Daniel C. Peterson
Let me just start out by mentioning an experience that Truman Madsen told me about a few years ago. He said that about the time the Stockholm Sweden Temple was about to be dedicated there was some controversy. As you know, sometimes there is in connection with the dedication of Latter-day Saint temples. Krister Stendahl, who is the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, called him up and said he would like to hold a press conference. He wanted to hold it in the LDS Stake Center, which was relatively near to the temple there in Stockholm. This was a very deliberate choice. He invited all the press to come and he offered his position as the Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm on the building of that LDS temple and he endorsed it very strongly. Then he said that he wanted to give them a little bit of guidance on how to deal with other religions and on how to understand other religions.
He laid down three rules that might seem obvious, but they are often ignored in trying to understand other faiths. The first rule was that when you want to learn about a religion you should ask the adherents to that religion and not its enemies. That seems fairly obvious, but it is ignored an awful lot.
The second rule was a little more interesting: Don’t compare your best with their worst, which is often done. You know, we Christians believe in the ideal of loving everyone, but the Muslims, look at those terrorists in Algeria. What you do is take the worst example of the other guy’s religion and compare it to the ideal, almost never reached in your religion and that’s apples and oranges, right? If you are going to compare terrorists, you should compare Christian terrorists with Muslim terrorists. If you are going to compare ideals, you should compare the ideal in the other faith with the ideal in your faith. If you are going to compare your saint to something in their religion find one of their saints and compare them. That’s the only fair way to do it.
The third rule, I think, is even more interesting: To leave room for what he called “holy envy.” By holy envy, he intended the idea of looking at another faith and saying, you know, there is something in this other religious tradition that I really envy. I value it; I wish we had it. I can learn something from it. The specific instance he gave in the case of the Latter-day Saint temple there in Stockholm was the idea of baptism for the dead. He said, “You know in my religious tradition, our dead are forgotten. We don’t think about them. They’re gone. But the Mormons want to bring the benefits of Christ’s atonement even to their ancestors. That,” he said, “I envy and admire.” That does not necessarily mean that he believes in it, although he is much more sympathetic to the idea of baptism for the dead in early Christianity than a lot of our critics are.
You may remember his article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. In fact, there is a story behind that, which I also got from Truman Madsen. He first approached Stendahl and asked him would he be willing to write an article for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism about baptism for the dead in ancient Christianity. Stendahl said “No.” Truman re-approached him and said, “We’d really like to have you involved. Would it be possible, could I maybe write an article on the subject, just a brief little thing, and send it to you and you just make any changes you want to and you can put your name on it?” Stendahl said, “Oh, all right, send me an article.”
When Truman wrote the thing up and sent it to him, Stendahl immediately fired back and said, “This is a terrible article; it’s not nearly strong enough; your case is much better than you are letting on; don’t be so reticent,” and wrote the article you now see in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which is a quite positive thing saying, “Look, the consensus of all informed biblical exegetes is that early Christians did practice baptism for the dead and it was a rite essentially as the Mormons describe it.” He didn’t say he thought it was right or anything like that, but that the historical evidence was that it was practiced. And he said if it weren’t for theological problems that people have with the whole idea, they would all recognize that that’s exactly what the text says. Anyway, that was his example of holy envy in this particular case.
Now, there’s another rule that I might mention to you, one I formulated some years ago. I can’t remember if I called it Peterson’s Rule. I know one person who’s called it Peterson’s Rule since it basically grew out of an experience I had in Cairo.
I remember going with a Muslim friend of mine to visit a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. And this is a very educated man, obviously, holder of a doctorate, I think European educated, as I recall, and we got to talking about what I was doing there, that I was studying Islam, and so on, and he asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” and I said “No.” And he asked me the question that I always dread, “Why not?” which can get you into a very awkward position. Well, I tried to answer it positively and said, “I’m a Christian, I believe in the divinity of Christ and, therefore, I can’t be a Muslim.”
He said, “How can you possibly believe in that? Everybody knows that God doesn’t have a son. God can’t have a son. ‘He nether begets nor is he begotten’,” he quoted from the Koran. And then he said, “And let me tell you something else. Is this what you believe? Do you believe that God had a son and that to buy himself off because he wanted to destroy and damn everybody, he had to send his son down and make sure he was tortured to death so that he wouldn’t have to damn all of humanity?”
I said, “Well, that’s not quite the way we typically put it but that’s a relatively fair statement of the idea.”
He said, “Well that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Everybody knows that’s not true. It’s absolutely inconceivable.”
