Being raised a Mormon in the 80’s and 90’s, a common trope I heard oft repeated was that of the Lord preparing the way for the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. One of the highlights and, perhaps, high-points of this preparation was the work of the protestant reformers in Europe. The vague, relevant points of the stories of Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Wycliffe, among many others, received and continue to receive their praise from Mormon leaders and scholars alike.
(Note that my links are not to LDS sources because, frankly, I don’t want to drive traffic directly to their website. A quick search of “lds Martin Luther” or any other name will bring up a trove of results leading one to their sources.)
The church praises these men for acting in the mid-teenth centuries as John the Baptist acted in the first century. They each played a roll in preparing for the coming of one greater than they. Of course, Joseph Smith was the ONE for which each reformer, unwittingly and unintentionally, prepared the way. An easy co-opting by leaders and scholars of the lives and contributions of these men grants validity to the claims of the Mormon church. They even go so far as to quote Tyndale who is said to have told critics, “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou doest.” Another example of holding in lesser regard Tyndale’s real intent in the saying to make him an unwitting, unintentional, and, I would venture if he were aware of its use in this way, unwilling prophet. For Joseph Smith was a common farm boy who, as well as claiming to know a great deal about scripture due to revelation, also claimed to know where to find treasure by use of a peep stone. Treasure that, when it was not found by his paying clients, he claimed with just as much conviction, had been taken by spirits and hidden elsewhere.
And it doesn’t stop there. Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers of the United States become tools for god. Despite the horror they inflicted on indigenous peoples, or the discoveries they made, or wars they won, or documents they penned, the ULTIMATE good all their lives did was to make way for a small cult to flourish in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The gist of what these reformers were attempting to throw-off was that oldest of human governments to which men, by choice, would willingly submit, theocracy. “I have a special connection with someone you cannot see or hear, but he speaks to me and tells me his will for you. How benevolent of him! Now give me your money and your women.”
When the only people who could read in any language let alone speak in a dying language like Latin are the one’s sermonizing, they control the narrative people may hear. Indulgences, witch-hunts, inquisitions follow. There is power in literacy and power may be taken by its employ. Divinely appointed monarchs, literate as they were, could have no reason to bite one of the the larger hands that fed them–the Church itself. The entity that granted them divine legitimacy. Common men and women, under threat of earthly torture and eternal torment, were slaves to their ignorance.
John Wycliffe, an English priest, in the late 14th century, pioneered the translation of the Bible from Latin to the vulgar or common language spoken, if not read, by common men and women. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the reformation was that of arguing for the scripture rather than the papacy to be the authority on doctrine and practice in the church.
Martin Luther, famous for declaring 95 reasons why the existing church was not operating or teaching in accord with the Bible as he read it, was excommunicated and placed on trial with secular authorities–as secular as they could be in the early 16th century. Condemned by the Pope and the Emperor, the was excommunicated. A former priest and monk within the church, he started a stone rolling that would fill the Earth. Which, perhaps, goes to show that for a ship as large as a world-wide church to change course, the influencers that come from within have a great deal of power, even and especially in excommunication.
Willam Tyndale, a contemporary of Luther, pioneered the translation of the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the text. As a direct challenge to the Christian leaders hegemony at that time, possessing a copy of the Bible in English was made a crime punishable by death.
Disagreements with the Bible as the last word in any disagreement notwithstanding, the work of these men and others like them was to challenge the theocracy that reigned over the minds and lives of humans. To say that the men in authoritative positions within the church are fallible and subject to selfish whims or well-intentioned misinterpretations yet that the Bible could become the sole arbiter of any and all things, is to create a self-deluded irony. The Bible, too, was written by men. Very few, if any, direct witnesses of claimed events. Yet, their word is made sacrosanct–unless it supports slavery or suppression of women or any other inane pronouncement that is inconvenient in our modern day. Rest assured, however, that if society would permit it, these god-fearing saints would gladly tell a woman she cannot speak in church, that to have black skin is a curse, and would be eager to call you to a church court for wearing fabric of mixed fibers.
Mormon’s celebrate the emancipation of man from the theocracy of the middle-ages only to embrace theocracy in another form in their own lives. If challenged, I can imagine at least one defense you might hear from a staunch Mormon since, as a missionary, I often used this myself:
“Well, every worthy male can hold the priesthood now, so all men can have authority, not just the clergy.”
Yes, that is the claim you make. But in order to act with the authority in any ordinance that actually affects a person’s salvation, you must do so ONLY with permission from and oversight by a presiding authority. These same men must authorize you to enter their temples! Believe me when I say, the ceremonies that go on in those whited-sepulchers are neither inspiring nor insightful. They are creepy, cultish, and downright bizarre.
Furthermore, only the prophet can interpret the scripture. Only he has a direct and personal line to God himself! He has the final word on all things doctrinal or procedural. Thus, when Joseph Smith calls you on a mission, don’t be surprised if you come home to find that he married your wife while you were away. Not only that, but you had better support him in marrying your 14-year-old daughter because he is the prophet. Regardless of how it makes your stomach turn at that thought, it is apostasy to oppose him. That kind of opposition sounds a lot like what you celebrate Martin Luther for doing in the first place!
How about the voices in our day that have come out against the bizarre, inconsistent, and cruel theocracy of the Mormon leadership? Let’s excommunicate you for standing up for the dignity of children and their safety against pedophiles “in high places.” Vile acts swept under the rug to protect the church at the expense of the victims. Sound familiar? How about asking for clarity on historical issues that have not only been neglected in the dominant narrative, but actively suppressed by the men at the top? Excommunicate him! Can we have equality for women in the church? Excommunicate her!
