Mormons and Jews begins by painting a backdrop of Christian attitudes toward the Jews and their place in prophetic history. In the next several chapters, Latter-day Saint perceptions are sketched against this backdrop. By and large, the Christian biases against the Jews that are outlined in the first chapter also plagued the early Latter-day Saints. Despite the reservations of early Mormons about the apostate Christian world around them, their “perceptions of Jewish people and Judaism were mediated by the canon of Christian scripture and filtered through the common opinion of [Joseph] Smith’s contemporaries informed over the centuries by anti-Judaic theologies and anti-Jewish prejudice” (54). Thus, Epperson argues that early Mormonism included such ideas as the abrogation of the former covenant with Israel, deicide followed by centuries of punishing afflictions, and, especially, the hope that one day Jews would be converted to Christ and gather to Palestine.
Mormons and Jews then goes on to draw a distinction between the views of Joseph Smith and other early Saints, a distinction which soon becomes the heart of the book and the reason for its subtitle—Early Mormon Theologies of Israel. The book presents a “deep theological rift in the [early] Mormon leadership over the issue of the Jewish people” (113). On one side could be found Joseph Smith, Orson Hyde, and Brigham Young; on the other stood Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Orson Pratt. The second group’s view of the Jewish future is painted primarily in the traditional Christian colors. But, the book generally asserts, neither Joseph Smith, Orson Hyde, nor Brigham Young expected a latter-day conversion of the Jews. Such an event would be unnecessary given the “integrity” of the Jewish covenant with God.
The underlying understanding of the Abrahamic covenant in this book, though never clearly detailed, appears to be that it was unilateral and unconditional. God initiated the covenant, and despite a history of Israelite infidelities, he never disowned it. Thus, the Prophet proclaimed both the “integrity of covenant Israel outside of the Latter-day Saint church” (126) and a future for the Jews that would proceed “independent of any necessary connection to the Church of Christ” (132).
“The sum of Smith’s contribution,” argues Mormons and Jews, “was the creation of an independent Christian theology of Israel which affirmed the autonomy, integrity, and continuity of covenant Israel—embodied in the life and witness of the Jewish people” (viii). Autonomy, integrity, continuity, and independence are the book’s buzzwords. They are constantly mobilized to demonstrate that far from being the sole repository of divine authority and the fulness of truth, the Mormons are merely “another covenant community [that] had been convoked from the nations to help lay the foundations of the coming messianic, millennial age” (202). Since God’s relationship with the Jews had remained basically intact through the ages, the Restoration meant that now there would be “two communities of covenant” to labor independently yet harmoniously to “bring us into the house of our father, with its eternally pluralistic ‘arrangement into societies and communities’ in the age to come” (202).
This portrait of the Jews and eschatology will strike many Mormon readers as unusual, particularly the notion that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young rejected a future Jewish conversion. How then is such an interpretation derived? It begins with a novel reading of scripture. The Book of Mormon has commonly been read to affirm that Israel’s restoration will be both temporal and spiritual, yet, the Mormons and Jews continues, “The Book of Mormon repeatedly asserts that Israel’s restoration depends on realizing the territorial terms of the covenant not in its conversion to, or identity with, the church” (30). A few pages later Epperson declares, “The conversion of the Jewish people to the church is never mentioned nor advocated in the Book of Mormon” (36). Most Mormon readers will find such statements puzzling in light of such passages as this:
He has spoken unto the Jews, by the mouth of his holy prophets, even from the beginning down, from generation to generation, until the time comes that they shall be restored to the true church and fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise. (2 Ne. 9:2)
Most LDS commentators have been consistent in expecting the eventual conversion of the Jews and in associating it with the second coming of Christ and the Millennium. The question has been not whether the Jews will believe, but when they will believe. The way nineteenth-century Mormons framed the debate was, Would the Jews gather in belief or in unbelief? The idea that the Jewish religious system, or any other for that matter, had salvific validity equal to that of the restored gospel and its ordinances was one that never entered the minds of the early Mormons. As Parley P. Pratt stated, “A man must be very inconsistent, to come with a message from God, and then tell the people that they can be saved just as well without, as with it.”
In truth, Joseph Smith rarely commented on the conversion of the Jews, but this shortage should not be taken as evidence that he did not believe in it, especially since he nowhere explicitly rejected the idea. Even when comment is made, the differences in the prevailing language usages between Latter-day Saints then and now should not be overlooked. For instance, Joseph Smith almost never used the word convert or its cognates except when talking about converts to other churches—as if its frequent use by evangelical Christianity tainted the word for him.Other modern Mormon expressions used to describe conversion—joining or becoming a member of the Church—are also noticeably absent. However, expressions like received our testimony or embraced the truth abound. These were the common LDS parlance of the day. Thus, while contemporary records contain virtually no comments about the Jews converting to or joining the Church, the same holds true for every other group. The absence of such statements, therefore, says nothing particular about Joseph Smith’s beliefs with respect to the Jews.
