Reform Mormonism is Mormonism “outside the box.”
What is “the box?”
For the most part it is the large church organizations that lay claim to the name “Mormon.” These are the institutions such as the LDS Church in Salt Lake City with its Temple Square, its Tabernacle Choir, its thousands of young missionaries knocking on front doors the world over.
The “box” is also an institution such as the FLDS Church, with its polygamous marriages, its women in swept up hairdos and retro-pioneer-style prairie skirts, its secret marriages of underage girls to older men, its distrust of modernity and the secular world.
The “box” is the attempt by an institution—especially the LDS Church—to proclaim that it alone is the “one true church.”
The “box” is the attempt by such an institution to convince the world that it is “THE Mormon Church,” and that all things Mormons can be properly understood only in the context of its laws and by-laws; of its history, traditions and policies; of it’s power, authority, hierarchy and priesthood.
Since all Mormon denominations and sects descend from the teachings of Joseph Smith—the First Mormon—the larger institutions try to keep Joseph himself in the “box” that they have created. They ignore his history, cover it up, apologize for it, deny it, lie about it, and create counter myths—all in an attempt to keep Joseph in their “box.”
The LDS Church in Salt Lake City has been particularly successful in doing this. It has convinced the world that—contrary to the proven facts of history—Joseph Smith prophetic calling consisted of founding their institution, which they claim is the “only true and living church on the face of the earth.” Just as in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had succeeded in convincing the world that one could not be a true Christian outside of their church and priesthood—and that the Apostle Peter was the first pope—so the LDS Church has asserted as fact that one can not be a true Mormon outside of its institution and priesthood. The LDS institution has created the office of church president, stuck the label of “prophet, seer and revelator” to it, and successfully convinced its millions of members that Joseph Smith was a “true prophet” in the way that the LDS institution defines “true prophet.”
In Temple Square murals and films, and in LDS Church educational and missionary publications, Joseph Smith is presented as the soft-spoken, outwardly meek and “Christ-like,” non-threatening person that modern LDS Church presidents try to be.
Proper priesthood authority” is essential to the LDS institution, and the LDS Church president is a “true prophet” BECAUSE he holds “the proper Priesthood authority.” The concept of this Priesthood authority is the most important aspect of the “box” into which the LDS institution attempts to cram Mormon theology and Joseph Smith.
For those Mormons raised in the LDS tradition, all concepts of Mormon theology and Joseph Smith are so intertwined with LDS institution’s authoritarian claims that they find it difficult to separate them one from another.
A few months ago I was explaining the tenants of Reform Mormonism to some good folk who had been raised LDS, but who had since left that tradition. Many had been so indoctrinated with the LDS Church’s official version of things that they struggled to even comprehend the basic concepts of Reform Mormonism.
Especially confusing and unsettling was the Reform Mormon approach to Joseph Smith—an approach which is more or less the same as that of secular historians.
One friend—Vahn—wrote the following to me:
“I'm actually very intrigued at what you believe and don't believe…One of the few things that separates Mormons [the LDS Church] from other denominations is the claim on priesthood authority…Why do you cling so heavily to Mormonism if you throw out the idea of Priesthood? A prophet isn't a prophet without it, only a charismatic man.”
Having been raised LDS, my friend had bought “the box” into which the LDS institution has tried to cram Joseph Smith; to take Joseph Smith out of this “box” (as we Reform Mormons do) was to deny that Joseph was a prophet. One simply could not BE Mormon outside of the LDS institution.
And so I wrote back, trying to explain not only how we Reform Mormons views Joseph Smith but also prophets in general.
“Why would something like Priesthood be required to be a prophet? Such thinking is part of the box into which the LDS and FLDS churches have tried to cram Mormonism.
“Joseph Smith was acknowledged as a prophet for years before he and Sydney Rigdon came up with the doctrine of Priesthood. The first Mormons organized a church in 1830 without any claims to Priesthood authority. For the next four years Mormonism flourished as a religious movement without any concept of Priesthood or Priesthood authority. The witnesses to "The Book of Mormon" deserted Mormonism because they argued that the doctrine of Priesthood, introduced for the first time in Kirtland in 1834, actually undermined the original prophetic spirit of Mormonism.
“You also said that a prophet without Priesthood is only a charismatic man.
“I humbly disagree.
“Instead I would say that a man WITHOUT CHARISMA is no prophet at all—regardless of how much Priesthood authority he might claim to possess.
“CHARISMA is part of what makes one a prophet.
“Joseph Smith was a prophet BECAUSE he had charisma.
