The familiar story

The preceding post tells a story about Elijah’s mission that differs from the story found in our discourse and approved by correlation.   The correlated doctrine was outlined succinctly by Elder Quentin L. Cook at General Conference last week.

Christians and Jews the world over accept the Old Testament account of Elijah. He was the last prophet to hold the sealing power of the Melchizedek Priesthood before the time of Jesus Christ.

Elijah’s return occurred in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836. He declared he was fulfilling Malachi’s promise. He committed the priesthood keys for sealing families in this dispensation. Elijah’s mission is facilitated by what is sometimes called the spirit of Elijah, which, as Elder Russell M. Nelson has taught, is “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family.”

The essential doctrine of uniting families came forth line upon line and precept upon precept. Vicarious ordinances are at the heart of welding together eternal families, connecting roots to branches.

What a great time to be alive. This is the last dispensation, and we can feel the hastening of the work of salvation in every area where a saving ordinance is involved.  We now have temples across much of the world to provide these saving ordinances. Attending the temple for spiritual renewal, peace, safety, and direction in our lives is also a great blessing.

We finally have the doctrine, the temples, and the technology for families to accomplish this glorious work of salvation. I suggest one way this might be done. Families could hold a “Family Tree Gathering.” This should be a recurring effort. Everyone would bring existing family histories, stories, and photos, including cherished possessions of grandparents and parents. Our young people are excited to learn about the lives of family members—where they came from and how they lived. Many have had their hearts turned to the fathers. They love the stories and photos, and they have the technological expertise to scan and upload these stories and photos to Family Tree and connect source documents with ancestors to preserve these for all time. Of course, the main objective is to determine what ordinances still need to be done and make assignments for the essential temple work. The My Family booklet can be utilized to help record family information, stories, and photos that can then be uploaded to Family Tree.

Apr. 2014

Those who have studied Joseph Smith’s teachings about Elijah will be able to see some problems in Elder Cook’s doctrines quoted above, particularly those in bold.  While listening to the talk,  I was struck by the great gulf between Joseph’s doctrine and that of Elder Cook.

It is not the result of “line upon line, precept upon precept” addition since Joseph’s day.   There is not more in Elder Cook’s teachings; there is much less.  Though he uses some of the same words that Joseph used, he means something very different.   When Elder Cook says words like ‘fathers’, ‘children’, ‘hearts turned to their fathers’,  ‘spirit of Elijah’, ‘salvation’, ‘sealing power’, ‘melchizedek priesthood’, or  ‘dispensation’, the words don’t mean what they meant in Joseph’s system.  Elder Cook uses the same words to describe a very different system.

Anyone who doesn’t understand the distinction between those two systems will have a hard time trying to fit the square peg of Elder Cook’s doctrine into the round hole of Joseph’s words.  Joseph’s doctrines will seem strange and perplexing, and a great deal of mental energy will be spent twisting or overlooking Joseph’s words to calm cognitive dissonance.  To understand the discrepancy, it will be useful to look at the history of the doctrine of Elijah in the discourse of the Church.



Joseph’s doctrine about Elijah developed over the course of his ministry, from the translation of the Book of Mormon to his last sermons.  His story was always consistent, but it became richer and more full as he progressed.  He built his doctrine on the scriptures he had restored and simply taught what had been revealed to him.  I outlined that doctrine briefly in the post ‘Our Fathers who are in Heaven’.   Joseph’s Elijah doctrine was primarily concerned with redemption, meaning bringing people back into God’s presence in this life.  To do so would require the unredeemed children, living and dead, to join their Fathers in the general assembly and church of the Firstborn(DC 76:67,94).   This would require a covenant relationship between the children and the Fathers, so the hearts of the children would have to be turned, or sealed, to the fathers.  To prevent the righteous from being burned at the coming the Fathers with Christ, Elijah would forge a connection between the two groups.  Elijah was the last prophet to hold the keys of the ordinances needed to unite earth with heaven in that way, he being the last prophet to be caught up to dwell in Zion above.

Joseph had taught throughout his entire pre-Nauvoo ministry the necessity of coming into the presence of God in this life to be redeemed. The innovation of his Elijah teaching was to describe the social ties that must bind the redeemed together, in one, in Christ.   He only spoke of sealing in the context of redemption.  In fact, the power required to seal someone up to eternal life was the same power required to seal us to our families, living and dead, and to seal ourselves to the Fathers in heaven: the power of Elijah.  If you can seal families together, you must also have the power to stand in the presence of God, to truly know Him, for this is eternal life. This power is not obtained through earthly ceremonies, which are the form of godliness.  It is obtained when God opens the heavens and bestows it by his own voice, which is the power of godliness (DC 84:19-23).

