My family believes in the book of mormon and is very disappointed and, sometimes, furious with me for believing only in the holy bible. It has lead me into religious confusion because it looks and sounds just like the Bible but the Christian church seems to have universally rejected it on the grounds of nit picks and certain contradictions – – as opposed to having large, indisputable proof that it is false doctrine. How do Anglicans see the “gospel restoration” the book of mormon claims to be and how did the church come to reject it? My family has seriously driven me nuts over of this book. They don’t want me to only believe in the Bible.
The relationship between orthodox Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) is rocky and complex for a variety of reasons, not all of them theological. There was certainly a history of Mormons being ill treated by Christians, which is part of what led to the Mormon movement west in the nineteenth century. But today Mormons and orthodox Christians usually are able to get along, to live together in the same communities, and even to work together for the betterment of society. I consider that a blessing. Most of the Mormons I have known in my life have been very decent, loving people who cared deeply for their families and friends.
Nevertheless, what David has asked here is a theological question, a question about what is true. And because it is a very serious, straight forward question, it deserves an equally serious and straight forward answer. David wants to know why Anglicans, along with other orthodox Christians, accept the authority and legitimacy of the Bible while rejecting the authority and legitimacy of the Book of Mormon. The answer is that the Bible is true and the Book of Mormon is not.
History is a Mystery
The historical problems with the Book of Mormon are myriad. For starters, it does not appear on the scene until 1830. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that it was a record from a much earlier time, approximately 2200 BC to 421 AD, that had been previously lost but was revealed to him on golden plates by the angel Moroni (who in and of himself presents a theological problem, but we will get to that in a minute). That is all well and good. Legitimate ancient texts are occasionally rediscovered. All we would need to do to verify Smith’s claim is to take a look at the original documents and do a standard historical, anthropological investigation. Except, we cannot do that because the plates mysteriously disappeared. Several people swore that Smith had shown them the plates, although they were all friends, family, and financial backers of Smith (and their stories do not always line up with one another). Bottom line, while we have lots of very ancient manuscripts of the Bible that allow us to verify them as ancient documents, we have no such way of verifying the Book of Mormon.
The same historical problems exist within the narrative of the book as well. The Book of Mormon makes a variety of claims about things that supposedly happened in the ancient world, especially in the Americas. The Bible makes many historical claims as well. Archeologists have verified some of the Bible’s claims while as yet being unable to verify others. But there is not a single shred of archeological evidence for any of the Book of Mormon’s claims.
The Once and Future Church
So, at best, the historical reliability of the Book of Mormon is questionable, requiring us to place a great deal of faith in the personal testimony of Joseph Smith if we want to believe it is true. But what is much more problematic for orthodox Christians than the historical inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon is the way in which the Book of Mormon, and Mormon beliefs in general, contradict the teachings of Holy Scripture and of the ancient Catholic Church.
As David mentioned, Mormonism is a “restorationist” faith. What this means is that Mormons believe that some time shortly after the founding of the Christian Church, there was a great apostasy in which true Christianity was tossed aside in favor of a lie and the true Christian Church was replaced by an impostor Church. The founding of the LDS Church in the nineteenth century was God’s way of restoring the true Church on earth after a long absence. This means that for almost two millennia, all the people who thought they were really Christians were wrong. They were following a false Church with false teachings. Only those who have received the Mormon revelation have received the fullness of Christian truth. There were a number of restorationist groups that emerged in nineteenth century America, but Mormonism is the most prominent and enduring.
Sometimes Mormons get upset that so many Christians are unwilling to accept their movement as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith, but the reality is that to accept the Mormon story is by definition to say that anything and everything else is a lie.
In many ways, the Anglican principle is the direct opposite of the Mormon principle. While Mormons start from the presumption that Christian history is useless between the end of the apostolic age and the nineteenth century, Anglicans begin from the presumption that the early Church held a clear and cogent understanding of the faith as it had been handed down by the apostles. Rather than declaring everything prior to be apostasy, the Reformation English Church sought to safeguard the legacy it had received and to pass it on to future generations. Early Mormons sought to restore the Church by accepting a new revelation which contradicted what had come before. Anglicans sought to reform the Church by going back to what they had already received in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers.
Angel Hair Impostor
How does Mormonism contradict historical and scriptural Christian teaching? Many, many ways. A simple example can be found even in the story of Mormonism’s founding. The plates that Joseph Smith supposedly found were revealed to him by the angel Moroni whom Mormons believe was the last prophet to have written in the plates before their disappearance more than a thousand years before. Upon Moroni’s death, he became an angel. Many people today would not blink at this since there is a widely held misconception that angels are what we become when we die, but the Bible teaches that angels are spiritual beings created by God prior to the fall. Angels do not have bodies, unlike human beings. We will never become angels, and they will never become human. Rather, the choirs of angels and the choirs of human saints join together in worshipping God.
However, Mormonism’s teaching on angels is hardly the most consequential way in which its teaching departs from historic and biblical Christianity. Mormons do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Mormons also have a completely different way of understanding salvation that is largely built on personal moral triumph. In fact, Mormonism teaches that human beings have the potential to become gods themselves (though there is some dispute as to exactly how this claim is to be interpreted). The bottom line is that while Mormons use a lot of the same language as Christians to describe their beliefs, what they believe in is not Christianity. The God of Mormonism is not the God of the Bible.
Again, none of this is to cast aspersion on Mormons as people. Mormons are often pillars of the community, and most of the Mormons I have known have been far better people than I am. I understand completely why Mormons find it frustrating that so many Christians are unwilling to call Mormonism a Christian faith. But the fact remains, if we are to treat each other with respect and love, part of that love requires speaking uncomfortable truths. Paul says, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Mormons have been given a false gospel by a false angel. The only antidote to that is the true gospel that comes in the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Archbishop Runcie once famously called Christianity “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” In this case, it is also one beggar telling another that the bread they think they have is actually poisonous.
Of course, in a situation like David describes, where there is a lot of pressure coming from family, all of this can be tough. Sometimes the only thing that you can say, once everything is out in the open, is just, “You have your beliefs and I have mine, but I love you, even if I don’t agree with you.”