During the past several weeks, as rebellion spread from country to country in the Middle East, a local evangelical church — whose members include several business clients and personal friends of our family — has been advertising an “end-times” series on the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy regarding the Latter Days. Some of the advertising has been slick, and the personal appeals to come and hear have been heartfelt and positive. I’m not sure how quickly they think the “rapture” is coming, but the message coming across is: believe, be reassured, and ultimately escape that which is to come.
Fundamentalist Jews have been raising similar concerns about events in the Middle East on the basis of OT prophecies about all nations turning against Israel. This has been happening with increasing intensity since the rise of Iran’s alliance with Syria and the Hizballah and Hamas proxies, a process that’s been going on for several years, not weeks.
As Leon Neyfakh wrote in the Boston Globe on March 27th, 2011:
“The feeling of witnessing history as it unfolds before your eyes is one of those singular and uncanny things that really deserves its own word in German. It’s a feeling many of us have gotten used to over the past several months, thanks in large part to events in the Middle East that have appeared every bit as dramatic as anything we ever read in our high school textbooks. Processing the unrest in real time from half a world away has been humbling; the speed of events, and the fact that no one saw them coming, has made even short-term predictions seem like a fool’s errand. Even so, as bombs fall over Libya and protesters clash with government forces in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the impulse to understand what’s going on is extremely strong. To that end, people have reacted by doing what they often do when confronted with high-stakes uncertainty about the future; they’ve turned to the past.”
As someone whose grandparents’ conversion to the Restoration was accompanied by miraculous signs, and whose mother took very seriously the notion that we were the church of the latter days, I became aware at a young age that Mormon scriptures have their own end-times focus.
That story has distinct LDS and RLDS versions because of the different canons embraced and the doctrinal divergences between the traditions that occurred in the 1840’s and have continued since. However, both share an emphasis on events in the Western Hemisphere that does not contradict the evangelicals’ storyline but certainly complicates it.
For example, there are lengthy prophetic visions portrayed in the Book of Mormon that basically end with “don’t write the rest of this because that’s the job of John the Revelator” (whoever John actually is). The comparison between the Restoration and Evangelical views of the end-times is a bit like looking at a pair of histories of WW2 in which one history focuses on the European Theater and the other on the Pacific Theater.
I am, accordingly, very curious to see whether and how the leadership of the Latter Day Saints and the Community of Christ will address current world political and economic events when they address their denominations formally beginning with the LDS Conference today. (The President of the Community of Christ gives his annual address to the church on April 10.)
Not all of the Restoration teachings about the end-times have ever made it into the canon of either the LDS or the RLDS/Community of Christ traditions, even though it is certainly recognized by both that Joseph Smith claimed them as authentic prophecies and stood by them throughout his life. One of the more interesting of these examples is the “Civil War Prophecy”:
REVELATION AND PROPHECY ON WAR.
GIVEN THROUGH JOSEPH, THE SEER, DECEMBER 25TH, 1832
“VERILY, thus saith the Lord, concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls.
“The days will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at that place.
“For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States, and the Southern States will call on other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and thus war shall be poured out upon all nations.
“And it shall come to pass, after many days, slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war:
“And it shall come to pass also, that the remnants who are left of the land will marshal themselves, and shall become exceedingly angry, and shall vex the Gentiles with a sore vexation;
“And thus, with the sword, and by bloodshed, the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquakes, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed, hath made a full end of all nations;
“That the cry of the Saints, and of the blood of the Saints, shall cease to come up into the ears of the Lord of Sabbaoth, from the earth, to be avenged of their enemies.
“Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come; for behold it cometh quickly, saith the Lord. Amen.”
I first came across the Civil War Prophecy when I undertook a personal spiritual growth project as a boy to read the official RLDS church history from cover to cover. (It was not nearly as ambitious as it sounds; the official history hadn’t even been written past the late 19th Century, as I recall.) The history was designed to be fully “faith-promoting”. It was presented as an accurate, detailed prediction of the American Civil War — right down to the starting point at Fort Sumter.
