such as civil rights and civil liberties are now increasingly strained due to some of these churches' involvement with overt criticism of Israel, support for Palestine's, and calls for divestiture and even boycotts of Israel, of Israeli universities and academicians, or of companies doing business in Israel. Moreover, given the resurgence of European anti-semitism, it seems to me an obvious Jewish interest to foster relations with Churches, like the Church of Jesus Christ, that have extended their hands in friendship to the Jewish people and the state of Israel and that have no history of consistent anti-semitism. Various Christian churches are struggling with, or overtly repudiating, the supersessionist theology that typified so much of their historical attitudes toward the Jewish people and Judaism. The Latter-day Saint record is far more positive. For Example:
        Ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn (3 Nephi 29:8)
        Specifically, given the diminishing numbers of Jews in America (in absolute terms, and all the more as a proportion of the American population ), and in light of the fact that-contrary to Arab propaganda-the Jewish-Israeli lobby does not control the American congress and has never been able to stop sales of advanced weapons to Arab countries (like Saudi Arabia) hostile to Israel, it seems clear that the only true power the American Jews posses is the power of moral persuasion. Persuasion, however, requires reaching out in dialogue to a broad spectrum of communities with whom the Jews have not previously had extensive dialogue, including the Latter-day Saints, who are growing in numbers and influence.

        Third, though of course i cannot speak for the church officially, it seems to me from my encounters as a member of the church and a Jew, that there is a growing interest among the church for a duologue with Jewish people, who occupy a special place in Mormon thought. Latter-day Saints, seeing themselves as physically descended from ancient Israel (primarily from the house of Ephraim), often feel a special kinship Jewish whom they sometimes refer to as "cousins" of "the house of Israel" of the tribe of Judah, leading them to regard themselves and Jews as "two houses of Israel". In many respects this sense of kinship is reinforced when latter-day Saints portray themselves as a new Israel, suffering persecution and wandering on the "great trek" in the wilderness until they came to an American Zion. we shall return later to this LDS topic of physical lineage. But what is no less important for Jewish-Mormon dialogue is growing :LDS effort to relate to Jews, not as an Old Testament tribe but as a living religious community.

        So for different and legitimate reasons, Latter-day Saints and Jews can recognize not only the general need for religious encounter, but also a specific common interest in a special dialogue with each other, a dialogue that will not eliminate the fundamental differences between them, but will, rather, enhance those differences with greater mutual understanding and respect.

        That special dialogue suffered a setback some years ago, when the security situation in Israel led to the closing, for the time being, of the Jerusalem Center for near Eastern Studies, despite valiant efforts of the BYU administration in Jerusalem and Provo to keep it open under difficult circumstances. The center was a major focus for Jewish-Mormon dialogue. To the best of my knowledge, no other university in the world brought some 850 young people annually to study in Jerusalem over of years. Indeed, few, if any, Israeli universities have programs for oversees students coming from all over the world that can approach that number. In fact, few colleagues in Jewish studies around the world, who are often lucky to teach a few dozen students a year, taught, as I did, 850 students every year, all of whom were potential ambassadors of goodwill in the relationship between Jews and Latter-day Saints.

        Having explained why I think Jews and Latter-day Saints need to engage each other in dialogue, I would now like to describe some examples of the similarities and differences, on a general level, and then deal with two specific issues, each exemplifying both similarities and differences between the two communities. Understand each other's terminology and frame of reference in an obvious requirement for effective communication.
(Above is the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Polygamy – Now and Then

Introduction to the Author
A warm welcome, friends, colleagues, associates, and passersby! I’m Jared, or if you will, Teleo (tell-LAY-oh), a native of the Salt Lake Valley in north-central Utah. While born into an LDS family, I didn’t care much about it until by age 17 I began to experience a sensation I can only call “soul hunger.” My search for solutions led me to investigate my family’s beliefs, and over a three year period I came to know and love God my Heavenly Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, who is my Savior, and their teachings—which literally include the entire universe (and likely beyond). Any answer to life’s questions, comfort for pained souls, a savory feast for souls similarly hungering, can be found in the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Polygamy – Now and Then
Perhaps the most controversial topic I’ve investigated in LDS doctrine is polygamy. Due to a lengthy Western history of monogamous tradition on the political side, and classical Christian teaching about sexual purity and faithfulness on the religious side, surprise and indeed concern may well be expected and even validated concerning a plurality of spouses. Without a theological context, and integrating the practice with other Christian principles, the practice may easily be misunderstood and abused.

