Category Archives: Mormonism

I’m in The Atlantic

Elders Craig Thomas (left) and William James Tychonievich (right) in American Fork, Utah, circa 1998

Note added: Now that I’ve looked past the photo and actually read the article I linked to, I can see that it’s quite negative, focusing on Mormon missionaries who had bad experiences. I should mention that my own mission experience was a very positive one. Perhaps I’ll post a bit about it one of these days.

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Two things the Mormons are doing right

Recent posts at Bruce Charlton’s blog (this one, for example) have dealt with the idea that Mormonism is currently producing more “good fruits” (in terms of the devoutness of its members, the integrity of its leaders, and its resistance to corruption and liberalization) than are the other major branches of the Christian family of religions — and that Catholics and Protestants ought therefore to set their theological objections to Mormonism to one side, approach that religion with respect, and try to learn from its successes. As an ex-Mormon with Christian sympathies, I obviously find this discussion interesting.

So what are the Mormons doing right? The answer is unlikely to be found in Mormon doctrine itself, I think. A theme which keeps turning up in the conversation Dr. Charlton has started is that Mormonism is consistently better in practice than in theory, and that its often unusual and (from the point of view of other Christians) objectionable doctrine is a red herring. For example, in theory Mormonism is considerably more liberal than Catholicism on issues of sexual morality — but in practice, most Mormons actually follow their moral code, whereas most Catholics do not. In practice, what makes Mormons different from most other Christian groups is not so much their unorthodox theology as the fact that they don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, pay a full tithe, and keep the Sabbath day holy.

So, aside from doctrine, what is unique to Mormonism that might account for its success? Two things come to mind.


The church and the temple

One unique feature of Mormonism is that it offers two distinct levels of participation: the church and the temple.

The church is similar to other churches. Regularly scheduled weekly services are held which are open to everyone, both members and non-members, and maintaining membership in the church is very easy. Once you’ve been baptized, you have to try pretty hard if you want to be kicked out. (I found this out when I tried to leave the church in 2002. Even writing to church headquarters and explicitly renouncing my membership didn’t do the trick.) Church members are “disfellowshipped” (put on probation) or excommunicated (expelled) only for extremely serious sins such as murder or adultery, or for public and unrepentant opposition to the church itself or to its core doctrines. Except for these extreme cases, the church welcomes the participation even of people whose lives fall far short of its standards.

The temple is something else entirely. There is no schedule; members attend whenever and however often they like, mostly individually or in small groups which they organize themselves. If the nearest temple is far away, the local ward (congregation) may organize monthly temple trips so as to allow for carpooling — but these trips are still “extracurricular” in nature. A good member is expected to attend church every week, but there is no corresponding expectation that one participate in every temple trip. Given that you can attend the temple anytime you want, with or without other members, most of the other ward members won’t even know how often you attend, or even whether you attend at all.

Unlike the church, which is open to the public, the temple has very strict standards for admission. Temple patrons must show a “temple recommend” at the door in order to be admitted. This is a card certifying the member’s worthiness to attend the temple, which must be renewed periodically. A person seeking a temple recommend must be interviewed by the bishop (pastor) and stake president (like a Catholic bishop), and must assert that he believes key Mormon doctrines, accepts the authority of church leaders, is chaste, is honest, pays a full tithe, doesn’t drink or smoke, and so on.

Of course some hypocrites will lie through their teeth and attend the temple unworthily, but the system is so structured as to minimize that kind of thing. The unscheduled, extracurricular nature of temple participation makes it relatively easy for a member with worthiness issues to discreetly stop attending the temple for a while until the issues have been resolved. (Temple attendance can be contrasted with the Eucharist, called simply “the sacrament” by Mormons. Because the latter is administered publicly at weekly services which members are expected to attend, non-participation is much more public and obvious. I suspect Mormons take the sacrament unworthily far more often than they attend the temple unworthily.)

