Considered generally, the Mormon use of the Bible presents a study in depth of the fallacies associated with the dogmatic or proof-text method of studying scripture. To assume a hypothesis and use it as a means of studying the Bible can be a fruitful means of investigation, but sometimes the exegete forgets that the hypothesis has been assumed only tentatively. In extreme cases this means that the Bible is read with a set of preconceptions which virtually dictate the conclusions desired, an approach which turns the proper and natural method of studying scripture squarely on its head. Why did the author chose to write this particular book? What were his aims in writing? Does the historical situation existing at the time help us to better understand the author's meaning? How did the people for whom the book was written understand it? Is the web of thought-connections contained in the book harmonious with other productions of the author? Was he proficient in his use of vocabulary and grammar, or did he vary from common usage and for what reason? To answer these and other questions is to determine how the book or text lay in the mind of its author, but the dogmatic exegete only succeeds in showing how the book lays in his own mind. This approach, vicious in the hands of even the most accomplished exegete, has rarely been carried to the extreme represented by Mormon apologists, who regard the Bible as little more than a rather cumbersome missionary tract. The Bible is studied not to inform but to sustain, and where it cannot sustain is stifled. Only those texts supporting our position are reliable, and if our interpretation even of these seem somewhat overstrained, the fault lies not with us but with some unknown corrupters of the manuscripts. Thus nakedly stated, the Mormon attitude toward the Bible is revealed for what it actually is: a logically perverse and historically groundless position which, strictly speaking, is not a study of the Bible at all but only of Mormon preconceptions about the book.
Some Mormon apologists, recognizing the validity of this criticism, have attempted to buttress their position by arguing that the Bible, as a product of revelation, cannot be understood without revelation, by which they mean that while the Bible may appear to discountenance the Mormon view, it actually sustains it if the reader is blessed with the necessary spiritual prerequisites for understanding. This, however, only re-emphasizes the justness of the complaint, and introduces a host of new troubles to further bedevil the already harassed apologist. First, without some warrant in the Bible itself, such an argument only begs the question by assuming the validity of its own claim. Second, granting that the Bible is a product of revelation, it does not follow that it cannot be understood without revelation but only that it cannot be believed. Unbelieving and believing scholars of the Bible do not generally disagree on what the Bible says or means but whether what it says is true, a different proposition entirely. Third, the cogency of the Mormon argument depends upon reading "revelation" as "Mormon revelation," which again only assumes that which must first be proven. It also begs the question against other claimants to the mantle of prophetic authority, and amid that motley company Mormons must either offer more spectacular proofs of supernatural sanction or demonstrate that their faith conforms more closely to the Biblical model than does that of their opponents. This, however, only forces them back to the question they had originally hoped to avoid, which was whether Mormonism has any foundation in the Biblical revelation. The burden of this study has been to show that it has not, and that Mormonism can best be interpreted in its relationship to the Bible not as an attempt to confirm and augment but to disparage and supplant. If this view of the matter is correct, Mormonism's only hope of retaining its theological integrity is to have done with the Bible altogether, retaining it only as an evidence of how wildly successful were those ancient apostates who sought to turn the Bible into an anti-Mormon tract.
Many Mormons have in effect done just this. Accepting only those parts of the Bible sanctioned by their own revelations, they argue that the vast bulk of the book is unworthy of credit because corrupted by designing priests. This attempt to achieve consistency by simply denying the contradictory again fails for a number of reasons. Among the more important of these is that even granting the corrupted nature of the Biblical text, the Mormon apologist still cannot say with certainty which parts are reliable and which not. The reason for this is because Joseph Smith, who more than once sought to "restore" to the Bible those many "plain and precious things" removed by wayward scribes, could seemingly never decide upon how the Bible should actually read. For example, during his lifetime Smith provided no fewer than five different renderings of Mal. 4:5-6, claiming in each case that his "translation" was a faithful reproduction of the original. Biblical passages he had changed for inclusion in the Book of Mormon he either did not change or changed again in his inspired revision of the Bible, and sometimes he offered still different readings in his various sermons. Clearly, to claim that Smith was equally inspired on each of these occasions is indefensible, and to claim that one rendering is superior to the others without showing this by reference to the Biblical text is arbitrary. If Mormons are to preserve any semblance of respect for the Bible, it must be on grounds other than Smith's inspired revisions.
