Robert Millet and Joseph McConkie have undertaken the ambitious project of explaining, in 144 pages, that “history of histories”—the election of and covenant with the house of Israel by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The book attempts to chronicle the rise of Israel to eminence in the premortal realm, the covenant of God with Abraham, the loss and restoration of that covenant, the scattering and gathering of Israel, covenant people in ancient America, the lost tribes, and the consummation of the individual and collective endeavors of members of the house of Israel in the millennial age. Drawing heavily on the teachings of Bruce R. McConkie, the authors have as their central thesis the claim that the house of Israel is a people called, prepared, and chosen to be a light to others.
The strengths of this book include discussions about the biblical understanding of the intimate nature of the covenantal relationship between the Lord and his people (34–37), temples as “sacral space” (120–22), the people of covenant as a “light to the nations” (62), and the sacrament as a covenantal meal (95–96). In discussing this last topic, the authors add insights into LDS celebrations of the Lord’s Supper by drawing upon the work of biblical scholars informed by historical/critical methodologies.
This book, however, can be rather difficult fare due to a priestly writing styleand some verbatim redundancies, dogmatic assertions, and insider debates about Mormon esoterica. The text frequently appeals to the fears of those readers who are concerned that Church members may fall prey to “would-be leaders” (91), “unstable views” (99), and “other aspects of the apostasy” (13) and concludes that “the gentile nations—and, sadly, many Latter-day Saints—sin against the fulness of the gospel and reject its blessings” (86). Without factual support, the effects of this style of argument are coercion of assent by stigmatization and diversion of the reader’s attention from the avowed purposes of the book.
At first glance, the principal assertions of Our Destiny appear consistent with certain traditional LDS concepts of election, covenant, dispensations, and religious identity. Closer examination, however, reveals flaws in interpretation, argumentation, and use of historical sources. A negative view of the Jews and a distinct chauvinism mar the pages of Our Destiny. Readers should ask what the effects would be on both Mormon thought and Church practice if these attitudes were to prevail.
Speculative Interpretation of Scripture
The book uses a number of scriptures in ways that can be supported only by tendentious readings or by appeals to private, noncanonical interpretations. For example, Colossians 1:5 is cited as proof that “gospel principles were taught to us and understood by us long before we were born” (22). But Colossians 1:5 is part of Paul’s greeting to the Christian community in Colossae. The community’s “faith in Christ” and “love [for] all the saints” (Col. 1:4) are the causes for the Apostle’s praise, not virtues acquired in premortal life or reserved for the Saints in the life to come.
Our Destiny often employs an esoteric interpretive procedure to explicate scriptural texts and make authoritative pronouncements. For example, the book claims without canonical justification that the Lord called Abraham to leave Ur “that the bloodline may be kept pure” (44). This claim does not conform with the accounts in Genesis and in Abraham 2:6, which say nothing about bloodline. Similarly, there is no evidence for the claims that Ephraimites are to be “found on the frontier of movements that bring freedom” (48) and that Abraham was baptized and given the priesthood before receiving the covenant of circumcision and promise (43–44). Although this point can be supported by a “presentist” logic, no passage in the standard works states that this was so. Our Destiny introduces many interesting ideas, but sometimes at the expense of caution.
Finally, the book uses noncanonical oral tradition and certain apocryphal literature to substantiate its preoccupation with consanguineous marriage and priesthood authority. For example, the book conjectures that Asenath, whom Joseph married in Egypt, was a “Shemite princess” descended from Hyksos invaders of Egypt and thus fit breeding stock for an Israelite (45). But there is no evidence that Asenath was of Hyksos descent or that the Hyksos were an ethnically pure Semitic group.Rather, her name means “belonging to or the servant of (the goddess) Neith.” The underlying message here is that race, lineage, and intermarriage were not determinative factors for the prophetic or priesthood authority of either Joseph or Joseph’s posterity. Asenath embraced the faith of her husband. Conversion, not racial consanguinity, was the essential ingredient in this story.
Although these are sometimes minor problems, they surface throughout the book and thus erode its credibility. Contextual and contradictory evidence is occasionally disallowed or simply set aside, while speculative tales claim heroic deeds for putative Israelites and questionable views proliferate about privileged blood.
