Friday, October 21, 2011

A Little Armchair History Sleuthing

I'm a Mormon, and I have to admit I really like being a Mormon. As a result, I read a lot of news articles about Mormons and Mormonism. I particularly like to see what non-Mormons have to say about us Mormons, especially how they explain our history and beliefs. It's usually quite gut-bustingly entertaining.

A portion of one recent article by David DiSalvo in Forbes was particularly amusing, so much so, I'd like to share it with a little commentary (in italics). Apart from splitting up some DiSalvo's original paragraphs to make way for my comments, I haven't changed a word. Even the struck-out text is from the original. Take it away Mr. DiSalvo:

To figure out how that conclusion was reached [that Mormonism is a "heretical cult"], we have to do just a little history sleuthing.

History sleuthing! Come, I'll get my cap and magnifying glass--the game is afoot! Since there's so much about Mormonism available in print and online by both Mormons and non-Mormons--much of it of very good quality--our discoveries should be gangbusters good.

Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, claimed visitations by quite the who’s who of celestial beings.

Yes, he did, but we wouldn't consider that strange coming from one who also claimed that original Christianity had been lost and needed to be restored by those who were key leaders in the same, would we? (For the avid history sleuths among our readership, a nice summary list of all who visited with Joseph has been provided by the kind folks of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.)

First, when he was a contemplative 14-year old, round about 1820, he said that God and Jesus appeared to him in the woods to tell him not to join any of the existing Christian denominations.

You're on the right track, Dave, though I wasn't aware that in addition to writing about science, technology, and culture you had mind-reading on your resume:

Smith made a bold face mental note of the command and steered clear of the established flocks.

Truly remarkable! You don't know Fawn Brodie, do you? She could read Joseph Smith's mind too, though I wonder if she could see the type-face of Joseph's thoughts as you can?
A few years later, he said that an angel named Moroni (the one that sits atop the spire of every Mormon church temple) [. . .]

Nice job noticing that the angel Moroni can't be found on the spires of any of our chapels, but you'd also be hard pressed to find him on any of the temples. Rather, Moroni is out there doing his angel thing, while gold-leaf covered statues depicting the angel Moroni adorn most--but not all--temple spires.

[. . .] he said that an angel named Moroni [. . .] appeared to him to reveal the history of the Nephites, an ancient Middle-eastern tribe named after a fellow called Nephi, that allegedly migrated to the Americas after the Tower of Babel fiasco.

Whoa! Hold up, buddy boy! I believe it was the Jaredites who left the Old World for the New during said fiasco; Lehi's family wouldn't begin their trek to the western hemisphere until around 600 BC, roughly 1600 years after the Jaredites dug out from the Tower of Babel scene and went off in their "tight" ships. Also, the Book of Mormon isn't just about Nephites and Jaredites, but also Lamanites and all manner of -ites to boot.

Moroni’s father, Mormon, became the leader of this tribe, Smith claimed, and in the grand tradition of holy plate inscribing, he wrote something called “The Book of Mormon” on a set of golden plates.  The angel Moroni instructed Smith that it was up to him to unearth the plates and translate the ancient writing in a form suitable for 19th century publication.

Yeah, Mormon did become leader to the Nephite "tribe", but only about 900 or so years after its institution. True-blue history sleuths would also know that Joseph Smith's claim that he had found an ancient historical and religious record inscribed on metal plates was considered absurd in the early 1800s--a claim, though scandalizing academics at the time it was made, has since been vindicated.
Happy coincidence, the plates happened to be buried near Smith’s house in Palmyra, New York. Smith rendezvoused with Moroni at least once more, and was then graced by an appearance from John the Baptist, who ordained Smith to finish the translation and begin the work of preaching the true gospel that had been lost for centuries.

Happily, it wasn't coincidence, Dave. And actually, Smith rendezvoused with Moroni at least 19 more times, but one is a good conservative estimate, so no problem.
We’re missing a few details here and there, but the overall gist of this story is that Joseph Smith, prophet of God, was by his account the only person who had received these special revelations, effectively making  him caretaker of a sacred text on par with the Holy Bible.  The notion caught on with enough people to form a church of sorts, and Mormonism was born.

Missing a few details? More like missing most of them and supplying a few of your own creation! And the historical record, should you have read it, indicates that those early converts to Mormonism were expecting a "restoration of all things," and yearning for someone with actual prophetic or apostolic authority to restore primitive Christianity, stripped of all the non-biblical, risible creeds that had grown up since the deaths of Christ and His apostles. And Joseph and his band of believers didn't just form a "church of sorts:" they formally and legally incorporated Mormonism into a literal church according to the laws of the state of New York on 6 April 1830.
Turns out, this was a “good news, bad news” story for Smith. Since The Book of Mormon endorsed polygamy (Note: I do believe this statement was in error; there is, however, ample evidence that Smith had multiple wives and had children with a portion of them, though the exact number is in dispute).