If the Mormon appeal to the Bible is thwarted at every turn by either the Bible itself or the logic of their own position, it would appear in their own interest to simply remove the source of embarrassment, and like the Moslems not sully the pure truth of God with such an unworthy book as the Bible. Whether or not Mormons could cast aside the Bible without radically altering their faith in the process is a moot question, but even if successful their plight would not be significantly improved. Though no longer obligated to even pretend harmony with the Bible, Mormonism as a theology would still require an authoritative corpus of revelation, otherwise it would have no means of defending itself against those many counter-revelations which have attended it almost from its very inception. The problem, however, is that the mainstream of Mormon revelation is so internally incoherent as to stifle any attempt to make it a standard of all other revelation. We have already seen how well the Book of Mormon's unqualified monotheism harmonizes with Smith's later polytheism, but this is only one example among many. Another is the Book of Mormon's teaching that God's punishment of sinners is as "eternal as the life of the soul" and that to suffer damnation "is to endure a never ending torment" in a place "from whence there is no return" (Alma 42:16; Mosiah 3:39; 3 Nephi 27:11). Before the Book of Mormon was even off the press, however, Smith had changed his mind, and in a revelation to Martin Harris (a former Universalist) denied eternal damnation on the ground that "eternal" is simply a synonym for "God," which means that "eternal punishment" refers not to the duration of the punishment but its author (Doctrine and Covenants l9:6-l2). (1) As if to further compound the contradiction, Smith asserted in explanation that "it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment," thus explicitly contradicting the Book of Mormon's claim that the "final doom is to endure a never ending torment."
Another example of the internal dissonance of Mormon revelation is found in the doctrine of polygamy. Though presented in 1843 as a commandment which could not be ignored without incurring damnation, the practice of polygamy was officially suspended in 1890 following a declaration by Wilford Woodruff advising his fellow Mormons "to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land" (Doctrine and Covenants, p. 292). Since about 1910 all Mormons entering into the practice of polygamy have been excommunicated, just as they are excommunicated if they deny the divine origin of the revelation commanding polygamy. There are various ways Mormons attempt to resolve this dilemma, but the problem is not how they reconcile their present attitude with that of their forbears but the effect such a reconciliation has upon their doctrine of revelation. A revelation announcing a new and everlasting covenant "instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God" (Doctrine and Covenants 132:6) cannot be set aside without having a profound impact upon either one's notion of God or the process by which he reveals his will, a problem which has not been candidly faced by Mormon apologists. A revelation is announced by Joseph Smith in 1843 commanding plural marriage as a necessary prerequisite for exaltation; the doctrine is practiced and fanatically defended by every Mormon leader for at least a generation; in 1886 John Taylor, third President of the Mormon Church, receives a revelation stressing the eternal and irrevokable nature of the commandment;(2) on Nov. 24, 1889 Wilford Woodruff, Taylor's successor, received a similar revelation in which God commanded "not to yield one particle of that which he had revealed and established;"(3) yet less than a year later Woodruff announced still another revelation suspending the practice until further notice. As Mormon apostle John W. Taylor said on first hearing Woodruff read the Manifesto, "Is the Lord a child that He thus changes?"(4)
Still another example of how revelation operates in the Mormon Church is provided by their doctrine concerning the Negro. Throughout most of their history, Mormons believed that blacks could not fully participate in the blessings of the gospel until "all the other children of Adam have had the privilege of receiving the Priesthood, and of coming into the kingdom of God, and of being redeemed from the four quarters of the earth, and have received their resurrection from the dead...."(5) Should blacks receive the Mormon priesthood before that time, Brigham Young said, "the preisthood (sic) is taken from this Church and kingdom and God leaves us to our fate,"(6) yet in June, 1978, it was announced that all could now hold the priesthood irrespective of race. If Brigham Young was an inspired prophet, as Mormons claim, then this decision marks the apostasy of the Mormon Church; but if the present prophet is inspired, as Mormons also claim, then Brigham Young and many other Mormon leaders have misled the Church by teaching false doctrine. The only way out of the conundrum is to follow the council of apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who advised those troubled by such perplexities to simply "forget about them."(7)
The problem of Mormon revelation is further compounded by the lack of a clear standard for distinguishing spurious from genuine revelations. Early in his career Joseph Smith discovered that "some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil,"(8) though nowhere did he or his followers offer a coherent method for distinguishing one from the other. This absence of a clear criterion has resulted in much embarrassment for the Mormon apologist, who claims to accept all that God has revealed but is forced to reject certain revelations or risk membership in the very Church he is struggling to defend. For example, it is an easily demonstrated fact, Mormon denials not withstanding, that Brigham Young taught that Adam is God, "the only God with whom we have to do," and the literal father of Jesus Christ.(9) Young proclaimed the doctrine as revelation, not speculation, and despite opposition continued to champion the doctrine "which God revealed to me--namely that Adam is our Father and God."(10) Today, however, a Mormon who publically espouses the same idea risks excommunication, just as he risks excommunication if he questions Brigham Young's prophetic inspiration. This is doubly odd because the Adam-God doctrine was Young's primary theological innovation, and marks one of the very few occasions when he claimed direct inspiration from heaven.
