Mormons and Jews
by Steven Epperson
Joseph Smith’s Encounter with Biblical Israel
Joseph Smith’s interest in God’s Israel was not exhausted with publication of the Book of Mormon. In the fourteen years until his death, he returned repeatedly to questions of Israel’s covenant and election, its gathering and restoration, the reconciliation of its estranged families, and the place of its “adopted” sons and daughters in the Lord’s scheme of salvation.
Diaries, journals, and pamphlets produced by early Mormons reveal the prominent place of the Bible in their culture. It was the great motherlode of prooftexts for their polemical and apologetic works, the source and pattern for their strident sectarianism, their pre-millennialism, their corporate organization, their ethics and behavior. This text was read in a literal fashion; that is, Mormon readers understood the characters, events, and settings of Israel’s scriptures to possess historical and material integrity in the same manner that readers understood the referents of “secular” histories. “Prophecies and doctrine, the covenants and promises contained in them,” wrote George J. Adams in 1841, “have a literal application.”1 At the same time a certain tension was embedded in the Mormon approach to the Bible. For unlike most orthodox Christians of the middle decades of the 1800s, Mormons believed that the Bible was [p.44] an imperfectly composed text. This meant that although Mormons read the text in a literal way, they were willing through the inspiration of their prophet to add to or emend its canon. Still it was only by means of the Bible that Joseph Smith and his followers encountered the Jewish people during the early years of the church. It was in the sum of these occasionally contradictory strategies for encountering the biblical text that Smith’s distinctive view of the Jewish people and Mormonism’s relation to them was forged.
For Mormons the Bible’s historical accounts were in the main understood as accurate and factual renditions of signal events in Israel’s story—its prophetic passages predicting events already or soon to be fulfilled. Mormon exegetes were contemptuously opposed to what they deemed to be wayward or overwrought interpretive methods and conclusions. Allegorical, mystical, or spiritual readings of holy writ were particularly singled out for attack. However, their sparring, carried out both on the scruffy, contested turf of the sects and in well appointed denominational arenas, entailed more than a naked love for combat and controversy. They believed in nothing less than the integrity of God. His promises to covenant peoples, the rightful inheritance of those people, and Mormon “cartography” of the religious landscape were at stake. In Latter-day Saint eyes any assault on the literal referent and context of covenants was warfare on the Maker of covenant, the Israel of God, and the righteous among the gentiles—the Latter-day Saints.
In the “last days” Israel’s sovereign had decreed through prophets ancient and modern the restoration and gathering of his scattered house. That gathering included gentiles being called out of “mystic Babylon” by emissaries of Latter-day restoration. They were to congregate in a designated place of refuge in order to escape “the wrath to come.” To “universalize” or “spiritualize”[p.45] away the concrete terms and the specific agenda laid out for Israel2 in those penultimate days only demonstrated to those who could rightly read the signs, times, and seasons the willful ignorance of the divines of a “fallen” church. This “gentile” hermeneutical strategy was aligned with the misappropriation by the gentile churches of the responsibilities and blessings of Israel’s covenant with its Lord. A misbegotten monarch—what Mormons called “apostate” Christianity—still paraded about bearing the laurels rightly belonging to the Lord’s “precious possession,” arrogating to itself the titles of “the true Israel of God” or “converted Jews” or “universal Church.”3
Upon this alloyed crown, Mormon pamphleteers and preachers began to hammer away. “Why deny the literal gathering of the Jews to the land God gave their fathers?” Mormon missionary William Appleby demanded of the Millerites.4 George Adams, in a Mormon tract directed at English detractors of his young church, stated, “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are true … and that all mystical and private interpretations of them ought to be done away.”5 Underlining the literal application of the covenants and promises recorded in scripture, Moses Martin singled out the beneficiaries as “the literal seed of Abraham … together with all those who are grafted in … These are all to be saved, without any ifs or ands about it.”6
However, Mormons consistently qualified this faith in the scriptures. Taking cues from the text of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith stated, “From sundry revelations which have been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of men, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.”7 The Book of Mormon laid the blame for this impoverishment of the text at the door of the gentile church: “Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew … these things go forth [p.46] from the Jews in purity unto the Gentries, according to the truth which is in God. And after they go forth … from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest … they have taken away… many parts which are plain and precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Ne. 13:23-29). Hence George Adams, while claiming faith in the truth of the scriptures, further noted that “the scriptures now extant do not contain all the sacred writings which God ever gave to man.”8
These differing views on the Bible affected the tenor of relations between Mormons and non-Mormons. The Religious Tract Society of London realized that belief in the errancy of scripture and in an open scriptural canon, represented by the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, was an assault on the dearly-held belief in the sufficiency of the Bible. In a series of hard-hitting pamphlets aimed at stemming the growth of Mormonism in England, an essential item in the society’s denunciation of the new religion was the statement of faith that the “Bible … does not lead us to expect any other book, or writings or messages inspired by God … We may here know all that needs to be known.”9 But the unreliability of such a profession of faith had long before been driven home to Smith and hosts of religious seekers like himself in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Troubled and perplexed by the religious excitement generated by camp meetings and revivals, Smith in retrospect observed: “How to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”10 The production of the Book of Mormon provided a supplemental authoritative scriptural text. Latter-day Saints believed that the “seeker for truth” could make an appeal with confidence to an augmented canon of scriptures [p.47] “untainted” by the agenda of the gentile “apostate” church.
