Liberal Mormons: A Critique and an Invitation

November 15, 2007

[NOTE: the following essay is directed to my liberal Mormon friends. If you are happily a part of your ward, have a burning testimony and wholeheartedly sustain the brethren, more power to you. This essay is not for you.

NOTE 2: The blog has been rather quiet lately. This is due to the fact that I occasionally embark on a lengthy essay that I really don’t have time to write. The following is such and essay. It is rough and really unfinished. However, I’ve come to realize that I will never post it unless abandon any pretense of perfection I might have. I hope you still find my observations interesting]

It would be fair to say that most of my Mormon friends are of the “liberal” variety. That is to say that they are readers of Sunstone and Dialogue. They read critical academic books on Mormon history. They don’t buy everything they hear in church. At a deeper level, they seem to harbor a bitter sense of betrayal by the institutional church and hierarchy. Many still attend church and fulfill their callings. Some pay tithing and have temple recommends. Yet essentially all seem to have this under riding pain and sense of resentment.

This sense of betrayal is, I think, much deeper than those who cease to fully believe in mainstream forms of liberal Christianity and far less than those who cease to believe in the truth claims of Judaism. It may be similar to the betrayal that fundamentalist Christians experience when they realize that the Bible is not perfect, but I doubt it.

To a certain degree, this is probably a reaction to what I would regard as a corporate entity attempting to control what is supposed to be a spiritual movement. That the LDS church owns many profit making businesses has never troubled me particularly. My religion traditionally controlled (and arguably still controls) and entire country as part of it’s identity. Judaism, like Mormonism, teaches the essential interconnectedness of the spiritual and the temporal. However, the LDS church in terms of its organization, “marketing,” pattern of decision making and the “look and feel” of everything from it’s skyscraper HQ to it’s branded, franchised chapels, is the epitome of a modern American corporate entity.

In most other religions, the leadership has a professional training in, primarily, religion. The study of religion, in my experience, generally attracts people with a liberal arts orientation. The LDS church, on the other hand, tends to promote people with legal and/or business experience. To my mind, it is completely natural that such people would, with the best of intentions, create a church with a corporate model. It absolutely amazes me when Mormons tell me that the church has no paid ministry. While that is (today) somewhat true at the local level, it is obviously not true at world level. After all, someone is filling all those offices at 47 south temple and I assure you that those in the Auditing Department, the Budget Office, Correlation Department, Ordinance Procedures Division, the Ordinance Recording Systems Division, and the Audiovisual Services Division, Historical Department, Real Estate Division, Materials Management Department, Treasury Services, Controller, Tax Administration, Risk Management and, finally, Investments Departments definitely are paid salaries.*

It is then, not really surprising when an institution based on a corporate model behaves as a corporation does. That is to say, it tends to exert centralized control over it’s image by everything from dictating the font and material composition of it’s signage to controlling the presentation of it’s history. Like a corporation, it naturally values it’s general corporate identity and message over any of it’s particular members (or should I say, “employees.” Make no mistake about it, in this metaphor, the members are the employees. Perhaps most are really interns, who pay for the privilege of working. It’s the potential converts who are the customers, if anyone is). It is very easy for a corporation to sacrifice even large portions of its staff, even staff with valuable skills, if it is in its corporate best interest to do so. This is precisely the way the modern LDS church behaves and no one should be surprised by it.

If you are a “Sunstone” or “Dialogue” Mormon, you should, in my opinion, simply accept that the church does not want you. Oh, if you do not make much fuss in public and continue to pay your tithing, they will let you hang around (sort of like an intern who has paid her tuition but really isn’t working out). If you make a fuss, however, especially one that has the potential to disturb the corporate image, you will be out the door. Even if your removal creates a temporary media glitch, as did the excommunication of the September six did, still, the benefits to the long run corporate image (as well as to the morale of the employees) outweigh the costs.

