Special Problems for Mormons
As Christians who put a messianic belief in Jesus Christ as the central doctrine of their faith, adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as “Mormons” from their belief in the Book of Mormon as the scriptural Word of God in addition to the Bible, share many of the same problems of theology as other Christians.
While most of the points made earlier are targeted to more traditional mainstream and evangelical Christians, and some details may not apply to specific variations in Mormon beliefs, most of the concepts do apply to some extent to Mormon theology.
For example, while Mormons do allow some wiggle room on accepting inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” and thus can get around some details in contradictions, major Biblical contradictions that address key doctrinal conflicts are still problematic, as are contradictions between the Bible and other Mormon scriptures. Because the Book of Mormon claims to be “revealed” by God directly to his chosen prophet for modern times, a humble farm boy named Joseph Smith, Jr., Mormons can claim this book to be without “translation errors.” However, the claims for how this book came to be revealed, and the claim that it has no internal contradictions or factual errors that could be attributed to “translation errors,” do not stand up to careful scrutiny, as we shall see.
Further, issues of Christian theology such as the problem of Paul’s contradiction with Jesus and James (Mormons differ from evangelical Protestants by coming down in favor of Jesus/James rather than Paul, ironically causing those who follow Paul instead of Jesus to accuse the Mormons of not being legitimate Christians) are still problematic because of the contradiction itself. Also, while some specific details about a belief in Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice for sin differ from traditional and evangelical Protestants, Mormons do believe in the concept of sin transference and that Jesus took upon himself the sins of others, thus “paying the price” for our sins, and so most of the concerns regarding Paul’s doctrine of blood atonement, while differing in some details, still apply generally to Mormons as well.
The wide variety of religious beliefs, not only among Christians but also around the world, for the most part reflects humans’ varying attempts to explain a complicated universe. Religious myths are the best efforts by fallible mortals to explain a universe beyond their comprehension. That they differ merely reflects the different thought processes of differing individuals and cultures. In many cases, the written accounts of myths are committed to written form many centuries after the alleged events are written, and they are not scribed into a sacred canon with the intent to deceive but to reflect the best understanding of dramatic tales that have been embellished and enhanced through years of retelling in a time when imperfect memories were not aided by cameras, videotape or formalized documentation.
Once certain assumptions are made, such as an acceptance that Jesus is a Messianic atoning Savior, differing sects can extrapolate varying tangential or derivative secondary beliefs in different ways. Occasionally, though, someone comes along and simply makes up grandiose claims that are outright fraudulent. Hucksters come along selling miracle cures, and faith healers claim to perform miraculous healings while getting rich in the process. While most Christian sects evolved through honest questioning and sincere efforts at seeking the truth, Mormonism originates entirely as a hoax, arising out of a dramatic attempt at outright and deliberate fraud: claims of divine and miraculous interventions that are completely fabricated, with new revelations along with claims of ancient texts discovered and translated through divine assistance.
It is also important to take a balanced view. Especially in the last 60 years, under the leadership of such forward-looking Presidents as David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball, the Mormon church has been able to shed many of the more extreme vestiges of its strange history and origins, and fit more gracefully into mainstream society. The current church president, Thomas S. Monson and his predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley, have continued this trend. Additional Mormon emphasis on family, education, industriousness, actual compliance with behavioral standards rather than mere lip service, and contributing to their communities make them real assets to their neighborhoods and strong, valued, loyal friends. Having enjoyed the privilege of close friendship with several Mormons, I sincerely respect their character, personal integrity and sincerity, but at the same time recognize that they are the innocent, well-intentioned victims of a very elaborate hoax that was concocted long before any modern Mormons, members or leaders, had been born.
Let us examine some of the unique issues that apply only to Mormons, largely because of their belief that their church was founded by divine revelation to Joseph Smith based on personal visits by God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and numerous other angelic and divine visitors. Some of these problems arise out of the story of how these events unfolded, and some directly to flaws in Mormon scriptures themselves.
