“Brother Joseph Rose introduced to me Russell Weaver, a Christian or Unitarian preacher, so-called, from Cambray, New York. We had some little controversy on prejudice, but soon came to an understanding. He spoke of the Gospel, and said he believed it, adding that it was good tidings of great joy. I replied that it was one thing to proclaim good tidings, and another to tell what these tidings were. He waived the conversation and withdrew.” (History of the Church, 2:364. Cf. Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 156.)
Joseph Smith’s home was an open one. He frequently had boarders, and his door was open to people who were hard-up. And occasionally there were intellectual rubberneckers who would visit and cross-examine him. They were kicking his tires, so to speak, or taking him for a test drive.
This is understandable. After all, you have a young man in his twenties and thirties making audacious claims. He claimed to be a prophet, and to have seen God and angels, and then claims to have produced new scripture (the Book of Mormon). And then he organizes a new body of believers, the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith, by making such fantastic claims, was just asking to be henpecked with questions.
And, as this journal entry shows, he was up to it. But what impressed me most about the meeting was not the form of the conversation—the fact that Joseph Smith actually dialogued with people despite his busy schedule of church, family, and farming—but the content of his message.
It appears that the Reverend Russell Weaver wanted to witness to Joseph Smith. That is, he wanted to express his faith and convection about the Gospel and so forth. That is fair enough. He has his right to free speech, just like everyone else.
But its not that what he was saying or doing was bad per se; it was just redundant. Anyone who has had superficial contact with the Mormon Church knows that it is Christian. In fact, over one hundred years ago the First Presidency (the supreme governing council of the Mormon Church) issued this statement to both clarify the question and to refute critics:
“Our religion is founded on the revelations of God. The gospel we proclaim is the Gospel of Christ, restored to earth in this the dispensation of the fullness of times. The high claim of the Church is declared in its title—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Established by divine direction, its name was prescribed by him whose Church it is—Jesus the Christ.”
“The religion of this people is pure Christianity. Its creed is expressive of the duties of practical life. Its theology is based on the doctrines of the Redeemer.”
“If it be true Christianity to accept Jesus Christ in person and his mission as divine; to revere him as the Son of God, the crucified and risen Lord, through whom alone mankind can attain salvation; to accept his teachings as a guide, to adopt as a standard and observe as a law the ethical code he promulgated; to comply with the requirements prescribed by him as essential to membership in his Church, namely, faith, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, if this be Christianity, then are we Christians, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian church.” (“Address to the World,” March 26, 1907, cited in Messages of First Presidency 4:142-155)
Questioning the Christianity of Mormons is like questioning the wetness of water.
As I said, the Reverend Russell Weaver’s witness of his faith was probably appreciated, but it was also redundant and therefore unnecessary. Joseph Smith was already a practicing Christian. But by judging how the conversation began and ended, with the issue of prejudice in the forefront and then Joseph Smith being brushed aside at the end, it seems that the good reverend may have been a bit resentful of Joseph Smith.
I have a fairly good understanding of where Joseph Smith was coming from, but I cannot say the same for the Reverend Weaver. I do not know fully what his intentions were, and we do not have the historical records to see his side of the story. All we can work from are the facts from this one journal entry. But it seems like the Reverend Wells wanted to merely “talk at” or “witness at” Joseph Smith as opposed to “talking to” and “witnessing to” the Prophet.
My point is not to criticize the Revered Wells, but to focus on what Joseph Smith said in response. Wells had his prepared speech and patter, but when Joseph Smith began to cross-examine him, the good reverend got flustered and brushed him off. When Joseph Smith said “it was one thing to proclaim good tidings, and another to tell what these tidings were,” it seemed to me that he was calling the Reverend Weaver (and by extension all of us) to get past the clichés and slogans of external religiosity, and to have a substantive, authentic spiritual life.
We all know what is right and what is wrong, and we all can get a lump in our throat at the appropriate time while reading the scriptures, and we have all the spiritual talking points memorized. In short, we can be superb superficial Christians.
That is the externalities, the form of life. But Joseph Smith wanted us also to have content to our lives. This is the internal, and therefore invisible, aspect of spiritual living. We can say that we accept Christ, but what does that mean in daily application? We go to church (or synagogue, or temple, or mosque), but if we doze-off, is it doing us any good? We can love the Gospel—the good tidings—but what exactly are those good tidings? And why are they so important?
So Joseph Smith was asking us to take the next step. In another setting, Joseph Smith said the following:
“Any many may believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and be happy in that belief, and yet not obey his commandments, and at last be cut down for disobedience to the Lord’s righteous requirements.” (Chapter 13: Obedience: “When the Lord Commands, Do It”, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 158–70)