Monday, December 09, 2019

MY JOSEPH: Mormonism Outside of the Box

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 its 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's 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.

I wrote:

“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 wins the emotions and hearts of others so easily; that makes a person entertaining to a great extent.

“The decent, high-minded, successful businessmen 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 highly principled, God-fearing men. But they are religious leaders—CEOs of a worldwide 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 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 from 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 2003, 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 any 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 anywhere near completed. 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 said 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 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; 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—that God treat him with the respect due to a being who exists 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 no an 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 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 they 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.”

Friday, August 17, 2018


Yesterday (August 16, 2018), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a new policy: the media and all members are to stop using the word “Mormon” when referring to the church and its members. In response, some in the media whose memories stretch far enough back, sighed, “Oh, here we go again!”

In 2000, leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued the exact same directive: stop calling us “the Mormon Church” and stop calling our members, “Mormons.” Of course, no one listened.

Around that same time, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints changed its name to Community of Christ. The denomination wanted the end, once and for all, any connection in the public’s mind to the church in Utah, Mormons or Mormonism.

Of course, the nickname “Mormon” was coined within the first year or so of the religious movement’s birth in upstate New York in 1830. This was several years before the term “Latter Day Saint” was coined, or the name of the original “Church of Christ” was changed to “Church of the Latter-Day Saints.” The name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” was adopted later in the 1830s, while the body that called itself “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (note the hyphenated words in the name) was not legally organized until several years after the death of Joseph Smith. So, before there were “Latter Day-saints” or even “Latter Day Saints,” there were “Mormons.”

Doesn’t anyone want to be called a “Mormon” anymore?

I certainly can understand why many do not. Since around 1850, the word “Mormon” has been conflated with the Utah-based institution that called itself “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” As far as public relations are concerned, that organization got off on the wrong foot when, in 1852, it announced to the world that it not only practiced polygamy, but considered it divinely-mandated and superior to monogamy. (Even today, that institution is burdened by its continual recognition of “eternal” polygamous marriages as well as the inclusion in its scripture of a section commanding the practice.) The murder of over 100 innocent men, women and children by the institution's top local leaders in southern Utah on September 11, 1857 (the Mountain Meadows Massacre) was—and remains--a public relations nightmare. (One historian has correctly observed that following the massacre, and for the remainder of the nineteenth century, to be called a Mormon was akin to being called a Muslim terrorist today.)

In modern times, the corporation that now owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” has made one public relations blunder after another. These include: its embrace of a 120-year-old racist theology and policy targeted against all people of African ancestry (neither of which were rescinded until 1978); its “successes” in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s and overturning same-sex marriage in California in 2008, and—most recently—its policy against blessing or baptizing the children of same-sex couples. (Jesus Christ said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The Utah-based corporation claiming to be his sole representative on earth says, “Not so fast, Kids.”)

Seeing how the corporation that owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” has—by its actions, policies and theology—caused the word “Mormon” to become synonymous with homophobia, racism, sexism, pharisaical religious attitudes and Right-wing politics, it is perfectly understandable that it now wishes to distance itself from the name.

Please, please, please do!

You—the corporation that owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"—and all of you who are associated with that corporation do not deserve the name “Mormon.” Give it up—I beg of you! Dear members, if ever you have heeded the council of your so-called “Lord’s Anointed,” I beseech you, do so now, and immediately cease and desist from calling yourselves Mormons once and for all!

I, for one, will continue to identify as Mormon—though, in 2007, I dissolved my relationship with the Utah-based corporation that owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In the 1830s and early 1840s, the label “Mormon” had very different connotations that it had after the murder of Joseph Smith. Were Mormons seen a weird, odd, unorthodox, troublesome to established Protestant norms? Yes—without a doubt. But in a newborn Republic that encoded freedom of and from religion in its constitution, those Protestant norms needed to be challenged and, if people so chose, completely rejected. This was a period when the majority of Americans saw the Mormons as victims of violence, not perpetrators of violence (as they would in the 1850s, when the Utah institution hijacked the label and began preaching Blood Atonement.) Before that time, Mormons were laughed at for having emerged from the folk religion of the American frontier—with all of its weirdness, superstition, quaintness and…well…fun. (Re-read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” if you want to better understand the American frontier folk religion that actually birthed Mormonism.)

