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|Joseph Smith and the Apocalyptic|
Mar. 17th, 2008 at 6:01 pm
On a separate post we were discussing whether Joseph Smith was a mystic. I was delighted with the thoughtful and interesting discussion that followed. That thread is one of those cases where many of the comments surpass the original post in both quality and rigor of thought. Whether you think Joseph Smith was a mystic or whether you agree with me that he wasn’t, I think it’s undeniable that many of the texts cited as being mystical are more properly considered apocalyptic.
This is certainly true of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation, which I mentioned in my post and comments. In Joseph Smith’s output, Lehi’s very first vision couldn’t fit the definition of apocalyptic better if it had been composed for that purpose. And I think the Book of Abraham, parts of the Book of Moses, D&C 76, are all clearly apocalyptic. I could list many more.
Apocalyptic literature overlaps with mystical literature in several respects, and (for me at least) the terms are not mutually exclusive. But apocalyptic literature, while it shares with mystical texts an ascension into divine realms, is distinct in that it also always includes meeting biblical figures (especially the patriarchs) and a warning message of repentance and purification, with warnings of destruction and hardship that the messenger must return to deliver, and that message is often an urgent one that destruction is imminent. Mystical texts tend to be less concrete, do not always include recognizable biblical figures, and have a much less harsh and destructive “call to repentance” feeling about them.
Then there are apocalyptic movements. There again it’s undeniable that the LDS Church is an apocalyptic faith. Bushman contrasts the date-certain apocalypses of the Millerites (and later the Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) with the less urgent millenialism of Ann Lee. He traces Joseph Smith’s millenarianism to Ann Lee and some others who focused more on purification and preparation than on the more hellfire-and-destruction emphasized by the Millerites.
A modern day contrast I would make is between the Heaven’s Gate cult, with their purple tennis shoes and mass suicide, waiting for the flying saucers to come pick them up on the comet Hale-Bopp, and the more practical urging we get from Church leaders to save money, reduce debt, and build a year’s supply. We are also urged to focus most of all on personal righteousness as the ideal preparation to put oil in our lamps. Our is a less isolationist, less retributive model of apocalypse. It’s more about being ready, morally and temporally, than the satisfaction of imagining the wicked finally getting their comeuppance.
There is of course some of that. One of my favorite Institute teachers said the part he wanted in the millenium was to be able to hold one corner of the sign that said “The Mormons were right!” But I contend these aspects in the LDS faith are more muted (like my teacher’s) and tend to be moderated by our practical and personal focus.
Are we more level headed than those who get caught up in date-certain promises like the Harmonic Convergence or Y2K? An excellent test of our willingness to get caught up in this excitement will be the Mayan Long Count date of December 21, 2012, with its potential to make a Book of Mormon connection. (This has been touched upon before in the LDS blogging world, though barely.)
When I was attending Church while on vacation in Hawaii a few months ago I heard someone bear testimony about it during Fast and Testimony meeting, but honestly that is the first time I’ve heard much about it in my day-to-day contacts with my fellow Latter-day Saints. We will see. What do you think? Is the LDS faith’s teachings on the end of the world distinct from other millenial movements? And if so, what makes it so?
P.S. Dan Ellsworth suggested I slow down the tempo of these Bushman/Rough Stone Rolling posts to give people time to comment, and I understand some have grown tired of it. There’s only 2 or 3 more of these I have left, if that makes anyone with flagging attention spans feel any better.