Joseph Smith’s Accounts of the First Vision

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As a missionary one criticism I heard from some individuals who were not friendly [antagonistic] towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was that there were four accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision (there are more but none of the others are first-hand and people who were attacking me as a missionary and the church I belong to only brought up 4). Because the versions all differ to some degree, these individuals believed that this proved that Joseph Smith made up his experience.

I always thought this was a strange argument to make, particularly because the Gospels cover the Savior’s ministry but do not tell all the same stories and in the same way. There are repeats (with significant differences) of stories in the Old Testament. What individual recounts a story in exactly the same way on subsequent retellings?

I know why certain individuals brought up the existence of multiple versions of the First Vision – they were trying to use it as justification for their own disbelief or they were trying to instill doubt in the minds of us missionaries. There is nothing inherently wrong with doubts but sometimes people let doubts become stumbling blocks to their faith. The best way to overcome doubts is to seek the Lord earnestly in prayer. We can also study what others have written about matters or discuss the issues with others, preferably people we trust, but the Lord is the source of truth and seeking His inspiration should not be neglected.

I view the multiple accounts of Joseph’s vision as great resources to better understand Joseph’s experience. He spent more than a year contemplating the nature of Christ’s gospel, his need for repentance, the nature of God and the universe, and many other things. He did not simply decide to pray one day, he worked toward that time for more than a year. We are richly blessed by the different accounts of his vision.

If you want to know more about the First Vision and the various accounts, Jeff Lindsay’s post is a great place to start.

Who Wrote the Book of Mormon?

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The Book of Mormon came to us in its current form through the work of a lot of different people both ancient and modern. Much of the work anciently was done by a prophet named Mormon, hence the title that we use for the book – The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. He served as abridger and editor of sacred and secular records that had been kept by prophets and other individuals over the years. As inspired, he selected passages that told of the history of some peoples in the Americas but more importantly, taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. He did all this while watching the end of his civilization – most of his people had either been killed in wars or had turned from following the statutes of God and joined with their enemies. Mormon would eventually be killed in battle, leaving his son Moroni to have charge over the sacred records and to finish the Book of Mormon. Moroni did this, burying the book in a stone box in the ground of what would later be upstate New York.

The plates Moroni buried in the ground were made of gold, which does not corrode or corrupt. Words were engraven onto the plates with great difficulty (see Jacob 4:1) so words were chosen judiciously not just because of the difficulty of engraving but also because of limited space; more importantly, words were chosen so as to help those who read the book draw nearer to Christ.

What we have as the current start of the Book of Mormon was not, in fact, the start of the book. There originally were 116 additional manuscript pages that were abridged by Mormon but these translated pages were lost when Martin Harris, who was helping Joseph Smith with the translation of the Book of Mormon, had convinced Joseph to let him take the manuscript home (so that he could show his wife, who was upset at the work Martin was doing with Joseph). These lost pages likely would have had some sort of introductory commentary by Mormon as well as a more secular history of the people of Nephi:

And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi. (Words of Mormon 1:3).

Mormon made all his abridgments and then discovered the “small plates of Nephi” that included some history but were mainly focused on sacred things (particularly on Jesus Christ).

And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work. For it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph. And it mattereth not to me that I am particular to give a full account of all the things of my father, for they cannot be written upon these plates, for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God. For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world. Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men. (1 Nephi 6).

Moroni wrote his abridgments of the scriptural and historical records on gold plates bound together into a single unit; to the scriptures he edited, he added the unabridged small plates of Nephi. We do not know if the physical dimensions of the small plates of Nephi were the same as the plates Mormon made – it is possible but I’d be surprised if all the plates were the same size. Nephi’s plates were small though not necessarily because of their physical dimensions, they were small because there were not many of them and there was not room to write anything but the most important things of the Lord (the fact that so much of the words of Isaiah were included tells you something of the worth of the words of Isaiah – priceless).