The First Vision and Joseph Smith’s Revelations
The “First Vision” is a basic story taught to every Mormon child and all new converts. It is a simple story that is easy to learn and remember. Few have difficulty recalling it or keeping it straight, for years at a time, even after just hearing it a few times.
The official version of this story is recounted in the Mormon scriptures known as the Pearl of Great Price, in the Book of Joseph Smith II. The account was written by Smith in 1842, just two years before he was murdered while in jail. The story is that in the spring of 1820, when he was 14 years old, there was a great religious revival in upstate New York where he lived, with competing denominations seeking to attract members. Various members of the Smith family were pulled in different directions, and Joseph Smith, torn by competing claims, and following the advice of James 1:5 to seek wisdom by asking it directly from God in prayer, went into the woods to pray.
In response to this simple prayer by a humble fourteen year old, a dramatic event of literally earth-shaking proportions occurred: God the Father personally appeared to young Joseph, along with Jesus Christ. Literally. In the flesh (confirming the corporeal rather than spiritual nature of deity). Joseph, face to face with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, asked them which church he should join and they said none were true and that he had been selected to “restore” the true Church of Jesus Christ that had been lost from the earth through a widespread apostasy.
It’s a pretty simple story — easy enough to remember. Millions of Mormons learn this as one of their earliest introductions to the faith, either from their parents if born into the Church or as new converts, and even non-Mormons have no difficulty keeping the basic story straight. It is memorable, dramatic, powerful, and easy to remember.
This initial visit was augmented by subsequent visitations from an angel named Moroni that led to the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon, and yet further heavenly visitors would come to “restore” powers of various levels of “priesthood” as well as various rites, rituals and ordinances.
The problem is that this “official” 1842 account, enshrined as official Mormon scripture, doesn’t match the personal history and accounts of Joseph Smith himself or the recollections of his own family.
Especially problematic for Mormons has been the 1853 biography of Joseph Smith by his own mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Note that young fourteen-year-old Joselph was still living at home with Lucy through most of the dramatic events he described in his “First Vision,” which he claims caused such a stir, but she cannot keep his simple story at all straight, remembering key details quite differently. The Mormon Church eventually solved this dilemma by simply making up their own alternative edition, but can’t escape the thorny problem that many copies of the original still exist.
According to award-winning UCLA historian Fawn M. Brodie*, Joseph Smith’s first published autobiographical sketch, written in 1834 along with the first published history of the church the same year, did not even mention the incident. This would have been four years after the 1830 official founding of his new Church of the Latter-Day Saints (later re-named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) and fourteen years after the supposed earth-shaking event. Unpublished accounts by others show a profound evolution of this event, from having the Lord opening the heavens (1931) to seeing God alone to seeing God and Jesus with many angels, to changes in the date it occurred. Joseph’s brother, William, and his mother, Lucy, reported that he never said anything about it at the time, and years later they had great difficulty keeping this simple story straight, though they lived with him at the time it supposedly occurred, while millions of modern Mormons have no such difficulty. In contrast, Joseph claimed in the official 1842 account that he told numerous people, and that his widespread dissemination of his account caused a great stir, such that “men of high standing” would take great notice of “an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age … a boy of no consequence in the world” (Pearl of Great Price; Joseph Smith 2:21-23). However, extensive review of local publications of that time by historian Brodie indicated no such furor, though they did report on the local revival activity.
In short, Joseph Smith claimed to have a dramatic, earth-shaking event in the spring of 1820, when he was 14 years old, that stirred up the community. Yet there are no contemporary accounts of any such reports, his own family remembers hearing nothing about it until years later, and the first published accounts of his own autobiography and early church histories fail to mention it altogether. Yet once the story was concocted, some time in the late 1830’s, after evolving through various permutations until settling into the standardized form now canonized in Mormon scripture, it became the centerpiece of Mormon lore, and an account that is now both central and unforgettable to modern Mormons and no one has a hard time keeping it straight.
