Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Joseph Smith's History, Part 1

In preparation for teaching the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history this next school year in seminary, I have been reading Joseph Smith's history. It is arranged in to verse form to make it easy to teach and quote from. There is only one chapter, with 75 verses. It is a relatively short read, but is a powerful testimony. I wanted to write about some of the key elements of his experience.


Scholars have discussed the unique religious climate in which Joseph Smith lived as a youth. It was an age of revivalism. This was in the year 1820 in upstate New York. Joseph described the environment in these words:

"there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist."

At one point, Joseph thought of joining the Methodists, but there was so much contest of religion that he couldn't decide which church was the right one to join. Many of these discussions turned to arguments and hard feelings.
Joseph said,

"For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions."

He truly wanted to choose well, but because of the confusion about doctrine among the separate churches, he decided to not join any for a time. But still, as he listened to sermons about heaven and hell, he was concerned about the welfare of his own soul. He went on to say,

"My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?"

I have had many conversations online with people whose religious beliefs differ greatly from mine. Amidst the debate between us, I could see how a young 14 year old boy like Joseph could easily be confused and not know which religion to choose. Although he desired to be baptized and follow the Lord, the religions around him differed so much that he couldn't decide which was the right one to join. Although he did read the Bible, he only had a grade school education, and was not educated in worldly ways. While he was struggling to know what to do during this time, he read this scripture in the book of James: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."

This scripture came with great force to Joseph's heart. Joseph, at 14 years of age, had the simple childlike faith that if he prayed, God would indeed answer his prayer. The Spirit impressed upon him the truth that he could pray to know which church he should join. It has always been interesting to me to note that God also spoke to the young Samuel in the temple. One might question why God would not choose an older, wiser person with which to communicate. But in these two cases, God was not only able to train up these youth to do His work, but was also able to call upon their childlike faith.

The next part of that verse goes on to teach that one must ask in faith, nothing wavering. Joseph thought about this and determined that he did indeed lack wisdom, and that he should ask God. In part 2 I will discuss the prayer that he offered, and the reaction of the religious leaders of his time.


Looney said...

"Although he desired to be baptized and follow the Lord, the religions around him differed so much that he couldn't decide which was the right one to join."

It sounds like Joseph (or the person writing the history) viewed the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists as three separate religions. Is that an LDS view now?

Delirious said...

I think the answer would be yes. Although we view them all as Christian, my understanding is that they do have differing beliefs. When Joseph was attending their meetings, their teachings were very different. If they had been more similar, it wouldn't have mattered which one he joined. But they differed greatly. I have to admit that I don't know much about the Methodists and Presbyterians. I feel like I have gotten a better understanding of Baptists through you, but I have always thought of them as three distinctly different churches, although all Christian. Can you tell me more about them? Are they in fact different?

Looney said...

I would say at that time (about 1820) all three groups were excited about Jesus. The Methodists I know the least about, but they were an offshoot of the Church of England. One of the characteristics of this group is hierarchy so that appointments of pastors are done outside the church.

I have been a part of Reformed Presbyterian groups, so I know more about them. Presbyterian is from Presbyter, or Elder in the Bible. The emphasis was on a local governance of the church, which was anathema to the bureaucratic Anglicans. Towards the end of the 19th century, modernists hijacked the Presbyterian denomination, so the various reformed groups left, merged, and re-establishing seminaries from scratch in order to restore the faithfulness to Biblical teaching. Thus, I see the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians as being mainly related to hierarchy, while theology isn't an issue.

The Baptists were first noted for there differences regarding practices of baptism - immersion, vs. sprinkling, believer vs. infant. The Bible itself gives us very little detail about baptism, so the manner is not a fighting issue for me, but tradition had added much to the Bible and this was (and remains) a fighting issue for many.

Another key difference with the Baptists is the belief that each church should be governed autonomously. Thus, the Southern Baptists are a loose affiliation, while the trend gave way to countless independent Bible churches like Rick belongs to.

On theology, the Presbyterians and Anglicans were in line with the Westminster Confession, with a strong link to Calvin and formal theology. Baptists tend to be much more loose on the theology and emphasize man's relationship with Jesus via Free Will. Baptists will spend more time on the Bible, while Presbyterians look at creeds.

This comparison exercise reminds me that my reading of historical Christian writings is very un-Baptist. It is also un-Presbyterian since I don't focus on Reformation era writers.

Delirious said...

Thank you for that explanation. I always thought that most religions believed in autonomous government. Because even in the Catholic church, with their hierarchy of priests and Bishops and Pope, there is great difference among the practices of the different congregations. Maybe that is a more modern practice today.

You know, in thinking about it, I think Joseph Smith's main problem may not have been so much the difference in doctrine between them, but that they were debating amongst themselves so strongly in order to win converts to their side so that Joseph didn't know how to choose between them. And he must have felt that being young and unacquainted with the world and things that he might choose wrong if he wasn't careful. At the same time, I'm sure the preachers convinced him that his very soul was on the line and that he had to make a choice. This inner turmoil over wanting to choose the right way in order to save his soul is what led him to pray.

I was thinking about what you said about baptism. I think the fact that the Bible records Jesus being baptized by immersion should be very convincing. But it is silent on the matter of infant baptism. The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni recorded a strong statement about this issue:

"8. Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.
9 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.
10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.
11 And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.
12 But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
13 Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.
14 Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.
15 For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism." Moroni 8:6-15

Looney said...

When I have taught Baptism, I always teach and emphasize the Baptist doctrines, although I also include the Presbyterian ideas, like Ezekiel 36:24-32. I am definitely for the full dunking, but wanted them to know what other Christians believed so that they wouldn't be shocked when they finally did encounter others.

Most of the conflict I see as being of the pattern of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41, but on a larger scale. Clearly the issues were quite important to them at the time, but they were ones that separated ministry.