Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mormonism’s “Open Canon”

We have looked at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and seen that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” We have looked at some ground rules that help us focus on those issues that do matter as we compare Mormonism and biblical Christianity. We have also looked at the Mormon attitude to Scripture.

Now we look at the most fundamental claim of the Mormon Church; that it works from an open canon of Scripture to which “ongoing revelation” is added regularly as prophets lead the church. This is an important issue for Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s all-sufficient Word, containing “all that we need for life and godliness” because it gives us “knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3)

The Mormon Church adds extra books to the Bible; the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). This they present as evidence of their prophets’ authenticity. The reasoning is that they have prophets, those prophets prophesy, and those prophecies are put into additional books of Scripture. This is the pattern Mormons say they see in the Bible, although this is not by any means a defining pattern in Scripture.

The D&C is characterised as a book of modern revelation, “mostly given through Joseph Smith.” As we will see, it would be more correct to say “almost exclusively given through Joseph Smith.”

Ongoing Canonized Revelation

In the April 2008 General Conference Mormon apostle Jeffrey R Holland said:

“The fact of the matter is that virtually every prophet of the Old and New Testament has added scripture to that received by his predecessors...If one revelation to one prophet in one moment of time is sufficient for all time, what justifies these many others? What justifies them was made clear by Jehovah Himself when He said to Moses, ‘My works are without end, and. . . my words . . . never cease.’”

“I testify that Thomas S. Monson is God’s prophet, a modern apostle with the keys of the kingdom in his hands, a man upon whom I personally have seen the mantle fall. I testify that the presence of such authorized, prophetic voices and ongoing canonized revelations have been at the heart of the Christian message whenever the authorized ministry of Christ has been on the earth.” (Ensign, May, 2008)

there has been no written prophecy since:

1918 – Joseph F Smith’s vision of Jesus’ visit to the dead while his body lay in the tomb; D&C 138

1847 – Brigham Young’s revelation at Winter Quarters regarding the organisation of the saints; D&C 136

1844 – An account (not a revelation) of the “martyrdom” of Joseph and Hyrum Smith; D&C 135

1843 – Four revelations regarding (1) how to distinguish angels (D&C 129);( 2) eternal marriage (D&C 132); (3) Three degrees of glory (D&C 131); (4) The Second Coming, the celestial earth and the law of eternal progression (D&C 130)

It seems that 1918 saw the last revelation added to the Mormon canon, a gap of 90 years, and before that 1847 saw the last church-directing revelation, a gap of 153 years. The D&C contains 138 sections but of sixteen so-called prophets, from Joseph Smith to Thomas S Monson, Joseph Smith published 135 revelations, Brigham Young 1 and Joseph F Smith 1 revelation (section 135 is an account of the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith).

Inevitably a Mormon will mention the 1978 revelation on Priesthood but the D&C contains no “canonised” revelation, just a “Declaration”, or announcement that prophecy has been received. This is also true of the 1890 decision on polygamy, reversing a so-called eternal principle; an announcement but no “canonised” revelation.

Mormon prophet, Spencer W Kimball, explains this:

“There are those who would assume that with the printing and binding of these sacred records that would be the ‘end of the prophets’. But again we testify to you that revelation continues and that the vaults and files of the Church contain these revelations which come month to month and day to day. We testify also that there is, since 1830 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organised, and will continue to be, so long as time shall last, a prophet, recognised of God and his people, who will continue to interpret the mind and will of the Lord” (“Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets,” Spencer W Kimball, Ensign, May 1977, 78).

Is it right to be satisfied that it is “in the vaults and files of the church” and not broadcast to the church and the world? What exactly is an open canon? If Christianity has proved apostate in not adding to the canon of Scripture, and Mormonism is the restoration of revelation, why has there been nothing of significance added to the Mormon canon for 90 and 153 years? And why have 13 prophets failed to add to the canon while two others have added only one “revelation” each?

Amateur apologists not prophets make Mormon doctrine

As a consequence of this failure of prophetic leadership Mormon “Para-church” organisations like FAIR and FARMS are making the running in defending Mormonism against critics. While the Mormon leadership does occasionally publish statements to clarify issues raised in the press etc. they never meaningfully engage with these issues, or “interpret the mind and will of the Lord.” FAIR, on the other hand, is consistently engaged in producing apologetics and rebuttals in response to church critics and when a Mormon defends his position it is “unofficial” sources that will have shaped his thinking not the prophet.

