I recently finished Jon Krakauer’s book about Fundamentalist Mormons, called Under the Banner of Heaven: The Story of a Violent Faith (I know, I know, I am about a year behind in my reading list). The book was a fascinating read, though often frustrating for its reductionism, historical inaccuracies, and sometimes sophomoric view of religion. However, he does seem to make an interesting point about what I like to call the Anarchy of Revelation.
In the preface to chapter twenty-five, Krakauer quotes a famous passage from William James:
“A genuine first-hand religious experience…is bound to be heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled a heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself and orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live second hand exclusively, and stone the prophets in their turn…and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which, in purer days, it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
He implies that the fundamentalist prophets in Colorado City, Bountiful (Canada), the Dream Mine, etc., are of the same prophetic spirit as Joseph Smith, and that the LDS church orthodoxy is a spring dry of that spirit. Joseph Smith taught that we all must become prophets, but the inherent risk here is that we all receive different messages, which is not only likely, but empirically verified by the existence of splinter groups. They bear their testimony like us, pray like us, and many of them were once a part of us. The protagonists of the book are the Lafferty brothers, who grew up in Provo, converted to fundamentalist ideas, and then received a revelation to kill their sister-in-law and her daughter. It turns out that praying to receive revelation about the truthfulness of the church can be a very dangerous idea!
The solution that we have for this anarchy is to place authority for what kinds of revelation can be had by whom. Despite the bottom-up potential for truth that such an epistemology brings, we are in fact told that truth is top down. It turns out that if we pray about a specific teaching of the church, we are supposed to find out that it is in fact true all along. (Some therefore reason that we need not pray at all because the conclusion is foregone).
But does authority really control the anarchy of revelation? We all know of people who received a revelation that they were supposed to marry someone, but the other person never gets the memo, despite praying and fasting about it. What are we to make of the fact that people get all sorts of strange and conflicting answers to prayers? On weightier matters, what mistake has the sincere person made who receives a revelation that a new fundamentalist prophet is God’s chosen mouthpiece? How do we keep the spring dry?