Mormons and Jews
by Steven Epperson
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery: Identity of Israel and the Church
[p.113] Not all of Joseph Smith’s associates shared his willingness to hear out the few Jews who happened to cross their paths. Among that number was Oliver Cowdery, “assistant president” and “second elder” of the church. Cowdery’s doctrinal opinions, scriptural interpretations, and actions illustrate the deep theological rift in the Mormon leadership over the issue of the Jewish people. They also point out, by contrast, how far Joseph Smith had travelled away from traditional Christian anti-Judaism. In the weeks following the Saints’ encounter with Dr. Peixotto on 2 November 1835, Smith sent Oliver Cowdery to New York City on publishing business and to “purchase a quantity of Hebrew books for the benefit of the school in Kirtland.” On this trip Cowdery was to meet and speak at length with a “learned Rabbi.”1 Cowdery’s reconstruction of that meeting discloses the extent to which he and Smith perceived the Mormon/Jewish encounter in fundamentally different terms.
Cowdery was born nine months after Smith on 3 October 1806. He arrived in Manchester, New York, to fill a vacancy as schoolmaster in the town’s log schoolhouse a mile east of the home of Joseph Smith, Sr., and his family.2 Within a short time he became the principal [p.114] scribe to Smith who was working on the Book of Mormon in the spring and summer of 1829. In addition he was among the six charter members of the “Church of Jesus Christ” founded in New York under Smith’s leadership.3 For seven years he was second only to Joseph Smith in the church’s leadership.
Cowdery’s background in education, rudimentary as it might have been, assured his place within the first ranks of those men put in charge of the church’s early efforts to publish its cause with its own press. He was at various times charged with publication of the Evening and Morning Star, the Messenger and Advocate, the Northern Times (a local Ohio political newspaper), and the “printing… selecting, and writing of books for schools in this church” (D&C 55:4). Cowdery also played an important role in determining early Mormon political theory when Mormons in Missouri became the object of state-sanctioned terrorism.4 His letters displaying opinions on doctrinal matters and biblical interpretation were featured prominently in the pages of the church’s earliest periodicals. They also provided Latter-day Saint readers with one of the earliest accounts of events and personalities central to the “restoration of the gospel.”5
As editor of the Messenger and Advocate, Cowdery either personally penned or supervised the inclusion by other authors of numerous articles dealing with the gathering of the house of Israel. In the premier number of the Messenger and Advocate published in October 1834, Cowdery outlined six principles of faith of the near creedless four-year-old religion for the benefit of readers and included the “gathering” among them: “We believe that God has sent his hand the second time to recover the remnant of his people, Israel; and that the time is near when he will bring them in from the four winds, with songs of everlasting joy, and reinstate them upon their own lands which he gave their fathers by covenant.”6
[p.115] Cowdery as editor of the Messenger and Advocate left no doubt in the minds of readers that Israel would be gathered into particular places and under particular circumstances. He was certain that the curtain had already risen on this luminous millennial drama.7
Cowdery’s articles provide important commentary on the cast and script of the last days as he understood them. First in this “latter-day glory” were those who had “found a key to the holy prophets … and begun to unfold the mysteries of God.”8 To them “the Father of mercies has … caused his voice to be heard, has shown to his faithful ones that Israel is about to be gathered [and] the indignation toward the Jews is also to cease.”9 These faithful ones were the Latter-day Saints. In Cowdery’s reading, both Jews and gentile Christians of an “apostate” church had been endowed with and then cut off from covenant and kingdom.
Cowdery and the early Saints read the history of covenant, including the history of their own covenantal community, through the normative interpretive frame of the author of Deuteronomy. Although celebrating Israel’s election, this writer had manifested a concern that Israel even after being chosen, might yet forfeit its salvation through violation of its covenant with the Lord.10 As Cowdery and others interpreted it, the legitimacy of a contract between two willing parties depended on fidelity to the stipulations of their agreement. Honoring the terms of the agreement would mean that Israel would be “blessed,” that it would be constituted as a holy nation before God, dwell upon covenant soil, and be sanctified by the House of the Lord on Mt. Zion. Transgression of the articles of the covenant would abrogate the agreement and make Israel liable to the daunting curses of Deuteronomy 30.
