Eternal Progression, restoration, revelation – all of these things were brought into our frame of reference by Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Many other religious teachers and systems can be credited with the themes as well; Smith claimed merely to have restored them. Many people subscribe to these themes as introduced to them by others – that is fine too. It just so happens that they came into our lives as a result of their entry into the life of Joseph Smith, but the relevance of its origin has significance to an individual only insofar as it is tied in with their personal history, emotions, knowledge, sentiment and tradition. The modern LDS church does not apply these themes in the manner that we do, but the themes themselves and our willingness, therefore, to consider Joseph Smith a “prophet” are part of what puts the “Mormon” into “Reform Mormonism”.
That is not to say that when a member of the LDS church says: “I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God”, and a Reform Mormon says the same words, that they mean the same thing. There can be quite a difference. Many Reform Mormons are highly reticent to refer to Joseph Smith this way, while others have no problem with the phrase – although by use of the word “prophet” they do not necessarily mean what the LDS mean.
The history of persecution and the murder of Joseph Smith have always weighed heavily upon the LDS, and stories of it turn up regularly in church services and social gatherings. It is part of the social makeup of the church, and it has impacted their collective feelings. As a result, the LDS became inextricably linked with both Smith’s persona, mythology, and writings. He not only authored the Book of Mormon and launched the movement, many of his other writings were (and are) treated as scripture. Successive presidents of the LDS Church, also titled “prophets”, have had varying degrees of impact upon the church, but none of them have produced the sheer volume of written revelation or doctrinal instruction that Joseph Smith provided.
A very strong and generally accepted tenet of faith in the LDS religion is that Joseph Smith “was a prophet of God”, and what they partially mean by this phrase is: “What Joseph Smith claimed to be, he was.” The tenet goes further: many LDS authorities have held that you cannot be a faithful Latter-Day Saint if you do not believe that everything Joseph Smith claimed to be true was true. They consider the truthfulness of the Church and the integrity of Smith absolutely dependent upon each other. The proposition, as employed LDS authorities and missionaries, is: if Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God, then the LDS Church is not true. If Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, then the Church must be true.
This teaching is ill advised, and here’s why: Joseph Smith may have been a prophet, but that doesn’t mean that everything he wrote and said was correct, including his revelations and scripture. The LDS Church, as it is constituted, contains truths regardless of the accuracies or inaccuracies, prophet-ness or non-prophet-ness of Joseph Smith. Therefore, to be asked to consider the LDS church as “untrue” simply because Smith wasn’t correct about something is a false connection. The opposite choice, that if Smith was indeed a prophet, the Church must be true, is also a false connection. Considering either is an unnecessary exercise. These two choices form a false dichotomy, the use of which as a faith-building mechanism is unwise. Those who are convinced of this connection eventually discover truths and untruths about one or the other, and immediately and unnecessarily connect the untruth back to the other, diminishing both in the process. This proves to be a great disservice to people. With knowledge and understanding, each claim is capable of standing on its own, without the other.
Creating false connections and false dichotomies is a favorite pastime among those who are fearful. They are afraid that if they cannot connect all of the pieces together in their belief system, that some of it might fall apart. When a piece of our personal belief system begins to dissolve, we fear that it might take the neighboring pieces, and create an avalanche of our beliefs, resulting in the loss of that which we hold dear. Many people have a great fear of this. They go to great lengths to bolster each piece of their belief system, including the erection of support beams between certain concepts. They do this when they perceive that a particular idea is very strong, and that its strength can be loaned to other, less strong ideas. The suggestion that “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, therefore, the LDS Church is the one true church”, and its opposite “if Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God then the LDS Church is not true”, have been used by the authorities, missionaries and critics of the LDS Church for many years, but the time has come to end this association and choice. It is a disservice to both members and investigators.
What is meant when a Reform Mormon says: “Joseph Smith was a prophet”? The answer lies in what we mean by the word prophet. Our dictionary offers the following meanings:
- one who utters divinely inspired revelations
- one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight
- one who foretells future events
- an effective or leading spokesman for a cause, doctrine, or group
To those familiar with the history of Joseph Smith, it would seem that all of these definitions apply in various ways. Yet, our history shows us that Smith failed at each of these attributes, too. Many people imagine that they are attacking the validity of the idea of Joseph Smith as prophet by pointing out that many of his predictions of the future did not come to pass, or that Smith’s sense of spirituality and morality was certainly clouded when he practiced polygamy. Perhaps you have wondered if some of Smith’s teachings were actually true, when you felt a lack of spiritual confirmation upon learning about them. Perhaps you handled this by simply ignoring that feeling.