No system is perfect, but overall I think the two-tier church-and-temple system is an effective way of maintaining high standards while not putting undue social pressure on those who struggle with living up to those standards. Consider someone who is basically a good Mormon but struggles with some relatively common sin — pornography, say, or not paying a full tithe. If the whole church insisted on temple-level standards, such a person would either have to leave the church — with all the personal and social disruption that implies — or else live in a state of increasingly cynical hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, there were no temple at all, he might easily become complacent and feel that his current way of life is “good enough.” Under the church-and-temple system, though he can maintain normal social participation in the church while at the same time receiving a very clear message that his current way of life is not acceptable and that he is called to live up to a higher standard. Even if he should choose the path of hypocrisy, maintaining temple-level participation unworthily, the system of temple recommend interviews forces him to confront that hypocrisy; it replaces the easy, diffuse hypocrisy of “keeping up appearances” with the black-and-white dishonesty of looking the bishop in the eye and lying to him — something which is sure to prick the conscience of even the most jaded sinner, nudging him in the direction of repentance.


The calling system

The uniqueness of the Mormon system of “callings” was brought home to me recently while I was thinking not about religion but about politics — about the redeeming features of democracy and how they might be incorporated into a basically monarchic system of government. It occurred to me that this is precisely what the Mormons have done.

The appeal of democracy is the idea that governing the polity is everyone’s responsibility, that (ideally) every citizen is involved and invested and has a voice in the process. Its downside is that it tries to realize that ideal by means of mass voting — a system in which each citizen’s individual contribution is minuscule to the point of meaninglessness. In the name of making everyone responsible and letting everyone make important decisions, democracy gives us a system in which no one is responsible and important decisions are made by an algorithm.

The democratic approach to giving power and responsibility to the citizenry reminds me of the Mohist approach to love. Mozi taught that love and benevolence ought to be universal and absolutely impartial — that even one’s friends, family members, and fellow-countrymen ought not to receive preferential treatment. Confucius, a wiser Chinese philosopher than Mozi, made “treating relatives as relatives” a cornerstone of his ethical teachings. The Mohist doctrine is superficially appealing, but Confucianism recognizes the fact that having the full love and loyalty of even just one person is of far more value than having an infinitesimal fraction of the love and loyalty of every person on the planet. The same principle applies to power and responsibility. It’s far more meaningful to have full responsibility for one small thing than to share a tiny fraction of the responsibility for many big things.

Thus, in the ideal polity, instead of holding mass elections and maintaining the fiction that each citizen is making big important decisions such as appointing presidents and the like, the government would give each citizen a far smaller sphere of responsibility but make him really and truly responsible in that sphere.

The Mormon church comes very close to realizing such a polity with its system of “callings.” A calling is specific responsibility — such as maintaining membership records, teaching a Sunday school class, or being the bishop of a congregation — which is extended to a church member by his superiors, and typically every active member is given a calling. Callings are unpaid positions in which one typically serves for a few years, upon which one is “released” from one’s old calling and given a new one. Individual members have no say in what callings they receive; they can only accept or reject such callings as their leaders see fit to extend — and it is generally understood that one should accept all callings unless there is some compelling reason not to do so. No one ever volunteers for a calling, nor does voting play any role in the process of assigning callings. After a calling has been extended and accepted, the newly called person is presented to the congregation for a “sustaining vote,” but this is more like the “speak now or forever hold your peace” bit of a traditional wedding ceremony than like an actual election. The voting is virtually always unanimous in the affirmative. If someone did object, I suppose the bishop would speak with him privately and perhaps (if he had a valid objection) consider withdrawing the calling, but he would not be obligated to do so. In other words, the Mormons use voting the way voting ought to be used — as a source of potentially useful information which the leader can take into account, not as a substitute for decision-making.

Though totally non-democratic in its structure, the calling system has some appealingly “democratic” effects. Any “ordinary” member might find himself suddenly elevated to the bishopric or higher, only to return Cincinnatus-like to a much lower position after a few short years. Running the church is everyone’s job, and everyone is involved and invested — and that involvement takes the form of real, meaningful, clearly defined individual responsibilities. And the church accomplishes this all within the context of a unified top-down “monarchic” organization, leaving its polity uncompromised by the permanent state of limited civil war which is true democracy.

