The Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 22, 2003
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Some Mormons expect God to provide a personal road map of dos and don’ts. (Marry Sam and take that job in Omaha. Don’t buy stock in Microsoft.)
Or they want a straightforward answer to life’s provocative mysteries. (The Messiah will arrive on April 6, 2010.)
After all, they believe, God gave 14-year-old Joseph Smith a one-on-one in a grove of trees when the Mormon founder simply asked which church to join. So why not them?
In the Mormon lexicon of belief, everyone is entitled to such personally crafted messages from heaven. And that can be an invitation to chaos born of individuality.
“The blessing of this church is personal revelation,” says Robert Millet, a religion professor at Brigham Young University. “And the burden of this church is personal revelation.”
Being open to divine communication can enhance a person’s spirituality, Millet says, but it also make people vulnerable to all kinds of supernatural influences. Or plain lunacy, if not depraved and criminal behavior.
The dark side of Mormon revelation may be at work in Brian Mitchell’s actions. He claimed a quasi-divinity in a religious manifesto dated April 6, 2002, which also guaranteed his wife “seven sisters” — code for wives. He now is charged with kidnapping Elizabeth Smart at knife point.
The Lafferty brothers, who killed their sister-in-law and her baby in Utah County, have even justified murder as being God’s mandate.
While no Mormon would countenance violence, in a troubled mind such reasoning for aberrant behavior is not so far removed from how the church defended plural marriage, which was anathema to 19th century American sensibilities. Early LDS leaders argued that God’s law is sometimes higher than human laws.
In 1890, the church discontinued the practice in order for Utah to gain statehood. But the principle remains in the LDS canon of scripture, and there are those on the church’s fringe who believe it must be restored before the second coming of Christ.
People “in the midst of delusions” can tell themselves that Lehi, a Book of Mormon prophet, would have been considered a dangerous outlaw in his day, says Sterling Allan of Ephraim, once a leader in Utah’s “patriot” movement, which preached the decline of America, the evils of communism and the coming Armageddon.
“Lehi left great wealth and prominence in the community behind, endangering his family in the wilderness; and then another family; his sons stole some highly valuable records and killed a man,” Allan wrote in an online essay this week. “Nothing is too outlandish to perform in the name of being faithful to God.”
Reading some biblical and Mormon prophecies about the last days before the end of the world, these people begin to think the LDS church itself is out of order.
Mitchell’s 27-page manifesto outlined what he saw as the LDS Church’s apostasy: it relinquished its communitarian ethos, gave up polygamy, wasn’t serious enough about eating only fruits and vegetables as suggested in the Word of Wisdom, and was too enamored of world approval following the death of church president Ezra Taft Benson in 1994.
Many people, inside and out of the church, share at least some of these concerns.
Like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, these LDS believers pore over certain biblical passages in Isaiah, Revelation and Daniel, trying to decode enigmatic messages from the past about the return of the Messiah and the end of the world.
Many in these groups conclude that the world is in the midst of global and national upheaval, the U.S. Constitution is no longer respected, the U.N. is an effort at global domination and socialism, that the United States will soon come under martial law and that the biblical “mark of the beast” (Revelations 13:13) is evident in such things as retail bar codes. Oh, and that UFOs are real.
Many have written letters about these things to the LDS First Presidency, although many believe that President Gordon B. Hinckley is no longer functioning as a “prophet, seer and revelator.”
They look forward to the “One Mighty and Strong,” described in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, who will emerge as a powerful religious leader destined to set the church’s house in order.
“I know hundreds of people in Utah,” Allan says, “who all think they are the One Mighty and Strong.”
Too Close for Comfort
Allan can see himself in Mitchell’s mirror and it has shaken him up.
“As I reflect on Mitchell’s religious and political paradigm and compare it to my own, the resemblances are close enough to cause me to shudder,” Allan wrote this week in an online mea culpa entitled: “Meditations of a disgruntled former one and only One Mighty and Strong.”
For starters, the two were drawn to the same authors.
Among them are: Avraham Gileadi’s studies of Isaiah and Samuel West’s The Golden Seven Plus One, which describes “the role of the lymphatic system for draining out poisons and keeping the body healthy,” Betty Eadie’s experience in the afterlife, Embraced by the Light, and Rick Joyner’s The Final Quest, an allegorical battle between good and evil in the end times.
Neither Joyner nor Gileadi has ever had any connection with these groups, both said this week. West did have a relationship with Mitchell, but they parted company after the latter became antagonistic towards the LDS Church.
The tone and themes of Mitchell’s manifesto reflected the discussions of the American Study Group, which Allan helped organize in the early 1990s, but which later dissolved under pressure from the LDS Church.
Once a person has cut been cut loose from church strictures, the leap from fanaticism to out-of-control behavior in the name of God is not that far, says Allan.
People like Mitchell begin to feel persecuted for being so different from others in the church and that drives them to extreme behavior, he says, and that makes them believe they are martyrs in an unpopular, counter-cultural cause.
Allan knows how that feels.
He was excommunicated in 1992 after he tried to warn the church of its apostasy during the faith’s semi-annual General Conference. A few years ago, he nearly ran off with a 14-year-old.
Since then, Allan credits his wife and two children with keeping him home and grounded.
But the Mormon answer to avoiding fanaticism — just follow the prophet — is too easy, he says. “It creates a spiritually lethargic people, who can’t think for themselves.”
Some people yearn for the intensity of regular spiritual experiences they find described in the journals of 19th century Mormons.
In 1995, 75 Mormons and former Mormons took out a full-page ad in The Salt Lake Tribune, saying that Christ’s second coming was at hand. The group claimed to have regular angelic visits and divine insight. A couple of them produced a book called Sacred Scripture, which purports to be a diary of the biblical Abraham.
Since then, Sacred Scripture has sold between 12,000 and 14,000 copies, says Mike Rigby, president of M.A.P., the Orem publishing house that produced the book.
These days, Rigby’s spiritual experiences are less frequent.
“You go through an important period of time when you need them to give you direction and teach you what God is really like,” Rigby says. Slowly, understanding of God is enlarged, healing becomes natural and godliness is obvious.
“If I was to take all these experiences and boil them down, it’s about learning to love unconditionally,” Rigby says. “Any other thought is coming from a bad source — or from your own mind.”
View From Inside the Church
In the early 1990s, those who claimed to be receiving these kinds of divine revelations were excommunicated from the LDS Church, but lately some have found a way to stay within church ranks.
“They are realizing they don’t have to be out of the church to expand their spirituality,” Rigby says. “And the church has backed off a little.”
For its part, the church has always provided institutional “checks and balances” on how to tell the difference between real and counterfeit divine communication, Millet says.
He offers some guidelines:
* Only the prophet receives revelations for the church.
* People are entitled to revelations only for themselves, their family and those for whom they are responsible.
* No revelation will require force or manipulation to implement.
* Personal revelations are meant to be kept private, not used for individual aggrandizement.
* A revelation will not violate the law of the land or contradict the present principles or practice of the church.
“God is not going to work against himself,” Millet says.
People should beware of those who introduce their so-called revelation with phrases like, “I have a feeling that” or “I feel impressed that you should.”
Such phrases may sound authentic to Latter-day Saints, Millet says. “But that’s because Satan speaks fluent Mormonese.”
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