Performing ceremonies for the dead, including sealing, were as important as performing ordinances for the living. Joseph said it was the greatest responsibility in this world.  But unless the saints made their callings and elections sure, they would merely be sealing one dead branch to another, without connecting to the roots.  That is a responsibility that reaches beyond this world and into eternity.  Those who expect to participate in ceremonies and receive exaltation without making their calling and election sure are among those who fall under Christ’s 1820 condemnation, “having a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.”  All ceremonies must be ratified by the Holy Spirit of Promise, which is the promise of eternal life given by God himself (DC 88:3-4).  Only by obtaining this promise was the power of Elijah active in the redemption of the dead.


The unmentioned appearance

One of the most interesting facets of Joseph’s teaching about Elijah, is that he never mentioned Elijah’s visit to him in the Kirtland House of the Lord. We have no record of him doing so, and Oliver Cowdery left no testimony of this appearance either.  It is unclear how Warren Cowdery, who recorded the event at the end of Joseph Smith’s journal, received the information. While it appears in the first-person in DC 110 (“We saw the Lord… etc.”), the original was written in third-person (“They saw the Lord…etc”).  This indicates that Warren Cowdery was writing of something that happened privately, and that the record was not made to be released for public consumption as Joseph’s or Oliver’s public testimony. While Joseph or Oliver are assumed to have been the source for the account left by Warren Cowdery, neither man mentioned it  in any future recounting of their angelic visitors, and it was not referenced by Joseph in any of his sermons on Elijah.

The text itself doesn’t claim that Elijah gave “sealing power,” or even “sealing keys,” to Joseph Smith, nor ordained him or set him apart.  The record says that Elijah declared that “the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands.”  Joseph had already obtained and exercised the sealing power. DC 132, while written in 1843, was received in the early 1830s in response to Joseph’s first obedience to the command to take a plural wife, and records Joseph’s calling and election being made sure, and his receipt of the sealing power (verses 45-50).  Since Joseph, after 1836, always referred to Elijah’s work in the future tense, and never bore public testimony of the visit, he clearly didn’t intend the saints to believe that Elijah had finished his work.


From visions to texts

Joseph’s Elijah teachings have all the hallmarks of having been learned by revelation.  His story was always consistent, changing only in richness and detail.  Reading his discourses gives the impression of a man who knows more than he’s saying.  His statements give glimpses of a grander vision, which I have sketched above.  This vision intersects scripture (Malachi,  as quoted in the Book of Mormon or JSH 1:36-39, for instance), but is never dependent on it.  His story stretches beyond the text and goes much deeper without ever contradicting it.

This is not the case with the apostles and presidents who led discourse after his death.  Their teaching is bound to their interpretation of scripture and their ability to recollect and interpret what Joseph had taught.  Though they could claim to “have a testimony of” Joseph’s prophetic status, their teachings demonstrate that they mostly didn’t know what he said.  Their discourses are tied to the text, never telling a story deeper than their interpretations of their prooftexts, interpretations which contradicted Joseph’s on virtually every key point.

After Joseph’s death, his distinctive Elijah doctrines ended.  Those speaking after him simply didn’t have access to his source material.  If they had the ability, as we do, to collect and review all accounts of Joseph’s Nauvoo discourses, they may have been able to construct a better system.  But they did not.  Relying on texts and memory, and influenced strongly by the political context in which they spoke, they began to create a doctrine of Elijah tailored to their circumstance.


Brigham and Orson

The first recorded mentions of the doctrine of Elijah after Joseph’s death were from Brigham Young and Orson Pratt,  in August 1852 (JD 6:296, JD 1, P. 53-66).   President Young and the apostles had been contemplating the public announcement of the Utah church’s practice of plural marriage.   Doing so would require preparing a rhetorical defense demonstrating the principle’s inherent rightness, the fact that it was revealed from God to Joseph Smith, and, important for our discussion, that they had authority to perform such marriages. Their preparation evidently included reviewing the Church’s collection of manuscripts and revelations to extract relevant teachings of Joseph Smith, because the first mentions of Elijah reference Warren Cowdery’s previously unmentioned journal entry.

While it was irrelevant to Joseph’s teachings about Elijah and the Temple, it became the central text used to establish the institution’s right to perform plural marriage. From Orson Pratt’s speech announcing and defending the practice:

[Joseph] held the keys of these matters; he had the right to inquire of the Lord; and the Lord has set bounds and restrictions to these things; He has told us in that revelation, that only one man can hold these keys upon the earth at the same time; and they belong to that man who stands at the head to preside over all the affairs of the Church and kingdom of God in the last days. They are the sealing keys of power, or in other words, of Elijah, having been committed and restored to the earth by Elijah, the Prophet, who held many keys, among which were the keys of sealing, to bind the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers; together with all the other sealing keys and powers, pertaining to the last dispensation. They were committed by that Angel who administered in the Kirtland Temple, and spoke unto Joseph the Prophet, at the time of the endowments in that house.

Note that Pratt makes claims that the text does not, namely that Elijah gave keys to Joseph Smith, and those keys were somehow transferred to Brigham Young.  Since Joseph said Elijah’s keys involved “sealing” and “ordinances”, and the saints were “sealing”  people in their temple “ordinances”, the conclusion seems inevitable. This interpretive leap only works if Joseph’s Nauvoo teachings are mostly forgotten.  It is an interpretation bound by the available texts and traditions, stretching its bounds only by contradicting the texts it leaves out.

