I have always enjoyed scripture study. I was attempting to “feast on the words” of the Bible but it had always been difficult for me. There seemed to often be some bit of historical context I was missing, or certain passages that seemed to contradict Mormon doctrine. To make matters worse, each time I would look through all of the Mormon resources I had available to me, the verses or chapters I had the most questions about seemed to be completely ignored. I looked everywhere to find Mormon-written books on the Bible to provide answers: Institute and Seminary manuals, commentaries available at Deseret Book, etc. I found almost all of them to be unsatisfying; most were devotional in nature, and typically used the verses as a starting point from which to quote from prophets and apostles, which meant it didn’t really address the scriptures directly.
I went on a search for non-Mormon commentaries and first found a lot of Evangelical commentaries which were often more scholarly and certainly longer and more in-depth, but just as frustrating. When it came to interpretations of scripture, everything had to fit in an evangelical belief system. So while I had found more detailed commentaries, I was simply trading one religious interpretation for another. Eventually I found more academic commentaries such as the Anchor Bible series. Some may argue that these commentaries still have a bias, simply an academic or even non-believing bias. However, I found them refreshing. Rather than sweeping confusing passages under a rug and quoting from other parts of the Bible to support a position, the commentators actually read what the scriptures said, and tried to interpret what it means, even if it contradicts other scripture.
This academic approach also created problems, however. I quickly ran into areas of academic consensus which were either superficially, or entirely opposed, to Mormon Doctrine. While Mormons emphasize the importance of scripture written by Prophets, I learned that many books attributed to famous Biblical figures were actually not written by them. A big chunk of the Book of Isaiah is almost certainly not written by Isaiah. A good number of the letters of Paul, the books of Peter, etc. were all written by others and ascribed to authoritative figures. Some of these problems could be solved with the “translated correctly” caveat, but Joseph Smith didn’t throw these books out during his translation. And many influential Mormon “scriptorians” like Bruce R. McConkie stated emphatically that a person must believe that these books were written by the authors ascribed to them (Scriptorian is a completely made-up Mormon word, by the way).
I started my re-reading of the Bible with the beginning: Genesis. I decided to tackle these stories head on: to find out how the story of Noah’s flood, the tower of Babel, creation, etc. could be proved true. Unfortunately, the “theories of men” proved more convincing and this created many problems for my belief. It turned out even Bible characters like Abraham and Moses were most likely legendary figures who never existed. These figures were created to give an epic tale of where the people of Israel came from, why they are special, and what their purpose is. I was shocked to find through careful study of the Old Testament that there were no prophecies of Jesus in there. The verses quoted throughout the Gospels are all proof texts which are not about Jesus when read in context. They applied these verses after the fact to Jesus even when the originals were about another person or another topic altogether.
It felt like my faith was being eroded from the very foundation. If the Bible was full of legends, misinterpretations of previous scripture, and forgeries, what am I doing believing in Mormonism? I had not ever run into major questions of Mormonism itself, but it felt like the core was rotten so any religion built on top couldn’t be any better. I had to change my belief system to remain a believer. Revelation and scripture are imperfect. And I mean much more than simply imperfect. I had always viewed scripture as having essentially perfect words of God, and our leaders as effectively infallible conduits to the divine. I was forced to confront the fact that everything was much messier. Scripture was not a case of perfect revelation being written in imperfect speech. The revelation itself was completely human. They were just humans attempting to reach God. And sometimes they weren’t anywhere close. I decided that revelation was a progressive and continuous process. It wasn’t only line upon line; sometimes we erased all of the other lines first. Whether or not God existed or actually revealed things to us, the only way we can reach a more “divine” understanding of the world and the universe is through our combined knowledge and continued learning and sharing.
How does Joseph Smith and his scripture match up with the Bible? Is it a pale imitation? Something completely different? An obvious fraud when compared with the ancient and widely read Bible? Let’s compare with the “problems” I had with the Bible:
1) Forgeries – Joseph Smith also wrote books and claimed they were authored by Bible figures: Abraham, Moses, John, etc. Those who have issues with supposed non-historical scripture authored by Joseph may have a different perspective if they knew this is a long and proud tradition in the Bible: books written by some guy but ascribed to a famous figure.
2) Myths and Legends – Joseph Smith wrote an entire book of scripture to explain where Native Americans came from, just like the Israelites wrote stories about where their people came from. Both come from a similar place – the desire to understand the world around them.
