This ended up a little longer than I’d intended, but I like my findings too much to trim it down. If you’re not totally entranced by descriptive lexicography, I can’t say I understand, because I don’t (what’s wrong with you?); however, I can suggest that you read the first two paragraphs, the bolded paragraph in the middle, and the last four or five. You’ll get the argument I’m making, if not the methodology, or the fun.
The comments on Apame’s fine post below have turned me to this question, and rather than threadjack her understandable envy of those who get to fine-tune their own wedding vows, I thought I’d give it its own post. Because honestly, I’m not sure I know what this word means. The softness of “hearken” relative to “obey” is part of what makes me able to soldier on through the cognitive dissonance of going to the temple; the archaism of it lets me feel a little more free to interpret it however I want, than I would with a more current word. (When was the last time you used “hearken” in casual conversation? I wonder if my students would take it more seriously if I told them to please hearken to the syllabus.)
But this actually a huge problem, even if it makes me feel better: what am I doing covenanting to hearken to stuff, if I’m not even sure what “hearken” means?
So let’s try to work this thing out. The first place most people go when they want to know the meaning of the word is “the dictionary.” Trouble is, of course, there isn’t just one authoritative dictionary, and any dictionary worth its salt will recognize the multiple meanings and senses of any word; and further, when you’re looking at an archaic word, you can’t just default to current usage to decide which sense is the relevant one.
The OED, which is my dictionary of choice because I like to get high on etymology, gives these definitions for “hearken” (excepting the ones marked as obscure, since I’m pretty sure that “hearken” in the temple doesn’t mean “eavesdrop”):1. To apply the ears to hear; to listen, give ear
2. To apply the mind to what is said; to attend, have regard; to listen with sympathy or docility
Merriam Webster (which is not a historical dictionary and does not generally include senses which are out of use) gives:1. [To] listen
2. To give respectful attention
So far, it seems that insofar as the word exists in modern usage, “hearken” means “listen [+]”; the [+] may include respect, regard, attention, sympathy, and/or docility. However, dictionaries are only a rather rudimentary way to determine the meaning of a word in context — the context is a lot more important than the dictionary. And the context in which “hearken” appears is more than the immediate textual context of the temple liturgy (which is a related issue, but needs its own post); it includes the whole context of Mormon language.
Good dictionaries depend on descriptive lexicography to produce (and distinguish) definitions: they gather evidence of usage and base their definitions on that, rather than on the personal instincts of the lexicographer. (This quality is what made the OED revolutionary against the tradition of Johnson and Webster.) So, to move past dictionary definitions (or, if we’re liking the hubris, to write our own dictionary, which is totally on my bucket list), we’ll need to do the same thing. How is the work “hearken” used in Mormon texts and contexts?
Scriptural language has an undeniable impact on the way words change (or don’t) in the linguistics habits of a religious community, so let’s start there. Such language tends to be conservative, retaining archaic words and structures, and with our attachment to the KJV, we’ve become attached to a lot of those archaic words and structures. (The Book of Mormon was translated into language which indulges that archaism, and the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants are likewise set down in such language.) A search on lds.org returns 425 instances of the word “hearken” in LDS scripture; obviously I won’t be reviewing all of them here (though maybe Ziff would like to, and then make us several interesting charts!) You’ll just have to take my word that I’m aiming for the examples which have what lexicographers call high defining value — that is, they not only use the word, but say something about its meaning. Obviously you can replicate my study if you’re suspicious.
1 Samuel 15.22:
And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
Joshua 1. 16-18:
16 And they answered Joshua, saying, All that thou commandest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go.
17 According as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee: only the Lord thy God be with thee, as he was with Moses.
18 Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage.
In Samuel, “hearken” is a synonym in variation with “obey”; in Joshua, “hearken” is used as in variation with “[do] all that thou commandest,” and in opposition to “rebel against thy commandment.” In these two passages, “hearken” very clearly incorporates obedience.
14. And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:
15. There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
“Hearken,” especially followed by a particularly strong constative speech act, means something close to “understand” here. This is complicated by a similar structure in Judges, however.
And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you.
Jotham follows this with the parable of the trees choosing a king. In the first instance, “hearken” seems to mean “pay close attention so you’ll understand this,” but it’s fascinating that God will, conditionally, hearken in response. As the passage goes on, it becomes clear that the men of Shechem need to hearken in order to understand whether their choice of king was righteous or not, because if it was not, then “let fire come out from Abimelech” (v. 20). The sense of listening seems primary in this usage, but with very high stakes; if God hearkens to Shechem, then he won’t just be listening to them, but also responding favorably, i.e, not lighting them on fire.
Similarly, in Job 9.16-17:
16. If I had called, and he had answered me; yet would I not believe that he had hearkened unto my voice.
17. For he breaketh me with a tempest, and multiplieth my wounds without cause.
Job is not only questioning whether God is listening, but whether God will yield to his pleas.
But there are also contexts where “hearken” seems to mean, roughly, “pay attention.”
And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:
Or even, maybe, just “hear.”
And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda.
In the Book of Mormon, “hearken” is pretty much inextricable from obedience. There are no usages (with the possible exception of some which quote OT scripture) in which it clearly means to listen, without necessary consequent action that accords with the demands of whatever one is hearkening to.
Therefore, blessed are they who will repent and hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; for these are they that shall be saved.
To “hearken unto the voice of the Lord” is in synonymic variation with “repent” here; again, that element of obedience, given that repenting entails obeying the voice of God.
Mosiah 22.9 is especially useful:
And it came to pass that the king hearkened unto the words of Gideon.
Gideon advises Limhi on a course of action; Limhi hearkens to him, and does what Gideon advises.
