Friday, June 24, 2016

Joseph Smith, Palatiah Brown, and Doctrinal Speculation

Editor's note: This is number 33 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne, sharing quotes from his book, Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth. You can read the introductory post here. The first part of each post is a new introduction, placing the quotes in context with contemporary issues. The quotes that then follow are from the Determining Doctrine book, which contains many quotes that are not readily available elsewhere or are exclusive to the book.

Pelatiah Brown was a contemporary of Joseph Smith’s and a doctrinal speculator. His experience with preaching about the beasts mentioned in the book of Revelation and the Prophet’s forgiving comments regarding those public speculations have become perhaps the foremost excuse used by some liberals and dissidents for proclaiming or teaching unapproved, unorthodox, and false doctrine. Because of this, the incident is recounted here in full, followed by comment on it from some modern Church leaders and scholars. Also given is an official doctrinal directive from Joseph Smith in which he did not display such an abundance of toleration toward the teaching of false or suspect/speculative doctrine as some people have used the Pelatiah Brown incident to justify. From Determining Doctrine:

Joseph Smith:

            The subject I intend to speak upon this morning is one that I have seldom touched upon since I commenced my ministry in the Church. It is a subject of great speculation, as well amongst the elders of this Church, as amongst the divines of the day: it is in relation to the beasts spoken of by John the Revelator. I have seldom spoken from the revelations; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and difference of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.

            It is not very essential for the elders to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts, and heads and horns, and other figures made use of in the revelations; still, it may be necessary, to prevent contention and division and do away with suspense. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and correct knowledge is necessary to cast out that spirit.

            The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention. Knowledge does away with darkness, suspense and doubt; for these cannot exist where knowledge is.

            There is no pain so awful as that of suspense. This is the punishment of the wicked; their doubt, anxiety and suspense cause weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

            In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings, because he has greater knowledge; and hence he knows how to subject all other beings to Him. He has power over all.

            I will endeavor to instruct you in relation to the meaning of the beasts and figures spoken of. I should not have called up the subject had it not been for this circumstance. Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was full of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council.

            I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.

            The High Council undertook to censure and correct Elder Brown, because of his teachings in relation to the beasts. Whether they actually corrected him or not, I am a little doubtful, but don't care. Father Brown came to me to know what he should do about it. The subject particularly referred to was the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders mentioned in Rev. 5:8—"And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders fell down before the Lamb having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints."

            Father Brown has been to work and confounded all Christendom by making out that the four beasts represented the different kingdoms of God on the earth. The wise men of the day could not do anything with him, and why should we find fault? Anything to whip sectarianism, to put down priestcraft, and bring the human family to a knowledge of the truth. A club is better than no weapon for a poor man to fight with.

            Father Brown did whip sectarianism, and so far so good; but I could not help laughing at the idea of God making use of the figure of a beast to represent His kingdom on the earth, consisting of men, when He could as well have used a far more noble and consistent figure. What! the Lord make use of the figure of a creature of the brute creation to represent that which is much more noble, glorious, and important—the glories and majesty of His kingdom? By taking a lesser figure to represent a greater, you missed it that time, old gentleman; but the sectarians did not know enough to detect you. (History of The Church 5:339-40.)

J. Reuben Clark:

            Furthermore, at times even those not members of the General Authorities are said to have been heard to declare their own views on various matters concerning which no official view or declaration has been made by the mouthpiece of the Lord, sometimes with an assured certainty that might deceive the uninformed and unwary. The experience of Pelatiah Brown in the days of the Prophet is an illustration of this general principle. (As quoted in Brent L. Top, Larry E. Dahl, and Walter D. Bowen, Follow the Living Prophets [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993], 232-33.)

Harold B. Lee:

            Some people get impatient because the Lord hasn’t revealed more than he has. Unmindful of the fact that he already has revealed more than we are able to digest, in most cases. There is an interesting story in Church History, told by the Prophet Joseph Smith, about a man by the name of Pelatiah Brown. Pelatiah Brown was one of these men that had made a great study about the Book of Revelation and about the meaning of the beasts. He had a faculty for straining at explanations of obscure teachings. And they thought to handle him for his fellowship because his interpretations did not agree with some of the members of the High Council. Well, the Prophet shielded him from that, “Oh,” the Prophet said, “leave Brother Brown alone, he has been able to confound the sectarians by what he says and anything to whip the sectarians and put down priestcraft.” (“But Arise and Stand Upon Thy Feet—and I Will Speak with Thee,” Address to the Brigham Young University Studentbody, February 7, 1955, 10-11.)

Hugh Nibley:

            Right from the first we had crazy ideas, but we don't preach them. Joseph said you do not do that. When old Brother Brown was brought up before the High Council, Joseph stated the case:

            I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. It don’t prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine. The High Council undertook to censure and correct Br. Brown because of his teachings in relation to the beasts [in Revelation], and he came to me to know what he should do about it.

            Joseph Smith said that Brother Brown's teachings were absolutely ridiculous. He could not keep from laughing at his ideas. But Brother Brown had a right to them, and the elders shouldn't attack Joseph for defending him. He said, "I . . . qualify my declaration which I am about to make so that the young Elders who know so much may not rise up and choke me like hornets." The elders liked to dictate doctrine to each other, and he didn't reserve to himself even the mysteries. He said, "There is no salvation in believing an evil report against our neighbor [instead of criticizing]—I advise all to go on to perfection and search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness."

            "It has always been my province to dig up hidden mysteries—new things—for my hearers." "I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief." But let us always bear in mind that a mystery, by definition, is something that you keep to yourself; the Greek muo means "to shut up." A mystery is something you've been initiated into, and you don't convey that to the general public. (Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks, ed. [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., and FARMS, 1994], 413.)

Bruce R. McConkie:

            Joseph Smith tells us of an experience he had with a man by the name of Brown in the early days. This man was taken before the high council for teaching false doctrine. He had been explaining the beasts in the Book of Revelation. And he came to the Prophet, and the Prophet, with him present in the congregation, then preached a sermon on the subject, and in fact told us what the beasts mean. In the sermon he said:

            “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (History of the Church, 5:340.)

            That statement applies to [false] doctrines of the lesser sort. If you err in some doctrines, and I have, and all of us have, what we want to do is get the further light and knowledge that we ought to receive and get our souls in tune and clarify our thinking. Now, obviously, if you preach one of these great basic doctrines and it is false, and you adhere to it, you will lose your soul. (Mark L. McConkie, ed., Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons & Writings of Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989], 339.)

Joseph Smith

            Say to the brothers Hulet and to all others, that the Lord never authorized them to say that the devil, his angels or the sons of perdition, should ever be restored; for their fate of destiny was not revealed to man, is not revealed, nor ever shall be revealed, save to those who are made partakers thereof: consequently those who teach this doctrine, have not received it of the Spirit of the Lord. Truly Brother Oliver declared it to be the doctrine of devils. We therefore command that this doctrine be taught no more in Zion. We sanction the decision of the Bishop and his council, in relation to this doctrine being a bar to communion. (History of The Church 1:366.)

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