The peculiarities of Mormonism arose from the unique way in which God’s Spirit interacted with Joseph Smith’s particular culture and personality. Is it a coincidence that Joseph Smith, a young treasure seeker and dowser, received his first revelations from buried golden plates and seer stones? Is it a coincidence that the Book of Mormon is steeped in Methodist-like atonement theology when Methodism was a central religious focus in Joseph Smith’s family? Is it a coincidence that our masonic temple ceremony was revealed soon after Joseph Smith was inducted into masonry? Is it a coincidence that polygamy was revealed after Joseph Smith began questioning its practice in his translation of the Bible? None of this casts any doubt on the validity of Joseph Smith’s revelations. But these coincidences do suggest that all revelation is in fact, personal. Revelation reveals more about the unique manifestation of God within us and within our cultural understandings than it does about objective realities outside of ourselves.
Mormons generally believe that Joseph Smith’s revelations present God’s will for all mankind. Joseph revealed that God is a creature of flesh and bone, and for us this is an objective, universal reality, not simply the personal way in which God interacted with Joseph Smith. But is this really a correct theological assumption?
Authority and Personal Revelation
The church teaches us that God speaks to us in one of two ways: through personal revelation, and through authorised priesthood leaders. The message from these two forms of communication is supposed to be the same: our personal revelations confirm the truth of what the prophets have said. The prophets never say “take my word for it.” They ask us to go to the Lord and seek confirmation that what they are saying is true. Herein lies the authority of the prophets: not that they can simply say “God’s will is…” and expect everyone to obey, but that each individual receives a personal revelation confirming the truth of what the prophets have said.
So prophetic revelation is also personal revelation. Joseph Smith’s revelations only become authorised truth for others after other individuals receive their own personal revelations confirming Joseph Smith’s revelations as true for themselves. The principle of stewardship applies even to prophets. No one can claim revelation for anyone else, even within their stewardship, if God does not confirm the truth of that revelation to that other person.
“He That Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear.”
This principle is illustrated in a number of scriptures, particularly Matthew 11:15 where Jesus proclaims: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This scripture suggests that God only calls those who are actually capable of hearing His voice. And not all are capable. In another scripture God says “I will shut their eyes and stop their ears that they see not and hear not, and be not converted.” Elsewhere, God says “You are called to gather mine elect, for mine elect hear my voice, and harden not their hearts.” The “elect” are understood to be a distinct group of people who are actually capable of hearing the voice of God from heaven, not just capable of hearing the audible words from the mouths of prophets. This is a very special call for a very special group of people. Desire is also important. “If you desire to serve, you are called to the work.” If you don’t desire, you are not called. I believe this is also the way Jesus meant His command “IF you love me, keep my commandments” (if not, don’t bother). As the Book of Mormon says, “if a man give a gift grudgingly, it is the same as if he retained the gift.”
Judging Outsiders: Revelations Differing from Our Own
On my mission in Italy my companion and I once met a beautiful young woman who invited us in and carefully listened to everything we had to say. This was such a rare and wonderful occurrence that we were sure we had found a golden investigator. She promised to read the passages we marked in the Book of Mormon and pray about them. We stopped by a few days later and asked if she had read and prayed. She said she had, and that God had told her that the Book of Mormon was not true. My companion and I were floored. This had never happened to us before and we didn’t know what to say. Dubiously, we suggested that perhaps she should try again. But she was extremely confident in her revelation and didn’t see the point. Looking back, I feel bad that I judged her so harshly. Maybe God didn’t want her to become a Mormon. Maybe she was one of those people of whom He said “I will blind their eyes and shut their ears.”
We are not the only church that receives revelations. While few other churches conceptualise their revelations in testimony meeting form: “I know that (such and such) is true,” non-members nevertheless have remarkable experiences with the Spirit which are every bit as powerful as our own. You often hear them say “God moved me to do this…” or “I felt called to do that…” or “I suddenly knew that…” These personal revelations may not move people to join the Mormon church, but they do encourage people to do many good things within their own unique religious or cultural paradigms.
Mormons have no claim upon these people, and no right to judge them. If we expect people to listen to our own testimonies with an open mind, should we not give others the same privilege? Should we not honour all revelations which have led to good, even if they contradict our own: Joan of Arc, St. Francis, Billy Grahm, Buddha, Mohammad?
Contradictions Between Revelations
Contradictions between our revelations and others do not give us the right to judge them as false. Any cursory reading of the scriptures from Genesis to D&C demonstrates that God’s revelations sometimes differ and contradict themselves. In D&C 19 God explains that the now-abandoned doctrine of eternal hellfire was only preached to the ancients “that it might be more express upon their hearts.” This doesn’t mean the ancients were wrong. Nor does it mean that our conception of the afterlife is objectively correct either. Both we and the ancients are simply following the revelations God gives to us personally.
A Revelation About Ourselves
Revelations often say more about the divinity within us than they do about objective realities outside of ourselves. Joseph Smith once said: “if we do not understand the character of God, we do not understand ourselves.” We understand God as we are. And God reveals Himself to us as we are. People who are loving and forgiving understand God as loving and forgiving, and this is often how God reveals Himself to them. People who are strict and judgemental understand God as strict and judgemental, and this is often how God reveals Himself to them. I really liked Hawkgrrrl’s Jungian analysis of the First Vision, where she argued that the First Vision revealed as much about Joseph Smith’s nature as it did about God’s nature.
Again, none of this should cast doubt upon the validity of Joseph Smith’s revelations. All revelation is personal. But one man’s personal revelation can often be applied to another man, because we are all connected in some way, especially those who share the same generation or culture. Joseph Smith’s Mormonism might resonate with us because we are Christians and the Book of Mormon is saturated in beautiful atonement theology. It might resonate with us because we are conservative, and this is a theology that celebrates family values. It might resonate with us because we are progressive, and Joseph Smith taught individuals to build Zion and eliminate poverty. It might resonate with us because we are a Chinese person looking for a way to reconcile Western Christianity with Buddhism, and Mormonism has a karma-like doctrine of eternal progression.
The beauty of Mormonism is that it presents modern personal revelations from modern prophets which resonate with modern peoples. Other religions have to rely on ancient personal revelations which may not as easily resonate with modern peoples. This does not mean that all modern peoples will be called to Mormonism. But many are called, and thus Mormonism is one of the most dynamic and powerful religious traditions existing today.
- Do you agree that all revelation is personal?
- Do you agree that prophetic authority can only be claimed if someone else receives a personal revelation to follow that prophetic authority? Do you agree that the scripture “he that hath ears to hear, let him hear” means that prophets only hold authority over those who can actually hear and understand them?
- If we receive a personal revelation, how should we react when someone else’s personal revelation contradicts our own? How do you interpret revelations within the scriptures that contradict themselves?
- Do you agree that personal revelations reveal more about the divine within us than they do about objective realities outside of ourselves?