Much of Epperson’s argument that the Smith-Hyde-Young school of Mormonism rejected the conversion of the Jews and instead respected them as an equally legitimate sister religion is based on LDS statements repudiating contemporary Christian missions to the Jews. Mormons and Jews, however, misreads the nature of that rejection. In the first place, what Joseph Smith and the rest of the Saints were criticizing was not the idea of Jewish conversion itself, but the fact that the Christian missionaries who presumed to undertake it had no legitimate authority. This point becomes clear when one looks, for example, at the Prophet’s full editorial comments, portions of which Epperson claims repudiated Jewish missions (103). Joseph’s comments point out the ludicrousness of an unauthorized Christian missionary trying to damn a Jewish rabbi for not believing him. In portions not quoted in Mormons and Jews, Joseph Smith chides that at least “the Rabbi had been set apart by the laws and ordinances of Moses”; however, the “London Society . . . had never been acknowledged by either Moses, or Christ; nor the missionary set apart, nor sent by either.” That he was not trying to validate contemporary Judaism as a religious system whose integrity and legitimacy had continued unbroken is made clear by his addition of the crucial qualifier “yet the laws and ordinances of Moses are abrogated in Christ.” The message of the London Society missionary was ridiculous enough on its own terms. The real problem, however, was that he was not God’s representative. The Prophet concludes his editorial comments by remarking, “If the above named gentleman had been sent by God instead of by the London Society he would have known his business better.”
One of the best evidences that Joseph Smith affirmed the need for Jews to embrace the gospel is the account of his prayer on behalf of his Hebrew teacher, Joshua Seixas. This episode is mentioned briefly in Mormons and Jews (88), but the primary source account contains unambiguous statements that clarify Joseph’s perspective. The Prophet and his associates prayed that, as Seixas was their teacher in Hebrew, they “may become his teachers in the things of salvation, that he may come forth and be baptized into the Church of Christ” and that “his soul may be saved.” They further petitioned that the Holy Spirit would cause his family “to embrace the fulness of the gospel, that they may be saved with him.”Nothing here indicates that the salvation of the Jews was “independent” of the Church and its ordinances.
The other reason Joseph Smith and his associates rejected contemporary missions to the Jews was that the whole enterprise disregarded the prophetic timetable for, as well as the predicted manner of, Jewish conversion. W. W. Phelps used words from a Philadelphia religious periodical entitled The Reformer to explain that “the Lord, and not man, will have the glory of bringing about this event, and all the efforts and undertakings of men to accomplish it will prove unavaling [sic], as heretofore has been the case down to the present time.” Phelps then quoted from Psalm 110:3: “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” This, Phelps explained, would be “when [Christ] comes in the clouds of heaven.” Then the Jews “will be ready and willing to receive the Messiah.”Commenting on this same Psalm, Joseph Smith wrote:
For there was another day limited in David which was the day of his power and then his people Isreal [sic], should be a willing people and he would write his laws in their hearts and print them in their thoughts their sins and their eniquities [sic] he would remember no more.
Such an eschatology coincides well with reflection on Zechariah 12–14 and Revelation 11, which place Jewish conversion in the wake of the Second Coming. As Mormons have interpreted these prophecies, the Jews would gather to their homeland, be besieged by gentile hordes, and at the crucial moment in the battle of Armageddon, be delivered by a messiah whom they would not recognize until he showed them the wounds in his hands and feet. Any uncertainty in interpreting the identity of this deliverer is swept away in the words of modern revelation: “Then shall the Jews look upon me and say: What are these wounds in thine hands and in thy feet? Then shall they know that I am the Lord. . . . Then shall they weep because of their iniquities; then shall they lament because they persecuted their king” (D&C 45:51–53).
The idea that Jehovah would personally participate in the conversion of his ancient people is probably the biggest factor in understanding why the Mormons still have rarely mounted any missionary effort among the Jews. The Mormons have not seen themselves, at least not prior to the Second Coming, as principal actors in this drama; however, this fact should not be taken to mean they did not expect a conversion to take place at some time. Thus, it is not as “remarkable” as Mormons and Jews suggests that a church as “mission-oriented as was Smith’s was so reticent to carry out a Jewish mission” (37).
