“A School and an Endowment,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“A School and an Endowment,” Revelations in Context
In spring 1834, at a meeting of all priesthood bearers in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith shared the vision he had of the Church’s destiny. It was more than any of those in attendance could imagine; he said, “You know no more concerning the destinies of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap.” Then he prophesied: “It is only a little handfull of Priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world.”1
To the men in the room, this must have been a thrilling thought but a daunting one. They had already accomplished much in the mission field, baptizing Church members in parts of the United States and Canada. Thinking of taking the gospel to all the earth, though, they surely felt their own limitations. What would have to happen to expand from a handful of Church members to a worldwide faith? How would the elders of the Church help fulfill the Lord’s vision?
In the New Testament, Jesus promised His Apostles heavenly assistance as they went forth to “preach the gospel to every creature.” He instructed them to “tarry … in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”2 The Lord had similarly promised the Saints in 1831 that after gathering to Ohio, they would be “endowed with power from on high” and then sent out to spread the gospel message.3 In later years, this endowment came to be understood as a specific set of ceremonies performed in the Nauvoo Temple and later temples, but in the 1830s it was understood to be a spiritual outpouring similar to what happened on the day of Pentecost, a literal endowment or bestowal of miraculous power on those who went to spread the gospel.4
In a revelation received in late December 1832 and early January 1833, now Doctrine and Covenants 88, the Lord elaborated on what the elders should do to “be prepared in all things when I shall send you again” to testify and to warn the people of the earth.5 The revelation commanded Church members to organize themselves and “teach one another” and to build a “house of God.” Echoing Jesus’s command in the New Testament, the revelation told the elders to “tarry” in Kirtland, where they were to be instructed and empowered at the school, “that [they] may be perfected in [their] ministry to go forth among the Gentiles for the last time.”6
Acting on the revelation, the Saints began work to “establish a school for the Prophets” in Kirtland.7 The concept of a school of the prophets was not unique to the Latter-day Saints. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Harvard and Yale were seminaries for training clergy, and both were referred to at times as schools of the prophets. Later, reform movements associated with the Second Great Awakening—a widespread religious revival movement in the United States in the early 19th century—established private ministerial schools under the same name.8
The early Latter-day Saints did not have the resources or educational background of most school founders, but they went forward in faith. Not yet having a house of the Lord to meet in, the School of the Prophets was officially organized on January 22 and 23, 1833, in a small room above Newel K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland. Though both men and women attended the January 22 portion of the meeting, the school itself was reserved for men ordained to the priesthood. Those in attendance at the first meeting received “the divine manifestation of the Holy Spirit,” including speaking in tongues.9
Unlike a conventional school, with semesters and set schedules in a fixed location, the School of the Prophets was intermittent and moved around. In farming communities such as Kirtland, winter months provided more time for such activities as schooling. The first session lasted about three months and closed in April.10 Subsequent sessions, called variously the “school of the prophets,” the “school of mine apostles,” and “Elders school,” were held that summer in Missouri and again in Kirtland in fall 1834 and winter 1835–36 in the Church’s printing office or in the attic floor of the unfinished Kirtland Temple.11
The December 1832 revelation had given specific instructions for the school’s course of study, which was to include both religious and secular topics. Students were to become well versed in the “theory, principle, doctrine, and the law of the gospel,” and they were also to learn about the earth itself—what was above it, on it, and under it. They were to learn history and current events, with perspective on the future through prophetic revelation. They were to learn about foreign countries. The School of the Prophets was to be instructed both by an officially appointed teacher and by the participants themselves learning from one another, with each having a turn to speak “that all may be edified of all.”12
A revelation on March 8, 1833, now Doctrine and Covenants 90, gave the newly appointed First Presidency of the Church the “keys” to administer the School of the Prophets, and it appears that Joseph Smith took the lead in spiritual subjects, assisted by Sidney Rigdon. The School of the Prophets was the venue in which the seven lectures on theology now known as the Lectures on Faith were delivered. These lectures were included in early editions of the Doctrine and Covenants. They were the first part of the book, designated “Doctrine,” while the second part was the “Covenants,” or revelations. The Lectures on Faith endure as an important theological contribution of the early 1830s.13
Language studies were a major part of the more traditional schooling, beginning with English grammar. For the most part, the elders in attendance were not well educated and could say with Joseph Smith that as children of poor parents, they had been “mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic.”14 Though Orson Hyde had been orphaned as a child and received little formal education, he had a gift for learning and was appointed teacher.15 On several occasions, Joseph Smith went home in the evening and gathered his family around him to teach them the very grammar lessons he had learned that day in the School of the Prophets.16 A course in Hebrew, taught by a Jewish professor from a nearby college, was given in 1836 and was attended by many students of the School of the Prophets.
The School of the Prophets allowed the early Saints to reach for more education than they had access to previously. But it also served purposes that went beyond learning facts and concepts. The first generation of Latter-day Saints grew up in a culture where personal reputation was highly valued and where it was normal and even encouraged to react forcefully to real or perceived slights. The revealed order of the School of the Prophets was designed in part to help members rise above these shortcomings of their culture. Ritual practices underscored the need to become clean and unified.
To become “clean from the blood of this generation” and to set themselves apart from the world, the elders participated in ritual washings.17 After each elder washed his own face, hands, and feet, Joseph Smith washed the feet of each, following the example set by Jesus in John 13:4–17 and instructions in Doctrine and Covenants 88:138–41. Joseph washed the feet of each new member of the school and repeated the ceremony at other meetings of the School of the Prophets.18 Later washings and anointings, including foot washing, were part of preparations for the solemn assembly held in the newly dedicated Kirtland Temple, and these washings featured prominently in the solemn assembly itself.
