Israel, the Mormons and the Land

W. D. Davies, “Israel, the Mormons and the Land,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 79–97.

Israel, the Mormons and the Land

W. D. Davies

Just after the outbreak of what is known now as the Six-Day War, Professor W. D. Davies at Duke University received a phone call. A prominent government figure in Israel asked if he would go on record as a scholar, a man renowned for his grasp of the relationships between Judaism and Christianity, to defend Israel’s claims to Palestine and Jerusalem. The thoroughness of his scholarship is reflected in a volume, published ten years later, titled The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine.

In the following essay, Professor Davies outlines central themes in the Mormon recapitulation of Israel’s history: the claim to be of the house of Jacob in a hereditary or familial sense, to have inherited a prepared and chosen place in a gathering movement to consecrate and hallow the land, that Mount Zion in ancient Palestine has a counterpart in modern America, and finally that the promises are to extend to the whole earth. Lecturing on the Jewish setting of Christianity during an earlier visit to Brigham Young University, Professor Davies lamented, “Christianity has forgotten its Jewish roots.” Here he offers support for the claim that as a contemporary heir of Israel “Mormonism is a modern expression of authentic Judaism and authentic Christianity.”

T. G. M.

My appreciation for the invitation to present this address in such a highly significant and symbolic colloquium I cannot adequately express. It opens up the world of Mormon thinking to direct and deliberate confrontation with that of non-Mormon religious scholarship. But before I begin, I want to recognize my debts. I accepted this invitation hesitatingly and with trepidation because I cannot claim any extensive acquaintance with Mormon sources. Professors Madsen and Anderson and especially the dean of Mormon scholars, Dr. Nibley, have been most helpful. But my greatest debt goes to a non-Mormon, Thomas O’Dea,[1] whom I met in Jerusalem shortly before his death. It is a pleasant duty to acknowledge with gratitude and honor his balanced judgment and intelligent and sensitive appreciation of Mormonism.

Mormonism is a most complex phenomenon. It arose out of a twofold matrix: Christianity and America. The duality of its origin pervades it. But through Christianity it goes back to an even more ultimate matrix: to Judaism and the Israelite religion. Through Christianity, Mormons came to be connected with the Jews. Their response to the Hebrew People and their land has been truly amazing. And it is with this response that we are here concerned. For the sake of clarity, I shall divide my lecture into three parts. Part 1 deals with Mormonism as a Return to Israel, Part 2 with Mormonism as the Restoration of Israel, and Part 3 with Mormonism as the Reinterpretation of Israel. In that last section we shall concentrate on the land.

Mormonism as a Return to Israel

The early Mormon leaders were steeped in the Old Testament scriptures. Some of them undertook to learn Hebrew that they might understand the scriptures better. All their writings either draw upon or reflect the Old Testament. Like the early Christian Church, they used what might be called collected testimonia, particularly those derived from Duetero-Isaiah. But whereas the early Christian Church drew predominately on the Prophets and Psalms and neglected Leviticus, the Mormon leaders also appealed to the passages in the Old Testament dealing with the priesthood. Although there is no direct dependence on Leviticus, yet Levitical motifs re-emerge in Mormonism with more frequency than in the New Testament. This, then, is the first strong link between Mormons and Israel: they share common scriptures in what we usually call the Old Testament.

But the link is closer. Those scriptures were interpreted in such as way as to find in the People of Israel the physical ancestors of the Mormon people. It was natural for Paul to regard Abraham and Moses as his ancestors and he even went so far as to call them the Fathers of Corinthian Gentile Christians (1 Corinthians 10:1). But the apostle hardly thinks of this as a physical, biological connection between Israel and the Gentile Church: the connection is spiritual.

The Book of Mormon goes further. It claims that certain Jews were fugitives from the land of Israel at the time of the captivity of Zedekiah, which is now dated in 587 B.C., and came to the Western world, that is, the Americas, their land of promise across the sea. Indeed, the manifest theme of the Book of Mormon is the arrival and settlement of Hebrews in the Americas before the Christian era. The American Indians were descended from one of these fugitives, Laman, who rebelled against the father-leader Lehi. This rebellion caused the Lamanites, the ancestors of the American Indians, to be cursed with a dark skin. Into the details of the Book of Mormon we need not enter. The point is that Mormons believe themselves to be Israelites in a literal sense and also to be closely related to the Indians, who are also physically descended from Israelites. The Mormons, then, are a continuation of what the Fathers of the Christian Church were to come to call the old Israel. But for Mormons there is no old Israel. They simply regard themselves as Israel in a new stage of its history (the process of “adoption” often referred to by Mormons cannot be discussed here).[2]

