Mormon Church-Approved Outreach

LDS MissionariesMormon missionaries have been responding to the Broadway show, “The Book of Mormon,” all across the country. The Fresno Bee recently explained that Mormon missionaries stand outside of the theatre before and/or after the show to answer people’s questions and hand out copies of the actual Book of Mormon.

This news story stood out to me because of the flack I’ve taken over the years for doing a similar thing outside of various Mormon venues; that is, being available before and/or after Mormon pageants to answer people’s questions and hand out literature. Many Mormons have told me I should not be there. They say it’s disrespectful and ruins their family outings. They often say, “We wouldn’t do that to you!”

But Mormon missionaries are engaging in a similar outreach approach, and LDS Church leadership whole-heartedly approves it!

Certainly there are some differences between what I do at a Christian outreach and what the Mormon missionaries are doing, but the basic idea is the same. So with that in mind, I’ve rewritten some portions of the Fresno Bee article to reflect how it would read if the journalist was writing about a typical Christian outreach at a Mormon venue. (I’ve chosen the annual Christian outreach in Nauvoo, Illinois for my example.)

Anyone planning to attend the [City of Joseph Pageant] in [Nauvoo] next week…should be prepared to see missionaries, real ones, as they approach the [pageant grounds].

They won’t be picketing, just politely offering information about what [the LDS] religion is really about…

Since the [City of Joseph pageant] opened in [Nauvoo]… the [Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center] has encouraged its [missionaries] to conduct themselves with “dignity and thoughtfulness” in their response to the show…

[Steve Dealy], who presides over the [Visitors Center], home base for [outreach] missionaries from around the world, said a number of missionaries will be handing out copies of [The Nauvoo Times] outside the [pageant grounds].

1July08[Christian] missionaries have done the same in many other cities where [LDS pageants have] toured. Based on their experiences, [the director] expects to give away between [4,000 and 5,000] copies…

“We don’t want to harass anybody. We just want to be available.”

…a public affairs assistant for the [ministry] in Nauvoo, said of the [pageant]: “We’re not really saying we’re against it. We are just saying, ‘Hey, if you want to know the true story of [Mormonism], we’d love to tell you that.’”

“Of course, [the pageant] isn’t reality,” [a Christian might say] of the musical, “and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously — if they leave [the pageant] believing that Mormons really are [biblical Christians].”

While the [Christian ministry] isn’t “opposed” to the musical,… “we would like the truth to be known about what these guys (Mormon missionaries) … really [want you to believe].”

I’ve never read a traditional media story that reports so positively on Christian outreaches at Mormon events. But if such a news story were written as above, it would be true. Even so, Mormons might not see it that way, perhaps objecting that the Mormon missionaries are merely providing a positive response, via their scripture, to a show that mocks their faith; while Christian missionaries are distributing negative literature that criticizes the Mormon Church.*

Well, without getting too far into this anticipated objection, I’ll just say that LDS pageants (and temples) mock my faith, and the Book of Mormon (that is handed out by LDS missionaries) criticizes my beliefs. There is no difference of substance between the Mormon outreach and the Christian outreach here.

Yet there is a difference worth mentioning. The Broadway musical aims only to entertain audiences. It is a musical parody that never pretends to be anything else: it makes no truth claims. But Mormon pageants and temple open houses aim to gain converts to Mormonism — proselytizing is a prime element of each event. In addition, Mormonism makes many truth claims; and these declared “truths” have the potential to negatively impact a person through all eternity.

Free Speech at MantiBecause the stakes are so high, Christians often stand outside Mormon events, engaging in evangelism with a commitment to be “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting…opponents with gentleness.” We hope and pray that by doing this, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

Christians have been doing this for decades, patiently enduring accusations and denunciations from Mormons and their friends. Now, at long last, we have LDS leadership’s tacit approval of our outreach approach. I hope this means we can now move past the common Mormon objections to our outreach presence, and instead talk about what really matters.

*Just to be clear, the literature I’ve handed out during these Christian outreaches has certainly discussed Mormon doctrines and history, but it also explains my own, biblical faith. The format of this literature is very often a compare-and-contrast approach.)

