Visions of Joseph Smith

Posted: Jun 05, 2006 12:06 AM

Several months ago, I decided to pick up a copy of The Book of Mormon. I did so because numerous Mormons wanted me to decide for myself whether it was divinely inspired or merely fictional. Now that I’ve made the “wrong” determination, many Mormons are deeply offended. Some say I am just deeply prejudiced against them.

The accusation that I began reading The Book of Mormon with a lack of objectivity is correct. The best neighbor I ever knew as a young boy was Bill Brandt - a devout Mormon. I remember how he worked on my first car (a 1970 GTO) several times without charging labor. He would go to work early at IBM every day so he could come home early and do the same for others. Often, he would work hours past dark to do free mechanical work for members of his congregation and for neighbors who didn’t even share his faith.

Later, my bias in favor of Mormons deepened when a follow named David Lynch joined our faculty at UNCW in 1994. David was the best colleague many in our department can remember having. He was also a devout Mormon.

And, so, when I decided to study the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church I approached the topic in a manner that wasn’t fair. I read The Book of Mormon without giving a fair hearing to books like The God Makers that attacked its basic foundations. When I wanted to learn more about the structure and finances of the church, I read Mormon America: the Power and the Promise – a book that has been praised by Mormons for its objectivity. I also read Standing for Something by Gordon Hinckley in order to hear the LDS president speak on values we hold in common.

When it came time to approach the controversial topic of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, I read a book by the same name written by a Mormon named Juanita Brooks. In so doing, I avoided the more recent and decidedly anti-Mormon account by Sally Denton.

Finally, when it came time to read about the life of Joseph Smith, author of The Book of Mormon, I avoided the anti-Smith biography No Man Knows my History by Fawn M. Brodie. Instead, I read a more favorable account called Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman – a devout Mormon and distinguished historian from Columbia University.

As soon as I began my study of the LDS –a study that would span several months and several thousand pages of reading – I saw evidence of the profound bias Mormons have complained about for decades. My wife joked that she would divorce me if I converted to Mormonism. A Methodist preacher joked (at least I hope he was joking) that he would kill me if I converted to Mormonism - urging me to convert to any religion other than the LDS church. Some Catholic and Protestant students who saw me holding a copy of The Book of Mormon also questioned why I would bother reading a work they considered heretical.

Throughout my study, I consistently heard two harsh accusations levied against Mormons – first, that the LDS Church is a cult, and, second, that the Mormons are not Christians. I reject both of those accusations.

The idea that the LDS church is a cult stems largely from a wildly biased media that focuses on breakaway congregations still practicing polygamy – a practice long rejected by the leadership of the LDS church. I suspect that the feminist influence within the mainstream media intentionally distorts this aspect of Mormonism as a punishment for the lack of an organized feminist movement in the church. (Author’s note: this is not to suggest a conspiracy but, rather, a collective result of individual bigotry).

The idea that Mormons are not Christians is also untenable. No one reading Romans 10:9 and John 14:6 can deny that Mormons are Christians who are saved by faith and destined for heaven. Of course, raising the issue of heaven might not be the best way to bridge the gap between Mormon and non-Mormon Christians. In fact, it leads inevitably to a discussion of the controversial life and revelations of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith will be the sole focus of my next column on Mormonism.