Tuesday 27 December 2011


The last few days of December are rich in important anniversaries. Apart from the popular one on the 25th on December 29 we recall the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 which provoked one of the most truly dreadful poems in the English language by William McGonagall. Of more significance to more people perhaps was the birth on 23 December 1805 of Joseph Smith Jr, the future prophet of Mormonism. It is something of a tribute to his impact upon the world that most articles about him and his religion can be written by numbers. The things his critics say being as awesomely predictable as the words of his defenders. It is with a sigh of relief that we can turn from such articles, pick up our Mormon Bingo card look at the below the line comments and quickly tick off  "polygamy", "sacred underpants", "Mountain Meadows Massacre" and so on and so forth.

Does there remain anything meaningful to say about this figure, who's influence upon America and the world has not been trivial, which goes beyond the boundaries of the preferred narratives used by those who have already made up their minds about him? I think there is. Discussions about his life confuse the two categories of saint and prophet as if they were interchangeable. In the commonly accepted sense of the word Joseph Smith was no saint. His critics harp on his failings and Mormons deny, minimise or ignore them. But so what if he was unreliable, sinful and flawed? The same could be said of most scriptural prophets. Balaam accepted money to curse the Hebrews but God used him to bless them instead. Jonah was a bad tempered old sod who tried to run away rather than prophesy something that never came to pass. And the greatest prophet of them all, Moses, was a runaway murderer who got his brother to do the talking for him. A prophet does not have to be full of virtue, he or she only has to be a channel of communication between God and man. They have to convey a spiritual or theological truth, they do not have to embody it.

In that sense a prophet is more like and artist than a saint. Caravaggio was a notorious street brawler and outlaw but his paintings convey something much greater than himself. Also it is rather beside the point to complain that his depiction of the Supper of Emmaus or the Ecce Homo were inaccurate because the actual participants in the original events would not have looked or dressed the way Caravaggio portrayed them. His painting allow the character of the persons and events to shine through the mere details of the canvas. Similarly it doesn't really matter that much if Joseph Smith really was guided by an angel and some seeing stones to reveal the Book of Mormon or whether those were just the canvas he painted upon to give a context to his work. It is the ultimate source of the inspiration not the technicalities of it that matter most.

How does one judge whether a work is part of God's revelation to man or a human invention? Ultimately the judgement is a subjective one. What impact does the work have upon ones heart and soul. Here perhaps the analogy is more with the poet than the artist. The words of the poet enter the mind and then percolate throughout the person. Byron was famously mad, bad and dangerous to know but his poetry changed lives because it spoke truth about life itself. The more deeply you enters upon the words and they upon you then the more impact they have. For Latter Day Saints the Book of Mormon conveys information not so much about the ancient history of America but about the relationship between people and God and that to them continues to speak to today's lives and relationships. The message is important the messenger less so. For non-Mormons, of course, the position is different. Those who feel the need to get beyond the articles by numbers realm and into reading the actual text make an uncomfortable discovery. If prophets are like poets then Moses is probably the Byron of prophecy and Joseph Smith Jr certainly the William McGonagall of the genre.


  1. It's tough for me to talk about Mormonism as my mother converted to it, whilst divorced, desperate and alone in America before we came to the UK. it has destroyed my family, nearly destroyed me and has destroyed my brother's life. There is a very dark side to mormonism and it's founder Jospeh Smith.
    You are right that prophets are sometimes quirky and not obvious candidates for prophetic utterings, however, their utterings follow a distinct pattern:
    1) They are for all people (not a secretive elect)
    2) They call on all people with their message and that message is always in line with tradition.
    3) They never care about what the world says (Joseph Smith cared so deeply he smashed up a printing press which was hostile to him) but just keep going with their message.
    4) Prophets are modest and humble understanding their role and never backing down from it, literally living for it. ( not Joseph Smith)
    5) Prophets offer us something new yet always in line with what was known already - so they give us new perspectives and have a way of revitalising the message, giving it urgency and a new 'edge'.
    6) Prophets never worry about worldly wealth nor sex with lots of women, because they are focused on God , despite their failings.
    7) Prophets always speak to all the people, and call on everyone, not a secretive elect.

    One of the most special prophets was John the Baptist, as he prepared the way of the Lord.
    Modest in dress, modest in eating, yet powerful in preaching and message, baptism and new life was his prophetic message, and it was for all.

    Yet he said you can be baptised with the Holy Spirit - he couldn't do it , but it was possible, AND Jesus could make that possible.

    As Catholics we have to be careful about what is authentic, because I have studied this very carefully and we are the authentic church - no doubt about it. There really is a continuity, through good times and bad, right up to the present day.
    I went to mass on Xmas day and really felt something (still havn't got the hang of the new mass, kept doing the old responses)I went with a neighbour who needed a life in the car as they are old and can't walk that far.

    The message of peace. love , reconciliation and
    the birth of a baby who still challenges us to understand Him, and draws us into a mystical world of love and longing for Him, always reaching ourt hands out, and just occassionally in life, we may feel our hands grasped.

    Mormonism does not allow this, nor this way of thinking nor talking. They are very literal. no poncey shite is allowed. Mysticism is out - right out, so is monasticism, so in thinking about a prophet we have to be very careful.

  2. We can judge whether or not a work is of God or just of human imagination and made up. That is the job of the theologian. What spiritual truth are they conveying? How do they convey it? How do they express it? What does their life look like? Are they consistent in their message or do they keep changing their tune?

    Prophets just like theologians, are creative, imaginative, poetic perhaps or musical. Life didn;t always go right for them and they are sometimes prime examples of fallen humanity.
    Howedver, their message is always clear, full of passion, consistent, and his message is always moral and simple for everyone.

    There are deep sociological reasons that Mormonism is mainly an American phenomenon, and that conversions in other countries often fail within a few months. Joseph Smith offered Americans a salvation history that made America central to not only the New Testament (Jesus went and preached in America during the 3 days of his 'death' on the cross)but to future salvation history as understood by Protestantism, and that the future Zion would be built in America, after the Rapture. The needs of a new American continet and people, with a predominantly Christian history would attracted to Joseph Smiths story.
    prophets too don't change their mind at least 4 times about thier experience of God, as Joseph Smith did. real prophets are consistent in their commission from God and how it happened.

    Moreover, prophets fit in with Jesus, not contradict Jesus.

  3. Interesting points Heather. I will think about them and post a reply when I have more time to do them justice

  4. Hello Heather, just read this one, very interesting. I shan't comment on your points about Mormonism as I know you know much more about this than I do.

    Two points about other stuff:-
    We are the authentic church? The church of Jesus Christ as begun at Pentecost is bigger and far less constrained than any one human expression of it. We are like caterpillars in a garden, when we become butterflies and learn that the walls are not so important we shall relise the garden is much bigger.

    It's the theologian's job to tell the people whether something is from god or their own imagination? I think people have to work this out for themselves. Theologians can guide and support people but ultimately we each have to search and explore our own spiritual pathways.