As we put all this together, we see that Nephi thus wrote most of the first part of the Book of Mormon. As I just wrote, Nephi quotes extensively from Isaiah so many of his words are included. Nephi’s younger brother Jacob is the next author. In addition to what he writes, he quotes extensively from a prophet named Zenos. Jacob then passes the plates on to his son Enos, who writes a few words. His son Jarom next has the plates; he writes a little less than his father (there is not much room left on the plates and not much to add to what was previously written). Jarom gives the plates to his son Omni who writes what become three verses. Omni passes the plates to his son Amaron who then, after writing a little, gives them to his brother Chemish. Chemish gives them to his son Abinadom who then gives them to his son Amaleki. Amaleki fills up the rest of the small plates and then gives them to Benjamin, a righteous king and prophet.

So the lineage of the small plates of Nephi is thus [(b) = brother; (s) = son]: Nephi –> Jacob (b) –> Enos (s) –> Jarom (s) –> Omni (s) –> Amaron (s) –> Chemish (b) –> Abinadom (s) –> Amaleki (s) –> Benjamin (relationship unclear). That is seven, maybe eight generations right there – many hundreds of years. Each of those men wrote a portion of the Book of Mormon, albeit to varying degrees. That timeframe from Nephi to Benjamin was also covered by the other records Mormon abridged, which translation became lost.

That something is missing is obvious when we get to the Words of Mormon and read: “And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.” (Words of Mormon 1:1). That’s an abrupt change of topic, something that sounds like it is act 2 of a play. From this we can assume that Mormon spent some time introducing the Book of Mormon and his work earlier (in the now lost portion of the book). He also likely had added his commentary throughout that portion of the plates, as he does throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon.

The rest of the Book of Mormon was mainly written by Mormon (who lived around 300-400 AD) with a few words by his son Moroni (who buried the gold plates around the year 421 AD). Mormon quotes extensively from various prophets and later, quotes directly from the Savior when He visits the Americas, but Mormon’s quoting and commentary are interwoven, often with little differentiation between commentary and quote. The book of Ether, which is near the end of the Book of Mormon is a transcription of a translation (done by Mosiah, father of king Benjamin) of records of a group of people called the Jaredites. They lived long before the Nephites, traveling to the Americas thousands of years BC (likely crossing over into the Americas via a northern route, such as from what is now {north}east Asia). Their civilization lasted through many wars for over a thousand years until the last of them was discovered by another group of people who had left Jerusalem shortly after Lehi’s family did (the Mulekites). These people had struggled through wars and loss of cultural and spiritual heritage. When their people was discovered, they were taught the language of the Nephites and joined together (both groups were of the house of Israel). Through this joining, the record of the Jaredites entered the possession of the Nephites:

And it came to pass that the people of Zarahemla, and of Mosiah, did unite together; and Mosiah was appointed to be their king. And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God. And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons. It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward. (Omni 1:19-22).

There, now we’ve covered most of those who wrote what is now the Book of Mormon (Mormon, Nephi, Jacob, and Moroni are the four largest contributors). Because Mormon did most of the organizational and editorial work, the book is named in honor of him. He compiled a remarkable book that was not written for his people – they were almost all dead – it was written for the purpose of coming forth in these days to teach people of Jesus Christ and to add to the witness of the Bible of the truthfulness of Christ’s mission.

For Our Day

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As I go through and read the Book of Mormon, I try to keep in mind that it is a book that was written for us in our day. Everything selected for inclusion by Mormon and his son Moroni was selected to help strengthen and teach us in our day. That is one reason why it is such a remarkable book.

Mormon lived during the collapse of his civilization. He lived about 350 A.D. in the Americas. Mormon was the leader of a small group of people called the Nephites. At this point in their history, most Nephites had become wicked and many had either been killed or had defected to their enemies, the Lamanites. During this time of fighting, leading armies in battle and trying to salvage whomever of his people that he could, Mormon was also involved in editing the records – sacred and secular – of his people. He transcribed the sacred history of his people onto plates made out of gold, a laborious task made difficult by the difficulty of writing on gold plates. Gold was important to use though because it does not corrode; gold plates would last the 1500 years until they were needed to help bring light to a dark world.

As his civilization collapsed, Mormon edited the scriptures he had been given stewardship over into a single volume. He chose words carefully and only included things that the Lord revealed unto him to include. Everything was chosen to bless the lives of those who would read it in the future. The Book of Mormon really was written for us; only Mormon and Moroni (and possibly a select few others at the time) ever had access to the plates. Only Joseph Smith and a few others in his day ever had access to the plates (there were about 15 individuals who saw the gold plates). What was important was not the composition of the plates but the words inscribed upon those plates; the message was what was more than worth its weight in gold.

