Thursday, June 27, 2019

June 27


            The centrality of the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith to my faith should require no explanation. There are some people who complain that Mormons focus too much on Joseph Smith rather than on the Lord, but I disagree. If Joseph was not a messenger of Jesus, there is no purpose in following any branch of Mormonism. But if he was, then he deserves our respect and reverence.

The centrality of the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith to my faith should require no explanation. There are some people who complain that Mormons focus too much on Joseph Smith rather than on the Lord, but I disagree. If Joseph was not a messenger of Jesus, there is no purpose in following any branch of Mormonism. But if he was, then he deserves our respect and reverence.

During his ministry, Jesus made it clear that he held the prophets who testified of him, and especially those who paid for their testimony with their blood, in the highest regard. It has been my belief for a while now that the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph – of which today is the 175th anniversary – is not given enough weight among present-day Mormons.

Part of the problem is simply that the whole of modern society has forgotten how to mourn. That is why we are more likely to see commemorations of Joseph Smith on his birthday on 23 December, even though it has always been Christian tradition to celebrate the saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom. And this is, I think, related to the reason why modern America has no holidays dedicated to fasting and mourning: even the ones like Memorial Day that originally had a somber tone are now just another excuse to take the day off of work, shop, and eat.

But I think that another part of it is that modern Mormons, used to living in the days of smooth transitions from one aged church president to the next, have forgotten how much of a shock the death of the Prophet Joseph was to the early saints, who had no expectation that revelation would continue without him - see, for example, this epistle from the Twelve Apostles, published in Times and Seasons on 15 Aug 1844.

“Forasmuch as the saints have been called to suffer deep affliction and persecution, and also to mourn the loss of our Prophet and also our patriarch, who have suffered a cruel martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus... You are now without a prophet present with you in the flesh to guide you; but you are not without apostles, who hold the keys of power...

“Let no man presume for a moment that his place will be filled by another; for, remember he stands in his own place, and always will; and the twelve apostles of this dispensation stand in their own place and always will, both in time and in eternity, to minister, preside and regulate the affairs of the whole church.”

The Twelve were trying their best to reassure the Saints that the work could go on without Joseph, but even so, none of them yet claimed to be actually be a prophet like Joseph was.

If, for some reason, the LDS church had a fixed lectionary like the Catholics and Anglicans do, and if, for some reason, I was in charge of choosing the reading for 27 June, I think I would go with the 3rd chapter of Lamentations, the one that begins:

“I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

“He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.

“Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day. ...


Friday, June 7, 2019

Christianity – A Religion of Guilt

            One of the problems with the spiritual condition of the modern world is that so many people are seeking guilt-free forms of spirituality, both within and outside of Christian churches. Those who have abandoned traditional denominations often talk of how happy they are to have left their feelings of guilt behind – and in response, some people try to defend Christianity by burying the role of guilt in the Lord’s gospel. But such a quest is futile: Christianity, when practiced correctly, is a religion of guilt.

            The scripture says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” It is natural for someone who discovers that he has harmed his fellow man, or neglected his duties, or defiled something pure, to feel an awful sense of guilt when he realizes what he has done.

We all do such things from time to time, and only a blockheaded fool can fail to see the ill effects that his shortcomings have in his own life and the lives of others.

In light of this, no Christian can claim to be truly righteous. We can at best claim to be Godfearing – that is, when we realize we have made a mistake, we repent and change course. But we do not see our errors as soon as we ought, and we don’t change course as fully as we ought, so we aren’t really righteous.

Christians are not unique among religions for believing in the concepts of sin and repentance. Muslims, too, believe that men have been called to repentance, beginning with Adam, who obtained forgiveness for eating the forbidden fruit. The process is fairly straightforward: a man regrets his wrongdoing, repents, and changes his ways, and God forgives him.

But that paradigm is too straightforward for Christians, who insist on adding another step, in which God must send his only Son to suffer and die for their sins. In other words, a Christian feels his guilt so intensely that it isn’t enough for God merely to say that the sin has been forgiven. No, the only way that sin is going away is for God himself to come to Earth and SUFFER.

The concept of the atonement is difficult to understand for unbelievers, who are often baffled at the idea of a God who is willing to forgive sins if and only if an innocent man is punished in the sinner’s place. But I do not think that is quite how it works – rather, I believe that Jesus had to suffer in order to gain the power to forgive sins. A being who has never suffered cannot grant meaningful forgiveness, and it is only by suffering the consequences of human viciousness in the way he did that the Saviour is able to forgive our acts of viciousness.