Good catch, Dave. I was wondering for a second whether you had actually read the Book of Mormon, which explicitly forbids polygamy except in very rare instances where the Lord wants to "raise up seed"--or produce a righteous nation--unto Him, ostensibly the very thing Joseph Smith felt he and the Mormons were commanded to do. To date, the only confirmed children of Joseph Smith he sired with his first wife, Emma, and DNA research is quickly reducing the already small number of children possibly sired with other wives.

Smith may have had as many as 33 wives and lassoed in a few other perks.

What were those perks, again? Getting tarred and feathered? Beaten? Jailed for months on end on false charges and against due process as vouchsafed in the US Constitution? Being driven from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, where finally his enemies caught up to him and brutally murdered him while he awaited his trial for the also false charge of treason? Sweet! Sign me up!

His brother, Hyrum, also got into the act and worked alongside his enterprising brother to promote the good word and derive all benefits thereunto appertaining.

See the above comment on the so-called perks of Joseph's--and Hyrum's--work "promoting the good word."
A lot of wives, family business, loyal audience, things weren’t going so bad—until they went really, really bad.

Actually, Dave, things were bad for Joseph Smith from the very beginning, when as an innocent youth he confided his spiritual experience--what we Mormons call the First Vision--to a trusted local minister. Joseph himself once noted ruefully, "It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself."

Smith and company quickly became the top tier public enemies of neighboring Christians, and were persecuted and chased out of New York to Ohio, and then chased from Ohio to Missouri to Nauvoo, Illinois.  There, Joseph and Hyrum made the mistake of destroying a printing press that was being used to produce anti-Mormon literature, and both were jailed.  A mob assembled and Joseph and his brother were shot dead in their jail cells.

This was a low point in the history of Illinois history, to be sure. A mistake it may have been to destroy the press that had printed nothing but libel and slander, but Joseph and Hyrum went of their own accord to Carthage jail with the assurance of the soon-to-be-perjured promise of Governor Ford that they would be kept safe there. History super sleuths would know that the state of Illinois formally apologized for its citizens' treatment of the Mormons in the 1840s.

One other point of trivia for all the history super-duper sleuths out there: Joseph and Hyrum were not in jail cells at all at the time of their deaths--a kind jailor had put them into a nice, furnished bedroom near the cells, and it was there that the brothers were ambushed and killed.
We won’t get into the church’s split after Smith’s death, Brigham Young’s famous trek to Utah, Mormonism’s littany of bizarre beliefs, etc. Suffice to say, just about everything Joseph Smith said and did contradicts doctrines of the established Protestant Christian denominations and Catholicism in its Roman and Eastern Orthodox forms.  He was, in the parlance of orthodox Christianity, a heretic, and if there’s one thing most Christians can agree on, it’s that the church Smith built has no place in their ranks.

We won't get anymore into the litany of bizarre claims you've made in this article, Dave, except to note that by the time Joseph Smith was on the scene to "contradict doctrines of the established . . . Christian denominations," those hundreds of disparate denominations bore little resemblance to the "heretical cult" set up by one Jesus of Nazareth some 1800 years before.

Suffice it to say, you're not a history sleuth at all, Dave. Forsooth! I'd stick to writing about that other stuff you write about regularly, you know, the science, technology, and culture, and leave the history sleuthing to those willing to sleuth out actual history. But thanks for all the laughs--now I don't need to do my abs workout.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Newer, Fresher Revelation

Much ado is being made at present over Pastor Robert Jeffress's remarks at the Values Voters Summit, where he minced no words in expressing to reporters his view that Mormons--members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--belong to a cult.

When news commentator Anderson Cooper interviewed Pastor Jeffress, the latter maintained his previously stated position, though he did do us a favor by clarifying that he considers Mormons to belong to a theological as opposed to a sociological cult. I have my doubts that the American public, and specifically Jeffress's 10,000 congregants, could describe the difference between the two (I can't). Thus cult remains the operative word, ostensibly a bad thing to be a part of, especially if you are running for President.

Though I disagree with most of what Pastor Jeffress said to Mr. Cooper regarding my faith, I did enjoy his characterization of the Book of Mormon as "newer, fresher revelation."

In contrast to the venerable Bible, the Book of Mormon was published relatively recently, early 1830, to be exact. But like the Bible, the Book of Mormon was authored anciently as a record of God's dealings with His children. In this sense the Book of Mormon is not new at all, but a genuine documentation of old-time religion.

The Book of Mormon also provides a fresh look at old problems that have perplexed Christian theologians for many centuries, shedding light on topics such as the proper mode of baptism, the propriety of infant baptism, authority in the Church, the relationship of God the Father and Jesus Christ, spiritual gifts, and so forth. Since there is little historical, let alone current, consensus among Christians on these topics, it's worth the effort to see what the Book of Mormon can contribute to the discussion.

The Book of Mormon was not given to replace the Bible, but to buttress it. In this age of faltering faith and surging secularism, when the fundamental claims of Christianity are increasingly under attack, we need another witness that there is a God and that salvation is obtained through Christ Jesus. And the Book of Mormon forcefully testifies of Christ, something that "competent" Christians should value, if not treasure.

Consider the following typical references to Jesus Christ as found in the Book of Mormon:

I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest.

