John and Spencer, “Embracing the Law: Reading Doctrine and Covenants 42” (reviewed by Kevin Folkman)


Title: Embracing the Law: Reading Doctrine and Covenants 42
Editors: Jeremiah John, Joseph F. Spencer
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, Provo, UT
Genre: Religious non-Fiction
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 140
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780842530033
Price: $15.95

Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters

The Mormon Theology Seminar series, the successor at BYU’s Maxwell Institute to the Salt Press, was founded to theologically explore Mormon scriptural texts from differing perspectives. Previous volumes have focused on Alma 32 and 2nd Nephi 26-27 from the Book of Mormon, and Revelation 21-22 from the New Testament.

This book is a deep dive into speculative theology and textual analysis, phrases that might frighten the casual reader. As a non-academic myself, it is somewhat intimidating to think about 140 pages devoted to understanding what amounts to six pages in our current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Without generalizing too much, I think it is fair to say that for the average Mormon attending Gospel Doctrine each week, there is a sense that our doctrine is settled, and theology is something that other churches do, not us. Textual analysis is probably a real head-scratcher; the scriptures just mean what they say, don’t they? As for me, a part time Mormon historian, what am I doing here trying to do a critical reading on a theological work?

However intimidating it might seem, my sense after completing a close reading of this latest entry in the Mormon Theology Seminar series is that there is hardly a wasted word anywhere. I found that Doctrine and Covenants 42 as a subject is an interesting choice. First, Joseph Smith was commanded in D&C 38 to travel to Ohio where the “Law” would be given, a somewhat unusual promise of a specific revelation to come. Secondly, part of the “Law of the Church,” as this revelation became known, relates to the consecration of goods as a communitarian practice for the building up of the Church, and providing for the poor. Consecration as an idea has undergone significant changes in understanding since this revelation was recorded. Third, as Law, section 42 underwent a great deal of editing and revision before the final version was published as part of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. As noted in the introduction, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has begun to open to the general members of the church just how much change has taken place in these foundational texts, a potentially troubling topic for some.

Approaching this work from my background as an independent historian helped me to appreciate the review of the text, context, and theology of Section 42. I have learned to differentiate my present understanding of words and ideas from what those same words and ideas may have meant at some distance in the past. Most members of the Church today likely take their understanding of consecration, for example, from covenants made in the Temple as a spiritual practice. This is far divorced from the tangible physical elements of consecration, such as bishop’s storehouses and tithing-in-kind familiar to 19th century Saints. I also have learned to parse history as what really happened (as best can be reconstructed) from what we wish had happened. This has given me a better foundation for approaching why specific changes in the text were made, and how the meaning of specific ideas in this revelation have changed over the 180-plus years since Joseph Smith first recorded it.

Joseph Spencer and Jeremiah John are the co-editors of this volume, and in addition to their own contributions, they reached out to other scholars with diverse backgrounds in an exhaustive examination of Section 42. As a group, they raised questions to be answered in their analysis, before each contributor then submitted a chapter on a specific aspect of the text. Questions include looking at Section 42 in a historical and textual context, or how “The Law” relates to the rest of the Doctrine and Covenants as a whole. Most interesting to me is the question “what is the meaning of ‘consecration’ in Doctrine and Covenants 42?” And finally, what does it mean to have a Law of the Church?

Nate Oman, law professor at William and Mary Law School discusses the text as a strictly legal document, representing an intersection of both divine and secular law. In this sense, the considerable editing of the text seems less a “corruption of a divine text but simply as a juridicial updating.” (p7) Oman also feels that the divine law in Section 42 incorporates the very concept of accommodation to secular reality in the text. Such a reading may help us understand Lorenzo Snow’s decision to forgo the practice of Polygamy in the face of severe legal pressures from the federal government.

Russell Arben Fox, Professor of Political Science at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, submits the text to a radical social justice reading for the verses that talk about consecration. His claim, in his own admission an audacious reading of the text, deals with the principles of solidarity, equality, community, and a “preferential option for the poor.” He argues that “a degree of sacrifice, consecration, and redistribution was commanded of the Saints, not to achieve perfect equality, but…for living together as rough equals.” (p64) Such a reading challenges much of contemporary thinking about consecration as the law of the Church. It is to me a compelling, if still radical, approach to the text.

Other segments deal with apocalyptic reading of The Law, or how such a text, revised multiple times, can be considered canon, along with the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Taken as a whole, the Doctrine and Covenants has changed dramatically over the decades since first published. There have been major additions and deletions; for example, the inclusion, and then exclusion, of the Lectures on Faith. Compared to our other sacred texts, the Doctrine and Covenants is more like a patchwork quilt, constantly changing size, and with various sections of the fabric moved, removed, and changed over time. Yet we still accept it in its entirety, as canonized scripture, with equal status to the Bible and Book of Mormon.

Karen Spencer, an independent scholar, takes an altogether different approach and discusses what this section has to say about teaching in Zion. If we are to build Zion, then Section 42, she argues, has a lot to tell us about a spiritual foundation for teaching, specifically verses 13 and 14. Teaching becomes a stewardship, a concept incorporated into other sections of D&C 42. Stewardship, she says, “…asks members to receive other aspects of their lives [other than tangible property] by consecration…their relationships with family and friends, their food, their health habits, and more.” Teaching, by extension, involves accepting a stewardship of “…teaching the principles of the Gospel, according to the directions of the Spirit. [p50-51]

Overall, my earlier claim that no words were wasted in this volume should be read as a positive. I have found that these sort of theological ventures are incredibly helpful to me in taking a new and different approach to reading scriptural texts. It opens new paths of understanding and challenges familiar assumptions. I may not agree with all the conclusions reached by the contributors in this volume, but exploring their thoughts and analyses is a fascinating exercise in speculative theology, something to be encouraged in the contemporary church. It helps me to peel back the veneer of familiarity and conventional thought, to see more of how the Church itself has changed down through the years, and by extension, how our perception of our church’s origins, history, and even doctrine has evolved with time.

As to the intimidation factor I mentioned earlier, I recognize that this series is written by academics, and uses academic language and style. That can limit the appeal of a book like this for a general audience. While much of the writing in this volume reflects that academic background, I believe that a general reader can find much here to appreciate. Fiona and Terryl Givens, with their titles for Deseret Book, have shown that it is possible to bridge that gap and deal with difficult topics and still appeal to a general audience. We can hope that further works in this series will continue to approach their topics with both an academic and general audience in mind.

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