FAIR (Foundation for Apologetics, Information and Research) aims, “to address the charges levelled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) with documented responses that are written in an easily understandable style. FAIR will use current scholarship, scripture, Church doctrine, historical literature and sound logic in constructing faithful, well-reasoned answers.”

Ironically, the text they use on their Internet home page is Ephesians 4:11-14, a key yet increasingly incongruous proof text for Mormon claims to continuing revelation. FAIR emphasises scholarship and research and enjoys a considerable reputation among Mormons but lays no claim to revelation, and issues the usual disclaimer:

FAIR is not owned, controlled by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All research and opinions provided on this site are the sole responsibility of FAIR, and should not be interpreted as official statements of LDS doctrine, belief or practice.”

So all the evidence shows that Mormon prophets don’t prophecy and those people to whom ordinary Mormons increasingly look for apologetic and theological guidance insist what they teach is private opinion (2 Pet.1:20) and does not officially represent the Mormon Church.

The reality is that the Mormon canon is closed, Mormon prophets expect Mormons to settle for homilies punctuated with homespun anecdotes, and ordinary members are increasingly dependent on scholars and unofficial sources to help interpret their religion.

A Christian, on the other hand, has God-breathed Scripture making him or her “equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim.3:17)

Monday, 27 September 2010

Monday Mormon - Jesus God the Son, or the Son of God?

Its Monday Mormon again, at least it is where I am, and I am sure it will have been, or indeed soon will be, where you are. Aren’t time zones fascinating? We continue to ask some of the 21 questions, indeed this time we deal with three on the same subject – Jesus. The Mormon Church has responded to all three with the same, rather brusque and less than candid answer so lets see if we can squeeze some truth from this exercise. As before, we will look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.)

Q: Does the Mormon Church believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?

A: Mormons believe Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer, who died for the sins of humankind and rose from the dead on the third day with an immortal body. God, the Father, also has an immortal body.

Q: Does the Church believe in the divinity of Jesus?

A: Mormons believe Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer, who died for the sins of humankind and rose from the dead on the third day with an immortal body. God, the Father, also has an immortal body.

Q: Does the Church believe that God is a physical being?

A: Mormons believe Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer, who died for the sins of humankind and rose from the dead on the third day with an immortal body. God, the Father, also has an immortal body.

Qu: “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens...If the veil were rent today...if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form ” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345)

C: The god of Mormonism has a body and, like the Wizard of Oz, he only appears omnipotent. Pull back the veil and you see a man, indeed a huckster passing himself off as something he is not.

Mormons use the phrase “literally the Son of God” as though it is a classic orthodox Christian tenet but by this deceptively simple phrase they are conveying their belief that an “exalted man” with a physical body had intercourse with an exalted woman and, from that union, came the “literal Son of God”.

While the Bible teaches and Christians believe that Jesus is “literally God the Son”, the eternal God, Mormons believe he is “literally the Son of God”, the offspring of a man they worship as God and a woman they regard as their goddess mother. Indeed, neither is he the “only Begotten” but the first of countless millions conceived and born in the same way, you among them. The “Only Begotten” part only applies in Mormon thinking to Jesus “in the flesh”, i.e born of Mary, and even that is not what you might expect, but more on that later.

To answer the questions according to Mormon orthodoxy then:

Q: Does the Mormon Church believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?

The Mormon Church believes that Jesus is the offspring of God but not God the Son as Christians understand him

Q: Does the Church believe in the divinity of Jesus?

The Mormon Church believes that Jesus is a god in a pantheon which faithful Mormons expect to join

Q: Does the Church believe that God is a physical being?

Yes. The Mormon god is an exalted, glorified man

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Mormons and Scripture

We started this series looking at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and went on to see that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” Last time we looked at some basic ground rules that help us focus on those issues that do matter as we compare Mormonism and biblical Christianity.

The Mormon doesn’t value the Scripture as does the Evangelical believer, neither do they know or understand it. Mormons don’t simply understand the Bible differently; they don’t understand it at all. They lay no great store by what it says and simply use it to go quote-mining, or proof-texting to justify what they have already decided to believe.

To better understand the ambiguous relationship Mormons have with Scripture we will look at the founding book of Scripture in the Mormon canon. The first time we meet Mormonism we usually encounter the Book of Mormon, “a volume of holy Scripture comparable to the Bible” (BOM Introduction).

