Answering Greg Trimble’s 51 Questions – Part 4

Trimble, you sly dog.  In my first post I suggested that people would probably be inclined to respond with a list of 51 questions that would cause someone to leave Mormonism.  Sure enough, Runtu put together such a list.  You won’t want to click on it though because it’s much better than your list (and I don’t say that not because he’s no longer a Mormon).

But then I found something.  A list of 50 questions for Mormons that dates back to 2001.  You cranked a prankster.  You wrote your list of questions in response to THAT list.  And then you added one more so that a web search for your list wouldn’t bring up that original list. [stands up and claps] I haven’t learned anything new about Mormonism, but I am learning somethings about you.  You’re crazy like a fox.

I think I’m ready for Part 4. But are you?

Some quick caveats for those that missed my first post..  These answers will be short and to the point. I’m not trying give a complete answer, nor am I trying to convert anyone out of Mormonism.  If I throw in a joke or two it’s to keep things interesting and not a personal attack on Trimble or an attempt to disrespect the Mormon faith.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


31. The Jews prepare for Elijah’s return every year during passover. On April 3, 1836 Elijah returned to the earth and appeared in the Kirtland temple on the exact day that Jews around the world had prepared an empty chair for Elijah at their Passover meal? Is that a coincidence? [More]

No, of course it wasn’t a coincidence.  It’s not like Joseph Smith knew nothing about modern Judaism.  Less than a month beforehand Joseph and a number of his followers had just wrapped up 7 weeks of Hebrew lessons from a Jewish professor they had hired.  In the “if he were making all of this up” line of questioning is it possible that Joseph was quite intentional about what day Elijah appeared? Of course it is.

What’s NOT a coincidence is that both Elias AND Elijah showed up on at the same time. That’s freakin’ unbelievable. (for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Elias is just another way to say Elijah). And by unbelievable, I mean I don’t believe it.  Like literally. I literally don’t believe it. And not in the figurative way people use the word literally these days. I mean I actually don’t believe it. Continue reading

Five Possible Reactions to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

New York Times Front Page Joseph Smith PolygamyThe LDS church has recently taken a big step in respect to the life of Joseph Smith by publicly admitting that Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives, that some of his wives were married to other men, and that some of his wives were as young 14 years old.  The Church’s essays on these things at times strain credulity in offering a faith-promoting narrative and occasionally distort the evidence to favor Smith.  But nonetheless, the Church should be congratulated for taking this first big step in accepting the basic facts.

A friend asked me what this could mean in terms of accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet. I have seen 5 general reactions that I think are possible for the institutional Church to adopt as it moves forward.  They are listed in here in order of trust in Joseph Smith.

1) So What.  If God commanded him to do it, it doesn’t matter what he did. Any action ordained by God is righteous and Joseph was ordered to do all of these things. (This was the Church’s stance toward Smith while Brigham Young was Prophet of the Church and of the polygamous Mormon sects of today.)

2) No Sex. Joseph married these women and it looks creepy but he didn’t have earthly sex with them, his carnal knowledge is in Eternity only. It was Brigham Young who brought sex into polygamy. Implicit in this reaction is that if Smith was having sex with girls 20 years younger than himself or married it other men, it would be a problem. (The Church will try this as long as it can but the historical record doesn’t bear it out. The Church is already in conflict on this by simultaneously saying that the purpose of polygamy was to raise up a righteous seed.)

3) He Was a Fallen Prophet. Joseph eventually fell into sin and abused his position and power as prophet.  We hope he repented before his death but the good things he gave us still stand and are useful for pursuing God. (This is the stance of the Henderickites who own the Temple Lot in Independence, MO. They maintain the Book of Mormon and the general church structure and mode of worship established by Smith.)

4) No Religion Is True, So Stick With What You Know.  This has become popular among the so-called “Pastoral Mormon Apologists” like Adam Miller and Teryl Givens. They don’t outright say it like that but that’s the heart of their argument.  If you’re comfortable remain comfortable and we’ll just slowly reform the things we don’t like. (The Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS, largely took up this and stance #3 in the last 15-20 years. They are now practically indistinguishable from the Mainline Protestant Denominations. Liberal zeitgeist seems to be the greatest source of inspiration and instruction).

5) Repentance. Fully acknowledging the sins of Joseph Smith and the institutional Church’s fault in promoting Joseph Smith and his teachings followed up by a massive and painful reformation. (This was what the stance the non-Mormon Worldwide Church of God took toward their founder in the late ’90s.)

Each of these positions carry risk and most certainly a loss of membership. I think we can look at November 2014 as a watershed moment in the history of Mormonism.

