Although verses 1-5 discuss the topic of priesthood only obliquely, I’m glad that we’ve decided to include them because I think they provide an important clue to the entanglement of priesthood, revelation, and writing that we find in the Doctrine and Covenants at large (something we’ve been discussing lately in the comments on D&C 20:38-67).
In verse 1, the Lord seems to give a kind of historical summary of Orson Hyde’s missionary activity, and it’s delivered in a series of doubles marked by parallel prepositions which culminates in double gerunds, as follows:
“My servant, Orson Hyde, was called
by his ordination to proclaim the everlasting gospel,
by the Spirit of the living God
from people to people,
and from land to land,
in the congregations of the wicked,
in their synagogues,
and expounding all scriptures unto them.”
In verse 2 and 3, the Lord provides “an ensample” for those who, like Orson, have been ordained with the task of preaching the gospel, namely, “that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” And the outcome of this speaking is given in the oft-quoted fourth verse:
“Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”
Scripture plays an interesting role in these verses. First, in v. 1, I’m struck that Orson was tasked with expounding “all scriptures” in particular, not just the scriptures or even scripture. Why “all?” Is there a concern at work that we might privilege certain scriptures over others in our teaching? That’s certainly a very human tendency; we like to construct coherent narratives, stories that make sense to us and support our worldview, and so we’re naturally prone to emphasize the scriptural doctrines and ideas which fit together easily and which we find most personally appealing. But if we were to read this verse as admonishing us to avoid cherry-picking our favorite texts for preaching and instead utilize “all” scripture, its practical application gets pretty hairy, since scripture is, in itself, self-contradictory (the biblical kings are applauded for types of worship the prophets later condemned, the New Testament epistles give contradictory accounts of the roles of women, the Book of Mormon understands the Law of Moses very differently than did the Israelites, etc). With all these contradictions in mind, how is it even possible to expound “all scriptures?” I want to at least play with the idea that these contradictions are somehow vital to the very nature of scripture, and that the ways it internally resists harmonization is important to the process of reading it. Engagement with scripture, on this model, might be seen as a kind of dialectic in which we find our personal stories and understandings repeatedly challenged.
Second, verse 4 presents scripture as a kind of byproduct of the priesthood endeavor, and here is where we again start to engage with themes of writing and texts connected with the priesthood. In fact, we might be looking at a unique way of defining scripture itself: the byproduct of priesthood work. That’s complicated, however, by its obviously verbal nature (“whatsoever they shall speak … shall be scripture”) and by its additional epithets (“..shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord,” etc). Thus, scripture is presented as primarily verbal, instead of textual; it is something authoritatively divine that accurately reflects God’s intentions. None of that is to discount the possibility of a written document being produced (these words could be transcribed at some later time, for instance), but it does complicate the theme of specifically textual production.
I’m also struck at how nicely this dovetails, in certain ways, with the themes we’ve been discussing from D&C 20. Notice that this “scripture” is produced out of a very particular kind of situation: “as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” To cinch the connection further, here is the original preface to this revelation, which was removed prior to its publication:
“The mind and will of the Lord, as made known by the voice of the spirit to a conference, held November first, 1831, concerning certain Elders, who requested of the Lord to know his will concerning them, and also certain items, as made known in addition to the Laws and commandments, which have been given to the church, firstly: my servant Orson was called…”
The priesthood office to which this revelation’s primary addressees were ordained was specifically the office of elder, and they are given a “promise” (v. 5) that, in connection with that ordination, they will interact with the Holy Ghost in a particular way. Again, we see elders engaging with the Holy Ghost, and it culminates in a production of something like a text.
If all these parallels are justified, it leaves me with this vital question: what is the relationship between priesthood, scripture, and the Holy Ghost? I’ve been trying out several different answers to this question all week, but I’ll leave you with two of my latest iterations:
Elder: an office of engagement with the Holy Ghost.
Priesthood: the community who conducts a liminal life at the veil (the boundary between heaven and earth), tasked with producing records that chronicle that interaction.