Defending Mormonism…or is that Christian?

We don’t usually carry stories concerning Utah culture and politics in these pages, and for a very good reason. It is simply a question of relevance. When writing, we ask the questions “Will this be a doorstep issue?” and “What aspects of Mormonism are readers most likely to meet in their lives?” We have, however, commented on some such things that seem to bring a greater understanding of the Mormon world-view and how we should approach our witnessing.

In the Winter 2002/3 issue of the Quarterly (Truth Restored 33) we reported on the purchase by the Mormon Church of a one block stretch of Main Street, SLC, and the controversy that ensued when the Mormon Church began to restrict rights of access and free speech (or create a peaceful public space, depending on your viewpoint).

In a recent move, reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, plans are now afoot to create a buffer Zone to keep Mormons and Christian street preachers apart during conference times. In the middle of March the paper reported,

“Fearing that increasingly provocative anti-Mormon protests will incite violence among some Mormons attending the LDS Church’s world wide conference next month, Salt Lake City police say they want to protect protesters by limiting their physical contact with conference-goers. As the LDS Church had earlier requested, the city will create buffer zones during the April 3 and 4 conference in downtown Salt Lake City.”

This development was brought about by an incident during the October 2003 conference when some protesters demonstrated with Mormon temple garments. Understandably, two Mormons took exception to this, tried to take the garments, and were consequently arrested.

It is reported that,

“Protesters still will be allowed to spread their message by walking with church members on public streets and sidewalks as people enter and exit the Conference Center…But those who want to stand still and speak or hold signs must remain in nearby designated areas.”

Police Chief Rick Dinse is quoted,

“Our job here is to provide protection of the protesters and the conferees from themselves, if you will,”

In a later report Ron McRae, director of the national Street Preachers Fellowship, based in Pennsylvania, protested that his preachers were not involved in October’s incidents. He doesn’t believe the new speech regulations should be applied to his preachers.

“They can’t constitutionally box us in anywhere based on the conduct of the Mormons. They need to deal with the criminal element and leave the street preachers alone.”

The authorities, however, are concerned about ‘offensive’ behaviour and speech and come down hard on what they call ‘fighting talk’ and seem determined to avoid trouble.

One Christian group, Standing Together Ministries, a collection of Utah evangelical churches, planned to show support for Mormons attending the April 2004 Mormon conference by lining parts of North Temple with 300 people. Their declared aim was to take up space to prevent anti-Mormon street preachers from using it.

However, due to time restrictions and an inability to organise enough people to co-operate the plan has been shelved. The group has spoken out against the behaviour of street preachers before and their director, The Rev. Gregory Johnson, said that, while disagreeing with Mormon teaching,

“We wanted to just acknowledge you have the right to attend your meetings without being yelled at or offended”.

Another group, the World Wide Street Preachers’ Fellowship, has sought a temporary restraining order in asking a federal judge to bar the city from establishing physical zones where preachers must stand while preaching during the most crowded times of conference weekend.

“We’re prepared to go to jail if we have to,” street preacher Lonnie Pursifull said. “We’re not going to be put into a box.”

More troubling is his frank admission that,

“Mormons just happen to be one of the people on the hit list. We preach Catholics, we preach Jews, we preach Muslims. We preach bars and concerts and evangelicals”

and that he and his fellow preachers will probably offend Latter-day Saints by holding up copies of the Book of Mormon or garments – shock value, apparently, being part of their style of preaching.

What are we to make of all this? We can’t pretend to know what it’s like in Salt Lake City and so we might feel it is not for us to judge. That would be a mistake. To be Christ-like is to be like Christ whatever the circumstances. We fail, of course, and often. However, that is the call and that should be our aim. I always ask myself, if the Mormon I have been witnessing to turns up at my church one Sunday would he be happy to sit next to me in the pew? Would he be glad to see me at all? If I have harangued him as he entered his place of worship last week I doubt it. When we are witnessing it is a mixture of winning and warning. Are we as winning in our ways as we are warning in our preaching? What is your message, “turn or burn”, or “look and live”?

On Another Plane

One should have sympathy for the Mormon who has to put up with the kind of conduct described above. One can also understand the frustration of Christians as they encounter Mormon intransigence that sees mischief in every question and base scheming in every attempt at intelligent discussion. There has, however, always been an element in Mormonism that has tried to engage with what they see as “anti-Mormon” criticism in an intelligent and constructive way. One Christian writer, recognising this, has alerted the Evangelical world to the need to respond in kind and rise above the all-too-familiar exchange of texts, taunts and epithets. In a paper in 1997, Carl Mosser, with his colleague Paul Owen, draws attention to the robust and growing scholarship brought to bear by Mormon apologists and calls on Christians to engage with Mormonism at the same level. He makes a good point although, in my view, the recently qualified (1) Mosser and yet to qualify Owen seem rather too easily impressed by Mormon erudition. Mosser also seems to take his argument too far in insisting that Christians should focus primarily on Mormon scholars. His Christian critics point out that the large part of witnessing to Mormons still takes place in the prosaic landscape of missionary discussions, doorstep dialogues and casual conversations that are so familiar to us. In this arena, they insist, the “sayings of the prophets” and familiar doctrinal issues must be addressed, the received wisdom of everyday Mormonism challenged, and the Bible reinforced as our primary textbook.