If we compare the Mormon attitude to Israel with the attitudes expressed in the early Christian Church, certain similarities and contrasts appear. Among certain Jewish-Christian groups, who were later opposed by the dominant currents in the Church, there were doubtless many who retained an emphasis on the biological or physical continuity between themselves as Christians and the Jewish People, or Israel. But such Jewish Christians (if they existed in any number), for reasons we cannot discuss here, ceased to be historically important. We do not find in the New Testament any insistence on any possible biological or physical or genealogical continuity between Christians and Jews. In fact, in some documents, Israel after the flesh is denigrated.[3] Instead we may roughly distinguish three attitudes. In some documents we find the notion that the Gospel is simply a form of Judaism, in others that it is the antithesis of it, and in still others that it is the fulfillment of it.[4] Only in the writings of Paul do we have an emphasis on the continuity of the Church with Israel and a recognition of the significance of its role in history that is in any way comparable with what we find in Mormonism. But in Paul also the continuity to which he points has nothing to do with biological or genealogical continuity. In this he too differs radically from what we find in Mormonism.

Here, then, in its understanding of its physical continuity with Israel (so that Mormons can regard themselves as physically related to Israelites and to the Indians of the American continent, who were originally Israelites), Mormonism offers what seems to be a novel treatment of what me might call the Jewish question. It is as far removed from anti-Semitism and even anti-Judaism as it can be. There is instead what one might almost call a pro-Semitism as expressed for example in appendix 18 of James E. Talmage’s The Articles of Faith. There we read: “The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, witnesses that every nation that fought against Israel, or in any way oppressed them, passed away.”[5] Contrast this with the almost standard New Testament understanding of the Fall of Jerusalem. That document regards that event as a due and just punishment for the Jewish people who were held responsible for the putting of Jesus to death by the Romans. I do not know how the Mormon interpreters reconcile their position with this interpretation given by the New Testament. Certainly they do not, as it has been claimed, deny that the New Testament—whether rightly or wrongly does not concern us here—sometimes does place on Jews responsibility for the Roman Crucifixion.[6]

There is also the same difference in attitude towards the dispersion of the Jews. Both in Pharisaic Judaism and in Early Christianity there is little attempt to find any blessing in the exile of Jews from their homeland in Palestine. There is a remarkably strange absence of any developed Theology of Exile in Judaism. Passages regarding the exile as having atoning value are few; rather, that event is regarded as an undesirable disaster. The exiled life is a squalid life.[7] So too is Early Christianity the dispersion of the Jews, greatly increasing after the Fall of Jerusalem, was regarded as punishment for their rejection of Jesus. Later Christendom (I hope that I may be allowed here to distinguish Christianity from Christendom) found the Jews everywhere a problem. Christians first tolerated them in their midst if they became converts; they then later proceeded to find Jews intolerable and placed them in ghettoes. And in the twentieth century they went even further. In some quarters it was tacitly preferred that Jews should not exist at all, and “the final solution” of their annihilation, which culminated in the Holocaust, was offered and pursued.

As compared to this, the Mormon attitude towards Jews is extremely refreshing. But it presents problems of a historical character. To name only two, there is the historical problem caused by the understanding of the Lamanite-Indian relationship and the presence of Jews in pre-Christian America; and related to all this, apart from the doctrine of “adoption,” there is the difficulty of finding a verifiable physical genealogical connection between Jews and such obviously British and Scandinavian figures as peopled the early Mormon movement.[8] But leaving aside the grounds on which Mormonism founded its pro-Semitism, its reality is clear and fresh. The tone as much as the substance of the words of Mormon leaders concerning the Jews[9] is miles removed from the climate which made possible the Holocaust in our time, a climate not often opposed and even fostered by the Christian tradition.

It agrees with this benign attitude towards the Jewish dispersion that Mormons hold that in the last days, while the Jews will be gathered at Jerusalem, the Israelites on the new continent, the American Indians and Mormons, will come to Zion built here in this land by the members of the Mormon Church. This has been a continuous part of Mormon doctrine (D&C 29:7; 45:43; 57:1).

This emphasis on the continuance of Israel up to the end of history introduces us to a theme which is dividing New Testament scholars very radically at this time.[10] The geographic and physical actuality of the redemption or return of Jews to Zion as developed in the Mormon tradition has no parallel in the New Testament. It is possible that Jewish-Christianity and even some early Fathers retained such a hope.[11] But the one nearest to Mormons in spirit, if not in substance, at this point is Saint Paul.

