One of the major points which I brought up in dialogue with the Mormons I have been meeting with for the past eight months or so is the fact that their church has a history of violence. I have not made a study of all the various stories of violence in Mormon history, but I understand that there are those who have worked to show that there has been a lot of it.
I don’t know about all that. What I am definitely aware of is the account of the death of Joseph Smith. It seems that, according to the LDS church’s own history, Smith died in a gunfight after wounding two people himself. I find this odd, to say the least. While it’s apparently true that he was trapped in a jail building which was being overrun by an angry lynch mob that was coming to kill him, I just can’t see his end as a heroic one – certainly not one which gives evidence of his being a true prophet. I would have expected the founding prophet of the one true church to have gone meekly and humbly to the gallows and let himself be martyred in a peaceable way – or at least to trust God to get him out of the situation. But instead, Smith went out in blaze of desperation and hostility.
Of course, there is nothing special about this when we remember that violence, especially “redemptive” violence, is the norm for the world and, sadly, for much of the church. In fact, many Christians in America and elsewhere, would have no problem, in principle, with Smith’s use of force in self-defense. But even such Christians would probably agree that it makes Smith’s claim to be God’s prophet, the one who is restoring the true faith to the world, ring quite hollow. (Such Christians as agree with my thinking here might ask themselves why it seems wrong that a true prophet would resort to such violence, but it seems just fine for ‘ordinary’ believers to do so. But that’s another topic.)
For my part, committed as I am to the belief that Christ’s way is the way of peace and non-violence, this historic account of Smith’s demise is, all on its own, sufficient ground to doubt the credibility of the Mormon message. I know this beyond any doubt: If it were actually the case that the church had fallen away 1800 or 1900 years ago and that the true, full gospel had only been restored in the last 140 years through the work of a young prophet from New York, the church established by that prophet would be a peace church – not another church which legitimizes the use of violent force against people. The fact is, Mormons make good Americans in the sense of being very much on board with the idea of the heroism of the military and the myth of redemptive violence. (The likes of Glenn Beck come to mind.) I would have expected the true, restored church to be more like the Mennonites in this regard.
This connects to the issue of the LDS church’s pattern of racial and sexual inequality. But we’ll have to save that for another post.