Joseph Smith and “Modern Scripture”
The Book of Mormon
We have noted that the pivotal historical account of Mormon tradition, Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” seems to be something that was invented many years after the fact. In contrast, the real beginnings of the Mormon movement originate with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
Initially, this did not begin as a religious venture. While Joseph Smith’s initial introduction of what would become the Book of Mormon did include some of the common supernatural elements of the day, such as encounters with angels or spirits and the discovery of artifacts with magic powers to make up for a lack of credentials or qualifications, Smith initially just wanted to develop and market a theory of where the ancient American Indian peoples had come from, concocting a hybridized compilation of several common theories floating around at the time. Some time around 1827, Smith had apparently found some Indian artifacts including a breast plate and some jeweled stones similar to others that had been found in the area and that can still be found in museums. He called the stones the Urim and Thummim after a Biblical reference, and claimed that looking through them gave him great powers of discernment. He also claimed that an angel had entrusted him with the care of some golden plates, upon which were written the accounts of the ancient peoples of the land. Unlike his descriptions of the First Vision, this account was his first such account and one that remained remarkably consistent and which his family had no difficulty remembering. Unlike the breastplate and “Urim and Thummim,” no one was allowed to see the mysterious golden plates, which he always kept hidden.
Using the “Urim and Thummim” seer stones (which some mockingly derided as “magic glasses”), and with the finan–cial aid and clerical assistance of a local farmer named Martin Harris, Joseph Smith “translated” 116 pages of the ancient Indians’ history. Aside from the initial assistance of the angel, there were no revelations and no visions or ther reports of divine intervention, and the work was not religious in nature; it contained a secular record of the ancient peoples.
In his enthusiastic support, but contrary to Smith’s instructions, Martin Harris took the 116 pages to see if he could obtain independent scholarly corroboration and his skeptical wife, fearing that Smith was trying to milk her husband for financial support of his hoax, destroyed them.
When Smith learned what had happened, he was distraught. Harris’ wife taunted him that he could just re-translate the missing pages, but Smith knew that nothing had actually been “translated” and that he could never duplicate the content close enough that Martin Harris or anyone else who had seen it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
After several agonizing months, Smith found a solution — one that would transform the direction of his project and change forever the course of American religious history: the work would become religious in nature. Smith had the first of what would become many direct revelations from God and became a prophet. This first revelation, now preserved as Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants and still shown as the (chronologically) first revelation of this period, chastised Smith and Harris for betraying their trust over precious artifacts and told them that, as their punishment, they would lose the right to enjoy the fruits of the work that had been translated. But in addition to the secular record that had been lost, the revelation revealed a smaller companion record of God’s religious dealings with the same people over the same period of time, and stated that they would be allowed to have this record. So Smith could start anew, still come up with his new volume without having it compared to the one he could never possibly duplicate, and the world would gain a new religious standard, the Book of Mormon, and the establishment of a new religious sect, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (soon renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), popularly known as “Mormons” after Smith’s invented volume of scripture with the same name.
Errors in God’s Newest Word, except for Isaiah
The Book of Mormon as first published contained numerous errors of grammar, punctuation and general literary construction, owing to the limited education of Smith, Harris and his other assistants, most notably Oliver Cowdery who had taken over most of the transcription duties from Martin Harris during the dictation by Smith of his “translation.”
On one hand, Mormons claim this to be directly revealed by God (through the Urim and Thummim), making it the “most perfect of all scripture,” as Brigham Young later described it. On the other hand, the nascent Church needed to polish its credibility, and so has issued several revisions to clean up word choice, punctuation, grammar and syntax. They justify this by saying that God gave Smith general inspiration, but Smith selected the actual words, which reflected his limited education. But this does not explain the extensive direct copying of the words of Isaiah through massive portions of 2 Nephi (most notably 2 Nephi 12 through 2 Nephi 24, which correspond directly to Isaiah 2 through Isaiah 14, respectively — just one chapter after another, in order, directly copied from Isaiah into 2 Nephi). The words of 2 Nephi that correspond to Isaiah match exactly the words of Isaiah. So when copying existing scripture, God seems to have given the education-challenged Smith the exact words, but then otherwise just gave him general impressions and he chose his own words. Not only do the Isaiah copies use the exact words of Isaiah, but they select the exact words from the King James Version of the Bible, which was no longer the colloquial dialect of this early 19th Century New England village, 200 years after translation by the Royal Court in London, nor is it the best or most accurate translation when considered in light of modern knowledge of linguistics and etymological context. But it does match the only version of the Bible that would have been available in the Smith household in the late 1820’s, and is just amazing that God gave exact words for that portion of the translation (or other copied sections) but not for any other. So, which is it? You can accept either that God gave the exact words (as in the passages of copied scriptures) or that he gave general inspiration and Smith picked his own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. But you can’t have it both ways.