Standing behind these problems lies a difficult methodological task for Latter-day Saint scholars, namely articulating the purpose and status of a written canon of scripture and its relationships to pronouncements of living prophets. In addition, this written canon of scripture must be compared to statements by other General Authorities, to the influence of the spirit of revelation, to details in noncanonical texts, to the implications of logic, and to other such factors. Such issues are not addressed in Our Destiny. An unexamined method of interpretation—if it appeals ultimately to any extracanonical written authority or wrests selected passages of scripture from their contextual base and then reads them against a more overt, historical, or literal sense of written scripture—can contribute to an erosion of the reader’s confidence in the standard measure of scripture and can lead to a proliferation of private, noncanonical, and idiosyncratic readings.
A Negative View of the Jewish People and of Judaism
While this book includes some positive statements about the Jews, overall it tends to present a negative judgment about the status of Jews as a covenant people and about Jewish religious experience during the past two thousand years. Our Destiny portrays the Jews at the time of Jesus as being preoccupied with lineage (26–27) and land (72, 108, 126), resenting and snubbing Gentiles (26), rejecting the gospel, and forsaking the Abrahamic covenant. They were “lost as to their identity as covenant representatives” and have since been scattered for apostasy (67). The book claims that the Jewish people became “as the world” and the Lord then “allowed [Israel] to suffer” (109). Exiled and scattered upon the face of the earth, they were no longer “truly the seed of Abraham” (27); yet, paradoxically, they symbolized all the house of Israel (67), formed “false churches,” and substituted “rabbis” for “prophets” and “traditions” for “scripture” (109).
Most Jews, according to Our Destiny, have mistakenly believed there is something “spiritual,” redemptive, or “scriptural” about their “political” gathering to, and creation of, the state of Israel (72–73, quoting Bruce R. McConkie). Actually, the book asserts, title to covenant (89), land (127), and, hence, the rights to Abrahamic lineage will be restored to the Jewish people only when they “join the Church” (98). Indeed, the book claims that the Jews will enlist with those who have not been obliterated at the time of the Lord’s second coming to constitute the universal church in the millennial age—that time when “every living soul on earth will belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (134, quoting Bruce R. McConkie).
This list of negative judgments about Jews and Judaism runs consistently through the pages of Our Destiny. In effect, the book is strongly aligned with a tradition articulated by some early Church leaders—Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and others—who viewed the relationship between Mormons and Jews in the classic terms of traditional Christian, anti-Jewish theology. This theology, established and maintained for eighteen hundred years by the doctors of Christendom, purchased exclusive covenantal status for the churches of Christ at the price of displacing the Jewish people as heirs and witnesses of the covenant.According to this supersessionist doctrine—that Christians succeeded Jews as the Lord’s covenant people—“apostate,” “old” Israel had forfeited its covenantal rights to the universal church of Christ, whose members now constituted the “new” Israel of God.
From the second century down to our own, this theological “triumph” has been employed to justify enactment of forced conversions, vilification of Jews and Judaism by rank-and-file Christians, prohibitive social and economic legislation in both canon and civil laws, establishment of ghettoes, expulsions, and martyrdom of millions of innocent people. It is a shameful story.
But supersessionism does not exhaust the options available to Latter-day Saints. That the Jewish people are the “seed of Abraham” and still heirs to “the glory, and the covenants . . . and the service of God, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4–5) is clear from the writings of Paul (Rom. 11:1, 29). The mystery Paul celebrates with his gentile converts is not the displacement of the Jews by the Church. Rather it is the adoption of Gentiles into the household of Israel through the Gentiles’ faith in Christ, which adoption fulfills the covenant of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.
In contrast to Cowdery and Rigdon, other LDS leaders, including Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and Orson Hyde, have seen the Jewish people as “truly the seed of Abraham” (27). Parley Pratt declared, with considerable historical sense and clarity, that Jews had resisted conversion and faced martyrdom because they would “‘not move one step to the standard that is not Abraham’s, nor from the everlasting covenant’” of their fathers (37). When Orson Hyde embarked on his nonproselytizing mission to the “children of Abraham” residing in European cities and in Jerusalem, he communicated and met with Jews and blessed the land for the return of the Jewish people—words and deeds that were unprecedented in nearly eighteen hundred years of encounters between Christians and Jews.These positive strands of LDS thought toward the Jews are conspicuously absent from the pages of Our Destiny. Evidence concerning encounters between Mormons and Jews seems to be selected on the basis of whether it agrees with the theoretical construct of Christian supersession.
