Revelation
and the
Use of Human Language


by James R. Harris
BYU Studies
from an article called
"Changes in the Book of Moses
and Their Implications Upon a Concept of Revelation"

It would be presumptuous to attempt 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 or misinterpretation.

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.

"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 words.

"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."
Correcting the Lord's Grammar

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."

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?"
Some of the saints in 1907 picked up the phrase, "correcting the Lord's grammar," and were no doubt shaken in their faith.

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.

"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 structure."
The Process of Revelation and Language

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 he knows.

"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."
(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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