By Ruth Tucker
Years ago son Carlton and I visited a grove of trees near Palmyra where Jesus had appeared and told Joseph Smith, in answer to his prayer, that he should join none of the churches because “their creeds were an abomination in his sight.” Last week I posted on Spurgeon and MacArthur and their “downgrading” of fellow Baptists. The top-dog downgrader, however, was surely Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons. Smith was fourteen, the same age as Carlton was when he visited the grove with me. That fact was not lost on me at the time—a mere kid—although the report of the vision did not come until many years later. Next spring marks the 200th anniversary of that retroactive claim of Smith’s first vision,
But like Spurgeon, Smith and his religious beliefs have had defenders—the entire LDS community for most of two centuries (and I’m certainly not comparing the theological content of the two men). But both have had cult-like followings. Very troubling, however, are some noted Christians who stand alongside Mormons, while seeking to convince fellow Evangelicals that the LDS is making significant changes toward orthodoxy. I cite in particular the highly respected Christian leader, Richard Mouw. He argues in Talking with Mormons that Jehovah’s Witnesses should be classified a “cult” but not Mormons—even though JWs do not have extra-biblical scriptures.
I know what it’s like to defend a “cult.” Years ago when I was writing my book Another Gospel, I called the Pasadena headquarters of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, asking for clarification on certain issues. I quickly learned that significant changes were occurring from the top down. Soon after, I met with the three top leaders and was able to offer critical advice. They were moving rapidly toward historic orthodoxy, but were fearful of everything blowing to bits if they moved too fast. At one point they were ready to go public with a new doctrinal statement and passed it on to me for review. I immediately spotted a red flag—how the statement would be perceived by Evangelicals. So I made a substitution for a twice-used 2-letter word and sent it back. The statement was published with my correction.
When my relationship became public, I was attacked by counter-cult leaders—this coming during the decade I chaired the Tanner Lectures on cults at TEDS. In the years that followed, even as my relationship with WCG leaders continued, Richard Mouw, then President of Fuller Seminary, stepped in and played an important role in their theological development. Located close by, he was the ideal individual to stand beside them and I was grateful for his supportive involvement. They encountered many difficulties and schisms along the way, but within several years had become a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. In 1996, I summed up their story in a lengthy article, “From the Fringe to the Fold” in Christianity Today.
The situation regarding the LDS, however, is entirely different, and Mouw, above all others should recognize that. He writes an article in First Things (May 2016), titled “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy”—no “Are” to begin with or question mark at the end. He focusses primarily on what he and many Mormons have referred to as the Lorenzo Snow couplet:
As man now is, God once was;
As God now is, man may be.
Mouw writes: “[T]he Mormon teaching about becoming gods can be seen as expressions of a straightforward theological orthodoxy.” Others have challenged Mouw on this matter, and I have nothing to add.
My own challenge to Mouw relates to Joseph Smith and LDS history. Two centuries ago young Smith came out of the woods with an answer to prayer about which church to join. In LDS scripture, we learn that the personage, whom God the Father introduced as his son, told Joseph that “all their Creeds were an abomination in his sight [and] that those professors were all corrupt.” Today LDS apologists insist that evangelists and preachers of that day often said similar things about other religious groups, and that young Smith was no different—he was not perfect. The problem with that argument is that Smith did not say it. Jesus did. Smith’s only involvement was to repeat what Jesus told him.
My question: Has Jesus (or God the Father) changed his mind? If so, it would seem that the current Prophet and President Russell Nelson should make a public announcement as was done in the instances relating to polygamy and blacks in the priesthood. It’s a question Mouw should pursue.
Another matter relates to evangelism. Mouw speaks often of his good friend, Robert L. Millet, an academic who taught at BYU. I chaired a small meeting at Calvin Seminary with Millet and several of my colleague. My first question to him was: If Mormons are Christians, as you say, why do you focus most of your evangelistic outreach on other Christians? I would be upset, I told him, if Reformed leaders were instructing missionaries how to teach classes in order to convert Baptists. His response was that he would check into it. That evening when John and I went out to dinner with him, I followed up, and he assured me that he would take my concerns to Mormon leaders and get back to me. That was more than a dozen years ago. Still no word.
Another critical issue for Millet and Mouw is found in Doctrine and Covenants (one of 3 LDS scriptures in addition to the Bible). Here God reveals to Joseph how to handle his wife Emma who was outraged by his introduction of polygamy, including a very early incident of his taking their teenage servant girl to the hay mow for a spiritual marriage. Here is D&C 132: 52, 54:
And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph. . . . And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.
Did God actually reveal this, or did Joseph make it up as he was going along? Either way, it is nothing less than staggering abuse of Emma Smith, not to mention all the young girls and women he took as wives, this Prophet of God.
In defending the LDS, Mouw offers an illustration of Ellen Tucker Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She taught Unitarian Sunday school and Bible studies, “especially fond of studying Ephesians and Romans. . . . But was her Christocentric view of salvation negated by her rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity?” He doesn’t answer. But it seems very problematic to cite a non-Trinitarian obscure woman with no following to bolster a specious argument in favor of the massive LDS establishment.
What I’ve written is only the tip of the iceberg regarding LDS heterodox beliefs, the sum of which is the “Restored Gospel.” The original true gospel had vanished at the end of the first-century apostolic era. That true gospel was then restored by Joseph Smith after some eighteen hundred years of apostasy. Really. I say it again. The “Restored Gospel” is Mormonism. Period.
Mouw blames Christians generally, and counter-cults specifically, for misrepresenting Mormon beliefs in an effort to malign them. I’ve encountered that myself. But Mouw misrepresents their beliefs in order to befriend and bolster them. Serious interaction with Mormons about their beliefs must be based on LDS scriptures and other official teachings, not on what a BYU professor might say. Smith’s visions and revelations contain startling instructions and information, as did some of the claims Herbert W. Armstrong dreamed up. The leaders of the WCG, as Mouw well knows, slowly denounced his heresy and brought the WCG into the NAE.
In the case of the Mormons, Mouw writes: “Indeed, it has often struck me that their view of their later [3 extrabiblical] scriptures is much like my own view of the Calvinist creedal documents that I subscribe to.” I certainly don’t know Mouw’s personal view of these creedal documents. Does he believe they’re direct revelations from God? Mormons believe that about their scriptures, which are far more than merely creedal documents. The Book of Mormon is translated into more than 90 languages, another 30-plus in the works. It is not sub-titled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” for nothing, taking “its place where it should be,” writes Boyd Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “beside the Old and the New Testament.”
Mormon missionaries take those translations around the world with them. They have publicly praised Wycliffe Bible Translators for opening their translation courses to them, thus assisting in their own translating of the Book of Mormon. And they have also praised Christian missionaries for paving the way for them so that they can more easily bring the “Restored Gospel.”
I support the work of Joel Groat, the brilliant and mild-mannered Director of the Institute for Religious Research. He is fluent in Spanish and often travels to Latin American countries (as well as Africa), at the invitation of church leaders who are desperate for help in countering the Mormon onslaught. I believe, Dr. Mouw, that you are making Joel’s work in the States and abroad far more difficult. I fear that your desire for friendship with Mormons has tainted your objectivity, and that you are playing right into of the hands of the LDS.