A Nativity scene graces the front cover of Mormonism’s December Ensign magazine. Inside there are representations of shepherds and angels, the visit of the Magi, and on the inside back cover the eight-day-old baby Jesus in the arms of faithful Simeon, with proud parents and the prophetess Anna looking on. The quality of the artwork is striking and we are left in no doubt that this is the Christmas edition. And yet…
Jesus is there among the cliche’s, set safely among the other figures of the Nativity Play, never quite the dangerous character who cleared the temple, cursed a fig tree, faced down the devil, and troubled even the religious leaders of his day. In this Ensign that role is reserved for the prophet of this dispensation, Joseph Smith.
In words from a Paul Simon song, ‘Yes we speak of things that matter, with words that must be said.’ but somehow our attention is drawn elsewhere as by far the longest article, at eight pages, is about Joseph Smith. Jesus’ story is, to coin a phrase, ‘a mile wide and an inch deep.’ The only character whose story is given texture, depth, and theological detail is Joseph Smith’s.
We are used to this, of course: Joseph for Jesus, Emma for Mary, Moroni for Gabriel, the grove for the stable, the Book of Mormon for the Bible, Nauvoo for Jerusalem, the Susquehanna river for the Jordan, Carthage Jail for Calvary. Mormon watchers will be familiar with the way the Mormon Church finds every opportunity to put Joseph front and centre. Mormons will insist this is just so much anti-Mormon nonsense, but they can hardly claim to be unbiased. Others, when they finally see it, puzzle to themselves whether Mormons worship Joseph Smith. Of course Mormons don’t worship Joseph Smith, something else is going on.
To a Christian, God is sublimely “other” than us, whose ways are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:8), different in quality. Indeed, it has been argued that even saying God is different is misleading because it causes us to ask ‘different from what?’ A meaningless question when there is but one God (Is.44:6-8). Isaiah writes:
‘To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?..It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.’ (Is.40:18-23)
Alec Motyer suggests that ‘separateness’ better captures the idea of God’s uniqueness, his belonging in a uniquely distinctive sphere of existence. (Bible Speaks Today, Exodus, P.52)
To a Mormon God is an exalted man, and differs from us only in that he has grown so much further than us, different only in capacity. While Christians regard Christ as God the Son, the creator-God come in the flesh (Jn.1:1-5), Mormons use similar phrases to describe an entirely different Jesus who is different only in that he has “progressed” further than us. Questions of comparison are perfectly reasonable here. God is a man and Joseph is a man. The only difference between them is that of magnitude and sphere of existence (note that word sphere. We will come across it again).
To a Mormon God has a “great plan of happiness” and Jesus has a role in that plan just as Joseph has a role in that plan. Mormonism isn’t about God but about the plan. Everyone is subject to the plan, even God himself, for it is by keeping to the plan that God became God. The Mormon priesthood is executive power to administer the plan. Each dispensation is administered by those holding this priesthood. Even God is subject to the priesthood, for it is by the priesthood that he had “authority” to create the world. Christ carried out his office by the power of the priesthood and could not be our Saviour without it.
In this scheme – where God and his Christ are only greater than us in development, and priesthood and the plan are greater than all – it seems natural to say in one breath that Joseph is acting under the authority of Christ, and in the next to say that we must have Joseph’s permission to enter heaven. He is at the head of this last dispensation and holds the executive power for it. Because of this they have no problem ascribing to Joseph the role of ultimate judge as they do. Here is Brigham Young:
”If I can pass brother Joseph, I shall stand a good chance for passing Peter, Jesus, the Prophets, Moses, Abraham, and all back to Father Adam, and be pretty sure of receiving his approbation…. If we can pass the sentinel Joseph the Prophet, we shall go into the celestial kingdom, and not a man can injure us. If he says, ‘God bless you, come along here’; if we will live so that Joseph will justify us, and say, ‘Here am I, brethren,’ we shall pass every sentinel.” (Journal of Discourses 4:271)
It is not that Mormons worship Joseph so much as they de-deify Jesus, making him one in a pantheon of progressing men. This is a pyramidal structure in which people must pass a series of dispensational key holders to gain heaven; Joseph, Peter, Jesus, the prophets, Moses, Abraham, Adam. In the Mormon temple, prior to 1990, those attending learned the hand grips and passwords “to pass the angels who stand sentinel,” in this god-making enterprise. Although God stands at the head of this structure for us he is not at the head of everything, for his God has progressed beyond him, as has his God before him, in an infinite regress on into infinity. Brigham Young taught:
‘How many Gods there are, I do not know. But there never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals [mortality] that we are now passing through. That course has been from all eternity, and it is and will be to all eternity.’ (Journal of Discourses, 7:333)
No one in Mormonism is ever all in all, the prime mover, the uncreated creator of all things. They know no such being.
Joseph to Justify us
Brigham Young said: ‘if we will live so that Joseph will justify us, and say, ‘Here am I, brethren,’ we shall pass every sentinel.”
How can Joseph’s passport guarantee us entry? What of all the others mentioned in the list? The authority of every dispensation from Adam onward is conferred upon Joseph Smith. This is what Joseph Fielding Smith had to say:
If all things are to be restored, and if the dispensation of the fulness of times is made up of, and is a uniting of, all dispensations, with their keys and powers, since the days of Adam, then those who held the keys of these various dispensations would have to confer them upon the head of one who stands at the head of the last dispensation, and the prophet Joseph Smith is that one. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol.3, p.97, emphasis in original)
In this scheme the idea that men and gods are the same species gives a completely different view of things. It doesn’t seem so audacious for Mormons to make such incredible claims for Joseph, or to have him lauded such in the Christmas edition of their flagship magazine during what is, after all, Joseph’s dispensation. Indeed, this is not incredible at all if God is only a greater man than us, Christ is playing his role, and Joseph playing his, and all progressing to even greater glory. Again, read Brigham Young:
‘No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. From the day that the Priesthood was taken from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith, junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are – I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent. He (Joseph) holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation – the keys to rule in the spirit-world; and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ, which gives him a most perfect victory in the spirit-world. He reigns there as supreme a being in his sphere, capacity, and calling, as God does in heaven. (Journal of Discourses 7:289, emphasis added)
There is a Mormon hymn lauding Joseph in the LDS Hymnal, number 27.
Praise to the Man!
Praise to the Man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that prophet and seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him and nations revere.
Praise to his memory he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever-great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Plead unto heaven while the earth lauds his fame.
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
Wake up the world for conflict of justice.
Millions shall know “Brother Joseph” again.
Hail to the prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vein.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
In Christian hymnology there are hymns that praise God for certain people, hymns that pray to God for people, but nothing that so praises, extols, or reveres a man. I think Mormons, who are so naturalised to this way of thinking, have no idea how shocking it is to people who know only the orthodox, traditional Christianity. If you were to ask a Christian who it was that fitted the main elements of this song,
Someone to be praised and honoured and whose name is “ever-great”;
Who is to be extolled and revered by kings and nations;
Whose blood pleads to heaven;
Whose priesthood is endless;
Who will enter into and be crowned in his kingdom;
Whose death must be answered for by the world;
Who has ascended to heaven;
Whom death cannot conquer;
And who plans for his brethren
What name do you think they would come up with?