Reform Mormons step back from these attacks and view Joseph Smith differently than either the attackers or the faithful LDS. We ask: to what degree must a person communicate with the divine in order for them to be considered a “prophet”? If a person utters a divinely inspired revelation – something he or she has learned as a result of an interaction with God – are they a prophet? If someone seems to be gifted with a spiritual or moral insight, is he or she a prophet? Is someone a prophet merely because they are a spokesman for a group?
Many Reform Mormons, in seeking answers to these questions, believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. There is no question that his writings have inspired many people, and that this inspiration was God-given. Indeed, since we believe that God is in all things, we believe that God was in Smith, and that God is in the Book of Mormon. Reform Mormons do not, however, accept the demand that by extending to him the title “prophet” all of his writings were inspired, or that all of his revelations came from God. Smith himself stated, “some revelations are of God, and some of man”. Reform Mormons are willing to accept the possibility that many of Smith’s revelations were merely his own writings, with no inspiration in them at all. We believe this to be the case because, when we read some of them, we do not receive any type of personal confirmation of their truth, spiritual value, or personal applicability.
Reform Mormons believe that God and man are capable of regular communication, and that this communication is not restricted. Divine knowledge is continually imparted to the world, sometimes with dramatic results that impact our lives in amazing ways. Reform Mormons are comfortable assigning the title “Prophet” to anyone who has received divine revelation that has helped the human race and life on this planet.
Reform Mormons believe that divine knowledge isn’t just spiritual or moral information. The LDS faith suggests that only one person alive at a time is “The Prophet”, exclusively entitled to receive revelation for the world and for the church, and that this title is successively passed from each president of the Church to the next. Yet Reform Mormons look at the knowledge imparted to the earth through (for example) Albert Einstein, and compare that with the knowledge brought forth by Joseph F. Smith or Heber J. Grant, who were the LDS presidents and “prophets” alive during Einstein’s most significant years. The comparison causes us to wonder if perhaps God isn’t more liberal and diverse with his imparting of knowledge than the LDS hierarchy would have us accept.
Was Albert Einstein a Prophet of God? Study what he wrote, and decide for yourself. You may discover that part of the knowledge he brought to the planet was indeed, divine – there is no doubt that it has changed our way of life forever, and dramatically altered the progress of man in the last century. Was Joseph Smith a prophet of God? Study what he wrote, and decide for yourself. You may discover that part of the knowledge he brought to the planet was indeed, divine – there is no doubt that it has changed the lives of many people, and dramatically enhanced our ideas about God and progression.
But always remember that God does not expect you to participate in false choices and dichotomies. You can believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet while rejecting his teachings that were not inspired. You can accept that there are truths in the LDS Church without believing that Joseph Smith was continuously divine and that his writings were without error. Of course you can! How could we have ever believed otherwise?
This realization is joyful, because it removes shackles from Joseph Smith – the demands of perfection that have been placed on him since 1820 – and allows us to explore both the divine and the uninspired in his writings without feeling as though we must accept all of it or none of it (the false dichotomy). It also is joyful because it means that there are more prophets on the planet than we were prepared to look for. God did not turn off the fountain of knowledge when Joseph Smith died. He continues to pour forth intelligence and knowledge and love – and it is not the exclusive domain of any organization or individual. God has not constructed a pipeline to only one person for this. It has been poured out for all of us to partake. God did not halt the flow of knowledge to Albert Einstein because he was not the designated “prophet”. He shared more with Albert about how the world works and the way it operates than he shared with any Mormon prophet. This is great news – it means that we do not have to accept the idea that God will communicate through only one person or place – indeed, why would an all-powerful and omnipresent being choose such a limited means when he already has a direct connection to all things? Why would we have ever believed such a restriction? It also means that we have the opportunity to seek out divine knowledge from many different places – an opportunity for growth and discovery that is one of the purposes for being here.
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