Just as Christians, in general, are united by an acute feeling of guilt for their shortcomings and a desire for forgiveness, progress in the Christian faith often consists of a man becoming increasingly aware of his guilt.

When I was young, I hadn’t quite internalized the concept that I was a sinner, and thought of myself as a righteous person because I didn’t commit the kinds of sins that the Bishop wanted to hear about – drinking, fornication, etc. But as I got older, I realized the severity of the sins I had committed, such as idleness, pride, and neglect of friends and family, to the degree that I more and more often found myself wallowing in guilt.

I was beginning to understand Christ’s rebuke to the Laodiciean Church: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”

Obviously, it isn’t right to spend all, or even most of our time wallowing in guilt. The Protestant Work Ethic requires us to be up and doing. Alma the Younger worked very hard to preach repentance and build up the Church after coming to terms with his guilt as a young man. On the other hand, Nephi, one of the workingest men in the scriptures, penned the following:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord
In showing me his great and marvelous works
My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am!
Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations
And the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice
My heart groaneth because of my sins…

To the outside observer, it seems that whatever sins Nephi committed were trivial compared to what Laman and Lemuel had done. But they weren’t trivial to Nephi. Both Nephi and his brothers had reason to feel guilt, but only Nephi felt the need to sing about it – because Nephi was a better Christian than his brothers.

            Guilt is also responsible for building Christian civilization.

         Most of the societies that have ever existed on earth are what sociologists call “shame societies.” People do what they’re supposed to because to be seen doing otherwise will bring shame on themselves and their families. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and most reformers who say they want to do away with shame are in reality only interested in destigmatizing sex sins; for example, very few people would argue that stealing should have no negative social consequences.

            But a guilt society is better than a shame society, because even though shame and fear are still necessary to control the amoral segment of the population that doesn’t feel guilt, most people, having a functioning conscience, will do the right thing even when no one is looking.

            One effect of this is in sexual equality. In a shame society, women are expected to be chaste, but men generally aren’t; this is because men have always had a much easier time hiding their infidelities, and they aren’t at risk of getting pregnant. But in a guilt society, chastity is valued in both men and women.

             Nowadays, as American civilization has dechristianized itself and abandoned both guilt and shame, we can expect its future to hold only a brutal collapse.

            In the meantime, those of us who can still feel guilt will have to make a choice. Either suppress those feelings, become an amoral being, and join the enemy – or else acknowledge our guilt and, in consequence, commit to living the rest of our lives in a radically different way, as Saint Paul did.

            When Paul saw Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, and realized how wrong he had been to persecute the Christians and consent to the martyrdom of Saint Steven, he didn’t fight the feeling of guilt and seek refuge in cheap grace – instead, he repented, and spent the rest of his life bringing forth fruits meet for repentance, in the hope that Christ would one day say to him, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

            All of Paul’s travels, and preaching, and his writings, and his sufferings for the faith, and his eventual martyrdom would not bring Saint Steven back from the dead. But they could make it so that, after Paul’s own death, he and Steven could embrace in the Celestial City with no ill will between them – only gratitude that Paul had done so much to keep and spread the faith for which Steven had lost his life.

And that is the joy that springs from the Gospel of Guilt.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Public Feast


            Some three weeks ago, the First Presidency announced a policy change – members of the church who married civilly would no longer need to wait a year before being sealed in a temple. This had been the rule already in most countries (where the authorities do not tolerate secret weddings) but not in the United States. Indeed, church magazines had often run articles praising American couples for the great sacrifice they made by marrying in the temple, even to the exclusion of their non-member relatives.

            Then came the current press release, which features a church spokeswoman from Spain talking about what a blessing it was to be able to marry in the presence of her non-member family and friends and be sealed later that day, and how glad she is that everyone will now be able to enjoy that blessing.

            This has led a lot of Latter-day Saints to question whether the “sacrifice” that they were previously asked to make was really necessary at all. Some simply chalk it up to God requiring different sacrifices of different people at different times, while others refuse to acknowledge that any good at all came from a practice which alienated so many people from the church by excluding them from their children’s weddings.