I’m not sure how effectively the Mormon system could be adapted to a secular polity, but it certainly seems to be a highly effective way of running a church. The members are motivated to stay involved because they have responsibilities and their involvement matters.


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Lux et Veritas: A hypothesis

This post deals with aspects of Mormonism which Mormons normally prefer not to discuss publicly, though I try to be tactful and do not violate any specific oaths of non-disclosure. If that bothers you, don’t read the post.

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A Mormon taxonomy of revelation

A recent post at my brother Luther’s blog discusses three terms which are used differently by Mormons than by most other people: gospel, testimony, and prompting. Luther does not suggest that the three terms have anything particular in common other than their atypical Mormon usage, but it occurs to me that they constitute a very systematic way of classifying revelation, and that when analyzed as such they reveal a gap in the lexicon — a type of revelation for which there is no name.

The table below classifies revelations on the basis of what is revealed and how it is revealed — the content and manner of the revelation, respectively. By public content I mean timeless truths or principles which are applicable to all people (for example, “there is a God” or “thou shalt not steal”). Private content refers to propositions — or, more often, imperatives — which have reference to a particular person in a particular situation and do not necessarily have wider applicability (for example, “thy sins are forgiven” or “give Bob a call”). The manner of revelation can likewise be public (proclaimed to the world through the mediation of prophets, apostles, and scripture) or private (communicated directly to the individual by the Holy Ghost).

  Content Manner
Gospel Public Public
Testimony Public Private
Prompting Private Private
(no name) Private Public


The gospel, as the term is used by Mormons, is not limited to the good news of salvation but encompasses all publicly revealed truths of universal applicability. (For example, the law of tithing is part of the “gospel” for Mormons, though I believe that usage of the term would be atypical in the wider Christian world.) When Mormons are talking among themselves, they refer to the religion they profess not as Mormonism or Christianity, but as the Gospel.

A person’s testimony consists of direct, personal confirmations of gospel principles. There is only one gospel, but there are as many testimonies as there are individual Mormons. Each person’s testimony is a subset of the gospel, constituting only such truths as have been specifically revealed to that individual by the Holy Ghost. The paradigmatic example is the testimony of the Book of Mormon which the reader of that book is encouraged to seek in Moroni 10:4. The content of the Book of Mormon itself is part of the gospel; when the Holy Ghost manifests the truth of the book to a particular individual, typically in response to a prayer requesting such a manifestation, that’s a testimony.

Promptings are direct communications from the Holy Ghost relating to personal matters which are not included in the gospel and are meant only for the person to whom they are revealed. Typically this comes in the form of a sudden “gut feeling” that one ought or ought not to perform some specific action. Every Mormon will have stories to tell of promptings which saved him from danger or directed him to someone in need of help. Actually, the meaning of prompting is somewhat narrower than the above table implies, since it is typically limited to unsolicited revelations in the imperative mood. “Thy sins are forgiven” would not normally be called a prompting but a personal revelation. Even personal revelations in the imperative mood are not usually referred to as promptings unless they come to one unbidden. If, for example, a person prays before making a major life decision (such as getting married) and asks for confirmation that it is the right thing to do, the answer would again be called a personal revelation, not a prompting. If on the other hand one were to ask a more open-ended question — “O God, what career shall I pursue?” — and receive a distinct impression that one ought to become a large-animal veterinarian, which possibility had never crossed one’s mind before — that could well be called a prompting. I suppose the key distinction is that the content of a prompting comes from outside; it cannot be a mere confirmation of an idea the individual was already entertaining.

The final, unnamed category would include public revelations — proclaimed to the world by prophets or in scripture — which are nevertheless of limited personal applicability. It seems odd that such a category of revelation should even exist, but it does. The Doctrine and Covenants is full of such revelations — revelations to specific individuals about specific situations, but recorded and published for all to read in scripture. There is no name for this type of revelation, but the taxonomy implicit in the other three terms draws our attention to its existence.