3) Proof texting of Scripture – Just like New Testament authors, Joseph Smith and future Mormon prophets used proof texting of scripture to prove Doctrines or that a current event was predicted by scripture. We can argue all day long whether Ezekiel 37 is a prophecy of the Book of Mormon or a prophecy about the kingdoms of Israel, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Proof texting of scripture is for believers, not for proof to others. Some evangelicals have attempted to prove Mormonism is false by showing that common Mormon proof texts do not work in the original context. However, if they applied the same level of rigor to prophecies of Jesus they would find similar issues.
4) Imperfect process – Joseph Smith, just like Biblical prophets, put strange or even disturbing ideas into the mouth of God. The purpose of revelation is to think about these ideas, and some must be rejected. I don’t believe in a God who destroys people for seemingly no reason (1 Chron. 21 for one example), and I don’t believe that polygamy as a requirement for heaven was inspired.
A common element of a testimony is the statement, “Joseph Smith was a prophet.” I know of few other ways of testing that claim than to compare against other prophets who wrote in the Bible. One of the most difficult parts of testing the prophetic claim is trying to figure out just what “prophet” means in the first place. However, based on my reading of the Bible, if we are to call Biblical writers “prophets” and then reject Joseph Smith because his writings aren’t historical or perfect, we are making a mistake. The Bible is full of non-historical writings, proof texting, and weird ideas. To me, Joseph Smith fits every definition of a prophet as seen in the Bible. I no longer see scripture as a source for direct words from God to me, but I still enjoy reading scripture. There are many fascinating historical and spiritual aspects to our Mormon scripture canon. There is also the disturbing and bizarre. After rejecting a simplistic view of what scripture is, it actually become much more interesting. Because how it was written, what the authors believed, and what they wanted to tell us, is much better. Even Joseph Smith.
In October of 1955 Hugh B. Brown gave a BYU Devotional address about Joseph Smith called “Profile of a Prophet” wherein he laid out a number of characteristics we can use to “distinguish a man who claims to be a prophet” from some other sort of man. Here are the characteristics he came up with:
1. He will boldly claim that God had spoken to him.
2. Any man so claiming would be a dignified man with a dignified message—no table jumping, no whisperings from the dead, no clairvoyance, but an intelligent statement of truth.
3. Any man claiming to be a prophet of God would declare his message without any fear and without making any weak concessions to public opinion.
4. If he were speaking for God he could not make concessions, although what he taught would be new and contrary to the accepted teachings of the day. A prophet bears witness to what he has seen and heard and seldom tries to make a case by argument. His message and not himself is important.
5. Such a man would speak in the name of the Lord, saying, “Thus said the Lord,” as did Moses, Joshua, and others.
6. Such a man would predict future events in the name of the Lord, and they would come to pass, as did those predicted by Isaiah and Ezekiel.
7. He would have not only an important message for his time but often a message for all future time, such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and others had.
8. He would have courage and faith enough to endure persecution and to give his life, if need be, for the cause he espoused, such as Peter, James, Paul, and others did.
9. Such a man would denounce wickedness fearlessly. He would generally be rejected or persecuted by the people of his time, but later generations and descendants of his persecutors would build monuments in his honor.
10. He would be able to do superhuman things—things that no man could do without God’s help. The consequence or result of his message and work would be convincing evidence of his prophetic calling: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
11. His teachings would be in strict conformity with scripture, and his words and his writings would become scripture. “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21).
This is a great list for Joseph Smith – but it becomes problematic (to say the least) when applied to any of his successors.
***NEWS FLASH: This is a Mormon blog of course Joseph Smith was a prophet, duh!***
Joseph Smith bore many titles in his lifetime, Elder, Seer, President, Mayor, even Lieutenant General, but he is probably best known as the Prophet. And prophesy he did, often with great passion, invoking the powers of heaven and the name of God. What follows are seven prophecies of Joseph Smith, notable for their specificity and appeal to divine authority. These are taken from official Mormon sources – either the Latter-day Saint scriptures or the History of the Church (HC), a seven volume history published under the authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Each are given in context and cited directly from the original source. Where they are known, subsequent historical events relevant to the prophecy are noted.
Prophecy # 1 – The Coming of the Lord
President Smith then stated that the meeting had been called, because God had commanded it; and it was made known to him by vision and by the Holy Spirit. . . . it was the will of God that they should be ordained to the ministry and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, for the coming of the Lord, which was nigh – even fifty six years should wind up the scene. (History of the Church, Vol. 2, page 182).