The Mormon apologist is forced not only to contend with inconsistent and offensive revelations, but also with revelations so revised and embellished as to raise suspicions about their origin even in the minds of the faithful. In March of 1829, for example, a revelation was received wherein God says of Smith, '1he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift" (Book of Commandments 4:2). As if these alleged words of God were not clear enough, Smith informed his followers that "he was through the work God had given him the gift to perform, except to preach the gospel. He told us that we would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord."(11) By 1835, however, Smith had assumed many other "gifts" besides translating the Book of Mormon, so in preparing this revelation for republication he amended the verse to read, "And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished" (Doctrine and Covenants 5:4). A similar change was made in the Book of Commandments 15:3 (cf. Doctrine and Covenants 18:4), wherein God's commandment to "rely upon the things which are written; for in them are all things written, concerning my church, my gospel, and my rock" was amended to read, "for in them are all things written concerning the foundation of my church...." David Whitmer, who was in Smith's company when this revelation was originally received, wrote in later years, "If they had not made this change, the plain language of the original revelation would have condemned the Book of Doctrine and Covenants."(12)
It is not necessary here to detail the many hundreds of changes Smith made in his own revelations, a chore which the reader can easily perform for himself. What must be stressed are the possible reasons for these changes and their bearing upon the Mormon doctrine of revelation. Some Mormons have suggested that the changes were made because of misprints in the Book of Commandments, and that Smith's later revisions represent nothing more sinister than the mere correction of printing errors. Against this suggestion stand the following facts. First, Smith accepted the original printing as essentially correct, and in proof-reading the commandments noted only four typographical errors.(13) Besides this, the Book of Commandments text is virtually identical with the revelations as they appeared in the Church newspaper the Evening and the Morning Star for 1832-1833, and perhaps most important of all are closest in wording to those few handwritten copies of the revelations still extant. There can thus be no question that the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants represents something more than the correction of mere "misprints." A second suggestion often made is that the changes introduced by Smith were themselves a product of revelation, and thus his revisionary work was consequently no more improper than was Jeremiah's when he rewrote the book destroyed by Jehoiakim, "and there were added besides unto them many like words" (Jer. 36:32). The problem here, as David Whitmer pointed out long ago, is that Jeremiah added "many like words"--words which conveyed the same meaning as the original--whereas Smith sometimes added words "which change and reverse the original meaning: as if God had changed his mind after giving his word."(14) Moreover, Smith cannot be excused on the basis of Jeremiah's example because many of the changes he made not only obscure or reverse the original message but introduce significant additions which are actually deceptive in character. For example, instead of candidly announcing new revelations concerning priesthood and Church government, Smith amended his previous revelations to make it appear that the doctrines were part of the original documents. As if this were not bad enough, Smith ordered and the Church reprinted a bowdlerized version of the Evening and Morning Star, where many of the revelations had originally appeared, including in it the text not of the original revelations but the text of the revised and amended versions. Even worse, when the revised revelations were reprinted in the Doctrine and Covenants, a note was appended from Smith's twelve apostles testifying "that these commandments were given by inspiration of God, and are profitable for all men and are verily true" (Doctrine and Covenants, Explanatory Introduction). This, however, was originally written not in reference to the bowdlerized Doctrine and Covenants but the Book cf Commandments, and in reference to the former was later condemned as a "base forgery" by one of the apostles who supposedly signed the document.(15)
