LDS: A 19th Century Church

I’m always skeptical of churches that claim to be a 1st century church.  Aside from the fact that our customs and culture are simply too different for people in the present to relate to the 1st century, this attitude is generally associated with complete ignorance of church history in the intervening 1,900 years.  Instead, I think it’s better for churches to identify with the century in which they live, being aware of the mistakes and lessons learned throughout the ages before them.  The Mormon church, however, is an interesting case in that they resemble neither the current century nor the 1st century; in virtually every sense, the LDS church is still grounded in Joseph Smith’s 19th century.

The gap between the claimed and actual origin is demonstrated nowhere better than in the Book of Mormon itself, which despite claims of authorship in the 1st century and before, never existed at any point in history before it was delivered by the mouth of Joseph Smith in 1828-1829.  While its dependence on source materials unavailable to its claimed authors (but readily available to Joseph Smith) is alone enough to dismiss all claims of prior authorship, there is another phenomenon particular to 1 Nephi which also betrays it as a product of the 19th century.  Joseph Smith’s use of postdiction, or prediction after the fact, includes “prophecies” about Columbus (1 Nephi 13:12), the Revolutionary War with “mother Gentiles” as Mother England (13:16-19), and even prophecies about Joseph Smith’s restoration of the church (15:13) and the lost pages (19:3).  Despite how remarkably accurate these prophecies are (he gave the Nephites the name of Mary the mother of Jesus in Mosiah 3:4 and John the author of Revelation in 1 Nephi 14:27), the Book of Mormon’s foresight ends abruptly at the life of Joseph Smith, providing nothing after that.  One would think that the prophet’s death and the church’s Utah migration that followed would have been eventful enough to have at least had a mention.

The phenomenon of postdiction is hardly unique to the Book of Mormon, it can be found abundantly in the Puranic literature of Hinduism.  The Bhagavata Purana and others specifically name Lord Buddha in an effort to bring Buddhists back to Brahmanism.  The Bhavishya Purana is perhaps the most notable, as it “predicts” Christ, Muhammad, and even Queen Victoria.  But just like the Book of Mormon, these amazingly specific prophecies stop around the middle of the 19th century.  Nevertheless, it’s been used by both Hindu and Muslim apologists to try to win converts.  Even Mormons, however, would have to appreciate the simplest and most logical answer: that the Bhavishya Purana was actually an open system text that was finalized after the events it purports to predict, and the same is applicable to the Book of Mormon.

Prophecies, however, were not the only 19th century stamp on the Book of Mormon: it was also a godsend for resolving 19th century theological disputes.  The Biblical authors, for instance, saw no need for step-by-step outline on how to baptize like Jesus gives in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 11:22-27), because they weren’t writing an instruction manual.  This is consistent with the rest of Scripture, in which practices and customs often have little explanation, because it was assumed people already knew them.  This teaching makes sense in retrospect from a 19th century perspective, but not from the perspective of chiseling words on metal plates where space was limited.  Likewise, the Book of Mormon’s specific instructions on what to name the church (Nephi 27:3-5) seems ridiculous from a 1st century perspective when there was only a single sect of Christianity, but it seems logical from a 19th century point of view with hundreds of competing churches.  Similar to the Muslim forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas, which attempts to re-write the gospel narrative in line with Islamic theology, Joseph Smith’s fabrication attempted to prove doctrinal issues that were characteristic of his own time period, but not really of the 1st century church.

Virtually all of the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, such as the presence of wheels, horses, livestock, or wheat in the Americas were everyday life for Joseph Smith.  Having no understanding of how civilizations actually develop, and certainly no knowledge about pre-Columbian America, he simply projected life in the 19th century to the 1st century, with embarrassing results.  Mormon apologists have been trying to excuse these away ever since, suggesting deer instead of horses, or corn instead of wheat.  The obvious question is why Joseph Smith wouldn’t have been able to correctly translate these terms which were equally familiar to him.  But no Mormon scholars have suggested any revision of the text itself, and as long as prospective converts don’t raise any questions the subject is never brought up internally.  The LDS church either devises outlandish explanations or ignores them altogether, when the easiest and most logical solution is to approach it from the point of view of Joseph Smith’s 19th century imagination.

The LDS church’s entrenchment in the 19th century even spills over into the late 20th century through their office of the president.  The church didn’t have a president who was born in the 20th century until 1994 (Howard W. Hunter, 1907-1995), and probably only because all the 19th century candidates had died by that time.  And even though the Latter-day Saints pride themselves on having a living prophet at all times in the form of their president, prophecies and revelations have been sparse compared to what it was during the lifetime of Joseph Smith.  Doctrines & Covenants contains 136 sections delivered by Joseph Smith between 1823-1844 (although the oldest on record is only as early as 1828).  While the Mormons named a university after Brigham Young, his only contribution to Mormon scripture is one section of D&C (section 136) in 1847, even though he lived and presided for another 30 years after that. In the hundred years following his death, the church has only managed to produce one more section (138) and two Official Declarations, but has not had a new revelation in print since blacks were admitted into the priesthood in 1978.  In other words, none of the missionaries active today have ever had a supposed revelation delivered in their lifetime.

As much as the LDS church tries to give the impression that they have living apostles receiving prophecies and revelations just like in their imagined 1st century era, the reality is that their church has been coasting off the momentum of Joseph Smith for the last 200 years.  It’s plain to see that Joseph Smith was an exceptionally charismatic and creative individual, capable of the deception and fraud necessary to start a movement like the Mormon church, and unparalleled by any of his successors.

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