Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity

Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity January 25, 2014

I recently had the pleasure of reading Stephen Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford, 2013). My review is up on the Books & Culture website — I characterize Mormon Christianity as “brilliant, provocative, and occasionally maddening.” The maddening, from my vantage point, is what I consider a rather needless critique of Calvinism that emerges strongly at the end of the book. On the other hand, Webb is not quite so unkind toward Calvinists as the first generation of Latter-day Saints, who joined in the anti-Calvinism sweeping through large segments of the American Christian landscape.

Webb’s subtitle is instructive. His is not an exhaustive examination of Mormon theology or culture, and he dispenses rather quickly with the question of whether or not Latter-day Saints are Christians. Instead, he carefully lays out the materialistic metaphysics of Mormon thought and argues that the idea of a permanently embodied Christ and an embodied God have much to offer the wider Christian world.

My summary of this point:

God is material, knowable, embodied, “not radically different from everything else that exists.” As spirits, human intelligences are eternal, existing before mortality in the presence of heavenly parents. That God is “one of us” does not impede Mormon wonder, awe, or love of the divine. Human beings can become more like God or even become gods, but in a universe of eternal progression God is also “ever becoming more Godlike.” Per Webb, Mormon materialism fosters a healthy, optimistic understanding of God, human beings, and the universe. Other Christians, Webb suggests, have a “breathtaking opportunity” to discover “the full intellectual richness of the Christian tradition” through Mormonism.

It is one thing to argue that other Christians might find much to admire among the Latter-day Saints: their expectation for lay service (makes sense when you have no clergy), their well-organized humanitarianism, their evangelistic zeal, their appreciation for music and the arts, to name only a few examples. I think most individuals who spend some time among the Latter-day Saints feel a few pangs of Mormon envy. While preparing to move my family to Germany for a year this past summer, it occurred to me many times that it would be nice a) to know where we would worship once we arrived; b) to have people help us move in and out; and c) to have a ready-made community of coreligionists. Needless to say, there was no Presbyterian welcoming committee.

As I write at the end of of the review, though, Webb faces an uphill battle in persuading other Christians to engage Mormon metaphysics (or ideas in general). As Richard Bushman once lamented in the wake of Rough Stone Rolling’s publication, “No one outside of the Mormons is taking Joseph Smith seriously.” I think one could actually take Joseph Smith too seriously and in the process miss out on his considerable mirth and occasional levity. He was a prophet whom one could find in the forest chopping wood or engaging in playful wrestling with his friends. Nevertheless, his words (in print and in sermons and in small gatherings) worked a powerful influence on those who encountered them. For instance, consider this reaction by Joseph Fielding to Smith’s 7 April 1844 sermon:

Joseph’s Discourse on the Origin of Man, the Nature of God and the Resurrection was the most interesting Matter of this time and any one that could not see in him the Spirit of Inspiration of God must be dark, they might have known that he was not a fallen Prophet even if they thought he was fallen.

Smith delivered this sermon less than three months before his death, at a time when there were more than a few church members in Nauvoo, Illinois who had concluded that he was a “fallen prophet.” The sermon in question is now known as the King Follett Discourse, prompted by Smith’s reflections on the accidental death of a church member named King Follett. Other Christians tend to find the King Follett Discourse highly objectionable and hubristic. Here Smith discusses his belief that God in heaven “is a man like yourselves” and discusses the potential for men to “arrive at the station of a God.” He rejects the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and he discusses the responsibility that church members have toward their “dead” (i.e., those who died outside of the church established in 1830): “the greatest responsibility that God has laid upon us to seek after our dead — the apostle says they without us cant be Perfect — now I am speaking of them I say to you Paul, you cant be perfect with[ou]t us.” [I am drawing here on the reports of Wilford Woodruff and Thomas Bullock].

Certainly, students of American religious history have to take Joseph Smith seriously on one level, as the founder of an indisputably significant church. Should one take his ideas seriously? As a Protestant Christian, I do not accept the central conclusions of the King Follett Discourse, but I can still appreciate both it and Joseph Smith. There’s Smith’s theological pluck and audacity, for starters. But also, as Webb points out, Smith’s ideas about matter and divinity, while unusual in antebellum America, were not entirely foreign to either the history of Christianity or the broader history of philosophy. And Smith’s emphasis on binding together the generations has an undeniable beauty even if one does not accept its necessity. As Smith outlined in an 1842 letter on the subject of baptism for the dead, “their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers — that they without us cannot be made perfect — neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” [The reference is to Hebrews 11:40, I believe]. Joseph Smith could move the hearts of men like Joseph Fielding because his emphasis on the communal nature of salvation spoke to deeply felt human needs and desires. Men and women already perceived eternal value in their earthly relationships, and Smith provided them with theological explanations for that value and provided them with rituals designed to make certain their eternal duration. To Smith’s ecclesiastical descendants, those ideas have certainly proved powerful and enduring, continuing to animate the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nearly two centuries after its founding. And thus, as Webb contends, perhaps it is time for other Christians to take seriously those ideas and the metaphysics that lay beneath them.

