The Mutt’s Nuts

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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

Mormon Church (almost) bows to science

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A recent Associated Press article is among several to report that the latest edition of the Book of Mormon has a new word inserted in its introduction. So what? Why would one little word be considered controversial enough to merit its own news article? Although the introduction is not considered scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the actual Book of Mormon definitely is. Because the introduction describes the Church’s stance towards the book itself, even a subtle change to its content can be an indicator of how the book is viewed by church leaders.

The Book of Mormon was described by the church’s founder Joseph Smith (revered by church members as not just a prophet but the Prophet) as “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion” (History of the Church 4:461).

From its publication it has been accepted by Latter-day Saints as an historical record of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas from 600 BC to 400 AD. One of its main assertions is that the Israelites are the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. It begins with the story of Lehi, a Jewish man, and his family fleeing Jerusalem at the time of the reign of King Zedekiah and being guided by God to “a land of promise” – the American continent. This family forms the basis of two groups of people, named after Lehi’s sons, and known throughout the book as Nephites and Lamanites. The Lamanites, being disobedient to God, were cursed with a darker skin, to distinguish themselves from their more righteous brethren, the Nephites. These dark-skinned people, the Church has always taught, are the progenitors of today’s Native Americans. The Book of Mormon goes on to record that many of the Lamanites eventually repented and began to lose their dark skin tone. It concludes with a huge battle between the two groups, with the Lamanites emerging victorious and the Nephites being completely destroyed.

As a young woman I served a mission to the native peoples of North America and one of our main – and most successful – missionary tactics was to tell them that the Book of Mormon contained a history of their ancestors. It was something that I had always been taught from my conversion to the church and, as a faithful member and enthusiastic missionary, I was only too happy to impart this good news to the people I believed to be the descendants of the “Lamanites”. I loved the people that I worked among and considered them to be particularly special because of their Book of Mormon ancestry.

A few years ago a controversy arose when scientists discovered that Native American DNA markers suggested that they originated from central Asia, not the Middle East as posited in the Book of Mormon. Although church leaders have never officially acknowledged that genetic evidence contradicts the Book of Mormon’s assertions about the ancestry of today’s Native Americans, some people believe that the small insertion into the book’s introduction indicates a tacit acknowledgement of those DNA findings.

The old introduction, which claimed:

After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians

has been amended thus:

After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians

With the use of the word “among”, church leaders have subtly changed the church’s stance on Native American ancestry. Leaders throughout the history of the church have commonly used the word “Lamanites” to denote American Indians. According to noted Mormon sociologist and historian Armand L. Mauss:

Since the very founding of the church in 1830, Mormons had believed that North American Indians were Lamanites, described by the Book of Mormon as literal Israelites, the seed of Abraham, who would flock to the church as lost sheep responding to the voice of the true Shepherd of Israel and would actually take the initiative in building a New Jerusalem on the American continent. (Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage, University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 115)

This was certainly the understanding of church members and leaders when I joined the church in 1974 and remained unchanged during my 27 years as an active member. As an example, here are quotes from Spencer Kimball, the President when I was baptised into the church, and Gordon B Hinckley, the President when I left:

President Spencer W. Kimball:

The term Lamanite includes all Indians and Indian mixtures, such as the Polynesians, the Guatemalans, the Peruvians, as well as the Sioux, the Apache, the Mohawk, the Navajo, and others. It is a large group of great people. (“Of Royal Blood,” Ensign, July 1971, p. 7)

President Gordon B. Hinckley:

President Hinckley next visited Lima, Peru, where he met with missionaries and held two conferences attended by a total of 28,000 Latter-day Saints. …President Hinckley recognized the Book of Mormon heritage of his listeners in Lima: “As I look into your faces, I think of Father Lehi, whose sons and daughters you are. I think he must be shedding tears today, tears of love and gratitude. … This is but the beginning of the work in Peru. This work of the Almighty will go on and grow and grow.” (“God’s Holy Work” in Peru, in “News of the Church,” Ensign, Feb. 1997, 73).

Early revelations, supposedly from God, to Joseph Smith also used the words “Lamanites” and “Indians” interchangeably (see D&C 28:2 and 32:3). In an extract from Joseph Smith’s History, contained in another Book of Mormon scripture called the Pearl of Great Price, the Mormon Prophet speaks of a visit from an angel called Moroni who was one of the last writers in the Book of Mormon. Joseph records his interview with this personage in these words:

He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered the the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith – History of the Church 1:34).

Joseph Smith, the Prophet taught that the Book of Mormon spoke of the “former inhabitants” of the American continent. The Book of Mormon describes the “former inhabitants” as originating in Jerusalem. Some of those “former inhabitants” became known in the book as Lamanites. Joseph Smith and subsequent church leaders referred to modern Native Americans as Lamanites. It is clear that the original teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the principal ancestors of Native American Indians originated in the Middle East.

Strangely, it is only since DNA evidence was shown to contradict this assertion, that Mormon apologists and, lately, Mormon leaders, have decided that Israelites are only one of a number of potential progenitors for today’s Native Americans. They are back-pedalling on a doctrine that has been universally accepted since the church’s inception. Although the word “among” still allows for the Lamanites to be a part of the Indians’ DNA mix, it has also introduced the idea that they may be comfortably thought of as not necessarily being responsible for the majority of Indians’ genetic make-up.

To me, this smacks of equivocation on behalf of the church and is the kind of thing that drove me away from the religion in the first place. I believed that I was a member of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), yet little by little, over its history, the church had made changes to original revelations and doctrines that undermined – in my eyes – its claim to be divinely appointed. This latest alteration, subtle as it might be, is yet another example of the church’s concession to prevailing science and culture at the expense of its historical roots. To me this is a cop-out, made all the more duplicitous by its insistence that the church is God-inspired. If God was content for his church to understand for nearly 180 years that the Book of Mormon peoples called Lamanites were the primary ancestors of Native Americans, why would he now approve this shift in thinking which describes them as only one of a group of potential progenitors? It may seem a small thing, and probably wouldn’t bother the majority of Latter-day Saints, but the principle of altering doctrine for the sake of expediency was the main reason for my loss of faith in the Mormon church and the fact that it is still happening only confirms the rightness of my decision to abandon Mormonism all together.

IslaSkye

Written by islaskye

January 13, 2008 at 1:33 pm