Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mormonism’s Tumbleweed Moment

From a breath-taking, revolutionary, controversial start Mormonism has increasingly striven to occupy the colourless, comfortable, safe and predictable middle ground of modern American culture; a place no self-respecting Evangelical Church would be in a hurry to fill.

It still holds to those doctrines that mark it out as a cult but Mormons don't talk about these much nowadays. “We are a Christian denomination” they insist, creating the impression “we are Christians too” where once they insisted, “we are the one true church.”

Mormonism has busily transformed itself from the defiant, subversive, even scandalous church of the 19th century to become an institution eagerly seeking approval and respectability.

The promise of Mormonism is pretty wonderful when you come to think of it. When you become a Mormon you get prophets, apostles, an open canon of Scripture and the promise that the heavens are once more open after, they claim, centuries of darkness and apostasy. You don't have to look at two thousand-year-old texts to to find the will of God because prophets speak anew and their words are published to the world.

Not only that, but they bring apparently new doctrines, doctrines they would nevertheless define as original and fundamental, “restoring” such ideas as men becoming gods, secret temple worship, a complete rearrangement of the family unit, baptism for the dead and so forth.

light and instruction

Sure enough, from the earliest days of this fledgling restoration movement presses were established and sermons and discourses, teachings and commentary were being reported. The voice of God once more thundered from the pages of new scripture:

Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.

2For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:1-2)

A succession of periodicals turned out teaching and instruction, left, right and centre, beginning with Evening and Morning Star (1832-1834), Messenger and Advocate (1834-1837), Elder's Journal (1837-1838), Times and Seasons (1839-1846), Millennial Star (1840-1970), Ensign (1971-Present) and many others.

1855 saw the publication of the “Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, The Twelve Apostles, And Others”; a very cornucopia of Mormon spiritual/prophetic leading and insight that continued until 1866. This is indeed heady stuff and enough to convince that the fundamental claim of Mormonism is true, the heavens are once more open after generations of apostasy and silence.

The first 16 editions of the Times and Seasons was edited by Joseph Smith's youngest brother, Don Carlos (consider for a moment the implications of this one fact in relation to the popular story of poor ignorant farm-boys and the like). The first edition announced:

“We wish to make it a source of light and instruction to all those who may peruse its columns, by laying before them, in plainness, the great plan of salvation, which was devised in heaven before the foundation of the world, as made known to the saints of God, in former, as well as latter days; and is, like its Author, the same in all ages, and changeth not.” (Times and Seasons, Vol.1 No.1)

The Journal of Discourses was originally a semi-monthly sheet of sixteen pages published by Elder George D. Watt in England and designed to publish abroad the sermons of church leaders as they were preached in Salt Lake City. Elder Watt introduced what was to become a 26 volume library of sermons with these words:

“It affords me great pleasure in being able to put in your possession the words of the Apostles and Prophets, as they were spoken in assemblies of the Saints of Zion, the value of which cannot be estimated by man, not so much for any display of worldly learning and eloquence, as for the purity of doctrine, simplicity of style, and extensive amount of theological truth which they develop...These sermons will prove a source of light, information and joy.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol.1 Introduction)

In endorsing the work in an open letter to the church leaders warmly and enthusiastically described how it came about:

“It is well known to many of you, that Elder George D Watt, by our counsel, spent much time in the midst of poverty and hardships to acquire the art of reporting in Phonography [shorthand] which he has faithfully and fully accomplished; and has been reporting the public sermons, Discourses, Lectures, etc. delivered by the Presidency, the Twelve, and others in this city, for nearly two years, almost without fee or reward.”

A labour of love, then, encouraged and endorsed by Brigham Young, Heber C Kimball and Willard Richards, the first presidency of the Mormon Church.

continuity and consistency

It is difficult to convey the excitement this tale of a growing corpus of revelation and truth engenders in people, encouraged by the official story of Joseph Smith, the anticipation of great things, the sense of being in on something worth living – and dying – for. Converts may thrill at being initiated into the company of those privileged to know such things, those raised in Mormonism may stand tall in the confidence that this their heritage is true and both may count themselves blessed to live in such times.

