The Olive Tree Restoration

There have been some common underlying themes to several Times and Seasons posts these past few months.  The three themes or questions that I have in mind at the moment are: “What is the nature of the Great Apostasy?”, “What is the nature of the Restoration?”, and “What is the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the broader tradition of Abrahamic faiths?”  I’ve posted about the Church’s Interfaith efforts, about B.H. Robert’s understanding of the Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God, and an attempt on my part to understand the First Vision based on what is presented in the textual accounts of the event.  Steven Smith discussed the comparisons of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to yeast in the post The humbling of the kingdom?, asked what it means to be the True Church in the form of a conversation, discussed an alternative approach to understanding restoring the church, and also brought up the ideas of the Christian story and the Mormon story as ways to approach our own self-understanding. While the continuing focus on these topics hasn’t been premeditated or coordinated between us, they are apparently weighing on our minds.  And they apparently continue to do so, since I have a few thoughts to share on the subject based on my study of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 this week.

While reading the allegory, I generally approach it as a story that relays information about the history of God’s covenant people.  Jacob, after all, says that the allegory speaks “concerning the house of Israel, in the which [Zenos] likened them unto a tame olive tree” (Jacob 6:1).  What stood out to me this is the discussion of the decay of the mother olive tree after grafting in wild olive branches and the remedy the lord of the vineyard performs to save the tree.  Within the allegory, the lord removed the natural branches from the tame olive tree, then he told the servant to “take thou the branches of the wild olive tree, and graft them in, in the stead thereof” (Jacob 5:9).  This seems to parallel the conversion of Gentiles to Christianity, which Paul compared to being “cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree.”[1]  While this caused a proliferation of tame fruit for a while, eventually the tree began to produce “all kinds of bad fruit” (Jacob 5:32), which would seem to represent the Great Apostasy.  This was followed by pruning and an extensive cross-grafting of branches between starts from the original tree that had been transplanted earlier on in the narrative, which Lehi interpreted as individuals “com[ing] to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer” (1 Nephi 10:14), meaning the Restoration.  This text, then, provides some fertile ground for examining how we understand the Apostasy and Restoration.

As a missionary, I used a few different ways to explain the Great Apostasy and the need for the Restoration (and hence, our church).  One of those was the idea of a mirror that had been introduced by Jesus and the early apostles but was shattered.  Shards of truth remained around, with various faiths and religions holding onto those truths, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t put the mirror back together again.  So, God had to introduce a whole new mirror, which was done in the form of the Restoration.  I share this here, because the comparison captures how I understood the apostasy/restoration narrative when I was younger.  Essentially, the Church from the Meridian of Time was broken completely, and so God started over from scratch, with Joseph Smith working in a vacuum to fabricate a Church acting solely under God’s direction, which everyone could then join.  If that understanding accurately reflected the situation, however, I imagine that the allegory of the olive tree would look quite different.  At the point the lord of the vineyard saw that everything was producing bad fruit, he would say to his servant: “Well that’s too bad.  Let’s just leave those other trees to rot until I’m ready to burn them all.  I have a new seed that I will sow in my field and when it is grown it will become a tree that produces tame fruit.”  But, of course, that’s not what happens in Zenos’s story.

What can we glean, then, about the nature of the Great Apostasy from the allegory of the olive tree?  The explanation for the corruption of the original tree given by the servant is as follows: “Have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves” (Jacob 5:48).  In some way, the branches (the Judeo-Christian religions) had remained rooted in the true religion but had also strayed from those roots at the same time, going in their own direction.  Joseph Smith explained this as follows:

The gentiles received the covenant and were grafted in from whence the chosen family were broken off but the Gentiles have not continued in the goodness of God but have departed from the faith that was once delivered to the saints and have broken the everlasting covenant in which their fathers were established. … We may look at the Christian world and see the apostacy there has been from the Apostolic platform, and who can look at this, and and not exclaim in the language of Isaiah, [“]the earth is defiled under the inhabitants thereof because they have transgressed the Laws, changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant.”[2]

Joseph Smith felt that the apostasy had involved a combination of straying from the everlasting covenant that God had proffered, breaking commandments, and changing the ordinances of the Lord, all of which marked a departure from the faith so that “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.”[3]  The result was a variety of fruits, but none up to par with what the Lord desired for his vineyard.

