One of the most serious charges brought against Mormonism and one of its most controversial teachings is the relation of Joseph Smith to Jesus. Some critics go so far as to claim that, in Mormon teaching, Joseph is the equal of Jesus. Mormons, scandalised by such a charge insist is defamatory and even some Christians jump to the defence of Mormons, insisting that, in this instance at least, Critics have gone too far.
I have addressed before the question of whether Mormonism is Christianity restored or Christianity replaced. We have also looked at the Mormon claim that authority is delegated to Joseph to judge with Christ and asked Who is the Way, Joseph or Jesus? Here we see the key to understanding this issue is the question of which Jesus?
The danger in addressing this question is in comparing Joseph Smith of Mormonism with the Jesus of the Bible, the Christian Jesus. It quickly becomes apparent that Mormons cannot be making any such comparison since the Jesus of Scripture is God and Joseph Smith is a man. But then the Jesus of Mormonism is not the Jesus of the Bible and we are not comparing these two characters. We are comparing Joseph Smith and the Mormon Jesus and the difference is profound.
I should make plain that Mormons do not worship Joseph Smith while they do worship the Mormon Jesus. It is notable however that, while Mormons worship Jesus they do not address him in prayer.
Bruce R McConkie famously described “the approved pattern of prayer”, which is addressed to the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ; Mormons don't pray to Jesus. Clearly worship of Jesus is qualified and this is significant.
The first thing to consider is that the Jesus of Mormonism is not the 'Way' of Scripture. In Mormonism he came not to be the Way but to show us the way and the way is the Plan of Salvation. Mormonism doesn't bring us a Saviour so much as a system and the Mormon Jesus, while they call him Saviour, is one, albeit significant part of that system.
Where a Christian looks to John 3:16 etc. and builds their faith on the promises of God and the finished work of Christ at Calvary, a Mormon looks to the plan and on Jesus as having, in Gethsemane, made a second chance for him to work that plan - and as an example to follow in obeying the plan. This is Jesus as exemplar and not Jesus as emancipator.
As we have so often heard it expressed by Mormons, “We still have to do our part in keeping the commandments” or, as the 8th article of faith has it, “...all mankind may be saved, by obedience...”
The plan is the way, then, and not the Man, and it was voted upon in a pre-mortal council of the gods. Each person in that pre-mortal council was to play their part in administering the plan. Each was a son or daughter of an exalted man called Elohim, Jesus being the eldest, Lucifer the second son.
They were, and are still, the same species, men, sons of an exalted man, the only difference being their place in the order of 'birth' in that pre-mortal life and their role in administering Elohim's plan for his children on earth. Mormon 'scripture' explains that each 'intelligence' was assigned a role as 'ruler' in God's plan. (Abraham 3:21-23)
Joseph Smith was one such 'intelligence' just like Jesus and, just as Jesus was to be the 'Saviour' who would come in the Meridian of time, so Joseph would play his role as Joseph the Prophet (note how they capitalise it) of the last days, holding the keys of all previous dispensations, including that of Christ. We are talking about two 'men' with different roles in a drama that revolves not around Jesus the Christ but around 'God's great plan of happiness', the Plan of Salvation.
Brigham Young said of Joseph Smith:
“No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith...He reigns there as supreme a being in his sphere, capacity and calling, as God does in heaven.”
“I am an Apostle of Joseph Smith...all who reject my testimony will go to hell.”
I will now give you my scripture...Whosoever confesseth that Joseph Smith was sent of God...that spirit is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that God sent Joseph Smith...is anti-Christ.”
(Journal of Discourses, Vol.14, p 203; vol.7, p 289; vol.8, p 176)
All who have wondered how a man could make such audacious claims may begin to understand them in light of the fact that Mormons have not just elevated Joseph but have demoted Jesus, making him the same species as Joseph and Brigham since before the world began. Once you have two beings of the same species carrying out different roles in a wider plan it is not so great a leap from Joseph to Jesus.
