It is popular, in certain circles, to invoke the case of Pelatiah Brown in early Church history. Joseph Smith said this:
Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me… was hauled up for trial before the High Council.
“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (History of the Church 5:339-340; see also TPJS, 288)
The implicit or explicit claim then made is that Joseph Smith would be opposed to subjecting those who teach and advance false doctrine, or who seek to undermine the Church, its leaders, or members, to Church discipline.
The First Problem
In the first place, this is absurd, because Joseph clearly countenanced–and participated in–the application of Church discipline to many who opposed the Church, fought against it, claimed its leaders were fallen prophets or frauds, or taught doctrines at variance with those he taught.
What, then, is going on in this case?
Well, those who invoke this episode don’t know (or count on you not knowing) the context.
The Second Problem–What Was Elder Brown Teaching?
Elder Brown advanced some ideas about the interpretation of the Revelation of St. John. You know the Book of Revelation–it’s that massively symbolic book at the end of the Bible that many Christian hobbyists have for millennia interpreted and applied to a vast variety of world figures.
The Beast, for example has been declared to be everyone from the Pope du jour to President Jimmy Carter. (Carter may have been many things, but he was not The Beast.)
In fact, you would know this immediately if those who quoted the above phrase had not omitted key text with an ellipsis.
An “ellipsis” is that little dot-dot-dot (…) mark they put in to show they’ve omitted text. So, I suspect that they did read this part, but omitted it because it undercuts their whole argument.
Let’s read the phrase with the text replaced, as in the original. I have bold-faced text that our helpful quote-miners have not included:
I will endeavor to instruct you in relation to the meaning of the beasts and figures spoken of. I should not have called up the subject had it not been for this circumstance. Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was full of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council.
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds wich a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
The High Council undertook to censure and correct Elder Brown, because of his teachings in relation to the beasts. Whether they actually corrected him or not, I am a little doubtful, but don’t care. Father Brown came to me to know what he should do about it. The subject particularly referred to was the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders mentioned in Rev 5:8—”And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.”
Thus, the high council has objected to one Elder’s interpretation of Revelation, and has disciplined him for it. Joseph says that he wouldn’t even bother to speak on this subject, if not for what they’ve done.
Core Revealed Ideas vs. Peripheral, Speculative Ones
Clearly, he’s not upset that Brown has been disciplined for his views about some core Church doctrine or for undermining belief in a core Church doctrine–like whether God exists, or whether Jesus was divine, or whether Jesus lived as a real person, or whether the doctrine of the atonement is absurd, or whether Church leaders are called of God with a unique and exclusive authority, or whether the Book of Mormon is a divinely-inspired volume. (These are all claims which the current crop of dissidents are being called to account for.)
No, he’s upset that a speculative matter–about which the high council knows no more of the truth than Brown may–is trying to settle a silly squabble over a gospel hobby-horse through Church discipline.
More Context, If You Need It
This becomes even clearer when you read Joseph’s rebukes to all involved (I here bring some snippets; you can read the whole thing at your leisure).
- “I have seldom spoken from the revelations [of St. John]; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and difference of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.” [This stuff doesn’t matter, but so you’ll stop arguing about it, I’ll tell you a bit.]
- “The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention.” [If Brown sinned in insisting upon his interpretation a bit much, those who fought with him about it are in a worse state.]
- “Father Brown has been to work and confounded all Christendom by making out that the four beasts represented the different kingdoms of God on the earth. The wise men of the day could not do anything with him, and why should we find fault? Anything to whip sectarianism, to put down priestcraft, and bring the human family to a knowledge of the truth. A club is better than no weapon for a poor man to fight with.” [Brown wasn’t exactly right, but his heart was in the right place–he was advancing a doctrine he believed in an effort to bring others to Christ. He was not striking at the foundations of belief or faithfulness.]
- “Father Brown did whip sectarianism, and so far so good; but I could not help laughing at the idea of God making use of the figure of a beast to represent His kingdom on the earth, consisting of men, when He could as well have used a far more noble and consistent figure. What! the Lord made use of the figure of a creature of the brute creation to represent that which is much more noble, glorious, and important—the glories and majesty of His kingdom? By taking a lesser figure to represent a greater, you missed it that time, old gentleman; but the sectarians did not know enough to detect you.” [Joseph corrects the misunderstanding, but note how kindly–he acknowledges its good intention. In peripheral matters, intention counts a great deal. If Brown had continued to teach false doctrine when corrected by Joseph, the outcome likely would have been different.]
- “Oh, ye elders of Israel, hearken to my voice; and when you are sent into the world to preach, tell those things you are sent to tell; preach and cry aloud, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.” Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown. Never meddle with the visions of beasts and subjects you do not understand. Elder Brown, when you go to Palmyra, say nothing about the four beasts, but preach those things the Lord has told you to preach about—repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.” [These are trivial and peripheral matters–so don’t preach them, and quit arguing about them! Surely don’t excommunicate an otherwise faithful member over them.]
- “I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject.” [And thus, one ought not to discipline Elder Brown, since no authoritative revelation or standard applies in this case–God has not revealed it.]
- “we never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation. We may spiritualize and express opinions to all eternity; but that is no authority.”
John Taylor made perhaps the best remark after Joseph’s: “I have never said much about the beasts, &c., in my preaching. When I have done it, it has been to attract attention and keep the people from running after a greater fool than myself.”
Those who quote this (significantly edited) material either don’t know the context (and are thus ignorant) or know it and hope you don’t (and are thus dishonest).
Neither case suggests you should trust their reading.
So, if you know someone being disciplined because of a slightly-bizarre view of the Revelation of St John, quote this episode.
Spare us, please, the specious claim that this means that you can oppose repeated instructions from local and general Church leaders about public acts and teachings.
Tune in next time when we see the same treatment offered to a more modern figure: President Dieter F. Uchdorf of the First Presidency. These folks are equal-opportunity quote-miners–both the nineteenth and twenty-first century leaders are fair game, it seems.