In his new book, The Grand Design, the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking argues eloquently that science has no need for God. He is probably entirely correct. Science does not need God, but history demonstrates clearly that people do. This does not prove the existence of God any more than science can disprove it. Indeed, intellectuals across the ages, as well as pseudo-intellectuals such as current media blabber Bill Maher, have suggested that humans created God and not vice versa. Despite Maher’s claim that “only morons believe in God,” most thoughtful people, believers and non-believers alike, will agree with Hawking that the question of God’s existence has no empirical answer. This leads many to the very sensible path of the agnostic. As Hawking put it, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Nothing remains after this cold exercise in logic except humanity’s undeniable yearning for the Divine. Mormons, of course, cling to the sweet notion that not only is there God but that He cares profoundly about humanity, deeply enough to respond personally to the pleadings of an American farm boy in 1820 and then set into motion a dazzling stream of revelation that established a new and vibrant religious tradition. Such an outrageous tale is antithetical not only to the bland assertion that the existence of God is at best doubtful but to orthodox concepts about how God, if He indeed exists, might deal with humanity. In addition to all this, there are all the nagging inconsistencies in Mormon history, an easy target not only for those who scoff at Joseph Smith as a charlatan and faker but evangelicals who also consider him a dangerous pied piper leading his deluded followers to Hell.
I believe there has never been a time in history when the hatred of Mormonism has been more virulent. This may sound absurd in the face of such nineteenth-century anti-Mormon madness as the Haun’s Mill Massacre, the Illinois burnings, and the federal “raid” on the Church in Utah. The difference is in the scope and means of it. Using every scrap of history that suggests something wrong with the Mormon story, the modern anti-Mormon mob attacks relentlessly and viciously. I have seen these rabid mobbers take down the strongest of the strong, using most effectively these days the Internet and word of mouth. The examples may vary widely, but the message is always the same. I was in Palmyra a few years ago. A very righteous-looking woman was proudly picketing in front of the Grandin print shop with a sign that read, “There is no archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.” I asked her if she was a Bible-believing Christian, to which she proudly replied, “I am.” I then said, “Well, did you know that there is no archeological evidence for the Book of Exodus?” The look on her bewildered face left me with one of the most pleasing moments of my life and just one little victory in the new Mormon War. I am loyal to a fault—“true blue, through and through.”
The visiting authority at a stake priesthood leadership meeting I attended recently was Elder Marlin Jensen, who had just returned from a lengthy tour of Africa. Having become somewhat friendly with him because of his role as church historian and having taught African history for several decades, I was doubly moved as he talked about the misery he had witnessed on that suffering continent. When he said softly, “the Gospel is their only hope,” the hair stood up on the back of my neck, because in those few words he spoke such a simple and profound truth. I am not sure that this practical reality is good enough, and I’ve spent my life pondering what is good enough. Here are my modest conclusions: I’m a firm believer in the old axiom that the proof is in the pudding. Much more than a religion, Mormonism is a way of life with enormous causal power for good. Beyond that subjective judgment, my investigations of church history and doctrine leave a persistent impression with me that, even with all the questions, “there is definitely something to it,” as a querulous colleague said to me recently. For me, the mysteries and inconsistencies of it all make it more fascinating and oddly satisfying. Richard Bushman’s riveting biography of Joseph Smith moved me deeply. Even with all of the Prophet’s flaws and the various aspects of the Restoration story that don’t seem to make much sense, it became apparent that his biographer was right when he said that Joseph somehow “managed to lay his hand on the Infinite.” That’s more than good enough, because then the answer to the age-old question of whether there is God has an answer, and a powerful one at that.
Gene A. Sessions was born in Ogden, Utah, and received his Ph.D. degree from Florida State University in 1974. He is the author and editor of numerous works, including Mormon Thunder: A Documentary History of Jedediah Morgan Grant (1982, 2008), Latter-day Patriots: Nine Mormon Families and Their Revolutionary War Heritage (1975), Prophesying upon the Bones: J. Reuben Clark and the Foreign Debt Crisis, 1933-39 (1992), Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War (with Donald R. Moorman, 1992), The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism (with Craig J. Oberg, 1993), Utah International: A Biography of a Business (with Sterling D. Sessions, 2002), and Mormon Democrat: The Religious and Political Memoirs of James Henry Moyle (1975, 1998), for which he received the Mormon History Association’s annual award for best edited work. Professor Sessions is Presidential Distinguished Professor of History at Weber State University in Ogden. He has also been a consultant on documentaries and committees exploring the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and is past president of the Mountain Meadows Association. He and his wife Shantal have four children and seven grandsons.
Posted December 2010