Thursday, August 26, 2004

WHAT IS A MORMON? Reform Mormons and Scripture

Sunday, 22 August 2004

A Blasphemous Book

On April 2, 1830 The Rochester Daily Advertiser published the very first review of a book printed in the nearby village of Palmyra, New York:


“The Book of Mormon has been placed in our hands. A viler imposition was never practiced. It is an evidence of fraud, blasphemy, and credulity, shocking both to Christians and moralists. The author and proprietor is Joseph Smith, Jr., a fellow who by some hocus pocus acquired such influence over a wealthy farmer of Wayne county that the latter mortgaged his farm for $3,000, which he paid for printing and binding five thousand copies of the blasphemous work.”

For three years Palmyra and neighboring villages had been abuzz with rumors, gossip, tall tales and wild speculation concerning the origin and nature of the forthcoming book--as well as the methods and intentions of 24 year-old, Joseph Smith. Over the next 174 years competing theologies as well as tales of divine miracles and elaborate hoaxes would be put forth to explain and justify the book’s existence.
But in 1830, those theologies and explanations did not yet exist. On March 26th, when the first copies of "The Book of Mormon" were placed in the display window of Grandin’s bookstore on Palmyra’s main street, anyone who thumbed through the thick volume could be sure of only two facts: that Joseph Smith, Jr. was credited on the book’s title page as its “author and proprietor,” and that the book itself claimed to be the Word of God--new scripture for the modern world.

This last claim alone--which made the book equal with the Bible itself--was enough to shock most Americans. However, for a small number of people (mostly religious seekers who were unsatisfied with the existing churches) "The Book of Mormon" seemed to be the answer to their prayers. The book became the gateway to a profound and radically different vision of humanity’s relationship with God.
During the next two years, to the astonishment of most, individuals throughout the northeastern states--as well as entire congregations of Christians in Ohio--came to accept the book as scripture. Befuddled onlookers came up with a nickname for these converts. At first they called them “Mormonites,” but very quickly this was shortened to “Mormons.”
Twenty years later, the label “Mormon” became linked with the practice of polygamy in Utah. By the 1950’s, the word “Mormon” was linked to the internationally acclaimed Tabernacle Choir. Now days, say the word “Mormon,” and most people think of clean cut, socially conservative teetotalers.
But in the early 1830’s, the label of “Mormon” referred primarily to one thing: a person who not only accepted "The Book of Mormon" as scripture equal with the Bible, but who also believed that more scriptures were yet to be written and published.
Most Americans believed that the Bible--and the Bible alone--was the infallible Word of God; to suggest otherwise was blasphemy. Joseph Smith was vilified as a wicked fraud. Aside from a desire for fame and fortune, few could imagine why any sincere “God-fearing” man would write and publish something like "The Book of Mormon."

Discussion Questions:
Why might it be comforting to think of one book or set of writings as the infallible Word of God?
What might be some of the disadvantages of this belief?
How has such a belief fostered or retarded human progress?


In March 1929, Joseph Smith explained that publishing "The Book of Mormon" would herald the beginning of a much larger work:

“If the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them…” (A Book of Commandments 4:5)

Joseph went on to reveal that this “reformation” would cleanse the existing churches of the evils tearing them apart--evils such as dishonesty (“lyings, and deceivings”) , clerical abuse (“priestcraft“), disputes over creeds ("strivings"), superstitions (“sorceries”) and “idolatries.”
Idolatry is to revere as divine that which is manmade. The Protestant churches with which Joseph Smith was familiar were extremely zealous is avoiding any doctrine or practice that might in any way promote idolatry. What type of “idolatry” would this coming “reformation” put down? What manmade object did the average Protestant revere as divine?


One didn’t have to look any further than the nearest church pulpit for the answer. Christian tradition held the Bible to be the infallible Word of God--a book without errors. In matters of faith and morality, no other scriptures or books were considered necessary; even the most rational or brilliant argument failed to impress the average Christian if it contradicted “the Good Book.” Therefore the Bible was given a place of preeminence in most churches, usually laying open upon the pulpit.

This worshipful reverence of a book is known as Bibliolatry.
"The Book of Mormon" attacked bibliolatry head-on, explaining that the institutional church had compiled the Bible from older Jewish writings, eliminating many “plain and precious things” in the process:

“…when the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lord….wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book…” (See I Nephi 13: 20-29)

"The Book of Mormon" also pointed out how Christianity’s reverence for the Bible contradicted the stream of anti-Semitism running throughout much of church history:

“--many Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible….O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed from the Jews…thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them and have hated them…[How] have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?” (See II Nephi 29: 3-6)

While many may have felt that these passages were attacks on the Bible, in actuality what was being condemned were the churches’ incoherencies regarding the nature of scripture. In order to maintain a belief in the Bible as divine and infallible, Christians had to ignore the fact that it was the compiled by earlier church councils from the literary creations of another people and culture.
Several years later, Joseph Smith expressed the Mormon view of the Bible when he wrote, “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God insofar as it is translated correctly.” (The Pearl of Great Price, Article of Faith 8)

Discussion Questions:
How can knowing the origin and history of a book of scripture help one “translate it correctly?”
What pitfalls and errors can be avoided with such knowledge?
Can a book of scripture be manmade on the one hand and “the Word of God” on the other hand? If so, how?