My dear Latter-day Saints— (we can all agree that is what you are to be called now, right?)—please begin immediately to correct people when they mistakenly refer to you as “Mormon.” If you must, feign being insulted when they in ignorance apply the name to you. If I could have but one gift this coming Christmas Season, it would be that by December 25,no one would associate the word “Mormon” with the corporation that owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In short, my dear Latter-day Saints, I am sick and tired of having my family, friends and associates assume that I am one of you, or that I have any association with the Utah-based corporation that owns the aforementioned trademark.

Let me share some reasons why I am proud to be a Mormon, but have no desire to be mistaken for a Latter-day Saint:

Early Mormons eagerly explored all the newest trends and fades in religious thought, spirituality, science and pseudo-science, mysticism, etc.—and when they found an idea that resonated with their convictions, they incorporated it into their evolving theology. On the other hand, Latter-day Saints view any new idea with suspicion, withholding all opinions until the leaders of the corporation that owns the trademark “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” have issued their opinion, at which time those Saints form an echo chamber. I find echoes irksome, and so, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

The early Mormons distrusted American Christianity. Joseph Smith confessed he couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to hoot and holler at revivals and camp meetings—even when he wanted to. Eliza R. Snow declared that when she attended Christian services, she couldn’t humiliate herself by declaring that she was a naturally-corrupt sinner worthy of nothing but damnation by a just and righteous God. In contrast, Latter-day Saints worry constantly that others don’t see them as Christians, while fear of God’s judgement seem to be constantly on their minds. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Though Mormons at first thought of Jesus as being God incarnate (the orthodox Christian view), they quickly dropped the doctrine of the Trinity, questioned and offered wild speculations about a literal Virgin birth, stopped focusing on the Atonement, began putting more emphasis on how Christ was similar to the rest of humanity and envisioning how humanity could become equally divine not only with Christ but with God. Latter-day Saints have retreated from all of these ideas, and embrace a neo-orthodox theology that in many of its fundamentals differs little from mainline Protestantism. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saints.

Early Mormons accepted “The Book of Mormon” as scripture while knowing little to nothing about its origins. When, at a Mormon conference in the early 1830s, Hyrum Smith asked Joseph Smith to share the details of the book’s origin with those assembled, Joseph refused, saying the details were unimportant. Latter-day Saints, however, think the details are very important, and belief in later gold plate narratives is a central tenant of their religion. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons knew nothing about any “First Vision” in 1820—because that story hadn’t yet been written, and wouldn’t be widely known until the early twentieth century. If you were to talk about Joseph Smith’s “Vision” to an early Mormon, they’d assume you were referring to “The Vision” of the three degrees of glory in D&C 76. Latter-day Saints believe their faith began in 1820 when Joseph had a vision of the Father and the Son; the historicity of this event is a central tenant of their faith. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons rejected salvation by grace because in the new theological paradigm they constructed, the focus was on Eternal Progression by one’s efforts. Latter-day Saints think of “salvation” in much the same way as do Catholics and Protestants. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Mormons rejected the idea of Hell and embraced universal salvation—within everyone inheriting some degree of glory. Latter-day Saints believe in three degrees of glory, but most still believe in the existence of Hell as traditionally imagined by Catholics and Protestants. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons believed that humans and Gods shared a common nature. Latter-day Saints concentrate on how humans are different from God —and any talk of Gods (plural) rattles them.(They insist, after all, that they are Christians—and Christians are monotheists.) So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons believed that one’s spirit was eternal, uncreated and “co-equal with God.” Latter-day Saints, since their adoption of polygamy in 1852, have taught that one’s spirit is sexually begotten by Heavenly Parents—thus making heterosexual marriage central to their now-convoluted neo-orthodox theology. So, call me a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons held that marriages were to always be performed openly as public ceremonies in accordance with local law. Since 1852, Latter-day Saints have performed their marriages hidden from the view of not only the general public, but also from the eyes of those church and family members who their leaders label “unworthy.” So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons had but three offices in their initial church organization: elder, priest and teacher. Latter-day Saints have—well, just look at a flow chart of their organization and try to make sense of it. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons governed their churches by Common Consent, with decisions being made democratically from the bottom up. The Twelve Apostles had no church-wide authority but merely oversaw the Mormon missionary program. Church authority was local, with the local Stake High Council being the highest authority. The Latter-day Saints, since the time of Brigham Young, have embraced a pyramid structure—with all authority flowing down from a Church President, through the Twelve Apostles, then General Authorities, and so on to the local level. When Latter-day Saints talk of Common Consent, they mean the right to affirm whatever the leaders at the top have already decided. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons didn’t excommunicate people for a difference of opinion. Joseph Smith thought doing so was too similar to the practices the Methodist societies of his youth: one accepted Methodists beliefs, or one was booted from membership. Latter-day Saints are so famous for booting out members for differences of opinions, that they could market a line of footwear for the occasion. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons sympathized with the poor and the outcast; Latter-day Saints admire the wealthy and affluent. So, I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons embraced life here and now as good. They sought to build Zion and the Kingdom of God here on earth. They believed that this earth would eventually be clothed in Celestial Glory. Latter-day Saints focus on leaving this world, which they tend to view with much the same negativity as do Evangelical Christians; they aspire ti “enter the Celestial Kingdom” or “return to the presence of our Heavenly Father” after they die. So, because I really like life here on earth and thoroughly enjoy the daily routine of waking up, eating and drinking, working, engaging with friends and family, having sex, reading, writing, learning—not to mention my fondness for more mundane things such as breathing and aging—and because I believe God likes these things, too—I am a Mormon—not a Latter-day Saint.

