The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.
--William W. Phelps, 1836
In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), Phyllis Tickle dispenses with Mormonism in two sentences:
Mormonism, which is growing rapidly domestically and globally, is arguably the fourth of the great Abrahamic faiths rather than a subset or variant of Christianity and increasingly is so treated by religionists. Accordingly, it is omitted here.While some Mormon apologists take umbrage at the suggestion that Mormons aren't Christians in the classical sense, I (and many other Mormon scholars) tend to agree with Tickle's assessment, first elaborated by Mormon-friendly Methodist scholar Jan Shipps.(1) Tickle's sweeping analysis of Christian history shows how new faiths have come into being as the result of previous realignments of faith similar to what she calls the present "Great Emergence." In the scheme Tickle delineates, the timing of Mormonism's arrival on the world religious scene would arguably suggest that Mormonism is in fact the earliest product of the present "Great Emergence," and that understanding Mormonism is a key to understanding what is happening throughout the entire Christian world today.
For those of you unfamiliar with the "Great Emergence" paradigm, it is a model for looking at religious history that posits major shifts or realignments of belief every five hundred years or so. The last major realignment took place around 1500 A.D., and in the Christian world was known as "the Great Reformation," resulting in the emergence of Protestantism as a new form of Christianity and bringing about a major realignment of belief within the Catholic Church as well. Five hundred years before that, around 1000 A.D., a major realignment of faith resulted in "the Great Schism" between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years before that, around 500 A.D., we saw the emergence of Christian monasticism, helping preserve Christian belief and piety through the "dark ages." Around the time of this major realignment, we also see the emergence of Islam as the third branch of the family tree of Abrahamic religions.
Five hundred years before that is of course the time of the emergence of Christianity from Judaism. Five hundred years before that, around 500 B.C., was a period sometimes referred to by historians as "the Axial Period," because it involved another major realignment of faith not just within Judaism, but within many world religions, spawning Buddhism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Within Judaism, this was the time of the Babylonian captivity, and it was the period of history that produced the great prophets of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Amos.
Within this model, each five hundred year period of realignment is preceded by about a century and a half of growing instability caused and/or exacerbated by a crisis of authority. By the end of the realignment, a new foundation for spiritual and social authority emerges, usually requiring another century or so of adjustment. In the previous realignment, "the Great Reformation," the principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola ("only scripture, the scripture alone") emerged as the dominant basis for religious and social authority.
People's faith in the authority of scripture has been eroding rapidly since roughly 1850, helping to bring on, among other things, the great social and religious schism between "fundamentalists" and "liberals" within most mainline churches. But the fault-lines that were to emerge in the great nineteenth-century debate over the authority of scripture were already starting to be visible in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of Enlightenment philosophy, Deist attacks on Christianity and the Christian canon, and the first public emergence, in the wake of the French Revolution, of atheism as a philosophical and moral system. Joseph Smith Jr.'s family were certainly aware of Deism. His paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, had read and was apparently a fan of Tom Paine's Age of Reason.
Implicit within the "Restored Gospel" revealed by Joseph Smith the prophet was a radical critique and rejection of the authority principle of sola scriptura, scriptura sola, and the substitution in its place of a new authority principle: direct, modern-day divine revelation, both personal and collective. Because of Mormonism's emphasis on direct personal communion with God, and on prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit, Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan identified Mormonism as a "proto-Pentecostal" movement.(2) From the Mormon perspective, of course, it was Joseph Smith, Jr. who had "unlocked the Heavens" and opened the gates of divine inspiration that would result in a great outpouring of knowledge and spirit on "all flesh," among "all nations, kindreds, tongues and people."
Latter-day Saints currently have, and have always had, a paradoxical relationship with scripture. On the one hand, the Saints cherish and revere scripture as the repository of divine wisdom and revelation. The Mormon love for scripture manifested itself especially in early Mormonism as a seeming inability to get enough of it! Joseph Smith added three major books to the canon: The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, and promised more scripture yet to come as the work of the Restoration unfolded. It is likely for this reason that today's Latter-day Saints are fascinated by extra-canonical scripture like the Nag Hammadi library, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Enochian literature.
