Review: The Mormon Jesus: A Biography

Mormon JesusJohn 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.

Comments

  1. Eric Facer says:

    My assessment of Turner’s book, was much the same as yours. I thought it was quite evenhanded and did an excellent job of chronicling the evolution of Mormon beliefs and doctrine regarding the Savior while situating that evolution in its cultural context—both within the narrow Mormon community and within American society as a whole. We often overlook such external influences, forgetting, for example, that the visions, speaking in tongues and other extraordinary spiritual manifestations in the early church were a defining characteristic of many Protestant faiths at that time, but gradually waned in most churches—including ours—as the Second Great Awakening drew to a close.

    Though I admire Turner’s scholarship and hope he continues to produce similar high-quality works with Mormon themes, I fear that this book will not have quite the same appeal has his excellent Brigham Young biography.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Sounds great. Does he get into Adam-God stuff?

  3. Eric Facer says:

    Yes he does, Kevin.

  4. Benjamin Park says:

    I loved the book, and agree with your assessment that the last three chapters are the cream of the crop.

  5. Great review, Sam. Thanks! Like I can afford another book that I have to move.

  6. I am excited for this one. I am not really interested in BY, but the way we view Christ and how that has evolved….that fascinates me. Thanks for the review.

  7. Mary Bradford says:

    I just received my copy—glad to see your review—was Apostle McConkie responsible for our present- day beliefs about Jehovah/Christ?

  8. Eric Facer says:

    Turner does discuss, in some detail, the impact McConkie has had on contemporary Mormon views about Christ.

    He emphasizes the extent to which Brother McConkie sought to make the church “Christ-centric,” though his style was often combative, frequently referring to Protestant faiths as “apostate” or “so-called” Christians (for Catholics, he reserved his most potent vitriol—”The Church of the Devil”). And he eschewed the notion that Latter-day saints should develop a special relationship with the Savior, stating that the Father should be treated as supreme and paramount. Along with his father-in-law and Ezra Taft Benson, he frequently adopted a sectarian, “us-versus-them” stance, according to Turner. Not surprisingly, this only encouraged the church’s evangelical critics to increase the volume of their rhetoric.

    Interestingly, Turner credits BYU Professor Stephen Robinson—especially his book “Believing Christ”—with articulating a less confrontational, more traditional and very influential understanding of the Savior and his earthly mission, one that many LDS leaders have echoed in their General Conference addresses. Robinson believed that a more gentle response to evangelical critics might persuade them that Mormons really are Christians.

    Turner’s concluding observation regarding the different approaches taken by these two men is instructive: “McConkie’s presentation of Jesus Christ was distinctly sectarian, a savior that only Latter-day Saints would accept. Robinson’s savior was less exacting, more ecumenical, a Mormon Jesus that other Christians would readily recognize.”

  9. BHodges says:

    Thanks for the review, Sam!

    “he’s ultimately not interested in the question of whether Mormons qualify as Christians…”

    I actually think this is the main driving point of Turner’s book. His intro and conclusion frame the book around the question of the Christianity of Mormonism. He directly refers to countercult Christians who depict Mormons as non-Christian as well as scholars like Jan Shipps who have framed Mormonism as an additional Abrahamic religion rather than a branch of Christianity. (As Xtianity was to Judaism, so Mormonism is to Xtianity.) His book is a sustained case against those views, although his approach is to review how views of Jesus within Mormonism have adjusted/evolved/changed over the years. His conclusion:

    “The figure of Jesus Christ both inextricably connects the Latter-day saints to broader and lnger currents of Christian thought and practice and carves out a distinctively Mormon place within them” (292).

    It’s a nice book. I would have liked to see a lot more about how Mormonism has borrowed from Victorian Jesus stuff, Talmage’s reliance on Alfred Edersheim and other figures, etc. Mormon readers also might like to know up front that the book discusses temple worship matters that will seem taboo; he’s more specific about ordinances here than he was in the Brigham Young biography.