In regard to Smith's changing of his revelations, some Mormon apologists have adopted the position that since all revelation is "ultimately ineffable," any written revelation can be no more than an "imperfect approximation" and therefore a fit subject for abridgement, expansion, and later insights "incorporated retroactively into the earlier texts."(16) The problem with this argument is threefold. First, Joseph Smith, at least publically, held to the view of plenary or verbal inspiration, and on one occasion explicitly said that two revelations from God on the same subject would be verbally identical.(17) If Smith was being honest on this occasion, then he and all those who seek to defend his revisionary work by invoking a non-verbal view of revelation are in error; if Smith was not being honest, then he can justly be accused not only of deception but of encouraging a false view of revelation which caused many of his followers to apostatize when they found him revising revelations he claimed could not be revised. Second, it is difficult to harmonize even this wider view of revelation with Smith's revisionary work, for as shown above some of his changes do not expand or clarify the original meaning but reverse it. On this view it is impossible to distinguish between a revelation from God and a purely human production, "Revised and Enlarged by the Author." Third, if the Mormon apologist is to retain any distinctive meaning for the word "revelation," he must somehow explain not only wherein the revelatory experience differs from every other, but also allow sufficient room within his definition to accommodate Smith's prophetic blunders, Young's Adam-God doctrine, and Wilford Woodruff's mutually exclusive revelations concerning polygamy. Clearly, however, a definition broad enough to embrace such disparities robs the term of any distinctive meaning, and provides no reason for supposing one experience more revelatory than any other. Again, it would appear that Mormon revelation, in principle as well as practice, is indistinguishable from what would pass in other quarters as simple opinion.
The problems inerrant in Mormon revelation have prompted some to adopt a position far more radical than any thus far encountered. According to them, the fact that Smith altered his theology, recast his revelations, mistranslated scripture, or prophesized falsely does not detract from his stature as a prophet, for it is not the product of revelation which is important but the process. The primary problem with this argument is to determine what, if anything, it means. Logically, to speak of a process apart from the product produced is an unintelligible abstraction which can be defended only by being reduced to the sum of particulars being denied, thereby affirming its own negative. In other words, the only way of knowing the "process" of revelation is by reference to its "products," which in Smith's case are not particularly impressive. More importantly, if Smith's and his successors' prophetic "products" are important only insofar as they exemplify the principle of prophecy, it would seem that Mormon "certainty" about God's will is in reality no certainty at all. The early Mormon "knew" by revelation that God is spirit; the same Mormon "knew" a few years later that God is flesh. During Brigham Young's reign most Mormons "knew" by revelation that Adam is God; today the average Mormon "knows" by revelation that Adam is not God. If God's word is continually being amended and revised in accordance with the latest "promptings of the Spirit," it would seem there is in principle no way to say exactly what God's word actually is, and that the "principle of prophecy" is in reality a principle of uncertainty. Today's revelation may be tomorrow's heresy.
If Mormonism cannot defend itself by reference to the Bible and cannot defend itself apart from the Bible, then it would seem that Mormonism, at least as a coherent theology, has failed. This conclusion holds, however, only if Mormons continue to identify revelation with the words spoken by certain men or written down in certain books. A broader view of the process, one that allows for errors or even fundamental mistakes in judgment on the part of these same men, would go far toward making Mormonism a more reasonable religion, not afraid to acknowledge past mistakes, not fearful of admitting that even prophets can at times confuse their own promptings and inspirations with the mind and will of God. Of course the problem is whether anything distinctively "Mormon" can be retained once this level of error is admitted, but several Christian denominations have faced and overcome a similar challenge when they decided that the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible was no longer tenable. For these denominations the central fact of the Bible is the revelation of God in Christ, not whether every story recorded in the book is for that reason "gospel." Whether Mormonism could survive a similarly radical shift in viewpoint is very much a moot question, but the effort would seem worthwhile if only to escape the kinds of problems outlined here. Mormonism would then be revealed for what it actually is: a new religious beginning rather than a continuation and consummation of anything that had preceded it, an original way of looking at God and the world that ranks alongside the faiths founded by Gautama, Confucius, Zoroaster, Mohammed, and Andrew Jackson Davis. All of these distinctive religions, along with many others that might be listed, invite judgment on their own merits, not on how well they fare when judged by the (to them) alien standards of Moses, Jesus, or Paul. As another world-faith Mormonism has many merits, but harmony with the Bible is not among them.
