Thursday, October 26, 2006

Recipe for Anti-Mormon Literature

A Christian friend of mine is investigating the Book of Mormon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During this process he has come into procession of an article by a non-LDS preacher which, on the surface, seeks to explain the doctrines and beliefs of the LDS Church. I asked my friend if he thought the article was unbiased. My friend responded “yes” because the article praises Mormons for being honest, hardworking, righteous, family- and community-minded people. But, when it came to explaining what Mormon’s supposedly believe, the article brought up esoteric doctrines such as “blood atonement” and “Adam-god theory.”

My friend made an excellent point with regard to what he had read. He said, “I am concerned about joining a church that was founded on questionable foundation doctrines.” The foundation doctrines of the LDS church, then and now, have always been faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repentance, and baptism by water and by the Holy Spirit. Joseph Smith taught masterful sermons on faith which have been compiled in a book entitled “Lectures on Faith.” Joseph Smith spoke on forgiveness and repentance and as a Prophet of God, he bore witness the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the World. He taught that the grace of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and eternal life. This is the foundation doctrine of the church.

Now where do these other funny topics come from? Mormons believe in being “a record keeping people.” Consequently, the LDS church has made an effort to record and catalog almost every talk, discourse, article, and sermon by its church leaders. Every single one. Consequently, enemies of the church have spent considerable effort to search through church archives and come upon a talk, here or there, that may address a speculative or esoteric topic. Then they write a misleading article which falsely presents these subjects as founding LDS doctrines.

The typical recipe for an anti-Mormon article is to start out by saying, “Mormons are seemingly such God-fearing, righteous, family-oriented people.” But then it will say, “But don’t let that fool you. It’s all a crafty facade; a diabolical ruse.” “Look at all these strange and mystical doctrines that they believe in, they are occult, they are not based on the teachings of the Bible.” They then go on to say, “no Mormons follow the Bible because if they ever did they would never be Mormon.” The whole point of the article, obviously, is to discourage the reader from further investigation on of the church.

In response to this article, I reminded my friend what the aim of the article was discouragement. I answered all of his questions from the Bible. I didn’t change the subject or ignore any his concerns. And I encouraged him to continue to learn about the true foundation doctrines of the Church from the missionaries, by attending church, and by reading the scriptures. The Bible teaches, “if any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it is of God, or I speak of myself.”

I have encouraged my friend that after he has searched the scriptures, and studied it out in his mind. That he would ask God the Eternal Father in the name of Christ if the LDS Church is true, if the Book of Mormon is scripture like the Bible, and if Joseph Smith was a true prophet. The Bible warns us to not “trust in the arm of flesh” but “if any seek wisdom, let him ask of God.”

I am concerned that such anti-Mormon literature would discourage my friend and others from praying and asking God if these things are true. The Book of Mormon states, “For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray. But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint” (2Ne 32:8).

Also, remember that the Bible teaches that “false prophets” would arise in the last days but, “by their fruits, ye shall know them.” I think it a great compliment that most anti-Mormon literature always begins by extolling Mormon faith, righteousness, and family values. Sounds like the wonderful fruit of Christian gospel living to me.


RoastedTomatoes said...

I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you responded to the anti-Mormon literature in question. It seems reasonable to me to encourage people -- as you did -- to focus on modern, 20th-century Mormon doctrines, definitions, and emphases, and to disregard the abandoned, troubling doctrines of the past.

That said, the Adam-God theory wasn't an esoteric theme taught in one or two places during Brigham Young's years. Rather, if you read his sermons and those of George Albert Smith at the time, the idea comes up over and over again. Historical evidence also suggests that it was at least sometimes taught explicitly during the temple endowment ceremony. Blood atonement was an idea with even deeper roots in 19th-century Mormonism.

Becoming Mormon does mean finding a way to address these facts. Either we have to define the prophetic role in a way that accomodates teaching doctrines most of us consider to be clearly wrong, or we have to adjust our worldviews in such a way as to allow blood atonement and the Adam-God doctrine to become part of our belief systems. The second option is further complicated by the fact that 20th-century leaders have been vigorous and explicit in their opposition to these doctrines.