The destruction of Israel’s national polity, the dismemberment of its patrimony, and the forced dispersion of its people among the gentile nations were read [p.116] by many Latter-day Saints as testimonies to what must have been, by the force of this logic of blessings and curses, Israel’s transgression. Thus Cowdery declares: “the house of Israel has forsaken the Lord, and bowed down and worshipping other Gods, which were no gods, [and has] been cast out before the face of the world … the Lord has poured upon them his afflicting judgements, as he said by the mouth of Moses … After reproving them for their corruption and blindness, he prophecies their dispersion.”11 Cowdery laid the reason for their dispersion during the era of Christendom’s triumph on Israel’s so-called “rejection of Jesus”: “There has ever been an apparent blindness common to men. …[E]ven the Jews, whose former principles had become degenerated, and whose religion was a mere show, were found among that class who were ready to build and garnish the sepulchres of the prophets … and follow the directions of heaven as delivered to the world by them; but when one came teaching the same doctrine … they would not hear. [Then] shamefully they betrayed, and crucified the Savior of the world.”12 The subsequent heirs of covenant Israel were the citizens of the newly constituted gentile Christian kingdom established by Jesus’ apostles. Cowdery wrote, “In consequence of the transgression of the Jews at the coming of the Lord, the Gentiles were called into the Kingdom.”13
But as blessings and curses lay to the right and left of “ancient” Israel, so too were the “new Israelites” similarly bounded, and the fall of the latter after the death of the apostles was more precipitous than the Jewish dispersion. “Nothing,” wrote Mormon apostle Orson Hyde in 1836, “is more plain than, that the Gentiles have not continued in the goodness of God; but have departed from the faith and purity of the gospel. … [A] great apostacy, from the true apostolic order of worship, has taken place.”14
[p.117] The apostasy of the churches was a central assertion made by the Latter-day Saint movement. It ranked second only to Israel’s restoration as subject for Mormon exegetical attention.15 “Reformatio Christianae” was no longer a viable option for the community of Latter-day Saints. The gentile Christians of the post-apostolic period had, according to a Doctrine and Covenants text echoing prophetic Hebrew indictment, “strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own God … whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon” (D&C 1:15-16).16 In effect the “new Israel” had become “mystic Babylon.” The “times of the gentiles,” according to Mormon millennial preaching, was at an end along with the “corrupt systems and discordant factions, at present so mysteriously interwoven.”17 Coincident with the descent of Christendom was a change of Israel’s fortunes. It was time for fugitive Israel to return both to its territorial and spiritual patrimonies.
According to Cowdery, the houses of “Israel and Judah,” broken off through transgression of covenant, would be reestablished under the terms of a new one: “not according to the one which he made with their fathers.” This last time God’s law would be indelibly inscribed within Israel’s “heart” and “inward parts.” A retooled Israel bound “in a perpetual covenant” would be fully gathered by “many fishers and … many hunters” bearing “glad tidings of great joy, with a message of peace, and a call for their [Israel’s] return.”18
The “many fishers and hunters” were none other than the Latter-day Saints, bearers of the restored gospel. Only they would “understand the plan of salvation and restoration for Israel.” Not revealed until the last act of the prophetic drama, the role of the Saints was to be decisive for resolving the epic of Israel’s salvation. It was [p.118] through “their [the Saints’] obedience to the faith” that “they shall see the house of Jacob come with great glory, even with songs of everlasting joy, and with him partake of salvation.” However, Cowdery noted, even though Israel’s children were yet “worshipping other gods,” they would not recommit the error once made in the “meridian of time.” For “daily reading the ancient prophets, and … marking the times and seasons of their fulfillment … they will know the voice of the Shepherd when he calls upon them …[They] will be willing to harken to his counsel.”19
Cowdery and his fellow Saints alone understood the meaning of the successive scenes of the “plan of salvation and restoration for Israel” and the identity of the actors in this economy of events leading to the reign of Jesus Christ. And like the teacher in a log cabin school, which he had once been, Cowdery was determined to school Jews and Saints alike. He would cut the enigmatic knot of prophecy with the authority given him through multiple canonical texts and by virtue of his calling and office as “first preacher unto the church” (D&C 21:12).
