Oscar W. McConkie, “Why the Pearl of Great Price,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 1–12.
Chapter 1: Why the Pearl of Great Price
Oscar W. McConkie
Oscar W. McConkie was a Salt Lake City attorney, former mission president, and regional representative of the Twelve when this was published.
I am delighted to be invited to participate in this volume on the Pearl of Great Price. It pleases me to be associated with such distinguished people. Even more than the pleasure of association, it is an absolute delight to address the subject: Why the Pearl of Great Price. This is not a question. It is a statement. Why the Pearl of Great Price! When I received this assignment, I did something that most critics of the Pearl of Great Price obviously don’t do. I read the book.
I would like to start with the revealed truth that any message that comes from God to man by the power of the Holy Ghost is scripture. The elders of the church are sent forth “to proclaim the everlasting gospel, by the Spirit of the living God.” We are to “speak as . . . moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever [we] shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:1, 3–4).
The Pearl of Great Price is one of four volumes of scripture designated and accepted as the standard works of the Church. It is one of the volumes of scripture that contains the standards, that is, the measuring rods or gauges, by which the truth of all things is to be measured. The Pearl of Great Price is the name of a volume of a choice selection of the revelations, translations, and narrations of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
We should introduce our statement of “why the Pearl of Great Price” with some thoughts about Joseph Smith. We believe that it is because of Joseph Smith that salvation is again available to mankind. His assigned mission in the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21) was so great that prophets spoke of him, by name, thousands of years before his mortal birth (2 Nephi 3:14–15). Excepting Jesus only, there are more prophecies foretelling the work to be started by Joseph Smith than any other person. Calling the future prophet, “my servant Joseph,” the God of Heaven said, “this generation shall have my word through you” (D&C 5:9–10; emphasis added).
A very significant and unique portion of the word of the Lord to mortal man in our day is had by way of the Pearl of Great Price. Let’s examine some fundamental concepts, words of the Lord, that were given to us through Joseph Smith and are preserved authoritatively in the Pearl of Great Price.
Under the title Joseph Smith—History, we have preserved for us abstracts from the history of Joseph Smith, the Prophet.
Let me state parenthetically, I am a lawyer. By training and experience I know something about evidence. I am familiar with how truth is arrived at through testimony of persons. For instance, a first-party witness is likely to be productive in the discovery of truth. When one testifies of what one saw and heard and felt, we have admissible evidence in our search for what actually happened. Evidence proffered by one who did not see or hear the incident, but heard from other parties about it, is fraught with mischief. In the truth finding process of the law, we call this hearsay. 2 In the hundreds of years of experience in coming to the truth by way of witnesses, the legal process has come to exclude most hearsay testimony as not helpful in discovering what actually happened. With a few narrow exceptions we have learned that hearsay may as often lead to error as not. At very best, hearsay evidence should be interpreted in the light of an available first-party witness.
The Father and the Son.
In the extract Joseph Smith—History, we have the first-party testimony to the truth of what happened. He records what he there saw and what he heard. He tells us what he asked and what the response was, and his record reads:
I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—”This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17).
That’s why the Pearl of Great Price! Joseph tells of the appearance of the Father and the Son. We now have the word of the Lord on it. The Father and the Son are two separate and distinct persons. Notwithstanding the volume of scripture known as the New Testament, the Catholic and Protestant religions pretend that this great truth about the personages of the Gods is not so.
It is through the publication of the Pearl Of Great Price that the word of the Lord is made manifest to this generation as to the personages of God the Father and God the Son. And it comes by way of the first-party witness of Joseph Smith.
Is this significant? We believe “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 345; hereafter TPJS).
Moroni and the Book of Mormon
. . . I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air . . . his whole person was glorious beyond description . . . his name was Moroni . . . He said there was a book . . . written upon gold plates . . . (JS—H 1:30, 32–34).
Here is first-party testimony of an angelic visitation and the origin of the Book of Mormon. Is this an important contribution to the “restitution of all things”?
In the last few months, we have been subject to national commentaries of hearsay testimony about salamanders, without any authentication as to whether the letter was even authentic hearsay. There is not a sufficient enough chance for that type of evidence to shed light on truth even to make it admissible evidence in the legal process of truth-finding through witnesses. The Pearl of Great Price offers us, in effect, a first-party affidavit-like, carefully drafted statement, by the person who enjoyed the visitation.
How important is this contribution? The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion.
Restoration of Aaronic Priesthood and Promise of Melchizedek Priesthood
A messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, . . . [to] the Priesthood of Aaron. . . . The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John . . . and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us (JS—H 1:68–69, 72).
Power and authority to act in the name of God is obviously of considerable import.
The Articles of Faith
One of the extracts from the writings of Joseph Smith published in the Pearl of Great Price is the statement of beliefs now called the Articles of Faith. In terms of brevity and yet clarity of doctrinal presentation, these thirteen statements are unexcelled. They do not pretend, however, to summarize all of the basic doctrines of the gospel. To appreciate this forthrightness you might compare them to the muddled creeds of apostate Christendom.
