How the Book of Mormon Became the “Stick of Ephraim” (It Isn’t)

In LDS theology, Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones prophecy points to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  For review, the prophecy reads,

“Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and for all the house of Israel his companions:  And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.”  (Ezekiel 37:16-19)

At the October 1982 General Conference of the Church, Boyd K. Packer declared,

The sticks, of course, are records or books. In ancient Israel records were written upon tablets of wood or scrolls rolled upon sticks. The record of Judah and the record of Ephraim, according to the prophecy, were to become one in our hands. Two events connected with the fulfillment of the prophecy were centered in print shops.

The stick or record of Judah—the Old Testament and the New Testament—and the stick or record of Ephraim—the Book of Mormon, which is another testament of Jesus Christ—are now woven together in such a way that as you pore over one you are drawn to the other; as you learn from one you are enlightened by the other. They are indeed one in our hands. Ezekiel’s prophecy now stands fulfilled.”

Elder Packer, of course, based his statement of a straight reading of D&C 27 which reads,

“Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim;”

The LDS interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecy is problematic for a number of reasons.  Primarily, as astute students of the Book of Mormon know, the Nephites were descendants of Manasseh, not Ephraim.  We learn of Lehi’s genealogy in Alma 10:3,

“And Aminadi was a descendant of Nephi, who was the son of Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, who was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren.”

Outside of the two references in the Isaiah chapters (2 Nephi 17, 19) there’s no mention of Ephraim in the Book of Mormon. Orson Pratt attempted to reconcile the problem in 1850 by suggesting Ishmael was an Ephraimite (no supporting evidence).  Others have suggested Zoram was an Ephraimite (no supporting evidence).  But if either were the case, why are the Nephites the narrative’s central family? God could have easily led an Ephraimite family out of Jerusalem, but he chose Lehi, who was descended from Manasseh, son of Joseph.  Despite Elder Packer’s claim, the Book of Mormon can’t be the record of Ephraim.

CONTEXT OF EZEKIEL 37

When we read Ezekiel 37, which falls into the category of Vision Literature, which must be read symbolically, just like Lehi’s vision, we find it has nothing to do with books or scriptures. In his book, “This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology,” Charles Harrell writes,

“Scholars point out that each of the sticks Ezekiel refers to is no more than a piece of wood (hence the term “stick”), on which he was to inscribe a short phrase. It doesn’t appear to have been a scroll or writing board on which a lengthy record might be kept….”

FAIR, in a moment of rare honesty, supports this viewpoint,

“In context, this portion of Ezekiel’s record is a prophecy of the restoration and reunification of the divided house of Israel. Ezekiel sees a vision of a valley of dry bones that are miraculously reassembled with flesh, and the breath of life returns to them (37:1–10). The Lord promises Ezekiel that he will raise the people of Israel from the dead and give them rest in their own land (11–14). The Lord then gives the prophecy of the sticks (15–20). He explains the sticks represent the restoration of Israel to their homeland and reunification of the formerly separated nations of Judah and Israel (Ephraim) (21–22). They will live God’s law, be purified from unrighteousness, and be ruled over by the heir of house of David (23–28).”

Harrell continues,

“There is no mention of any other writing, nor is there any implication that Judah and Joseph or the fruit of their loins would do any writing. Any uncertainty regarding the intended meaning of this passage disappears in the next verse in which the people ask, “Wilt thou not show us what thou meanest by these?” (v. 18). Ezekiel responds that the sticks represent the kingdoms of Judah and Joseph, and that the joining of the two sticks symbolizes the reuniting of the two kingdoms under one king (vv. 19–23). Many LDS scholars today concur with this contextual meaning and therefore see the traditional LDS interpretation as a ‘secondary,’ ‘revealed’ meaning.

So, how did the Book of Mormon become the “stick of Ephraim?” Like much of Mormon doctrine and theology, it developed over time and includes a very lengthy revision of existing revelation.  It’s an interesting case study on how beliefs develop and when we trace it backwards to its original source, we find one man from whence it all came:  W.W. Phelps.

