Jacob 7:20-23 — LeGrand Baker — Sherem
20 And it came to pass that when he [Sherem] had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.
21 And when the multitude had witnessed that he spake these things as he was about to give up the ghost, they were astonished exceedingly; insomuch that the power of God came down upon them, and they were overcome that they fell to the earth.
22 Now, this thing was pleasing unto me, Jacob, for I had requested it of my Father who was in heaven; for he had heard my cry and answered my prayer.
23 And it came to pass that peace and the love of God was restored again among the people; and they searched the scriptures, and hearkened no more to the words of this wicked man.
This is a strange story. From the reading it appears that Sherem died because Jacob prayed for him to die. Such a story is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, because we tend to think of death as a kind of termination, even though our testimonies are sufficient to teach us that death is a kind of birth, and that Sherem’s death did not terminate his existence, it only restricted his influence. Second, as we look back in history we see lots of people whom we suppose would have caused a lot less trouble if they had just managed to die a little sooner than they did. Hitler and Stalin who were responsible for millions of deaths, are easy examples. It sounds like a cop-out to say “Well, we just don’t know the will of God.” People always say that when they have nothing more intelligent to say. Yet, that is very probably the correct answer.
President Benson frequently wrote and said (I personally heard him say it at least twice) that freedom is lost by bloodshed, and so, can only be regained by bloodshed. If evil social and political powers are to be rendered impotent, people must use force to put things right. Force against force equals war. In the early 19th century one would have felt justified in putting Napoleon in that list with Hitler and Stalin. Napoleon, like Hitler, conquered Europe then was defeated by the Russian winter. But nowadays Napoleon is so far away in time that we forget his megalomania and remember that he broke down many of the medieval walls of Europe, established a uniform Napoleonic code, and laid the foundation for what is now an increasingly probable united Europe. Hitler is called the “world’s greatest Zionist” by those who believe his persecution of the Jews was the most important factor in the world’s Jewish leaders’ deciding to support the state of Israel. Stalin created the greatest empire in the history of the world.
That empire spread over almost all of the world where LDS missionaries could not then go. In a little over half a century that empire imposed a Communist hope which could not be fulfilled, destroyed the “traditions of the fathers” which precluded the missionaries, then the empire collapsed. Now the missionaries can go almost everywhere, walking over the ashes of tradition which Communism left behind. It seems to me that the scriptures which talk about evil men destroying evil men may be applicable here (admitting many died who were not evil, but also admitting that death does not end life or progression, and probably does not even entirely terminate one’s interactive experience here.) One also remembers the Saviour’s statement that evil things must happen but wo to him by whom they happen. When one reads the prophecies, it is apparent that the plans and decisions of the Council in Heaven included wars and other catastrophes which would alter, and ultimately reorganize human society so the Gospel could be preached to every individual, and so the Saviour could ultimately reign here in peace. So it is not possible to say with certainty that Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin acted contrary to the predictions of the Council.
Another example is James J. Strang, a relatively new convert in Nauvoo, who forged a paper from Joseph Smith which appointed Strang to be the new prophet. A number of people in Nauvoo followed him. Apostle Orson Hyde was in Nauvoo, trying to keep Strang from playing havoc with the saints there. On April 5, 1846, he wrote in a letter which was published in the Millennial Star on May 15, 1848, p. 156-158. In the letter Hyde quoted a revelation which he received regarding Strang and his followers. It reads,
In my meditation, this morning, the Spirit of the Lord came upon me, and I was moved to write: and being grieved in my spirit on account of false pretenses by evil designing persons to gain power, and lead away this flock of God; It whispered to me and said:
Evil men, ambitious of power, must needs arise among you, and they shall be led by their own self-will and not by me. Yet they are instruments in my hands, and are peermitted to try my people, and to collect from among them those who are not the elect, and such as are unworthy of eternal life. Grieve not after them, neither mourn nor be alarmed. My people know my voice and also the voice of my spirit, and a stranger they will not follow; therefore such as follow strangers are not my people. Behold James J. Strang hath cursed my people by his own spirit and not by mine.
The revelation then goes on to say the Church is in good hands, and the Twelve will direct it properly.
The situation in Nauvoo was different from the situation in the Nephite colony at the time of Jacob. In 1844, as the church was in transition and moving west, it needed a good pruning. But in Jacob’s time, the colony was too young to prune, so other steps had to be taken.
So that brings us back to the question, why will the Lord move Sherem out of the way, at the prayer of Jacob, and not answer the prayers of millions of people who wanted Hitler dead so WW II would end. If there is an answer, and I believe there is, that answer is probably this. The Lord could turn the horrors of WW II to his own ends, but Sherem’s program would have defeated the will and frustrated the decisions of the Council. It is easy to see how. The Nephite colony was very young. If Sherem had succeeded in destroying the worship of Christ from among that small group of people, all of their descendants would have had no more chance to know the truth than did the children of the Lamanites. In other words, Sherem and his program threatened the whole Christian history told in the Book of Mormon. If he had succeeded the history told in that book would not have happened, the testimonies would not have happened, nor would they have been written, and you and I , and the whole modern world, would not have the Book of Mormon as a part of the restored gospel. Sherem was challenging much more than just Jacob, he was threatening to negate the promises which the Lord had made to Jacob, Joseph of Egypt, Lehi, Nephi, and other prophets that the Nephites would be a righteous people. So Sherem had to be removed from exercising influence which could mess up the entire plan.