While this is, to me, clearly tragic given the radical, freedom-centered, human-focused nature of Mormon theology, it’s just the way it is and you, I advise, should accept it and leave. You will not change the church by protests or symposia. It will never be changed unless the mistreated employees, the church members, transform themselves into dissatisfied customers and vote with their feet.

There are a couple of forces weighing against this movement however. One is the deep identification with Mormon history and peoplehood that many liberal Mormons have. The other is rooted in what I regard as somewhat flawed theological defense mechanism that some liberal Mormons flock to, what I call “hyper-Christianization.”

This is, I suppose, why this is a specifically “Jewish” critique of liberal Mormonism.

Though I personally see quite a number of problems with this approach, I can also understand why it might be appealing to liberal Mormons. The narrative that I hear from such disaffected former LDS insiders as Paul Toscano and Grant Palmer goes something like this: Jesus was a radical reformer who preached a liberalizing gospel of spirit and love against a powerful bureaucracy who not only misunderstood him (because they were looking for a “warrior messiah” they missed his ‘Spiritual message”), this evil bureaucracy actually killed him. Yet he defeated death and reigns forever in love. The subtext here is, I believe the identification of individual dissident with Jesus and the Sanhedrin and Roman authority with the LDS hierarchy. I’ve never heard anyone except Paul Toscano actually say this, but time and time again it has been the implication.

The only problem with it is that it is not true (to paraphrase Brigham Young, quoting Joseph Smith). Though Jesus says things like “Love you neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” from time to time, most are unaware that these lines are stolen from the “evil authority” he is allegedly resisting. “Love your neighbor” is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18 and the golden rule is a modified quotation of the Rabbi Hillel who lived roughly 40 years before Jesus. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34).

So much for universal love…

Further then that, Liberal Mormons who “hyper-Christianize” are really trading one questionable history for another. Recent works such as Randel Helms “Gospel Fictions,” and “Who wrote the Gospels” as well as
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew,

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman to name only a few of the most popular of hundreds of scholarly and semi scholarly works, aptly demonstrate the historical, chronological and even geographic problems with the New Testament stories of Jesus.

This is not to say the Jews don’t have problems with the Hebrew Bible or Talmud. Clearly we do. I would say that they are not as severe as those that plague the New Testament, particularly at the level of textual integrity… if one confines oneself to the past couple of thousand years or so. However, the point is that if one trades one set of historical problems for another set, one should be aware and acknowledge it.

All that said, if one is really set on approaching one’s issues with the LDS hierarchy with what I’m calling the “hyper-Christianized” approach, yet remain loyal to the essential ideas of the restoration, that is, Joseph Smith and the uniquely Mormon scriptures, an option does exit. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. the “Community of Christ” has essentially adopted the approach of dealing with it’s unique history (In addition to questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon and so forth, its scholars now admit the RLDS church was wrong about Joseph’s polygamy, the temple and his views on God) by a sort of “institutional hyper-Christianization.” From where I sit, the Community of Christ today is basically liberal Methodism with Joseph Smith, the priesthood and a temple. If one feels a tinge of nostalgia for polygamy (without condoning it or wanting to practice it one’s self, of course) the convert to the Community of Christ can take solace in the fact that his church is now the one with institutionally recognized polygamists while the Utah LDS church has an absolute prohibition. In a twist of fate, the (church formerly known as the) RLDS church accepts polygamists, mainly in Africa, as candidates for baptism without an abandonment of their wives, while the LDS church does not. Ahhh, cruel irony!

On the other hand, there is another sort of disaffected Mormon. This sort has the same discomfort with the corporate nature of the current hierarchy but is aware of and longs for another sort of Mormonism, that of the 19th century. At first blush, the Mormon who longs for a radical theology, the gathering, informal familial solidarity, a united order and the creative intellectual, yet revelatory, approach to religious texts that characterize 19th century Mormonism has few options. One could join one of the polygamist cults such as the FLDS church or the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, but that would entail trading one crushing hierarchy for another, albeit a far less corporate one.

