I confess to being something of a universalist when it comes to Christianity. Not in any dogmatic sense, but still: I have a hard time believing that the apostasy left Christianity entirely bereft of saving power, and I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t act in a much more immediate way to save (or even exalt) those who He knows have (or would have) confessed His name. If, in the end, after “all we can do” (which I assume includes ordinances), it is the grace of Christ which will save us, it seems not unreasonable to assume that God’s mercy somehow finds its way to all those who piously seek it, regardless of their denomination.
Conversely, I find I have rather stringent views of what lays before most non-Christians. I’ve spent a good portion of my life either dwelling among or studying the ideas of people who practice non-Christian faiths, and I have a lot of admiration for, and have learned a great deal from, many of these people and beliefs. Insofar as developing philosophical systems to address moral and political problems goes, Christianity has been much improved (and could likely be improved even further) by addressing and internalizing many non-Western perspectives. But when it comes to matters of the soul, I become quite the particularist: what these people need to do, I sometimes find myself thinking, is repent, accept Christ as their savior, and be baptized, no two ways about it.
There is one group of believers that doesn’t quite fall into either of these categories, however: the Jews.
What’s different about the Jews, you ask? Aren’t they adherents to just another non-Christian faith? Well, yes–leaving aside the complicated (and controversial) “Jews for Jesus” movement as a possible exception, there is no branch of Judaism which recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Hence they don’t worship Him; hence they are presently outside His covenant and are need in of conversion, right? Right . . . except that doesn’t seem to have been the position taken by Joseph Smith.
It can hardly be denied that the Book of Mormon presents an elaborate theology of the people of Israel. Alongside its strong emphasis upon the centrality of Christ is a nearly equal emphasis on the necessary place of Israel in the history of the world, no matter that the Jews actual spiritual standing. Nephi prophesied (2 Nephi 29:4-5) that it is the legacy of the Jews–”mine ancient covenant people,” according to the word the Lord–which will lead to the enlightenment of the Gentiles; in return, the Gentiles will curse and hate the Jews, for which God promises (speaking, according to the record’s prophetic perspective, to contemporary Gentile readers) “I return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.” Later prophets recorded the words of the Lord regarding how, in the latter days, the Gentiles would fail their stewardship, except for a small remnant that “have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come,” and who will dedicate themselves to aiding the “remnant of Jacob” in returning to the “land of their inheritance” (3 Nephi 16:10, 21:23; Mormon 5:10). Speculation about the “New Jerusalem” has characterized the Christian tradition from the very beginning, but in the context of what Smith and other early members of the church learned from the Book of Mormon, it took on a role less related to Christ’s ultimate triumph and more related to the continuity of God’s chosen people. Isaiah’s prophecy about “the law” going forth from Zion while “the word” goes out from Jerusalem is linked with Ezekiel’s prophecy about the “stick of Judah” and the “stick of Ephraim,” and is made part of extended set of promises which turn upon there being not one, but two foci of God’s power in the world (one in the “old,” one in the “new”). Smith later elaborated upon this in his inspired version of Genesis, writing that Joseph in Egypt had prophesied of a “seer” (presumably Joseph Smith himself) who would correct those who had misinterpreted the promises made to the descendents of Judah, and by so doing “bringing them to a knowledge of their fathers in the latter days.”
This all might seem to suggest that it is the doctrine of the church that, in the end, the Jews will ultimately be brought around to a knowledge of the gospel of Christ. I think that is the right interpretation of our scriptures (D&C 45:51-53, for example). But it is also incomplete, for our scripture also suggests that the postion of the Jews in the eyes of God is distinct from that position to which He has led all the rest of us, us “Gentiles.” There is some confusion on this point. We consider ourselves to be adopted into Israel through baptism and ordination (D&C 84:33-34); we occasionally speak of the “elect” who receive the gospel to have also been God’s chosen people all along, and we have at times made this belief geneaologically literal, such as with the oft-repeated claim that Joseph Smith to have been a “pure-blooded Israelite.” But even the most supersessionist of Mormon thinkers (supersessionism being the Christian doctrine that, with the rejection of Jesus, God’s covenant with the Jews passed on to other, presumably more faithful peoples) can’t deny the scriptural suggestion that, whatever we of the New Covenant are up to, the integrity and purposes of the Old Covenant people remains.