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A strange symbiosis

Let me tell you about an organism I know of which has a very peculiar lifestyle. Actually, it is composed of two biologically distinct organisms, known as the Slug and the Shell, each with its own DNA and reproductive cycle. However, the Slug and the Shell are so closely bound together for most of their life cycle that it makes more sense to think of them as two parts of a single organismic system.


At first glance, it’s hard to see why a Slug needs a Shell at all. Slugs are complete, self-contained organisms in their own right and are quite capable of living and thriving alone, without being bonded to a Shell. In fact, because of their greater fecundity, Slugs greatly outnumber Shells, and at any given time most of the Slugs in the world are unbonded, living without Shells. However, unbonded Slugs do have one striking liability: an inability to reproduce. They produce gametes in great abundance but have no external genitalia and hence no way of releasing those gametes.

Shells, on the other hand, are wholly dependent on Slugs and, except during pupation, are unable to live independently. While a Shell is a complete, living organism (not a lifeless mass of calcium carbonate, as the name might suggest), it is a seriously deficient one, with an incomplete digestive system (no mouth or anus) and no means of locomotion. Unlike a Slug, it does have a fully functional reproductive system, including external genitalia, but its inability to move around nevertheless makes reproduction a practical impossibility.

A few days prior to hatching, Shell eggs produce a powerful pheromone that attracts unbonded Slugs, which will hang around waiting for the eggs to hatch so they can bond to the newborn Shells. (If no Slugs are attracted, or if the bonding is unsuccessful, the Shells usually die in a matter of hours.) When a Shell bonds with a Slug, it plugs into the Slug’s digestive system, siphoning some of the Slug’s food into its own stomach and then routing its own fecal matter back into the Slug’s digestive tract to be excreted. Because it is mostly immobile, the Shell uses relatively little of the Slug’s food, but it is nevertheless essentially a parasite at this stage in its life cycle, living off the Slug and giving it nothing in return. The Slug-Shell unit at this point in its development is known as a Protosnail.

When Protosnails reach maturity, they mate. However, while the Slug does all the work of finding a mate and fighting off other Protosnails, it is only the Shells that mate, only the Shells that lay eggs, and only the Shells’ DNA that is passed on — for what hatches from the egg is not a complete Protosnail but just a Shell, which must attract a new Slug of its own.

Shortly after mating, the Shell disconnects from the Slug, drops off, and pupates. During the Shell’s pupal stage, the Slug once more lives independently. However, it stays in the general vicinity of the pupal Shell and will not bond with any other Shell during this time. During its Protosnail phase, the Shell has imprinted on its Slug’s DNA, and after pupation the adult Shell will bond only with that same Slug. And the Slug, as we shall see, has a very good reason for wanting to bond with its Shell again; such re-bonding is its only hope of getting any return on the investment it has made in its erstwhile parasite.

When the adult Shell emerges from its chrysalis, its Slug is generally there waiting for it, and they immediately bond again to form the final stage in their collective life cycle: the Permasnail. This time the bonding is much deeper and more pervasive, and it is irreversible. If the Protosnail is a bit like a hermit crab (albeit with a living shell), the Permasnail is more like lichen: functionally a single organism. However, the Slug and Shell components still retain their own separate DNA. Most importantly, from the Slug’s point of view, in the Permasnail the Shell’s external genitalia connect to the testes or ovaries of the Slug, finally allowing the Slug to reproduce its own kind.

When Permasnails mate, the eggs they lay hatch into Slugs, which grow to maturity and then start looking around for Shells to bond to in order that they may move on to the next stage of their life cycle.


So what am I really talking about? What is the real meaning of this zoological treatise à clef? I’ll reveal the answer later, but first feel free to guess.


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Mormons and the cross

There are a couple of Mormons running for the presidency in the U.S., which means that the rather tiresome question of whether or not Mormons should be considered Christians is being discussed yet again. (Short answer: Do Mormons worship Jesus Christ? Yes, of course. Do they profess basically the same religion as Catholics and Protestants? No, of course not.)