In declaring that the Bible is the divinely inspired and infallible Word of God, many Christians tend to look down on the scriptures of other faiths. Certainly Christians alone aren’t guilty of such thinking; the same could be said of most world religions. However, "The Book of Mormon," in rejecting the infallibility of the Bible, laid the groundwork for a new approach to the scriptures of the world:

“Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men…and I bring forth my words unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?…

...Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witnesses unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another?...

…Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written….

...For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written … I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.” (II Nephi 29: 3, 6-9)

Discussion Questions:
If the above passage is taken seriously, how might it effect the way one views the scriptures of other religions and cultures?

How can studying the scriptures of a religion with which one disagrees contribute to one’s growth and progress--intellectually, morally and spiritually?

Is it possible to find truths in the scriptures of another religion, even while rejecting many of the basic premises of that faith?


Building upon the principles laid out in "The Book of Mormon," the Reform Mormon approach to scripture is radically different than that of traditional faiths.
Reform Mormons believe that all scriptures are written by men, not by God. The scriptures of the world contain a mixture of personal opinion, inspiration, and truth. No book is infallible. Since its publication in 1830, even "The Book of Mormon" itself has undergone thousands of English-language changes--many of which changed the meaning of the text. In 1833, Joseph Smith published as scripture a volume of his revelations entitled "A Book of Commandments." Yet when these same revelations were reprinted two years later as "The Doctrine & Covenants," he deleted passages, added passages and rewrote entire sections based on new insights and on his progressively changing ideas.
While others may have struggled with this fluid approach to scriptures, it didn’t seem to bother Joseph Smith himself--nor did it bother the majority of early Mormons who studied both "A Book of Commandments" and "The Doctrine & Covenants," and were well aware of the substantive changes that had been made. These changes did not undermine the books’ value as scripture.
Joseph Smith taught that the purpose of human existence was eternal progress, and that this progress consisted of going from a lower degree of knowledge to a higher of knowledge.
Because Reform Mormonism embraces eternal progression and man’s ultimate destiny as an evolved being, it makes perfect sense that as humanity comes into possession of new knowledge, old ideas once revered as sacred will, of necessity, be altered or discarded altogether. This view is reflected in the Reform Mormon approach to scripture.

Discussion Questions:
How might the belief in the infallibility of scriptures hinder one’s progress or restrict one’s relationship with God?

How could studying a book of scripture as a fallible, manmade work promote one’s progress and enhance one’s relationship with God?


God’s communication with us is not conducted through books, though God can be found in all books. God communicates with us through personal revelation. As agents of personal revelation, we each have the right to decide for ourselves which parts of any particular scriptures or writings are inspired and which parts are not.


To respond to some of the questions raised in this Gospel Doctrine session, or to make a comment, email:

Your comments may be posted here throughout the coming week or shared at the Reform Mormonism Discussion Group--which you are welcome to join. If you are a member there, you may post your comment directly to the discussion group at



AUGUST 22, 2004

From Dave Westwood: It is my considered opinion that most people want answers for the great questions and mysteries of life. People want to commune with the ineffable, omnipotent and eternal to find acceptance into a special group, meaning from a frightening and uncertain life and special protection from the hostile world. If there exists one or more books containing the infallible word of God then people do not have to wonder, or make their own decisions without divine guidance and consequently divine warrant. Having such a book would give hope that some people have a special relationship with the eternal and infinite mystery....

... Belief in the infallibility of scripture can lead to dogmatism and an exclusiveness of orthodoxy that allows a group to disrespect and devalue non-believers or those who who do not completely accept institutional interpretation of the scripture. Consider the Crusades, other religious wars, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, various persecutions of 'heretics', and the actions of the Strengthening theMembership Committee. How has such a belief fostered or retarded human progress?By giving groups common cause belief bind communities and helps them toaccomplish positive things through altruism, and the synergy ofpersonal sacrifice. By ossifying into a rigid system that will not sanction doubt ordisobedience much progress is retarded. Consider Galileo, Darwin andother scientists whose ideas contradicted prevalent religious literalist paradigms for example...