After the twenty-nine-year-old Cowdery had visited New York City to purchase Hebrew texts, he chronicled his foray into America’s largest metropolis in letters to his brother Warren. Of particular interest is the account of his conversation with a “very learned and intelligent Jew” who had been recommended by a New York bookseller. Dated 1 February 1836 and published in an issue of the Messenger and Advocate, Cowdery’s letter fulfilled a promise made earlier to his brother to give a more detailed description of his final encounter.20
Cowdery’s description is a typical Christian construction of a “dialogue” between Christian and Jew. Since Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, the annals of Christian apologetic literature have seen many additions to the genre.21 Cowdery’s letter is in fact a carefully constructed soliloquy. Behind it stands no doubt a conversation [p.119] which did in fact take place between Cowdery and the rabbi.22 But it is readily apparent that his letter is a great deal more than a raw stenographic report of an exchange of ideas and commentary. Its structure and confidence benefitted from the hindsight of two months’ elapse, the return of Cowdery to familiar turf, and the demands to satisfy the Saints’ curiosity about his journey to New York City.
The marks of self-conscious doctrinal demands and literary aesthetics can be detected throughout the text. There is the cautious balancing of scriptural prooftext and “common sense” argument. In the final half Cowdery’s words crowd those of his adversary from the frame of the text. The account is seamless and effortless. It wastes little time in drawing the lines of disputation: “You being a Jew by birth … of course do not believe that that personage, who by many was called the Messiah … who was on the earth some eighteen hundred years since, was the one spoken of by the prophets, for whom the house of Israel looked, and through whom, or by whose power, they expected redemption.” In response to the negative reply, Cowdery counters with the “infallible evidence” of personal testimony, “I know him to have been and to be, the true Messiah.” But realizing that such a statement is hardly conducive to “dialogue,” he then seeks to make his case through the warrant of scripture. Accordingly Cowdery cites proof-texts from Zechariah 12 and 14; Isaiah 7:14, 9:6, and 53; Psalm 2:7; and Micah 5:2.
The venerable rabbi responds firmly by pointing out the flaws in the standard Christian translation of Zechariah (a point Cowdery deigns not to contest “as [I] was unacquainted with that language”) and of the unwarranted lifting of the “Suffering Servant” passage from the context intended by its author. At this point, having raised his objections to the young man’s exegesis, the “learned Rabbi” basically drops from the narrative [p.120] and Cowdery progresses unopposed to the conclusion of his letter. To engage in a frank exchange of scholarship and ideas, to be taught rather than to teach, was out of the question. To allow variant readings would mean, Cowdery confesses, that all would be “immersed in mystery.” Therefore Cowdery insists on the right “to interpret them [the scriptural texts] as I have been accustomed.” The texts which he cites are, he claims, “plain declarations … from ancient inspired men” who teach facts and whose “figure of speech … is a plain one.” Thus “it appears to me, and ever has,” Cowdery confidently asserts. He promises that “all who will not turn from the plain declarations of the prophets, (as the great day of God’s power is near) will be watching for the glorious time long since shown to the fathers.”
Cowdery then simply insists on a christological interpretation of his Old Testament proof texts. He describes the “learned Rabbi” as incapable of objecting to his scriptural argument. The older man is reduced to silence and thus, in effect, delivers possession of the texts and their interpretation to his adversary. Cowdery, the former school master and young publicist of the Mormon church, determined that this otherwise obscure encounter bear the combined weight, not only of the tradition of anti-Jewish “dialogue,” but also of the developing myth of a new religious tradition.
Seven years prior to Cowdery’s trip, an early disciple of Joseph Smith had similarly ventured to New York City entrusted with an important task bearing on the legitimacy of the work of the young prophet. Martin Harris, an upstate New York farmer and neighbor of the Smiths, had been one of Smith’s principal followers and his only financial resource for publishing the Book of Mormon. Wishing to deflect family criticism of his generous aid to Smith and his “gold Bible” and seeking as well to substantiate the young man’s prophetic gifts, Harris sought out the scholarly opinion of professors [p.121] Samuel L. Mitchell of Rutgers and Charles Anthon of Columbia College. Harris took with him characters written down by Smith, who claimed to have copied them from the ancient record he was translating. Harris hoped the scholars would authenticate Smith’s project.
Fawn Brodie has termed what took place “one of the minor conundrums facing a student of Mormon documents.”23 Accounts by the various parties involved are at odds. For the Saints Harris’s account was the crucial one. In his story the rustic goes into the heart of America’s greatest metropolis and seeks the advice of those vested with the authority of worldly prestige. When the professors learn of the miraculous provenance of the characters, Mitchell protests that he cannot verify the document without seeing the source text, and Anthon agrees that he cannot read a hidden or “sealed” book.