There is a similar story in early LDS church history. After the Saints had been driven from Missouri and had settled in Nauvoo, Thomas Reynolds, governor of Missouri, made it his personal mission in life to destroy the Prophet Joseph. When someone shot at ex-governor Boggs, Reynolds sent to Illinois Gov. Ford demanding the extradition of Joseph and Porter Rockwell for the attempted murder. Ford cooperated but Joseph escaped through a writ of habeas corpus which he secured in Nauvoo. Now in the spring of 1844, Reynolds was trying again. This time he had been assured of the cooperation of Thomas Sharp at Warsaw, and Robert F. Smith and his Anti-Mormon Central Committee of Correspondence. The Anti-Mormons had promised that if Missourians came to Illinois to arrest the Prophet again, they would give them their full support.
During their September, 1843, meeting, the Anti-Mormons had resolved that the president should contact Governor Reynolds to work out plans for another extradition attempt against the Prophet. Then, during their February, 1844, convention the Anti-Mormons officially resolved that they would give Reynold’s next extradition attempt their full support when it was attempted. (The Anti-Mormons were a political organization of Hancock county. Robert F. Smith was the chairman of their executive committee, called the Central Committee of Correspondence. He was also the justice of the peace who sent Joseph to Carthage jail, and also the captain of the Carthage Greys who were “guarding” the jail when the mob from Warsaw [probably led by Sharp] attacked the jail and killed Joseph and Hyrum) So Governor Reynolds had sufficient allies in Illinois to be assured that this time he could take the Prophet prisoner and whisk him off to Missouri. Apparently the plans between Reynolds and Robert F. Smith were already made.
Consider how that would have disrupted everything. In the spring of 1844, Joseph’s mission here was reaching a climax and he was making the final preparations for his own death – restoring the temple endowment to the twelve, giving them instructions about not only the endowment but also about the organization of the Kingdom of God, making initial plans to go west, and giving all of the priesthood keys and instructions of the government of church and the kingdom to the Twelve. If Reynolds had kidnaped Joseph at that juncture in church history, if Joseph had been imprisoned so he could not do all those things, or if he had been prematurely killed, it would have prevented Joseph from doing the things which he had been ordained to do in the Council. Reynolds was defying the Council decisions in the same way Sherem had. And with the same results.
At this juncture, something unexpected happened. While Governor Reynolds was alone in his office he put a rifle barrel in his mouth and blew out his own brains. In Warsaw, Sharp was mortified. He reported in the Signal,
“Death of Gov. Reynolds. Our city is overshadowed with gloom and distress! Governor Reynolds is no more! He has perished by his own hand!” (Warsaw Signal, Warsaw, Illinois, 28 Feb. 1844.)
Reynolds death meant that whatever plans had been made between himself and Robert F. Smith’s committee would not come to fruition.
When the Prophet Joseph heard of the suicide he said,
I asked a short time since for the Lord to deliver me out of the hands of the Governor of Missouri, and if it needs must be to accomplish it, to take him away; and the next news that came pouring down from there was, that Governor Reynolds had shot himself. And I would now say, Beware, O earth, how you fight against the Saints of God and shed innocent blood; for in the days of Elijah, his enemies came upon him, and fire was called down from heaven and destroyed them. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.340)
In another place he said, “We asked the Lord to deliver us from Governor Reynolds, of Missouri; and he shot himself, and has gone to hell.” (DHC 6: 325) ”
The account of the prayer to which Joseph referred, and of its results, is given in some detail by Wilford Woodruff as follows,
I have heard the prophet Joseph pray when the power of God rested upon him, and all who heard him felt it; and I have seen his prayers answered in a marvelous manner almost immediately. Governor Reynolds on one occasion employed men to try and kidnap Joseph, and they almost accomplished their designs, but Joseph and some Gentile friends, as well as his brethren, through whom he was rescued, and was taken to Nauvoo and released under a writ of habeas corpus. But the governor continued to harass him with writs, and was determined to destroy Joseph. Joseph and the Twelve went before God in prayer, Joseph kneeling before the Lord, offered up prayer, and asked God to deliver him from the power of that man. Among other things he told the Lord that he was innocent before Him, and that his heart was heavy under the persecutions he endured. In about fortyeight hours from that time word reached Joseph that Reynolds had blown his brains out. Before perpetrating the deed he left a note on his desk stating, that as his services were not appreciated by the people of the state, he took that course to end his days. (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, p.33, 34; JD 24:55, January 27, 1883.)
So, in the case of Sherem and of Governor Reynolds, and I suppose anyone else who pushes it, if one pits his own will and actions against the purposes of the Council, it is that person, not the decisions of the Council, that will be frustrated.
Given the description of Joseph’s prayer, I believed he prayed with the Twelve as he was directed by the Spirit, so it was the Lord’s decision that Joseph should pray for release. There is no such description of Jacob’s prayer in the Book of Mormon, but I don’t believe Jacob would have offered that prayer unless the Spirit directed him to do so. If what I believe is true, then the story of Sherem dying because Jacob had prayed for it, is not such an extraordinary story after all. Prophets are prophets because they love and obey the Lord, their prayers are effectual because they pray in righteousness according to the directions of the Spirit.