The year before he and his brother were murdered, Joseph Smith taught us something valuable about the kingdom of God, and how it can be detected:
Whew. Lucky for us our leaders have assured us the oracles are right here among us. As we are reminded again and again, the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles today are the Lord's "living oracles." So we can be satisfied the kingdom of God is in good hands and all is well in Zion."Where there is a prophet, a priest, or a righteous man unto whom God gives his oracles, there is the kingdom of God; and where the oracles are not, there the kingdom of God is not." (Documentary History of the Church, Volume V, pg 257)
Or can we? I wouldn't be so quick to presume what we have today is the same as it was in the days of Joseph Smith. As one of my favorite legal analysts was fond of saying, that "assumes facts not in evidence."
What that commonly held belief does assume is that first and foremost, an oracle is a human being through whom God conveys his will. But that definition is faulty. It doesn't gel with the meaning given in scripture. Joseph Smith never made reference to a man when describing oracles. We can see by his statement above that an oracle is not a prophet, a priest or righteous man. Rather, an oracle is something God gives to such a person.
It seems even further at odds with the meaning the Lord gave that word whenever He employed it. You need only read Joseph Smith's words in the statement above to figure out that when the prophet spoke of oracles he was not referring to himself or any of the other Church leaders of his day. Better yet, read the prophet's entire speech beginning on page 256 of the DHC (Volume 5). Joseph uses the word oracles again and again in a lengthy talk that goes on for four pages of very tiny print, and in every instance you'll find he is referring to something God has given to man going back to the time of Adam, not something that can be easily mistaken for a man.
When attempting to get at the meaning of statements made by God and through His founding prophet, we would benefit by observing this counsel from President Spencer W. Kimball:
"Many of the misunderstandings and differences of opinion in scriptural considerations result from a lack of definition of words and terminology, far more than in difference of opinion." ( The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pg 136)But before we look into what oracles are and were always understood to be, it may be instructive to first examine the meaning of the phrase "kingdom of God," because that term is also widely misunderstood. As the kingdom of God was predicted to eventually roll forth and consume the whole world, many members today assume that the kingdom of God spoken of in the Book of Daniel is the LDS Church they proudly belong to. After all, isn't that the goal of our massive missionary efforts? To have our church go forth and fill the earth with converts to Mormonism?
Well no, that's not the goal. The goal is to see the kingdom of God go forth.
This modern assumption that the church and the kingdom of God are one and the same is a false one. It was never taught by our founding prophet. Joseph Smith understood The Kingdom of God to be something distinctly separate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As pointed out in a previous post, many of us think that a baptism performed in this church represents a person's initiation into membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when in actuality baptism has nothing to do with "joining the church." As Charles Harrell writes in This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, "Scholars note that baptism was initially performed by John the Baptist and Jesus's disciples as a cleansing rite to prepare them for the coming kingdom of God, which was perceptually distinct from the Church."
An adequate description of the kingdom of God is beyond the scope of this post, but a recently published book, The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History examines in detail the model Joseph Smith created in March 1844 in anticipation of the millennial reign of Christ. This model was put in place a full 14 years after the Church was organized. So again, not the same thing as the Church.
In a conference talk given by Brigham Young in 1855, some insight into how the kingdom of God on earth might be expected to operate was revealed. Apostle George Q. Cannon and others affirmed these basic principles had been taught to them by Joseph Smith as well. Here are some excerpts from Brigham's talk:
"When the Kingdom of Heaven spreads over the whole earth, do you expect that all the people composing the different nations will become Latter-day Saints? If you do, you will be much mistaken. Do you expect that every person will be destroyed from the face of the earth, but the Latter-day Saints? If you do, you will be mistaken."Now of course, not having been there in person to hear Brigham's talk, we might miss the slightly facetious tone in some places; his attempts at delivering his point in a humorous way. His point, however, is that under the benign rule of the King of Kings, the rights of all people will be respected, and religion as we know it will cease to be divisive. It's likely all who bend the knee and confess the name of Christ will consider themselves members of the church of God if any such "church" is even deemed necessary by then. I'm inclined to think the kingdom of God will obviate and supersede religious denominations as we know them today, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Of what use would factions be in a kingdom ruled by God?
"Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of heaven might come upon the earth, and when it does come, you will find that it will be very different from what many people are imagining or expecting it will be. Its spirit will be to preserve their individual rights sacred to the inhabitants of the earth."
"As observed by one of the speakers this morning, that Kingdom grows out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it is not the church, for a man may be a legislator in that body which will issue laws to sustain the inhabitants of the earth in their individual rights, and still not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ at all."
"The order of society will be as it is when Christ comes to reign a thousand years; there will be every sort of sect and party, and every individual following what he supposes to be the best in religion, and in everything else, similar to what it is now."
"When the Kingdom of God is fully set up and established on the face of the earth, and takes the pre-eminence over all other nations and kingdoms, it will protect the people in the enjoyment of all their rights, no matter what they believe, what they profess, or what they worship. If they wish to worship a god of their own workmanship, instead of the true and living God, all right, if they will mind their own business and let other people alone."