Posted in Christianity, Friendship, Interaction, and Evangelism, LDS Church, Mormon Missionaries | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates

mormon-goldplates1Joseph Smith, the first Mormon Prophet, claimed he was divinely guided to a set of gold plates that were buried near his home in the state of New York. After taking possession of these plates, according to the official LDS account, Joseph translated the ancient writing they contained, which resulted in the Book of Mormon.

Using eyewitness accounts in the video below, researcher Dan Vogel takes a look at the story of Joseph Smith bringing the gold plates home from where they were buried in the Hill Cumorah. Mr. Vogel’s telling of the story begins with Joseph’s employment as a money-digger in 1826, and continues through December of 1827 when Joseph and his wife Emma fled town with the gold plates secreted in a barrel of beans.

In examining these few months of Mormon Church history, Mr. Vogel notes discrepancies and suggests some alternate explanations for certain claims made in the Mormon Church’s official narrative.

As I watched this 46-minute video, I couldn’t help but think that a Mormon’s reaction to the information might be, “Those darn plates!” If Joseph Smith had merely claimed a vision or revelation, the story would be much less problematic for Mormons to maintain (of course, the Book of Mormon itself would still be fraught with problems).

But because Joseph Smith brought tangible evidence into the mix in the form of the alleged gold plates, as well as his detailed efforts to gain and keep possession of them, many objective facts exist by which to measure the veracity of his story. From the weight and material of the plates, to the “spectacles” found with the plates, to Joseph’s injury fighting off attackers, to the efforts of evil men trying to steal Joseph’s treasure, Mr. Vogel presents various historical voices that fill out and go beyond the carefully crafted official Mormon narrative. These eyewitness accounts serve to contextualize and expand the viewer’s understanding of events comprising the birth of Mormonism, but they also tend to elicit troublesome questions for thinkers. Those darn plates!

“Joseph Smith claimed he translated the Book of Mormon from anciently engraved gold plates, which he took from a stone box in the side of a hill near his home in Manchester, New York. Claiming that he was forbidden by God to show them to anyone, Smith kept the plates carefully wrapped in a cloth or concealed in a wooden box. Believers accept this as God’s way of requiring faith, whereas skeptics suspect Smith constructed a set of plates that couldn’t pass visual inspection. This is the story of Joseph Smith’s bringing the plates home in September 1827.”

Posted in Book of Mormon, Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Mormon History | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The temple: The carrot for Mormon obedience

Over the past few years I have noticed a correlation between the content given in LDS Church magazines and the assigned readings in the church manual series Teachings of Presidents of the Church. Although it is brought up regularly in church talks and publications, the topic of the temple has been made into the prevailing theme in July 2015.

220px-Madrid_templeTwo chapters each month are covered in the current “Presidents of the Church” series; in July, chapter 13 (“Priceless Blessings of the House of the Lord”) and chapter 14 (“Marriage and Family: Ordained of God”) were assigned from the Ezra Taft Benson manual. The temple was also featured in July’s official church magazines: the Ensign (several articles were used, including one discussing the preparation to enter a temple), New Era (helping “youth prepare for temple ordinances”), and Friend (helping “your children learn about and prepare for the temple” and “to go inside someday”).

Each of the above publications stressed the necessity of “being worthy” to attend the temple. For example, Seventy Kent F. Richards writes on page 18 of the Ensign article, “In order to receive the Spirit, you must enter the temple clean and pure, free from any unforgiven transgression.” By signing a temple recommend card, the patron is “witnessing [his/her] worthiness before the Lord.” In a “key point” section, it says that “in the temple you receive ordinances essential to your salvation. You must enter the temple clean and pure, free from any unforgiven transgression.”

In chapter 13 of Benson’s manual, this same theme is prevalent. (MRM provides reviews of each chapter of this manual.) The carrot to temple work? Benson is quoted on page 171 as saying, “If a couple are (sic) true to their covenants, they are entitled to the blessing of the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. These covenants today can only be entered into by going to the House of the Lord.” And then “… it is in the temples that we obtain God’s greatest blessings pertaining to eternal life. Temples are really the gateways to heaven.”

