[Continued from Part I]
I sincerely appreciate the three respondents participating in this forum. I’m sure all the readers will agree that all three portions are well-written and enlightening.
Although these three are well-known around the bloggernacle, here are brief introductions: Robin Jensen is an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, recently received his second master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and his name can be found on the cover of the recent Revelations and Translations vol. 1. Samuel Brown is currently an Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and Division Associate, Medical Ethics and Humanities, University of Utah. Jordan Watkins, theoretically a contributor here at JI, is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Robin Jensen, on the document’s textual and revelatory context
I approach the document ?A Sample of Pure Language? found in the manuscript revelation volume ?A Book of Commandments and Revelations? with many questions about its text and context and leave with most still unanswered. But I believe that establishing what we know and don?t know about the creation and history behind a document is critical to understanding the content and meaning of that document. Like many early manuscripts of Joseph Smith?s sacred texts, ?Pure Language? was created with virtually no historical, theological, or compositional context. We?re only provided with the statement ?given by Joseph the Seer as copied by Br Johnson?. It?s easy (though in a few rare cases wrong) to assume that all revelatory texts were created solely by JS, and therefore this statement is useful in tying this text to JS. Many other of Smith?s dictated revelatory texts are richly contextualized due, in large part, to the background associated with those texts when they were first published or especially when they were copied into the 1838?1856 history (the manuscript history). Because ?Pure Language? was not perpetuated in print or the various public histories during JS?s lifetime, reminiscences from eyewitnesses could not be linked to this text. We are left with the short introduction and the text itself.
If the sporadic chronology of the revelations found in ?A Book of Commandments and Revelations? can be trusted, ?Pure Language? was originally created sometime in the beginning of 1832, but we have no explicit date from the manuscript. Except for in a few cases, ?A Book of Commandments and Revelations? is consistently chronological, until it was taken to Missouri where Whitmer received and copied texts into the volume as they came from Ohio, sometimes widely out of chronological order. This is the case with ?Pure Language?; the document was initially created (likely) in Ohio, sent to Missouri, and then copied into the volume, which was maintained in Missouri by John Whitmer. The dates of the revelatory texts surrounding ?Pure Language? are clustered in late 1831 and early 1832, but in no semblance of chronological order. The immediate texts surrounding ?Pure Language? are March 1832 texts, hinting that it is dated ?circa March 1832?. Though he copied the text into the volume, John Whitmer was not present at the creation of the document in Ohio and therefore would not know anything more to add as context as he had done with earlier texts copied into the volume. Textual evidence indicates that this text and the text immediately preceding it (present-day Doctrine and Covenants 77) were copied into the book at the same time, perhaps indicating that they were sent to Missouri in the same letter, which may hint that the two texts were created at the same time period (note: that is an assumption based on an assumption and therefore is rife with difficulties). That other versions of ?Pure Language? circulated is proven by a letter from William W. Phelps to his wife Sally in 1835, which also contains elements of ?Pure Language?, but no other manuscript appearing to be the original document, or other early document, is extant. All of the above is to say that little is known about the textual context of the document either explicit or implicit.
The Question and Answer format of ?Pure Language? is only rarely seen in other early revelatory manuscripts. We understand that many of the revelations or commandments of Joseph Smith were dialogic. But the vast majority of revelation written texts were originally one sided?that is, divine answers to unrecorded questions from Smith or others. Questions were spoken and generally understood when the answer was dictated, but only the answer was captured on paper. ?Pure Language,? along with what is now known as Section 77 (which immediately precedes ?Pure Language? in ?A Book of Commandments and Revelations?) and 113, were recorded with both the questions and the answers. One common characteristic of these three Q&A formatted texts is that they were never published during JS?s lifetime, which may indicate that he felt they were of a different type of revelation or teaching. (Just because a text has religious elements and it was written down doesn?t mean it was a ?revelation? in the early saints? understanding.) Texts with similarly short answers to presumably short questions (though not written) are found in current section 130 and 131 (which were also not canonized during JS?s lifetime), leading me to wonder if the continuity of this type of revelatory teaching was maintained longer throughout JS?s life than the standard revelatory texts which, for the most part, ended in the mid-1830s. One thing, however, seems clear: ?Pure Language? is not easily placed among standard revelation texts and is therefore worthy of our careful study.
