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Good Fruit from Rotten Roots?

Continuing my line-by-line response to Mike Adams’ incendiary anti-Mormon column, we begin today with a passage from the New Testament.

I am sorry that my Mormon readers have put all their eggs in one basket by constantly writing to me quoting Matthew 7:16.

Matthew 7:16 is a statement by Jesus wherein the Savior establishes the criteria by which his followers could be identified. “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” the Lord says. “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

We have no access to the specific reader complaints that Adams is referencing, yet it seems odd that Adams would see repeated callbacks to the Lord’s own criteria for Christianity as an attempt to “put all their eggs in one basket.” Remember, the catalyst for this facetious apology was Stacey’s complaint that Adams identified Mormons as non-Christian. Shouldn’t a Christian turn to Christ to determine the standard by which Christians ought to be judged? Matthew 7:16 provides perhaps the simplest explication of that standard in all of Scripture. Doesn’t the Savior himself repeatedly say that he is the only way to heaven, and, to continue the metaphor, the only basket in which we should place our eggs? If he were consistent, Adams would be congratulating the Mormons for recognizing the importance of this biblical yardstick as opposed to relying on the authority of some other source.

I’d be very interested to read some of the messages that Adams received privately. If so many of them reference Matthew 7:16, it’s likely they also provide specific examples of ways in which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have effectively emulated the example of the Master. My church has blessed and continues to bless the lives of millions of people, both spiritually and temporally, whether or not their names can be found on church membership rolls. Critics of my church’s doctrine are often forced to concede that, in practice, Mormons are a force for good in the world at large, and that, in most instances, Latter-day Saints strive to follow Jesus’ example in their personal lives. Objectively speaking, it would be very hard to find a way to argue that the fruits of Mormonism are anything but overwhelmingly positive.

Somehow Mike Adams found a way.

So I am sorry that I must now apply that verse to the very first Mormon.

Adams makes a hard shift here, and, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the gears grinding. In an act of breathtaking audacity, Adams contends, for well over half his column, that Mormonism can’t be any good because the first Mormon was so very, very bad. This is a precise inversion of Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 7:16. Where Jesus says you’ll know them by their fruits, Adams says ignore all that good fruit and focus on the rotten root. Apparently, in Adams’ world, thorns grow great grapes, and this year’s thistle harvest will yield figs to die for.

I am sorry that among the 33 well-documented plural wives of Joseph Smith, there were close to a dozen unions in which the wife was already married to another man.

Now we get to the heart of Adams’ objections – polygamy, a widely misunderstood practice discontinued by my church well over a century ago. While I will get to each of Adams’ accusations re: plural marriage in due course, a couple of things are important to note here at the outset.

The first is a reminder that Adams’ brief was prepared to prove that Mormons are not Christians. In order for any discussion of Joseph Smith’s polygamy to be relevant to that thesis, one of two things has to be true:

1. The practice of polygamy disqualifies any polygamist from legitimate Christian status.
2. Joseph Smith’s personal polygamy was uniquely and egregiously wicked in itself, disqualifying him and any of his followers from laying claim on the blessings of the Gospel.

Adams proceeds as if both these arguments are identical. They are not. Yet all of Adams’ “apologetic” references to polygamy focus exclusively on how Smith practiced it, presumably in the hopes that the perceived excesses of the church’s founder will shock the sensibilities of his readers. How else to explain his outrage at the fact, for instance, that “Joseph Smith married four different pairs of sisters?” Would Adams have been mollified if Joseph Smith had, instead, married eight women with no siblings? No. So why bring up irrelevant family connections? Either polygamy is disqualifyingly unChristian, or it isn’t. If it is, then any eight concurrent marriages would offend the Lord. If it isn’t, then Adams’ extra level of familial detail only serves as an attempt to make Smith’s unions just a little more creepy.

So what about it? (Polygamy, I mean.)

Personally, I’m not a fan, and I know of no Mormons who are. I think it would be a miserable way to live. Nothing I write here should be construed as advocacy for the practice or eagerness for its return to Mormon theology. I’ve catalogued my personal feelings about polygamy here, and those interested ought to refer to that previous post if they want to know how I personally reconcile a disturbing historical practice with my own modern faith.

My focus here, then, will be a narrow one. I will only be responding directly to the issue raised by Adams – specifically, is polygamy definitionally impossible to reconcile with Christianity?

