EDITOR’S NOTE: Several weeks ago, a friend gave us a copy of this piece, purportedly written by Hugh Nibley. When we read it, it had the feel of Nibley’s classic social commentaries but not the look. For one thing, Nibley doesn’t use multiple exclamation points. Obviously, ours was an uncorrected transcription from a clandestine recording. After a second person gave us a copy which was given to him by his BYU religion teacher, we contacted Brother Nibley. He corrected our copy and allowed us to publish an "authorized version" of what was originally part of a Sunday School lesson.
THE PRIESTHOOD CEASES to be effective when exercised "in any degree of unrighteousness" (D&C 131:37), but it operates by the spirit, and the spirit is not deceived but is exquisitely sensitive to the slightest color of fraud, pretention, self-will, ambition, cruelty, etc. "When we undertake.., to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the heavens withdraw themselves; and the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man" (D&C 121:37). But what about the righteous dominion of the priesthood? That can be easily recognized, for it operates "only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the souls without hypocrisy, and without guile… with "bowels full of charity towards all men..." (121:41ff). Even in the eternities the power of the priesthood flows "without compulsory means.., forever and ever" (121:46).
Who can deny such a power to another? No man. Who can bestow it on another? No man. We like to think that the Church is divided into those who have it and those who don’t have it; but it is the purest folly to assume that we can tell who has it and who does not. God alone knows who is righteous and how righteous; yet "the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven," and those "cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principle of righteousness" (D&C 121:35). The result is that if there is anyone who really holds the priesthood, no one is in a position to say who it is--only by the power to command the spirits and the elements is such a gift apparent. But as far as commanding or directing other people, there every man must decide for himself.
One valuable hint the Lord has given us, however, namely the assurance that of all those who "hold" the priesthood almost none really possess it. "That the rights of the priesthood.., may be conferred upon us, it is true," making us formally priesthood holders, "but when we undertake to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness" the priesthood is void. And this is how it is in "almost all" cases in the Church: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as, they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called but few are chosen" (D&C 121:39-40).
What does one have to do to be chosen? First, one may not set one’s heart upon the things of this world (121:35)--so much for the priesthood as something to show off; then, one may not aspire to the honors of men--so much for the priesthood as something for prestige. One cannot exercise any power of the priesthood in any degree of unrighteousness--this in full recognition of the fact that "it is the nature of almost all men" to do that very thing as soon as they think they have power and authority. This leaves a few humble, unpretentious, and unworldly people as the sole holders of a valid priesthood. It is the "few humble followers of Christ" who are the strength of the Church throughout much of the Book of Mormon history.
What irony. As far as the ’whole world is concerned, the priesthood is a thing of value which is cruel to withhold from anyone, because it enhances one’s status and dignity among his fellows, whether inside the Church or outside. And yet the one thing that renders that priesthood completely null and void is to treat it as something to aspire to among one’s fellows. Priesthood is strictly an arrangement between the individual priesthood holder and his brethren in the eternal worlds, as personal and private as anything can be.
We might as well recognize the fact that whatever we say and do in righteousness is going to be misinterpreted. The only way we can make things easier for ourselves in the world is to go the way of the world. It would be hard to deny that the peace and prosperity of the Church in the past years has been largely the fruit of willingness; to go the way the world goes.
Where all truth is encompassed in one great whole to raise one question is to raise many others, and any issue relevant to the gospel inevitably leads to a discussion of the whole thing.
Is not the priesthood everything? Not on this earth. On this earth it is nothing, and as soon as we try to use it for any kind of status, power, rule, or authority, it automatically cancels out.
TO repeat, as we are prone to do for lack of wit, for those who hold the priesthood on this earth, it is, the Prophet Joseph said, "an onerous burden," not a prize. One cannot give orders to another by the priesthood. One cannot use it to acquire prestige, fame or wealth. Far from impressing one’s fellow men, it is held in derision by them. The moment one tries to make honor or glory or exercise dominion by the priesthood "amen to the priesthood of that man"--it automatically becomes null and void. What good is it then? Over whom does it exercise dominion? Over the spirits and over the elements--but not over one’s fellow-men, who cannot under any circumstances be deprived of their complete free agency.