"And further, though a man may not even believe in any religion, it would be perfectly right, when necessary, to give him the privilege of holding a seat among that body which will make laws to govern all the nations of the earth and control those who make no profession of religion at all; for that body would be governed, controlled, and dictated to acknowledge others in those rights which they wish to enjoy themselves. Then the Latter-day Saints would be protected, if a kingdom of this kind was on the earth, the same as all other people."
"It will be asked, 'What do you want to do, ye strangers from afar?' 'We want to live our own religion.' 'Will you bow the knee before God with us?' 'O yes, we would as soon do it as not;' and at that time every knee shall bow, and every tongue acknowledge that God who is the framer and maker of all things, the governor and controller of the universe. They will have to bow the knee and confess that He is God, and that Jesus Christ, who suffered for the sins of the world, is actually its Redeemer; that by the shedding of his blood he has redeemed men, women, children, beasts, birds, fish, the earth itself, and everything that John saw and heard praising in heaven.
"They will ask, 'If I bow the knee and confess that he is that Savior, the Christ, to the glory of the Father, will you let me go home and be a Presbyterian?' 'Yes.' 'And not persecute me?' 'Never.' 'Won't you let me go home and belong to the Greek Church?' 'Yes.' 'Will you allow me to be a Friend Quaker, or a Shaking Quaker?' 'O yes, anything you wish to be, but remember that you must not persecute your neighbors, but must mind your own business, and let your neighbors alone, and let them worship the sun, moon, a white dog, or anything else they please, being mindful that every knee has got to bow and every tongue confess. When you have paid this tribute to the Most High, who created you and preserves you, you may then go and worship what you please, or do what you please, if you do not infringe upon your neighbors."
"Under the influence and power of the Kingdom of God, the Church of God will rest secure and dwell in safety, without taking the trouble of governing and controlling the whole earth. The Kingdom of God will do this; it will control the kingdoms of the world."
How Will We Know It's The Kingdom?
In order for there to be a kingdom, there must be a king. And in order for the king's subjects to know the kings's will, they must be able to hear his voice. That's where the oracles come in.
In the modern LDS Church today you can find no shortage of erroneous definitions for the term "oracle." Just do a word search at LDS.org, and you'll see plenty of instances where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are referred to as "our living oracles." Pop culture today is filled with references to oracles as living beings (the oracle Neo is seeking in The Matrix turns out to be a wizened old woman), so we can be excused for our confusion. But we should never confuse pop culture metaphors with scriptural truth.
In religious contemplation, an oracle was never a human being. An oracle is a message that comes from "the divine other" which is spoken by the mouth of a human being . It refers to the words spoken by God using a human being as his mouthpiece. The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary traces oracle to the Hebrew word for "say," literally "speech, utterance, pronouncement." Oracle, in turn, comes to us from the same latin root as the words "oral" and "oratory" by way of the sanskrit asya, meaning "mouth."
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that oracles are variously defined as "divine utterances" or "divine communications." In one or two places in the bible, the Urim and Thummim is referred to as an oracle, and oracle has been used to define the place in the ancient Jewish temple where divine utterances were received by the high priest. But an oracle is properly the "oratory" coming from the Divine, speaking through a medium such as the Urim and Thummim, or speaking through a prophet. Never is an oracle defined as the person receiving the divine utterance. That appears to have been a later etymological interpretation.
Even in Greek mythology, when we read of people seeking out the oracle at Delphi, the woman at Delphi they have come to hear is not the oracle. She was a priestess named Pythia who spoke the words put into her mouth by the God Apollo. Apollo's words were the oracles. As early as 500 B.C. we read of oracles received through a prophetess named Sybil. Again, Sybil is not referred to as the oracle; she is known as a Seer who receives the oracles from the Divine, then writes those oracles down.
In Joseph Smith's day oracles were commonly referred to as revelations, the words the prophet spoke as he received them from the Lord (D&C 21:5). These oracles were received through Joseph Smith, but spoken in the voice of God. The words Joseph spoke were not his own; they were unmistakably the words of Jesus Christ. Browse through your Doctrine & Covenants and you'll see Jesus begins every oracle by introducing Himself as the speaker.
Look at how the Lord himself used the word oracle in the 19th century, and see if you think he is referring to any person or group of persons:
"All they who receive the oracles of God, let them beware how they hold them, lest they are accounted as a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby, and stumble and fall..." (D&C 90:5)Does it appear the Lord is concerned we might stumble and fall after holding members of the Church hierarchy in our arms because we mistakenly thought they weren't going to be very heavy? Or do you think He is warning us not to take His words lightly?
Well, it must be talking about how hard it is to hold the leaders, because the Church lesson manual for this chapter (lesson 96) states, “An oracle of God is a person through whom the Lord speaks His mind and will to the people.”
Where in that section of the Doctrine and Covenants can we deduce that definition for an oracle? Nowhere. The committee that authored the manual just made it up.
