St Andrew's Croydon
Sunday 14th July, 2002
The Man with the Vision
Last Sunday we looked at the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses and saw that however much we may admire their courage and dedication, their belief that Jesus or Jesus/Michael is a being who is only "somewhat God-like" cannot possibly be reconciled with the clear statement in our Creed that he is "True God from True God, of one substance with the Father"
Now let's turn to the Mormons or Church of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ as they prefer to be known. We're immediately struck by some of the similarities between them and the Witnesses.
Both started in the nineteenth century, in New England, the east-coast states of the US;. Both were the brainchild of one person, but owed their ultimate success to somebody quite different; both depend heavily upon a book which is to be read alongside the Bible as the source of their faith; both have those same attractions for people who feel that they're Nobodies, because their new-found faith convinces them that they are really Somebodies after all – belonging to a minority, being part of an hierarchical structure, and enjoying the wholehearted support, material as well as spiritual, of their fellow-believers.
Mormons, however, enjoy something a bit extra. For according to Joseph Smith, their founder, their Book of Mormon was not just something which came out of his mind (as it did with Russell and the Witnesses), but was discovered by him when a vision prompted him to dig in the ground on a certain hill to unearth a series of gold plates upon which he would find written not only the full history of the former inhabitants of North America, but also the full Gospel which was preached to them by Jesus Christ when he visited them after his Resurrection. Furthermore, he was told that although the books were written in a language called Reformed Egyptian, he would find with the gold plates two crystals which would enable him to understand, translate and interpret them.
So who was Joseph Smith? Well, he was born in 1805 in Sharon in the State of Vermont. By the age of fifteen he had decided that all the religions the world had so far come up with were unsatisfactory. So he took it upon himself to withdraw into the wilderness in the expectation that God would reveal the truth to him. At the age of fifteen he claimed to have seen a vision and received a call to become "a prophet of the Most High God"; and in 1823 he had the vision of an angel called Moroni who told him about the existence, though not the location of the golden plates. Four years later still, the angel of God paid him another visit with precise instructions as to where to find them and how to read them.
Having found them he began to translate them with the help of the crystals and the assistance of God, and the result was what is known today as The Book of Mormon. Anyone can buy a copy of it. It looks like this and, if you have the time and the patience to plough their way through all five hundred pages it's probably a good read. Let's just say that nobody has before or since come across a language called Reformed Egyptian; that the significance of the Rosetta Stone which enables archaeologists to understand the characters of the real Ancient Egyptian language was only just being understood, so how an uneducated lad from Vermont to do what they barely were able to, is extraordinary; but perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that this book, supposedly written between 600BC and 400AD should, when translated, bear such a striking resemblance to the Authorized (or King James) version which was only written in 1611 having some 27,000 words in common, as well as referring frequently to "The Bible" which, of course, it was not called until many years later. Remarkably, when Joseph Smith had done his translation, the heavenly messenger took the golden plates away again and they have never been seen since!
From being a passive translator, Smith developed into being a prophet and wrote the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. He continued to receive revelations which gave him the flexibility needed to interpret the will of God in new situations, whilst at the same time cutting at the very root of our belief (so eloquently expressed in the first chapter of the letter to the Hebrews), that Jesus Christ in his Incarnation is God's final and perfect revelation of himself to the world.
One of the revelations which Joseph Smith received assured him that it was entirely in order for him and his followers to marry a number of wives – polygamy as it is called – on the grounds that such was what the Patriarchs in the Old Testament are recorded as having done.
Understandably this created problems in the neighbourhood and Smith and his followers were obliged to decamp for the State of Missouri, only to discover that they were equally unpopular there; thence them moved to Illinois, to a town called Commerce where they founded the town of Nauvoo. Here, in 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested for polygamy and locked up in the nearest gaol in Carthage. On the night of 27th June a mob broke into the prison and shot the two brothers dead. Their murderers were never apprehended.
And there the story of the young visionary might have ended; but it didn't. For amongst his disciples there was the equivalent of the Witnesses' "Judge" Rutherford, a man called Brigham Young, an outstanding leader, politician, businessman, preacher, and patriarch. He it was who led the Mormon people on their great Trek to the State of Utah where they founded Salt Lake City, an amazing city of houses, shops, hotels, hospitals, infirmaries, theatres, temples and tabernacles. Having been there I can assure you that whatever you may think of Mormon beliefs, a visit to Salt Lake City is very worthwhile. He founded schools, newspapers, industries, railroads, and the main streets are so wide that it is possible to U-turn a full oxcart in them without reversing! Brigham Young, like many other Mormons before and since, was an inspired and inspiring genius. In any large corporation and at every level of United States Government you are likely to find adherents of the Mormon faith holding high office.
The only thing that prevented their acceptance into the Union was, of course, their attachment to polygamy. After much searching of heart they decided to abandon the practice – at least in theory – and in 1896 Utah was admitted into the Union.
Now what should you and I make of all this? Well, it won't surprise you to hear that just as Arius had anticipated the Jehovah's witnesses, there have been many, many other sects, purportedly Christian, which have, like Mormonism, claimed to have an alternative source of doctrine, or secret knowledge known only to the few. In the years that followed the Ascension of Jesus, literally hundreds of such books were written, some of which survive. They carry titles like the Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Teaching of the Apostles and the Epistle of Barnabas. All of them contain interesting reading matter, and some may even have genuine sayings of Jesus which are not recorded in the Gospels. But the Church has consistently refused to admit that there is or can be any further revelation than that provided by Jesus Christ. So we do not turn to these books to formulate any doctrine as being necessary to salvation.
Mormons, by contrast, believe that the president of the church is the source of continuing revelation, and what he says in the name of the Lord is accepted as the word of God by all its members. This has led Mormons to depart in some very significant and critical ways from the Catholic Faith once delivered to the Saints, which we shall be professing together presently.
Thus in Mormon belief, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are three separate gods. Jesus Christ was not conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary as we profess, but somehow entered this world as the Son of God in the flesh. They believe that there are other gods for other planets and that the God of this earth is himself in a state of progression or development and therefore continually changing. In clear contradiction to our Lord's statement that "in Heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage" Mormons encourage what is called "Celestial Marriage" which lasts beyond death. They have the interesting practice, deriving from something which St Paul mentioned as taking place in the Corinthian church of "baptism for the dead" whereby their dead forebears can be assured of salvation by having one of their living relations baptised on their behalf. Hence the preoccupation of Mormons with tracing their ancestors in this country by means of ancient church registers.
They are total abstainers, not only from alcohol and tobacco, but tea and coffee as well. Even hot drinks incur disapproval in their Doctrine and Covenants Book. Of course an individual Christian is free to choose not to drink wine or beer or to smoke, but Christianity has never been a teetotal religion, as witness the first miracle performed by our Lord at the wedding feast in Cana, and his use of wine in the Eucharist.
By and large it's possible to hold quite sensible discussions with Mormons. Unlike the Witnesses they are not in principle opposed to the State or the Government which makes any sensible conversation with Witnesses much more difficult. In fact Mormons often to be found taking a prominent part in the affairs of State. So on social questions it is often possible to find ourselves fighting alongside each other.
But there is one non-negotiable difference, namely their claim to "further knowledge (or revelation)". The Christian position was probably best summed up by a recent Pope (I think it was John XXII) who said:
The ways in which Christian Truths are explained can, and should vary from one place and one generation to another. The Truths themselves do not.
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