Thursday, June 30, 2011

God works in mysterious ways…Then again, he can be entirely obvious.

      With evangelical Christian Michele Bachmann now a leading GOP contender for president, it’s been pointed out that the two most “sane, mainstream” choices for the nomination are Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman—both Mormons. Well, let’s explore that religion for a moment and judge just how sane an adult believer in this faith could actually be.
      Back in 1826, in upstate New York, an ambitious young man of twenty-one went on trial for “moneydigging.” He confessed to conning farmers into phony treasure hunts by claiming he had skills in folk magic and the use of “seer stones.” His name was Joseph Smith.  
      By 1830, he was on to a much more promising gig—publishing the Book of Mormon. He claimed an angel/prophet named Moroni visited him back in 1823, and the angel guided him to a burial mound near his home in the woods of western New York, where he found plates of gold bearing an alleged history of ancient America.

      Along with nuggets of wisdom and borrowings from the Bible, these golden texts told the story of how the Americas were home to a vast civilization established around 600 BC, when one line of ancient Hebrew prophets—the family of Lehi—sailed to North America, then split into two factions and spent most of the next five centuries at war. (There is also a section that details an earlier migration by a group of families from the Towel of Babel around 2500 BC.) 
      The story, of course, is claptrap. There’s no archeological evidence for the ancient American civilization it describes. It claims Native Americans are descendants of ancient Israel (DNA tests debunk this), and that Jesus visited them after his resurrection. It’s also a tedious read, written in deliberately antiquated style to make it sound…well, biblical. A lot of “thee’s” and “thou’s” and “beholds” and “it came to pass” and such. Many of its more embarrassing teachings are now ignored by the church.  
      Joseph Smith was the product of an early 19th century movement called the Second Great Awakening—one of those unfortunate periods of religious revivalism rather like, well…today. Loopy spiritual claims were all the rage and Smith lived in a region notorious for religious crazes and cults. A popular urban legend of his day said that burial mounds found in the woods were gravesites for the fabled Lost Tribes of Israel—which the Bible says disappeared after Assyria’s invasion of ancient Israel in 722 BC. In reality, they were the graves of a vanished Indian culture. Still, this is where Smith insisted he found the golden plates.  
      Only eleven of Smith’s closest friends (most of whom eventually turned against him) ever saw these gold pages. Smith insisted that anyone else who glanced at them would die. He claimed they were written by an ancient prophet in an unknown Egyptian dialect, so he used his seer stones to translate them into English, dictating their content to his wife, Emma, and to a friend who lived nearby. To make sure his stenographers didn’t get a peek at the taboo tablets, he did it from behind a curtain.  
      Unfortunately, the first 116 pages of his transcription were given to his friend, whose wife swiped them, then dared him to dictate them again. This put Smith in a pickle. If he dictated them again, and the new version didn’t match the original, he’d be pegged as a fraud. Conveniently, Smith had a “revelation” (he had a lot of these) and claimed that a second set of plates, which basically told the same story, were also in his possession and that he would translate these. Then, once he was finished with them, the plates were whisked off to heaven by Moroni, safely out of reach. This second dictation was the basis of the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830.
      With the twin gifts of charisma and chutzpah, and apparently with no swampland in New Jersey available to sell, Smith parlayed his little book into a cult following dubbed The Church of Jesus Christ (the words “Latter-day Saints” being added a few years later). Through the 1830s, as his movement picked up believers, Smith had an endless series of “revelations” which usually gave him the last word on all disputes within the church, control of all property, and easy access to the available women in the flock through “multiple marriage.” That one didn’t go down easy either inside or outside the church.
      An internal church squabble got Smith tarred and feathered in 1832. They fled their temple HQ in Kirkland, Ohio in 1838 when Smith was charged with banking fraud. Then they were chased out of Missouri. They settled successfully in Nauvoo, Illinois for a time, and by 1842, Smith (the town’s mayor) revealed a plan to establish a millennial theocracy that would encompass the Americas and, eventually, the entire world. (You saw that one coming, right?)
      He established a Council of Fifty to decide which U.S. laws they would to obey, and to look for a place beyond reach of the law where Smith could rule as king. A fight with a newspaper critical of all this escalated into a violent confrontation and, in 1844, just as Smith was revving up a run for president, he was arrested, turned himself in, and was shot in jail by vigilantes. His followers were forced to move on. In 1847 they started to arrive in the Utah territory under the leadership of Brigham Young.
      After resisting for decades, the Mormons finally gave up polygamy as a condition for Utah being admitted to the Union in 1896. Still, they had plenty to be embarrassed about. For one, they were racists who had railed against the abolition of slavery before the Civil War and against blacks long after. Dark skin was considered a curse by God. African-Americans were not accepted as equal beings until another nicely-timed “revelation” in 1965—one year after the Civil Rights Act became law. But blacks couldn’t become priests until 1978.
      One positive outcome of their beliefs stemmed from the idea that those who died before Joseph Smith’s “revelations” could be retroactively baptized by current members who pray for them. Consequently, the church has compiled the world’s greatest genealogical database. Some online ancestor services use this resource.  

      To be sure, the Mormons build cool, sleek tabernacles, they have a great choir, and they encourage a squeaky clean, drug-free existence. But among the more colorful teachings of the LDS church are:

  • The “Heavenly Father” they pray to is an exalted man who lives with his goddess wife, Heavenly Mother, on a planet near the star Kolob. (So far, NASA hasn’t located it.) 
  • The Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, and Jesus will return to the “Show Me” state upon his Second Coming.
  • They believe in multiple gods, each in his own universe—though we only need to worship one.
  • If we attain the highest level of heaven (there are three), we become gods ourselves and get to be the Heavenly Father of our own planet. 
  • The church has a living prophet who still gets updates from God.
  • They wear sacred underwear (Temple garments) as symbols of protection from sin.
  • God and Jesus are separate, physical entities.
  • Lucifer is Jesus’ half-brother.
  • Women receive salvation only through their husbands and will give birth through all eternity. Woof! 
      Ya know, maybe we need to give Bachmann another look.

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    Everything you wrote is true, but the only difference between the Mormons' wacky beliefs and others' is that theirs (the Mormons') are newer wacky beliefs. Let another 500 years go by, and they'll be just as legitimate as everybody else's.
    As for their constant adaptation to the rest of Western society, hey, they're doing better than a few other religions that I won't mention--lest my house get blown up.
    Tom Miko