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.”
The LDS church officially renounced polygamy in 1890 in church president Wilford Woodruff’s “Manifesto.” Turner gives evidence that some leaders continued entering plural marriages nevertheless, and that Woodruff “did not reject polygamy as a principle, but made it clear to American politicians that he intended to do what was required to avoid the church’s dissolution.” Yet polygamy has been condemned by LDS authorities ever since, and the polygamous Jesus disappeared from LDS discourse in the 20th century.
Turner suggests, however, that a married Jesus is a logical consequence of LDS teaching that Jesus is a member of our species who became a god by achieving the highest level of exaltation. When three Mormon scholars debunked The Da Vinci Code in 2007, they conceded that a married Jesus is impossible to assert without clear scriptural evidence. But they added that “it would not bother modern disciples who are firmly rooted in the doctrines and ordinances of the kingdom to find out one day that Jesus was married while on earth.”
A Goldmine of Fascinating Nuggets
The Mormon Jesus contains other startling revelations. One is the “inspiration” that Smith derived from Freemasonry. He founded a Masonic lodge in Nauvoo, Illinois (where the early Mormon community fled to escape conflict with the Missouri government), and was himself raised to the rank of Master Mason two years before his death. Smith taught his associates that Mormon priesthood represented “the true recovery of ancient Christian principles imperfectly preserved in Masonic rites.” Turner points out that Mormon temple garments continue to display the Masonic symbols of a square and a compass.
Readers might be surprised to learn of the Mormon Jesus’ role in conflicts between Joseph and Emma Smith, his first wife. According to Turner, the Smiths clashed repeatedly over Joseph’s additional marriages, usually entered into without her knowledge or consent. Emma appears to have gotten “revenge” by starting a relationship with Smith’s confidante William Clayton. Joseph then told Emma he had received a revelation from Jesus instructing her to “cleave unto my servant Joseph, to no one else.” Otherwise, Jesus threatened, “she shall be destroyed.” Turner notes that after Smith’s murder in 1844, Emma denied that Joseph had ever practiced polygamy, “a testimony to the depth of her opposition.”
Turner’s depiction of LDS views on Jesus’ atonement is not particularly new, but most Christians will be startled to learn that “by the 1980s, the Mormon consensus was that the principal scene of Christ’s suffering and atonement was at Gethsemane rather than on the cross.” According to Mormon theologian Bruce McConkie, Jesus had already atoned for human sin before he died on the cross.
This book is a gold mine of fascinating historical nuggets. Here are a few: Early Mormons used bread and wine at Communion (now they use bread and water), Joseph Smith did not look at the golden plates but used them for “inspiration” during most of his “translation” of the Book of Mormon, he taught that God created “worlds without number,” and Brigham Young was convinced for most of his life that Adam is humanity’s God and divine Father.
If Turner has a thesis, it is that today’s Mormonism is thoroughly Christian. As he puts it, LDS teaching falls “within most common and commonsense definitions of Christianity.” Mormonism, on this understanding, is not just a new religious tradition or new world religion, as some scholars have called it. Rather, it is firmly “anchored to the Christian savior.” The Mormon Jesus is both distinctively Mormon and “utterly Christian.”
It is telling that in an endnote Turner includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses in his “commonsense” definition of “Christian.” Yet Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that Jesus is not fully God, not equal to the Father. Like Mormons, they reject the Trinity.
On the other hand, Mormons say that Jesus is fully God and equal to the Father. But they also say that God the Father and Jesus are two different beings, two different gods, each with flesh and bones. The same, they teach, is true of the “Holy Ghost” (Mormons use the King James phrasing).
But for Joseph Smith, Jesus was not always God. The Mormon founder said it was revealed to him that Jesus grew into being God. This is nothing new to Mormons or students of Mormonism. But it is crucial to any question about whether the Mormon Jesus—or Mormonism generally—is Christian.
For most Christians in the last 2,000 years, Jesus’ identity was defined by the New Testament. A Jesus who did not conform to the Jesus of the New Testament was by definition not the Christian Jesus. One of the early church heresies was adoptionism, which held that Jesus was originally a mere man but later adopted by God at his baptism.
Against adoptionists the church fathers pointed to New Testament testimony that Jesus was always God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Luke tells us that as a boy Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), but the church has taught that this means “his human nature was instructed by his own divinity” (Jerome), or that while remaining divine “he made his own the progress of humans in wisdom and grace” (John of Damascus). As Athanasius argued in his battles with the Arians, there never was a time when God the Son was not God.
What about the Mormon teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct gods? The Bible teaches, on the contrary, that there is only one God. It calls both the Father and the Son “God,” but never refers to them as two gods. It says “God” is the Savior of all men (1 Tim. 4:10), and teaches that the Son saves by the power of the Spirit, but the three are never called three saviors. Scripture never refers to the Creator or Redeemer in the plural, although it does use the plural for men, women, angels, devils, demons, and principalities and powers. This is true in both Testaments: God asks, “Is there any God besides me?” (Isa. 44:8), and declares, “I am God, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:22). The psalmist cries, “You alone are God” (86:10). Jesus himself quotes the Old Testament, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29), thus affirming its insistence on monotheism.
Therefore, there is no way we can say that Jesus was not always God or that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different gods unless we read the New Testament through the lens of later Mormon “revelation.”
So is the Mormon Jesus “utterly” Christian, as Turner puts it? Not if “Christian” is defined by a plain-sense reading of the New Testament and the historic teaching of orthodox Christian churches.
Gerald McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, and co-author of Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries (Regent College Publishing).