On the next page, he said, “We will not be able to dwell in the company of celestial beings unless we are pure and holy… No member of the Church can be perfected without the ordinances of the temple.” The chapter concludes with this: “Let us make the temple a sacred home away from our eternal home.”

I find it interesting how many people recently have pointed to Dieter F. Utchtdorf’s talk in last April’s conference (“The Gift of Grace”) as somehow lining up with Evangelical Christianity. It does not. (Find a written review of this talk as well as links to Viewpoint on Mormonism podcasts here.) And if a Latter-day Saint doubts my view, then ask him/her why everyone saved by grace shouldn’t be allowed to enter Mormon temples!

CarrotStickThere is a list of requirements. First, baptism and confirmation are surely required before a convert can start planning a trip to a temple. Then, “as you increase your spiritual maturing, you will desire to prepare for and enter the temple. There you will receive ordinances and make covenants, which are necessary steps to draw closer to your Heavenly Father… You enter the temple and make covenants because you will exist eternally and want to be with your Heavenly Father and your family…” (Ensign, July 2015, p. 18). To be able to get into the temple, a Mormon needs to “keep standards, and…worthily carry a limited-use temple recommend. Church programs will help you, but your preparation is personal; you are developing your worthiness, your testimony, your conversion.” Notice how the word “your” was emphasized in that quote. It is based on “you” and how well “you” tithe, abstain from alcohol and hot drinks, and keep the other prerequisites.

When it comes to the LDS temple, consider what LDS leaders have emphasized. For one, they say that there was a great apostasy, which supposedly eliminated God’s authority throughout the world. Everything the church does is supposed to rest on the need for a “restoration.” If this is the case, then there should be a clear connection between the Jerusalem temple and the more than 140 LDS temples. Yet there is not.

Consider, for example, that the biblical temple was a place where the blood sacrifices of animals took place by priests commissioned by God for the temporary forgiveness of sins. (It was temporary because people would again sin.) Hebrews chapter 10 explains how Christ’s sacrifice once for all eliminated the need for a physical temple; this is the only reason why Christians throughout the past 2000 years have not tried to reinstitute a physical temple of any kind. Because of what Christ did (verse 10 reads, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”), it has always been accepted that a temple of any kind is not needed.

However, Mormonism has returned the need for temple work while setting up regulations that ancient Jews and Christians never accepted, including learning tokens and new names, performing baptisms for the dead, marrying for “time and eternity,” getting sealed to relatives, and other rites never practiced by the Levitical priests or, for that matter, anyone associated with the temple. Rather, blood sacrificial work was performed daily, the main purpose of the temple!

Richards writes on page 18, “To be worthy does not mean you are perfect yet. It means that your heart is right, that you are living the commandments, and that you desire to be better each day.” A Mormon might find consolation that he or she doesn’t have to be “perfect yet” in order to enter a temple. And perhaps the LDS believer feels as long as his/her “heart is right” and he/she “desire(s) to be better each day,” everything is fine.

Heavy LoadBut the middle requirement is the kicker: the Mormon must live the commandments. Repentance can only go so far. D&C 58:43 plainly lays it out: “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” And D&C 1:32 adds, “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven.” As I told one Mormon recently who almost appeared to be bragging at how often he repented, “Perhaps you need to quit repenting so much and just do what you’re commanded.”

In Mormonism, exaltation can only be gained through continual obedience. It is in the temple where a Mormon regularly makes promises that can never be fulfilled. The attitude fostered in Mormonism flies in the face of Jesus’s parable in Luke 18 concerning the Publican and the Pharisee:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

According to Christianity, nobody needs the temple. Rather, everyone needs a relationship with Jesus. This can take place in humility, realizing that forgiveness of sins is available for the asking (see Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9-10). Only when a person accepts the Gospel message and the Jesus described in the Bible is it even possible to receive the free gift of salvation. Our efforts will just never cut it.