However, an independent work of scripture containing “the covenants of the Lord which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and … the prophecies of the holy prophets” (1 Ne. 13:23) was not enough for Smith. Haunted by the Book of Mormon’s vision of a flawed biblical text and confidant of his powers displayed in the production of the Book of Mormon, Smith set out three months after the book’s publication to “revise” the text of the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible and supply those “plain and precious” aspects of the text which had been excised or neglected. An examination of what is known among Latter-day Saints as Smith’s “Inspired Version of the Bible” (or JST) provides further insights into Smith’s understanding of God’s Israel.11
From June 1830 through July 1833, Smith periodically labored upon his “plainer translation.” Reading the King James Bible, he would mark problematic or highly suggestive passages for correction, emendation, or the insertion of extended narratives. Subsequently these revisions would be dictated to a scribe. At his death the work stood uncompleted. Due to the draft-like nature of extant proofs and to the unusual nature of this “translation” which ultimately eludes classification,12 it has yet to supplant the Authorized Version as the text officially sanctioned for use in LDS meetings and literature.
However, these qualifications do not diminish the importance of the Inspired Version a textual source for understanding the early development of Mormon thought and practice. Robert J. Matthews in his detailed studies of the Inspired Version has pointed out the chronological and doctrinal congruence between Smith’s work on the Bible and doctrinal revelations he received which were quickly accorded authoritative status and worked into the Doctrine and Covenants, [p.48] Mormonism’s third canonical text. Calling the revelations “consequences” and not merely coincidences of the revision, Matthews has written that “The Prophet’s work of translation of the Bible … was the means and process … for the reception of many revelations of the doctrines of the gospel in the very early days of this dispensation.”13 These doctrines were various: the ante-mortal existence of Jesus Christ and the human family, the nature and duration of matter, the economic order of the church, the nature and composition of the church’s various lay priesthood quorums, ethics in time of conflict, and interpretation of beasts and sealed books in the Apocalypse of John (D&C 76, 84, 93, 104, 107, 132).
In addition to these revelations and writings spun off from the work of translating, the textual revisions themselves disclose many of Smith’s principal concerns in the church’s early years. His agenda included more than creating a sect or denomination. Restoration would mean as well building a holy city of refuge for a nation and a people of priests upon a territory sanctified by covenant. There the fruits and obligations of covenants and priesthood and the knowledge of heaven and earth from all ages past and present would be enjoyed in a society without caste and want. Only the grand configurations of an extraordinary template could harmonize multifarious Mormon converts into a passionately hopeful and intricately articulated whole.
Joseph Smith’s revisions of the Bible underlined that the narratives of gathering and covenant as related in Hebrew Scriptures provided a prototype and warrant for Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon had provided some answers about the nature of the relationship which would exist between the Latter-day Saints and the rest of covenant Israel. But the revision of the Bible also elaborated the connection between Israel and the Saints. Smith introduced several crucial narrative expansions into otherwise terse biblical accounts from the [p.49] lives of Israel’s patriarchs. These included fully wrought apocalypses attributed to Enoch, Abraham, and Moses as well as generous portraitures of Adam, Enoch, and the enigmatic cultic priest/king Melchisedek.14 These additions consistently emphasized a parallel between ancient Israel and the restored church and gospel of the Saints.
Enoch, who figures either as a cipher in genealogical tables or as a mysterious, transfigured mortal in the accepted scriptural canon, becomes in Smith’s account the father of all gatherings and prototypical high priest. He is the exemplar of all those who enter into covenant with the Lord (JST Gen. 13:13; 14:24). It is Enoch who lays the foundations and builds the first city of Zion, where the righteous of his generation gather. Smith’s text takes pains to underscore the literal, spatial nature of this original gathering under Enoch’s tutelage and leadership (JST Gen. 6:22-7:78).15 In Latter-day Saint eschatology, the city of Enoch and the Mormon Zion will “wed” on the eve of the Millennium (Eth. 13:2-6, Moses 7:62-64; Rev. 21:9-10).
Abraham’s call out of Haran and his pilgrimage toward and through the patrimony of his covenant is elaborated upon as another case in the extended tale of gathering. For Smith it is the gathering of covenant people which constitutes the essential skeletal frame upon which the flesh of Israel’s narrative is hung. These ancient struggles with and devotion to God’s covenantal purposes pointed to the continuing relevance of such practices for contemporary Mormons. In Enoch’s initial reticence to shoulder his prophetic task and in the opposition which his work generated, in Abraham’s wanderings and sacrifices, each Latter-day Saint could find striking scriptural parallels to the perils through which he or she had to pass.
