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  Friday, January 23, 2004

There are three texts, each purporting to give a separate episode of this dream or vision.  (1) Lehi's account in 1 Nephi 8 (Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision, 1 Nephi 8:2).  (2) Nephi's account and commentary, scattered throughout 1 Nephi 11-15 (I sat pondering in my heart [and] I was caught away . . . [to] an exceedingly high mountain, 1 Nephi 11:1).  (3) Joseph Smith, Sr.'s dream of 1811, as recounted by Lucy Mack Smith in her memoir History of Joseph Smith (Bookcraft, 1958, is the edition I own).  This book is an invaluable reference; a critical edition of the text (whose transmission is messy and is subject to some dispute) is now available as Lucy's Book (Signature Books, 2001).  Some excerpts relating to five of Joseph Smith, Sr.'s visions are posted online at this link.

The first account available to the modern era (and to Joseph Smith) appears to be Joseph Sr.'s dream in 1811.  Here is my edited version of that account, as related by Lucy Mack Smith (as recorded in the Bookcraft 1958 edition, p. 48-50), with terms familiar to readers of the 1 Nephi 8 version and the 1 Nephi 11-15 commentary highlighted:

"I thought," said he, "I was travelling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. . . .  My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, 'This is the desolate world; but travel on.'  Traveling a short distance further, I came to a narrow path.  This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a llittle way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. . . .  I could see a rope, running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. . . .  Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible, whiter. . . .  [T]he fruit . . . was of dazzling whiteness.  I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. . . .  I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating and praising God for this blessing. . . .  I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and in appeared to reach to the very heavens.  It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed.  When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. . . .  [My guide] told me [the fruit] was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. . . .  The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls. . . .  [My guide] replied [concerning the building], 'It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall.'"

Some have argued that Lucy Mack Smith's account of Joseph Sr.'s dream of 1811, recorded in 1845, reflects influence of the Book of Mormon accounts.  At the same time, the recital of details unique to the 1811 account (rope, eating by handfuls, Babylon) suggests much of the account is independent of the Book of Mormon versions.  In any case, Joseph Sr.'s dream of 1811 is of some importance for understanding the context in which Joseph translated the other accounts in 1829. 9:27:37 PM      

Last week I finished Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World, by Norman F. Cantor (HarperCollins, 2003), a very readable survey aimed at the general reader.  The four worldviews that formed around classic literary and philosophical texts (per Cantor) were the Hebrew Bible, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the Hellenistic literature centered in Alexandria.  Thank God for the Hebrew Bible or we'd all be amoral technofascists.

Anyway, his discussion of what made mainstream Judaism unique among ancient religions (at pages 88-95) caught my interest because I noted distinct affinities with what makes Mormonism unique among modern Christian denominations.  He noted: (1) Lack of sacramental ritual.  True for Mormonism with the exception of temple services.  [Caveat: he actually said "it does not involve magic," which does not hold for Mormonism, but his concept of magic was very sacramental.]  (2) HistoricityThe Jew saw himself as part of a very long and tempestuous continuity reaching from the patriarchs to the present, which also describes the adopted Mormon mindset (see D&C 110, for example).  (3) Community.  The Jewish mindset stressed a temporally continuous community socially separated from the surrounding Gentiles, also true for Mormons, who identify deeply with their pioneer ancestors who formed the 19th-century Church and later crossed the Great Plains to Utah.  The Mormons have managed to form in a mere 175 years what is perhaps the most uniform, integrated, culture-transcending global community known to man.  I've visited LDS congregations in ten states, three provinces, and at least ten different countries, so I speak from direct experience.  It's a religious franchise that works anywhere missionaries can scrape together a few dozen converts to form a congregation.  I'll add a couple of my own general concepts:  (4) Scriptures.  The Jews wrote their own; so did the Mormons to a degree unrivaled in Christianity.  (5) Persecution.  While Mormon persecution pales compared to the Jewish experience, the Mormon experience in Christian America is nevertheless almost unique.  Few Christians know, for example, that one-sixth of the United States Army marched against Brigham Young and the Mormons in 1857, or that the US Congress formally disincorporated the LDS Church in 1887 under the Edmunds-Tucker Act.  Adversity builds character and identity.

My point is that the Mormons are more than just a denomination or a church, they have become, if not quite a kingdom (which implies a political presence not attainable at present and probably not desirable), at least a people.  Few Christian observers catch on to this, which is why most don't really "get" the whole Mormon thing beyond just worrying about Mormon missionaries, TV spots, and chapels with really big parking lots.

Here are a few other idiosyncratic observations that support my point that the Mormons are different, qualitatively different, from a mere denomination or church.  (1) Mormons have evolved their own system for giving kids unique names, like Mishelle or Kendra or Norval, names you have never heard of before.  See the Mormon Name Generator for a hilarious take-off on this.  (2) LDS, Inc. is a national corporation.  Every LDS chapel or building in America is owned by LDS, Inc., in Salt Lake City.  Every tithing dollar collected on Sunday gets swept to LDS, Inc. bank accounts in Salt Lake by Monday morning.  Individual congregations or stakes have zero ownership rights in their buildings and land, despite truly impressive yearly donations by those congregations--it's all owned by Salt Lake.  In comparison, even the Catholics form local diocese entities that own their own assets (and it is those local entities that are threatened with bankruptcy over multi-million dollar sexual abuse judgments).  There is no overarching "Catholic Church" legal entity, but there is an LDS, Inc.  Mormon corporate organization is so far ahead of other churches it would be an embarrassment to Christendom if any of them ever caught on.  (3) Even people who exit the LDS Church can't get away from their Mormon past.  They try, but it's like trying to get away from your shadow.  Ever heard of an ex-Jew?  Didn't think so.  The label "ex-Mormon" is an oxymoron, as evident from the incessant complaints of LDS leaders that "ex-Mormons" just can't leave the Church alone.  Mormonism leaves an imprint that transcends denominational affiliation in the same way that Jewishness does.

This isn't triumphalist bluster--I'm not sketching out Mormonism's version of Manifest Destiny here, I'm just making what I think are objective observations that highlight a rarely noted aspect of Mormonism as a movement and a community.  I think the "Are Mormons Christian?" question that occupies so many Christian apologists who follow Mormonism predisposes them to think of the Mormon Church as just another denomination.  I think that's a case of marketing myopia.  They don't even understand what they're up against.  At least that's how I see things.  I would be interested in alternative viewpoints or experiences--email me if you have one. 10:26:47 AM      

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