Lutheran Satire

A video was recently posted in the comments of this blog (thanks Gundek). I thought it was pretty funny and recognized the characters from another video I posted about the Trinity. I decided to explore the YouTube channel to discover what else the author had to say about Mormonism. These are just a sampling of what I found:

I wondered where he gained all the energy to say so much about Mormonism. I discovered the answer at the end of this video

And to be sure, he takes some swipes at Evangelicals as well

The Caller on The Line Wants to Know if He’s a Christian

In a discussion on the on-going controversy over Richard Mouw’s 2004 apology at the Mormon Tabernacle, a fellow Evangelical asked me to comment on a passage from Richard Mouw’s book “Talking with Mormons”.

“My assistant came into my office to tell me that a caller wanted to talk with me: “He says he’s a Mormon and he wants to ask you a question about his personal faith. Should I tell him you’re too busy?” Then she quickly added: “He seems quite nice, and he says he isn’t calling to argue with you about anything:”

I decided to take the call. The person on the line asked whether he could briefly tell me about his spiritual journey. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his story, but my assistant was right: he did seem quite nice. He had been raised in a mainline Protestant church, he told me, and during his youth he had never felt challenged to make any serious commitment to Christianity. As a student at a university – one of the most distinguished ones academically – his roommate for all four years was a Mormon. ” Continue reading

Phase One

It may appear that “Phase One” of the church’s inoculation strategy has begun with the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers. This video is an advertisement for book sales but nonetheless officially produced by the church.

The most important part of the differences between the four accounts is not mentioned in the video (did Joseph see angels, an embodied God or and embodied Father and Son), but it’s good to see the church encourage people to read the various accounts on their own.

Enquiring of the Lord

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the reliability of a spiritual witness here and elsewhere. My position in a nutshell is that a personal spiritual witness is important and encouraging in directing a person toward faith in God, but it is not enough by itself in isolation of all other things.

This quote by Joseph Smith perfectly sums up the reason why I think that’s true.

When a man enquires of the Lord concerning a matter, if he is deceived by his own carnal desires, and is in error, he will receive an answer according to his erring heart, but it will not be a revelation from the Lord.

John Wesley has been credited with something that’s been named the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which I think is a useful tool in helping us discern what is from God and what is from our own carnal desires. When we seek spiritual inspiration and direction we rely on:

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience

What do you think? Are spiritual revelations enough or do we need more?

The Father and the Son

In 1916 the First Presidency of the LDS Church published this statement written by James Talmage.  It might be compared to the Nicene Creed in it’s importance to Mormon thought on the nature of God.  Out of consequence of this statement the doctrine of Adam-God was abandoned, Joseph Smith’s recognition of Heavenly Father being named Jehovah was contradicted and eventually the Lectures on Faith were removed from the LDS canon.

It’s interesting that this statement wasn’t presented as a revelation, nor was it added to the LDS canon.  It is clearly a work of theology but it seems to have had precedence over both Joseph Smith and what was at that time scripture.  The work of theologians is generally shunned by the modern LDS church but here we have an example of it shaping Mormon doctrine in rather profound ways.

“As an official document from the First Presidency, the orthodoxy of the Church regarding the Godhead was established. What Nicaea and Alexandria accomplished for the Catholic Church, this document accomplished for the Latter-day Saints. Regardless of what had been said before, this was the new standard for doctrinal accuracy.”
[Brian W. Ricks, “James E. Talmage and the Nature of the Godhead” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 2007), 132]”

Continue reading

The Nature of God Illustrated

The Nature of God Illustrated The chief differences between Mormonism and Christianity are often difficult to decipher. I recently attended a seminar presented by Carl Mosser in which he tried to spotlight the different faiths in terms of contrasting worldviews. It’s one thing to say that they are similar because they both feature Jesus as the Savior of humanity. It’s another to broaden the picture to the origins of the universe itself. Is Jesus the only self-existing Creator ever or is he one of many self-existing beings? Perhaps he’s part of a vast universal system that forms matter together into beings that in turn form more matter together.

In a good faith attempt to illustrate the various religious views on the nature of God (and the capital “U” Universe”) I created this diagram. A comment by Christian J inspired the reptilian illustration. Virtually no one sees God as some sort of reptile, it’s merely a humorous attempt at illustrating the ideas that each worldview presents.

I will gladly admit that the Mormon section was the most difficult to capture. Depending on the Mormon you talk to, and the day you talk to him, I’m sure there are many different ideas floating around. Blake Ostler for instance will give a picture more inline with Social Trinitarianism. So go easy on me if you think I got it wrong. If you disagree, I’m interested to know how you would have drawn it.

Click the image to see the full-size version, you may have to click the image again when it pops up to see it in full magnification (browser dependent).

*Made a few clarifying edits on 11/8/11.

A Mormon President

Mormon President, Mitt Romney Joseph Smith I highly recommend the documentary “A Mormon President“. With great production, story telling and controversy this DVD tells the story of Joseph Smith’s presidential run, his introduction of polygamy and his eventual murder. In many ways the documentary is as much the story of William Law as of Jospeh Smith. I think the producers did an excellent job of laying out the facts and deftly introducing both sides of any controversy they encountered.