The farmer returns to his prophet with the depressing account. But Smith turns the incident into one of the foundational narratives of his infant religion. He directs Harris to Isaiah 29. Under Smith’s direction, the enigmatic prophecy of Isaiah yields itself. In Isaiah’s prophecy the “learned” and “prudent” with their “wisdom” and “understanding” perish because they cannot read a “sealed book.” In contrast the “meek” and the “poor among men,” those previously “deaf” and “blind,” “hear the words of the book” and “see out of obscurity.” The obscure rather than those vaunted by the world will “sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and fear the God of Israel.” For what had been entrusted to an itinerant laborer-prophet from upstate New York was nothing less than that “sealed book”—the Book of Mormon, harbinger of the “marvelous work and a wonder” to be carried off by the Lord in the last days. Mitchell and Anthon, the learned professors, thus become the unwitting instruments of prophecy and the means through which an improbable religious undertaking [p.122] taking received significant warrant in the eyes of its followers.24
This passage from Isaiah was critical to early Mormon self-perception and was knit into the fabric of some of its earliest historical accounts, in particular one written by Oliver Cowdery. W. W. Phelps, Joseph Smith’s hand-picked publisher in Independence, Missouri, requested of Cowdery an eyewitness history of the signal events of the Restoration. Through 1834 and 1835 Cowdery duly sent Phelps occasional letters on “The Origin of the Book of Mormon and the Rise and Progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”25
The Isaiah passage surfaces in Cowdery’s account of the Latter-day Saint restoration. In Cowdery’s casting of Joseph Smith’s 1823 vision, Isaiah’s words are rehearsed: “I will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder; the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.” Oliver follows with an observation: “You will notice an item like the following, ‘God has chosen the foolish things of the world and things which are despised, God has chosen’, &c. This I conclude to be an important item. Not many mighty and noble, were called in ancient times, because they already knew so much that God could not teach them.”26
Martin Harris’s encounter with prominent American scholars proved then that wisdom would not come from the mighty and noble of the age. In November 1835 Cowdery, the once obscure village school teacher, would similarly help legitimize his religion. This time it would be at the expense of the “ancient covenant people” embodied in the “aged and learned Rabbi” from the same city stormed seven years earlier by Harris and Smith. The crucial dichotomies—foolish versus wise, meek and versus mighty, old versus new—organize Cowdery’s narrative. In its opening lines Cowdery expresses thanks that he and his brother, and all Latter-day [p.123] Saints, have been given “both hearts and minds which were willing to forsake that which was old and ready to vanish away, or rather to exchange it for that which is new and everlasting.”27 The meeting comes about because an elderly man heeds the impulses of the heart. Cowdery points out his host’s “kindness and warmth” and the “feeling manner” with which he then presses the younger man to consent to one final meeting.
Though the heart leads to the meeting, Cowdery takes pains to point out that it is not the heart but the mind that the elderly man relies on in drawing from the fund of traditional learning. As presented by Cowdery, this imbalance prohibits the rabbi from being won over to the younger man’s passionate reasoning. The old man’s erudition, his knowledge of Hebrew, and his interpretation of the prophets are insufficient to enable him to pass over from an old, vanishing order to the new one. The rabbi represents those men who “build and garnish the sepulchres of the prophets”28 but cannot acknowledge a young prophet in their midst.
In his published letter Cowdery frequently pleads in contrast his own ignorance and lack of training. He is “unacquainted with that language” [biblical Hebrew] and thus incapable of textual debate. He begs falsely, “I do most sincerely hope, that some one, more wise than myself, will instruct me in the way of truth and convert me from the error of my way.”29 In order to stand in the mythic roles of prophecy, Cowdery must feign such ignorance and emphasize his lack of education. But at the same time he marshals prooftexts and reasoned arguments to prove his case and win his interlocutor. The reader has been informed before the “scholar’s debate” begins that the careful discipline of learning and tradition will not prevail in his encounter with the Jew. The Lord “could not teach” the wise and prudent. Cowdery relies on a “literal” reading of the “plain declarations of the prophets” along with the sure guide of [p.124] a “contrite heart” and the “infallible evidence” of testimony borne by the Holy Spirit.”30
In Cowdery’s selective reconstruction, the aged Jew, like Anthon before him, had been called to stand as a symbolic witness at a pivotal moment in the divine drama. Previously Anthon unwittingly testified that the Lord’s work had passed from the “mighty and noble” to the itinerant laborers, farmers, and village school teachers. In the late autumn of 1835, a son of “old Israel” is portrayed as acquiescing in silence to the new order, ceding exegetical rights of his own scriptures and his covenantal birthright to Cowdery.