Well, what struck me about that was that religions often look silly to people outside. He said no intelligent person could possibly believe in a doctrine like that. Well, besides the fact that it was somewhat personally insulting, I thought, “But intelligent people have demonstrably believed in that doctrine, whether you think it’s right or wrong.” I mean, St. Augustine wasn’t stupid. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t stupid. Calvin wasn’t stupid. Kierkergaard wasn’t stupid. There are a lot of bright people who have accepted a doctrine much like this. So the principle that came to me on this was that if you are looking at a religious tradition that has a large number of adherents (I’ll grant there are some small ones that probably have no intellectual respectability at all that appeal to a few weirdos and so on; I could name some groups but I won’t), but if it’s a group of any size at all that’s lasted for any length of time at all, then there must be something in it that appeals to different people.
Mormonism, for example, has clearly lasted long enough and has clearly appealed to a wide enough cross section of people that you don’t have to concede that it’s true to say there must be something there that appeals to people–bright people, practical people, highly educated people, uneducated people–all sorts of people in all sorts of cultures have found something appealing in this movement. The same is true of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
I’m not saying this is an invitation to relativism, but I am saying this is an invitation to consider that if you can’t see that any kind of intelligent person could accept doctrine X but millions and millions of intelligent people have demonstrably accepted it over generations, then the problem might be more in you than in the doctrine. That is, you don’t know enough about it, you haven’t thought your way into it enough to understand why it is that might appeal to people. What is it they might find attractive about it? You don’t have to believe it, but you have to at least get enough sympathetic understanding to try to work your way into it and say, “Well, I can see how given certain presuppositions, this would appeal to you.”
Now, what I would argue is that very few of our critics have made that attempt to have any kind of sympathetic understanding of the Latter-day Saints. For many of them the movement is so obviously stupid, so obviously depraved, that it’s a miracle that anyone with half a brain could possibly swallow this. I’ve heard Latter-day Saints make the same comment about Catholicism. Haven’t you? Or other belief systems out there? The more I’ve heard that kind of thing, the more I’ve resented it and thought it a mistake. There are bright Catholics, there are bright Evangelicals, there are bright Mormons, and the fact is, we just don’t understand what the appeal of that other faith is. But we should either stop talking about it or we should try to understand it.
Violating Stendahl’s First Rule
Now I’m going to get into the negative and destructive part of my presentation: Anti-Mormon violations of Stendahl’s Rules. That first rule, “ask adherents, not enemies.” It’s amazing how rarely this is done. Quite often, believers and their evidence (or what they see as their evidence) are simply ruled out in advance. You know, books like the Mormon Illusion and the Mormon Mirage tell you what kind of approach they are going to take. It’s not only that we are innocently misled and stupid, it’s that, in many cases, we are downright dishonest. Mormons can’t be trusted to state their beliefs accurately. Steve Robinson, for example, is lying. He is misrepresenting his beliefs. He’s deliberately deceiving people, and that poor benighted fool, Craig Bloomberg, was duped. He was taken in by those suave and sophisticated Mormons, or whatever you call them.
Listen to these titles; here is one by a friend of mine, Allen Harrod who operates a large church in Jacksonville, Florida. He has actually become a friend of mine. I’ve always been charmed by his book title, Deception by Design: the Mormon Story. That pretty well sums it up. Or this one, as some of you know, a book I am particularly fond of, Behind the Mask of Mormonism: From Its Early Schemes to its Modern Deceptions, by Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon.
And then, of course, there is a personal response that I find interesting; a response to me as an individual or to people I’m associated with. FARMS writers, for example, are liars. They are not to be taken seriously. They all lie. FARMS produces junk, therefore there is no reason to read it because they are all deceivers. Will Bagley, a fellow here in the valley, actually once boasted on the Internet that all FARMS material was garbage–he had never read a line of it. I quoted it back to him and he denied ever having said it, so I produced the e-mail.
Or this is one that I just was told about this morning. “No one has found any errors in Michael Quinn’s historical writings. Not a single error. Can anyone suggest anything he has ever said wrong?” And, by the way, quoting from FARMS is off limits. You cannot cite them. Though FARMS has generated scores of pages identifying, in my view, very clear errors in Quinn’s writings, FARMS is simply out of court. You can’t even cite them; they are too dishonest. They shouldn’t even be allowed to write.
Well, I spoke at the MHA a few years ago and I was told afterward that there was a suggestion dropped in the suggestion box that speakers from FARMS should in the future be barred from attending or speaking at the Mormon History Association. What this sometimes leads to is what I regard as kind of intellectual incestuousness among our critics. They don’t read anything we write, and in some cases they regard that behavior with a certain element of defiant pride. In their eyes we are just not doing anything worth looking at and, therefore, there’s no use looking at it. These critics just repeat what they have done for the last century and a half.
This is the same error that Carl Mosser and Paul Owen have identified as a serious, serious deficiency on their side–that people are not interacting with responsible Latter-day Saint scholarship and it’s hurting them. And so, Paul and Carl have called for a more effective, a more efficient, more intelligent anti-Mormonism. I’m not sure whether I’m really excited about that prospect, but I guess it would be an improvement over what we’ve got.