A significant textual variant is introduced in the account of the bestowal of patriarchal blessings by Jacob [p.50] on his sons which similarly emphasizes such parallels. Jacob rehearses for his son Joseph the blessings and promises of covenant pronounced on the former by the Lord in Canaan. Ephraim and Manasseh are adopted as sons and accorded an equal status among Israel’s other male progeny (JST Gen. 48:5-7). The role of Joseph in the deliverance of Jacob’s family is extolled with the promise given him that the “God of thy fathers shall bless thee, and the fruit of thy loins, that they shall be blessed above thy brethren, and thy father’s house … Thy brethren shall bow down to thee … [for] thou shalt be a light unto my people, to deliver them in the days of their captivity from bondage” (JST Gen. 48:9-11). The importance of this passage for Joseph Smith and his followers is disclosed in Genesis 50, where a lengthy variation is inserted into the established text. This chapter deals with Jacob’s favorite, Joseph. It is his filial piety, his magnanimity toward errant brothers, his memory which are praised. But a nineteenth-century namesake would make that chapter bear a profounder burden.
Beginning in the twenty-fourth verse in Smith’s version, the dying Joseph delivers a series of prophetic statements and predictions bearing an uncanny resemblance, first, to major events and figures in Israel’s bondage to and exodus from Egypt (JST Gen. 50:24, 29, 34-35) and, second, to a much later and far distant religious landscape strikingly similar to that staked out by Mormons (JST Gen. 50:26-28, 30-33, 36).
Of particular note is the way in which two separate histories, one for the “fruit of the loins of Judah” (v. 31) and one for the “fruit of my [Joseph’s] loins” (v. 24), are plotted out in two distinctly separate narrative lines and in two separate territories. Joseph first assures his brethren that “the God of my father Jacob [will] be with you to deliver you out of affliction in the days of your bondage” (v. 24). A seer and prophet would be raised from Israel’s midst to liberate them from servitude, and the [p.51] Lord would protect Israel’s seed forever (v. 34). “The fruit of the loins of Judah shall write” (v. 31) narratives and doctrine which would protect Israel’s identity by keeping it in remembrance of its covenants which called it into being.
But the patriarch also speaks of a “branch” of the house of Israel, which “shall be broken off and … carried into a far country” (v. 25). This branch comes from among Joseph’s offspring, and although separated from their brethren, “they shall be remembered in the covenants of the Lord” (v. 25). To this scattered group in the “latter days” would the Lord bring a “choice seer,” who plays a crucial role in re-establishing among Joseph’s issue a “knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy father” (vv. 27-28, 30). At that day the writings of this distant band and their choice seer would be joined with those of the “loins of Judah.” Together their records “shall grow together unto the confounding of false doctrines, and the laying down of contentions, and establish peace among the fruit of thy loins, bringing them to a knowledge of their fathers in the latter days; and also … of my covenants, saith the Lord” (v. 31). That choice seer’s name incidentally would be “Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father” (v. 33).
Through the introduction of such independent material into the biblical text, Joseph Smith, Jr., sought to produce that warrant which would establish the consanguinity of Hebrew scriptures, Book of Mormon, and the Latter-day Saint undertaking. In that “branch … carried into a far country,” Mormons could detect reference to Nephites and sense their own distinctive contribution.
Mormons claimed that the writings of the Nephites had been carefully preserved and cached away like the copper and parchment scrolls of the Qumran community. Once unearthed these records would be a catalyst for righteousness and renewal. To distant offspring and to the righteous among the gentiles, that record would [p.52] be carried through the work of the “choice seer” of Joseph’s loins, his latter-day namesake and alter ego. His work and writings would come together with the work and writings of an ascendant Judah in the last days before the messianic era. At the same time, but in two distinct territories, covenant peoples would establish anticipatory kingdoms for the whole household of Israel’s sons and daughters (JST Gen. 50:31).
Thus Smith turned to the Hebrew scriptures for the framework, the terms and institutions, of his life’s work. Mormon historian Gordon Irving points out that “it was largely the Old Testament patriarchs who were chosen to personify gospel principles…including the gathering of the elect,…[and] the importance of the covenantal relationship of God with Israel.”16 Smith was drawn to Israel’s saga of gathering, its commitment to a consecrated territorial inheritance, its witness to election and covenant, and its belief in a personal God who enters into agreements as one of the contractual parties. Israel’s traditional insistence on the corporal unity of body and spirit, its institutions of temple and priesthood, and the historical, corporate, public nature of its covenantal life inspired Smith.
