Like many people, I watched PBS's excellent documentary about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints entitled "The Mormons." Regardless of what you may think about the Mormon church, its history certainly makes for a fascinating story that is as unique as America itself. It also made me ponder the nature of truth claims in religious discourse.
A fair reading of history reveals that the Mormons were the subject of intense scorn and prejudice almost from their inception. They were merely run out of New York. They were attacked by armed militia under color of law in Missouri and Illinois. It is for this reason that they migrated to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, suffering many tribulations along the way in what is one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.
Much of the reason for hatred of the Mormons, at least in their earlier incarnations, was due to their practice of polygamy and their strategy of bloc voting in large numbers. But some of it had to do with Joseph Smith's claim that the LDS church was the only "true" Church of Christ on Earth. Suffice it to say, a lot of it had to do with Joseph Smith himself.
Joseph Smith grew up in upstate New York during a period of great religious fervor in the region. Joseph claimed that while praying in the woods one day for guidance as to what church to join, two angelic personages appeared unto him. One of the angels pointed to the other and said, " This is my Beloved Son! Hear him!"
After this vision, Smith claimed that he was visited by an angel named Moroni who led him to where the golden plates upon which what came to be known the Book of Mormon were conveniently buried there in upstate New York. Smith took it upon himself to "translate" these tablets, using 'seeing stones" left him for that purpose after which the Angel Moroni took the tablets back into heaven. This is the short version of this aspect of the story. The long version is even more complicated and you can research it for yourself if you are so inclined.
Anyway, this is the point in the story where even some Mormon scholars agree that things get a little dicey insofar as truth claims go. According to eyewitnesses present during this production, Smith placed the seeing stone in his hat. He proceeded to "read" it by sticking his head inside the upturned fedora from whence he dictated aloud for transcription by one of his followers. This is how the first draft of Book of Mormon came to be written. Naturally, nobody but Smith ever saw the golden plates, which were the only original source documents for the Book of Mormon, if one is to believe this at all.
The embarrassing problem for the LDS church is that this was not the first time Smith had employed a "seeing stone" or "peep stone." It was just the first time he had used one in order to found a religion. Indeed, as a younger man he was convicted in the case of "People vs. Joseph Smith the Glass Looker " for defrauding a man by claiming he could find buried treasure through the use of a "peep stone." The public record of what passes for his criminal past may be found in Bainbridge, New York.
But before you get too smug about the superiority of your own belief system versus the version put out by the LDS, let's examine a more mainstream doctrine. Let's just pick one, say, that the New Testament is the inerrant word of God and every jot and tittle contained therein was virtually dictated by the Almighty Himself. This is known as the "autograph theory" of Scripture. At least it was back when I thought I was going to be a Methodist minister back in my student days at Hendrix College. Suffice it to say that it is a blessing to both God and the Methodist Church that I discovered David Hume in my Junior year and decided to go to law school. But I digress.
If the Bible is indeed a transcription, then the transcriber was a poor one indeed. Just a few examples of inconsistencies off the top of my head: The Gospel of John doesn't agree with the others in just about anything. This would include what Jesus said, why He performed miracles or what day He was crucified. Much of our Christian theology comes from Jesus's death and resurrection which Jesus hardly talks about in the Gospels. That mostly comes after the fact from Paul. Both Jesus and Paul had an apocalyptic message: The Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus and later the early church thought the apocalypse was fairly imminent. Which is the sort of thing that one would expect the Son of God to be able to speak about with some authority being the Son of God and all.
Only, the end of the world did not occur. At least if it did, nobody from my church has seen fit to inform me of this fact so that I may cancel my pledge. I will have to check the website.
My point in all of this is just to say that all religions are influenced by the cultural milieu in which they evolve and they retrofit their doctrines accordingly. All of them. The problem for the Mormons is that their truth claims originate with someone recent in history with a fishy public record trailing him. Obviously, it is easier to make a judgment about Joseph Smith's credibility than it is for us to engage in the same exercise about Luke the Physician. The Gospel writers are, for all practical purposes, apocryphal. Joesph Smith was as real as Abraham Lincoln.
So, what is it then? Was Smith a con artist who decided to cash in on the religious fervor of his day? Was he crazy? Or was he a rhapsodic vessel for the Lord? I have my opinion but I don't know for sure. And neither do you.
Just remember that all religious persecution or bigotry represents the most specious of oppression ever devised by man. Because the truth claims of every religion have holes in them. Every single one. And some are wide enough to drive Noah's Ark through them. So in that sense Mormonism is not that much analytically indistinct from anything else.
Just bear that in mind before you make fun of somebody else's religion. Ok. You can make fun of the Raelians. But that's about it and you won't find many of them around here. http://www.rael.org/rael_content/intro.php