Violations of the Second Rule
On the second principle, “don’t compare your best with their worst.” I’ve been corresponding with a fellow over the last few months who has loudly been proclaiming Utah as being “the sinkhole of corruption” and “the pit of despair in the United States.” It is “the worst place on the face of the earth,” or as Ex-Mormons for Jesus used to call it, “the spiritual heart of darkness of North America.”
There are those whose common response to Mormonism is that they are good people, they believe their good works are going to save them [and] in that they are tragically deceived, but they are basically good people. They are great neighbors. By and large, Utah is not a bad place, and so on. In fact, we are sometimes mocked for that. We are boring, bourgeois. We don’t have enough crime and the streets are a little too clean. It’s not interesting. I liked the line from Naifeh and Smith’s book a few years ago called The Mormon Murders (about the Hoffman Case) where they referred to what they called the “great grinning goodness of Mormon Utah,” which they saw as something very bad, negative.
But now there’s another response to Utah which is not only “it’s a horrible evil place; Mormons are clearly depraved.” In that case, what they tend to do is compare their ideal, say Mother Teresa, with Ron Lafferty, a typical product of Mormonism, a typical product of Christianity. But this also happens on intellectual issues. Bill Hamblin’s article on anti-Mormon approaches to the geography and archaeology of the Book of Mormon, I think, is a landmark piece which shows the kind of double standard that exists among critics who look at the Book of Mormon and refuse to apply to the Book of Mormon the same kind of standards they would to the Bible, or apply standards to the Book of Mormon they wouldn’t apply to the Bible.
Consider, for example, the rather incendiary charge that Mormons believe that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer, which I think is designed to inflame instead of inform. People are never given the theological context in which that proposition makes some sense and they are never really told what the alternative is. It has always seemed to me rather odd to say that one view is blasphemous but the other view is not blasphemous. You see, it is one thing, as some of you have heard me say, to believe that Satan or Lucifer is the spirit brother of Jesus, the Son of Heavenly Father went wrong. That’s an explanation, maybe, of evil in one sense. We don’t typically hold parents responsible if they raise their children well and the child simply takes a bad turn–becomes a serial killer or something like that. On the other hand, if the parents raise the child to do what he ends up doing, we regard the parents as morally culpable.
More comparable to what I see as the traditional theological view is that Jesus is the Son of God, but Lucifer is the creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what would happen (because he sees the future perfectly), and created Lucifer out of nothing. That seems, to me, to create at least a dilemma, a little problem, called a problem of evil. Because then God knowingly is heading down the path that will lead to Auschwitz or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. And I’m not sure that’s a real improvement over the Latter-day Saint view. It just seems to me that if you are going to look at theological problems that you perceive with one view, you have to acknowledge that there are some real dilemmas connected with the other view as well.
Considering “Holy Envy”
Many anti-Mormons say, “Well there is nothing to envy in Mormons. There is nothing good in Mormonism. It’s Satanic.” “It’s not,” some will say, “really a church.” If you talk about it as a church you have to put it in quotes. It’s not really a religion. You have to put that in quotes. It has all the outward trappings of religion. Gordon Fraser said it’s not really a religion; it’s never shown any of the graces of real religion.
Others will say, in an interesting response to that same issue, “Oh no, it is a religion. Christianity isn’t but Mormonism is. It’s a religion that works. But there’s nothing good in it.” And, of course, there are rampant violations of Peterson’s Rule, constantly saying “How could any intelligent person swallow that, it’s so obviously stupid.” Which does leave you with a dilemma: How do my neighbors seem to be saying they are Mormons? How could that possibly be? Well, it’s just one of those mysteries.
Let’s get into more specific issues. I won’t necessarily concentrate on what I see as the flat-out invention of facts, which I see quite commonly among some strains of anti-Mormons. It’s a very venerable technique. It didn’t begin with Mark Hoffman. It goes back to at least Philastus Hurlbut and his affidavits, or to one of my favorite cases: the American Anti-Mormon Association (1906), which discovered that wonderful Oliver Cowdery confession, which turned out to be a forgery (probably forged by the general secretary of the Anti-Mormon Association).
If the facts aren’t in your favor, just invent them and that can be very handy. It was handy for a good half of a century. Or Ed Decker; it isn’t limited to him. You know, some of you, the recent story of Reach Out Trust with their claim that Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith is as important as Jesus in the salvation of humanity. And despite their failure to show a single passage from any authoritative Mormon sources saying anything of the kind, despite extensive correspondence with the Latter-day Saints that showed them explicit statements denying that Joseph Smith was as important as Jesus Christ, they still persist in that charge. This is simple, flagrant distortion and invention. Excuse me, that was Reach Out Trust.
