The LDS Church: Not the Restored Church
“We believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of the original Church established by Jesus Christ.”—James E. Faust, “The Restoration of All Things,” Ensign (conference report), April 2006, 61.
The LDS Church’s claim to be the restoration of the original, only true church on the earth is obviously foundational to its very existence. If it is indeed such a restoration, then all believers in Christ ought to unite with the LDS Church. On the other hand, if it is not the restoration it claims to be, then its very reason for existence falls to the wayside. However, there are historical and biblical problems with the LDS Church’s explanation for why a restoration was needed and with its claim to have restored the authority, organization, and offices of the early church. In this article we will consider five such problems for the LDS Church’s claim to be the restored church.
A. The church of Jesus Christ was not taken from the earth.
The LDS concept of the Restoration presupposes its claim that the true church had disappeared from the earth for some seventeen centuries—what it calls the Great Apostasy. In the article preceding this one, we saw that the LDS doctrine of the Great Apostasy conflicts with the teaching of the Bible. We will not repeat that information here, but the point is extremely important. If the Great Apostasy is a myth, as the Bible’s teaching indicates, then the Restoration is also a myth.
Chapter 17 of Gospel Principles appeals to the Old Testament book of Amos to support the idea of the Great Apostasy (95). Amos speaks of “a famine in the land…of hearing the words of the Lord”; people would “seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12). However, in context Amos was referring to a lack of any comforting word for the northern kingdom of Israel (Amos 8:2-14) in the face of its impending conquest by the Assyrians, which took place some forty years later in 722 BC. In short, Amos’s warning was about the military conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BC, not about an alleged Great Apostasy of the Christian church a millennium later.
B. The LDS concept of restoration was largely unoriginal, so that revelation is not needed to explain it.
The idea that the true church had disappeared from the earth and needed to be “restored” did not originate with Jesus Christ supposedly revealing this idea to Joseph Smith. The notion of a generalized apostasy requiring a divine restoration was widespread in Joseph’s day and was especially popular in the still-young United States. Gospel Principles alludes to this fact when it says that some people had already come to the viewpoint “that the Church that Christ organized did not exist on the earth” (96). This is quite true, but what needs to be understood is that this places Joseph Smith’s religion firmly in the context of the “restorationism” of his day. Many Americans in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries saw the new nation of America as offering a fresh start to return to the forms, experiences, doctrines, or practices of the “primitive church” unencumbered by the old established denominations of Europe. Various other religious groups before and after Joseph Smith claimed to represent the “restoration” of true Christianity to the earth. Some of the other groups that either originated or flourished in early nineteenth-century America included the Stone-Campbell “Restoration” movement, the Shakers (whose origins went back earlier and in England), and the Christadelphians.
In Joseph Smith’s earliest account of his “first vision,” we actually have testimony that confirms that Joseph had already arrived at a belief in the need for a restoration of the true church before he had received any divine revelation. He wrote in 1832: “…by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith, and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament” (spelling and punctuation modernized). Note that he says he had come to this conclusion by studying the New Testament. As he grew up, Joseph would have heard this idea defended by various people who claimed to find support for it in the Bible. So this element of Joseph Smith’s teaching can be explained quite simply as a reflection of the religious environment in which he lived.
C. We have good reasons, both historical and biblical, to question Joseph Smith’s alleged “first vision.”
The LDS scripture entitled Joseph Smith—History, part of Pearl of Great Price, includes an account of what Mormons came to refer to as the First Vision. According to this account, in the spring of 1820 Joseph went into the woods near his home to ask God which church to join. God the Father and Jesus Christ both appeared to Joseph, and Christ told him to join none of the churches, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (JS—H 1:19). Mormons commonly regard this event as the cornerstone event of the Restoration, “one of the most important events in the history of the world…. Beginning with this event, there was again direct revelation from the heavens” (Gospel Principles, 96).
A thicket of problems surrounds this alleged event, both historical (questions about whether it is a fact) and biblical (questions about whether it agrees with the Bible’s teaching). Although Joseph gave accounts on several if not many occasions about the origins of his calling as the prophet of the Restoration, there is no solid evidence that he ever spoke about the First Vision to anyone prior to his handwritten account in the second half of 1832. That account was written more than two years after he founded the LDS Church and more than twelve years after the event supposedly took place. This isn’t for lack of preserved communications from Joseph prior to the 1832 account. By the middle of that year, he had already delivered 83 of the revelations that are published in Doctrine & Covenants. Numerous other documents from Joseph and his associates from the late 1820s and early 1830s fail to mention the event. Nor does anyone seem to have known about it for at least a couple of years after the 1832 account, which was not published and indeed was lost and unknown until the 1960s. Joseph’s accounts of the origins of his work routinely began, not with an appearance of Christ or of Christ and the Father in 1820, but with an appearance of an angel named Moroni in 1823 to tell Joseph about the Book of Mormon.
