Last time I asked, “Is Mormonism ditching prophets?” we looked at the fact that Mormonism taught and practiced racial discrimination as a key doctrine for almost 140 years of its 180 year history. What is surprising is that today’s Mormon prophets insist they have no idea where this teaching originated, or why it was taught, suggesting it was no more than cultural.
Comparisons are made with other churches that also practiced discrimination. They changed their stance on these issues and so has the Mormon Church. Not an unreasonable argument, we are meant to conclude. But the Mormon Church cannot reasonably make that defence, the comparison doesn’t bear scrutiny.
Fallen Man, Risen Lord, Sure Hope
Christian churches are led by fallible people, depending on centuries of scholarship and a developing theology for understanding and insight. We are led, we would insist, by the Spirit but flawed, we would confess, by the fallen nature of leaders and congregation alike.
That is why we go to great lengths to maintain biblical fundamentals while “allowing” disagreement on secondary issues. We recognise the wisdom of St Augustine who said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Our standing before God does not depend on our capacity to grasp an exhaustive theology but on our faith in Christ and his simple message of salvation (John 5: 24-25) We confess our sin, run to the cross and throw ourselves on God’s generous mercy (Romans 3; Acts 2:21) Only this way can fallen man, trusting in a risen Lord, have a sure hope.
That said, we are not saved into ignorance but need to grow in the things of God (Acts 2:42-47) That growing happens across cultures, generations and ages and is informed by scholarship that produces better Bible translations and commentary, debate and disagreement that challenge preconceptions, insight and inspiration that shine light into blind corners and experience that humbles us before the towering word of God. For Mormons this is evidence of apostasy.
After the death of Jesus Christ, they claim, wicked people persecuted the Apostles and killed them. Without Apostles, over time the doctrines were corrupted…Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom to interpret the scriptures (scholarship, debate, disagreement)…False ideas were taught as truth…The doctrines…became distorted or forgotten. This eventually led to the emergence of many churches – apostasy.
The message of Mormonism centres on “living prophets” (insight, inspiration). John Taylor, third Mormon president, wrote, “the principle of present revelation…is the very foundation of our religion” (Journal of Discourses, p.371). Elder Joseph W. McMurrin was one of the First Seven Presidents of the First Council of the Seventy from Oct.5 1897. In a General Conference address in April 1902 he said:
“A Prophet of God stands in the midst of the people now, clothed upon with every gift, key, power, and authority, that was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that same inspiration, that same power to penetrate the future, to comprehend the purposes of the Almighty, is with the Priesthood that is in our midst today.”
So, how did Mormonism go from being led by men clothed upon with every gift, key, power, and authority, who can penetrate the future and comprehend the purposes of the Almighty to, “Holy Moroni! What just happened?”
Sack the Seers, Summon the Scholars
Mormons reject the orthodox churches with their scholars, theologies, creeds and denominations and follow prophets, seers and revelators; one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph.4:5). Books are well and good, scholarship admirable but the sure word of prophecy gives us “the mind of Christ.” ( 1Cor. 2:16) “Surely, the LORD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7 KJV)
But what do you do when those prophets prove less than insightful and inspired? When “modern prophets” can’t explain the “essentials” around which Mormons are to unite? When comprehension, inspiration and penetrating insight fail where do you turn?
The Mormon Church has helpfully published an online comparison of the differences between the 1981 and 2013 editions of the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. In the Introduction to the 1981 edition we are told:
“The Doctrine and Covenants is a collection of divine revelations and inspired declarations given for the establishment and regulation of the kingdom of God on the earth in the last days…In the revelations, the doctrines of the gospel are set forth with explanations about such fundamental matters as the nature of the Godhead, the origin of man, the reality of Satan, the purpose of mortality, the necessity for obedience, the need for repentance, the workings of the Holy Spirit, the ordinances and performances that pertain to salvation, the destiny of the earth, the future conditions of man after the Resurrection and the Judgment, the eternity of the marriage relationship, and the eternal nature of the family.
