Prayers and Visions in the House of the Lord
Now we come to the grand events of 1836: the dedicatory services of the House of the Lord, the solemn assembly, and the visions behind the temple veils. In a previous post, I mentioned how biblical passages greatly influenced the expectations Latter-day Saints brought to these gatherings. To summarize, they expected: (1) that a solemn assembly of elders would invite the Lord to come suddenly to his temple and perhaps invite the feast of the bridegroom/Second Coming; (2) that an endowment of power similar to Pentecost would follow, a necessary precursor for missionaries to sound the warning voice among the Gentiles/foreign nations; (3) that the Lord would come suddenly to his temple and visit the Saints. Now that the House of the Lord had completed construction, the suspense was palpable. Multiple accounts describe regular folks on pins and needles waiting for news of the dedicatory meetings.
Prayer of Dedication (D&C 109)
For the months of February and March, 1836, JS and Oliver Cowdery mostly met with the School of the Elders to study Hebrew. On Saturday, March 26, they canceled the school and instead “prepared for the dedication of the Lord’s house.” Cowdery met with JS, Sidney Rigdon, Warren Cowdery, and Warren Parrish to assist JS in writing the dedicatory prayer. Interestingly, they immediately typeset the prayer for printing a handbill and for the church’s newspaper Messenger and Advocate. It appears they wanted the attendees of the dedication to have the prayer as both a token of the event and as a ready reference for the utility of the building. The prayer was later added to the Doctrine and Covenants, becoming in the latest edition Section 109.
The following day, during the Sabbath morning, a crowd of about a thousand people came to the House of the Lord, filling it to capacity. A nearby schoolhouse was used as an overflow, and many others returned home after being promised another dedicatory session would be held. The meeting involved an over 2-hour sermon by Sidney Rigdon followed by a long series of sustainings of priesthood presidencies and leaders. They reconvened in the afternoon with more sustainings and JS then gave the dedicatory prayer, the first of a temple. This set the precedent for all other temple dedications and dedicatory prayers. Each temple has been formally dedicated by a prewritten prayer offered by a senior church leader; not until recently did the president of the church delegate this honor to someone else. However, in one respect the Kirtland dedication did not set a precedent: the audience accepted the prayer by a sustaining vote.
In the prayer, JS referred to the occasion surrounding the prayer as itself the solemn assembly; however, in other documents, a meeting of priesthood leaders on Wednesday, March 30, was described as the solemn assembly, and some evidence indicates women were upset that they had not been invited to the solemn assembly. For these reasons, some historians distinguish between the dedication and the solemn assembly. For my part, I’m persuaded by the minutes of the dedication—these contemporaneous notes repeatedly associate the features of the solemn assembly with the dedication, and the sustainings of the priesthood align with talk of Joel 1 and other plans JS had made for the solemn assembly. I think were we to ask JS and Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery about the solemn assembly, they’d link the dedication services and the washings, anointings, and Pentecostal prophesyings of the March 30 meeting all together as pertaining to the solemn assembly.
One part of the prayer draws the connections between the House of the Lord, the endowment of power, and the foreign missionary work the elders would soon undertake:
And we ask thee, holy Father, that thy servants may go forth from this house, armed with thy power, and that thy name may be upon them and thy glory be round about them, and thin[e] angels have charge over them; and from this place they may bear exceeding great and glorious tidings, in truth, unto the ends of the earth, that they may know that this is thy work, and that thou hast put forth thy hand, to fulfil that which thou has spoken by the mouths of thy prophets concerning the last days.
A curious tangent, if you’ll indulge me: JS clearly addresses God the Father in the prayer, speaking in the second-person to him; but also refers to him as “Jehovah.” This pattern appears to last until his death, since we have records in Nauvoo of JS referring to God the Father also as Elohim and also as Jehovah. The temple liturgy that later marks a clear distinction between Elohim/the Father and Jehovah/Jesus developed with Brigham Young when Brigham introduced Peter, James, and John to the endowment ceremony 18 months after JS’s death.1
Another moment in the prayer connects the priestly anointings with the endowment of power, and the endowment of power with Pentecost:
O Jehovah, have mercy upon this people, and as all men sin, forgive the transgressions of thy people, and let them be blotted out forever. Let the annointing of thy ministers be sealed upon them with power from on high: let it be fulfilled upon them as upon those on the day of Pentacost: let the gift of tongues be poured out upon thy people, even cloven tongues as of fire, and the interpretation thereof. And let thy house be filled, as with a rushing mighty wind, with thy glory.
Notice this post-endowment missiology—the intent and design of missionary work will involve apocalyptic preparation:
Put upon thy servants the testimony of the covenant, that when they go out and proclaim thy word, they may seal up the law, and prepare the hearts of thy saints for all those judgements thou art about to send, in thy wrath, upon the inhabitants of the earth.… O Lord, deliver thy people from the calamity of the wicked; enable thy servants to seal up the law and bind up the testimony, that they may be prepared against the day of burning.
