If you go to Kirkland, Ohio you might find the Kirkland temple. If you go to Nauvoo, Illinois you may discover, not only the Nauvoo Temple, but an entire community of history. If you go to Lamoni, Iowa you might come across Graceland University and Liberty Hall. If you go to Independence, Missouri you may drive past the Community of Christ Temple and Auditorium. All four of these landmarks are visual evidence of the achievements of Joseph Smith’s Restoration Movement, as a result of the distribution of The Book of Mormon, published in 1830.
Growing up in the Community of Christ I regularly heard church members list off the texts our organization recognized to be scripture; The Bible, The Book of Mormon and The Doctrine & Covenants. Every time I heard someone list off The Book of Mormon as one of those texts, or quote it in a sermon, I got super uncomfortable. I never knew or asked myself why, but I knew it was important that Community of Christ was not Mormon and that we were not Mormons.
A little over a year ago (Fall 2015) I took Restoration Scripture with Matt Frizzell and I was humbled by learning the history of this text and it’s influence on Americans. Last Spring (2016) I took Politics and Religion with Dr. Adam Martin and I was shaken to learn how most every religious tradition has a history of being violent and controlling. Then, this semester (Spring 2017) I’ve been taking Critical Theory with Dan Platt and I’ve been overcome with the power of choosing my own critical analysis of literary texts.
In my opinion, I am incredibly blessed to have come up in a church whose history is so self-sacrificing, that encouraged me to believe I was capable, which led me to becoming a first generation college student at Graceland University, who shares that same history. I have found myself incredibly grateful.
TheBook of Mormon relates the history of a group of Hebrews who migrated from Jerusalem to America about 600 BC, led by a prophet, Lehi. They multiplied and eventually split into two groups. One group, the Lamenites, forgot their beliefs, became heathens, and were the ancestors of the American Indians. The other group, the Nephites, developed culturally and built great cities but were eventually destroyed by the Lamanites about 400 AD. Before that occurred, however, Jesus had appeared and taught the Nephites (after his ascension). The history and teachings were abridged and written on gold plates by the prophet Mormon. His son, Moroni, made additions and buried the plates in the ground, where they remained about 1,400 years, until Moroni, a resurrected being or angel, delivered them to Joseph Smith; subsequently Smith returned them to Moroni.
Non-Mormon critics disagree in their opinions as to the origin of the book; some critics believe that it was written solely by Joseph Smith. Another theory, now discredited, claimed that it was based on the manuscript of a novel by a clergyman, Solomon Spaulding.
The Book of Mormon is organized by six books; First Book of Nephi, Second Book of Nephi (includes Book of Mosiah, Aima, Helaman, Third Nephi, Fourth Nephi), Book of Jacob, Book of Enos, Book of Jarom and Book of Omni. The Book of Ether and Book of Moroni were written separately and meant to be spoken of within the text.
A helpful text, if approaching The Book of Mormon on your own, outside of an academic setting, is The Book of Mormon Witness to It’s First Readers by Dale E. Luffman (2013).
Within months of the distribution of the text thousands of people had joined Joseph Smith’s Restoration movement. When I was able to look at records I found that the vast majority of followers were poor, indigenous or immigrants. The tones of the movement were very much anti-catholic and anti-traditional-christian. This movement was called the Restoration, today this history is referred to as Mormon history, but at the time the people called themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Book of Mormon is full of brutal stories in which the world is unfair, evil is heavily present and people are seriously struggling with varying forms of sin. Many of the stories are about people in power abusing their power at the cost of others followed by a narrative of equality and self-reflection/free will.
The idea of all being equal, all being welcome and a person deciding for themselves what it means to be a member of a community was a big deal to a lot of people, but not everyone was on board.
The Book of Mormon also challenges the idea of continuing revelation, that God wasn’t done speaking to the world or interacting in our lives when The King James Bible was published. It encourages the idea that God is continuously working in our lives and speaking to us and that no one person is more worthy than another to have that experience if they want to.
Many christians in positions of power, mostly white catholic men, produced a decent amount of yellow journalism in response to the increasing numbers of membership in the restoration. They called Joseph Smith a violent polygamist who was starting an army to take over the United States Government. They created a false narrative of Mormons being, uneducated, unable to control their emotions, hill-billies, violent, polygamists and mentally insane.
This false narrative actually helped the number of members in the restoration even more. Both people who didn’t believe the false media and those who did and wanted to be polygamists, or this or that, joined.
After a period of time the Mormon community experienced their first split. There were members who very much believed that The Book of Mormon wasn’t it and that the legacy of continuing revelation should be continued, while others now recognized The Book of Mormon as being their “Bible”. So, the church split into two new churches; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In the late 1900s there was another split in the church when women were fighting to be recognized as worthy of being ordained as priesthood members. This was passed at The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint’s World Conference and many who disagreed with the decision left and started their own churches or joined Mormon churches.
The yellow journalism spread about this churches history, throughout the 18 and 1900s began a movement called New Mormon History that has survived to the present day in how we recognize false narratives about Mormon history, tradition, members as being true.
Just in the last two years the Mormon church came out with a statement that if you identified as being a member of the LGBTQA community or had a family member that did and you still associated with them than you were no longer welcome in their church. Thousands of members have left the Mormon tradition, we call them Latter Day seekers. Hundreds of these Latter Day Seekers have joined The Community of Christ church and recognized the same respect I hold for a church that moves forward with the times.
Earlier I mentioned The Doctrine & Covenants as one of the texts Community of Christ recognizes as Scripture. This specific text is continuously being written. It’s sole purpose is to continue revelation, as The Book of Mormon was an example of.
The Kirkland Temple in Kirkland, Ohio was built by hundreds of people who sold all of their lands and belongings to form a collective pool of money so that they could build it and then built it themselves.
The town of Nauvoo was burned down by wealthy catholics who believed the false narratives of mormons being “evil polygamists”, but the poor, predominantly indigenous and immigrant families their put all they had together and rebuilt it.
Graceland University was also built by hundreds of poor people who put what resources they had together to built it and from the time it was built has always had an intentional statement that “all are welcome here”. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints built Graceland because in much of the country, even just a few miles away if you crossed the Missouri border, you could be shot on sight, just for being Mormon, let alone no schools would allow Mormons to learn there.
This is a history of people who understood oppression, abuse of power and, though continuously changing, the present desire for oppressed groups to have community.
The Community of Christ Temple was built by rich people much later to fulfill the dream all the poor people had of building it before.
Textual Introduction to Third Nephi, Book of Nephi
Third Nephi recognizes The Trinity in equal parts: God, Jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit. Throughout Third Nephi God is loving, Jesus is a friend and the Holy Spirit is working within people and within the children to speak freely and to be equal to one another.
What could be problematic with the idea that Jesus Christ came to America?
Why do you think Joseph Smith wrote a story in which Christ came to America?
The Sermon at the Temple (12-14) works to council you on your life. Is any part of this text applicable to your life? Your world? Modern politics?
What is your analysis of the meaning of the Lamenites and the Nephites? What groups might they relate to in our world today?