As I read, I try to think about why the particular scripture verses were included. Why was the precious space on the precious plates used for those particular scriptures and that particular message? What can I learn and what can the world learn from from the Book of Mormon?

There is an LDS Seminary song that fits well with this post. Click here to listen to the song (right click {or command click on a Mac} to download). There is also piano / vocal sheet music of the song available (.pdf format).

Neurology in the Book of Mormon

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During his final sermon to his subjects, the Book of Mormon prophet and leader King Benjamin had all come gather at the temple. He was getting older and suffering some afflictions so he wanted to teach his people and pass the kingdom on to his son Mosiah.

One thing King Benjamin said has intrigued me for a number of years, particularly as I have received training in working with individuals with neurodegenerative disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease).

King Benjamin said: “I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind…. For even at this time, my whole frame doth tremble exceedingly while attempting to speak unto you; but the Lord God doth support me, and hath suffered me that I should speak unto you, and hath commanded me that I should declare unto you this day, that my son Mosiah is a king and a ruler over you.” (Mosiah 2:11,30).

That sounds just like Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor. Both of those are what we currently call movement disorders but both affect not only the body but also the mind. It is certainly possible that Benjamin was merely old and feeble (or just really nervous) but that is not particularly likely nor would it be noteworthy in the gold plates where space was at a premium. To me, it sounds much more like he suffered from a movement disorder. One thing that Benjamin said makes me lean towards Parkinson’s disease rather than essential tremor. He stated how God “suffered me that I should speak unto you.” The physical act of being there and speaking for an extended period was difficult for Benjamin but if he had Parkinson’s disease, not only might he shake but also his speaking would be affected. His voice would be softer and speaking would be much more effortful. This means it takes more energy for him to speak than for someone without Parkinson’s disease. However, Benjamin was sustained by God while he spoke so that he might be able to give his great sermon. What a sermon it was! Benjamin was faithful to the Lord and the Lord strengthened him. That does not mean he was cured of his shaking or his other difficulties but he received strength to persevere.

The shaking might have been some other disease or even nothing other than feebleness (not likely, King Benjamin worked his whole life; he was a soldier who led troops in battle; he was a king but worked – farmed – to support himself) but I’m intrigued by the possibility that it was Parkinson’s disease.

Remembering 9/11

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Ten years ago on a bright Utah morning, the weather was cooling down as Fall approached. I woke up early to get ready for a class. It was my first semester back at Brigham Young University after my mission. I had spent the summer working and enjoying time with friends. It was a busy summer; many recently returned missionaries find that they feel like they have to be constantly doing something. This stems from the 60-80 hour work weeks most missionaries have. All this work, 6+ days a week, then we come home and have so little to do, comparatively. In this mindset I had a busy summer and was excited to be back in school in order to continue my education and figure out what I wanted to do in life.

I had two classes on Tuesdays – Introduction to Psychology and History of Civilization. My first class was at 8 AM so I was up early, getting ready for the day. I turned on the television to watch the morning news while I finished preparing for school. CNN had some shocking news. Something – a plane or a missile (reports were unclear at that time) – had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. The smoke pouring from the building was shocking. Everyone was in shock. Then, as I was watching, a plane hit the second tower. Shortly later, the towers collapsed. We know the rest of the story.

I attended both of my classes that day. I think one of my classes was cancelled after we got there but I have notes from my psychology class. I watched the news coverage. Everyone was in shock. I read news stories online and saw additional photos and videos of the events of that tragic day. But I do not have a lot of specific memories other than that. I had never been to New York City. I did not know anyone from New York or who had a personal connection with someone who lost a life in the attacks. I was only weeks into a new semester after a two year break from school. I was living in a new place with new roommates. There was so much going on that I do not remember a lot from that time. I say this not as an excuse or to lessen the events of the day; I say this because there are so many more people who were affected much more than I was. My country had been attacked; my fellow Americans had been attacked but many people lost loved ones in the attacks. Many people were there to see the devastation in person. The effects on me were circumstantial but still vivid. It’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like – and what it still is like – for those directly affected by the attacks.

