A Prophetic Event
The Twenty-fourth of July is the day on which the Pioneers entered this valley. How do we tie them up with the ancient church? Very easily. The early Christians thought of themselves individually and collectively as strangers and pilgrims, outcasts from the world, seekers for a promised land. Collectively the churches describe themselves as "sojourning" in this or that place. One of the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament is the so-called First Clement, which begins, "The Church of God sojourning at Rome to the Church of God sojourning in Corinth," where the word for "sojourning" is the familiar and classical expression to denote a stay or visit in a place where one does not regularly belong: "here we have no continuing city" (Hebrews 13:14). The earliest Christian literature is full of this motif, which soon disappears as the church settles down and changes its nature. The passage cited, for example, is paraphrased in the opening sentences of the famous Pastor of Hermas, where the angel says, "Your city is far from this city; . . . why do you seek to own lands and build buildings here?"
The faithful have always compared themselves to Abraham who, "when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles [tents] with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8—10).
Some of the earliest Christian sects, like the Mandaeans, thought of themselves as wanderers whose search for paradise began the day Adam was put out of Eden, he being the arch pilgrim and stranger on the earth, seeking ever to get back to the presence of the Lord. In this they seem to be following the teaching and example of ancient Jewish sects, such as the Rekhabites and those sectaries whose affairs and teachings in the centuries before the time of Christ have been so wonderfully brought to light of recent years with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is plain from these scrolls that certain particularly pious and devout Jews fled from the wicked society of a nation which they felt had ceased to observe the law in its fulness or in righteousness, going forth to live in the desert in imitation of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who "sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles."1 Nothing is more natural than that the modern Saints in their wanderings and sufferings should compare themselves to the ancients as the early Christians themselves did. This has been a popular bit of self-dramatization among Christians of every age, but in the case of the modern Saints it has a peculiar validity.
This whole question of religious parallels is a very challenging and significant one. It meets us everywhere in the history of the restored Church. To take the present theme, for example: is not the national epic of the pagan Romans concerned with the wanderings of a very religous man, Pius Aeneas, in search of his land of promise? Is not his Greek counterpart (and literary prototype) the good and noble Odysseus, who wanders a stranger and an outcast through the world until by divine aid he regains his rightful kingdom? In the nineteenth century, scholars began pointing to ubiquitous parallels in religion and folklore and acting as if they were very damaging to any claims of revealed religion. Eduard Meyer, for example, one of the profoundest and best informed of all the searchers after such resemblances, pointed out that there are definite parallels between Joseph Smith's account of his first vision and that in the New Testament of the vision beheld by the three Apostles on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Some scholars viewed that as a very suspicious circumstance, but is it any more suspicious than the close resemblance between the Transfiguration, as it is called, and the story of Moses on Sinai? In both instances we read of the ascent of a mountain, a dazzling light, a cloud, the transfigured countenance, the terror of the beholders, a holy conversation in which two of the conversants were the same, Moses and the Lord. Obviously the New Testament account is simply a revamping of the story of Moses on the mountain. But why should it be? Men change very little and God not at all: why should their dealings with each other not follow a consistent pattern instead of complying with the passing fads of the scholars? The schools of Wellhausen and Gressmann, though diametrically opposed, were each convinced that it had blasted the supernatural element out of religion forever by demonstrating that there were everywhere in the ancient world close ritual parallels to the crucifixion. The now well-known Year Drama, a ritual found throughout the whole world, presents everywhere, though with a great variety of local variations, substantially the same ritual pattern: the humiliation and sacrifice of the king, his rising from the tomb after three days to be proclaimed as the god victorious over death and worthy to rule forever.