Toward its end, the book also includes several quotes from Brigham Young that seem to align him with the rejection of the idea of Jewish conversion. Yet reading these quotations in context provides a different view. Brigham Young was developing the idea articulated, but not elaborated, by Joseph Smith that there would be adherents to other religions—including Jews—on the earth during the Millennium. Young was also a realist in terms of his assessment of human conduct in a world where
ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.
To say that not everyone will embrace the gospel in the Millennium or even that there will be members of other faiths throughout all eternity is not objectionable. That there will be those who on earth were Jews, or Muslims, or Presbyterians who in some way will wish to retain that identity in eternity is a scenario provided for in Doctrine and Covenants 76. But to imply that such individuals will enjoy God’s full presence on any basis other than acceptance of the plan of salvation is something that no Church leader, including Brigham Young, ever taught.
Thus Mormons and Jews is guilty of a non sequitur. After showing that Young believed in a pluralistic afterlife—a common Mormon belief—it concludes, “Contrary to fervent expectations of many, Young taught the Saints that membership in the church was not the inexorable, universal goal of humankind” (200). Of course, the “goal” and desire of the Saints has been to see all of God’s children accept the plan of full salvation and follow it, but the reality, for the very reasons of agency which the book notes, will always fall short of that objective.
In pursuit of this goal, Orson Hyde, the third member of the book’s anticonversionist trio, went on a mission to Jerusalem. According to Mormons and Jews, Hyde “did not proselytize or teach against Jewish learning and worship.” Rather, he was sent to “convey words of comfort, forgiveness, and blessing from the Lord; and to call them [Jews] to gather to the Holy Land” (vii). Nowhere “was Christian conversion or baptism attached to this message of reconciliation” (150). Yet, referring to Orson Hyde, the Prophet wrote to the Twelve in England saying:
He requested to know in his letter if converted Jews are to go to Jerusalem or to come to Zion. I therefore wish you to inform him that converted Jews must come here. If Elder Hydes & Pages testimony to the Jews at Jerusalem should be received then they may know ‘that the set time hath come’: I will write more particular instructions to them afterwards.
If neither the Prophet nor Hyde envisioned that Hyde would preach the gospel to Jews along the way to Jerusalem, why this exchange? And if the Prophet did not intend Hyde to announce in Jerusalem the latter-day restoration, why did the Prophet say that a favorable Jewish response there would indicate that the time of Isaiah’s prophecy was at hand?
That Hyde’s 1841 dedicatory prayer focused on the physical rather than the spiritual return of the Jews is consistent with the Saints’ prophetic timetable. However, Hyde did share the gospel with individuals as he had opportunity. In fact, he records at some length his attempt in Jerusalem to convert “a very respectable Jew” by the name of Mr. Simons. “After some considerable conversation upon the priesthood and the renewal of the covenant,” reported Hyde, “I called upon him to repent and be baptised.” The invitation was vigorously resisted because Simons felt he had already achieved his salvation by becoming an Anglican. This experience led Hyde to report, “There is more hope of those Jews receiving the fullness of the gospel, whose minds have never been poisoned by the bane of modern sectarianism.”
If Hyde felt the Jews, either then or later, had no need for the gospel because a preexisting covenant would save them, such efforts and expressions would be unintelligible. So would his hope that one day “Israel’s banner, sanctified by a Savior’s blood, shall float on the walls of Old Jerusalem, and the mountains and vallies [sic] of Judea reverberate with their songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lamb that was slain.” Equally incoherent would be his dedicatory plea that the Lord’s kindness would “conquer and subdue the unbelief of thy people. Do thou take from them their stony heart, and give them a heart of flesh.”
Such expressions also make clear that Hyde did not accord redemptive parity to the ancient Jewish covenant nor see in Jewish history an unbroken covenantal relationship with God. Or if he did, he later changed his mind. In one of the very few instances in which Hyde discussed the Jews during his postmission life, he certainly did not seem to be stressing the “continuity” and “integrity” of the Jewish covenant:
The natural seed of Abraham rejected the offers of mercy, and it was said of them, “Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the Lord hath rejected them” [Jer. 6:30]. Again, Paul says, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh” [Rom. 2:28]. Their true line of connection with Abraham was broken because of unbelief, and Heaven regarded it no more.
