December 23 2005 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith. We were promised many events, publications, and eulogies to mark this historic event in Mormon history. The January 2005 Ensign Magazine kicked us off with some excellent art work focused on the events in the Sacred Grove and a helpful timeline over four pages showing “Doctrine and Covenant Times at a Glance”.
Note I spelled “Sacred Grove” with capitals. That is how Mormons spell it. They also spell “Restoration” with a capital. Joseph Smith is routinely referred to as “the Prophet Joseph Smith”, or “the Prophet Joseph” or “Joseph the Prophet”. Subsequent prophets are referred to as president so-and-so but Joseph Smith is distinguished by this graphic halo of capitals and full title. So do all the major events in the founding of the Mormon Church, e.g. The First Vision; the Restoration; the Prophet Joseph; the Three Witnesses; the Eight Witnesses, etc. This church, that has scoffed at traditional Christian churches for their stained-glass windows, saints with halos, pilgrimages, holy places and associations, has put a halo around itself, its history and traditions, its historic locations and its founding prophet, such that there can be no mistaking the focus of the Mormon faith.
The timeline previously mentioned starts in the first century and contains just enough data in its first 1800 years to create the illusion in the minds of those not paying sufficient attention of continuity between the New Testament Church and the Restored Church of Mormonism. There are 101 entries in all, but the items included in the first 1800 years of the timeline are surprisingly sparse and disturbingly bereft of any emphasis on the most important event in the period where they begin this chronology, indeed,in history. It begins with the seemingly incidental death of Jesus and quickly moves on to “The Great Apostasy” (note the capitals again? This supposed event is a key one in Mormon history, giving credence to the claims of Restoration, and so it merits a graphic halo). The timeline begins:
“34 A.D. After the death of Jesus Christ, the Apostles led the New Testament Church.”
There follow eight notable events covering 1800 years of history. That is one event for every 225 years. There is a ninth event but, since it is taken from the Book of Mormon and even some Mormons are now questioning whether this is an historical document, we won’t count it. Which eight events might you include if you were putting together such a timeline? Of course you would probably want to put in many more since so much of Christian/historical significance has happened in that time, but you are restricted to eight. Oh, and these events must be spread over two continents – Europe and the Middle East, and America. These are their choices:
Europe & the Middle East
100-200 The Great Apostasy. Priesthood authority was taken from the earth.
1450 – Gutenberg refined moveable type, allowing books to be widely available.
1500-1600 – New Translations of the Bible in English and other languages became available.
1517 – Martin Luther and other reformers in Europe began to rebel against Catholicism.
1492 – The Spirit of God led Columbus to America.
1620-1750 God led many European Protestants to North America in search of religious freedom.
1775-83 The Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution established a new nation and democracy.
1787-91 The Constitution of the United States established religious liberty as a fundamental right.
Now, if you know your church history, your mind is probably spinning with all the significant dates, events and people missed out in this chronology. But in this timeline, after 200 A.D. there are only three European events of any note mentioned. The first is in 1450, so that wipes out over 1000 years of history at a stroke. Of the next six events, four are pointedly related to America. Perhaps you are getting the picture now. To be fair, the subject is not Christian history but Mormon history. But that is the point.
History – Where Do You Start?
It has been observed that church history, for many Christians, is something of a mystery. For many it is something that begins with the reformation, or even with the establishment of their own denomination, or their own particular church. That is exactly where Mormon history begins but, unlike the average Christian, this is not a position taken from ignorance of history, although there is ample evidence in Mormonism for such ignorance, so much as from the conviction that,
“This work began with the most remarkable manifestation when the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph Smith on a Spring morning in the year 1820. All of the good we see in the Church today is the fruit of that remarkable visitation, a testimony of which has touched the hearts of millions in many lands.” (Ensign, Jan.2005, p.2)
What do you think comes next in the timeline after the writing of the Constitution, 1787-91?
“Dec.1805 Joseph Smith Jr. is born.”
After this there is a flurry of activity, so much they cannot fit it into one edition of the magazine, and we must await the next instalment. There are ninety significant Mormon events, covering just 26 years, over three pages – and we are only up to Sept.1831! Nothing is so insignificant as to be left out. Joseph’s marriage to Emma Hale is in there (I am sure it was a special day for them, of course).
In January 1831
“Many Saints were poor and desired to know more about the move to Ohio”.
In September 1831 “After the Prophet Joseph was criticised by some associates and the press, the Lord warned against faultfinding.” It seems that no detail, no matter how small, is overlooked in the search for the authentic experience of Joseph the Prophet.
In the December 2004 Ensign a piece appeared entitled I Knew Joseph and is a panegyric from beginning to end. A second article, Let Us Ask God, holds up the Prophet Joseph as an example of how we might rightly seek wisdom from God.