Each of these cuttings-off is done under the guise of protecting the members from wicked and evil influences that seek to destroy their souls. Somehow, the powers that be in Salt Lake City think this action delegitimizes the accused. You want us to learn from Luther, Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others like them? They are made famous and revered by men. The institution becomes infamous and distrusted.
When your thoughts are at the mercy of the whim of the current leader, you are in a dictatorship. When the leader stands for or is a supernatural individual, you have a theocracy. Perhaps a case in point:
Nearly a year ago, I had a conversation with someone very close to me. This came on the heels of a leaked audio of church apostle and member of its highest governing body, the First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks teaching young men in a congregation about the sacrament, aka: communion. He instructed them that it should be taken by the recipient with their right hand. Such a pharisaical distinction on his part would, to him, seem appropriate considering that all ordinances of the holy priesthood have a scriptural injunction to be done in proper order.
This individual is still a believing Mormon and our relationship, since my disaffection from the faith, has experienced a near constant if not intense strain as a result. Recalling a moment from childhood, I expressed that my mother had taken the chance when I, as a young adolescent, more than once reached for the communion bread or water my left hand to kindly inform me that it should be done with the right hand always. Considering how this person feels about my mother, her response was too scoff and roll her eyes. I mentioned the comment by “Elder” Oaks. She then said, “Well, some people just don’t know what it is all about.”
Does she really believe that? I wonder, in my apprehension to bring up the recent change to the church’s official handbook–as close to scripture as their official cannon though subject to easier modification–, if she would come to the sudden and abrupt defense of the direction considering it is codified as an admonition in the official instructions (section 18.9.4, Item #7)? They would not prevent anyone from taking if their right hand were absent or incapacitated. They wouldn’t call you to repentance if they saw you take it with the left hand when the right was capable. But they have established a written expectation that will be bandied about in sermons, lessons, and discussions. It will become a means of virtue signaling to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is precisely the rigorous straining at gnats while swallowing camels by the religious authorities of Palestine during the first decades A.D. that elicited strict rebukes by a fringe preacher of that time and place who was called Jesus.
While rejecting the gnattish dogma’s of original sin and it’s corollary, infant baptism, paid clergy, the sale of indulgences, papal authority and infallibility, just to name a few, Mormons swallow or have swallowed in the past the camel-like and eerily reminiscent dogmas of the inferiority of people of African descent and their proscription from priesthood authority and temple ordinances. Their upper quorums leadership and mission presidents enjoy a “modest stipend” that puts them each amongst the most wealthy 1% of people in the world. Yet they claim with great aplomb that the distinction of the true church of Christ is to have “no hirlings in the flock.” Which begs the question that, since they are paid by the church and receive parsonage, health insurance, travel expenses and other benefits, do they, like the pigs in Animal Farm, privately believe that, indeed all members of the flock are equal, but some are more equal than others?
Ask a Mormon to truthfully tell you where those who do not pay tithing will go after death? Certainly not to one of their complicated and class-based degrees of the heavens. They cannot go to the temple which is a representation of heaven on Earth, a metaphor for the standard we must reach to be worthy to be invited into heaven after death. Pay to play, I’ve heard it said. Indulgence by another name. Even the destitute cannot receive assistance from the church unless they are paying tithing. And, to refer back to the handbook change (they’ll call it a clarification) that the sacrament ought to be taken with the right hand, those who called such a thing ridiculous months ago, will find themselves defending by gaslighting and other means, this pharisaical jot and tittle because it was approved of by their infallible leaders. Leaders who are infallible only when alive but who’s words can be swept under expensive temple rugs hanging under chandeliers that cost more than most people make in a year of hard labor.
This rabbit hole goes as deep as one is willing to dig. George Orwell acknowledges in his essay The Prevention of Literature, that every observer can only view an event, present or historical, “as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which [they] suffer.” Orwell’s descriptions of totalitarianism in his fiction and essays always put me in mind of the theocracy in which I was raised. A theocracy I did not realize at the time. A Plato’s cave, if you will.
Since “taking the red pill” several years ago, I have come to believe that the real, eternal struggle of the human species, is against totalitarianism. Regardless of the form in which it comes to us, learning to recognize its enticing and comforting tropes is a key in shaking its chains. Emancipation from it depends to a large degree on the appreciation of irony as we work at becoming aware of our own self-deceptions. Can we see the unpleasant but striking humor in our celebration of reformers who threw off theocracy, even as we subject ourselves to tyrants with modern business suits who “recycle…familiar rhetorical themes, and…stale rhetorical expressions“? Shall we even attempt to hold the more-equal members of the flock accountable for those standards they have set for others? Will we give them a pass because, though other totalitarian systems gave privilege to the ruling class, the one to which we belong is both uniquely not totalitarian and inarguably sacrosanct?
Perhaps we fight to battles in life, one we may win and another we are doomed to lose–as the elves of The Lord of the Rings who, no matter if the ring were to be taken by the enemy or destroyed would ultimately result in the end of their lives in Middle Earth. Galadriel called this catch-22 “the long defeat.” Death comes for us all. Totalitarianism will make its attempts.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her poem Conscientious Objector, “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.” Totalitarianism must remain a part of our collective memory as we relegate it to history. I will remember the reformers and patriots who struggled to emancipate me from monarchy and theocracy, but that is all that I shall do for tyranny.