            Getting to the bottom of the matter requires us to look at what the Prophet Joseph Smith had to say about weddings. The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835, had a section (no. 101 at the time) which set forth the Church’s beliefs about marriage. Joseph didn’t write this (the assignment had gone to Oliver Cowdery) but he preached out of it during the Nauvoo years and reaffirmed that it was the only law of marriage recognized in the Church. The relevant passage reads:

According to the custom of all civilized nations, marriage is regulated by laws and ceremonies. Therefore, we believe that all marriages in this Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints should be solemnized in a public meeting or feast prepared for that purpose, and that the solemnization should be performed by a presiding high priest, high priest, bishop, elder, or priest-not even prohibiting those persons who are desirous to get married of being married by other authority.

This section is no longer a part of the Doctrine and Covenants; Brigham Young removed it during his presidency, on account of the trouble that another passage was causing for him, namely, the part that reads:

Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.

Even after polygamy was done away with, secret weddings remained a part of the program, although they were not the norm until the mid-twentieth century, when temples became more widespread and it was easier to get married and sealed at the same time.

Then, the church began penalizing couples who chose to solemnize their marriage “in a public meeting or feast prepared for that purpose.”

No doubt many thousands of people have been left with a bad impression of Mormonism as the religion which made them sit out of their son or daughter’s wedding. And those who have chosen to remain aloof from the gospel for this reason might be reasonably condemned for their hard-heartedness, if the requirement that their child marry in secret had come from God.

But as it turns out, the practice which seems repugnant to these fathers and mothers is one that was rejected by the Prophet Joseph. These people cannot be condemned for rejecting that which Joseph also rejected; therefore, the guilt for their alienation from Mormonism must lay elsewhere.

It was a good move for the leaders of the church to stop penalizing Mormons who choose to marry in public as was required in Joseph’s day. It would be a better move to restore the original law of marriage and to stop permitting secret weddings entirely.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Plainest Book Ever Written


            In 1843, the Prophet Joseph made a remark that probably came across as somewhat strange, when he declared that “the book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.”

            As on so many other matters, what Joseph Smith said does not match the prevailing opinion, either in the wider world, or within modern Mormonism. In my experience, most Latter-day Saints, like Christians in general, shy away from the Apocalypse of John, confessing that it is too hard for them to understand. The book is seldom read or studied.

If confronted with Joseph’s statement, these Mormons might say that, even though Revelation is a very difficult book, Joseph was able to understand it because he was a prophet.

Except that Joseph Smith didn’t say that Revelation was a confusing book which he himself, on account of his unusual spiritual enlightenment, was able to make sense of. He said that it was one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.

I happen to believe Joseph Smith on this point.

The first time I read Revelation was when I was eight or nine years old. I had received my own Bible at the time of my baptism, after which I slowly worked my way through Genesis. I wasn’t very good at understanding what I read – I could follow the creation and flood narratives, but KJV dialogue is a bit tough when you think that ‘nay’ is nothing more than the sound a horse makes, and circumcision went completely over my head. After finishing Genesis, I became impatient and wanted to see the end of the story – so the next thing I read was Revelation.

As with Genesis, I didn’t really follow most of it. But I remembered the otherworldly throne-room scenes with many-eyed beasts singing praises to God; I remembered the end of the world, with the wicked being destroyed by ghastly and unbeatable plagues, and I remembered how, even in the midst of these plagues, the survivors “yet repented not of the works of their hands.”

That last notion scared me – I was afraid that, if these events happened in my lifetime, then even though I would know the end was near, I would be incapable of repenting.

And all these years later, I still believe that what I got out of the book as a nine-year-old was the plain and simply truth. God is enthroned in the heavens, surrounded by glory that doesn’t make sense to man. Sooner or later, the world will end amid splendiferous calamities.

And throughout all this, the wicked would refuse to repent, although I no longer see this last point as a matter of spellbound men who can’t repent even though they desperately want to, but of men who, through long experience rejecting their God, have lost the ability to desire anything better.

I have read the book of Revelation many more times since then, each time understanding a little more of it. And I still believe that it is the plainest book in the Bible.

But what about all those beasts? You might ask. And the signs of the end times? Which of the catastrophes are occurring in the world today? Which have yet to come?

Except that I haven’t tried to answer those questions. Matching up the seals and plagues to the current news cycle is usually done by the same sort of people who predict the world will end in their own lifetime. Every generation of Christians has had people who thought like this, and so far, they’ve all been wrong – which shouldn’t surprise any of us, since Jesus told us that we don’t get to know the timing of the his return.