The eighth article of faith of the Mormon Church tells us the comparative worth placed on the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The Book of Mormon, then, takes precedence, as is confirmed by the following statement from Joseph Smith.

“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church Vol.4, p.461 (1841)

A remarkable book, then, that it should be more reliable than the Bible, more correct than any other, and that it should be man’s surest way to God.

Correcting the “Most Correct Book”

It is common knowledge that there have been upwards of 4,000 changes made to the text of the Book of Mormon. Most have been grammar, punctuation, spelling etc but some much more significant changes have been made. It does call into question the boasting of Joseph Smith in 1841, especially in light of the account of the translation work given by Joseph’s scribes. In 1848 Oliver Cowdrey, chief scribe for the Book of Mormon, testified:

“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. (“Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848, quoted in “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

In a letter to the Deseret News, Edward Stevenson, who is regarded as “the person who best reflects Martin Harris”, wrote:

“Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the prophet possessed a seer stone by which he was enabled to translate as follows: By aid of the seer stone , sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used.”

A book “translated by the gift and power of God”; a book not considered written until every sentence was confirmed as correctly transcribed so that “the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used”.

Faced with all the changes made in the text, however, Mormon “scholars” have come up with a rather different account of how the translation work was done. They quote Doctrine and Covenants 1:24,

“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

It is argued that God showed Joseph the meaning of the text and Joseph had to cast about within his own vocabulary, and whatever resources he had about him, to find a way of expressing this meaning “after the manner of their language”. This, it is argued, is why we find in the Book of Mormon excerpts from the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare, as well popular books and the local press of the time.

Incidentally, this seems to contradict the popular and official Mormon story that Smith was "”a poor ignorant farm boy”. His access to these publications is explained by the fact that the literacy rate in North America in the 19th Century was remarkably high for the time, with 89% of of white Americans literate by 1860 (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, p. 229, Random House, 2006) Smith’s father was a schoolmaster so educational standards were high, both in the United States, as well as in the Smith household.

the bible

When, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative, Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem, we are told, they took with them Laban’s brass plates, which contained “the record of the Jews” (1 Nephi 3:3-4) It is from these the Book of Mormon people quote, thus explaining the presence of so many lengthy Bible texts in the book. There are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James Version renders them. Daniel H Ludlow explains this as follows:

“There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon…if his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141)

Commenting on this in the Ensign magazine, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote:

“Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording.” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)

There are, in other words, two conflicting accounts of how the Book of Mormon came to be translated. It was either a word-for-word “translation”, correct in every part, or it was a paraphrase “made after the manner of [Joseph’s] language”. Do we rely upon the accounts of those best placed to tell us what happened, or do we depend upon Mormon scholars to later “interpret” events in light of later developments?

Of course, given the growing distance in time, Mormon scholars are more able to put this disparity of accounts down to poor reporting on the part of those who acted as scribes to the prophet. However, since the scribes quoted above were also two of the three key witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it does not help the Mormon scholars to impugn their trustworthiness.

In Their Weakness

It is a curious phrase to find in a work purporting to be Scripture, “in their weakness”. Curious to a Christian certainly since it suggests room for error, allowance for human failings, man frustrating the work of God. There is a similar phrase in the title page of the Book of Mormon:

“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.”

It seems that Joseph Smith allowed for every eventuality in publishing “the most correct of any book on earth” - just in case.

Just as well! It has been observed that there can hardly be any book published in the nineteenth century that has had as many changes made to it as the Book of Mormon. There cannot be many anyway. If there are you will probably find in them a publishing history showing that what you have in your hand is not the original but a revised edition. You will find no such candid admission in the front of the Book of Mormon.

The unsuspecting “investigator” will be led to believe that this is what came “from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim”. Such disingenuousness shows why Mormon scholars are necessary to “explain” the Mormon message when Mormon prophets are meant to be bringing the plain meaning of the gospel claimed to have been restored by Joseph Smith.

We begin to understand why Mormons know nothing of what it means to submit to the authority of Scripture. The Mormons think the Book of Mormon "the most correct of any book on earth"'; that is, not completely correct but most correct by comparison, because "if there are faults they are the mistakes of men". How does this compare with the Bible?

