A Look at the Mormon World
I had more interest in the Winter Olympics this year than ever before, partly because the alleged bribing of Olympic Committee officials threatened to end them before they got started, partly because they were so well run in Salt Lake City despite a judging scandal, and partly because I kept wondering how the Mormon Church was reacting — especially during one raucous, vulgar section of the closing ceremonies. Since some of you who felt the same way have been asking about that church’s faith and practice, we’ll take a look this morning at the Mormon world, otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
I confess up front my inability to believe the history of early America as presented in the Book of Mormon , but I find many things to admire in modern Mormon culture. If the origin of Mormon faith seems bizarre, I remind myself that most other religions also begin in miracle stories which some later followers question, even when they are determined to stay where they are. There are thoughtful Mormons, for example, who recognize that their Founding Father, Joseph Smith, made some insupportable claims. As one of them, a historian and lawyer in Atlanta, says: “The starting point is that I am a committed Mormon…….I know the Book of Mormon does not stand up to historical examination. But…..what really clicks, what really keeps us there, is the culture.”
There are certainly thousands of people who continue to practice Judaism and Christianity even while they doubt the literal and historical accuracy of certain stories in the Bible, so while this Georgia attorney may be more openly honest than most, his decision is not all that unusual. I could never embrace all aspects of Mormon theology, but I understand his regard for Mormon lifestyle. After an occasional hung-over student in my University classes, or a couple of hours in a smoke-filled faculty meeting, I used to think sometimes how pleasant it might be to teach at their Brigham Young University where alcohol and tobacco are banned. My wife and I have stopped several times in Provo, Utah during vacation trips and marveled at its clean orderliness and the wholesome-looking students who mingled with us in cafes and on the sidewalks.
Watching them I thought of a scholarly friend who spent much of his life studying Mormon theology and culture because his wife had converted. He never did, but he makes two interesting comments about Mormons. First, that they have the most indefensible theology of any church he knows, and second, that they are as devoted to Christian principles as any people he has ever met — a paradox he has a hard time explaining. Let’s confront the paradox , starting with a necessarily brief glance at how the Mormon church began.
Many of you know the story of how a man named Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel who led him to buried golden plates containing the Book of Mormon in a language which Smith called “reformed Egyptian.” Linguistic scholars smile at this claim, and unfortunately, the plates are not available for examination since Smith said that after a miracle helped him translate a language he didn’t know, the angel took the plates back to heaven. When a church friend of mine asked, “Who could possibly believe such a story?” I reminded him that millions around the world would ask how he can believe that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water, raised the dead, and finally flew up into the sky after rising from the dead himself.
Faith, after all, is seldom deterred by logic, so for Mormon believers the book for which Joseph Smith claims divine origin is a true history of two tribes of Israel — the good Nephites and the bad Lamanites, who had battled each other for centuries before they migrated to North America and set up vast cities and an advanced culture long before Columbus arrived. Archaeologists find no evidence at all to support this amazing story, which goes on to say that Jesus himself showed up suddenly in that world and got the two tribes to reconcile for a while until 400 years later the Nephite leader, named Mormon, was killed, along with hundreds of thousands of his people. It’s a long, involved story and perhaps one needs to be a true believer to read it with excitement or pleasure. Mark Twain thought so, who once satirized it as “chloroform in print” — a judgment, we must confess, which he would also have made about some parts of the Bible.
Like the founders of all enduring religious faiths, Joseph Smith was charismatic and found followers, among them a young carpenter from upstate New York named Brigham Young. But the new faith quickly encountered hostility because of what established religions called its heresies and especially because of its tolerance of polygamy. Although plural marriages were advocated in revelations that came later than the Book of Mormon , and monogamy was the official doctrine of the church during Joseph Smith’s life, he is said to have taken more than 30 wives, perhaps twice that many, to whom he had “sealed” himself in secret ceremonies. When his own brother begged him to get some divine guidance about plural marriages, Smith claimed another revelation and produced “a new and everlasting covenant” in 1843, stating that “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent,” it is not adultery in God’s eyes, even “if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law.”
