Mormonism: Signs of the Restoration?
According to LDS doctrine, a number of events in the life of Joseph Smith were both signs and crucial turning points in the “Restoration,” which for Mormons means the re-creation of the true church on earth. These signs of the Restoration, which the LDS Church claims were prophesied in the Bible, include the publication of the Book of Mormon and various appearances of heavenly figures to Joseph Smith. If the LDS Church’s claims about these events are true, then obviously it really is the one true church on the earth today and we should all accept the LDS gospel and doctrines. On the other hand, if there are good reasons to discount these claims—especially if they are not consistent with the biblical passages to which Mormons appeal in support—then we are justified in concluding that the LDS Church is not the true church.
A. Did an angel restore the gospel?
According to Gospel Principles, “The Apostle John saw that the gospel would be restored by an angel (see Revelation 14:6–7). In fulfillment of this prophecy, the angel Moroni and other heavenly visitors brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith” (253-54). The basic premise of this claim is that Revelation 14:6-7 prophesies the restoration of the gospel through an angel. If it does, then we may consider whether to accept Joseph Smith’s claim that he saw such an angel and that the gospel Joseph said he received from the angel was a restoration of the gospel. On the other hand, if Revelation 14 does not prophesy the restoration of the gospel through an angel, then it really doesn’t matter if Joseph saw an angel or not, because such an angel would not and could not have been fulfilling Revelation 14.
Here is what the two verses say:
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water’” (Revelation 14:6-7 ESV).
John’s description of this angel does not sound even remotely like Joseph Smith’s story about being visited by the angel Moroni. John’s angel is flying overhead in the sky; Joseph’s angel appeared in his room by his bedside. John’s angel is speaking loudly to all the people on the earth; Joseph’s angel spoke privately (and presumably quietly!) to Joseph alone. John’s angel brings the world a message warning people to fear, glorify, and worship God the maker of the world because the time of judgment has come; Joseph’s angel brings him a message about the Book of Mormon, a book that supposedly contains the fullness of the gospel.
If we read verses 6-7 in the context of the larger unit that they begin, we see even more clearly that this passage has nothing to do with opening up a new dispensation of the church or a restoration of the gospel. The angel of verses 6-7 is the first of three angels in rapid succession that bring ever harsher messages of judgment:
- The first angel urges people to worship God because the time of judgment has come (14:6-7).
- The second angel announces that God’s wrath has caused Babylon the Great to fall (14:8).
- The third angel warns that anyone who worships the Beast will also suffer God’s wrath in unending torment in fire and brimstone, in contrast to the saints who keep God’s commandments and have faith in Jesus (14:9-12).
The rest of the chapter continues this theme of God’s wrath and judgment from which those who die in the Lord are spared, with three more angels involved in executing that judgment (14:13-20).
But does not the first angel proclaim “the eternal gospel”? Indeed he does, but this is not a “restored” gospel but the same gospel that has always been proclaimed. The gospel is not merely a message of salvation; it is a message of salvation for those who follow the Lamb (Christ) and a message of judgment for those who do not. It is good news for those who accept it, but bad news for those who do not! There is nothing in the angel’s proclamation to indicate that a lost or corrupted gospel is being restored; instead, his message is a very basic, very elementary one: God is the maker of the world—start honoring him as such, or else!
B. Did Isaiah prophesy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?
According to Gospel Principles, “In Old Testament times the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel foresaw the coming of the Book of Mormon (see Isaiah 29:4–18; Ezekiel 37:16–20)” (254). However, neither of these passages refers to the Book of Mormon. My point here is not merely that these passages do not mention the Book of Mormon by name, although of course that is true, as Mormons will readily acknowledge. My point is that in context these passages do not describe anything corresponding to the Book of Mormon.
