What Does It Mean to Be a Christian? The Views of Joseph Smith and Søren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and the American prophet Joseph Smith (1805–1844) both radically critiqued nineteenth-century Christian culture. Though Søren often directed critiques specifically toward the State Church of Denmark, his ultimate target was Christianity as a whole, or simply “Christendom.” Joseph’s critique singled out no specific church; he also focused on Christianity as a whole. Notwithstanding important differences, Paulsen finds Søren’s and Joseph’s critiques of nineteenth-century Christendom mutually reinforcing and illuminating.

The comparison of Smith’s and Kierkegaard’s views includes the following ideas: (1) the New Testament church no longer existed, (2) Christian theology had become defiled, (3) the Christian clergy lacked divine authority, (4) hypocrisy had crept into the Christian churches, (5) the clergy taught a watered-down, nondemanding form of Christianity that was pleasing to men but not to God, and (6) the Christian religion had a form of godliness but was no longer supported by the power of God.

A final section of the article discusses divine authority. Kierkegaard described the characteristics a divinely appointed “apostle” would possess. Smith claimed to be such a messenger. They were in agreement on these characteristics. “In fact, [given] Søren’s requirements for apostleship, then Joseph would have been the first in his time to fulfill each.”

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