Use of Human Language
by James R. Harris
from an article called
"Changes in the Book of Moses
and Their Implications Upon a Concept of Revelation"
It would be presumptuous to
try to limit the scope and variety of God's power to communicate with
us. God can communicate any way that we can communicate, and he is
not limited to the relatively feeble instruments of communication that we use.
At this moment I am trying to communicate ideas or concepts.
If I choose my words wisely, and carefully place those words in
logical patterns, someone may arrive at the same concepts that I
intended to convey. However, such a result cannot be guaranteed.
The words I select are not the concept, but are symbols by which
I am trying to communicate the concept. Obviously, there is a tremendous
risk in the process of transmitting concepts through word symbols.
Consequentially, God does not, as a general rule, use this indirect method of
communication. Preferably, he communicates concepts directly to the
souls of men. When this method is used there is no possibility of misunderstanding
However, if the divine communication is to be
transmitted to others, the prophet must represent the concepts given him
in the thought symbols at his command.
The concepts are divine,
but the language is still human.
Orson Pratt had much to say on this subject:
"Suppose the Holy Ghost should suggest to the mind of an individual
a vast multitude of truths, and the man wishes to
convey that intelligence and knowledge to his fellow man.
Correcting the Lord's Grammar
"Suppose, instead of his having arbitrary sounds [human language] to
communicate these ideas, that the Holy Ghost itself should
enable him to unfold that knowledge to another man, all in an instant, without
this long tedious process of artificial and arbitrary sounds, and written
"How does God perceive the thoughts of our hearts? Is there not some kind
of language or power by which he can [do this]?
"Now suppose we had some of that power resting upon us.
Would it not be a different kind of a language from sound, or
a written language? It would.
"If spirits can commune with spirits, and
one higher intelligence commune with another by the same principle
through which God sees the thoughts and intents of the heart, that would be
nothing more than the process of revelation as we already know it."
President Joseph F. Smith identified some basic principles of revelation
in his testimony before the U.S. Senate in the Reed Smoot hearing. At this point,
changes made in the grammatical structure of the Manifesto
were being considered.
The dialogue went as follows:
Senator - "I understand this Manifesto was inspired."
Some of the saints in 1907 picked up the phrase, "correcting the Lord's
grammar," and were no doubt shaken in their faith.
JFS - "Yes."
Senator - "That is your understanding of it?"
JFS - "My answer was that it was inspired."
Senator - "And when it was handed to you it was an inspiration, as you
understand it, from on high, was it not?"
JFS - "Yes."
Senator - "What business had you to change it?"
JFS - "We did not change the meaning."
Senator - "You have just stated you changed it."
JFS - "Not the sense, sir. I did not say we changed the sense."
Senator - "But you changed the phraseology?"
JFS - "We simply put it in shape for publication, corrected possibly the
grammar, and wrote it so that..."
Senator - "You mean to say that in an inspired communication from the
Almighty the grammar was bad was it? You corrected the grammar of
the Almighty did you?"
B. H. Roberts' explained to these troubled souls the human elements
in the language of the revelations:
"When we have a communication
made directly from the Lord Himself there is no imperfection whatever
in that revelation. But when the Almighty uses a man as an instrument
through whom to communicate divine wisdom, the manner in which the
revelation is imparted to men may receive a certain human coloring from
the prophet through whom it came.
The Process of Revelation and Language
"We know for instance, that the message delivered to Israel through the
Prophet Isaiah possessed different characteristics from the message delivered
through Jeremiah, or through Ezekiel, or through Amos.
"It seems that the
inspiration of the Lord need not necessarily destroy the personal characteristics
of the man making the communication to his fellowmen.
"For instance, in this Manifesto issued by President Woodruff, what if there were
imperfect, or ungrammatical sentences in it? The great truth that the Lord made
known to the soul of Wilford Woodruff was
that it was necessary for the preservation of the Church and the uninterrupted
progress of her work that plural marriages should be discontinued.
"Now, any expression [from President Woodruff]
containing that truth was all that was necessary[for us]. And so
there is nothing of weight in the phrase "Correcting the grammar of the
Almighty." We do not correct His grammar. Perhaps the brethren made
slight corrections in the grammar of Wilford Woodruff. The grammar may
be the prophet's, but the idea, the truth, is God's.
"The Lord's chastisement of Oliver Cowdery for attempting to translate
without "studying it out in the mind" is well known throughout the
Church. This studying-out process within the mind of the translator
involved the selection and use of words to build a concept or give it a rational
This process is described by Elder Roberts as follows:
"Since the translation is thought out in the mind of the seer, it must
be thought out in such thought-signs as he is master of, for man thinks
coherently in language; and, necessarily, in such language as
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
"If his knowledge of the language in which he thinks and speaks is
imperfect, his diction and grammar will be defective.
"On rare occasions God may dictate a communication, but it seems that God
usually communicates in concepts. Unfortunately, the principle of revelation
is best understood by [those who experience it], but difficult to understand without experience.
"To insure accurate reception, God communicates his will directly to the souls of men
by flooding their understandings
with concepts that cannot be misunderstood. If the divine message
is to be communicated to others, a prophet must then select the words that
will enable his disciples to perceive the God-given concepts.
"The concepts given to a prophet are divine; the words with
which he transmits them are human. Latter-day Saints should
be able to accept new revelation as it flows from the living prophet, and to
accept clarifications of past revelation as they come through the proper
channels of authority.
"The program of the Church is constantly changing to meet new needs
and to bring to full maturation promises and objectives that were declared
from the beginning of the Restoration.
"If the saints are to realize their destiny as a Zion people, they must be able and
willing to change; and, no doubt, a program will continue to unfold under the
living prophets to encourage a level of performance and spiritual endowment
that enables the members of the Church to become a Zion people.
"Such a program cannot succeed unless the members
feel totally commited to the living prophets.
"Those, in past generations, who were disgruntled over changes
made in the earliest renditions of the Book of Moses or in any other scripture
were worshipping dead things. Their ears were not inclined toward the
living God who speaks to his Church through his living prophets."
For Latter-day Saints