His mother recalled that her 14-year-old son Joseph was confused over the competing claims of evangelists during the religious revival that swept through western New York State in the second decade of the 19th-century. She and three of her children joined the local Presbyterian church, but he held back, unable to commit himself. Young Jospeh turned to a verse from the Epistle of James in the New Testament: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Thus emboldened, he ventured into a forest grove near the family farm to pray for guidance. By his own account, Joseph saw a pillar of light, brighter than the sun, directly overhead and “two personages" suspended in the air. He later recalled, “One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other, ‘This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!’” In response to his inquiry about which church was right for him, the boy was told to join none of them, since all were corrupt. Over the next decade or more, Joseph Smith received a number of angelic visitations that culminated in him founding the Mormon Church.
Smith made no secret of these otherworldly visions but found they were met with suspicion and even outright hostility. Denouncing the apostasy of traditional Christianity obviously wasn’t calculated to ingratiate him with his neighbors. Yet Mormonism differed little outwardly from the mainstream churches, adopting the same terminology and many of the same religious practices. True, there were significant doctrinal differences, notably Mormonism’s rejection of the Trinity, which Smith rightly pointed out is nowhere explicitly mentioned in Scripture. But the chief sticking point was Smith’s insistence that divine revelation did not end with the age of the Apostles and the New Testament.
The years between Smith’s First Vision and the formal launch of Mormonism were spent painstakingly deciphering the Book of Mormon, which had purportedly been inscribed on gold plates that he had dug up from a site near his family’s farm. He claimed that an angel named Moroni had revealed their location to him. The Book of Mormon presents itself as a collection of prophetic writings from a civilization of Semitic origin that settled in the Western Hemisphere hundreds of years before Christ. The resurrected Christ even puts in an appearance, ushering in a messianic age that lasts some 200 years. Despite persistent doubts about the book’s bona fides, even among some Mormons, it carries scriptural authority on a par with the Bible.
How are we to judge what constitutes a direct revelation from God? For anyone familiar with the Bible, Smith’s description of his First Vision is more than faintly reminiscent of St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, not to mention the account of the Transfiguration in the Gospel of St. Matthew (“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”) And you don’t have to read very far in the Book of Mormon before encountering language, themes and events that might have been lifted from the King James Version of the Bible – albeit transplanted to the New World. Nor is there a shred of independent historical, linguistic or archeological evidence to support the notion that Hebrew tribes migrated to pre-Columbian America, where they were visited by the resurrected Christ.
By these standards, of course, the Bible itself is hardly immune from challenge. Independent biological, astronomical and geological evidence is likewise lacking for the biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis. Nor is there geological support for the Great Flood or historical records confirming that the pharaoh’s chariots were destroyed in the Red Sea while pursuing Hebrews fleeing Egypt. For that matter, there are no contemporaneous historical records confirming the existence of one Jesus of Nazareth.
When you trace direct revelation back to its source, you typically find the solitary experience of a prophet or visionary who reports some encounter with the divine, as Joseph Smith did. Abraham was alone when God told him to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac and alone again when the Lord stayed his hand. There were likewise no witnesses when God spoke to Moses from a burning bush on the slopes of Mt. Horeb or when Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. We have only a single eyewitness to events that shaped the course of religious history.
How then are we to distinguish authentic revelation from outright fraud or from the ravings of a lunatic? Setting aside the possibility that “authentic revelation” is merely a contradiction in terms, the distinguishing characteristics of the genuine article are that others believe it to be true and that it has stood the test of time. Others believed 14-year-old Joseph Smith had a heavenly vision, just as others believed a 16-year-old peasant girl named Joan of Arc when she said she had been told in a vision to save France. Mormonism, which hasn’t been around nearly as long as most traditional Christian denominations, has nevertheless come to be embraced by millions of believers around the world over the last two centuries.
Many Christians remain skeptical of Mormonism because it denies that direct revelation ended with the New Testament. However, it should be pointed out that nowhere in the New Testament does it say that revelation was at an end – nor could it have, since the New Testament canon would not be determined for several more centuries. The only Scriptures that existed in Jesus’ day were what Christians now refer to as the Old Testament, and Jesus indicated that not “one jot or one tittle” of Jewish law would change until heaven and earth had passed away. This did not prevent him from saying and doing things that were contrary to the law; if anything, he was a law unto himself.
Who’s to say whether Mormon scripture is more far-fetched or merely less familiar than the biblical canon? I do tend to side with Mormons on the matter of revelation, whether or not theirs is the genuine article. The prophets of old looked forward to a time when “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” Religious authorities will render their verdicts. But, of course, they do not themselves see visions or dream dreams. We must go to the source, to the prophets and visionaries. We may image that this must await the coming of a new age. But for those with eyes to see, every day is a revelation.