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Mormonism: Its Sources of Authority

This is the second in a series of posts on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons.

Mormons have five different sources of authority– four scriptures, called “Standard Works,” and one “living prophet.” Let’s take a brief look at them:
1) The Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith claimed that the angel Moroni revealed golden plates near his home in Palmyra, New York, and allowed him to translate this book, which he published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. It follows the style of the Bible in many ways, as it has 15 books, divided into chapters and verses, and although published in 1830, it is written in the Elizabethan English of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. Its subtitle, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” points to its storyline, because it is tells stories similar to the Bible, but they are set primarily in the American continent. It tells of Jews who supposedly left Jerusalem before Babylon destroyed the city and sailed across the Pacific Ocean, landing in South America. Their descendants divided into two groups of people: the Nephites and the Lamanites. Jesus Christ came to the Americas and preached to the Nephites, but unfortunately, the Lamanites annihilated them in a great battle in A.D. 385, near modern-day Palmyra, New York (home of Joseph Smith). God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin (2 Nephi 5:21). The Lamanites were the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. Thus the Book of Mormon teaches that the Native Americans are dark-skinned as a result of a curse by God for their wickedness. There was even a prophecy in 2 Nephi 30:5-6 that when they receive the gospel not only would “scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes” but also their skin itself would change: “they shall be a white and delightsome people.” After the Mormon church decided in 1978 to allow dark-skinned people to be elders, later editions of the Book of Mormon changed this verse to say “pure” instead of “white.” However, all of the other references to God cursing the Lamanites with black skin remain in the Book of Mormon, and 3 Nephi 2:15 still says when the curse is removed, “their skin became white like unto the Nephites.”
It is interesting that there are no maps in the back of the Book of Mormon, even though it names all kind of places. That is because there is no archaeological evidence that any of them existed. The Smithsonian Institution denies that it uses the Book of Mormon for any research. How different this is from the Bible, which names hundreds of places that have been discovered and excavated by archaeologists.
Although the Book of Mormon is important to Mormonism, much of their theology does not come from the Book of Mormon. In fact, the Book of Mormon teaches things that contradict other Mormon scripture. It teaches that there is one God in three persons (Alma 11:44, 2 Nephi 31:21), and it condemns polygamy (Jacob 2:24-27). So let’s move on to look at the other Mormon sources of authority.

2) Doctrine and Covenants. This is the most important Mormon book of doctrine. It is a collection of declarations, mostly by Joseph Smith. It is written in the style of the Muslim Qur’an, with 138 “sections,” similar to the Qur’an’s “suras,” and each section has verse numberings. At the end it has two “declarations.’ Also, like the Qur’an, these sections are mostly statements, rather than stories. It teaches the practice of baptism by proxy for dead people (D & C section 124, 128), commands polygamy (D & C section 132), and teaches the existence of multiple gods and that humans can progress to become gods (D & C section 132). There are two declarations at the end of Doctrine & Covenants: the first declaration, written in 1890, put an end to the practice of polygamy; the second declaration, written in 1978, allows all races to be ordained in the Mormon priesthood (despite the curse on dark skin in the Book of Mormon). All of the sections and declarations of Doctrine & Covenants were issued as divine revelations from the presidents of the Mormon church, considered living prophets.

3) The Pearl of Great Price. This has a mixture of different kinds of books, and also teaches some very important Mormon doctrine. Of particular importance is the Book of Abraham, one of the books in the Pearl of Great Price. It teaches that there are many Gods (Abraham 4-5), that God lives near a star named Kolob (Abraham 3:2-3, 16), and that the human soul pre-existed from eternity (Abraham 3:19-28). The Book of Abraham was allegedly written by Abraham while in Egypt, and Joseph Smith claimed to have translated it from Egyptian papyri he bought in 1835. Amazingly, after Smith died, his family sold the papyri to a Chicago museum, and in 1967 it was discovered in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Scholars are now able to read ancient Egyptian, and when this papyri was translated, it was merely a book about dead people making their way through their journeys in the afterlife, and had nothing to do with what Joseph Smith claimed it said.