Wtinesses to the Grand Production
To support his wild claims, Joseph Smith knew he had to get some dramatic evidence. To do this, he enlisted the support of “witnesses” who would testify that they had seen evidence of his miraculous claims.
To this day, at the front of every Book of Mormon, are two sets of Testimonials:
The first is by three selected witnesses — Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris — who testified that they saw the golden plates, that they personally beheld an angel of God who came down from heaven before their very eyes and confirmed the veracity of Smith’s claims and the validity of his translation, and that they also heard the voice of God booming from the heavens with the same confirmation. Three witnesses! Pretty strong stuff.
The second was a group of eight witnesses — four more from the Whitmer family, a guy named Hiram Page, along with Joseph’s father and two of his brothers. They testified that they saw and held the golden plates from which Smith had allegedly translated the Book of Mormon.
All together, that makes a total of 11 witnesses who at least saw the golden plates, with three of them also witnessing an angel and hearing the voice of God.
What is even more amazing is that, in a Church that today prides itself on one of the highest rates of retention of new converts, who have not personally witnessed anything so dramatic as what these 11 testified to, all three of the first set of witnesses eventually left the Mormon Church, even after seeing what they claimed to have seen. While the ever-loyal Martin Harris did come crawling back in his old age to a church that greeted him as a repentant hero, the fact remains that of the first three witnesses, all of them at some point took the extreme and dramatic step of leaving the church.
And the second group of eight? All of them who did not have the last name of Smith also strayed from the church.
Out of these 11 vaunted witnesses, 8 of them, and 100% of those not having the last name of Smith, left the church. What is truly amazing is that the modern Mormon Church has the chutzpah to still boldly print these “testimonies” in the front of every Book of Mormon it gives away.
The Pearl of Great Price
The historical and problems in bringing forth the Book of Mormon pale in comparison to problems with Joseph Smith’s later “translation” of Egyptian papyri that became the Pearl of Great Price (PGP).
The Book of Mormon was entirely an outright fraud. Smith just made it up. When hard pressed to show some tangible evidence of the “Gold Bible,” Smith was never able to produce anything of substance, but he did later draw up some samples of the writing, which he called “Reformed Egyptian” (no such language or alphabet actually exists).
But, what a difference with the PGP! Joseph Smith had promoted himself as having the ability to translate ancient writings, and the owner of some real Egyptian mummies with accompanying papyri texts in written Egyptian, having heard of Smith’s purported abilities as a “translator,” sought him out to see if he would be able to translate the papyri texts. For once Smith had something real and tangible in his hot little hands, of verified antiquity, that he could actually (and in proud dramatic style) show people! And, of course he could translate it!
And of course, wouldn’t you just know it, of all the old Egyptian manuscripts that just happened to find their way to America and then to Smith, these just happened to contain the long lost books of “Abraham” and “Moses.” So Smith translated these ancient books and made a new scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.
Unlike his purely imaginative earlier works, he had some real ancient texts he had “worked” from. So, in his excitement and enthusiasm, he even included facsimile pages from these and actually had them published in the PGP, where they still can still be seen, even in current editions. Since Ancient Egyptian was an indecipherable language, Smith must have thought he was safe.