Or, there is Concerned Christians in Mesa, Arizona, with their claim that the Priesthood and Relief Society manual of last year expressly denies that Brigham Young was a polygamist or that the Church ever taught or practiced plural marriage. Despite the fact that there is not a single passage anywhere in that book that says anything of the kind, they unrepentantly persist in that claim. I don’t know what else to say about this, except that it is dishonest. They have no evidence for it, and lots of evidence against it. They go on because these charges have a certain inflammatory and incendiary value.
Now I’ve recently been listening to anti-Mormon cassettes while driving. When one is in a certain mood, such listening can be both entertaining and educational. For instance, from Sheila Garrigus, My Years as a Mormon, a lecture given by a leader of Ex-Mormons for Jesus in an unidentified church in California a few years ago. I learned that one can be a devout Mormon without believing in Jesus but that faith in Joseph Smith is mandatory. The Savior, she explained, is “not important” in Mormon theology. In fact, during her thirteen years as a Latter-day Saint, she never heard the name Jesus Christ in any Mormon meeting except as appended to prayers, which can only, by the way, be offered by males. She didn’t own a Bible during that time because Latter-day Saints are not encouraged to read the Bible. And when her non-member husband rather abruptly became a committed fundamentalist Protestant, her bishop explained her options to her. One, she could divorce her husband; two, she could remain in her marriage and after death become a ministering angel to better Mormons than herself; or three, she could remain in her marriage but at her death be sealed to a faithful Mormon man as his plural wife. She initially chose that latter option. So, with her bishop’s encouragement, she telephoned a Latter-day Saint man that she had once dated before her marriage and he happily accepted her request to be his plural wife in the life to come.
I can tell by your laughter that this does not strike you as plausible. I found myself kind of pounding the dashboard as I was driving along.
Now, here is another one I was listening to. From the Q&A session following Kurt Van Gorden’s lecture on Mormonism at Calvary Chapel in Chino, California, on the first of June this year, I learned of John F. Kennedy’s appearance in the St. George Temple. I’d never heard about that one before. I always thought it was some other presidents. I also discovered that Latter-day Saints view the words procreation and creation as synonyms. Among other things, this explains (he explained) how Mormon women in Utah introduce their families. These, they say, pointing to their children, are the children I created. Have you ever heard that? I have never in my life heard anything like that.
I also learned that Latter-day Saint men have the option of resurrecting their wives–or not. Naturally, as Rev. Van Gorden explained, this puts LDS women in a “precarious position,” for if a wife does not treat her husband well enough, he may be inclined to simply let her “lay in her grave and rot.” Now, I really liked this. I immediately announced to my wife that I was never going to eat cooked carrots again. I don’t like them, I’m tired of them, and she had better not put them on my plate.
I learned of one case where a woman’s father-in-law helped her in a certain point in the temple and, thus, without her agreement or prior knowledge, he acquired her as a plural wife in the life to come. The sealing ceremony that immediately followed didn’t count because it was overruled by that. It’s amazing doctrine.
These are things I never learned in all my years of going to Church. So it’s fun. You get a different perspective on things and get a deeper understanding of the gospel.
I want to get up to that level where, as Ed Decker was once telling, you drink human blood out of human skull mugs in the Holy of Holies. I’ve never been introduced to that level, but I’m looking forward to it.
There’s Peter Elias; he uses an assumed name. This is one I was just looking at this morning. “Mormonism,” he said, “depicts the Bible as a flawed source, not to be trusted as a record of Christ’s teachings. Certainly not the final authority on doctrinal issues.” That is simple distortion, of course, because he conflates the word flawed. I’m not even sure we would use that word, but we would say we are not inerrantists. “But if it’s not inerrant, it’s worthless. It can’t be trusted at all.” And so, for inflammatory effect, you distort Mormon teaching in a way that no Latter-day Saint would ever accept it as a statement of his or her faith, and then you proclaim that as the Latter-day Saint view.
Stating Another’s Beliefs
Now, this leads to another rule. It seems to me that one of the rules of doing comparative religion stuff is that when you restate someone else’s beliefs, that restatement ought to be recognizable to the person whose beliefs you are restating. You ought to be able to go to that person and say, “Now is this what you believe?” and the person would say, “Yes.” The person might say, “That is not exactly how I would phrase it, but yeah, OK, given the change in language, that is what I believe.” But if your intended target is always screaming, “But I don’t believe that!” then the proper response is not, “Oh, yes you do!” This strikes me as a really, really illegitimate tool of comparative religion.