The 1832 First Vision account, written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, contradicts the official account written in 1838 or 1839 and quoted above. Whereas the official account states that Joseph was praying to know which church to join and was told they were all wrong, the 1832 account states, as mentioned above, that Joseph had already reached the conclusion that all of the churches were wrong before his vision. The 1832 account also has a puzzling omission: it says nothing about God the Father appearing to Joseph. It is common for LDS prophets and apostles to cite the Father’s alleged appearance to Joseph as one of the key elements of the story, because it supposedly revealed to Joseph that the Father and the Son were two separate Beings (contrary to the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity). Of course, people can give differing accounts and can’t be expected to include the same details in each telling, but that truism doesn’t address the problem here. If Joseph really saw God the Father, it is difficult to explain why he wouldn’t mention this in his 1832 account. After all, he is, well, God! That would be much, much stranger than if I were to tell you that the Vice-President of the United States spoke to me, and then, several years later, add that, oh yes, the President was also there and spoke to me!
There are other historical issues which we address in several articles (see our First Vision page), but let me move on to the biblical difficulties. Two stand out:
- A vision in which Joseph supposedly saw, literally, both the Father and the Son in visible form is not consistent with the Bible’s teaching that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). God is by nature invisible to human eyes, but by becoming a man Jesus Christ took on a visible form that allowed us to see God in him (John 1:18).
- The claim that Jesus told Joseph that all of the churches were so wrong that he should not join any of them contradicts Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament that the true church would never die (Matthew 16:18; see my response to chapter 16 of Gospel Principles).
The First Vision story essentially forces a choice. One can believe what the New Testament says about the nature of God and the future of the church, or one can believe what Joseph Smith says. Since Joseph’s own accounts are inconsistent with one another, and since the story is based solely on his own testimony (since no one else was there), we ought to prefer the teaching of the New Testament over the highly questionable claims of Joseph Smith.
D. The claimed “restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods” was not necessary and never happened.
Once again, we have both historical and biblical reasons to question the LDS Church’s claims that heavenly beings came to earth to restore the priesthoods. The LDS Church claims that in 1829 John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, and that later that same year the apostles Peter, James, and John conferred the Melchizedek priesthood on them (Gospel Principles, 97). The earliest “revelation” informing the people about this is D&C 27:5-13, a three-hundred word text added in 1835 to what was Book of Commandments 28 by being literally spliced into the middle of a sentence. That earlier work, published in 1833, contains no mention of these ordinations. This evidence supports the conclusion that unfortunately it appears Joseph Smith made up the story sometime after 1833 to buttress his religious authority.
In any case, we can be sure that John the Baptist and those three apostles did not confer such priesthoods on anyone in 1829, because the Bible’s teaching clearly does not allow for such an occurrence. According to Hebrews 5-8, the Aaronic priesthood was part of the old covenant enacted through Moses that had become obsolete as a result of the coming of Christ. In addition, Jesus alone holds the priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews uses this expression to mean that Melchizedek was a type or prophetic foreshadowing of the eternal high priesthood of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist could not have conferred a priesthood that had been obsolete for nineteen centuries, and Jesus was certainly not going to confer his own authority as our heavenly high priest on Joseph or Oliver or anyone else!
E. The organization of the LDS Church is not in any sense a “restoration” of the organization or offices of the New Testament church.
As explained in detail in an earlier article, the LDS Church’s claim to represent a restoration of the organization of the first-century Christian church is doubly flawed. The first problem with this claim is that the early church did not have an “organization” in the sense of a single institutional organization that ran the entire Christian movement. The hierarchical, top-down bureaucratic organization of the LDS Church is totally unlike the early church movement. The second problem is that the offices of the LDS Church hierarchy bear little or no resemblance to ministry positions in the early church. The first-century Christian movement had no offices of patriarchs, seventies, stake presidents, high priests, or priests, and teachers and deacons were something much different in the New Testament churches than they are in the LDS Church. The LDS Church’s claim that it “was organized with the same offices as were in the ancient Church” (Gospel Principles, 97) is simply false.
For Further Reflection
If the Bible does not predict a Great Apostasy, would it not make sense for Christians who trust the Bible as God’s Word to reject modern claims of a Restoration?
How do you reconcile the evidence that even before his “first vision” Joseph Smith had already accepted the idea that true Christianity needed to be restored with the official account of that vision, in which Joseph’s prayer was for wisdom to know which of the existing churches to join?
According to LDS doctrine, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the other early LDS leaders would have had no authority to found the church, baptize people, or do anything else in the church without their ordinations from John the Baptist and three of the first-century apostles. Is it not troubling, then, that they never said anything about these ordinations until more than four years after the LDS Church was founded?
For Further Study
First Vision. IRR’s collection of resources addressing the claim that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in the spring of 1820.
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “Amos 8:11-12 and the LDS Doctrines of Apostasy and Restoration.” This article (in PDF format) refutes the claim that Amos 8:11-12 predicted the Great Apostasy.