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.