Mormonism’s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation, Part II

By August 30, 2013

In a previous post, I briefly explored the thought of Transcendentalist and abolitionist Theodore Parker to outline the relationship between antebellum biblical and constitutional hermeneutics. His biblical criticism bolstered his belief in the progress of religion and in the presence of an innate religious sense, which allowed him to dismiss as antiquated scriptural passages supporting slavery.[1] He used a similar approach to reject proslavery constitutional clauses as outdated. In contrast to some abolitionists, however, Parker maintained that those texts contained permanent truths that could be separated from transient teachings. Others went further in depicting the Constitution as a moldable and amenable text, including the dissenters in Dred Scott (1857)—Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean—who followed some of the framers in suggesting that the Constitution had been crafted with the expectation that it would adapt to new contingencies, including the spread of egalitarian sentiment.[2] The realization of historical change and, in turn, historical distance, allowed some antislavery proponents to accept the presence of proslavery passages in the Bible and the Constitution without discarding those documents altogether. Positing their inherent malleability fueled the expectation of formal amendments, in the case of the Constitution, but also demanded informal reinterpretation. And, at least in Parker’s case, these approaches to the Constitution and the Bible overlapped.

Joseph Smith’s reading of the Bible aligned more with the dominant literalist approach of Protestants than with the radical readings of abolitionists like Parker. Despite his qualification about correct translation, he and his early followers accepted the biblical narrative as a sacred account of historical realities.[3] Far from questioning the authorship of biblical books, the validity of biblical stories, or the timelessness of most biblical teachings, Smith distinguished Mormons from other Christians in claiming “that we believe the bible, and they do not.”[4] His revisions of the Christian canon expanded its narrative, adding to its history, teachings, and truths, rather than chopping it down in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.[5] Early Mormons approached the Book of Mormon (1830) and the Book of Abraham (1842), scriptural productions with ancient trappings, as narratives of real historical figures and facts. While channeling the authorizing potency of pastness, Smith’s historical engagements rested on revelatory claims rather than historical excavation and contextual interpretation. The net effect of his thinking was a radical collapse of temporal distinction rather than a revelation of historical distance and difference of the sort that informed Parker’s progressive hermeneutic.[6]

However, despite a literalist approach to scripture, Smith’s emphasis on the Bible’s incompleteness, coupled with his introduction of new scripture and his assertion of new revelation, called into question the status and relevance of the Christian canon. Indeed, even while conceived in a restoration framework that conflated historical eras, and even given Smith’s stated preference for a kind of biblical originalism—“I believe the bible, as it ought to be, as it came from the pen of the original writers”—his revisions made ancient biblical figures and their teachings modern and Mormon, which ensured their contemporary relevance.[7] Further, the very process of expanding the canon to include the modern revelations comprised in the Book of Commandments (1833) and the Doctrine and Covenants (1835) suggested change despite assertions of continuity. Smith reread and rewrote the past in light of the Mormon present, which had the effect of streamlining time, or, from another vantage point, of portraying time as cyclical, with repeating periods of apostasy and restoration, his dispensationalist claims—“fulness of times”—called for unprecedented revelations.[8] Smith’s literalist approach differed from Parker’s critical exegesis, but, while holding unique conceptions of the revelatory process, both could lament with Emerson that “men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done,” and both appealed to historical change, distance, and circumstance to assert the need for new revelation.[9]