What I do remember is how our nation – the United States of America – came together; we united as people, we united as states, we united as a nation under the banner of stripes and stars and under to banner of freedom. We united across faiths and ethnicities. We united as one. This has been the foundation of our nation for many years – e pluribus unum – out of many, one. We stand united, we fall divided. Unity is something desired by the followers of God. Jesus prayed in His great intercessory prayer (see John 17) that He and we might be one with His Father.

It was as a united people that we banded together in prayer and service. Many people answered that horrific act of hate and violence at the hands of wicked men with acts of love and compassion. There were firm responses – tyranny does not understand love and does not respond to charity. But as a nation, our love for one another burned brighter and with more clarity in the days and weeks following the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Our hearts turned to family and friends. Our hearts turned to strangers. Good Samaritans shared of their oil of life, their means, and of their love with those in need.

Shortly after the events of 9/11, Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley talked at General Conference. I’ll quote from his address.

“You are acutely aware of the events of September 11, less than a month ago. Out of that vicious and ugly attack we are plunged into a state of war. It is the first war of the 21st century. The last century has been described as the most war-torn in human history. Now we are off on another dangerous undertaking, the unfolding of which and the end thereof we do not know. For the first time since we became a nation, the United States has been seriously attacked on its mainland soil. But this was not an attack on the United States alone. It was an attack on men and nations of goodwill everywhere. It was well planned, boldly executed, and the results were disastrous. It is estimated that more than 5,000 innocent people died. Among these were many from other nations. It was cruel and cunning, an act of consummate evil.

Recently, in company with a few national religious leaders, I was invited to the White House to meet with the president. In talking to us he was frank and straightforward.

That same evening he spoke to the Congress and the nation in unmistakable language concerning the resolve of America and its friends to hunt down the terrorists who were responsible for the planning of this terrible thing and any who harbored such.

Those of us who are American citizens stand solidly with the president of our nation. The terrible forces of evil must be confronted and held accountable for their actions. This is not a matter of Christian against Muslim. I am pleased that food is being dropped to the hungry people of a targeted nation. We value our Muslim neighbors across the world and hope that those who live by the tenets of their faith will not suffer. I ask particularly that our own people do not become a party in any way to the persecution of the innocent. Rather, let us be friendly and helpful, protective and supportive. It is the terrorist organizations that must be ferreted out and brought down.

We of this Church know something of such groups. The Book of Mormon speaks of the Gadianton robbers, a vicious, oath-bound, and secret organization bent on evil and destruction. In their day they did all in their power, by whatever means available, to bring down the Church, to woo the people with sophistry, and to take control of the society. We see the same thing in the present situation.

We are people of peace. We are followers of the Christ who was and is the Prince of Peace. But there are times when we must stand up for right and decency, for freedom and civilization, just as Moroni rallied his people in his day to the defense of their wives, their children, and the cause of liberty (see Alma 48:10).

Great are the promises concerning this land of America. We are told unequivocally that it “is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:12). This is the crux of the entire matter—obedience to the commandments of God.

The Constitution under which we live, and which has not only blessed us but has become a model for other constitutions, is our God-inspired national safeguard ensuring freedom and liberty, justice and equality before the law.

I do not know what the future holds. I do not wish to sound negative, but I wish to remind you of the warnings of scripture and the teachings of the prophets which we have had constantly before us.

From the day of Cain to the present, the adversary has been the great mastermind of the terrible conflicts that have brought so much suffering.

Treachery and terrorism began with him. And they will continue until the Son of God returns to rule and reign with peace and righteousness among the sons and daughters of God.

Are these perilous times? They are. But there is no need to fear. We can have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes. We can be an influence for good in this world, every one of us.

May the God of heaven, the Almighty, bless us, help us, as we walk our various ways in the uncertain days that lie ahead. May we look to Him with unfailing faith. May we worthily place our reliance on His Beloved Son who is our great Redeemer, whether it be in life or in death, is my prayer in His holy name, even the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Ten years have passed since that fateful day. Some people have turned to God. Others have cursed God and turned away from Him. The unity and love was short-lived. We are once again a nation that is divided. Lasting love and peace will not be obtained separately from God. He is the source of goodness and love. He is our solace and our song in the fearful night. May we as a nation and a world turn towards God. We must build our foundations upon Him and His Beloved Son Jesus Christ:

“Remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” (Helaman 5:12).

