Category Archives: Mormonism

Trends in Mormon scripture citations 2: Who cites what

I’ve been playing with BYU’s LDS Scripture Citation Index again. This time, instead of looking at general trends over time, I focused on the citation habits of individual church leaders — all Apostles and First Presidency members who have at least 300 citations in the database, 48 individuals in all. (Heber J. Grant is excluded, as are all Apostles junior to Henry B. Eyring.)

In the social network diagram below, gray ellipses represent church leaders (labeled with their initials; GaS is George A. Smith, GAS is George Albert Smith, and jfs is Joseph Fielding Smith). The darker the shade of gray, the more recently the person was ordained an Apostle. Colored rectangles represent books of scripture. A link between a leader and a book means that the leader’s number of citations from that book (measured as a percentage of his total citations) is at least one standard deviation above the average for the 48 leaders in the database. Six of the 48 leaders analyzed — including current church president Thomas S. Monson and the late James E. Faust, recently of the First Presidency — don’t show up on the diagram at all because their quoting habits are so utterly unexceptional. (The other four are Heber C. Kimball, Franklin D. Richards, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith.)

The links do not necessarily indicate which books a given leader cites the most often. For example, Brigham Young quoted from the New Testament twice as much as from the Old (46% and 23%, respectively) — but when you compare those figures to the average rates of citation (40% for the New Testament, 15% for the Old), he stands out as an Old Testament man.

The diagram illustrates very clearly the recent rise of the Book of Mormon, pioneered by Ezra Taft Benson and followed by every apostle ordained under his leadership.

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Trends in Mormon scripture citations

Someone recently referred me to Brigham Young University’s online LDS Scripture Citation Index, a database of scripture citations from General Conference (an event, held twice a year, in which the top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints give speeches addressed to the general membership), and, just as I usually do when presented with a lot of data on a topic that interests me, I proceeded to waste far too much of my rather limited free time crunching numbers and looking for interesting patterns.

The Mormon scriptural canon consists of the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of Joseph Smith’s “revelations”), and a slim volume of miscellanea called the Pearl of Great Price. The graph below shows how many times each book of scripture was cited each year from 1942 to 2009. (The figures for 1957 have been doubled because only one conference was held that year instead of the usual two.)

As you can see, the Book of Mormon, which had previously been languishing in Pearl-of-Great-Price-like obscurity, suddenly shot to the top in 1985, since which time it has been cited about as frequently as the New Testament (formerly the undisputed top dog) and Doctrine and Covenants. What happened in 1985? Ezra Taft Benson.

It’s also interesting to look at the changing fortunes of some individual verses. The tables below show the number of citations per decade for eleven especially prominent passages. These eleven were chosen because each of them has had at least one decade in which it was cited 30 times or more.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 has been steadily rising in popularity and is the only Bible verse to have reached the 30-citation mark in the post-Benson era.

And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Matthew 22:39 and John 17:3 both peaked in the sixties and have been declining — but not dramatically — since.

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Acts 4:12, which also peaked in the sixties, is clearly on the way out.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

These three verses from the Book of Mormon — 2 Nephi 31:20, Mosiah 3:19, and Mosiah 18:9 — all leapt to prominence in the Benson era and have been popular ever since.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Moroni 10:4 is the only Book of Mormon verse to have reached the 30-citation mark before Ezra Taft Benson. It actually dropped in popularity during his tenure, though it seems to be making a comeback.

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

If scriptures were stocks, this would be the one to invest in. It’s gone from zero to 36 and shows no signs of slowing down. I’m not sure what exactly that says about the Mormon zeitgeist, since it seems like a pretty nondescript verse to me.

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Although the Pearl of Great Price is consistently Mormonism’s least-cited book of scripture, the two heavyweight champion verses — Moses 1:39 and Joseph Smith History 1:17 — both come from it. Moses 1:39 is the only verse to have been cited at least 30 times in every one of the six decades.

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The Mormon idea of a corporeal God

I’ve been rereading Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy, one section of which presents a “Dialogue Between Satan and a Christian” (§59, pp. 243-55). Satan begins by reciting a long catalogue of psychological needs which God satisfies and asks, “Is any further explanation needed why men cling to him?” — to which the Christian protests, “But God exists.”

“What do you mean?” says Satan. “What does ‘God’ mean? and what ‘exist’? Surely you do not believe that there is an old man with a long white beard up in the sky?” After a few unsuccessful attempts by the Christian to explain what he means, Satan restates the question:

Satan: I still do not understand what it is that, you think, exists, or in what way it exists. Does God take up space as you do?