Smith and Cowdery represent, even today though in ways largely unrecognized, twin claims on the paternity and hence in part the identity of the Latter-day Saints. The two men through their lives and work put forth distinct and variant models of Mormonism, models which, among other things, proposed differing ways for understanding and relating to the Jewish people.
The distinction between Smith and Cowdery arises to a great extent from their differing arrangements of scriptural symbols and texts.31 Cowdery’s principal religious focus was reclaiming church structure and rite from the corrosive effects of apostacy. His vision was of a sanctuary fully embodying its “primitive” or “apostolic” past. Mormonism was formulated by Cowdery as a repetition of the church of Jerusalem: a church of visible Saints awaiting the imminent end of the world and the demise of the ungodly. This church was an embattled, exclusive sect of the righteous set apart by its apocalypticism and its confrontation with a hostile “host” religious culture. The bitterness of the siege years was sweetened by Cowdery’s confidence in the future. In the Millennium the church would rule with Jesus Christ at its head for a thousand years. Thus Cowdery’s vision of Mormonism was fundamentally hostile to rival covenant traditions and communities. Others had no [p.125] real or autonomous future in Cowdery’s view of the “last things.” His theological orientation was therefore hostile to the autonomy and integrity of the Jewish people.
For Smith, in contrast, Israel’s example and integrity loomed large and led him to foster its covenantal role in the redemption of the world. Redemption, according to Smith, depended on “New” Testament acts of the “restoration of all things” and the doctrine of the “gathering,” rederuptive tasks which had been conferred on the righteous to perform. Cowdery’s restricted conception of a church made again pristine was insufficient for Smith. To realize his vision, Smith turned to the whole depository of scripture, as well as the wisdom of humanity’s experience, for his blueprint. In particular, he appropriated and revised Israel’s categories of priest/temple, scribe/sacred text, Messiah/messianic kingdom. These key categories in Israel’s experience corresponded to Smith’s preoccupation with the temporal, spatial, and textual landscape of the Saints and their program. With other righteous gentiles, they were to gather, to lay the foundations of the earthly kingdom of God, and to sanctify themselves. The decades which followed witnessed the oft-repeated attempts of the Saints to reorder their world spatially and temporally.
The task was formidable. It was Smith who recognized that the “restoration of all things” depended not on what one scholar has called the evangelical, era’s “aimless love affair” with Jesus Christ. Instead “a viable life in towns and settlements” had to be created, a “non-Augustinian construction of God’s plan for human history in the world—the time and space of man.”32 In the doctrine of the gathering, Smith explicitly acknowledged that, as Walter Harrelson put it, “there can be no hope for a people unless that hope includes the gift of land in which to live.33 Thus the Saints set about laying streets and foundations, planting vines, trees, and grains, pursuing knowledge of arts and sciences, human [p.126] and divine, and begetting and rearing children “in the covenant.” To many of the Saints, the tangibility and continuity of belief expressed in these acts and memo, rials proved more compelling than a revival, a mission society, or a dignity conferred only beyond the grave.
The Saints’ labor was disrupted by a successive loss of fields, home, friends, and family due to religious persecution. Because of what the Saints lived through, Smith recognized the aptness of Israel’s response to the demands of time and space in their historical experience. His appropriation, arrangements, and revision of Israel’s categories and history were crucial not only for his own identity and that of the church, but for his views of the Jewish people as well.
Cowdery seemed unable to share Smith’s crucial reworking of the patriarchal and historical narratives of Hebrew scriptures and Israel’s experience. His preference for the Apostolic Writings (“New” Testament) and the Mormon church’s earliest doctrine, to which he contributed, ill-disposed him to accept the integrity of covenant Israel outside of the Latter-day Saint church. Cowdery’s theology reflected the acrimonious feelings held by “New” Testament theologians toward emergent rabbinical Judaism.
On the issue of learning and worship, the distinction between Smith and Cowdery was acute. The magnitude of the restorationist task confronting Smith required recovering truths hidden, lost, or widely diffused. Smith’s sanctification of learning encouraged forays into religious, scientific, and cultural domains beyond sectarian conviction. As a student, translator, and interpretor of sacred texts, Smith augmented God’s words with new books of scriptural narrative and covenantal ordinances and passed on a priceless heritage of inquiry into the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge. It was the pursuit of this symbolic cluster of text, scribe, and study that led to Smith’s encounter with Seixas and to [p.127] his subsequent attention to the words of other living Jewish scholars and commentators the importance of which, for the Mormon community, has yet to be explored and understood.
