The Meridian of Time v. The Fulness of Time

In the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ formally adopted on April 6, 1830 we read,

“…that as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life, As well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son; Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen.”

And again in Moses 5:57,

“For they would not hearken unto his voice, nor believe on his Only Begotten Son, even him whom he declared should come in the meridian of time, who was prepared from before the foundation of the world.”  (See also  Moses 6:57, 62; 7:46.)

The phrase “meridian of time” has always struck me as unusual. It doesn’t appear in English translations of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. Nor does it appear in the Book of Mormon. It’s not a very common phrase in canonized texts. Aside from The Articles and Covenants and Book of Moses, “the meridian of time” only appears in D&C 39, a revelation given to James Covel in January 1831. I did some research on the phrase a couple of years ago, but found only one other occurrence in Google’s Ngram viewer–and that dated to 1857, as I recall. But knowing what I know about Joseph Smith, I found it very unlikely that “meridian of time” originated with him.

Traditionally, the “meridian of time” has been interpreted as the “middle” or “high point of time.” In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Marshall T. Burton writes,

“The word ‘meridian’ suggests the middle. According to Old Testament genealogies, from the Fall of Adam to the time of Jesus Christ was approximately 4,000 years. It has been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus’ birth. The millennial reign will commence “in the beginning of the seventh thousand years” (D&C 77:12). After the Millennium there will be a “little season,” the exact length of which is not revealed, but it could be several hundred years. In the context of these events, the Lord’s mortal ministry took place near the meridian, or middle, of mortal time (DS 1:81).

The meridian of time may also be seen as the high point of mortal time. Latter-day revelation shows that all of the ancient prophets looked forward to the Messiah’s coming (Jacob 4:4; Mosiah 13:33-35;15:11). His coming fulfilled their prophecies, and he was prefigured in the Law of Moses (Mosiah 13:29-32) and in ancient ceremonial ordinances (Moses 5:5-8). 

The meridian of time is the apex of all dispensations because of the birth, ministry, and Atonement of Christ. Without him all prophetic writings and utterances would have had no efficacy, and the hopes of mankind today and forever would be but futile desires and yearnings without possibility of fulfillment.

We’ll set aside the fact we’re 21+ years into the “beginning of the seventh thousand years” (so we should be in the “millennium”) for another time. I checked the Ngram viewer again over the weekend and found a couple of examples of “meridian of time” in relationship to Jesus Christ that pre-dates Joseph Smith. My suspicions were confirmed.

In The Works of the Rev. Robert D. Hawker, D.D., published in 1826 in London we read,

“And as the meridian sun of the lower world enlightens both the eastern and western hemisphere at once; so Christ, Sun of Righteousness in the meridian of time, becomes the light both to the Old and New testament Church, in all the bright beams of salvation; and thereby manifest, that he is Jesus Christ: “the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.”

According to his Wiki, Hawker “was an Anglican priest in Devon, vicar of Charles Church, Plymouth. Called “Star of the West” for his popular preaching, he was known as an evangelical and author.”   While there’s no indication Hawker ever visited America, it stands to reason that plenty of immigrants who did were familiar with his preaching. 

In Discourse XXVII ON THE MILLENNIUM, the Baptist preacher Andrew Fuller (February 1754 – May 1815)  wrote,

“The apostles seem to have considered themselves having passed the meridian of time, and as drawing on towards to the close of it.  Such appears to be the import of the following passages: –God hath in these last days spoken to us by his Son….”

The third example comes from writings of the English polymath and author, Sir Thomas Browne (October 1605 – October 1652), 

“Even the old ambitions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of their vain glories, who acting early and before the probable meridian of time, have by this time found great accomplishment of their designs, whereby the ancient heroes have already out-lasted their monuments, and mechanical preservations.”

I believe somewhere along the line Joseph Smith picked up this idiom and incorporated it into The Articles and Covenants and the Book of Moses.  And it’s certainly not wrong if we take it to refer to dividing point as Webster’a 1828 does

What originally sent me down this line of inquiry is the phrase “fulness of time” found in Ephesians, Galatians, The Book of Mormon and introduction in the 1611 King James Bible.   Why did Joseph Smith use “meridian of time” when the Book of Mormon uses “fulness of times” to describe the time of Christ’s mortal ministry?  And how did “the dispensation of the fulness of times” come to mean Joseph Smith’s day, and by extension, ours, and a the “millennial kingdom” when that’s not its original meaning?

THE FULLNESS OF TIMES

I’ve come to appreciate and understand that the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation.  It had to be readily understandable to an 1830 audience familiar with the terminology of the King James Bible.  Whatever idioms and expressions the Nephites used would likely be indecipherable to modern ears.  The Book of Mormon doesn’t plagiarize the Bible, but rather uses it as a model to communicate to people in Joseph Smith’s day.   

We have two New Testament witnesses for “fulness of times,”

“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Sonmade of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Galatians 4:4)

“Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.”