We live in a tumultuous time. As we turn toward God and Christ, we will find peace amidst the storms of life. That is one of the great miracles in life – that we can find solace when our world is crashing down around us. Christ’s Atonement does not prevent the hurt or heartache but it does provide the help and healing. The Atonement of Christ is where we as a nation and a world will find peace over the events of that tragic day ten years ago.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

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I recently started reading Hugh Nibley’s book Abraham in Egypt (nicely available online too, through that link). I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Nibley’s keen insights and outstanding scholarship (he’s someone who very few people even try to criticize; how do you even start to try and address any faults in his scholarship?). Much of Hugh Nibley’s works have focused on direct products of Joseph Smith. Jesus Christ is the center of our religion, He is its Head, He is our Savior. Joseph Smith, though, is the prophet of the restoration. It is through Joseph Smith that we have the restored gospel and the restored authority to act and perform ordinances in the name of Christ. Joseph Smith is as important to us as Abraham is to the Jews. None of this focus on Joseph Smith detracts from the importance of the Savior; Joseph’s works and life are only important because they help us draw near to the Savior in word and deed. Our love of Joseph Smith and our recognition of his importance is one reason many try to attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by attacking Joseph Smith (he was used to personal attacks starting when he was 14 so Joseph certainly was no stranger to the attacks; I don’t think anything is said about Joseph Smith today that was not said to him and about him in his lifetime).

So most of the work of people antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent trying to discredit the work of Joseph Smith; more accurately, most of their work is spent trying to discredit Joseph Smith, particularly by attacking his character once all of their other attacks or critiques fall short, as they invariably do.

With this context, I present a quote from the opening chapter of Hugh Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt (my emphasis added).

To discredit Joseph Smith, or anyone else, in the eyes of an uninformed public is only too easy, requiring but the observance of a few established routines in the art of public relations. That gets us nowhere honestly. What about the Book of Abraham? In it Joseph Smith has given us a straightforward and detailed narrative, whose boldness, ingenuity, and originality should excite the interest and command the respect of anyone who has ever tried to write anything. Even as a work of fiction it does not permit the reader to see in it the production of some poor fool who had no idea of what he was doing, completely befuddled as to his sources, trying to squeeze a story out of a handful of perfectly meaningless Egyptian doodles. We invite the critics to use the great advantage of their superior education and vast resource material to produce anything like it. We will even allow them full use of what they call Joseph Smith’s modus operandi, which they have so brilliantly suggested as the explanation of how he really did it. And to assist them further, we offer at no extra charge another clue, a statement by the great E. A. Wallis Budge that is all the more revealing for its frank hostility to the Prophet: “The letter press [Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible, and some of the Old Testament apocryphal histories.” As to those apocryphal sources, why have all his other critics overlooked them, insisting that the whole thing is “a pure fabrication,” and “simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination”? As we have already observed, what could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories? Budge was possibly the greatest authority of his day on apocrypha, but that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum among original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed a number of important apocrypha published in Budge’s day—but in the 1830s? Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials even today?” Now if Budge insists that the Abraham story in the Pearl of Great Price is clearly based on Old Testament apocryphal sources, that story deserves to be treated with some attention. What, the relatively uneducated Joseph Smith using sources of which none of the experts save only Budge, the most prodigiously learned and productive Orientalist of his time, was aware? What a flattering accusation!

What happens is that when serious scholars try to discredit Joseph’s Smith’s work, they often unwittingly give him far more credit than they intend to do. This is because they recognize the themes and truths in Joseph’s work; however, they perfunctorily discount him, so they form hypotheses that fit their pre-conceptions of Joseph Smith’s character. There is the assumption that Joseph Smith was a charlatan or at least misguided, thus all of his work is wrong. Based on this assumption, many people then try to interpret his works. In other words, they interpret his work in light of his – as they perceive – faulty character. This limits their critiques of his work because why should they give serious consideration to the works of someone they view as below their consideration. What Hugh Nibley calls for is to assess Joseph’s works independent from his character. The following quote is referring specifically to the Book of Abraham but it can be extrapolated to all of Joseph’s works.