Nevertheless, Mormonism has been challenged and, in turn, responded on the level of scholarship and inevitably this scholarship does trickle down to the average believer. Here, and in future articles, I want to look at some of the issues that have featured prominently in recent years and test the claim that, as Mosser and Owen wrote in 1997, Evangelicals are “losing the battle and not knowing it”.

Book of Mormon Scholarship

The first time we meet Mormonism we usually encounter the Book of Mormon, “a volume of holy Scripture comparable to the Bible”. (2) The eighth article of faith of the Mormon Church tells us the comparative worth placed on the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The Book of Mormon, then, takes precedence, as is confirmed by the following statement from Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet.

“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (3)

A remarkable book that it should be more reliable than the Bible be more correct than any other, and that it should be man’s surest way to God bar none.

Correcting the “Most Correct Book”

It is common knowledge that there have been upwards of 4,000 changes made to the text of the Book of Mormon. Most have been grammar, punctuation, spelling etc. although some much more serious changes have been made. It does cause one to question the boasting of Joseph Smith in 1841, especially in light of the account of the translation work by Joseph’s scribes. In 1848 Oliver Cowdrey, chief scribe for the Book of Mormon, testified:

“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” (4)

In a letter to the Deseret News, Edward Stevenson, who is regarded as “the person who best reflects Martin Harris”, (5) wrote:

“Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the prophet possessed a seer stone by which he was enabled to translate as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used.” (6)

A book “translated by the gift and power of God”. A book not considered “written” until every sentence was confirmed as correctly transcribed so that “the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used”.

Faced with all the changes made in the text, however, Mormon “scholars” have come up with a rather different account of how the translation work was done. They quote Doctrine and Covenants 1:24,

“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

It is argued that God showed Joseph the meaning of the text and Joseph had to cast about within his own vocabulary, and whatever resources he had about him, to find a way of expressing this meaning “after the manner of their language”. This, it is argued, is why we find excerpts from the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare, as well as popular books and the local press of the time, in the Book of Mormon.

When Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem, we are told, they took with them Laban’s brass plates, which contained “the record of the Jews”. (7) It is from these the Book of Mormon people quote, thus explaining the presence of so many lengthy Bible texts in the book. There are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James version renders them. Daniel H Ludlow explains this as follows:

“There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon…if his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” (8)

Commenting on this in the Ensign magazine, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote,

“Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording.” (9)

There are, in other words, two conflicting accounts of how the Book of Mormon came to be translated. It was either a word-for-word “translation”, correct in every part, or it was a paraphrase “made after the manner of [Joseph’s] language”. Do we rely upon the accounts of those best placed to tell us what happened, or do we depend upon Mormon scholars to “interpret” events in light of later developments? Of course, given the growing distance in time, Mormon scholars are more able to put this disparity of accounts down to poor reporting on the part of those privileged enough to act as scribes to the prophet. However, since the scribes quoted above were also two of the three key witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it does not help the Mormon scholars to impugn their trustworthiness or their memory.

In Their Weakness

It is a curious phrase to find in a work purporting to be Scripture, “in their weakness”. It suggests room for error, allowance for human failings. There is a similar phrase in the title page of the Book of Mormon:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.

It seems that Joseph Smith allowed for every eventuality in bringing forth “the most correct book of any book on earth” – just in case. Just as well. It has been observed that there can hardly be any book published in the nineteenth century that has had as many changes made to it as the Book of Mormon. There cannot be many anyway. If there are you will probably find in them a publishing history showing that what you have in your hand is not the original but a revised edition. You will find no such candid admission in the front of the Book of Mormon. The unsuspecting “investigator” will be led to believe that this is what came “from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim”. Such equivocation shows why scholars are necessary to “explain” the Mormon message when prophets, seers and revelators are meant to be bringing the plain and unequivocal meaning of the gospel purported to have been lost in apostasy in the first century.

2 Timothy 3:16

(1) At the time of publishing the paper – Carl Mosser was a recent graduate of Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, where he earned masters degrees in Theology, New Testament, and Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Paul Owen was a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he is studying in the department of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology. … return to text

(2) Introduction to the Book of Mormon. … return to text

(3) History of the Church Vol.4,p.461 (1841). … return to text

(4) “Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848, quoted in “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79 … return to text

(5) “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79 … return to text

(6) Quoted in “Where Does It Say That?”, Bob Witte … return to text

(7) 1 Nephi 3:3-4 … return to text

(8) Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141. … return to text

(9) “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79. … return to text

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