However, thanks to the first, and most important LDS doctrine—that people can go to God in prayer, and expect divine teaching (James 1:6, Matthew 7:7, Moroni 10:3-5, D&C 9:7-9)—many so-called mysteries of divinity have been clarified, including the doctrine of polygamy.
Joseph Smith’s earliest religious experiences show that he was a seeker of truth and enlightenment. However, long before Joseph prayed about polygamy, he began with far more basic concepts that built, line upon line, precept upon precept, into more advanced topics. Beginning with an overview of a few of these foundation stones will allow for context as well as clarity in this essay.
Like many sensitive and self-aware people through the ages, Joseph wanted to know his standing before God. Turning to the religious societies that surrounded him for guidance, (a logical enough step), Joseph found that they didn’t always agree on the methods of salvation. As a result, he was left confused, dissatisfied, and turned to one thing that they usually shared in common: belief that the Holy Bible contained God’s teachings.
While reading a portion of that book that explained how one gained wisdom (James 1:5), Joseph felt that this counsel was sound, and its promise true. Once he determined to follow it, he exercised his faith in God, and prayed with a sincere heart and pure intent. The answer he received was far more than he’d ever anticipated. He experienced what the Latter-day Saints (LDS) now call the “First Vision,” in which God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son appeared to Joseph and provided him with a few basic instructions to prepare for important things yet to come.
Following this first epiphany, and now certain of the reality of God, the distinction between the Father and the Son, and this clarification of their “oneness” and disposition toward humanity, Joseph continued to pray about core parts of the gospel, and further answers came. A few examples, or “foundational building blocks,” as I will call them, include: clarifications on the doctrine of repentance, including our responsibility and God’s promises in this process (see D&C Section 19); questions about priesthood governance (see D&C Sections 84, 88, and 107); and conditions of the afterlife, eternal justice, and rewards for faithful obedience (John 5:29, Revelation 22:12, 1 Corinthians 15:41,42, and particularly D&C Section 76).
Detailed revelations about God’s preferred methods of leadership over His kingdom ultimately led to the breadth of the cosmos, and then focused back here, on Earth, to the family circle. The culminating aspiration of a priesthood holder, it was discovered, is not the fulfillment of self by living the gospel teachings. Rather, this was a preparation, a purification, designed to help humanity understand God by working with Him to bring about the improvement of His children. Only by living gospel principles ourselves could we be enabled to perpetuate the work of God and His followers. No position, title, or assignment, therefore, is more vital and far-reaching as father and mother.
Joseph learned that when parents have prepared themselves as faithful followers of Christ, their marriage is strengthened by promises between each other, as well as with God. Marriages enriched by hearts and hands that are practiced in faith and loyalty, honor and benevolence, hospitality and service, virtue and chastity, brotherly kindness and charity, unquestionably will be more godlike and worthy of God’s favor, than those that do not. Due to the aforementioned revelations about the afterlife (esp., D&C 76), the importance of eternal marriage as a help for eternal order in God’s kingdom began to be realized.
With these preparatory steps, or foundation stones, in mind—repentance and gospel living, priesthood preparation and administration, and working toward eternal goals that continue into the afterlife—the wisdom and order of polygamy in eternity can start to be understood.
A Christian legacy of concern about marriage relationships continuing into the afterlife, largely stemming from Matthew 22:30, led the curious Joseph Smith to pray for understanding. The official doctrine about eternal marriage and polygamy, found in D&C 132, was the answer he received. Where Jesus was more restrictive in His teachings to an unreceptive New Testament audience, He could give a much more detailed explanation to a willing and receptive audience among the Latter-day Saints.
It is important to consider both parts of Section 132 in order to appreciate the function and potential of eternal marriage and polygamy. Verses 1-33 focus on basic eternal marriage (monogamous or polygamous), with verse 16 being perhaps the most important to remember: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide in my law ye cannot attain to this glory.” In short, because marriage is complex (as any married couple will witness to, in or out of our faith), if we have not effectively learned and practiced the aforementioned gospel basics, our foundation will be unfit for continued building as eternal parents. And just as surely, if we faithfully discover, experiment, solidify, and plan, our family can effectively and securely build forever, generation after generation.
In this fashion, we realize that it is not our foundation upon which we build, but the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). It is God’s Church; we are only pillars, supporters for future generations to build upon. If we through our unfaithfulness to God’s instructions fail to build securely on God’s framework, our children will have so much more difficulty securing their lives upon His teachings. And again, if we through our faithfulness learn wisdom, learn obedience, learn how to love, correct, and guide as God does, our children may not only build with confidence, but even expand upon our anchors, worlds upon worlds. This works with monogamous or polygamous eternal marriages.
Because God wants to lift, raise, and improve all of His children, and such dependable disciples have proven the consistent minority, concerns about the millions of children who have been raised with no eternal truths or guiding principles approved by God, the solution of polygamy to raise up more children in the homes of faithful followers easily arises (see Jacob 2:30). Due to the nature of our physical creation, women have been given the ability to produce offspring, and men provide some blueprints. As a result, polygamy—one man with plural wives—will be able to rapidly expand a family, and conform to priesthood governance, as opposed to polyandry—one woman with plural husbands—which serves no such purpose, and requires a dna test to determine the father, confusing the order intended by marriage relationships.
Obviously, in this light, polygamy is easier in theory than in practice. Indeed, history has shown that even when God commanded polygamous marriages, complications and frustrations often followed. In our fallen world, where we are in a learning and testing phase of eternal life, given a measure of freedom, instructions by God, and temptations by Lucifer so that we can learn from the difference between good and evil, we’ve seen abuses of procreation, a horrendous spectrum of emotional abuses, and challenges even in “happy” marriages. It’s easy to see how polygamy can be twisted into lechery. That’s why God taught Joseph the foundation principles first. Without them, marriage, let alone polygamy, can easily fall into chaos.
Perhaps polygamous relationships would be more useful in the afterlife, where God’s work of creating planets and solar systems abounds, and where peopling these planets would benefit from such marriages built upon godly foundations? In any case, it’s easy to see why polygamous marriages have been the exception throughout history, rather than the rule!