Though some may find it hard to believe, I find no cause for boasting in my priesthood--nothing is easier than conferring it upon one, but that is only the beginning; for it to be a real power requires a degree of concentration, dedication, and self-discipline which few ever attain to, and for the rest priesthood is not a blessing but a terrible risk. The priesthood is not a badge of office to be worn as; a feather in a cap. Do we really believe the First Vision? Thousands of Latter-day Saints attest to it every Fast Sunday; but when the earliest, fullest, and best account of the First Vision, dictated by the Prophet at the age of 26 to Frederick G. Williams, was discovered and published in 1968 it caused not the slightest ripple of interest in the Church. It is enough, apparently; to know that God has spoken again from the heavens--never mind what he said.
The most useful lesson is the silence of heaven on this particular issue in the light of our own woeful ignorance. There is a connection between the two. Where the people do not seek for wisdom and knowledge, God will not give it to them, and so they remain in ignorance, and may not ask for help from above.
Nothing pleases God more than to have his children "seek greater light and knowledge"--it was for that that Adam, Abraham, Enoch, Moses, and Joseph Smith were rewarded with the richest blessings. Nothing displeases him more than to have them "seek for power, and authority, and riches" (3 Nephi 6:15). Through the years the Latter-day Saints have consistently sought not for the former but for the latter. It is only right and proper that we should stew in our own juice for a while.
"I sought for the blessings of the fathers, desiring also to be one who possessed greater knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess greater knowledge . . ."(Abraham 1:2).
Twice he repeats it--he wants knowledge. Up to the last, even after he had learned all the doctrines of salvation, Adam still "seeks for greater light and knowledge" and for such knowledge we should seek eternally. But what do we hear? A former president of the BYU pompously announced at a convention of educators that we: at the BYU are not seeking for truth, because we have the truth! This is where we stand today. It is common at the BYU for students to protest against being taught anything they did not know before: "Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? . . . And because that I have spoken one word he need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be unto the end of man . . . (2 Nephi 29:8-9).
The fact is that the Latter-day Saints "will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be" (2 Nephi 32:7). They simply are just not interested.
How little we know about things. How little we want to know. The information is there, far more abundant than we have been willing to realize, if we will only reach out for it. To wait for a revelation on the subject is foolish until we have exhausted all the resources already placed at our disposal. The strong prejudice has long been extended to the Indians by many Mormons in high position, yet the Mormons alone of all the people in the world believe the Indians to be the true blood of Israel, no less.
Such attitudes are strengthened by the snobbery of American suburbia; the Mormons like to think of themselves as WASPS--yet it was the rural, white, Christian, Protestant Americans upon whom the Lord with his own lips excoriated to the youthful prophet; they are all hypocrites, said he: "They were all wrong . . . all their creeds were an abomination in his sight... those professors were all corrupt: ’They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me...having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.’ " (Joseph Smith-History 1:19).
There are those in the Church who would identify Zion with "Executive Meadows, the Exclusive Condominium for the Right People."
REPEAT of repeat: Over whom does it exercise power, then? Over the spirits and over the elements--never over one’s fellow men, whose free agency is absolute and inalienable.
Christ commanded the spirits, and they obeyed him; he commanded the elements and they obeyed him, but men he would not command, and rebuked the apostles at Capernaum for suggesting it. "How often would I have gathered you together.., and ye would not!"
What then is the priesthood on this earth? It is what Brigham Young and the Twelve wrote in the Times and Seasons in 1839, they called the priesthood an "onerous duty," a load to be borne. Very few men on earth, including those in the Church are really qualified. In terms of prestige, status, power, influence, pleasure, privilege, "power, and authority, and riches" (3 Nephi 6:37), the priesthood has absolutely nothing to offer. The world laughs at it, the Latter-day Saints abuse or ignore it, and those who take it seriously do so in "fear and trembling."