In reading Section 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants, I have discovered meaning for me, not so much in the 1838 text we read in the official version, but rather, the original Hebrew text from which it was taken, and how that changed over time. In my personal experience I feel that the turning of the heart of the living and deceased parents to children, and the heart of children to living and deceased parents is deeply meaningful. I believe the text, in its original meaning, is about relationships and love, and the changes made in the official version found in D&C 2 lose a lot of that meaning.
The History and Theology of D&C 2
Section 2 presents the words of Moroni to Joseph Smith purportedly as of 1823, when he first encountered the Angel. However, in the “Book of Commandments” (1833), the first version of what would become the Doctrine and Covenants, this revelation does not appear. In the 1836 revelations in the Kirtland temple, the verse appears much as it does in Malachi. The changed version only appears in the 1838 Manuscript History of the Church, written fifteen years after the event. Although Section 2 largely derives from Malachi 4, the 1838 version exhibits theological interpretations by Joseph Smith not present in the original text. Malachi 4:5 reads:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD
Whereas D&C 2 reads:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
The symbol of “Elijah the Prophet” was meant to be some sort of preparatory sign, that a person would prepare the way for the “day of the LORD.” In the New Testament, and in LDS doctrine, this is the “spirit of Elias” and equates to John the Baptist. The problem in LDS doctrine is that Joseph Smith did not realize that “Elias” is simply the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name “Elijah.”
But for Joseph Smith to change the meaning of the verse to that the Priesthood be revealed by the hand of Elijah the Prophet strains the meaning of the original passage. In 1836, Joseph Smith records appearances of both Elias and Elijah in the newly-dedicated Kirtland Temple. Importantly, Elijah repeats Malachi 4:4-6 as such:
Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse.
In contrast, two years later in the Manuscript History, now appearing as D&C Section 2, it reads:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming
While the concept of “priesthood” appears now in 1838, there is also a significant change in the nature of the turning of the heart(s) of the fathers to the children and the heart(s) of the children to the fathers. In 1838, the heart(s) of the fathers no longer have a role, it’s all about the children: receiving planted promises in their hearts that were given to their fathers, and then turning the children’s hearts to the fathers.
I believe that this change is both significant and troubling, for it imposes the dimension of Priesthood in place of mutual relationality, and loses an important theological dimension to the original Malachi text and its appearance in 1836 in Section 110.
In the context of Latter-day Saint temple work, we perform vicarious ordinances for our deceased ancestors. We interpret the Malachi and D&C 2 passage that “the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers” as meaning that we do temple work for them. There is merit to this idea, and in other faith traditions, Catholics pray for their deceased ancestors, and east-Asian religions perform rites for ancestors. So, at least the turning of heart(s) to the ancestors is consistent.
I have used the term “heart(s)” here. In the Hebrew text, the word “heart” (leb) is singular, not plural. Although this could be stylistic, there may also be a theological dimension here. The heart is the seat of emotions, of the Holy Spirit, who performs a unifying, truth-telling, relational role in both humanity as well as divinity. The scripture does not speak of turning the mind/thoughts to ancestors, nor doing work for ancestors, but rather, a connection with our ancestors, characterized by love and empathy. The performing of a ritual act on behalf of an ancestor should only be the beginning of something more. In thinking of the mission of the Holy Spirit, it unifies by means of love: thus, humans become one heart, knitted together in love.
Another interesting dimension here. The word “fathers” is from the Hebrew “Aboaham” – potentially including mothers as well. Thus:
And he should turn the heart of the parents to the children and the hear of the children to their parents, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
From the perspective of living families, this mission of Elijah to place the Holy Spirit into family relationality makes all sorts of sense, especially to LDS—but I have never heard it used in this way. We seem to focus on dead fathers, not the living. So, what does it mean for dead fathers to turn their heart to their children? Given that there really is no answer to this in scripture, I’m not surprised that Joseph Smith in 1838 decided to change the phrase to make more sense: dead ancestors would have nothing to do with the living…right? So we focus on planting some promises (which ones? Where are these planted in our scriptures?).
A Personal Perspective
I think the idea of relationality is at the heart of these verses.
My mother died sixteen years ago. I have had spiritual experiences where I have felt her presence. To me, I have a “mother in heaven,” with whom I feel deeply connected, and I have heard her voice say to me, as were her last words to me in this life, “I love you, Mark.”
Recently, I have been working through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and one of the exercises focuses on my personal failings in the past. My most painful experience in life—my deepest secret shame—is when I deeply disappointed my mother. I cannot be free of this wound I inflicted on myself. She has always forgiven me, but I let her down in a way that cannot be mended.
But then, I realize that my mother, too, had deep wounds. Brought up during the Great Depression, her father, one of the earliest LDS leaders in Chicago, turned to alcoholism after the crash. My mother was permanently injured in a drunk car crash, eventually losing her leg, but growing up with the scars of being “crippled”—a word we could never use in our house. She had a sister who died of diptheria, and a brother, likely gay, who committed suicide. Alcoholism and untreated diabetes would claim both her parents in their middle-age. But she wrote journals, revealing her vulnerability.
I encountered one of these journals in the basement. It was amazing writing, full of wonder, as I came to understand how my mother suffered and yet, found light amidst suffering. I mentioned to her that I had read something she wrote, and she became so angry with me that she forbade me ever to look at them again and swore she would destroy them. After she died sixteen years ago, I went through all her things, and the journals were gone. Alas.
But it does not change the idea that my heart is deeply affected by this amazing woman whom I call my “mother in heaven.” When she died, I felt a blackness of soul so deep I could not feel anything at all. That blackness is still there, but so also is her influence, which I feel every single day I think of her, every time in the depths of my soul when I reach out to God, her voice is there: “I love you, Mark, I love you, Mark.”
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents in eternal love