Rediscovering Wagonloads of Plates

By August 13, 2012

In 1843, a woman named Ann Essam willed the sum of her estate “for and towards the printing and publishing and propagation of the sacred writings of the late Joanna Southcott.”[1] The plebian Southcott claimed to receive revelations and prophecies from God, and heightened the intrigue when an inner voice told her to seal some of the writings until a time of great danger and global distress.[2]

Essam wasn’t the only one to donate funds to cryptic projects.  Decades later a Russell Huntley offered a sizeable loan, subsequently accepted, to Joseph Smith III and the RLDS Church to fund the future publication of the Book of Mormon’s sealed portion, which had yet to come forth.[3] “Sealed portions” of scripture have held the promise of hidden knowledge, prophetic authority, a reassurance of God’s continuing revelation, and have motivated obedience for various peoples, including Mormons. The “sealed portion” of the Book of Mormon was described from various accounts as comprising one to two-thirds of the entire plates Joseph Smith unearthed.[4] While Joseph Smith never seems to devoted much attention to it, other than being “very impressively” prohibited by Moroni from tampering with it, the sealed portion came to function as a cultural and doctrinal barometer for the Church.[5]  I’ll just focus on one example in this post (but you can read others in the next Dialogue).

Early Mormonism, like other faiths, was entrenched in millennialist expectations. The discourse surrounding consecration, gathering Israel, establishing Zion’s camp, and other themes, all point to a society that was earnestly readying for the second coming of Christ. The sealed portion represented another source of preparation for the Saints. Orson Pratt, for example, was particularly enraptured by the idea, and taught that the sealed portion and lost records would be particularly important to “teach the Latter-day Saints how to organize, how to be prepared” for the “great day that is to come,” namely through the Nephite model of the United Order he believed the portion explained.[6] In another occasion, he spoke of how “the Lord intends, in this dispensation . . . to overwhelm the whole earth with a flood of knowledge in regard to himself . . . [and] in regard to the preparation of the earth for the thousand years of righteousness to come. Hence . . . these great numbers of plates . . . as well as those sealed records of which I have been speaking, will all come to light.”[7]

By the end of the 19th century, however, the sealed portion was going the way of New Jerusalem and Zion’s camp- receding further out of grasp but conceptually maintained to bolster the faithfulness and obedience of the Saints.  Increasingly throughout the twentieth century, the absence of the portion shifted from being a source of anticipation, to motivation, to admonishment and rebuke. The pressures of expansion amidst intellectual trends of scientism, higher criticism, and rationalism, were met with Correlation and its emphasis on orthodoxy, and the general disillusionment of post-WWI society resulted in an increasingly pessimistic view of human nature and mankind’s potential. For the Saints, millennial expectations were increasingly muted, and these factors likely exacerbated the abstraction and distancing of the sealed portion.

Millennial ties with the sealed portion were effectively severed by the time Bruce R. McConkie came to the conclusion in the 1980s that the period of great revelatory enlightenment would not occur until Christ returned, and that he was “clear in [his] mind that the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon [would] not come forth until the Millennium.”[8] What had been precursor was now culmination. The expanding physical canon the early Saints envisioned was effectively closed.

I can’t help wondering what will happen to the concept of the sealed portion now.  FARMS has been the only arm of the Church to dedicate any time to a literal or serious discussion of the sealed portion in the last decade or two. Where will it go with the new trends of Mormon studies?

 

 

[1] Austin Wakeman Scott, ed.  Select cases and other authorities on the law of trusts (Langdell Hall: Cambridge: The Plimpton Press, 1919) 318.

[2] Frances Brown. Joanna Southcott: The Woman Clothed with the Sun. Leicestershire, England: Lutterworth, 2002. 64.

[3] Roger D. Launius.An Ambivalent Rejection: Baptism for the Dead and the Reorganized Church Experience.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Volume 23, no. 2. June 1, 1990. 69.

[4] David Whitmer said “a large portion” and “about half.” (As cited in “How Witnesses Described the “Gold Plates” by Kirk B. Henrichsen, Journal of Book of Mormon StudiesVolume – 10Issue – 1, Pages: 16-21. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2001. Orson Pratt (not a direct witness) says two-thirds in “The Faith and Visions of the Ancient Saints,” Journal of Discourses, vol. 3. April 13, 1856. 347b. An article in the 1907 Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, says one-third. (Liahona, the Elders’ journal. “Ancient American Prophets.”  No. 23. November 23, 1907.  630-632. George Q. Cannon says that only one-third was sealed. (George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, new ed., p. 45.) [as cited by Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine under “Gold Plates.”) Bruce R. McConkie (“The Bible—A Sealed Book,” Church Education Symposium, BYU, 17 August 1984)and Pres. Hinckley (Truth Restored, pp. 14-15.) cite the two-thirds portion described by Orson Pratt.

[5]  Dan Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents,  vol. 5 . Smith gave in an interview with Chicago Times the explanation of this that the angel had told him very impressively that the loose plates alone were to be used, and that the sealed portion was not to be tampered with.”  (133, 85,)

[6] Orson Pratt, “Revelation Gradual, Etc.” Journal of Discourses   Volume 19   5/20/1877. 14a.

