Last week, two major religious news stories competed for attention. The first, of course, was the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States. The second was the raid conducted by Texas authorities on the compound of the polygynous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the FLDS, because of alleged child abuse.
Given that the mainstream Mormon Church, the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, no longer practices polygyny, it seems that President Monson and Company are at pains to differentiate themselves from the above-mentioned FLDS and other “Mormon” splinter groups which continue to allow and encourage their male members to marry more than one woman at a time. Fair enough. Sort of like members of the mainstream Roman Catholic Church wanting to differentiate IT from the likes of the SSPX and the outright sede vacantists, or the “canonical” Byzantine Orthodox jurisdictions from the “noncanonical” Old Calendarists (as opposed to the canonical jurisdictions, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, which continue to use the Old Calendar).
All of that, however, is sort of a digression. What these two stories represent to me has to do with some basic questions regarding authority and continuity in Church life. All who consider the Book of Mormon inspired Scripture, whether in Salt Lake City or in Eldorado, Texas, even those in the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called the Community of Christ, ground themselves in a tradition of "restoration," of continuing revelation, of “new prophecy,” rooted, not in the continuity of THE Tradition going back, without break, to the Apostles, to Christ Himself, and attested in the New Testament, but in “revelations,” including the Book of Mormon, received by one Joseph Smith, Junior, whose standing as a “prophet” is based largely on the notion that said Apostolic Tradition had somehow failed. For the followers of Smith, this failure is called the “Great Apostasy.”
I will not attempt to recount the entirety of Smith’s career. He lived in the early nineteenth century and began to receive his “revelations” in an area of western New York State which was then called ‘the burned-over district” because it had been the scene, so many times, of the fires of Protestant revivalism. According to the book, Mormon America, the scene was dominated by Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists. Also present were influences from such entities as Swedenborgianism and a folk tradition of ritual magic, the latter being something that Smith had dabbled in, hoping to find buried treasure. Not an Episcopalian nor a Lutheran in sight, few or no Roman Catholic clergy, and certainly nothing or no one that could be called Orthodox, whether Byzantine or Oriental. So, while the Protestant Canon of the Bible (and a high degree of biblical literacy when it came to the text) was certainly present, what was absent was what could be called a “hermeneutic of continuity” or a "hermeneutic of the Tradition" adequate for the accurate and complete interpretation of the Bible.
In fact, in many ways, the hermeneutics emanating from the above-mentioned Protestant groups were, and are, by way of reaction to the Roman Catholic iteration of the Apostolic Tradition, and these hermeneutics, largely stemming from John Calvin (or, in the case of Methodism, largely in reaction to Calvinism), simply ignored many of the questions which the Apostolic Tradition answers. (Calvinism also provided Smith with the notion of said “Great Apostasy”, at least in embryonic form.) For example, the AT posits the existence of an authoritative priesthood and teaching office (the latter understood somewhat differently by the Roman Catholic Church than by Orthodoxy), whereas, in Calvinism, the emphasis is on the “priesthood of all believers” and upon individual interpretation of Scripture. While there are, of course, Pastors in these Protestant Churches, there is really no “controlling” teaching “authority” in any of these branches of Protestantism.
So Smith, apparently knowing little of the AT, and rejecting much of what he did know, accepts this notion of a "great Apostasy" and posits a "restoration" based in revelations received by him alone during his life, relevation which is “continuing," and given to those "prophets" who suceed him after his death. He institutes a new priesthood which, while authoritative in its highest reaches, is also quite democratic. This is but one example. Another would have to do with the fate of the dead. The AT, of course, encourages prayer for those who have departed this life. Not so Calvinism. Smith? Baptism for the dead, of course. Even more outside the AT is Smith’s Doctrine of God (the Father), who is “an exalted man” and Smith’s statement that “spirit is matter.” For Smith, creation is not ex nihilo, but is the result of his god (gods, actually) organizing eternal matter into the present cosmos. It could therefore be argued that Mormonism is, in fact, atheistic, since, for it, deity does not transcend the cosmos, and that Mormons are simply materialists of a certain "spiritual" bent. Whatever the case, these beliefs certainly have a great deal in common with certain strains of contemporary neo-paganism and remind one of C.S. Lewis' comments about "materialist magicians" in The Screwtape Letters.
In short, I am convinced that Mormonism was able to begin and to gain traction because representatives of the authentic and complete Apostolic Tradition, whether Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or those of the old high church Anglicanism, or even of Lutheranism, were not present to counter it in the very beginning. Thus, I see the two competing religious news stories of last week as a metaphor for the competition between the authentic Apostolic Tradition, as represented by Pope Benedict, and the new prophecy of Joseph Smith, which seeks to supplant this authentic Christian Faith “once delivered to the Saints” and continuous in time, if not entirely in space, "until the end of the age".