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16)

A Christian sees in the Bible God's all-sufficient provision for equipping thoroughly every Christian for kingdom living. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to be full of excuses for their not-altogether-reliable modern revelation, ready to admit faults and declare their Scriptures correct only by comparison, i.e. "most correct" rather than thoroughly reliable because "God-breathed".

A good example and witness to a Mormon, then, includes as essential a high view of the Bible, a reverence for God’s Word, and a readiness to appeal and submit to it in all matters of faith and doctrine. After all, “These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name” (John 20:28)

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Talking to Mormons beyond the Zion Curtain

We have seen that, despite the inflated ambitions of early Mormonism, the Mormon kingdom is confined to the American Mid-West. We have found that many of the issues, historical, social and political that are bound to preoccupy those ministering “behind the Zion curtain” needn’t concern those meeting and witnessing to Mormons in the wider world.

What should concern us? What should be our priorities? What are some good basic guidelines for witnessing to Mormons? What is the Mormon attitude to Scripture? How can the Bible help us in witnessing?

Often an encounter with a Mormon can be all-too-brief and a testimony and/or a brief explanation of “what you believe” is all you can reasonably leave them with. However, there are those times when an in depth discussion is possible. Perhaps they will be prepared to make a series of visits to your home, or have you in their home, in which case it is important to be ready with a basic strategy.

You might begin by suggesting that, to establish truth, it is important to have some mutually agreed guidelines so that discussion actually goes somewhere. The following are reasonable and non-threatening and difficult to disagree over:

  1. The only common ground you share is the Bible. Insist that you stick to the Bible in your discussion. They use the KJV but will usually acknowledge other versions.
  2. You need to address no more than 1 or 2 issues at a time otherwise you can end up talking about everything and nothing in particular and “majoring on the minors.”
  3. Agree that it isn’t a contest but about finding God’s truth from Scripture.
  4. You must both agree to admit it when you don’t know or are wrong on an issue.

Establishing ground rules is important and it helps them as well as you. As far as possible subjects are concerned, always stick to fundamentals and avoid those enticing but eventually fruitless discussions about Joseph Smith’s wives etc. These would include:

The nature of God (not a man)

The Person of Jesus (not a second god)

The nature of man (not a potential god)

The fall (a disaster not a blessing)

The Cross (central to the faith)

Salvation (by grace, through faith in Christ)

The authority of Scripture (beyond challenge)

This last is important because, although they say they trust the Bible, they really don’t know what that means. Although they use the words they have no concept of what it is to sit under the authority of God’s Word. Indeed, they don’t even have a truly submissive attitude to their own scripture, as we will see. Having someone they regard as a ‘living prophet’ makes it very easy for them to defend a shift in position by saying ‘that was then this is now’. Submitting to God’s Word, as a Christian might understand the idea, is simply not something they know so you need to model that to them.

A friend of mine has a way of challenging Mormon missionaries by saying, “I have heard that you don’t fully trust the Bible. I am a Christian and wouldn’t be happy with that position so tell me, do you trust the Bible?” If they say that they do then they cannot later appeal to the oft-repeated Mormon claim that it is incorrectly translated or transmitted (they don’t know how we got our Bible so if you can confidently explain this, perhaps have a Bible with a preface that explains that translators go to the earliest reliable documents, that will come as a revelation to them).

When it comes to applying specific texts to particular issues it helps if you read the verses together and then ask, “What do we learn from these verses about...?” This helps focus the discussion on the text and avoid opinion-based discussion. A good example is Romans 6:23. “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life”. What do we learn from this verse about eternal life? Is it earned? What do we learn about death? Have we earned it?

Finally, always try and take the shortest route to the Cross. In the end this is what it is about and they must come to a place where a) the living Word of God judges them (Heb.4:12) and b) the Cross is there when they see how hopeless are their efforts to be ‘worthy’ (Gal.3:24).

Monday, 20 September 2010

Monday Mormon – 21 Questions

In a previous post we saw how politically involved Mormons are in the United States and that a Mormon, Mitt Romney, ran for president in the 2008 elections and will run again in 2012.

In the midst of the publicity storm surrounding Mormonism at that time FOX News, at the end of 2007, compiled a list of 21 questions to put to The Mormon Church. I have used these before on my other blog as a useful aid to addressing Mormonism on key questions. With people already talking about 2012 I thought it might be an opportunity to reproduce them here.

The Church objected to answering some of the questions on the grounds that they misrepresent the basic tenets of the Mormon religion.

