Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Sunday, September 12, 2004


“What must I do to be saved?” Lucy Mack Smith was not alone in obsessing over this question. It occupied the minds of most who, in September of 1824, flocked to the revivals that broke out around Palmyra, New York. It was this question, and Joseph Smith’s approach to it, that led to the birth of Mormonism.

But before one can ask this question, one must first believe that mankind is in some sort of danger, that there is some fate from which they need to be saved. One must also believe that there is a God who can save mankind from this fate. Finally one must believe that God requires that mankind do something before He will save them; one must believe in a God who demands obedience to His commands.

Discussion Questions:

When you hear people talk about “being saved,” what is your gut reaction?

Does the question “What must I do to be saved” evoke positive or negative emotions?

How great of a concern has the question of salvation been in your life?

If salvation has been a concern for you, from what did you believe you needed to saved? For what were you being saved?


Before the emergence of science, humanity believed that gods and other supernatural beings created and held ultimate power over the world. It was believed these gods were temperamental, and that they were easily provoked to jealousy if humanity did not show them proper respect or pay them due homage. (See Exodus 20:5; Deut. 5:9-10; Mosiah 11:22) A natural disaster or an invasion by a foreign nation was often interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure.

In most cultures there were individuals or classes of people who it was believed could communicate with the gods in ways that the average person could not. These special oracles would then tell the people what they needed to do in order to please the gods and save themselves from divine retribution. In some cultures, elaborate religious legal codes were established which governed all aspects of life. In some cultures it was believed that sacrifices must be offered as proof that the people did not love or value anything or anyone more than they did the gods.

The central concept in all these cultures and religions was that of power: The gods had power, and the people did not. Gods issued commands, and if human did not wish to be destroyed, they were to obey. As mighty and as powerful as the gods might be, they seemed to have very fragile egos: it was as if their only reason for creating man was so that they could have someone over whom they might exercise power and dominion.

The concept of obedience to Deity is found in most religions. Even an ideal such as love for one’s neighbor has traditionally been expressed in terms of obedience to God. (See Matthew 22:37-39)

At first glance one might not see a connection between more primitive religions of ancient times and the Christian revivalist movement in America during the 1820’s, but, in fact, both were based on the same idea: that humanity would be punished is they failed to obey an all-powerful Deity.

Discussion Questions:

How important has the concept of obedience to God been in your life?

Is it possible to command that one feel an emotion such as love for another? Why or why not?

How important has the concept of an all-powerful God been in your life? Why is this?

In your personal concept of God, are there other attributes more important than power? What are some of these attributes?


While in his youth, Joseph Smith--like others around him-- thought of his relationship with God in terms of power, of obedience to Divine commands, and of “being saved” from damnation and eternal punishment. He claimed that in his mid-teens he had seen a vision in which the Lord appeared to him and assured him that his sins had been forgiven. However, as he matured into adulthood, Joseph looked back on this “First Vision” experience and began to reinterpret it to reflect his evolving ideas about the nature of mankind’s relationship with God.

In his last retelling of this experience, Joseph told of being confused by the religious revivals that took place in Palmyra in the 1820’s, of being unsure of which church he should join. He wrote:

“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: ‘If any of you lack wisdom•, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.’ Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.” (Joseph Smith--History 1:10-13)

What is interesting in this account is that Joseph does not pray for forgiveness of sins or for an assurance of salvation. Instead, he prays for knowledge. Also what prompts him to pray is not God’s power but the assurance that God would give to him liberally.

Discussion Questions:

How important to you is the concept of a God who “giveth liberally and upbraided not?”

How does this type of God effect you as opposed to a God whose chief attribute is power?


Joseph went on to tell of how he went to the woods near his father’s farm to pray. In answer to his prayer, he had a vision in which he saw two personages: God the Father and Jesus Christ. Joseph explained:

“My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professor were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Joseph Smith--History 1:18-19)

The churches taught that people were inherently sinful and deserved eternal punishment in Hell. People could be saved, however, if they obeyed God’s command to repent of their sins, to confess their utter dependence on God’s grace and to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Only by obeying this command could one be saved from Hell--for all human beings, because of their Fallen and sinful nature, were incapable of godliness.

According to orthodox Christianity, this was “what one must do to be saved.” However, according to the First Vision story, God completely rejects such ideas--labeling them “an abomination.”

During the last years of his life, Joseph Smith taught that humans--being in the image and likeness of God--were not inherently sinful but ,in fact, were born innocent and with Free Agency (Freewill). By increasing in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, human beings could progress and eventually become like God. A later Mormon leader, Lorenzo Snow, summed up the idea in this way:

“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”

Human progression does not depend on obedience to God, but on obedience to eternal principles of truth--principles to which even God Himself is obedient.

Discussion Questions:

What are shortcomings or virtues of a religion that “teaches as doctrines the commandments of men?”

What are the shortcomings or virtues of a religion that focuses primarily on obedience to God--on “obeying the commandments?” How could a religion that focuses primarily on obedience be abused?

How is obedience to God (or any other authority figure) different from obedience to principle? Which of these is most likely to lead to a true building up of one’s character? Which of these would most likely empower an individual? Which of these would most likely place limits on one’s freedom?

