One of my favorite books on Mormon history, much despised by Mormons, is Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. Brodie writes with considerable panache about things Mormons would like to forget. Despite Smith’s many foibles and frauds, he comes off surprisingly well: it’s hard not to admire his audacious exuberance and resilience in the face of disasters. I couldn’t help but think that Smith would have been a fine drinking buddy, if only he drank.
Another thing I couldn’t help but think was that some of his ideas, subsequently enshrined as Mormon doctrine, were patently ludicrous. For instance, the megalomaniacal notion that prophets abound and routinely channel God through ongoing revelations. To an outsider, this seems absurd and it’s easy to ridicule. But I just read something in The Economist that makes sense of it:
In the early days of Mormonism, the pioneer evangelists of the young faith saw considerable successes arguing the absurdity of the idea that for millenia God used prophet after prophet to make plain his will to man and then, suddenly, became mute, abandoning his favoured creatures to tease out with our meagre minds the meanings of the old prophecies and their application to present circumstances. That there is another scripture, that prophets roam among us still, should surprise only those ready to accept the outrageous notion that a once demanding and garrulous God has retreated from his children in silence, having nothing more to say.
The idea of an ongoing prophetic relationship to God has not only proven an effective selling point for proselytising Mormons, it has built into Mormonism a potent adaptive flexibility. In the face of potentially ruinous religious persecution from Congress, church president (and putative prophet) Wilford Woodruff in 1890 disavowed plural marriage in “The Manifesto”, which has been canonised and is believed by mainstream Mormons to reflect divine revelation. In 1978, after decades of pressure from the civil-rights movement, and facing the problem of expanding the church’s membership in countries with large mixed-race populations, church president (and putative prophet) Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation making blacks eligible for the Mormon priesthood.
If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, the first point is a good one: Why was God so busy revealing himself to prophets only between 1800 BCE (Abraham) and 630 CE (Muhammad)? If God is active in the world and speaks through prophets, an ancient burst of activity followed by doctrinal fixing and stasis is more than a bit puzzling. I’m down with the Mormon idea that (if such a God existed), there should be prophets every generation and ongoing revelations. It not only makes sense but sounds like more fun.
The second point is equally good: If you are going to create a religion in an age of skeptical inquiry, mass communication, and majority prejudice, the ability to pivot doctrine on a dime is essential. When things go badly or change is needed, prophets simply issue adaptive revelations. This aspect of Mormonism, which I had previously considered disingenuous and amusing, now seems less absurd.
There is a rationality (living prophets) and pragmatism (convenient revelations) here which I hadn’t previously considered. No wonder Mormonism is giving the hoary Abrahamic religions a run for their money.