Along with the fact of salvation, there is another fact that is wound up in Christianity. James pointed to this fact: i.e. faith without works is dead. Once a person accepts that salvation is possible, the question remains, what should I do? The Mormon answer is actually very compelling for most people given the facts in front of them.
Joseph Smith grew up. like many Christians today, with the understanding that the Bible was the word of God. He had no sophisticated understanding of how to prioritize scriptural passages – nor did he care for sophisticated understandings – he saw the original text all as equally true. It all came from God didn’t it? The bible talks a lot about Israel, Zion, the end of the world, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God and a whole lot of other things that would happen on earth. To him, and to many reasonable people, if the Bible is reliable, it seems like the “true” Church should be wrapped up in that stuff in a big way.
Nearly every country preacher in Joseph Smith’s time was using reason and the Bible to try to figure out how the Bible should apply to life and society in light of the dire prophecies in the text. They were incorporating “churches” based on all kinds of novel hermeneutics, visions, assimilation of science, and personal creativity. Some of this, no doubt, was simply branding and gimmicks, and the young Joseph Smith was clearly deeply cynical about the established order of things – especially given the bald-faced selling of salvation and religious competition that was going on around him. It may not be possible tell if Joseph was “saved” in the Protestant sense, but it may be also that he rejected the descriptions of salvation given by the country preachers around him, because they were too simple and self-serving. He might have thought that the way the preachers talked about salvation was corrupt as they were, or at least made way-too-simple in order to make their product more attractive. Like Joseph, these country preachers had already completely rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, every state church, and every other denomination except their own. It seemed clear to him that these men did not seek “the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol.” (D&C 1: 16.) He sought direction from heaven.
Joseph’s answer to his confusion was hermetic, not hermeneutic. He went to God in prayer and saw visions, and sought to translate the realities he saw in his visions into new religious text rather than find the answer from the existing text using reason and rules of interpretation. He continued to see amazing visions, and could clearly and automatically dictate these visions to other people. This is why he felt he could go through the Bible and change it, he knew he saw things differently than most everybody around him, especially the preachers and politicians. This is essentially the same rationale given by Tolstoy when he rewrote the Gospels. Thomas Jefferson, no doubt, felt much the same way when he rewrote the Gospels and advocated periodic, bloody, patriotic revolt. I think that is is indisputable that Joseph, Tolstoy, and Jefferson, in fact, saw things very differently than most of us, and they also believed they saw things more clearly- this attitude leads to revolutionary thinking.
Joseph, seeking his own way rather than the confused ways around him, looked to the Old Testament and clearly locked hold on God’s promise to Jacob, i.e. his covenant with Israel. Joseph was a wrestler, he had seen God, and the the Bible told him that wrestling with God was possible. These were simple facts to Joseph, and they affected his entire thinking about God, these were the simple truths that were lost. This view profoundly affected his ability to hope for Zion (Christian utopia) because he believed that God could explain what justice meant so long as those seeking Zion followed the Spirit, sought virtue and justice, and did not seek to exercise “unrighteous dominion”. This belief may have been the genesis of his most important teachings about authority and priesthood. (D&C 121.)
As a Mormon, I firmly believed that Zion was only possible through obedience to the Christian law. I still might believe this, it seems to be ingrained in my mind with deep ruts. These ruts began in the Church but wore even deeper,because of my empathy with Tolstoy’s vision, captured this vision in his last novel, Resurrection. My experience with the Gospels as an LDS missionary was very similar to those that Tolstoy described in that novel.
Recognizing that the Church was not Zion, but was only a group of normal people who sought Zion, Joseph’s personality and sins were irrelevant to me. He was visionary, but he seemed to act like an average person otherwise, and you could not trust all of his visions- but his direction toward Zion was clear enough. I believed the Church was “true” because it seemed to be the only organization that seemed to grasp that law should be made through the Christian spirit, and to believe that this sort of law was critical. I felt that God wanted me to support this cause. I accepted that the Church had not gained enough momentum to make it happen all at once, mainly because of the existing attitude of members, who were, of course, still stuck in the world. But I accepted that a conservative, diligent, prolonged effort was needed and it could take a long time and would happen step-by-step.
To me, this was the great truth that Joseph Smith taught, and polygamy was a very important part of that teaching. Polygamy was an affront to the law of the land, and it might have been the only thing that could have isolated Mormons enough to allow them to live by their own law, and separate the emotional connection to the worldly law, including the rules of romance, that most conservative people have. It also prevented the Church from folding back into Protestantism, and the associated corruption I saw. This view seemed reasonable and easily explained to most people. To those who sought the love God, explaining Zion is simple enough. You simply have a person sit still for a while and listen carefully, and attempt to feel their deepest intuitions, which generally reasonably pointed to joining a church that aimed for Zion, practice the religion of love, and giving everything to the cause of Zion in a unified effort. To me, the Spirit confirmed truth of the Church’s direction for life and society, not any particular theology, so I was free to doubt the specifics of theology, study philosophy and science, and accept whatever was good and true and add it to my understanding of what Zion was and how it could be achieved.
The allegorical description of life found in the Book of Mormon matches the lives of many. Life is a march through mists of darkness, and dangerous waters. Most never feel the love of God and mock those that strive to feel it. To the reasonable person who finds himself in these mists of darkness, the answer is not to join the masses who mock the pilgrims, but to discover the word of God, in order to feel God’s love, and establish a new society based on God’s law, i.e. Zion. To those that recognize the darkness, and are confused by the world, including its theologies, the most sensible thing is to follow the Spirit of God through the darkness in hope of Zion. It seems very clear that it is better far for those who seek Zion to forget their useless cares, to give up everything, to pledge all they have to building the Kingdom. To a person lost in the mists of darkness or drowning in the fountains of “filthy water” found in the world, stuck in hopelessness and confusion, who cannot feel the love of God, this is a path to salvation, if not exaltation.
The best-thinking reaction of a Mormon to a person with this dark attitude is this: help this person feel the love of God again, and use the Spirit to direct him to have faith in the Christian law and have hope for Zion in his life as well as the lives of others. If he does this he will have peace and his confidence will “wax strong in the presence of God”. It is almost a truism.
What is clear to me now – as much as ever – is that I have “tasted the fruit of the tree of life”, I have “felt the love of God”, and I have felt the “influence of the Holy Spirit.” I recognized with Nephi, that the “love of God” was the most desirable feeling, “the most joyous to the soul” and it was unlike any other feeling I had ever had. I could put my finger on it, and as an missionary, I know I pointed hundreds to that feeling, and dozens joined the Church. I did not equate that feeling with any emotion – it was actually completely pure of any emotion of mine – it came in the midst of hate, panic, fear, sorrow, depression in the lives of others.
But what is equally clear is that I did not quite fully understand the light of Christ, what Mormons believe shines on all those outside the cause of Zion and the Church, especially sincere Christians. The light of Christ is something that is distinct from the Holy Ghost. The Gift of the Holy Ghost may only come to the right-thinking and devoted, as it did to the disciples on Pentecost, but the light of Christ shines on all people like the sunlight – i.e. on the righteous and the wicked alike.
When I was in the Church, I did not think about the joy that this light could bring, only its ability to show me the right direction. But when I abandoned the Church, when all hope in Zion in my life and in the world was completely gone, when I no longer felt any of the love of God, when I trusted no institution, when I no longer trusted my own vision, when I trusted no person, when I no longer trusted the Spirit, I seemed to have caught a glimpse of the light of Christ that I did not see before.