Quote. "Many of these questions are typically found on anti-Mormon blogs or Web sites which aim to misrepresent or distort Mormon doctrines," the church said in a statement. "Several of these questions do not represent ... any serious attempt to depict the core values and beliefs of its members."

You may judge for yourself whether the questions are fair and whether they have answered or evaded them. However, Mormons have traditionally revelled in the title “peculiar people” so it does seem churlish to complain when others ask about those things that mark them out as peculiar. We begin here to look at the questions (Q) and answers (A) with comments (C) and quotes (Qu.) Some will be handled singly while others appear two or three to a post under a subject heading:

Q: Why do some call the Church a cult?

A: For the most part, this seems to stem from a lack of understanding about the Church and its core doctrines and beliefs. Under those circumstances it is too easy to label a religion or other organization that is not well-known with an inflammatory term like 'cult.' Famed scholar of religion Martin Marty has said a cult means a church you don't personally happen to like. We don't believe any organization should be subjected to a label that has come to be as pejorative as that one.

C: I have commented before on how peculiar it is that a church claiming to be Christian should be so consistently “misunderstood”, even by “other Christians”. The Mormons seem to be constantly fighting a rearguard action against misunderstandings and misconceptions. This is all the more puzzling for a church with an ongoing professional programme of self-promotion. Is Mormonism hard to understand?

Why does the Mormon Church continually have to “explain” itself? It is a truism that someone who does a lot of explaining usually has a lot of explaining to do. Blaming your detractors is simply not good enough; the Mormon Church does have a lot of explaining to do and it would be wise to ask why.

As to the assertion that no organisation should suffer the pejorative label of cult, it should be remembered that Mormonism is founded on the teaching that all the creeds of “Christendom” (that’s your church and mine) are “an abomination” and that all who profess those creeds (that’s you and me if you are a Christian) are “corrupt”.

Perhaps Mormons should remember that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; that what goes around comes around; that people don’t so easily forget that Mormonism is established on terms that remain antagonistic to and pejorative of others.

The Mormon Church trades on the modern creed that every religion is of equal value, everyone’s right “in their own way”; that there is no blame and therefore no shame; and the “everyone’s a victim” culture of today. However, Christians know that there is right and wrong, truth and falsehood, righteousness and sin and a way that seems right to a man but that leads to destruction (Proverbs 14:12). Mormonism is founded on the claim that the ways of Christendom lead to destruction. Christians, in turn, warn others that there is no salvation in Mormonism.

They teach that we are apostate, and we teach that they are a cult and in serious error. It is dishonest to continually insist that there is no reason for controversy. It’s a messy old place sometimes but welcome to the real world

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Meet the Mormons beyond the Zion Curtain

Previously we looked at the extent and reach of the Mormon kingdom and found it concentrated in the American Mid-West. People who minister in that kingdom, based in and around the American Rockies, sometimes think of themselves as working “behind the Zion curtain” where the Mormon population can be as high as almost 70%. But we ended by asking what about the rest of America, where the Mormon population is between 0-2%, and indeed the rest of the world where it is substantially less than 1%?
Simply comparing the way we experience Mormonism in the UK and the way it is experienced behind the Zion curtain we see significant and helpful differences.

Mormon Culture

Within the Mormon kingdom non-Mormons are in a minority and, even in those places where they are not, there are enough Mormons around that they might feel they are. Here is where you meet Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon; where your plumber, mechanic, estate agent (realtor), maintenance man, schoolteacher and dentist are all likely to be Mormons and equally likely to be a local Mormon Church officer of some kind.

Here you will be met with Mormonism at every turn, from the missionary “guides” in temple square, Salt Lake City and the ubiquitous temples and meeting houses throughout the state, through the tens of thousands arriving twice a year for the Mormon conferences, to the regular news and media reports based around Mormon lives and events behind the Zion curtain. Here Mormonism is as much a cultural phenomenon and a political animal as a religion. People and places are named for Book of Mormon people and places and not for nothing are local Mormon chapels called “wards.”

Mormon America

In wider American society Mormonism has a cultural significance in that Mormons are integral to American history and the opening up of the American West. Mormonism has embraced American culture as no other church; ironic when you think that its founders were considered treasonous in their declared aims. Mormons today guard jealously their role as “the” American religion, reflecting (conservative) American values.