4) The King James Version of the Bible. While Mormons also use the Bible, they imply that the Bible is not always trustworthy, saying “many plain and precious things have been taken away from the book” (1 Nephi 13:28) and saying they only believe the Bible is “the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” In contrast, they say they believe the Book of Mormon “to be the word of God” without adding any qualification that it might not be translated correctly.

5) The Living Prophet. In addition to all of the Mormon scriptures, they also believe the president of the LDS church is a living prophet. He has the authority to give a direct revelation from God. The current president of the church, their “living prophet,” is Thomas S. Monson. This fifth source of authority helps us understand how Mormons can live with so much contradiction in their books. Their concept of truth is always evolving, and whatever the latest prophet says is truth is what they say is truth.

Christians would respond that a true prophet’s teaching must agree with the revelation of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3), and that if even an angel from heaven reveals a different (or latter-day) gospel that departs from the gospel of Jesus Christ as found in the Bible, he is to be condemned (Galatians 1:8).

Mormonism: A Snapshot of Its History

With the candidacy of Mitt Romney, many people have questions about his religion. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), often called “Mormons.” This is the first in a series of posts I will do on Mormonism.

Mormonism began with Joseph Smith, Jr., who was born in upstate New York in 1805. In 1823, while living in Palmyra, New York, he claimed to have visions of an angel named Moroni who told him all churches were false, and to join none of them, and instead to go to a hill and uncover some golden plates. Mormons believe that Smith found the plates, written in ancient Egyptian, and was able to translate them. The Book of Mormon tells stories of Jews fleeing the Babylonian conquest in a ship, settling in the Americas, and becoming the ancestors of the Native American Indians. The more godly Native Americans were killed off by the godless ones, and God cursed the godless Native Americans, changing their white skin to “a skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5:21, Book of Mormon).
In 1830, Smith published his “translation,” the Book of Mormon, and established his new church. Immediately, many of his neighbors considered him a fraud, although his church grew. In 1831 he relocated his church to Kirtland, Ohio, just north of Cleveland. In the 1830’s and early 1840’s, Mormonism grew rapidly, establishing large settlements in places like Far West, Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois. There was violent conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri and Mormons were greatly persecuted for what their neighbors considered a hoax. During this time, Joseph Smith began to secretly teach polygamy. He recorded in the Mormon scripture, Doctrine & Covenants, chapter 132, how God told his wife Emma to accept the idea of multiple wives, but she was resistant to the idea.
In 1844, a newspaper was published in the Mormon town of Nauvoo, Illinois, publicly exposing Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Smith had the newspaper shut down, and for this, Smith was arrested and put in jail in the nearby town of Carthage, Illinois. An anti-Mormon mob stormed the jail, and Smith was killed. Thus Joseph Smith became a Mormon martyr.
With the death of their leader, Mormons had to decide what to do. Some remained behind and established the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ, which has 250,000 members and headquarters in Independence, Missouri. But the majority followed Brigham Young in a trek west in 1846-1847, settling in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, and he became the new prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In Utah, Brigham Young began to openly practice polygamy. He himself was said to have had so many wives he could not remember them all.
In 1857, a wagon train of non-Mormons from Arkansas were passing through Mountain Meadows, Utah on their way to California. Apparently the Mormons felt threatened by the possibility that some of them might be from Missouri, which had a history of violent conflict with Mormons. Thus a group of Mormons and Native Americans massacred 120 men, women and children. Ironically, this attack culminated on September 11.
In 1890, the president of LDS church, Wilford Woodruff, added a new declaration to the Doctrine & Covenants, saying that polygamy was no longer required. Afterwards, Utah was admitted as a state into the Union. While the main group of Mormons no longer teaches polygamy, groups of fundamentalist Mormons have continued the practice, especially in some towns near the Utah-Arizona state line.
In the 1970’s, another revelation from the LDS prophet allowed dark-skinned people to be elders in the church, reversing a policy based on the Book of Mormon’s claim that American Indians were cursed with dark skin. The church also quietly changed a verse in 2 Nephi 30:6, which used to say that upon conversion they would become “white,” replacing the word “white” with “pure.”
The LDS church has grown rapidly through the years, especially by encouraging thousands of young people to go on a two-year mission before or during their college years. Today there are over 6 million Mormons in the United States, 1.2 million in Mexico, and over a million in Brazil.