PHELPS AND THE PURITANS

I really like W.W. Phelps.  He was one of the few early Saints who studied the Book of Mormon.  He was a true believer.  He also gave us some beautiful hymns.  This isn’t an attack on Phelps.  I believe he was a sincere and honest man.  But like Joseph Smith, he was a man of time.  He had a particular way of reading and interpreting the Bible.  Phelps was a direct descendant of William Phelps, a Puritan colonist who helped found Boston and was one of eight men elected in 1637 to form the first democratic town government in the American colonies.

It’s difficult to understate the Puritan reading of the Bible among the early Saints.  The Puritans identified much more with the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) than the Christian New Testament.  They saw their flight to America as Biblical reenactment for the Exodus.  King James was their pharaoh and the Atlantic Ocean their Red Sea.  One of the Puritans’ expressed goals was to establish a New Jerusalem in America and they developed “a unique system of government in which God would rule directly and immediately over his saints in both church and state” in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming and millennial reign. They “seeded New England with notions of a chosen, covenanted people.”  If that sounds a bit like Joseph Smith and his vision of Zion, well, yeah.  These ideas spread from Massachusetts out across the northern states, eventually making way to New York.   If you’ve ever wondered why Joseph Smith’s religion resembles that of Ancient Israel (priesthoods, temples, rites and rituals) rather than that of the church Christ established in the Book of Mormon, now you know why.

W.W. Phelps purchased a Book of Mormon from Parley P. Pratt on April 6, 1830, and met Joseph Smith that December.  Phelps, who had experience with printing, moved to Kirtland in 1831 and received the following revelation via Joseph Smith on June 14, 1831,

“And again, you shall be ordained to assist my servant Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church, that little children also may receive instruction before me as is pleasing unto me. And again, verily I say unto you, for this cause you shall take your journey with my servants Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, that you may be planted in the land of your inheritance to do this work.” (D&C 55)

On June 6, 181, Joseph was instructed to leave for Missouri (D&C 52:3). Shortly thereafter, Phelps accompanied Joseph and Sidney to Missouri to find the “land of their inheritance.”  On July 20, 1831, Joseph Smith revealed Independence was “the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.” (D&C 57).

Phelps moved to Jackson County, Missouri in 1832 and established the church’s publishing arm, W. W. Phelps & Co., in Independence, Missouri where he edited the Evening and Morning Star from June 1832 to 1833.   In November 1832, Phelps wrote of Genesis 49 (“Joseph is a fruitful bough”) in the Star,

“This is one of the greatest prophecies in the bible, and contains more of the economy of the Lord than will be seen till the Redeemer comes to dwell on the earth. What an admirable expression is that; the branches run over the wall; as plain as to have said, some of his seed shill cross the ocean…”

Phelps would have seen this as a reference to the Puritans, the very literal seed of Joseph through Ephraim. Then, after citing Ezekiel 37 he writes,

“So, then, it appears, that Ephraim, besides becoming a multitude of nations, writes and keeps one of the sticks or books of the Lord. The stick of Judah, the bible, is about as much acknowledged and received as the Savior was, when he came to fulfil the words of the prophets, to be offered a sacrifice for sin. But there is another light, which presents itself to us, which ought not to be omitted. Say, our Savior came through the tribe of Judah, and the Jews kept the record or the bible, as it is called, for the scepter was not to depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and then, that the Redeemer, shall come the second time to the tribe of Joseph; and they have also written and kept a record, called the book of Mormon, for, from thence is the Shepherd the Stone of Israel: who can mistake what Ezekiel meant by the Two Sticks? They are the Lord’s reading sticks [or records] for the benefit of Israel…”

So far as I’ve been able to find, this is the first explicit connection between Ezekiel’s Sticks and the Bible and Book of Mormon.  The following January, Phelps again addressed this subject,

“Ezek. also says: Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, for Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, for Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and all the house of Israel his companions: and join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thy hand. The bible for the stick of Judah, and the book of Mormon for the stick of Joseph, in the hand of Ephraim, is all that need be said, upon these words, for no man ever pretended to know, (till the book of Mormon came,) any thing about the tribe of Joseph, or his history, not withstanding God had declared by the mouth of Hosea, That he had written the great things of his law to Ephraim; and they are counted a strange thing, The ancient and modem practice of reading sticks, wants but little elucidation. The common school-boy ought to know, that anciently, they wrote on parchment for common use, and rolled it round a stick; and, latterly, newspapers are put into a stick for public utility.”