Posted in Mormon Temple | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Mormon Pioneers and Little Lambs


It’s Throwback Thursday!
The following blog article originally posted at Mormon Coffee on July 24, 2006.


Today [tomorrow] is Pioneer Day in Utah. Each July 24th the residents of Utah celebrate the “Days of ’47” commemorating Brigham Young’s 1847 arrival in the Great Salt Lake valley. This holiday is a big deal; a state holiday with parades, fireworks and family picnics. It’s a lot like the 4th of July is for the rest of the United States.

Being Pioneer Day, you can understand that the festivities place an extra emphasis on the Mormon pioneers who settled Utah. More than usual, that is. Mormon Pioneer heritage figures prominently in the identity of today’s Mormons.

We see a lot of artistic renderings of the Mormon pioneers. On canvas and in sculpture they are depicted in various poses and scenes. Sometimes we see their hardships, and sometimes their joys, but almost always we see them in family groupings. The LDS Church emphasizes its commitment to family, of course, and the pioneers who crossed the plains and mountains included mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.

As an example of artistic portrayals of LDS pioneers, here’s the way the Mormon Pioneers are depicted on the LDS web site:

And here’s a sculpture found on Temple Square in Salt Lake City:

Here’s why I find this interesting. There is a current exhibit at the Culture House, a museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, titled The Road to Zion. The exhibit

sheds light on the religious foundations of the Mormons, traces the journey of Thordur Didriksson (1828-1894) over sea and land, and gives insight into the community that the Icelanders joined and lived in abroad [i.e., Spanish Fork, Utah].

My cousin (who lives in Reykjavik) thoughtfully sent me a booklet about the exhibit, produced by the museum. The booklet includes an excerpt from the journal Mr. Didriksson kept as he crossed America in a Mormon handcart company.

We were in Omaha for three weeks, to prepare for the handcart journey across the prairie. There were 220 emigrants in the company. …The men pulled the carts and the women pushed. …There were over 30 children in the company, and early every morning they were all sent ahead of the adults in one bunch. Some of them had very little clothing, though they all wore hats. They were driven along with willow switches and had to keep walking as long as they were able. It was no use crying or complaining, but during the heat of the day they were allowed to rest and were given food. They were often two or three miles ahead of us. It was hard for the parents to see their five- or six-year-olds driven like sheep. (Church Archives, Ms 8795)

I have never seen an artistic rendering of Mormon pioneer children being driven with willow switches. Have you?

Posted in Mormon History | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

The Grace Club

My daughter took The Not Even Once Club book off my shelf and wanted me to read it as a bedtime story. I can’t blame her: it has fun and inviting pictures.

I told her it was not a book I agreed with. “Why not?” We read through it slowly together. Here were my follow-up discussion questions:

  • Who can be in the “Not Even Once Club”? You? Me? Have you ever lied, or cheated, or bullied, or stolen?
  • Can you rightly promise God that you will never do things like that ever again?
  • Is that a promise anyone could ever keep?
  • Should we make promises that we can’t keep?
  • If someone thought they were in the “Not Even Once Club”, do you think that would make them feel better than other people?
  • There is only one person on earth who could ever rightly be in the “Not Even Once Club.” Who is he?
  • Jesus has a “Grace Club.” How does one enter in this club? How does one stay in this club?
  • Do people in Jesus’ “Grace Club” want to do bad things? How do they want to live?
  • Should they promise that they will never do any bad things?

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Posted in Forgiveness, Grace, Repentance, Salvation, Worthiness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Two Views of Eternal Life

Former Mormons who are now Christians say that this 21 minute video has been instrumental in helping them recognize the differences between the biblical view of salvation and the Mormon view of eternal life. It helped them understand what God has done to rescue them — to rescue all of us — from the consequences of our sin. Maybe the video will help you, too, to either come to know the biblical plan of salvation, or to help others realize and receive the gift of redemption God freely offers.

You will find the diagrams and scripture lists referenced in the video below, but you may want to download a pdf copy for future use. You will find the downloadable file “Eternal Life Diagram” at Tri-Grace Ministries.