I am sure you are familiar with the Mormon idea of progression. The idea that God came to be God by being obedient as a man to his God, according to the infamous King Follett Discourse. According to Doctrine and Covenants 93 Jesus himself progressed, “he received not of the fullness at the first, but received grace for grace;And he received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace until he received a fullness; and thus he was called the Son of God because he received not of the fullness at the first.” (D&C 93:12-14)
This is not the Jesus of Philippians 2, “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philip.2:6-7 ESV).
This is not the condescension of God. This is the progression of one who once sat in a pre-mortal council with other 'spirit children', including Joseph Smith, as first among equals. One day Joseph expects to sit in judgement with Jesus, meanwhile, as the Mormon hymn has it, “Mingling with God's, he can plan for his brethren; death cannot conquer the hero again.” (Praise to the Man, Hymns 27)
Having made Jesus man become god and not God become man, having given him a part to play in the plan of happiness, what do the Mormons do with Joseph Smith?
Brigham Young said of Joseph Smith:
“It was decreed to the counsels of eternity, long before the foundations of the earth were laid, that he, Joseph Smith, should be the man, in the last dispensation of the world, to bring forth the word of God to the people, and receive the fullness of the keys and power of the priesthood of the Son of God. The Lord had his eye upon him, and upon his father, and upon his father's father, and upon his progenitors clear back to Abraham, and from Abraham to the flood, from the flood to Enoch, and from Enoch to Adam. He has watched that family and that blood, as it has circulated from it's fountain to the birth of that man. He was foreordained in eternity to ;preside over this last dispensation.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p 108)
That sounds remarkably like the Mormon equivalent of Jesus' genealogy and fore-ordination doesn't it? A line clear back to Abraham, even to Adam? Fore-ordination in eternity, before the foundations of the earth were laid? It sounds positively blasphemous until you realise that just about every key figure in the plan can make the same proud boast.
I had a brief but interesting correspondence with Daniel Peterson on this next issue. Professor Peterson came to the defence of his fellow BYU professor Robert Millet whose words I use in both my book and in articles to illustrate how dangerously close to out-and-out blasphemy even intelligent and thoughtful Mormons can get. In an article in the June 1994 Ensign magazine (p 20) Robert Millet extols the virtues and character of Joseph Smith:
“Save Jesus Christ only, the world has never known a more competent authority than Joseph Smith. It is one thing to read a book of scripture and quite another to be personally instructed by its authors. Who among the world's scholars and religious leaders can lay claim to having stood face to face with Adam, Enoch, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John?”
That sounds remarkably like Joseph Smith's own Mount of Transfiguration experience but only so in the context of what Mormons teach happened on the Mount. To a Christian the three disciples saw Christ's glory unveiled as he was transfigured but Mormon apostle Bruce R McConkie cited in the New Testament Institute Manual The Life and Teachings of Jesus explains it thus:
“Transfiguration is a special change in appearance and nature which is wrought upon a person or thing by the power of God . This divine transformation is from a lower to a higher state; it results in a more exalted, impressive and glorious condition.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd.ed. P 803)
Joseph Smith wrote that it was Peter, James and John who were transfigured (Teachings, p.158) and in Doctrines of Salvation (Vol.2, p 16) Joseph Fielding Smith said that Peter, James and John received their endowments on the Mount and, like Joseph Smith, received instruction while there (D&C 63:20-22). Another example of exalting men by demoting Christ and misinterpreting a Bible event.
The most shocking commentary was to come. Millet goes on to compare the death of Smith with the death of Christ:
“The life of Joseph Smith was in some degree patterned after that of his Master, Jesus Christ. That pattern holds true even when extended to its tragic conclusion. Like his Master, Joseph Smith also shed his blood in order that the final testament, the re-establishment of the covenant, might be in full effect (see Heb.9:16)”
Hebrews 9:16 (his reference) refers to the death of Jesus releasing to those who trust in him “the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb.9:15). Mormon theology teaches that such benefits were lost in apostasy. Therefore it was necessary for blood to be shed again in order to re-establish what had been lost.