“In short, it is the Book of Abraham that is on trial, not Joseph Smith as an Egyptologist, nor the claims and counterclaims to scholarly recognition by squabbling publicity seekers, nor the provenance and nature of Egyptian papyri, nor the competence of this or that person to read them. The resounding charge in the headlines was that ‘the Book of Abraham is a pure falsification.’ Joseph Smith is no longer with us; his reputation must rest on the bona fides of the book, not the other way around. By his own insistence, he was merely an implement in bringing forth the record, not its creator.” (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Chapter 1).

Hugh Nibley takes this stance because too many people do not look at the validity of Joseph’s works. They impugn his character and then try to leave it at that. People attack Joseph as “a corrupt tree” that cannot “bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). But in doing so, they are approaching Joseph’s character in the reverse order the Savior said. Jesus said, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). We cannot declare a tree corrupt and then assume all the fruit is bad; we have to look at the fruit to understand the nature of the tree. That is precisely what Hugh Nibley is suggesting, yet that is what few outside the LDS Church actually do. For an other example of this, read the account of what happened when some of the characters from the Gold Plates were showed to Charles Anthon, who had some expertise in ancient languages. He was a man who couldn’t see the fruit for the tree.

The Christianity of Mormons

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With two Mormons currently vying for a nomination as candidate for president of the United States of America and with a large public relations campaign by the LDS Church, there has been considerable focus on the church. Much of it has been informative (and largely neutral), some has been positive, but some has been negative. One particular charge made against Mormons by some (usually of a particular Protestant vein) is that Mormons are not Christian. We find this charge odd considering the name of the church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – as well as of our belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. That is not enough for some people but I’ll not get into a discussion of why some people do not believe Mormons are Christian.

Regardless of what others claim about our Christianity (which in the end, is really a personal thing), we Mormons make a claim to historical Christianity that other Christians do not. Catholics make a claim of continuity from Peter. However, Mormons go beyond that. Our claim is one that others do not even think to make because it’s based on LDS theology that is unique. We do not just claim Christianity back to Christ but to a time long before then. We claim our religion, our Christianity, is a continuation from our life before we came to earth. Some of the specific practices in the LDS Church might not be a continuation of pre-mortal life but the priesthood authority is. Further, the doctrines are continuations of what was taught before we came to earth. In essence, much of our current Church organization and our doctrines are mirrors of what was and is done and taught in Heaven.

The fact that we lived with Heavenly Father before we came to earth might seem strange to many people but it is central to the gospel of Christ and LDS theology (which really are the same). Many do not think it strange to think that they will live forever more after this life but to think that we lived before this life is foreign to most people. Why is this? It stems in part from the creation story as found in the Bible. Over the years the understanding of the process of the creation was lost as was the understanding of our relationship to God. People started viewing humankind as creations of God rather than as sons and daughters. This means that many view people as no more than clay in God’s hands, rather than as His progeny. While it is true that we are God’s creations, our physical bodies are imbued with the bodies of our spirits. Together – body and spirit – we are in the likeness and image of God. We are more than just creations, we are His children with the potential to grow to become like Him. What a beautiful promise – the son, the daughter, can grow up to be like the father and mother!

I digressed in order to provide a foundation for the LDS claim to historical Christianity. We claim that our Christianity is pre-creedal. It pre-dates Christ’s mortal ministry. In the pre-earth life Heavenly Father presented a plan to all His children. It provided an opportunity for us to gain physical bodies and learn and grow to become more like Him. However, knowing that we would all fall short, God provided a means for us to return – through His Son Jesus Christ. This sacrifice was to be eternal and infinite so that it would help us overcome death and sin. All the prophets from the beginning of time taught this – the centrality of Christ. Even the Mosaic law pointed toward Christ but over time, the understanding of the role of Christ was lost. Jewish leaders changed the law. The Mosaic Law became an end to itself, rather than a means to Christ.

Christ came to earth to restore that which was lost – authority and organization and ordinances. However, following His death it did not take long for His authority and the truths of His gospel to be lost and changed. In the darkness of apostasy, committee replaced prophecy and revelation. Creeds and consensus counterfeited canon and calling. The scriptural canon was declared closed instead of continually expanding; it was closed for a time because God’s authority was lost but scripture was never meant to be God’s final word. God has always used prophets to declare His word. There have been times without prophets because of apostasy but we are no longer without living prophets. With the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, the canon burst open with radiant rays of truth. Once again there was authority on the earth. The truths of the gospel that had been lost or taken away were once again on the earth. The organization of the church was restored to what existed in the primitive church. The gospel was restored in fulness, including the ordinances and blessings of the temple:

“And verily I say unto you, let this house [the temple] be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people; for I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times” (Doctrine & Covenants 124: 40-41).