And in Helaman 11.14:
O Lord, thou didst hearken unto my words when I said, Let there be a famine, that the pestilence of the sword might cease; and I know that thou wilt, even at this time, hearken unto my words, for thou saidst that: If this people repent I will spare them.
Again we have God on the hearkening end of the exchange, and it’s clear that he’s not only listening, but that he’s sending down wars and famines where Nephi requests them — he’s doing what he’s asked.
So for refined scriptural senses of “hearken” we have:1. Listen or hear
2. Pay attention
2. Listen and understand
3. Listen and do as commanded
4. Listen and do as requested
In the context of the scriptures I’ve examined, then, I’d posit that hearken means “listen and take action” (where the default action to be taken, if none is specified in context, is that one pays close attention or works to understand — that is, the listening itself becomes the action and is therefore intensified.)
Despite the esteem in which we hold King James English (and 19th century versions of King James English), Mormons don’t actually speak King James English (although arguably, our temple liturgy draws more on that language than on modern American English usage.) So, just for balance, as well as kicks and giggles, let’s see how the word “hearken” is used by GAs in the 21st century. Again, there’s more material here than I can do justice to, but I’m looking for representative examples with high defining value:
Elder Hales, Ensign, Nov 2010:
For example, when we hearken to the Word of Wisdom, we escape the captivity of poor health and addiction to substances that literally rob us of our ability to act for ourselves.
Elder Eyring, Ensign, Nov 2005:
So, the great test of life is to see whether we will hearken to and obey God’s commands in the midst of the storms of life. It is not to endure storms, but to choose the right while they rage.
In both of these cases, hearkening is clearly closely related to obedience. But in the first, it’s used instead of “obey” — that is, listening doesn’t even enter the equation; the point is that one follows the WoW; only action is emphasized. In the second, we have some ambiguity: is the combination of “hearken” and “obey” progressive order or synonymic variation? That is, do you hearken (i.e., listen) and then obey (i.e., do); or do you hearken (hear and do) and also, as a closely related action, obey (hear and do)?
Elder Gonzalez, Aug 2010:
Whether the Lord speaks to us through prophets or through the Spirit—and He will do both—we must promptly reply, “Speak; for thy servant heareth.” Many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants begin with a commandment to hearken . . . Of course, hearing the words of the Lord through His prophets is much more than merely listening to a talk. When we hear the words of the prophets, we realize that those words are the will of God and that we must be willing to follow them.
Elder Gonzalez slips in “hear” for “hearken” here, with the clear assumption that they’re synonyms. But for him, to “hear the words of the Lord” seems to change the meaning of “hear” — hearing is accompanied by a recognition of legitimacy and a willingness to follow. All of that seems to be added upon the “listen” meaning of “hearken.”
Elder Steur, Ensign, July 2002:
Second, we need to put ourselves into a proper frame of mind and heart. This comes by prayerful pondering and laboring in the Spirit. This labor is real labor. It includes the very active steps of seeking, hearkening, and studying the scriptures.
Here, “hearken” seems closer to the scriptural definitions 2 and 3 above: not just listening or hearing, but actively seeking understanding.
For recent GA-speak, we have these sense divisions:1. Listen, as a prelude to action
2. Listen and take action
I don’t think this is substantially different from the senses derived from scriptural usage, above; it still seems that “hearken” boils down to “listen and do something about it.” (Even in the passage where I’m willing to paraphrase “hearken” as “hear,” it’s in the context of someone answering the door — which means she hasn’t just heard the knock, but has taken the action of going to see who’s there.)
Turning back to the temple-shaped elephant in the post, I don’t think there’s any way to argue that “hearken” in the temple” means nothing more than “listen” — it virtually always means more than that in Mormon usage. But what exactly is being added to “listen” is open to interpretation, though heavily dependent on the context of the temple itself.
I want to believe that the switch from “obey” to “hearken” is freeing, in that I think it opens up possibilities for more meanings, and slightly less troubling ones. I certainly appreciate that it may incorporate a more internal, cognitive process (listening and understanding, as well as doing) to the female response than simply taking obedient action: one can obey mindlessly, without needing to understand or think through what one is dong, but I’m not sure that the same is, semantically, true of hearkening. In fact, given what I’ve found and discussed above, “hearken” doesn’t seem to soften “obey” so much as it just adds to it — the obedience is still there, but framed and bolstered by the act of listening.
Although I don’t think that the context of the liturgy really allows this, let’s suppose that the sense intended in the temple’s “hearken” is “understand” or “pay attention,” without the sense of obedience. I actually don’t mind that at all; it actually seems like in a healthy marriage, one should pay attention to, and work to understand, one’s spouse. But if that’s what we mean by hearken, there’s no reason it can’t go both ways, that husbands can’t hearken to wives. Why not make the covenant reciprocal? (Certainly that reciprocity is taught by the GAs as the current doctrine of marriage; for example, “Couples need private time to observe, to talk, and really listen to each other” — Elder Nelson, April 2006; my emphasis.)
But if we do mean “listen + obey” by “hearken” (and I think the context, in which Adam and Eve’s disobedience is the event that catalyzes the hearken covenant, strongly suggests this), then I wonder if it’s not just a little disingenuous that the word has been changed (although I am, as I’ve indicated, grateful for it.) Is this just a way of retaining that gendered structure of obedience, but trying to make it look and feel better for a culture that’s no longer so accepting of the expectation that women will obey their husbands? Am I being tricked into feeling better about making effectively the same covenant as I would have before the change?
Has the apologetic squawk of the chicken patriarch found a voice in even our most sacred spaces?