John G. Turner, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard UP 2016).
Just this month, Turner followed up his excellent biography of Brigham Young with something almost entirely different: an intellectual history of Mormonism’s approach to Jesus. And, just so that I don’t bury the lede here: you need to read this book.
Turner approaches the Mormon Jesus thematically and relatively comprehensively (or, at least, as comprehensively as he can in a 350-page book). He spends the bulk of his words on 19th-century Mormonism, but he touches on events as recent as Denver Snuffer’s claim to have seen and spoken with Jesus (83-84) and as ancient as Clement of Alexandria’s view in the late second century that “the gospel had abrogated polygamy, not monogamous marriage) (220).
The beginning of Turner’s book will have little that surprises those familiar with Mormonism. I already knew the place of Jesus in the Book of Mormon (though he does situate the Book of Mormon’s Jesus in the context both of 19th-century American Christianity and 3rd-century theologians), and am largely acquainted with Joseph’s translation of the Bible.
As it progresses, though, the history he uncovers becomes less and less familiar, as Mormon belief and practice has evolved away from it. The shift from Joseph’s thus saith the Lord revelations to Brigham’s preference for not writing revelation is interesting, and other church leaders’ and members’ preference for written revelation (and Joseph’s revelations in particular) is fascinating, as is the evolution of Mormon thought on the Second Coming.
Like I said, the whole book is fascinating: Turner manages to expand and contextualize even the history I already knew. But, for my money, the last three chapters alone would be worth the cost of admission.
I loved the history of the Mormon identification of “Jehovah” with Jesus; early church members, even post-Nauvoo endowment, did not see Jehovah and Jesus as being the same. In fact, it seems to have been a development, not of temple liturgy, but of various church leaders, reasoning and speaking in Conference, that ended up providing that connection. That connection was not cemented, though, until 1915, in Talmage’s Jesus the Christ.
Next comes my favorite chapter: the evolution of Jesus’ marital status. Though Christians often saw Jesus as a bridegroom, for the most part, they thought of His marriage as symbolic, not as literal (though, of course, there were exceptions). By Nauvoo, though, Mormons saw Him as having actually been married and, not too much later, as having been a polygamist (from Salt Lake mayor Jedediah Grant: “The grand reasons of the burst of public sentiment in anathemas upon Christ and his disciples, causing his crucifixion was evidently based upon polygamy. We might almost think they were Mormon” (231).[fn1]).
Finally, and (upon reflection) also my favorite chapter: how Mormons saw Jesus. Not intellectually, but visually. Turner talks about both the American need to masculinize Jesus in the 20th century, the way Mormons grew to necessarily see Him as a white male, and the way Mormons portrayed Jesus in art.
Turner’s work is not polemical; he’s ultimately not interested in the question of whether Mormons qualify as Christians, or, for that matter, whether Jesus lived. He is interested in looking at how we see Jesus, how we saw him, and how our vision of Jesus has evolved over the years. And he has accomplished that in spades.
[fn1] Which suggests that the Mormonisation that Ben discusses has deep roots.