'Der Her der Ernte geht!
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die Starben!'
[The Lord of Harvests goes out
to gather in the sheaves,
Even of those who died!]
THE CRISIS OF FAITH
Anthropology is the study of Man; that is the literal meaning of the word translated from the Greek. The science; for it has, from its beginnings, aspired to the position of a science; – the science of Anthropology is a child of the nineteenth century, along with those other aspiring disciplines, psychology and sociology.Anthropologists, particularly in the early days of the discipline, avidly sought out ‘primitive’ peoples and tribes, and assiduously studied their ways and customs, attempting to preserve their languages, artefacts, customs and beliefs. And to what purpose, one may ask.
The motives which drove the early Anthropologists were complex and many, but high on their list of priorities was a desire to understand their contemporary predicament through an understanding of a ‘simpler’ and ‘purer’ culture. Their own predicament was, of course a crisis of purpose and direction, which had been brought into focus by the recent speculations of Darwin , combined with the unprecedented development of the physical sciences, and their application to Western economies.
A crisis of purpose and direction is, in the final analysis a crisis of philosophy or faith, and therefore it was hardly surprising that these Anthropologists, and those who elaborated upon their research, were particularly intrigued by the myths and legends of the ‘primitive’ peoples whom they studied; in fact they were intrigued by ‘primitive’ belief at the very moment when their own beliefs were in turmoil.
Investigations into such ‘primitive’ beliefs included such influential works as Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ (1) and Freud’s ‘Totem and Taboo’ (2), and although it is probably significant to note that neither of these authors were, strictly speaking, anthropologists, they both aspired to use the most recent findings of that discipline in providing material for their writings.Whilst Anthropology is an essentially ‘contemporary’ study, the purpose of the elaborations of authors such as Frazer and Freud, amongst others, was to extrapolate, retrospectively; in an attempt to discover in the past ideas which would facilitate an understanding of the problems of contemporary Western society.
(1) Sir James George Frazer OM,1854-1941. Born at Glasgow, he published the ‘Golden Bough’ in 1890. The book had a world-wide impact, both on academics and on writers and artists of the period, its influence filtering down into popular culture in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century. While, by present standards, much of Frazer’s methodology, and many of his opinions, have fallen into disrepute, there has been a reawakening of interest in his work in recent years.
(2) Sigmund Freud, 1865-1939. Born at Frieberg, Moravia, in Czechoslovakia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (which was dismantled after 1918). He was, in many ways, the creator of psychoanalysis. He published ‘Totem and Taboo’ in 1913, partly as an attempt to ‘explain away’ religion as a by-product of Oedipus Complex, one of his most well known concepts. It is a significant example of ‘armchair Anthropology’, which, over the years, has suffered a similar fate to Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’.
This emphasis upon history was directly related to the nature of the crisis, which had been launched with Darwin’s (3), largely unintentional, and devastating, criticism of the then generally accepted Heilsgeschichte, or Christian view of history as the unfolding process of God’s salvation, as offered to man.
Darwin’s findings in the realms of Biology, by removing the initial Creationist premiss, effectively caused the contemporary stage in the historical process to lose its sense of moral certitude and meaning, rather in the manner that Nietzsche (4) had suggested in ‘Zarathustra’.
Freud, Jung (5), Frazer and others, however, were hoping to provide that meaning from man’s own history, whilst Nietzsche was trying to manufacture such meaning from his own concepts of the ‘ubermensch’ and ‘Eternal Recurrence’, which would stand as contemporary myths.
If one was unnerved by Darwin’s findings and rejected Christian, existentialist or psycho-anthropological responses, one could always aspire to the purest philosophical line, which at that time was represented by the followers of Hegel (6), such as Caird and Bradley. The problem with Hegel, however, was that few people could comprehend his clouds of metaphysical erudition, and therefore as hardly anyone understood what he was talking about, very few could take his option as a solution to the continuing crisis.
Whilst all this ‘ivory tower’ activity was being pursued by academics, the majority of main-stream Christians and many theologians, as well, had come to an accommodation with Evolutionary theory, and were willing to see such ideas be grafted, somewhat awkwardly onto the main corpus of Christian doctrine. At the same time Christian academics, such as Schweitzer (7) and Bultman (8), were making further concessions to contemporary Historical methodology by ‘de-mythologising’ much of Christian Scripture and tradition.
By the closing years of the century there was a continuing, but accommodating Christian tradition, which was accompanied by a new realisation and understanding of contemporary ‘primitive’ spirituality, which, it was considered, shed light on the spirituality of our own ancestors, and resonated with the classical inheritance, which was still so much a part of Western Civilisation.
In America, there was also a concern for the spiritual, although it was not on quite the same plane as that aspired to by European philosophers, scientists and academics. American spirituality had its roots in the Protestant Fundamentalism of the Founding Fathers, who sought refuge from persecution in the Old World. Their spirituality was not only Fundamentalist in the theological sense of the word, but also fundamental & earthy. It gave rise to Salem but also to a myriad diverging traditions, the most potent of which would return in triumph to the Old World.
(3) Charles Robert Darwin, 1809-1882. Born at Shrewsbury, England, the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, the naturalist. He published his ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’, in 1859, as a belated result of his experiences whilst aboard the survey ship ‘HMS Beagle’ between 1831 and 1836. His subsequent book, the ‘Descent of Man’, published in 1871, added fuel to the controversy regarding the apparent ‘scientific’ opposition to Biblical authority, and by inference, Christian values, as they were then expressed. Darwin’s views continue to cause controversy with today’s Creationists, who are opposed to Neo-Darwinism, which represents the current Evolutionary Theory, being an synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelev’s Genetics.
(4) Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, 1844-1900. Born at Rocken, Saxony, the only son of a Lutheran pastor, he subsequently taught Greek and Philology. He published ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, his third major work, between 1883-1885. The main premiss of the book is that, for contemporary European man, ‘God is dead’, and that as this fact has deprived the world of moral and ontological meaning, it must be substituted by new and equally meaningful concepts.
(5) Carl Gustav Jung, 1875-1961. A Swiss psychiatrist, who was one of Freud’s most brilliant disciples and collaborators; they disagreed, in 1921, regarding the role of sexuality in the psychological development of the individual, and Jung went on to develop a Neo-Freudian theory, which lent heavily on the spiritual aspects of the individual’s development. His many books taking much of their material from contemporary Anthropological studies.
(6) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831. German philosopher who held that the Universe is a manifestation whereby the Absolute Spirit realises itself through the World Historical Process. This process is typified by the three-fold development of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, known as the Hegelian Triad.
(7) Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1965. French theologian who wrote one main work, ‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus’. This work attempted to use contemporary historical methodology in studying the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The book was condemned by the Pope in 1917, in his Encyclical against Modernism, and the book subsequently became exceptionally influential in Protestant and liberal Christian circles.
(8) Bultman. A German contemporary of Schweitzer, Bultman is noted for having developed the concept of ‘de-mythologising scripture in response to the insights made available through the techniques of ‘Form Criticism’. Put simply, Bultman believed that the text of the bible revealed that many of the accounts it contained were folk-stories or myths, and that therefore to obtain the true Christian message such passages should be stripped away, or at least ignored.
The Mormon StoryIn America, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Christian tradition, which was mainly Protestant in inspiration, was still strong and robust. ‘Doubt’, in the European sense, was almost unheard of, and the only opportunity for doubt, of any kind lay, in the individual’s choice with regard to the Christian sect to which he would owe allegiance. The moral order was firmly defined, and the existential crisis which was beginning to plague Europe had not reached the New World, and to a certain extent, in some strange way, it never would.