Samuel Brown, on the document’s context within Joseph Smith’s quest for pure language
The curse of the Tower of Babel on the Plain of Shinar (Gen. 11) haunted Joseph Smith. In a complex interaction apparently meant to protect the gods against human power, Yahweh ruptured forever humanity?s once pure language. In this primordial language Adam had named the animal creation (Gen. 2:19-20) and written a Book of Remembrance (Moses 6), a sort of archetype for scripture. The Babel narrative, meant to explain the diversity of human languages, to Smith described the alienation at the core of human existence. Pure existence, pure communion, was inaccessible via human language?our access to such existence was mediated, poorly, by language. Smith did not believe in the Platonic forms, rather he displayed a yearning for the unmediated communication that occurred among God, Eve, and Adam in humanity?s first home.
Smith took on the curse of Babel in a variety of ways in his early career. He translated ?reformed? hieroglyphs on gold plates, interpreted the charismatic practice of glossolalia as mystical access to the Adamic pure language, undertook a New Translation of the Authorized Protestant Bible, and decoded the mystical truths hidden behind Egyptian hieroglyphics. When he revealed the sample of pure language in 1832, Smith was actively grappling with the treachery of English as recorded in the Authorized Bible. Through his New Translation Smith was attempting to liberate Scripture itself from the confines of cursed human language. The prospect of actually controlling the pure language of Adam humanized the Apocalypse and empowered the LDS believer. Smith would never set aside this quest to teach his followers this language beyond human language.
*These paragraphs summarize the arguments of Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,? Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 78, no. 1 (March 2009): 26?65, which also contextualizes the quest for pure language in antebellum intellectual culture.
Jordan Watkins, on the document’s context within early Mormon theology
?Pure Language? can be interpreted in a number of ways, offering a range of theological possibilities. Though primarily evidencing his persistent quest to uncover a prelapsarian ?pure language,? this document also reflects Joseph Smith?s early conception of the relationship between and natures of deity and humanity. ?Pure Language? identifies God as ?the being which made all things in all its parts,? and the Son of God as ?the greatest of all the parts of Awman.? If ?parts? signifies ?creations,? then the Son of God exists as the greatest of all the creations of God, and, combined with the absence of the Holy Ghost in the text, this interpretation recalls the Arian position. If interpreted literally?the Son is part of God?the document seems to reflect a kind of modalism or binatarianism. If the text can be understood to define ?the human family? as literally ?the greatest parts of Awman,? then the resulting theology reflects a monistic and corresponding panentheistic position akin to Emerson?s contemporaneous views. One might argue that the definition of the ?children of men? should be read to include ?Sons,? in which case humans become ?the greatest parts of Awman Sons,? but it seems reasonable to suggest that the last three words in this answer serve as review. In other words, I would describe Smith as explaining, ?we have now defined and explained the terms Sons Awman and Son Awman, now onto angels.? This interpretation, though, is further complicated if applied to the last answer. If the last five words serve as review??Sons Awmen, Son Awmen, Awman??then either ?Ministering servants? or ?Sons Awmen? become ?the greatest part of Awman Son,? suggesting, perhaps, that either the Son of God created Angels or humans, or that Angels or humans are literally ?the greatest part of? the Son of God. The latter interpretation still suggests a theological monism and panentheism, but also implies a hierarchical structure. In this interpretation, ?Pure Language? rejects creation ex nihilo, and though it does not necessarily eliminate the ontological divide between the human family and God, it certainly reconceptualizes the traditional Christian view of divine distance. I am leery of imposing what may be a later ideology on ?Pure Language,? but viewed in light of the development of early Mormon theology the document seems to contain ideas that became central to Mormon conceptions of theosis, best traced in the writings of Parley P. Pratt.