There is also the technique of exaggeration. Here’s one that I just found last night. I spend entirely too much time browsing through this stuff, but you come up with gems. This is just a small thing. This is from the Apologia Report Vol. 3, No. 3, January 1998. It’s talking about B.H. Roberts, and you all know the accusation that B. H. Roberts lost his faith in the Book of Mormon. I confess that when I first heard that I thought, “It’s possible. I’m not sure that would be evidence against the Book of Mormon, but it’s possible. It would be a sad story.” The more I look at it, not only am I less inclined to think he might have, I’m absolutely positive he did not. But, be that as it may, the strongest charge that was ever made about him was that he became a closet doubter. However, in the Apologia Report he ceases to be a very dubious closet doubter because the evidence does not seem to be there to establish even that. He becomes a former General Authority who became a dissident. The story grows–it just grows and grows and grows.
The Tanners: Case Study in Exaggeration
Here is another one. This is from the greatest of all anti-Mormons, in the opinion of many critics of the Church. In 1855, Gerald and Sandra Tanner say Brigham Young preached a sermon in which he denied that the Lord came to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. This is the quote:
But as it was in the days of our Savior, so it was it in the advent of this new dispensation. It was not in accordance with the notions, traditions and preconceived ideas of the American people. The messenger did not come to an eminent divine of any of the so-called orthodoxy. He did not adopt their interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven in power and great glory nor send his messengers panoplied with ? from the truth of heaven to communicate with the meek, the lowly, and the youth of humble origin. This sincere enquirer asked of knowledge of God. But he did send his angel, the same obscure person, Joseph Smith, Jr. who afterward became a prophet, seer and revelator and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day for they were all wrong.
Now on the following page is a photograph of that actual passage, with a caption that reads “Brigham Young says the Lord did not come to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. But, instead, he sent his angel.” Just go back and look at what it actually says: “The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven,” from which they extract “the Lord did not come.” You see a little problem with that? I do! But it is true there is a little bit of a question because he said he sent his angel. OK, that’s a little odd. I admit, that’s a little bit odd from our perspective. But let me give it some biblical context, which they signally fail to do.
In the rather odd story of the Patriarch Jacob in Genesis 32, the text says “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” But Jacob called the name of the place Peniel “for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” Who is it he wrestled with? The being said to him that his “name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” For who is this person he wrestled with? Well, it’s not altogether clear but one possible reading of it is that he wrestled with God or had some sort of encounter with God. It’s a very puzzling story but there are others.
“And the Lord,” says Exodus 13:21, “went before them by day in the pillar of a cloud to lead them by the way and by night in the pillar of fire to give them light to go by day and night.” The Lord went before them in this pillar. But in Exodus 14:19, the very next chapter, it is the angel of God which went before the camp of Israel. So is it an angel, or is it God? We have a contradiction there. Well, if you are going to hold that there is a contradiction in Brigham Young’s account, you have to hold that there is a contradiction in Exodus 13 and 14, or you are operating on the basis of a double standard.
But there is even more. Malachi 3 verses 1 through 3:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.
Well, who is it talking about here? The Tanners treat “messenger” and “Lord” as antonyms and they can’t be the same. Malachi treats “messenger” as a synonym for “Lord.” If you are going to accept that in the Bible, you have to accept that in Brigham Young’s statement.
Now, on the same page the Tanners quote an 1868 passage from George Smith, the prophet’s cousin, in order to suggest that he didn’t know the traditional version of the First Vision as late as 1868. He didn’t, even though it had been published many, many years before in various forms. But he thought that it was only an angel that appeared to Joseph Smith. But they fail to mention the following passage from Elder Smith in a sermon delivered four years earlier, in 1864. Which, you know how long it took me to find this with my computer? Thirty seconds. Now, the Tanners, I think, could do this.
When the Lord appeared to Joseph Smith, and manifested unto him a knowledge pertaining to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the work of the last days, Satan came also with his power and tempted Joseph. It is written in the book of Job, ‘Now there was a day when the Sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan came also among them.’ In the very commencement of this work, the Prophet Joseph Smith was called upon to contend, face to face, with the powers of darkness by spiritual manifestations and open visions as well as with men in the flesh stirred up by the same spirit of the adversary, to hedge up his way and destroy him from the earth and annihilate his work which he was about to commence.
He thus describes the incident, and then, George A. Smith quotes the account that we all know.
In the spring of 1820, when I had retired in the place where I had previously designed to go,” (so on and so forth), he knelt down, a thick darkness overcame him, he exerted all his power to call upon God. Just at this great moment of alarm (I’m leaving things out) “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. … When the light rested upon me, I saw two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me calling me by name, and said pointing to the other, “this is my beloved Son, hear him.”
Now, since he read that in the Tabernacle in 1864, do you think it’s likely that four years later George A. Smith didn’t know the story? The Tanners could have found that. But they didn’t because it’s not important to tell the whole story. Find a passage that’s useful; you go with it.
The Tanner’s also quote a statement of John Taylor, dated March 2, 1879, with the same desired effect.
Just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it. The answer was that none of them are right. What, none of them? No. We will not stop to argue that question. The angel merely told him to join none of them, that none of them were right.