We are living in a time when things that have been hidden (not generally available to the world) from before the creation of the earth are now on earth. We Mormons claim a heritage that extends back an eternity and will continue for an eternity. Our Christianity dates from that established by our Heavenly Father in a life before this one. We have a heritage directly from God. This heritage is tied to the priesthood authority that God restored to Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith The Prophet

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Sometimes Mormons are criticized for what others view as placing too much emphasis on the Prophet Joseph Smith. Some even mistakenly believe that we worship Joseph Smith. It is not the case that Mormons worship Joseph Smith. We hold him in high esteem, we sometimes celebrate his birth, his receiving the Priesthood; we sometimes pause to remember his death. That does not mean that we worship him though – those are all things that we might do for family members or friends. That’s precisely what the Prophet Joseph Smith is – family. He is the father of our dispensation.

I wrote some terms that are somewhat unique to Mormonism – Priesthood (unique in our understanding of it) and dispensation. I won’t go in to what those terms mean but Mormons look to Joseph Smith as our spiritual progenitor much in the same way many Jews view Father Abraham as their actual progenitor (we, Mormons, also believe that most of us are literally descended from Abraham).

So, we make much ado about Joseph Smith because it was through him that the Lord restored the fulness of the gospel to the earth, most importantly the priesthood authority and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Our focus at times on Joseph Smith doesn’t (or shouldn’t) detract from the centrality of Christ to the Church. All of Joseph’s work was to bring us closer to Jesus Christ and to Heavenly Father. It is because of the Lord’s work that Joseph Smith did that John Taylor, an apostle and prophet of the Lord, was able to state:

“Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3).

What Joseph did was just the beginning of the work of Christ’s church in these last days. It is in this context that I embed the video of a beautiful sacred work by Rob Gardner about the Prophet Joseph Smith (or, if you prefer, you can watch it on the BYUtv website).

Emma Smith: My Story

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Emma Smith: My Story used to be available to watch for free (with ads) on Hulu. This is no longer the case.

You can watch the entire movie Emma Smith: My Story on Amazon for free with an Amazon Prime subscription (free trials of the service are available), or you can rent or purchase a digital copy. It is available elsewhere to purchase but I believe Amazon Prime is currently the only service offering it for “free”. While it is not a film produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is a wonderful depiction of some of the life of the elect woman Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith. She endured many hardships with her husband. Emma did make some decisions that many undeservingly have criticized her for making but do any of us really want to judge someone like Emma Smith? I doubt there have been many stronger people than Emma.

If you haven’t watched the movie, it’s well worth taking the time to get to know Emma Smith better. The movie also has beautiful cinematography (by T.C. Christensen, who does beautiful work including one of my favorites – Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story); and music. You also might recognize a number of scenes that have been used in some Church produced movies.

John Tanner in the Joseph Smith Papers

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The LDS Church is archiving and making available to all, documents, journals, and other church sources contemporary with the prophet Joseph Smith (e.g., his journals, church meeting minutes, revelations, etc.). This is an unprecedented expose of the prophet Joseph Smith and the early days of the Church. His life and actions will be available to all to peruse. There are few other people in the world with more serious scholarly (and pseudoscholarly {generally anti-Mormon}) work devoted to them than Joseph Smith. That’s a bold statement but not without evidence. Joseph Smith wrote relatively little about himself but people took copious notes of meetings with him. Much of what we can read in these documents is about Joseph Smith but really its the history of the early days of the restored Church.

The project is nowhere near completion but what is done is available online. I wanted to see what is available about one of my ancestors – John Tanner. It turns out that there is some, so far.