Indeed it was the “judaizing”—Smith’s and his most ardent disciples’ this worldliness, their attention to finite, concrete tasks of kingdom building—which brought upon them an avalanche of gentile outrage and which precipitated scores of defections out of Mormon ranks by disoriented primitivists.17 At the same time that Smith spoke unfailingly of the integrity of God’s covenant with Israel, he routinely ridiculed Christian proselyting societies and their efforts to convert Jewish people. Smith was profoundly alienated from institutional Christianity. The estrangement of the Mormon community from Christendom was apparent to “gentile” Christians. Charles Wordsworth, archdeacon of Westminster Abbey, summed up the opposition of [p.53] churchmen to Mormonism and its emphasis on a this-worldly Zion in a sermon delivered in that great abbey. His remarks were leveled at Smith’s successors and disciples in the Great Basin, but similar criticism was directed at Smith in the earliest years of the church. “It was,” he intoned, “the duty of Christ’s ministers to dispel the dreams of self-idolizing delusions.” The fields and orchards of Mormon settlements “do indeed gratify the eye.” And as the result of human industry, “they indeed have their uses, manifold and great. But: let us not be dazzled by them, they cannot regenerate the world; they do not constitute the true grandeur and genuine strength of a nation; that is of the heart, of the soul, and of the spirit; it is not of the earth, earthy; but of heaven, heavenly; it is not of man, but of God; it is not of Time, but Eternity.”18
For their part, early Latter-day Saints did little to bridge the barriers which separated them from such mainstream Christian values and expectations. Instead they self-consciously cultivated their estrangement from the gentile Christian world.19 In Mormon eyes that landscape was barren, incapable of sustaining the vigorous shoot of restoration. Mormon writers riposted gentile charges of fostering a “social Gomorrah”20 and “sensual voluptuousness” by ridiculing the “absurdities of immaterialism”21 in traditional Christian metaphysics and by preaching the essential continuum of sacred and secular spheres. As if to underscore their philosophical disagreement with the metaphysicians, Mormon apostles ritually hewed, carried, and placed the first log of their city at the heart of the Zion they were commanded to establish.22
Smith’s “translation” of the Bible text “restored” statements by Jesus to his disciples which supported Mormon commitments. Variants are introduced to the Sermon on the Mount which strengthen the Mormon doctrinal commitment to a this-worldly messianic kingdom.[p.54] It is not enough to “seek ye first the kingdom of God” (KJV Matt. 6:33). Rather “seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God and to establish his righteousness.” Similarly the King James version of Luke’s statement “the kingdom of God is within you” is altered in Smith’s revision to “the Kingdom of God has already come unto you” (JST Luke 17:21). Smith’s revised text consistently renders in concrete terms passages in which the nature of God’s kingdom is hedged with ambiguity or interiorizing.
Mormons believed that the kingdom’s boundaries as limned by the doctrines of the gentile church had been outrageously gerrymandered: aimless, vaguely universal, a matter of the heart alone, partaking of a realm beyond time, toil, and tears. The messianic/millennial kingdom had been killed by a thousand qualifications. Accordingly Smith reworded the “parable of the vine, yard” in Matthew 21 to include the precipitous downfall of a second set of stewards, “And when the Lord therefore of the vineyard cometh [a second time], he will destroy those … wicked men, and will let again his vineyard unto other husbandmen, even in the last days, who shall render him the fruits in their season.” He added this scriptural gloss: “And then understood they the parable which he spoke unto them, that the Gentiles should be destroyed.”23
Despite such reservations about Christianity, early Mormon perceptions of Jewish people and Judaism were mediated by the canon of Christian scripture and filtered through the common opinion of Smith’s contemporaries informed over the centuries by anti-Judaic theologies and anti-Jewish prejudice. Smith believed that the Jews were the Lord’s “ancient covenant people.” That description in Smith’s hands, however, did not mean outdated or supplanted. Still, it is clear that Smith was ignorant of the history of Jewish life and thought since 70 C.E. His knowledge of Israel before the rise of [p.55] Christianity was filtered through the Hebrew scriptures, as read through the Apostolic writings, and finally through his own agenda for the Latter-day Saints. It would be the mid-1830s before Smith and associates began to confront the reality of a contemporary Jewish people unmediated by the veil of scripture. Thus the Christian reading of the controversy between the early church and Rabbinic Judaism can be seen as the interpretive frame for a number of Smith’s revisions of the Bible focusing on the covenant with ancient Israel.
As early as Genesis 17, Smith’s version manifests its particular concern with covenant. Abraham had been singled out for his righteousness and enjoined to “walk uprightly before [the Lord], and be perfect” (JST Gen. 17:1). He is established by covenant and endowed with land, progeny, and paternity. Yet according to Smith’s variant reading, the Lord speaks darkly of other individuals and people having “gone astray from my precepts … and not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers” (v. 4).
Covenants of accountability, as distinguished from the unilateral and unconditional covenant extended to Noah, as recorded in Genesis 9, extend in Smith’s Inspired Version back through the beginnings of the “patriarchy” and are established between willing parties, one divine and one mortal (JST Gen. 9:15, 21). Abraham is given to know that for him and his descendants, the physical mark of the intimacy and exclusivity of this divine-human contract (circumsion) would be required to denote assent. Other families of covenant preceeding Abraham have “turned from the commandments” (JST Gen. 17:6) and have thus forfeited their claims. All those who claim Abraham as father are warned that realizing the terms of the covenant is contingent on covenantal fidelity.
In Smith’s revision, the terms of Israel’s election in such passages as Deuteronomy 4:5, 6 and 7:6-9 and also [p.56] Leviticus 11:44-45 stood without emendation or correction. Israel had been chosen by a “faithful God” to be his “precious possession … to a thousand generations.” However, Israel’s people must love, serve, and keep the commandments of the God who had elected them and given them a homeland. If it failed, Israel would be cursed and scattered among the nations (Deut. 4:25-28; 29:10-28).
Confronting these biblical passages and the reality of Israel’s exile among the nations in the early nineteenth century compelled Smith to assign Israel’s scattered condition to its transgression of covenant. His translation burrowed into the sources of Israel’s commitment to covenant, so honestly assessed by the writers and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. According to Smith’s textual variant of Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 10:1, 2, Israel’s practice of idolatry in Moses’ absence altered the terms upon which the Lord had intended their relationship to be established. The Lord had called all Israel to be “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Moses bore with him the tables of that hieratic constitution whereby all Israel would have been inducted into the holy priesthood. Thereafter all of Israel’s worthy sons and daughters would have entered into the Lord’s presence along with Moses.