If the case for parallel LDS and Jewish paths to salvation cannot, therefore, be made historically, how about theoretically? Since Mormons and Jews appears to be the first instance in which the two-covenant approach to Christian-Jewish relations has been superimposed on Mormon theological commentary, it will strike many LDS readers as novel. Actually the Christian version is a notion that has been proposed off and on over the years. The book makes no reference to this fact in either the text or the notes, perhaps because the author is unaware of it, but the theory is not an original one.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some Christians began to reexamine their teachings about Christ, covenant, and election in relationship to Judaism. Portions of the Vatican II decree, Nostra Aetate, redefined Roman Catholic doctrine on Judaism and the Jews by rejecting the notion that the Jews should be viewed as accursed or rejected of God and by affirming the bond which ties the people of the new covenant to Abraham’s stock. Various Protestant communions—Evangelical Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, United Churches of Christ, and others—similarly adopted more ecumenical stances. The upshot was that for certain Christians, Judaism was no longer held to be a dead religion superseded by Christianity but was considered a valid covenant between God and holy Israel.
The views in Mormons and Jews closely resemble the “two peoples/two purposes” theology of John Nelson Darby’s dispensationalism.Especially as articulated in the popular Scofield Bible, dispensationalism has long been the eschatology of choice in certain sectors of modern evangelicalism. The particular theological twists and turns of Darbyite dispensationalism are beyond the scope of this review, and important tactical differences exist between the author’s view and that of Scofield evangelicals. However, the common denominator is that redemption is dualistic. God works out one salvific purpose for the Christians and another for the Jews. Each people has its own distinctive future, and both eventually receive God’s full favor. For dispensationalists, heaven will be the millennial and eternal home for Christians, while the Jews will reside and reign on earth over unregenerate Gentiles. In its discussion of “eschatological pluralism,” Mormons and Jews is vague about how social and spiritual distinctions will be perpetuated into eternity. But the book posits that Mormons and Jews would cohabit the millennial earth as independent, autonomous covenant communities with no “organic relation” to each other.
This application of the two-covenant theory to Mormon theology, however, does not remove the thorny problems that have pricked Christian proponents of this notion. In what sense, for instance, can it be said that Christ “fulfilled” the Torah or that there is no “salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12)? Or, what is meant by the “integrity” of Judaism and the “continuity” of its covenant over a period of more than three thousand years? As Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner remarked recently, “Late antiquity’s Judaism was exceptionally rich and complex, so that the data scarcely sustain the premise of a single, uniform, coherent, normative, Jewish religion, much less the cumulative and linear history of such a religion.”Rabbinic Judaism—the primary influence on modern Judaism—did not take final shape for several centuries after Christ. Is the Talmud on the same footing with the Torah? Exactly what part of the Talmudic tradition or its derivative halakic heritage represents “continuity” with the covenant made with Abraham? Which part of it will continue “autonomously” into the Millennium and beyond? What about the sizeable number of modern Jews who have no wish to be observant or to live the orthodox rules? Will they “convert” to halakic holiness in the future? If so, how? What about those who have no desire to make aliyah? What will motivate them to change, especially if the key characteristic of the Millennium, according to Epperson’s view, will be the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups?
Additional problems arise by overlaying this theory on Mormonism. Unlike two-covenant Christians, for whom the Jews constitute the sum total of contemporary Israel, Latter-day Saints believe that the Israelite commonwealth also includes descendants of Lehi among the American Indians. These, too, are a “remnant of Jacob” who have just as legitimate an Israelite pedigree as any Old World Jew. While LDS literature leaves some ambiguity concerning the Jews, it is clear about the American Indians. From the first official mission in Mormon history, Mormons have understood that American Indians need to repent and be baptized. If the spiritual destiny of Indian Israel depends on their acceptance of the gospel, why not Jewish Israel? How is this inconsistency explained? Where is the logic in claiming that one part of Israel will be redeemed through the old covenant while another portion of Israel must accept the new?
Such questions will no doubt occur to readers of Mormons and Jews. However, the book seems to focus more on delivering the Jews from any future theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological oneness with the Latter-day Saints than on addressing the implications of these ideas or ironing out the inconsistencies they promote. The failure to acknowledge, let alone address, the weaknesses in this theory allows the impression that the book is primarily seeking to give Mormonism a theological face-lift to fit modern pluralist sensibilities and please Jewish friends.
The fundamental problem with the book, however, is the way sources are handled. Ambiguous statements are almost always interpreted to favor difference between the Smith-Hyde-Young view and the others. However, since no compelling evidence to the contrary exists, such statements could be interpreted just as readily as support for similarity. Clear evidence of similarity is occasionally presented but then promptly explained away. Most troubling is the method of excerpting sources. As an example, the book describes Parley P. Pratt as saying that the sign of the end of Jewish affliction would be the “establishment of a Jewish ‘national polity: a national . . . form of government, a national priesthood, a national house of worship’” (192). Had Pratt actually made such a prediction, it would greatly strengthen the book’s argument about an autonomous Israel whose religious system represented a divinely sanctioned alternative for the Jews. Unfortunately, the full quotation from Pratt reveals something quite different: “It is said, in the history written by Josephus, that one million and a half of Jews perished in that siege, that is, in that one city, in putting an end to a national polity; a national corrupted form of government, a national priesthood, a national house of worship.”Pratt was actually speaking of how such a society came to an end in the first century, not how it would be “established” in the latter days! That this is no inadvertent misreading is revealed by the fact that in the book the adjective “corrupted” in front of “government” is cut out to advance the desired reading.
While this is a particularly pointed example of textual abuse, the procrustean effort to shape the source to fit the theoretical bed is a constant throughout the book. Sometimes this effort results in unfortunate gaffes. At one point, the book attempts to distinguish the tone and substance of Joseph Smith’s coverage of the Jews while he served as editor of the Times and Seasons from the attitudes both of his predecessors and successors (97–104). The first piece of evidence is a discussion of an alleged marked change in the February 15, 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons, the first one bearing the name of the Prophet as editor. However, Joseph Smith did not actually produce that issue. Two issues later, former editor Ebenezer Robinson published an explanation stating that at the time of the transition “it was not fully decided whether President Smith should take the responsibility of editor, or not, therefore that paper went to press without his personal inspection.” Referring to an item in the issue, Robinson remarked, “The first time Pres’t. Smith or myself saw the article, was after the papers had been struck off.”Whatever differences may exist in the issue, they cannot be attributed to a rift between Joseph Smith and his associates.
Another example of how lack of careful consideration of sources undermines the book’s arguments is the use of what is taken to be an entry from Joseph Smith’s journal. The Prophet quotes verbatim a letter from a Jewish father to his son who had converted to Christianity. In Mormons and Jews, the letter’s introductory comments are considered to be significant evidence of Joseph Smith’s distinctive approach to the Jews (96–97). But again, the Prophet is not the author. After his death, portions of Joseph’s journal were fleshed out, were published serially in the Deseret News, and later became the History of the Church. The problem is that Epperson quotes the published History of the Church as his source, whereas Joseph Smith’s journal as reproduced in either the Jessee or Faulring edition contains no such words. In fact, no entry exists for the date listed. Once again, such evidence is no evidence at all, and the arguments based on it are invalid.
Most authors make some mistakes in handling their sources, but the problem is pervasive enough in Mormons and Jews that readers should proceed with caution throughout. The casual reader should be aware that often the argument is driven more by assertion than by evidence, that sometimes the “evidence” is no evidence at all, and that the author’s approach to sources tends to be eisegetical rather than exegetical. No clear and compelling evidence has been discovered that Joseph Smith, Orson Hyde, or Brigham Young ever espoused anything close to what the book claims they did. The book does not present a single statement from these leaders which unambiguously proclaims the unbroken integrity and autonomy of the Jewish covenant. Despite the Prophet’s willingness to correct associates on errant points of doctrine, the “deep rift” theory is not supported by a single instance in which Joseph Smith explicitly rejected something a colleague said about the Jews. Moreover, Mormons and Jews shows no incontrovertible proof that a Latter-day Saint leader ever exempted the Jews from ultimately accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to receive full salvation. In short, the book works to construct a dichotomy that the documents simply do not sustain.
But if the book’s overall thesis cannot withstand scrutiny, a number of worthwhile points are nonetheless made along the way. Most helpful is the way it sensitizes readers to residual anti-Jewish sentiment in LDS expression. Many Mormons have never paused to examine the social implications of their theology. To the degree that Latter-day Saints become more sensitive in their interactions with Jews after reading Mormons and Jews, the book makes a real contribution. Without accepting its redemptive dualism, one can still find in this book fresh and respectful ways of thinking and speaking about Jews and Jewish history. Here the author seems to have been positively influenced by the post-Holocaust literature on Christian-Jewish relations. Several of his mentors at Temple University—including Paul Van Buren and especially Franklin Littell—have contributed to this effort to disinfect Christianity of its anti-Jewish bias and to promote mutual respect between the two religious traditions.
Ultimately though, Mormons continue to affirm that they stand alone as authorized caretakers of the covenants, concepts, and ordinances that open the door to the highest degree of eternal happiness and exaltation. Hopefully, this book will help the Saints articulate their conviction with greater sensitivity and admiration for Jews, for proclaim it they must.