So, John Taylor didn’t know the story of the Father and Son appearing, even though the Pearl of Great Price had just been published in Salt Lake City the year before with that story in it. It had been published many decades before. John Taylor certainly knew it. And we know that he knew it because this is what he said on September 7 of that same year, 1879.
Now we will come to other events of later date, events with which we are associated. I refer, now, to the time that Joseph Smith came among men. What was his position and how was he situated? I can tell you what he told me about it. He said that he was very ignorant of the ways, the designs and purposes of God and knew nothing about them. He was youth not acquainted with religious matters or the systems and theories of the day. He went to the Lord having read James’ statement that “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not. You shall be given it.” He believed that statement and went to the Lord and asked him and the Lord revealed himself to him, together with his Son, Jesus. Pointing to the latter, He said “this is my beloved Son, hear Him” He then asked in regard to the various religions with which he was surrounded. He enquired of them which was right. He wanted to know the right way and to walk in it. He was told that none of them was right and they had all departed from the right way. They had forsaken God, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns that could hold no water. Afterward, the angel Moroni came to him and revealed to him the Book of Mormon.
So, did John Taylor know the traditional story? Quite clearly, he did. And he said that Joseph Smith himself had told him the story. So what’s the point of all this? I think the point is to score points but not to reach historical understanding or to explain the truth.
The Strange Case of Peter Elias and Amasa Lyman
Now, here’s another example. Peter Elias, again, the owner-operator of Mormonism Web Ministries (a group that has occupied a considerable amount of my attention in the past couple of months because they are so darn fun), recently published an issue of his rather puckishly titled newspaper The Truth. It’s called a “Christian perspective on Mormonism,” in which he put Amasa M. Lyman forth as his prize example of typical Latter-day Saint teaching. The newsletter slogan repeated on the masthead of every issue is “Trust the Truth.” Again, I think that might be ironically intended.
This newsletter furnishes a particularly clear illustration of the methodology employed by some zealous critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, it also provides a good argument for why their books, lectures, pamphlets, cassette tapes, Web sites, tabloids, broadcasts, seminars should not be taken at face value. The theme of this particular issue of The Truth is “Mormonism, Insulting the Spirit of Grace.” Savvy readers can guess far in advance how Mr. Elias will answer his own question.
Under the rubric of LDS, Mr. Elias has the following: “We may talk of men being redeemed by the advocacy of Christ’s blood, but the truth is that blood has no efficacy to wash away our sins. That must depend upon our own actions.” That’s signed “LDS Apostle, Amasa M. Lyman, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 7.” Mr. Elias contrasts this with the truth. “For you know that it is not with perishable things that you are redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, that is the law (works), but with the precious blood of Christ, the lamb without blemish or defect. 1 Peter 1:18.”
Mr. Elias subsequently strengthens his argument with two quotations from Elder Lyman under the subheading of “Trampling on the Blood of Christ.” This scarcely seems necessary; there appears to be a pretty stark contrast between what Elder Lyman said and what 1 Peter 1:18 said. This is particularly so in the biblical passages spun by Peter Elias’ hyper-Protestant equation of an empty way of life with the Mosaic law, an equation that many observant Jews might understandably regard as demeaning and anti-Semitic. And, in turn, he equates that Mosaic law with works, in general.
It seems undeniably obvious that Latter-day Saint teaching as represented by Amasa Lyman, Council of the Twelve, diverges dramatically from the doctrine of the New Testament. Case closed. But is it? Can Amasa Lyman’s public musings on the redemptive power of the blood of Christ, or the lack thereof, legitimately be taken as illustrating the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Let’s look at the historical background [using] only the materials I have on the shelf of my personal library at home, deliberately excluding the Web and any database software. Nothing among these materials is particularly esoteric or difficult to obtain. They are all certainly within the reach of someone as devoted to the study of Mormonism as Mr. Elias purports to be. An author who has found Amasa Lyman’s scattered nineteenth-century ruminations can also reasonably be expected to be aware of mainstream historiography on the Latter-day Saints. Most particularly, the broad outlines of Amasa Lyman’s biography.
What does this historical record tell us? From 1855 to 1859, Lyman denied Christ’s special divinity and vicarious blood atonement in several Conference sermons. A renowned orator, he told the Saints that Christ was “simply a holy man”–[that there] was nothing about Jesus except the priesthood that he held and the gospel that he proclaimed that was so very singular. The counter objection, Lyman argued, “is that you must not think much of Jesus. Yes, I do. How much? I think he was a good man.” Lyman acknowledged that Jesus died for the world but added “what man that ever died for the truth that he died for did not die for the world? Have we found redemption through them? We may talk,” and this is the quote that Elias uses, “We may talk of men being redeemed by the efficacy of Christ’s blood, but the truth is that that blood had no efficacy to wash away our sins, that must depend upon our own action.”
