Adaptive Mormon Revelations

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.

Why only in the past -- Why not now?

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.

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4 thoughts on “Adaptive Mormon Revelations

  1. Jayarava

    It is an interesting feature of divine revelation that prophets often declare themselves the *last prophet* – true also of Sikkhism. Buddhists are expecting another Buddha (though not a prophet in the same sense) but put his coming several hundred billion years in the future – though at the same time Buddhist has continued churned out “Enlightened” people at 10 a penny. And of course Christianity and Islam are closed shops.

    I think it reflects the political and social times. When the Hebrews were surrounded by enemies, enslaved, transported, and generally struggling for survival they had a lot of prophets. After Darius released them from Babylon things settled until the advent of the Romans – whereupon propheteering became important again. Once Europe was largely Christian the need for prophets declined – though note the cult of martyrs and saints continued apace. The 17th century saw propheteering once more in Germany – culminating in the removal of the Anabaptists to the USA.

    In New Zealand a number of Māori prophets arose in the wake of colonisation and conversion to Christianity in the mid 19th century. One of the most prominent being Te Kooti who founded the still active Ringatu Church.

    There is a long and detailed argument by Ronald Davidson that the Tantric forms forms of Indian religions grew out of the turmoil created when the Huns destroyed the Gupta Empire. (Indian Esoteric Buddhism. Columbia Uni Press) My view is that similar arguments can be made for India in the wake of the collapse of the Mauryan
    Empire after Asoka, and for the vaccuum left by Alexander’s rampage across the world ending with the fall of the Achaemanids. Both of these periods contained major turning points for Buddhism and Hinduism.

    The US and European children of the war years started looking for prophets and gurus when they became adults in the 1960s.

    Perhaps we simply need prophets when times are tough and we are unsure about life. The rest of the time we think we know best and push prophets back to the margins. I suspect there are always prophets and it is society’s attitude to them that changes.

  2. Cris Post author

    To this list we could add Wovoka, the Paiute shaman mostly responsible for the millenarian Ghost Dance, and even some who aren’t traditionally considered prophets, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. There does seem to be a lot of “propheteering” (great entendre word, by the way) during times of crisis, whether that crisis is external to the tradition or intrinsic to it.

    My guess, however, is that as an historical matter, we could nearly always correlate some kind of crisis to some kind of prophet. This would be the functional equivalent of correlating some kind of environmental change to some kind of evolution. While this is routinely done, especially by paleoanthropologists, there is increasing skepticism about the procedure, primarily because there is almost always some kind of climate change which can be invoked as the deus ex machina driving some kind of evolution.

    The same objection can be raised when correlating increased propheteering to crisis. It may be correct some or even most of the time, but perhaps not all the time. If not all the time, there may be something intrinsic to supernaturalism which spawns propheteering. It could by systemic, in other words.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    As you point out, as mechanism to bring change when needed or desired, active revelation methods have appeared.

    I think Pentecostalism (link here) offers similar tools: prophecy, speaking in tongues ….

    Likewise, Nyingma Buddhism has active revelation methods through their ‘Terma”.

    It seems to me that this is largely politics and economics disguised as religion.

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