This same revelation allegedly warns Smith’s wife Emma that “if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed,” so Emma kept her peace, but other early Mormon officials were appalled at Smith’s behavior. When an Illinois Mormon business man begged Smith to give up polygamy, Smith promptly excommunicated both him and his brother. And when the man published a local newspaper exposing the multiple marriages, Smith, as mayor of this Mormon settlement, called a town meeting at which it was agreed that the paper had to be shut down.
By this time Smith’s new religion had infuriated so many people that the governor of Illinois said Smith should stand trial. When he and his brother Hyrum surrendered at a jail in Carthage, Missouri an angry mob showed up, jailers apparently did not resist, and both men were shot to death. Anti-Mormon feelings were so intense that when Smith fell from a window onto the street he was propped up against a wall and shot again by a 4-man firing squad. But Mormonism, perhaps the most persecuted religion in American history, survived, as did the practice of polygamy. A few years later, in 1866, Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, said: “The only men who become gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” He set an example by marrying perhaps 55 women, although this is ignored in an official church biography of his life published in 1997.
Some of the women pointed out that they themselves had chosen the arrangement, and it is said that Brigham Young treated them well, encouraging them to become lawyers and doctors, and as governor allowing them to vote long before other women in the U. S. enjoyed that privilege. After more than a thousand Mormon men were jailed for polygamy-related offenses the U. S. Supreme Court in 1890 okayed the seizing of all Mormon property nationwide, which meant the church would be crushed. For Mormons, who believe in continuing revelations, it was fortunate that in that very same year the church’s president got a new revelation declaring polygamy was no longer sanctioned. As the current Mormon president told a journalist the other day, “Polygamy came by revelation, and it left by revelation.”
But while official policy changed, many Mormons who call themselves “fundamentalist Mormons” quietly ignore it. One of them, who lives near Salt Lake City, responded recently to a journalist’s question about his lifestyle by saying, “I proposed to one woman when I was 23, and she’s been mine for 65 years. I’ve never proposed to another, and I’ve got 8 living wives.” “So they proposed to you?” the reporter asked. The old gentleman nodded yes. ‘See that home over there? That one, this one, and two more along the way belong to the wife that lives in it.” He claims 23 children and 206 grandchildren and says, “I love those kids. A lot of times their mothers will say, ‘Leave grandpa alone,’ and I say, ‘No, let them come to me.’” The media, of course, loves to report these violations of official Mormon doctrine, and the church is likely to struggle for a long time yet with the bad publicity they cause.
This may be a good time to mention that if Mormons relied only upon the Book of Mormon their differences from other Christians would not be nearly so great. Most of their major doctrines, like baptism for the dead, celestial marriage, God as originally a human being, and the possibility of humans becoming gods, are not even mentioned in the Book of Mormon. But three later revelations profoundly influenced the Mormon creed: The Book of Commandments , The Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price . In addition, as mentioned already, the President of the Mormon church may receive new revelations, and some of these have been timely. The one proclaiming monogamy as the church’s policy avoided a potentially disastrous clash with the federal government over polygamy, and after the Civil Rights Act put a spotlight on Mormon discrimination toward blacks bad publicity and potential lawsuits were avoided when in 1978 the President of the church received a new revelation making blacks welcome to full membership. Blacks have since entered the church in large numbers, especially in Africa. Asked about these conveniently timed new directives from God, the current Mormon President told a reporter how natural it seemed to him that God would continue to reveal his will in changing times. And the fact is, of course, that other churches do much the same sort of thing, except that they do it by committees and synods. Many churches are seeking guidance right now on on such matters as women priests and whether gays and lesbians can be ordained to preach.