In 1834, while the Saints were split into two groups (Kirtland and Independence), the Kirtland High Council commissioned the Doctrine and Covenants,

“The [Kirtland High] council then proceeded to appoint a committee to arrange the items of the doctrine of Jesus Christ for the government of the church of Latter-Day Saints which church was organized and commenced its rise on the 6th 10 of April 1830. These items are to be taken from the bible, book of mormon, and the revelations which have been given to the church up to this date or shall be, until such arrangement is made. Brother Samuel H. Smith then nominated brethren Joseph Smith Junr. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, to compose said committee which14 was seconded by brother Hyrum Smith.”

I find the High Council’s mandate to include the Bible and Book of Mormon interesting because the final product, for reasons unknown, contains passages from neither.  By February 17, 1835, the committee selected the contents for the D&C and wrote the resulting work represented, “our belief, and when we say this, humbly trust, the faith and principles of this society as a body.”

Phelps and John Whitmer returned to Kirtland in March 1835.  Alexander Baugh of BYU writes,

“[In March 1835 W.W. Phelps] and John Whitmer, both members of the Missouri presidency, arrived in Kirtland to assist in the printing operations of the Church. Their responsibilities included reprinting The Evening and the Morning Star (first published in Independence, Missouri) and the printing of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate and Northern Times (periodicals), the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Church’s first hymnal. Immediately upon his and Whitmer’s arrival, Phelps immersed himself in the printing operations, which included editing, arranging, typesetting, and printing each of the manuscripts for the various publications. Although Frederick G. Williams (owner and proprietor), Oliver Cowdery (office and business manager), and John Whitmer (editor of the Messenger and Advocate) oversaw the day-to-day printing operations, Phelps, as an ad hoc editor, played a major role in all of the editorial decisions

“In preparing the manuscript revelations in Revelation Book 1 for inclusion in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Phelps also took the liberty to make a number of additions and editorial changes to the revelations, including a 1 March 1832 revelation by Joseph Smith. In the published version of the revelation, Phelps inserted a rather lengthy phrase about the establishment of Adam-ondi-Ahman and the authority of Michael, or Adam (49 words). The insertion appears in the latter part of verse three of section 75 of the 1835 edition and reads as follows: “who hath appointed Michael, your prince, and established his feet, and set him upon high; and given unto him the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One, who is without beginning of days or end of life.” While Joseph Smith may have authored these words and directed that they be inserted as part of the printed text, Phelps may have written and inserted them and the Prophet given his approval.”

Personally, I don’t think Joseph Smith wrote those 49 words. I think the more likely scenario is that Joseph Smith wasn’t involved in the revisions at all. It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but given what we know about Joseph Smith, he seemed to lose interest in things very quickly. Whatever the case, section 75 wasn’t the only major revision.  D&C 27, referenced at the beginning, also underwent a massive revision.  Here’s the revelation, with the 1835 revision in red text,

“Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Lord, your God, and your Redeemer, whose word is quick and powerful. For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies; Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth. Behold, this is wisdom in me; wherefore, marvel not, for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel, to whom I have committed the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim; And also with Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days; And also John 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; Which John I have sent unto you, my servants, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, to ordain you unto the first priesthood which you have received, that you might be called and ordained even as Aaron; 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; And also with Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, your fathers, by whom the promises remain; And also with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days; And also with Peter, and James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles, and especial witnesses of my name, and bear the keys of your ministry and of the same things which I revealed unto them; 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; And also with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world.  Wherefore, lift up your hearts and rejoice, and gird up your loins, and take upon you my whole armor, that ye may be able to withstand the evil day, having done all, that ye may be able to stand. Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, which I have sent mine angels to commit unto you; Taking the shield of faith wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked; And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of my Spirit, which I will pour out upon you, and my word which I reveal unto you, and be agreed as touching all things whatsoever ye ask of me, and be faithful until I come, and ye shall be caught up, that where I am ye shall be also. Amen.”