Early Mormons took the Word of Wisdom as advise, not as a commandment: most continued to drink coffee, tea, beer and alcohol. (Joseph Smith even installed a bar in his Nauvoo home and hired Porter Rockwell to be his bar tender—until tea-totaling Emma told him that either the bar went or she would leave with the children.) Latter-day Saints consider the Word of Wisdom to be a commandment (despite the fact that their own scripture declares explicitly that it is not), and obedience to it is required for full participation in their church. So, I am a Mormon (a coffee drinker with a fondness for margaritas)—not a Latter-day Saint.

The list of why I am a Mormon--not a Latter-day Saint—could go on, but I think I have made my point. If you don’t think I have, then I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I’ll sign off with but one small request: please, please, please call me a Mormon--not a Latter-day Saint!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

SEPTEMBER 21, 1823 ....AND NOW

September 21st could be thought of as the birthday of Mormonism.

For nearly two centuries stories have been circulated about events that millions of people around the world believe took place on Sunday night, September 21, 1823 in a small log home near Palmyra, New York.
The first stories were told among members of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith’s family. Within two years, some details of those stories leaked out and were circulated among certain neighbors of the Smiths. Over the next few years, rumor, speculation, superstition and religious enthusiasm led to the telling of conflicting stories—some greeted as evidence of Divine intervention in human history, some seen as omens of darker supernatural powers at work, and others cited as proof of a great fraud being perpetrated on the gullible.

In the confusing swirl of conflicting stories about the events of September 21, 1823, a new religious tradition was born that quickly grew beyond the expectations of most people. As that movement spread beyond upstate New York into Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, its leaders tried to bring clarity to the chaotic stew from which their faith sprang. In short, they tried to create an official origin story for their religion.

They made several attempts. In each of these origin stories, details were added that conflicted with those found in earlier versions but which supported recent innovations in the faith’s theology and organizational structure. Each of these later retellings became more miraculous and majestic—presenting a cosmic struggle between the forces of Divine goodness and Satanic evil. When the movement splintered into competing denominations in the late1840’s, some relegated these later stories to history books while others canonized them as scripture.

Reform Mormons tend to think that greater spiritual value is found not in trying to prove or disprove the historicity of these later “official” histories, but in returning to the earlier versions of the story—the ones closer in time to 1823—and looking for the elements of those stories that might speak to the spiritual concerns of people living today.