To sum up, then, Mormonism, like most radical movements, is conservative. It first is a return: it follows the French notion of “return” and gathering: recueillir pour mieux sauter. The Mormons regard themselves as Israel—in some sense physically or genealogically so. And in many points of doctrine, while they differ from the New Testament as normally interpreted, they offer salutary emphases, even though it might be argued that they do so for debatable reasons. But they go even further: they regard themselves not only as returning by descent to Israel, but as reliving the life of Israel in their own lives. This brings us to the second point of our paper. Mormonism is a restoration of Israel.

Mormonism as the Restoration of Israel

The emergence of Mormonism, as far as I am aware, has seldom been characterized in terms of Messianism: Joseph Smith did not regard himself as the Messiah, nor was he so regarded by his followers, although he was given an eminent status. Nevertheless, to anyone familiar with Messianic movements, the parallels with Mormonism are striking. Similarly there are features of Mormonism which recall the Apocalyptic and Pseudepigraphic literature. I recall the shock with which, on turning from a study of the Sabbatian Messianic movement, I recognized the same features in Mormonism—enthusiasm, repentance, a vivid anticipation of the end and the dual roles of Sabbatai Svi and Nathan of Giza, strangely repeated—mutatis mutandis—in those of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.[12]

In a broad sense, therefore, I do not think it misleading to think of Mormonism as a kind of messianic or eschatological movement; it regarded itself as a millennial movement. This illumines the aspect of it with which we now deal—that of restoration. Ever since Gunkel wrote his famous study, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit, it has been recognized that eschatological movements are governed to a large extent by the notion that the end of creation and of history or the goal of history is to be like its beginning: the Greek phrase for this is: ta eschata hôs ta prôta, meaning, “The last things are as the first.” In Jewish Apocalyptic it is expressed as: kegô’êl achrôn kegô’êl r’îshôn; or “The last Redeemer is as the first Redeemer.”[13]

This principle was very operative in Mormonism (although, let it be repeated, Joseph Smith was not Messiah).[14] It has been pointed out that Mormonism did not accept the doctrine of the fall of Adam as introducing among his posterity a crippling inability to do the good. Here it is nearer to Christian tradition in its main stream than to Judaism.[15] But, as Dr. Nibley has illumined for us, Mormonism does recognize an “ecclesiastical” fall as in a lesser degree does Protestantism generally.[16] In a loose way Mormons may be compared with Sohn and Harnack at this point. They hold that the early Christians “did not retain the kingdom of God after the second century of the Christian era; that from that time to the present, they have had no more authority to administer Christian ordinances than Apostate Jews; and that all their forms and ordinances, and ministrations, are an abomination in the sight of God.” This is “the great Apostasy of the Christian Church,” which commenced in the first century.[17] Mormonism is an attempt to go behind the corruption of this “ecclesiastical” fall and to restore a kind of primordial Jewish pre-Christian communion between man and God, to reestablish Christ’s Church and at the same time to reenact the life of the Israel of God. This was to be not simply a restoration of Hebrew ideals but also a restoration of the Hebrew institutions and experience. This restorative tendency is found in the New Testament itself, and clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere, but it is especially marked in Mormonism. Let us substantiate this under the following headings.

First, Mormons came to see themselves as a part of a renewed Israel, born in a covenant of “the children of Israel, and of the seed of Abraham,” led by one like unto Moses (D&C 103:17).[18]

Second, this Israel was in the wilderness, as was the former Israel: it has been called out of the wilderness (see D&C 5:14; 33:5).[19] Joseph Smith, the one like unto Moses, received commandments as did Moses. True, the commandments of Moses did not enable anyone to enter by the straight gate, and Joseph Smith contrasts his covenant with that of Moses; nevertheless, the President, Joseph Smith, was to be like Moses.[20] In D&C 28:2 we read: “But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.” Here there is an unambiguous endorsement of Moses. Contrast the tentativeness and ambiguity with which Moses is often surrounded in the New Testament, as for example in John 1:17.

Third, like Israel of old, Joseph Smith and his people are pilgrims marching to a promised land, the center of which is a Zion, a New Jerusalem. As Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph had prospered in this world as part of and as a result of their covenant with God, so would the new chosen people (who early thought of themselves as spiritual and, as we saw, even literal descendents of the old) prosper under the new covenant. As in Judaism the city of Zion came to be regarded as the quintessence of the totality of the land, so in Mormonism. As for Zion, the City of Holiness, Joseph Smith claimed to have found a reference to it in papyri containing a story older than that found in Genesis. This city—the City of Holiness, even Zion, the city of Enoch—”was to return to earth to dwell amid the holy city to be built by the Mormons.”[21] (See Moses 7:62–63).