[7] Orson Pratt, “King Limhi’s Enquiry.” 217b

[8] Ibid, 16. See also his discussion on the sealed book in “New Witness for the Articles of Faith,” Deseret Book 1985, and “The Bible—A Sealed Book,” Church Education Symposium, BYU, 17 August 1984, and Millenial Messiah: The Second Coming of Christ,” Deseret News 1982 ( the section “The Dispensation of the Fullness of Times”); and Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary,” Deseret News 1981 (ch. 117, “Expounding the Scripture”).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. It might be interesting to compare Joanna’s sealed box to the sealed portion of the plates more thoroughly. What happens to her sealed box anyway? Does the House of David take up the idea?

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 13, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  2. A quibble about “The expanding physical canon the early Saints envisioned was effectively closed”: While I’m not familiar with any general expectation that “new” (old) physical records are forthcoming any day soon, I think that if such a thing did happen, it would be enthusiastically welcomed by Church members. That latent willingness to accept such records is evidence,in my mind, that we don’t think the canon is closed, but only that we aren’t living in daily expectation of imminent revelation.

    It’s fun to see your parallel of Joanna Southcote — she is so often linked to Joseph Smith in the disparaging 1850s newspaper editorials I’ve been reading recently. I’m specially intrigued by your reference to Orson Pratt’s enthusiasm — there are claims in the same 1850s press that Orson Pratt had opened, translated, and was publishing the sealed portion. I haven’t yet tried to identify the source of that misunderstanding, but your mention of him as being especially enthusiastic would suggest that something he did say was probably at the root of it.

    Great post.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 13, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  3. Very interesting shift; thanks Rachael. I’ve heard on occasion people saying that “we’re not ready yet” to receive additional revelation, such as the sealed portion, since we don’t sufficiently study what we have now. I think Ardis’ comment points to the potential of expanding your analysis beyond Mormon intellectuals (OP, BRM, and FARMS) by looking at popular ideas about the sealed portion.

    Comment by David G. — August 13, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  4. Be sure to read the Fall issue of Dialogue for the whole story 🙂

    Comment by Kristine — August 13, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  5. Fantastic stuff, Rachael; I’m excited to see the full article.

    I love this approach to history: basically a micro-history where you follow a single person, object, or idea over a period of time to trace the broader cultural changes and expectations.

    Comment by Ben P — August 13, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  6. I’m sort of fascinated by the use of the millennium as a sort of place holder for promised blessings. It stretches back a ways, e.g., BY indicated that it would by the time for the bulk of all proxy sealings. With the adoption revelation, it became the time when all the cosmological loose ends would be fixed, and eventually the time when all faithful members would receive the blessings they didn’t have access to in this life. BRM also famously procrastinated the extension of the priesthood to black men untill the millennium.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 13, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  7. Nice, Rachael.

    The Joanna Southcott postscript is almost as fascinating as the story itself. Her followers still have the box, but the prophecy requires that Church of England officials are the ones who are supposed to study Southcott’s prophecies and then open it. Southcottians have been pushing for this since before WWI and have done all kinds of public advertising in Britain over twentieth century. But the C of E wants nothing to do with it.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 13, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  8. Kristine, whenever you comment, you make wish that the blog had a “like” button.

    Comment by Amanda — August 13, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  9. Thanks, all. Amanda, Ardis, Ryan, etc.- I’ve been meaning to expand on the Southcott/Smith connection ever since I delved into this last summer. Ardis, I’d love to work with you on the sources you’re uncovering– I think there are lots of interesting connections that could loop this Mormon discussion in with broader academic/religous conversations. I find the Southcott episode, and its sporadic surges (like the billboard campaign in the 70s) really fascinating.

    Comment by Rachael — August 13, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

  10. Rachael, I’ll pull out the references I’ve found you can get my email address from my signature link, or from behind the scenes at JI. I can’t get yours, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 13, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  11. Rachael, You should visit the House of David museum in Michigan. It’s amazing,and a must see for anyone interested in Southcott!

    Comment by Amanda — August 13, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

  12. Interesting idea, J. Stapley– yes, the millennium seems to be a holding ground for many not-yet-fulfilled (or fulfillable?) promises. The interesting thing with the sealed portion is that the common scriptural mandate seems to establish that only after you knock/ask do you receive; but if people are taught not to ask (either because there is no point [millennial timetable] or because they aren’t ready) we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot as far as that objective goes…

    Comment by Rachael — August 13, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  13. Great fun, Rachael.

    Comment by WVS — August 13, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

  14. the sealed and/or unrevealed revelation. no wonder apocalyptic has such a long shelf life!

    looking forward to the article.

    Comment by g.wesley — August 13, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

  15. Echoing Ardis’ earlier comment, the canon does not seem to me to be regarded by leaders or the general membership as closed. The manifesto, Section 138, and the Priesthood Declaration, not to mention other more recent proclamations, seem ample examples. We’ve certainly seen an absence of ancient scripture revealed anew, which would be the classification of the sealed portion.

    But what a thought-provoking post, Rachael! I look forward to the article.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 13, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  16. Thanks, Nate R. Yes, I think it’s hard to measure what Ardis calls a “latent” openness or anticipation of records– but I think the expectation of the early Saints for many more physical records from the lost tribes, the sealed portion, and other peoples (like 2 Ne 29 describes) is far removed from an occasional declaration every 60 years; I think the concept of additional actual canon, and not just statements, is foreign to most members, not just latent. That’s, of course, my opinion, and hard to measure.

    Comment by Rachael — August 14, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  17. Ardis, I’m trying to figure out this email technicality– thanks for being willing to share the sources! I’ll get in touch soon via email

    Comment by Rachael — August 14, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

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