Section 81: Counselor in the First Presidency
Section 81 is the last of four revelations Joseph Smith mentioned receiving before March 20, 1832. It was received on March 15, 1832. Frederick G. Williams (see the Brief Historical Setting for 1830 October near the end of section 32. See also the introductory commentary for section 56) had been previously called to be an high priest and counselor in the First Presidency, and this revelation instructed him in his calling (see also the background material for section 75).
Actually, in March 1832 there was not really a First Presidency as we call it today. In January 1832 at the conference at Amherst, Ohio, Joseph had been ordained and sustained “President of the High Priesthood.” In this section, Brother Williams is instructed in his calling as a counselor to Joseph in the Presidency of the High Priesthood. By 1834 this body was called the First Presidency of the Church. In these commentary materials I have taken the license to refer to the Presidency of the High Priesthood as the First Presidency because the historical evolution from the one to the other is so direct.
Actually, when this revelation was received in March 1832, it instructed Jesse Gause and not Frederick G. Williams in his calling as counselor to Joseph in the presidency. Gause had been ordained a counselor in the Presidency of the High Priesthood on March 8, 1832. When Jesse Gause apostatized and was excommunicated in December of 1832, the call was transferred to Frederick G. Williams, and Jesse Gause’s name was removed from the revelation and replaced with that of Brother Williams. Brother Williams was not actually ordained to the office until March 18, 1833! It was on this date that the First Presidency of the Church (as distinct from the Presidency of the High Priesthood) was organized, a year after section 81 was received.
The original recipient of this revelation, Jesse Gause, had been a member of the Shaker community in North Union, Ohio. He had arrived in North Union with his family in October 1831, about seven months after Latter-day Saint missionaries visited that community (see D&C 49). He must have come into contact with the Church soon afterward, for he was called as a counselor to Joseph Smith on March 8, 1832, less than five months later, during which time he had been converted and baptized. Gause was about twenty years older than Joseph Smith and ten years older than Sidney Rigdon. He accompanied the Prophet to Missouri in April and appears to have served faithfully until August 1832, when, on a mission with Zebedee Coltrin, he visited his estranged wife in a proselyting effort among the Shakers at North Union. For health reasons, Coltrin returned to Kirtland on August 19. Gause, unable to reconcile with his wife, “continued east and walked right out of the history of the Church, never again to return” (Woodward, “Jesse Gause,” 364). He was excommunicated on December 3, 1832, for reasons unknown, although the Far West Record notes that he “denied the faith,” and it is possible that his wife had something to do with the matter (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 47-48).
For the convenience of the reader, let us also briefly summarize the background of Frederick G. Williams. He had joined the Church after being taught by the Lamanite missionaries as they passed through Kirtland on their way to Missouri in the fall of 1830. He volunteered to leave his family and travel with the missionaries to Missouri, and his 144-acre farm in Kirtland was given over to the use of the Church. Members of his family, Ezra Thayre, the Prophet’s parents, and other church members occupied it during his absence. In the fall of 1832, Williams returned to Kirtland and was ordained a high priest. On July 20, 1832, he began serving as Joseph Smith’s scribe. He became a member of the First Presidency in March of 1833. He served as a member of the First Presidency until 1837.
This section was the last to be received while Joseph was living in Hiram, Ohio. It seems appropriate to summarize this Hiram period and make a transition to the next period:
For six and a half months, between September 12, 1831, and the end of March 1832, Hiram, Portage County, Ohio, served as temporary headquarters of the Church. During this period, Joseph and his family lived in the large frame home of John Johnson. Many saints traveled there to meet with him and to seek his counsel, and to attend meetings in the Johnson home. There, the Prophet worked on his inspired revision of the Bible and received some of his most profound visions and revelations. Although the Prophet’s stay in Hiram was brief, this six-month period was one of the truly significant eras in the early history of the Church.
In Hiram, Joseph also encountered serious opposition. Despite a temporary tranquility that prevailed while Joseph was studying, praying, and recording revelations, intense opposition erupted in Ohio in the spring of 1832. Critics denounced the zeal of converts, exposed the failure of members, and complained that the Church created divisions in families. Not understanding the law of consecration, some believed that Joseph was attempting to establish a communistic society in Portage County.
The apostasy of Ezra Booth and Symonds Ryder helped arouse organized opposition against the saints in Hiram (see Character Vignette for Ezra Booth at the end of section 52). When emotions had reached a high pitch, some Missouri settlers planned a violent attack on Joseph. By removing the heart of the Church, they thought they could crush the expansion of Mormonism.