It does admittedly seem a bit strange that Elder Lyman was able to get away with such teaching for so long. Plainly, there were those who objected to his teaching. We aren’t told who they were, but he refers to them. Perhaps other General Authorities were unclear as to what he was really saying. James Allen, the former assistant Church historian, suggests of William Clayton (who wasn’t a General Authority, he was a relative of Lyman’s by marriage), that he “probably never fully understood Lyman’s highly sophisticated theological speculations.”
I know personally of a case, in which a person had long since ceased to believe in Latter-day Saint doctrine, managed for years to maintain an appearance of orthodoxy by using sophisticatedly re-defined terminology. He kept a position at BYU for a number of years until they finally caught him. I don’t believe he did it with any malicious intent but the end result is much the same–he deceived. Perhaps the Twelve simply couldn’t imagine that a fellow apostle would hold such opinions and assumed that they must be misunderstanding them. William Clayton’s eventual reaction, worked out somewhat on the same lines as the Apostles would, is prolonged refusal to accept the accusations against Elder Lyman was followed by profound feelings of shock and betrayal, disillusion, and revulsion.
The Twelve had long enjoyed close association with Amasa Lyman. Their personal reactions were probably somewhat along the same lines. After all, the passage quoted can be taken, at least in part, in a relatively harmless sense. When he says “We may talk of men being redeemed by the advocacy of Christ’s blood, but the truth is that blood has no efficacy to wash away our sins. That must depend upon our own actions.” This is true in one sense, unless you are a Calvinist or determinist. Christ’s blood cannot redeem us if we refuse to accept it’s atoning power. And the choice to accept it or reject it is a free act on our part. The very next line in Elder Lyman’s sermon is “can Jesus free us from sin?” Well, we go into sin again, [so] most people would be inclined to answer, “No.” So Elder Lyman’s declaration that Christ’s blood lacks redemptive advocacy in the absence of our own actions is, on non-Calvinist principles, probably plausible, at least for many, many Christians–even those beyond the Latter-day Saint community.
As it turned out the doctrine that Lyman held or came to hold is far more pernicious than that. In 1860 he was sent on a mission to Great Britain along with Elders Charles C. Rich and George Q. Cannon of the Twelve. He returned home in mid-May, 1862, but not before delivering a notorious sermon at Dundee, Scotland, on the 16th of March of that year in which he effectively denied the atonement of the Savior. B.H. Roberts’ remarks that “no satisfactory explanation appears why this matter was allowed to pass, apparently unnoticed until the 21st of January, 1867.” It was not until then that Elder Lyman was brought before the Council of the Twelve for his heresy. Well, actually, Elder Lyman’s heterodox views began to attract the attention of other leaders of the Church at least a month before the date given by B. H. Roberts. For example, here’s an entry from Wilford Woodruff’s journal, December 26, 1866:
The subject of a sermon preached by A. Lyman and published in the Millennial Star, April 5, 1862 in Vol. 24 was brought up and read and it was found to have done away with the efficacy of the blood of Christ. President B. Young said he wished to know what the Twelve had to say about it for he had a good deal to say about it. When you do away with the blood of the Savior, you do away with all the gospel and plan of salvation. If this doctrine is preached by A Lyman, be preached and published as the doctrine of the church and not contradicted by us it would not be long before there would be schisms in the church. This doctrine as preached in this sermon is false doctrine. If we do not believe that it is necessary for Christ to shed his blood to save the world, where is our church? It is nothing. This does not set well upon my feelings. It is grievous for me to have the Apostles teach false doctrines. Now, if the Twelve will sit down quietly and not contradict such doctrine, are they justified? No they are not.
Finally, Elder Lyman was summoned before the Council. The story is clearly told in B.H. Roberts’ widely available Comprehensive History of the Church, with which any serious student of Latter-day Saint history should be familiar. However, I’ll go directly again to the journal of Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Twelve at the time and a future fourth president of the church. On January 21, 1867, he wrote:
We held a meeting in the evening as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to examine the subject of Amasa Lyman teaching false doctrine and publishing it to the world. He had virtually done away with the blood of Christ saying, the blood of Christ was not necessary for the salvation of man. The Quorum of the Twelve were horrified at the idea that one of the Twelve Apostles should teach such a doctrine. After Amasa Lyman was interrogated on the subject and said these had been his sentiments, W. Woodruff (of course, that is he himself) made the first speech and all the Quorum followed and they spoke in very strong terms. W. Woodruff said that he felt shocked at the idea that one of the Twelve Apostles should get so far into the dark as to deny the blood of Jesus Christ and say that it was not necessary for the salvation of man and teach this as a true doctrine, while it is in opposition to all the doctrine taught by every prophet, and apostle and saint from the days of Adam until today. The Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants have taught from beginning to end that Christ shed his blood for the salvation of man and that there was no other name given unto heaven whereby men could be saved and I can tell Brother Lyman that that doctrine will send him to perdition if he continues in it. And so it will any man. And such a doctrine would rend this church and kingdom to pieces like an earthquake. There never was no never will be a saint on the earth that believes that doctrine. It is the worst heresy that man can preach. When the Twelve got through speaking, Amasa wept like a child and asked for forgiveness. We then all went into President Young’s office and conversed with him. He felt as the Twelve on the subject only more so and required Brother Lyman to publish his confession and make it as public as he had his false doctrine.