Unlike the reading given this event in the Midrash Rabbah on Exodus, the breaking of the tables and the production of another pair meant less for Israel in Joseph Smith’s variant rather than more.24 Because of transgression, the “democratization” of the priesthood initially envisaged was amended. The priesthood was taken away “out of their midst” (JST Gen. 34:1-2), and the Lord swore in his “wrath that they shall not enter into my presence.” The “law as at the first” was instead renewed and the priesthood severely restricted to a limited order of officiates of the cult.
[p.57] In the Smith variant covenant, law, and priesthood are without doubt divine gifts. The sectaries of the Book of Mormon, claiming descent from this assembly at Sinai, wrote of their reverence and esteem for what was bestowed upon Israel. But there is an unmistakable sense of diminishment in what was finally bestowed according to Smith’s revision. That sense of diminishment is accompanied by the conviction in the narratives which follow Israel’s camp through the wilderness into Canaan and through the period of tribal confederacy, monarchy, and gentile occupation that no small measure of Israel’s misfortune can be laid to its failure to enter the sanctuary as a people.
Given such emphasis on the law and covenant, it is ironic that when Smith came to “revise” the Apostolic Writings, or “New” Testament, the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees is heightened rather than muted. The pharisaic party, which championed the learning and observance of the law as a means of forging a “nation of priests” and to which Jesus was in fact quite close, is cast as deviant from Torah. According to Smith’s revision, if the Pharisees had really understood the Torah, they would have recognized in Jesus of Nazareth the goal of Torah. “We have Moses and the prophets,” they say. To this Jesus replies, “Ye know not Moses, neither the prophets; for if ye had known them, ye would have believed on me; for to this intent they were written. For I am sent that ye might have life” (JST Luke 14:36). Elsewhere Pharisees are lumped indiscriminately with scribes, priests, and levites, who “teach in their synagogues, but do not observe the law, nor observe the commandments; and all have gone out of the way, and are under sin” (JST Matt. 7:4; see also JST Matt. 9:16).
In a letter dated 4 January 1833 written to the editor of a newspaper, Smith implies that Jesus’ fellow Jews faced another Sinai in the person and “ministry” of the [p.58] Nazarene. A covenant was offered, “but they rejected him and his proposals and in consequence thereof they were broken off and no covenant was made with them at that time.” However, Smith holds out the hope that the “time has at last arrived when the God of Abraham of Isaac and of Jacob has set his hand again the second time to recover the remnants of his people … with them to bring in the fulness of the Gentiles and establish that covenant with them which was promised when their sins should be taken away. See Romans 11:25, 26 & 27 and also Jeremiah 31:31, 32 & 33.”25
In this early formulation Smith locates himself within the ranks of Christian millennialists of the early decades of the nineteenth century: the hopes of a gathering of scattered Israel, the culmination of the “times of gentiles,” the eschatological covenant of Jeremiah and its reiteration in Romans 11 were all common citations from the generous stock of millennialist assumptions.
That such a reading implicitly located Smith and the Mormons within the Christian context even as he emphasizes the Mormon connection to ancient Israel helps to explain their distance from Judaism as well as Christianity. Although the Mormon sense of kinship with God’s Israel was profound, the route of conversion to Judaism was never an option for most Mormons. Smith and his disciples did not follow ex-Quaker, ex-Mormon Warder Cresson’s example and convert to Judaism.26 Such a course was precluded by lingering ties to various Christian traditions and communities, by selective appropriation of both “testaments” of the Bible, and by the explicit Christocentrism of the Book of Mormon. The risen, living Christ was experienced as the source of most of Smith’s revelations. Further, Mormons felt no need to convert to Judaism because they identified themselves as among the “seed” of Israel’s patriarchs. Beginning with Smith, Mormons were informed they [p.59] were of “the children of Israel, and of the seed of Abraham” (D&C 84:34, 103:17, 132:31).27 They were among the “heirs” of the Abrahamic covenant either “according to the flesh” (D&C 86:9) or by “adoption.” Either way they were enjoined to “Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham.” In joining the infant Latter-day Saint church, converts saw themselves as crossing into the house of Israel.28
But for all of Smith’s sense of kinship with the Lord’s scattered Israel, he did not conceive his fraternal role as one of deference. This stance he shared with his namesake, Jacob’s favorite. Smith’s claims as prophet and seer had been legitimated by a sheaf of revelations and inspired scriptural revisions. He had produced a book attributed to Hebraic sectaries in the New World (the Book of Mormon), apocalypses ascribed to Enoch and Moses (Pearl of Great Price), and a textual revision of the Bible.
For Latter-day Saints, this work confirmed the authority of their prophet and the independence of their religious movement within the crowded religious field of antebellum America. The reasons for Smith distancing himself and his movement from both Christianity and Judaism becomes clear. He was attempting to create a separate religious community, at once profoundly Christian and related to biblical Israel but independent from both. Smith and his associates were drawing up a new map of faith and practice by means of an alternative sighting of bodies celestial, earthly, and textual. Revelatory instructions from heavenly emissaries; the physical gathering of an elect people to a designated covenantal inheritance to be won through exodus and city building; the creation of new scripture, textual variants of received texts, and dissident readings of holy writ—all came together to enfranchise previously marginalized religious seekers.