In Vermont, in 1820, Joseph Smith (1) received his first religious call, in the form of a visionary experience. Twenty years later, and just a few miles away, the Fox family were involved a series of strange experiences which were to form the first stirring of the modern Spiritualist movement.
Both the Fox sisters and Joseph Smith were, effectively, shamans, in a relatively modern, educated and technically advanced society. Strictly speaking, Anthropologists didn’t need to go to far off, primitive tribes, and historians and other academics had no need to peer into the dark recesses of time, in order to find living myths, and the footprints of the Gods; for while the mythology of the established Churches was crumbling, a new mythology was being created, in some part, out of the ruins of the old.
The story of the Mormons begins in 1805 when Joseph Smith Snr. and Lucy Mack Smith became the proud parents of Joseph Smith Jnr. The Smiths lived, at that time, in the town of Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. In the early eighteen-hundreds the Smith family moved from the Green Hills of Vermont to Palmyra, west of New York.
While the Smiths were firmly Christian in outlook, they were not attached to any particular church or sect, and they were searching, amidst a sea of conflicting views, for the true Church of Christ. They were, in fact suffering from a peculiar religious ‘anomie’, which was extremely prevalent, at that time, in that part of the United States.
They were, in their own simple way, suffering from the same spiritual disorientation that was, and would be, afflicting the finest minds in Europe as the century progressed.
In the Spring of 1820, Joseph Smith Jnr. was in the woods one morning, outside Palmyra, when he saw two shining figures. Smith believed that these two figures were God the Father and God the Son, and that while observing them he had heard the same words that were reported to have been spoken at the ‘Transfiguration’, described in the Gospels. In addition he was informed that none of the current Christian Churches, or sects, were legitimate, and that the truth would be revealed to him at a later date.
For the next four years Joseph Smith continued his life as a farm boy, until the 21st September, 1823.
On that night he was visited, in his bed room, by an entity calling himself Moroni, who gave him information which enabled him to to recover some inscribed gold plates, which were buried on the summit of a nearby hill called Cumorah.
A further four years, however, were to pass before he was permitted to recover these plates, and during these years Smith was to be instructed and prepared.
(1) Joseph Smith, 1805-1844. Born in Vermont, in the USA, Joseph Smith was the son of a poor farmer and consequently received little formal education. He is remembered as the founder of the marginally Christian sect, known today as the Mormons who have a world wide following of about 6,000,000.
In 1829 Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, a local schoolteacher, began the task of translating the plates. Financial assistance, essential for the performance of such an undertaking was supplied by Martin Harris, a wealthy local farmer with a religious bent. Smith, with the aid of two ‘stones’ found with the plates, translated the plates, from behind a curtain, while Cowdery recorded the words in longhand. The thin gold plates were inscribed, according to Smith, in ‘Reformed Egyptian’.
Harris, apparently took the plates to a certain Professor Charles Anthony, of New York, who examined them and issued a written statement, asserting that the inscriptions on the plates were in Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyrian and Arabic and that the translation so far was an accurate one. He subsequently retracted and tore up this statement.
The document that resulted from Smith and Cowdery’s efforts was entitled ‘The Book of Mormon’ and was published in the Spring of 1830. Eleven witnesses, in total, swore affidavits to say that they had seen the gold plates from which Smith translated the ‘Book of Mormon’, although some of them retracted their statements at a later date. The plates in question were, on completion of translation, returned to Moroni, according to Smith; a section of them not having been allowed to be translated until some unspecified time in the future.
During the translation of the mysterious plates, in May of 1829, Smith and Cowdery had been visited by an entity, subsequently identified as John the Baptist, who had conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood (2), as they prayed by the banks of the Susquehanna River. A short time later, Smith and Cowdery were further initiated into the Melchizadeck Priesthood (3) by three entities, described as the Apostles Peter, James and John.
After the initiation into the priesthood, the Mormon story becomes rather more ‘run of the mill’. The sect grows, and because of its unorthodox beliefs, which include polygamy, is forced to set up its own separate community. Few people appear to want the Mormons as neighbours, and the new, and rapidly growing sect is forced to move, constantly, in search of a new home.
(2) Aaron. In the Old Testament, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy Aaron is described as the elder brother of Moses. After God’s revelations to Moses, on Mount Sinai, Aaron was made responsible for the ritual activities of the Israelites, during their time in the desert, as first High Priest. All subsequent Jewish High Priests traced their descent from Aaron, but with the Hasmoneans, in the first century BC, who annexed the office and subsequently sold it to the highest bidder, the office lost all contact with the true Aaronic line. This was the main cause of both the Sadducees (who provided the later holders of the office) lack of popular support in New Testament times, and the creations of splinter groups such as the Essenes, who maintained that they were the legitimate Aaronic priesthood.
(3) Melchizadeck appears in the Book of Genesis, in the Old Testament, as a priest who blesses Abraham and offers a sacrifice of bread and wine. Because, according to the Bible, Abraham was the Father of the Jewish race, which includes Moses, Aaron, David etc., anyone with authority sufficient to give a blessing to Abraham must have a higher status than Abraham and his descendants, and therefore the Melchizadeck Priesthood must be superior to the Aaronic. For this reason Jesus is described in both Roman and Anglican ritual as being,’ a Priest, after [of the same] the order of Melchizadeck’.
In 1839 the sect established a community at Commerce, in Illinois. They re-named the community Nauvoo and by 1843 its population numbered sixteen thousand. Eventually Smith found himself in difficulties with the Law, accused of Treason by the Illinois authorities.
At first he tried to run, but later gave himself up, and was subsequently lynched, along with his brother, whilst awaiting trial, in June 1844.
Now the Mormons had a martyr. Strangely, when the community, which was now on the move again, selected its new leader, they chose none of the founding members, who had seen the plates, but rather Brigham Young (4), who proceeded to take his flock to Salt Lake, in Utah, and there re-forge the Church of the Latter Day Saints into its present form.
One of the key questions which has exercised the minds of Christians since the first disputes of the Council of Jerusalem, in Apostolic times, is ‘what constitutes orthodox Christianity ?’. In the present era of professed Ecumenicism and burgeoning sects, this problem has become more pressing for committed Christians, although in the ranks of the non-committed few know the problem even exists. Undoubtedly it was the question which exercised Joseph Smith’s mind back in the eighteen-twenties, and if the question was put in more general, and not specifically Christian terms, it was, and is,the question haunting the minds of the greatest thinkers.
(4) Brigham Young, 1801-1877. Born in Vermont,in the USA, he joined the Mormon Church in 1832, and three years later was appointed an Apostle. He succeeded Joseph Smith in 1844, as leader of the Church.
Before the Beginning
Before the beginning, according to Joseph Smith, God possibly existed.
This is not, however, the God usually referred to by the Mormons. The God under consideration here is the ultimate, unfathomable Being from whom all existence, and existent beings presumably derive. Principal amongst those existent beings are the Gods, one of which is the Being, according to Smith that we usually refer to as God. Bearing only this initial revelation in mind, however, one notes, that a totally new light is cast upon practically all other Mormon pronouncements. There is more, however.
It may seem surprising that a religious leader and teacher, of the stature of Joseph Smith might be a little vague about the existence or nature of the Supreme Being, but this should, in fact, be understandable, taking into account the presumption that Smith’s original problem was, in truth, an existentialist dilemma, from which his revelations, apparently, released him. Smith was concerned about his future conduct and resulting destiny. He was searching for a ‘way’, rather than a ‘truth’.
His revelations, regardless of how bizarre we might find them today, were not speculative, but rather, thoroughly practical.
