If you read this blog site enough, it should come as no surprise that history is a subject that I am greatly fond of, and the older I get, the more I appreciate how important it is; not simply to know things happened, but to have the maturity of mind to know how to keep my personal biases from getting in the way of learning history as it happened, not rather as I want it to happen.
One of the reasons history is so underappreciated today is because people are not able to separate their worldview bias from the hard facts, and hence when particular historical events are revealed that go against their worldview biases, they either turn a blind eye of ignorance, or try to alter the history altogether. Such persons also cannot grasp how one could study a particular individual in history without agreeing with the life and activity of that person. Such is the case with Joseph Smith. I believe Smith was a false prophet, and led his followers down a path towards destruction, and doing so for his own personal gain. Yet nevertheless, this does not take away from my interest in studying the life of the man from outside Mormonism, knowing him as he really was, not as he was and is portrayed by his following today.
Sadly, this need to glorify a man prohibits otherwise intelligent young people that the LDS people are from doing honest history. It is no unordinary thing, sadly, as this way of thinking is often found even in evangelicalism. Many Christians love their Bible, yet despise studying the history of the church they ascribe to, the one that Jesus said “the gates of hell shall never prevail against”.
Why am I saying this, especially given the title of this article? Primarily its to provide a context for why I am doing this article. In my studies of the life of Joseph Smith and the history of Mormonism, I have begun to develop the theory (which is not original to me) that Joseph Smith began as some form of Modalistic, Unitarian theist up to 1830, and from there unto his murder, his theology derailing well off into polytheism. Though I adopt this theory that most scholars also have, I am not adopting it as a convenient apologetic against Mormonism, rather simply as a layman historian; I use the exact same methods of historical studies for Joseph Smith as I have for any persons I have studied in history, and come to these conclusions therefore.
With that being said, what I would like to do is to demonstrate in the remainder of this article the proofs that (a), Joseph Smith’s theology was in flux from the publishing of the Book of Mormon to the end of his life, and that (b), because it was in flux, the Book of Mormon entirely contradicts what lies at the heart of LDS theology, which is the belief that “salvation” is exaltation to godhood with the plurality of gods that exist infinitely in the universe, and that when the Book of Mormon is exegeted, or interpreted with a consistent method as you do any other document, particularly in this subject of debate and discussion, it cannot help but preach heresy against later and current-day LDS theology.
Modalism and Unitarianism
To the layperson reading this, a fair warning to be ready, as we are going to talk about some big and technical words, although I will do my best to prevent it from getting messy and overwhelming. What is Unitarianism? Very plainly, Unitarianism is a particular claim of theism. Firstly, it asserts monotheism (one God in all existence). But if Unitarianism is simply monotheism, why not just call it monotheism? The reason is because Unitarianism is a particular form of monotheism, and it makes a statement against a different form–Trinitarianism. It asserts that God is not “three persons in one being” rather, like any human, is one person in one being.
Unitarianism has become a presupposition within theological discussion that has consequentially led to what we also call Modalism. Understand first that Modalism is a form of Unitarianism meant to try and explain away the three aspects of God we find in Scripture (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) while trying to hold onto God’s singular nature. To do this, Modalism argues that God “appears” to us in different modes, or forms; sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and others as the Spirit. Nevertheless, these three are just parts, or modes of the one God. While this is certainly logical, it ends up making the three aspects of God that we find simply ‘parts’ of God, like fingers to a hand, or arms to a human body; they aren’t the human themselves, but simply modifications, extensions of the true person.
As said, Modalism is, at the end of the day, Unitarian in its core; its attempt to maintain God’s oneness overshadows the three persons, and the early church rejected this teaching therefore in 267AD. Unfortunately, while this is all true, far too few professing Christians know this, and as a result, have a tendency to behave as unconscious Modalists instead of orthodox Trinitarians. Just like with Joseph Smith, so to with modern evangelicals, a little historical study can go a long way in the prevention of wandering off into heresy; how much would it have benefited Smith if, instead of trying to fix his family issues on his own, attempted to really and truly study theology as the Bible calls us to do, as well as to study our history and heritage? Sadly, we will never know.