May God continue to use this presentation of His truth to draw people to Himself.

[NOTE: The video referred to above has disappeared from You Tube (as far as I can tell). I have replaced the embed link with the following video that discusses the same topic with the same visual diagrams. -SAL]



Posted in Afterlife, Christianity, Friendship, Interaction, and Evangelism, Gospel, Grace, Salvation, The Fall | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Mormons don’t deserve this.

Chris Duckworth, a Lutheran pastor in Indiana, wasn’t happy when a 12-page advertising supplement arrived on his doorstep last week. The “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide” was published by Tri-Grace Ministries and distributed to communities in preparation for the LDS Temple Open House event scheduled to begin on July 17th (2015).

TruthMattersNoBackgroundOn his blog, Reverend Duckworth posted a piece he titled “Mormon Bashing,” in which he argued that the Tri-Grace publication was a form of “public bullying” and “not beneficial” to the community. Dismissing theological issues while quoting 1 Corinthians 10:23, Rev. Duckworth wrote that he plans to attend the Mormon Temple Open House in an effort to (quoting Martin Luther) “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light” as well as to “stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander.” He explained,

“Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.”

Rev. Duckworth’s comments were praised by some, and challenged by others. Responding to one commenter that suggested he was moving toward conversion to Mormonism, Rev. Duckworth wrote,

“Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not in the process of conversion. I am simply saying that no group of fellow citizens and children of God deserve to have a 12-page screed ripping their religion delivered to their doorstep by a ‘newspaper’ that purports to serve the community and be a community asset.”

Rev. Duckworth repeated this concern several more times as he continued to respond to critics:

“All that I claim is that no group deserves to have a 12-page attack on their religion thrown on their lawn – and on the lawns of thousands of their neighbors. That is patently unfair and unChristian.”

“I have little interest either in defending or in disparaging the faith of my friends and neighbors. I simply believe they – or anyone – do not deserve to have a 12-page attack on their faith delivered to their doorstep by a newspaper purporting to serve our community.”

“I simply don’t believe that they – or any group of our neighbors, friends, fellow citizens – deserve to have a 12-page screed criticizing their faith thrown on their lawn wrapped in a garment that purports to be ‘news’ and a publication serving the community.”

As a Christian dedicated to evangelism, I found many things in Rev. Duckworth’s blog that troubled me, especially his repeated assertions centering on what he believes Mormons “deserve.” I responded, posting this comment:

“Chris, your argument is centered on what Mormons ‘deserve’ (or don’t deserve). Christians have some experience with the concept of getting what we deserve. From God’s perspective we are all sinners and deserve eternal punishment and separation from God. But God, in His mercy, has confronted our sin and offered us the gift of reconciliation and eternal life in Him. This we do not deserve; this is God’s grace. Mormons (like all of us) need God’s grace. They need to have their sin (including the idolatry of Mormonism) confronted. You say they do not deserve to have this confrontation delivered to their doorstep. On the contrary, Tri-Grace Ministries is a vehicle of God’s grace for the Mormon people, as well as for people who are unaware of the doctrines of Mormonism who are at risk of being deceived by the public relations presentation they will hear at the temple open house. Don’t these people ‘deserve’ God’s grace? Well, actually, no, they don’t. But our great God is merciful, and He calls His people to speak the truth in love. None of us deserve God’s grace, but neither do Mormons ‘deserve’ to have God’s gracious truth withheld from them in an effort to protect their feelings. May God move in a mighty way among the Mormon people of Indiana, and may He continue to use the Christians of Tri-Grace Ministries as His ambassadors of true and lasting peace.”

Christians, please join me in praying for the Christian outreach at the Indianapolis Indiana Temple. May God, in His mercy, rescue the perishing.