Here's a statement the authors of that manual got right:
“The Lord informs the world in this revelation that it is through His prophet that His revelations will be given unto His church.”That's absolutely correct. But they put that statement directly over a photo of Thomas Monson and his two counselors. The inference is clear: the revelation given to Joseph Smith in section 90 is meant to apply equally to them. Yet anyone reading that revelation can see that what is revealed by the Lord in that oracle is directed at Joseph Smith only. You can't even make that revelation stretch to fit any of Joseph's contemporaries, let alone some future Church executives a hundred and eighty two years later.
Even if it were true that members of the Church hierarchy today act as mediums "through whom the Lord speaks His mind and will to the people," why hasn't the Lord utilized them for that purpose in our day the same as he did when he used Joseph Smith as his mouthpiece?
In another revelation, the Lord tells Joseph that one of the purposes of the temple would be "for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations..." (D&C 124:39) And what was Joseph expected to do after receiving those conversations? As he always did: he conveyed them word for word to the members of the Lord's church, so that they, the members, could receive the oracles exactly as the oracles had been delivered to him.
Joseph did not keep these oracles to himself. Neither did he stand up in conference and summarize the message in his own words, or waste time quoting the wit and wisdom of his friends in the Quorum of the Twelve. Nor did he boast about how he and his fellow general authorities were now some new-fangled mash-up of "living" oracles.
No, what the prophet of God did every time he received God's oracles was this: he repeated those oracles word for word "as he receiveth them" from God so the people could know the will of their King.
This strange hybrid term "living oracles" was never uttered by God or by Joseph Smith. Of course the earliest converts to the church, former acolytes of the Campbellite Baptist tradition, would have recognized "The Living Oracles" as the title Alexander Campbell had given to his 1827 Greek translation of the New Testament. Campbell gave his scriptures that title because he felt (rightly in my opinion) that the King James translation was obsolete and often inaccurate. This newer translation contained the "living" oracles of God, so named because they proved more vital than the Jacobean translation.
The first instance I find of the phrase "living oracles" in pioneer times was by Wilford Woodruff, a full eighteen years after the prophet Joseph's death; and even he did not appear dumb enough to try and attach that label to himself and his fellow GA's. A careful reading of Woodruff's use of the term shows the need for all members to seek continuous personal revelation, or "living oracles" to guide them in their day-to-day endeavors. "President Young tells us that the living oracles should be our guide," declared Woodruff, "that, in fact, we should have the living oracles within us always...It is the privilege of every man and woman in this kingdom to enjoy the spirit of prophecy, which is the spirit of God," Woodruff continued, "and to the faithful it reveals such things as are necessary for their comfort and consolation, and to guide them in their daily duties."
Certainly Brigham Young did not consider himself a "living oracle" or even a seer capable of conveying divine communications:
"I am not going to interpret dreams; for I don't profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel” (Journal of Discourses 5:77)
"The brethren testify that brother Brigham is brother Joseph's legal successor. You never heard me say so. I say that I am a good hand to keep the dogs and wolves out of the flock... I do not think anything about being Joseph's successor." (Journal of Discourses 8:69).Why Don't We Hear The 'Divine Utterance'?
Although many members of the church continue to receive personal revelation individually, we ought to recognize that institutionally the LDS Church today is running on fumes. For all the talk we hear about having prophets, seers, and revelators in our midst, not one of them has presented a bona fide prophecy or revelation to the membership in over a century and a half.
Are these men in fact receiving revelations, yet keeping those oracles secret from the rest of us and choosing not to pass them on? If so, why? Revelations are supposed to be published and presented to the body of the church so the people can get a witness from the Holy Ghost that what they are hearing is indeed an oracle from God's mouth to our ears. Without hearing the revelations word-for-word, how are we supposed to get that witness?
"If we do not get revelations," the prophet Joseph cautioned back in 1843, "we do not have the oracles of God. And if they do not have the oracles of God, they are not the people of God." (DHC, Supra)
As members of the so-called true church, that statement should give us pause. Because if we are not the people of God, we will not be the ones helping to usher in the coming kingdom of God. The Lord will have found another people for that task. He said nothing would stop His gospel from rolling forth; he never promised it had to roll forth at our hands. We tend to forget that in 3rd Nephi 16:10 He predicted he may have to take it from us.
I have to believe that sometime in the twentieth century, some member of the Church hierarchy took note of that statement Joseph Smith made about the importance of having oracles, and came up with what he thought must have been an ingenious solution: "since we already call ourselves the living prophets, let's just change that to 'living oracles' and make like it's the same."
Beware Of Foolish Pride
When teachings of the modern Church seem to conflict with what the Lord has revealed to us in scripture, I find it helpful to consider this advice from Brigham Young:
"Our people on every hand are inquiring, 'what does this scripture mean, and how shall we understand this or that passage?' Now I wish, my brethren and sisters, for us to understand things precisely as they are, and not as the flitting, changing imagination of the human mind may frame them." (Journal of Discourses Vol 3, 336)We hear a lot these days about foolish pride. I'm just beginning to understand how those two words -foolish pride- fit together to perfectly describe some in the church today. Because it's one thing for a group of men to be constantly claiming they receive God's oracles while failing to produce those oracles to the church for examination. That smacks of pride to me.
But for these same men to claim they themselves are the oracles? That's pride matched with stupidity.
Where's The Revelation?
Not Quite The Same