One of the fascinating things about studying the Doctrine & Covenants is having relatively ready access to the historical context of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith. For me, it is interesting to think about what was happening in the lives of the Prophet and the early Church members, and how that influenced the way they sought God and they way they understood what he spoke to them. In learning a bit about Section 59, it seems that there were at least three major dynamics influencing Joseph Smith’s thoughts. If I had to put name tags on these three influences, I guess I would say they were death, Babylon and the abundant life.
First, I think death was very much on Joseph’s mind when he received section 59. He had attended that day the funeral of a faithful sister, Polly Peck Knight. Polly Knight was one of the Colesville saints, and along with her husband Joseph, an early and constant supporter of the Prophet and the Restoration. She was quite ill when she left Ohio for Jackson County, and her strong desire was to see Zion and, if she were to die, be buried there. In fact, she died within days of arriving in Missouri, and her passing must have poignant for Joseph Smith. It certainly makes verse 2 poignant to me:
For those that live shall inherit the earth and those that die shall rest from
their labors, and their works shall follow them; and they shall receive a crown
in the mansions of my Father, which I have prepared from them.
Joseph was also struck by societal conditions in Jackson County in August 1831. Most Church members at this point were relatively civilized New Englanders. Suddenly, they were living on the frontier, neighbors to a pretty rough crowd. Law, order and genteel society were not the hallmarks of Jackson County. Joseph and many of the members of the Church were somewhat taken aback by conditions and the people there. My guess is, Joseph was wondering how he was going to build God’s Kingdom - - Zion - - in the middle of Babylon. How would he keep the Saints unspotted from the world around them? One answer came in Section 59 and the instruction to set aside a day for holiness and recommitment to God’s service. See verses 9-10.
Finally, Joseph was pretty enchanted with the land itself in Jackson County. He described the area almost as a literal paradise, where crops and herds raised themselves, surrounded by natural beauty. The last third of section 59 reflects Joseph’s feeling that Zion would be a place where the saints would live an abundant life, enjoying the earthly blessings that God had designed for them. “The fullness of the earth is yours,” the revelation states, “Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.” See verses 16, 18-19.
What else do you see? What connections are there in Section 59 to these influences and themes? Are there other influences you find in this section?
(Much of the background for this post comes from Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, chap. 8, and Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants, pp. 207-09).