Cowdery’s loyalties were irredeemably suspended between two objects of affection. He possessed a passionate conviction in the apocalyptic triumph of the modern church over other religions and secular institutions. But he was also devoted to the expansive pretensions of Jacksonian America. Cowdery’s scruples of church/state separation and his allegiance to the offices and authority of the United States reined in his support of a people and kingdom beyond parochial national interests and discrete loyalties. Until the Advent, Cowdery could attend to the presumably separate worlds of secular and religious affairs. He preferred law, the intrigue of local party politics, and non-regulated entrepreneurialism to a planned social and economic order directed by the global needs of a heterogeneous church membership supervised by a prophet and a lay theocratic order.
Although sharing much of Cowdery’s mystical adventism, Smith believed the foundation of the messianic kingdom was to be laid in mundane time and space. Redemption required a community wielding the prosaic, complicated, and complicating tools of statecraft upon a covenanted and territorial patrimony designated by the Lord for the assembly of the Saints. Smith preached that there would be no peace but in “Zion and her stakes,”34 and he sent out the elders of the church to preach the gathering of Israel “as set forth in Holy scripture.”35 It was to Israel’s prophets and to Israel’s perennial aspirations for an independent homeland that Mormon elders naturally turned for the terms, symbols, and syntax of their own gathering. Israel’s gathering had been affirmed in Latter-day Saint scripture and in one of Smith’s “Articles of Faith”—”We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration [p.128] of the Ten Tribes.” It is hardly surprising then that the Saints were interested in modern Israel’s national aspirations. 36
A final, crucial distinction between Smith and Cowdery appears in their differences about what one scholar has called the “physical as well as symbolic heart of Smith’s restoration,”37 the temple at Nauvoo rising on the bluffs above the city and river. Again their diverging views about temple building were related to their views of Judaism. In October 1840 Smith spoke of the necessity of building a “House of the Lord”38 in Nauvoo. Land was dedicated and plans laid for building a temple “unto the Lord.” Only one other temple had been built (although other sites had been dedicated), and that had been in Kirtland above the Chagrin River in Ohio.
This earlier structure’s purpose, function, and rites had posed no problem to Cowdery’s scruples. Its design and ornamentation borrowed eclectically from an established vernacular in American church building. It served the Kirtland community as a house of assembly and worship in its open lower floors and in its attic rooms as offices for administration, translation, and study. A long promised “endowment from on high”39 was intended to instruct and equip the priesthood to serve the church and carry the “new and everlasting covenant” to “all nations” which were “bowed down and worshipping other gods, which are no gods”—which Cowdery understood to refer to both Jews and gentiles (D&C 38:33). This endowment celebrated this priesthood in terms and rituals congruent with New Testament accounts where the solidarity of Jesus with his disciples was commemorated.40
The temple served as a material, public sign of the location of the divine presence in the last days, a tabernacle which distinguished the Latter-day Saints from other nations on the earth.41 By combining so many functions within one edifice, the Kirtland temple was [p.129] different from protestant church buildings in America, however much it resembled them in style. But its use was still largely coined in terms and symbols reassuring to those who perceived the Latter-day Saint movement as a restoration of the church of Jerusalem, an answer to the apostacy which had undermined the legitimacy of the churches. Purpose, objects, and symbols were derived almost entirely from the world and texts of Christianity without reference to other religious traditions and communities of past or present.
The new Nauvoo temple focused Smith’s vision in the final years of his life. He found architectural and textual sources for the temple in a variety of symbolic vernaculars. Working from an “inspired” template, the temple’s architects and craftsmen groped to express Mormonism’s “restoration of all things” by means of external symbolic motifs and jarring stylistic combinations of structure and decoration. Rituals were introduced to underline the religious and historical continuity of the Saints and previous covenantal dispensations. That continuity was underlined by use of institutions, kinship lines, and myths adopted from those periods.42 In particular, sacred instruction and rites created a tradition connecting Mormonism with Hebrew scriptures and Israel’s experience. As one scholar of Nauvoo has written, Smith “seemed also to grasp the profound significance that the ancient temple had for Jewish culture—the unique role that it played in the Jewish concept of divine history.”43
Commenting on the significance of the institution of the temple for “ancient” Israel, Jacob Neusner points out that “for eleven centuries and more the Jewish people had organized its entire life social, metaphorical, natural and supernatural—around sacrifices organized in the Jerusalem Temple … The Temple stood at the very center of the order of Israelite society.”44 Its imposing presence over the city of David dominated [p.130] and oriented the behavior of the nation. It marked the Divine Presence and signalled Israel’s unique status among nations. It was a symbol in stone of Israel’s independent political and cultural identity.
