Mormonism is everywhere. A leading Republican candidate for president is a Mormon, there is a play on Broadway about The Book of Mormon, and the LDS Church has launched a multi-million dollar ad-campaign about Mormons called “I’m a Mormon.” Even though I have been teaching a class on comparative religion for years, taking students on trips to Salt Lake City, and interacting with my Mormon friends, I had never read Mormon scriptures in their entirety.
Recently I asked some Mormon missionaries to show me that their religion is true. They said if I read The Book of Mormon with an open heart then God would impress its truthfulness upon me (they quoted Moroni 10:4). So, I earnestly prayed that God would impress upon my heart the truthfulness of the Mormon scriptures, and then I determined to read as many of their books as I could, including The Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants (D&C), and The Pearl of Great Price.
It was time well spent because I now understand Mormonism better. But rather than being convinced of its veracity, I have more questions and concerns than ever before. The following are some personal impressions after spending a great deal of time interacting with the writings of Joseph Smith.
Mormonism puts a heavy burden of works on its followers. Although there are some passages that talk about grace and free salvation (2 Nephi 31:19; 1 Nephi 2:4; Mosiah 26:40), the overwhelming emphasis is on earning salvation through obedience to commandments and refraining from sin. For example, Alma 5:27 says, “Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble?” The next passage says you must be entirely stripped of pride or you cannot meet God.
Mosiah 10:32 says, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you.” God may have provided an opportunity for salvation through the death of Jesus, according to Mormonism, but you have to keep all the commandments and follow all the ordinances to experience that salvation. The onus is on you. This seems in sharp contrast to the grace-filled message of the Bible (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5; John 6:29) where works stem naturally from a recognition that we have been saved.
Doctrine & Covenants has historical difficulties. Since the Doctrine & Covenants are later revelations than the Bible, Mormons believe they trump it. Two problems crossed my mind while reading Doctrine & Covenants. First, D&C 84:65-72 copies verbatim the text of Mark 16:15-18 (KJV). Even the footnotes in the Doctrine & Covenants cite these passages in Mark as if they are Scripture. While this passage remains in contemporary Bibles, it is almost unanimously accepted that these verses were not in the original Gospel of Mark. Our earliest manuscript copies do not contain them. Most Bibles have a footnote indicating this. If this passage were not authentic, why would Joseph Smith have received it as a revelation from God as if it were? A very likely scenario is that Smith simply copied from the existing Bible of his day (KJV) and was not aware of this problem.
Second, Joseph Smith made a false prophecy. D&C 87:1-2 says, “Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; and the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place.” It’s true that the civil war broke out two decades later, but this is hardly a remarkable prophecy since the signs were already apparent. The problem is the second part of the verse where Smith says this war will “be poured out upon all nations.” This, of course, never happened.
The Book of Mormon strongly condemns polygamy. Given how prevalent plural marriage has been throughout Mormon history (beginning with Joseph Smith himself), it came as a surprise to me how strongly the Book of Mormon condemns it. The people of Nephi were condemned for multiplying their wives (Jacob 1:15) and the commandment is clearly made that men should have only one wife (Mosiah 11:2; D&C 49:16).
But later Joseph “received” differing revelations. To justify plural marriage, Smith pointed to Abraham, Solomon, and David as examples of those God blessed with multiple wives and concubines. D&C 132:38 says, “…and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.” While God may have allowed them to engage in polygamy, this hardly means they were not sinning. In fact, the Genesis account makes it clear that God created marriage to be between one man and one woman (a view the LDS Church has endorsed since 1890). It is highly problematic to say that God overturns a fundamental principle of creation elucidated in the first chapter of the Bible.
The view of faith in the Mormon Scriptures differs from the Bible. Alma 32:17 says, “Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.” In other words, faith involves believing something we do not know. If we knew it, there would be no need for faith. But the Bible proposes a different relationship between faith and reason. Rather than being opposites, the Bible presents a view of faith that is based upon what we do know. As philosopher J.P. Moreland put it, “Faith is trusting what we have reason to believe is true.”
For instance, in Exodus 7-14 Moses performs various miracles so the people will know there is a God and then in turn trust him (see 7:14 and 8:10). The pattern is:
1. God performs a miracle
2. The people have knowledge about God
3. They are called to believe
Exodus 14:31 says, “When Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and believed in Him and in His servant Moses.” The miracle that they could see and know came first, not the belief.
Knowledge is not the opposite of belief, as the Mormon scriptures suggest. Faith does not involve believing something without evidence. Rather, it is a trust in God in light of what we know to be true. Jesus healed the paralytic so the people would know that he has the authority of God (Mark 2:10).
I suspect the reason the Book of Mormon has this view of faith and knowledge is that the Mormons’ claims cannot be investigated. The cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon have not been located (i.e. Zarahemla), the gold plates cannot be examined, the hill Cumorah cannot be excavated because LDS scholars can't even agree whether it's in North or Central America, and the millions of bodies destroyed in the Americas are nowhere to be found. When there is no convincing external evidence corroborating a belief, it must be based upon experience, feeling, and blind faith. This may be the view of faith in the Book of Mormon, but it is decidedly not the biblical view (see John 20:30-31). There is much more that could be said. Here are a few quick additional observations and tensions in the Mormon scriptures:
· The view of God evolves from monotheism to polytheism (Compare 1 Nephi 13:41 with Abraham 5:3)
· Black skin is a curse from God because of wickedness (2 Nephi 5:21; Jacob 3:5, Mormon 5:15; Book of Abraham 1:26),
· Original sin is rejected, yet there is a recognition that humans are fallen and fundamentally corrupt (Articles of Faith, D&C 121:39). Which is it?
Some of these are more serious than others. Certainly Mormon scholars have considered these objections and offered responses (and Christians have offered counter-responses). Yet the weight of these problems was enough to convince both my heart and my mind that The Book of Mormon is not another testament of Jesus Christ. I feel the same about the Doctrine & Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price.
But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind.