Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why I Believe: Evidence Fifty-two: Revelations Run Counter to Racial Prejudice and Bigotry in Jacksonian America©

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet

Evidence Fifty-two: Revelations Run Counter 
to Racial Prejudice and Bigotry in Jacksonian America© 

A recent publication is the stimulus for this essay. In 2016 the Church published a book to supplement the Sunday School gospel doctrine lessons for 2017 on the Doctrine and Covenants. It is called Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants,(1) and contains essays by many authors about various sections or groups of sections of this sacred book. Jed Woodworth is the author of the chapter titled “The Center Place,” and deals with sections 52, 57, and 58. The subject matter is the location of the city of New Jerusalem or Zion, but Woodworth’s careful reading highlight’s the use of a unique title given to a group of people in section 57 with significant and relevant doctrinal and practical implications for our day.
The idea of a New Jerusalem is familiar to many Christians from John’s book of Revelation. In chapter 3 verse 12 the apostle speaks of 
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”
For Latter-day Saints the idea becomes even more important because of statements in both 3 Nephi and Ether in the Book of Mormon. Ether 13:2-6 was especially tantalizing to the Saints because it speaks of the New Jerusalem being built “upon this land,” referring to this “choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord.” It isn’t any wonder then that the early Saints should be curious about the location of this “New Jerusalem” in America, nor that an early revelation to Joseph Smith should speak of it. In August of 1830, about five months following the organization of the Church, Joseph received a revelation calling Oliver Cowdery to lead a mission to various tribes of Indians, the ultimate destination of which was the western border of Missouri. West of that border the lands were designated Indian territory.  
For many years white society occupied Indian lands as state after state was incorporated into the United States. In 1821 Missouri became a state. Six years later Jackson County was created on the western border and Independence was the county seat. Yielding to white pressure to remove the Indians from the states, the Jackson administration designated the lands west of Missouri as Indian territory or a reservation in modern terms and its official policy was separation of the races. Five Sac and Fox tribes that resided in Florida and other southern states, along with others were being relocated to the West. By 1831 the Osage Indians who had occupied western Missouri and other large sections had vacated the area. It was to these tribes in the west that Cowdery and his fellow missionaries were sent.

Interestingly, in the revelation calling Cowdery (D&C 28), verse nine reads:
And now, behold, I say unto you that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites. (2)
An important part of Cowdery mission was “to rear up a pillar as a witness where the Temple of God shall be built, in the glorious New-Jerusalem.”(3) Cowdery wrote to Joseph, and Parley P. Pratt a member of the mission, returned to Kirtland; one or both may have confirmed Joseph’s belief that this region was the place for the New Jerusalem. Joseph Smith said that in June of 1831 he received “an heavenly vision, a commandment ... to take my journey to the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and there designate the very spot, for the commencement of the gathering together of those who embrace the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”(4)  Soon after he arrived, Joseph received a revelation on 20 July 1831, in which the Lord revealed that the city of Independence, Jackson County, Missouri was to be  the location of the New Jerusalem or the City of Zion and a temple.(5) But the location of Zion was not the only interesting thing to be found in this revelation.

This and other revelations also answered the question as to who would be invited to live in the New Jerusalem. The Saints were instructed to purchase the land “lying westward, even unto the line running directly between Jew and Gentile.”(6) What is this language–the land between Jew and Gentile? Why not use the usual designations and speak of the land between the Indians or Lamanites and the Gentiles, or even the red men and white men? In reality all these terms are “racial” and cultural in nature, and draw distinctions between the groups, but the use of “Jew” instead of “Indian” or “red man” emphasized a different distinction and did not carry the negative connotations which “red man” or “Indian” did. In the scriptures, and the Book of Mormon in particular, the designation “Jew” has several meanings.(7) Initially it referred to those who were of the tribe of Judah. Eventually it was broadened to refer to those who were of the House of Israel, God’s ancient covenant people, and the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Lamanites were the ancestors of at least some Indians in the Americas and they were of the House of Israel. This passage speaks of the Indians as “Jews.”  Woodworth points out that according to the Book of Mormon both Jew and Gentile had vital roles in God’s plan of salvation. The clear implication of this passage was that God was inviting them to work together. Other scriptures designated that the gospel was initially to go from the Jews to the Gentiles, but at a later period the process was to be reversed and the gospel was to come from the Gentile to the Jew.(8) In this sense, according to Woodworth, the revelation “echoes this covenantal structure” when it speaks of the Indians as Jews. (9)

Woodworth’s insight then, is that at the time the US government’s official policy was segregation of these races, Joseph Smith’s revelation were moving in exactly the opposite direction. The Indians were to be included in the New Jerusalem rather than to be marginalized and pushed to the outskirts of civilization. God’s holy city of Zion was to be in the very midst of or between the Jew and Gentile. Since Zion is the “pure in heart,” the clear implication is that the Jew/Indian/Lamanite could with “all people” become pure in heart and dwell in Zion.In a day when race issues in and immigration to the United States are the hottest of political topics, this insight gives every Latter-day Saint reason to pause for contemplation and inquiry for inspiration and understanding.  

Woodword also points out that section 58 adds breadth to this vision. It was revealed to Joseph Smith while he was still in Missouri in the summer of 1831. It speaks of the honor which was given to these brethren to lay the foundations of Zion and of  “bearing record of the land upon which the Zion of God shall stand.” Then it refers to the great feast or banquet so frequently spoken of in scriptures “unto which all nations shall be invited.”(10) He also notes that the word “nations,” would resonate with both the whites and the Indians as the word used to describe the largest unit of their political organization.

Well, thank you Jed Woodwroth for these thought provoking insights. Joseph Smith has frequently been accused of grabbing on to all the popular notions of his day and including them in his scriptural writings and theology. In our day many of these issues have been examined and most of them turn out to be just the opposite of what the critics claim. That certainly appears to be the case here.  Joseph Smith is not influenced by the popular prejudice which prompted a national policy of segregation of the Indians. He saw that as children of God they inherited the same potential and could have the same destiny as any other of God’s sons and daughters. The gospel is inclusive; its blessings are for all nations, all kindreds, all tongues, and all people. For me this is one more evidence of the divine inspiration given to Joseph Smith as God’s prophet.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Matthew McBride and James Goldberg, eds., Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016.  Woodworth’s chapter is found on pages 122-29.

2.  Emphasis added. The original version in the Book of Commandments said “among the Lamanites,” but was later revised to read “on the borders by the Lamanites.”

3. The covenant between Cowdery and those going with him on this mission was published in the The Ohio Star, Ravenna, Ohio, 8 December 1831.  An original has not been found, but there is little reason to believe this is not genuine.  A facsimile reproduction and transcription is available online at:

4.  Joseph Smith to the elders of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Messenger and Advocate, (September 1835), 1:179.

5.  D&C 57: 2-3.

6.  D&C 57:5.

7.  See Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 128, n. 24.

8.  Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 128.

9.  Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 126.

10.  D&C 58:6-9, emphasis added.

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