In my experience, most Liberal Mormons who are attracted to the 19th century do not really want to live in a theocracy or practice polygamy. (Those who do, are not really “liberal” per se and they do, in fact, likely gravitate toward polygamy).  In my experience, the liberal Mormons with 19th century orientation are attracted to the radical spirit of 19th century Mormonism but wish the freedom to research, debate and practice what they will.

For such people there is, in my opinion, an attractive option available, Judaism. Mark it now, because this is the only invitation to become Jewish that you will probably ever get. Jews do believe that we have a mission to perfect the world but not through converting people to Judaism. From the Jewish theological point of view, it is not necessary that any non-Jew ever convert. Following the 613 commandments (which for Mormons would be a reduction in total number – an LDS friend of mine counted over 1200 “commandments” in one conference edition of the Ensign years ago) are not an expectations the Jews believe God expects of everyone. To a greater or lesser degree, we believe that our practice of actually following them, sort of “jump-starts” an infusion of holiness that blesses the whole world. Thus, from the Jewish point of view, there’s really no reason for non-Jews to accept them.

However, Judaism also recognizes that there are some people who would be a good fit and, since the time of Ruth, has accepted the motivated convert. From my point of view, disaffected “19th century” Mormons would make a good fit.

Why do I say that? Well, from my point of view (which I came to independently but with which, Jan Shipps, noted scholar of Mormonism agrees), Jospeh Smith “restored” three things:

1) The “restoration” of the church of Jesus Christ – This “Restoration, though not literally restoring anything since the academic consensus is that there was no “original church” to restore, represents only the earliest phase of the Mormon Movement (Roughly the New York and early Kirtland periods) and today is basically represented by the RLDS/Community of Christ Church.

2) The “Restoration” of Israel – Of course Israel did not need “restoring” per se because we never left. Yet there is no doubt that Joseph Smith did introduce much of what is unique about Judaism, both is its biblical and modern forms into his movement. To me, it is this “restoration” that is represented by the Utah LDS church. Themes of ancient Israel predominate in the LDS church from the late Kirtland period through at least the early 1980’s (though there has been, lately, a new emphasis on Christian themes in recent LDS discourse)

3) The “restoration” of “All things.” Shipps includes such things as the temple, polygamy and even the potential reintroduction of animal sacrifice alluded to the in the LDS scriptures as part of this category. To me, these items really are part of category one since they are to a degree part of ancient (and technically modern) Judaism. What I would include in this category are the Unique LDS views of God as a man (or at least anthropomorphic in form) and as merely the highest or greatest God among many potentials, though clearly the only one really worthy of worship by Israelites. These views are represented in the Hebrew Bible and to a limited degree in Jewish literature up to the middle ages. Therefore they are a peripheral part of the Jewish tradition. But they really rely on a pre-Jewish, patriarchal narrative that was almost lost within Judaism. Therefore, to me, they go beyond a restoration of Israel and lean toward a “restoration” or rather Americanization and amplification of the patriarchal religion. Still, they are things that at least this Jew can work with.

A liberal Mormon who emphasizes what I’m calling “Hyper-Christianity” or takes my “invitation” to join the RLDS (oopps, “Community of Christ”) really abandons the full flavor of Mormonism and much that makes it interesting. That is, they only get item one “The restoration of the church.” On the other hand, a liberal Mormon gets to access items two and three within Judaism, at least to the degree that Modern Mormons do and them some. In all honestly, it’s really items two and three that 19th century Mormonism (and in terms of de-emphasizing Jesus, even 20th century Mormonism, up until the 1980’s) emphasized. It’s items two and three, Israel and the patriarchs that Judaism emphasizes today.

That this is so, is illustrated by the large number of Mormon Hymns that Jews could sing without or almost without modification. When I heard one or two that sounded “Jewish” I started investigating the church web site and came up with:

  1. Hope of Israel
  2. Israel Israel God is Calling
  3. Redeemer of Israel (Jews use the term “redeemer” to refer to God)
  4. Ye Elders of Israel
  5. Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded

[These are the specifically “Jewish” songs, not merely those what could be sung by all good people, Mormons or not, such as “Say what is truth.” If you can think of any more, please let me know. I’m sort of collecting these.]