The August 1832 edition of The Evening and Morning Star instructed early members to “search the Scriptures…and learn what portion of them belongs to you, and the people of the nineteenth century,” demonstrating an awareness of temporal distinction, while issuing a call to “liken all scriptures” to the modern Church of Christ.[10] This suggested that the continued relevance of scripture depended on adaptation to present circumstances and, sometimes, past revelations fell short. On April 21, 1834, the Mormon prophet told a conference of elders that “it is very difficult for us to communicate to the churches all that God has revealed to us, in consequence of tradition.” Long-held beliefs stood as barriers to new truths. “We are differently situated,” he continued, “from any other people that ever existed upon this Earth. Consequently, those former revelations cannot be suited to our condition, because they were given to other people who were before us.” Times had changed, Smith reasoned, and new circumstances required new revelations. Emphasizing the present need for “seers and prophets,” Smith was also stressing that historical distance and change required historic revelations. As with Parker, his historical awareness, nurtured by his own sense of prophethood, informed the distinction between operative and defunct revelations and his affirmation of God’s present communication. While willing to slough off past revelations as unsuited to current conditions, by and large Smith maintained the sacred relevance of ancient scripture. Indeed, whereas figures like Parker valued the Greek book of scripture more, Smith reclaimed the Hebrew texts, but, again, he molded it into his restoration framework.[11] Aware of historical change, he made even the Old Testament fit the new times.

As the biblical debate over slavery narrowed in on the New Testament in the 1830s and 40s, further unsettling the privileged place the Old Testament had enjoyed, both antislavery and proslavery forces increasingly used what one scholar calls contextualist arguments. While Frederick Douglass proposed that the progressive nature of the age and of the American republic, which stood in contrast to ancient Israel, made slavery particular and anachronistic, George Fitzhugh asserted that slavery, a universal and liberal institution, as evidenced by its presence in ancient Israel, ensured the nation’s progress.[12] Depending on the orientation, present circumstances required either slavery’s abolition or its preservation. This kind of circumstantial contention might have been part of Smith’s argument for polygamy. In his exposé of Mormonism, John C. Bennett published a letter that Smith had allegedly written to Nancy Rigdon. According to Bennett, Smith claimed that “he had the blessings of Jacob granted him” and then explained, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.” The letter described this as “the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”[13] Having harnessed the now depleted power source of patriarchal precedent, Smith also called on revelatory prerogative. Southerners held that past and present conditions made slavery right and Smith asserted the same about polygamy. Old Testament precedent buttressed present inspiration, a coupling consonant with Smith’s 1843 revelation (D&C 132). Though the provenance of the account raises questions about its authenticity, and while the letter implies a kind of arbitrariness to God’s commands, it accords with Smith’s scriptural appropriations and his calls for revelatory relevance.[14] The same sentiment later assisted Saints in the process of readopting a monogamous lifestyle.

It does not appear that Smith’s utilitarian approach to scripture nor his contextual and circumstantial understanding of revelation informed his reading of the Constitution. His mention of the nation’s leading legal text focused more on its status, rather than its interpretation. Still, one can decipher a link between his view of the Bible and that of the Constitution. A number of Americans held the Constitution in high regard, but one of Smith’s revelations sanctified the text as established “by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). In the wake of the Missouri problems, Smith came to believe that he and his followers uniquely upheld what he described as “a glorious standard…founded [in] the wisdom of God.” Robbed of its protection by corrupt government, he maintained that “God is true that the constitution of the united States is [true] that the Bible is true.”[15] According to later accounts, in 1843 Smith predicted that “the time would come with the Constitution and Government would hand [sic] by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the Latter day Saints will step forth and save it.”[16] Mormonism, it appeared, was the last bastion of defense for the Bible and the Constitution. One might conclude that the sanctification of the Constitution lends itself to a rather strict interpretation, but given Smith’s actual rather than stated approach to scripture, and given his idea of revelation, the semi-canonical status granted the Constitution allows for a progressive reading of the nation’s sacred legal text, one that expects informal emendation and formal amendment.

