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Relationship to Section 128. The relationship of Verses 128:1-5 to the rest of Section 128 is discussed at D&C 128.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Verses 128:1-5 include:
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- D&C 128:1. Much of this verse might be chalked up to formality, perhaps in the wake of Joseph's increasingly heavy involvement with legal procedures during the Missouri and Illinois experiences (he was, of course, away from the saints precisely because of legal efforts to extradite him to Missouri to face charges). Some of the formal and legal language that creeps into this revelation (as a whole and not just in this first verse) is quite instructive: the particularity of the instructions Joseph is giving reflect his increasing awareness of how public and political the institution of the Church necessarily is. But the wording is still richer if it is taken more immediately within the revelation. For example: "As I stated to you in my letter before I left my place...." Joseph offers in just these opening words a rather technical introduction to the instructions he is about to give. The former revelation (D&C 127) becomes a statement, something not only fixed or unchangeable (as a statement it is something static), but something authoritative or official (as a statement it is also something with an official status). In short, the former revelation, as stated, becomes a function of the state, fixes or establishes a state of affairs, both in the Church and in the world. And the statement is not only signed ("As I stated") but dated ("before I left my place") and located spatially ("my place"). The revelation, whatever its canonical status, becomes in the midst of all of these linguistic cues somehow binding. That such language permeates a revelation that deals specifically with how it is that the priesthood is connected with the act of writing (cf. especially verse 9) is certainly not something to be ignored. What all of this amounts to will, of course, still have to be worked out.
- The historical situation bears on the content of the revelation as well. For example, Joseph seems to connect his being "pursued by [his] enemies" with the fact that "the subject of baptism for the dead" was on his mind. Perhaps this is especially suggested by the strong language of this phrase: "and press itself upon my feelings the strongest." Whatever this might mean, it seems clear that there is some connection between his being in hiding and this question of baptism for the dead. Perhaps a first way of approaching this apparent connection is to recognize the sheer loneliness of Joseph's situation, and how opposed this loneliness must have seemed to the doctrines of eternally binding people together. At the very least, there seems to be some reason to recognize the situation as connected with the doctrine pressed upon him.
- Another clue that comes out of this verse is the fact that Joseph had promised to discuss "many subjects," though only this one seems to be what he wrote of. Joseph seems to have understood the time of exile he was facing as an opportunity to seek direct revelation and to communicate it to the saints, as, that is, a time of rest from the strenuous duties of his office at the time. Joseph was often trying to set up programs at the time to allow him more opportunity to "translate" and receive further revelations. He seems to have understood this period of time to be just such an opportunity. It is curious, then, that Joseph seems to have been entirely taken up with only this one subject. A few interesting points arise here. All of Joseph's study, translation, and so forth seems to have pointed, at the time, to this one question. Moreover, he seems to have seen this doctrine as embracing all others, that (especially by the end of this section) this single doctrine (which turns out essentially to be the doctrine of gathering things together in one) gathered everything he had experienced and/or taught in one. One should ask to what extent Joseph's being away from the scattering concerns of daily life with the Saints shaped this singular focus. At the very least, it can be said that more should certainly be read into this first verse than is usually done.
- The manner in which Joseph describes his interest in baptism for the dead is also interesting: "that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feeling." In both expressions, Joseph puts himself grammatically in the objective case (which is not even to mention the military spirit of the phrase, "occupy my mind"!). It seems this is not something he is merely choosing to think about; rather, he is occupied and pressed to think about these things, both in his mind and his feelings. Is this because Joseph had hitherto been overlooking something? Is this because Joseph might otherwise be inclined to think about something else? Or is this just the means by which inspiration typically worked for Joseph? At any rate, it is perhaps somewhat surprising to find such "subjective" language in a verse that can also be said to be so formal, so official, so objective. This strange interweaving of objectivity and subjectivity deserves careful interpretation: might it not suggest that the common distinction between these two "categories" should be rethought (if not canceled entirely)?
- D&C 128:2. Most of this verse simply refers back to D&C 127. There is, however, an interesting word that makes this verse unique: "views." Joseph here describes what he is about to write as his "few additional views." That he puts it this way seems to emphasize the fact that he had received the revelation in the previous section (which is not without its "thus saith the Lord" authority) that he now simply proceeds to explore. This section should probably be understood to be Joseph's incredibly inspired thinking through of the revelation of section 127.
- Joseph's use of the word certify here also seems interesting. The KJV uses "certify" for Greek and Hebrew words that generally mean "to make known" (cf. 2 Sam 15:28, dbr = "to say" ; Ezra 4:14, 16; Ezra 5:10; Ezra 7:24, yda = "to know or make known"; Esth 2:22, `mr = "to say"; Gal 1:11, gnorizo = "to make known"). This generally agrees with Webster's 1828 definition, "to testify to in writing." The word used here puts Joseph's act of writing in a relation with the process of recording and witnessing that he goes on to describe. That is, Joseph's act of writing to the Church seems semantically (and typologically?) related to the recording and witnessing that pertains to baptism of the dead. Though not a direct synonym to "record" or "witness," certify has similar forensic and communicative connotations. The word "certify" will be used, curiously, three more times in the next two verses.