I taught “Hope of Israel” to a friend of mine who is a commander in the Israel Defense Forces and has seen battle a number of times. He absolutely loved it! I taught “Israel Israel God is Calling” to another friend who works for “Arza,” an organization that works to encourage American Jews to “make Alyiah,” that is, to gather in Israel. She loved it as well! Indeed I would argue that these uniquely Mormon hymns (as well as “Zion stands” make more sense to modern Jews than to Modern Mormons.

Why is this possible?

Simply because many of the characteristic elements of 19th century Mormonism from the “restoration of Israel” and the restoration of “all things” have been muted or rejected by the modern LDS church but retained in Judaism. For example, the two hymns I taught to my Jewish friends are about Zion’s army and about the “gathering to Zion.” Mormonism no longer has an army nor does it encourage gathering. Judaism, modern Zion, does have an Army, the IDF. We do have a a homeland in Zion, Israel, and we are gathering. And the beauty is, if you are an American Jew, there is little real pressure to serve in the former or move to the latter. You can partake of the “flavor” without the hassle!

There are other areas in which a Mormon, especially with a 19th century orientation, would feel more at home in Judaism than among the RLDS/Community of Christ. Jews and Mormons share both a technical belief in and acceptance of polygamy. Both also share a practical ban designed to keep those pesky Christians happy. Both have isolated groups of adherents who still indulge in the practice.

As 19th century Mormons and 20th century Mormon Fundamentalists attest, polygamy is accepted by the Bible and commanded under certain circumstances. In Judaism, the specific command occurs only when one is married and one’s also married brother dies childless. One is commanded to marry his brother’s wife. The children of this marriage are legally the brother’s and inherit his goods. However, polygamy in all other cases was optional. Jews in Europe continued to solemnize polygamous marriages until the year 1006 when, under Christian pressure, Rabbi Gershom, the de facto head of the the European Jewish communities issued a 1000 year “manifesto” banning the practice to save the community. This ban expired a year ago March and at that time, there were quite a number of polygamy jokes going around the educated Jewish community! Middle Eastern Jews had no such ban however and continued to practice polygamy right up until they made aliyah to Israel, the secular government of which, banned the practice as a matter of state law. Isolated groups of Jews in the middle east, particularly in Tunisia and Yemen still practice it…Sort of our “Short Creek.”

The fact that today Jewish law permits polygamy (the “ban” having expired but not renewed) yet almost no one, other than a snickering jokester on occasion, is clamoring for it back is yet another similarity, but this time between Jews and modern Mormons. If polygamy were suddenly permitted under US law as, for example, the by product of a supreme court decision on gay marriage, I’m almost sure that the official LDS church would firmly maintain it’s current prohibition. Why? Because, nostalgia aside, like most modern Jews, Modern Mormons think it is kind of “icky.”

Finally the great added benefit for liberal Mormon of converting to Judaism is that there is NO universal hierarchy to get in your way. No one can authoritatively expel you from your people and heritage. If you develop issues in one synagogue, you may simply move to another one more to you liking.

I realize that the idea of modern revelation is attractive. However, there seems to be precious little. Gordon Hinkley, though a nice old gentleman (I’ve met him), admitted on Larry King that “no one knows the future” and in a previous interview that he simply prays about issues and waits for a “still small voice.” This is certainly not prohibited in Judaism.

The bottom line is that in Judaism you will still have a magnifying filter through which to view the world and a people who will be a family to you wherever you may be or may roam. You will still have Zion to strive for. What you will not have is a corporate hierarchy that desires to control the minutia of your life and threatens to destroy your family and community relationships if you object.

*Coleman, Neil K. “A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Administrative System, Its Structure and Maintenance.” Ph.D. diss., New York University



  1. A very interesting article.

    In short I see things a little differently.

    You said: “If you are a “Sunstone” or “Dialogue” Mormon, you should, in my opinion, simply accept that the church does not want you.”

