Just this week, I had the opportunity to visit the boyhood home of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. Work had taken me to Rochester, NY, so I drove to Palmyra. There I saw his farm, the Sacred Grove where God the Father and God the Son appeared to Smith, and Hill Cumorah, where the Angel Moroni eventually deigned to allow Smith to dig up the Golden Plates.
As I visited, I was very open to what the Mormon missionaries there had to say to me. I was greeted by a Bible open to James 1:5, where Smith himself understood from Scripture that if any man lacks wisdom, he should ask of God, who will grant him understanding. I had good fellowship with several missionaries, all of whom were just flabbergasted that a Baptist could be respectful and even acknowledge the depth of feeling on which Mormon faith rests.
Mormons really do understand feeling well.
What they miss, I fear, is authority.
Theirs is personal. Mine is far wider than that. Theirs is a man. Mine is bigger than that. Theirs ultimately rests on a question of whether or not one feels Smith is right. Mine rests on a tradition that is frankly longer, wider, and even more bloody than Smith’s.
While I toured Smith’s own house (the one that was purchased by a friend and rented back to his family after it had spent the rent completing his dead brother’s frame leaving them unable to pay the rent due, only to be later repossessed), I learned of Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses to the Golden Plates. I learned of the “lost 116 pages,” a document which when shared with Harris’ wife, broke a pledge to keep the document secret. I learned of the faith of the men who continually had to hide the new “Scriptures.”
Then, I learned of the story of Lehi and Nephi, who had been given a divine compass that guided God’s chosen from Israel to the New World. I learned the story of Helaman, who, after his own people had renounced war led their children to bloodless victory over their enemies. I learned of Moroni who hid the Golden Plates so conveniently near where Smith resided.
I cannot fault them for outrageous claims. After all, I believe a man was whipped, hung, asphyxiated, pierced, and dead, and then he wasn’t. (Grant you, I can look at DNA that says there were Jews in Palestine, but not in North America, but I digress.) Still, I take comfort in understanding that men have travelled the whole world to return to that place where God became man. It is a backwater conveniently like every other, so I cannot say that it lacks authority because of its place of origin.
I heard the witness of Smith’s wife proclaiming that he was incapable of manufacturing any decent sentence on his own, and thus he had to have received this from a higher power. (This, despite his portrayal as a clean, articulate, handsome man in the Mormon movies, made me glad to know that cheesy religiousity in film is not restricted to Christians.)
And, sad to say, as open as I was to the depth of feeling and ardent belief, I couldn’t bring myself to believe a word of it. Indeed, I truly believe my Mormon brethren feel far better than I do, but their Scriptures lack authority.
Why can I say that about the Book of Mormon, but not the Bible, you ask?
In fairness, let me cast out my primary defense of the Bible. I believe in the authority of the Bible mostly because I have seen it change lives. I have seen men return to their wives because they were convicted of God’s love for them in Corinthians and John. I have seen drunks give up the bottle because they understood God is a sober minded judge who is bound by a divine logic evident in Romans.
But I say, I cannot fault my Mormon brothers on this – for I have seen lives transformed by their Scriptures as well. When it comes to depth of feeling and experience, frankly, they have me beat.
But I also know something more about feeling. It is good, but it must be tempered.
I know that in my own life, Jeremiah speaks truth when he tells me “the heart is deceitful and wicked above all things – who can know it!” I know that left to my own devices, my heart is too willing to make a God and a world who suits me, rather than an external God in an external world who shapes me. Like a written constitution, it sets the boundaries past which my interpretation may not stray.
But as I say, I cannot fault my Mormon brothers on this, for they too have Scriptures which proscribe their activities. They do not drink coffee or cola, let alone beer or wine. They understand that God’s rules give structure to their lives.
So, what differs between my Bible and theirs? Many things, but the chief of which is authority of those who promulgated it to me..
Of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, all spent the majority of their lives disassociated from the Mormon Church. True, two of the three reconciled, But none played a major part. In contrast, of the eleven disciples who were with Christ, all endured to the end. I can too easily explain away disagreements between Chowdry, Harris, Whitemer, with Smith. I also know that Peter and Paul had disagreements. And, I cannot so easily dismiss that neither Peter nor Paul claimed any special headship within the church. When Peter and Paul disagreed, they did so within the authority of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. They acknowledged and agreed with each other in their writings – and even in spite of their disagreements, commended one another in Christ. They pointed to an authority beyond themselves.
There are three witnesses to the Golden Plates. There are none to the original manuscripts of the Bible – but guess what? Here too, the authority of the Scripture is subordinated to that of Christ. Where there is unanimity of authorship within the Book of Mormon (and the Qu’ran, and the Buddha), the very disparate nature of the individual revelation of Scripture to men over the course of 1500 years has an authority that rests on more than one man. That there are differences of opinion lead me to suspect a greater strength of purpose.
My pastor is not a perfect man. When I was a pastor, I was not a perfect man. (Trust me, the only prophetic statement I ever really made was “Jesus is Lord, I am not. Everything else is theology.”) But even in our imperfection, we recognized that our faith was not the product of one Man, but of something revealed over a much longer time.
I can’t help but wonder about those 116 pages. Was it a rejected draft? Did Harris and Smith decide to change their theology?
In contrast, my Bible was assembled over a period far greater than the life of any one man – or even any one kingdom. There could be no revision (and, yes, I hear that gag) because there was too much time for any one draft. (No, Jesus did not change the law! He fulfilled it. Can we move on?)
In the end, Smith, and James, were right. Ask God for wisdom – it will be given. Wisdom is fundamentally the ability to try and test the authority of given revelation. I believe not in the witness of one or three or eight, but many. It is not the authority of twelve disciples but of twenty, forty, and sixty generations. It is the authority not of 200 years, but 2000. (And is it not interesting that Mormonism converges back to the Bible?) The authority that has transformed lives is backed up by not by a man but by a Scripture that transcends them all.
That my friends, is the beauty of the Bible. It is ugly. It is both short (in length) and long (in time.) It is partial, but it is not exclusionary. It is assembled over time by men who disagreed but recognized the authority of one over them.
In that disagreement and messiness, a certain authenticity of subordination to a common Christ reassures that this thing is real.
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