How to Read the Mormon Ensign Magazine

A review of the February 2013 Ensign magazine

I thought for this Ensign review I might teach readers how to read the Mormon flagship magazine, the Ensign. Mormons will insist, of course, this is hardly necessary since what you see is what you get. Non-Mormons, without an explanation, will think this makes sense and never realise they are reading something whose true content is communicated subliminally in a cloud of clever words and beguiling artwork.

You can access the latest issue online as well as a PDF version. The PDF version is important as it will allow you to see for yourself the things I am talking about. It also saves me reproducing the pictures here and risking infringing copyright, so you might like to open it now and have it handy to turn to the pages I mention.ensign-2013-feb

The cover of this edition carries the picture of a woman of African descent caressing the cheek of her new-born child. (Such a picture in a Mormon magazine would have been rare as hen’s teeth up until July 1978. Before then Africans were not positively proselyted by the Mormon church and the few black Mormons who persevered were denied all rights beyond basic membership. There is a whole different subtext in this picture to do with projecting an egalitarian and non-racist image but that is not the main issue on this occasion)

The magazine promises as its main theme, “We Follow Jesus Christ,” and you might see the subtle connection between mother and child and that theme. The three articles highlighted under that heading are about Christian discipleship, balancing truth and tolerance, and building a Christ-like life on the foundation of integrity. In relatively modest type and suitably subservient is the title, “Stand by my Servant Joseph,” an account of the ‘stalwart associates’ of Joseph Smith (I don’t recall they were, most of them, especially stalwart)

In any event, as it should be, you might be thinking. I suggest we suspend judgement and take a brief detour through the founding myth of Mormonism and then come back to this magazine with fresh eyes and better informed minds. You will recall  that Mormonism purportedly started with the story of a young boy seeking truth, and a vision in what came to be known as “The Sacred Grove” where, “on the morning of a beautiful, clear, day in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” Joseph Smith went to pray.

Mormon missionaries today begin their story with “The Message of the Restoration…” following carefully lesson 1 on page 31 of their their mission guide, Preach my Gospel, wasting no time bringing people to “The Sacred Grove.” Images of that event have become iconic in Mormon culture and thought, representing for Mormons the epiphany on which Mormonism is founded.

Where Christians have Golgotha and an empty tomb in 1st century Israel, Mormons have a grove of trees and a mysterious light in 19th century upper New York State. When Mormons are asked about their  faith this is their starting point. Stop a moment and consider what would be yours if asked about your faith.

First VisionFirst Vision 3First Vision 2

Since that mythical meeting in a mystical grove, critics claim, Mormonism has been all about Joseph Smith. “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet…” Mormons sing (LDS Hymns 19). Oh, how lovely was the morning…” (Joseph Smith’s First Prayer, Hymns 26) “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah” (Hymns 27)

“Follow the prophet!” Mormons are urged.

The prominence given to Jesus Christ on the magazine cover is, some might claim, simply designed to divert our attention from this troubling focus, to convince folk that the Mormon Church is a Christian Church, indeed the Christian Church. Mormons, of course, protest that they are Christians, citing various authorities, but what we do can sometimes speak so loud people cannot hear what we say. Now lets go back to the magazine and “hear” what it is saying in what it does.

In this magazine purporting to show a Christian face we turn the cover to find – yes, the sacred grove, or at least something having an uncanny resemblance to same (inside front cover). With a caption that speaks of inspiration and revelation we are pictorially drawn again to that iconic image that anchors all things Mormon to Joseph Smith. Do take a look for yourself in the PDF edition.

That modest piece about Joseph Smith’s “loyal friends” is illustrated by a striking full-page portrait of a young Joseph falling back in the presence of the light in that grove (p.35). Over the page (p.36) is a full-length, half-page portrait of Joseph and Hyrum Smith standing by a river with Hyrum’s arm placed steadfastly around the shoulders of his younger, oracular brother. Over the page again (p.38) we have a full-length, half-page portrait of Joseph Smith in aptly prophetic pose, knowledge and wisdom under his arm, gaze set into the middle distance, looking every inch the prophet of Mormon imagination.

Over the following page (p.40), illustrating an article entitled, “Earth, a Gift From God,” is a photograph of, would you believe it, sunlight shining through the canopy of trees. Seem familiar? Following the country insert an article extolling the virtue of having consistent standards is illustrated by a picture of a door leading into a state of happiness (p.45), a door reached by walking through a parade of trees uncannily reminiscent of a sacred grove.

The Gnostic Jesus

So where is Jesus? Well, there’s a picture of Jesus on page 15, using Jesus’ baptism against a Mormon background teaching salvation through baptism. You can find out in another post here about water baptism He pops up again on pages 27 and 30 to illustrate

“Three Absolute Truths”:

1 A sort of universalism in which we are not created with this world but are literally children of God, of the same species as Jesus, literally brothers and sisters.

