Wednesday, 1 September 2010

In Madness, Religion and Love Timing is Everything

If I revealed all that has been made known to me, scarcely a man on this stand would stay with me. And, Brethren, if I were to tell you all I know of the kingdom of God, I do know that you would rise up and kill me. Joseph Smith Jr.

THE FIRST BOOK I EVER OWNED was a small children’s hymnal from the bookshop in Canterbury Cathedral; my two grandmothers had gone there on a day trip. It was dedicated to me with both of their signatures - Nan Eldridge and Grandma Lancaster – and dated shortly before my third birthday. That book went into storage in Bermuda five years ago, in the bottom of an old shipping container, in a field that I believe has since flooded. I don’t expect to see it again. The memory, however, is fresh. I can still recall the rough paper and very simple illustrations with but touches of colouring; the United Kingdom may well still have had rationing of paper and printing supplies held over from the War years.

I was given two other books of a religious nature as soon as I could read; I was quite proficient by the age of five or six. The red and blue books had effusive Christian stories and testimonies, illustrated with photographs of famous paintings, rather than with all-new, dedicated artwork.

We sang “Jesus Loves Me” at pre-school, and once I was in primary school we sang from a Church of England songbook specially condensed from the large, heavy "Hymns Ancient and Modern" we used at church and Sunday School. At day school we sang responses and chants and prayers in the morning Assembly. Volume was everything: We were never praised or upbraided for our spiritual dedication and devotion, but if we failed to make a loud noise (joyful or otherwise) we were blasted by the Headmaster.

Church, Sunday School and day school were racially segregated. In case you don’t know, Jesus is a white English bloke who spoke and wrote Shakespearean English. This was confirmed to me a few years after I graduated from grammar school, perhaps by an unlikely source. Joseph Smith, the Mormon Founder and Prophet, saw not only Jesus, but God the Father, and they were both white and spoke perfect English in the style of the original King James Version of the Bible. The young Mormon Elders used flip-charts with gloriously coloured pictures of the wonderfully white Jesus.

The characters in the Book of Mormon tend to be represented as very handsome and muscular, in clothes that are a touch Arthurian. It’s all a bit gay. The Mormon Church’s illustrators may have been of that generation that went to gladiator films in the 1950s, and enjoyed “Camelot” secretly. I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but in Camelot...

Joseph Smith was in his early teens when he saw Jesus and God the Father while out praying in the woods. In 1820, where the boy lived, there were any number of religious revivals. Joseph said (years later) he had asked, in prayer, which of the churches in his neighbourhood might be the right one. Down came Jesus and God! “None of them!”

Three years later, Joseph had an angel beam into his bedroom one night. As the little farmhouse was crowded, I never quite understood how only Joseph saw and heard the Angel Moroni as he dropped through the ceiling.

Moroni told Joseph about some golden plates on which was inscribed a book written by Moroni’s father, Mormon, a warrior and prophet of olden days in the Americas. Apparently, Joseph was taken to see the plates which were buried in a stone box on a hillside in New York State.

Years later, Joseph gets to take the golden plates home and he translates some of them using a seer stone inside a hat. Looking into the hat at the stone, the words on the plates would appear. God does work in mysterious ways, of course!

More important, as Joseph Smith is translating the Book of Mormon, he has continued, steady visitations from angelic gentlemen that I, for one, knew from my earliest Bible stories. John the Baptist, Joseph Smith related, conferred an Aaronic or Lesser Priesthood on him. Later the New Testament apostles we know as Peter, James and John supervised the transfer to Joseph of the Higher Melchizedek Priesthood.

When the first Mormon temple is built in Kirtland, Ohio, any number of angels turn up. In fact, on the day of the dedication people outside of the temple saw angels walking along the rooftop.

Of course, the Mormons are more famous for polygamy, what Joseph Smith called Plural or Spiritual or Celestial Marriage. He denied having taken more wives than his first, Emma Hale. After Joseph had been assassinated in 1845, Emma also claimed that her husband had never had other wives than herself. The evidence to the contrary is exceptional. The Prophet wrote directives that he received from God, published as “Doctrines and Covenants”, and they clearly indicate that plural marriage is the only way one can become a candidate for godhood. Mormons believe, by the way, that men who do what the Prophet commands can become gods (with their many goddess-wives).