Yet, despite revering scripture, Latter-day Saints reject written canons as the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth. For Mormons, not dead prophets but the living prophets and the living prophets only provide definitive answers to the great problems of the age. You could say that the new principle elucidated by Mormonism is sola revelatio, revelatio sola. The Mormon definition of scripture tells the whole story. For Mormons,
...Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (D&C 68: 4)But also built into Mormonism is an acknowledgment of the fallible human element in written scripture, which includes problems of linguistics, human weakness, human inability to receive the divine fullness, and the inappropriateness of rendering transcendent truths into limited human discourse. Joseph Smith explained that Mormons believed scripture to be true "in so far is it is translated correctly." But even the authors of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith described as "the most correct book," acknowledged their "weakness in writing," and their belief that the fullness of the book's message could only be carried into the hearts of its readers by the power of the Holy Ghost (see, for instance, Ether 12).
The Mormon canon -- the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price -- have all been subjected to the same type of historical textual scrutiny and criticism as the Bible, but, to the dismay of some of Mormonism's opponents, without the same devastating effect among Mormons as textual criticism has had among mainline Christians. This is because for Mormons, direct personal revelation trumps all. Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon because they have read it and the Spirit has testified to them of its truthfulness; because they have applied its principles and found them to work in real life. And Mormons simply don't rely on the Book of Mormon as the authoritative guide for their faith in the same way that Protestants rely on the Bible. Mormons look to living prophets for that kind of authority.
While theologians and religious commentators are observing and talking about an "emergent church" phenomenon in Christianity as a whole, is there a similar phenomenon among Latter-day Saints? There are indeed signs (disquieting or encouraging, depending on one's perspective) of a growing generation gap in Mormonism, particularly with respect to the issues of women's equality, gay rights, and attitudes toward authoritarian Mormon claims of infallibility and exclusive access to spiritual truth. I routinely have conversations with younger Mormons who take women's equality and the validity of gay relationships for granted, and who, while having testimonies that "the Church is true," insist that to them this does not mean that other faiths do not also grant access to equally valid spiritual truths.
However, the sources of friction between the rising generation and present-day institutional Mormonism are not problems that require a re-invention of the Mormon authority paradigm in order to solve. The authoritarian, exclusivistic, infallible tone that has repelled some is, as argued by Armand Mauss(3), a relatively recent phenomenon within Mormonism, and Mormons have a rich tradition of inclusivity, broad-mindedness, and egalitarianism to draw on in reframing themselves for a new generation. Joseph Smith taught the existence of a Heavenly Mother and sent mixed signals on the question of women and the priesthood which provide the fodder for continuing speculation and debate. And individuals who are pained by the church's position on homosexuality or on gender issues can still find solace in Joseph Smith's insistence that
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.While the encounter with gay Christians, as Phyllis Tickle observes, seems to be the straw that is breaking the back of sola scriptura among mainline Christians, for Mormons the principle of continuing revelation can only be reaffirmed by a revelatory resolution of issues related to homosexuality, whatever that resolution ultimately may be. Mormonism probably has a greater capacity to come through this issue with the overarching structure of its belief-system unscathed than almost any other of the great Abrahamic faiths.
The revelatory authority paradigm, which is the cornerstone of Mormonism and the source of its on-going dynamism, first began to shake the rafters of the mainline Christian world with the Azusa Street Revival, beginning in 1906. Since that time, pentecostal or charismatic Christianity has grown from several thousands to approaching one quarter of the world's Christian population, if one counts the charismatic adherents of mainline Catholicism and Protestantism as well as the members of explicitly Pentecostal sects like the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. For these Christians, as for Mormons, the mark of true divine authority is the on-going manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, and true faith involves turning to a God who is expected to reveal and manifest himself visibly today no less than at any other period of human history. While the revelatory authority paradigm was primarily to blame for the scandal of disrepute under which Mormonism labored for most of the first two centuries of its emergence in the world scene, we are now seeing growing acceptance in the culture at large of the idea that "God is still speaking," and a growing sense that revelation is the way forward in a world precariously balanced on the brink of ruin.
Joseph Smith once said, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that. Get all the good in the world and you will come out a pure Mormon."(4) That is about as classically "emergent" a faith statement as there is. Mormons frequently refer to their faith as "the fullness of the Gospel." For Mormons, that means having not just correct beliefs and true doctrines, but the living, active presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and the actual power of God that comes through a miraculously instituted priesthood. That is why, even though I in many ways fit the profile of an "emergent," even though I occasionally wrestle with a deep sense of personal tragedy as a gay man excommunicated from his home faith community, I find a deep, vibrant hope in my faith as a Latter-day Saint, and I can truly say that everything I have witnessed and experienced in my life has taught me a profound reverence for and given me a deepened testimony of the Gospel as restored in latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
1. See Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press, 1987).
2. See Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997).
3. See Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994).
4. Quoted in Don Bradley, "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation," Sunstone 141 (April 2006): 36.