Let’s look first at Isaiah 29. There is a reason why the LDS citation begins with verse 4 of that chapter instead of verse 1: verses 1-3 establish that the context of this prophecy is Jerusalem (called “Ariel”), not the Nephite civilization in the Americas:
“Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel. And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee” (Isaiah 29:1-3 KJV).
The description of Ariel as “the city where David dwelt” unambiguously refers to Jerusalem, and the “siege” that will come against Jerusalem referred in Isaiah’s context to the Assyrian army that besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC, though the scenario could be seen as repeated a century later by the Babylonians. The rest of the chapter continues in this context, which means that it has nothing to do with the supposed Book of Mormon peoples.
Gospel Principles begins its citation of the passage with verse 4: “And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.” Mormons traditionally understand the “voice” from “the ground” as the Book of Mormon buried in the ground near Joseph Smith’s home, and its “familiar spirit” as referring to its similarities to the Bible (e.g., James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, 18; Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:213; LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 69). This is a most unfortunate misunderstanding of Isaiah 29:4. In context Isaiah is saying that the proud city of Jerusalem would be humbled, pummeled into the dirt, like a man who has been given a beating by mobsters and is lying on the ground quietly moaning. Worse still, the Mormon reading of the verse badly misunderstands its reference to a “familiar spirit.” This expression is used consistently in the King James Version to refer to the spirits of the dead in the underworld that supposedly spoke through mediums or necromancers, whom the Israelites were forbidden by God to consult:
- “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:31).
- “And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people” (Leviticus 20:6).
- “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them” (Leviticus 20:27).
- “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
The expression “familiar spirits” is used everywhere else in the Old Testament in reference to spiritists or necromancers, including elsewhere in Isaiah (8:19; 19:3). Thus, what Isaiah 29:4 means is that Jerusalem will be beaten down so severely that its “voice” will be like those necromancers who whisper and mumble words supposedly coming from the spirits of the departed. Yet Mormons use this verse to claim that Isaiah was predicting the coming forth of the Book of Mormon from the ground!
After speaking further about the many nations that were going to come and humiliate Jerusalem, again called Ariel as well as Mount Zion (Isaiah 29:5-8), Isaiah prophesies that Jerusalem will become so spiritually dense that its most respected wise men and prophets will be completely ignorant of what God is doing:
“Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. 10 For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: 12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned. 13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: 14 Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isaiah 29:9-14 KJV).
As an act of judgment against Jerusalem for its disobedience, the Lord announces that Jerusalem will suffer from extreme spiritual blindness. Isaiah uses some analogies to describe what this blindness will be like. It will be like a deep sleep afflicting Jerusalem’s rulers as well as its prophets or seers, preventing them from seeing what is clearly happening (verse 10). It will also be like a book (or scroll) that no one can read, whether they are literate or illiterate, because it is sealed (verses 11-12). Here again, the idea is that the truth is right in front of the wise men of the city but they cannot see it (verse 14).
Mormons have been taught a very different understanding of this passage, and especially of verses 11-12. They think that Isaiah was prophesying about a specific incident involving the Book of Mormon. In 1828, Joseph Smith gave his associate (and financier) Martin Harris a piece of paper with several rows of characters that Joseph said he had copied from the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon. Harris then took this “transcript” to New York City and showed it to some scholars, including Charles Anthon, to get their opinion of the characters. According to the LDS Church’s official account, when Anthon offered to translate the plates if Harris brought them to him, Harris told him that part of the plates were sealed and that he was forbidden to bring the plates to him. To this Anthon reportedly replied, “I cannot read a sealed book” (Joseph Smith—History 1:65). Mormons note the similarity in wording of this statement to the one found in Isaiah 29:11, where the learned is asked to read the words of a book and he responds, “I cannot; for it is sealed,” and they conclude that Anthon’s statement about the Book of Mormon fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. “Thus unwittingly did this man fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the coming forth of the volume” (Talmage, Articles of Faith, 242).