It is no accident then that a temple became the focus of a “latter-day” prophet in the western reaches of American territory. Smith pressed for construction of the temple in the center of Mormon gathering and for the celebration of its endowment by a sanctified nation of priests. One American historian has observed with some wonder that “given his rustic, western, practically unchurched Protestant background, Smith’s insight about the role of a temple in the Mormon restoration is impressive … In light of the rootlessness of American life in general … the temple, rooted in cosmic time and space, was an anchor of great significance, a tangible center for a new sacred lifestyle.”45 This new order and sacred lifestyle, at once national and priestly, dominated Smith’s sermons and writings in his final years. The building of temples became the cornerstone in Smith’s understanding of a restored church and an independent, renewed, and gathered Israel.
Thus on the day after announcing plans for construction of the Nauvoo temple on 5 October 1840, Smith turned to the question of the priesthood which would serve the restored temples of Mormonism and Israel.46 In particular he turned to the restoration of priestly sacrifice and the Levitical order. First, he stated that “God will not acknowledge that which he has not called, ordained, and chosen.” Next, he affirmed that consonant with the breadth of the restoration, “all the ordinances and duties that ever have been required by the priesthood under the direction and commandments of the Almighty … in any of the dispensations, shall all be had in the last dispensation,” including the rite of sacririce. In response to those Saints acquainted with the Epistle to the Hebrews and with Third Nephi in the Book [p.131] of Mormon, he acknowledged that it “is generally supposed that Sacrifice was entirely done away when the great sacrife [sic] was offered up.” But his reply to this objection was direct and blunt: ‘”these sacrifices [referring to Leviticus 2-3, for example] as well as every ordinance belonging to the priesthood will when the temple of the Lord shall be built and the Sons of Levi be purified be fully restored and attended to then all their powers ramifications and blessings—this … ever was and will exist when the powers of the Melchisid [sic] Priesthood are sufficiently manifest. Else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by the Holy Prophets be brought to pass[?]”
In a lyceum meeting six months later, Smith returned to this theme of priesthood and restoration. Commenting on Malachi 2:7, Smith is reported as saying, “Now it was written that the priests lips should keep knowledge and to them should the people seek for understanding and above all the law binds them and us to receive the word of the Lord at the hands of the Levites.” Again in referring to this restoration, Smith remarks, “Yes brethren the Lord will purify the sons of Levi good or bad for it is through them that blessings flow to Israel … and then shall the offering of Judah & Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord as in days of old and as in former years.”47
In these citations several affirmations stand out. Smith positively valued Israel’s temple and the ceremonial cult it housed. Israel’s restoration depended, the Mormon prophet came to believe, on a restored temple and a renewed and reconstituted priesthood. Christian theological opinion about Jesus’ crucifixion as the final, consummate high priestly offering erected insuperable barriers to the latter-day undertaking of the restoration of Israel directed by its own priesthood, celebrating its renewal through a restored sacrificial cult in the temple.
[p.132] No Mormon temples have ever been designed to function as houses of sacrifice along “Levitical” lines. When Smith speaks of “election,” “sons of Levi,” and “the offering of Judah & Jerusalem” in these passages, he is speaking about a temple, priesthood, and people constituted independently from the church. Knowing little of the beliefs, history, and institutions of rabbinic Judaism and living before the rise of modern Jewish denominational movements and political Zionism, Smith used the only metaphors available to him as he sought to understand Israel’s gathering and national restoration.
By physically gathering the Saints, by reviving a priestly order and temple, by dispatching an apostle to dedicate Palestine for the return of Israel, Smith sought to realize the part scripted for the church in the days leading up to the messianic age. These steps were envisioned as providing sympathetic assistance to a “modern” and “scattered” Israel and its longing to realize an end to exile and the renewal of its own national existence in its land of covenant.