One of the earliest detailed accounts of Sunday night, September 21, 1823, was written by Mormonism’s co-founder, Oliver Cowdery in a letter dated September 7, 1834--and published in the October 1834 issue of “Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate.”

Oliver wrote that on that the night of September 21, 1823, teenage Joseph Smith was not even sure if God existed. The teenager called “upon the Lord in secret” for an answer to the question: “If a Supreme Being did exist, to have an assurance that he was accepted of him.”

To understand why 17-year-old Joseph Smith doubted the existence of God, one needn’t look any farther than his parents. His father, Joseph Smith Senior, was a Universalist who rejected any theology that relegated any portion of humanity to a burning Hell for all eternity. Joseph Senior has no use for organized religion, and expressed his spirituality in terms of folklore and folk magic. In contrast, young Joseph’s mother Lucy Mack Smith embraced a more Calvinistic faith: she was deeply afraid that she, her husband and children might face eternal damnation—that they needed to secure their Christian salvation. The religious differences between Joseph Smith’s parents were profound, and they undermined any sense of unity and stability in the life of the family. It does not take much effort to imagine that discussions of religious differences in the Smith household might have easily escalated into powerful arguments that could have caused the teenage Joseph to be critical of religion generally and of traditional notions of God specifically.

According to Oliver, the teenage Joseph Smith “was unusually wrought up on the subject that had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his soul was so lost to everything of a temporal nature, that earth had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind of messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.”

Oliver Cowdery wrote that near midnight, after Joseph’s brothers had fallen asleep, “while continuing to prayer for a manifestation, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a purer and far more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room.” Joseph later told Oliver that it seemed to him “as though the house was filled with consuming and unquenchable fire.” At first the appearance of such luminous splendor “occasioned a shock or sensation, visible to the extremities of the body,” but that was soon followed by a “calmness and serenity of mind, and an overwhelming rapture of joy that surpassed understanding.”

In a moment, a personage stood before Joseph floating in mid-air. Although the room had previously been filled with light, Oliver wrote, there seemed to be an “additional glory surrounding or accompanying the personage, which shone with an increased degree of brilliancy.” Though the countenance of the messenger was “as lightening,” it was of such a “pleasant, innocent and glorious appearance,” that all fear was banished from the boy’s heart and “nothing but calmness pervaded Joseph’s soul.”

The turning point in Cowdery’s story comes when Joseph, laying in his bed and wondering if God even exists, desires to know if the God—whose existence he questions—finds him acceptable.

How many people find themselves in that situation? Raised in a particular faith, they find themselves unsure of everything they were taught to believe—even the existence of God. And yet, at the same time, though unsure if God does exist, they still want to know that they are loved and accepted if God does exist.

According to Oliver’s account, while Joseph was in the midst of this conflicted state of mind, light began filling the room, bringing with it a calm and a glory that banished all fears. This sets into motion miraculous events which three years later leads to a new book of scripture and the opening of the scriptural cannon.

According to various stories told about the coming forth of that new scripture, for the next four years (1824, 1825, 1826 and 1827) September 21st became a day for Joseph Smith to re-evaluate the previous year of his life, to meditate on lessons learned, to repent and prepare for the future he felt God had in store for him. In this way, it was similar to the High Holy Days in Judaism—which coincidentally takes place every year during this same week in September. The process of honestly accessing one’s life and spiritual state, of accepting doubts, repenting of sins is essential in order to prepare for the revelation of further Light in our lives.

And so, on the night of September 21st, Reform Mormons try to take a deeper look at where they are relative to their spiritual and ethical progression. They contemplate the events of the previous year and what might be in the year to come. If they have doubts about God—or any other belief or idea related to their faith—they try to confront these doubts openly, honestly and with integrity. Just as one needn’t stay married to one’s current beliefs, one needn’t be divorced from one’s doubts. Beliefs and doubts can both fuel one’s Eternal Progression. The goal is not to get to somewhere else by virtue of believing “the right things,” but to become the type of human being whose personifies the Divine. Accepting doubts, being able to live with ambiguity, repenting of those things that we honestly, within ourselves, believe are wrong (as opposed to those things that traditions, institutions and others insist are wrong)—being able to do all of these things may not only bring a profound sense of peace, they can also open our eyes to the Light that will lead us into the future.