The Unitarianism of the Book of Mormon
The reader is to be advised that what I provide here is not exhaustive, nor is this meant strictly to be for apologetic purposes. Nevertheless, what I provide here is based on my own personal studies into LDS theology, and in particular, the Book of Mormon. Since it was the first of Joseph Smith’s religious movement, naturally it becomes the standard to judge the others by, given Smith is claiming these come directly from God.
I mention this because there are many particular Mormon apologists who will attempt to avoid the hard statements of the Book of Mormon by claiming it was not intended to be a theological treatise, or to teach doctrine. It seems to me that if that’s not the case, the Book of Mormon becomes a waxed nosed, and especially in passages like I am about to site, there seems to be clear, didactic texts (that is to say, the passage is intended to teach doctrine) given by prophets, teachers or some form of apostles (message-bringers) in the Book of Mormon.
In the Bible, God through His inspired writers, intended to give us the words we possess today for a purpose, and that purpose is often provided by the context; sometimes we are reading mere history, others poetry, others omens, and still more, direct didactic teaching. If we are to use a consistent method of interpretation, we must apply the same standards we do for the Bible to the Book of Mormon.
That being said, here is the first passage, found in Alma 11:26-31, where Amulek is having a conversation with Zeezrom. Zeezrom asks Amulek whether there is a true and living God. As a side note, this would be an excellent opportunity for a Mormon apologist to quickly say that clearly Zeezrom was only asking if there was a God at all, which does not necessarily refute polytheism. Except for Amulek’s reply, which is firstly, in verse 27, that there is a true and living God, and when probed further, following Zeezrom’s unmistakably clear question in verse 28, “Is there more than one God?” Amulek answers with a straightforward “No.”
Based on my experience talking to Mormons, the best reply to this is what they try to do to passages such as Isaiah 44:6, which is to say, there ‘is no other god’ for this world, and that’s what is being meant there. Now if you read the context of Isaiah 44, God not only declares there is no other God, but that He “knows of no other”. If God is all-knowing, and yet He ‘knows’ of no other God, the conclusion is either God was ignorant and wrong, or that indeed there are no other gods.
But in Alma 11:26-31, it seems impossible for the apologist to even try to make this response work, as the Book of Mormon is even more straightforward in its blatant denial of the existence of any other god. Can the Mormon say here, just like with Isaiah 44, that all Amulek means is there is only one true God for earth? It may be if Zeezrom did not add the “true and living” adjectives to his question; Zeezrom is not simply asking if there is more than one God, but if there are any that are ‘true and living’, and Amulek emphatically says “No”.
To my knowledge, there exists no “Reformed Egyptian”, which is the ancient language upon the Golden Plates that the Book of Mormon was translated from into English; the Golden Plates are not on earth anymore, and hence there is no original language to examine this English translation of the Book of Mormon, and thus ultimately, there is no way other than to accept the plain meaning of the text here, that Amulek and the Book of Mormon are blatantly teaching Unitarian monotheism.
In this passage, we come to what has to be one of the most confusing texts I’ve ever encountered in any proclaimed divine scripture. Though I readily admit there are things in Scripture itself that are a mystery, and enter a realm or dimension that I do not believe the human mind can penetrate, that does not mean that such mysteries wander into sheer contradiction. God exists over and above His creation, but His creation reflects His character, which is nonetheless logical and orderly.
What we read in Mosiah 15 is simply astonishing for how contradictory it is, and how little sense it really makes. We are going to focus in on the first five verses; continuing with the assumption we formerly made, that monotheism is what the Book of Mormon teaches (polytheism came later in Smith’s theology), we read in verse one by the words of Abinadai that, “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.”
All seems good, and then we move on to verse two, which says that “Because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God,” This is clearly a reference to Christ, and likely comes from John 1:14. Verse two continues, “having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son–” This is where things begin to fall of the tracks. Firstly, we have Jesus subjecting the flesh to the will of the Father, but in the next clause, Jesus is also the Father. At the very least, we have a form of modalism here, where God’s persons are actually modes of Himself, and hence the Son is in essence the Father.