But to continue the narrative; one of the Gods in existence in the beginning was called Elohim (1), and he inhabits a planet which circles the star Kolob. Elohim is a spiritual being, a God, who has, however, a physical body in human form. This planet is also inhabited by a number of goddesses, who also posses physical bodies. Amongst other things, the God and goddesses indulge in sexual intercourse, which as with other beings, results in the birth of children. These children, however, are spiritual, not, apparently, having material bodies like their parents. This is, of course, the origin of the Mormon’s belief in the pre-existence of the soul, which was referred to previously.
The spirit children of Elohim are unable to become gods, like their parents, unless they have a material body, and have undergone a probationary period in that body. The bodies which are available to them, according to Smith, are the newly conceived foetuses resulting from the sexual activities of people on the planet Earth. Who then, one may ask, are the inhabitants of Earth ? It appears that Elohim, in the form of Adam, created Eve, whom he mated with, in order to create a race of material creatures who would bear the souls of His spirit children.
In order to successfully pass their period of probation in the material sphere, Elohim’s spirit children; that is us; must lead a moral life, be taught the means by which we can ascend through the planetary spheres, past the angelic guardians, to return to Kolob, and be eternally wedded (‘sealed’ in Mormon jargon) to our wives so that they may become goddesses with us. The Temple ceremonies, which were referred to previously are all designed to perform these functions.
(1) Elohim is a word of uncertain derivation and origin. The Semitic word ‘El’ is generally accepted by scholars to mean God, carrying ideas or power and might. Elohim, strictly speaking is the plural form of the word meaning Gods or spirits, although often, confusingly, in ancient texts it is used to represent the singular. The use of the name Elohim in the Bible is mainly restricted to narratives in the Pentateuch, (the first five books of the OT, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers). It is significant that, although the word appears in source texts, it was not used in the King James Authorised version of the Bible with which Joseph Smith would have been familiar.
The position of Jesus in Smith’s scheme is, not surprisingly, a little different to that usually taught. According to Smith, Elohim came from the star system of Kolob and mated with a Jewish girl called Miriam, who subsequently gave birth to a son called Jesus (Joshua). Miriam was not married at the time, so no impropriety was involved, although she later married a man called Joseph.
Because Jesus was the result of the union of a God and a mortal he was, according to Smith, already divine, and therefore able to assist man in his search for the moral guidance needed to pass successfully through his Earthly probation. Jesus had a brother, however, Lucifer, who was intent on giving men divinity without the need for an Earthly probation. Elohim rejected Lucifer’s suggestion and the spirit children who had supported Lucifer were forced to become dis-incarnate entities who constantly opposed man, while the spirits who supported Elohim were permitted to enter human forms on earth, when the opportunity arose. Those spirit children who had remained neutral during the dispute were condemned to take the material forms of less evolved races, such as Negroes and other non-European peoples, who would not be able, because of their inferiority, to advantageously use their period of probation, (hence the restrictions on coloured people with regard to the Mormon priesthood).
It has also been taught, by at least two of Smith’s original Twelve Apostles Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, that Jesus was married, polygamously, of course, and had three wives, Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene. It is suggested that the Marriage of Canna, found in John’s Gospel, is in fact an account of Jesus’ marriage celebrations.
While the foregoing brief account explains such matters as the implied pre-existence of the soul, mothers in heaven, certain Temple rituals, the impediments placed on coloured people regarding the priesthood, references to Mormons being ‘space men’, and the name Kolob, etc. it still leaves unanswered the question of the Genealogical Institute.
Mormons do not believe in infant baptism, and in that they rub shoulders with many other Protestant sects, most notably, of course, the Baptists (2). Such a view, while not shared by all Christians, is considered completely consistent with orthodox Christian teaching. The Mormons, however, believe that the dead may be baptised. Fortunately, they do not enact this belief literally, by exhuming corpses, but rather allow the living to stand proxy for the departed.
Researchers have indicated that Shakespeare, Beethoven, Queen Victoria and all the American Presidents amongst many others have been baptised posthumously. This, of course, is the reason for all those genealogical records, which lie, in their protective, holocaust-proof bunkers, in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Smith’s scriptural justification for this teaching, as if any were needed after some of his previous doctrines, is to be found in the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Surprisingly, some might think, Smith appears to be correct in his interpretation of this remarkably straightforward passage of scripture; which opens up the awkward question of why the doctrine is not accepted by orthodox Christians when it is clearly an Apostolic teaching. To pursue questions like that, however, would open up such a can of worms that it is better to return to the Mormons, and the revelations of their ‘latter day’ prophet.
(2) Baptists are a Protestant sect or church originating in England in the Seventeenth Century, and founded by the Rev. John Smyth. The first Baptist church in America was founded on Rhode Island in 1639, by Roger Williams. Baptists conceive of the Church as a community of Saints (spiritual regenerates), and find all spiritual authority in the Bible. Their name derives from their belief that Baptism should be preceded by a profession of faith, and therefore may only be applied to those who have reached the age of reason.
The Message of Moroni
Ever since the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints’, (the Mormons), came into existence, the orthodox churches have attacked it and declared it to be not just another sect, but rather a non-Christian sect. The hatred of orthodox Christians was initially so great that all the evidence points to the probability that they conspired to murder Joseph Smith, in the hope that the infant sect would collapse. The question remains, ‘why were they so afraid of the Mormons, and why has this fear been subsequently tempered?’.
The Mormons, at the time of Joseph Smith’s death were powerful neither politically nor economically in national terms, and undoubtedly the aspect of this ‘new’ religion which the orthodox feared most was Mormon doctrine. Surprisingly, after all the fuss about visions and affidavits, it is not in the ‘Book of Mormon’ that the fundamental tenets of the ‘Latter Day Saints will be found, but rather in two obscure and practically unavailable books, ‘The Pearl of Great Price’, and ‘Doctrine and Covenants’, both by Joseph Smith.
The ‘Book of Mormon’, itself, running to over five hundred pages in paperback, is at best a weak caricature of the Old Testament, even to the extent of parodying the language of the King James Bible. The text purports to describe the history of a small group of Israelites, who left Palestine in about 600 BC and journeyed to America, where they existed until about 400 AD, when their civilisation finally collapsed.
Being a pastiche of the Old Testament, much of the work is primarily a record of this alleged people’s history, and is filled with endless genealogies, plots, conspiracies, betrayals and battles. Eventually the resurrected Christ appears in order to bring the Gospel to his other sheep. As in the Western hemisphere, Christ’s teachings appear to bring little help to his followers in the New World, who proceeded to wage war for two-hundred years, which finally results in their complete destruction.
Theological argument is not a strong point in this saga, and many of the teachings are simply rehashes of material from both the Old and New Testaments, often using the very same phraseology. Anyone reading the Book of Mormon, superficially, could easily think he was reading some little known piece of canonical Scripture, and it is on this basis that Mormons approach likely converts, with an aura of Christian respectability. A well turned out, ‘squeaky clean’ Mormon missionary will not stand on your doorstep and discuss the ‘Pearl of Great Price’, the ‘Doctrine and Covenants’ or the Temple Rituals (1), and may well deny all knowledge of them.
So what are these teachings, which upset orthodox Christians so much ?
The most well known; notorious even, is the Mormon teaching regarding marriage. All the leading Mormons, in the early days of the sect, practised polygamy. It is reliably reported that Brigham Young had sixteen wives, and one estimate even puts the total at twenty-seven. Joseph Smith was equally accused of having up to eighty four wives, although the accepted minimum is around thirty. The result of this is that, even today, family trees can be remarkably complex amongst even the most respectable of long established Mormon families.
(1) The first Temple was built in Kirtland, Ohio, and still stands today. The second Temple was the ill-fated Nauvoo Temple, destroyed by opponents of the sect. The third, and most well known Temple stands in the Main Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was begun in 1853 and was finally completed in 1892. Plans for this Temple were made two days after the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake Valley. The other main Temples are the St. George, the Logan and the Manti Temples, all in Utah. There are other Temples, many in different parts of the world, wherever there is a sufficiently large Mormon population. In addition to Temples, Mormons use chapels, which perform the same function as Non-Conformist churches.
