The mists of time lend one a certain romance, Alan Bennett
Its that time of year again. Folk are getting excited about the season, buying and wrapping gifts, some have already got a carol service or two under their belt, along with some mince pies perhaps, and there is a general sense of good will in the air. Mormons are no different in this respect. The December Ensign touches on the great themes of Christmas, the birth of a son, the story of shepherds and angels, the visit of kings. Mormons like to think of themselves as just like everyone else at this festive season.
At the same time, the traditional message of Mormonism is one of distinctions, things that set Mormons apart. Think of the founding claims of Mormonism; other churches are corrupt and wrong, Mormonism is “the only true church,” Mormons have the only true gospel, restored to earth after 1900 years of darkness and apostasy.
How do Mormons hold these conflicting ideas at the same time? How can they be like other Christians and yet so distinct as to be “the only true church?” When we read the items in the Ensign the discerning among us will easily identify the distinguishing marks of Mormonism.
Happiness a Spiritual Fruit?
The Bible message is of God come to dwell among men to serve and, ultimately, to die for men’s sins, then rise again, breaking the bonds of death and inviting all who would to come to God by grace, through faith in Christ (Romans 10:9-13; Hebrews 4:14-16)
The Mormon message is of the Son of God come to dwell among men, to inform and educate people in the “great plan of happiness” God the Father has devised for us. Mormon “salvation” is no more than resurrection, while what Christians understand to be salvation, eternal life in the kingdom of God, Mormons call exaltation and it is earned.
Henry B Eyring states, “You have felt happiness as you have kept the commandments of God. That is the promised fruit of living the gospel (see Mosiah 2:41)” The first presidency message (p4) mentions happiness no fewer than 13 times in an article just 656 words long. Happiness is the great theme of Mormonism, the gift Mormons bring their neighbours, but where does the Bible say Christ died to educate us in the art of happiness?
The Bible clearly teaches that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22-23) Something as trite and temporary as happiness is not found here. Note also that those things that Mormons would regard as the root of their happiness, those acts of obedience demonstrated in kindness, faithfulness etc. are not roots at all but they are fruit of an abiding in Christ, as explained in Jesus’ description of the vine and the branches in John 15.
God and Son
But isn’t Jesus “the Son of God” as Mormons say? Another distinction is discovered in the visiting teaching message p7, The Divine Mission of Jesus Christ: The Only Begotten Son. Here we learn that the only thing that distinguishes Jesus from the rest of mankind is not his position as the second member of the Christian godhead but because he was born of God the Father and a human mother.
In Mormonism all mankind is literally born of God in a premortal existence and God is as much our Father as he is Jesus’ Father, Jesus himself being our elder brother by premortal birth. In this familiar picture of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” you are effectively seeing a father and two sons. That being so, Mary was also a daughter of God in that premortal existence, which means that for Jesus to be born on earth of a Divine Father and mortal mother the Mormon God would have to have had an incestuous relationship with Mary. Mormon leaders have asserted as much:
“The Only begotten of the Father (Moses 5:9) ‘These name titles all signify that our Lord is the Only Son of the Father in the flesh. Each of the words is to be understood literally. Only mean only; Begotten means begotten; and Son means son. Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers” (Bruce R McConkie, Mormon Doctrine)
“The Saviour was begotten by the Father and his Spirit, by the same Being who is the Father of our spirits, and that is al the organic difference between Jesus and you and me.” (Brigham Young, JOD 4, 218)
Joining the Parade
Then there is an article on becoming Better Saints Through Interfaith Involvement (p28) There are two important points I want to raise here. Mormonism is founded on the claim that all churches are wrong and all those who profess the Christian message of the past two thousand years are corrupt (JSH 1:19) That message is being taken to your neighbours as you read this, make no mistake. John Taylor, third Mormon president said of such initiatives:
“We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsense…Myself and hundreds of the Elders around me have seen its pomp, parade, and glory; and what is it? It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol (sic); it is as corrupt as hell; and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century.” (JOD 6, 167)
This statement was made in 1893. Exactly 220 years later Mormons find themselves encouraged to join this same parade of pomp and glory.
My second point regards the claim Mormons make that Evangelical Christians “don’t believe in good works.” It is a common enough statement to those who take the trouble to engage with Mormons but it is patently not true. Mormons should know this since it is they who “do good works” alongside other churches that teach a gospel of grace.
They waste no time telling the world how engaged they are with their neighbours of “other faiths,” as they like to call us, and yet they insist we don’t believe in good works. They expect to find us idle even as we work alongside them for the good of the wider community
How do Mormons deal with such cognitive dissonance? To be so conflicted must come at some great cost. They boast they are different yet insist they are like us. They despise our parade and yet they want to join in, bang their drum, and mingle with the crowd. They accuse us of having a cheap grace yet happily work alongside us as we sacrifice ourselves in service to others, all the time boasting of their own works yet failing to recognise ours.
The first thing to realise is that different generations join a different Mormon Church. The Mormons of the 19th century were prepared to go to prison, even to die rather than relinquish their practice of polygamy. Even into the early 20th century Mormon leaders died on the run from the law. A whole package of doctrine supported this faith that polygamy was the order of heaven and no earthly power was going to stop it.
In much of the 20th century, while Mormons no longer practiced polygamy outside their temples, that package of doctrine was till taught and clearly understood by Mormons who looked to a future time when it would be restored, perhaps in the millennium. I remember well and taught enthusiastically all that Mormonism had taught about this “celestial doctrine.”
In the last days of the 20th century and into this 21st century Mormons regard polygamy as an historical curiosity, something of its time but certainly of no great doctrinal significance for them. You will hear Mormons dismiss it and say they don’t even fully understand the whole business other than as something that happened a long time ago. The same might be said, need I remind you, of the Mormon doctrine of denying Black people the priesthood until July 1978.
The second point is demonstrated by another article on page 54, a report about sermons from early church leaders recovered because transcribed from the shorthand in which they were originally recorded. You might expect the Mormon Church to shy away from publishing such potentially incriminating material since the Mormonism of those far distant days is very different from the Mormonism of 2013/14.
But there is something about the passing of time that lends a certain romance to the good bits of history and something of irrelevance to the bad. The Mormon Church plays on this helpful illusion that time lends to just about anyone’s story.
The mists of time allow them to say they don’t really know what was meant so long ago and in such circumstances. Scott Gordon said something like this, as reported in Bobby’s blog post last week. In such ways the different generations of Mormonism are built up, given a new, contextual meaning where once their meaning was timeless.
Where we see Mormons conflicted Mormons refuse to see such conflict. The Mormon Church helps by continually rewriting their history and urging Mormons to think only of what is in front of them, their generation’s story. It depends on where in this web of lies you are but each generation has found comfort in its own untruths. I was thinking of the words of the song Windmills of Your Mind –
Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
We can’t assume the Mormon standing in front of us has traversed any particular tunnel or is familiar with the particular dark cavern we first encountered Mormonism. Each will have their own set of ideas, their own understanding to reassure them and it is these, as much as anything, we must first deal with.
What is certain is that the Son has not shone in their lives and it is the message of grace, of the cross that is always our destination as we witness; that never changes. This Christmas lets remember the child in a manger born to die on a cruel cross for the sins of the world, including Mormons who, despite their protestations to the contrary, have yet to know him.