Christian: Of course not.

Satan: Why, then, do you say that he exists?

Christian: Surely, many things exist that do not take up space.

Satan: Name three.

Christian: Does a dream take up space? Or a feeling? Or a thought?

Satan: Is God a dream, a feeling, or a thought?

Christian: Certainly not.

Satan: Try again.

Christian: What of justice?

Satan: What of justice indeed? Does it exist? Is it not an idea, or if you prefer, an ideal? Something toward which men aspire? Injustice exists, but justice is a name for what does not exist.

Christian: You admit that injustice exists. Does that take up space?

Satan: Injustice is a word that sums up a complex state of affairs together with the speaker’s reaction to it. It is not an entity.

Christian: Love exists.

Satan: Love is another word that does not designate an entity but a highly complicated pattern of feeling, thought, and behavior.

Christian: I never said that God was an entity.

Satan: But when you speak of God, you do not mean a mere concept or a pattern of human feeling, thought, and behavior. And I do not know what exactly you do mean. And I think you don’t know yourself.

Later, during a discussion of salvation and damnation, the conversation takes a similar turn:

Satan: What exactly do you mean when you say “saved” and “damned”?

Christian: Those who are saved see God.

Satan: Is God visible? I thought you said he did not take up space.

Christian: He doesn’t, and he is not visible.

Satan: Then those who are saved do not see him?

Christian: They are near him.

Satan: Near? But not in space?

Christian: You are being stupidly literal.

Satan: The fact is that I still don’t understand what you mean by saying that some are saved. And I think you don’t know yourself what you mean. You are repeating words that once designated very understandable superstitions. Now you denounce these superstitions but cling to the same words and believe that you are saying something. And the less sure you feel of yourself, the more you want others to agree with you, and the more you resent or pity those who don’t.

Having been raised a Mormon, I couldn’t help thinking how differently a dialogue between Satan and a Mormon would have gone. In fact, Kaufmann’s Christian bears more than a passing resemblance to the Protestant minister who used to appear in the Mormon temple drama as a figure of fun. Hired by Satan to teach Adam “a religion made of the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” (a turn of phrase Kaufmann would have liked), the preacher discourses on “a God who is without body, parts, or passions,” only to have Adam dismiss it all with, “I cannot comprehend such a being. . . . To me, it is a mass of confusion.”

The Mormon God is not a being without body, parts, or passions; rather, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22). Although “the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (ibid.), he, too, is in some sense a physical entity. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter . . . We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8). Not only does the Mormon God have a physical body; he has the form of a man — and, though this doctrine is not emphasized much these days, Mormons generally believe that he once was a mortal man like us and progressed until he became a god.

There’s something very satisfying about this — about the chutzpah of taking a rhetorical question by the horns and saying that, yes, there jolly well is an old man with a beard who lives in the sky! And the Mormon concept of God has one big advantage over that of most Christians, in that it actually means something. When a Mormon says “God exists,” what he says may be false, but at least it’s not gobbledygook. There are many questions a critic might ask regarding Mormon beliefs, but “What do you mean by exist?” is not one of them.

But of course there are also problems with the idea that God is a corporeal being. These are the two big ones in my mind:

God as Creator

If God is a physical being, then he cannot have created the universe, since nothing physical can exist without a universe. He may have created this earth, or this galaxy, or millions of galaxies, but he cannot have created the basic framework of time and space, matter and energy, in terms of which his own existence is defined. In Mormon scripture, God says, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24, emphasis added) — clearly not an ex nihilo creation as traditionally understood. The God of Mormonism is not an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing; he is not the reason why the constants of the universe are “fine-tuned” so as to support life; even the origin of man as a species can hardly be explained by invoking a creator who started his own career as a man. Although many Mormons (including my father) support the idea of “intelligent design,” it is really inconsistent with Mormon doctrine, at least so far as man is concerned. The human body predates God and could not have been designed by him.

None of this is problematic in and of itself, but it does undermine what is probably the most common reason people give for believing in God.

Omnipotence, omniscience, and having a body

When I say of a particular body that it is my body, I mean that I see with its eyes, feel with its nerves, know what its brain is thinking, and can control some of its muscles at will. None of this is true of other bodies, which is why they, by contrast, are not mine.

But if God is omnipotent and omniscient, he sees through all eyes, knows the thoughts of all brains, and can control all muscles in the universe at will. Given that, it’s not clear what it can possibly mean to say that God “has” a particular body in a sense in which he does not “have” all the other bodies in the universe. To “have” a body in any meaningful sense is to be limited by that body, and God is not limited.

