“This is Elias”

In both the Vision studied recently (D&C 76) and the first revelation studied this week (D&C 77) there is a mysterious figure referenced as Elias.  Throughout the remainder of his ministry, Joseph Smith would use this name-title to refer to individuals who served as forerunners with preparatory or restorative responsibilities.  But, at times, it also seemed as though he had a specific individual in mind, possibly drawing on references to the name Elias used in the King James Version of the New Testament.  Who was this person?  How did Joseph Smith understand his role?

The revelation now known as D&C 77 was recorded in March 1832.  As Joseph Smith worked on his New Translation of the New Testament, he came to the Revelation of St. John the Divine and dictated a series of questions and answers to explain some of the symbolism in that book.  On two occasions, the text refers to Elias.  In answering the question, “What are we to understand by the angels ascending from the east Rev 7. Chap. & 2 verse?”, the text responds: “We are to understand that the angel ascended from the east is he to whom is given the seal of the living God over the tweleve tribes of Israel … this is the Elias which was to come to gether to gether the tribes of Israel and restore all things.”[1]  In answering the question, “What are we to understand by the little book which was eaten by John as mentioned in the 10th. Chapt. of Rev“, the text answers that: “We are to undeerstand that it was a Mission and an ordinance for him to gather the tribes of Israel Behold this is Elias who as it is written must come and restore all things.”[2]  In both occasions here, Elias is referenced as someone who was slated to “restore all things” and to be involved in the gathering of Israel.

Like D&C 77, most of the early references to Elias appear in connection with Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible.  A year prior to the question and answer document, Joseph Smith had begun work on revising The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.  While working on the account of the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17, Joseph Smith expanded the text where it discusses the appearance of Elias and Moses with Jesus.  When the disciples ask “why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?” Jesus responds in the King James Version that: “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.  But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them,” noting that: “Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”[3]  In Joseph Smith’s version, the following portion is changed: “Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. But I say unto you, Who is Elias? Behold, this is Elias whom I send to prepare the way before me. Then the Deciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist, & also of another which should come & restore all things, as they were <?it is?> written by the Prophets.”[4]  This expansion of the text links Elias both to John the Baptist and another figure that is expected to restore all things.

When Joseph Smith worked on The Gospel According to St. John, chapter 1, he revised the “record of John” the Baptist to include further details about Elias.[5]  When the priests and Levites ask John the Baptizer “who are thou?” in the King James Version, John “confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.  And they asked him, What then?  Art thou Elias?  And he saith, I am not.  Art thou that prophet?  And he answered, No.”[6]  In Joseph Smith’s New Translation, John “confessed, and denyed not that he was Elias; but confessed, saying; I am not the christ. And they asked him, saying; How then art thou Elias? And he saith <?said?>; I am not that Elias who was to restore all things. And the <?they?> asked him, saying; Art thou that Prophet? And he answered; no <?no?>.”[7]  This revision seems to indicate that John the Baptist was an Elias (hence him denying not), but that there was a specific Elias who was expected to restore all things that John did not claim to be.

While translating John 5, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon recorded the Vision (Section 76) in response to a question about the text.  While describing the various kingdoms of Glory, the Telestial Kingdom is noted as being the place for “they who say they are some of one and some of another some of Christ & some of John and some of Moses and some of Elius [Elias] and some of Esaises [Esaias] and some of Isaiah some of Enoch but received not the gospel neither the testamony of Jesus neither the prophets neither the everlasting covenants.”[8]  This text includes Elias as one name among many prominent figures of the Bible that people might prioritize in importance over Jesus.  Notably, it also gives an indication of confusion over naming conventions between the Old and New Testaments in the Bible that becomes important to this discussion—that often figures from the Hebrew Bible use one version of a name (the Hebrew version) while the New Testament uses a different version of the name (the Greek version) to refer to the same person, with those variants of the names being preserved in the King James Version.  Here, we see it with Esaias and Isaiah being referred to as separate names, even though Esaias is the Greek version of Isaiah.  While minor, the same issue persisted in Joseph Smith’s discussion of Elias and Elijah—two variants of the same name.