While you will meet Mormonism in its many and varied colours behind the Zion curtain, here in the UK your experience will be quite different. They will, of course, want to share the same message, but you don’t have any of the historical/cultural/political baggage to deal with. In the UK Mormonism goes back to 1837 but, since the 19th century saw a mass migration to “build Zion” in America, that history has had no impact here.

It is not until the 1960’s that Mormonism saw any significant growth in the UK with numbers in 1960 at 16,000, growing to 66,000 in 1965 and 68,000 in 1970 (Truth Will Prevail, a history of British Mormonism, pub.1987 by the Mormon Church. See here for how to read these numbers, i.e. with caution) The UK church is still heavily dependent on Salt Lake City for funds to keep itself going. Mormonism here is inconspicuous unless you drive past one of the two temples, London and Preston, or a Mormon lands on your doorstep or approaches you in the street.

Mormon Politics

Mormons have been politically engaged much more than conservative Christians until recently. From the early twentieth century, when Reed Smoot became the first Mormon senator in 1903, to today Mormons have been well represented in national and local politics and a Mormon, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts ran for the Whitehouse in 2008 and is considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012.

By comparison, Mormon politicians across the world are thin on the ground, amounting to no more than about half a dozen. In the UK there is one Mormon in the House of Commons. Terry Rooney was an MP for Bradford North from 1990 to 2010 and David Rutley was elected member for Macclesfield in 2010. Yes, in America Mormonism is in so many ways a force to be reckoned with, from the block vote they represent and that brings presidents to Salt Lake City, to the integral role they play in American society today. In the United Kingdom, and in the rest of the world, this is not so.

There you will meet heated debates about California’s Proposition 8 and the questionable role of Mormonism in funding a political initiative; polygamy will be a reality with breakaway Mormon groups practicing polygamy in closely guarded compounds no more than a drive away; you will have Mormon history thrust at you in pageants, open days at historical places and re-enactments of Mormon historical events. Any ministry will be bound to address these issues behind the Zion curtain; we don’t need to.

What about the Internet?

Many people inform themselves about Mormonism via a Google search these days and that can be very helpful. I hope you realise that as you read this. The Internet brings these issues to our homes wherever we live and we will be much more aware of them than would have previous generations. And if you are an enthusiast for Mormonism, American culture and politics in general then this is a great help. But if you want to simply talk about the gospel then none of this counts for much beyond the Zion curtain.

Even Mormons in the UK will have little or no knowledge of those things that exercise Mormons in Utah and wider American society beyond what they might pick up, like you, on the net. Challenging a Mormon, missionary or member, here in the UK about the minutiae of Mormon history, the controversies of Mormon politics, or the peculiarities of American Mormon culture is not necessary.

We simply need to know a thing or two about the relevant claims of the Mormon Church and a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ. What are some good basic guidelines for witnessing to Mormons? What is the Mormon attitude to Scripture and apologetics? How can the Bible help us in witnessing? How do you hold a conversation with a Mormon? That is what we will do next, look at what we might encounter when we Meet the Mormons.”

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Beyond Mormonism’s Zion Curtain

In May 1844 Joseph Smith declared that he was establishing a kingdom “that will revolutionise the whole world.” (History of the Church, p.365) John Taylor, third president of the Mormon Church stated in 1865, “We do believe it and honestly acknowledge that this is that kingdom which the Lord has commenced to establish upon the earth, and that will not only govern all people in a religious capacity, but also in a political capacity” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p.53) And in 1859 Heber C Kimball, another Mormon leader, said, “And so the nations will bow to this kingdom, sooner or later, and all hell cannot help it” (Journal of Discourses, vol.7, p.170)

Council of Fifty

In March 1844, shortly before he died, Joseph Smith set up a secret organisation, the Council of Fifty. This council was charged with developing a one-world government based on a modified version of the American Constitution. The council, made up of unelected members and based along Masonic lines, was meant to become the highest court on earth, superior to any already established constitution or government. These Mormon machinations were a closely guarded secret and even today any records of those early council meetings and deliberations are unavailable for study. The existence and purpose of this secret council became known and writs were issued against seven members, “prominent citizens of Nauvoo”, for “treasonable designs against the state.”