Fourth, just as in the Old Testament and Judaism, Zion—that is Jerusalem—was to be a kind of world center to which the scattered peoples of Israel (more strictly, of Judah—that is, Jews descended from that tribe) were to return, so also the Zion envisaged by Mormonism was to witness a return of all other Israelites from whom Mormons came or into whom they had been “adopted.” All this means that the millennialism of the Prophetic and the Apocalyptic traditions of Judaism was taken over by the Mormons.[22]

This reference to the Prophetic and Apocalyptic makes clear that Apocalyptic was one strong aspect of the matrix of Mormonism. But this was not its only matrix. It has been customary to put Prophecy and Apocalyptic over against the Law, as its antithesis. This notion dominated the work of R. H. Charles, who edited the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Recent scholarship has corrected this false antithesis.[23] The Prophets have now been seen to be directly dependent at many points on the priestly tradition. It is striking that, by another route, the priestly tradition has also come into its own in Mormonism. Part of the restorative aspect of Mormonism was the reintroduction of the importance of priesthood: the Aaronic Priesthood and that of Melchizedek came to be revived or reintroduced in the Mormon community. There is an endemic anticlericalism in Mormonism from its beginning: in true democratic fashion it has emphasized the active participation of all the members in the religious life of the community. But simultaneously it has also combined this with a developing concept of the priestly office. The movement developed a lay priesthood elaborately organized into two orders or subdivisions; the lower, called the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood, is believed to have been restored through the ordination of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829 at Harmony, Pennsylvania, under the hands of an angel, who announced himself as John, the same that is called the Baptist in the New Testament.[24] The higher or Melchizedek Priesthood is believed to have been restored through the miraculous intervention of Peter, James and John, at a time which is uncertain.[25] As in ancient Israel, priests are ordained by the laying on of hands.

It is not necessary to enlarge further here on the priesthood except to reiterate that it is part of a wider restorative process in the life of Israel. Part of the same process can be seen in the numerical aspects of the Mormon organization. Some numbers like that of the ninety-six members of the council of elders (D&C 107:89) suggest no biblical parallel that I am aware of, but the use of the number 70 for the elders who are called to be traveling missionaries and of the number 12 for the council, under the direction of which they work (107:23, 25), recall not only the Twelve and the Seventy of the Gospels but the twelve tribes and the twelve patriarchs and the seventy elders of the Old Testament in the period of the wilderness (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:16). The priestly tradition of the Old Testament, so long separated from the Prophetic and the Apocalyptic in much Christian interpretation of the Old Testament and of Judaism, is given a new attention and respect in Mormonism and reunited with these. Here it is tempting to think that in Mormonism—apparently so essentially a child of the New World Protestantism and so suspicious of the great Evil Church[26]—at first glance and very paradoxically is more akin to Catholicism than to the Protestantism within which it arose.

But there are other elements of restoration. In particular the reference just made to the patriarchs is here highly important. Mormonism held that covenants were eternal and so revived the polygamous marriage which most, though not all, the Patriarchs of the Old Testament had practiced. It justified polygamy in terms of the Patriarchs. Plural marriage, then, which constituted at one point a central aspect of the world view of Mormonism and a symbol of its separateness and of its innovative character, was in fact an aspect of its restorative thrust.[27] It was even suggested later (although never officially) that there was polygamy in the New Testament and that Jesus had married Mary and Martha.[28] The account of the revelation leading to polygamy makes the restorative purpose clear. Here again it is not germane to our purpose to enlarge upon this aspect of Mormonism except insofar as it illumines the continuity of Mormon practice with that of ancient Israel and points clearly to the restorative tendency in Mormonism. The familial emphasis in modern Mormonism, which has now officially abandoned polygamy, belongs to the same emphasis.[29]

Time does not allow us to enlarge further upon this attempt to recapitulate or to restore the life of ancient Israel in the Mormon community. Let it only be stated that the emphasis on the geographic dimension of the Jewish life and hope to which we shall soon devote our attention also belongs to this category of the “restorative.” But the geographic dimensions of Mormonism—its materiality—illustrate not merely its principle of restoration but—and very vividly and concretely—its principle of reinterpretation. Thus we turn next to our third section: Mormonism as Reinterpretation.