Well, if it is, then it’s not looking good for a whole bunch of those Old Testament guys. Adams mentions David and Solomon, but he ignores Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and a host of lesser names, all of whom were married to more than one woman, sometimes following a direct command of the Lord to take another wife. None of them faced any divine opposition to their actions. Indeed, there is no condemnation of the practice anywhere in the Bible. Even in the New Testament, polygamy isn’t mentioned at all. Josephus and other contemporaneous observers note that polygamy was still prevalent among the Jews at the time of Christ, yet there is no recorded counsel from either Jesus or the apostles on the subject one way or the other.

How, then, can Adams biblically exclude all polygamists from the body of Christian believers?

He can’t. Neither can anyone else. So, instead of citing authority he doesn’t have, Adams invokes outrage at a practice that modern society, by and large, still finds repellent. It’s an effective technique; after all, I’m a Mormon, and even I find the practice repellent. But I find a lot of things repellent. If I made the rules, you wouldn’t be able to get into heaven if you use your cell phone in a movie theater or you say “lay down” when you should say “lie down.” But I don’t make the rules; Christ does. And, as far as I can tell, poor phone etiquette and atrocious grammar don’t keep people from being Christians. And, if you adhere strictly to the Bible, as Adams claims to do, polygamy doesn’t disqualify you, either.

But what about Joseph Smith? He wasn’t just a polygamist; he was a scoundrel, too, wasn’t he? Surely his behavior was so vile that he couldn’t possibly be considered a leader of Christians, right?

We’ll get to that tomorrow.

Refuting Adams' Sorrow
His Name Shall Be Had for Good and Evil

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13 Comments

  1. About a year ago I found this article which I found interesting: I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/opinion/im-a-mormon-not-a-christian.html?_r=3&). The author makes the observation (borne out by Mr. Adams’ article) that “[b]eing a Christian so often involves such boorish and meanspirited [sic] behavior that I marvel that any of my Mormon colleagues are so eager to join the fold.” The author then goes on to agree with Dr. Richard Land that the LDS faith is “the fourth Abrahamic religion — Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, Islam being the third, and Mormonism being the fourth.” (quoted in http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1675308,00.html). I don’t know that I’m convinced, but the article is certainly thought-provoking.

    Re: Matthew 7:16 – I find it interesting that many of the readers of his original article used that reference to defend the church. My reaction to the portion of his “apology” I was able to stomach before I closed the page in disgust was that same verse, but applied to Mr. Adams — with the added thought that if Mr. Adams’ screed is an example of Christianity, I never wanted my reputation sullied by the application of that word to my name again.

    • Gordon B. Hinckley did also say plainly that we do not worship the same Christ as the rest of Christianity: we worship the Biblical Christ, whereas most Christians follow the nonsensical Trinitarian Christ invented by the Council of Nicea. If being a Christian means I have to embrace doctrines that are both unbiblical and utterly ridiculous, count me out too. I got enough of that during my Catholic upbringing.

      • Not sure about this. Just as I bristle when anti-Mormons claim we worship a different Jesus, so do I get uneasy with claims that other Christians worship a different God than we do. I would say we all worship the same God, but modern revelation provides Latter-day Saints with far greater clarity about his nature than is had by the rest of the world. It’s important to note that a majority of Trinitarians conceive of God in Latter-day Saint terms in practice, even if they nominally accept the incomprehensible Trinitarian creeds in theory. (See http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700179009/Mormons-Christians-Mitt-and-the-Trinity.html?pg=1 and my post on the subject – http://stallioncornell.com/?p=1147)

        • I have noticed that actually lol. Even on TV shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy God will (usually as part of some kind of joke) be depicted as a man in a white robe with a physical body…a head, arms, legs, and a feet…and Jesus Christ, when depicted, will also be shown as a completely separate being, literally God’s son, as opposed to whatever the Nicene Creed says he is. The Trinity is so ridiculous that even most of the people who supposedly believe in it can’t bring themselves to actually depict God that way. It’s contrary to our very nature to think of our Father in Heaven in those terms.

          But, my quote of President Hinckley stands. As does one of my favorite talks by Elder Holland: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/the-only-true-god-and-jesus-christ-whom-he-hath-sent?lang=eng

          • Love that talk, but Elder Holland does not claim that others worship a different God, only that their understanding of God is flawed. I’d be interested in seeing President Hinckley’s actual quote, as such a claim seems incongruous with the tone and approach typical of him on other occasions.