....We need to keep in mind that scripture comes throught fallible human beings situated in a particular time and place. The context includes psychosocial and political contexts as well as the biases of the individual or group. Most scripture in English is translated one or more times from other languages and no translation is perfect inc ommunicating nuances of the original. In real estate location is paramount; in scripture context cannot be ignored without peril to meaning and reasonable understanding....For example in reading the Old Testament books of Chronicles and Judges a naive reader could take things at face value without realizing that there are polemics or propaganda included as well as internal contradictions and differences among various translations. The text can be taken as metaphorical and be as powerful or perhaps more powerful than when it is taken literally, which is often problematic....

....In my opinion all scripture is manmade in the sense that it passes through human perception and is processed by human minds before it canreach the page. Human beings who have transcendent experiences may or may not succeed in describing those experiences accurately. There is also a tendency to include biases to justify things analogous to a national destiny. A writer may want to reinforce the notion that the one true God is guiding, leading and/or protecting the people. People who accept one particular book of scripture may not accept the books ofother faith communities as the word of God(s). They may see the scripture of others and even that of their own community as man made but may still find significant metaphor and meaning in those works. That which inspires the heart and mind or touches the soul might be considered scripture regardless of its origin if it inspires people to love and tolerate others and live ethically.

From Bridget Foster: I've read the on-line Gospel Doctrine lesson for this week and can see why this subject was chosen to lead off the discussion -- our understanding of scripture is fundamental to our notion of authority, our concepts about religious process, and ultimately our relationship with the divine.

It is freeing and exciting to know that we can find truth in all writings, both those originated within our faith and those without. Who knows? Perhaps we can even glean divine truth through reading a book on tax code, or perusing the label on a can of toilet cleaner. The thought that any writing can provide the catalyst for personal revelation is stimulating and empowering. Perhaps we've all stumbled upon experiences with the divine in the most unexpected places, and with the most unexpected stimuli. And we can probably also recall divine "aha!" moments when we were buried inthe documents we are taught to be scripture -- the Bible, the Book of Mormom, etc.

In the LDS Church, we are encouraged to bear testimony of the experiences we've had within sanctioned venues -- in church, while reading the scriptures, while praying on our knees, etc. It is also acceptable to relate insights found in other mundane experiences, as well. In fact, every testimony I've borne over the pulpit that I can recallwas precipitated by revelation received just livingday-to-day life -- on the subway, at work, taking awalk, etc. No one bats an eye to hear that we can receive revelation at any time or place. Yet we are still encouraged to continue with the sanctioned scriptures, because they provide a common vocabularyamong us. They aren't intended to replace personal revelation gained through other books that we find"noble or of good report or praiseworthy."

The virtue I see in having an agreed-upon canon of scripture is that it provides a sense of community. It's like everyone taking a class doing the assignedreading so that we can discuss it together and come tosome agreed-upon conclusions. Although it would be fun each week to bring in a new book for everyone to discuss, there may also be merit in continuing to pore over the old texts, the ones that have beenpromulgated around the world and stood (and alsofailed) many tests of time. There is power in reading Luke 2 at Christmas time --not only because it is a comforting part of our cultural tradition, but because there are powerful symbols that speak to us today. Even though one has never slept in (or possibly even seen) a manger, the symbol of a powerful God coming to Earth in utterly meager circumstances is ennobling to even the humblest listener. Common scriptures provide us with a sense of belonging, a sense of connectedness (with both heaven and each other), and a sense of peace. If that peace overwhelms our need to seek truth elsewhere, it can be stultifying to our progress, yet peace is also part of our progression. My aunt once lay dying in the hospital. Due to acomplication after heart surgery, her heart had filled with over 2 liters of fluid, and could hardly beat for much longer. A nurse was trying to get an IV into her vein to administer some medicine, but my aunt's fragile circulatory system was overtaxed, and her veins kept bursting at each touch of the needle. I was called in to see her before she died, and while I stood next to her, I remembered something -- my aunt's favorite scripture, Psalm 23. ("The Lord is myshepherd...," you know the one.) I recited it to her,and suddenly her whole body relaxed. She became conscious just long enough for me to whisper to her that she needed to focus on allowing an IV into her body, and miraculously, it worked. She pulled through the experience (she is still working her full-time jobas a social worker in Baltimore), and all she can remember from her near-death experiece is that Psalm23 kept running through her head. The power of an old standby with a powerful association literally saved her life.I also think of the Bible like I think of the Constitution. Although both were written long ago in a different context than the one in which I am reading them, they both reflect profound truths that have accompanied humankind through time. Both are open to scrutiny, and both are constantly interpreted and re-interpreted. But the point is that we have them, we are familiar with them, we use them in our daily lives. They provide a common "language" through which we can solve our differences. I hope for a balance between viewing only the Bible as scripture and viewing anything written down asscripture. I like the term "inspired writings" to encompass anything written under what the author considers to be inspired conditions. That might exclude tax code and toilet cleaner cans.) But to prevent our canon of scripture from getting too bulky or anyone to read the entire thing, I do think we have to agree upon a few indispensible writings ascore scripture. I hope you'll allow me to ramble like this. I learn by expressing thoughts, so this writing process is education in itself, not merely expression of a static view. I reserve the right to be inconsistent at times. If this forum is open to such ramblings, I'llbe glad to participate.

