December 5 2004 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith. This year we are promised many events, publications, and eulogies to mark this historic event in Mormon history. The January 2005 Ensign magazine kicks 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ninth event but, since it is taken from the Book of Mormon and even some Mormons are now questioning whether this is an historical document, we won’t count it.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.
I am inclined to contrast these words with those of the apostle Paul who insisted, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It seems clear that the testimony of the Mormon prophet is about Joseph Smith while the testimony Paul and of the Bible is about “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. The contrast is stark and the implications profound.