Not only are three actual facsimiles printed in the PGP, but Smith was bold enough to print the purported “translations” of the specific cuts, with specific items numbered in the illustration and the corresponding “translation” for each numbered item accompanying the page with the “facsimile.” On page 28 is “Facsimile #1” and, right below it, is the translation. To avoid any confusion as to whether this is just an example of the texts used, the caption to the accompanying “translation” used to be the caption: “Explanation of the Above Cut,” followed by said ‘translation” of the specifically numbered items. In like fashion, “Facsimile #2” appears on page 34 with the accompanying “translation” appearing on the facing page (p. 35) which used to include a reference to the foregoing page, and “Facsimile #3” appears on page 42 with the translation (as in #1) appearing below it and used to include a reference to the “above cut.” While the purported translations are still included in the texts as currently published, the captions stating that the translations match the specific texts were deleted in publications after the 1980’s, following widespread dissemination of linguistic challenges showing that the actual Egyptian texts bore not the slightest resemblance to what Smith had claimed they said. One of the most comprehensive compilations of the linguistic evidence against the Pearl of Great Price was developed by Jerald and Sandra Tanner.*
Unbeknownst to Smith, however, a few years earlier Jean-Francois Champollion had broken the code to the Rosetta Stone and, from that foundation came the deciphering of the Egyptian language. Today, Ancient Egyptian texts can easily be read by trained scholars.
Tragically for Smith and the Mormons, modern scholars of Egyptian have had numerous opportunities to review these facsimiles from Smith’s original Egyptian mummy-papers (as he so proudly printed in the his own PGP). The good news (for Mormons) is that they were real, honest-to-goodness Ancient Egyptian texts. The bad news (for Mormons) is that they are routine burial documents with nothing particularly memorable to the modern world, and nothing remotely similar to Smith’s claims that they are the writings of Abraham and Moses.
A few quotes:
Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford University: “Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud.”
Mr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University: “Too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations.”
Dr. James H. Breasted, University of Chicago: “[Joseph Smith is] absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.”
Dr. Arthur C. Mace, assistant curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., Dept of Egyptian Art, calls the Book of Abraham “pure fabrication.”
Professor S.A.B. Mercer, Ph.D., Custodian Hibbard Collection, calls it “pure imagination.”
Numerous equally embarrassing studies go into great depth of analysis to explain exactly what the papyri actually say, and to demonstrate in pathetic detail the embarrassing fraud of the Pearl of Great Price.
Contradictions and Errors in LDS Scriptures
Since the entirety of Mormon scriptures is only a fraction of the size of the Bible, it should be expected that there would be proportionately fewer internal contradictions. Add to that the fact that these scriptures were all written by a single creator (from a single perspective) over a relatively short period of time (barely 15 years) compared with the Bible being written by more than 40 writers over several thousand years, and the expected number of contradictions should be further reduced. The fact that any such errors at all exist in a work purportedly revealed directly by God is problematic for Mormons. Here are a few examples:
1 Nephi 3:7 asserts that God will never give a commandment that is impossible to obey; however 2 Nephi 2:16-23 says that God gave Adam and Eve conflicting commandments that they had to choose between in order to force them to introduce sin into the world. (And the idea that God should need to force them to introudce sin into the world is, itself, morally problematic.)
Jacob 1:15 says that the polygamous multiple marriages of David and Solomon were “wicked” and Jacob 2:24 says they were “abominable” but Doctrine and Covenants 132:38-39 says those many wives and concubines were given by God and “in nothing did they [David and Solomon] sin.” Mormons usually respond to this blatant and direct contradiction by citing that the specific laws relating to marriage may be applied differently in differing eras and conditions. But while one might very well express concern about varying moral laws so drastically, this contradiction is not about that. It is about the specific factual assertions regarding David and Solomon. Were their numerous wives and concubines indicative of their sinful wickedness (as stated in the Book of Mormon) or sinless gifts of God (as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants)?
The text of the Book of Mormon is replete with scores of references throughout its pages to horses and chariots, which did not exist in the New World prior to Columbus.
The Book of Mormon describes great civilizations of ancient America, and certainly there were, indeed, great civilizations by the Incas, Mayas, Aztecs, Toltecs and others, yet while the ancient Biblical sites can be extensively corroborated by archaeological evidence, there is no analogous corroboration of ancient Book of Mormon sites with any of the extensive available data we have regarding ancient sites in the Americas, and none of the place names or descriptions in the Book of Mormon can be matched with any of the many actual archaeological sites of these civilizations. None of the ancient writings, artifacts or reports of oral traditions of legends matches anything in the Book of Mormon.