“World renowned Jewish writer, Harold Bloom, in his great work "The American Religion" went so far as to say that Joseph Smith was killed BECAUSE he had TOO MUCH charisma.
“People use the word “charisma” all the time (usually when discussing celebrities). They seem to have no idea that “charisma” is a religious concept. Here is the dictionary definition of the word:
“ ‘1. Theology. a divinely conferred gift or power.
2. A spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.
3. The special virtue of an office, function, position, etc., that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like. "
“CHARISMA is that seemingly inherent quality that an individual has, that draws the attention of others; that seems to give power and authority to his or her words; it is that which wins the emotions and hearts of others so easily; that makes a person entertaining to a great extent.
“The decent, high-minded, successful business men and professionals who serve as the LDS Church’s General Authorities can claim all the Priesthood they wish. But to listen to them speak in their steady, low, sleep-inducing tones is to know that these men are not prophets— because they have no charisma.
“Mind you: I think they are highly principled, God-fearing men. But they are religious leaders—CEO's of a world-wide religious organization. They are not, to my mind, prophets.
“Prophets—because they are endowed with charisma—are rarely boring; they are rarely predictable.
“Because prophets radiate charisma, they disrupt society. They are an affront to the most cherished religious values and notions and traditions that people hold. Why would a prophet even open his or her mouth if the status quo were fine, or if the most cherished traditions of a culture were above reproach?
“Prophets enflame deep feelings in virtually all people with whom they come in contact—and those feelings include love, hate, admiration, revulsion, worship, loathing, sexual passion, despair and hope.
“The one sensation that a true prophet never inspires is the feeling that society is fine just that way it is; that tradition and the status quo--especially regarding religion—are to be protected and preserved.
“Only one thing can guide us through the maze of burning passions--positive and negative—that prophets arouse within us.
“That thing is REASON. Not reason unattached to emotion, but the rational faculty within humans that is--despite all we've been taught—the very fountain from which all our emotions flow.
“Under the light of reason, every word, action and principle of a prophet must be examined—for no prophet is infallible.
“A prophet is a still a human being. The office of prophet is a mortal office, not a divine one—though the divine phenomenon of charisma flows through it.
“Though the power of charisma may tempt us to do otherwise, the one thing no prophet must ever be given is mindless adoration or unquestioning obedience.
(This is a temptation that humans often give into to when entering the presence of Gods. Overwhelmed by the holiness of Deity, men believe themselves helpless; they drop to their knees, and give into mindless worship and praise--forgetting that "the Glory of God is Intelligence," and that mindlessness is the one condition that alone separates the human fromm the Divine; for the mind of man, like the Gods, is uncreated—and in the image of God does man exist.)
“To examine and question a prophet--and to find him or her coming up short, in no way diminishes their office as a prophet. In the end it is not the prophet, but the self-examination that he or she inspires within us that is of eternal importance.
“That examination must never end with a question like, "Will I obey or disobey this prophet? Will I submit or resist?"
“The final question must always be: does this principle conform to reality? Because truth is a knowledge of reality; it is a knowledge of what is objective; of things as they really are, really were and really will be.
“I decided to leave the LDS Church in January of 203, when I realized that certain principles Joseph Smith taught about human nature were true. In a moment that seemed revelatory, I saw human nature for what it was, and I saw how that nature was the one and only connection we humans have, not only to one another, but to the being we revere as God.
“At the moment I knew that I could never again enter an LDS Church or Temple as a believing member of that institution. But I also realized that on a level more deep than any I had ever contemplated or experienced, I was then—and would always be—Mormon.
“I wasn't raised Mormon or LDS. No missionary came knocking at my door to give me the discussions. I did not know a single Mormon growing up. But in my American history class, during my junior year of High school, we read one and a half pages of Mormon history. I was so intrigued by what I read, that the following Saturday I went to the local library and checked out everything I could find on Mormons. That day I began reading the first book I ever read about Joseph Smith: “No Man Knows My History” by Fawn Brodie.
“The title for this classic of Mormon historical scholarship comes from the last few sentences of the last public address that Joseph Smith gave to the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois: his famous “King Follett Discourse.” Joseph ended his greatest sermon by telling his own followers that they did not know him; that they would never, in this life, know him; that no living soul knew him or his real history, and that he would never attempt to tell that history to anyone.
“How many LDS Mormons understand the profound implications of that utterance by Joseph Smith?
“That statement hints at not only the profound loneliness of a human being endowed with charisma, but the personal tragedy that prophets feel is their lot as human beings, no matter how close they may feel to the Divine or the transcendent. Brodie was a genius to have chosen that statement for her biography of Joseph!