Now, Elder Woodruff was precisely right. The concept of Christ’s redeeming blood runs throughout uniquely Latter-day Saint scripture. This is, of course, the dominant theme of the New Testament. As the prophet Helaman said to his sons Nephi and Lehi,
Oh, remember, remember my sons, that there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. (Helaman 5:9)
O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day. (Mormon 9:6)
And the second to last verse of the Book of Mormon promises the readers of that volume that if ye are by the grace of God perfect in Christ and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God through the shedding of the blood of Christ which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins that you become holy without spot. There appears little purpose in multiplying such references, which could be done indefinitely. The point seems sufficiently made.
On the following day, January 22, 1867, Elder Woodruff recorded that
We met at President Young’s office to hear Amasa Lyman’s confession, which he had written, and it was not satisfactory. President Young talked very plain upon the subject and told Brother Lyman that if he did not make a confession that was satisfactory, he should write it on the subject himself. He said if it had been in Joseph’s day he would have cut him off from the church. There is a question whether the Lord would justify retaining him in the church or not.
The January 30, 1867, issue of the Deseret News contained the following statement published over the name of A.M. Lyman,
I have sinned a grievous sin in teaching a doctrine which makes the death and atonement of Jesus Christ of no force, thus sapping the foundation of the Christian religion. The above mentioned doctrine is found in a discourse which I preached on the nature of the mission of Jesus on the 16th of March, 1862 in Dundee, Scotland, which was published in the Millennial Star. The above preaching was done without submitting it to or seeking the counsel of those who bear the priesthood with whom I am associated. In this I committed a great wrong for which I most humbly crave and ask their forgiveness as I do also of all the Saints who have heard my teachings on the subject.
Now, it’s possible, as I have suggested before, that Elder Lyman was able to maintain his status in the Church an unexpectedly long time while repeatedly denying the redemptive advocacy of Christ’s blood because when expedient, he coupled a somewhat oblique way of expressing himself with statements to his associates and others, that wittingly or unwittingly disguised or misrepresented his real position. The statement cited immediately above may fall into that category because it represented no real change of heart or conviction. Later in that same year, accused again of teaching the same doctrine, Lyman was brought before the Quorum of the Twelve, disfellowshipped, and advised by President Young to find activities employing his head and hands. Witnesses stated:
We heard the testimony against him and heard his own remarks we finally voted to silence him for preaching.
On the following day the journal reads:
I met with the Twelve at Bishop Murdock’s. The subject of A. Lyman was again taken up and investigated. He was silenced for preaching because he had done away with the blood of Christ in his teaching.
Now, Charles Walker, an ordinary member of the church living down in Washington County, wrote in his journal on May 5, “The conference in St. George attended by Brigham Young and several of the Apostles. The church authorities were presented,” he recorded, “And Amasa Lyman was dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve for infidelity.”
Lyman’s expulsion from the ranks of the Apostles was subsequently formalized in the General Conference of the Church in the new Salt Lake Tabernacle on October 6, 1867. Joseph F. Smith was called to fill the vacancy when he left. Unfortunately, Lyman continued on his heretical course and was altogether expelled from the Church in 1870. Charlie Walker, learning the news down in St. George on June 1, thought the excommunication worth noting in his journal:
I see by notice in the Deseret News that on the 12th of last month, Amasa Lyman, formerly one of the Twelve Apostles, has been cut off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for apostasy. Strange, strange. Once so high and now so low, may God preserve me in the truth.
When Lyman died in 1877, he was a practicing spiritualist and a vocal dissident of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It thus seems rather peculiar, to say the least of it, that Peter Elias has chosen Amasa Lyman as his star witness of Latter-day Saints beliefs.
With others, I’ve been leaving messages on Mormonism Research Ministries electronic message boards since 5 May 2000, calling on him to either explain or retract his use of Amasa Lyman as a representative specimen of Latter-day Saint teaching on the blood of Christ. As of today, I checked, he has failed either to justify or to abandon this brazen misrepresentation. In fact, he hasn’t replied at all, which has been my previous experience with him. Borrowing the language of Brigham Young, the only ethical course for Peter Elias would be to publish his confession to make it as public as he has his false characterization of Latter-day Saint doctrine.
It’s a course one might recommend to others as well.