  2. One can hold whatever opinion one likes of polygamy and find it as distasteful as one likes (I personally don’t have any problem with it), but to say that it would need to “return” to Mormon doctrine implies that it ever left doctrine in the first place—which it didn’t. D&C 132 is still a very important part of scripture and it’s still possible for a man to be sealed to more than one woman—he just can’t be sealed to more than one woman who is alive at a time. The only reason the practice was discontinued was because of the intense persecution of the Church by the U.S. government because of the practice of polygamy, which threatened to destroy the Church entirely and stop the important work of the temples from progressing. Wilfred Woodruff makes that clear in Official Declaration 1.

    But although the practice has been discontinued, the doctrine is still doctrine. And there’s no guarantee that The Lord might not command his prophet to re-institute it one day, once the threat of persecution no longer exists (as may very well be the case soon, with the state far more radical changes to laws regarding and the very definition of marriage than polygamy already underway). I don’t think I’ll live to see it happen, and I’m not sure that I want to, but regardless, the Church is still true, it is led by a living prophet, and I will do whatever the Lord commands of me. My testimony is not affected in any way.

    • I will address this in detail later in my line-by-line response, but I think the definitive doctrine on polygamy can be found in Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon:

      27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

      28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

      29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

      30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

      Verse 30, which Adams ignores as he quotes the earlier verses, makes it clear that polygamy is, in some circumstances and eras, sanctioned by the Lord, but such is the exception rather than the rule, as indicated clearly in verse 27.

      • Exactly. A lot of people forget about verse 30. It’s an “activation clause” for polygamy, of sorts. Basically, it is an abomination unless the Lord commands it. And between 1842 and 1890, he did. I see no reason to question that.

  3. In my Navy career I was often expected to defend polygamy. It must be possible to do as otherwise Latter-day Saints have the difficult proposition that some commandments of God to the prophets didn’t actually come from God and that creates a great deal of uncertainty. Of course, no claim is made that *every* pronouncement came from God and that is why we have a promise and a duty to confirm privately with the power of the Holy Ghost that this or that pronouncement actually came from God and represents his will with regard to some topic as well as guidance on wehther the commandment was for a specific person, or class of persons, or everyone.

    The practical answer is that during the mid 1800’s the United States had no government social services to speak of, certainly not in the western frontier (at that time, Missouri!) and as a consequence young widows had no hope other than to join an already married man.

    Brigham Young goes into it in his Discourses — his thinking has become my thinking. I wonder if I can easily find what I copied into my journal so many years ago? Evidently not. Anyway, he speaks of natural affection that can only be expressed in marriage. He condemns the hypocrites who have many mistresses who at the same time are denouncing polygamy. How many citizens denounce the Mormons but are themselves promiscuous?

    Somewhere along the timeline of history it started to become obligatory in the higher priesthood and this created a new problem which exists to this very day in Colorado City, and that is that many men are never going to have a chance to have a wife if one man has them all. I do not believe God intended it as such. Now it is obviously the case from an evolutionary point of view that all atheists ought to endorse, that the best men should be fathers to all children, but there is no indication that God views it that way and it creates a problem of deciding what is “best”.

    I neither seek nor am I appalled by polygamy. I make no judgement of the commandments of God to speculate which one I like more than others. I had a ladyfriend for a while that expressed joy that mention of the penalties in the Temple were removed, but I explained, that where a commandment is removed, so too is the blessing that once went along with it. Besides which most people never understood them; one made an expression of commitment to the oaths of what you were willng to suffer instead of violating your oath, it wasn’t a *penalty* as the word is commonly used. When I was a child, the saying was “stick a needle in my eye” if I am lying. That’s the same kind of thing.

  4. Interesting comments on whether Mormons worship the same God and Christ or different. I think it depends on *intention*. A Lutheran that ascribes to “God” to be the author of the universe, creator of right and wrong, of the sun moon and earth, is worshiping the same God as Mormons because it is his intention to worship the creator and not a particular description. Such a person is also not particularly worried whether other people have exactly the same understanding as he. Their understanding is not his problem!

    HOWEVER, those persons who arrogate to themselves the power to define God, have also arrogated to themselves the power to *create* the very God they are defining, and it becomes their passion to interfere with other people’s worship and understanding They can do this because they know perfectly well how to describe their God. They made him.

  5. I never, ever thought that my referring you to Mike Adams’ bloviating against Mormonism and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would create such a whirlwind. I’m loving it.

    Thanks Bro. Cornell for your insight.