Posted in Friendship, Interaction, and Evangelism, Mormon Missionaries, Mormon Temple, Truth, Honesty, Prayer, and Inquiry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

The Wives of Joseph Smith Visit Manti

The annual Christian outreach at the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah concluded about 2 weeks ago. During this year’s outreach, 34 women, dressed in pioneer clothing, each took on the identity of a wife of Joseph Smith. This was a powerful visual representation that helped Mormons better understand what 34 wives actually looks like. Eric Johnson snapped a couple of photos of the actresses gathered together. In this one, rather than smiling for the camera, the women’s expressions reflect the discontent of their polygamous identities:

When this same visual representation was performed in Manti for the first time (in 2008), most Mormons were completely unaware that Joseph Smith had more than one wife. They reacted to the parade of 34 women with the accusation that the whole thing was nothing but a vile lie. Even though the Mormon Church itself has now published an essay that admits Joseph had up to 40 wives, many Mormons still do not know that Emma was but one of Joseph’s dozens of plural wives.

In this short (4-minute) video, Aaron names Joseph Smith’s wives and provides a few important facts about these women. This, too, is a powerful visual presentation.

For more information about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, check out this excellent video of Chip Thompson and Doris Hanson discussing and teaching on the topic. This video also presents a visual representation of Joseph Smith’s 34 wives – along with 11 additional husbands to whom Joseph’s plural wives were also married.

Posted in Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Mormon History, Polygamy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Why Mormon Art Sometimes Misrepresents Mormon History

Assistant BYU professor, author, and artist Anthony Sweat created the “feature image” for a new book (From Darkness Unto Light, by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat) that depicts the translation of the Book of Mormon. His painting includes the historically accurate image of Joseph Smith preparing to gaze into a hat, where his seer stone is (presumably) housed.

In an appendix to the book, Dr. Sweat discusses the tension between art and history. The article is essentially an apologetic for the Mormon Church’s oft-criticized tradition of depicting Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon in a historically inaccurate way.

092-092-joseph-smith-translating-book-of-mormon-fullDr. Sweat affirms, “none of the currently used Church images of the translation of the Book of Mormon are consistent with the historical record” (234). Over a 43-year span of representations of the Book of Mormon translation published in the Church’s Ensign magazine, Dr. Sweat found that 17 different images had been used 55 times, all of them being “inconsistent with aspects of documented Church history of the translation process of the Book of Mormon” (234). He rhetorically asks,

“Why don’t the renderings of the translation reflect the seer-stone(s)- in-a-hat process if that is how it happened based upon multiple historical sources? I cannot answer that question, as only those who have commissioned, created, and published the past artistic images can give an informed response. The language of art is a factor, however.” (236)

According to Dr. Sweat,

“The language of history is facts and sources (and the interpretive merits of those facts and sources), and the language of art comprises symbolic representations in line, value, color, texture, form, space, shape, and so forth (and the interpretive merits of those symbols). The tension lies in that historians, scholars, and teachers often want paintings that are historically accurate because images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history. …However, artists often have little to no intent of communicating historical factuality when they produce a work. Artists want to communicate an idea…” (230-231. Ellipses mine.)

Dr. Sweat uses Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, as an example of an inaccurate historical artistic rendering. He notes that the boat, the weather, the flag, and General Washington’s pose are all (probably) wrong, yet the artist has used his painting to communicate an important idea to viewers. So, too, have Mormon artists used their historically inaccurate renderings of the Book of Mormon translation process to communicate the ideas they wanted to communicate. Dr. Sweat quotes Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards talking about his own painting of Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

“I’ve had people talk about what the ‘correct’ clothing is [of the First Vision] and so on and so forth. In reality, I don’t care. I want it to feel what we feel when we think about the First Vision. And a lot of times historical details detract from getting that feeling across. So, very low on my list of considerations is historical detail. Sorry, historians. Don’t hate me. …I’m usually trying to present the principle of a spiritual truth rather than a historical truth.” (233. Ellipsis in original.)

Speaking of the Book of Mormon translation process, Mr. Richards said,

“It would be hard for me to paint a painting with Joseph with his head in a hat. We would have no sense of the vision of what is happening inside.” (237)

Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates. Images of the Restoration.

Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates
Images of the Restoration

As Dr. Sweat said, “it doesn’t translate well in the language of art.” Yet he managed to pull it off in his feature image, By the Gift and Power of God. He painted in an effort to communicate “inspiration…prayer, pondering, focus, reverence, and revelation” (240) while still reflecting “historical reality.” Even so, when people unfamiliar with Mormon history saw Dr. Sweat’s initial sketches, they asked if Joseph Smith was ill “because he looks like he’s vomiting into the hat” (237). Therefore,

“For past artists (or Ensign art directors) who may have known about the historical documents of the translation, it may simply be that choosing to depict Joseph with his finger in open plates with a pensive look was more visually appealing and communicative than the historical reality of what the translation may have looked like. It is easy for critics to assume a coordinate cover-up or historical rewrite when looking at the images, but the unjuicy reality may have more to do with a preference for speaking artistic language that is ‘truer’ in its communication, even if the depicted events contain historical error.” (237)

The specific critics Dr. Sweat references above are Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, who suggested,

“What could be the reason for leaving these items out of a publicity painting except to distance the translation from the ocultic [sic] practices that really characterized the Book of Mormon translation!” (243, fn 20)

Dr. Sweat suggests the reason is the wish of the artists (or editors, etc.) to convey certain feelings and ideas that cannot be conveyed via a historically accurate illustration. A picture of Joseph Smith with his face in a hat will not communicate the ideas of revelation, inspiration, prayer, pondering – that is, the claim that Joseph Smith was receiving a revelatory gift from God. Joseph with his face buried in his hat actually communicates illness at best, perhaps occult activity at worst; neither a picture faithful Mormons want portrayed.

All his talk about the language of art notwithstanding, Dr. Sweat essentially affirms the McKeever and Johnson suggestion: the Mormon Church has portrayed the Book of Mormon translation process absent of the historical elements of hat and seer stone in order to control the impression made on viewers. The Church wants to communicate Joseph Smith as a godly man receiving revelation from God – leaving people feeling as though he were a true prophet — rather than the historically accurate picture of Joseph Smith engaged in the occult practice commonly called “scrying.”

In other words, knowing that, as Dr. Sweat says, “images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history,” the Mormon Church purposefully achieves a sort of “historical rewrite” of the Book of Mormon translation process by continually representing the historical event using a non-historical image that communicates a different idea – the idea that the Church wants people to embrace. The historically accurate details “detract” from the feeling generated by the Church’s faith-promoting narrative, so it changes the presentation of the details.

In his thoughtful apologetic essay, Dr. Sweat has but confirmed what the critics have been saying all along.

Posted in Book of Mormon, Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, LDS Church, Mormon History, Mormon Scripture | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Celebrate Freedom


It’s Throwback Thursday!

The following blog article originally posted at Mormon Coffee on July 4, 2008.



On this Fourth of July holiday when we celebrate our hard-won American freedom, let Christians also celebrate our freedom in Christ. Having been given the gift of reconciliation to God and new life in Christ by grace through faith in the One who is able to save, we are no longer slaves to sin. We are no longer enslaved by the impossible task of working to convince our Holy God that we are worthy — based on our obedience — to dwell eternally in His presence. Let us celebrate the immeasurable riches of His grace and His inexpressible gift. Let us live with hearts and minds transformed, in profound gratitude toward the incomparable Gift-giver.

The “A-to-Z” of the Christian Life

“The gospel shows us that our spiritual problem lies not only in failing to obey God, but also in relying on our obedience to make us fully acceptable to God, ourselves and others.

Every kind of character flaw comes from this natural impulse to be our own savior through our performance and achievement. On the one hand, proud and disdainful personalities come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are succeeding. But on the other hand, discouraged and self-loathing personalities also come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are failing.

Belief in the gospel is not just the way to enter the kingdom of God; it is the way to address every obstacle and grow in every aspect. The gospel is not just the “ABCs” but the “A-to-Z” of the Christian life.

The gospel is the way that anything is renewed and transformed by Christ — whether a heart, a relationship, a church, or a community. All our problems come from a lack of orientation to the gospel. Put positively, the gospel transforms our hearts, our thinking and our approach to absolutely everything.” (Timothy Keller, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003, 2)

For further reading: Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 3:21-26; Titus 3:1-8

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