Church History Sunday (Month #1)

I’ve begun teaching adult Sunday School once a month at my congregation in downtown Toronto. The other three weeks, we’re going through the Enduring Principles, but my week is “Church History Sunday.” I’m working without a manual, but I’m planning to write out what I do and post it here as a resource for anyone interested.

I started last week at the beginning by asking my class the question: “How does our history begin?” Now, I was prepared for people to take this as a trick question. I thought I might get answers like “actually, since Christ founded the church, our history begins with the ministry of Jesus in Palestine,” or I thought someone might want to push back further to Eden or even the Pre-Existence. Instead, I instantly got the answer I was fishing for, “with a young man praying in a grove,” one of the class members volunteered immediately.

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Exactly. This is how we today always start our story. With the “First Vision.” I next asked “What is the story of the First Vision?” and I had one of the folks write each detail on the whiteboard. The class came up with these details, which I’ll put into order: 1820s, revival meetings, confusion of sects, James 1:5, grove, prayer, vision, personage, creeds an “abomination,” don’t join any sect, found the church. The only details I had on my list that didn’t get volunteered were: “confronted by dark powers” and “pillar of light.” The class clearly knew the story from memory. Continue reading

Sticks and Stones and … Compliments?

Several years ago when my congregation attempted to join the local ministerial alliance (in a town right next door to Independence, Missouri), I was met by a coalition of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors intent on keeping out the (then) RLDS Church. Their reasoning ranged from claims we were “non-Christian” all the way to “not Christian enough” and, finally, to “it would just open the door for Mormons to want to join.”

As it turned out, they only wanted to talk about Joseph Smith. Apparently, our faith movement’s founder represented all that anybody needs to know about contemporary Latter Day Saint groups.

To shorten a long and rather nasty story, I’ll just skip to the part where representatives from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholic Churches prevailed. A Methodist pastor put it this way: “Nobody asked me to prove I was ‘Christian enough’ to join, so why should we start now?”

Eventually most of the fundamentalists/evangelicals bolted from the alliance when an LDS representative was admitted a few years later. They formed their own group, which over time has dwindled in size and influence.

I mention this episode as a way to ask, “Do we expect to be misunderstood or misrepresented?” Is this a natural outgrowth of religious discrimination and persecution experienced by our forebears in the almost two centuries of our faith movement’s existence? Although nobody’s getting tarred and feathered these days (at least here in North America, as far as I’m aware), has suspicion become our default setting?

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Remembering Joseph Smith, Reclaiming a Saint

December 23 is the 204th birthday of the great prophet of the restoration movement, Joseph Smith, Jr. Perhaps it is unfortunate that his birthday is so close to Christmas. One almost feels a bit sacrilegious thinking about Joseph at a time when we remember the birth of Jesus. Nonetheless, if we affirm that God is present and at work with many different peoples (and indeed, I would say, at work with many different religions), we also need to do the hard work of thinking about how God has been at work with us. Appreciating the truths that others have should lead us back into a conversation about why we are true. And that leads us back to Joseph Smith.

What really got me to thinking about this was reading an edited volume Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries. I highly recommend this volume. Some of the essays are brilliant, while others, well, leave much to be desired. Nonetheless, several essayists offered reappraisals of Joseph Smith that I thought could be useful for Community of Christ members. And Joseph needs some serious reclamation by members of our tradition. We need to move beyond the stage of adolescent critique that we’ve been stuck in for the last few decades (that stage where we find out that our spiritual parents were not perfect and we act a lot like judgmental teenagers after this revelation) to a more mature appreciation for our ancestors. And Joseph has shaped us in too many ways for us to ignore him. Continue reading

The Book of Mormon: Fact, fiction or fading away?

Last Wednesday, Rod Meldrum visited Nauvoo and gave a presentation on DNA and the Book of Mormon.  His attempt was to make the case that DNA studies do indeed prove the validity, accuracy, and historicity of the Book of Mormon.  The videos arguing that DNA disproves the Book of Mormon have been circulating for many years now, and he was offering his response.  The presentation was interesting, if tragically unorganized and disconnected, but he made some valid points.  I did not agree with all of his conclusions, nor did I disagree with them all.

If for no other reason, his presenation did get me thinking.  Meldrum’s claim, a part of which I’d never heard before, was that:

(1) The Book of Mormon is an historic document, detailing people, locations, and events which really took place

(2) The Hopewell moundbuilders are the closest descendants to the Lamanites

(3) DNA proves (through his understanding of Haplogroup X) that Native Americans have genetics from the Israel region

(4) Joseph Smith believed the Book of Mormon to have occurred in the United States

(5) The events and locations in the Book of Mormon are mostly throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.  Particularly, he emphasized his belief that the city of Zarahemla was directly across the river from Nauvoo’s present location. Continue reading

Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).

Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind SinghMohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity.  Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.

It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.

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