The Politics of Revelation

Warren Smith has argued that evangelical voters should fear Mormon belief in continuing revelation. He compares Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping on political issues to The Church of Jesus Christ’s reversals on plural marriage practice and race-based ordination policy. Smith expanded on his views in his interview with Joanna Brooks to indicate he was not singling Mormonism out “In general, revelation is a mechanism by which Church bodies over the years have departed from the truth. The LDS Church is not the only church over the ages that has been led away by revelation. History teaches us that the doctrine of continuing revelation leads away from truth not to the truth as a general principle.”

One of Smith’s concerns about revelation is that an adherent can’t be trusted to conform to norms dictated by traditions formed in the historical past. Such can become “adrift in a sea of philosophies and ideas,” which is not good for conservative politics. He suggests diplomacy is best done from a framework of “commonly accepted historical facts.” Accepting the The Book of Mormon, with Christ visiting the Americas, is indicative  of a Mormon trait of accepting or fabricating a-historical or idiosyncratic views that would put the nation’s “intellectual and spiritual health” in peril if a Mormon were elected President.

When it comes to historical episodes where Christian churches have lost their way from previously revealed truth, I am inclined to agree with Warren Smith that being caught adrift in faddish philosophies and ideas is to blame. I don’t think there are many examples that will show that where innovations or developments in any Christian church are accompanied by claims of normative, public revelation on par with previously canonized scripture. The most interesting exceptions are found in Mormonism and early Christianity prior to the creeds and canonization Warren Smith finds normative. I hope to see some historically informed comments on whether these exceptions support Smith’s contentions or not.

My understanding of authoritative prophecy in early Christianity has room for improvement. One book I would like to read is Laura Nasrallah’s An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity[1]. One reviewer writes [2]:

Pentecostals should note Nasrallah’s historiographic insights. She is critical of past studies of prophecy because they artificially conform the evidence to a narrative history that marches inexorably forward in keeping with the Enlightenment script of history as progress. This narrative, perhaps most famously articulated by Max Weber, begins with a vibrant and charismatic church that progressively becomes more institutionalized, rationalistic, and non-charismatic. Usually this transformation is viewed as being inevitable, although somewhat regrettable, like the emergence of mature married life from the heat of newlywed passion. The tipping point in church history comes with the Montanist crisis that results in the expulsion of both ecstatic gifts and their practitioners.

Judged by current orthodoxy,  3rd century Montanists are now regarded as heretics for some of the beliefs they promoted (which have no doubt been distorted by the winners write history effect). While I approach the reported content of their revelations skeptically, I see them and their champion, Tertullian, as representing Christianity’s last stand to leave room for continuing revelation. Ironically Tertullian’s contributions to later orthodoxy’s teachings on the Trinity were likely more drawn from Montanist innovations that put him at odds with the majority of his day.[3] I will have to think about this more, but I may have to agree that there is at least one post-New Testament revelation contributed to Christianity departing from the truth.

Warren Smith’s examples from Mormon revelation can be viewed as flip-flops, but I invite evangelicals to find the positives in them. Because of a dependence on revelation, the Church of Jesus Christ was one of the least progressive on racial issues and held onto to scriptural interpretations inherited from historical Christianity well after it became fashionable to do so. In between revelatory outbursts (Warren Smith’s examples occurred over 70 years apart), Mormonism tends to be quite conservative practically speaking.

Mormons had to compromise their revealed ideals of slaves rising up against their masters and enjoying equal status in their church in Missouri in the 1830s. Undemocratic persecution ensued when the older Christian settlers felt threatened by the mere possibility of revelation (in the wake of the Nat Turner vision and uprising) which challenged their society’s status quo. [4-5]

Warren Smith hopes that Mormonism’s continuing revelation will help it move away from views he regards as heretical. The manifestos ending plural marriage could be seen in this light. The hearings to seat Reed Smoot show that Mormons are willing to compromise non-essentials to more fully participate in the democratic process. If Warren Smith was more concerned about assimilating Mormons than marginalizing them, he would see the best thing for evangelists would be to help elect a Mormon president and take advantage of increased opportunities to gain an audience with Mormons.

[1] Laura Nasrallah, An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity, Harvard Theological Studies 52 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003),

[2] Glen W.Menzies, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Spring 2007, Vol. 29 Issue 1

[3] Andrew McGowan, “Tertullian and the ‘Heretical’ Origins of the ‘Orthodox’ Trinity” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14:4 Winter 2006 p. 437-457 Link

[4] The policy banning ordination for African-Americans prior to 1978, in historical review, is an example of a development that appears to have more of a cultural basis than a revelatory basis. For a more complex analysis see Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” Dialogue, Vol. 8:1 (Spring 1973), 11-68. In contrast to the ambiguity surrounding it origins, Edward Kimball in “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47:2 (2008), provides a fascinating account of the revelatory basis for ending the policy

[5] A must read on the subject is Stephen C. Harper “‘Dictated by Christ’: Joseph Smith and the Politics of Revelation,” Journal of the Early Republic – Volume 26, Number 2, Summer 2006, pp. 275-304

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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

One thought on “The Politics of Revelation

  1. A thoughful post, Keller.

    I too had noticed that Conservative Christians are actually in generally less conserative (religiously and politically) than Mormons. Conservative Christians do not change via revelation in the same sense that Mormons do. Instead they factionalize and form new sects that reinterpret things while claiming it’s nothing new at all. The end result is pretty much the same. It’s continuing revelation in all but name.

    So here is a test then: name a religion that has not relied on continuing revelation or functional equivalent.

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