Concerning this publication the elders of the church gave solemn testimony that the Lord had borne record to their souls of the truth of the revelations.” (Emphasis added)
Notable is the unequivocal endorsement of these revelations as coming direct from God, having absolute and unqualified authority. They are divine and inspired in their nature, authoritative in their purpose, revelatory in regards doctrine, fundamental in their matter and comprehensive in their teaching; undiluted by the corruption of having passed through “profane hands,” a popular Mormon description of how we got the Bible.
Unlike the churches of apostate “Christendom”, there is no speculation or disagreement, no recourse to scholars to explain, no equivocation; doctrine and praxis are plainly set forward as they come from the very mouth of God and pen of the prophet. This is the Mormonism of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Joseph F Smith, James E Talmage, Spencer W Kimball and Bruce R McConkie. This is the Mormonism with which I am familiar: reassuringly certain, declarative and dogmatic.
Into this affirmative account these words were inserted for the 2013 edition. I include my own commentary in plain text and brackets:
The revelations were originally recorded by Joseph Smith’s scribes (like the Bible, they are now at least once removed from their source), and Church members enthusiastically shared handwritten copies with each other (like the Bible there were many early copies that may not have all agreed at every point) To create a more permanent record, scribes soon copied these revelations into manuscript record books (like early Christian leaders they selected the best from a variety of copies), which Church leaders used in preparing the revelations to be printed (which selected copies were then published as the ‘authoritative’ version)
In other words, the Doctrine and Covenants was put together the same way Mormons think the Bible was. The difference is, we have thousands of part and full copies of early New Testament texts, which we can compare with our Bibles and which give us confidence in their faithfulness to the original. In a striking parallel with Islam, “early copies” of Joseph’s “revelations” have failed to come down to us and we are left only with what the church “officially” tells us belongs in the book. To continue:
Joseph and the early Saints viewed the revelations as they did the Church: living, dynamic, and subject to refinement with additional revelation (opening the door for scholarship to define doctrine, bearing in mind the 2013 edition is the product of scholarship, not revelation) They also recognized that unintentional errors had likely occurred through the process of copying the revelations and preparing them for publication (they have passed through corrupt hands) Thus, a Church conference asked Joseph Smith in 1831 to “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit…”
…The early Latter-day Saints prized the revelations and viewed them as messages from God (note they are now only “viewed” as messages from God). On one occasion in late 1831, several elders of the Church gave solemn testimony that the Lord had borne record to their souls of the truth of the revelations.
Notable now is the apparent equivocation over these revelations coming direct from God, having now a qualified authority. Apparently divine in origin, they seem more capable of interpretation and disagreement in their nature. It is a short step from here to saying that these are true “in the original autographs,” as is said of the Bible. The Bible, however, can appeal to an embarrassment of riches evidentially in manuscript, history, archaeology and scholarship to strengthen its claims.
Writings of Joseph Smith
I suggest the next step in this reassessment of Mormonism will be opening up the secret vaults in church headquarters and bringing out early Mormon documents, diaries and journals we know are there. There is already a work in progress to collate and make public the exhaustive writings of Joseph Smith. What a resource for those now seeking to reinvent Mormonism for the 21st century.
Against these early Mormon Church documents official Mormon writings and claims can be compared. This will give space for Mormons to move from a fundamentalist, literalist view of their faith to something that builds more on mythic truth than its traditional dogmatic truth.
It was felt necessary in the 1981 introduction to give an unquestionably positive account (some might say a selective account) of the publication of these revelations. Why, if not to instil in Mormons the thought that nothing qualified the utterances of their prophet. The substantial account inserted in 2013 offers considerable qualification of everything in the book and makes it capable of “explanation” by scholars in a way it never was before, and that puts scholars, not prophets, in the place of authority for the 21st century Mormon.
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