I felt the Smith biography “Rough Stone Rolling” served as a template for the narrative of the documentary, but the film made fewer speculative judgement calls for what must have been motivating Joseph Smith in the last year of his life. Additionally the documentary was able to boil down the key events of 1844 into a 60 minute presentation. It’s so much more consumable and explanatory than most of the evenly-toned presentations of Joseph Smith’s life. A resource that honestly tells Smith’s story without skewing too positively or too negatively was desperately needed and I think “A Mormon President” hits the mark.

The commentators will be familiar to many Mormons and include both faithful voices (including a BYU historian and Richard Bushman) and critics but neither is given any favorable weight. I thought you could easily distinguish what may be motivating their bias as they reflected on the events.

In addition the DVD includes some bonus features that are well worth the time to view. They include a segment of Mormons defending their faith and the feasibility of a Mormon president and a segment of non-Mormons (most of them Evangelical critics of Mormonism) discussing why they don’t think America should elect a Mormon). I thought both segments introduced the basic arguments each side makes. My one criticism is that I don’t recall any Evangelical (or non-Mormon) making an argument for why it would be okay to elect a Mormon. At one point it seemed the producers needed to scare up some dissenting voices and decided the easiest way to find voters opposed to a Mormon presidency was to film some interviews in a backwoods, Arkansas bar. I’d hate for those brief interviews in the bonus section to dissuade anyone from viewing the DVD though.

If you get a chance to see “A Mormon President” I think you should make the effort.

What Do You Mean By “Apostasy”?

Rev. Jeffress and Pastor Mark Driscoll have both stirred up a lot of recent anger by saying that Mormonism is a “theological cult”. I don’t think the term is all that helpful even when thoroughly explained (and Driscoll has a MUCH better definition than Jeffress).

I don’t think the term is helpful because the word “cult” has shifted and is so strongly connected with mind-controlling organizations and brain-washing. It’s such a loaded term than any attempt to nuance it is totally thwarted by the power of of the perceived meaning. It’s like doing surgery with a broad sword. I suggest that those who want to discuss “theological cults” might find it more useful to find a different word all together.

Earlier this week I asked a Mormon friend what he meant by the word “apostasy” because the average Christian is going to find it nearly as offensive. He responded:

Being in a state where the church organization and priesthood authority as established by Jesus Christ and restored through Joseph Smith is absent or aberrated.

I think this definition fails for the same reason any secondary definition of the word “cult” fails. The speaker is talking about something the listener isn’t hearing.

Mormons are fond of defaulting to the common dictionary definition when defending their status as Christians. The dictionary refers to apostasy as:

a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.

In addition to the lack of clarity in meaning for my friends definition of “apostasy”, I think he fails to recognize that when Joseph Smith first introduced the term he meant something closer to the dictionary definition than what he’d like it to mean. Similarly Rev. Jeffress probably meant something closer to the common definition of “cult” than any theological definition he could devise.

Where The Troubles Lie

I was recently asked what kinds of things in practice and in doctrine would the LDS church have to change in order to be accepted in the realm of Christian orthodoxy. I’m not under any delusion that the LDS church is interested in making any of these changes.  But this serves as a reference for how I would categorize Mormon distinctives in comparison to Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. I’m sure there will be some dispute of whether or not the LDS church actually teaches some of these things.  So consider this a list of things that would need to be specifically disavowed since some Mormon somewhere has given me the impression that this is what they have learned from the LDS church. If the LDS church doesn’t teach it, then they would need to do more than remain silent on it, they would need to remove confusion over it.

I’ve placed these items in four categories.

No Compromise, This Must Change

  • God was created or formed and was not always in his present state
  • The difference between God and man is one of degree not kind
  • There is more than one god
  • God the Father has a corporeal body
  • God lived a mortal life before the creation of this world
  • God might have been a sinner
  • As God is, man may become
  • Joseph Smith (or any other mortal) is serving in the role of “Holy Ghost” (a speculative theology I’ve heard a few Mormons opine)
  • Heavenly Mother(s) (another speculative theology)

Should Really Be Reviewed

  • Salvation comes in part from our own works
  • Ordinances are required for salvation
  • “The Miracle of Forgiveness” as recommended reading
  • All references to God in the Old Testament are only references to Jesus
  • Marriage is required for the highest degree of glory
  • Acceptance of The Joseph Smith Translation
  • Canonization of “The Pearl of Great Price” and large portions of “Doctrine & Covenants”
  • Creation ex Materia
  • Belief that no Mormon Prophet has ever led the church astray
  • There are High Priests in the order of Melchizedek other than Jesus
  • The Book of Mormon is an actual history (I may hedge on this one)

Just Different, but Weird

  • Eternal Marriage
  • Canonization of “The Book of Mormon”
  • Temples for making covenants with God (content dependent)
  • Baptism for the dead
  • Sacred undergarments
  • Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods
  • The canon is open and continues to expand (content dependent)

Have Fun

  • Lay clergy
  • Expectation of missionary service
  • Canning
  • King James Bible
  • 19th Century Methodist-style worship services
  • General Conference
  • Leadership determined by longevity
  • Geographically designated worship communities

Would any other non-Mormons disagree with my list and how I’ve ordered these items? Does this clarify our differences?