Eventually, in 1890, the Mormon leadership made an agreement with the United States Federal Authorities, in which they undertook not to practice polygamy, whist retaining it as a ‘moral ideal’.
With this one concession, the Mormons gained an instant, if grudging, respectability, and most of their other doctrines and practices were allowed to be quietly swept under the theological carpet. Now Mormonism is on the decline, not because it is a scandal to other Christians, but rather because it is too respectable. Here and there, in the hill country around Salt Lake Valley, there are the odd few ‘oldsters’ still practising polygamy quietly, and there is at least one of the many splinter groups, which have formed sects from a sect, which advocate and openly practice polygamy. By and large, however, it is a dead issue, which is strange.
Perhaps the most pertinent question is why the Mormons practised polygamy in the first case. Most commentators cite the obvious reasons, which are that the Mormon community was short of men, and in addition, was anxious to increase its numbers as quickly as possible. Careful scrutiny of the census records of the period, however, shows, surprisingly, that there were more men in the Mormon community than women. So why polygamy ? The simple answer is that Joseph Smith was ‘told’ to institute the practise of polygamy.
One of the main reasons why orthodox Christians opposed Mormonism so violently was the fact that Smith espoused the doctrine of ‘continuing revelation’. The Christian Church, from earliest times, had taught that God’s revelation to the world, which had begun with Adam, ended with the death of the last Apostle. The ‘Deposit of Faith’ was complete and could not be added to. The result of this teaching was the emergence of ‘theology’, the medieval ‘Queen of Sciences’, which endlessly attempted to interpret and re-interpret the deposit of faith, as found in scripture and ‘the traditions of the Church’. Re-interpretation and comment, however, were all that were allowed. No new revelation was permitted.
Smith, however, considered himself an Apostle, having been empowered with the Melchizadeck priesthood, and therefore, in ‘these latter days’, prophecy and revelation had been renewed. It is, as a result, a fundamental doctrine of the Mormons that there is a continuing revelation from the Lord. One of these revelations, which, apparently, took place on the 12th July 1843, was the ‘re-institution’ of polygamy.
‘Re-institution’ may seem an inappropriate term, but in fact even the most cursory inspection of the Old Testament will reveal that polygamy was the norm among almost all of the the characters depicted in the Old Testament, and the practise was accepted by the Jews in Gospel times. The concept of ‘re-institution’, however, was not the complete story, and the greater part of the motivation for polygamy lay in Smith’s other teachings, which were of a somewhat less worldly nature.
If today you were to visit Little Cottonwood Canyon, twelve miles from down-town Salt Lake City, you would find, hidden in the granite walls of that canyon huge doors, cut into the living rock, which lead to vast, brightly lit, air conditioned, steel lined rooms, protected by fifteen ton blast proof doors. This is the Genealogical Centre of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; protected by steel, concrete and granite from all that the latter days may throw against it.
In these cavernous, echoing halls are kept, on microfilm, detailed information about your family, along with similar information about most families in Europe, America and beyond, going back, in some cases, for hundreds of years. The information about you, kept here, is probably more accurate and more detailed than that kept by your local council or the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages; after all, these records are not kept for tax or census purposes, but rather for the ‘Lord’.
In a similar vein to the re-institution of polygamy, the fundamental question with regard to the genealogical activities in Little Cottonwood Canyon is obviously, ‘why ?’.
Returning to Salt Lake City there is also the question of the Temple, standing solemnly beside the famous Tabernacle, after which the renowned Choir is named.
The Salt Lake Temple is not an outstanding piece of architecture, although, with its grey granite walls, many feet thick, it is monumental and moving, particularly when the sun glints on the golden statue of Moroni, atop the highest pinnacle.
It may come as a surprise to many, however, to realise that the Temple is not like most other great churches, temples or cathedrals in the world, which are often open to tourists and worshippers. There is no non-Mormon (2), living today, who has seen the inside of the Salt Lake City Temple (3). The Temple rites are absolutely secret and are only known to, and practised by, a small inner circle of the sect, for not all Mormons are permitted entry to the Temple (4). Not only are many Mormons excluded from the Temples, but, in addition people of coloured extraction, are not permitted to enter certain aspects of the Aaronic Priesthood, let alone the priesthood of Melchizadeck.
The key to Mormon teachings lies in the doctrine of continuing revelation. Whilst the ‘Book of Mormon’ was an obvious example of this doctrine, it contained little new theology, despite its remarkable claim that the Jews had colonised the Americas and Christ had preached in the ‘New World’ subsequent to his resurrection. In fact the ‘Book of Mormon’ almost seems to become somewhat of an embarrassment with the rising influence of Brigham Young, Kimball and Pratt, and the steadily declining influence, and in some cases expulsion, of the original witnesses to the plates.
Equally, as all of Smith’s writings were published under the control of Brigham Young, the authorship of some of the doctrines may be open to question, although as Young is looked upon as being an equal prophet to Smith, by Mormons, this may not be a pertinent question from a Mormon standpoint.
It has been pointed out that there are some thought provoking similarities between Mormonism and Freemasonry. Possibly the most obvious similarity is the secrecy that shrouds the inner activities of the two groups. The fact that, when Joseph was translating the tablets, Hyrum, his brother was deeply involved in Freemasonry, and that in 1842, two years before his death, Joseph Smith became a Master Mason, may be considered significant here.
(2) Mormons refer to non-Mormons as Gentiles, except for Jews, who are referred to as such.
(3) The same prohibition applies to all Mormon Temples. Temples which have been built recently are normally open to non-Mormons for a short period immediately after completion. Not all areas of the buildings may be inspected however. There are photographs of part of the interiors of the Salt Lake City Temple, and other older Temples, such as the Manti and Logan, which are published by the Mormons.
(4) Entry to a Temple for Mormons requires a written testimonial from their Bishop. In practise this means that less than 25% of Mormons are ever permitted to enter Mormon Temples, and that a tiny 6% regularly attend Temple services. This forms the inner elite of ‘true believers’.
While the Mormons are undoubtedly more seriously intentioned than Freemasons, they also share in common the fact that the outward façade they present to the world bears little resemblance to their inner reality, and that in this it may be suggested that both groups are guilty of dissembling.
Mormons are outwardly a Protestant (5) Non-Conformist sect, and are always assiduous in presenting a front of the utmost respectability in public, and it is this respectability, which has if anything, contributed to their current decline.
Smith was brought up in a totally Christian milieu, in which the Bible was the central literature of his society, and Darwin was yet to make is voyage on the ‘Beagle’. His religious thinking, therefore, while it was creative and innovatory, could not form itself into anything other than a semblance of Christian iconography. Smith’s original, and initiatory, visionary experience he interpreted as being a manifestation of the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’, complete with a quotation from the Gospel, although, strangely and significantly, his subsequent experiences, revolving around the discovery of the plates, were communicated by the non-Biblical Moroni. A later vision, which was also witnessed by Cowdery, by the banks of the the Susquehanna River, involved an entity who was identified as the Biblical figure, John the Baptist, while a subsequent encounter, in which Oliver Cowdery was also involved, suggested that three of the original Apostles, Peter, James and John made contact with the founders of the new sect.
The setting for Smith’s early revelations, with the exception of Moroni, was, therefore, essentially Christian, and the ‘translation’ of the plates, by Smith, produced a document that was decidedly scriptural in style, particularly with its references to the risen Christ preaching in the New World. In addition, practically all of Mormonism’s early converts were Christians who saw Smith’s revelations as the ‘restoration’ of the Gospel. This concept of ‘restoration’ is pivotal to Mormon evangelism, and as been much stressed during the church’s life.