Yet, despite the apostasy, the tree still lived and formed the basis of the Restoration.  Benjamin Huff, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Randolph-Macon College, summarized this part of the parable as follows: “The wild branches continue to nourish the roots, preserving the Bible and an altered version of Christ’s message, but for producing fruit they have become worthless. … There is a great proliferation of various sects, particularly after the Reformation, and all of them are seriously mistaken.”[4]  While we are very aware that there is much in Christian history that displays serious mistakes and corruption, we do need to also be aware of the good that it preserved and that our religion remains rooted in that Judeo-Christian tradition.[5]  I feel as though we sometimes overlook the fact that Joseph Smith and the early converts to the Church were able to grasp the restored gospel because they had been raised up in the Christian tradition that had endured for centuries, despite imperfections.  For example, Joseph Smith learned to pray for answers because he grew up in a Christian family, studied the Bible (which was compiled, codified, and preserved under the aegis of the Catholic and Orthodox churches) and attended Protestant Christian gatherings.  Thus, when the lord of the vineyard began his final remedy, he worked to fix the trees that were already there instead of planting a completely new tree.

Zenos outlined the Restoration in terms of cross-grafting and pruning the olive trees.  The actions the lord of the vineyard took to remedy the situation was to “take of the branches of these which I have planted in the nethermost parts of my vineyard” and then to “graft them into the tree from whence they came; and let us pluck from the tree those branches whose fruit is most bitter, and graft in the natural branches of the tree in the stead thereof” (Jacob 5:52).  Then, as those tame or natural branches began to take hold in the original tree, the lord directed his servant to “clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof” to prevent the grafted natural branches from being overwhelmed (Jacob 5:65).  The transplants likewise received some grafting from the original tree, and this cross-grafting results in good fruit all around for a time.

Explanations of this approach center on rebuilding the full context of the gospel, resulting in a gradual healing of the tree.  Nephi wrote that “the grafting in of the natural branches” meant that “in the latter days … shall the fulness of the gospel of the Messiah come unto the Gentiles, and from the Gentiles unto the remnant of our seed. … Wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved” (1 Nephi 15:13-14).  Grafting branches from the transplants into the original tree corresponds well with the Book of Mormon (the words of one group represented by a transplanted tree) being translated and published.[6]  The publication and distribution of that book and other revelations through the efforts of Gentiles (including Joseph Smith), in turn, brings the gospel to groups of Israelites that were scattered in the past, representing the efforts to graft branches into the transplanted trees. The Book of Mormon and the Restoration have allowed the branches of the trees to reconnect to the fulness of the gospel, or roots of the tree, in this understanding of the parable.

The process, however, is gradual and involves cooperation with the tree as it existed at the start of the Restoration.  As Benjamin Huff observed, speaking of the allegory: “The restored church is small at first, and must grow in strength gradually.  Other churches continue to serve the great majority of the Christian world, as well as the Jewish people, functioning alongside the restored church as it gradually gathers more and more converts.”[7]  Keeping in mind that the branches that are cross-grafted were producing undesirable fruit at the time they were grafted, I suspect that the process is meant to help all branches to reconnect to the roots of the tree and begin producing fruit that is acceptable to the Lord (even though some branches continue producing bitter fruit indefinitely and have to be removed and burned).

If my assessment of the situation is true, then there are some important lessons to be drawn here.  First, our religion doesn’t automatically start producing perfect fruit across the board just because the Restoration has commenced.  The lord of the vineyard only states that this is meant to “prepare the way, that I may bring forth again the natural fruit” (Jacob 5:61).  It takes time for those natural branches to heal from the grafting process and to connect to the roots before they begin to produce the type of fruit that the Lord desires.  That means there is an invitation for patience with imperfection in our church in the words of Zenos and an invitation to engage in ongoing efforts to bring forth good fruit among our branches of the tree.  Second, the allegory also stands as an invitation to recognize that individuals in religions that share the same roots in the covenants and beliefs that formed the House of Israel are part of the same tree, fellow servants of God who are seeking to produce fruit as well.  We can, indeed must, work together with them to achieve the end goal of bringing “forth again the natural fruit, which natural fruit is good and the most precious above all other fruit” (Jacob 5:61).  The effort to produce that fruit is ongoing and will take time and effort on our part and the part of others.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 11:24, NRSV.  Through conversion to the Way (as Christianity was known early on), Paul taught that Gentiles had become part of the House of Israel: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. … And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29, NRSV).

[2] “Letterbook 1,” p. 15-16, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letterbook-1/27

[3] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 2, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 21, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/2.

[4] Benjamin Huff, “The Wilderness, the Vineyard, and the Transformative Restoration,” Element vol. 7, issue 1 (Spring 2018), 15.