Reinterpretation or Transference in Mormonism

So far we have emphasized the continuity in Mormon existence—continuity especially with the Jewish people. Continuity between Judaism and Christian faith is present very markedly in parts of the New Testament, but this is even more emphasized in Mormonism. We now turn in our last section to the discontinuity in Mormonism. This discontinuity arises not so much out of the rejection of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as out of its reinterpretation. In the particular aspect of Mormonism with which we shall now be concerned, that is, the territorial, it involves what we can call the transference of categories or their radical redirection.

It is no accident that it is in the territorial dimension that reinterpretation and discontinuity are most marked. In social and religious arrangements the memory of the usages of the people of Israel could be normative and regulative. Given the stance of Mormonism, they were naturally copied. But in territorial matters emulation was not so easy; in fact, it was in any direct manner impracticable, if not impossible. Here the actualities of the American experience of the Mormons become actively significant. But to understand this, certain aspects of the self-understanding of Israel in the Old Testament have to be recalled.

First, the God of Israel, although peculiarly related to Israel as his chosen people, remained the God of heaven and earth. Even in the Israelite context, there was a cosmic, a this-worldly, earth-encompassing dimension to his being and purpose. The Redeemer of Israel was the Creator. Creation and Redemption were inseparable. This meant that the material world, not only the so-called “spiritual” world, was his concern. This cosmic materialism, if we may so express it, of the God of Israel is much emphasized in Mormonism, which refuses to make any sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual. For example, the human body is important, the physical earth and physical actualities. Mormonism, on one side, is as highly materialistic as it can be, as is essential Christianity always.

But this further helps to explain why the land of Israel was as important to the people of Israel as the Old Testament claims it to have been. It was the land of promise in the life of Israel. (I am not so certain that the emphasis on the land of Israel as especially belonging to God himself is as emphasized in Mormonism.) And the quintessence of the land was Jerusalem, Zion.

In agreement, then, with its “material” emphasis, if I may so put it—an emphasis which paradoxically did not, as it did in Israelite religion, preclude an equally emphatic “other-worldliness”—Mormonism took over the notions of the inseparability of cosmic renewal and human spiritual renewal and also the notion of a promised land and a promised city. Mormons may be defined as a people in search of a land and a city which, indeed, like the Jews in the case of Jerusalem and Eretz Israel, they do distinguish.[30]

But where was their promised land? Like many cultures, the Mormon culture had to find a center for its promised land. In Judaism, Israel is the center of the world, Jerusalem is the center of Israel, and the Temple, resting on the Rock on and around which all the universe was built, is the center of Jerusalem. We find in Mormonism a quest for this center. But the quest becomes an American one, even while Jerusalem remains the center for Jews (of Judah, that is, strictly Judaite Jews). For Mormons—the other Israelites—the promised land becomes this side of the world, the Americas. And the center? In ancient Israel, there were many centers at first—Bethel, Shechem, Samaria, until finally Jerusalem reigned as the centrum mundi. So too in Mormonism. The movement from the beginning to Kirtland, Ohio, was a search for the center and its temple. Later Missouri, and Nauvoo in Illinois, gained that honor, and, finally, Zion was built in Salt Lake City. As I read the sources, however, Missouri remained the centrum mundi par excellence, despite the actuality of Salt Lake City and the temple there.[31] But be this as it may, there is, then, a very marked territorial dimension to Mormonism. It took literally the territorial prophecies of the Old Testament, appropriated the Old Testament claim that occupance and permanence in the promised land were dependent on the keeping of the commandments, and wherever it went insisted that the Temple was necessary to hold back the overwhelming chaos that can break out if it is neglected. The territoriality of Judaism is reinterpreted by Americanizing it. The new reality of America imposed itself on the scriptural substructure of Mormonism. This land of America superseded the memory of the land of Israel in the Mormon mind even when that mind remained true to that memory and nourished itself upon it.

Does not Mormonism radically depart from Christianity in all this? Yes and no. In the New Testament there are several ways in which the territorialism of Judaism and Jewish Apocalyptic is dealt with: by rejection, spiritualization, historicization, sacramental concentration.[32] Possibly in Jewish-Christianity, whose sources are largely lost to us, the centrality of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem was retained. There is some evidence that this was so.[33] In this case there is again a point of contact between Mormonism and Judaism through Jewish-Christianity. But does not Mormonism, in retaining so much of the literal interpretation of the apocalyptic tradition, depart from the main elements of early Christianity which either ignore, spiritualize, sacramentalize, or historicize the land and Jerusalem? It seems so.

