During my time as a missionary I often used to wonder how receptive would I have been to the missionaries if they tried to speak to me. I concluded that had I not been born in the church, it was very unlikely that I would have joined the church. Being raised in the church made it far easier to believe in the church than it would have been to convert to it. Of course, even those born in the church at some point must find their own reasons to believe in the church.
Recent experiences have made me think once more about how receptive I would have been to the message of the restored gospel. What would my response have been if a teenage boy told me that God had called him as a prophet and he had translated a set of scripture? Would I have been one of the spiritually elite who perceived the young Joseph as God’s spokesperson or would I have seen him as a charismatic charlatan?
There is a prophet in the town I live in. This prophet lives less than 10 miles away from me, and I have even seen him shopping at the local ASDA/WALMART. This is not just any prophet; he claims to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. This is Matthew Gill, the prophet, seer and revelator of The Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ.
The Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ
Doubtless, most of you have not heard of the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ. This is not surprising as it is a small Mormon splinter group based in the UK. (Apparently the US doesn’t have a monopoly on Mormon break-offs). Matthew Gill claims that the LDS church has fallen into apostasy and that he was called as a prophet (read his own account of it in this interview and his podcast on Mormon Expression) to restore the restored church once again. The rise of the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ (See their blog here) provides a crucible in which to think about the genesis of our own church, and further reflect on what a false prophet is and ultimately how can we know if they are a true or false prophet. In considering our own reasons for rejecting Gill’s claim as a prophet, we are reminded of the reasons that people had for not believing in Joseph Smith in his time.
Matthew Gill is not pioneering in his claims of being a prophet; there are many splinter groups from the LDS church who all claim some kind of prophetic calling for breaking from the mainstream church. What makes Gill stand out to me (other than the fact that he lives 9 miles down the road from me) is the Book of Jeraneck and the way in which he cultivates a replication of the life of Joseph Smith. As Jacob Baker and Matt B observe about the religion over at the Juvenile Instructor:
The Latter Day Church is fascinating in part because of how skillfully Matthew Philip Gill engages in prophetic mimesis, replicating the experiences and language of Joseph Smith to create himself as Smith’s heir, calling to repentance the failed church of Salt Lake City and promising a re-invigorated version of Mormon spirituality – one which both invokes Joseph Smith’s charisma anew, but which also rewrites the sacred history of Mormonism in ways that follow the cultural accommodations the LDS church has made.
Central to Matthew Gill’s claims is the Book of Jeraneck. The Book of Jeraneck (download it here) is a tale about a lost tribe of Israelites (known in the book as the people of light) who were taken to another promised land (now known as the British Isles) and is the writings of the people there. He is presenting another another testament of Jesus Christ. Like the Book of Mormon it claims that the indigenous people who made stonehenge were Christians, and that Stonehenge was in fact the temple for these people. The Book of Jeraneck (Gill apparently did not have the same skill or much originality coming up with names as we have Araneck, Isnah, Lioneck, Cataneck and Hadjaneck as names in the book) was translated from some plates given to Gill by the angel Rapheal (Moroni must have been too busy to bring these plates himself, although Gill does claim to have been visited by Moroni when he was 12 years old). In many ways one can see a parrellel between him and Joseph Smith. Rumour in my ward states that Prophet Gill found the plates in the back of his car one day or that they were left on his doorstep in a cardboard box, and antagonists of the Prophet Joseph Smith speculated wildly about the origin of his ‘gold Bible.’
It is even possible to see these plates according to Gill’s website; however, this is only after having manifested your faith in Gill (by donating money to his Zion community plans) and after they have prayed to see if Jesus wants you to see them (so far no one outside of Gill has seen them). Having read part of the book, it appears to be a poor imitation of the Book of Mormon and echoes its narrative all the way through. Consider the following passage which seems to imitate the passages about the Liahona:
The Angel then showed Sharaneck how the ball or sphere must be used. The Angel told Sharaneck that the outer ball was to guide the ships during the light and the inner ball was to guide them during the darkness. Now the Angel continued to tell Sharaneck and Hadjaneck many great things but I have been commanded not to write them here but to write them on the plates that deal with our religion.
Just as the Book of Mormon was placed as ‘the key stone of our religion’ by Joseph Smith, the Book of Jeraneck is intrinsically intwined with Gill’s prophetic claims. It echoes and imitates the Book of Mormon in so many ways, from its narrative devices to its place in the prophetic motifs that Gill invokes to garner his divine calling. Even the process of translation and witnesses (You can see one of them in this video) seem to be lifted from the Joseph Smith narrative.
There are certainly better pseudographia from the Mormon tradition, such as the Sealed portion (yes that’s right we have the long awaited sealed portion of the golden plates) by Christopher Nemelka (The Church Office security guard who was called as a prophet and claims to be Hyrum Smith reincarnated). In fact if one was to follow the scriptural argument of ‘by their fruits he shall know them’ Nemelka is a superior prophet of God, as the scripture he revealed is comparable in its quality to the Book of Mormon (Even if, as FAIR points out, there are logistical issues with it being literally the sealed portion). Unfortunately, his personal conduct (he is constantly in court for various reasons – again not unlike Joseph Smith) and his declaration that he made it up (he later said he was lying for the Lord so that he could get out of court) would undermine this reason for thinking he was prophet (not to mention some of his strange beliefs outlined in his project ‘A Marvelous Work and A Wonder®).
How can we spot a false prophet from a true prophet?
The reason why I raise Matthew Gill and Christopher Nemelka is that they raise questions about what it means to be a prophet. We view the president of the Church as the prophet, yet outliving rivals is not the way prophets are called in our holy texts. We find it easy to accept President Monson as a prophet as he comes ready made with an institutional seal of approval of his divine calling. It is far less easy to accept anyone outside of an institution as a prophet. Yet historically God has called his prophets with no seal of institutional support. In fact, they are raised to correct the failings of the current institution.
Critics are quick to point out the hypocrisy in how LDS view these upstart prophets. They are quick to draw parallels between the Matthew Gills of the modern world and Joseph Smith. The absurdity of one should, they insist, mean that the other is equally absurd. As this article about one of the converts to Christopher Nemelka shows in dismissing these ‘false prophets’ both Dan Peterson and Elder Holland use arguments that were made against Joseph Smith to dismiss him as a false prophet. Considering the case of Matthew Gill has brought home to me that had I been in Palmyra, New York there is a good chance that I would have viewed him as a self-aggrandizing deceiver. But more importantly it reminded me that if we are going to dismiss prophetic claims by people such as Matthew Gill and Christopher Nemelka amongst others, then it is not enough to simply dismiss their claims out of hand. The very reasons we give to disbelieve them apply equally to our own prophets. In the end how do we really know who of all those who claim to be prophets are true prophets?
- Would you have followed the prophet Joseph Smith if you had been alive at his time?
- Why do you think that Mormonism seems to inspire so many splinter groups?
- What criteria do you use to judge on who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet?
- Why do we accept President Monson and the Apostles instinctively and as a matter of protocol as true prophets, and dismiss those outside of the institution as false prophets?