That’s quite an expansion on the original. I think Oliver Cowdery likely played a part in this one.  But “the record of the stick of Ephraim” comes from Phelps. And if it was Phelps who made the revision, he mangled it quite badly.  It reads that the Nephites are the stick of Ephraim, and the Book of Mormon is their record. But again, the Nephites are descended from Manasseh. And Joseph, for his part, never corrected it.  With the official adoption of the D&C on August 17, 1835, and its subsequent publication, Ezekiel’s non-prophecy of the Book of Mormon, much to the chagrin of LDS apologists, became canon.

ADDENDUM:   After publishing this article, I found additional pertinent information.  Phelps’ biographer, Bruce Van Orden, believes Phelps was also Joseph Smith’s ghostwriter and responsible for the Wentworth Letter. Van Orden said,

“It became obvious that Phelps was Joseph Smith’s ghostwriter for numerous articles including major long theological pieces that appeared in the Times and Seasons in 1842 and now appear as Joseph Smith’s writings in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith in 1938.

“I studied carefully all the articles in digitized form from the Times and SeasonsThe Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor and was able to determine the hundreds of articles that were actually authored by Phelps, even though they have often been attributed to Joseph Smith or John Taylor.”

A think a very good argument could be made that the two major forces of Mormon Doctrine are Sidney Rigdon and W.W. Phelps—not Joseph Smith.

A CASE OF STOLEN IDENTITY

On September 17, 1838, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon responded to a non-extant letter from Stephen Post.  Post was baptized in 1835 and was preaching in Ohio when he wrote to the presidency seeking clarification on certain doctrines, including the claim that the Book of Mormon was the “Stick of Ephraim.”  In response, Smith and Rigdon wrote,

“As to the Stick of Joseph in the hand of Ephraim, I will merely say suppose yourself to be an Ephraimite, and suppose all this church to be, of the blood of Ephraim and the book of Mormon to be a record of Manasseh, which would of course [be a re]cord of Joseph, Then suppose you being an Ephraimite, Should take the record of Joseph in your hand, would not then the stick of Joseph of Joseph be in the hand of Ephraim. solve this mistery and se[e].”

The Joseph Smith Papers editors add this incredible footnote to the Post letter,

The Book of Mormon and JS’s revelations taught that the prophecy in Ezekiel chapter 37 of the Old Testament, which mentions the “stick of Joseph,” was a reference to the writings of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. (See Book of Mormon, 1830 ed., 67 [2 Nephi 3:11–12]

Sorry, editors.  Ezekiel wrote during the Exile, and we know from the Book of Mormon that those in Jerusalem were unaware of the Nephites.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a stick is just a stick.  As with the revisions to D&C 27 and 75, I think this is more Rigdon than Smith, but again, impossible to know for sure.  But the response is interesting.  First, Smith and Rigdon point to the secondary reading of Ezekiel 37—that the Book of Mormon is actually the “Stick of Joseph” in the Church’s (Ephraim’s) possession.  That’s better than how it reads in 27, but still incorrect.  According to the Book of Mormon, the early Saints, particularly those of English extraction (1 Nephi 13-14), are gentiles. “Gentile” is an ethnic designation, meaning a non-Israelite.  We read on the Book of Mormon title page that it would come forth “by way of the Gentile,” and The House of Israel and the Gentiles are always referred to as two distinct groups. Always. Jesus said,

“Come unto me, O ye Gentiles, and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief. Come unto me, O ye house of Israel, and it shall be made manifest unto you how great things the Father hath laid up for you, from the foundation of the world; and it hath not come unto you, because of unbelief.” (Ether 4:13-14)