Monday, September 11, 2017

REMEMBERING 9/11 ... 1857

Can a community born of faith in the loftiest of ideals, descend into hatred, intolerance, murder and terror? Can a people who embraced a prophetic tradition—who gathered together because they were keenly aware of the injustice, hard heartedness and self-righteousness in the world become so zealous that they move beyond merely embodying the attitudes that they once decried, to embracing barbarism?

The answer is yes, and no people should be more aware of that truth than those belonging to the Mormon religious tradition. Mormonism is, after all, a tradition that originally sprang from the embrace of “The Book of Mormon.” Before the earliest believers had any fully formed explanation of the book’s origins, they had in their hands the book itself. That book told a story that spoke to their experiences and reflected their understanding of human nature and the world in which they lived.

“The Book of Mormon” told the story of two ancient peoples—both descended from a prophet who saw the corruption of the society in which he lived, and fled with his wife and children to a distant land. There, separated from his kinsmen, the prophet hoped that his children and their descendants would live as a free, just, godly and virtuous people. But from the beginning of the story, all of his children engaged in violence, jealously and division.

The prophet’s descendants divided themselves into two distinct civilizations—neither of which were purely just or virtuous, and both of which embraced violence and war when they felt threatened. In each of these two cultures there arose divinely-called prophets and leaders—and in each, there arose charlatans, demagogues, war-mongers and tyrants. For six hundred years, these two cultures not only warred with one another, but were each internally divided ethnically, religiously and politically. Each cultural was blinded by the belief that its enmity with the other was either rationally or divinely justified. Brought to the brink of destruction not only by violence but by catastrophic natural disasters at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, they were visited by the resurrected Christ who taught them the principles embodied in the Biblical Sermon on the Mount. After six centuries of ethnic division, demagogy, social injustice and war, the two civilizations come together as one people and lived in peace for over a century. The reason for—and the key to—this lasting peace were the pure and simple principles taught by Jesus: love your enemy, pray for those who despitefully use you, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse you, go the extra mile, bear one another's burdens, avoid being sanctimonious.

After a century, prosperity, pride, self-righteousness and contentiousness took root within the people. Ancient grievances were revived, and people divided themselves along ethnic lines. Both descended into barbarism, with one civilization becoming even more sadistic than the other. That civilization—which, through most the story, had the stronger prophetic tradition—was eventually annihilated by the other.

“The Book of Mormon” was cautionary tale for the people who first read it—first and second-generation Americans who were still insecure with the personal liberties their newly formed Republic guaranteed them. These first readers were cautious regarding potential abuses of power by civic as well as ecclesiastical authorities and institutions. They embraced the “pure and simple Gospel of Christ”—which could best be summarized as putting love and charity above all else.

It is one of the supreme ironies in American history, that the largest community of Mormons would, in the 1840s, as a result of persecution and political intrigue, leave the United States, settle in the Rocky Mountains and desert southwest, and there turn inward on itself—instituting an internal “reformation” in which the choice was either unquestioning obedience to ecclesiastical authorities, or punishment—including death (so-called “Blood Atonement”) for blasphemy and apostacy. The theocratic government established in Utah Territory bought its Mormon population in direct conflict with the principles of the United States Constitution. It was soon assumed that military conflict between Utah territorial militias and Federal troops was inevitable.

During this period—in the late summer of 1857—a wagon train made up of Americans primarily from Arkansas and Missouri was making its way to California, through southern Utah. Twenty-five years earlier, Missouri had been the central gathering place for Mormons, but religious persecutions there had ended with a massacre of Mormons at a settlement called Haun’s Mil, and an extermination notice signed by the Governor of Missouri—the only such order ever issued by a U.S. governor against U.S. citizens. The memories of those persecutions and the resentments had only festered among the Mormons seeking to pioneer the harsh desert southwest. The California-bound wagon train wandered into what could now be described as a “perfect storm” for tragedy.