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  • AnneP42

    The link above to the Books and Culture website article is not working. Try this;

  • John Turner

    Thanks — I fixed it (I think!).

  • MrNirom1

    If you believe that Moses was a prophet of God.. then you give reverence to what he has to say and what he has written. Ask those who don’t believe that Moses was a prophet of God.. and all you get from them is a belief about some guy who wrote a book and created some wacky stuff.

    If Moses was not a prophet.. then the words he wrote in the 5 books of Moses have no importance. The same would apply to any of the prophets that have material written and placed in the Old Testament.

    Therefore.. if you don’t have a belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet.. you can dismiss him as easily as the Jews or Muslims have dismissed Jesus as being the Christ… or Messiah.

    And if I heard the doctrines being taught in the King Follett discourse first.. I suppose I too would have rejected it at face value if that was the only thing I have learned or believed about Mormonism.

    It reminds me of what the Apostle Peter taught.. (of course I am placing a lot of authority on the Apostle Peter that what he has to say is important)

    “The teaching of all doctrine has a certain order, and there are some things which must be delivered first, others in the second place, and others in the third, and so all in their order; and if these things be delivered in their order, they become plain; but if they be brought forward out of order, they will seem to be spoken against reason.” That is why he rebuked the youthful Clement for wanting “to know everything ahead of time.”

  • Scott Soulier

    When all the remarkable personalities of the 19th century are lined up, Joseph Smith will certainly be near or at the head of the line. His contributions to modern religious thought are not revolutionary; they are revelationary (please forgive my creation of a new word, but it was too perfect to pass up). The Bible is not true because of just what is written in it, but because of the process by which those words were written. God revealed His will to His servants, the prophets, and they wrote those words down. The words of the Bible are not “proven true” by intellectual study any more than a magnificent visual art piece is appreciated by trying to listen to it. Revelation from God to man is confirmed by the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit which bears record of the Father and the Son and of all truth – whatever its origin. The doctrinal writings of Joseph Smith are amenable to spiritual testing. Every other method of arriving at a conclusion as to the verity of his words is futile. I count myself as one who has made a life-long, diligent, prayerful study of the religion that God restored to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I have felt those still, small whisperings in my heart and in my mind. They are unmistakable and powerfully convincing and they give me an unspeakable sense of joy. I encourage all to put Joseph Smith’s writings to the spiritual test found at the end of The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ (Moroni 10:3-5). I am happy to have read this interesting piece. God Bless.

  • sfcanative

    One of the key components of Smith’s religious movement was the introduction of the temple along with various activities to occur within. A cornerstone of Mormonism is a belief that families are forever, marriage is eternal, and both can only happen through special ordinances performed by Mormon priesthood holders in the temple. Until 1978 these eternal “blessings” excluded both male and female Blacks.

    Well, as it turns out, this concept was an invention of Smith’s, not a revelation. Nowhere in all of scripture, including the sacred text used by various factions of the Mormon sect, “The Book of Mormon” can any reference whatsoever be found confirming these concepts. While a lovely thought on the surface for many it’s simply a false doctrine within Christianity.

    Speaking to the idea that living prophets roam the earth today exclusively for the Mormon church, the reader is directed to the recent admission by the Salt Lake City church that their long-held belief to withhold the Mormon priesthood from Blacks was not a revelation after all. Nevertheless, in 1978 they chose to call the removal of this ban a revelation from God.

  • sfcanative

    How many times have you heard that church leaders, even mission
    presidents, aren’t paid for their services? “It’s a lay ministry!”
    Are you one of those who believes that?

    As an example, for mission presidents did you know that family expenses
    (spouse and all unmarried children under 26) are paid each month to
    include; all food, all clothing, all supplies, all activities, all
    dry cleaning, all holiday and birthday gifts to family members,
    medical expenses, eye care, 100% financial support for any child
    serving a mission, round trip airfare for children to visit the
    mission field, dance lessons, music lessons, private school tuition
    and books, free tuition to all BYU campuses for children or tuition
    compensation for any other accredited university. They’re obviously
    provided free housing, paid utilities, a gardener and housekeeper . .
    . and that’s just for starters . . .

    Have a look at Page 80 and the bottom of page 82 of the Mission President’s Manual. It will hopefully enlighten you to the LIE that LDS, Inc. perpetrates and the fraudulent tax avoidance they gleefully administer from secret bank
    accounts in Salt Lake City.

    Mission President’s Manual can be seen in its entirety here (see Appendix B
    starting on Page 80):

  • John W. Morehead

    Thanks for this review. Readers might be interested in Paul Louis Metzger’s forthcoming review of the volume for Christianity Today, our forthcoming co-authored review with Metzger at his Patheos blog, and my forthcoming review in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

  • nc47

    Great review, John.

  • nc47

    Looking forward to reading your reviews.