Is something true because God says it, or does God say it because it is true? What is the difference between these two concepts? How do these two concepts relate to the concepts of obedience to God as opposed to obedience to principle?


Using Joseph Smith’s doctrines of Eternal Progression and humanity’s Divine potential as their starting point, Reform Mormons do not view God as someone who requires obedience.
God is not envisioned as an all-powerful ruler whom one must obey, and so within Reform Mormonism there are no rules or commandments to which all must adhere. Reform Mormonism does not “teach as doctrine the commandments of men.”

Reform Mormons believe in a rational God who expects His/Her children to progress. Instead of viewing God in terms of power, God is viewed a loving father or mother. Like any wise parent, God allows each of us to think and act for ourselves--and while this requires that each of us take responsibility for our own actions, always God is there for each of us when needed. For Reform Mormons, God is truly a God of love.

Discussion Questions:

Is the concept that God does not require obedience comforting or disquieting? Why?

How could this concept revitalize my relationship with God?

How might this concept promote my progression?


God is not someone who requires obedience, but someone who, like a loving father or mother, expects me to grow and progress. Whenever I lack wisdom or stand in need of comfort or strength, I can retreat to my own sacred grove and ask of God, who will give to me liberally and not upbraid.


To respond to some of the questions raised in thisGospel Doctrine session, or to make a comment or ask a question, email:Reformmormons@aol.com.

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


SEPTEMBER 13, 2004

From Bill: I am new to discussion groups and to Reform Mormonism. From what I have read though, I think I am a Reform Mormon. I do like the idea of a web-based gospel doctrine class, and I love the approach of asking thought-provoking questions. Let me respond to some of the questions raised, but remember that I am new to this, so be gentle in response.

What would a Reform Mormon Plan of Salvation look like? In the Book of Mormon, salvation = eternal life = exaltation (not a Book of Mormon word). Eternal life is the kind of life that God has and is presumably what we all hope for. Salvation usually means being saved from sin and death and hell. But what would sin be in a RefMo context.

The laws that God gives us are not arbitrary commandments to see if we can be obedient, but reflect the eternal principles we must follow if we wish to be as he is. To sin would be to knowingly violate one of those principles. That would lead to what the Book of Mormon calls "spiritual death," i.e., seperation from God. God doesn't turn his back on us; we turn our back on God. To repent would be to return to the path of eternal progression. To be humble is to recognize our need for God to guide us down this path.Where does the atonement of Jesus fit in this? The atonement is a demonstration of God's love for us. He reaches out to us even as we ignore his guidance to try to draw us to him. As we respond to that love, we have faith to repent and again pursue the path that leads to eternal life. I subscribe to the universalism espoused by RefMo, but I do not believe that God can exalt us (i.e., make us like him). We must develop a god-like character by following the true principles he reveals to us...

In the 9/12 gospel doctrine lesson the question is asked, "Is it possible to command that one feel an emotion such as love for another?" I don't accept the premise that the "love" that is commanded in the Bible is an emotion. I believe love is a decision and that it is the most important of all of the principles of eternal life. As Jesus said, "On this hangs all the Law and the Prophets."The best definition of love that I have found is in Scott Peck's book, "The Road Less Traveled." (This book, by the way, is in my personal canon of scripture.) His definition: "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."

From Nancy Halverson: WHAT A GREAT LESSON!... I'm learning church history all over again...in a better context than before. You've done all the work, and compiled the material in a way that is clear and insightful.

SEPTEMBER 14, 2004

From R. Frederick Lauer: I agree with Bill's comment above that God can not exalt us--that is, God can't make us like Him. This is why the belief that one must obey the personal will and commands of God may not, in the end, facilitate true progress.

We must develope godliness within ourselves of our own free will and choice; we must develope our own minds; we must cultivate godliness within ourselves. None of these objectives are accomplished through unthinking obedience to the dictates of another--be it God or a fellow human being. This type of progress and growth takes place through the process of living our lives, dealing with the issues that come our way, pursuing our individual values, asking questions and seeking answers; also through the relationships that we devleope with others.

If exaltation came from mere robotic obedience to the dictates of another being, then the plan presented by Satan in the Council of the Gods would have worked beautifully. But one's Free Agency--one's Will to Power--is essential in the building of one's character. One must have a personal desire for viture, one must reach the point where one values a particular virtue--depsite what others may do or say--before one can do what is needed to cultivate that virtue and incorporate it into one's character.


Related to this week’s lesson

“The Pearl of Great Price” Joseph Smith--History 1

“Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet” by Dan Vogel
(The new definitive biography of young Joseph Smith. Contains much information relating to the First Vision and Joseph's evolving view of God)

“The Politics of Welding: Joseph Smith, Pragmatism & the Dilemmas of Pluralism” by Jared Hickman
(Contains some interesting insights into the message of the First Vision story with regards to creeds and individual freedom)


The Sacred Grove (reported site of Joseph Smith’s First Vision)

Reform Mormon writings on the nature of God and obedience:

Reform Mormonism homepage

“Mormonism’s New Paradigm”

The Virtue of Objectifying God