And yet there are factors we must recognize. First, there is the comparative ease with which Mormons, at immense cost, were able to transcend place. They moved from Kirtland, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Salt Lake City. They were never tied to a place but remained sojourners and pilgrims. One striking fact illustrates the essential importance of this. When Brigham Young was faced with the threat of federal troops being sent to take over the land of Utah and the city the Mormons had built, what did he do? He did not declare an open city to save the city and the state as the French declared Paris an open city in World War II. Instead he decided to abandon the city to the federal troops and declared a policy of “scorched earth.”[34] Not place was the ultimate concern, but the community. This means that already during the lifetime of Brigham Young himself space was subordinated to the covenanted people, to time. Mormons have had centers in Ohio, in Illinois and Missouri, but they left them all and made a home in Utah; and they were prepared to leave that.

There is another factor pointing to this transcendence of territory. Wherever Mormons have taken over a new missionary field, they have first sanctified it and declared it holy unto the Lord. But this implies that all places have become open to the Divine Presence. The widespread missionary thrust of Mormonism, although always centered in Zion[35] in Utah, has the effect of dissipating its territorial intensity. Temples are now being built in far-flung places. As a result geographic concentration must necessarily wane. And coincident with this is the same spiritualizing of the concept of the land and Jerusalem as we found in Early Christianity. The words of Thomas O’Dea in connection with the building of a first temple in Switzerland deserve quotation: “. . . it testifies to the first stage in the separation of the Mormon notion of Zion and the gathering from a definite piece of land and from the New World. A more abstract, more spiritualized conception of the gathering, in which a Mormon way of life is seen as possible without physical removal to and residence in a Mormon community in America, is developing.”[36] If so, then Mormonism is approaching more nearly to the main development of territorial theology in the main Christian bodies; that is, it is gradually becoming deterritorialized and approaching more closely to the thought of an ancient hymn:

Jesus, where’er thy people meet

There they behold thy mercy seat,

Where’er they seek thee thou art found,

And every place is hallowed ground.

For Thou within no walls confined,

Inhabitest the humble mind.

Such, ever bring Thee where they come

And, going, take Thee to their home.

In this it seems that Mormon and other Christians can join. Joseph Smith is himself reported to have said that Zion is where are “the pure in heart.”[37]


To recapitulate very crudely: Mormonism asserts its continuity with Israel even genealogically. It returns to the roots of Judaism and Christianity in Israel. It also restores the forms of Israel that it regards as having been corrupted by both religions through a kind of “ecclesiastical” fall. Its substructure and its structures are in the Old Testament and the New Testament. But it also reinterprets and accommodates or transfers ancient forms, in a very remarkable way, to an American setting and mode. Mormonsim is the Jewish-Christian tradition in an American key.

Finally, I hazard a suggestion. Mormonism arose in a place and time when many utopian, populist, socialistic ideas were in the air. It gave to these a disciplined, organized American outlet and form: what it did was to re-Judaize a Christianity that had been too much Hellenized. But note that parallel with this American movement was a European movement, Marxist Communism, which also, from one point of view at least, was a protest against the false spiritualization of a too much Hellenized Christianity that had neglected its Judaic roots—a protest in judgment.[38] Let it be clear. We do not claim that there is any direct contact between Mormonism and Marxist Communism. But the former is the American expression of many of the same forces that led in Europe to Marxism. Mormonism certainly injected, and I hope will continue to inject, into the American scene the realism of Judaism and thus challenged a too-Hellenized Christianity to renew its contact with its roots in Israel. Is it too much to hope that by mutual interaction both Mormonism and traditional Christianity can be profited and instructed, and even corrected and possibly changed?


[1] See Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

[2] The significance of the adoption of Mormons into the people of Israel over against what he regards as our overemphasis on the genealogical or physical relationship between Mormons and Israelites was urged on me by Professor Louis Midgley. But in the current concordances to the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants there is no item under the term adoption. According to D&C 84:34 the members of the two Mormon priesthoods become the seed of Moses and of Abraham, but in D&C 103:17 the Mormons as a whole are “the children of Israel and of the seed of Abraham.” To Brigham Young, Mormon s were “my people Israel,” D&C 136:22. But here the word adoption is missing.

[3] This theme cannot be carefully considered here. See W. D. Davies, “Paul and the People of Israel,” New Testament Studies 24 ( 1977): 4–39.

[4] See W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 400–401.