Consider the words and actions of Joseph Smith himself, who when he prayed about the Jews, always identified the church with the “Gentiles,” pleaded for forgiveness for how Jews had been treated throughout history, and took a strictly Zionist line–redemption for the Jews meant returning to the lands of their Abrahamic inheritance (see D&C 109: 60-64). Smith included sympathetic accounts of Jewish life and suffering in his personal writings and sermons, without any reference to their need for converstion; when he took over the editorship of Times and Seasons in February 1842, Smith would regularly run press accounts of Jewish life, articles written by Jews, without any sort of editorial commentary aside from simply assuming the important for the Saints to read about “the feelings of . . . the seed of Abraham upon [these] subjects.” Most revealingly, Smith–who called men on missions to Europe, to Canada and the southern States, to the western frontier and Native American tribes–never once commissioned a mission to the Jews in any part of the world, in direct contrast to the common missionary patterns of most other proselytizing churches in the world at the time. (There were, in fact, whole Christian organizations dedicated to the conversion of Jews to Christianity, like the “London Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Jews,” which Smith wrote mockingly about in the pages of Times and Seasons.) It is not that Smith would have denied any Jewish person an opportunity to convert to the church, but the normally charismatic and determined Smith was uncharacteristically humble when it came to preaching to Jews: when Joshua Seixas came to Kirtland to teach a Hebrew class, Smith discussed religion with him a few ideas, but otherwise refused to, as he put it, “get to prophesying upon his head.”
Smith’s views about the continuity of God’s covenant and purposes through the contemporary Jewish people were not shared by all his fellow Saints–Oliver Cowdery, Orson Pratt and others felt, like the other Protestant churches which made up America’s 19th-century evangelical cutlure, that the present-day Jews were under condemnation, in need of saving, and that their ultimate redemption by the Lord was not so much the fulfillment of a living promise (since the Jews were understood to have rejected the ancient promises made to them) as a sign of His great mercy. But there were more than a few who caught the full spirit of Smith’s unique Christian theology of Israel: Parley P. Pratt, for example, who wrote in A Voice of Warning that “any man who says that the Jews, as a nation, have been commanded to repent and be baptised for the last seventeen hundred years says that which he cannot prove . . . no generation of Jews, which have existed since inspiration ceased, be condemned.” And then, of course, there is the example of Orson Hyde–sent halfway around the world to dedicate the land of Israel for the social and political gathering in of the Jews. His mission, which climaxed with a prayer upon the Mount of Olives on October 24, 1841, had involved no commission to preach to the Jewish people (in fact, Orson Hyde wrote negatively in his journal about other foreign missionaries he met in Jerusalem, with their plans to “gather Israel, convert the heathen and bring in the millennium”; what was clear to him was the need the Jews had for “political power and influence” so that they could regain and rebuild the land promised them). His sole purpose was to call down blessings upon the Jews, so that “Judah’s remnants” would feel inspired to gather together there; upon the Holy Land itself, so that it would be have sufficient resources to support all those who would come; and upon all those nations or kingdoms in a position to help in this work–all with the aim of pleading with the Lord to “restore the kingdom of Israel . . . raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and constitute her people [as] a distinct nation and government, with . . . a descendant from the loins of ancient David, to be their king.”
A millennial prayer, of course: early Mormonism was, through and through, a millennial movement. To the Jews of today, looking back over the past 200 years or so, there probably isn’t much to distinguish one millennialist Christian movement from another. While I think there is good evidence to support that the idea that Mormons have been, throughout their history, particularly conscious of, respectful towards, and open to learning from the Jews, I don’t imagine that many of us have been entirely free of the sort of casual, even sometimes condescending, treatment of the Jews which Smith himself so clearly rejected. For that reason to most Jews, in America at least, fervently support the separation of church and state, and the secularization of society. I can see their concern. I started working on this post entirely in response to a concerned e-mail from a Jewish friend of mine, asking me if I could explain certain entries in Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine which he had run across, some of which suggest that the Mormon church affirms the “blood libel”–that is, the teaching that the Jews have been cursed for having called for the crucifixion of Christ. I can’t speak for McConkie, but a close study of Smith’s own thinking about the Jews (for which this book is an essential starting point) would suggest that any claim about the need for the Jews to repent and receive the gospel will have to be, from a Mormon perspective, seriously qualified. If taking Mormonism seriously will involve a commitment to the remoralizing and religious filling of the public square, let’s hope we can do it in light of Smith’s understanding of his own revelations, which did not conceive of the work God has called those who accept the Restored Gospel to as superceding all the other works He has in progress–especially, most tellingly, that of the Jews.