In addition to the introduction of the 1836 visitation of Elijah to Joseph Smith as their claim to authority, Young, Pratt, and their peers generated a number of new doctrines from the available texts.  The sealing power was now necessarily represented as something passed man-to-man rather than conferrable only by the voice of God to the redeemed. “Sealing power”  became the term designating the right to give conditional promises in the Temple rituals, rather than the ability to obtain unconditional promises from God.  It was now only to be held by the President of the Church, rather than by anyone who would be saved.  Accessing this power and being sealed no longer required one to make his calling and election sure; he only had to submit to authoritative performance of the earthly ritual.  The “fathers” of the Elijah prophecy in Malachi were said to be our unredeemed dead, rather than the Fathers who are in heaven. Any expectation of communing with or sealing to the Fathers in heaven was lost, except as we were to seal along biological lines back to Adam.  The role of the fathers who dwell in heaven was now limited to the bestowal of keys on Joseph, and that work was accomplished. Elijah’s mission was complete, and he was now said to have given “all the power that ever was or ever will be to seal men and women up unto everlasting life” (Heber C. Kimball, JD 5:132).  The “turning” of the hearts of the children now involved their desire to seek after their dead ancestors, rather than their desire to be sealed to the Patriarchs and obtain their promises.

Brigham and company had claimed previously that the sealing power was inherent in the Presidency of the Church, and now they had a text that, when properly wrangled, seemed to show how such powers were conferred.

Eventually the need to justify plural marriage would subside as the Church distanced itself from the practice. Many of the doctrines created for that purpose, however, would remain.


Tradition rolls on

Without easy access to the disparate journal transcriptions of Joseph’s teachings, the body of saints only had one perceptual lens offered to them with which to view the Elijah scriptures, i.e. the discursive tradition established by Orson Pratt and Brigham Young.  In the 20th century, this lens would be built into the approved correlated framework, and inserted into the eyes of generations of latter-day saints like an ocular implant via repetition in Sunday school, seminary, official church manuals and publications, audiovisual presentations, and general conference talks.  By the time the records of Joseph’s Nauvoo teachings were blended, noted, and published by Joseph Fielding Smith as The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1938, there were 86 years of Elijah discourse that would control how his teachings would be interpreted. How differently history might have been if that book had been published in 1852!

The doctrinal understanding of the saints has gradually eroded as their correlated lens has become more myopic. Now most saints (first or second generation with limited access to Joseph’s words) would have trouble making sense of Joseph’s doctrine, because he didn’t follow the correlated script, and when he did he wasn’t teaching correlated concepts.

With this history in mind, the gap between Elder Cook’s words and Joseph Smith’s begins to make sense . Elder Cook’s teachings have been sifted through decades of correlation, and are rooted firmly in the text-dependent doctrine of Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, and their peers.  They contradict Joseph’s own interpretation of the scriptures he dictated, and select snippets from his teachings to construct doctrines he never taught.



This story is very useful.  It shows how fragile true doctrine is when those who teach haven’t experienced the revelation that originated the text. Simply by changing the relationship of a few words (fathers, children, covenants, sealing power, etc) true doctrine can become false.  It proves Joseph’s oft-repeated point about the absolute necessity of each person establishing an open visionary connection with heaven:

could we read and comprehend all that has been written from the days of Adam on the relations of man to God & angels, and the spirits of just men in a future state. we should know very little about it. Could you gaze in heaven 5 minutes you would know more than you possibly can know by reading all that ever was written on the subject.

Joseph Smith, Oct. 9 1843, Joseph Smith Diary

Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things, can only be obtained by experience in these things.

Joseph Smith, Oct. 9 1843, Times and Seasons report

It also shows how false or incomplete doctrine is codified into tradition, and how difficult it can be to untangle tradition in our heads.  The doctrine of Elijah is a good case study for the treatment of all of Joseph’s teachings:  the vocabulary remains the same, but the concepts have changed at a very fundamental level.

The tragedy lies with the generations that lived and died thinking they had already attained what they should have been seeking: to seal themselves to their fathers.  Today we do not need to remain in the same condition of unbelief, because we have access to Joseph’s words that no generation has had before.  Joseph’s invitation to awake and arise comes to us after the 4th generation from Nauvoo.  We simply need to look with fresh eyes, remembering this unrescinded promise to those who will receive and act on Joseph’s words:

Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all [Joseph Smith’s] words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.

For thus saith the Lord God: Him have I inspired to move the cause of Zion in mighty power for good, and his diligence I know, and his prayers I have heard. Yea, his weeping for Zion I have seen.

(Revelation, April 6, 1830; DC 21:4-8)

when did I ever teach any thing wrong from this stand? when was I ever confounded? I want to triumph in Israel before I depart hence and am no more seen–I never told you I was perfect–but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.

(Joseph Smith Jr., May 12, 1844; Thomas Bullock report)