Open Letter to a Lazy Internet

Guest post by David Clark

Dear Lazyweb,

Some variation of the idea that Mormons have little or no official doctrine is believed with near 100% unanimity by the bloggernacle. However, I must confess I have never actually seen any justification for this idea. I have seen many people express it, and I have seen many differing opinions on doctrine offered in the bloggernacle, but I have never seen any justification for this idea.

I’d like to point out, if it isn’t obvious already, just because one loudly and continuously expresses an idea, doesn’t mean that it’s rooted in the truth. It is also the case that just because there are many differing opinions on what consitutes doctrine, it does not mean that there is no official doctrine.

Related to this, just because few people believe or practice a doctrine does not make it unofficial. As an example of this, most Catholics probably use artificial contraception, even though it most definitely is official doctrine of the Catholic Church that artiticial contraception should not be used (no, the comdom comments made by the pope and taken out of context by the media do not change this). More closer to home, as far as I know masturbation is still doctrinally considered a sin in Mormon circles, but one would be hard pressed to find a sin more widely and frequently comitted. But, this does not change the Mormon view on masturbation (again, bloggernacclers, this isn’t the place to wax eloquent about your own masturbation views and experiences, it doesn’t change what the view is, assuming it exists).

So now, dear lazyweb, I ask for statements, policies, or any other type of official communication which establishes this idea. I would ask that the following be considered before offering up a statement as support for this idea.

  1. Statements that say that members can have a wide variety of opinions on matters, and won’t be disciplined, is not good support for this idea. This could also support the contention that although the LDS church has many official doctrines, it’s pretty lenient and merciful towards those who disagree. Thus Jeffrey R. Holland’s campsite talk is probably not the best support for the idea that the church holds little or no official doctrine.
  2. Statements that are taken out of context are not good support for this idea. Joseph Smith’s oft quoted, “I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” was likely given in the context of civil governance, as Joseph Smith was most likely talking to a member of the Illinois legislature at the time. I hedged a lot in the previous statement because the earliest source for this quote appears to be John Taylor, and it was communicated many years after the fact (1851 to be precise). Thus it’s not a good statement talking about lack of doctrine.
  3. Newer statements should be preferred to older ones
  4. Statements made by persons higher up in the church hierarchy should be preferred to statements made by those lower in the hierarchy
  5. Statements published in official and/or correlated sources should be preferred to those which are not
  6. Published statements should be preferred to hearsay and rumor. For example, it’s often said that David O. McKay had grave misgivings about both the content and existence of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. But, as far as I can tell, David O. McKay never came out and said anything of the kind in a public setting.
  7. Disagreement does not mean lack of official doctrine. Brigham Young and Orson Pratt disagreeing about the nature of intelligences doesn’t really say much about official doctrine. It might say something about that particular doctrine (even then, one could make a case that it may not even affect that, but I’m not interested in making that case), but it doesn’t say anything about doctrine in general

Are Mormons Mormon™?

I discovered a couple of resources that highlighted an interesting conversation within Mormonism to me. What does a Mormon have to believe to be a Mormon?

The first was this interview on Mormon Expression Podcast with a Bishop who is currently serving despite experiencing a crisis of faith. I enjoyed hearing his thoughts and think the LDS church would be well served by his leadership. But then I heard him express some rather unconventional theological viewpoints, namely this one quoted from Millennial Mormonism:

You are the golden plates that have been hidden (deep in the mountain side) and are now coming forth. You are being translated correctly and published to the world. You are the most correct book on earth.

The counter-point to Bishop “X” is this article by J Maxwell Wilson (hat tip to Andrew S.). Wilson argues for Mormon orthodoxy to the extent that he thinks those who think orthopraxy is all that is required of Mormons are Pharisees. I think he does an excellent job of making his case and encourage you to read his thoughts for yourself.

I’m not going to weigh in on the debate, lest I be accused of being a critic seeking a definition of “Mormonism” that I can use as a lever against the LDS church. Nonetheless I think the debate is extremely important as Mormonism adapts to the 21st Century.

Many will say that there are no thought-police within Mormonism. Mormons are free to believe any theological position they desire; there is only a problem when a person starts teaching others to join them in their heresy. It’s at that point the Mormon church exercises its prerogative to define itself and discipline the heretic or excommunicate him. I can understand this viewpoint, I’m beginning to wonder though, if recording podcast episodes and writing blog entries might not be “teaching” and wonder how long the LDS church can sustain non-traditional definitions without undermining its centralized authority.