But what do such parallels prove? Long before the scholars became aware of them, Jews and early Christians knew all about them and saw in them not a refutation but a convincing support of the claims of true religion. In the Clementine writings as in the Jewish Apocrypha, we read how the priesthood of God and its rites and ordinances have been deliberately imitated in every age of the world, following the example first set by Ham, who tried to steal the ordinances and insignia and used them without authority in setting up the rule of priest-kings in the world. Jewish and Christian observers thought they could trace the diffusion of this imitation priesthood from a single center, and that is precisely the point to which modern comparative studies seem to be bringing us.2 But whether or not we choose to be convinced by the growing prestige and authority of the diffusionist school, it is quite plain that the ties which seem to exist among all the religions of antiquity may be interpreted as vindicating as well as condemning the religion of the Bible. Time and again it is pointed out in the New Testament that this or that episode in the life of the Savior is the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy and that what was done in one dispensation had been foreshadowed in another. The whole eschatological pattern of history which is so extremely prominent in Jewish and Christian apocryphal writing calls for the periodic repetition of certain characteristic events—a "visitation," as it was called, from heaven; the making of a covenant; the corruption and the wickedness of men, leading to the breaking of the covenant; the bondage of sin, then the coming of a prophet with a call to repentance; the making of a new covenant; and so around the cycle.3
Now the Twenty-fourth of July gives us Israel in the desert again and the entering of the promised land. The parallels between the history of the restored Church and the doings of the ancients are so numerous and striking that even enemies of the Church have pointed them out again and again—what writer has not compared Brigham Young to Moses, for example? But I think in the case of the Latter-day Saints these resemblances have an extraordinary force, and that, for two main reasons: (1) they are not intentional and, (2) they actually are the fulfillment of modern-day prophecy. The history of Christianity has been marked by many and determined attempts by individuals and groups to imitate the example of ancient Israel. I have been to camp meetings of some denominations deliberately designed to resemble the doings of the camp of Israel in the wilderness. The medieval churchmen insisted that all the episodes in the history of Israel even to the slightest detail were allegorical foreshadowings of the institutions and practices of their own church. That they found the imitation not wholly convincing is implied by their great envy of the Jews, an envy which is very apparent in such writers as Ambrose and Optatus. Origen says a remarkable thing on this point: "Had God so willed that the Jews had not broken the law and slain the prophets and Jesus we would by now have seen the type and model of that heavenly city which Plato sought to describe." 4 But it never occurs to him that the Christians might be authorized to set up that city—that first becomes a fashionable doctrine in the fourth century. For the early Christian, the Jews are still the people of the promise. 5
But conscious imitation of the sufferings and wanderings of Israel and the Saints has never been in the Mormon program. They have never been imitators: they have not needed to be. Nothing is more striking in the history of the Latter-day Saints than the way in which they were constantly pushed and driven around entirely against their own will. It was not their idea to be driven from place to place, and wherever they settled they sought with all their might to establish a permanent order. But all along, God had other plans, and the whole history of the church is his doing. It is easy enough to say in retrospect that whatever happened was God's will, but you can always tell the chosen people because in their case, "the Lord doeth nothing save he revealeth his will to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7), and all along, these people enjoyed prophetic guidance which, like the Children of Israel, they often failed to heed. In the case of Kirtland, Benjamin F. Johnson writes: "The Revelation in which God had given but five years of safety in Kirtland for the Saints . . . had been forgotten, and all appeared to feel that Kirtland was to become and remain a great center of business and religious interest for the future. But the Lord had other and greater purposes in view, one of which seemed to be to show us the weakness of human wisdom and folly of our idolatry, by bringing us to see our idols crumble in our hands." 6 Happy is the man whom God correcteth! The people had no intention of fulfilling the five-year prophecy, but it was fulfilled to the letter.