It's possibly worth noting that there is historical evidence in favor of the proposition that what you define as the core doctrines of Mormonism have also changed since the beginnings of Mormonism. In particular, the earliest Mormon concept of God seems to have been more modalist -- i.e., seeing God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as different roles of a single person -- than the present position. The "Lectures on Faith," which you mention, are a second major stage in which Mormon theology becomes bitheist; God and Jesus are separate individuals, but the Holy Ghost is merely a kind of force emanating from them. Modern Mormon theology, with its tritheistic emphasis on God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as separate beings, seems to be most connected with the Nauvoo period and the rise of henotheism (belief in a multiplicity of Gods, only one of which is to be worshiped) in Mormon thought. On these last points, see the book Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine.

My point in all of this is that your friend's exposure to anti-Mormon literature has usefully raised some of the themes that all of us eventually have to address as we become Mormon. Some people can't manage it; they can't find ways of squaring the idea of revelation with the Mormon reality of doctrinal change over time. Whether it's best for people like that to discover that they don't want to be Mormon before or after they're baptised is a question I don't know how to answer. But other people can work through the complexity, and doing it early will prevent them from having that nasty feeling of having been tricked when they discover the historical realities of Mormon doctrinal development later on.

BRoz said...

Thank you for your comment. Even though there exists a half-dozen or so accounts of these doctrines being taught by Brigham Young, that does not make them mainstream doctrines when compared to the tens of thousands of other sermons and talks by Brigham Young, church prophets and apostles before and since. Also, Joseph Smith never taught it.

Mormon doctrine does not include infalibility of the prophet. We clearly see how Joseph Smith and many other prophets like Moses grew into their callings and as you mentioned we see how Joseph Smith's understanding of the Gospel evolved. No man gains a perfect knowledge of Eternity in a moment but line upon line and precept upon precept.

Also, despite a prophets falibility, (Adam eating the fruit, Moses striking the rock twice, David numbering the people, Peter denying Christ) the Bible does warn us "Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people" (Acts 23:3) and to not "steady the ark" (2 Sam. 6:6) (1Chr 13:9-10) (D&C 85:8).

Also, Brigham Young and all church prophets have never asked members to blindly follow their councils but rather to pray about them and gain a personal witness for ourselves.

Lastly, we should remember that this whole doctrine is Biblically based on Daniel 7:13-14.

RoastedTomatoes said...

BRoz, Brigham Young actually never taught any other doctrine of deity. He taught Adam-God more than a dozen times, and other Mormons gave many hundreds of speeches and sermons borrowing from his discourses. Furthermore, Brigham and others repeatedly claimed that Joseph Smith taught the Adam-God doctrine in private on at least one occasion. But -- even if he didn't -- why does it matter? The point is that we have to have a concept of prophetic revelation that accomodates the possibility that prophets might believe they have had revelation on subjects such as this. Such a concept doesn't require us to speak evil of church leaders or attempt to take over church programs -- the meaning of the two scriptural passages you quote. It just requires us to develop our own standards for deciding how seriously to take any given doctrinal claim.

Historically, you're on somewhat shaky ground when you claim that Brigham never asked people to blindly follow his doctrines. The most relevant case in point is the epic conflict between Brigham Young and Orson Pratt over the Adam-God doctrine. Pratt was, in the end, nearly disfellowshiped because he couldn't get personal revelation confirming the Adam-God doctrine.

The point in all of this is that each of us has to find our way through this material, acknowledging that what Brigham taught as truth others of our prophets have denounced as heresy. I'm not sure it's that much worse to discover this stuff and find out whether you can handle it or not during the investigator phase of Mormon existence than at some other point. At least your friend seems to have found the kind of anti-Mormon literature that uses true claims about the past to attack us; who even knows how to respond to the crazy, supernatural stuff that says the temple incorporates Satanic architectural themes or whatever?