In the January 2005 Ensign, under the heading, Fruits of the First Vision, president Gordon B Hinckley evaluates and summarises the achievements of the Prophet Joseph Smith and quotes part of a poem by Parley P Pratt:
He [Smith] has organised the kingdom of God – We will extend its dominion.
He has restored the fullness of the Gospel – We will spread it abroad…
He has kindled up the dawn of the day of glory – We will bring it to its meridian splendour.
He was a “little one” and became a thousand. We are a small one, and will become a strong nation.
In short, he has quarried the stone…; and we will cause it to become a great mountain and fill the whole earth. – “Proclamation” Millennial Star, Mar. 1845, pp.151-52.
Seminal – Pertaining to, or of the nature of, the germinating principle
The Mormon Church claims to be Restored Christianity and a growing number of people are beginning to think of Mormonism as a legitimate Christian denomination. And yet the seminal events, the germinating principles of the Mormon Church are rooted firmly on the American continent and in the life of Joseph Smith and not, as one might expect, in the Middle East and the first century accounts of Jesus Christ. It might be argued that the article and timeline under question is specifically about events on that continent and surrounding Joseph and, therefore, other events at other times would necessarily take their positions in the background. But what are the seminal events of Christianity and where is the Christian faith, of which they claim to be a restoration, rooted? What does a Christian think about when he thinks about his faith and what does a Mormon think about when he thinks about his?
A seminal and most beloved Bible text for Christians is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It encapsulates the Christian message that man is a fallen creature, hopelessly lost in sin, and in need of a Saviour, and that God provides a Saviour in His Son, Jesus Christ, through whom all who believe will be saved into the Kingdom of God. It brings repentant sinners to Jesus.
The seminal Bible text for Mormons, the Mormon equivalent of John 3:16, is James 1:5
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him.”
Why would this be the key biblical text for Mormonism’s “Restored” Christianity and not the tremendous truth of John 3:16? Because it is the text that, allegedly, sent Joseph Smith into the Sacred Grove and from there to start the Mormon Church. It brings them back to Joseph.
The seminal message of the Bible is that God the Son was born into this world, lived and worked amongst ordinary people, identified with their fallen state, went to the Cross to pay the price for sin, was raised the third day, breaking the bands of death, and was taken into heaven. The whole thrust of the New Testament is that witnesses saw these events and faithfully related them to others who passed them on until we have those same accounts today. The focus of that message is Jesus.
These things can be known and are attested to by many infallible signs:
“This Salvation was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Heb.2:3b-4)
These witnesses left ample testimony as to the reality of their message:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us.” (1 John 1:1-4)
The seminal message of Mormonism is that God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a Sacred Grove and, through a series of visions, dreams and revelations, restored (replaced?) almost every aspect of the message attested to by prophets, signs, wonders and various miracles and by the Holy Spirit. The focus of Mormonism’s message is Joseph. And to replace the message of those who proclaimed what they have seen and heard concerning the Word of life as inadequate Joseph wrote:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: that he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God…” (D&C 76:22-23)
In light of “the many testimonies that have been given of him”, what was the purpose of this testimony? It brings them back to Joseph. Another self-proclaimed prophet springs to mind and the words “seal of the prophets”. It is a parallel that has not escaped the attention of some.
The Good News for Christians is dramatically illustrated in Mark 15:37-38:
“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
The consequence of that event is described clearly in Hebrews 4:14-16
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of trouble.”
And how will a Christian gain such access and with assurance approach the throne of Grace?
“In him [Christ] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”(Ephesians 3:12)
The “good news” of Mormonism is that temples are being built around the world at an increasing rate. In these temples the curtain is re-hung, and the barrier that was torn asunder to create a way, the Way (John 14:6), re-erected. Where Jesus opened a way through which we may confidently gain access to the throne of God another way has been devised.
“If you would become a son or a daughter of God and an heir of the kingdom, then you must go to the house of the Lord [temple] and receive blessings which there can be obtained and which cannot be obtained elsewhere; and you must keep those commandments and those covenants to the end.”(Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, V.2, p.40)
And how will a Mormon know when he or she has been faithful enough and gained access to such blessings as are promised by this “way”?
“No man or woman in this dispensation will ever enter into the celestial kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith…every man and woman must have the certificate of Joseph Smith junior as a passport to their entrance into the mansions where God and Christ are…”(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.7 p.289)
It all comes back to Joseph Smith, who declared of himself,
“I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day saints never ran away from me yet.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol.6, p.409)
As we encounter Mormons wishing to share with us the story of Joseph’s birth and encourage us to “follow the prophet” we must be prepared to share with them the reality of Christ’s finished work and continuing presence with the true saints of God and encourage them to know His true voice and follow the Way (John 10:4).
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 Reachout Quarterly