[5] James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1947), 514. The whole passage reads as follows:

Time will show the same general result from the destruction of Jerusalem to the millennium. The Prophet Isaiah, speaking of the time when the Lord should favor Israel, said, “All they that were incensed against thee shall be ashamed and confounded: they shall be as nothing; and they that strive with thee shall perish” (41:11). “I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; and they shall be drunken with their own blood” (49:26). “I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink again: but I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul Bow down, that we may go over.—A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, by Elders Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, 228, 229.
3. Israel among the Nations—When we reflect that it is thirty-two centuries since the enemies of Israel began to oppress them in the land of Canaan, that about one-third of the time they were a people in that land they were more or less in bondage to their enemies; that seven hundred years before the coming of Christ the ten tribes were scattered throughout the western Asia; that we have no record that any have as yet returned to the land of their inheritance; that nearly six hundred years before Christ the Babylonish captivity took place, and that, according to the book of Esther, only a part of the Jews ever returned, but were scattered through the one hundred twenty-seven provinces of the Persian empire; that Asia was the hive from which swarmed the nomadic tribes who over-ran Europe; that at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans the Jews were scattered over the known world; we may well ask the question, Does not Israel today constitute a very large proportion of the human family?—Compendium, by Elders F. D. Richards and James A. Little, 89.

[6] It is striking, however, that in the passages where the cross emerges in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine and Covenants the Jews are not explicitly mentioned as responsible for it; rather, the cross is dealt with in broad terms. See 1 Nephi 11:33 and 3 Nephi 27:14. It is surprising how few references to the cross occur in the Book of Mormon. In the index to the Doctrine and Covenants no item entitled “cross” occurs. But in D&C 18:11 and 35:2 there is again no specific reference to the role of Jews in the Crucifixion but concentration on the suffering of Christ for all men. All this may be significant as pointing to the absence of any anti-Judaism in Mormonism.

[7] See Davies, The Gospel and the Land, 120, n. 113.

[8] This historical problem will be familiar to students of Mormonism. It arises from two causes. First, there is the strictly factual or historical connection of Israelites with the Americas in the pre-Christian era, and second, arising from and bound up with this, the question of the nature of the visions reported by Joseph Smith and the literary genre of the Book of Mormon. Should the contents of the latter be taken as historical or does not the Book of Mormon rather belong to the genre of the apocalyptic and pseudepigraphical literature? These two immense problems can only be indicated here.

[9] See note 5 above. Mormonism is millennial: the Jews will be gathered at the end of the days, as will their relatives the American Indians. See 1 Nephi 10:3, 14; 2 Nephi 3:5, 10:5–9, 20:22, 21:12, 25:11; 3 Nephi 16:4, 5, 20:11–19, 28, 29, 33, 46, 21:1, 22, 29; Mormon 5:14; Ether 13:10, 11.

[10] See W. D. Davies, “Paul and the People of Israel,” op. cit., where the views of Rosemary R. Reuther and Krister Stendahl are discussed. For a trenchant rebuttal of Reuther, see John M. Oesterreicher, The Anatomy of Contempt: A Critque of R.R. Reuther’s Faith and Fratricide, The Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies (South Orange, New Jersey: Seton Hall University), Institute Paper, no. 4.

[11] The evidence has not been garnered but reference may be made to J. Daniélou, Theologie du Judéo-Christianisme, vol. 1. Histoire des Doctrines Chrétiennes Avant Nicée (Tournai, Belgium: Desclée & Cie, 1958). A careful reading of Daniélou from this point of view is profitable.

[12] The classic volume for all this is G. Scholem, Sabbatai Svi: The Mystic Messiah, 1626–1676, now excellently translated into English by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton University Press, 1973).

[13] On this see H. J. Schoeps, Theologie und Geschichte des Judenchristentums (Tübingen, 1959).

[14] To judge from the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith was chosen for the work of the Lord, D&C 3:9; ordained an apostle, 20:2; was seer, translator, prophet, elder as well as apostle, 21:1, 124:125. He was to be the sole receiver of revelations, 28:2; he received a heavenly vision and conversed with Christ, 76:1–14. But though like Christ it was necessary that he seal his testimony with his blood, 136:39, at no point is he designated Messiah. He witnesses to the latter. Nothing reveals the distinction between Joseph Smith and the Messiah more than that he was commanded to repent, 5:21, 93:47; and the claim that if he did not abide in the Lord, another would be sent for in his stead, 35:18; compare 3:9–11. The Lord in 35:18 is undoubtedly Jesus, but he is also the Lord God. See 35:1–2; 34:1.