The Articles of Faith were the concluding statements in an article Joseph Smith prepared for John Wentworth, the editor of the Chicago Democrat. I wish more of the Wentworth letter were included in our scriptures. Joseph therein described the First Vision detailing that the “two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness . . .” (Peterson 311–324).
To see how far the Church has come in a hundred years, you might compare Elder James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith commentary in which he emphasizes the similarities of our beliefs to main line Christianity, to Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, wherein he emphasizes the unique contribution of the restoration of the fulness of the gospel. We have come a long way.
An extract from the translation of the Bible as revealed to Joseph Smith in 1831, the Joseph Smith—Matthew should be compared to KJV Matthew 23:39 through Chapter 24. Herein Jesus foretells the impending destruction of Jerusalem. He uses this topic as a backdrop to discourse on the second coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the wicked.
This portion of the Pearl of Great Price gives emphasis in our literature of the important role The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to play in preparing for the Second Coming.
He shall send his angels before him with the great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together the remainder of his elect from the four winds . . . (JS—M 1:37).
These angels are the elders of the Church, as we see in Doctrine & Covenants:
Ye are chosen out of the world to declare my gospel with the sound of rejoicing, as with the voice of a trump.
And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect (29:4, 7).
In addition, Joseph Smith adds to our understanding of the original text as preserved in the New Testament (JS—M 1:22). That text’s reference to “this generation” is vague as to when the signs of the times shall take place (Matthew 24:34). The Pearl of Great Price makes it clear that these signs are to take place just prior to the second coming:
This generation, in which these things shall be shown forth, shall not pass away until all I have told you shall be fulfilled (JS—M 1:34; emphasis added).
Selections from the Book of Moses
The book of Moses is an extract from the translation of the Bible as revealed to Joseph Smith from June 1830 to February 1831. In our day, I don’t know of an accepted scholar in main line Christianity (and in most of modern Judaism) who so much as believes that there was a historical character called Moses as described with miraculous powers in the Old Testament. But, then I’m no expert in either Judaism or Christian scholarship. A favorite Jewish author, Chaim Potok, seems to think that there was a Moses; but, the burning bush is the “fierce glow of sunlight” on “the leaves of a bush” ( Wanderings 97).
The reason that I believe Moses is a historical character—who, incidentally, talked with God face to face, became the president of the Church in his day and was the Presiding High Priest holding the keys of presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood, held the keys of the gathering of Israel, wrote the inspired account of the creation of the heavens and the earth, was ordained the law giver through whom the God of Heaven gave the Ten Commandments, was called as the head of a great dispensation, and finally, was chosen the mediator of the Old Covenant, just as Christ was the mediator of the New Covenant—is the revelations given to us by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Much of this information comes to us in the Pearl of Great Price.
Space does not allow me to detail all of the peculiar contributions made by the book of Moses. For the purposes of this chapter, I have selected a couple of great and unique contributions.
The Work and Glory of God.
Through Moses, God crystallizes our concepts of what his work and what his glory are:
For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39).
Moses saw many inhabited worlds. He saw worlds without number created to further God’s purposes.
Worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them (Moses 1:33).
He describes the creation of this earth and all forms of earth life. He saw that God
created all things . . . spiritually before they were naturally upon the face of the earth . . . . All things were before created; . . . spiritually were they created and made. . . . For it was spiritual in the day that I created it (Moses 3:5, 7, 9).
Vast new vistas are opened to our gaze! Through Moses’ eyes we see the grand councils of heaven. We see how Satan became the devil. We see him tempting man. We see the fall and death entering the world. We see the gospel preached from the beginning. We are disabused of the worldly notions of the supposed historical and sociological developments of religions.
And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning, being declared by holy angels sent forth from the presence of God, and by his own voice, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost (Moses 5:58).
What’s this? The gift of the Holy Ghost in Adam’s day! We see Adam baptized and directed to teach his children that he and they were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so must ye be born again into the kingdom of heaven . . . (Moses 6:59).
All things were created to bear witness of God.
Doctrine of the City of Zion.
I am fascinated by the concept of righteous men searching for a holy city and ascending to heaven. For this reason I suggest, as one of the concepts taught in the book of Moses, the idea of the city of Zion and the translation of holy beings.
The whole concept of Zion, a New Jerusalem, to be built in Jackson County, Missouri, is taught in the 7th chapter of the book of Moses. Our Church history is intimately involved with this concept.
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them (Moses 7:18).
This is our ideal.
Of Enoch it is written: “He built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion.” It was to “dwell in safety forever” and “in process of time, was taken up into heaven” (Moses 7:19–21). Part of Jackson County was laid out in the hope of this end, as were Nauvoo, Salt Lake City, and Provo.
After the residents of the City of Enoch were translated, righteous men spent their lives seeking like translations, and many were so translated (Moses 7:27; JST Gen. 13:14). Even Abraham sought to be translated. Paul referred to this doctrine:
For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
. . . they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Heb. 11:10, 13).
After the resurrection of Jesus, this was not necessary. What a wonderful doctrine!
