The following is the next in our series of lessons dealing with the Reform Mormon Endowment. This lesson deals specifically with the third of the four covenants administered in the Endowment. Unlike other Mormon traditions, Reform Mormonism does not require a special Temple Recommend or some proof of “worthiness” in order to celebrate the Endowment. Anyone sixteen years of age or older who identifies him or herself a Reform Mormon, who understands the covenants and is willing to enter into them, may participate in the ordinance. As was the early Mormon practice before the building of the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois, the Reform Mormon Endowment is currently presented in spaces temporarily set apart and dedicated for the ordinance. This is done during special “Temple Events.” If you would like more information on having such an event in your area, write us at:
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
REVELATION: THE THIRD PRINCIPLE OF REFORM MORMONISM
The third covenant in the Reform Mormon Endowment is related to the third principle of Reform Mormonism: revelation.
From the very beginning, the principle of revelation has been central to Mormonism. As Mormon historian, Kathleen Flake explains:
“Mormonism's sense of revelation may be distinct in its ubiquitousness -- how everybody feels they can get it and that they must get it. The "it" that they're going to get is as dramatic as anything they read in the Bible: that they hear voices; they dream dreams; they have visions; and they expect in their daily walk to receive instruction if they're living worthily, that God is able to drop in at any particular time and say, "Stop what you're doing; I need you to go visit Brother or Sister So-and-so; they need help…
… Mormonism could not exist without revelation. The Bible is not enough for them. ... It is revelation or nothing for these people, and if they ever lose that, then they have no reason for being. Their whole message is ‘God speaks today.’
....Joseph Smith's uniqueness can, I think, be understood by an analogy that I sometimes use to Henry Ford. Henry Ford wanted a car in every home. Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he'd had, which was seeing God.” (From the 2007 PBS documentary series, “The Mormons.”)
READ, PONDER & PRAY:
REASON'S ROLE IN THE MORMON CONCEPT OF REVELATION
Traditionally revelation has been conceived solely as a supernatural phenomenon: one seeks some sort of knowledge and through some supernatural means—such as a vision, a heavenly voice or the appearance of a being from some heavenly realm—the knowledge is revealed. Mormonism as religious movement began on the American frontier of the 1820’s among individuals who claimed to have experienced revelations of this sort.
But at the same time there was an element of intellectualism and naturalism in the early Mormon concept of the revelatory process—and it is this element that is central to the Reform Mormon principle of revelation.
Reform Mormons do not believe that one should go through life expecting the laws of nature to be suspended. Indeed, since Reform Mormonism is based primarily on mid-19th century Mormon theology (a theology which profoundly contradicted the theology of early Mormonism), Reform Mormons hold that nature is supreme, and that God works within the context of natural law. One of the most radical doctrines of mid-19th century Mormonism (a doctrine which orthodox Christians and traditional monotheists to this day consider heretical and blasphemous) is that God is a limited being who, no more than man, can break the eternal laws of nature which govern all existence.
For Reform Mormons the process of obtaining personal revelation does not consist of discarding rational thought or turning a blind eye to the realities of the natural world. Instead, revelation can come only when one engages one’s entire rational faculties.
From the earliest days of Mormon history, individuals were encouraged to seek a spiritual confirmation, a personal testimony and revelation concerning the truthfulness or falsity of Mormon doctrines. This testimony, witness and revelation would be spiritual and emotional in nature: it might manifest itself a a sense of peace and confidence, accompanied by new and deeper insights.
But such an experience can only be trusted and relied upon if one has honestly considered, examined and pondered all the evidence that one has available. The following passage from “The Book of Mormon” explains the early Mormon approach to seeking such a revelation:
“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (“The Book of Mormon,” Moroni 10:3-5)
Even after such an experience, one must seek and be open to further insights, knowledge and revelation. As existence is eternal—without beginning or end—no intelligent being can ever reach the point when he or she knows everything. Revelation is merely one part of an eternal process of growth, development, evolution and progress.