The blood of Joseph was deemed sufficient to achieve that for which the blood of Christ was once thought sufficient. Joseph, then, becomes mediator of the restored covenant. Bill McKeever tellingly relates how a guide at Carthage Jail bowed his head and in a solemn and reverent tone said that the place was “the Mormon Calvary.”
In a note to Peterson, Robert Millet wrote:
"I remember writing the piece for the ENSIGN that you sent to me. Obviously I never intended anyone to suppose that I meant that Joseph Smith's blood was shed for the remission of sins, or that Latter-day Saints esteem Brother Joseph to be other than a prophet-leader, the head of the final dispensation. Moses stood in a mediational role with ancient Israel, not in the sense that he was their Savior or Redeemer, but rather in the sense that God had called him as a covenant spokesman, someone to speak to the people on his behalf. So it was with Joseph Smith.
He was a man, a mortal man, but a man called and empowered of God. We do not worship Joseph Smith, but we do admire him, love him, and deeply appreciate him for what God made known through him and for the fact that he sealed his testimony of the Savior with his own blood. That blood was not shed to ransom or redeem anyone, for that power is found only in the precious blood of Christ. Joseph Smith's blood reminds us of the price that must occasionally be paid by the Lord's chosen servants to declare the truth." I hope these brief comments help to clarify our position toward Joseph Smith.
"Robert L. Millet"
I responded, in part, as follows:
A Christian reading his article would still be hard-pressed, I believe, to confidently come to the conclusion that, as Professor Millet put it, We do not worship Joseph Smith, but we do admire him, love him, and deeply appreciate him for what God made known through him and for the fact that he sealed his testimony of the Savior with his own blood. Let us look at what he is saying now and compare it with what is recorded in the Ensign article, June 1994, p.22.
NOW: Joseph Smith's blood reminds us of the price that must occasionally be paid by the Lord's chosen servants to declare the truth. In a dissembling fashion Professor Millet seems to be saying that Joseph's blood was shed simply to seal his testimony. This, however, seems suspiciously like back peddling on his part for, whatever his intentions now, it is not what he wrote in 1994.
THEN: The life of Joseph Smith was in some degree patterned after that of his Master, Jesus Christ. That pattern holds true even when extended to its tragic conclusion. Like his Master, Joseph Smith also shed his blood in order that the final testament, the re-establishment of the new covenant, might be in full effect (see Heb.9:16)" (Emphasis added).
As I have already explained, Hebrews 9:16 is a reference to the death of Jesus releasing to his beneficiaries (all who believe - Rom.10:9) "the promised eternal inheritance" (v15), thus making him "the mediator of the new covenant" (v15). Mormon theology teaches that such benefits were lost in apostasy (a complete falling away from the truth) before the end of the second century and that a restoration was necessary.
Professor Millet appears to be saying that it was necessary that there had to be a shedding of blood once more in order to re-establish that which was once lost, thus making Joseph the mediator of the restored covenant. This comparison is extravagant, to say the least, even for someone whose blood was shed to seal his testimony.
For such a one surely the heroes of Hebrews 11:32-40 would have been a more appropriate comparison than Hebrews 9:16. For here are the equals in scripture of those who die in order to seal their testimony of God.
However, Professor Millet compares Joseph, not with saints of previous ages martyred for their testimony, but with Jesus. Did Jesus, then, simply die to "seal his testimony", as Professor Millet is now saying Joseph did? Not at all! Taken in context, verse 16 of Hebrews 9 is speaking not of testimony but of testament (Mormons use the KJV which uses this word). Here the word means will, as in last will and testament, (NIV, Jerusalem Bible, RSV), and the passage is speaking of an inheritance following the death of one who made a will. In this case it is an eternal inheritance, freedom from sins (v15).
Professor Millet does not seem to be confusing testimony and testament because he does clearly use the word covenant in the correct context. I cannot see how he could have been ignorant, therefore, of the parallel he was drawing in comparing Joseph with Jesus. The key phrase is in order that. He declared that Joseph "…shed his blood in order that the final testament (not testimony or witness but testament, covenant or will), the re-establishment of the new covenant (or will), might be in full effect".
