Mormons claim to have continuing revelation through a living prophet for their Church. What does this mean and should it be something that Christians should expect from their leaders?
There is a common belief amongst Mormons that Christians do not believe in continuing revelation. This is not true. All Christians believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit who’s ministry and work is to reveal Jesus and testify of him. It is only by revelation that we become Christians, and it is by revelation that we grow as Christians.
What Mormons mean is the making of new scripture. Essential to Mormon thinking is the belief that the heavens have been opened once more, and that God, through his servants the Prophets, directs and guides the affairs of his people. From the first vision to the present day continuing revelation is understood to be the lifeblood of the church.
Because Mormonism claims to have begun with fresh revelation from God Mormons delude themselves into thinking that this is still the case with them. The fact is that they no more receive revelation that becomes scripture than anyone else. Over 99% of what they term modern revelation was given within the first thirty years of Mormon history from the first vision in 1820 (depending on which of six disparate accounts you subscribe to) to section 136, given to Brigham Young in 1847.
Since that time there have been two declarations – one announcing a change in doctrine regarding polygamy and the other a change regarding Negroes and the priesthood. These are not revelations but announcements that revelations had been received. They are not, therefore, scripture. After that time the revelation to Joseph Smith known as section 137 and given in 1836 (and so within our thirty year time period), and the revelation to Joseph Fielding Smith given in 1918 were added. Where is the modern revelation in the Mormon church?
Men Like Ourselves
Particularly instructional are the events surrounding the Salt lake City bombings of 1985. They occurred as part of a plot by an historical document forger to defraud the church by pretending to find early Mormon documents. He was largely successful in his fraud and dealt with people at the very top of the church, including the current prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. Clearly these men failed to discern that they were being conned. Particularly embarrassing is the fact that, at the time of the discovery of the fraud, they were about to purchase “ancient documents” that were found afterwards to have been in the church’s possession all along. If it were not for the bombings, and the subsequent disclosure of a forgery plot, they would have certainly bought them. These men were clearly no more capable of supernatural judgement than the next man. Where is the modern revelation in the Mormon church?
Christian leaders act and speak as they are inspired. Christians everywhere can have the revealed knowledge of Jesus Christ and can know his will for their lives. This is revelation and does not have to be written down. God’s written word is complete in that it plainly speaks of and testifies to the life and ministry of his Son, our Saviour. We can know from what is written everything necessary for the building of the Christian life and it is the Holy Spirit who reveals our daily course to us as we submit to his ministry. Completed scriptures, inspired leaders, and personal ministry of the Spirit, that is what Christians have and, from the evidence, and despite claims to the contrary, Mormons have no more to offer.
Do Mormon Church leaders read the Reachout Quarterly?
You might be forgiven for thinking they do. Regular readers will recall that, in the last issue, we tackled the question of continuing revelation in the Mormon Church, coming to the conclusion that there isn’t any. As if in response, the October issue of the official Church magazine, the Ensign, speaks at length of “continuing revelation in a growing Church”. It is worth looking at what is the current, and official, understanding of this important Mormon teaching.
In 1975 the then Prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, said:
“The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one who is living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today’s instructions from God for us today…Every generation has need of the ancient scripture‚ plus the current scripture from the living prophet.”
The Mormon Church is one hundred and sixty six years old, and has had fifteen such living prophets at the helm. So one would expect that, when speaking of it’s heaven lead administration and functions, it would have some remarkable examples of God’s leading. Certainly, when key changes of practice and organisation were announced to the early Saints they were left in no doubt that the Prophet had been up on the mountain and had come down with a “Thus saith the Lord!” A browse through the Doctrine and Covenants confirms this, and reveals a clear pattern of how God spoke through His “Prophet” then. Using two examples from the Ensign article we will look at how “then” compares to now.
Gathering to Zion
In July of 1831, in a “revelation” beginning, “Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God…”, Missouri was identified as “the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints”, Zion ( Doctrine and Covenants 57:1-2). From that time, and throughout the nineteenth century, Mormons were encouraged to “gather” to wherever the centre place of the church happened to be. Under Joseph Smith it was Independence Missouri, then Nauvoo Illinois. Under Brigham Young it was Salt Lake City.
The far reaching consequences of this idea of gathering cannot be overestimated. Through a programme called the Perpetual Emigration Fund tens of thousands of Mormons from the eastern United States and across Europe uprooted their families and relocated in some central place or another. By 1870, we are told, one third of the population of Utah were foreign born.
By the 1890’s there were greater restrictions on immigration, and so the practice of gathering was reconsidered. There was a change of policy, and this change is held up as an example of “continuing revelation in a growing Church”. One would expect that the reversal of such a far-reaching policy; which affected so many tens of thousands of lives; and which was announced with such great fanfare in a revelation published as no less than scripture – one would expect such a reversal to be announced in like manner. Not so! In 1898 a “formal statement” was made discouraging European converts from immigrating to Utah. By the 1920’s a similar statement was made admonishing missionaries to cease preaching emigration. The most sensible thing was done in the circumstances, an executive decision dictated by changing times was made, and the saints stopped gathering. Revelation?
What is Zion?
The identity of Zion has also changed down the years. We have already seen that, to Joseph Smith, Missouri was Zion, with Independence as it’s centre place. Concerning Independence Missouri Joseph received,
“… the word of the Lord concerning his church…for the gathering of the saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the established city of New Jerusalem. Which City shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri…which temple shall be reared in this generation…For verily this generation shall not pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord.” (Doctrine and Covenants 84)
This was in 1832 and, in response, members gathered to Missouri. By 1839, however, they were driven out, no temple having been built. For many years they held to the hope that they would return to fulfil the prophecy. As late as 1935, ninety six years after the expulsion and over a hundred years since the revelation, the Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith spoke of his belief that “some of that generation who were living [then] shall be living when this temple is reared” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way of Perfection, 1935,p.270). One hundred and sixty four years later there is no temple, and Mormons account for less than ten percent of the population.
In such circumstances the Church has, over the years, found it helpful to trawl through early Church writings to find alternative definitions of Zion. These include identifying Zion as a cause, a state of being, or “the pure in heart”, the whole of America, and finally wherever Mormons are gathered in the nations of the world. All, in Mormon theology, are legitimate definitions of Zion. This development of the concept of Zion is held up as an example of “continuing revelation in a growing Church”. However, Doctrine and Covenants section 84, makes it plain that, however you identify Zion, the centre place is Independence, Missouri. The problem is that, today, the centre place of the Mormon Zion is Salt Lake City. Revelation?
The word of the Lord never changeth?
Just as Missouri was to have been Zion according to revelation, but is no longer seen as such, so too have other revelations failed to prove reliable. Polygamy was to have been unassailable because it was “the order of heaven”; Negroes were not to get the priesthood until after the second coming; coloured people were to have turned white as a sign of their increasing righteousness.
All these were announced with a mighty fanfare and a “Thus saith the Lord”. Laws and edicts handed down from the mountain top in pronouncements that became scripture, and were published in the Doctrine and Covenants. Their reversal was done “as in a corner” in mild announcements in the stop press of Church publications – if announced at all. Nothing of any significance has been added to the “scriptures” of the Church since 1847. This in spite of the fact that momentous changes have been made to both doctrine and practice. Think of it. Almost one hundred and fifty years without revelation in a church that claims to be, above all churches, “the only true church on the face of the earth, and led by a living prophet”.