July 16, 2007

What is 'Mormonism'?

Parley P. Pratt
July 10, 1853

Some companies traveling through Salt Lake on the trail to California would visit the Tabernacle to hear what the curious Mormons were preaching and discover if the rumors they'd heard were true concerning this strange new religion.1 The summer months brought a larger influx of visitors and Elder Parley P. Pratt took one occasion to address the visitors on the question “What is Mormonism:"

They might as well have called them, Abrahamism, Enochism, or Isaiahism; because the ancient Prophets, Patriarchs, and Apostle, held to the same truths in general terms, only differing in circumstances, in distant countries and ages of the world, and acted upon the same general principles, according to the particular circumstances that surrounded them. But the world, out of all the ancients, have selected one called Mormon, and all the principles held by all good, inspired men of all ages and countries they have seen fit to sum up, and call "Mormonism." Well, it is as well as anything else, for aught I know; the name does not affect the principles.
Elder Pratt could be a little more long-winded than the Prophet Joseph Smith, who simply defined ‘Mormonism’ like this:
"Mormonism is the pure doctrine of Jesus Christ, of which I myself am not ashamed" (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 547-548).
Elder Pratt proceeded to expound on some of the differences between the restored gospel and the Christian denominations of the time to see if there was anything new introduced with the restoration. He showed how the ministering of angels, authority given directly from God, and the method of baptism and reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost were all part of the restored gospel, but denied by the other Christian sects, though they are all found in the Bible. It should be noted, however, that Mormonism shared much in common with various other sects; millennialism, restorationism, health codes, communal living, belief in visions, among other things were all spread across a spectrum of denominations. The Latter-day Saints still viewed themselves as distinctive, and some have posited the Book of Mormon was the biggest separator.2

Then Pratt turned to a common point of discussion: the need for new scripture. He said when someone asks to see a Mormon Bible, they might be surprised when they are handed a King James Version. Of course, the inquirer is really wondering about the Book of Mormon. Elder Pratt pointed out that most denominations have some kind of extra-Biblical books to which they refer, study guides, etc. so to be sure, the other churches have extra books as well. But he conceded the Book of Mormon is something different than those books; it claims to be scripture. He concluded it is consistent with the Bible that God can and does reveal His will to mankind, the same now as he did before, which includes the possibility of further scripture:
"Well," says one, "to be plain with you, Mr. Speaker, we have been taught to believe that the one book, called the Bible, contains all the revelations that God ever revealed to man, therefore it is an innovation to offer anything else to the world as a revelation."
This is a tradition of your own, so I have nothing to do with it. The Bible never taught that to you, nor angels, neither did any minister of God ever teach it to you; and if it is a modern sectarian tradition, it is calculated to bind men into cast iron creed, and the sooner you break the fetters the better; burst them asunder, and come out into liberty and freedom, and know and understand that there is no such doctrine in the broad principles of eternal truth, that heaven is full of knowledge, and the earth ought to be full of Prophets, heaven and earth full of angels, and both full of inspiration; and if the inhabitants of all the worlds of the universe were scribes, every blade of grass a pen, and every ocean ink, they could not write all the doings of the Almighty, of His servants, and of His angels.
If I were to live for millions of years to come, and then millions of millions more, I expect there would always be some being ready to reveal something new, and somebody would write it…yet man may have been traditionated to believe that one small book contains all that God ever said or did. Such persons are to be pitied, and not to be reasoned with.
Latter-day Saints thus may find it remarkable that some believing Christians won’t so much as attempt to see if God has revealed more than what we find in the Bible. Some have sought to justify the belief that the Bible is a closed canon by quoting Revelations 22:18-19:
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
I believe this argument is severely flawed for several reasons. First, the verses are clearly not referring to the Bible itself, but to John’s revelation, which was written before the Bible canon was compiled. It warns against changing this "book," not the books, as "biblia" means, literally, “the books.”3 Furthermore, these verses forbid men from adding or taking away from John’s words, but say nothing about God adding anything.