To the average Mormon (if there is a such a creature) this picture still colours their world-view and a true believing Mormon puts his or her confidence in the belief that this situation continues to this day. “The Church” is still led by prophets who speak authoritatively for God to his people and the world; but is this true?

If the message of God is, as the Times and Seasons proclaimed in 1839, “the same in all ages, and changeth not” why is it that this, and other, similar periodicals and journals are obsolete? If the Journal of Discourses is “a source of light, information and joy” why is it not used widely in the Mormon Church today?

These journals and periodicals contain sermons, letters, articles and reports about and from leaders of the church. And while it is true that some material is bound to have lost its significance as history has moved on, nevertheless if truth was proclaimed by prophets, and that truth never changes, it seems odd that these publications hold no greater place in the Mormon Church than historical curiosities and sometimes embarrassing reminders. Cite them and they are dismissed as “not official”, quote from them and you will be told that your sources are out-dated, obscure and irrelevant.

Silent prophets

But perhaps having living prophets makes them redundant since today's prophets are bound to be proclaiming prophetic truth to today's saints in today's idiom for today's context – surely?

Yet, as we have already seen in an article entitled Mormonism's “Open Canon”, the Doctrine and Covenants, Mormonism's official record of on-going revelation, has not been added to for a hundred years. Mormon leaders are increasingly diffident the nearer we come to modern times until we find today that Mormonism is experiencing a tumble-weed moment.

Where once proud and determined prophets defiantly thundered Mormon dogma to the faithful and to the world the only thing heard today is the wind whistling through the otherwise silent corridors and meeting places of the Mormon Church. Little more than an echo remains of those once confident and strident leaders, one of the last of which was the late Mormon apostle Bruce R McConkie and, surely, the last of which, Boyd K Packer, has been tamed and correlated to within an inch of his calling

Where once, even in my lifetime, Mormons quoted their leaders all the way back to Joseph Smith, today they are more likely to quote Mormon academics and unofficial apologists like Richard G Grant, Stephen E Robinson, Michael R Ash et al. Their thinking is informed not by apostles and prophets so much as by FAIR and FARMS.

Speaking of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies the late Mormon prophet Gordon B Hinckley said, “FARMS represents the efforts of sincere and dedicated scholars. It has grown to provide strong support and defense (sic) of the Church on a professional basis.” This is a church whose founder boasted that he had the edge on mere academics and professionals because of his prophetic calling, saying,

“I combat the errors of the ages; I meet the violence of the mobs; I cope with illegal proceedings from executive authority; I cut the gordian knot of powers, and I solve mathematical problems of universities, with truth diamond-truth; and God is my "right hand man.

If they want a beardless boy to whip all the world, I will get on the top of a mountain and crow like a rooster; I shall always beat them....I have more to boast of than any man had. I am the only man that has been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter nor Jesus ever did. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him, but the Latter-day saints never ran away from me yet.” (History of the Church, vol.5, p.467)

It seems those days are gone and professional scholarship is the last best hope for a Mormon Church cut adrift from its roots, sans meaningful prophetic leadership. Until we come to today when a Mormon, commenting on this blog is able to write, “there are more reasons The Church doesn't produce commentaries in addition to the reason you mention. Harvard MBAs run the modern Church, not theologians. Apostles are concerned mainly with sales and administration.”

Is that it then? Are Mormon apostles and prophets little more than bean counters now with professionals running the church, predominantly gifted amateurs creating Mormon apologetics and committees telling even apostles and prophets what to say at General Conference? What has become of this Mormon message of prophets? And Who speaks for the Mormon Church today? Better step back because here comes another piece of tumble-weed.

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