As in Kirtland, so in Missouri and Nauvoo: the people built for permanence, tired of their wanderings and tribulations, while the Lord had other plans, plans which he had clearly announced by the voice of the Prophet. Away back in March, 1831, God had given to men a marvelous revelation setting forth the divine economy of the latter days. That revelation concludes with the announcement of three great historical events which must transpire before the Lord comes again: "But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose. Zion shall flourish upon the hills and rejoice upon the mountains, and shall be assembled together unto the place which I have appointed" (D&C 49:24—25). This is the language of prophecy, but there is nothing mystical or obscure about it. The members of the Christian church and those pretending to be so have at all times called themselves Israel, but not Jacob. That name is reserved for the Jews, and the consultation of a good Bible commentary will show that it is bound intimately to Palestine, whereas Israel refers to the people of the later covenant wherever they are: Israel kata pneuma, the earliest Christians called themselves, "spiritual Israel." Jacob was Israel's name before he wrestled with the Lord and received his new covenant. Jacob flourishing in the wilderness is the Jews prospering in their desert places, of that there has never been any doubt in the minds of Latter-day Saints. Nor can there be the slightest doubt what is meant by the Lamanites blossoming as the rose. We all know what the Lamanites are, and the familiar expression from Isaiah 35:1, that the desert shall rejoice and blossom, emphasizes not only a joyful but a totally paradoxical and unexpected event: the dead desert coming to life. Lastly, Zion has been from the very first the familiar code word, so to speak, designating the restored Church. And here we are told that "Zion shall flourish upon the hills and rejoice upon the mountains, and shall be assembled together unto the place which I have appointed." Before the Church was a year old, the Lord announced that he had appointed a place of gathering upon the hills and the mountains. This could not possibly have been any place in the Middle West, and the Prophet knew it. There is ample indication that he knew all along that the Saints would not have rest in Jackson County, however determined they were to have it.
But what we wish to point out is the marvelous sweep and consequence of the prophecy. It would have been hard in 1831 to pick out among all the people of the world three less likely candidates for earthly glory than the Jews, the Indians, and the Mormons. The first named, after centuries of steady persecution, had still to face their greatest trials. Compared to the great slaughterings that were to come, the centuries of torment and danger they had been through were but a rough sort of heckling. In 1831 the Indians, though long in the decline, still held the greater part of the continent, which they were presently to lose rapidly and catastrophically; a hundred years of steady defeat lay ahead of them, ending in near annihilation. The restored Church, less than a year old, had not yet, for all its hardships, learned what persecution could really be. Almost a century of bitter, unrelenting, and often violent opposition lay ahead of it. What a sorry trio! Yet before the Lord should come again these three were to flourish, to blossom, and to rejoice. Somehow the fortunes of all three were to move together and that not by any collusion between them or any plan of coordination among men, but purely by the marvelous power of God. With him alone lay the plan and the power to bring it about.
There is a saying of George Albert Smith, grandfather of the late President Smith, to the effect that the Saints came west of their own free will because they were forced to. That has always been the story. The saints have never been free to plan their own future, because the Lord has done it for them, usually to their extreme discomfort and always to their great advantage. Untold thousands have fallen by the wayside because of this constant testing. After Kirtland there was hardly a summer patriot left in the Church, but the testing went right on, and those who survived the following decade firm and unshaken were truly the very elect. Yet other great trials lay ahead—the crossing of the plains and the settling of the valleys. At every stage they left behind them a considerable population of weaker souls who, sometimes ostentatiously and sometimes quietly, left the Church in hopes of enjoying the riches of new land in safety and security. The little companies that came down the East bench in the ensuing decades had all been tried seven times seven in the fire. The hardships of the journey were the least of the hardships most of them had to face, and what they stood to gain in this world was nothing compared with the opportunities they left behind. The entrance of the Saints into Salt Lake Valley 107 years ago was one of the great moments in world history. It was that moment at which the assembly upon the hills and the mountains began at a place which the Lord had appointed from the beginning. It was the beginning of the final act of what we know as world history. It was a vindication of the prophets ancient and modern. It is a day of days to be remembered.
1. André Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Preliminary Survey (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 61ff.
2. For a summary of the whole question, Fitz Roy Raglan, The Origin of Religion (London: Watts, 1949).
3. The best-known general treatment of the much-treated subject is Hermann Gunkel, Zum Religionsgeschichtlichen Verständnis des neuen Testaments, 3rd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1910).
4. Origen, Contra Celsum V, 43, in PG 9:1249.
5. Thus, I Clement 31 and 41; Romans 11:2.
6. Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life's Review (Independence: Zion's, 1947), 27.