And the same sort of Christians that go about tying the seven last plagues to events they saw on the nightly news will also pile on evidence that the beasts are representations of their favorite political enemies. This science seems to have been perfected by the late Robert W. Faid, a nuclear engineer from South Carolina who won the Ignoble Prize in Mathematics for publishing a book in which he calculated the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1) that Mikhail Gorbechev is the Antichrist.

I would argue that the descriptions of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet which John provides are a bit too vague to support such firm conclusions.

What we do know is that the Beast will persecute Christians, and many will suffer martyrdom for not worshipping him. So we can either look at all the centuries of Christians who have endured such things and say, ‘you were persecuted by ordinary enemies, but in my time, we will be persecuted by the Beast of Revelation himself,’ or else we can conclude that the Beast is a symbol of all earthly powers that war against the Saints, and that one generation of Christians has as good a claim at being up against the Beast as the next.

These things are symbols to be understood, not codes to be deciphered. The message of Revelation is aimed at Christian men, women, and children throughout the centuries whose hearts are pointed toward God; it was not written for the benefit of a handful of mathematicians.

And what of the number of the beast, six hundred and threescore and six? Well, on my second reading of Revelation (I didn’t know what a ‘score’ was the first time around) I simply understood it to mean that 666 is a symbol of the Devil and ought to be avoided.

I suppose that at some point in the future, some tyrant will demand that his subjects be branded with the number 666, and a few of them will refuse and lose their lives over it. Also, at the present time there are thousands of milquetoast American Christians driving around with that number on the backs of their cars, even though there is still enough religious freedom left in this country that they could easily go to the DMV and demand new license plates.

But leaving aside the favorite topics of debate, I will say that every time I study Revelation I see more plain and precious truths. I can’t go over them all in a single blog post, but I’ll talk about a few.

One thing I remember is how, when the Two Prophets are slain in Jerusalem, the wicked celebrate by giving gifts to one other. The idea of present-giving to celebrate a death seemed very bizarre to me at the time; then Margaret Thatcher died, and it was in the news that a lot of Brits who had hated her were taking advantage of the occasion to give presents to each other. Not exactly a fulfillment of prophecy, but it does show the level of depravity to which our world has sunk.

When Babylon the Great falls, and the plumes of her smoke are seen from afar off on the oceans, there will be a lot of mourning for her. But it isn’t lamentation on account of all the death and human misery that such an event entails; it is, rather, a pathetic spectacle wherein “the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.”

Nearly half of Chapter 18, which describes Babylon’s fall, is about the merchants and all their fine goods that Babylon will no longer purchase. The whole mood fits in quite well with modern American politics, where the magnitude of human death inflicted through abortion and undeclared wars takes second place to the ups and downs of the stock market as the driver of national emotion.

And then there is my favorite Bible verse, Revelation 3:17, part of Christ’s rebuke to the lukewarm Church at Laodicea: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”

Why would I choose that as my favorite verse? Because I have experience with thinking that my conduct is pleasing to God, and then realizing that I am wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

What I have time to write here only scratches the surface of my insights from studying Revelation – and I won’t even go into some of the connections I made when I began looking at the text in the original Greek. Suffice it to say that there is a lot to be learned from what John wrote, and like any book of scripture, you will get more out of it the more you study it.

But you don’t need to worry that studying Revelation will be too difficult. The Prophet Joseph said that it is plain, and easy to understand. And even when I was a small child, I grasped the basic message of the book: The wicked have no hope of victory, and although the faithful Saints will suffer great tribulations, in the end, Jesus wins.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Joseph's Letter to the Relief Society


In my studies of the history of Joseph Smith and the religion he restored, I will from time to time come across source documents important enough that I feel I ought to reproduce them here. This particular letter is addressed to Emma and the Relief Society, dated 31 March 1842.  You can read the original in the Joseph Smith Papers here; my version has had the strike-throughs cleared out, a few words de-abbreviated, and the spelling and grammar modernized.

The letter does not mention polygamy by name, due to the stronger taboos which prevailed in those days against calling licentious things by name in public. Nonetheless, when the Prophet declared that "we don’t want anybody to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals and virtues and scriptural laws regulating the habits customs and conduct of Society," everyone knew what was meant.  