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Cracking the Mormon dress code

A warning to the reader: If you are a Mormon, you will probably be uncomfortable with my references to various things not normally discussed outside the walls of the temple. (I don’t actually reveal anything that templegoers are sworn not to reveal, but I come very close at times.) If, on the other hand, you are not a Mormon, you will be unlikely to understand anything I’ve written here and even less likely to care. So, whoever you are, consider yourself warned.

Still here? Right then.

I have this theory that the so-called knee mark on the Mormon garment is located at the knee for practical reasons only and that, in terms of symbolism, its “true” location should be considered the mouth. Why do I think that? Here are a few reasons:

1. First, there’s the hypothetical plausibility of the idea. An undergarment doesn’t cover your mouth, so if there were meant to be a mouth mark, you’d have to put it somewhere else.

2. When the marks are explained in the endowment ceremony, they are introduced in the following order: square, compass, navel, knee. This order parallels that of the signs of the four tokens of the priesthood. The first sign involves raising the right hand (square on right breast), the second involves raising the left (compass on left breast), and in the third sign both hands are held down near the belly (navel mark). The final sign seems to break the pattern, since it doesn’t involve the right knee at all; it does, however, make prominent reference to the mouth.

3. The explanation of the knee mark links the knee to the mouth by quoting the biblical “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.”

4. The breasts, navel, and mouth are a natural set, being the four points at which nourishment passes into or out of the body. Nourishment enters the body through the navel while in the womb (the endowment makes clear reference to this) and through the mouth thereafter, and the body gives out nourishment through the breasts. The right knee doesn’t fit into this picture.

5. In addition to their thematic union, the mouth, breasts, and navel are situated in a perfectly symmetrical pattern on the body, as seen below (sorry, Leonardo). No such pattern exists if the right knee is used in place of the mouth.

The significance of the Hebrew letters in the above diagram is left as an exercise for the properly initiated reader. I will point out, though, that פ signifies the mouth in Hebrew, and that the Hebrew ל is cognate with both the Latin L (looks like a square) and the Greek Λ (looks like a compass).

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Mormonism and the Watchers

This is my collection of apparently coincidental parallels between the story of the Watchers (fallen angels who married human wives and begot giants, as alluded to in Genesis 6 and related in more detail in the Book of Enoch and other apocryphal literature) and Mormonism, all three topics (Watchers, Mormonism, and coincidences) being special interests of mine.

Nephites and Nephilim:

In the Bible, when the “sons of God” (fallen angels) marry the daughters of men, their offspring are the Nephilim, usually translated as “giants.” The Book of Mormon deals with the race of Nephites (which would be Nephiim in Hebrew), the descendants of Nephi. Just as the Nephilim are giants, Nephi mentions on several occasions that he is “large in stature,” and there are hints that his progeny, too, are physically larger than their enemies, the Lamanites. For example the Book of Mormon twice uses phrases like “a day’s journey for a Nephite,” implying that Lamanites (being smaller?) would travel at a different pace. Near the end of the book, when the Nephites fall into wickedness, they are cursed by God and become “weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites” — implying that ordinarily a Nephite would be much stronger than a Lamanite.

(For some of these references I am indebted to an online article called “Nephite Stature,” by a Strangite Mormon with a Slavic surname. Unfortunately I can’t recall his name, and the article in question seems no longer to be online, so I’m unable to give him proper credit. His conclusion was to equate the Nephites not with the Nephilim, but with Bigfoot. [Update: I’ve located this article. The author’s name is James D. Hajicek, and the article is archived here.])

The angel who appeared to Joseph Smith and told him about the Book of Mormon, though usually known as Moroni, is also called Nephi in some early tellings of the story.

Baurak Ale and Baraqel:

Two of the code names Joseph Smith used for himself are Enoch and Baurak Ale. While the latter is usually understood as coming from the Hebrew barak-el, meaning “blessed of God,” it also matches Baraqel (“lightning of God”), the name of one of the fallen angels listed in the Book of Enoch. (The angel Moroni/Nephi is is described by Smith as having a “countenance like lightning,” a phrase which comes from the Bible but is nevertheless interesting in this context.)