    I disagree. The Sunstoners are usually just not buying in, or are struggling with issues (in Mormon parlance, they don’t have a testimony). We want them, but we want them within Mormonism. We spend a lot of time and resources trying to keep and reclaim them.

    But, ultimately if they reject the claims of LDS theology, why do they wish to continue in the church? And if they are working things out, they should not try to destroy the church in the meantime.

    As far as the corporate feel, that’s just taking your eye off the ball. Such things only agitate those who are already dissatisfied. And the dissatisfied often pile on objections that would never be an issue to the same person, if they had a testimony.



  2. Boy, could I write an article about how a dissatified Jew would find appealing things in the LDS Church: A reafirmation of their status as Chosen People, Temples and Temple rites, Tribes, Priesthood, uniqueness..

  3. Again, let me reiterate that this was written for liberal Mormons without “testimonies.” As to a certain type of Jew being attracted to Mormonism, absolutely! I’ve known at least a couple. Hugh Nibley’s grandfather on his Mother’s side, Alexander Neibauer, was such a Jew (Thus making Nimley Jewish). I myself find many things about Mormonism attractive and I don’t actually fault the LDS church for missionizing Jews (I’m rare in that). It’s what they do, I assume that it comes from a good place. I think that most Jews (but again, not all) would find the corporate nature of the hierarchy difficult to deal with though and that’s the same sort of issue that the “Sunstone and Dialogue” Mormons take issue with.

  4. The Lord God Almighty made the Jewish Shabbat from sundown on Friday until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night.

    The Lord God Almighty made the Christian Sabbath on Sunday.

    He did this in his great wisdom so that Christians and Jews could attend one another’s services!

    (Yes, I also have a friend who is a Seventh Day Adventist).

    Tom Irvine

  5. OK are you really sure about this? Could you point to a revelation or text to support your assertion? I suspect not.

    The reason is that even God could not make a “Sunday Sabbath” because it would involve a logical contradiction. For example, even God could not make a perfectly round square because as soon as it became perfectly round, it would cease to fit the definition of a square and would, in fact, be a circle.

    It’s the same with the word “Sabbath.” Sabbath means “seventh” and in the context of days of the week, Sabbath means Saturday. So a “Sunday Sabbath” would be a “Sunday Saturday.” See the problem?

    In the nineteenth century many Americans mistakenly called Sunday the Sabbath and I’m pretty sure that the LDS church just picked it up from general culture. Most Christian groups dropped this terminology however for the reason stated above. My opinion is that the LDS church did not because of it’s identification with Judaism/Isreal, it placed a higher premium on “Sabbath keeping” than most but never really came to understand the problem with the day of week until recently.

    That presents another problem with your assertion as well since the LDS church keeps a 7th day Sabbath (Saturday) in Israel. Some might argue that this is because since everything is closed there anyway, it’s just more convenient. I also think it would also be rather embarrassing to call Sunday the Sabbath (i.e. call Sunday, “Saturday”) in the one country where everyone actually knows what the word means. In either case though, if a “Sunday Sabbath” (sic) really were a commandment, why would the the LDS church break it in Israel?

    I think it is most likely that they know about the problem but feel that the actual day of the week doesn’t matter enough to change it unless there is a really good reason to do so. From the perspective of Judaism, this is just fine since the Sabbath day is not a commandment for non-Jews anyway — It is only for Jews. On the other hand, the other hand, the text of the bible does say that the seventh day is eternally binding upon Israel (all Israel) and if Mormons are serious about being part of Israel, then it might indeed be worth changing…

    Exodus 31:15-17

    15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever

  6. Well, I go to Shabbat service at a Jewish Temple on Friday evening. Then I go to sacrament meeting at an LDS church on Sunday. So I guess I am covered either way!

    Isaiah 11:13
    The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.

  7. Wow! Not much I can say to that! 🙂

    For my part, I have Shabbat dinner Friday night, go to services on Saturday morning then sometimes watch “Worship Service” on BYU-TV. I recognize a few BYU professors in the congregation so I know it’s in Provo. I’m kind of playing a game with myself to figure where (since they seem to edit out the location).