The Bible may have its share of contradictions, factual errors and failed prophecies, owing to its authorship by fallible mortals, but at least it is of legitimately authentic antiquity. The Mormon scriptures are simply a fraudulent hoax, concocted by a single perpetrator: Joseph Smith, Jr.
Temple Rituals and Masonry
When Joseph Smith first decided to reestablish the ancient Hebrew traditions of Temples, he founded the first of these in Kirtland, Ohio. It is still considered the first Mormon Temple, yet it operated in ways unrecognizable to modern Mormons. Unlike today’s Mormon Temples, it was not closed to all but the most faithful of church members, who must literally become card-carrying holders of permits known as “Recommends” following in-depth personal interviews from both local and regional church officials to confirm that they conform in belief and practice to strict Mormon standards.
The original Kirtland Temple, dedicated (formally opened) in 1836, was a place of supernatural visits from divine visitors bringing the “restoration” of Christ’s ancient church, special revelation, and important Church-wide gatherings. It was not closed to the general public. It did introduce new rituals including symbolic anointings and ritual washings, but did not include the practice of today’s secret (Mormons would say “sacred”) rituals, nor did it conduct rituals for dead people as in modern Temples.
After the Mormons were driven out of Ohio, they resettled first in Missouri (which Joseph Smith declared to be the original antediluvian site of the actual Garden of Eden), and after also being driven out of Missouri by angry neighbors, they drained a swamp along the Illinois shore of Mississippi River and built, from scratch, their own city of Nauvoo, Illinois. There, just a few years after the creation of the Kirtland Temple, while awaiting completion of a new Temple in Nauvoo (which would not be completed until after Joseph Smith’s assassination) they initiated Temple Rituals unlike anything ever seen in Kirtland, using temporary facilities. Upon completion of permanent Temples, such rituals would be restricted to worthy members in good standing (as certified by their “Recommends”) within the hallowed walls of the Temples. These included many of the rituals for both living and dead that remain highly secretive tfor Church members today, often generating much curiosity among outsiders.
What caused the great transformation in ritual practices within a period of less than five years? Mormons, of course, declare that God had given divine instruction through revelation to Joseph Smith. There was, however, one significant intervening event.
Joseph Smith had grown up in New York hearing tales of secret Masonic rituals that supposedly dated back to the original Temple of Solomon. In the Book of Mormon, written while still young, Smith had repeated references to evil “secret societies” and conspiratorial combinations, which were widely interpreted as being anti-Masonic. Perhaps this negative view was the result of envious resentment in knowing that, with his lowly station in life, he would never qualify for admission. By the early 1840’s, however, Smith had become a highly influential public person, and was solicited by Masons to become a member. On March 15, 1842, a Masonic Lodge was installed in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith became a Mason. Becoming familiar with the secret rituals, he then adapted them into secret Mormon rituals. Mormons acknowledge the similarity of some aspects of their rites to those of the Masons, but dismiss criticisms of imitation. They claim that any similarities are because both trace their origins to a common source: the ancient Temple of Solomon. They claim that, over the centuries, the Masonic versions became corrupted, thus explaining whatever differences exist, but that both originate from the same source. This claim, of course, would have held far greater plausibility if God had chosen to reveal these ancient secrets directly to Smith before he just happened to hear them from the Masons. Many historians surmise that the real reason for Smith’s assassination barely two years later was to fulfill the Masons’ blood oaths that were to be enforced against anyone betraying their secrets.
Along the same lines as the expropriation of the Masonic Temple rites and converting them into a tool of cult membership control, the Mormons also utilized another tool for control of members common to cults.