We have already seen that Isaiah was not referring to a literal book or scroll, but was using an analogy to describe the spiritual blindness of the seers and wise men of ancient Jerusalem. Even if we ignore the context of Isaiah 29:11, however, its wording does not fit the incident involving Charles Anthon. What Isaiah says is that men deliver “a book that is sealed…to one that is learned” and ask him to read it, and he says, naturally enough, that he cannot read it because it is sealed. But no book, sealed or not sealed, was delivered to Charles Anthon. The only thing that was shown to Anthon was an alleged copy of some of the characters on the plates. Mormons may try to get around this problem by saying that it was only the words of the book that were delivered to the learned man, referring to the words on the transcript that Harris showed to Anthon. This isn’t what Isaiah says (compare the parallel statement in verse 12), but taking it this way only makes the problem worse, because Joseph Smith—History 1:65 claims that Anthon was able to read the transcript and verify its translation of the characters! So whichever way one tries to read the Anthon incident into Isaiah 29:11, it simply does not fit.
The difficulty of making the Anthon incident fit the supposed prophecy about it in Isaiah 29:11-12 eventually led Joseph Smith to produce an alternate version of Isaiah 29 in the Book of Mormon and later in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. This alternate Isaiah 29 features over 700 words added in and around what are verses 11-12 in the King James Version that turn those verses into an explicit prophecy of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 27:11-26; Isaiah 29:6-24 JST). Such wholesale rewriting of Scripture to make it “prophesy” about one’s own work only reveals the weakness of the original claim and Joseph Smith’s audacity to distort the Bible for self-serving purposes.
C. Did Ezekiel prophesy about the bringing together of the Bible with the Book of Mormon?
The other Old Testament prophetic passage cited in Gospel Principles as prophesying the coming of the Book of Mormon is in Ezekiel:
“Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ 17 And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. 18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand” (Ezekiel 37:16-19 ESV).
According to the LDS Church’s interpretation, the stick of Judah is the Bible, and the stick of Joseph is the Book of Mormon. The uniting of the two sticks symbolizes the bringing of the Bible and the Book of Mormon together in modern times through Joseph Smith.
A basic rule for interpreting symbolism in a text is this: whenever the text itself gives an explanation for the symbolism, take it! For example, when Jesus explains his parable of the sower and the four soils to depict four different kinds of responses to the word of God (Mark 4:1-20), and when the Book of Revelation explains that the golden bowls full of incense “are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8), it is pointless and wrong-headed to look for or even suggest other explanations.
So also here in Ezekiel 37: after enacting the symbolism of taking two sticks, one labeled for Judah and the other for Joseph, and holding them together in his hand as one stick (verses 16-17), the people naturally asked Ezekiel what this symbolic action meant (verse 18). The Lord’s answer through Ezekiel is that he will unite the “stick” of the tribes of Israel headed by Joseph in Ephraim with the “stick” of the tribe of Judah to make them one (verse 19). That is, the two sticks represent the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel led by Ephraim and the tribe of Judah in the southern kingdom. This division of Israel into two kingdoms had begun after the death of Solomon and had led to the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC and of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians at the end of the seventh century BC. This is the immediate context of Ezekiel’s prophecies, since he was writing during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BC. After explaining what the “stick” imagery meant, the Lord through Ezekiel explicitly explains what the action of uniting the two “sticks” symbolizes:
“When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:20-22 ESV).
The uniting of the two sticks in Ezekiel’s hand symbolizes a future time when the Lord will reunite all of the people of Israel into one nation under one king, the end-times shepherd-king called “David” (verses 24-25), that is, the son of David, Jesus Christ. This prophecy is not about bringing together the Bible and the Book of Mormon; it is about the reuniting of God’s people Israel under the redemptive rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.
D. Is the missionary effort of the LDS Church fulfillment of prophecy?
The LDS Church claims that its worldwide missionary program is fulfilling the prophetic words of Christ, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14 KJV). “Ever since the Restoration of the Church, missionaries have preached the gospel” (Gospel Principles, 254).