  8. I enjoyed this essay and think that you have very interesting and valuable insights into the affinities between Latter-day Saints and Jews.

    You are absolutely correct in your observations of the nineteenth-century emphasis on the restoration of Israel and of all things. I also think that you make an astute observation in noting that some of this material is de-emphasized to some degree in the Church right now but I would add only in the sense that LDS leaders aren’t speculating over the pulpit anymore about wide-spread ramifications of such doctrines. We all still believe in the doctrines of the restoration/gathering of Israel and of the restoration of all things. It is fundamental to our belief systems. (Of course I realize that this applies to testimony Mormons whereas you wanted to address Mormons who do not have a “traditional” testimony but who are liberal.)

    I think that you make some category mistakes in addressing this essay to “liberal” Mormons. Most glaring is your identification of such non-testimony, liberal Mormons with a longing for the nineteenth-century Mormon practice of polygamy. I hazard to say that very few if any liberal Mormons wish to see a return to polygamy, despite the truly radical nature of that practice at the time and moreso today. Also, on a related note, I think you make a category mistake in assuming that liberal Mormons desire a return to nineteenth-century Mormonism in any sense of the word. Although I believe that you are correct in pinpointing a main theme of disaffection in the Church today as the corporatization of the Church and how it is managed and franchised, complete with its trained sales force and sales mentality, as the epitome of a mid-twentieth-century American corporation, I do not think that this item of disaffection corresponds in any way with a longing for nineteenth-century tenets of the faith. If anything, many liberal Mormons find such tenets strange, alienating, illiberal, and embarassing.

    Many orthodox Mormons, however, share a longing for more the more unrestricted practice of Mormonism that living in religiously homogeneous Mormon soceties allowed in terms of the restoration of all things. This included the principles of gathering and establishment of Zion, which nineteenth-century Mormons viewed as a society entirely focused on the Church and its work. In societies that are not religiously homogeneous and isolated from the world, life simply cannot revolve around the Church every day and thus a certain sense of the community of saints has been lost and some orthodox Mormons long for that. Notably, however, polygamy is not included in longing for the nineteenth-century package.

    As to your point of the de-emphasizing of Jesus Christ until the 1980s, which you have mentioned separately on this blog, I disagree pretty substantially with this point. I know it is fashionable for people to claim that Mormonism did not emphasize Jesus Christ in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries and only started doing so in the last couple of decades in an effort to get into the mainstream, but this simply isn’t so. From the very beginning this project of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been all about Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, Mormons are committed to the idea that by 325 A.D. the Apostasy of the Christian churches was more or less complete, having been under the control of politician bishops for close to two hundred years already by then (longer than the existence of the LDS Church so far). Identification of and condemnation of the Apostasy, if anything, is what has been slightly less emphasized, but not out of a retreat from this belief but rather out of a desire to be more respectful of others’ heartfelt beliefs. Joseph Smith himself said that this was all about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and anything else found in Mormonism is only an appendage to it. Unfortunately, this ardent, core belief in Jesus Christ will ever divide us from our Jewish friends because, although we love them dearly, we must confess that Jesus is the Christ — the Messiah for whom the Jews were waiting. This has always been the case in Mormonism and is not merely a development of the last 20 years.

  9. Thank you John for your insightful and interesting comments.

    I do however think that you may have mis-read me in one important area. I did not say that liberal Mormons long for polygamy, in fact, I think they long for just the opposite (as I thought I made clear). What I said was that those with a nineteenth century orientation (like some liberals) who do actually long for theocracy and polygamy are likely to become fundamentalists or at least lean in that direction.

    That said, I still maintain that there is a class of liberals who find a certain nostalgia in 19th century Mormonism but would not like to actually live in it. They are free-thinking monogamists while actual 19th century Mormons (in the mainstream) were theocratic polygamists, at least in theory. I think the appeal of 19th century Mormonism to this class of liberals is the radical nature of the theology and spirit of opposition to the main-line American culture that 19th century Mormonism represents.