As with David Koresh of the Branch Davidian cult and Jim Jones of the Jonestown People’s Temple cult, and other cults before and since, Smith cited these early First Century Christian socialist communal experiments (See subheading, “Would Jesus Be Liberal or Conservative?” at the end of Chapter 9) as a ploy to get their followers to give up their assets under what he called the “United Order” under a “Law of Consecration” thus increasing their dependence on the cult leader. The cults of Koresh and Jones went down in flames and Kool Aid (actually, FlaVor Aid®) respectively, while the Mormons retreated from their socialist experiments (as they also did with polygamy and mandatory racial discrimination when they became politically incorrect), and tried to fit into the moderate mainstream by repudiating their socialism and becoming staunch economic conservatives. It is reminiscent of the irony of Mitt Romney being the only Republican candidate in the 2008 primary election to have had only one wife, prior to Mike Huckabee’s enterance into the race, while coming from a great-grandfather who had managed five of them – at the same time.
“Word of Wisdom”
The so-called “Word of Wisdom” is the “revelation” given to Joseph Smith as section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, best known for being interpreted as prohibiting the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea. The section does mention “wine and strong drinks” though makes no specific mention of beer or spirits. It does specifically prohibit tobacco, but there is no mention of tea or coffee, only “hot drinks” though later Church officials have interpreted this as meaning specifically tea or coffee at any temperature; some individual Mormons also interpret this to prohibit other forms of caffeine, such as in soft drinks, but this is an individual, not official, interpretation.
Section 89 does allow the use of pure grape wine in sacramental observations, however subsequently the sacramental wine was replaced by water, thus symbolically reversing Jesus’ first miracle, as reported in John 2:1-11, in which he turned water into wine. Some believe that the fact that Jesus chose the creation of wine out of water to be the first demonstration of his miraculous power has special significance, especially since he commanded its ceremonial consumption as part of his last supper with these disciples, as a means of remembering him in the future (as reported in Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20) thus bookending the starting and ending of his ministry with celebrations of wine.
Some Mormons have tried to explain to me that they believe Jesus was merely consuming grape juice. But the Bible repeatedly uses the word “wine,” not grape juice, and the consumption of grape juice would have been extremely rare and unusual (and certainly not at a wedding celebration such as at Cana) in the time before the invention of refrigeration or pasteurization, which was not applied to grapes until 1869, when a process was developed by American physician and dentist Thomas Bramwell Welch, founder of Welch’s Grape Juice.
Further, Jesus made it clear in Luke 7:33-34 and Matt 11:18-19 that he enjoyed the consumption of wine, noting that others even call him a “winebibber” [according to King James Version] or “drunkard” in more modern translations. The term “drunkard” is not applied to those who drink mere grape juice (especially before it was even viable).
Clearly, the “revelation” claimed by Joseph Smith relegates Jesus to the status of a sinner. Of course, other Christian denominations such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, who also forbid wine, as well as other organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) also have the same problem in condemning the consumption of wine.
Other health standards, such as the commandment to avoid eating meat except in winter or times of famine, hunger or for special celebrations of thanksgiving, are often ignored by modern Mormons, even though modern health sciences concur with warnings about overconsumption of saturated fats that are troublingly abundant in such foods.
And in verse 89:17 Smith “reveals” that wheat is good for humans while oats are for horses and barley for fowl and swine, whereas today modern health sciences teach us that oats and barley are among the most healthful for humans. Much other modern health knowledge, known today but not in Smith’s time, is omitted, though one would think that an omniscient deity offering such revelations might have been able to drop in a few hints about health knowledge beyond what was known in Smith’s time, such as simple information about aerobic and anaerobic exercises, herbal sources of antioxidants and the value of limited wine consumption.
While official Mormon scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price) are silent about specific teachings on the subject of race, there were long held to be private, confidential revelations not recorded in “scripture” that specified that the “mark of Cain” from the book of Genesis was a curse of dark skin, and that Africans (and their American descendants through slavery) are the descendants of Cain, surviving the Great Flood through Noah’s son Ham who had married Egyptus.
This teaching, not sanctioned in official scripture, was that, in addition to the curse of dark skin, the curse also prohibited any descendant of Cain from being ordained into the Mormon priesthood. This priesthood is not like the priesthoods of other Christian denominations where few are called to a special leadership role, but a lay priesthood in which virtually all adult males participate. Thus, being excluded from the priesthood meant that African Americans were excluded from most aspects of worship, including participation in Temple ceremonies that are required for acceptance into the highest level of the “celestial kingdom” in the next life.