I also wonder why Mormons are upset at orthodox Christians for holding the same standard in defining who is and who is not a “Christian”. To my knowledge there are no thought police in any well known Christian denominations or churches. Members and attendees are free to believe anything they want, there is only a problem when a person starts teaching others to join them in their heresy. Joseph Smith and any who teach his unorthodox style of Christianity are welcome to do so, but they are not allowed to redefine Christianity any more than Mormon heretics are allowed to redefine Mormonism.

Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon?

As we begin to approach a new presidential election season I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this controversy. This is not intended in any way to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney or any political candidate. I don’t think Gov. Romney has much hope in becoming the Republican candidate much less win the presidency (because Evangelicals won’t vote for him). But his candidacy offers the opportunity to talk about some larger issues. There are two objections I most often hear expressed against voting for a Mormon.

1. When Salt Lake City Calls

When Salt Lake City Calls” is the name of a book that supports this line of reasoning.  Its premise is that because of the covenants made in LDS Temples a Mormon President would have a higher oath to the Mormon Prophet than to the people of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.

I don’t disagree at all that such oaths are made by Mormons who attend their temples.  Investigating the wording (and penalties formerly associated with the covenants) will reveal that they are serious, literal and binding.  Mormons are indeed asked to place allegiance to their church, its prophet and its message at the highest priority.

The question unanswered is “If a Mormon President holds to this covenant as rigidly as we might imagine, does it pose a threat to the United States?” I don’t think it poses any threat at all.  Knowing that the LDS Church and the President are going to be carefully watched and scrutinized about the nature of their relationship, I don’t think either would be interested in abusing this oath.  The image-savvy Mormon church is already quite sensitive about being accused of being a cult. They don’t show a pattern of wanting to reinforce that stereotype.  If anything, I imagine there would be a distancing in the relationship between Salt Lake City and Washington DC while a Mormon sits in office.

Second, let’s suppose the worst.  Let’s imagine that the LDS Prophet receives a revelation that all religious organizations in the United States should come under his control and he calls on every Mormon to make that vision a reality.  Let’s further suppose that the Mormon President makes such legislation a top priority in his administration.  The chances of him enacting such a law would be infinitely small.  He would be unable to find cooperation from the House of Representatives or the Senate. He’d stand no chance before the Supreme Court and the state houses of 49 states would find their own ways to nullify such a law.  He then would likely be impeached for not upholding the Constitution.  I can’t really imagine the LDS church asking a Mormon President to do anything that might harm the values of the nation, but if it did, the President would have little support from our (very intentionally) separated powers.

The truth is Mormonism is perhaps one of the only religions in the world that recognizes and cherishes the United States Constitution.  When Mormons have been persecuted it has always been their belief that the Constitution (and Heavenly Father) would save them.  Joseph Smith many times would extol the virtues of the Constitution and even predicted that there may come a time when the Mormons are the only people left to preserve it.  The Mormon church used to make American Independence Day celebrations part of its worldwide curriculum because Mormons recognize that they were able to form a new religion precisely because of the religious environment afforded by the US Constitution.  It would be out of character for the Mormon Church or a Mormon President to harm or change it.

Most of these issues were previously discussed in our history during the Reed Smoot Hearings in which it was decided if Mormons could qualify for federal public office.

2. Won’t a Mormon President Legitimatize Mormonism and Make it Mainstream

In truth, I think it will. Evangelicals will need to hold this in tension as they weigh their political choices.  But I would like to question if a mainstreamed Mormonism would be something Evangelicals should fear.

The first concern is that an increased awareness of Mormonism might cause more people to investigate the LDS church and consider becoming members.  History doesn’t really bear this out. George W. Bush and William Howard Taft were by far the most outspoken Presidents about their Evangelical faiths. Neither caused an increase in attendance at Evangelical churches (if anything their presidencies might have set the Evangelical movement back). I don’t believe any evidence exist that John F. Kennedy was able to drive a spike in Catholic conversions in his presidency either.

The second concern is that Mormonism would likely lose it’s image as an “outsider religion”.  Evangelicals might very much like to do what they can to keep the LDS church from gaining that sort of credibility.  I can appreciate the concern for aiding or boosting the heresies taught by Mormonism.  But I think an investigation into Mormon history might convince Evangelicals that a mainstreamed Mormon church might inspire reform within Mormonism.

Culturally there is a large portion of Mormons who want nothing more than to be viewed as normal.  They are aware of some of their church’s previous difficult doctrines and practices but because they don’t have to live with them they are able to pretend they don’t exist.  Many of these Mormons are actually unaware of the origins of some of these practices and assume the folk explanations they’ve heard must be true.  A Mormon President would cause Mormon origins to come to light.  An increased public discussion of these issues is exactly what is needed to cause Mormons to distance themselves from their spiritual ancestors.