Enoch beheld in vision “the Son of Man ascend up unto the Father” and shouted “thou art God”; but, read what he says about himself, and about you and me: “thou hast made me, and given unto me a right to thy throne” (Moses 7:59). That is, we, too, have a right to so ascend. We, too, have the right to be Gods. I love the Pearl of Great Price!
The Book of Abraham
According to the History of the Church (2:235–36, 348–51) the book of Abraham is a translation by Joseph Smith from some ancient records, written on papyrus from the catacombs of Egypt. It represents writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt.
Once again let me say that this is first-party testimony. Joseph Smith has told us what he saw and what he did. Among those who were intimately associated with Joseph Smith, he had a reputation for honesty and integrity. Faithful participants in the restoration of the gospel, the restitution of all things, accepted without reservation his statement in this regard. It meets the legal tests to be admissible evidence in the truth finding process according to the cumulative wisdom of the law.
Latter-day Saints commonly believed that the four Egyptian mummies and accompanying papyri that came into Joseph Smith’s hands and were the source material for the book of Abraham had been destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. That is, until 27 November 1967. On that date some officials of the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York City presented to President N. Eldon Tanner, of the First Presidency, some papyri fragments thought once to have belonged to Joseph Smith. They were once thought to have been his because of a bill of sale evidencing that the material could be traced to Emma Smith, Joseph’s widow, and others, and because of apparent similarities to the published hand rendition of Facsimile No. 1.
This development has stimulated interest, and articles and books have been written pondering how Joseph Smith might have used these and other Egyptian artifacts. To my knowledge Joseph Smith never told us how he used the materials in his possession to come up with the book of Abraham other than to say the result was a translation. Some critics pretend to know exactly how Joseph did it. But their guesses are likely to produce more mischief than light as they do not meet the test of admissibility into evidence in the common law process of truth-finding by way of witnesses. I believe exactly what Joseph Smith says on the subject. It is the only creditable evidence we have.
I would like to voice my opinion. I would not care if God placed into his prophet’s hands a bill of lading for the sale of wheat on the upper Nile River, if this were the way He chose to get the revelation through about the wondrous truths contained in the book of Abraham. It is the substance of the ideas contained in the book that adds to the body of knowledge heretofore had by the world. This is the thrilling thing about the book to me. I can wait for Joseph to give me further explanations as to how it all came about.
Let’s look at a couple of the additions to the sum total of knowledge that the world had that have been given us through the wondrous book of Abraham.
Premortal Life of Mankind.
If a person produces a new, unique, and fundamental concept adding to the existing concepts then in existence, such a person is usually accorded acclaim for his intellectual contribution. Few people have made such contributions. Two who have are given prominent place: Sir Isaac Newton, who conceptualized the law of gravity, and Albert Einstein, who enunciated the theory of relativity.
One of these fundamental concepts is enunciated (years earlier) in the book of Abraham. It vastly expands our concept of the nature of man. It is the concept of the premortal existence of identifiable personalities in form and substance. It is the concept of the pre-earth existence of all persons born upon the earth. This notion both adds to and alters all existing ideas as to the nature of man. It is the doctrine of the eternal nature of spirits, of pre-earth life and of foreordination, including the choosing of a Redeemer and earth life as a second estate of man.
Note what Abraham records:
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
And there stood one among them that was like unto god, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.
And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. and the Lord said: I will send the first (Abr. 3:22–27).
If Joseph Smith had done nothing else than give us this much detail about the concept of the immortal nature of men and women, he should be accorded a position of prominence among the great contributors to the cumulative wisdom of the ages. This is “Why the Pearl of Great Price.” It is through the revelation of the book of Abraham we are blessed with this information. You judge the magnitude of this contribution to us.
The Abrahamic Covenant—The Gospel.
Let me conclude with another novel concept contained in the book of Abraham. It is an explanation of what the Abrahamic covenant is. Abraham records that Jehovah appeared to him and promised all gospel blessings to him and his seed:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and / will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shall be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations;
And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father;
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood), for / give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal (Abr. 2:9–11; emphasis added).
This explains the doctrine that the gospel comprises the promises made to the fathers. From this flows the Second Section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming (D&C 2:1–3; emphasis added).
From this flows the visit of Abraham or one of the Eliases from his dispensation restoring “the gospel of Abraham” and of Elijah with sealing powers turning “the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers” (D&C 110:12–15).
And thus the gospel doctrine that all who enter into celestial marriage receive the promise that in them and their seed after them shall all generations of time be blessed.
We end where we started. The Pearl of Great Price provides a part of the warp and woof of the fabric of the entire gospel. It is part of the standard works, the gauges and measuring rods, against which all truth is to be measured.
History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edited by B. H. Roberts. 7 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1950.
McConkie, Bruce R. A New Witness for the Articles of Faith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985.
Peterson, H. Donl. ‘The History and Significance of the Book of Abraham,” found in Robert L. Millett and Kent P. Jackson, ed. Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 2: The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: Randall, 1985.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Comp. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1958.
Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. New York: Knopf, 1978.