[p.60] From the beginning of his revelatory experiences, Smith was enjoined to remain apart from “all the sects … for they all were wrong … [and] all their creeds were an abomination.”29 However, withdrawing fellowship was not enough. The Saints were commanded to “go ye out of Babylon … out from among the nations” and to “gather ye together, O ye people of my church, upon the land of Zion” (D&C 133:4-7). In other words the Mormons set out to recapitulate ancient Israel’s biblical saga. Israel’s record—its tale of a promised land, its judges, kings, prophets, exodus, temple building, and priesthood—provided both textual warrant and proper forms for the Saints establishing their own kingdom.
During this period Smith had also penned a number of revelations tied to specific occasions. Some are connected to his work on the Bible revision. Of these, a small number of significant passages further disclose Smith’s understanding of the Jewish people and the nature of the configuration of Latter-day Saints and covenant Israel. These revelations confirm the impulse demonstrated by Smith’s revisions—towards a new tradition which comes out of a Christian context but emphasizes its literal connection to the Lord’s covenant with Israel and to concrete events which will realize the terms of that covenant.
Many of Smith’s closest associates had had intimate ties with the then fashionable preoccupation with the book of Revelation ascribed to John the Apostle, and to the events of the last days. Smith inherited certain exegetical assumptions about “prophetic” passages of scripture which ostensibly dealt with the destiny of the Jewish people. For example, his use of passages from Zechariah 12 and 13 as translated in the Authorized Version and from the book of Revelation confirm standard readings of these passages and their awesome events. According to the standard Christian reading, a stunning succession of eschatological events would culminate[p.61] with the spectacle of the returning Risen Christ in the “time of his power,” who would deliver Jerusalem and the gathered Jewish inhabitants from an arrayed host of enemies. His triumph would be crowned through his acclamation by his now willing kinsfolk as Messiah, son of David.30
During his career, as one scholar of Mormonism has written, “interest in the millennium reached a high point among British and American Christians … conferences, sermons, books, plans, and reforms of every sort were oriented around the biblical prophecies of a reign of righteousness.”31 Turning to the Apocalypse of John as a way to gauge and interpret the times was a ubiquitous reflex among almost all Christians of Smith’s era. In an anonymous compilation of millennialist prophecies and commentaries from Great Britain and the continent reprinted in Philadelphia and sold out in a week, the editor sounded a commonly accepted tenet of belief: “The Revelation of St. John, or rather of Jesus Christ to him, contains the most full and important series of prophecies ever bestowed on mankind; extending from the close of the first century of Christianity … to the end of time.”32
In March 1832 Smith penned a revelation in the form of a completed questionnaire dealing with some of the enigmas embedded in this “most full and important series of prophecies” (D&C 77). For those among the Saints agitated by the thunder and trumpets of the approaching apocalypse and by the obscure runes strewn through John’s text, Smith’s contribution would probably have been disappointing. Absent in this interpretation is the rapt attention to temporal details which was the bread and butter of annotators and expositors of the Bible. Smith makes no attempt to synchronize events of the past, present, and future with the elusive figures of John’s apocalyptic vision. Rather the hermeneutical principle directing the matter-of-fact cadences [p.62] of Joseph’s revelation was not temporality but gathering.33 Smith consistently emphasizes space rather than time. Whereas other diviners of Revelation invariably identified its seraphic messengers as heralds of a new spiritual order of the universal church, Joseph stubbornly insisted on the independence and literal nature of two messianic centers established in the latter days.
Thus the angel “ascending from the east” in Revelation 7:2, “if you will receive it … is Elias which was to come to gather together the tribes of Israel and restore all things” (v. 15). The book eaten by John in the “10th chapter of Revelation” is the “mission” and “ordinance” of Elias to gather and restore Israel (v. 14). Until that holy ordinance is performed, the four eschatological heralds “sent forth from God, to whom [are] given power over the four parts of the earth, to save and destroy” are held in check by “Elias” who abjures them to “Hurt not the earth neither the seas, nor the trees.” Thus the prerogatives of the gathering of Israel take precedence over the advancing season of millennial harvest (vv. 8, 9).
Some medieval apocalyptics saw in the “oriental” angel of Revelation 7:2 a “new leader … ascend[ing] from Babylon, namely a universal pontiff of the New Jerusalem, that is, of Holy Mother the Church.”34 Nineteenth-century prophetic expositors divined such heavenly messengers as either the Lord’s millennial night watchmen tolling the last moments before the eschaton or as symbols of the new, evangelical spirit “inspiring the contemporary European and American Missionary and Bible societies … having the everlasting gospel to preach to all the world … until the world is won to Christ.”35 In contrast Smith understood such agents as heralds of the end of Israel’s bitter exile and of its gathering to its covenantal patrimonies.
