Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Works of Abraham
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D&C 132 tells Joseph and others to "do the works of Abraham." What can you tell me about this?
The "works of Abraham" are fundamentally about obedience to God's laws, obedience to any commandment given, and willingness to sacrifice. For Joseph and the early Saints, a prominent part of such works was plural marriage, but this was (in a sense) incidental—the great work was obedience to covenant and law; plural marriage was simply their burden and trial.
It is often casually assumed that "the works of Abraham" refer mainly to plural marriage. A consideration of both the phrase's orgins, and its use in D&C 132, may suggest that a broader meaning is intended.
The phrase has its origins in the gospel of John. Jesus rebuked unrighteous Jews, saying:
- ...Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father (John 8:34-38).
Stung, the Jews replied, "Abraham is our father." Jesus answered:
- If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham (John 8:39-40).
Thus, at its most basic level, "the works of Abraham" are to obey and serve God, and not be "the servant of sin." Even before the abolition of plural marriage, leaders of the Church understood this, though many also used obedience to the command to practice plural marriage as a pre-eminent example.
Abraham plays a central role in D&C 132's justification of plural marriage. Yet, it is not simply as a polygamist that Abraham is appealed to:
- 29 Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.
- 30 Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.
- 31 This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself.
Again, Abraham received blessings because of revelation and obedience to covenant and commandment.
- 32 Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.
- 33 But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.
The works of Abraham, we remember, were obedience and service to God. Joseph and others were to "enter into [God's] law," which has been explained earlier in the section as the law of sealing as part of the new and everlasting covenant (DC 132:7; see here for a more extensive discussion of the new and everlasting covenant).
- 34 God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.
- 35 Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.
We must not confuse "the law" to which verse 34 refers with "the law" described in verse 7: "he conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise...are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead."
"The law" which Sarah obeys or follows is later (v. 64-65) referred to as "the law of Sarah"—this law seems to imply that a man who will practice plural marriage must first give his wife the opportunity to approve and endorse the new wife. Thus, the rhetorical question and answer is not
- Q: Why did Sarah do this?
- A: Because plural marriage is "the law."
- Q: Why did Sarah give the wife to Abraham, when he could have simply, by his culture's rules, taken another wife himself?
- A: Because "the law" [of Sarah] requires a righteous man to give his wife a chance to approve, and not proceed unilaterally.
We here recall that this revelation was written to persuade Emma Smith to endorse plural marriage; this argument, then, is especially directed at her (see verses 51-56).
We note also that Abraham was not condemned—but not because plural marriage was "the law" and he practiced it, but because he was commanded and then acted. And, it was this fundamental obedience to any and every commandment that made Abraham great, as the next verse makes clear:
- 36 Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
If taking a plural wife was "the law," which Abraham was bound by, then this analogy makes little sense—for it is surely not a law to murder. Indeed, the Lord acknowledges that the "default setting" for the law is not to kill. But, Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham took a plural wife not because it was the law, but because he was commanded (just as Joseph had been):
- 37 Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.
Abraham kept "the law"—the sealing power and conditions detailed earlier. He, Isaac, and Jacob were justified because they "did the works of Abraham"—they did "none other things than that which they were commanded."
The Lord returns to Abraham later in the section:
- 49 For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your father.
- 50 Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
The same themes recur—Joseph has been obedient, and thus will join Abraham. He has sacrificed (as with Isaac, notably, rather than as with Hagar) in obedience.
- [note] B. Carmon Hardy's sourcebook on plural marriage is even given this title: Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise, Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier (Norman, Okla.: Arthur H. Clark Co.), 2007.
- [note] See: Franklin D. Richards, Conference Report (April 1880), 94.; John Taylor, (8 April 1853) Journal of Discourses 1:226-227.; Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses 11:151-152.; Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 13:158.; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 21:238.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 24:282.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 24:337.; N[ewell] K. Whitney [et al.], "A Voice from the Temple," Times and Seasons 5 no. 22 (2 December 1844), 729. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] See: Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 1:60.; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 4:224.; Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses 4:259-260.; Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 5:91.; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:322-333.; George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses 13:198.; George Teasdale, Journal of Discourses 26:48.; Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 26:341.;