He then makes clear reference to Hebrews 9:16. Joseph's blood, then, does not simply seal his testimony but rather releases new covenant blessing. I simply cannot get "shed his blood to seal his testimony" from "shed his blood in order that the final testament (or covenant) might be in full effect (see Heb.9:16)".
Whatever his intention he is declaring that Joseph's death had the effect of releasing covenant blessing as did the blood of Jesus. This is not a matter of theology but of plain English.
In light of the above, I have tried to understand Professor Millet's latest assertion that Joseph's death simply sealed his testimony. The only way this could be so is if he is reading Heb.9:16 out of context. In the KJV it reads: For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. Perhaps he is making this verse stand alone and interpreting it as, where there is a testimony then the testifier must seal it with his death. If this is the case this is poor exegesis, indeed it is not exegesis but eisegesis.
Furthermore, if this is the case he certainly should have known better, for the Mormon reference Bible has a footnote for this verse that clearly shows testament to mean covenant and not testimony. We cannot get away, I am afraid, from the phrase "shed his blood in order that the final testament (or covenant) might be in full effect (see Heb.9:16)".
This is a lengthy explanation but I think it illustrates very well the dilemma faced by every Mormon who seeks to expound and explain his faith in the restored gospel of Joseph Smith. They are so used to speaking and writing of Joseph Smith in these exalted terms they don't even know they are doing it and, I suspect, don't understand the terms they do use to speak of him.
There seems to be nothing so extravagant that it cannot be used to describe Joseph; exalted forebears, foreordained from before the foundations of the earth, the one all must pass to get into heaven, mingling with gods and planning for his brethren, his blood shed to release covenant blessing.
Of course, as we consider this issue it is well to remember that a Mormon can make two conflicting claims for their religion at the same time, insisting they are led by prophets then as easily dismissing those prophets when their statements are inconvenient; claiming prophets declare new scripture then insisting on a fixed canon; declaring the Bible unreliable then insisting they trust it – you know this tune as well as anyone I am sure..
Then there is the amazing disappearing doctrines, disappearing like a politician's election promises, conveniently “forgotten” by octogenarian leaders in Salt Lake City when challenged about these things. Today, of course, Mormonism has more facets and expressions than ever as those leaders increasingly lose control of amateur 'scriptorians' (an exclusively Mormon epithet) and BYU professionals who make most of the running on doctrine these days.
And with increasingly irrelevant leaders many Mormons are defining their religion according to their personal paradigms and so it is reasonable to expect any Mormon you meet to see things a little differently than what you expected. They don't worship Joseph but still they revere him such that you might be forgiven for thinking they did.
I recall a Mormon bishop I knew building a sermon around the Messianic prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:18. Having built a picture, much as you might expect, of a prophet above all prophets he then described its fulfilment in Joseph Smith. They can't help themselves it seems. When challenged they quickly reject any notion of their having any more than respect for Joseph Smith, insisting it is all “anti-Mormon” lies. Left to themselves, however, from Brigham Young to Robert Millet, from the usurping of Messianic prophecy to “the Mormon Calvary” they extol him, exalt him, even sing a hymn in his name.
One other personal experience sums up for me the relative positions of Joseph and Jesus. On a Christian ministry forum a few years back a Christian struck up a good relationship with a Mormon. He offered to send the Mormon a CD of lively Christian worship music and the Mormon took him up on the offer. A couple of weeks past and the Christian asked him, on the forum, how he got along with the music. It was great, said the Mormon, and they had enjoyed it all as a family, his children even dancing to it.
“One thing that did strike me though”, said the Mormon, “you do make rather a lot of Jesus.”
I think Mormons, like the young man with the music CD, are so enamoured of Joseph that they find it peculiar that we make so much of Jesus, so thrilled with tales of the Sacred Grove that they don't really 'get' the Christian emphasis on Calvary. I recently even had a Mormon declare that Calvary was a minor theological point raised by nit-picking Christians trying to 'bring down my religion.' His religion, of course, is Joseph Smith.