For most outsiders, one of the most esoteric practices of the Mormon church is what they call “baptism for the dead,” despite the fact that the Apostle Paul actually referred to it as a custom in one of his churches – 1 Cor 15. Believing that people who die unbaptized can be saved by proxy baptism, Mormons consider it an act of compassion to line up in the temple and be baptized in behalf of countless people long dead — including the Buddha, all the Popes, Shakespeare, Einstein and Elvis Presley, among others. In the early ‘90’s some Mormons were moved by kindly impulse to be baptized for victims of the Holocaust, but Jews were not delighted and are said now to monitor Mormon baptismal lists to be sure that Jews are not included. Ah, religion! What a strange and wondrous thing religious is, sometimes!
But also often amazingly successful. Mormons, for example, have been phenomenal in raising money and in spending it wisely — once giving the Red Cross its largest single-group donation ever at the time, $12 million. Mormons are expected to give 1/10th of their income in order to attend the temple, and are asked in addition to fast one Sunday a month and give the money they would have spent for food to people in need. Their welfare system also has another feature I like very much: they tell recipients, “You can receive according to your need, but you are expected to work according to your ability.”
Less attractive, I must admit, was Mormon hostility to the Equal Rights Amendment a few years ago, and their continuing ban against women in either of their two orders of priesthood, but within the limits of their present belief system they seem to do what they can to make women feel important in worship life, and it would not surprise me to hear one day of a brand-new new revelation that would open more doors. On the plus side Mormons emphasize a clean and healthy life style, with alcohol and tobacco use so low that their life spans are said to be as much as11 years longer than the American average — only the vegetarian 7th Day Adventists living longer.
Aaccording to Yale Scholar Harold Bloom they are probably “the most work-addicted culture in religous history.” This, and their deep sense of community, are reflected in their use of a beehive as the state symbol. Their success in attracting new members has led to their being ranked 5th just two months ago among the 25 largest U. S. churches They are growing so fast, worldwide, that the Yale scholar I mentioned a moment ago thinks they may someday be so many and so wealthy that “governing our democracy becomes impossible without Mormon cooperation.”
Some of you may have seen the recent article in the Wichita Eagle about the stunning new temple Mormons will dedicate in Nauvoo, Illinois this summer. The article says that a quarter of a million visitors are expected to attend the open house and consxecration ceremonies, after which — as in all Mormon temples — it will be closed except to Mormons participating in church ceremonies. Sociologists would say that this kind of “inner-sanctum” exclusiveness and mystery can have its own kind of appeal to those who like feleing they are set apart and among the Elect.
Steering clear of controversial theology, a Mormon bishop explains their success this way: “People are searching for order and organization, and that’s what we provide.” The young men who spend 2 years of their lives in missionary work are part of that success. Two years ago 60,000 of them signed up 274,000 converts. This is an average of fewer than 5 converts per missionary, but their sacrifice may strengthen the church beyond swelling the rolls. A professor of history at BYU says, “The kids go out and may convert a few here and there, but more importantly they convert themselves.” Mitt Romney, a successful Mormon businesman whom we got to know during the Olympics, says that although it can be tough having doors slammed in one’s face day after day, the two missionary years are extremely valuable. He did his time in France and says, “It’s quite an experience to go to Bordeaux and say, ‘Give up your wine! I’ve got a great religion for you!’ But since we all get rejected a lot,” he says, “it’s good training for how life works.”
A university professor and close friend of mine, writing of his visit to a Mormon temple in Dallas, sums up in a single sentence how many other Christians feel when he says that while he is tempted to give Mormons an “F” in theology, he gladly gives them an “A” in practical religion, and admits that he would often have to reverse those grades for his own church. While he prefers to let the Lord issue the final grade reports, he is convinced that the Mormons make friendly neighbors, good citizens and patriotic Americans. A sign on the small Mormon church a few blocks from my house says visitors are welcome, and I have attended a service there in accord with my conviction that we better learn the strengths and weaknesses of our own faith if once in a while we step out of our familiar routine and visit other churches to see first hand how they worship. We do, after all, live in a world where understanding our neighbors is more important than ever before in human history.
Gracious Lord, grant that in any judgment we make of the strengths andweaknesses of others, we will be as fair as we wish others to be towardf us, knowing that in such a spirit we grow in the graces of honesty
and compassion. Amen