AUGUST 23, 2004

From Nancy Halverson: After reading this week's Gospel Doctrine lesson, I have so many thoughts swirling around in my brain. First, I am reminded of a quote from Frances Bacon...."A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth of philosophy bringeth a man's mind about to religion".

Surely the scriptures are not the infallible work of God. They are the philosophy of their authors. They defie reason, they are antiquated to say the least, and they are but a fragment of their original form. Yet they are glorious all the same, as enduring philosophy.

I have always highly valued science, reason, and logic, yet I study the scriptures to feed that part of my soul which requires the beauty of art. I find beauty in the genius of original thought, so I read the words of Jesus, and Aristotle and John Locke. Albert Einstein once wrote "We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has,of course, powerful muscles, but no personality". The Bible however, overflows with the personalities of the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians. It overflows with the personality of God, as those faithful humans envisioned Him. Is their vision the same as mine? Most of the I relish reading their words just the same.

I believe the Bible and the Book of Mormon are testaments of man's relationship to the God of yorn, not a "blueprint" for my life or the future of mankind. Never should mankind stop studying, stop content with what we have (written or otherwise). We must always want more.....always thirst for knowledge....always challenge the accepted.

I believe that God would expect no less than this. Instead of only being comforted ourselves, should we not also offer some comfort to God Himself? Comfort in the knowledge that HE is not alone...that we are striving towards progression...on our way back to him by ANY and ALL means that we can? Let us then study from "all nations", and let us look forward to those writers of the future, as well as those from our past. Just a thought.

AUGUST 26, 2004

From Mike Richan: My reading this week took me to recent writings of W. Grant McMurray,the current president of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.)

Having read the Gospel Doctrine materials last weekend, the issue of scripture was still fresh in my mind when I ran accross the following in a paper he presented at the Mormon History Association, recently reprinted in their Journal, and I thought I would share it with you as additional discussion material relative to the Gospel Doctrine discussion. I found his insights on the matter illuminating.

"...our view of scripture must be examined in terms of what an "open canon" of scripture truly means. If the Book of Mormon is to have importance as scripture, it must be because of its redemptive message,not because mere possession of it somehow validates the truth of the Church. By being receptive to new revelation, we run the risk of replacing a stifling biblical fundamentalism commonly found in our society with one of our own only somewhat expanded variety. In the process, the Church loses the key point, which is that God continuesto be revealed in fresh and sometimes challenging ways.

"Even the concept of 'restoration' is pertinent here. If restoration is perceived as the restoring of a set of doctrines in their pure and undefiled form, we have already lost the principles at the heart of the concept. That provides us doctrinal rigidity instead of the principle that the gospel is now understood in the culture and time inwhich it is expressed - central truths restored, if you will, in a new era of human history.

"One of my favorite posessions is a stone on which are etched the words, 'Nothing is etched in stone.' That creative tension between thetruths and insight of the past and the questions and perspectives of the present ought to be the signal contribution of the restoration movement. Instead, we often succumb to our own creeds, our own literalism, and our own historical traditions, rather than embracing the vibrant and dynamic possibilities of a gospel made ever new.

"Is it revisionism? Of course it is. We live in a new era askingprofoundly new questions. The question is no longer, 'What did Joseph do?' but rather, 'Where might Joseph's dream take us?' The question is no longer 'What slice of nineteenth-century scripture can we use to tell us exactly how to be in our own time?' but rather 'How can we understand those scriptures as emerging from a real journey of real people in real circumstances, illuminating but not defining ourcontemporary journey?'"

Jump in and join the discussion!

All opinions and viewpoints are welcomed!


related to this lesson
Title page of the first edition of The Book of Mormon
Selectons from The Book of Mormon :
I Nephi 13:20-28
II Nephi 29:3-10
A Book of Commandments 4:5
The 8th Article of Faith (LDS Mormonism):
Reform Mormonism and scripture:
"Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet" by Dan Vogel
This excellent new biography of the young Joseph Smith gives the most detailed account available of The Book of Mormon translations process.
"Who Wrote The Bible" by Richard`Elliot Friedman
An excellent introduction to the current theories and scholarship regarding the authorship of the various books of the Bible.
A collection of 1829 and 1830 newspaper articles from Rochester, New York dealing with Joseph Smith and the forthcoming Book of Mormon. Most are satirical, dealing with rumors and gossip about Joseph and the gold plates.