I always cringe when I hear Fredric March, playing a William Jennings Bryant-inspired character in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind, defending the Bible as “the revealed word of God.” You probably wouldn’t know it from American Christianity (you might even be questioning why I would dare criticize it), but this phrase reflects a distinctly American view of scripture as revelation that’s not really supported by the Bible itself. Despite the absence of this wording in the Bible itself, this is one of the prevailing beliefs about scripture in America today. However, things weren’t always like this.
In the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630’s, a Puritan woman named Anne Hutchinson came to the attention of church leaders for hosting a weekly Bible study that had outgrown her home and was being held in the church. Her interpretations of the preacher’s sermons had started to deviate dramatically, and when question by authorities, the reason she gave was “an immediate revelation” from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, she was banished from the colony. To modern Christians, this judgment seems particularly harsh, even for the Puritans. Many of them might even profess the doctrine of sola scriptura and still not see the doctrinal conflict with Anne Hutchinson’s claims.
It was only a few decades later the climate in the colonies would start to dramatically change. The Quakers arrived in the 1650’s to spread their message of continuing revelation, coincidentally in the same Massachusetts Bay Colony which had expelled Anne Hutchinson. A clash was inevitable. But over time, both traditions would come to define religion in America, producing the schizophrenic climate in the 19th century that would be the perfect storm for a wide range of new movements to form: Mormonism, Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and later, Pentecostalism.
The fundamental flaw with the view of scripture as revelation is that it makes any apparent revelation scripture. However, Judeo-Christian scriptures as exemplified in the Torah and the Gospels, were not in themselves a revelation, but rather a record of it. In this paradigm, the revelation is not a transmission of information or data, but the revealing of God Himself. Scriptures were not information dictated word-for-word from the mouth of God into a mouthpiece, as was claimed of the Qur’an. The Gospels are witnesses of things seen and heard, not information revealed to a person with no natural knowledge of the actual events, like Muhammad. Perhaps the single most damaging incorrect belief held by Christians today is to view the Bible the same as the Qur’an, or any other “revealed” text.
This certainly worked in the favor of Joseph Smith, although the Book of Mormon was hardly unique for its time. By this point, many people held the erroneous view that revelations from God had ceased, and this was the reason no more scriptures were being written. Naturally, this false belief opened the door for a mountain of new sacred texts to be published by prophets trying to revive the Age of Miracles. Mormonism alone produced several splinter cults following the succession crisis of its founder’s death. Ex-Mormon James Colin Brewster published his own purported translations of lost manuscripts, including an abridgment of a “Ninth Book of Esdras” as a warning to the Latter Day Saints. Self-proclaimed Mormon prophet James Strang claimed to have translated additional Nephite plates, today called the Book of the Law of the Lord by the 300-or-so remaining Strangite Mormons. During the Era of Manifestations, a Shaker (portmanteau of “shaking quaker”) similarly received revelations from an angel in 1842, published as A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book, and held as equal to the Bible by the Shakers before they dwindled into obscurity (as of this writing, there are only 3 left in the whole world). It seems the only remarkable quality of Mormonism was that it was the only such American movement to survive past the Great Disappointment of 1844.
Perhaps more important than believing the Bible is believing the Bible for what it is. If faith in a book were sufficient, as in the message of Mormonism, then there’s seemingly no way to discern between any of these other so-called companions to the Bible. This concept of revelation also has implications beyond scripture, which corrupt theology and philosophy in general. Post-Christian atheism takes this heresy to its logical conclusion as a reason for rejecting religion. After all, if revelation is merely text, data, and information, then why is an omnipotent God’s revelation so limited? In this view, the Bible should logically give instructions for making the first wheel or nuclear power plant; revelation should have graduated to more modern forms of communication, like silent movies and comic books. For that matter, it shouldn’t be confined to Arabic, King James English, or Reformed Egyptian, the revelation may as well be a language in itself.
The Book of Mormon is not just a heresy, the entire Mormon concept of scripture is heretical. The problem is, this same understanding is also shared by millions of Christians who should (in theory, at least) know better. The rise of “revealed” religions in America like Mormonism and Islam are signs of the decline of the principle of sola scriptura. It’s evident as more Americans consider themselves “spiritual” than “religious”, that there has been far too much emphasis on feelings, intuition, and subjectivity in our culture. It seems many Christians, in an effort to appear less rigid or dogmatic, have abandoned the rational branch of our religious heritage because it was descended from the puritans, and have fallen into apostasy instead.
For further reading on other obscure, early American scriptures, I recommend American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings