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Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Time Event
1:05a
Hard to believe ...
This was one of those “because it's there” pick-ups that I didn't put much planning or intent into, but none the less ended up worthwhile. I'd been having a planning meeting regarding an upcoming project over at my usual B&N Cafe, and they had a couple of tables of books and stuff at 75% off I dug through there and found a couple of things that “looked interesting” (unfortunately, the other was something that I had in hardcover, and I didn't recognize it in a much-redesigned paperback edition).

This is to say that I did not set out to add to my reading about the Mormon church, but figured it wouldn't hurt to have something else in the library. The Pearl of Great Price is by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and is sort of the “backstory” about how he founded it. According to the quite informative introductory essay, this had been edited quite a bit over the years, but as it presently stands, it's about three-quarters “revelatory texts” (similar to what's in the Book of Mormon) with the rest being various pieces written by Smith.

The two “revealed” texts are “The Book of Moses” and “The Book of Abraham”, the former being “revealed” to him in 1830, and the latter being “translated” by him from copies made of some Egyptian papyrus. They are quite different, no doubt due to the variation of the “revelation”.

The “Book of Moses” begins with Moses talking to God “face-to-face” and being tested by Satan, and passing the test and sort of getting as a reward a whole walk-through of what had happened from “let there be light” on up to these conversations (and beyond). There is a whole lot of begetting and forming of peoples, and moving around, and falling away from God, and getting in league with Satan, much along the lines of what is in the Bible. However, it is interesting how Satan is credited with “a secret” which those that do fall in league with him use to succeed:

49. For Lamech having entered into a covenant with Satan, after the manner of Cain, wherein he became Master Mahan, mater of the great secret which was administered unto Cain by Satan; and Irad, the son of Enoch, having known their secret, began to reveal it unto the sons of Adam;
50. Wherefore Lamech, being angry, slew him, no like unto Cain his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain, but he slew him for that oath's sake.
51. For, from the days of Cain, there was a secret combination, and their works were in the dark, and they knew every man his brother.
Needless to say, this is a fascinating concept! One of the things that I found irritating here is that the whole narrative is set up with repeated references to Jesus, sort of like re-telling the Old Testament with Christian assumptions built in. I suppose that some Christians do this anyway, but it's somewhat jarring to have repeated "but of course it works out this way" anachronistic references in the pre-Mosaic narrative!

The “Book of Abraham” is supposedly a translation Smith made of some papyrus texts that came into his possession in 1835. Now, it is possible to have a translation of Ancient Egyptian writings by that date, as the first bits of the language were coming to light in the 1820s, but the odds that Smith did anything more than “riff” on his impressions of what was in them (reminding me of a friend with no computer training who claimed he could “read” binary machine code!) is pretty slim. There are three reproductions (of ink brush copies made of the “conveniently” lost originals) here and in each case anybody (today) who had studied Ancient Egypt would know that Smith was making some whoppers in his “translation” (a glaring example is saying that the scene with a Goddess {either Hathor or Isis} standing behind the enthroned Osiris with Maat facing him is presented as the Pharaoh standing behind Abraham with a prince facing him … I found more details on this here: http://www.mormonthink.com/book-of-abraham-issues.htm). Since all things Egyptian were “hot” at the time, it's quite likely that this was Smith just going for some “popular” ancient heritage.

In the remaining parts of the book, Smith outlines his history, with many sections of nearly cynical views of the “unusual excitement on the subject of religion”, where sect vied against sect, preacher against preacher, and congregation against congregation. I had intended to copy some of that out here, but it would have run to at least a half a page before it became coherent, so I've opted not to.

As with so much in “revealed” religions, you either take the author's word that stuff happened the way he says (angels coming down out of the sky to tell him what to write or do), or you don't. Needless to say, most of this is pretty hard to accept as “real”. However, there are bits and pieces here which are just so weird that one wonders why these elements would pass a cursory edit of the material … most notably an encounter with an “angel” who manifested in his room, enveloped in bright light, and gave him various revelations and instructions, then ascending into the heavens (through the ceiling, I take it), only to momentarily to re-appear, “and again related the very same things which he had done at his first visit, without the least variation”, and then again a third time, as though the whole thing were some holographic message stuck on “replay”!

Frankly, the very bizarreness of this account almost supports its veracity, if suggesting to the modern mind something other than a metaphysical source. Of course, is the back-story of the Mormon faith any stranger than what most other religions ask people to believe? The pastiche of middle eastern myth that supports (standard) Christianity is no more convincing that Zenu and volcanoes, or every “convenient” “revelation” that supports other faiths (I've always liked Napoleon's quip that “God fights on the side with the best artillery.”). One has to give props, however, to a Church that includes the following in their “Articles of Faith”:

11. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
Heck, that could be an out-take from Liber Al (and maybe Crowley cribbed from Joseph Smith there)!

Anyway, The Pearl of Great Price is “a classic” (this edition is from “The Barnes & Nobel Library of Essential Reading”) and it's still available from BN.com (and the Amazon new/used guys) ... however, because of its age it seems to be out of copyright, and you can get it free on-line (courtesy the Mormons) here: http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp?lang=eng .. which, obviously would be your best bet price-wise.


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