(I remember reading something by the Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley which makes the connection between Baurak Ale and Baraqel, though in a somewhat disingenuous way. Nibley discusses a badly fragmented document which contains a conversation between Enoch and one of the giants, including a reference to “Baraqel my father.” Nibley tries to put the line in Enoch’s mouth, saying that Baraqel must be another name for Enoch’s father Jared and thus an appropriate name for Joseph Smith — but, given Nibley’s obvious familiarity with the Enoch literature, I’m quite sure he must have known that Baraqel was one of the Watchers and therefore the giant’s father, not Enoch’s.)

The Book of Enoch mentions Baraqel together with another angel, Kokabel (“star of God”), saying that Baraqel taught men astrology and Kokabel taught them the constellations. Joseph Smith also taught esoteric astrology, in his Book of Abraham, in which he uses the Hebrew word kokob (“star”) and its plural, which he spells kokaubeam.

Another of the fallen angels mentioned in the Book of Enoch is Asael (apparently a variant of Azazel), which happens to have been the name of Joseph Smith’s grandfather.

Marriage pacts:

In the Book of Enoch, Semjaza, the leader of the Watchers, fears that the others will back out of their plan to go down and take earthly wives, with the result that he alone will be punished. So he has all the earthbound angels meet together on the summit of a mountain, where they swear an oath, binding themelves under mutual imprecations, that they will go through with their plan to marry mortal women.

Like Semjaza, Joseph Smith had plans to enter into forbidden marital relations. (He secretly married 30-odd women, some of whom already had husbands; polygamy later became a public practice under Brigham Young, but Joseph Smith kept it secret and publicly denied it all his life.) And like Semjaza, he gathered together a select group of loyal friends, had them also marry polygamously, and bound the group together with oaths of loyalty and secrecy. The whole ritual apparatus of the Mormon temple, beginning with a Masonry-inspired initiation in which oaths of secrecy are administered and culminating in a special marriage ceremony which the uninitiated are not allowed to attend, is an outgrowth of the measures Joseph Smith took to keep his polygamous relationships secret and safe.

Just as Semjaza and company made their covenant on a mountaintop, the Mormon temple is often referred to with the biblical phrase “mountain of the Lord.”

Angels even enter into it. Smith reportedly convinced some of his wives to marry him by saying he had been so commanded by an angel with a drawn sword, who threatened him with death and damnation if he failed to comply. (One can easily picture the Watchers using similar methods to enforce their oath.) And of course nearly every Mormon temple — not the churches, but the temples, where the initiatory and marital rituals are administered — is topped, not with a cross, but with the figure of an angel.

Also relevant is the Mormon teaching that marriage — that is, the “celestial marriage” administered in the temple, which was originally polygamous in nature — is necessary for full exaltation. With celestial marriage, it is possible to become a God; without it, one can rise no higher than the comparatively lowly position of “ministering angel.” Read with this doctrine in mind, the Watcher story takes on a whole new meaning, with the angels motivated not by mere lust (why would angels be subject to lust?) but by a hubristic desire to rise above their appointed station and become Gods.

Erasing the Watchers:

For all the links between Mormonism and the story of the Watchers as told in Genesis and elaborated in the apocryphal Enoch literature, the story itself has been expunged from Mormon scripture. In the Book of Moses (Joseph Smith’s revision of the first few chapters of Genesis, with some added material about Enoch), the phrase “sons of God” refers not to the angels but to Noah and his sons, and in any case it is not the sons of God themselves, but their daughters who sin — by marrying the “sons of men.” In Smith’s telling, what angers the Lord is not that women are marrying the sons of God, but that they are failing to do so! Giants are mentioned, but no longer in connection with the intermarriage business. It’s easy to see this as a pro-Watcher version of the story, covering up the sins of the angels.

What to make of it?

I’m not the only one to have noticed some of these parallels (though I think I’ve collected more of them than anyone else), and there are a few fringe Christian websites, like this one, that try to make an anti-Mormon argument out of them. These people maintain that the Watchers are real and that it was they who, masquerading as angels of light, appeared to Joseph Smith, revealed the Book of Mormon, and directed the founding of the Mormon church for their own nefarious purposes.

Since I’m not the kind of guy who believes in Gods or angels, or who looks to the Book of Genesis, much less the Book of Enoch, for reliable information about the history of the world, I obviously don’t have much use for theories of this kind. Nor do I have any alternative theory of my own. I simply list the parallels for whatever they’re worth and file them away for (in the unlikely event that it should ever prove necessary) future reference. I suspect that, like so many of the other intriguing parallels that catch my attention, they’ll ultimately turn out to be nothing but a mass of superficially interesting coincidences, nothing but a very clever punplex, fun to think about and tinker with from time to time, but ultimately signifying nothing.

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