The Sixteenth president of the Mormon Church, Thomas S Monson, has been sustained as prophet, seer and revelator and now heads the, nominally 13 million strong church. He has issued the traditional invitation to “the less active, the offended, the critical, the transgressor” to come back and “feast at the table of the Lord and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.” In a series of emotional addresses to world-wide Mormonism other church leaders, in the 178th General Conference of the Mormon Church, have given their thoughts and endorsements, explaining again how everyone can know “in their hearts” the truth of the work in which they are engaged.
It is rather like a meeting of the Old Russian politburo in which every member of the leadership, no matter how he feels about the present incumbent, is anxious to endorse the system which has elevated him and may elevate him further – provided he lives long enough. And, by endorsing the system that has seen Monson become president, they affirm in the minds of Mormons that their leaders from apostles down to local bishops and quorum presidents are legitimate in their authority and unassailable in their pronouncements. Understandable since at times like this it is important to reinforce the message of “business as usual”.
“As with the priest, so with the people” is the old saying and, as though to prove the truth of the proverb, in meeting houses and homes dewy-eyed Mormons all over the world stood and raised their right hands to the square to declare their undying support for the new prophet. And, no doubt, many will bless their luck that they have been asked to speak at church or been given the opportunity to share a testimony on fast and testimony Sunday so they can be among the first to publicly and vocally declare, “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that Thomas S Monson is a prophet today.” It is important not only to be onside but to be seen to be onside and familiar with the form and the people involved in forging your eternal destiny; those who have gone before and “plan for their brethren” as well as those whose patronage is so important today because they will sign temple recommends and otherwise declare a Mormon worthy to have that all-important calling in the church.
Mormons have always done it this way and, to many, this may sound like a thoroughgoing and cynical side-swipe at a group of honourable people going through the ritual of choosing a leader, but there’s the rub. Each generation has sustained one or more of these prophets, swearing to follow them in the sure knowledge that this man alone speaks for God and teaches God’s only truth. “Follow the prophet”, the expression goes; “Watch the prophet”, is another version of the same idea. “We thank Thee, O God, for a prophet, to guide us in these latter days”, sing the Mormons as they give their heartfelt support to another of God’s servants (or should that be gods’ servants?) who they trust will lead them unerringly as have all previous incumbents.
The ‘rub’ is that, not only has each generation followed a different prophet, but each prophet has led each generation by way of ‘a different gospel’. By that I don’t mean ‘a different gospel’ in the way Paul meant it when he wrote to the Galatians (Gal.1:8/9). That much is obvious and more than thoroughly attested to elsewhere. I mean ‘a different gospel’ in comparison with the message of previous prophets, especially of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and that 19c crowd of trailblazing, world-defying, Christendom-condemning, megalomaniacal polygamists. Numerous examples can be found on the Mormon section of the Reachout Trust web site.
Gordon B Hinckley, the previous prophet, certainly seemed to disown and otherwise distance himself from the pronouncements of earlier leaders and I suppose it will be interesting to watch and see how this latest man stands up. Of course, True Believing Mormons will simply watch the prophet and stand in wonder that such a spiritual giant should walk among them. “Isn’t he homely?” isn’t he wise?” isn’t he folksy?” “Doesn’t he look like Nicholas Cage’s dad?” They will wave of their hankies at Conferences he visits, purchase photos of him from the ever growing industry that produces Mormon kitsch, believe with all their hearts that he receives revelation for the church even though they will see not one and sigh with relief or leave the church in protest by turns as he fiddles with the doctrines, changes the emphasise and blurs the issues further. Because actually everything Mormons are taught and have been taught for years has been produced by a faceless correlation committee that takes prudence over prophecy, correlation over revelation and produces what will work for the church in the current climate rather than what God told the prophet on a Thursday evening in the Salt Lake temple.
Others, however, will watch with discernment, un-phased by the call to return to the fold, concerned only that the truth about Mormonism continue to be exposed and the truth of Jesus Christ increasingly be proclaimed so that those who seek freedom should know the only truth that sets us free (Romans 3:21-26).