This underlying theory dictates that the contemporary gathering to what became the state of Israel by Jews from around the world be viewed merely as a “political,” secular, nonredemptive phenomenon. In fact, according to the book, this assembling to “the Palestinian nation of Israel” is not the gathering of “Judah” at all; “people of Jewish ancestry” are merely rehearsing a minor prelude to the real gathering that is to come (72–73).
However, in the Latter-day Saint tradition, one learns of Joseph Smith’s invocation that “from this hour [March 27, 1836] . . . the yoke of bondage . . . be broken, . . . and the children of Judah . . . begin to return to the lands [given] . . . to Abraham, their father” (D&C 109:62–64). In addition, widespread support was given by Mormons to early Zionist aspirations, expressed in editorials like the following: “We hope . . . steps will be taken for the full emancipation of the Jews in all the civilized nations, and that something will be done leading to the future occupation and redemption of the land. . . . Prophecy points to this as one of the certain events of the latter times.”
Our Destiny asserts that Jews have become “as the world” and have forsaken the true covenant of Abraham (109). However, Jewish history and experience demonstrate that the terms of covenant, community identity, and autonomous religious legitimacy continue among the Jews in the covenant of circumcision (Gen. 17:10–14), Torah recitation and study, daily prayer, celebration of covenant festivals, observation of divinely sanctioned moral and liturgical duties, eighteen hundred years of spiritual and intellectual reflection on the covenant, the martyrdom of millions for the “sanctification of God’s name” (kiddush ha-Shem), and the recitation, by tens of millions every day for four thousand years, of “Hear O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:4–6).
Even the teachings of our own tradition acknowledge the facts of Israel’s covenantal witness. In reference to this, Joseph Smith spurned theoretical abstractions of traditional Christian anti-Judaism and affirmed that the Jewish people “inculcate attendance on divine worship” and manifest to any disinterested reader “true piety, real religion, and acts of devotion to God.”George A. Smith, having returned from Palestine in 1873, asserted that the Jewish people “still maintain their identity as the seed of Abraham. . . . They are a living record of the truth of the revelations of God.” Since the Jewish people are still of “the seed of Abraham,” lineage and returning to the lands of their inheritance are not contingent upon their joining the LDS Church (98). Jews have no reason to seek for, nor wait upon, our permission to be what they are in fact.
Finally, Our Destiny concludes that the Jews must join the Church or be “destroyed” with the unrighteous (131–34). While several LDS writers have agreed with this strand of Christian apocalypticism, Brigham Young on three occasions corrected “erroneous expectations” that “all the inhabitants of the earth will join the church” in the Millennium, by calling those who held these false hopes “egregiously mistaken.”Reflecting on the mystery and splendor of natural and human diversity, as well as on the law of free agency, Brigham Young said that “Jews and Gentiles” will not “be obliged to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” neither in the millennial nor distant ages to come.
In other words, members of the Church have an alternative to supersessionism. Paul celebrated the adoption of the Gentiles into the covenant household of Abraham through faith in Christ without, at the same time, displacing the Jews. Mormon prophets and Apostles have placed emphasis on the living witness of covenant Israel, including the Jewish people, hoping thereby to learn more of the Maker and the meaning of covenant in these latter days. It may be well to remember the wisdom of the prophet Jacob: “For the people of the Lord are they who wait for him; for they still wait for the coming of the Messiah” (2 Ne. 6:13).
Racial and Religious Chauvinism
Frequently citing Bruce R. McConkie and others, Our Destiny argues that those individuals who comprise the house of Israel were elected due to their “premortal faithfulness and spiritual capacity” (17), were “segregated out from their fellows” (17), and were foreordained to “come to earth through a designated channel” (17) to occupy positions of “lineage and station” (18) in this life and “enjoy greater spiritual endowments than their fellows” (19). They are born with “believing blood” (19), “royal blood” (66) which makes it “easier for them to believe . . . than it is for the generality of mankind” (19). They are “endowed at birth with spiritual talents” (19) and a “predisposition to receive the truth” (66).