Those suspicious of this suggestion might highlight the differences between the production and interpretation of scripture and the Constitution. On the production side, we might separate prophetic and divine scripture from a political and deeply compromised human document.[17] This approach avoids the problem of what Michael Austin calls “Founderstein,” but it fails to take into account the various compromises involved in the revelatory process itself, which, because it occurs in time and space, are inevitable.[18] In other words, as Austin explores elsewhere, it fails to recognize the human element involved in both the reception of revelation and the creation of law. Recognition of the temporal nature of these texts encourages new readings. The realization of disagreement among the framers led Frederick Douglass to accept an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution and created space for a populist hermeneutic.[19] The interpretive choice, then, is not simply between original framers or current legislative and judicial branches, thus calling into question the need to stress differences between prophets as scriptural interpreters and the branches of government as constitutional interpreters. Scriptural interpretation, too, is not the prerogative of Church leaders alone. Though Joseph Smith sought to curb revelatory claimants (see D&C 28 and 43), even the revelatory process was at times a collaborative affair and the revelations were often multivocal (see D&C 20 and 76). Further, popular antebellum readings of the Constitution clearly had long-reaching repercussions, as evidenced in the aftermath of Dred Scott, and it seems clear that certain concepts and teachings in the LDS Church have obtained new meanings as members, leader and lay, add their brush strokes to the large canvas of received learning.[20] Perhaps I will address such questions in a subsequent post, but it seems to me that certain aspects of early Mormon approaches to scripture and revelation encourage a kind of broad-based living constitutionalism. The temporal nature of the Constitution and law-making, and of revelation and the revelatory process, invite reinterpretation and reapplication among citizens of both Church and State.[21]

[1] On the role of the biblical debates in historicizing the Old Testament, in particular, see Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 163-184. Incidentally, Shalev also provides a fascinating discussion of the Book of Mormon in the context of the era’s proclivity for pseudo-biblical writings (pp. 104-17) and its interest in the Israelite origins of Native Americas (pp. 135-38).

[2] For a discussion that approaches this kind of analysis of Dred Scott, see Stuart Streichler, Justice Curtis in the Civil War Era: At the Crossroads of American Constitutionalism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 125-34. A well-known example of the founders’ effort to create an adaptable constitution is found in the Committee of Detail’s draft of the Constitution. In the preamble, John Randolph’s first of two related principles of constitution-making stressed inserting “essential principles only; lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable, which ought to be accommodated to times and events.” Randolph, “Draft Sketch of the Constitution,” in Supplement to Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. James H. Hutson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 183.

[3] On the prevalence of a Reformed literal hermeneutic in this period, see Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 367-85. Phillip L. Barlow describes early Mormon literalism as “selective literalism,” noting, for example, figurative readings, but emphasizing that Smith “was a biblical literalist not because he was incapable of figurative understandings but because he believe the stories of the Bible were history rather than legend.” Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 32-38, quote on 34.

[4] Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839, vo1. 1 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 166. See also, Joseph Smith, Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 32.

[5] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 133.

[6] With good reason, Eran Shalev followed up his discussion of Mormonism in a recent publication by noting that “Americans did not challenge the historicity of Scripture.” Shalev, 117.

[7] The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 256.

[8] For use of this phrase from Ephesians 1:10 in the D&C, see 27:13, 112:30, 121:31, 124:41, and 128:18-20.

[9] Emerson, “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College,” in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 5 vols., ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, MA, 1971-94), 1:84.

[10] “To the Honorable Men of the World,” The Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 2 (August 1832): 22; 1 Nephi 19:23.

[11] Early Mormons, even more than other Americans, viewed the Old Testament as not only pertinent but, in important ways, as present. See Shalev, 135-38.

[12] See David F. Ericson, The Debate Over Slavery: Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

[13] “6th Letter from Gen. Bennett. Jose Smith’s Letter to Miss Rigdon,” Sangamo Journal, 19 August, 1842, 2. The appeal to revelatory prerogative has an antecedent in the Book of Mormon. See Jacob 2:27-30.

[14] On the relationship between revelation and an openness to change in early Mormonism, see David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2011), 152-56.

[15] The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2002), 445.

[16] Words of Joseph Smith, 279. See also, Words, 384 and 416. For a collection of Smith’s statements on the Constitution, the provenance for some of which are problematic, see “Joseph Smith,” in Latter-day Prophets and the United States Constitution, ed., Donald Q. Cannon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1991), 1-13.

[17] On the compromised nature of the Constitution and its implications, see Mark A. Graber, Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[18] Michael Austin, That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012).

