The Standard of Truth: Chiasmus in Joseph Smith’s “Wentworth Letter”

 

Joseph_Smith_portrait_crop
Joseph Smith (lds.org)

Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served as president of the Church from 1830 until his death in 1844. Chiasmus in his canonical writings is well documented, including The Book of Mormon (1830), an ancient record he translated with divine assistance, and The Doctrine & Covenants (1835), a collection of revelations he received beginning in 1823. Less known, however, is chiasmus that appears in Joseph Smith’s non-canonical writings.

In 1842, in response to a request for information about the Church from John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, Joseph Smith wrote the now famous “Wentworth Letter.” This document is a “sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints.” Its most well-known passages are “The Standard of Truth,” a poetic and expansive prophecy of the Church’s missionary efforts, and “The Articles of Faith,” a brief summary of Church beliefs that was canonized in 1880.

wentworthletter_timesandseasons
The Wentworth Letter as it appeared in the Times & Seasons on 1 March 1842 (lib.byu.edu)

According to The Joseph Smith Papers, Joseph Smith may have had the help of scribes in composing the Wentworth Letter. Additionally, in describing his “early visionary experiences” and summarizing the Church’s beliefs, he borrowed from Orson Pratt’s pamphlet, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (1840). Pratt, in turn, quoted passages from Oliver Cowdery’s eight letters on Church history that had previously been published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate (1834-5). However, as The Joseph Smith Papers concludes, “Whatever his debt to … others, [Joseph Smith] took responsibility for [the letter] when it was published in the Times and Seasons” on 1 March 1842 under the name “Church History.”

Chiasmus is found throughout the Wentworth Letter. For purposes of length, however, this article will focus on diagramming and analyzing The Standard of Truth, which is part of a larger chiastic structure, and only touch lightly on additional chiasms.


Oliver_Cowdery_portrait_crop
Oliver Cowdery (mormonhistoricsites.org)

The Standard of Truth may have been based on a passage in the eighth of Oliver Cowdery’s eight letters (28 May 1835) that documents a prophecy given by the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah in 1823. According to the original manuscript of Cowdery’s account, the Angel Moroni declared:

“[W]hen it is known that the Lord has shown you these things [i.e. the gold plates], the workers of iniquity will seek your overthrow: they will circulate falshoods [sic] to destroy your reputation, and also will seek to take your life; but remember this, if you are faithful, and shall hereafter continue to keep the commandments of the Lord, you shall be preserved to bring these things forth; for in due time he will again give you a commandment to come and take them. When they are interpreted the Lord will give the holy priesthood to some, and they shall begin to proclaim this gospel and baptize by water, and after that they shall have power to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands. Then will persecution rage more and more; for the iniquities of men shall be rev[e]aled, and those who are not built upon the Rock will seek to overthrow this church; but it will inecrease [sic] the more opposed, and spread farther and farther, increaseing [sic] in knowledge till they shall be sanctified and receive an inheritance where the glory of God will rest upon them; and when this takes place, and all things are prepared, the ten tribes of Israel will be revealed in the north country, whither they have been for a long season; and when this is fulfilled will be brought to pass that saying of the prophets—’And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord’ [Isaiah  59:20].” (emphasis added)

In this passage, persecution will come upon Joseph Smith for possessing the gold plates and later upon the Church for possessing divine authority and proclaiming the gospel. Interestingly, there appears to be a proportional relationship between persecution and Church growth. Additionally, persecution will serve to sanctify Church members, leading to the return of the Lost Tribes of Israel and the establishment of Zion.

Echoes of this passage appear in Joseph Smith’s The Standard of Truth, which also describes a relationship between persecution and Church growth, and tells of missionary work culminating in a declaration from the Lord.


The Standard of Truth is part of a larger chiastic structure composed of two reflective chiasms joined by a parallelism. Since this chiastic structure consists of multiple parts, they will first be diagrammed and analyzed separately; then the reflective parts will be diagrammed and analyzed.

Diagram and Analysis of Separate Elements

Part 1: This chiasm reflects the chiasm in Part 3.

A: We have commenced to build a city called “Nauvoo” in Hancock co., we number from six to eight thousand here besides vast numbers in the county around and in almost every county of the state. We have a city charter granted us and a charter for a legion the troops of which now number 1500. We have also a charter for a university, for an agricultural and manufacturing society, have our own laws and administrators, and possess all the privileges that other free and enlightened citizens enjoy.
B: Persecution has not stopped the progress of truth, but has only added fuel to the flame, it has spread with increasing rapidity, proud of the cause which they have espoused and conscious of our innocence and of the truth of their system amidst calumny and reproach have
C: the elders of this Church gone forth,
C: and planted the gospel in almost every state in the Union;
B: it has penetrated our cities, it has spread over our villages and
A: has caused thousands of our intelligent, noble, and patriotic citizens to obey its divine mandates, and be governed by its sacred truths.

