There are several genres of exit narratives of those who leave the church. One is the ‘discovery’ narrative which involves the finding of some clandestine truth that the church has so deceitfully kept concealed in the inaccesible place such as the volumes of the Journal of Discourses and Church History. To the person exiting, the truth they discover reveals a deep deception by the church and thus proves that it must not be true. This post is not a denial that the issues that raised are problematic; however, counter-proofs are sometimes used as weightier evidence than they really are.
Part of the ‘discovery of a hidden truth’ narratives is the claim that the church is a mix of cultures and traditions that Joseph Smith copied and plagiarised. One of these ‘truths’ that is claimed to contribute to proving the church is not true that often crops up is the magic world view, masonry and temple rituals, for how could Joseph be a prophet if he believed in folk magic or if he stole the temple ritual from the masons? I don’t aim to provide an apologetic answer. I simply want to explore a seventeenth century example that demonstrates that this type of discovery is not necessarily destructive to faith.
John Spencer was the master of Christi College Cambridge during the last half of the seventeenth century. He published two major works, De Legibus Hebræorum (1685) and Dissertatio de Urim and Thummin (1669). John Spencer pioneered oriental research and did a lot of anthropological research on Greek and Roman history. The seventeenth century faced several issues and crises to the Christian faith. One of them was that during this period there was a massive discovery of ancient documents, artefacts and manuscripts that challenged the traditional view of history. As they discovered more about the ancient world it threatened their view of history.
Before these discoveries it was generally believed that the Jews were the font of all human wisdom. Because of the important role of the Jews in biblical history, Christians saw them as the origin of all the good things in the world. They believed that the greatness of the Jews had permeated into the cultures around them. The similarities between Israelite rituals and the Egyptians was because the Egyptians had imitated the Israelites (think Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price). In short, human civilisation owed all that they were to the Israelites.
The problem was that the discovery of fragments and manuscripts challenged this view. Increasingly they were finding that the Egyptians, Greeks and other pagan societies around the Jews seemed to have the same rituals, temples and rites found in the Bible before they were revealed to the Jews. It seemed that the Jews were no longer the pioneers but were instead the imitators of the pagan religions around them. This challenged the faith of many Christians; how could the Jews be God’s chosen people if their religious practices were copies of pagan rituals?
John Spencer devoted his life to reconciling this discrepancy. His work De Legibus Hebraerum was his chief method. In it he argued that God had used natural history and cultural assimilation of the Egyptian practices to win over the Jews as his chosen people. Spencer said that:
“God tolerated and transferred not a few of the rites that were in use among the pagans into his own law and worship; after he had corrected and reformed them” (p. 640-641)
Spencer then saw God as using the rituals and practices that the Jews understood and modified them for the Jews. As he later said:
“It was almost necessary that God should indulge them the use of some of the ancient rites, and accommodate his sanctions to their taste and capacity.” (p. 645)
Spencer was able to maintain his faith in God by seeing God as cleverly adapting His teachings and rituals to the people in a way that they would understand and appreciate. God considered the culture that the Israelites were immersed in, then assimilated and adapted it to their capacities so that they could comprehend their place as his chosen people. Spencer then described the way in which God operated through natural processes in order to bring to pass his work. The revelation on Mount Sinai according to Spencer was not a radical new revelation but rather was a hybrid and refinement of practices already in existence from the culture in which Moses and the Israelites lived.
Following Spencer’s logic, it should not surprise us then if God continues to use cultural assimilation in the time of Joseph Smith and continues today. As Mormon historians such as D. Micheal Quinn and Richard Bushman look to the past and find traces of the appropriation of different cultures and traditions into Mormonism, these are no more surprising than the cultural assimilation of Jewish rites from Pagan rites. As history continues to unfold, it is likely that we will continue to find other cultures (such as western corporate culture) being morphed and incorporated into Mormonism. Spencer would attribute this to God’s handiwork.
Do you agree with Spencer that God use cultural assimilation in how he conveys his message to his children? How can this assimilation work with an international church? Does it matter if God incorporates other practices and traditions in how his message is presented? Discuss.