The publishers of Robert Mullen’s, book ‘The Mormons’, tell us in their blurb that the book ‘fully answers all the questions that have ever been asked about Mormonism’. This is a typical stance, here being taken by an author who states that he is not, himself, a Mormon, although the book is a continuing eulogy to Smith, Young and the Saints in general. There are, though, in the book, two lacuna which reveal a little of the truth. In referring to the British Temple, built at Lingfield, south of London, and dedicated in 1958, Mullen refers to the building as the headquarters for ‘higher religious teaching’, and then proceeds quickly to a long and highly approving description of the Hyde Park Chapel.
If this higher religious teaching is only available to the most fervent Mormons, then there obviously is something further to be revealed.
Part of that something is to be found in a poem quoted in that same book. The poem, by the Mormon poet, Eliza R Snow, although mediocre poetry, is worth quoting almost in full, as it is pertinent to our investigations.
(5) Protestants consist of a number of Churches who initially broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th Century, in a process known as the Reformation. Subsequently these churches divided further into various groups or sects, which have continued to fragment.
The original break with Rome was caused by discontent of both laity and clergy with the church hierarchy’s abuse of its privileges and power, combined with theological doubts concerning the nature of the sacraments and authority within the Church. The most significant reformation thinker was undoubtedly Martin Luther, who was able to bring together the forces of social discontent, rising nationalism, and an increasing desire for personal autonomy, in the creation of a new church. Subsequently Europe was divided into a Protestant North and a Catholic South, and a similar situation arose in the New World.
‘O, MY FATHER’
O, my Father, thou that dwellest in the high and glorious place;
When shall I regain thy presence, and again behold thy face?
When shall I regain thy presence, and again behold thy face?
In thy holy habitation, did my spirit once reside?
In my first primaeval childhood, was I nurtured by thy side?
In my first primaeval childhood, was I nurtured by thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose thou hast placed me here on earth;
And withheld the recollection of my former friends and birth.
And withheld the recollection of my former friends and birth.
Yet oft-times a secret something whispered,”You’re a stranger here”;
And I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere.
And I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere.
I had learned to call you Father, through thy spirit from on high;
But until the key of knowledge was restored, I knew not why.
But until the key of knowledge was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single? No; the thought makes reason stare.
Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I’ve a mother there.
Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence – when I lay this mortal by,
Father, mother, may I meet you in your royal court on high?
Father, mother, may I meet you in your royal court on high?
At the beginning of the nineteen-sixties Perry Como introduced a group of new, young singers, during his popular television show, and they later became his regular guests before appearing in shows of their own. They were all brothers, sang, and called themselves the Osmonds. Eventually one of the brothers, Donny, shot to fame and stardom, becoming for some years a ‘teen idol’. Gradually tastes changed and the group faded into comfortable and wealthy obscurity. At the height of their success the group produced one record album which, compared to their others, was an instant flop. Musically it was one of the highlights of an interesting era, but our concern is with, what are referred to in the business as, ‘the lyrics’. The Osmond brothers were Mormons, and in their record album, ‘The Plan’, they hoped to alert their young fans to the moral and existential crisis which they believed was developing as the ‘last days’ approached. It should be noted, incidentally, that at this time, when the ‘cold war’ was at it’s hottest, the Mormons had, along with many other religious groups, become decidedly Millennial (6).
(6) Millenarianism, also referred to as Chiliasm (from the Greek), is the belief that Christ will return to Earth and reign for a thousand years. This view is based upon the literal interpretation of Scriptural passages such as Revelations Ch. 20 and other Apocalyptic works, such as the book of Daniel. The Mormons have, at various times given emphasis to this view, which also forms a fundamental element in the teachings of the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Jehova’s Witnesses.
The most revealing text, from the lyrics of ‘The Plan’ is a song called ‘Before the Beginning’;
Before the Beginning
Before the beginning, we were living Oh so far away from here,
We called it home, but didn’t stay,
We knew that we could leave one day, and cry.
Before the beginning, we were willing to lay aside who we had been,
And take a chance to slip away, or make it back to home one day.
In the beginning we’d be living, as we would be, He once was,
To look at Him, to look at me, and think some day
Like Him I’ll be.
Perhaps even more revealing, from the song, ‘Goin’ Home’:
I’m a space man, from a different land,
I gotta get back home.
Returning to the first poem, and ignoring the religious sentimentality, careful scrutiny shows that two fundamental, but decidedly strange ideas, form the basis of the work. The first is that the soul has existed before birth.
‘In thy holy habitation, did my spirit once reside?
In my first primaeval childhood, was I nurtured by thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose thou hast placed me here on
And withheld the recollection of my former friends and birth.
Yet oft-times a secret something whispered, “You’re a stranger
And I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere.’
(7) Re-incarnation is the doctrine that the soul or spirit may enter another human or animal body after death. Widely accepted as a pivotal doctrine of most Eastern religions, such as Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is also widely believed by many religiously non-committed individuals in the West. The doctrine is also found in the teachings of Ancient Greek Philosophers including Pythagoras & Plato, and has been believed by various Christian sects, such as the Gnostics and their spiritual descendants, the Cathars.
Most ordinary people, however, would probably consider arguments over the merits of the doctrine of pre-existence an example of theological nit picking. The second idea, contained in the poem, though, would probably draw a stronger reaction from most people.
‘In the heavens are parents single? No;
‘the thought makes reason
Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence – when I lay this mortal by,
Father, mother, may I meet you in your royal court on high ?’
The libretto from ‘The Plan’, clearly restates the pre-existence theme, but also contains the very enigmatic verse;
‘Before the beginning we’d be living, as we would be, He once was,
To look at Him, to look at me, and think some day
Like Him I’ll be.’
This is accompanied by a superscription on the album cover which reads; ‘As man is, God once was – As God is, man may become.’
Ignoring the convolutions of the lyrics, it appears that the statements are practically identical, and may be seen to propose a relationship between divine and human nature which is far from the almost infinite gulf religions usually present. If God was once like us, and we will be like God, where does this fit in with the mediation of Christ (8), or for that matter, what role does Christ play, if any.
As I stated earlier, the Mormons present a Christian façade but are, it appears, dissembling. But why ?
Finally we have the reference on the Osmond’s album to Kolob Studios and Kolob Music Company. Just a made up company name, perhaps ?
Well, in fact; no. Kolob is the name of a star system, ‘Oh so far away from here’. Its not referred to in its true guise in the lyrics of ‘The Plan’, and you can look as hard as you like in the ‘Book of Mormon’, and you won’t find it. Equally, you would probably get a blank look from your Mormon missionary on the doorstep, if you mentioned it to him, (it’s always a him, by the way; in fact two hims).
The next question is,’How does all this fit in with God and his wife, and pre-existence ?’ Perhaps, like the Osmonds, we should go back to ‘before the beginning’ for our answers.
(8) The mediation of Christ is a doctrine subscribed to by practically all Christian denominations. It basically states that the nature of both Original and actual sin, (Original sin is the sin committed by Adam & Eve, and actual sin is the sins people commit during their lives), is sufficient to distance man totally from God, and that it is only through Christ acting as mediator, by virtue of his atoning death that man can hope to restore his relationship with God.
To the average Christian, agnostic or atheist, who together undoubtedly make strange bedfellows, the ideas of Joseph Smith generally seem strange, and even repellent. To academics, well versed in the history of religion and philosophy, however, those ideas create a fascinating puzzle, full of loose ends and strange correspondences.
As I have already suggested, Mormonism is only superficially Christian. This ,however, may be seen as an oversimplification. Rather, Mormonism should be seen as a poorly constructed synthesis of two very different traditions.
