Thursday, May 25, 2017

Historical Mormonism

I was listening to a podcast today about LDS issues and this statement struck me:
“We on the whole, Mormons, don’t do theology really. We don’t have theologians. We have historians. That’s where our issues are fought out.”1
That is a fascinating statement to me.

History can be a dangerous and complicated place for a religion to fight a battle. It is a particularly vulnerable place for a religion as new as ours is. It is our insistence on (quite recent) actual events, actual visions, and actual miracles that makes our religion peculiar, often laughable to other peoples. But fighting the battle of historical miracles gives power to our claims.

For example, our church teaches that the cornerstone of our religion is the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a book of scripture translated from golden plates—plates that we claim were actually hefted out of a hillside and given to a boy prophet by an angel, and then handled and looked at by a dozen plus witnesses. Each witness swore their name to a document, claiming that they saw with their eyes and “handled with their hands”2 and turned the pages of very literal plates of gold. These were gold plates that were plausible enough that local enemies of the prophet certainly believed in them; at least they went through great lengths to try and steal them from the prophet. These were gold plates that were hidden in a tree stump, in a barrel of grain, under a bed, up in a barn. This is all a matter of historical record. One can dispute the record if they wish. It could, after all, be an elaborate hoax involving dozens of people. But we latter-day saints, much to the consternation of some critics, believe in the historicity of actual gold plates.

Not to mention the history found on the plates themselves—not just a straightforward little story, but one that is extremely complex, far beyond the education level of our little 24 year old hayseed prophet—one that includes at least three groups of people that all lived in the Americas during a thousand year plus historical time-frame, making for a wonderfully complicated story. Besides the depth of doctrine and incredible clarity of teaching, we also have accounts of ancient government systems, compelling family dynamics, ancient warfare tactics, a system of coinage, political treatises, and much more. There is no shortage of historical claims found there that can be examined, disputed, and engaged with, and while it contains the “fullness of the gospel of Christ,” it is clear that The Book of Mormon is not a mere theological treatise. It is a historical record preserved with incredible detail and force, with remarkable spiritual weight heavier than the gold it was written on, and it is meant to convince us all, “Jew and Gentile, that Jesus is the Christ.” It is extraordinarily compelling evidence to me at least. Those that treat it lightly, reject it, or ignore it; I believe they do so at their own spiritual peril.

Latter-day saints also believe in a historical God, one that came down to Joseph Smith with an actual body in the Spring of 1820—that He had hands, eyes, ears, hair, toenails, and all the rest—and didn’t just poof around like a magical mystery force in the universe, but actually pointed to His Son with a real finger, calling a teenage farmboy by his name to answer his prayer. Imagine! For us it is a remarkably real and historical event.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, we also believe that real, tangible, actual angels came down from heaven and put their actual hands on Joseph Smith’s head to restore the priesthood. The Latter-day Saint claim to authority is not a mere abstraction. It was a historical event in the same way that Moses spoke to God in the burning bush, that Israelites actually walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, and that Christ was actually resurrected and appeared to his disciples. The story of the restoration by the prophet Joseph Smith is so simple that my young children can tell the story. That is powerful stuff to me.

Did God really appear to Joseph Smith in New York? Did he see an angel named Moroni in his bedroom? Did the eleven witnesses really see and handle plates? These are the questions that rise from the history claims, not theology.

“Sure,” a person may say, “But there is no real proof.”

Well, this is history, not science. No one can prove history, but what we can do is look at the evidence to more accurately inform our understanding. While our faith issues are fought out in history, historical proof is not the basis of our faith. Proof is not how God works. We have a God who took back the gold plates. Why? Because He expects us to live by faith, which is frustrating to some, but learning faith is precisely why we came to earth. We already had proof when we lived in heaven.

In the restoration narrative, yes, there are certain questions that are raised. Everyone should grapple with those questions in some way. Questions and doubts are a necessary catalyst for exercising faith. For example, Why are there multiple and contradictory accounts of the First Vision? Why did Joseph dig for gold as a youth? Why did he fail in his business endeavors? And what about polygamy, for heaven’s sake! No easy answers there. The history is complicated enough, perhaps by design, to demand a humble prayer, a wrestle of some sort for all seekers of truth, rather than be led gently down the road of easy, passive belief.

So we are back at the basics. If our issues are historical, not theological, then we must study the historical evidence to formulate our spiritual questions, most crucially by studying the Book of Mormon, and we do so with sincerity, humility and faith,3 and then we ask God.
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1. Daniel Peterson in “Tough Questions about Mormon Polygamy.” Retrieved from http://www.ldsperspectives.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/37LDSP-Tough-Questions-about-Mormon-Polygamy.pdf

2. The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.

3. Moroni 10:3-5

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