Beyond the Burning in the Bosom: Why Mormonism Spreads

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Evangelicals often wonder why Mormons believe such an incredible system: golden tablets translated with “magic glasses,” an advanced society of ancient American Indian Israelites who left behind no archaeological evidence at all, a “revelation” of polygamy that was reversed when Utah needed to do so for statehood, a “revelation” barring black Mormons from the priesthood that was reversed after the triumph of the civil rights movement, an eternity of godhood producing spirit babies, and special protective underwear.

What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. Very few Mormon converts become convinced by rational arguments of the prophetic office of Joseph Smith. Indeed, Mormon missionaries don’t ask one to do so; instead relying on a “burning in the bosom” that the claims of Smith are true.

To understand the draw of Mormonism, evangelicals should read the works of Latter-day Saints who explain why they love their religion.

Some LDS intellectuals who have concluded, to their regret, that Joseph Smith constructed from his own mind the narrative of the Book of Mormon and the “translation” of the Book of Abraham are instructive here. Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, for instance, warns that his conclusions are not for children or new converts. Demonstrating the roots of the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth-century world of King James Bible, freemasonry, occultism, and frontier Americanism; Palmer nonetheless remains a committed Mormon–because he loves the social and theological vision of the LDS culture.

Likewise, Coke Newell, a convert to the LDS church in his late teens, lays out why a drug culture vegetarian would find the LDS church compelling.  In so doing, he glories in the ancient mysteries of Mormon cosmology and eschatology: from a God and a Goddess who produce offspring to a future in which deified humans rule a vast cosmos. Newell makes clear that he isn’t simply convinced by Smith’s claims; he is convinced because he loves the picture of reality they portray.

This should come as no surprise to evangelicals who have read the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the roots of human idolatry in the first chapter of Romans.  Fallen humans have affections and inclinations that they then prop up with beliefs, convincing themselves that their systems are true. This could not be clearer with Mormonism, which is in reality little more than an Americanized version of a Canaanite fertility cult.  With this the case, evangelicals should take more than a scattershot approach to knocking down Mormon claims (although this is necessary). We must also present a counter-story to the Mormon story: one that resonates with the beauty of truth and holiness.

Evangelical “how-to” sermons are not going to reach our LDS neighbors. Neither are anti-theological churches that major on Christian experience and piety disconnected from doctrinal content. Instead, we must present the gospel the way the apostles did in the aftermath of Pentecost: as a “mystery” that now explains everything in terms of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ.  For an example of how to proclaim the gospel to Mormons, we should pay attention to Paul’s proclamation of the gospel to a cultural milieu that closely resembled that of Salt Lake City: the pagan enclave of Ephesus.  Paul presented Jesus as the key to understanding God’s cosmic plan, as the reason for human existence, human worship, human fatherhood, even human sexuality. Paul did not shy away from speaking of what we intuitively seem to know is true: that there is an ancient warfare of which the affairs of human beings are only a part.

The apostle understood that for the Ephesians, and for the Mormons, and indeed for all of us outside of Christ, the allure of falsehood is because falsehood is parasitic on the truth. We need not just ask whether Mormons believe things that are untrue and dangerous; they do. We must ask also why they believe these things, and counter them with the revealed truth.

Latter-day Saints do not need an unbiblical and unsatisfying vision of Christian hope that is not much more than an eternal choir practice. Instead, our LDS neighbors (and all of us) need to hear of the biblical glory of a restored universe in which human beings will rule with Christ over all things, a universe in which nature itself is freed from the curse and in which human friendship, love, and community continue and grow forever.  Latter-day Saints do not need to hear of a creation stance that piecemeal stands in the gaps left by Darwinism. Instead, Mormons (and all of us) need to hear of a beautiful and resonant biblical narrative of creation that explains the meaning of the universe and our place in it. LDS families don’t just need to hear that we are pro-family. They need to understand that we are pro-family because the family reflects the Fatherhood of God (Eph 3:14), a Fatherhood that finds its meaning not in pre-mortal spirit babies but in the sonship of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:15).

Yes, we need apologetics directed toward Mormons. And, whatever some evangelical leaders may say, we must not back away from the sad reality that Mormonism is not even remotely Christian.  But we must remember that we will not convince Mormons with rational arguments alone. This means we can’t rely on piecemeal attempts to point out discrepancies in the Book of Mormon, or archeological proofs against the Nephite civilization, or philosophical holes in Mormon cosmology. All of these things are important, but we must remember that, deep within their hearts, Mormons know that Joseph Smith is a fraud. They, like we before conversion, are “suppressing the truth” (Rom 1:18).

The Spirit can conquer this kind of deception, and he does so through the word of truth.  This doesn’t mean proof-text argumentation, necessarily. It does mean presenting the big picture of Scripture, tying it together in the pinnacle of all truth, Jesus of Nazareth.  This is not the subjective, irrational “burning in the bosom” of our Mormon missionary friends. But let’s remember where they found the “burning in the bosom” language.

When Jesus was walking with the dejected disciples to Emmaus, he took them through all of the Scriptures, showing them how the Christ was the focus of them all. After he left them, they said to one another: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32 ESV)  This was not, and is not, the anti-propositional relativism of postmodern epistemology, nor is it the irrational mysticism of New Age occultism. It is the human heart created in the image of God, freed by the Spirit, resonating with the truth.  This is what the apostle John means when he writes that we know the spirit of truth from the spirit of error because the one who is from God “listens to us,” the prophetic-apostolic instruments of divine revelation (1 John 4:6).

We must remember this when we welcome our LDS neighbors over for dinner, or when we lovingly spend an evening with diligent Mormon missionaries. When divine revelation is presented in all of its Christocentric glory, there is a longing within us for this story. That’s because it is true. And more than that, it is the truth, and the way, and the life.  That is good news for Latter-day Saints, and for forgiven Canaanites like us.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).