The first tradition is that of Protestant Christianity. This derives from Smith’s background, as a child and young man. In the early eighteen hundreds the Eastern seaboard of the United States was alive with revivalist movements, and fundamentalist enthusiasm, much of it of a millenial nature. It must be remembered that we are speaking of a time without modern media, communications or entertainment, when most people lived in isolated, self sustaining communities. For the majority, education was minimal, and although literacy rates were remarkably high, considering the lack of formal education, the number of books readily available was limited, and of course an authority and significance, unimaginable today ,was then granted to Holy Scripture.
That the Smith family were imbued with this Protestant tradition is undeniable, considering the fact that it was well known that the family was waiting on a revelation regarding which of the many competing sects was the true church of Christ. Religion was a fundamental question to be answered, for people then, in the same way that politics and economics has become a fundamental topic for people now. Equally, the religious question should not be thought of as being the same then as it is for many people now. In Smith’s day the religious question was not a matter of choosing between a large number of competing, but completely separate, religious traditions, such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc. or, for that matter deciding on the existence or non existence of God. The religious question, in Smith’s time, was simply a question of finding the true interpretation of scripture. There was only one possible religion; Christianity. There was only one scripture; the Bible, and to doubt the existence of God would have meant social ostracism, and the imputation of insanity or possession (1). The only other tradition, active at that time and in that place, which could aspire to any religious stature was Freemasonry, with which, it appears, both Joseph and Hyram were involved, during the period that Joseph formulated the bedrock of Mormon doctrine.
The Christian Protestant tradition is, as I have already stated, evident in the front the church presents to the world, particularly in its missionary activities. It is a tradition that also appears with regard to the entities who brought the initial communications to Smith and later Cowdery. They were identified, in order of appearance as God the father, Jesus, John the Baptist and Peter, James and John, the Apostles. The only figure to break this succession of scriptural figures is, of course, Moroni, faithfully reproduced on the top of the pinnacle of the Salt Lake Temple. Moroni, however, although not appearing in canonical scripture, is, in the book of Mormon, placed in a pseudo-scriptural setting, parodying the Authorised version.
(1) Smith was convicted by the local civil authorities for ‘scrying’ in 1826, [see footnote 30]. Scrying is a form of divination, which involves using a speculum, i.e. a mirror, crystal ball, bowl of water, or some other reflective surface. All forms of divination are condemned by orthodox Christians, and the fact that divination was an indictable offence demonstrates the strength of orthodox Christian feeling to be found in such communities at that period.
The priesthood, both of Aaron and Melchizadeck, whilst bearing few similarities to their progenitors, at least contain a scriptural aura, along with the inclusion of Baptism. The book of Mormon itself, whilst claiming to present what most observers consider to be an unlikely, and un-historical narrative, at least adorns itself with scriptural trappings, to the extent of Christ preaching, in a manner similar to that presented in the Gospels. In all these aspects one can see Joseph Smith being true to the tradition he had been imbued with as a boy. On their own they create a picture of just another eccentric Protestant sect.
The other ‘side of the coin’, though, is very different. The question arises; where have all these references to Kolob, Elohim, polytheism and interstellar communication and travel come from ?
Today such ideas are the common currency of UFO cultists and protagonists of ‘New Age’ philosophies. In the early eighteen hundreds, whilst there were a considerable number of reports of UFOs in the north eastern USA, they were not seen in the context of extra-terrestrial UFOs, and there was no New Age philosophy, but only the strong Christian tradition, already referred to. Smith seems to be a prophet ‘out of time’, creating a story which would be understandable in today’s cultural milieu, but which appears, remarkably, to receive no support from the culture of his own time. Inevitably, this speculation must bring us back to the entities who communicated with Smith, by his own account, and who provided him with the ‘plates’.
To consider, first, the ‘plates’; it seems unlikely that Smith could have had the golden plates of Moroni manufactured within the community where he lived, even if they were not made of gold. Secondly; it is difficult to deny their existence, considering the affidavits signed by eleven individuals, who stated, unequivocally that they had seen and handled the plates. Granted, three of the witnesses were related to Smith, one being his father, and that subsequently some of the witnesses retracted their statements; although those retractions took place in an atmosphere of feuding and schism. It should be noted that, in the end, though, all the signatories declared the truth of their statements on their death-beds. If the plates did exist, and were not manufactured contemporaneously and in that locality, then the question remains regarding their origin.
Smith’s story, as we already know, was that he dug them up from a hill called Cumorah, the supposed site of the last great battle between the Lamanites and the Nephites (2), according to the book of Mormon. As the history of the book of Mormon is not supported by any evidence available to researchers and historians, it is reasonable to believe that the plates need not have been old, and in fact may have been placed at Cumorah contemporaneously, for the purpose of Smith discovering them. The question then arises as to who placed them there.
The only person with knowledge of the location of the plates was Moroni, the non-Biblical entity referred to earlier. The problem, however, with this solution is that we are thereby forced to accept, to some degree, the reality of Moroni, and by inference, the other entities that Smith claimed to have seen.
(2) The Lamanites and the Nephites were the two nations which, according to the ‘Book of Mormon’, had formed from the original group of Jewish migrants which had travelled to America about 400 BC. Despite the fact that the resurrected Christ appeared to his people in the New World and preached to them, these two nations eventually began a war against one another, which lasted for 200 years. The Nephites were totally destroyed, Moroni being the last of their number, and the Lamanites declined culturally, and eventually evolved into the American Indians, subsequently encountered and subjugated by European colonisers.
The alternative option, however, is to accept that all the bizarre revelations, which Smith received, came from the mind of a poorly educated farm boy. Some commentators would point out, however, that both Hiram and Joseph Smith were involved in Freemasonry, and the teachings and rituals of the ‘craft’ may account for the non-Christian element in Mormon teaching.
Because of the essentially secret nature of Freemasonry, there has always been a certain amount of doubt and confusion about its teachings and practices. From the most generally accepted accounts, though, there is little evidence that ‘run of the mill’ Masonry had any influence on the Smith brothers.
Royal Arch Masonry, however, which is the form of Masonry which goes beyond the Third Degree of ordinary Masonry, may have some tenuous links with Mormonism.
Royal Arch Masonry appears to have originated around the middle of the eighteenth century, the first recorded Lodge being the Stirling Rock Royal Arch Lodge, in Scotland, in 1743. There are records existing that indicate that a Royal Arch Lodge existed at Fredericksberg, Virginia in 1753, so that by the early eighteen hundreds Royal Arch Masonry would have been sufficiently established on the East Coast of the USA for Joseph and Hiram Smith to been aware of its existence. As Royal Arch Masonry is only available to Master Masons, Joseph Smith could only have become a Royal Arch Mason after 1842, two years before his death. Any information, therefore, concerning the rituals and teachings of Royal Arch Masonry could only have come from Hiram Smith, Hyram’s colleagues in Masonry, who may also have known Joseph, or books available to Joseph detailing such rituals and teachings. Now the oaths and resulting penalties associated in Freemasonry with revealing the secrets of the craft are sufficiently well known not to require repeating. It is, therefore, very unlikely, particularly at that time, that Joseph Smith would have had access to, or knowledge of the doctrines of Royal Arch Masonry.
It is worth noting however that Royal Arch Masons were aware of the name Elohim, as a title for God, although they did not use it in their rituals. Additionally, the main concepts of Royal Arch Masonry centre around events associated with, and descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple (3), and Mormonism is pervaded with the necessity of Temple ritual. Equally Mormon Temple ceremonies involve the wearing of robes, as do some Royal Arch ceremonies, unlike ordinary Masonic ritual. Mormons also wear ‘aprons’, during Temple ceremonies, as do Masons, but unlike Masonic aprons, which represent the stone masons working dress, Mormon ‘aprons’, usually embroidered with green fig leaves, represent man’s primaeval fall, and awareness of sin.
