Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Restoration timeframe

One of the questions I have been asked by those learning about the Church is, “Why did God wait so long to restore the Church after the ‘primitive church’ was lost?” And the “standard” answer is that God underwent a long period of preparatory work, including the Reformation and the establishment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, before restoring the Church. This made it possible to ensure that this would be the dispensation in which the kingdom could be established that would never be destroyed.

However, in looking back at the history of the Church, especially the persecution of the early Saints, it seems that the environment wasn't as ideal as the standard answer makes it appear. And I strongly suspect that there was more that Joseph Smith could have done if he had lived longer; I'm not sure he accomplished everything he set out to do.

This makes me wonder: could God have waited to restore the Church until today? There seems to be a greater tolerance for varying religious views than was evident in the Missouri days of the Church. On the other hand, we sometimes note a general sentiment of skepticism in our secular society, which would seem to work against the establishment of the Church. On the other other hand, the growth of the Church today, compared with its early growth, seems to belie that skepticism.

I don't think the Restoration is complete yet. Joseph's work is not yet done, and there are yet “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” to be revealed. The Restoration is still in process. But is the environment we live in any more prepared for the completion of this work than the world was during the Dark Ages? I wonder... If not, what, if anything, can we do about it?


  1. *Persecution in some circumstances helps the work of the Church. My impression is that being in an environment with the right degree of persecution was probably an important part of the Restoration--oversimplifying, very much earlier, we would have been burnt at the stake, and very much later we would have ignored rather than listened to. OSC's Saints has a line to the effect of men thinking, 'well, if my neighbors are going to hate me for being Mormon, I'm going to be the best damn Mormon I can'--this seems to express some of the beneficiant effects of persecution.

    *Different elements are necessary at different phases of Church growth. My current take on Church history is that the long period of relative isolation in the intermountain west was necessary to build the foundation on which we are establishing our current growth. The Church had no end of problems assimilating converts of diverse backgrounds and strong opinions into a unified people--the unique combination of persecution and isolation probably helped a great deal in this process.

    *In addition, a lot of what we do today takes the base of wealth from the tithepaying middle class in the U.S. Since conversion rates are higher among the poor, time is necessary to let the poor get rich enough to fund temples and missions in poor countries.

    *It also seems likely that if the Restoration had been much later, there wouldn't have been anywhere to flee to. Utah wouldn't have stayed deserted forever--we were only there one year before the government we were fleeing annexed it, and two years before the gold rush increased traffic significantly. We were barely in time to claim a piece of the last major frontier on Earth as it was--any kind of geographic isolation would have been harder, if not impossible, later.

    *One also shouldn't overlook the impact of the members on the flow of history. Several scriptural passages indicate that the righteous (or the persecution of the righteous) can have significant effects on the course of history, though not always in obvious ways. If the Church hadn't been trying to make bad men good and good men better for the last 174 years, the world would likely be quite different--though it's impossible for us to know (except through divine intervention) how different. Therefore, we don't really have enough data to construct a meaningful counterfactual this far out.

  2. Demosthenes makes some good points.

    I have a tangential question: if God had waited until today, would he still have wanted the early Saints to practice polygamy?

    I don't know, of course. But if you buy the idea that polygamy is an important part of our history in that it keeps us from being swallowed up by mainstream Protestantism and also gives us a sense of uniqueness (and also, I'd say, keeps us on edge in our relationship with God -- in other words we can't configure God as someone who falls in line with our sense of social mores [as some Protestant groups do, imo]), then it seems to me that it needed to be practiced in a way and time frame that it wouldn't be so entrenched that the saints would be unable to give it up and integrate back into American society, but there'd still be space practice somewhat unmolested for awhile so that it would have an impact on later generations.

  3. I tend to think that the Lord restored the gospel about as soon as he could. If it had been a few years earlier, the prophet would have been killed before he could sufficiently establish the Church.

    He could, of course, have waited even longer, until the U.S. was tolerant enough of non-traditional religions that the restoring prophet would not be killed. But why wait?