If Joseph Smith had over thirty wives, one would have expected a fair number of little Smiths apart from those he fathered with wife Emma. DNA tests have so far suggested that none of the women thought to have been Joseph’s spiritual wives had his children. A recent article does point out that Dr John C Bennett, M.D., may well have been the Polygamists’ Abortionist in the early 1840s when he was Joseph Smith’s Assistant Prophet. Bennett was such a sordid man, within and outside of the Mormon Church, and I’m wary of anything to do with him. Scruples he was certainly short of.

Many of Joseph’s so-called wives ended up married, sealed, to his successor, Brigham Young, and some had Brigham’s children.

It almost amuses me, as an outsider, to see the effort the present Mormon Church puts into supporting and opposing certain controversial social issues. In the early 1990s, while I was living in the south-west corner of Utah, the local Mormon chapels organized groups to regularly cross the state border into Nevada to spy on an “adult bookstore”. The church members claimed that Utahns were crossing over to visit the Pure Pleasure emporium for whatever might be going on there. The spies sent by God would note the license plates from Utah in the parking area outside the bookstore and attempt to name and shame. The Brethren in Salt Lake City claimed that this was not a church-sanctioned activity, this spying, but the rota lists were worked out in the Mormon meeting houses.

In recent years the Mormon Church has opposed, but claims not to have ordered active opposition to, same sex partnerships. I’m not exactly sure how the business of legalising anything gets done in the USA, there’s always a judge to send something back. Apparently, some states have legalised what the papers tend to call “Gay Marriage” and some states have not passed a law enabling it. Some states want laws absolutely prohibiting it. We have gay partnerships here in the UK, but I don’t know much about all that. I suppose if two men, or two women, want to be legally bound together, it’s their business. It does mean one has to consider children and various legal rights. I honestly think people should marry if they intend having a family, and a man and a woman seems like the best option. Should we be arguing with biology? But, more important, should one argue with love?

Did Joseph Smith love each and every one of his 33 wives? Did Brigham Young love each and every one of his 55 wives? Or is the business of spiritual wifery just that, a business? Can one indeed become a God with but a single wife? Has there been another revelation to change the unchangeable word of God? The Mormons did make a change to the Divine Rules and Regulations in 1978 when an influx of converts in Brazil and other South American countries could not be sorted clearly into white people (like Jesus and the Mormons) and black people who had been forbidden entry to the Mormon temples and to any office in the Church hierarchy. In 1978 the doors were opened to people of colour. More than a few white Mormons walked out in protest.

One hears from Mormons that angels continue to visit the Earth. Long-dead people also drop in. The veil is awfully thin. A rather fanatical Mormon who eventually went off his nut told me that at least one Mormon temple had a bedroom for Jesus to rest in when he was in town. The Mormons call each Temple “The House of the Lord” and my over-enthusiastic friend indicated that a house is a home.

Do I think Joseph Smith saw angels, Jesus, God the Father? Do I think Joseph saw the words written on the golden plates when he put a pebble in his hat and placed his face into the hat to keep all the light out so that he could see the text reflected on his seer stone? I’m not sure, because I know people who see and hear things that I do not. One might call people schizophrenic because of the voices they hear, the visions they have, and they might be psychics. In fact, schizophrenics are more believable than psychics, are they not? A schizophrenic is not likely to ask a hall full of people if anyone has a relative called Tom (or is it Ted?) who has passed over, as a psychic surely does. A schizophrenic will say he has been up all night talking to Moses, who is dictating a better translation of the Pentateuch. It might even be a work-in-progress in a jotter. Perhaps a schizophrenic is a genuine psychic.

Might Joseph Smith have been a schizophrenic as a psychic? If one strips away the fairly obvious nonsense, the copying, the sales talk, the expedient, there is the “problem” of Smith’s writing and lectures (he had most of what he preached written down, some of it is fantastic). Can a man really stare into a darkened hat and dictate a book? An ordinary man. Or is this all the work of what some might call a madman (and a current following of nearly fourteen millions)?

Are the Scientologists and the Moonies any madder than the Mormons?

Can we take as the Word of God anything that comes from a hat? Really? And where is that hat now? Where are the peep stones? Who is in contact? How?

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