I was probably in college before someone pointed out to me that in the 1820’s, South Carolina was actually closer to rebellion than in either the 1840’s or 1850’s, so predicting a Civil War in 1832 was not an example that should be used to evidence one’s prophetic calling. Critics also note that although the southern states did call upon Great Britain for aid, Britain provided only trade to the Confederacy until it was choked off by the Union blockade. Other nations never became involved in the American Civil War. To the contrary, there were also major European-wide rebellions between the prophecy in 1832 and the outbreak of the American Civil War that had nothing to do with either America or Great Britain.
However, the time when I read the Civil War Prophecy was also the time when my English teachers were being very demanding about learning to diagram sentences and noting the proper use of antecedent pronouns. So, in reading the church history, with all of the canonized and non-canonized revelations printed in detail in the footnotes, I quickly realized two things that should never be forgotten about Joseph Smith’s writing style.
First, Joseph never met a run-on sentence he didn’t like. Periods were for scribes, not prophets.
Second, a “he” or “they” at the end or middle of such a run-on sentence need never refer to the same “he” or “they” being discussed at the beginning of the sentence. Readers are on their own to keep up with the pronoun changes.
This suggests that the Civil War Prophecy might be less about the American Civil War, and more about events to come after the Civil War.
Interpret the comma after the phrase “Great Britain, as it is called” as a period instead, and a much more intriguing further prophecy emerges:
“And they [Great Britain] shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and thus war shall be poured out upon all nations.”
Is that not a concise and correct description of World War I and World War II – world-wide violence between two alliances centered on or against Great Britain? (Remember that the US and Russia didn’t even become targeted by the Axis until 2 years after the invasion of Poland, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the conquest of the French!)
Following such an interpretation would also suggest something about the phrase “after many days” which occurs in the next paragraph of the prophecy.
The timeframe applicable to “slaves shall rise up against their masters, who shall be marshaled and disciplined for war” would be at minimum longer than the gap between 1865 and 1945, i. e., some time after 2025, because no emphasis on delay was noted in the transition from the Civil War to the World Wars. The time when the “remnants who are left of the land” (typically used to speak of the Book of Mormon peoples who archeology seems to suggest as related to the Mayan culture if they are to have an historical basis in fact) “shall vex the Gentiles” also must occur on that time frame or longer. Indeed, the historical forces might trail out over long periods of time once the process has begun. Rome fell over centuries.
What do we make of today’s events in light of such a Joseph Smith’s “Not-Civil War Prophecy”? Are the historical forces we see building toward a collision — between the third world on one side and the “colonial powers” and incipient empire of the West and North on the other — signs of slaves who shall yet rise up against their masters? Is this “Arab Spring” to be like the European revolutions of the mid-19th century that were quickly repressed and left no great mark?
Or do we think that we are still in the phase of alliances built around Great Britain? Are we still trying to untangle the consequences of the borders drawn in the Arab world by the Europeans a century ago? Is a War that is already covering an extent (if not intensity) greater than the Western Front of WW1 a potential addition to the list of World Wars?
We also see the relative resurgence of the Mayan people immigrating and growing in power within Central America and in the US. Is the resurgent influence of these “remnants” a sign that the Western Hemisphere’s unique parts of the narrative that the prophecy suggests are coming into play more rapidly than we have imagined as well? Are we seeing only the opening rumblings of an awakening geopolitical volcano? The initial eruptions are frightening enough, but what if they are only precursors to the main blast that will reveal that our pretensions of being in control of our national fates are laughable before the unfolding drama of God?
Or is the Civil War Prophecy something we’d rather see stay buried in the footnotes as a teaching we never canonized and can ignore?
I don’t know about the Prophecy, but I do believe in and stand on one principle here. God’s will is directed toward the salvation of human souls within a new creation — the Kingdom of God — in human history: a planetary-civilization that acknowledges His transcendence even as it experiences His immanence.
The content of the prophecy can be reconciled to that overall Divine purpose if it is not interpreted as being about Fort Sumter. It is also fully compatible with God’s hand being extended in protection and mercy toward individuals and groups (as portrayed throughout the Mormon canon) which are obedient to that purpose. However, it offers no such guarantee toward nation-states and lesser institutions on which the modern world is built. What it promises is unimaginable change to our lives for salvation or destruction, not escape from anything.