    I think that David Novik made a valid point in “That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession,” when he acknowledged that the questions people ask reveal their own internal biases and motivations regardless of their ostensible commitment to “objectivity.” (BTW, I like Novik but I don’t care for what Louis Midgley of BYU has done with him, if you are familiar with that debate). If we apply Novik’s standard to Sunstone and dialogue, I think one sees a great deal of time and space given to articles and symposium presentations dealing with the radical elements of 19th century Mormonism in general and polygamy in particular. I would not characterize this as a “longing” for this past per se, but it obviously represents a heightened interest relative to the modern LDS church in general.

    Perhaps that heightened interest is motivated for some by a desire to “expose” the “negative” and radical nature or Mormon origins to make way for the hyper-Christianized version they prefer. I think that this is the underlying motivation for Grant Palmer in his “Insider’s View of Mormon Origins,” for example. However, there are others who, in my experience, are motivated by a somewhat nebulous “nostalgia” for Mormon radicalism. My friend, Mike Quinn might be an example of this. (I’ve privately told him that I think this to be the case but I get no direct reaction. I think he is sensitive to public commentary on his motivations, so I’ll leave it at that).

    Anyway, I would like to respond to your views about the relation of the church to Jesus and Christianity But I’ll save it for another post. (I’m administering a test right now and the students are starting to finish…)

  10. BTW, John, I just edited the operative paragraph in the main article slightly to make my meaning more clear. Does it work?

  11. The legitimacy of Jesus as the messiah and as a sacrifice for sin is a very complicated issue that deserves it’s own post. However, allow me to clarify my views on how I see Mormonism shifting its emphasis on this issue over time.

    Firstly I have no doubt that Joseph Smith was a sincere Christian during his youth and during the earliest years of the LDS church. The book of Mormon, the early revelations and the Lectures on Faith (written by Sidney Rigdon but delivered and attributed to Joseph Smith) are clearly Christian. They emphasize Jesus and the “atonement.”

    It is my opinion that between about 1835 and 1840 Joseph progressively minimized the Christian element. He never completely abandoned it, however. I think that after this point, he operated in a “penumbra” of general cultural Christianity and was willing to use it for PR purposes, but it was not his focus and not the inspiration for his revelations. (Mormons would agree that revelations are inspired by questions per D&C 9 and the questions Joseph was asking were not “Christian” ones, in my opinion).

    The quote you reference to Jesus mission being the core and everything else being “appendages to it” was written in 1838 after what I allege is beginning of Joseph’s de-Christianization (BTW, for me, de-Christianization is, of course, a good thing). However, it was part of a FAQ (I think he even uses the phrase “Frequently asked questions” in the preamble to this part of his journal). It was to be delivered to newspaper reporters (particularly in Missouri) in response to requests for interviews if I recall correctly. Obviously in this context and climate, a radical prophet would have an incentive to maximize his similarity to traditional Christianity. Thus I feel somewhat free to discount it’s relevance to my thesis.

    From 1840 until the 1960’s it is difficult to find the “atonement” of Jesus applied to anything but universal need to overcome death. It was not. for the most part, applied to a sacrifice for individual sins. Individual sins were dealt with via full repentance at which point God simply forgave them (This is similar to the way they are treated in modern Judaism). Even “Jesus the Christ” by Talmadge only really refers to Jesus overcoming death as I recall.*

    This started to change, I believe, among BYU religion professors in the 1960’s and only began to influence General authorities after the death of Bruce R McConkie in the mid-1980’s.

    There is an entire book on this subject available online that I would like to refer you to. It’s called “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy:A Crisis Theology” by O. Kendall White, Jr.

    Here is the link to it:


    Tell me what you think…

  12. Allow me to correct myself… I double checked “Jesus the Christ” and Talmadge does mention atonement for individual sins. He gives it about two lines (out of something like 500 pages).

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