Personal Savior: Change and Confluence in Religious Rhetoric

Glen Leonard observed (somewhere in his Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise I think) that in 1985 the LDS Church consciously altered course in both its public persona and public rhetoric. In a way, outwardly fathered by the correlation idea, the Church moved to focus its message more simply and more on Christ. I observed the results of this effort in a number of ways.

Missionaries who returned from their labors began using catch phrases I had only seen in Evangelical literature (like perturbations of the ubiquitous “Jesus is my personal savior” – correct me if I’m wrong but the idea is at least partly bogus and un-Biblical). While I have noticed some Church leaders drift into some of the same kind of language, there is a subtle difference in meaning (but perhaps not always?).[1] I’m not saying that the 1985 move was merely public relations. Far from it.

Professional counter-cultists began to take aim at Mormonism in a big way at (roughly) the same period, with a resulting counter-rhetoric building even in official channels. The candidacy of Mitt Romney and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (not in that order of course) increased the public claims and counter claims. Mormons were, or were not, “Christians.” Eventually most interested observers of this tempest in a teapot, this point-counterpoint, realized the claimants were speaking past each other. And recently some LDS Church officials took a little time to point this out. What do you really mean by “Christian?” The rather interesting claims to the high ground of “historic Christianity” flew right past Mormons, who from the beginning claimed to be restorers of “primitive Christianity.”[2]

However, the deep and sometimes very emotional chasm that has seemed to separate branches of Christianity from each other, including Mormonism, has not closed much from a doctrinal standpoint, but people have occasionally focused on the very large common ground. And the LDS Church has stepped forward in this in a number of ways.

Some of the same doctrinal criticisms leveled at modern Mormonism, were present from its inception. Mormonism broke through the veneer of religious respectability that was taking hold in antebellum upstate New York of the 1820s. Angels, visionary spectacles, glass-looking, gold plates. All were fodder for those taking the “high ground.”

Joseph Smith was never too shy about this sort of thing. Although there were some issues he would never discuss, some visions that were not made public until after his death, some that are only known to exist by hints or hearsay, he freely built in to his theology the experience/idea that the canon was not fixed.[3]

Joseph developed angelic categories related to the evolution of Mormonism. A major discourse where these were discussed was given by him on March 10, 1844. Tradition in the Follett family has assigned this discourse as one of two funeral sermons Joseph Smith offered for King Follett, although the internal evidence is somewhat lacking.[4]

In this discourse, Joseph lays out three categories of heavenly visitors (or earthlings assigned certain roles – in Joseph’s theology these are much more unified positions than in other religions):

Elias – the forerunner – restorer class[5]
Elijah – the founding/completion or the unification class
Messiah – the deified class

Smith was not ignorant of the fact that Elias is the New Testament Greek for the OT name, Elijah. But think categorically here.

He freely acknowledged that there was overlap in the three classes, and that individuals bearing these titles as actual names may fall into a non-eponymous class in some circumstances/discussions/duties. Indeed, persons named Elias figure in several of Joseph’s revelations. Each may possibly be placed in more than one of these categories, but each category has a paradigmatic member.

Elias class paradigm = John the Baptist
Elijah class paradigm = Elijah himself
Messiah class = (guess)

The justifications and descriptions of these categories are found in the sermon.

Antebellum American Protestantism was full of doctrinal complexity and debate on points that may seem obscure now. Joseph sits inside that milieu but like his categorical angels, he also stands outside it. Part of the current criticism of Mormonism by some of their fellow Christians rests on the contrast illustrated by this sermon even though it has not been singled out by critics generally. The irony present here is that the wide range of opinions being championed in that day would probably be classed with the non-Christian Christians of today by the same critics of Mormonism.

I mention *this* King Follett sermon here because I have always liked it, and by the way, it is much richer than the elements I’ve mentioned here suggest. Worth more than a superficial read. In the end. Joseph’s categories never really caught on, although they were repeated in LDS literature from time to time, all modern repetition is based on B. H. Roberts’ edited History of the Church (For example in LeGrande Richards’ A Marvelous Work and a Wonder).

Joseph Smith’s Mormonism was Christ-centered, though its theology was in flux and expansive virtually until his death. Its twenty-first century incarnation is much more about focus and preservation. But the intellectual heritage of that early innovation remains for the taking. Have some! (It tastes good! [grin])
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[1] The “personal savior” language became much more common in official LDS discourse after 1985. The phrase arose in popularity as a part of the “Christian” debate in part. I have not found it used in presidential discourse, but in 1981, Marion G. Romney did use it. Other than that it seems to be little used by apostles and First Presidency alike. Romney’s usage flies under the radar. But M. Russell Ballard has used the phrase on a number of occasions. It’s sense however is somewhat different than the usual Evangelical turn – see for example Neal A. Maxwell’s use in the video “Special Witnesses” – also partly a response to the non-Christian rhetoric. The classical response of Mormons to the language is found here.

[2] We should be careful not to paint a picture of two monolithic points-of-view here. Evangelicals have been less scrutinized for doctrinal fracture and personal failing/conflict perhaps than Mormons. And they have been a bit better at circling the wagons. That is probably changing (e.g. Harold Bloom’s The American Religion).

[3] While it may be that in practice the Book of Mormon and other additions to scripture were not held equal to the Bible in some respects, that gap began to close well before Smith’s death. It’s inverted now. The Book of Mormon resides at the top of the pyramid now, also part of the 1985 direction. And that’s really the sticking point between Mormonism and the rest of the modern Christian world.

[4] We treat it in the critical edition.

[5] A very interesting take on associated usage and ideas is Samuel Brown’s “The Prophet Elias Puzzle.” (Dialogue, Fall 2006, pp. 1-17.) Elias was not the only Greek NT form transported back to the OT. See Joseph Smith’s usage of the Greek NT form of Isaiah in D&C 84:13.

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2 Responses to Personal Savior: Change and Confluence in Religious Rhetoric

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I think it also relates to the emphasis on the Book of Mormon and parallels the use of “grace.” For so long, evangelicals had been bashing us over the head with Pauline grace writings, that I think we developed unwarranted knee-jerk responses (after all we can do!!!). But really, the Book of Mormon is saturated in regenerative Christology (albeit with wonderfully different perspectives on atonement theology). I don’t find anything particularly off-putting by “personal Savior” rhetoric as long as you don’t push penal-substition.

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    Some Pauline grace has indeed found a home in normative Mormonism.

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