“The scriptures indicated that Christ would rule as king over the kingdom of God. Smith took this idea quite literally and thought it only logical that he, as predecessor of the Saviour, should enjoy certain prerogatives of royalty. Consequently, shortly before his death, the prophet apparently had himself ordained as king of the earth” (Klaus Hanson, master’s thesis, quoted in the UTLM publication, Mormonism, Shadow or Reality?)

Joseph for President

In 1844 this council decided to run Joseph Smith for the presidency of the United States as a step in establishing the Mormon kingdom, “If we succeed in making a majority of the voters converts to our faith, and elected Joseph president, in such an event the dominion of the kingdom would be forever established in the United States...” (June 1855 letter by George Miller, quoted by Hyrum Andrus in, Joseph Smith and World Government, from Tanner, Shadow or Reality?)

To summarise, Joseph Smith set up a secret council to govern as a one-world government, had himself ordained to be king of the earth and ran for the presidency. His successors, Brigham Young and John Taylor, were also ordained to be king in their turn. The story of this hubristic episode in Mormon history is truly fascinating and goes a long way to explaining the imperious attitude often seen in Mormons as they take their message around the world. You can find out more about this on the Utah Lighthouse Ministry web site where I obtained much of this information on early Mormonism.

Of course, by the end of June 1844, Joseph Smith had been killed by a mob in a furious gunfight and Mormon dreams of the presidency and eventual world domination were crushed by a substantial serving of reality. By February 1846 Brigham Young was leading the Mormons in a disastrous trek west to finally settle beyond the reach and borders of the United States in the Great Salt Lake Valley. There they established a different kind of kingdom, just as secretive and despotic, but much reduced in its reach and influence from the original vision.

The Mormon Kingdom Today

Nevertheless, into modern times Mormons have entertained the idea that one day “men’s hearts will fail them”, governments will tumble and the Mormon Church with its priesthood organisation and reputation for strong self-government will be called upon to save America and the world, bringing order out of chaos. When we look at the Mormon organisation today it is well to remember that this is how Mormons see themselves. They have a self-image that reflects those early vainglorious ambitions and that belies the real state and strength of the Mormon Church today.

It is this that allows successive Mormon presidents to stand in the two general conferences every year and declare, “The Church has grown steadily since that day in 1830. It continues to change the lives of more and more people every year and to spread across the earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth”* while the fact is the Mormon Church has struggled to grow for some years and is described by some as “flat lining”. (*Thomas S Monson, April 2010 General Conference)

We have looked at Mormon demographics before. Here I want to look at the true geographical extent of the Mormon kingdom. It is still centred in Salt Lake City, Utah, which has a Mormon population of some 1.88 million in a total state population of 2.8 million according to 2009 stats. Utah is incontrovertibly a Mormon state and Mormonism is very much an American religion in that the great majority of Mormons today live in the Americas and the most significant concentration of Mormons is in the American Rocky MountainWest. The map on the right from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life illustrates the extent of the Mormon kingdom.

Seeking the Kingdom

The darkest colour marks Utah (51-100% Mormon affiliation according to the Pew Forum); it is currently like 67%. West of Utah is Nevada with 41-50% of people self-identifying as Mormons. North-west of Utah is Idaho (410,757), 31-40% Mormon. The other grey-blue coloured states, Wyoming (62,411), Montana (45,893), Oregon (146,617), Arizona (381,235) Alaska (31,268) and Hawaii (68,858) each boast a Mormon population of between 6% and 10%. The rest of the United States shows no more than 0-2% Mormons in its population.

Interestingly, New York State, the birthplace of Mormonism, has a trifling Mormon population of 76,811, less than 2% of the population and probably nearer 0%.

Outside these parameters Mormonism is all but invisible in terms of significant and established communities around the world. At 180,000 for instance the Mormon population of the UK is just 0.24% of the general population. In the rest of the world Mormonism doesn’t even fair as well as this. The Mormon Church outside the Mormon kingdom is truly an outpost of empire. While other churches and denominations can boast strong cultural relevance and identity across borders and traditions Mormonism is American to the core and is a stranger wherever else it goes in the world.

The strength of Mormonism in the United States, and especially in Utah is such that critics and commentators living at the heart of the Mormon kingdom sometimes talk about operating  “behind the Zion curtain.” But what of the great majority of people who, if they encounter Mormons at all, meet them beyond the Zion curtain? What will they be met with and is the Christian who lives outside the Mormon kingdom to approach his/her witnessing differently? That is what I want to address next time when we “Meet the Mormons.”