Regarding the King Follett Discourse, Elder B.H. Roberts said:
Accusations were repeatedly being made about this time that President Smith was a fallen prophet. But when the mighty doctrines that in this discourse he is setting forth are taken into account, and the spiritual power with which he is delivering them is reckoned with, no more complete refutation of his being a fallen prophet could be made. The Prophet lived his life in crescendo. From small beginnings, it rose in breadth and power as he neared its close. As a teacher he reached the climax of his career in this discourse. After it there was but one thing more he could do-seal his testimony with his blood. This he did less than three months later. Such is not the manner of life of false prophets.-Note by Elder B. H. Roberts. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 355, footnote 11)
There is no denying that any worthwhile LDS theology must pass through the filter of the King Follett Discourse (KFD). It gives the church at once its most sublime and most controversial doctrines. For those of you who are not familiar with the King Follett Discourse here are some resources: The Wiki on it is quite useful. Here is a link to the amalgamated version of the primary sources as published in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith , which by far the most commonly quoted version. Here is a link to the primary sources – mostly journal entries by people who were in attendance at the sermon – from which the TPJS version was derived. The primary sources become useful when getting down to the nitty gritty of what Joseph really meant.
This post is the first in a series that will discuss the KFD and various interpretations of it, including the treatment Blake Ostler gives it in his new book. The question I want to address in this post is: Should a plain and intuitive reading of the KFD be used as a lens through which to see all previous revelations or should previous revelations be used as the lens through which to read and interpret the KFD? In other words, should the KFD be the center point around which Mormon theology should orbit? I believe it should be the fulcrum of Mormon theology and others apparently think that the KFD must be interpreted through the lens of previous canon.
Regarding this idea of Joseph living his life in crescendo and common readings of the sermon, Blake recently wrote:
The reading that I give the KFD is the view that is consistent with the idea of JS’s life as a crescendo-it seems to me that y’all see Joseph simply playing a different tune altogether and with a different musical era rather than a symphony that crescendos. Indeed, what we get if y’all are correct is a dissonance on which JS ends his life instead of a beautiful symphonic masterpiece that crescendos into the KFD as the exclamation point of his life. What y’all give us is a sour note at the end of a beautiful multi-media presentation that ruins the whole thing and says that what went before must just be seen as so much fluff and dressing for the real refrain that starts a new piece. It is kind of like a heavy metal refrain at the end of the moonlight sonata!
Now I want to reserve comments on Blake’s version of the KFD for a follow up post. He has devoted most of chapter 12 in his new book to it. But I will note that Blake feels it is inconsistent with the rest of scripture to say that there was a time when God became God and he sees loopholes that allow for such a reading of the KFD. Rather than debate that point now, I will simply point out that Blake’s approach is to take previous revelations and paradigms and use them as the lens through which to interpret the KFD. His analogy makes a reasonable argument for such an approach too if we accept it as accurate.
I believe that a different analogy would be more appropriate though. I would compare the KFD to something like the twist at the end of the movie The Sixth Sense. In other words, the KFD reveals startling new information that shifts the lens through which we view everything that came before it. It gives Christian theology a major paradigm shift and an entirely new set of lenses through which to see reality. Rather than forcing the new revelation to fit in with the former views of reality, I think we must rethink our interpretation of all previous revelations based on the KFD. (Sort of like what you had to do with the entire movie when we had our paradigms shifted with the revelation about the Bruce Willis character.)
So when I think of the life of Joseph being lived in crescendo, I think of it concluding with his providing us a massive theological paradigm shift – one that further proved that he was a prophet in the same class as the great prophets of old. When Blake think of the crescendo he see the same music getting louder and more intense at the end of Joseph’s life.
What do you think? Was Joseph giving us an entirely new pair of goggles through which to view all of reality in the KFD or was he pumping up the volume on previous paradigms? It seems that for 130+ years the church believed the former but in recent decades the latter notion is taking root…
[Associated radio.blog song: Come Sail Away. There are tons of these crescendo songs from the 70s... I couldn't resist going with the Cartman version of this one.]