Saturday, May 26, 2007

"A Mormon in the White House?"

In the course of a very interesting review of Hugh Hewitt's book about the Romney candidacy, A Mormon in the White House?, Francis Beckwith provides this brief account of the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:
Founded in 1830, the Mormon church’s central message is that Christianity had lost the true gospel only a few generations after Jesus’ original disciples had died. (Mormons are unclear on precisely when this total apostasy was complete, but it surely had to have occurred prior to the formulation of the A.D. 325 Nicene Creed, which the LDS church rejects). The point is that true Christianity had vanished from the earth for roughly 1,500 to 1,700 years, until a fourteen-year old resident of Palmyra,
New York, named Joseph Smith Jr. claimed that, as a result of answered prayer, he was personally visited by God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Smith was instructed by them to join none of the Christian churches. This is when Mormons believe Smith began his cooperation with God and his Son in the restoration of the true gospel.

Part of the restoration included a new set of inspired scriptures, the first of which was the Book of Mormon (1830), which contains the story of the resurrected Christ visiting America and preaching and teaching his gospel to its native peoples. According to the LDS narrative, Smith translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates that were buried in New York’s Hill Cumorah, a location that was revealed to him by the Angel Moroni. Another aspect of the restoration included a new ecclesiastical structure based on apostolic succession and the passing on of priestly authority without requiring a special class of clerics. According to Smith, in 1829 he and his friend Oliver Cowdery were visited by John the Baptist, who bestowed on them the Aaronic Priesthood, which empowers its recipients to preach, baptize, ordain others, and perform Levitical duties. Smith claimed that, soon after receiving the Aaronic priesthood, he and Cowdery were visited by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, who literally laid hands on Smith and Cowdery in order to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood. This bestowed on them apostolic status as well as the power to administer ordinances, promulgate doctrine, and organize and lead the church.

Even if one thinks that Smith was profoundly mistaken (as I do), one cannot help but marvel at the religious genius of this project: It has all the advantages of Reformation Protestantism and nineteenth-century Restorationism (“Let’s get back to what Jesus and the apostles originally taught”) with all the advantages of Catholicism and Orthodoxy—an apostolic magisterium within the confines of a visible church. Smith has both a priesthood of all believers and a priesthood managed by a church hierarchy. He offers a new gospel unconstrained by centuries of theological precedent, yet it he could claim that it is as old as the apostles. He could, without contradiction, reject tradition while claiming to be the true guardian of an ancient message. It may be wrong, but it was brilliant. ....
FIRST THINGS: On the Square: When the Saint Goes Swearing In

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