The Mormon Church is marking the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth and, in the eyes of many onlookers, making a little too much of Joseph Smith. Mormons insist that they do not “worship” Joseph but simply revere him. In this anniversary year many are asking the question, “In Mormonism, is Joseph equal to Jesus?” How have Mormons come to make so much of Joseph? It’s all in the plan.
To Mormons, God is an exalted man, who became God by obeying his God, and men can become gods. To a Christian, God is sublimely different, “other” than us, Whose ways are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:8), different in quality. To a Mormon, God differs from us only in that He has grown so much further than us, and is different only in capacity. While Christians regard Christ as God the Son, the creator-God come in the flesh, Mormons use similar phrases to describe an entirely different Jesus, who is different only in that he has “progressed” further than us. 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 subservient 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 subservient 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 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.”
Here 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 handgrips and passwords “to pass the angels who stand sentinel”. Although God stands at the head of this structure he is not at the head of everything, for his God has progressed beyond him, as has his God, and on into infinity. No one in Mormonism is ever all in all, the prime mover, the uncreated creator of all things. They know no such being. Brigham Young said:
“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.”
How can Joseph’s passport guarantee us entry? What of all the others mentioned in the list? The authority of every dispensation from Adam onwards 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.
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. Indeed, they are not incredible at all if God is only a greater man than us, Christ is playing his, albeit greater role, and Joseph playing his, and all progressing to even greater glory. Again, read Brigham Young:
“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.”
(That word “sphere” again).
Praise to the Man
There is a hymn lauding Joseph in the Mormon Church. I recently asked two Christians of long-standing for their thoughts on it, one an experienced chorister, the other a pastor in a local Baptist Church. Without comment or preamble, I simply handed them a copy of the Mormon Hymnbook. They leafed through it, impressed to find such familiar hymns as “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and “Now Thank We All Our God”. Then I pointed them to hymn 27 where they found the following:
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.
One asked “Is this about Jesus?” The other, on reading the fourth verse, expressed surprise that Mormons made so much of Joseph of Egypt. It just didn’t sink in until I simply said, “This is Joseph Smith.”
Responding to the chorus, one said, “But there is only one who plans for us, that is Jesus.” He drew a parallel with the Catholic view of Mary as co-redemptrix. The pastor asked where Jesus was in all this.
“They are worshipping Joseph”, he said. I objected that all faiths have their heroes, Christians have their “Saints”, Peter, Augustine, etc. He didn’t see it that way. “We don’t ‘praise’ them, we don’t ‘hail them’ like this,” he said.
“Whose blood are we talking about here?” one asked.
“Joseph’s”, I replied. “This is shocking”, said the pastor. “I knew they weren’t right about some things but I had no idea they were this wrong.” I asked the chorister whether he, in his many years of experience, had come across anything like it in Christian hymnology. He spoke of hymns that praised God for certain men, prayed to God for people, even told, in song, stories from the Bible but nothing that praised, extolled, revered a man.
I think Mormons, who are so inured to this way of thinking, have no idea how shocking it is to people who know only the orthodox, traditional Christianity. These men were experienced Christians and they were stunned. 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?