When an 1830 revelation was edited in 1835 for publication in the Doctrine and Covenants, the text was greatly expanded to emphasize the transmission of priesthood authority to Joseph Smith.  The resulting version of the revelation is distinct enough that the Joseph Smith Papers website indicates that it is a separate revelation that became D&C 27 in the current Doctrine and Covenants.  In listing prominent figures who will share the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with the Saints, Elias is included as the person “to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things, or the restorer of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days.”  John the Baptizer is mentioned separately as “the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias.”  In addition, Elijah is also mentioned: “and also Elijah, unto whom I have committed the keys of the power of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers, that the whole earth may not be smitten with a curse.”[9]  This 1835 revelation did three things for establishing the identity of Elias.  First, it affirmed that John the Baptist, while “filled with the spirit of Elias,” was a separate person from Elias.  Second, it linked Elias with the figure of Gabriel, the angel who visited Zacharias.  Third, it clearly established Elias as a separate person from Elijah.

The following spring, after the dedication of the House of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith’s journal contains a record of a series of visions during a worship service in that temple.  Again, Elias and Elijah appear as two distinct people in his account: “After this Elias appeared and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying, that in them and their seed all generations after them should be blessed. After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burts [burst] upon them, for Elijah, the Prophet, who was taken to Heaven without tasting death, also stood before them.”[10]  Elias and Elijah are shown as two separate people with distinct roles and keys, in this case keys related to the Abrahamic Covenant for Elias.

Later, in the Nauvoo era of the Church, Joseph Smith would continue to expound on the separate roles of Elias and Elijah, as well as the spirit of their missions.  In 1839, for example, Joseph Smith referred to multiple Elias’s as restorers and prophets: “This is why Abraham blessd his posterity; he wanted to bring them into the presence of God. … In the first ages of the world they tried to establish the same thing— & there were Elias’s raised up who tried to restore these very glories but did not obtain them.”[11]  On the 10 March 1844, he elaborated on this further in a discourse where he “preached on the subject of the spirit of <?elias?> Elijah. Elias & Mesiah clearly defini[n]g the offices of the 3 personages.”[12]  The spirit of Elijah was related to the sealing authority or the Holy Spirit of Promise, so “this power of Elijah is to that of Elias what in the architecture of the Temple of God those who seal or cement the stone to their places are to those who cut or hew the stones the one preparing the way for the other to accomplish the work.”[13]  In other words, “the Spirit of Elias is a forerunner same as John the Baptist— the Spirit of Elijah is the sealing power— to seal the hearts of the Fathers to the children— and the children to the Parents.”[14]  In these sermons, Elias is equated with restoration and preparation, while Elijah was connected to sealing families.

In light of the fact that Elias is just the Greek form of the name Elijah, the texts that we’ve discussed become somewhat problematic.  Whenever Elias is mentioned in the New Testament, the authors were talking about the Hebrew prophet Elijah.  This is most obvious in passages that reference stories, such as James 5:17 (the story of the drought), Luke 4:25-26 (the story of the widow), and Romans 11:2-4 (the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal).  Inspecting other occasions when Elias is mentioned, however, they make more sense when linked to Elijah than someone else.  For example, on the Mount of Transfiguration, it seems reasonable that Moses would come with Elijah—making it an appearance of two of the most prominent figures of the Hebrew Bible—rather than an otherwise unknown figure.  Talking about Elias in connection with John the Baptizer is meant to say that John is the person to fulfil the prophecy in Malachi that: “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”[15]  That link is explicitly stated in the Gospel According to St. Luke, when Gabriel tells Zacharias that he will have a son who will go before God “in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”[16]  Thus, when Joseph Smith consistently referenced Elias and Elijah as two separate individuals with distinct roles in the Lord’s work who each visited him on at least two occasions, it becomes confusing.

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that Joseph Smith simply misunderstood the New Testament and believed that Elias was a separate person from Elijah because the names are not presented exactly the same way (as seems to also be the case in Section 76 with Esaias and Isaiah).  Based on this misunderstanding, he developed a whole system of thought around this mysterious person that was mentioned throughout the New Testament as Elias.  While a straightforward explanation, it’s not very satisfying for believing Latter-day Saints, since it implies that Joseph Smith was making up everything that he said about Elias rather than those words being rooted in experiences with angels and revelations from God.  With that in mind, let’s look at a couple other explanations.