Moroni added,

“And it is by faith that my fathers have obtained the promise that these things should come unto their brethren through the Gentiles.” (Ether 12:22)

The Saints can only be Gentiles, for the Book of Mormon came through them. It is true that we Gentiles can be numbered with the House of Israel, but we don’t become literal blood Israelites.  I think the Church’s institutional belief that they are very literal House of Israel is one of the biggest impediments to fully understanding the Book of Mormon.  While at Bountiful Jesus condemned and rebuked the Gentiles,

“And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.” (3 Nephi 16:10)

I think we can reasonably say this prophecy came true. The early church was, indeed, plagued by all the things Jesus mentioned.  And for me it’s among the best evidence that Joseph Smith didn’t write the Book of Mormon.  It makes little sense for him to throw his movement under the bus like this.  The sad irony is that the church doesn’t understand that Jesus is speaking to them. This, for me, is tragic because receiving the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon is contingent upon Gentile repentance. But as long as the church believes they are righteous and holy Israelites, it will see no reason to repent. And if your patriarchal blessing declares you to be of Ephraimite lineage, this is why.  It’s a cultural tradition passed down to us from the early days of the church.  But you’re a Gentile. And that’s ok. You’re not less because of it.

LIKENING THE SCRIPTURES TO OURSELVES?

It’s interesting to see how one man’s understandable misinterpretation of Ezekiel’s exilic prophecy of reunification led to so much confusion over something really quite simple.  LDS apologists know the church’s interpretation is of Ezekiel 37 incorrect, but since the revisions to D&C 27 were canonized, they have present alternative explanations.  They have to do this to uphold Joseph Smith as a prophet.  If Joseph falls, or one of his revelations is shown to be incorrect, Mormonism falls.  This leads to some rather creative explanations. FAIR, for example, gets around the “sticks” conundrum by writing,

“For Latter-day Saints this is an example of ‘likening the scriptures unto ourselves,’ as Nephi suggested (1 Nephi 19:23). The Book of Mormon is the restoration scripture for modern-day Ephraim—the people of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and a message that they take to the world so that Israel may be gathered a final time in preparation for the second coming of the Lord.

“Although Ezekiel was speaking directly of reunification, Latter-day Saints have applied their own modern application of this passage as it relates to the Book of Mormon’s role in the restoration of the gospel and the gathering of Israel.”

Translation:  We bend, twist, and torture them until they say what we need them to say. We give them our own meaning.  Never mind what the prophets said. Forget historical context. Forget what God said. We know better. (I see this a lot. Not just in the mainstream church, but in the various schismatic offshoots). It’s truly extraordinary.  Mormonism is a postmodern religion where truth is relative, malleable and experiential. The capital-T Truth simply does not matter. What matters is the narrative. What matters is holding up Joseph Smith’s presumed prophetic infallibility. As such, we continue to hold on to and nurture false belief systems, which systems are natural impediments to true, salvific faith.  This is the tragedy of Mormonism.

CONCLUSION

It’s interesting to see how one man’s understandable misinterpretation of Ezekiel’s exilic prophecy of reunification has led to so much confusion over something really quite simple.  I’m not optimistic the church will ever acknowledge the error, at least not in my lifetime.  There’s too much riding on this narrative and the costs are just too high.   If nothing else, I hope this clears out some of the cobwebs and helps us see a little bit clearer.  We have great promises made to us.  But that requires faith in things that are true.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

In the February 1996 First Presidency message, James E. Faust wrote:

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are at the very heart of the Lord Jesus Christ’s latter-day work. Joseph Smith and his work were known prophetically in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. The great prophecy in Ezekiel says: “The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying, “Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions: “And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand” (Ezek. 37:15–17). The Bible and the Book of Mormon are one in our hands.”

In the April 1975 conference, N. Eldon Tanner said:

“I read from Ezekiel in the Old Testament: “Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions: “And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.” (Ezek. 37:16–17.)  From the content of these books, we know this refers to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.”

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