We have already briefly mentioned the mobbing of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon on March 24, 1832 , by an angry crowd of about fifty men (see the introductory commentary for section 82). Further describing the turbulence of that black night, the Prophet recalled that the mob broke first into the residence of Elder Rigdon, carried him from his home, and dragged him by his heels so that his head was pulled along the rough frozen ground. Then they covered his body with tar. One man seized a feather pillow from the Rigdon home, and the crowd tore the pillow, removed the feathers, and sprinkled them over Sidney’s tarred body.
The Prophet also described his own ordeal: “As I was forced out . . . I made a desperate struggle . . . to extricate myself, but only cleared one leg.” Joseph then kicked one of the men. After this man fell on the door step, the angry crowd swore that “they would kill me if I did not” remain still (Times and Seasons, 5:611-12). Joseph was then carried into the stark darkness of a lonely meadow where he was beaten by the aroused men. As he was being carried around the corner of the Johnson home, he recounted, the man whom he had kicked caught up with the group and thrust his blood-covered hand into Joseph’s face and swore “I’ll fix ye.” While being carried into the field, the Prophet was choked until he became unconscious. When he awoke, he saw the tarred and bloody body of Sidney Rigdon stretched out on the ground and assumed that Sidney was dead. The Prophet pleaded for mercy, after which one man cursed and said, “Call on yer God for help, we’ll show you no mercy” (HC, 1:261-62). Luke Johnson later identified the man Joseph kicked as Warren Waste. Waste, Johnson added, was one of the strongest individuals living in the Western Reserve and boasted that he alone could take the Prophet from the house. But after struggling with Joseph and being knocked off the steps he cried, “Do not let him touch the ground, or he will run over the whole of us” (Millennial Star, 26:835). Joseph was then carried another thirty rods or so from the Johnson home, where someone cried, “Symonds, Symonds,” calling, as Joseph assumed, Symonds Ryder.
Meanwhile some members of the mob held a council. Joseph Smith thought they were trying to decide whether or not to kill him. The group decided against such action, but determined to beat him instead. They tore off all of his clothes, leaving only a shirt collar around his neck. One man fell on him like a “mad cat” and, while scratching his body with sharp nails, muttered, “That’s the way the Holy Ghost falls on folks!” Luke Johnson later reported that after Joseph was taken from the Johnson home, the mob stretched him on a board and “tantalized him in a most insulting and brutal manner.” He further stated that the mob planned to emasculate him, and a Dr. Dennison was to perform the operation; but when the doctor saw the Prophet stretched on the plank, he changed his mind and refused to perform the operation (Luke Johnson’s History, 835).
The mob also attempted to force into his mouth a vial of what the Prophet thought was poison, but he broke the vial with his teeth and it fell to the ground, leaving him with a chipped tooth. After being scratched and beaten, Joseph was covered with a coat of tar and feathers. Some of the men tried to close his lips with tar, and others sought to force the tar paddle into his mouth (HC, 1:263).
Eventually the mob disappeared, leaving Joseph in the meadow. When he attempted to rise, he fell, but after removing some of the tar from his lips, he breathed more easily. After a while he saw two lights in the distance. He arose and made his way toward one of the lights, which was coming from the Johnson home. At the door, his wife saw his body darkened with tar, which she thought was blood, and, thinking that he had been severely crushed, she fainted. A blanket was thrown around the Prophet, and a number of friends who had gathered in the Johnson home spent the night removing the tar and washing his body.
The next day was Sunday, and the saints gathered to worship at the usual hour. During the night Joseph had been cleaned up and he prepared himself to preach. “With my flesh all scarified and defaced,” he wrote, he preached to the congregation as usual and noted that some of the men who had participated in the mobbing of the previous night were in attendance. During the afternoon he baptized three converts.
Although Joseph recovered quickly from this ordeal, Sidney was not so fortunate. For several days he was delirious, but he eventually recovered.
Because of continued threats on their lives, Joseph and Sidney and their families left Hiram in the spring of 1832. On April 1, Joseph and Sidney and others left for a mission to Missouri. Since another mob had been organized in Kirtland and the “spirit of mobocracy was very prevalent through that whole region of the country,” the Prophet avoided returning to Kirtland prior to his going to Missouri. He instructed his wife, for her safety, to leave Hiram, return to the Whitney home in Kirtland, and await his return. Following his departure from Hiram, Joseph was not reunited with his family until he returned to Kirtland in June 1832.
D&C 81:5-6 Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees. And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father.
1 Verily, verily, I say unto you my servant Frederick G. Williams: Listen to the voice of him who speaketh, to the word of the Lord your God, and hearken to the calling wherewith you are called, even to be a high priest in my church, and a counselor unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun.;
verse 1 “a counselor unto my servant Joseph Smith” The specific calling of Jesse Gause in 1832 was as a counselor to Joseph Smith in the Presidency of the High Priesthood (see verse 2). As mentioned in the introduction to this section, this calling is not exactly equivalent to being a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, because the First Presidency as such was not organized until a year later, on March 18, 1833 (see D&C 90). The differences between the two callings are, however, negligible. Like the later First Presidency, the Presidency of the High Priesthood presided over the whole Church and not just over the high priests (see D&C 107:78-82, received November 11, 1831).