[19] See T. Gregory Garvey, Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 158-60.

[20] See David F. Holland’s essay in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Mormonism.

[21] This obviates the need to do away with the Constitution, a position which has gained new adherents. See Louis Michael Seidman, On Constitutional Disobedience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Jordan,

    This is great and thoughtful work!

    Comment by Joel — August 30, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  2. Fantastic. Thanks, Jordan!

    Comment by Christopher — August 30, 2013 @ 9:31 am

  3. Thanks, Joel and Chris!

    Comment by Jordan W. — August 30, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  4. Great stuff. Thanks, Jordan.

    Comment by David G. — August 30, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  5. [JS’s] revisions of the Christian canon expanded its narrative, adding to its history, teachings, and truths, rather than chopping it down in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson…The net effect of his thinking was a radical collapse of temporal distinction rather than a revelation of historical distance and difference of the sort that informed Parker’s progressive hermeneutic.”

    While not a dominant part of your smart analysis, this thought has stuck with me these last few days. Lots to think on and continue to unpack.

    it seems to me that certain aspects of early Mormon approaches to scripture and revelation encourage a kind of broad-based living constitutionalism. The temporal nature of the Constitution and law-making, and of revelation and the revelatory process, invite reinterpretation and reapplication among citizens of both Church and State.

    This is an absolutely brilliant observation, and we need more creative, interpretive, and imaginative analysis like this. Even if we can’t decipher how well it fit within our historical theology, it should be part of our future.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Comment by Ben P — September 1, 2013 @ 6:46 am

  6. I didn’t see any mention of Glenn Beck in your article. He most certainly is the authority on these subjects and should have been mentioned. One need only look at his chalk board to see that this is true. Never mind the ten fallacies per hour he spews.

    On a more serious note, it seems the constitution is at odds with the Book of Mormon democracy as set forth at the end of Mosiah. If one looks at what the founding fathers said and actually thought in the actual debates at the constitutional convention and not at the political tracts known as the federalist papers, one would see that ours is a government set up so the ruling classes could always stay in power regardless of what the stupid people wanted. The founding fathers feared the people and wanted them to remain subjects to power so the powerful could govern in perpetuity. The revolution was merely about lower management wanting to run the company instead of upper management while keeping the proles in their place.

    Comment by james4250 — September 1, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

  7. Thanks, David and Ben. I’m also struck with the rich possibilities and potentialities embedded in early Mormon thought, and I tend to think that the nature of that thought encourages the development of those possibilities and potentialities, even if we choose to ultimately reject some of them.

    James4250, though I agree that the Book of Mormon references elements of democratic governance and that the Constitution (and, certainly, the Federalist Papers) demonstrates that the founders worried about the masses, I understand both texts quite differently. Indeed, I would propose the opposite interpretation to the one that you offer, though I would like to introduce a bit more nuance. In other words, I understand the Constitution as a deeply democratic document, though I think the Beardsian position is not without some merit in its revised and updated form. Also, I understand the Book of Mormon discussions about governance as less democratic than monarchical and aristocratic, though some traces of democracy remain. This is to say, I see these texts as both critical and symptomatic of their late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century contexts, but I locate those elements differently than you do. (See Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 101-105.

    Though this post is less interested in the content of these texts and more interested in how we read them, part of the point is that we can debate and discuss the meanings of these texts, and even give them new meanings in relation to our particular situations and settings. While I still think that the text imposes restrictions and limitations on our readings, your reading might be just as viable as mine. I think, though, that self-awareness and consciousness about the interpretive nature of this project is paramount. We would do well to remember, to reference Stanley Fish again, that “interpretation is the only game in town.”

    Comment by Jordan W. — September 1, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

  8. […] Mormonism’s Possible Political Theologies: Reading the Constitution through a Lens of Continuing Revelation (Jordan W., Juvenile Instructor)– with part 2 here. […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.35 (Aug 26-Sept 1) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — September 18, 2013 @ 5:32 pm


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