“…if America was not mentioned in the Bible, how could it properly be ‘under God’?”
— Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
My first brush with Mormonism came when I was living next door to a pair of all-American Mormon missionaries in a small town in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. These two “elders,” one 19, one 20, were inseparable—by church doctrine, they were never out of each other’s sight for the full two years of their ministry (ablutions being the only exception, as I understand it). And they were sweet lads, so much so that I endured several hours of their zealous teaching, complete with colorful cut-out graphic aids, to support the whole nine yards of the LDS fantastical theology of pre-birth spirits and post-death celestial kingdoms, not to mention Lamanites (bad guys, black), Nephites (good guys, white) and other made-in-America baloney.
It wasn’t that I was drawn to any of this—my dark past includes two years at a Catholic kindergarten (geographically, not theologically, convenient for the parents of a five-year-old). Sister Anne’s description of my sins ending up as dark spots on my soul (right here, where my liver is), spots that needed to be expunged daily if I wasn’t going to end up in Hell when I died, unnerved me. I guess that intro to Religion 101 served to vaccinate me against the absurdities of Mormonism and much else. Thanks, Sister!
What tempted me (briefly) to actually being baptized a Mormon was sympathy for these kids. They had no converts or prospects, despite hours, every day, of proselytizing to anyone who would listen to their nutty blather. Their Bishop, their parents, their fellow missionaries, all expected them to come up with a convert or two. Maybe I could pretend to be one, for their sake? In the end, sympathy didn’t win out, although I did try reading the Book of Mormon (boring!) that they thrust on me, with all its Biblical (King James Version) “and it came to pass” style and language.
The book that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, claimed to have translated (from golden plates given him by an angel, naturally) is a massive plagiarism. Mark Twain, who knew something about the hucksters and shysters of his time, described it as “an insipid mess of inspiration…The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament.” Much of the Book of Mormon originates, virtually word-for-word, from the Old Testament (nearly 500 verses from Isiah alone) and the Apocrypha. Plus it borrowed ideas about the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel from contemporary books of the time.
The appeal of Mormonism, at least in this country, isn’t hard to fathom, in that it solves the problem of the Bible completely ignoring the New World. As Old Testament scholar Zvi Ben-Dor Benite says (in an entertaining post on the blog Bible Odyssey), Mormonism gave Americans of the time (1830s on) “comfort in the idea that the lost tribes had come to these shores centuries ago. The idea both linked America to the Bible and accounted for the origins of America’s native peoples.” Who, according to the Book of Mormon, are descendants of the mythical ten lost tribes (per Kings 2 and Judges). However, and depending on who you believe, they also wound up in—among other places—India, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Japan, Nigeria, Britain and New Zealand. In insisting that they ended up in the US of A, Joseph Smith stole a conceit propounded 200 years earlier by Thomas Thorowgood, a Norfolk (England) preacher, the title of whose 1650 book says it all: Jews in America Or Probabilities That the Americans Are of That Race (available from Amazon as a facsimile reprint).
How did the lost tribes (whose historical existence is unlikely, according to most Biblical scholars) get from Assyria to here? According to Orson Pratt, one of Joseph Smith’s 12 apostles, they “had a highway made for them in the midst of the Arctic Ocean and were led to a land in the neighborhood of the North Pole.” (I think of The Clan of the Cave Bear meeting The Hobbit.)
Britain, too, somehow escaped mention in the Bible, but that didn’t stop fanciful ideas about the country’s central role in Christianity. Some years after escaping Sister Anne’s literally hellish teachings, we—600 pupils at my English Grammar School—regularly, and lustily, warbled William Blake’s jingoistic lines to Hubert Parry’s rousing melody:
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
…And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”
Well, no. Jesus didn’t stroll through England. Any more than ten fairytale tribes trekked over the North Pole to end up here.
Good story, though.