- D&C 128:3. Joseph begins with a difficulty imposed by the previous revelation: to have a single recorder who takes care of all the records of these ordinances would be almost impossible. So the prophet suggests a solution: several recorders doing the work, whose records, in the next verse, will be gathered together by a general recorder. Much of this verse, however, is dedicated to the absolute precision of the records to be kept. The real crux of this issue arises only with verse 5.
- The wording of this verse seems to emphasize the testifying role role that the recorder is to play. Not only is he to jot down the facts that occur, but he is to certify that he has seen "with his eyes, and heard with his ears." The naming of the three individuals as witness also seems to underscore this testifying-witnessing aspect of the recording process. Following Joseph's use of the term certify about himself in verse 2, this testifying-witnessing aspect of the recording-certifying process suggests an implicit connection between the recording of baptisms for the dead and the letter that Joseph is writing, especially in light of the more general principle of witnesses that is cited at the end of this verse (cf. Deut 17:6; Deut 19:15; Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28; D&C 6:28).
- D&C 128:4. Beyond the several wards' recorders, Joseph suggests a "general recorder," to whom the several records are to be given. The general recorder can then, by the due precision with which the several records have been made, enter them into a single "general church book" in a way that they "shall be just as holy, and shall answer the ordinance just the same as if he had seen with his eyes and heard with his ears, and made a record of the same." The point seems to be one of transfer: this order is a way of translating the records from so many books to one book.
- The last sentence of this verse describes a substitution mechanism that will be doubled in the ordinance of baptism for the dead: "just the same as if . . . ." When judgment out of the book of life is described later, starting verse 6, then the records being kept will be given a very important role—a role that ultimately seems to undermine the personal possessive pronoun their in the phrase "their works." The substitutionary aspect of the records, then, seems intimately tied to the sealing power which binds the fathers and children, the heavens and earth, etc.
- D&C 128:5. With verse 5, what seems a rather simple, mundane situation suddenly grows rather complex. This business of so many books being transfered into the one book seems to be something far more profound and far more eternal than would at first appear, "by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world." The implication seems to be that this pattern of connecting so many books and so many recorders with a central book and a central recorder has something to do with something heavenly, in fact, with something done in the pre-mortal council. That Joseph would set up this system in parallel to the heavenly version is specifically "to answer the will of God," and Joseph seems to be quite adamant on this point.
- But things get more complicated still when all of this draws on the final phrase: the "ordinance and preparation" before the foundation of the world has something to do with "the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel." And here things get rather difficult to unravel. At the very least, reduced to the absolutely undeniable, this much is clear: some pre-mortal ordinance/preparation had something to do with joining the many together in the one, and all of this had something to do with saving those who die "without a knowledge of the gospel."
- The verse is phrased rather ambiguously so that it might be interpreted in a hundred different ways--perhaps each interpretation picking up on a different thread in Joseph's public discourses of the time. It seems there was some sort of pre-mortal ordinance about gathering many in one that had something to do with saving the those who die without a knowledge of the gospel.
- Later in this section, salvation and judgment will be talked about in terms of works. However, in this verse, salvation is juxtaposed with "knowledge of the gospel," not works. Why is "knowledge of the gospel" mentioned here, rather than, say, priesthood authority?
- We might surmise that those who died without a knowledge of the gospel did not do works such that it is possible to be saved. Works in later verses, then, might be taken to refer either to "good works" quite generally or, more specifically, to the ordinance of baptism. The way in which this verse is read, it seems, will depend on how we understand the relationship between baptism and salvation. If, on the one hand, baptism is taken as an ordinance which puts us into a covenantal relationship with Christ (i.e. knowing Christ), and Christ's righteousness then becomes a part of us, then "works" in subsequent verses might be taken quite generally, and baptism, on this reading, becomes the consummate symbol/ordinance of covenantal relationship with Christ through which his righteousness becomes our righteousness. On the other hand, if baptism is taken as an ordinance that is required because it washes us clean in some metaphysical sense (by the power of the atonement), then "works" in subsequent verses might be taken as referring to salvific ordinances. Whether either of these readings conforms with the rest of this section, as well as to Joseph's understanding of salvation and baptism more generally, requires more careful consideration.
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Prompts for further study
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- D&C 128:5. What does it mean that baptism for the dead was "ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world" (v.5)? Does that mean that it existed, and was perhaps even performed, before Adam was even baptized?
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