Spiritual history is replete with types and shadows. The similarities that appear between events in widely-separated places and times lead to the conclusion that the Lord is trying to point out some truth to us, something we need to understand. I see a kind of repetition in this week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson, in which Samuel the Lamanite tries to call the Nephites to repentance (Helaman 13-16). Samuel preached just a few years before the birth of Christ, and he prophesied about the destruction in the Americas that would accompany Christ’s crucifixion soon afterward.
But somehow his prophecies don’t sound very different from those that we hear concerning Christ’s second coming.
Of course, Mormonism has long had a millennialist streak, something that was very strong at the time of Joseph Smith and which led to occasional unrealistic predictions by Mormon missionaries about the proximity of Christ’s return. And while most early Church members didn’t make such specific predictions, they did preach of Christ’s return and focus on the events of the coming millennium.
One of those who expressed millennialist views was William Wines Phelps, perhaps the foremost hymn writer of early Mormonism. And the following hymn, included in the first LDS hymnal and many subsequent hymnals of the 19th century, expresses his millennialist views.
But somehow the ideas in this poem, to my ear at least, sounds like they could have been expressed by Samuel the Lamanite:
The Savior is Coming
by W. W. Phelps
- AWAKE, O ye people! the Savior is coming:
- He’ll suddenly come to his temple, we hear;
- Repentance is needed of all that are living,
- To gain them a lot of inheritance near.
- To day will soon pass, and that unknown tomorrow,
- May leave many souls in a more dreadful sorrow,
- Than came by the flood, or that fell on Gomorrah-
- Yea, weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
- Be ready, O islands, the Savior is coming;
- He’ll bring again Zion the prophets declare;
- Repent of your sins, and have faith in redemption,
- To gain you a lot of inheritance there.
- A voice to the nations in season is given,
- To show the return of the glories of Eden,
- And call the Elect from the four winds of heaven,
- From Jesus is coming to reign on the earth.
The Evening and Morning Star, April 1834
I think the only abberation that keeps this poem from sounding exactly like Samuel the Lamanite is the reference “O islands” in the first line of the second stanza. Especially chilling is the last half of the first stanza, where the dire predictions for Christ’s return sound similar to what is described in the Book of Mormon preceding Christ’s visit. To my ear they sound so dire that these lines may have led to this hymn being dropped from the hymnal.
Of course, this hymn also expresses the idea of the gathering in the 4th line of each stanza, where Phelps refers to the inheritance the saints may gain, which is also likely not what Samuel preached. [On the other hand, how do we know that the gathering wasn’t preached then? Perhaps Samuel was urging the righteous Nephites to gather with the Lamanites ahead of Christ’s visit. Imagine what a culture clash that would have been. That could explain why some Nephites wanted to kill him!]
But despite these differences, Phelps’ poem really seems like it could have come from Samuel’s mouth, don’t you think?
Indeed – they do bear a striking resemblance to Helaman’s record of Samuel’s words. I think that the emphasis on millenarianism has been very much downplayed over time in Mormonism, perhaps culminating in President Packer’s (I think) talk urging people not to live their life as if the Second Coming was going to be in their lifetime, but rather to simply go about their life. However, I think you find at least a couple of people in every ward who are dead set on searching the news for Signs of the Times and take every opportunity they get to cry preparation for the Second Coming in Church meetings, and it’s always nice to get another insight into a time when this kind of millenarianism was more widespread in the Church. Thanks for this.
For me, the repetitive theme of “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” is a reminder of basic gospel principles. The idea is that we need to be prepared to meet our maker at any point, whether because the millennium will arrive, or because we could die suddenly tomorrow. I prefer to repent because it is what I should do, not because I’m afraid of the second coming.
I agree – however, rather than repenting because it is what I ‘should do’ in terms of having a kind of moral duty, I prefer to repent because I myself will benefit from it and have a closer relationship with the divine. Totally agree with you, though, that essentially threatening people with an approaching day of reckoning is a problematic and unsatisfactory way of encouraging repentance.