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Chesterton, Mormonism, and Religious Understanding

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  • Chesterton, Mormonism, and Religious Understanding

    Abridged from here:


    G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), in his 13 May 1911 newspaper column, he reacted to a talk given in Nottingham by one Elder Ward, probably Clarence T. Ward (1888-1961) of Idaho. Elder Ward's talk may have replied to concerns about false rumors of LDS missionaries seducing English girls into polygamy in Utah. Indeed, these rumors led to a government investigation carried out by Winston Churchill. Chesterton's column:
    There is inevitably something comic (comic in the broad and vulgar style which all men ought to appreciate in its place) about the panic aroused by the presence of the Mormons and their supposed polygamous campaign in this country. It calls up the absurd image of an enormous omnibus, packed inside with captive English ladies, with an Elder on the box, controlling his horses with the same patriarchal gravity as his wives, and another Elder as conductor calling out "Higher up," with an exalted and allegorical intonation. And there is something highly fantastic to the ordinary healthy mind in the idea of any precaution being proposed; in the idea of locking the Duchess in the boudoir and the governess in the nursery, lest they should make a dash for Utah, and become the ninety-third Mrs. Abraham Nye, or the hundredth Mrs. Hiram Boke. But these frankly vulgar jokes, like most vulgar jokes, cover a popular prejudice which is but the bristly hide of a living principle. Elder Ward, recently speaking at Nottingham, strongly protested against these rumours, and asserted absolutely that polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890. I think it only just that this disclaimer should be circulated; but though it is most probably sincere, I do not find it very soothing. The year 1890 is not very long ago, and a society that could have practised so recently a custom so alien to Christendom must surely have a moral attitude which might be repellent to us in many other respects. Moreover, the phrase about the consent of the Church (if correctly reported) has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses. It sounds almost as if Mr. Abraham Nye might, on his own account, come into church with a hundred and fourteen of his wives, but people were supposed not to notice them. It might amount to little more than this, that the chief Elder may allow the hundred and fourteen wives to walk down the street like a girls' school, but he is not officially expected to take off his hat to each of them in turn. Seriously speaking, however, I have little doubt that Elder Ward speaks the substantial truth, and that polygamy is dying, or has died, among the Mormons. My reason for thinking this is simple: it is that polygamy always tends to die out. Even in the East I believe that, counting heads, it is by this time the exception rather than the rule. Like slavery, it is always being started, because of its obvious conveniences. It has only one small inconvenience, which is that it is intolerable.

    Our real error in such a case is that we do not know or care about the creed itself, from which a people's customs, good or bad, will necessarily flow. We talk much about "respecting" this or that person's religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences. But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance. The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it. But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem - "Never mind about your religion, come to my arms." To which he naturally replies - "But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye."

    About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by this narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories. The wars and Parliaments of the Puritans make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that Calvinism appeared to them to be the absolute metaphysical truth, unanswerable, unreplaceable, and the only thing worth having in the world. The Crusades and dynastic quarrels of the Norman and Angevin Kings make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that these men (with all their vices) were enthusiastic for the doctrine, discipline, and endowment of Catholicism. Yet I have read a history of the Puritans by a modern Nonconformist in which the name of Calvin was not even mentioned, which is like writing a history of the Jews without mentioning either Abraham or Moses. And I have never read any popular or educational history of England that gave the slightest hint of the motives in the human mind that covered England with abbeys and Palestine with banners. Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts - first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be well to discover which ideas. The mediaevals did not believe primarily in "chivalry," but in Catholicism, as producing chivalry among other things. The Puritans did not believe primarily in "righteousness," but in Calvinism, as producing righteousness among other things. It was the creed that held the coarse or cunning men of the world at both epochs. William the Conqueror was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that the Church upheld his enterprise; that Harold had sworn falsely on the bones of saints, and that the banner above his own lances had been blessed by the Pope. Cromwell was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier; but he did attach importance to the fact that he had gained assurance from on high in the Calvinistic scheme; that the Bible seemed to support him - in short, the most important moment in his own life, for him, was not when Charles I lost his head, but when Oliver Cromwell did not lose his soul. If you leave these things out of the story, you are leaving out the story itself. If William Rufus was only a red-haired man who liked hunting, why did he force Anselm's head under a mitre, instead of forcing his head under a headsman's axe? If John Bunyan only cared for "righteousness," why was he in terror of being damned, when he knew he was rationally righteous? We shall never make anything of moral and religious movements in history until we begin to look at their theory as well as their practice. For their practice (as in the case of the Mormons) is often so unfamiliar and frantic that it is quite unintelligible without their theory.

    I have not the space, even if I had the knowledge, to describe the fundamental theories of Mormonism about the universe. But they are extraordinarily interesting; and a proper understanding of them would certainly enable us to see daylight through the more perplexing or menacing customs of this community; and therefore to judge how far polygamy was in their scheme a permanent and self-renewing principle or (as is quite probable) a personal and unscrupulous accident. The basic Mormon belief is one that comes out of the morning of the earth, from the most primitive and even infantile attitude. Their chief dogma is that God is material, not that He was materialized once, as all Christians believe; nor that He is materialized specially, as all Catholics believe; but that He was materially embodied from all time; that He has a local habitation as well as a name. Under the influence of this barbaric but violently vivid conception, these people crossed a great desert with their guns and oxen, patiently, persistently, and courageously, as if they were following a vast and visible giant who was striding across the plains. In other words, this strange sect, by soaking itself solely in the Hebrew Scriptures, had really managed to reproduce the atmosphere of those Scriptures as they are felt by Hebrews rather than by Christians. A number of dull, earnest, ignorant, black-coated men with chimney-pot hats, chin beards or mutton-chop whiskers, managed to reproduce in their own souls the richness and peril of an ancient Oriental experience. If we think from this end we may possibly guess how it was that they added polygamy.

    Discussion questions:
    • Chesterton satirizes the seduction rumors with outlandish scenarios. Why might such rumors start? Why was it hard for LDS missionaries to dispel such rumors?
    • Chesterton observes that Elder Ward assured that "polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890". Historians have shown that church authorities performed hundreds of post-1890 plural marriages, and even most of the Q12 took extra plural wives after the Manifesto. How likely is it that Elder Ward knew of post-Manifesto polygamy? If Chesterton had known of post-Manifesto polygamy, might he have written this column differently?
    • Chesterton objects to the phrase about "consent of the Mormon Church", which "has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses". In LDS-Evangelical dialogue, one major concern is a seeming fixation on plausible deniability over a teaching not being 'official' LDS doctrine, with distant regard for actual belief or truth. Why would one put a premium on the 'official'/'unofficial' dichotomy? What do the criteria highlight/obscure?
    • Chesterton objects that it's only been 21 years since the supposed end of LDS polygamy, and this must reflect a different moral atmosphere; and if that's so "repellent", there's little cause for comfort in ending one symptom. Does Chesterton have a good point?
    • Chesterton says that at least 'intolerance' takes the beliefs of others seriously enough to identify them and to seek to understand their consequences. What should we make of trends toward pluralism, relativism, and pragmatism? How should we regard others who insist that everyone keeps their beliefs to themselves and pretends that everyone agrees?
    "The Jesus Christ who saves sinners is the same Christ who beckons his followers to serious use of their minds for serious explorations of the world." - Mark Noll

    "It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading." - John Wesley

    "Wherever men are still theological, there is still some chance of their being logical." - G. K. Chesterton
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