As noted in our response to chapter 33 of Gospel Principles, the LDS Church came into existence well after the evangelical Protestant missionary movement had formed numerous organizations to pursue the evangelization of the world. The LDS missionary program is impressive in some ways, but it is neither original nor ground-breaking nor even especially successful. As pointed out in that earlier response, what we think of as the Mormon missionary program is actually less than forty years old, and there is evidence suggesting that it is losing steam.
A few statistical comparisons may prove surprising to those who have had the impression that the Mormon missionary movement has been in any way outstanding. It took the LDS Church (founded in 1830) 117 years to reach a million members (in 1947). By comparison, it took the Seventh-day Adventist Church (founded in 1863) only about 95 years to reach a million members. Jehovah’s Witnesses (founded in 1879), also known for their very public proselytizing effort focused on door to door work, reached the same milestone in just 85 years. In one century, Pentecostalism (which originated in 1906) grew from a handful of people to well over 100 million people—with 57 million members in the Assemblies of God denomination alone.
One should also recognize that at least up to now Mormon missionaries have drawn the vast majority of their converts from people of nominally Christian backgrounds, nearly all in countries that were predominantly Protestant or Catholic for centuries before the Mormons began their efforts there. The only nation with 100,000 or more Mormons that is not predominantly Christian is Japan. Of the LDS Church’s 14 million members (as of 2010), it is reasonable to estimate that at least 13 million come from Christian backgrounds. The bottom line here is that Mormons are not bringing millions of people from animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism to faith in Jesus Christ. Their converts come almost entirely from people of Christian backgrounds disaffected, for whatever reasons, with traditional forms of Christianity.
The real task of world evangelization of which Jesus Christ spoke in Matthew 24:14 has been going on since the first century. During the first thirty years of Christianity the gospel had spread from the Middle East throughout Eastern Europe and at least as far west as Italy. By the end of the second century the gospel was being preached throughout most of Western Europe including the British Isles. By the end of the fourth century, Christian churches were established throughout North Africa and from Britain in the west to India in the east, covering what was for them virtually the entire known world. Christianity reached Iceland and Greenland by about 1000, and Scandinavia and Russia were largely Christianized by that time. Dominicans and Franciscans were evangelizing people as far away as China and Mongolia in the thirteenth century, India in the fourteenth century, various parts of Africa in the fifteenth century, and the Americas in the sixteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century the still-young Protestant movement was evangelizing American Indians and Brazilians, and the first Protestant missionary organization for reaching American Indians was established in 1649. By the time of Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century, most of North and South America had already been extensively evangelized. In the nineteenth century Protestant and Catholic missionaries began the hard work of evangelizing in Africa; by 1900 there were about 9 million Christians in Africa, and that number exploded to about 380 million by 2000.
Examined in the context of the history of Christian worldwide missions, or even in the short history of Christian missions during the past two centuries, the Mormon missionary movement barely merits a footnote. At best, it is quite premature to proclaim Mormon missions a fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy that the gospel would be preached to all the nations before the end would come.
Of course, what really matters is whether the LDS gospel is the true, full, restored gospel that it purports to be. Throughout this study of Gospel Principles we have presented reasons from the Bible why we cannot accept this LDS claim.
E. Did Elijah appear to Joseph Smith in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy?
About four centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Lord spoke the following words through the prophet Malachi:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5-6 ESV).
The LDS Church claims that this prophecy was fulfilled in 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith:
The prophet Malachi prophesied that before the Savior’s Second Coming, the prophet Elijah would be sent to the earth. Elijah would restore the sealing powers so families could be sealed together. He would also inspire people to be concerned about their ancestors and descendants. (See Malachi 4:5–6; D&C 2.) The prophet Elijah came to Joseph Smith in April 1836. Since that time, interest in genealogy and family history has grown. We are also able to perform sealing ordinances in the temples for the living and the dead” (Gospel Principles, 254).