[5] As President Dallin H. Oaks taught: “We believe that most religious leaders and followers are sincere believers who love God and understand and serve him to the best of their abilities. We are indebted to the men and women who kept the light of faith and learning alive through the centuries to the present day. We … realize the great contribution made by Christian teachers through the ages. We honor them as servants of God.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/apostasy-and-restoration?lang=eng.)

[6] I am, in a way, comparing Jacob 5:67-69 to 2 Nephi 3:12 here.

[7] Huff, “The Wilderness, the Vineyard, and the Transformative Restoration,” 15.

12 comments for “The Olive Tree Restoration

  1. Brandon
    March 23, 2020 at 10:00 am

    “our religion doesn’t automatically start producing perfect fruit across the board just because the Restoration has commenced”

    So it continues to evolve and experiment like earlier churches? This idea seems to undercut how bad the Great Apostasy was and how significant the Restoration was.

    On that point, however, I think that the church is generally deemphasizing this notion of a Great Apostasy, at least inasmuch as it pertains to denouncing other churches as apostate or having their roots in apostasy. The apostasy that the church does emphasize nowadays is secular. More and more it seems the church is seeing other churches as allies in the cause against creeping secularism. The Great Apostasy narrative is of course still there in some form, but it is not nearly as prominent as it used to be. Missionaries teach investigators about this, and it is featured in Gospel Essentials, but in conference talks and the general discourse, it is downplayed.

  2. March 23, 2020 at 10:35 am

    I really think that if Joseph Smith was making up the Book of Mormon, and was writing an allegory, he wouldn’t have picked Olive trees as the basis for that allegory. He likely would have picked a crop he would have been familiar with.

  3. SDS
    March 23, 2020 at 10:53 am

    This is a really interesting interpretation, Chad, and there are a lot of things about it that seem potentially valuable. I’ll mention a couple. One is the idea that, as you put it, “our religion doesn’t automatically start producing perfect fruit across the board just because the Restoration has commenced. The lord of the vineyard only states that this is meant to ‘prepare the way, that I may bring forth again the natural fruit’.” The discussion of your recent post on polygamy led me to think that somebody ought to write something about “how the church became true.” Or maybe how it is “becoming” true.

    The other is the suggestion that the grafting onto the tree of the wild (Gentile) branches continues for a long time and maybe continuously to produce fruit, and that what goes wrong is that the wild branches gradually overwhelm the roots, so that (some of?) the fruit becomes bad. We sometimes hear (and not just from Mormon sources) that what went wrong with Christianity is that the Gospel got translated into the terms of Greek philosophy, and that this was inherently a corruption and falsification. This seems a mistake to me. First of all, it seems as unfair to fault the early Christians for trying to present the Gospel in terms of Greek philosophy as it would be to fault them for translating the Gospel from Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek and Latin. You have to present the Gospel in terms that mean something to your hearers. I’m sure we have to do that same thing when we proselytize in Japan or India or Africa. And the criticism also refuses to recognize the magnificent and valuable achievement that Christian theology and philosophy represent.

    Even so, it is possible for this necessary translation to overwhelm the primitive Gospel, in at least a couple of ways. First, the translations themselves can become opaque or archaic for many people. I recall discussing transubstantiation with an academic colleague who was a learned and serious Catholic. He said, “I believe in transubstantiation because the Church teaches it. But the doctrine isn’t meaningful to me because it’s formulated in Aristotelian terms, and I don’t think in Aristotelian terms.” We frequently hear testimonies from people who say, “I belonged to or investigated one or more Christian churches, but when I encountered this church the teachings just seemed to make sense/ be true/ come alive for me.” I take them to be saying something like “the old translations didn’t make sense to me. This presentation did.”

    Second, it’s possible for adherents of the traditional orthodox doctrines to assume that the more philosophical versions are the best or true or adequate statements about God and the Gospel, and that the more personal and narrative presentations are dumbed-down versions crafted to some people’s limited understandings. But this seems a mistake: all statements about God (whether in narrative or propositional form) are in a sense dumbed-down to our limited human understandings. It’s a mistake, I believe, to take either form as conveying the adequate and literal truth, and the other form as simply a degradation. Both forms convey the truth, but in imperfect ways suitable to our various and limited understandings.

    Joseph Smith seemed to understand perfectly the importance of presenting Gospel truths in narrative form. In that sense, his teachings can, I think, be understood as a return– an inspired return, if you like– to the narrative style typical of the Hebrew scriptures. As a return to the approach of the “natural” branches, in contrast to the philosophical and propositional approach of the “wild” branches of orthodox (Gentile) Christianity. Even if it’s a mistake then just to disregard or disparage the more philosophical versions, this can be thought of as a valuable “restoration” that helps to restore the health of the tree (the Christian Gospel).