A more mundane concern with cleanliness also played a role in the School of the Prophets. One participant remembered that before each school day, “we washed ourselves and put on clean linen.”19 And Emma Smith’s complaints about the filth caused by the school members’ chewing tobacco led to the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom.20
In addition to symbolizing purification, the washing of feet was also intended to help unify the elders. Revelations urged them again and again to “love one another” and to “cease to find fault with one another,” warning, “If ye are not one ye are not mine.”21 Joseph Smith taught that unity was a prerequisite to being endowed and was part of the definition of Zion.22 Harmony between Church leaders in Ohio and Missouri was something Joseph Smith continually strived for, and he taught that in addition to spiritual cleansing, the washing of feet was “calculated to unite our hearts, that we may be one in feeling and sentiment.”23
The prescribed greeting when entering the school was also intended to promote harmony, even in a culture of contention. The president or teacher was to enter first and greet each participant by raising his hands to heaven and saying, “Art thou a brother or brethren? I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen.” The student seeking to enter the school would repeat back the covenant or simply reply, “Amen.”
Participants in the School of the Prophets also partook of the sacrament together—but in portions that perhaps resembled the Last Supper more than the morsel of bread and sip of water that Latter-day Saints are accustomed to today. As Zebedee Coltrin recalled, “Warm bread to break easy was provided and broken into pieces as large as my fist and each person had a glass of wine and sat and ate the bread and drank the wine.”24
In spite of these unifying ordinances, harmony proved elusive. The first session was wrapped up in April 1833 at the time of several mission calls, and a revelation in June (Doctrine and Covenants 95) made it clear that the term ended on a dissonant note: “Contentions arose in the school of the prophets,” the Lord said, “which was very grievous unto me.” The same revelation reprimanded the Saints for not yet starting work on the house of the Lord and reiterated that it was the place for the “school of mine apostles.” This revelation promised that the long-anticipated “endowment” would come at a “solemn assembly” within the walls of the new temple.
Beginning in 1834, Church leaders from both Missouri and Ohio gathered in Kirtland to attend the school and otherwise prepare for the solemn assembly where they would receive the endowment. The two sets of leaders had a history of not getting along, however, and lapses of unity characterized the period. Around the same time, Orson Hyde sent a scathing letter to Joseph Smith about a dispute with another Apostle, Joseph’s brother William Smith.25 Hyde refused to attend the school until the matter was settled. Though Hyde’s concerns were soon resolved, other disputes continued to trouble the group. “The adversary is bringing into requisition all his subtlety,” Joseph Smith said, “to prevent the Saints from being endowed by causing devision among the 12, also among the 70, and bickerings and jealousies among the Elders.”26
Fortunately, the winter of 1835–36 brought a long hoped-for period of reconciliations and harmony in the Church. Joseph Smith and his brother William mended a damaged relationship, one that had been characterized by the occasional throwing of fists.27 A major disagreement between the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve ended with an emotional reconciliation and covenant making that hearkened back to the greeting of the School of the Prophets.28 Regarding a Church meeting shortly thereafter at which the newly unified Church leaders spoke, Joseph Smith’s journal reports, “The Lord poured out his spirit upon us, and the brethren began to confess their faults one to the other and the congregation were soon overwhelmed in tears and some of our hearts were too big for utterance, the gift of toungs, come upon us also like the rushing of a mighty wind, and my soul was filled with the glory of God.”29 Thus unified, and with such manifestation of God’s approval, they were readying themselves to receive the promised endowment.
Miraculous spiritual manifestations occurred at various times over the course of the School of the Prophets as the elders worked to live up to God’s vision for them and prepare for the endowment.30 Joseph Smith said such manifestations were “a prelude of those joys that God will pour out” at the solemn assembly.31
When the Kirtland Temple was finally ready for dedication in March 1836, Joseph Smith sought guidance in preparing a prayer for the monumental occasion. The prayer, given by revelation and now published as Doctrine and Covenants 109, touched on many of the themes that had occupied the School of the Prophets over the long preparation for the endowment of power. It spoke of learning, of spiritual cleanliness, of organization and unity, and of missionary work.
At the long-awaited solemn assembly in the temple, many people experienced powerful spiritual experiences that they affirmed as an endowment of power. Joseph Smith recorded, “The Saviour made his appearance to some, while angels minestered unto others, and it was a penticost and enduement indeed, long to be remembered for the sound shall go forth from this place into all the world, and the occurrences of this day shall be handed down upon the pages of sacred history to all generations, as the day of Pentecost.” Further manifestations and visions accompanied the dedication of the Kirtland Temple that same week.32
On Sunday, April 3, 1836, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery prayed at the temple pulpits, they were visited by Jesus Christ and many angelic messengers. Christ pronounced them clean, accepted the house they had built for Him, and affirmed “the endowment with which my servants have already been endowed.” Immediately thereafter, they received from Moses himself “the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the Earth,” as well as receiving other keys from other ancient prophets.33 In their eyes, the promises had been fulfilled and the elders did not need to tarry in Kirtland any longer.
Over the following months, missionaries departed from Kirtland to preach the gospel. In 1837, Orson Hyde and Heber C. Kimball went to England. This mission and ensuing missions in the British Isles brought thousands of people into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and changed the course of its history. In 1844, Joseph Smith reported, “Missionaries of this church have gone to the East Indies, to Australia, Germany, Constantinople, Egypt, Palestine, the Islands of the Pacific, and are now preparing to open the door in the extensive dominions of Russia.”34 These missionary efforts, undertaken in great part by those educated in the School of the Prophets and endowed with power in the Kirtland Temple, marked the beginnings of the restored gospel going forth to fill all the world.