The Mutt’s Nuts

Where religion is about as attractive as a two week holiday in Afghanistan

Fallen hero

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200px-joseph_smith_jr_1843_photograph.jpgAs a Mormon, the church’s early mythology was an important element in my initial acceptance of, and continuing loyalty to, the church. It cemented my sense of being part of a living, growing movement, one with heroism and pathos in its past, divine power and approval in its present and glory in its future.

The “official” history of Mormonism involves the selective retelling of the life of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and of the early church that he created. It’s the story of a poor, ill-educated farm boy who has a spiritual epiphany, receives a long-hidden book of significant religious and historical importance, is visited by God and by angels, restores the true church and priesthood of Jesus Christ which had been lost for centuries, withstands serious persecution, triumphs in the face of adversity, becomes an inspirational leader of his people, founds a city, commands an army, and is finally martyred for the cause of the gospel. Along the way, Smith is portrayed as an heroic character, a man’s man, strong, handsome, honest, loyal, brave, a loving husband and father. He is permitted a few minor flaws which do nothing to diminish the picture of his overall character – allowing himself to be taken advantage of by others because of his trusting nature or becoming overly-competitive in games of strength with his friends.

This is a figure that church members can be proud of and inspired by – someone who overcame the disadvantages of his situation in a spectacular way, a role model for the ideal patriarch and leader. Down-to-earth, yet blessed with extraordinary spiritual gifts of prophecy, revelation and seership. A character to aspire to, yet a personage to stand in awe of at the same time. In common with the mythologies of other religious founders, Smith is painted as larger-than-life, yet comfortably accessible too.

It’s not surprising that Smith plays such a central role in church history. His influence on the fledgling church and its continued progress since his demise at the relatively young age of 38, is immense and, indeed, provides the foundation for all of the most significant doctrines and activities of the church today. Everything that I believed and held sacred as a Mormon originated in the ideas of this one charismatic figure.

Because Smith’s life and teachings provide the backdrop to the church’s most sacred beliefs, they have necessarily been airbrushed by the religion’s leaders to provide an appropriately spiritual canvas upon which to build faith and testimony in both converts and long-time church members. As Mormon Apostle Boyd K Packer once famously commented: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not … Some things that are true are not very useful” (The Mantle is Far Far Greater Than The Intellect). In other words, prevarication in the presentation of church history is sometimes essential to maintain the faith of its members. If the truth does not promote faith, then church members need protecting from it.

This approach has proved very fruitful, as once the “approved” version of Mormonism’s early mythology is ingrained into its membership, it’s difficult to dislodge. For a start, the leaders of the faith do all in their power to ensure that the “official” history is widely taught, while seeking to dissuade members from accessing a more accurate, and potentially uncomfortable version. They often dismiss more accurate histories as “intellectual” rather than spiritual, as though using the intellect to assess and report historical events is shameful and unprofessional. Basically, they insist that maintaining a faith-promoting mythology is essential, even if the censorship of truth is required to achieve it. Often they do their job so effectively that most faithful members are unwilling to accept a more sceptical view of their church’s origins, no matter how much evidence there is for its veracity.

As I had only ever known the church-sanctioned version of Mormon history, realising that there was more to the stories of Smith and his exploits than I had suspected came as a nasty shock. Revering the man as God’s chosen vessel through which to restore his true church and priesthood certainly elevated my expectations of his behaviour above the ordinary. Of course I was aware that he had flaws, but I assumed that the uniqueness and responsibility of his calling required a certain level of integrity and honour. I had bought into the faith-promoting mythology so thoroughly that I was totally unprepared to discover the more unsavoury aspects of Smith’s character and actions.

It was his attitude towards women, and more especially his wife Emma, that first shook the foundations of my testimony regarding Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. I read a couple of books on one of his most controversial doctrines – plural marriage. One book in particular – Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard van Wagoner – detailed how Smith went behind his wife’s back numerous times to “marry” other girls and women. In one particularly poignant incident Emma, as president of the newly formed Relief Society (the organisation for women of the church), gave an address designed to quash the rumours that she believed to be wholly false regarding the institution and practice of polygamy within the church, while embarrassingly unaware that her two counsellors and her secretary were all secretly “married” to her own husband. Other stories of Smith propositioning the wives of his friends who had been sent away on missions at his direction, and reacting with venom towards the women who rejected him, cast serious doubt in my mind as to the likelihood that God would choose such a man to restore his true gospel to the earth in preparation for the eventual return of Jesus Christ, as I had always been taught.

No mention is made in “official” church history of Smith’s infidelity and deceitfulness, nor the way he used his position of authority to coerce married women into acquiescing to his demands that they enter into a polygamous relationship with him behind their husbands’ backs. Nor are members told about the malicious way in which he publicly destroyed the reputations of the women who refused his overtures. I’m sure these incidents would come under Boyd K Packer’s category of that which is true but not very useful in promoting faith.

Learning of these and other distasteful but verified and documented aspects of church history made me realise just how much my testimony had relied on the truthfulness of what I had been taught about the church’s beginnings and Smith’s career as an instrument of the Lord. I found it very hard to reconcile what I was now discovering with what I had always believed. Realising that the “faithful history” could not be trusted to give an accurate picture of what really happened, I was left with a dilemma. Did my new and growing knowledge of Smith’s character and actions mean that he may not have been a prophet of God after all?

But in my heart of hearts I already knew the answer. After 27 years of indoctrination, the church had done a wonderful job of convincing me to listen to my feelings, to treat my gut instinct as a communication from the Holy Spirit. My distaste for some of Smith’s more obnoxious activities felt too much like a confirmation that he wasn’t the man I had always believed him to be. With Joseph Smith gone, there was nothing left to support my belief in the uniqueness of the church. My hero had fallen – and taken my testimony with him.

Isla

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Written by islaskye

March 21, 2008 at 6:49 pm

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