“It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address.
Consider yourself warned: I intend to say some astonishing things.
Of course, anyone who has ever searched for religious truth ought to be well acquainted with Christianity’s propensity to astonish. Everything Jesus said, everything he did and everywhere he went astonished people. This little habit of his jeopardized his life—those with power to lose “feared him, because all the people were astonished at his doctrine.” (Mark 11:18)
We’ve spent considerable digital ink on this site attempting to contextualize, humanize, and repackage what is abnormal about Mormonism. From “magic underwear” to our militant teetotaling to our love of awkward dancing. But only rarely have we discussed where it all began. And to be honest, the origin of Mormonism may be its most abnormal feature yet.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Joseph Smith. He was the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But before he became a prophet, he was a just a young 14 year old kid who yearned for answers to his most pressing religious questions. Where he lived, in New York in 1820, there was “unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” The many different churches, each vying for converts, tugged his heart in many different directions. Amidst “this war of words and tumult of opinions,” he observed: “I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”
Now, that’s pretty thoughtful for a fourteen-year old. At that age, I was far more pre-occupied with baseball practice and my Playstation than the eternal fate of my soul. But then, Joseph was no ordinary kid. He wrestled with this decision, often asking: “Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”
At long last, Joseph realized he “must either remain in darkness and confusion” or else he must “ask of God.” His study of the Bible led him to James’ crucial exhortation: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” He felt deep in his soul that this must be right and he intended to do just that.
One Spring morning, he “retired to the woods to make the attempt.” Not quite knowing what might ensue or how his answers might be supplied, Joseph knelt down and “offer[ed] up the desires of [his] heart.” What happened next is astonishing. In Joseph’s words:
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. . . . When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!”
That’s right. Mormonism’s origin story is an astonishing account of a prayerful boy’s miraculous encounter with God and His Son Jesus Christ. Mormonism’s unique foundational truth claim is that God and His Son appeared to Joseph Smith. We believe God is real and not absent, that He didn’t just leave us alone 2,000 years ago to figure everything out on our own. We believe, as Emerson urged and Joseph’s experience confirms, “that God is, not was. That He speaketh, not spake.”
This is as true today, as it was in 1820—as it was in 33AD and as it was in 2000BC. Joseph was the first in a continuous succession of prophets, called by God to be His mouthpiece to the world in these “latter days.” Just as with Noah, Moses, Jeremiah, or Isaiah, these modern day prophets exhort us to repent and believe in the Lord. They warn us against evil and persuade us to seek what’s good. When they speak, they speak the word of God. They are just the sort of “true teachers” Emerson felt the world so desperately needed.
This weekend, these prophets will speak to the world at the Mormon Church’s semi-annual General Conference. Thousands will gather in Salt Lake City, Utah to hear, live, the words of God spoken through His servants. Millions more will watch and listen to their prophetic counsel on TV, the Internet, or the radio. We invite you to join us.
I believe Joseph Smith. Even though his story is quite possibly the most abnormal feature of our abnormal religion, I believe he saw what he said he saw, I believe that God still speaks. And I believe that I can hear His voice this weekend.
I can think of no better way to conclude than with Joseph’s astonishing testimony of his experience:
“I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.”