A=A: “[S]ix to eight thousand here besides vast numbers in the county around and in almost every county of the state” complements “thousands” to numerically describe the growth of the Church.

 B=B: “[S]pread with increasing rapidity” is equivalent to  “spread over our villages” to geographically describe the growth of the Church. This section introduces the important concept that persecution is the engine of growth for the Church — the same concept Oliver Cowdery documented from the words of the Angel Moroni, that the greater the persecution, the more rapid the growth. This concept is later emphasized using chiasmus in Part 3 and in the larger-scale chiasm (see Analysis of Reflective Parts, below).

 C=C: “[G]one forth” complements “planted the gospel” to describe the focus of the elders’ activities. They are not a group of fly-by-night itinerant ministers, but are intent on permanently establishing and organizing the Church wherever they go. 


Part 2: This parallelism connects the two reflective chiasms (Parts 1 and 3) and anchors the message of the larger chiastic structure.

A: It has also spread into England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales: in the year 1839 where a few of our missionaries were sent
B: over five thousand joined the standard of truth, there are numbers now joining in every land.
A: Our missionaries are going forth to different nations, and in Germany, Palestine, New Holland, the East Indies, and other places,
B: the standard of truth has been erected:

A=A: “[O]ur missionaries were sent” parallels “our missionaries are going forth” to describe the nations where missionaries have been. From its small beginning in the British Isles, missionary work has expanded to mainland Europe, the Middle East, South East Asia, and elsewhere.

B=B: “[S]tandard of truth” parallels “standard of truth” to describe the message the missionaries share throughout the earth. The Church will grow regardless of opposition because its teachings are a message of truth to all the world and provide a standard for all to live by.


Part 3: This chiasm reflects the chiasm in Part 1.

A: no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing,
B: persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame,
C: but the truth of God will go forth
C: boldly, nobly, and independent
B: till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear,
A: till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

A=A: “[N]o unhallowed hand can stop the work” complements  “the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” No matter the efforts of man to counter the work of the missionaries, the work will not stop until the Lord declares it complete. Implied here is not only a divine mandate, but the promise of divine protection.

B=B: “[P]ersecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame” complements “penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear.” Here is emphasized the important concept introduced in Part 1 that persecution is the engine of growth for the Church. Defamation and calumny allow the message to sound in every ear, raging persecutions expedite its penetration of continents, combining mobs facilitate its visiting of climes, and assembled armies help the divine message to sweep countries. In other words, the Church will grow because of opposition, not in spite of it.

C=C: “[T]he truth of God will go forth” complements “boldly, nobly, and independent” to describe how the Lord and the Church, acting together, will carry out the divine mandate.


Analysis of Reflective Parts

Studied as a whole, the larger chiastic structure sheds additional light on the destiny of the missionary efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To understand how these elements fit together to form this larger structure, it may help to visualize them as parts of a book cover. The first chiasm (Part 1) represents the front cover, the second chiasm (Part 3) represents the back cover, complementing and balancing the front cover in meaning and structure; and the central parallelism (Part 2) represents the binding that holds the whole statement together. Significantly, in some instances words that corresponded to form the chiasms in Parts 1 and 3 are not the same words that correspond to form the larger chiastic structure.

A: We have commenced to build a city called “Nauvoo” in Hancock co., we number from six to eight thousand here besides vast numbers in the county around and in almost every county of the state. We have a city charter granted us and a charter for a legion the troops of which now number 1500. We have also a charter for a university, for an agricultural and manufacturing society, have our own laws and administrators, and possess all the privileges that other free and enlightened citizens enjoy.
A: has caused thousands of our intelligent, noble, and patriotic citizens to obey its divine mandates, and be governed by its sacred truths.
A: no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing
A: till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

A=A: “[S]ix to eight thousand here besides vast numbers in the county around and in almost every county of the state” and “thousands” complements “no unhallowed hand can stop the work” and “the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” The first half (Part 1) provides growth evidence of the unhindered, divinely appointed work of the Church declared in the last half (Part 3).