[15] Compare Davies, The Gospel and the Land, 396–98.

[16] Hugh W. Nibley, in personal correspondence.

[17] See Thomas F. O’Dea, op. cit., 134. According to John A. Widstoe, A Rational Theology (Salt Lake City, 1915), as cited by O’Dea, “For seventeen centuries these falsehoods continued. Such is the religion ‘of the papal, Greek, and Protestant Churches of the nineteenth century. . . .Instead of having apostles, prophets, and other inspired men in the church now, receiving visions, dreams, revelations, ministrations of angels, and prophecies for the calling of officers, and for the government of the Church—they have a wicked, corrupt, uninspired pope, or uninspired archbishops, bishops, clergymen, etc., who have a great variety of corrupt forms of Godliness, but utterly deny the gift of revelation, and every other miraculous power which always characterized Christ’s Church.’” On the notion of a fall in the history of the Church in Sohn and Harnack, see my work, “A Nomadic Pattern of Church Life in the New Testament,” reprinted in Christian Origins and Judaism (London, 1962), especially 202–5.

[18] The idea of the eternity of covenants in Mormonism made any supersession of the old covenant by the new (that is, any fundamental demotion, let alone destruction, of the old covenant) utterly uncongenial. Also unacceptable was the notion of the old covenant as merely promissory of or preparatory to a new, as in the New Testament. Compare O’Dea, op. cit., 136. But the doctrine of the everlasting covenants is not always clear. The last covenant of baptism ordained by Joseph Smith causes “all old covenants to be done away with” and yet this new covenant was from the beginning. The passage in D&C 22:1–4 reads as follows:

Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.
Wherefore, although a man should be baptized an hundred times it availeth him nothing, for you cannot enter in at the strait gate by the law of Moses, neither by your dead works.
For it is because of your dead works that I have caused this last covenant and this church to be built up unto me, even as in days of old.
Wherefore, enter ye in at the gate, as I have commanded, and seek not to counsel your God. Amen.

[19] D&C 5:14; 33:5.

And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.

And verily, verily, I say unto you, that this church have I established and called forth out of the wilderness.

[20] D&C 22:1–4, see note 18 above; D&C 28:2.

But behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.

[21] On all this section, see O’Dea, op. cit., 134–315.

[22] On Zion, see D&C 63:24, 36; 103:20; 45:71; 66:11; 62:4; 64:30; 101:20, 70, 74; 133:12; 84:2.

[23] See, for example, “Apocalyptic and Pharisaism,” in my Christian Origins and Judaism, 19–30.

[24] D&C 13: “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.”

[25] D&C 68:19; 107:18; 124:123. D&C 84:14–19 reads as follows:

Which Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, who received it through the lineage of his fathers, even till Noah;

And from Noah till Enoch, through the lineage of their fathers;

And from Enoch to Abel, who was slain by the conspiracy of his brother, who received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam, who was the first man—
Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years.
And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.
And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.

[26] O’Dea, op. cit., 34.

[27] D&C 132:37, 38, 40. O’Dea, 139, quotes Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool and London, 1855), 163:

It was the law of the ancient Priesthood, and is again restored, that a man who is faithful in all things, may, by the word of the Lord, through the administration of one holding the keys to bind on earth and heaven, receive and secure to himself, for time and all eternity, more than one wife.
Thus did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the Patriarchs and Prophets of old.

See also Orson Pratt, The Bible and Polygamy (Salt Lake City, 1874).

[28] T. B. H Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints (London, 1874), 485.

[29] D&C, “Official Declaration” by Wilford Woodruff, September 24, 1890. This was endorsed on October 6, 1890, by the man who would become the next President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lorenzo Snow.

[30] On the Land, that is, Eretz Israel in Judaism, see my work The Gospel and the Land.

[31] D&C 52:42; 57:1, 2; 62:6. Independence, Missouri, was the centrum mundi.

[32] See the conclusion to my The Gospel and the Land.

[33] See above, note 11.

[34] O’Dea, Mormons, 102.

[35] From the early Utah days the Mormons considered Utah as Zion. They planned eventually to return to Missouri, the ultimate capital of the Zion which would include all of the American continent.

[36] O’Dea, op. cit., 118.

[37] D&C 92:21: “Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn.” Compare D&C 101:18. Nevertheless, Mormons retain the hope of a territorial “gathering” of Israel in the future.

[38] See Davies, The Gospel and the Land, 385–89, especially 388.