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.