Led by the Mormon Priesthood High Council of Cedar City, Utah, the local militia attacked the wagon train in a spot called Mountain Meadows. After a conflict lasting several days, on September 11, 1857, the wagon train surrendered to the militia after being assured that they would be escorted to safety. Having given up their weapons, the men, women and children of the wagon train formed a long line and, escorted by Mormon militia men, they began to walk out of Mountain Meadows. Suddenly given the signal, each Mormon militia man turned on the man, woman or child nearest him. Within minutes, over 100 men, women and children—aged 8 and older—lay massacred in Mountain Meadows. Their mutilated bodies were left unburied for weeks.

This event—the Mountain Meadows Massacre—was the worst case of domestic terrorism in U.S. history until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. What is so tragic and ironic, is that the perpetrators of the massacre were themselves the victims of earlier religious persecutions and massacre.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history would be perpetrated on September 11, 2001—144 years to the day since the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As with the terrorism of 9/11/1857, the terrorism of 9/11/2001 was perpetrated by religious zealots who clung to memories of and resentments regarding earlier persecutions that their religious communities had suffered.
Reform Mormons embrace 9/11 as a Day of Remembrance. The two terrorist acts that took place on this day—in 2001 and in 1857—are taken as warnings of what can happen when a community clings to grievances of past wrongs, and assumes that they have either a rational or a divinely-mandated license to avenge those wrongs.

Reform Mormons turn to the story told by “The Book of Mormon” for guidance. They realize that no community is immune to bitterness, to fantasies of vengeance for wrongs suffered, and to the intoxicating but deadly illusion that violence against one’s enemies is divinely sanctioned.

On 9/11, Reform Mormons seek to remember that despite wrongs and injustices suffered, they have committed themselves to emulating the character of God as revealed in the character of Jesus. That character is embodied in the principles found in Biblical Sermon on the Mount and in “The Book of Mormon’s” Sermon at the Nephite Temple:

“Behold, it is written, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;
but I say unto you, that ye shall not resist evil.
Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other…
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,
so good to them that hate you,
and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you;
that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven;
for He makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good…
Old things are done away with, and all things have become new.
Therefore, I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect."

(See III Nephi 12: 38—48 [LDS Edition] / III Nephi 6: 84—92 [COC Authorized Version]

Friday, December 23, 2016


The land into which Jesus was born burned with Messianic expectations. Prayers for a long-promised national deliverer arose constantly from homes, synagogues and the great Temple in Jerusalem. A nation which had for over six centuries been divided, humiliated and dominated by foreign powers awaited God’s anointed deliverer who would restore national honor, integrity, piety and power. The coming of this national redeemer would be a joyful event for the people—a momentous event that would be witnessed by all the nations of the earth. At least that was the populist belief of the time given the common interpretation of scriptural passages such as this:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God."
(Isaiah 52:7-10)

The central reason why most believers in these scriptures rejected Jesus as God’s Messiah—His Anointed—was that his birth, life and death (and even the claims of his resurrection) met none of the expectations that the vast majority of the people had for their long-hoped-for redeemer.

In the decades and centuries following Jesus’s earthly ministry, those who did embrace him as the Messiah passed along stories and created traditions that commemorated his birth as a miraculous, earth-shaking event.

Thus, Christmas is celebrated by erecting Nativity scenes, singing glorious carols, and retelling stories of singing angelic hosts filling the night skies above shepherds in their fields; of Wise Men on camels following a blazing star from Persia to Bethlehem; of ancient Americans falling to their knees as the skies above them remain bright for a day, a night and day in recognition of the Savior’s birth.

There are two things that these stories have in common.

All of these stories involve great lights: the star of the east; a day, a night and a day as if they were one day; bright angelic host filling the night sky.

And all of these stories involve humans looking heavenward for signs of the Messiah’s birth.

Whether these particular stories are historical or legendary is of little importance to our discussion here. If they are indeed historical, they happened to only a handful of people in the Middle East or to an ancient America civilization that had no contact with the rest of the world. The fact remains that the rest of the human family—including those living in the small town where Jesus was born—had no idea that a Messiah had been born.

No one was looking earthward. No one was looking down.

With all of the reading of scripture that took place daily in synagogues and communities throughout the Roman Empire; all of the anticipation, all of the talking, bickering, debating, speculating and theorizing about the Messiah which consumed the faithful of that day—no one thought to look for the Lord’s Anointed in a dark stable, lying in a manger.

