Aaron R. (AKA Rico) returns again with some thoughts on Lehi.
In Terryl Givens’ ‘very short introduction’ to the Book of Mormon he describes Lehi’s (first) vision in the following terms: ‘No details of the vision, no particulars of any message, are available to distract from the fact of the visitation itself, given to a man who shares neither the public prestige, nor, so far as we can tell, the national stewardship of his contemporary Jeremiah. Jerusalem then, for a time, has some, perhaps ‘many’ prophets, who do not neatly fit into a clear Church structure. Lehi then takes his family out away from the city, which is their literal and spiritual home, and effectively starts a new religious movement that appears to be far more Christ-centered. Moreover, it has a de-centralised view of revelation and the spiritual gifts and also has a far more multi-faceted view of the nature and locale of Zion. The puzzle then is, if Lehi was a contemporary of Joseph Smith (instead of Jeremiah) could his ‘new’ revelation and direct call be tolerated or incorporated as part of a broader Restoration movement? Or would he be branded an apostate, like Hiram Page .
I should note here that I am aware that there was not the same organizational structure among the Hebrews that we have now, but that is entirely my point. For example, Douglas Davies, at the ‘Worlds of Joseph Smith’ conference, discussed whether Mormonism could ever become a ‘world religion’ because ‘the larger the Church grows the more likely it is that an increase in central control will be necessary to maintain its doctrinal and organisational integrity’. This may create problems for the Church. Davies sees the practice of sustaining leaders, which in his view is an expression of testimony, to be a key source of cohesion but it also serves as a control on diversity. This control may allow Mormonism to be global (in the sense of being present in many countries) but not necessarily able to become a world religion, because it cannot tolerate or internalise diversifying traditions. Lehi’s experience suggests that there was such scope in his time. Should we, if we begin with this historical-theological juncture, also accept this possibility?
Further Davies argues, sociologically speaking, that this emphasis on centralised control has tended to lead toward more individualised expression of grace and the love of God which resist the hierarchical expectations of an organisations members and the way they frame access to the spiritual gifts. Davies notes that ‘accepting Jesus’ is central to Protestant theology while denominational differences are peripheral. Mormonism stands in contrast to this, he argues, where denominational differences are as central, if not more so, than accepting Jesus.
If anything, the spiritual trajectory of Lehi and his family suggests the ‘Protestant’ model, which subsequently becomes a ‘Church’ when the need to distinguish that community arises (for safety purposes). Moreover, Stephen Robinson has argued that Nephi’s vision of the great and abominable Church should be understood as an attempt to show that being a member of Christ’s Church is more a matter of who has your heart, rather than who has your records. It is evident therefore that such strands of thought are present in the early parts of the Book of Mormon. According to Givens, this decentralised view of the prophetic gifts persists throughout the Book of Mormon.
This poses a puzzle, a puzzle which is familiar to many of you I am sure. How can we resolve the evident tension between our scriptural sources which provide a space for the priesthood-of-all-believers contrasted with our teachings on priesthood ordination? How can we navigate the difference between personal ministry and institutional calling and/or the conflict between having a Prophet and being a prophetic people?
1. Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, p. 14.
2. I do not believe Hiram Page is comparable to Lehi except in the sense that they both claimed revelations from God outside of an organizational structure.