When Mormonism interacts with mainstream American culture it has a habit of conforming. Mormonism wants to survive and it has a clear history of doing whatever is necessary to survive.  Polygamy (Reed Smoot Hearings), the black Priesthood ban (NCAA boycotts against BYU) and even temple death oaths (The GodMakers) are all examples of how Mormonism caved to public pressure once broader public awareness was brought to those issues. Even former LDS prophet Gordon Hinckley denied specific Mormon doctrine when asked about it in front of a national audience and claimed he didn’t know if they even taught such doctrines. Mormons will insist that these changes were made as a result of Heavenly Father’s direct intervention and communication. That may indeed be the case, but it’s peculiar that these changes occurred after outside pressure was exerted on the LDS Church.

Currently the LDS church growth rate in the United States is about the same as its birth rate.  The church’s missionary efforts seem to be faltering in countries with widespread internet access.  Free access to information about Mormonism doesn’t help the LDS church’s efforts.  Particularly when that information contradicts the LDS church’s faith-promoting version of the story.  A larger public discussion of Mormonism would only bring that information to further light.

David Clark recently stated on this blog “For now, I’d be satisfied if Mormons would be more open and honest about their history and doctrine at their public church meetings. If that were to happen, I think the LDS church would reform in short order.” I tend to agree.  There are a great many Mormons who have knowledge of and a great love for Mormonism’s many peculiarities. They will never want anything to change.  But I do not believe that is true for the majority of Mormons.  A Mormon presidency coupled with an organization’s desire to survive might be just the thing to cause a Mormon reformation.

As we speak, individuals and organizations opposed to Mormonism are forming materials and strategies to use a Mormon candidacy against the LDS church.  Add to that a candidate’s political opponents who are willing to use anything to hurt him and I think the LDS church has reason to hope there is never a Mormon president.

Compromise is demanded of every person who enters into democratic politics.  This even extends to individual voters.  A perfect candidate who matches every one of a person’s values is not likely to exist.  If it does, that person may not be electable (you might as well write your own name in on the ballot). It’s an Evangelical’s duty not to vote for the candidate that perfectly matches their values, but instead to vote for the candidate from the available and viable choices that most closely represents their values.  I think if a Mormon candidate matches an Evangelical’s political values and they think that candidate has the best possibility of winning they should feel more than comfortable in voting for that candidate.

An Evangelical Review of “Rough Stone Rolling”

I recently finished reading “Rough Stone Rolling” most likely the most extensive biography of Joseph Smith. It joined “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” as the two biographies I completed last year. I don’t typically read biographies, but I enjoyed both. I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive review of “Rough Stone Rolling” as I’m sure that’s been done elsewhere much better than I could hope to accomplish. Instead this is just a passing glance at my impression of the book and Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith

I couldn’t help but feel the wild ride of Smith’s life. At times I wondered how he took a breath in between his travels, his legal issues, his persecutions, his parenting, his marriage(s) and his civic, religious, masonic and military leadership. He was never a business success and it’s easy to see why, I’m not sure when he found time to provide for his family.
Bluntly stated Smith has always been a charlatan in my eyes. But I couldn’t help but gain sympathy for him in the death of his children. As an adoptive parent I was touched by the death of his newborn twins and his adoption the next day of newborn twins whose mother passed away in child birth.
I also felt for him in the failure to obtain justice in Jackson County Missouri and then the continued difficulties in Far West. It’s clear that Smith and the Mormons made mistakes in Missouri but doubly clear that they were treated unjustly and without the protection of law. As the march back to Kirkland began I could sympathize with the disappointment and injustice of the defeat in Zion.
As far as the foundations of Mormonism I think my impressions of Joseph Smith can be summed up in this passage from the book:

According to the description, the temples would serve as a “houses of worship, schools, etc.” One can imagine a town hall, a courthouse, and a perhaps stores among the “temples,” much like the public buildings around the green in a New England town. But the names assigned to the temples do not support this simple reading. The temples were grouped into threes and assigned to priesthood “quorums,” the organizations of the various levels of priesthood. One group was to be called “House of the Lord for the presidency of the High and most holy priesthood after the order of Melchizadek, which was after the order of the Son of God.” . . . .(page 220)

After reading that I was really struck by the impression that Joseph was really making this stuff up as he went and doing his best to make everything sound as polished and regal as he could. With that, and the various councils and quorums formed in the Kirkland temple with overlapping leadership and responsibilities which lacked any obvious structure, I got the distinct impression that he was trying too hard. He really wanted to make something grand and give himself and everyone around him distinction.

It’s commonly pointed out that Smith grabbed religious inspiration wherever he could find it. I think just a strong a case can be made for his constant tinkering. I’m not sure how Smith would describe his communications from God, but they seemed loose enough for him to amend and revise at will. I recently heard John Larsen say that he’s not sure if there’s a smoking gun against Mormonism but if there is one it might be the differences between the “Book of Commandments” and “The Doctrine and Covenants.” I now see his point.