Certainly if (as the Gospel According to Luke testifies) Mary gave birth to Jesus in overcrowded Bethlehem during the taking of a national census, it would stand to reason that others in the crowded inn and adjoining stable would have been aware of the event. Others would have heard the newborn Jesus crying. Others would have passed the babe in the manger. Even with no heralding angles or stars rising in the east, Jesus was not born in isolation, in secret or even in the privacy of a home.

And yet as far as our traditions tell us, not a single soul in closest proximity to the newborn babe had the slightest inkling that their Messiah had come—that the child was “Emmanuel”—meaning “God with us.” The populist notions of national pride and power, the certainty that national and sectarian interests were the measure of God’s interests, the testimonies delivered by the multitudes asserting that they already knew the truth regarding the ways in which God operated—all of these combined to blind people to the way in which redemption, salvation, restoration, peace and the reign of God were being brought into the world.

For those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah—the Christ—God had entered the world quietly, undermining not only popular beliefs about how He operates but also undermining all traditional, orthodox assumptions about the very nature of the Divine’s relationship with humanity.

In Jesus’s day, as in our own, people were looking for blinding beams of glory streaming from the heaven, for the bright flash of a national deliverer’s sword, for the glowing radiance of thrones, crowns, riches and royal opulence.

No one thought of looking for the Light in the countenance of the weakest of humans—a seemingly ordinary infant asleep among the animals in a common stable.

As Phillip Brooks wrote his immortal 1868 Christmas carol:

“How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”

How much time and energy have I spent looking heavenward for signs and wonders rather than looking at the world around me, in the faces and lives of others?

How have my experiences of God undermined the expectations I had based on my religious upbringing?

SHARING FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This Christmas Season bring up the above questions in conversations with family members or friends.

Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make your ideas understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.

For more information on Reform Mormonism visit

Thursday, December 22, 2016



“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,
but do not have love,
I am only a resounding gong
or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy
and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor
and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others,
it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects,
always trusts,
always hopes,
always perseveres.

Love never fails.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease;
where there are tongues, they will be stilled;
where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain:
faith, hope and love.

But the greatest of these is love.”
(I Corinthians 13)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


In even the darkest times, the promised advent of Christ’s Light offers us a reason to rejoice. For despite the chaos, despair and violence of the current age, the vision of a future age in which these things have no place has long inspired prophets and poets throughout history.

Anciently the defeated and dispersed Children of Israel were encouraged by their prophets to never lose sight of a joyous future age that would be ushered in by a coming Messiah:

“The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
(Isaiah 35:1-10)

In early nineteenth century America, another prophet, while illegally imprisoned for months in a small Missouri jail, cast his thoughts forward to that same future time, envisioning how the dead would be restored to the living in an eternal joyful union. Rather than give in to feelings of gloom and despair because of current injustices and suffering, this prophet encouraged his brothers and sisters to press forward with joy:

“Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received?
A voice of gladness!
A voice of mercy from heaven;
and a voice of truth out of the earth;
glad tidings for the dead;
a voice of gladness for the living and the dead;
glad tidings of great joy…
Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause?
Go forward and not backward.
Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory!
Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.
Let the earth break forth into singing.
Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel…
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud;
and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King!
And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness.
Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord;
and ye solid rocks weep for joy!
And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together,
and let all the sons of God shout for joy!
And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever!
And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven,
proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation,
and honor, and immortality, and eternal life;
kingdoms, principalities, and powers!
…Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand;
and who can abide the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap;
and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he shall purify the sons of Levi,
and purge them as gold and silver,
that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. “
(Doctrine & Covenants 128: 19, 22, 23-24)

Though the past year may have had its fill of disappointments, hurts and anger, let us pay renewed attention to the prophetic voices found in scripture. Let us learn from the things we may have suffered and then let us release that pain, allowing it to recede into the darkness of the past. As Christmas approaches, let us rejoice in the coming of Christ’s Light into a world in need of healing and restoration—for as the scripture testify, we are that we might have joy! (See II Nephi 2:25)