I recently made a rare historical find in the dusty library archives of an unspecified American city (as I recall, it was midway between Lake Wobegon, Mayberry, and Metropolis). I have reprinted below the newspaper article from a mid-1800s issue of The Planetary Bugle, in which the writer interviewed the prophet Joseph Smith. The interview appears to have been given about the same time that the Prophet penned the articles of faith, and may shed light on his line of reasoning that led him to cover the topics he chose. Each article of faith answers a question, but also raises new questions which are then answered by the next article of faith. Knowing the kinds of questions that would have arisen in the mind of his audience may help us understand why Joseph composed the articles in the form and sequence that he did.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock so far in the nineteenth century, you’ve heard of the peculiar American prophet, Joseph Smith. In today’s advanced modern age of steam-powered boats, Morse code, morphine painkiller, and friction-ignited matches, it seems anachronistic to think of God speaking to mortals and giving new scripture. Yet that is what Mr. Smith and his followers, the Latter-day Saints or “Mormons,” believe.
I recently had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Smith in Nauvoo and interview him regarding his unusual system of religious thought. Knowing of the variety of Christian denominations already in existence, and of the various Biblical controversies currently being debated in theological circles, I was curious to know where he cast his lot on several issues, perhaps with the result of being able to categorize him more clearly. In hearing his responses to my questions, I was pleasantly surprised to find a certain order and logical flow to his teachings. The natural sequence became evident as our interview progressed. As the interviewer, my questions and comments are in bold.
Creation, Fall, and Atonement: From Common to Innovative
There are a variety of religious creeds in the world, especially when you consider all the Eastern or pagan religions. What are your fundamental, core beliefs?
We believe in God, the Eternal Father …
Then you fit into the Abrahamic or monotheistic faiths, which include Jews, Muslims, and—
… and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
So you’re Christian then. I’m curious to see what common ground you share with other Christians in our audience, and where you may diverge. For example, everyone has wondered: If there is a loving Creator, why does he let so much evil happen in his creation? For centuries, traditional Christians have answered that mankind is being punished for the sin of Adam, our common ancestor. Do you agree?
We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
This individual accountability is an interesting contrast to ideas of original sin and human depravity. Now, you say men will be punished. Many Christians, such as Calvinists, believe that only a select few are saved from that punishment, and for the rest of mankind, there’s no hope. What do you say?
We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved …
All mankind? Univeralists teach that all mankind will be saved in the end. But since you say only that they may be saved, what determines whether a person is saved? Do you believe like Calvinists, that regardless of what anyone chooses in life, the elect are saved only by God’s inscrutable, arbitrary decision?
… All mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
And what are these laws and ordinances that Christ requires us to obey?
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance …
Virtually every Christian agrees that in order to be saved, those internal, spiritual changes must happen in your heart. There is wide disagreement, though, about whether there are any external, physical requirements. What such actions do you think are required?
… Third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins …
Ah, so you align with Christians like Lutherans and Catholics, that ceremonial ordinances are necessary for salvation. That contrasts with other Christians such as Methodists and Baptists, who see baptism as merely an optional symbol of a change that is already accomplished. That is, many believe that a person only needs to express true faith and repentance, and then God permanently promises them salvation, after which many will then opt to be baptized, but it is not a prerequisite for salvation.
… Fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
So that, too, can only come through a physical ceremony—the laying on of hands? That contrasts with many Christians who see the gift of the Holy Ghost as a spontaneous experience that happens in any believer’s heart even without participating in a ritual.
Given that these physical ceremonies are necessary, who can perform them? Do you believe like Lutherans that any believer may administer these ceremonial ordinances, or like Catholics that only a certain subset of believers (the clergy) has authority to do so?
We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.
I see—only a certain portion of believers is in authority to administer baptism, like Catholics believe. If authority is transferred by laying on hands, where is this authority found today? Do you trace your authority like the Catholics do, through the popes?
We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.
If your Church is organized under apostles and prophets, then you claim unique priesthood authority that no other church has. Yours truly is a genuinely novel religious system.
Knowing the Truth
If that’s true, then you certainly have much to offer the world that cannot be found anywhere else. But first a person would need to determine whether your claims are true. If you claim the Primitive apostles gave you unique authority to confer the saving gift of the Holy Ghost, then how can the Holy Ghost help questioners be certain of these claims?
We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
Those gifts of the Spirit would certainly help to establish the veracity of your teachings. But if every individual can receive truth communicated directly from God, does that then mean you see no need for holy scripture from ages past?
We believe the Bible to be the word of God …
If you believe in scripture, like other traditional Christians, then would not all your doctrinal differences with them be settled by an appeal to the Bible?
… as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
I see. You think the same passages of the Bible can be understood so differently that further knowledge from God is needed in order to resolve conflicting interpretations. Fair enough. I guess now that you’ve received the Book of Mormon, then you now have all the doctrinal truths the world would ever need.
We believe all that God has revealed …
Right—the Bible (and in your case the Book of Mormon, too).
… all that He does now reveal …
He’s still revealing more truth today?
… and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
So you really mean it when you speak of your “apostles and prophets”! With living spokesmen leading you, your body of divine knowledge is potentially being added to perpetually. Pray tell, what other things has God revealed to you about this “Kingdom of God” mentioned in the Bible?
Relationship with Unbelievers
We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes …
Ah, so you take those Bible prophecies literally. Many Christians today believe in supersessionism, but you seem to believe that the bloodline of Israel still has a unique role to play. And regarding God’s covenant people scattered throughout the world, while much of Christendom sees them as united merely by their faith in God, you speak of them as geographically migrating to the same territory.
… That Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent …
These people will physically construct an actual city? I suppose I’d always taken John the revelator’s prophecies of a holy city metaphorically, or at best spiritually—something to be fulfilled in the next life, in heaven.
… That Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
A theocracy? A monarchy where God is the king? That sounds wonderful in theory, but history is filled with examples of tyrants who claimed to rule in God’s name. When society let these false priests have power, they grossly misused it and carried out some of the worst violence and horrors in history. Westerners, and Americans especially, are justifiably cynical and wary of aspirations to form a political kingdom of God. Our War of Independence was in part fought specifically to free ourselves from the religious oppression of supposed theocrats. Don’t you value that struggle?
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience …
Then as an American, you can forgive me wondering, in your hoped-for reign, how there can be room for those whose religious opinions differ from yours. What would you say to someone who was worried they might be mistreated for not sharing your beliefs?
… and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
That’s good to hear. Now, until you succeed in building that Christly kingdom, what is your relationship with worldly kingdoms? Some might worry that you assume, since the Ruler of heaven gives you his laws, you are not accountable to any other earthly laws.
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
Welcome news indeed; since you believe that, then there should be no real conflict with other groups. Beyond your legal obligations, what relationship do you hope to have with the rest of society?
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men. …
If you treat your non-Mormon neighbors like that—not only civilly, but kindly—then you will be able to live in harmony with those who choose not to embrace your unique claims.
… Indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. …
With all these things you have to offer to others, does the rest of the world have anything else to offer you in return?
… If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
Well that would explain the university you’ve already formed in Nauvoo.
All of this strikes me as a very generous combination of assertions: you claim that you alone have the most vital elements necessary for all mankind to be saved, and you invite everyone to participate if they decide for themselves that it’s true. Yet you also humbly insist that you don’t know everything there is to know, and that you are open to receiving more, whether it be from God himself or from your neighbors. You aspire to be both rooted in absolute truth, while growing ever heavenward. Such a blend of boldness and receptivity should be more common than it is, I dare say. I wish you luck, Mr. Smith. Thank you for your time.