In addition, the authors contend that since “literal blood descent” from Abraham delivers “the right to the gospel, the priesthood, and the glories of eternal life” (143), “rights” by blood descent are crucial for the exercise of legitimate authority to establish and maintain the Church (52–55). They claim that such authority is rooted securely, since the Church’s early leaders “were all of one stock” (53), sharing with Joseph Smith a “pure . . . blood strain from Ephraim” (54, quoting Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine); they are “pure-blooded Israelite[s]” (86). This teaching, they assert, is to be taken literally (52); it is “neither myth nor metaphor” (143). One is left wondering, however, what this doctrine amounts to today, for the book also says, “Nor should those who are not directly descended from Israel who join the Church feel in any way less than chosen” (143; italics added). Perhaps clearer definitions of what is meant by “the idea of a covenant or chosen people” (2; italics added) would make the book’s position less ambiguous.
While recognizing that modern people may see this doctrine as “racist, sexist, or exclusivist,” Our Destiny rejects the “egalitarian-sounding” views of such people on the grounds that such positions are “doctrinally defenseless and even potentially hazardous” (18). The authors, however, do not grapple with the implications of this doctrine, especially in light of the momentous 1978 revelation in Official Declaration 2. The book begins by worrying that “doctrines” about “royal blood” and “believing blood” in recent years have been “untaught” and “ignored” (1). Perhaps the revelation of 1978 explains that shift.
Moreover, other factors raise further questions. Genetic research shows that intensive endogamy practiced in pursuit of a pure blood strain is biological suicide. It results in deleterious genes, which introduce incidences of disease, imbecility, and infertility otherwise checked by exogamic reproduction. In any event, pure blood strains are probably a myth. The distinguished Jewish historian Raphael Patai observed, “If by ‘pure’ we mean uniform, then it is unlikely that pure races of man ever existed.”
From genealogical science, statistics attest that the entire human family is lineally and genetically related. Most geneticists are in agreement. Guy Murchie has written that “no human . . . can be less closely related to any other human than approximately fiftieth cousin, and most of us . . . are a lot closer.”“It is virtually certain,” Murchie concluded, “that you [that is, all readers] are a direct descendant of . . . Abraham.”
This book’s use of William J. Cameron as an authority on these issues and its reference to him as a “wise man” (22) is even more troubling. William Cameron (1875–1955) was the editor of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, a weekly publication whose columns in the 1920s and 1930s contained “some of the most vile anti-Semitism ever to be published in this country.”Ninety-one issues of the Independent “hammered away at the theme of an international Jewish conspiracy. . . . Jews were blamed for everything from Communism to jazz, immorality, and short skirts.” Albert Lee has identified Cameron as the author of “most of the anti-Semitic articles.” His writings became “the bible of the German anti-Semites, including Adolf Hitler.” In 1928, Cameron left the Independent to become editor of Destiny, the official publication of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America, well known for its anti-Semitism, racism, and nativism. He maintained that Jesus “was not a Jew. And the Jews, as we know them, are not the true sons of Israel. It was the Anglo-Saxons who descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel.” To associate, even slightly, with Cameron is unconscionable in the international Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
More meaningful and abiding criteria than race or blood exist for citizenship in the household of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Happily, Our Destiny does not completely ignore these religious dimensions. Unfortunately and probably unintentionally, the authors leave the distinct impression that membership based on conversion without the benefit of “believing blood” is second-rate because of their heavy emphasis on bloodline.
However, their statements on privilege cannot be successfully reconciled with those concerning equality in the house of Israel. In Deuteronomy, the prophet reminds Israel that its God is “faithful” and “keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).Paul wrote that all who have and act with faith in the God of Abraham, “the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Gentile Christians, former “heathen[s]” (Gal. 3:8), uncertain and insecure about their covenantal identity because the Jewish people’s claim to Abraham is so strong in comparison, are told by the Apostle not to fear: “If ye are Christ’s then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). The earth is the Lord’s; he “hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26).
If we are all of one blood and virtual descendants, every one of us, of father Abraham, then claims to “lineage and station” (18), “nobility” (48), and rights by virtue of a select “blood strain” (54) are at best specious and quite irrelevant in today’s Church. Is it possible that, just when the LDS community is emerging from ethnic, linguistic, and geographical parochialism to become a worldwide religion, that Our Destiny would unwittingly turn us back?