I’m interested in a different but related question: Given that they believe in Christ and the crucifixion just as much as any other Christians, why don’t Mormons use the cross as a symbol?


I was surprised at how hard it was to find the historical answer to that question. As far as I know, Mormons have never, even in the earliest days of the movement, worn the cross or used it as a decorative motif in churches, on Bible covers, etc. — but when I tried to find some statement by an early Mormon leader to the effect that the cross ought not to be thus used, I got nothing. It appears that the non-use of the cross among Mormons just sort of happened, without anyone ever making an official decision on the matter. (In a similar way, Mormon missionaries don’t tell converts from other denominations to stop wearing the cross; people just figure it out.)


The earliest clear statement on the cross that I could find was in the fourth volume of Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph Fielding Smith — not Mormonism’s founding prophet, but his great-nephew, who presided over the church in the early 1970s. Smith writes:

While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the [LDS] Church.  The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture.  To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God.  However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [source]

In 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a similar explanation.

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ. [source]

This reaction to the cross is certainly understandable and has often been expressed (Shaw stipulated that his tombstone not “take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice”) — but always by people who did not consider themselves Christian. It is odd that none of the countless other Christian movements and denominations has ever interpreted the cross that way. (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the cross either, but that’s because their ultra-literal reading of the Bible has led them to the conclusion that the σταυρός Christ was nailed to was a single upright stake.)


The problem with Smith and Hinckley’s explanation is that there are many symbols of the dying Christ, not just the cross, and Mormons have no problem with most of the others.

Mormons administer a version of the Eucharist, though water is used in the place of wine. The sacramental prayers identify the bread and water as symbols of Christ’s broken body and spilt blood but make no mention of the resurrection. The sacrament is generally preceded by a hymn which emphasizes the torture and death of Christ, such as “Upon the Cross of Calvary” or “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.”

Two of Mormonism’s most sacred symbols — used only by the initiated within the walls of the temple — represent the nails that the were driven through Christ’s palms and wrists to fix him to the cross.

When I was a missionary, we often showed people a short film called The Lamb of God, which was basically a much less graphic version of The Passion of the Christ. (It was created before Mr. Gibson’s film was; I don’t mean to imply that the Mormons copied his idea.) The majority of the film deals with Christ being flogged and abused and crucified, with a few minutes at the end for the resurrection.

Though you’ll never find a simple cross or crucifix on the walls of a Mormon church, you may well find a painting of the crucifixion. The cross appears to be acceptable so long as it is used in a portrayal of the historical crucifixion rather than as an iconic symbol of the Christian religion.

(One exception: Mormons do sing the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war / With the cross of Jesus going on before.”)

All this leads me to the conclusion that Mormons have no problem with using symbols of the dying Christ, and that there must be some other reason for not using the cross.


Another religious symbol which Mormons do not use is the ichthys or “Jesus fish.” This symbol makes no reference to the suffering or death of Christ. It represents an acronym of “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” — “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” — a formula to which Mormons have no theological objections. It also alludes to Christ’s statement “I will make you fishers of men,” which should make it especially appealing to a missionary-oriented denomination like the Mormons. But they don’t use it. Nor have they ever used the Chi-Rho, which simply represents the word “Christ.”

Why not? Because, over and above their “literal” meaning, these symbols represent the institution of mainstream Christendom — and Mormons, while certainly “Christian” in the primary sense of that word, are not part of that institution.

Why is it that Britain’s Labour Party never uses that classic, instantly recognizable symbol of labor, the hammer and sickle? If that question were put to the party’s leaders, I’m sure they would be able to come up with some ad hoc reason — something about how, with the decline of agriculture and the rapid growth of the service sector, those implements no longer adequately symbolized the blah blah blah — but the honest answer would be that that symbol already “belongs” to other movements, movements which, while they have a great deal in common with Labour ideologically, are sufficiently different that Labour would not wish to imply they are the same by borrowing their symbols. And that, I think, is also the honest answer to the question of why Mormons do not use the cross.