2 Mormons exclusively have the truth and must tolerate the rest of “God’s children” who don’t, including “those other Christians”;

3 This creates a conflict between truth, exclusive to Mormonism, and error, believed in some degree by everyone else – including “those other Christians.” (“Understanding These other Christians” is the title of a book by Mormon writer Richard G Grant in which he attempts to explain the Evangelical faith to Mormons)

This is a picture, not of salvation by acknowledging our sin and turning to the right Saviour, a theology of the cross, but of finding the right path by acknowledging our ignorance and embracing the right doctrines; salvation by knowledge (gnosis) and works. Looking at those pictures of Jesus again we see this depicted pictorially.

On page 15 Jesus is submitting to baptism which, to a Mormon, relates directly to Mormon baptism as depicted in the other pictures on the page. This is Jesus being exclusively  tied into Mormon ideas, condoning the unbiblical notion that we are saved by correct doctrine (regarding priesthood authority) and  submission to  correct and authoritative ordinances.

The picture of Jesus on page 27 again emphasises doctrine over deliverance and might be a Mormon priesthood quorum meeting . The picture on page 30 illustrates the correctly baptised Jesus, armed with the correct (Mormon) doctrine, entering the public square with the correct Mormon authority and message. It is worth noting there is no cross in this edition purporting to show that Mormons are followers of Jesus Christ. This is more like a mystery religion with initiation, advancement through levels of gnosis and final enlightenment and godhood. This is a gnostic Jesus.

But, as Michael Horton writes, “There is no path from us to God, but God has blazed his own trail to us.” (The Christian Faith, Zondervan, 2011, p.46)

So is there an editorial team somewhere thinking, “How much Joseph can we get into this month’s Ensign?” Of course not. There is nothing so overtly sinister going on here. It is much more insidious than that. This is not, I suggest, a conscious effort on the part of the publishers to big up Joseph Smith but an unselfconscious outworking of how every Mormon learns to think from the cradle, or from conversion. In Mormon-think the gospel is naturally illustrated by events surrounding the “restoration,” concerning Joseph Smith, reinforcing a message of prophets. In Mormon-think “brother Joseph” is everything and this preoccupation manifests itself in every Mormon testimony, apologetic, lesson and publication. Even when the theme is Jesus the way is Joseph.

Mormons are Christians? Really?

In the country insert for the UK and Ireland (not in the online edition for obvious reasons) there is a heart-warming story of a young man who, after years of hard work and dedication, became an airline pilot. His comment on the experience is revealing:

“I have been the only member of the Church right the way through my flight training, and its been challenging at times. While I have felt alone at times I have never felt rejected for something I believe in. The Church has been an incredible support.”

I began to wonder if there were Christians on the course, or among the training personnel? Would a Christian of any denomination have found a kindred spirit in another Christian of any other denomination and felt less isolated? I am sure they would, but a Mormon would not it seems.

Because of their founding myth Mormons think of the Christian world as sharply divided with Baptist Christians, Methodist Christians, Pentecostal Christians etc.  having little or nothing to do with each other. They don’t understand that the common thread that binds all Christians is Jesus regardless, in the main, of disagreement on secondary issues. That a Christian would be glad to find another Christian with whom to fellowship.

That which binds Mormons is Joseph and this it is that makes them stand out and stand apart from “those other Christians,” whatever they may claim about being “Christians too.” It would never occur to a “Mormon Christian,” as they sometimes describe themselves, to find fellowship with any but their own Joseph followers.

You may have realised by now that the Christian message starts with Jesus while the Mormon message begins with Joseph; the defining revelation of the Christian Gospel is an empty Cross and an empty tomb, while the defining revelation of the Mormon Gospel is a strange light in a “sacred grove.” The Christian life is one of service to and relationship with the One who has saved, while the Mormon life is one of initiation, loyalty to Mormonism and good works in order to advance in knowledge and gain access to God.

Paul wrote in his letter to Christians in Rome:

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience  to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘who will go up to heaven’ (to bring Christ down to earth), and don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead’ (to bring Christ back to life again). In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.”

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. (Romans 10:5-10, NLT)

Sacraments and ordinances don’t save us, following a man into a “sacred grove” doesn’t save us, “progressing” like a gnostic initiate doesn’t save us and works do not save us. Jesus saves! He saves the broken-hearted, the repentant, the confused, the lost and the poor and needy. We are saved by looking to him, believing (which means trusting) in him and by confessing him. This is not the Jesus Christ Mormons follow, he will not be found in this Ensign magazine.

I hope now you are better equipped to “read” future editions of the Ensign magazine of the Mormon Church, to better understand the message all Mormon literature and conversation brings and to share more confidently the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus who saves to the uttermost by his blood shed on the cross at Calvary.

Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues The Mormon Chapbook

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