This prophecy was spoken by Joseph Smith in 1835, and recorded by Oliver Cowdery. The fifty-six years were passed by 1891.
Prophecy # 2 – David W. Patten to go on a mission
Verily, thus saith the Lord: It is wisdom in my servant David W. Patten, that he settle up all his business as soon as he possibly can, and make a disposition of his merchandise, that he may perform a mission unto me next spring, in company with others, even twelve including himself, to testify of my name and bear glad tidings unto the world. (Doctrine & Covenants 114:1)
This prophecy was made on April 17, 1838. David W. Patten died in October of 1838 and thus never went on a mission the following spring.
Prophecy # 3 – The United States Government to be overthrown in a few years I prophecy in the name of the Lord God of Israel, unless the United States redress the wrongs committed upon the Saints in the state of Missouri and punish the crimes committed by her officers that in a few years the government will be utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be so much as a potsherd left for their wickedness in permitting the murder of men, women and children, and the wholesale plunder and extermination of thousands of her citizens to go unpunished (History of the Church, Vol. 5, page 394).
Joseph Smith made this prophecy in May 6, 1843. However, the United States Government did not redress any of the wrongs committed against the Mormons in Missouri, and now over 150 years later, the U.S. Government still stands.
Prophecy # 4 – Congress to be broken up as a government
While discussing the petition to Congress, I prophesied, by virtue of the holy Priesthood vested in me, and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that, if Congress will not hear our petition and grant us protection, they shall be broken up as a government, and God shall damn them, and there shall be nothing left of them – not even a grease spot. (Millennial Star, Vol. 22, p. 455. See also History of the Church (HC), vol. 6, p. 116, though when this prediction was incorporated into the official history, Mormon Church leaders decided to leave out the “grease spot” part.)
The petition was not heard nor was protection granted (Deseret News, Vol. 1, p. 59). Yet, Congress was never broken up and continues to function to this day. It is interesting that the compilers of History of the Church, added an editorial note in an attempt to soften or explain this prophecy. They state that: “This prediction doubtless has reference to the party in power; to the ‘government’ considered as the administration;” (note, p. 116). According to the note in HC, this means the Democratic Party, which was in control at the time. However, the prediction is that “Congress shall be broken up as a government” and Congress is made up of representatives from both parties. The Saints were making an appeal to the General Government, not to the Democratic Party, a point made by a summary statement in the left margin beside this prophecy as it is recorded in HC.
Prophecy #5 -Finding Treasure in Salem, Massachusetts
This prophecy is recorded in Doctrine & Covenants Section 111. The introduction to this prophecy, found at the beginning of Section 111 states:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Salem, Massachusetts, August 6, 1836. HC 2:465-466. At this time the leaders of the [LDS] Church were heavily in debt due to their labors in the ministry.
1. I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies.
2. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality.
3. Therefore, it is expedient that you should form acquaintance with men in this city, as you shall be led, and as it shall be given you.
4. And it shall come to pass in due time that I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it, insomuch that they shall not discover your secret parts; and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours.
5. Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them.
No treasure was ever discovered, nor did Salem ever fell into the hands of the Mormons.
Prophecy #6 – Pestilence, Hail, Famine & Earthquake to Destroy the Wicked
And now I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ, that not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation; pestilence, hail, famine, and earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation from off the face of the land, to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country. The people of the Lord, those who have complied with the requirements of the new covenant, have already commenced gathering together to Zion, which is in the state of Missouri; therefore I declare unto you the warning which the Lord has commanded to declare unto this generation, remembering that the eyes of my Maker are upon me, and that to him I am accountable for every word I say, wishing nothing worse to my fellow-men than their eternal salvation; therefore, “Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come.” Repent ye, repent ye, and embrace the everlasting covenant and flee to Zion, before the overflowing scourge overtake you, for there are those now living upon the earth whose eyes shall not be closed in death until they see all these things, which I have spoken, fulfilled (History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 315-316).
Such a widespread destruction of the wicked of that generation never occurred.
Prophecy # 7 – Temple to be Built in Zion, Missouri
This prophecy comes directly from Doctrine & Covenants Section 84, the introduction of which states:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Kirtland, Ohio, September 22 and 23, 1832. HC 1:286-295.