(3) The first Jewish Temple was a portable structure, described in detail in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, in the Old Testament. Basically it was a Tent designed to accommodate the Ark of the Covenant and other associated ritual objects, such as the altar of incense etc. The Ark was, and maybe is, a mysterious object, partly a receptacle for the Tablets of the Law, ‘graven by the Hand of God’, and partly a Throne, upon which the Shekina (Glory) of the Lord would descend, and from which the voice of God would speak to His High Priest. Anyone, other than the High Priest, who touched the Ark would be instantly killed, and for that reason the priests carried the Ark, when it was transported, on long poles, which slotted along its sides. David, the Jews first King wished to build a permanent Temple for the Ark but, because of his sinfulness, was not permitted to by God. The task was left to his son Solomon. A detailed description of the building is given in First Kings and Second Chronicles. This, the First Temple, was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. Prior to the destruction, the Ark was hidden, probably in the Judean Hills, where it may still await discovery.
The Second Temple was was built after the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon in 537 BC. Because the Ark was never recovered, the Holy of Holies lay empty, and over the years, particularly during the Hellenistic, Seleucid and Hasmonean eras, the Temple gradually decayed. In 19 BC Herod, the Roman client King of Judea, pulled down the Second Temple and began building the Third, and last, Temple. Work on the Temple continued until 64 AD. In 70 AD the Temple was finally destroyed by the Romans.
In the original Jewish Temple, and the two rebuilt Temples, the Holy of Holies was separated from the remainder of the building by a veil. In similar fashion, Royal Arch Masonry has rituals involving a veil, and a dividing veil was a prominent feature of the Mormon Temple at Nauvoo, and all subsequent Mormon Temples.
Fascinating as these correspondences are, though, they are not really significant when one considers that the creators of Royal Arch Masonry and Joseph Smith were working from the same source material, namely the various scriptural descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple.
We are still left, then, with the question of the source of Joseph Smiths strangely non-Christian doctrines. These doctrines, of course, are not unique to Mormonism. All the specifically non-Christian doctrines which Smith taught are to be found, initially, in Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is a religious and philosophical system whose origins are difficult to identify. The system contains elements which derive from the religious beliefs and practices of the Ancient Egyptians, as well as the Jews and other ancient Semitic groups.
The word Gnosticism derives from the Greek word gnosis; meaning knowledge. The main thrust of the Gnostic argument was that salvation could only be attained by possessing a certain secret knowledge. Like Joseph Smith, who was seeking an answer to his existential dilemma, so also, Gnosticism offered to the people of the Ancient World answers to similar dilemmas. Both Gnosticism and Mormonism offer salvation through knowledge of the divine plan, rather than through a relationship with the divine being.
One of the problems in describing Gnosticism is the simple fact that it is probably the most amorphous of all religious philosophies. The most widely known form of Gnosticism is Christian Gnosticism, and while orthodox Christians have always condemned it as a heresy, many commentators would suggest that so called ‘orthodox’ Christianity is in fact a product of Christian Gnosticism, created by the ‘apostle’ Paul (4), who was, himself, steeped in Gnostic and Hellenistic religion and philosophy. It has therefore been argued that, if Jesus of Nazareth had returned to earth any time since the end of the First Century AD he would have had great difficulty in recognising the Christian Church as having any connection with the teachings and ideas which he espoused.
True Gnosticism existed long before the existence of that Jewish sect, which broke away from Pharisaic tradition, under the influence of the Apocalyptic teachings of one Jesus of Nazareth, and which was later known as Christian Church. Gnosticism, in its original form was, undoubtedly, the result of the immense social and cultural upheavals caused by the creation, and subsequent disintegration of the vast Hellenistic Empire created by Alexander the Great.
Whilst Gnosticism answers an existential need, it also provides a speculative metaphysic of some considerable complexity. Gnosticism itself may be clothed in the trappings of almost any culture; its elements bearing the names and symbolism redolent of that particular place and time, whether it be Egyptian, Greek, Syrian or some syncretic amalgam of all or some.
(4) Saul of Tarsus, who, after his conversion to Christianity changed his name from the Hebrew, Saul, to the Roman, Paul, was the son of a wealthy Jewish family. He had received a Pharisaic and Classical education, which resulted in him being familiar with both Jewish Gnostic inspired literature and Classical philosophy, including that of Plato and the Stoics. Although referred to as an ‘Apostle’ by the church, he was not, strictly speaking entitled to that appellation, which was only given to those who had ‘known Jesus in the flesh’, and had been chosen by him at the beginning of his public ministry. Paul, undoubtedly, changed the ‘Followers of the Way’, as they were known, from an Apocalyptic Jewish Sect into members of a Hellenistic Mystery Religion.
Gnosticism is essentially monotheistic, although initial and cursory inspection might not immediately reveal this. All Gnostic systems posit the existence of One Supreme Being, usually conceived of as ‘unknowable’, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Being ‘unknowable’ this Ultimate Being is, seemingly, utterly divorced from material reality, which is brought into existence by a being, or beings, either created by, or emanating from the Ultimate Being.
This creative being is known as a Demiurge, from the Greek for craftsman, and is the equivalent of the non-Gnostic’s concept of God. The Demiurge or Demiurges, if the system requires a plurality, creates the Universe and all other existent beings.
Between the Demiurge, sometimes also known as the Logos, and man lie numerous other beings, who act as guardians, maintaining a necessary separation between the human and the Divine. These Guardians are usually referred to as Aeons, and they are generally allotted, one to each planetary sphere, between the earth and the Heaven of the Demiurge. In addition to the Aeons there are Guardian Spirits for each of the Races of Man, and other Guardians for each of the Nations.
At a lower level there are Elemental Spirits; that is entities comprising of only one of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, unlike human beings, who are composed of an equal mixing of all the elements. The lesser forms of the elementals are considered to act on behalf of the Demiurge, creating and maintaining the various aspects of creation, according to their elemental natures, i.e. earth spirits with regard to vegetation, water spirits with regard to the seas, rivers and lakes etc.
This rather involved metaphysical structure sets the scene, but the crux of the matter lies in the Gnostic teaching about salvation; the existential relationship between the Cosmos and Man.
Man’s origins are held by Gnostics to lie in the Heaven of the Demiurge or Logos (5). This idea echoes the doctrine of the Theory of Forms, proposed by Plato in the ‘Republic’, and in certain other of the ‘Dialogues’. From this perfect world man descends through the planetary spheres, into the world of imperfection and matter. Man’s life is held to be a probationary period, and when it ends, if the divine spark of the spirit is still viable, it will attempt to return, through the planetary spheres, to its original home. The planetary spheres, however, are guarded by the Aeons (6), who will not permit the ascent of the soul. The ‘Gnosis’ consists, therefore, apart from the metaphysic presented so far, in the signs and passwords which will enable the soul to pass the guardians of the spheres. Each planetary sphere constitutes a heaven, or more precisely a celestial realm, and while on earth, the degree of an individuals initiation will indicate the highest sphere to which he can ascend after death. Salvation is, therefore, not an absolute, but is rather dependant on the level of Gnosis achieved in life.
(5) Logos is a Greek word translated variously as ‘word’, ‘speech’ or ‘reason’. The term was used by numerous Greek philosophers to describe the universal principle of reason, which they believed resided in man. The Hellenised Jewish writer, Philo, introduced the word into Gnostic terminology when he referred to the Logos as God’s agent in creation, and an intermediary between God and Man. The most well known use of the term is to be found in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. John’s Gospel derives much of its flavour from Gnostic thought, which was very prevalent at the time. In John’s Gospel Jesus of Nazareth is referred to as the Logos, thus wresting him from his Jewish origins and re-creating him as a Gnostic Demiurge.