One explanation is that there was another individual named Elias that we don’t know much about, but who was known to Joseph Smith.  In Joseph Smith’s time, it was common for men to be given the name Elias, including some members of the Church (Elias Higbee, Elias Smith, Elias Benner, Elias Hutchings, etc.).  Given the popularity of Elijah in ancient Israel and Judea, it’s also possible that there were other people named after him in Greek-speaking regions that would go on to play a role in the Lord’s work.  This feels like a stretch to me, but still a possibility.

The stronger explanation is that evidence suggests that Joseph Smith used Elias more as a title than a specific name, related to restoring all things or functioning as a forerunner to the coming of Jesus Christ.  Looking at the texts discussed above, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel (who Joseph Smith would later link to Noah),[17] someone associated with the Abrahamic Covenant, and John the Divine were all given this title or said to be acting in the spirit of Elias.  While this seems to be rooted in the New Testament, where Jesus mentions Elias as someone who needs to “restore all things” before the day of the Lord, the people Joseph Smith called Elias were different people who were fulfilling a similar role.  That would be why Joseph Smith referenced there being multiple “Elias’s raised up” in the past.[18]  Saying that John the Baptizer was fulfilling Malachi’s prophesy about Elijah, as Luke does, makes more sense in this way, since John was clearly not the same person as Elijah.  Perhaps it could even be said that Joseph Smith used Elias as a generic name of angels visiting him as part of the restoration (which could explain why we don’t know much about the person who visited Joseph Smith in the House of the Lord in Kirtland).  While these people were referred to as Elias in the revelations, sermons and texts that come to us from Joseph Smith, the name may have just been a reference to their role in the restoration of all things, related to one aspect of Elijah’s mortal ministry (when he kept the worship of Yahweh alive at a time it was threatened by Baal worship, restoring it to its rightful place at the heart of Israelite religion).

Those are the main explanations that I can think of to explain the use of Elias and Elijah as separate people by Joseph Smith.  What do other people think, however?  Are there other explanations?  What makes sense to you?  Am I missing anything here that should be discussed?

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Answers to Questions, between circa 4 and circa 20 March 1832 [D&C 77],” p. 142, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/answers-to-questions-between-circa-4-and-circa-20-march-1832-dc-77/2

[2] “Answers to Questions, between circa 4 and circa 20 March 1832 [D&C 77],” p. 143, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/answers-to-questions-between-circa-4-and-circa-20-march-1832-dc-77/3

[3] Matthew 17:10-13, KJV.

[4] “New Testament Revision 2 (first numbering),” p. 32 (first numbering), The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 15, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/new-testament-revision-2/36  See also “New Testament Revision 1,” p. 28, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/new-testament-revision-1/33.

[5] John 1:19, KJV.

[6] John 1:20-21.

[7] “New Testament Revision 2,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/new-testament-revision-2/166

[8] “Vision, 16 February 1832 [D&C 76],” p. 8, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/vision-16-february-1832-dc-76/8

[9] “Revelation, circa August 1835 [D&C 27],” p. 180, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-august-1835-dc-27/2

[10] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 193, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/196

[11] “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 4 August 1839–A, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. 66, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-between-circa-26-june-and-circa-4-august-1839-a-as-reported-by-willard-richards/4

[12] “Discourse, 10 March 1844, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. [30], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-10-march-1844-as-reported-by-willard-richards/1

[13] “Discourse, 10 March 1844, as Reported by Franklin D. Richards,” p. [33], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-10-march-1844-as-reported-by-franklin-d-richards/2

[14] “Discourse, 10 March 1844, as Reported by Thomas Bullock,” p. [3], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-10-march-1844-as-reported-by-thomas-bullock/1

[15] Malachi 4:5-6, KJV.

[16] Luke 1:17, KJV.