Gauging the theological impact and use of ?Pure Language? presents fewer difficulties than analyzing the text as a reflection of Smith?s early theology. Probably very few contemporaries saw or knew of the revelation, and fewer deemed the text theologically significant. Six years later, however, in what seems to be the first noncanonical LDS publication containing an idea of theosis, Parley P. Pratt used rhetoric similar to ?Pure Language.? Pratt explained that God possessed all truth, and thus contained all knowledge, which made him the all-powerful God. According to Pratt, through the Spirit, God?s followers could also obtain all truth, and become equal with God in knowledge and power. In this process, Pratt wrote, ?the redeemed return to the fountain, and become part of the great all, from which they eminated.? In Pratt?s 1838 view, humans ?eminated? from God, and thus experienced an apparent spatial separation in creation, but through redemption, they could return and become part of God. Pratt rarely, if ever again, used this language in formulating his conception of theosis. More significantly, in 1855 Orson Pratt cited ?Pure Language,? and interpreted and used it in light of his particular, and increasingly unpopular, view of the Great God. With respect to Sons Ahman, Orson concluded that ?these intelligent beings are all parts of God, and that those who have the most of the parts of God are the greatest?[and] wherever a great amount of this intelligent Spirit exists, there is a great amount or proportion of God, which may grow and increase until there is a fulness of this Spirit, and then there is a fulness of God.? By this point Orson had equated the Holy Spirit, which he conceived of as an inexhaustible amount of intelligent particles existing throughout the universe, with the Great God. Ahman, for Pratt, was this Great God, and so, intelligences had achieved or could achieve Godhood only through interacting with, and allowing the indwelling presence of, the Holy Spirit. Orson seems to have developed his theology independent of ?Pure Language,? but he certainly felt that it vindicated his view.
It should be clear by now that I do not know what to make of ?Pure Language? as a theological reflection of early Mormon thought. Other interpretations and analyses may clarify the meaning of this text and highlight its theological significance. For now, the text seems to add to the already eclectic theology of early Mormonism and perhaps can be included in attempts to trace the development of early Mormonism?s more radical ideas.
 On Emerson?s monistic and panentheistic views, see, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 12, Natural History of Intellect, and Other Papers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904), 17, [database online]; available from http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4957107.0001.001, accessed on November 5, 2009; Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3, ed. by Ronald A. Bosco (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 125; Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2: 1836-1838, edited by Stephen E. Whicher, and Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, The Belknap Press, 1964), 17; and Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 4, ed. by Wesley T. Mott (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1992), 175.
 If the last six words serve as review and can be removed to clarify the answer?s meaning, then the text reads, ?Awman?s Ministering servants Sanctified who are sent forth from heaven to minister for or to Sons Awmen the greatest part of Awman,? in which case servants or Sons Awmen hold a similar relationship to God as does the Son of God ?the greatest of all the parts of Awman.? ?Part of Awman,? in this answer, instead of ?parts of Awman? supports the idea that these phrases should be interpreted literally. Replacing ?part? with ?creation? does not seem to fit: ?the greatest creation of Awman.? But until further textual analysis is done, and because ?Pure Language? is full of grammatical impurities, drawing any definite conclusions seems foolhardy.
 Parley P. Pratt, Mormonism unveiled: Zion?s Watchman unmasked, and its editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, exposed: truth vindicated: the Devil mad, and priestcraft in danger! By P. P. Pratt, minister of the gospel, 3d. ed. (New York: Published by O. Pratt & E. Fordham, 1838), 27.
 Orson Pratt, ?The Holy Spirit and the Godhead,? in The Essential Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 357.