Gospel Principles offers no explanation or evidence to support its claim that Malachi was prophesying an appearance of Elijah before Christ’s second coming. When one turns to the New Testament, it becomes apparent that this prophecy was fulfilled at the time of Christ’s first coming. Jesus himself told his disciples so:
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:13-14 ESV).
“And the disciples asked him, ‘Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?’ He answered, ‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:10-13 ESV, emphasis added; see also Mark 9:11-13).
These statements do not mean that John the Baptist was literally the same person as Elijah (say, his reincarnation, as New Age teachers sometimes argue). What they mean is that Malachi’s prophecy was about the coming of a man who would be a kind of latter-day Elijah, a prophet like him. This point is made clearly in Luke’s account of Gabriel’s announcement of John’s birth to his father Zechariah:
“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16-17 ESV).
Notice Gabriel’s use of the language of Malachi, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” leaving no doubt that John was to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.
If John the Baptist’s ministry of preparing people for the coming of the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah, then there is no reason to think that Malachi was prophesying a visit of the actual Old Testament figure of Elijah to Joseph Smith. But did such a visit take place? Joseph Smith reported in his journal, in an entry later published as Doctrine and Covenants 110, that he and Oliver Cowdery had a “vision” in which they saw with “the eyes of our understanding” a series of heavenly figures speaking to them: the Lord Jehovah (110:1-10), Moses (110:11), Elias (110:12), and Elijah (110:13-16). From Joseph’s description of this experience, it was at most a “vision” that he and Oliver had in their minds—not a physical appearance of these figures. Ironically, two years later Oliver was excommunicated from the LDS Church, and we have no separate account of this vision from him.
It should be noted that nothing in Doctrine & Covenants 110 supports the claim that Elijah’s appearance to Joseph Smith initiated the program of genealogical research and proxy ordinances for the dead. Joseph Smith himself did not begin teaching about baptism for the dead until four years later in 1840, and he did not connect Malachi’s prophecy with baptism for the dead until 1842 (Doctrine & Covenants 128:17).
Raising further questions about the vision in 1836 is the apparent confusion in Doctrine & Covenants 110 regarding the names Elijah and Elias. In D&C 110 these are treated as the names of two different figures, but in fact they are different English forms of the same name, reflecting the difference between the Hebrew (Eliyyahu) and Greek (Elias) spellings. Thus, in the King James Version the name Elijah appears only in the Old Testament (throughout 1-2 Kings and in 2 Chronicles 21:12, Ezra 10:21, and Malachi 4:5) while the name Elias appears only in the New Testament (26 times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in four other places). Everywhere in the KJV New Testament, “Elias” always refers to the Old Testament prophet Elijah or to John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Malachi’s latter-day Elijah prophecy.
In review, the New Testament clearly teaches that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, and an analysis of Joseph Smith’s purported vision in D&C 110 shows additional reasons for denying that that vision was a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. This means that we should reject Joseph Smith’s claim that this vision restored “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16).
Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the prophecies of the Bible, and his own claims to speak prophetically about the future, show a pattern of error and failure. He made false predictions in the name of the Lord, including his supposedly true prophecy about the Civil War. Joseph Smith and the LDS Church have also misinterpreted various biblical prophecies as being fulfilled in the LDS Restoration. From an evangelical Christian perspective, Joseph does appear to fulfill one biblical prophecy related to the signs that will precede Christ’s second coming: the Bible’s repeated warnings about the rise of false prophets (e.g., Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1).
For Further Study
The LDS Church: Not the Restored Church. Explains why the LDS Church’s claim to be the restoration of the only true church of Jesus Christ on the earth should be rejected.
- Does Ezekiel 37 Predict the Book of Mormon? IRR web article showing that the LDS use of Ezekiel 37 takes the passage out of context.