[17] “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 4 August 1839–B, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. 75, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 18, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-between-circa-26-june-and-circa-4-august-1839-b-as-reported-by-willard-richards/2

[18] “Discourse, between circa 26 June and circa 4 August 1839–A, as Reported by Willard Richards,” p. 66, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 14, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-between-circa-26-june-and-circa-4-august-1839-a-as-reported-by-willard-richards/4

9 comments for ““This is Elias”

  1. thanks for this discussion, the topic has always been confusing to me as well

  2. The “use as title” explanation, to my mind, isn’t satisfying because it seems to invent this title. Elias seems to have no previous connotation that would make it a logical choice for a title. Call someone a Moses, and you know what they mean. Call them a Einstein and you know what they mean. Call them an Elias (or a Russell or a Jessica or a Kayson) and it just feels forced.

  3. I agree with Brian. It does feel a bit forced.

    Considering Ockam’s Razor or the law of parsimony, I would think that the first explanation Chad mentions (that of Joseph simply misunderstanding the New Testament – Greek version of the name Elijah) would be the most logical explanation. It wouldn’t be the first error we find in the Prophet’s interpretation and that’s what makes the study of church history and of the restoration so organic and human.

    Thanks Chad for an excellent summary of the possibilities. I always look forward to your posts as we move through the Doctrine and Covenants this year.

  4. Samuel Brown (whose work gets me thinking) wrote about this several years ago in Dialogue. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V39N03_15.pdf

    My own thinking and research (especially when you look at Elias and Elijah being separate) makes me think that Elias (as a person) may be Melchizedek. This isn’t fully formed in my thinking, but Melchizedek does meet some of the criteria (as opposed to John the Baptist). He clearly has the keys of Abraham’s dispensation (witnessed by Abraham paying tithes to him) AND is a translated being like Moses and Elijah. Obviously, this needs to be fleshed out and perhaps I’ll do that some day. There’s a lot of new Melchizedek material out there over the last 20 or 30 years. Here’s a fascinating one: https://www.amazon.com/Melchizedeks-Alternative-Priestly-Order-Compositional/dp/1575068206

  5. The term “Elias” refers to any person whose priesthood is received directly from heavenly investiture, without lineage. Investiture of the Spirit of Elias is mediated by angelic visitation, not by patriarch or matriarch. Having no father or mother.

    “Charismatic,” or “mantic” priesthood tends to be apocalyptic, hyper-visionary, and identified by the opening or closing a dispensation/aeon.

    Noah, Old-Esaias (D&C 84:12), Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, Lehi, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John Baptist, John Revelator, and Joseph Smith are angel-ordained-Elias-types.

  6. Occam’s Razor. Straightforward. Do we really have to engage in gymnastics to avoid admitting Joseph sometimes improvised? Extreme apologetics was the subject of a recent late-night tear-filled conversation with my millennial children. It wasn’t about the big doctrinal issues, or even the “next Mormon” issues — it was about the sheer number of issues that require convoluted excuses to cover obvious mistakes.

  7. Thanks for your recommendation, Stephen Cranney. Boylan’s arguments have convinced me. Others’ mileage may vary, of course, but that piece should certainly be read in dialogue with this post.

    As for Occam’s Razor, the great irony is that appeals to the “simplest explanation” cannot always be so simple or, indeed, straightforward. Frankly I think it’s about the most overused rhetorical trope in existence. As an aside, I see no reason to believe that the universe is under any obligation to be simple, so I nurse a sneaking suspicion that Occam’s Razor speaks more to human cognitive construction (ie a simplicity bias) than any salient features of reality. There’s my dose of iconoclasm for the day.

    But anyways, even granting Occam’s Razor, we don’t just go for the simplest explanation but rather the simplest explanation that provides for the greatest number of things that we already know or have observed. This entails a personal calculus of which features of our observation are the most important to provide for or explain. At this point Kevin Christensen’s essays take it farther than I could. I’ll just say that the application of Occam’s Razor is rarely as “straightforward” as advertised and, in light of evidence that indicates that Joseph Smith knew about the identification of OT Elijah/NT Elias, I believe the straightforward “mistake” theory to be untenable.

  8. Elias is a title (not a name) that is applied to all those whose keys were returned in this Dispensation. Those included, as Joseph wrote, divers angels from Michael or Adam down to the present time, or anyone holding any key from any Dispensation from the past.

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