It has been obvious to me that the modern LDS church is not in the least bit patterned after the primitive Christian church, But now it’s obvious to me that it’s only loosely similar to the LDS church as it functioned during the life of Joseph Smith. A theme I think Bushman exposed was that Smith wasn’t out just to create a religion, but instead a society based on religion. It’s no wonder that the Nauvoo Bishopric is the more obvious choice to succeed Joseph Smith than the Quorum of the Twelve. Smith was out to build the City of God, not the Church of God. The persecutions of Mormons and the murder of Smith probably would have been avoided if Smith hadn’t been calling everyone to “come to Zion.”

Rough Stone Rolling

I was generally impressed with the work Bushman did in this biography. He pointed out discrepancies between the faith-promoting versions of Smith’s life and what the historical record actually shows. Many times he acknowledged where Smith was breaking the law or how he was evading it. Not something Mormon historians have been known to do in the past. Bushman found a way that made sense to weave in themes and tidbits that didn’t necessarily follow the overarching narrative and still keep the story moving.

I had heard Christopher Smith make the claim that Bushman does some apologetics work in the biography and I have to agree. Some of it was maddening. Probably what bothered me most were the times that Bushman chose to speculate. It’s totally fine with me if a historian has to speculate. But Bushman’s speculations always left out the more obvious and more secular perspective (namely that Smith was probably making it up in the moment). This frustrated me more than once particularly when the speculations were quite far reaching.

I also think it’s a must to read the footnotes endnotes at the end of every chapter. It might have been a good idea to read them at each notation, but there are so many it would have made the book quite difficult to read. I read all of the endnotes when I finished the book and it would have been much better to read them chapter by chapter. Some of the more juicy tidbits of Smith’s life are found in the endnotes and many of them help you understand how Bushman came to his perspective of the event.

I enjoyed the book and have a much richer understanding of Joseph Smith thanks to “Rough Stone Rolling”. If you’ve got the time and don’t mind carrying around a 1.75″ thick paperback book, I recommend it.

Romans 1

Before jumping in to the heart of Romans 1, I’d like to point out two quick things found in verse 5:

Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

The first is that Paul says that he received apostleship from Christ. That means he’s not just speaking to the Christians in Rome as a fellow believer. He’s speaking to them as one who has authority. The rest of what he says is not merely his opinion, it’s authoritative for the believers. The second thing I noticed in the verse was the phrase “the obedience that comes from faith.” People like to set the Book of Romans up against the Book of James as if they contradict one another. But right from one of the very first verses Paul affirms obedience and faith and then clarifies how the two books work together. Obedience comes from faith. Faith produces our obedience rather than our obedience producing our faith. Sometimes to help myself from getting confused by the word “faith,” I substitute it with “active trust.” In this instance, the verse would read “the obedience that comes from active trust”. The first eleven chapters of Romans are Paul’s exploration and explanation of what the good news of Jesus is all about. In verse 18 he jumps right in by explaining the problem confronting the world.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

Continue reading

The Prophet Matthew Gill

This video is an explanation of “The Book of Jeraneck” presented by the Prophet Matthew Gill. Prophet Gill was born into a Mormon family in the United Kingdom. He was presented with plates by a “translated being” that tell the story of Jesus’ visit to the inhabitants of Great Britain.

I’m curious how Mormons would go about evaluating “The Book of Jeraneck” and the prophetic authority of Matthew Gill. His story seems every bit as credible to me as that of Joseph Smith’s. The similarities of Matthew Gill and Joseph Smith should resonate with Mormons. So I’m interested to know if Mormons would investigate this new revelation as seriously as they would encourage non-Mormons to investigate the Book of Mormon.

If you are a Mormon, will you take the time to read “The Book of Jeraneck” and prayerfully consider its truth? Will you continue to pray until God gives you the answer that it is true? What sort of responses from God will tell you it is true? Also, are you comfortable with Matthew Gill claiming to be a Mormon prophet? At what point would it be inappropriate for him to call himself Mormon?

The first video is a non-Mormons overview of The Book of Jeraneck. The second video is the Prophet Matthew Gill himself clarifying some inaccuracies in the first video.

A New Beginning Again

In 1832 the first known written account of Joseph Smith “First Vision” was created. Leaving aside any debate about the compatibility of this accounting and the version that was canonized, I thought this would be interesting to explore.

I was quite encouraged by this accounting. There is really nothing here I would object to from a theological perspective. It’s mostly what is lacking from this version that gives me hope for greater reconciliation between Mormonism and Historic Christianity. There is no condemnation for any creeds and there is no description of God as a “personage”.

It’s Joseph’s own description that there are no churches like the New Testament church, not God’s (I would agree with Joseph, and don’t find the LDS church any more similar to the historic New Testament church than any other). God’s words are limited to telling Joseph to follow his commandments, that there is no one without sin (Romans 3:23) and that God’s wrath awaits them (Romans 6:23).