References in the prophetic writing to Jerusalem and Israel were taken literally by Smith and made him reluctant to give the text a “spiritual” reading. By common [p.63] practice the well-nigh universal reading of Revelation 11 by Christians had transformed the specificity of the theater of operations of the text from Jerusalem to some troubled nation within the sphere of Christendom. Hence the “holy city,” site of the martyrdom of the two “witnesses,” becomes in turn revolutionary France, apostate western Christianity, or the site of a “worldwide suppression of religious freedom and human rights.” As to the witnesses themselves, they are variously “faithful Christian ministers,” the Old and New Testaments, protestants in general, the “Words and Ordinances of the Lord,” “the fugitive church in exile for 1260 days,” “witnesses against Rome,” “the true church,” “the faithful of all ages,” or “unknown and figurative.”36
Here Smith could have safely entered the ranks of Christian commentators by abstracting and universalizing Jerusalem and the latter-day witnesses or by appending to them explicitly nineteenth-century Christian attributes and evangelical zeal. Such a move would have reassured readers habituated to traditional exegesis. In addition it surely would have gratified the many students of the apocalyptic preoccupied with the detailed temporal analysis so fashionable in prophetic circles. But Smith demurs. In the streets of the city of Jerusalem would walk “two witnesses,” not ministers or books or persecuted Christian sects or the faithful in all ages, but “two prophets that are to be raised up to the Jewish nation in the last days, at the time of the restoration, [who] prophecy to the Jews after they are gathered and have built the city of Jerusalem in the land of their fathers” (D&C 77:15). Smith never recommends enlightening benighted Jews by favoring them with the “gospel in its fulness,” the way his associate and counselor Oliver Cowdery would have it.
Revelations and letters written at that time by Smith also stress the geographical specificity of the gathering.[p.64] In November 1831 he had warned, “Let them, therefore, who are among the Gentiles flee unto Zion. And let them who be of Judah flee unto Jerusalem, unto the mountains of the Lord’s house” (D&C 133:12, 13). “In this day of calamity,” he wrote to Evening and Morning Star editor W. W. Phelps, the need of Israel and its adopted kinsfolk for a “place of refuge and of safety” had been provided by their Lord.37 To N.C. Saxton on 4 January 1833, Joseph mined the Hebrew scriptures for prooftexts pointing to two great independent locations for gathering: “The City of Zion, spoken of by David in the 102 Psalm will be built upon the land of America and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to it with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads … But the tribe of Judah will return to old Jerusalem … [and] shall obtain deliverance at Jerusalem. See Joel 2:32, Isaiah 26:20, 21, Jer. 31:12, Psalm 50:5, Ezekiel 34:11, 12, 13. These are testimonies that the good Shepherd will lead them out from all nations where they have been scattered in a cloudy and dark day, to Zion and to Jerusalem.”38
Hence just over a year after his excursus in John’s apocalyptic text Joseph Smith was made to understand by way of revelation that it was incumbent that the hearts of Israel be animated by the faith and promises of their prophets and that the eschatological vision of Israel’s prophets be realized in a gathered and restored Israel, “lest [the Lord] come and smite the whole earth with a curse” (D&C 98:17). The “mission and ordinance of Elias” were to be performed by latter-day messengers “raised up to the Jewish nation” and to the righteous among the gentiles, similarly bidden to gather. Separately, independently, these peoples were to establish cities and lands of covenantal sanctuary wherein the “tabernacle of God” would dwell and thus hold the curse in check.
[p.65] In a later return to Revelation, Smith again read the text to support his vision. His open letter “To the Elders of the Church of the Latter-day Saints” in September 1835 employs John’s vision of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2, 3) to confirm his doctrine, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, the elect must be gathered from the four quarters of the earth.”39 He then elicits prooftexts from Deuteronomy 30:1-4, 7 and the Book of Mormon40 to support his case for the gathering, its literal fulfillment, and its double location.
Gathering was thus the pressing issue in Smith’s life.41 The task of the Saints was to gather the scattered members of the Lord’s gentile vessel. The fruit of their labors would be a city, the New Jerusalem raised by human hands, established on “this continent by way of distinction to the ones to be rebuilt on the eastern continent.”42 The Saints were not to obstruct the independent reassembly of Israel’s scattered vessel. Smith also understood that his church and its priesthood could assist in Israel’s physical ingathering through the prayers of the righteous and their own acts of gathering and temple building.
For many Christians the logical step following from such emphasis on restoration and gathering in the last days would be emphasis on conversion. As one scholar of the period has written, “the reorganization of the Society to Promote Christianity Among the Jews brought the concept of the restoration and conversion of the Jews sharply to the forefront, and for a time its warmest advocates were the premillennialists of Britain and the Continent—including such men as Way, Marsh, M’Neile, Pyro and Noel. In fact, this was one of the most prominent characteristics of the entire group of British expositors.” The “molding influence” of these commentators in America was considerable.43
Some of Joseph Smith’s closest associates came to the same focus on conversion. In the early 1830s Oliver [p.66] Cowdery was “associate” president of the church with Smith. He wrote that the restoration of Israel would be according to the “new covenant” of Jeremiah: having “forsaken the Lord … worshipping other gods, which were no gods,” they would yet “know the voice of the Shepherd … [and] be favored with the gospel in its fulness.”44 Sidney Rigdon, once an influential minister in the Campbellite movement, was converted to Mormonism and called to be “a spokesman unto my Servant Joseph.” Rigdon wrote in January 1834 about Israel’s restoration. It would, he believed, be wrought “not by virtue of any previous covenant with the house of Israel but by one which was to be made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah in the last days … The house of Israel in the last days, was to be taught by a people of stammering lips and another tongue … In former days they had enlightened the Gentiles: in latter days the Gentiles were to enlighten them.”45
For Cowdery and Rigdon, as well as most contemporary prophetical expositors and evangelists, the necessary corollary of the gathering of the Jewish people was their conversion to “the gospel in its fulness.” Though Joseph Smith was in these early years eclipsed by the learning and polish of his second elder, Cowdery, and of his counselor, Rigdon, he was reluctant to draw their confident conclusions.