2 Unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood:
verse 2 “Unto whom” Unto Joseph Smith alone. The President of the Church himself is the only individual who exercises by right all the keys of the kingdom at one time. These keys are always extended through the President to his counselors in the presidency by virtue of their association with him in that quorum. When he dies, however, his counselors’ authority to exercise those keys ends, and the presidency is dissolved. At the death of the President, the counselors in the First Presidency resume their places in the other quorums of the Church, and the President of the Quorum of the Twelve automatically becomes the presiding officer of the Church. Because the Twelve as a quorum hold all the keys collectively (see D&C 107:24), they also have the authority, collectively, to reorganize the First Presidency and designate the new President. He then becomes the only individual who exercises by right all the keys of the kingdom at one time, as stated in D&C 132:7: “There is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.”
“the keys of the kingdom” See the commentary for D&C 65:2.
“Presidency of the high priesthood” The Presidency of the High Priesthood is a priesthood office in the Church even today. The First Presidency as we know it today was not organized for another year (March 18, 1832). Today the prophet and his counselors in the First Presidency are simultaneously the Presidency of the Church (with all its members and auxiliaries) and also the Presidency of the High Priesthood.
3 Therefore, verily I acknowledge him and will bless him, and also thee, inasmuch as thou art faithful in counsel, in the office which I have appointed unto you, in prayer always, vocally and in thy heart, in public and in private, also in thy ministry in proclaiming the gospel in the land of the living, and among thy brethren.
verse 3 “verily I acknowledge him and will bless him” That is, the prophet Joseph Smith.
“and also thee, inasmuch as thou art faithful” Jesse Gause (or his successor in the Presidency, Frederick G. Williams) will be blessed to the extent that he is faithful in his subordinate position to the Prophet Joseph. His duties as a counselor to the Prophet and member of the presidency are enumerated.
First, he is to be “faithful in counsel.” The Lord, in his wisdom, provides leaders with counselors, not just to share the workload but also to share insights, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, even the prophet can benefit from the advice of others. Counselors are not to be “yes men,” but neither are they to be inflexible when their president decides against their views. The Lord governs his kingdom by councils. One individual (in this case, the President of the High Priesthood) has the keys and authority to have the final word, but even the prophet is to consider the wisdom and inspiration of his counselors.
Second, he is to pray always. It is important for every leader to seek counsel from him whose kingdom this is. Therefore, faithful and wise leaders will always pray for inspiration and revelation in their policies and deliberations.
Third, he is to proclaim the gospel. Every calling in the Church has with it the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel in one way or another, and preaching and praying are the two activities that will do the most good upon this earth (see verse 4).
4 And in doing these things thou wilt do the greatest good unto thy fellow beings, and wilt promote the glory of him who is your Lord.
verse 4 “in doing these things thou wilt do the greatest good unto thy fellow beings” See verse 3 and its commentary.
5 Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.
verse 5 Fourth, he is to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” This duty has a dual application. First, the counselors in the First Presidency are to care for the poor, the weak, and the afflicted members of the Church by implementing the law of the gospel. Second, they are to assist the President in the event of his weakness or incapacity. President Harold B. Lee, when serving as counselor to the aging President Joseph Fielding Smith, gave this insight into his responsibility:
As I thought of the role of President Tanner and myself as his counselors, I thought of a circumstance in the life of Moses. . . . As Moses sat upon a hill and raised the rod of his authority, or the keys of his priesthood, Israel prevailed over their enemies; but as the day wore on, his hands became heavy and began to droop at his side. And so [his counselors] held up his hands so they would not be weakened and the rod would not be lowered. He would be sustained so that the enemies of the Church would not prevail over the saints of the Most High God (see Exodus 17:8-12).
I think that is the role that President Tanner and I have to fulfill. The hands of President Smith may grow weary. They may tend to droop at times because of his heavy responsibilities; but as we uphold his hands, and as we lead under his directions, by his side, the gates of hell will not prevail against you and against Israel (CR, October 1970, 153).
6 And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father.
7 Behold, and lo, these are the words of Alpha and Omega, even Jesus Christ. Amen.
verse 7 “Alpha and Omega” See the commentary for D&C 19:1.
Brief Historical Setting
While in Missouri, Joseph was also sustained as “President of the High Priesthood” by a conference of the elders in that area. He then visited the Colesville saints who lived in Kaw Township. In Missouri, the Lord gave Joseph a revelation regarding the care of widows and orphans by the Church [D&C 83 -Widows and Orphans].
- Michael J. Preece