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Monday, October 10, 2005
Newsweek on Joseph Smith and the Mormons

The cover story in this week's edition of Newsweek is entitled, "The Mormon Odyssey." (The actual cover says "The Making of the Mormons.") It focuses primarily on Joseph Smith's founding experiences and legacy, but almost mentions prominent contemporary Mormons such as Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada). A brief interview with Church President Gordon B. Hinckley also appears in the issue.

Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be dismayed or even angered by the article's attention to polygamy, its quotation of some things a then-disaffected Oliver Cowdery said (and probably later wished he hadn't), and its brief attention to some critics from what passes for the Christian mainstream. But I've seen a lot of major media attention to the LDS Church come and go, and Newsweek's effort this time seem unusually accurate and balanced.

Here's an excerpt:

Prophet and polygamist, mesmerizer and rabble-rouser, saint and sinner: Smith is arguably the most influential native-born figure in American religious history, and is almost certainly the most fascinating.

Some Mormons expect the world to see Joseph Smith as Mormons see him, and cooperatively to call him "prophet" but not "polygamist," saint" but not "sinner." (Aren't we all sinners?) They will welcome "the most influential native-born figure in American religious history, and . . . the most fascinating," but don't want to see anything like "mesmerizer and rabble-rouser." But this excerpt, like the feature as a whole, is far more positive than negative.

Here's one of the more interesting observations, which I will quote without comment:

Smith's times are much like our own, and his story has a particular resonance in the first years of the 21st century. Like us, he lived in an era of evangelical energy, deep patriotism, economic transformation, sharp political divisions and anxiety about foreign forces' inflicting harm on the homeland. Smith's teachings placed America at the center of existence at just the moment in our history - in the wake of the successful War of 1812 - when nationalism was on the rise.

The article also notes with interest that the Church is growing rapidly abroad, despite the present wave of anti-Americanism the media have reported in large parts of the world. It tells the story of the First Vision and the translation of the Book of Mormon accurately enough and without sneering, which is more than I have learned to expect from the media on this subject.

My favorite line is from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Council of the Twelve. It follows a statement from the founder of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, to the effect that Mormonism has no claim on being Christian, because it departs from "every one of the major doctrines of Christendom." The article fairly notes that Mormons believe in Jesus Christ and even have additional scripture about him, then quotes Elder Holland:

I am devastated when people say I am not a Christian, particularly when generally that means I am not a fourth-century Christian.

There, that seems to put the more-Christian-than-thou crowd in their place, doesn't it?

Overall, the positive far outweights the negative in this Newsweek cover story. Definitely recommended reading.

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