THE ROLE OF STUDY IN THE FIRST MORMON REVELATIONS
Personal revelation as a means of obtaining knowledge was central to early Mormonism as is illustrated in the following Mormon scripture:
“You [may] receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge... Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation..” (“The Doctrine & Covenants” 8: 1-3)
However, the very first Mormons—largely uneducated, struggling frontiersmen and women with backgrounds in Pentecostal revivalism and folk-magic—expected revelation to come by supernatural means, without the need for any intellectual or rational effort or preparation. One of Mormonism’s earliest leaders—Oliver Cowdrey—approached revelation in this way.
Cowdrey was practitioner of folk-magic; he believed in the magical powers of divining rods and peep stones. When his attempts to receive a supernatural revelation by these means failed, Joseph Smith dictated the following Mormon scripture to him:
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” (“The Doctrine & Covenants” 9:7-9)
STUDY AS A PREPARATION FOR FAITH AND REVELATION
Coming from the Christian revivalist traditions of the American frontier, early Mormons were anxious to the experience the type of mass Pentecostal revelatory experience recorded in the New Testament book of Acts. They believed that if they built a temple to God in Kirtland, Ohio and prepared themselves, such Pentecostal revelations were possible.
Early in his career, Joseph Smith encouraged such expectations, but unlike many of his fellow Mormons (perhaps the majority of them), he was not comfortable with leaving the intellect out of the process. Having spent most of his youth attending revivals, he was distrustful of the extreme emotionalism that manifested itself at such gatherings. He knew that even though emotions could result in passionate professions of faith, such feelings could not be sustained indefinitely. He later commented on the tendency of most people to return to their old ways once such Pentecostal fervor and emotionalism had subsided and they returned demands of every day life.
Wanting Mormons to have a more substantial revelatory experience--one with longer lasting effects—Joseph Smith and fellow Mormon leader Sydney Rigdon founded a seminary in Kirtland, which they called “The School of the Prophets.” The purpose of this school was not only to prepare Mormons for missionary service, but also to prepare them to receive revelations once the first Mormon temple was finished and dedicated.
The following scripture, recorded on December 27, 1832, presented reading, studying and the pursuit of an education as necessary components in preparing to receive revelation:
“Therefore, verily I say unto you, my friends, call your solemn assembly, as I have commanded you. And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God…” (“The Doctrine & Covenants” 88:17-19)
I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnifythe calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you. (“The Doctrine & Covenants” 88:77-80)
As Joseph Smith’s theology evolved, he would put more and more emphasis on education and learning. This education would not be confined to religious subjects only, but to secular knowledge as well. In fact, one of the unique aspects of Joseph’s later theology was that the lines which had traditionally separated sacred knowledge from secular knowledge disappeared. Within a few years of Mormonism’s birth, Joseph was encouraging his fellow Mormons to “…study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages tongues, and people.” (See “The Doctrine & Covenants” 90: 14-15)
WISDOM AS CO-ETERNAL WITH GOD
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally…”
This verse from the first chapter of the Epistle of James is known to Mormons of all denominations. In his later writings, Joseph Smith would trace the origins of Mormonism to his reading of this verse as a teenager. For Mormons, revelation is not an end in itself, but a means by which greater knowledge and wisdom can been obtained.
This reverence for wisdom comes from Mormonism’s roots in Biblical tradition. Ancient Israelites revered Wisdom highly—so highly, in fact, that the author(s) of Proverbs envisioned Wisdom as being co-eternal with God, as being God’s Divine Female Consort:
“It is wisdom calling,
Understanding raising her voice.
She takes her stand at the topmost heights,
By the wayside, at the crossroads,
Near the gates at the city entrance;
At the entryways, she shouts,
“O men, I call to you;
My cry is to all mankind.
O Simple ones, learn shrewdness;
O dullards, instruct your minds.
Listen, for I speak noble things’
Uprighteness comes from my lips.
All my word are just,
None of them perverse or crooked;
All are straightforward to the intelligent man,
And right to those who have attained knowledge.
Accept my discipline rather than silver,
Knowledge rather than choice gold.
For wisdom is better than rubies;
No goods can equal her….
When God fixed the foundation of the earth,
I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind.
Now, sons, listen to me;
Happy are they who keep my ways.