1. A revelation of Jesus Christ unto his servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and six elders, as they united their hearts and lifted their voices on high.
2. Yea, the word of the Lord concerning his church, established in the last days for the restoration of his people, as he has spoken by the mouth of his prophets, and for the gathering of his saints to stand upon Mount Zion, which shall be the city of New Jerusalem.
3. Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and dedicated by the hand of Joseph Smith, Jun., and others with whom the Lord was well pleased.
4. Verily, this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.
5. For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.
The Mormons were forced to flee Missouri due to persecution and a temple was never built on the “temple lot” in the lifetime of Joseph Smith or within the generation of his contemporaries.
Testing Prophetic Claims
Over the last 200 years a number of people have claimed to be religious prophets with special spiritual authority from God. These include Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Ellen G. White (Seventh-day Adventists), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), and Joseph Smith (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Each started an organization which claimed to be the one true Christian Church, each had unique teachings, and each appealed to the Bible to some degree as their basis for spiritual authority. Yet, each “prophet’s” teachings contradict those of the others.
How can we test a person like Joseph Smith who claims to be a prophet?
Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15 that many false prophets would come, and several other places warn us about false prophets and spiritual deception (2 Corinthians 11:4-15; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1 and Jude 3-16). We should not be surprised, therefore, to discover that there are false prophets in the world today.
A specific biblical test. The Bible, in Deuteronomy chapters 13 and 18, provides 2 tests for anyone claiming to be a prophet and speak for God. If the person fails either test given by God, then we can know for sure they are a false prophet and we are to reject their teaching. Here we will focus on the test found in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 which reads as follows:
And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Here the God of Israel tells his people how they can keep from being deceived by someone claiming to be a prophet – if even one of the prophet’s prophecies do not come true he is a false prophet. What was the punishment if a prophet did speak a false prophecy? According to verse 20 the prophet was to die. So God takes the area of false prophecy very seriously.
Joseph Smith’s false prophecies in the name of the Lord constitute one of the single greatest objections to his claim to be a latter-day prophet of God.
Your literalistic view of revelation and the Bible is what I specifically rejected in my post.
I’m not sure I agree with his list, number 2 specifically would not fit most of the Old Testament prophets. However, as you said my blog post focused on Joseph Smith and his scripture. Since almost all of the future prophets did not produce any scripture they are certainly in a different category. If one argues Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, it cannot be for the same reasons that Joseph Smith was.
No references to Jesus in the Old Testament? Sounds like you took great comfort in some blanket myth theory and then you perused the scriptures. I think your view of scripture is more simplistic than any of the traditional viewpoints you seem to believe you have transcended. Kind of banal, actually.
With how confident you are in your claim I would think you would provide at least one example. Or perhaps you could discuss one of the theories given for how the Old Testament does prophesy of Jesus, such as the typology theory. A condescending attitude, however, does not further the discussion. If you need a refresher in claimed prophecies of Jesus, here is a list of some of them: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_and_messianic_prophecy
This is a nice story, L Thomas. As a more literal Book of Mormon believer than you, I would modify your point about Joseph creating a mythology to explain Native Americans. It would be something like, “Joseph (and others) interpreted a mythology explaining the place of the Nephites in the world as a hemisphere wide mythology of Native Americans.” However, I would retain the Book of Mormon as containing large portions of myth and self-justifying lineage history, so the difference is of indeterminate importance as regards Joseph’s prophetic role. It retains a literal belief in the historical reality of Book of Mormon prophets, but at the same time places them in much the same human light as biblical prophets, and requires that we face the likelihood of significant biases in their understanding of God and the world. So it’s messy. Seems like we both say beautifully so, but messy nonetheless.
It’s true that putting the role of myth-maker onto the Nephites has a similar result, though the interpretation of the text can be quite different.
I agree that interpretation of the text can be quite different. What remains the same is that prophets are as much or more myth makers as mouthpieces. While it took a long time for me to accept and value this role for prophets, it has been rewarding for me to come to this realization. I now see myth making as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think it is an important role. When the myths are good, they lay out a path for growth of an entire society. They are visions of the future. When we can adapt that vision as we gain further light and knowledge, the prophecies have that much more power for good. That is why I hope for progressive Mormonism (relying on continuing revelation more strongly than our tendency to enshrine the past). There is so much potential for the myths of the future when shaped and guided by the good myths of the past.
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Jonathan.
Great article. Let the rest of us know when you have your church court.