I can live with all of this. I might still not believe Joseph had this heavenly vision, but I find nothing offensive or heretical about it. I think such a vision is completely compatible with Christianity as I understand it. If the Mormon restoration and the Mormon concept of God were built upon this “First Vision” there would probably be little for us to discuss. I imagine that there would be little remaining in Mormonism that would be incompatible with Historic Christianity (though a lot would probably still remain that would make it unique).

Read through it and tell me if you disagree. (I took the liberty of correcting some spelling and adding punctuation and line breaks. I also made some minor clarifying edits. I made these edits for the benefit of the reader. If you’re concerned that I may have corrupted the text I encourage you to look it up for yourself).

I was born in the town of Charon in the State Of Vermont, North America on the twenty third day of December 1805, of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the Christian religion. At the age of about ten years my Father, Joseph Smith Senior, moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances was obliged to labor hard for the support of a large family, having nine children. As it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the Support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the benifit of an education. Suffice it to say I was merely instructed in reading and writing and the ground rules of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirement.

At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns. For the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the Scriptures. Believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly far. I discovered that instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that Sacred depository. This was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind.

My mind become exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins and by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord, but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament. I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday today and forever, that he was no respecter to persons for he was God. For I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their majesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in majesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous. Even in the likeness of him who created them and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said it is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God. My heart exclaimed that all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipresent power. A being who makes laws and decrees and binds all things in their bounds, who filled eternity, who was and is and will be from all eternity to eternity. When I considered all these things and that being sought to worship him in spirit and in truth. Therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was no one else to whom I could go and obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a pillar of light above the brightness of the Sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the Spirit of God. The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my Statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life. Behold the world lies in sin at this time and no one does good, no not one. They have turned aside from the Gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to this ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly as it written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father.

My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me but I could find no one that would believe the heavenly vision. . . . Nevertheless I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought wound upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be written and my Father’s family have suffered many persecutions and afflictions.

Wisdom Found from Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith said something that I wish to live my life by.

“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” This was Joseph Smith’s explanation to the order found within Mormon communities.  With that simple statement I believe Smith spoke some of the wisest words to come out of 19th Century American religion.  I so wish more Christians would discover this gem and live by it.

Let me put this wisdom in a non-religious context to show its fruit.  My wife works to relieve world hunger.  In her work there is an elusive yet profound distinction between “outputs” and “outcomes”.  Outcomes are the goals you wish to accomplish.  Outputs are the activities surrounding those goals. Unfortunately, quite often people set out to accomplish their outputs rather than their outcomes.

One example of this can be found in clean water development.  You may wish to prevent deaths caused by water-borne illnesses. Your “outcome” would be to reduce death and illnesses. One of your “outputs” might be to build 10,000 water wells across the world.  If you have enough money, building 10,000 water wells is not a difficult thing to do. It can be accomplished quite easily.  It can be accomplished so easily that people will often dive headlong into digging and then start giving high-fives all around as the last water well begins to produce its hygienic bounty.

The problem is that the water wells by themselves will not deliver the outcome of fewer deaths and illnesses.  Water wells can be met with a lot of resistance from developing communities.  They are slower and more cumbersome to use than traditional bucket methods.  Sometimes there are cultural or spiritual influences that cause resistance (i.e. there are spirits in the lake which will make us stronger). It’s not uncommon for water wells to be damaged or ignored.  Instead of building water wells, the thing that will actually produce fewer deaths and illnesses is to teach people the love of clean and healthy water.  They have to gain a knowledge and a hatred of pollutants that will kill them. If you teach these principles successfully people will start to build their own water wells (though at times they may need assistance).

People sometimes pursue building water wells instead of teaching the principles of clean water for one simple reason; it’s easier.  It’s much easier to measure and it’s much easier to achieve than the discipleship of true principles.

I believe the ethic found in the New Testament and taught by Jesus is a virtue ethic.  One which teaches people the correct principles and lets them govern themselves.  This is why Jesus focused his teachings on the heart.  A hateful heart may not murder but it will still hate.  A loving heart will never murder and will never hate. A lustful heart may not fornicate, but it will still lust.  A pure heart will never fornicate and it will never lust. An undisciplined heart may not get drunk but it may still get fat.  A temperate heart will remain sober and healthy.  Washing the inside of the cup will naturally clean the outside as well.

There is nothing wrong with abstinence and piety just as there is nothing wrong with water wells.  But abstinence and piety are exterior signals of righteousness; they have no ability to actually produce righteousness.  They are “outputs” rather than “outcomes”.

My own religious upbringing was formed by individuals who decided it was easier to tell people how to behave than to actually teach them how to behave. As culture and technology progressed past their prohibitions, silly little debates were created over the ‘do’s and don’t’s of our denomination (Movie theaters were prohibited, but what about public screenings? VCRs? Cable television? Pay-per-view?)  It would have been much messier, much scarier and much more difficult to teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves, but it would have produced a much better fruit.  Prohibitions and restrictions are only useful in the context of where they were formed, while virtue extends itself to all possible situations.