Another important historical development is signaled in this prayer. Whereas the earliest mentions of building Zion suggested a highly localized format—one city of Zion to which all the righteous would gather—the prayer asks for a more universalized mode of gathering. “We ask thee to appoint unto Zion other stakes besides this one, which thou hast appointed, that the gathering of thy people may roll on in great power and majesty.” This is before Missouri expels the Saints and D&C 124 acknowledges the loss of Jackson County and Far West lands originally intended for gathering; this is before JS gives a sermon explaining that all of North and South America is Zion; and certainly well before Latter-day Saint folklore would exaggerate prophecies about returning the Jackson County one day to reclaim the land and rebuild the New Jerusalem before the Second Coming. It was very early in the Zion project that multiple stakes throughout the world would be identified as and with Zion.
Return to the Mount of Transfiguration (D&C 110)
After the House of the Lord had been dedicated and all the Saints had the chance to attend a dedicatory session, Saints began holding meetings inside. During the afternoon on Easter Sunday, a week after the first dedication session, the Saints observed the sacrament in the lower court of the House of the Lord. Then, they dropped curtains that divided the court into quarters. The First Presidency blessed and confirmed children at the pulpits behind one of the curtains, and at some point thereafter, they lowered more curtains that enclosed the west pulpits and further divided them by rows into four levels. At the highest pulpit reserved for the presidency of the church, JS and Oliver Cowdery entered and bowed in silent prayer.2
Our account of what happened next has limited provenance. Only one primary source account attests to visions JS and Cowdery received at this moment—a journal entry recorded by Warren Cowdery (Oliver’s brother) in JS’s official Kirtland diary. Unlike other entries, however, this one bears no scribal detail or additional context, no reference to JS’s authorship, and is rendered not in the first-person but rather the third-person. We don’t know where or how Warren got this information; we don’t know if it was JS or Oliver or both or a secondhand reporter who conveyed the information to Warren; we don’t know when Warren recorded the information (it could be a later reminiscence, but because Warren worked as a scribal assistant with Oliver and Warren Parrish at the time, we can probably assume it wouldn’t have been too far beyond the episode it describes). What’s curious is how, for such a seemingly significant event, neither JS nor Oliver Cowdery referred to these visions later. For all JS’s energy and exuberance for temple theology in the Nauvoo period, for all his esoteric and deep-dive expansions on priesthood theology and biblical doctrine, why was he silent on the appearance of Moses. Moses. I mean, this account says Moses appeared to them in the House of the Lord. JS says more in public about Michael, an esoteric figure; says more about Enoch, another highly esoteric and forgotten figure; than about seeing Moses and receiving the keys of the gathering of Israel from Moses. This doesn’t quite check out for me, I’ll admit. The mildly sketchy provenance and the further lack of additional supporting evidence from both principal observers brings more questions than answers, at least for me.
Much later, Orson Pratt reproduced Warren Cowdery’s April 3 account in the manuscript history of the church, which he then later included in his revision to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876. Pratt revised the text to appear in the first-person, an editorial change that would be irresponsible to any serious archivist or historian today, especially given the questionable provenance of the account. And now that this revised version has been canonized as a D&C section, it has been received by faithful readers as the direct word and testimony of JS and Oliver Cowdery. The accidents that brought this about sometimes trouble me, since so much 20th-century theology was derived from assertions about keys, and those concepts of keys being derived from a manipulated, questionable account that could have been just as easily not endorsed as experienced by JS.
Those concerns aside, if we accept the account as historical, we have a clear recapitulation of the New Testament account of the visions on the Mount of Transfiguration. The King James Version of the Gospel of Matthew, which was the version used nearly exclusively by JS and his contemporaries, describes Peter, James, and John going with Jesus up a high mountain and witnessing a vision (Matthew 17:1–9):
And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.
Notice the elements of the vision:
The men ascend high up a mountain
Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John, with his face shining like the sun
The voice of the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”
Jesus charges the disciples to tell no one of the vision until after Jesus’s resurrection.
In Warren Cowdery’s account, JS and Oliver are said to have seen the Lord with a “countenance [shining] above the brightness of the sun” and a voice “as the sound of the rushing of great waters.” The Lord speaks stirring words of acceptance and promise. And then “this vision closed.” The account records three separate visions—the Lord Jehovah; Moses and Elias; Elijah. Because the account ends abruptly, possibly mid-sentence, halfway down the page, we don’t know if Warren intended to record or copy or receive dictation beyond this part. It’s possible he worked from an account produced by Oliver, since Oliver often passed along minutes and other notes to Warren Parrish and Warren Cowdery for copying in JS’s histories and record books. Again, we have no evidence for this, only speculation. The fact that the beginning of the visions follow the sequence of Matthew 17, I suspect the visions were understood by JS and Oliver as a repeat or restoration of the Mount of Transfiguration vision. The clear reference to phrasing and elements in Matthew 17 puts this beyond reasonable doubt for me.
