(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) There’s a 2007 clip video of Mitt Romney stumbling over the question, “Do the Mormons believe the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri?” Romney was clearly annoyed by the question, alternating between incredulity and telling the interviewer that it was a question better directed to LDS Church leaders. Romney knows the answer is, “yes,” but he didn’t want to say so, fearing that it would make him look odd.
But really, how is believing that the Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri, any more incredulous than believing Noah stuck every animal in an ark and floated around with a few others while every person in the world drowned. Or even that Jesus Christ was resurrected? We are taught to believe things by faith, to suspend belief and trust a prophet or unseen-to-us deity. In fact, we’re also taught that to demand or need proof of the divine can be considered a liability. In the Book of Mormon, seeing an angel did little for Laman and Lemuel.
When I’m visiting a longtime family of church members, I head for “grandpa’s bookcase.” They contain mostly forgotten books filled with assumptions that we no longer hear and, as important, doctrine that we still may mostly believe but also don’t hear much about. One old book I spent the weekend reading was “Prophecy and Modern Times,” by W. Cleon Skousen. My copy, published by Deseret Book, appears to be from about 1950 but was first published in 1939. The edition I read also contains an approving foreward from LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson.
In the book, readers are reminded that not only was the Garden of Eden in North America, but that it was also where Noah built his ark, before it floated to Mesopotamia. Furthermore, places such as Euphrates, Canaan, Ethiopia, “were all names which originally belonged to geographical locations in America,” writes Skousen.
(What’s very interesting about these old books is that they serve as the sources for things I was taught as a young Latter-day Saint in the late 60s and 70s, either in family home evening or church classes. Today, about the only place you hear many of these beliefs is during a ward High Priest lesson that strays a bit from the manual. I want to stress that I’m not making fun of these bits of doctrine. Indeed, I find them fascinating and my belief in some, by faith, is what makes being a Latter-day Saint so interesting.)
The last days, as described in “Prophecy and Modern Times,” is as dramatic in many parts as fundamentalist evangelicals describe the last days in books such as the “Left Behind” series. The Bible Belt really hasn’t got much on Skousen. The book teaches that the Mormon faithful (and this is a doctrine I’ve been told of countless times) will return to Jackson County, Missouri, which is where the headquarters of the Mormons will be. In fact, Skousen quotes early LDS leader Heber C. Kimball as providing prophecy that “Salt Lake City will be classed among the wicked cities of the world. A spirit of speculation and extravagance will take possession of the Saints, and the results will be financial bondage. Persecution comes next and all true Latter-day Saints will be tested to the limit. Many will apostasize and others will be still not knowing what to do. Darkness will cover the earth … The judgments of God will be poured out on the wicked ...” Skousen’s source for this is The Deseret News of May 23, 1931.
In fact, the book claims that a migration to Jackson County, Missouri, would not occur until much of the earth has already become desolate. “The Constitution will hang by a thread” argument for the last days is also part of the book, but it will be saved by LDS elders, the author adds.
The last-days scenario that Skousen creates contains many elements of evangelical beliefs. At times, one can be forgiven for thinking he has picked up the pop evangelical kitsch series “Left Behind.” He writes, “Lucifer’s church will cast its shadow over most of the earth so that outside of Zion all men, small and great, rich and poor, bond and free, will have the identifying mark of that church in their right hand or in their foreheads. No man will be able to buy and sell among them in that day unless he bears that mark in his body.”
Besides the mark of the beast, Skousen cites wars and pestilences, false prophets performing “miracles,” Satan raining down fire to destroy the faithful, plagues, starvation, thirst for water, stormy seas, Israel threatened, and being defended by two prophets, and America being a land that cannot be accessed by other nations until God allows it. From the book, citing the Doctrine and Covenants 61:15-16 as its source: “In that day the land of America will be cut off from the rest of the earth by violent seas. … No doubt millions would flee to America during these trying times if the Lord did not make it inaccessible to all except the righteous. This will be the most stringent immigration restriction ever imposed upon this land, and it will be enforced by the violent elements of the sea.”
Eventually, in “Prophecy and Modern Times,” remnants of the lost tribes of Israel will brave the elements and start migrating toward Jackson County, Missouri, to regroup. As they approach, colonies of the wicked will try to stop them. As Skousen writes, citing as a source, Doctrine and Covenants 133:28, “The scriptures plainly speak of the Ten Tribes being confronted by ‘enemies’ who will become their ‘prey’ as they march over them on the way to the capital city of New Jerusalem.”
In “Prophecy and Modern Times,” Skousen — as popular then as today’s Deseret Book favorites are today — preaches in a tone and style that seems to have mostly disappeared from LDS theology. It’s pessimistic, predicting most of the Latter-day Saints as falling into apostasy. It sets the LDS Church, as well as early Old Testament history, firmly in the United States, and echoes the “White Horse prophecy” of LDS priesthood holders gathering to save the Constitution. The Last Days, according to the book, are clearly inspired by the Bible’s Revelations’ chapters — and other Mormon scripture — and share many similarities to traditional evangelicalism.
The Mormon Church was established with the intention of preparing for the Second Coming of Christ. A casual reading of 19th Century patriarchal blessings includes many that promise the receiver will see Christ’s return to the Earth. It’s clear that through most of the 20th century this point of view was shared, and often preached by church leaders. I recall my father telling me that while he may not see Christ return, he expected that I would. (Ironically, I feel the same when I look at my children.)
As the church grew internationally, and correlation replaced distinct church departments as the authors of various church manuals, it appears the emphasis on the last days, and the heavily dramatic tones of last days gospel doctrines, were toned down considerably. Skousen is no longer a Mormon author that would be mentioned by current church leaders, although he has gained a renewed fan base, thanks to Mormon Glenn Beck.
How much of “Prophecy and Modern Times” is still considered acceptable church doctrine is a question that interests me. Some of it is unappealing. In one clearly racist part, Skousen writes that the American Indians, once they receive the Gospel, “will no longer be backward, mischievous and unattractive. They will become white like their brethren of Ephraim.”
However, as mentioned, it’s clear that Latter-day Saints do believe that the Garden of Eden is in the U.S., and that there will be a time when Mormons are called to return there. Yet, its emphasis level seems to have dropped considerably. In fact, in what can be construed as a direct warning to those who rely on the Beck/Skousen view of the last days, LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks recently cautioned members from associating with “right-wing groups who mistakenly apply prophecies about the last days to promote efforts to form paramilitary or other organizations.” Oaks suggested that members need to stock up on food, rather than ammo. (Read) I also recall a recent conference talk in which members were told that there is still much to be done on the earth before it ends.