When I first started visiting Mormon Matters, there was a sidebar that would resurrect old posts for new visitors to see for the first time. One post by Jeff Spector caught my eye everytime it reappeared because it asked what people would do if they became convinced the church wasn’t true.
It caught my eye because I had something of the opposite problem; I was very convinced that the Restoration was true, but not at all sure that it was going to succeed in spreading the truths with which it had been endowed.
You see, I had been forced to accept the decline into numerical irrelevance of my own Community of Christ by applying growth models I’d been exploring professionally in economics since the 1980’s. A lot of people in my church saw the renaming of the church in 2001 as a new start, but statistically, nothing has changed in the intervening time. Thus, for me, the question had become: “What if it is rejected?”
The notion that we are living in the “last” dispensation and destined to succeed has been ingrained in Restoration teaching since the formative years of the movement. We felt it necessary to distinguish ourselves from the Saints of early Christianity by calling ourselves “Latter-day”; we did not expect future Christians to have any need to distinguish their times from ours.
The culmination of our dispensation is pictured in Joseph Smith’s writings as just as apocalyptic as in the writings of other Christian, Jewish, or for that matter, Islamic fundamentalist movements. The action in Joseph’s writings is geographically broader (and possibly more diffused in temporal duration after it begins) because of its focus on the Western Hemisphere than the events foretold in Ezekiel or Revelation, but it is intended to flow smoothly into them. Indeed, the urgency of bringing forth the Book of Mormon was seen as motivated by the need for certain tasks to be accomplished in preparation for the end times. It is not easy to separate apocalyptic notions from the Restoration’s other truth claims when the very preface to the Book of Commandments (now D&C 1) proclaims:
“Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated. And the rebellious shall be pierced with much sorrow; for their iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and their secret acts shall be revealed. And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days. …
“…Wherefore, fear and tremble, O ye people, for what I the Lord have decreed in them shall be fulfilled. And verily I say unto you, that they who go forth, bearing these tidings unto the inhabitants of the earth, to them is power given to seal both on earth and in heaven, the unbelieving and rebellious; Yea, verily, to seal them up unto the day when the wrath of God shall be poured out upon the wicked without measure — Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.
“Wherefore the voice of the Lord is unto the ends of the earth, that all that will hear may hear: Prepare ye, prepare ye for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh; And the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth….
“…Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets— The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh.”
Pretty apocalyptic. But apocalyptic visions and missions tend to come with “complete-by” dates. After a while the apocalypse has to happen, or one has to start explaining why the apocalypse hasn’t happened. Either way, the church’s vision stops being what it was.
We see this in early Christianity. The earliest Pauline letters assume that the return of Jesus is close at hand. They advocate transient solutions to life situations because the human condition itself is seen as transient. It is only in latter letters, often seen by scholars as being authored by a “next generation” of Paul’s own converts, that concerns about church order, long term relationships with the Jews and the Empire, and sexual roles and relationships come to the forefront. Ironically, what we see as the apostasy from original forms may in fact be an apostasy from the original zeal of the immediately-to-be-born Kingdom of God.
Admittedly, if you want to argue against an apocalyptic interpretation of Restoration history, this is not the best year since 1830 to be doing so.
After all, Israel has now been restored as a nation. Their population centers are targeted by 10’s of thousands of rockets more than they were as recently as 2006. Military think tanks publish a campaign analysis of Israel war with Lebanon-Syria-Iran (WARNING : 1MB PDF FILE) that don’t even consider the Iranian nuclear programs as a possible trigger of war. In addition to rumors of war in the lands about Jerusalem, we see rumors of attacks in the American homeland — including the influx of violent drug lords (from Book of Mormon lands?) seizing actual control of territories along the “gentile” borders. We are warned of the potential for world-wide environmental catastrophe within our generation, and stopping economic growth to prevent pollution risks producing economic or socio-political collapse on even shorter time-scales.
And if the apocalypse comes, then the rest of this discussion becomes academic. The judgments of God are then made manifest to our individual and societal salvation or destruction. We can take it up with Him.
But I would suggest that those who do not regard an apocalypse as coming (to greater or lesser extent) in their lifetimes consider how they explain away the delay in their faith’s original vision.
Do we keep extending it just “beyond the horizon” until we effectively become “Middle-day Saints”?
Do we become increasingly focused on the next life and personal salvation, involving ourselves only in public issues that strike at preservation of the institution of the church itself?
Does the church see itself (as the Community of Christ has already done) as a true church rather than the one-and-only-true church and prepare for an indefinitely long history, as much of Christianity has done before it?
Does it see itself as a failure, and accordingly expect a new outbreak of the Spirit outside the institution? (What’s in those sealed plates at the back of the BofM anyway?)
In any event, the status quo does not persist indefinitely for a church whose DNA contains strong components of apocalypse. How do you think the status quo will change? Because change it will sooner or later.