Heed disciple and become wise;
Do not spurn it.
Happy is the man who listens to me.
Come early to my gates each day,
Waiting outside my doors.
For he who finds me find life, ‘
And obtains favor from the LORD.
But he who misses me destroys himself;
All who hate me love death,”
(Proverbs 8:1-11, 29-36, JPS Translation)
In some Jewish and Christian esoteric traditions, Wisdom (Sophia) is seen as the Divine Female Principle, as something of a Goddess herself. Such ideas do not seem strange to Reform Mormons who accept the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother—a Goddess—who is an eternal companion of their Heavenly Father. (Reform Mormons are free to pray to Heavenly Mother, Heavenly Father or to both—as “Our Heavenly Parents.”) God can be revealed in the feminine as well the masculine.
THE REVELATION OF GOD
In Mormonism, as in most other religious traditions, revelation is also the means by which the Divine is made manifest to human beings. Mormon history and myth is filled with stories of men and women who claimed to have had visions of God.
Toward the end of his life, Joseph Smith began teaching that people “learn to be Gods” themselves. Pointing out that in the Biblical creation myth, Adam was said to be made “in the image of God,” Joseph reasoned that man/woman was in fact the same type of being as God. Because God and humans share a common nature, Joseph reasoned that all Gods had once been humans like us, and that all humans, by nature, could grow and progress until they too were Gods.
Within this theological paradigm, Reform Mormonism teaches that the most profound revelation of the Divine can take place within the individual. As each of us progresses and grows in knowledge and virtue, the character traits that we envision God possessing, are revealed within our own characters. We can become more Godly; we can develop the attribute of Godliness. As children grow up and become like their parents, the realities of adulthood are revealed to them. In the same way, Mormonism teaches that every human being is a child of God. As each of us pursues a path of growth and eternal progression, we can become more like God; through this growth, the realities of Godliness and Divinity may be revealed to each of us.
Concerning this type of growth and progress, early twentieth century Mormon theologian, Nels L. Nelson, wrote the following:
“The only conception that any people can possibly have of Deity, is one which comes within their mental horizon—the horizon bounded by their experiences. Into His personality they will think their highest and noblest ideals. What they love most, fear most, admire most, will somehow be found in his attributes. To the extent and in the direction, that they are civilized and enlightened, to that extent and in that direction will He be idealized.
“It was therefore a profound remark of [Jesus], that to know God is to have eternal life. No one can know Him, save as he becomes like Him…
“…But becoming like Him implies a progressive means of getting ideas about Him…
“…To know God is to have adequate notions of His personality in, say, five different aspects: physically, intellectually, socially, morally, and spiritually. Manifestly these notions can come to man only as God reveals them. The germ ideas respecting His personality can be found in scripture; but these are meaningless, save as man thinks into them the content of his experiences. The real revelation of God to man is, therefore, to be found in that which gives man experience: in life—nature—law.
“If a man would have the noblest ideal of God’s physical personality, let him master all that is known of physiology and hygiene—and conform his own life thereto; if he would realize His intellectual personality, let him become familiar with the elements of intellect in man, then calculate what must be the Intellect that could create and control a solar system, with all the myriad forms of life and being therein manifested; if he would know God’s social personality, let him study sociology, determine what qualities in man lead to love and harmony: in the home, in the state, in the nation, in the world,--and then consider that God has so mastered these laws that heaven (ideal social harmony) is His eternal habitat; and so of God’s moral and spiritual personalities: to the extent that man discovers and lives moral and spiritual law,--to that extent he will know God.
“It follows therefore from the very nature of things, that the honest man’s conception of God is a progressively growing ideal. As, day by day, he discovers law (truth), and especially as he conform his life to law (obeys truth), so must his ideal of the Ordainer of law change; and let not ecclesiastics presume to lay an embargo on his soul, by pronouncing once for all what God is or is not.”
(Nels L. Nelson, “Scientific Aspects of Mormonism,” pp.18-20. )
THE THIRD COVENANT
The third covenant made during the Reform Mormon Endowment is to seek divine counsel; to seek to develop wisdom and, as a result, to continually try to make better decisions in one’s day to day life.