Ironically, when first instituted during the 1830’s, the policy was considered one of the most progressive anywhere in the Christian world. At a time when slavery was still practiced, Mormons openly opposed slavery even while in slave states such as Missouri (which was one of a number of reasons for their persecutions there), and at least allowed African Americans membership in the same congregations with whites, except for being denied priesthood roles.
But as the American perspective evolved, first to abolish slavery, then gradually accept all humans to levels of full equality without regard to race, the Mormons did not change with them, and when removal of the last barriers to full and equal civil rights became a major issue during the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Mormons remained locked in their traditions and became increasingly ostracized for their position. Although not recorded in official scritpure, the practice was believed to come from a secret, unwritten revelation, and thus could not be changed by mere mortals, but only by (literally) an act of God. Many Mormons, weary of being ostracized as pariahs, and many with sincere reservations about the morality of the policy, hoped for such an act of divine revelation, which finally came to church prophet and President Spencer W. Kimball in May of 1978.
As with racial apartheid, the church teaching on polygamy was extremely troubling to many Mormons (as well as a deterrent to potential converts who were repulsed by it). It originated in a “revelation” to Joseph Smith officially on July 12, 1843 (less than a year before his murder) as section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Prior to that there had long been rumors of Smith’s many infidelities and sexual adventures, and it seems that with this “revelation” he sought to legitimize his exploits.
Initially, the revelation was circulated only in limited, exclusive circles to those “called” to the practice. At the time the revelation was made public after Smith’s death, some Mormons felt that Joseph Smith had become corrupted and a “fallen prophet” and split off from the main branch of the church, and rejected D&C 132. Emma Smith, Joseph’s first wife, was never happy about this “revelation” (which conveniently includes a specific “commandment” directed to her to accept Joseph’s additional “wives”) and, following the struggle for succession to Smith’s leadership after his death, Emma split off from the main church and set her son as the prophet of a splinter branch of the faith, called the “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The RLDS has never accepted D&C 132 or the practice of polygamy.
In fairness to the theological integrity of Joseph Smith, as despised as the practice of polygamy had become in the America of European immigrants, it did have strong Biblical support from the Old Testament, as noted in Chapter 9.
After moving to Utah and allowing polygamy to become practiced openly, it became engrained in the culture of Mormon society. And just as splinter groups broke off from the body of the church when polygamy was introduced, so also when it was rescinded by another politically convenient “revelation” to church prophet and President Wilford Woodruff in 1890, splinter groups of those unwilling to give up polygamy also broke off from the main body of the church, calling themselves “Fundamentalist” Mormons (most prominent being the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or FLDS), and many of their descendants continue to practice polygamy today, in clandestine secrecy, in enclaves primarily centered around southern Utah and northern Arizona, and in isolation through Utah, though the practice today is prohibited by law in Utah and federal U.S. laws, and the modern Mormon church vigorously enforces their prohibition of plural marriage.
Changing Doctrines in response to Social Pressure
As Mormons have done in both of these instances — racial apartheid and polygamy — where they changed long-held religious beliefs, it could be argued that changing conditions might sometimes require changes in the specific practices of religious rituals and observances.
However, in the case of both racial apartheid and polygamy, we are not talking about minor details of social custom or trivialities of conformance with ritualistic observations. We are talking about fundamental moral issues that affect the deepest levels of how we treat other people and how we form basic family units. In both of these instances, the changes came not because of independent recognition of the need to change, but in response to outside political pressure. Moral change comes when it runs counter to popular pressure, not when it caves into it (even when the popular culture happens to be right, as in both of these instances). Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King also led movements that resulted in changes in fundamental moral standards, but they waged their campaigns against the prevailing political and cultural pressures, not caving in to them.
Claims by Mormons that these changes reflected the independent will of the an Eternal God would have much greater credibility if they had been timed so well to social pressure.
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