1. As Pomeroy Tucker, a boyhood acquaintance of Smith's, recalled in later years, "His interpretations of scriptural passages were always original and unique." Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867), 17.
2. For the full text of this revelation, see the anonymous pamphlet, 1886 Revelation (n. p.. 1963). See also Samuel W. Taylor, The Kingdom or Nothing: The Life of John Taylor, Militant Mormon (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976), 368-370.
3. Diary of Abraham H. Cannon, 19 Dec. 1889 (photocopy in the University of Utah Western Americana Room). Woodruff's revelation has been printed in Francis M. Darter, The Four Rejected Revelations, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: By the Author, 1948), 21-23, and in James R. Clark (ed.), Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1965-1975), 3:175-176.
4. For this and other reactions to Woodruff's Manifesto, see the diary of Abraham H. Cannon, 30 Sept. and 1 Oct. 1890.
5. Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:143.
6. Speech delivered before the State Legislature, 5 Feb. 1852. Original in the LDS Church Historical Department.
7. "All Are Alike Unto God," a speech delivered at Brigham Young University, 18 Aug. 1978.
8. Whitmer, Address to All Believers in Christ, 31; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 46:7.
9. Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:50-51.
10. Deseret News, 14 June 1873. Another example of a revelation which was accepted by Smith and his early followers but is largely unknown today occurred in 1837. According to Oliver B. Huntington, who was present at the time, Smith said "he could 'See' whatever he asked the Father in the name of Jesus to see," and proceeded to describe the inhabitants of the moon. According to Smith, "The inhabitants of the moon are more of a uniform size than the inhabitants of the earth, being about 6 feet in height. They dress very such like the quaker style...[and] live to be very old; coming generally, near a thousand years." History of the Life of Oliver B. Huntington (n. p., n. d.), 10. This excerpt from Huntington's diary was also printed in the Young Woman's Journal 3 (March 1892):263-64, a Church sponsored publication.
11. Whitmer, Address to All Believers in Christ, 32.
12. Ibid., 58.
13. Smith, History of the Church 1:364.
14. Address to All Believers in Christ, 61.
15. True Latter Day Saints' Herald 19 (1 Aug. 1872):472.
16. A Latter-day Saint Historian, Jerald and Sandra Tanner's Distorted View of Mormonism: A Response to Mormonism--Shadow or Reality (Salt Lake City: n. p., 1977), 145-46. This same writer has also suggested that these changes: were not intended to deceive, "since anyone living in 1835...could compare the two versions." As a matter of fact, however, most Mormons living at the time had no access to the earlier commandments, and consequently had no way of knowing that the revelations had been altered when they voted to accept the Doctrine and Covenants on Aug. 17, 1835. Ebenezer Robinson, who attended that meeting, "noticed that a majority of those voting did so upon the testimony of those who bore record to the truth of the book, as they had neither time or opportunity to examine it for themselves. They had no means of knowing whether any alterations had been made in any of the revelations or not." The Return (June 1889), 89. With this cf. the reco1lection of David Whitmer, "I want to tell the brethren, that when the Book of Doctrine and Covenants was published, and presented to the church assembly in Kirtland, Ohio, in August, 1835,...a very few of the brethren then knew about most of the important changes that had been put in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. In time it was generally found out, and the result was that some of the members left the church on account of it....When it became generally known that these important changes had been made in the Doctrine and Covenants, many of the brethren objected seriously to it, but they did not want to say much for the sake of peace, as it was Brother Joseph and the leaders who did it. The majority of the members--poor weak souls--thought that anything Brother Joseph would do, must be all right; so in their blindness of heart, trusting in an arm of flesh, they looked over it and were led into error, and finally all talk about it ceased." (An Address to All Believers in Christ, 61).
17. The Book of Mormon (Palmyra, New York: By the Author, 1830), 3.