I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.

Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.

Mormon scholar Susan Easton Black once pointed out that some 100 different names and titles are used in the Book of Mormon to refer to Jesus Christ. In total, mention is made of Him 3,925 times in the space of 6,607 verses, or once in every 1.7 verses, making the Book of Mormon one of the most Christ-centric books of all time. Surely such a work is deserves the attention of every "competent" Christian, irrespective of denomination.

As I said before, "above all things, the Book of Mormon is manifestly a Christian document . . . any Christian who prayerfully studies the Book of Mormon in addition to the Bible will find his or her faith in Jesus strengthened in ways he or she never thought possible." I stand by that promise and invite you to test it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Other Scripture for Other Sheep

As a missionary in the Samoan islands, my primary objective was to "invite all to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end."

Samoans are nearly 100% Christian, belonging to a variety of sects, including congregationalist, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventist, and so forth. And as far as I understand these differing parties, they all explain the Bible very differently.

Yet interestingly, despite the lack of unity in scriptural interpretation among the many denominations in Samoa, all but the Mormons (whom I was representing) were unified in their belief that John's conclusion to his Revelation precludes any additional scripture apart from the Bible.

Never mind that Moses said practically the same thing way back in Deuteronomy. Never mind that the Bible as a whole didn't exist in John's, let alone Moses', day. Never mind that the order of the books in the Bible is quite arbitrary. Never mind that John presumably added his Gospel testimony after writing his injunction against adding to the scriptures. The unified consensus among Samoan Christians was that the Bible was all the word that God would give to His people for all time, and that we don't need any more so-called scripture.

Quite frankly, the idea that the Bible contains all of God's word receives no actual support in the Bible itself. In fact, the Bible leaves ample room for additional scripture, not to mention the prophets and apostles who produce it under heaven's inspiration.

For the sake of brevity, I'll just share one verse that I'll call the "leave room for additional scripture" clause:

And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. (John 10:16)

In a mere 31 words, Jesus says a lot. I'll focus on just two ideas: first, that not all of Jesus' sheep were located at Palestine in which His mortal ministry was confined; second, Jesus' other sheep would hear His voice.

A terrible idea has snuck into post-New Testament Christianity that most of God's children will be damned for eternity, suffering eternal hellfire for not accepting Jesus, when the vast majority of God's children throughout the history of the world never even receive the opportunity to hear of such a being as Jesus.

Following this logic, were it not for the written word, which allows for the wide transmission of "not only the deeds but also the very thoughts of [humankind] through unlimited expanses of space and time," a woefully small number of Old World Christians would be all who could claim salvation through Christ Jesus.

I've played the game telephone, where the original message is greatly distorted by the time it reaches the last person in line, and if we had to rely wholly on an oral transmission of the gospel of Christ--arguably the most important message of all time--imagine what the final result would be after nearly two-thousand years' worth of distortion!

Jesus Himself wrote no scripture; instead, we rely on the testimonies of certain of Jesus' Old World sheep, the evangelists and Peter, Paul, James, and others, to tell us of the deeds and teachings of Jesus--all of whom committed to writing their testimonies of what they saw and heard.

This leads me to the second point, that Jesus' other sheep--who did not live in the land of His mortal ministry--would hear His voice. If they heard His voice, does it not stand to reason that they would commit His sayings to writing? And isn't it at least as possible that we might learn about those sayings someday, in a manner at least as marvelous as the coming forth of the Dead Sea scrolls, which had been hidden up for many years, just waiting to be found?

Enter the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon is the voice of the Good Shepherd to others of His sheep living in the New World. It was given to be another testament of Jesus Christ, a second witness for the purpose of "convincing the Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations. It is a witness that truly God is no respecter of persons, that His words never cease, and that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Above all things, the Book of Mormon is manifestly a Christian document, produced by ancient Christians, who by the spirit of prophecy and revelation produced a work that benefits us today by drawing us closer to God and Christ. It was brought forth in our day by the gift and power of God.

My message to the Samoan Christians during my mission was that any Christian who prayerfully studies the Book of Mormon in addition to the Bible will find his or her faith in Jesus strengthened in ways he or she never thought possible. This has been my experience with the Bible and the Book of Mormon and indeed all holy writ.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

New Provo Temple

I was greatly saddened when the Provo tabernacle burned down. It was a beautiful example of Mormon Pioneer architecture, where as a student of nearby Brigham Young University I attended a number of church conferences. It was also on the grounds of the Provo tabernacle that I proposed marriage to my sweetheart Deb. Between spirit-filled conferences and our engagement, the Provo tabernacle and it's grounds were already hallowed.

I've watched the news with much interest to see if the building could be salvaged and returned to its former glory. When I read (here and here) that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had purchased additional land surrounding the tabernacle, I thought that perhaps a multi-stake center like the one going up just a few blocks north east was going to be built to replace the tabernacle.

Imagine my joy when I heard this morning that the Provo tabernacle will be restored to become a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where men, women and youth will go to worship God and draw closer together as families. I hope to go there someday with Deb for a visit.