“The Joseph Smith that I accept as a prophet was first revealed in Brodie’s classic book. And he continues to be revealed in the facts of early Mormon history that scholars are constantly uncovering.
“’My Joseph Smith’ was a genius who was born into poverty, drudgery, superstition and religious fanaticism. He became immersed in folk-magic as a teen; flirted with religious enthusiasm as a young man. Using his religion-making imagination, he took bits and pieces of ideas erupting all over the wild new American Republic, and began fashioning something completely new.
“The religion Joseph was creating was always a work in progress, and when he was murdered, I don't think it was any where near completion. But by that time, enough of a new religious paradigm existed that it could serve as the foundation for something exciting and new;something that could speak to rational men and women for centuries to come.
" ‘My Joseph’ was a religious fraud who eventually became a true prophet—not in the dry, institutional sense of LDS tradition, but in the Romantic sense; in the sense that Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson were prophets; in the sense that America herself was born of a prophetic impulse.
“And so ‘My Joseph’ tromped and often times strutted across New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois (nothing meek or lamb-like about him.)
“He laughed and mocked the overly pious; enjoyed pulling sticks and wrestling in the street; smoked an occasional cigar and enjoyed a stiff drink often.
"’My Joseph’ would threaten and even bully someone he believed wronged him, while at the same time was so generous in his first impressions of people that he was forever trusting the wrong people. The volatile, fanatical zealot Sydney Rigdon, and the cunning, politically-minded John C. Bennett are but a few of “the wrong people” who at first impressed Joseph with their own brands of charisma, and who later misled, manipulated and then turned on him.
“Joseph once told a group of his closest followers that he would go to Hell to get his wife Emma if she were there—and "My Joseph” meant it, too; and yet he broke her heart by marrying many of her closest female friends behind her back...and all because, I think, he was a profoundly lonely individual who felt that no one on earth "knew his history."
"’My Joseph’ dreamed not of founding a church, but of building a great American city—a Zion, a New Jerusalem—which could boast every virtue, art and glory humans could devise, and to which the rest of the world would flow.
"’My Joseph’ never for an instant gave a serious thought to the devil, to hell or damnation—though everything in his upbringing told him that he should. He said once that if he went to Hell, he'd kick he devil out and make a heaven out of the place.
“Most importantly to me, ‘My Joseph’ could never get emotionally involved in the religious worship of his day. He freely admitted that when as a youth he attending camp meetings and religious revivals, he could never fall down, roll about and cry out; and though he could create narratives of past prophets quaking before the unveiled glory of Israel's God, "My Joseph” never experienced such a sensation when confronted by his God. "My Joseph” could only approach God as one man might another, as something of a mirrored image—rather like mythical Adam, when he first opened his eyes on the morn of his creation and gazed into the face of Deity.
“Over the years I have become convinced that fearlessness before the face of God is the mark of a true prophet. The true prophet is unafraid of bartering with God—as Abraham bartered with the God Yahweh in an attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. The true prophet is unafraid to challenge God to a wrestling match; unafraid to use his own human strength to defend himself against a divine assault; unafraid to pin God to the ground if necessary and demand a blessing—demand that God treat him with the respect due to a being existing in the image and likeness of Deity.
“Of course, the true prophets are denounced, despised, persecuted and sometimes killed by the priests, the scribes and the Pharisees of their day. In this, “My Joseph” was not exception. It was his passionate battles with the highest leadership within the Mormon community at Nauvoo that led to his downfall, his arrest and his murder by a lynch mob.
“Sometime true prophets are fortunate enough to have their lives and teachings faithfully preserved in scripture. But those in later generations who claim to be their most devoted disciples—who claim the authority to defend, protect and honor their memory and the orthodoxy of their teachings—are the first to distance themselves from the implications of the most profound principles that those prophets taught.
“Such authorities—while devoting their lives to praising true prophets—are the first to gloss over, to tone down and to overtly deny that true prophets ever wrestled with Deity. Thus the Biblical account of Jacob wrestling with God is transformed into the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel—and most are never told that the actual meaning of Jacob’s new name ‘Israel’ is ‘to contend with God.’
“Such authorities build monuments to the memory of their prophets while intentionally obscuring what was truly prophetic in such men and women.
“You earlier wrote that you can no longer accept the Joseph Smith you saw on Temple Square and in the LDS Church films, paintings and books.
“I've seen those films and images; I've read those books. I've been to Temple Square many times over the past 29 years.
“I have never once seen a likeness of ‘My Joseph’ there.”