For nearly 200 years, Mormons have both enraged and intrigued evangelicals. The rage has come from Mormon claims that the Book of Mormon contains new revelation superseding and correcting the Bible, and that Christians are apostates from the apostolic church.
The intrigue has come from the fact that Latter-day Saints (LDS) are so similar and yet so different. The Book of Mormon is remarkably Christ-focused, and presents a godhead resembling the Trinity. Yet later teachings by Joseph Smith deny the Trinity and claim that God the Father has both a physical body and his own father. Evangelicals have always been fascinated by Mormon beliefs that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, that the New Jerusalem will be located nearby, and that American Indians are descended from the ancient Israelites.
Now the Internet buzzes with new debate over (president emeritus of Fuller Seminary) Richard Mouw’s pronouncement at First Things that Mormons are moving closer to historic Christian orthodoxy. LDS leaders, he proposes, are downplaying the Mormon teaching that God was once a man. A participant in Mormon-evangelical dialogue responded that, on the contrary, this teaching remains on the LDS Church website and LDS leaders are still teaching that God and humans are of the same species. Then a professor at Brigham Young University proclaimed that the LDS has no intention of revising its doctrine of God and humans sharing the same species, or of moving toward orthodoxy. A leading LDS intellectual added that Joseph Smith’s revelation of God once being a man was one of the great corrections that Christian orthodoxy would do well to adopt. Southern Baptist Richard Land interpreted this to mean that the Mormon Jesus is “not our Jesus” because the former is not eternal. Land promptly got his hand slapped by Mormon religion scholar Jana Riess for getting his facts wrong: The Mormon Jesus, she chided, is indeed eternal.
Peeling Back the History
Into this swirling controversy a bombshell has dropped that will send evangelicals and Mormons alike scurrying for biblical cover: John G. Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography. Turner, professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of award-winning books on Bill Bright and Brigham Young, peels back the history of Mormon beliefs about Jesus. What he finds will shock evangelicals and might embarrass Mormons.
Most shocking is Turner’s discovery that many, perhaps most, “19th-century Mormon leaders taught that while on earth, Jesus had married, and had taken more than one woman as his wife.” Their reasoning went like this: If Joseph Smith had taught that Jesus did everything necessary for exaltation to godhood, and that “plural marriage” was required for the highest level of exaltation, then Jesus must have married several women and sired children by them. For example, near the turn of the 20th century Joseph F. Smith (who would later become a president of the church) preached a sermon on the wedding at Cana, declaring that “Jesus was the Bridegroom and Mary and Martha the brides.”