This is the first in a series on John Turner’s The Mormon Jesus: A Biography.
John Turner’s latest book — The Mormon Jesus: A Biography — is wonderful. The book opens with Jesus’ question to his apostles, as recorded in Mark 8:29, “But whom say ye that I am?” Over the succeeding nine chapters, Turner explores how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have answered that question over time.
By themes, Turner constructs a rich historical narrative of the evolution of Mormon belief. Along the way, he places Mormon views in the context of broader Christianity: Joseph Smith revised the Bible? So did Thomas Jefferson and others, but in very different ways. This anchoring of Latter-day Saint views in their time and place doesn’t make Mormonism’s brand of Christianity the same as other groups; rather, it serves to highlight what is actually distinctive. Furthermore, Turner illustrates each theme with well-told illustrations, such as ordinary members of the Church who saw visions and reacted to revelations.
Turner weaves a lush tapestry of a faith that has learned and evolved over the last 200 years. I highly recommend you take it in. Here is his conclusion: “Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity, one in which temples, ordinances, and prophets have taken their place alongside a Jesus who is both utterly Christian and distinctively Mormon.”
In case you need more to draw you in, here’s a little taste from each chapter.
1. How do Mormons see Jesus in the Book of Mormon? “Any church that gives sustained attention to the Book of Mormon as an inspired scripture would be hard pressed to drift away from the divinity of Jesus Christ and his centrality for human salvation.”
2. How do Mormons see Jesus in the Bible? Turner demonstrates that Joseph Smith was far from alone in editing the Bible in his time. But unlike others, who updated the language or eliminated miracles, Joseph made the Bible more Christian: “What was missing from major portions of the Bible was Jesus Christ. Smith fused the Christian Old Testament with the New. Moses, Adam, and Enoch all learn about God’s ‘only begotten’ son. They hear his words. Adam is baptized. Enoch sees the Crucifixion and—millennia before Jesus’s first advent—the Second Coming. In Smith’s revised Bible, Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of creation and salvation throughout all scripture.”
3. How do Mormons see Jesus in visions? Turner contextual uses Joseph’s first vision: “Influenced by the account of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts, many Protestants had visions of light ‘above the brightness of the sun’ followed by visions of God the Father, Jesus, or both.” He then takes us from Joseph’s vision of the Savior, to those of many other Mormons, and to a shift in teaching away from actively seeking visions of the Savior. “These trends mirrored the trajectories of other American churches.”
4. How do Mormons hear Jesus through modern revelation? After characterizing Joseph’s revelatory process and people’s reactions thereto, Turner follows revelation through Church history. Who knew that John Taylor also had published (but not canonized) revelations? Not I.
5. How do Mormons think about the second coming of the Savior? Turner contextualizes Mormon evolution on this topic — from belief in an imminent coming (with specific timelines predicted by presidents like Lorenzo Snow) to a more uncertain deadline — within the history of Christianity: “As Christians came to rule on earth, they displayed less interest in Jesus Christ’s future reign.”
6. How do Mormons see the relationship between the Savior, God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and the human family? “Given Mormonism’s blanket rejection of all existing churches, Latter-day Saint leaders did not feel beholden to ancient creeds or long-held dogmas. Instead, they approached the Bible and other sources of inspiration with striking openness and creativity. The result was an understanding of God and the cosmos foreign to most other forms of nineteenth-century Christianity.”
7. How do Mormons worship Jesus through the temple rites? “Latter-day Saints from an early age learn to love Jesus Christ and prepare themselves to come to the temple. For active Mormons, these are not separate endeavors, but inextricably connected.” And “Joseph Smith had Mormonized Masonic rites; Brigham Young democratized Smith’s endowment.”
8. Do Mormons believe that Jesus was married? Polygamous? With children? “The Mormon Jesus did not remain married, however. Once the church abandoned polygamy, Latter-day Saint leaders publicly distanced themselves from the idea of a married savior.” Here, Turner traces the idea of a married Jesus from early Christianity to the Da Vinci Code. I love Turner’s comment on this in an interview with Thomas Kidd (not in the book): “While I do not think there is any persuasive biblical evidence for a married Jesus, I don’t think Christians need to hyperventilate at the notion.”
9. How do Mormons envision the Savior? In the 20th century, Protestants had a “chorus of complaint over ‘medieval’ depictions of a mournful and pale man of sorrows.” “Mormons were latecomers to the muscular Christianity movement,” and “when Parson submitted a series of sketches for feedback, church leaders recommended a more masculine rendering of the savior.”
- Matt B, Juvenile Instructor: “Turner’s net is capacious enough to snare the fundamentalist Ogden Kraut and Primary songbooks as well as James Talmage and Joseph Smith. … Many of these chapters are loaded with insight.”
- Sam Brunson, By Common Consent: Turner “is interested in looking at how we see Jesus, how we saw him, and how our vision of Jesus has evolved over the years. And he has accomplished that in spades.” … “You need to read this book.”
- Doug Gibson, Standard-Examiner: “‘The Mormon Jesus’ is an example of excellent Mormon scholarship that can be found from authors outside the faith.”
- M. Haycock, Patheos: “I knew Turner to be a careful, charitable observer of Mormonism, sensitive to the latest developments in Mormon. … Each topic is presented with ample context and, as I have come to expect from Turner, warranted nuance.”
- Jerry Earl Johnston, Deseret News: “You should know this book is driven by information, not flair. … Some of Turner’s findings, in fact, can be bracing and even startling. He’s a thorough scholar who sweeps out the corners. So, would I recommend such a book? Yes.”