To the President of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Greeting:

Can the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo be trusted with some important matters that ought actually to belong to them to see to which men have been under the necessity of seeing to their chagrin and mortification in order to prevent iniquitous characters from carrying their iniquity into effect? Such as, for instance, a man who may be aspiring after power and authority and yet without principle, regardless of God, man or the Devil, or the interest or welfare of men, or the virtue or innocence of women? Shall the credulity, good faith, and steadfast feelings of our Sisters for the cause of God or truth be imposed upon by believing such men because they say they have authority from Joseph or the first Presidency, or any other Presidency of the church, and thus with a lie in their mouth deceive and debauch the innocent under the assumption that they are authorized from these sources?! May God forbid!

A knowledge of some such thing having come to our ears we improve this favorable opportunity, wherein so goodly number of you may be informed that no such authority ever has, ever can, or ever will be given to any man, and if any man has been guilty of any such thing, let him be treated with utter contempt, and let the curse of God fall on his head, and let him be turned out of Society as unworthy of a place among men, and denounced as the blackest and the most unprincipled wretch, and finally let him be damned.

We have been informed that some unprincipled men, whose names we will not mention at present, have been guilty of such crimes: we do not mention their names, not knowing but what there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skilled in Masonry as to keep a secret; therefore suffice it to say there are those, and we therefore warn you and forewarn you in the name of the Lord to check and destroy any faith that any innocent person may have in any such character, for we don’t want anybody to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals and virtues and scriptural laws regulating the habits customs and conduct of Society, unless it be by message delivered to you by our own mouth, by actual revelation and commandment.

And all persons pretending to be authorized by us, or having any permit or sanction from us, are and will be liars and base impostors and you are authorized on the very first intimation of the kind to denounce them as such shun them as the fiery flying serpents, whether they are Prophets, Seers, or Revelators, Patriarchs, Twelve Apostles, Elders, Priests, Mayors, Generals, City Council, Alderman, Marshall, Police, Lord Mayor or the Devil, are alike culpable. and shall be damned for such evil practices; and if you yourselves adhere to any thing of the kind, you also shall be damned.

Now beloved Sisters, do not believe for a moment that we wish to impose upon you; we actually do know that such things have existed in the church, and are sorry that we are obliged to make mention of any such thing, and we want a stop put to them. And we want you to do your part, and we will do ours, for we wish to keep the commandments of God in all things as given directly from heaven to us, living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.

May God add his blessings upon your head and lead you in all the paths of virtue, piety, and peace, that you may be an ornament unto those to whom you belong, and arise up and crown them with power and by so doing you shall be crowned with honor in heaven & shall sit upon thrones, judging them whom you are placed in authority  over in the world, and shall be judged of God for all the responsibilities that are conferred upon you.

At a more convenient and appropriate season we will give you further information upon this subject.

We are your humble servants in the bonds of the New and Everlasting Covenant. Let that epistle be had as a private matter in your society, and then we shall learn whether you are good Masons.

Joseph Smith, P. C. J. C. L.
B. Young, Prest. Twelve

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Believing Joseph


I am writing this blog because I believe that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a messenger of Christ and an honest man. That is to say, I believe that Joseph told the truth about the First Vision, the Golden Plates, the Ministering of Angels, the Kingdoms of Glory, and about not being a polygamist.

But people who hold these beliefs are rare. Even among those who consider themselves Joseph’s followers, very few are willing to take him at his word about all of these things, especially polygamy. But in the end, taking the Prophet at his word is the only way to remain true to the faith that he restored.

I have learned that it is impossible to believe that Joseph was a prophet of the Lord if one also believes all the ill that has been spoken of him. You must decide who deserves your credibility – Joseph, or the men who called him a liar.

This is only my first post, so I don’t have time to discuss all the evidence for and against Joseph’s integrity, though in the future I will of course go into the details regarding Emma Smith and Eliza Snow, John C. Bennett and Brigham Young, Richard and Pamela Price, Ugo Perego, and so forth.

For now, suffice it to say that I was raised Brighamite and didn’t question the polygamy narrative until I was twenty years old. Then, as I went about my study of church history, I found more and more of Joseph’s clear denials that he had any wife but Emma. And I was alarmed by these obvious lies – for such they were, from the perspective of someone who took it for granted that the Prophet had married dozens of women.

But my firm belief in the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s prophetic call would not allow me to let go of my faith, as so many others had done at this point. So I just held on tightly as I delved ever more furiously into the contradictions and controversies of our history… and eventually found out just how deep the rabbit hole really goes.

And I ended up believing that Joseph Smith told the truth – about everything. And I’ve created this blog to share my belief.

June 27

             The centrality of the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith to my faith should require no explanation. There are some...