Instead Smith reread the Apocalypse of John in such a way as to re-interpret the triumph of the church. By focusing on the restoration of sacred, covenantal space and on “the elect” to inhabit two sanctuaries an ocean and continents apart, he contributed to an understanding of the Lord as the good shepherd of both Christians and Jews. This was perhaps the figure most felicitously appropriate to embody Smith’s concern with and belief in the necessity of gathering Jews and righteous gentiles. Where some of his closest allies would turn this image into a conventional conversionist [p.67] representation, no doubt to gratify and legitimate what they considered to be the task of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, Smith’s use of the good shepherd of the parable remained more humble, more realistic, and perhaps more akin to its source. It was not the church but the Lord who would reign.
1. George J. Adams, A Few Plain Facts, Showing the Folly, Wickedness, and Imposition of the Rev. Timothy R. Matthews, Also a Short Sketch of the Rise, Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Bedford, Eng.: C. B. Merry, 1841), 13.
2. A strategy which Moses Martin derisively characterized as “so fashionable in this generation.” Moses Martin, A Treatise on the Fulness of the Everlasting Gospel, Setting Forth its First Principles, Promises and Blessings… (New York: J. W. Harrison, 1842), 9.
3. Samuel Hopkins, for example, believed that the mass conversion of the Jews would resolve the great mystery of their survival: “The ends of their being preserved in such a state of distinction will then be answered … When they shall become Christians, their name by which they are now distinguished will be lost, and they will be absorbed in the Christian Church, the true Israel of God … [where] all are one in Christ” (330). From “A Treatise on the Millennium,” in The Works of Samuel Hopkins, vol. 2 (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1852).
6. Martin, A Treatise on the Everlasting Gospel, 50. The importance of the citations from Adams, Martin, and Appleby resides in their not being part of the inner circle of Smith’s intimate colleagues and the front rank in the leadership of the church. They were lay missionaries who in their pamphlets reflect the degree to which rank-and-file in the church agreed upon certain exegetical ground rules.
11. For studies of Smith’s “Inspired Version,” see Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975); Stephen R. Knecht, The Story of Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation: A Documented History (Salt Lake City: Associated Research Consultants Publication, 1977); Reed C. Durham, Jr., “A History of Joseph Smith’s Revision of the Bible,” Ph.d. diss., Brigham Young University, 1965; The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet, Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 12 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1985).
12. “We do not have the information or requisite tools … to obtain the information needed to establish empirically what parts are restoration, what parts commentary, and what parts simply the result of good judgments.” Matthews, A Plainer Translation, 253.
13. Robert J. Matthews, “A Walk Through the Bible,” 31st annual Joseph Smith Lectures, Utah State University, 9 Dec. 1975, 8, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. See also A Plainer Translation, 253.
14. Collected in the Books of Moses and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. See Gen. 14:17, 22, 25-40 in The Holy Scriptures: Corrected by the Spirit of Revelation, by Joseph Smith, Jr. (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1936); hereafter JST.
19. Having survived the first winter in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Parley P. Pratt, one of the twelve apostles and early Mormonism’s most important pamphleteer, used the occasion of his eldest son’s birthday to underscore LDS particularism: “After dinner, in presence of the assembled family, I related the circumstances of his being a promised child, with an account of his birth, his history, and the death of his mother … I rehearsed to him my own sufferings, and the sufferings of my family, and of the Church while in the States—telling him of the murder of our prophets and Saints, and how we had been driven to the mountains, robbed and plundered of a very large amount of property and possessions. The day was spent most pleasantly and profitably by all.” Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt, Jr., 8th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 362.
22. For an account, see Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 volumes (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1927-32), 1:196-99; hereafter cited as HC. See also JST Matt. 21 and JST Luke 23:31.
24. Midrash Rabbah on Exodus reads, “Do not grieve about the first tables. They only contained the Ten Commandments, but in the two Tablets I am about to give thee now, there will also be laws, Midrash and Haggadah.” Midrash Rabbah: Exodus, ed. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, vol. 3 (London: The Soncino Press, 1961), 427.
28. On “adoption” and Mormon ties to Ephraim and Joseph, see Melodic Moench, “Nineteenth Century Mormons: The New Israel,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Spring 1979): 42-54. For a twentieth-century working of this subject along quasi-official lines, see Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, comp. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 2:250-51, 3:246-53.
32. From “Prophetic Conjectures on the French Revolution,” cited in Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretations, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), 3:108.
43. Froom, “Prophetic Conjectures,” 180-81. See also Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); W. H. Oliver, Prophets and Millennialists: The Uses of Biblical Prophecy in England from the 1790’s to the 1840’s (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1978).