The KJV translators picked up on Galatians and write in their introduction,

“But when the fulnesse of time drew neere, that the Sunne of righteousnesse, the Sonne of God should come into the world, whom God ordeined to be a reconciliation through faith in his blood, not of the Jew onely, but also of the Greeke, yea, of all them that were scattered abroad…”

I don’t know what term Lehi and Nephi used, but their words were translated as “fulness of time” in the Book of Mormon.  Again, cultural decipherability.  In Lehi’s valedictory to his son Jacob we read,

“Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men…And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.”  (2 Nephi 2:3, 26)

Nephi later reiterated,

“For if there be no Christ there be no God; and if there be no God we are not, for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fulness of his own time.”

Not only do we see that Jesus Christ is, in fact, God here, but that the “fulness of times” refers to His mortal ministry.  So Lehi, Nephi, Paul, the writer of Ephesians, and the KJV translators all witness that “fulness of times” refers to Christ’s mortal ministry. 

But in Mormonism Christ came in “the meridian of time” and the “dispensation of the fulness of times” refers to the so-called “Restoration.”  The earliest appearance of “fulness of times” comes in D&C 76, dated February 16, 1832,

“These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work.”

It then appears in the revised version of D&C 27,

“…Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth.”

This portion doesn’t appear in the original revelation published in the 1833 Book of Commandments.  It’s likely the addition of Sidney Rigdon, who’s riffing on Galatians 4:4.  “Fulness of times,” in reference to Joseph’s day, also appears in D&C 112 (1837), D&C 124 (1841, ostensibly spoken by Christ) and finally in D&C 128,

“It is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times; which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole, and complete, and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed, from the days of Adam even to the present time; and not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this the dispensation of the fulness of times.”

Joseph again is drawing on Paul in the is passage.  It gives Joseph tremendous latitude for theological innovation.  Anything he reveals or teaches could be considered something “kept hid from the wise and prudent.”  The problem, if this is the case, is that the plan was plainly revealed to and known by the Nephites from the very beginning and “all the holy prophets before [them].” (Jacob 4:4) 

For Paul, there were only two dispensations:  before Christ and after Christ. And it should be noted that Ephesians is one of the disputed Pauline epistles.  In his book This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology, BYU professor Charles Harrell notes,

“After giving an exhaustive treatment of Paul’s teachings regarding the dispensation of the fulness of times, New Testament scholar Herman N. Ridderbos concludes, ‘time and again . . . the whole of Paul’s preaching is determined by the all-important fact that in Christ’s advent and work, especially in his death and resurrection, the divine work of redemption in history has reached its fulfillment and the redemptive dispensation of the great future promised by God and foretold in prophecy has become present time.’ Noting the generally held scholarly view that Ephesians 1:10 refers “to the time of Christ, [and] not to the latter days,” LDS biblical scholar John Tvedtnes acknowledges that “the passage contains no internal evidence that a restoration is intended.” The “dispensation of the fulness of times” in Ephesians 1:10 thus appears to be simply a reference to God’s redemptive work which had begun to be put into effect through Christ’s ministry.” (Emphasis added)

And if accept the authority of the Book of Mormon, this is the correct interpretation.  The “fulness of times” is God’s mortal ministry. But for Joseph Smith, the “dispensation of the fulness of times” equated the political kingdom of God, presumably inaugurated at the “second coming.”  The Wiki entry reads,

“In Christianity, the dispensation (or administration) of the fulness of times is thought to be a world order or administration in which the heavens and the earth are under the political and/or spiritual government of Jesus. The phrase is derived from a passage in Ephesians 1:10 (KJV), which reads: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” (Emphasis added)

We have to remember that Joseph Smith expected the Second Coming in his day.  Zion was established for the expressed purpose of gathering the righteous in expectation of Jesus inaugurating His millennial kingdom and reign.  And that belief seems to come, at least in part, from a misreading of Ephesians 1:10, which likely wasn’t even written by Paul.   

But Joseph was not alone in his eschatological expectations.  If we search “the fulness of times” in the Ngram viewer, we see a fairly dramatic spike between the years 1820-1840.  I scrolled through various books and found examples favoring Christ’s mortal ministry and others favoring a future millennial kingdom.  Fortunately, we have the Book of Mormon which clarifies the issue without any ambiguity.  Joseph Smith, however, takes a view contrary to the Book of Mormon.  (Did Joseph Smith even read the Book of Mormon?)

I’m coming more and more to see Joseph Smith not so much a prophet, but rather a religious alchemist or synthesizer.  Joseph Smith didn’t happen in a vacuum.  You can take the boy out of his culture, but you can’t take the culture out of the boy.  He took bits and pieces of existing theologies, contemporary scriptural interpretations and movements, a literal reading of The Revelation, bits of Gnosticism, some folk traditions, and a healthy dose of ancient Judaism and fashioned something pretty unique.  What that unique thing is, however, isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s his interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, full of all manner of theological curiosities and innovations that simply are not found in the Book of Mormon, which, according to him, “is the most correct book” and contains “the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”   

In Mormonism, Jesus came in “the meridian of time.”  The “restoration” marks “the dispensation of the fulness of times.”  Yet the Book of Mormon disambiguates “fulness of times” and correctly interprets it to mean Christ’s mortal ministry.

What does this all mean?

Joseph Smith didn’t write the Book of Mormon.

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