Because Matthew 17 only has Moses and Elijah, and because we must be so limited in our use of Warren Cowdery’s account, there is plenty of room for Warren to have misheard, misunderstood, or otherwise perpetuated an erroneous separation of Elias and Elijah. To anyone reading the Bible with an awareness of the Hebrew and Greek origins of the texts, there’s no heartburn over there being different names for the same person: Elias = Elijah. The “Elias” version perpetuates the Greek masculine suffix “-as” whereas the “Elijah” version perpetuates the Hebrew “-ah.” We get this with other Hellenized Hebrew names appearing in the New Testament: Judas = Judah; Esaias = Isaiah; Noe = Noah; Ananiah = Ananias; Jonah = Jonas; Zachariah = Zacharias; Manasseh = Manasses; Uriah = Urias. In none of these Hebrew/Greek transliterations do we treat as separate identities—but with Elias/Elijah, we have this dizzying theological explanation to preserve Elias being someone other than Elijah.
There’s a short answer and a long answer. Maybe I’ll dive into the long answer in another post :) The short of it is this: a lot of esoteric lore developed around the notion of “Elias” being a title, not a name (sort of like “Malachi,” which is not a name of a person, but rather a title, “the Messenger” or perhaps “the Angel”; biblical scholars all accept Malachi as a collaborated text). And then “Elias” turning into a reserved title, like “Son of Man” or “Messiah,” something given only to a special servant of the Lord who would function as a forerunner for grand things, or a forerunner to Jesus, or the end of the world, etc. So various biblical figures get speculated about as potential “Elias” candidates, foremost being John the Baptist. What’s bonkers is how John the Baptist explicitly disassociates himself from Elias/Elijah! When pressed by Pharisaic critics about his identity, John denies being Moses; he denies being Elias; and he denies being the Messiah. The long answer unpacks all the 19th-century speculations into esoteric ideas about Elias, unpacks how JS both accepted and challenged such speculations, and how JS may or may not have been persuaded at the idea of Elias being separate from Elijah. The short answer is Elias is Elijah as far as every authoritative scriptural text is concerned, save for D&C 110—and there’s ample room to read D&C 110 as actually not splitting these identities, but Warren merely confusing them.
I prefer this more biblically consistent (and frankly D&C revelations consistent) reading of Elias and Elijah being one and the same in this vision. If we take the account as perpetuating a folklore or a simple mistake in giving both Elias and Elijah as separate identities, and instead read Elias/Elijah as the Bible does, as the same person, then the visions move in this sequence:
JS and Oliver ascend up the pulpits behind the temple veil
Jesus appears as the glorified Jehovah
Moses appears and commits the keys of the gathering of Israel and the leading of the Ten Tribes from the land of the north
Elijah appears and commits the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham and pronounces the prophecy of Malachi fulfilled
This makes much better sense theologically. If we treat Elias as a separate personality, then the text actually has Elijah not commit any keys, but rather reference the keys committed by Moses and Elias and declaring, therefore, the prophecy of Malachi stands fulfilled. If such is the case, then it renders Malachi’s prophecy quite strange—Malachi emphasizes Elijah’s coming as vital to the hearts of the generations turning toward each other; but in this reading, Elijah comes to declare Malachi fulfilled, creating that Spider-Man meme of the two merely pointing at each other without either one doing anything.
The referents of Matthew 17 are clear; the context for the House of the Lord functioning as the temple in fulfillment of the Lord suddenly coming to his temple, and additional context of priestly anointings and Malachi prophecy persuades me we have better, more robust interpretation ahead of us before jumping to conclusions about the conferral of priesthood keys on April 3. And—we certainly ought to temper our appropriation of Seder tradition in calling the appearance of Elijah a fulfillment of Passover anticipations. (But that’s something for me to opine about another time, if you’ll bear with me.)
On December 13, 1845, William Clayton recorded in one of the loose catalogs of Nauvoo temple work: “an arrangement was made establishing better order in conducting the endowment. Under this order it is the province of Eloheem, Jehovah and Michael to create the world, … Then Peter assisted by James and John conducts them through the Telestial and Terrestrial kingdom” (William Clayton, Diary, 13 December 1845, in The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845–1846: A Documentary History, edited by Devery S. Anderson and Gary James Bergera [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2005], 21). The account describes more adjustments to the endowment ceremony than I’m comfortable publishing; but what is evident here is that December 13, 1845, witnessed a significant revision to JS’s original presentation, a revision initiated by Brigham Young and implemented by the remaining members of JS’s Quorum of the Anointed.
“Visions, 3 April 1836 [D&C 110]: Historical Introduction,” Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/visions-3-april-1836-dc-110/1#historical-intro.