What emerges from these assembled texts and sketches is a picture both clear and strange. On the American frontier in the 1840s, a Christian religious leader was editing a newspaper which featured articles on modern Jewry and its concerns. Mormons were eavesdropping on conversation scripted by Jews, not for the purpose of disputation and demolition but for imitation and instruction. At the same time, this leader was affirming in the scriptural language available to him a renaissance of Jewish institutions and national life independent of any necessary connection to the Church of Christ. By focusing on such notions as a city, a temple, a renewed priestly order, and acts of sacrifice, and by insisting on their literal restoration, Smith calibrated his rhetoric to jar assumptions about present-day Israel and the assumed homogeneity of the coming millennial [p.133] kingdom ruled by the universal church. At the heart of Smith’s vision was an affirmation “that the election of the promised seed still continues … according to the promise made to Abraham.” That promise had room for both the Israelite whose “election was pertaining to the flesh” and the gentile to whom “belonged the adoption, and the covenants &c.”48 It was the vindication of God’s promises, not the Saints’ presumptions, which Smith sought in this work. Those promises included gathered peoples, nations administering justice, and acknowledging the sovereignty of the God who had established an eternal covenant with a “wandering Aramean.”
Oliver Cowdery too had pressed for a doctrine of gathering and restoration. But his scenario for the future scripted the church’s complete and universal victory at Christ’s advent. He was thus unable to share Smith’s affirmation of Israel’s national and covenantal independence.
Smith feared that Israelites and Latter-day Saints would balk at the prerequisites of the promise. As early as 1835, drawing from a text in Revelation 23, Smith had asserted that before the “tabernacle [of God] can be with man, the elect must be gathered from the four quarters of the earth.”49 In June 1843, according to a contemporary account, “he exhorted the people in impressive terms to be diligent—to be up and doing lest the tabernacle pass over to another people and we lose the blessing.”50 He asked: “What was the object of gathering the Jews together or the people of God in any age of the world[?]… the main object was to build unto the Lord an house whereby he could reveal unto his people the ordinances of his house and glories of his kingdom & teach the people the ways of salvation.”51 In gathering the Saints and rearing a temple in their midst, Smith sought to realize his longing that his people would become heirs to the “promise made to Abraham.” When he proclaimed in an April 1843 conference at the foot of [p.134] the unfinished temple in Nauvoo that “Jerusalem must be rebuilt. & Judah return … [and] build the walls & the Temple,”52 he expressed the Saints’ sympathetic affirmation of Israel’s own hopes and of the covenant which binds Israel to its Lord and his promises.
1. In his “Mormon and Jew: A Meeting on the American Frontier,” Louis C. Zucker speculates that “To help Cowdery select the best books, the bookseller (in New York City) had referred him to a ‘learned Jew’ with whom Cowdery, in his own words, ‘became intimately acquainted.’ This ‘learned Jew’ could well have been ‘Israel Baer Kursheedt, luminary of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York…’ the ‘aged and learned Rabbi’ who was so gracious and helpful to Oliver Cowdery; and who gently but firmly maintained the Jewish belief about the Messiah and … Israel’s captivity, as against the Christian interpretation” (typescript, 6, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; hereafter cited as LDS archives).
3. Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1927-32), 1:76; hereafter cited as HC.
4. See D&C 134; Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981), 296.
5. That account appeared in letters printed serially in the Messenger and Advocate and was later published in pamphlet form as Letters by Oliver Cowdery, to W. W. Phelps, on the Origin of the Book of Mormon and the Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Liverpool: Thomas Ward and John Cairns, 1844).
21. See David P. Efroymson, “The Patristic Connection,” in Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity, ed. Alan Davies (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 98-117; John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), chaps. 8-9.
31. I am indebted to Jacob Neusner for this interpretive idea. See his Judaism and the Beginning of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 37. I also want to acknowledge his contribution to a modern Mormon, scholarly appreciation of the timely and timeless, the messianic and temple-hieratic, with Mormon doctrine, thought, and experience.
34. From an 8 Aug. 1839 sermon, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 6 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 11.
39. The first reference to the endowment appeared in a revelation dated 2 January 1831 (D&C 38:32). The promise of the endowment was frequently reiterated. For several citations, see D&C 43:16; 95:8; 105:11-12; 110:9.
40. The endowment ceremony included the washing of feet and the celebration of the Lord’s supper. “Pentecostal” occurrences, strikingly reminiscent of “primitive church” phenomena, accompanied the Kirtland temple dedication and included a public display of speaking in tongues, the appearance of patriarchal figures associated with Christ’s “transfiguration,” and a visitation of the resurrected Christ himself accepting the offering of the temple; see HC 2:410-436.