Another scripture commonly cited to support a 'closed canon' theory is 2 Timothy 3:16:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…
As with the Revelation verses, there is no mention of the Bible in this verse. It mentions some reasons we need scripture, but says nothing about how much scripture, etc. That people would reject the Book of Mormon because they already have the Bible was foreseen by prophets in the ancient Americas as recorded in 2 Nephi 29:1-9:
But behold, there shall be many—at that day when I shall proceed to do a marvelous work among them, that I may remember my covenants which I have made unto the children of men, that I may set my hand again the second time to recover my people, which are of the house of Israel…and my words shall hiss forth unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people, which are of the house of Israel; 
And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible!! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible. But thus saith the Lord God:.. 
Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word 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 witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another?... 
And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.
Indeed, this prophecy has been fulfilled in my own ears countless times. Consider a brief parable for any who don’t want to accept more scripture from God:
The College Student
A young man was excited for his first semester of college, but he was even more excited to be moving far from home in order to attend said college. He packed up all the necessities and waved goodbye to his parents.
After a few weeks he received a letter from his parents. It seemed to arrive just in time; the young man was having difficulty adjusting to life on his own. The letter contained excellent information from cooking advise, to cleaning instructions, to heart-warming anecdotes of what had been going on at home in his absence. He loved the letter and read it often.
The next week another letter from home arrived, but knowing he already had a letter from home he promptly tossed the second letter into the wastebasket…
Latter-day Saints place a high value on accepting all that God sees fit to reveal, and to learn and then remember what he already has revealed. Latter-day Saints, rather than saying “we already have a Bible,” may say something like “we’ve already read the Bible,” or “we’ve already read the Book of Mormon.” These words of God teach that believers must do the most with what they’ve been given in order to be given more; otherwise they stand to lose it all. Early saints were told they were under condemnation for neglecting the Book of Mormon (D&C 84:57). The book has a power that changes lives by inviting the Spirit of God.

I submit some of us may come under that same condemnation from time to time, and encourage everyone to spend a little time each day with the Book of Mormon.

Elder Pratt concluded his talk with his testimony of what “Mormonism” really is:
"Mormonism" is a system which was understood and enjoyed by the ancients, and restored unto us by revelation. And if carried out, what will it do? It will simply fulfill the sayings of the Prophets, both ancient and modern, put down all wickedness, abuse, proscription, misrule, oppression, ignorance, darkness, and tyranny, and restore mankind to righteousness, truth, liberty, law, and government, in which the Lord's will [shall] be done on the earth as it is in heaven. That is what "Mormonism" will do, when carried out. May God bless you all. Amen (JD 1:297-309).

Davis Bitton described some of the travelers' reactions to the Mormon preaching style in "'Strange Ramblings': The Ideal and Practice of Sermons in Early Mormonism,” BYU Studies (2002) 41:1, p. 8.  

For example, see Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, NYC: Oxford University Press, 2002, wherein he argues:
Looking at the Book of Mormon in terms of its early uses and reception, it becomes clear that this American scripture has exerted influence within the church and reaction outside the church not primarily by virtue of its substance, but rather its manner of appearing, not on the merits of what it says, but what it enacts. Put slightly differently, the history of the Book of Mormon's place in Mormonism and American religion generally has always been more connected to its status as signifier than signified, or its role as a sacred sign rather than its function as persuasive theology. The Book of Mormon is preeminently a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence, before it is a repository of theological claims (pp. 63-64).
Or as Brant Gardner put it, many members tended to focus "more on the fact of the book rather than the text of the book," (Gardner, "The Tempest in a Teapot: DNA Studies and the Book of Mormon," FAIR website, accessed 6-17-2008. Steven Harper likewise argued that the Book of Mormon served as a sacred sign of divine intervention, but also included accounts from many converts of the "proofs" found within the book which appealed to Bible believers. He, citing Richard Bushman, believes many converts to Mormonism were products of the Enlightenment rationalism of the time in that they sought for evidence within the text corresponding to their understanding of the Bible. See Harper's "Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts," Religion and American Culture, Vol. 10, No. 1, (Winter, 2000), pp. 99-118.  

Biblical scholar Mark Hamilton notes the Greek phrase Ta biblia ("the books") was "an expression Hellenistic Jews used to describe their sacred books several centuries before the time of Jesus," (Hamilton, "From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible," as found on PBS's site From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. The LDS Bible Dictionary also notes the etymology of Bible as referring to "the books," suggesting a "divine library" (see "Bible," LDS Bible Dictionary).


Anonymous said...

people like to make God smaller and less capable than He is. confining His words to the Bible only, prohibiting new scripture and new revelation makes life easier, doesn't it? there's nothing more to learn or live by that you already haven't heard. nothing that you need to change, you can continue to live comfortably.

we all do this, not just those that don't accept the Book of Mormon. we don't always readily accept what is given us during conference, for instance. and it's either out of laziness or lack of understanding regarding whose words are being spoken.

anyway, i liked your comparison of Oliver's and Joseph's definitions. haha

Anonymous said...

I want you to know that I find yours to be THE best Latter-day Saint blog that I have found, and I've been looking at over a hundred now (and growing)(I'll let you know if I ever find any better, ha ha). You have a talent. I hope you don't mind that I tell as many as possible about this place. Reading this even made me reach for my Book of Mormon and read some which I hadn't done yet today. I read in Alma 34 which gave some teaching on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the words and the spirit brought me joy. So thank you. I also think I might use some of that Elder Pratt quote in some of my signatures on boards. God bless! -- Maidservant

LifeOnaPlate said...

I really appreciate your comment, maidservant. It means a lot to know you enjoy this blog. As you can see I typically don't get many comments ;)

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