NOTE: The first six hundred or so words of this post deal with a tedious, somewhat tendentious issue in Mormon apologetics, which I felt compelled to describe in detail to illustrate my larger point. But if you want to just skip to that larger point, I highlight where it begins in BOLD ORANGE TEXT below.
I stumbled across a rather bizarre article on an obscure blog where the author claims to have talked to several high-ranking LDS church officials – all unnamed, of course – who secretly confess that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on the brink of collapse because… well, pick your favorite anti-Mormon meme. I won’t link to it here, because the blog only launched at the beginning of the month, which means it is undiscovered, and it deserves to stay that way.*
Among other things, the author insists that church founder Joseph Smith owned a “Jupiter talisman” that he considered to be one of his most prized possessions. The blog helpfully explained that a “Jupiter talisman” was a satanic artifact designed to gain the support of whatever evil spirits were in the vicinity. The blog insists that Joseph’s obsession with satanic jewelry was well-documented by historical records.
Now I thought I’d bumped into just about every wacky argument against my church that was out there, but this was one I’d never heard before. So I turned to the Almighty Google to do a little research, and I quickly discovered that the only reference to Joseph’s devil trinket came from a guy named Charles Bidamon, the illegitimate son of Lewis Bidamon, the second husband of Joseph’s widow, Emma Smith. In 1938, nearly a century after Joseph Smith’s death, Charles Bidamon sold a “silver pocket piece” to a Mormon memorabilia collector with an affidavit insisting that this piece “was in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill.” This piece wasn’t specifically identified as a “Jupiter talisman” until 1974.
So there it is. Abandon ship, Mormons – Ol’ Joe Smith was a satanist, and your church is a fraud!
But there’s a problem. It turns out that everything Joseph had on his person when he died was itemized in a list given to Emma, which reads as follows:
Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith.
No mention of Joseph’s supposed “prize possession” on loan from Hell can be found in this list, and no mention of Joseph owning such can be found anywhere else in any historical record. So the idea of a “well-documented” claim that Joseph just loved his Beelzebub bauble gives way to the reality that some guy conned a collector by selling him the historical equivalent of an autographed baseball card with Babe Ruth’s misspelled signature written in neon green ink from a “Hello Kitty” magic marker.
After digging through all the research necessary to refute this tiresome attack on my faith, I find that I’m seriously ambivalent in my approach to Mormon apologetics. Having had my first disturbing encounter with anti-Mormonism back in college, I am grateful for those back then who had taken the time and energy to patiently respond to the heated, misleading, and often baseless misrepresentations of what my church teaches and what its members believe. That’s why, when I encounter similar accusations today, my first instinct is to pay it forward by diving in, fighting back, and beating down those who would define my community in ways I don’t recognize. I’ve done that oodles of times on this blog, and I’ll likely do it again.
But is that always a good idea?
Back when I was a missionary in Scotland, my wise mission president pointed out that such discussions don’t necessarily advance the cause of righteousness. He quoted the Doctrine and Covenants counsel about “reviling not against revilers” which was followed by this instruction:
And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.
– Doctrine and Covenants 19:31, emphasis added
I confess I didn’t know what a “tenet” was when I first read that verse. My mission president described a “tenet” as a component of our history or theology that is a relatively small part of the big picture that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, those trying to bring others to Christ ought to focus more on declaring repentance and less on squabbling over whether or not Joseph Smith owned a Jupiter talisman.
That’s good advice.
The fact is that tenet-based discussions rarely, if ever, change people’s minds, and those who are eager to smear Joseph Smith with made-up nonsense like this won’t be convinced of his integrity once you prove that your tenet is better than their tenet. More likely, they’ll just pick another tenet and move on to the next attack.
The other problem with a tenet-based focus it does not represent a genuine Latter-day Saint experience. Members of my church do not remain faithful because they’ve constructed a theological house of cards that can be brought down with the discovery of a Jupiter talisman. Rather, they continue to serve in the Church because they have had a genuine experience with their Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ that is far removed from heated confrontations with dissidents. So while belligerent critics aren’t likely to alter their opinion when you win a squabble over tenets, so it is that devoted Mormons aren’t likely to abandon their faith when they hear the latest recycled accusations against the church they love.
All that said, I still think it’s important that the answers to all of these questions be made available, which is why I applaud the Church for their expanded efforts in this area. When I respond to critics, I do so knowing that neither my mind nor their mind will be changed, but someone reading the exchange who was troubled by an accusation might realize that there are, in fact, reasonable and logical answers to the questions being raised. I’m grateful someone did that for me, and if I can help someone else, all the better.
But, granted, it can seem pointless and get pretty boring. You should know that yourself if you’ve read this post all the way through.
*In the course of writing this post, I discovered that fairmormon.org, they with the great website and the lousy Facebook group, discovered the same “the-church-is-crumbling” piece that inspired this post, and they eviscerated it with ease. Not only is the original piece wrong, it’s also plagiarized. Again, I won’t link to the original piece*, but the fairmormon response is worth your time.
*And, it turns out, the original piece, including the entire blog that hosted it, has been yanked offline. So I couldn’t link to it if I wanted to.