Then we read in verse 3 a strange assertion, and is frankly confusing. We read, “The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God;” Who was conceived? The Father or the Son? It’s difficult to know. Then we read on, “and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son–” Again, a clear link to a strange form of modalism, or dynamic change in God’s nature.
The contradictions arise from the sheer confusion of words in verse 3, when the Son becomes the Father and Son, while first being the Son. Yet how can this be since the Father is already presupposed to be existing in verse 2 before the Son becomes Him? Whose will is the Son subjecting His flesh to? It’s the Father, and hence, the Father is already there; unless we are going to say that the Son merges with the Father, or is absorbed into the Father?
But the crux of the whole teaching in this passage begins in verse 4 with the words, “And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.” Jesus is made as ‘one God’ with the Eternal Father. So despite their differences and unique activity and relationship to one another, they are still one God. The next time a Mormon wants to tell you that the triune formula “One being, three persons” doesn’t make sense, it may be helpful to remind them about this passage, which not only asserts that two personages are in activity, yet are one God, but more than this, the activity they are engaged in is simply beyond even human apprehension.
In verse 5, the Son is yet again conflated with the Father, but yet we are to assume the former claim (that they are one God) is still very valid. Hence what we have here is nothing new; it’s the result of a young man who is utterly untrained in theology, having heard various views of the godhead in his time and context, but never taking the time to sit and really understand it properly, attempts to explain the triune God he vaguely heard about in his young life.
I recently listened to a General Conference lecture that spoke in clear opposition to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I intend to review this talk very soon, but for now, this speaker (whose name I currently do not know) claimed that the Trinity cannot truly be understood. It is so confusing and simply is unintelligible. I mention that because if he is going to claim that such a doctrine that says that God is “Father, Son, Holy Spirit–One God revealed as three co-equal, and co-eternal persons in the one being” is unintelligible, then surely he must be uncomfortable (or perhaps he missed it) with what Alma 11:44 says. It’s a long verse (a paragraph, really), and so I will simply quote the statement,
“and shall be brought and be arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God,”Alma 11:44
Not only is this teaching monotheism, and in light of that, that there are not three beings/gods (which can only be modalism at least, and some form of trinitarianism at best) but it actually would be something I might even consider orthodox trinitarianism! It would seem that the confusion about the Trinity is really happening on the part of Mormons, including Joseph Smith, since they claim it cannot be understood, and yet do not seem to know when they actually came really close to stating it correctly.
As I said before, there are many other passages in the Book of Mormon we could look at, I’m sure; I’ve only begun to dive into the book. But I think what I have provided here suffices enough to demonstrate that what Joseph Smith taught in or before 1830 is not what he taught in the years that followed, up to his murder in 1844. Joseph Smith was almost surely a monotheist, like all the other religious sects of his day in the early days of the United States. But the farther he went west, it seemed the farther his theology went out into the wilderness as well.
Whatever the case, what is certainly not found in the Book of Mormon is any form of what Joseph Smith later taught, especially in his final, known sermon, the King Follett Funeral Discourse. One might say that what I am arguing is an argument from silence. That is to say, it’s true, so long as no new data comes forth, and they may say that since we have new data, it proves my argument false. But the problem arises in the fact that the new data (the later theology of Joseph Smith) contradicts the Joseph Smith who wrote the Book of Mormon.
The Joseph Smith who wrote in Mosiah 15:1-3 and Alma 11:44 that they are “One God” is not the same Joseph Smith who said in the Follett Discourse, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” and the clear polytheism throughout it. As stated before, what would sound teaching in right theology have benefited Smith? We’ll never know. It could have saved him much trouble; it may have saved literally thousands if not millions of lives after him, and even his own life, which, while I am not a follower of him, I still know and acknowledge that he was viciously, and unjustly murdered. And like so many youths in our culture today, their primary problem is often a lack of training in theology.
As a final thought, the reader is to be advised once again that this is not intended strictly to be an anti-Mormon article. Ultimately, it’s meant to illustrate from as objective a point of view I can, that Joseph Smith’s theology changed as he became enthralled in his religious movement, and sadly, his charismatic nature has prevented so many people from seeing who he was as history truly tells the story.