The correct understanding of a word is a key of power.  It is a form of mental technology, where possessing the correct word allows you to think a correct thought.  You can’t study the scriptures without this kind of key.  If the meaning of a word is lost then the technology is lost, and the key goes with it.  The word continues to be used, but it’s meaning is now free to be defined by whoever people grant authority to do so.  Thus the scriptures remain with the church, but they become veiled behind the new definition of words.

I’ve had to keep this firmly in mind as I read Joseph Smith’s words  in the scriptures, in his letters, and in the transcriptions of his speeches.  He, and the scriptures he translated/transmitted, use a lot of the same vocabulary we use. Therefore we usually assume he had the same meanings in mind. Whatever meaning we assign to the word, or allow to be assigned for us, we will read that meaning into Joseph’s use of the word.  If the key of knowledge remains intact, this is not a problem.   If the key of knowledge is lost, however, the message can become anything the institution needs it to be, as long as it uses the same words.   The meanings of the vocabulary words simply need to be redefined.  Thus we can study “the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church”, and convince ourselves that they all taught the same “pure doctrine” that the correlation department currently espouses. They must, after all, because they use the same words.  Careful editing and the absence of any context further obscures the fact that these men believed and taught gospels very different from one another, and, most importantly, from Joseph Smith. 

Rob Smith wrote about words, correlation, and church manuals over at the Upward Thought blog.  They are useful thoughts to consider.

Understanding that Joseph Smith used some words differently than we do allows us to suspend our current understanding of the word and try to understand his revelations on his own terms.  Understanding his world of words is the first step to repentance.  Until we understand the truth, we have nothing to begin “turning to”; we can’t make the choice to move from unbelief to belief, because our false understandings only allow us the option of unbelief.  More of our gospel study should focus on uncovering the meaning of words.   More of our wary attention should be devoted to perceiving the shifting definitions of words proffered by well-meaning church leaders who obtained their supposed knowledge by studying the words of past well-meaning church leaders, mingled with scripture.

With that introduction, I want to examine Joseph’s conference address from October 5, 1840, to get insight into his use of the word “dispensation”.  Understanding this word will give further insight into other words, like “priesthood”, and “keys”.  Given early in the Nauvoo period, these instructions should be seen as the groundwork for all of Joseph’s nauvoo era teachings.  It isn’t a second hand report made decades later, or a summary made from notes taken during the speech or even a shorthand transcription made by a careful transcriber.  It was carefully dictated and corrected before being delivered.   In fact, it was read publicly by someone other than Joseph, so Joseph expected the words themselves to stand on their own without his further explanation.  The full transcription is worth reading, and can be found among the Joseph Smith Papers. Much of it is quoted below, but not the entire address.  The transcription and historical context can be found here as well:  http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1840/5Oct40.html.

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