  4. Brandon
    March 23, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    jader3rd,

    There is plenty of metaphor throughout the KJV about olive trees for one to make a compelling case that Joseph Smith informed himself of the text of Jacob 5 by the KJV. If you look at the KJV, it appears that the olive tree metaphor in Jacob 5 is not as significant as many are claiming it to be. Just a couple of examples:

    Luke 13:7-8: Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it
    Matt. 3:10: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
    Jacob 5:9: these which I have plucked off I will cast into the fire and burn them, that they may not cumber the ground of my vineyard
    Jacob 5:42: all the trees of my vineyard are good for nothing save it be to be hewn down and cast into the fire
    Jacob 5:47: I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it

    Rom. 11:17: And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them
    Jacob 5:9: Take thou the branches of the wild olive-tree, and graft them in

    John 15:1-6: I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.…As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
    Jacob 5:7: pluck off those main branches which are beginning to wither away, and we will cast them into the fire that they may be burned
    Jacob 5:72-73: and the Lord of the vineyard labored also with them…And there began to be the natural fruit again in the vineyard; and the natural branches began to grow and thrive exceedingly; and the wild branches began to be plucked off and to be cast away

  5. The Other Clark
    March 23, 2020 at 7:24 pm

    Fascinating post. I appreciate the additional light of how the Restoration can still be ongoing, and how other Christians are rooted in the true faith. Two additional insights:

    1) Many older generation Church members–including my mother–put great value on being descended from “pioneer stock.” The allegory teaches that these “natural branches” need the vigor of converts “wild branches” in order to bring forth good fruit. I see the natural branches providing stability, with culture and “the unwritten order of things.” Too much of this brings forth bad fruit (e.g. everything bad about Utah culture). This can be counter-balanced with wild branches (new converts, different cultures, new perspectives) but too much change too soon will bring bad results too. Somewhere there’s a happy medium. I’m happy that I seem to be living in a place that achieves this pretty well.

    2) When all is said and done, it’s our actions “fruits” that count. Not geneology, Not part of the vineyard, not who grafted you where. Christlike behavior is always the most important.

  6. Travis
    March 23, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    The attitude of “cultivating” Zion is different from the attitude of “building” Zion. Which attitude better serves priesthood?

  7. GEOFF -AUS
    March 24, 2020 at 5:01 am

    In the 80s (after the end of racism and before homophobia) we believed we were growing at an exponential rate, and could envision filling the whole earth. We are now stagnating.

    By their fruits you shall know them. Some of the other churches (and others) appear much closer to Christs ideals than what has become of the restored church. Our leadership have allowed the church to be diverted by conservative culture.

    Joseph was a self proclaimed progressive. Don’t think he would be leadership material in the present, too progressive.

    We may ourselves be suffering an apostacy. We don’t seem to be able to considder that.

    We have been teaching the benifits of being lead by prophets, but if that is a title not an achievement then no benifit. We last had a declaration added to the D&C in 1978. Perhaps in April we will change? It may be what Pres Nelson is planning.

    It would be good to see an example of revelation, or even moral leadership from our prophets.

    Can but hope.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    March 24, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Brandon, I can’t quite tell tone from words alone (facetious or not), but the Church certainly continues to evolve and experiment. I think it’s noticeable that there has also been some recent rhetoric that the Restoration is ongoing rather than something that happened with Joseph Smith, Jr. and we’re just living in the aftermath (perhaps inspired by the work of Terryl Givens and others about the Great Apostasy). I agree that secularism is the major threat to the Church rather than other religious organizations, which is why I feel like there’s been a movement towards finding ways to discuss the apostasy-restoration narrative in a way that is more friendly to other religions and faiths.

    SDS, I’ve actually thought about writing a post about a personal theory I call iterative progression towards truth that lines up with your idea of how the Church is “becoming true.” No idea when I will get to it though, I have a few other things in mind for the near future. But I really like your discussion of presentations of truth and how that relates to the allegory.

    Other Clark, I like your points as well. That’s a great way to talk about the need for both new converts and inter-generational commitments to the Church and the balance that goes into that.

    Geoff-AUS, I would love to see further declarations or revelations presented in the format of the Doctrine and Covenants, since (with the outlier of John Taylor), most Church presidents since Joseph Smith have eschewed that approach in favor of just following what they believed were revelations without writing them up in that format. President Nelson has, however, seemed to emphasize revelation more than many of his predecessors, so it’s always possible. I suspect, however, that all they intended for the conference was to have a special Saturday evening celebration of the Restoration and Church history along the lines of the “Be One” celebration they put on a couple years ago to celebrate 40 years since the priesthood/temple ban was lifted. We’ll just have to see.