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City of Enoch

I’ve been reading Richard Lyman Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, which I bought some four or five years ago but hadn’t gotten around to until now, and was surprised to find this in a section on Smith’s revision of the Bible:

In redoing the early chapters of Genesis, . . . Joseph wove Christian doctrine into the text without altering the basic story. But with the appearance of Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam, the text expanded far beyond the biblical version. In Genesis, Enoch is summed up in 5 verses; in Joseph Smith’s revision, Enoch’s story extends to 110 verses.

Bible readers had always been curious about Enoch and the city transported into heaven. Joseph’s expansion appeared when a vast apocryphal literature on Enoch was first being rediscovered. . . . Up until that time, modern biblical commentators on Enoch had been restricted to the five verses in Genesis and the three in the New Testament that speak of Enoch’s genealogy, prophecy of judgment, and ascent into heaven without dying. (p. 138)

Bushman has obviously done his homework and is in a position know precisely what the Bible does and doesn’t say about Enoch — and yet he still somehow misses the fact that Bible readers had clearly not “always been curious about Enoch and the city transported into heaven,” because no such story existed until Joseph Smith invented it in 1830. Nothing in the Bible — nor in any of the apocryphal Enoch literature, for that matter — says anything about a city’s ascending into heaven with Enoch. Far from being a statesman or city-builder, the Enoch of pre-Mormon tradition is a solitary visionary, communing with angels, walking with God, and spending less and less time in the human world until he finally vanishes from it altogether. But so central is the holy city to the Mormon version of the Enoch story — Enoch without his city is like Samson without his jawbone or Christ without his cross –that a Mormon writer like Bushman simply assumes it (no pun intended). Just as the brain will “fill in” a blind spot with what it expects to see, Bushman can make a comprehensive catalog of what little the Bible has to say about Enoch without seeing the absence of Zion. It’s the same psychological mechanism that prevents most Genesis readers from noticing anything odd about the firmament.

That said, there is a City of Enoch in the Bible — but it’s named after a different Enoch, Cain’s son rather than Jared’s.

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. (Gen 4:17)

One might think that Joseph Smith’s story comes from conflating the two Enochs — the one who had a city and the one who ascended to heaven — but that seems not to be the case. Smith’s version of Genesis, like the original, includes two distinct Enochs and (unlike the original) two distinct cities. But while he apparently didn’t confuse one Enoch with the other, I think Smith probably was influenced by the fact that they had the same name, and that the Cainite City of Enoch gave him the idea for the Sethite Enoch’s Zion. The influence of names can also be seen in Smith’s other work: The Book of Mormon’s Enos is not the biblical Enos, but his story seems to be a riff on “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26); King Noah is not the biblical Noah, but both are wine-bibbers and planters of vineyards (see Gen 9:20-21, Mosiah 11:15). Perhaps the most extreme example of this is 2 Nephi 3, which ties a bunch of different people named Joseph together as Lehi tells his son Joseph how the patriarch Joseph prophesied the coming of a future Joseph who would be named after his father, Joseph. So closely did Joseph Smith associate himself with Joseph of Egypt that J. J. Dewey has proposed, with a surprising degree of plausibility, that Smith actually saw himself as the reincarnation of the biblical patriarch.

It’s also just possible that Smith was on to something in ascribing one Enoch’s characteristics to the other. While it is true that Genesis, as it has come down to us, presents the son of Cain and the son of Jared as two different people, it would be an oversimplification to say that the one has nothing to do with the other or that their shared name is just a coincidence. There are many suspicious parallels between the Cainite and Sethite genealogies:

Aside from Enoch swapping places with Mehujael/Mahalaleel, the two lineages are exactly parallel. (Adam maps to Enos because, despite their phonetic dissimilarity, the two names have the same meaning, “man,” in Hebrew.) The most obvious explanation for this is that the two genealogies are cognates, variant forms of one original tradition, which would mean that the two Enochs who appear in the Bible might be different versions of the same legendary figure — a figure who may originally, like Smith’s Enoch, have both founded a city and ascended (with it?) into heaven.

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