The Mormon Jesus: A biography
John G. Turner
Harvard University Press £22.95
Church Times Bookshop £20.65
A GOOD many books of late have been called “biographies” even though their subject-matter is not a particular human life. The device can work well, as in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The biography, which illuminates a history that is both organically continuous and alive with change.
In The Mormon Jesus: A biography, John G. Turner applies this approach with good effect to an idea and image that belong to a particular time (the 19th and 20th centuries) and place (an American frontier community that moved from western New York to Missouri, Illinois, and, finally, Utah). The subject is how a figure of Jesus familiar from Joseph Smith’s early-19th-century environment developed and changed both doctrinally and devotionally among Mormons.
Turner’s primary focus is on the largest group of Smith’s successors, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he also takes some note of smaller groupings: the Community of Christ (formerly called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) and the fundamentalist Mormon groups that continue to practise the tradition of polygamy in the American West. The often hostile reactions of other religious groups in the United States are also part of the story.
Turner’s interpretation is aptly summed up in the following: “the Latter-day Saints still understood Jesus Christ as fully divine and fully human, but they . . . redefined what it meant to be a god and what it meant to be human.” Deity, for example, was itself understood as being embodied and sexually reproductive. Humanity was understood, potentially, as a developmental stage of divinity.
The earthly story of the Mormon Jesus differs from the Gospel narratives in including a post-resurrection visit to the Americas. But it is the theology that really marks the Mormon Jesus off from the Jesus of ancient Christianity, who was almost universally assumed to be unmarried and childless. For Mormons, the centrality of family required a reconsideration of the older story on both divine and human planes, though it remains unclear whether the earthly Jesus was to be thought of as married.
Turner, in conclusion, argues that the continuing centrality of Jesus and his redemptive life means that Mormonism cannot be understood as a “new religion”, but only as a new branch of Christianity. Its theology, however, will probably still make the Mormon Jesus seem very odd to the majority of Christians.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, in the United States.