B: Persecution has not stopped the progress of truth, but has only added fuel to the flame, it has spread with increasing rapidity, proud of the cause which they have espoused and conscious of our innocence and of the truth of their system amidst calumny and reproach
B: it has penetrated our cities, it has spread over our villages
B: persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame
B: till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear

B=B: “Persecution has not stopped the progress of truth, but has only added fuel to the flame, it has spread with increasing rapidity” and “it has penetrated our cities, it has spread over our villages” is equivalent to “persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame” and “penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear.” Notice the repetition of the words “persecution,” calumny,” and “penetrated” in Part 1 that are not pairing elements of the original chiasm, but connect only with corresponding words in Part 3. This provides evidence that the chiasm in Part 1 is intended to be compared with the chiasm in Part 3 for additional insight. Further emphasis is given here that persecution is the engine of growth for the Church. Outwardly, to those who oppose the missionary efforts of the Church, this is a courageous, almost taunting, message. Inwardly, however, to the membership of the Church, this message provides comfort, perspective, and direction — rather than be frightened and discouraged by opposition, the faithful should see it as evidence of the divine mandate in operation and a testimony of the truthfulness of Mormonism.

C: the elders of this Church gone forth
C: and planted the gospel in almost every state in the Union
C: but the truth of God will go forth
C: boldly, nobly, and independent

C=C: “[T]he elders of this Church gone forth” and “planted the gospel in almost every state in the Union” complements “the truth of God will go forth” and “boldly, nobly, and independent.” Notice, once again, the similar wording — “gone forth” and “go forth” — that are not pairing elements in the smaller chiasms but provide a link between the first chiasm (Part 1) and the second chiasm (Part 3). This is further evidence that these chiasms are intended to be compared as part of a larger chiastic structure. This section offers a description of the behavior and demeanor of missionaries and the character, practices, and policies of the Church as it is organized throughout the earth. The missionaries who have “gone forth” personify the “truth of God” that “go[es] forth” and must be consistent in action with the principles of the Gospel. This also applies to Church members throughout the earth, since every member is a missionary. Additionally, the Church as it is organized throughout the earth is “boldly, nobly, and independent;” these terms are used throughout the scriptures and in the teachings of modern-day prophets. As the missionaries continue to go forth, the Church will continue to be organized in nation after nation and the Lord will continue to use opposition to fuel this growth “till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”


Additional Chiasms

1. The chiasm which follows, which is similar to several verses of the more familiar “Joseph Smith–History” account in the Pearl of Great Price, describes Joseph’s humble upbringing, search for truth, and prophetic call. Structurally, it contrasts Joseph’s humble origins with his exalted call to restore the Church of Jesus Christ and the confusion he felt while searching for truth with the clarity he was given about the coming restoration and fulfillment of God’s covenant with ancient Israel. It compares his vision of the Father of the Son with the Angel Moroni’s later visit to show that they were both divine. The central focus contrasts the Christianity of Joseph’s youth that lacked divine authority with the restored Christianity of his adulthood that would possess priesthood authority.

A: I was born in the town of Sharon, Windsor co., Vermont, on the 23d of December, A.D. 1805. When ten years old my parents removed to Palmyra, New York, where we resided about four years, and from thence we removed to the town of Manchester. My father was a farmer and taught me the art of husbandry.
B: When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring [of] the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another, each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, He would not teach another, principles which were diametrically opposed.
C: Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him,” I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day.
D: They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines and that none of them was acknowledged of God as His Church and kingdom.
D: And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.
C: On the evening of the 21st of September, A.D. 1823, while I was praying unto God, and endeavoring to exercise faith in the precious promises of scripture on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance, and brightness burst into the room, indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire; the appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body; in a moment a personage stood before me surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded.
B: This messenger proclaimed himself to be an angel of God sent to bring the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.
A: I was informed that I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation.


2. The following chiasm describes the translation and contents of The Book of Mormon. The first half provides a physical description of the gold plates, whereas the second half describes its translated contents that are found in The Book or Mormon. The central focus describes the Urim and Thummim, the instrument prepared by God to make translation of the ancient record possible.

A: I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country [America], and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there was deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgment of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent. The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things. After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22d of September, A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands.
These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving.
B: With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.
B: Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.
A: In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century [before] the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century [A.D]. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Savior made his appearance upon this continent after his resurrection, that he planted the gospel here in all its fulness, and richness, and power, and blessing; that they had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessings, as was enjoyed on the eastern continent, that the people were cut off in consequence of their transgressions, that the last of their prophets who existed among them was commanded to write an abridgment of their prophecies, history, &c., and to hide it up in the earth, and that it should come forth and be united with the bible for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the last days. For a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon, which can be purchased at Nauvoo, or from any of our travelling elders.


Conclusion

A chiastic study of Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter provides a wealth of insights concerning the Prophet Joseph Smith, his work, and the foreseen destiny of the Church. In particular, it helps us better understand the message of The Standard of Truth — that persecution is the engine of growth for the Church and should be utilized rather than feared or avoided. As the Church is beginning to see a growing opposition after enjoying relative peace for several years, it becomes us as members of the Church to strengthen our testimonies and deepen our conversions. As we do so, the Church will grow in proportion to the persecution it receives and the saints will be refined and prepared for Zion and the Lord’s Second Coming.

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