In the Minute Book 2, a record of the April Conference in 1838 held at Far West, Missouri, we read of some of the troubles the Latter-day Saints were experiencing (to put it mildly). I’ll quote a portion that includes a reference to John Tanner:

In the meantime men were abused, women insulted and ravished by the troops; and all this, while we were kept  prisonors.— Whilst the town was guarded, we were called  together by the order of General Lucas, and a guard placed close around us; and in that situation were compelled, to sign a deed of trust for the purpose of making  our individual property all holden, as they said, to pay  all the debts of every individual belonging to the Church,  and also to pay for all damages, the old inhabitants of  Davis may have sustained, in consequence of the late difficulties in that County.—

Genl [John B.] Clark was now arrived, and the first important  move by him was the collecting our men together on the square and selecting out about 50 of them; whom he immediately marched unto a house and confined close, this  was done, without the aid of the sheriff; or any legal process. The next day 46 of those taken, were driven like a parcel of menial slaves, off to Richmond, not knowing why they  were taken; or what they were taken for. After being confined in Richmond more than 2 weeks, about one half were liberated  the rest after another week’s confinement, were most of  them recognized to appear at Court and have since been let to bail.— Since Genl Clark withdrew his troops from Far-West, parties of armed men have reconoitered the County, driving off horses, sheep, and cattle, and also plundering  houses.— The barbarity of Genl Lucas’ troops ought not  to be passed over in silence, they shot down our [p. 169] cattle and hogs merely for the sake of destroying them, leaving them for the ravens to eat. They took prisoner an aged man by the name of [John]Tanner and without any reason for it, he was struck over the head with a gun, which laid his scull bare.— Another man by the name of Carey, was  also taken prisoner by them, and without any provocation,  had his brains dashed out with a gun; he was laid in  a waggon, and there permitted to remain, for the space of  24 hours, during which time no one was permitted to  administer to him comfort and consolation; and after he  was removed from that situation, he lived but a  few hours.— The destruction of property, at, and about  Far-West, is very great, many, yes a large portion  are stripped bare as it were, and others partially so; indeed  take us as a body, at this time, we are a poor and afflicted  people; and if we are compelled to leave the State in the Spring many; yes a large portion of our Society,  will have to be removed at the expence of the State, as those who otherwise might have helped them,  are now debarred that privilege, in consequence of  the deed of trust we were compelled to sign;  which deed so operates upon our real estate that it  will sell for but little or nothing at this time.” (pp. 171-172; emphasis added)

John survived the hit to the head, which left him very bloody (obviously, since his “scull [sic]” was showing). He later crossed the plains with the Saints and died in Utah.

In the Minute Book 1 (Kirtland High Council Minutes,” Minute Book 1, 3 Dec. 1832–30 Nov. 1837; pp. 28-29), John Tanner was told to move to Kirtland:

Kirtland Sept 28th 1833—

This day a councel of Elders convened for  the purpose of taking into consideration  the case of brother John Tanner who sent his  two sons to Kirtland to assertain the will  of the Lord whither he should go to Zion  or move to this place— Bro Oliver [Cowdery] [p. 24] opened the councel by prayer

After the case was fairly laid before the  councel it was unanimously agreed by all  present that it was the will of the Lord for  all who are able and willing to build up  and strengthen the stake in Kirtland should do so therefore this is our councel  to our beloved brother John that he moove  to Kirtland fro the above named purpose

F[rederick] G Williams

On May 8, 1834, it was recorded that John Tanner gave the Church $170 (that’s worth anywhere from $4000 to $100,000 today, depending on how you measure it). He gave much more than that to the Church, that was just one of the times recorded.

John Tanner was included in a list of men “who were blessed in consequence of  their working on the House of the Lord in Kirtland and those also who consecrated to its upbuilding” (Minutes, 7-8 March, 1835, p. 2): “Gad Yale, John JohnsonJohn Tanner called & Blessed.  Gad Yale being one who went for the relief of their [p. 196] afflicted brethren in Mo. and received a blessing accordingly.” (pp. 5-6)

My ancestor, Sidney Tanner (John’s son), was also at the meeting and blessed for his work.

On December 9, 1835, Joseph Smith wrote: “To day Elder Tanner brought me the half of a fat[te]ned hog for the be[ne] fit of my family. And a few days since Elder S[hadrach] Roundy brought me a quarter of beef  and may all the blessings, that are  named above, be poured upon their  heads, for their kindness toward me” (Journal, 1835-1836, p. 61; emphasis added).

The whole project is fascinating. I’m looking forward to reviewing more sources as the project is completed over the coming years.