(6) Because of the limitations of their astronomy, the Ancients only recognised seven planetary spheres, or heavens. Paul of Tarsus, in his ‘Second Letter to the Corinthians’ states that a man was ‘caught up into the third heaven’, that is the third planetary sphere. This passage demonstrates how Gnostic ideas had thoroughly infiltrated the Early Church by the middle of the First Century, and even today we have the popular phrase ‘seventh heaven’, which derives from the ancient Gnostic tradition.This is undoubtedly a powerful and influential system, which informed almost all Classical religion and philosophy, and by way of the Seleucid hegemony of Palestine in the Second Century BC, influenced the Hasidim, and subsequently the Essenes and Pharisees, and through them the evolving Christian Church. Despite the fact that Gnosticism was repeatedly condemned by the Christian Church, by the very fact that the antecedents of the Church, in the form of the Jewish sects previously referred to, were riddled with Gnostic thought it was inevitable that some Gnostic ideas were to become part of the common currency of Western culture. In addition the rediscovery of Classical learning, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a process usually referred to as the Renaissance, brought a second stream of Gnostic ideas into the West, in the form of Neo-Platonism (7) which formed the basis of many later Occult investigations and developments.
It is easy to see the connections between Joseph Smith’s ideas and the Gnostic system. Both see the Ultimate Being as ‘outside creation’. Both posit the existence of a Demiurgic creator God, with ‘special responsibility’ for this planet. Many of the Mormon Temple ceremonies involve the ritual revealing of esoteric signs and passwords which will enable the aspiring Mormon to pass through the planetary spheres in order to reach the seventh Celestial Sphere which contains the star Kolob and the celestial realm of Elohim. Smith also taught a plurality of ‘Gods’. and this, again, is consistent with Gnosticism.
Is Mormonism, then, just another resurgence of that ancient ‘heresy’ Gnosticism ? Orthodox Christians would say ‘yes’, while strongly denying that their form of Christianity had any Gnostic elements in it at all. Apart from the latter proposition, they would undoubtedly be right; Mormonism is an awkward amalgam of Protestant Christianity, Americanism and Gnosticism. The Protestant element is easily accounted for by reference to Smith’s religious and cultural environment.
The Americanism is evident in the spurious ‘history’ of America provided by the ‘Book of Mormon’. Such a phenomena is well known in situations where a national identity has been suddenly acquired, rather than developing over the centuries. Germany is an example. The creation of a German nation demanded a German identity, which people like Wagner were eager to provide. Yeates performed a similar service for the Celts. Unlike Smith, however, Wagner and Yeates had a legitimate mythology to develop. Smith’s tales of ancient America, unfortunately do not bear scrutiny, probably because Smith himself did not have the imagination or depth of learning which would be required for such a daunting task.
Finally, the Gnostic element raises a fundamental question. It is difficult enough, today, to obtain material detailing the belief and philosophy of the Gnostics. Much of this information has only become available during the present century as a result of excavations such as those at the Wadi Qumran and Nag Hammadi, and the subsequent translation and resulting interpretation of the documents found. Such information was definitely not available to Joseph Smith, who was then living in the little town of Palmyra, in New York State in the eighteen-twenties.
(7) Neo-Platonism was a philosophical and religious system which, for intellectuals, rivalled Christianity between the Third and Fifth Centuries. Expounded most eloquently by Plotinus, it derived its initial ideas from the writings of Plato, and added to them other elements, mostly of Gnostic origin. Primarily a speculative and contemplative system, it fell into decline with the collapse of the Classical world following the Barbarian invasions.
That the Gnostic element was the product of his own imagination is equally unlikely. We have already noted that the ‘Book of Mormon’ is a dull, and almost unreadable pastiche of the Old Testament, probably as much the work of Cowdery as of Smith. Undoubtedly, as stated before, there were ‘plates’, but whether Smith and Cowdery were able to translate (8) them with any accuracy, if at all, remains an open question. This would indicate that Smith’s ability as a creative theologian and philosopher was at the level one would expect from a relatively uneducated, provincial farm boy. And yet the most significant part of Mormon doctrine is an almost ‘blow by blow’ recreation of fundamental Gnostic beliefs, with an unknown star system added in for good measure.
Equally, the Gnostic elements were absolutely contrary to everything that Smith had been brought up to believe from childhood. These elements preached a pagan polytheism as opposed to a Christian monotheism; an immoral and sinful polygamy as opposed to a Christian monogamy and a heretical ‘salvation through knowledge’ as opposed to the Protestant teaching of ‘justification through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice’. How Smith, a believing and committed Christian, came, in the first instance, to conceive of these ideas, and to subsequently disseminate them is an outstanding enigma.
Fundamentalist Christians would undoubtedly suggest that Smith had been taken over by ‘the Deceiver’. A similar, but less extreme solution would be that this may have been a case of clairvoyance or ‘channelling’.
Something or someone appears to have been using Smith to convey certain, somewhat strange, ideas. The obvious choice is, of course, Moroni. Undoubtedly, like most other contacts and ‘spirit guides’, ‘Moroni’ was a suitable identity for the intelligence that was making contact, and it was an identity which Smith could subsequently work into his Biblically influenced, turgid tale of pre-colonial America.
If this is the solution to the strange case of Joseph Smith; American farm boy turned Prophet, High Priest, Author, Mayor and Military leader (9), and finally Martyr, then it joins Smith to an ever growing band of individuals who had been guided, changed, used or abused; and whose influence has, on occasions, changed the course of history.
(8) Smith maintained along with the the plates buried at Cumorah were two stones, which were called ‘Urim’ and ‘Thummin’, and a breastplate. These stones were apparently used by Smith to enable him to translate the plates. When Smith translated, he did so from behind a curtain, and therefore we have no knowledge of how he used the stones, or to what use, if any, the breastplate was put. Significantly, no mention of the stones or the breastplate is made in the affidavits relating to the plates. It is interesting to note that in 1826, Smith was convicted and imprisoned for a short time for ‘glass looking’; scrying, in other words. Apparently he claimed to have a magic stone which, when he peered at it, showed him where money or treasure was hidden. Oddly, this is one year before he claimed he recovered the plates, stones and breastplate from Cumorah, while it is three years after his initial discovery of them.
The stones were not, surprisingly, an invention of either Moroni or Smith. There is evidence for such stones having actually existed. The stones are first mentioned in the book of ‘Exodus’ and are described as stones, worn on the shoulders of the High Priest, as part of the harness supporting the ‘Breastplate’ bearing the twelve stones or jewels,which supposedly represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These two stones were believed to indicate the will of God by emitting light. The last occasion on which they were seen was during the Seleucid period, and there is documentary evidence that independent Greek witnesses saw the stones emit a substantial light on that occasion. Subsequently, the stones ceased to function, indicating that the Lord was no longer prepared to speak to his people. It was generally believed that this was because of the failure of the Aaronic Priesthood, and this was held to be a major cause of the crisis in the Jewish religion which brought about the development of such sects as the Pharisees, Essenes, and the followers of Jesus. The stones, which formed part of the Temple Treasure, were seized by the Romans in 70 AD, when they destroyed the Temple, and were taken back to Rome, with other items from the Temple treasury. At this point the stones disappear from history. Smith and the Mormons offer no explanation as to how they became buried in the Hill at Cumorah.
(9) Smith became Mayor of Nauvoo, and at the same time was Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, which he used to suppress opposition to his view; an action which resulted in his arrest by the State Authorities and subsequent lynching.
Examples of Mormon Temples
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