    Excellent question, Travis. Which do you think? And what are the distinctions you see between them? I’m personally a gardener, so I’m biased towards cultivating rather than building.

  9. Brandon
    March 24, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Chad, my question wasn’t meant to be facetious. I’m simply raising what I think is an important issue. Which is: that the church proudly promotes much of its teachings about the restoration as near perfect and asks us to have certainty in that. What I hear from many apologists and believing intellectual bloggers is an emphasis on nuance and uncertainty, so much so that it sometimes seems like 1) an overcorrection or 2) an omission of emphasis on what we are to have certainty in. The OP in some ways begs the question of what is so significant or important about the Restoration or believing that there was a Great Apostasy anyways?

    “there has also been some recent rhetoric that the Restoration is ongoing rather than something that happened with Joseph Smith, Jr.”

    This can be seen in two ways.

    1) That Joseph Smith revealed only part of the whole truth, but that which he did reveal was fairly solid and subsequent prophets are merely adding to that, albeit with some minor corrections. Current leaders’ discourse seems to reflect this sentiment about a continuing restoration.

    2) That Joseph Smith was actually more wrong about things than is commonly thought by the rank-and-file membership, but we need to forgive Joseph Smith for that and understand that revelation was murky and unclear for him and that subsequent prophets have actually had to do a great deal of correcting past mistakes. The problem with this narrative is that it does not emphasize enough what is so great about Joseph Smith and asks us to continually make excuses for him and his teachings.

  10. Travis
    March 24, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Chad, I think “cultivating” and “building” offer different trajectories. I hear and read the phrase “building Zion,” in LDS literature, essays, talks. I think there is an apocalyptic psychology that leads folks to believe that great destruction will pave the way to a paradisiacal earth. The same kind of people interpret the end-of-days as a scorching, burning disaster. The earth was baptized by water, (in Noah’s aeon) and is undergoing a baptism of fire today—as the covenant of the Holy Ghost fills the people of the earth. The refiner’s fire. The temple of the earth is restored in the covenant with Enoch—not at temple built with hands. So our focus is to restore the earth spiritually, holistically. The scriptures speak to those who are close to the earth: the parables of Christ focus on the garden, not the great-and-spacious building.

    Consider the trajectory of overalls instead of aprons—consider the difference of priesthood attitude, priesthood ethos—if we acted like farmers instead of silly Masons…

  11. Chad Nielsen
    March 24, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Okay. Thank you for clarifying, Brandon. And I agree that they are important issues that you bring up.

    I think that part of the trend of possible overcorrection by apologists and bloggers is that we often have a lot of uncertainties that we are are working through and are exploring ideas to address those through our writing. And I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on mine to help me think through the ideas more fully.

    As for the OP here, I did try to keep in mind that the allegory does explicitly state that the olive trees were producing bad fruit and something had to be done to fix the situation. Hence, the statement that “The result was a variety of fruits, but none up to par with what the Lord desired for his vineyard”, and quoting some of what Joseph Smith said about the Apostasy. My intent was to both affirm that the Great Apostasy happened, but to do so in a way that gives greater respect to Christans in that time than we often give in our efforts to say that they were wrong. It’s a hard balance to find. Points that I tried to emphasize as being important for the Restoration included the Book of Mormon and other “points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.” I admit, though, that it will take some more time, thought, and space to really delve into the question of “what is so significant or important about the Restoration or believing that there was a Great Apostasy anyways?” through the lens of the thoughts shared in the OP.

    As far as the ongoing Restoration interpretations you bring up, that seems accurate to me about how that can be used as well. There is also a third one option that sometimes seems to come up (at least among some Latter-day Saint intellectuals I’ve read) that later Church leaders (i.e. Brigham Young) lost sight of some of what Joseph Smith restored and that we then need to get back to those things. In any case, there is a need to grapple with the reality that there have been some significant changes in what the Church teaches and practices over the years and what that means for the nature of the Restoration.

  12. March 24, 2020 at 8:12 pm

    I love the idea of a Restoring instead of a single-act Restoration. This idea of a dynamic religion parallels Process Theology. The problem here for me, however, is that much of what I taught as a missionary in France in the mid-1960s has now been repudiated or was just plain inaccurate. Makes me wonder about my 2-1/2 years. Luckily, I don’t dwell much on the past.

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