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The Ongoing Mysteries of the Elizabeth Smart Case

A guilty verdict for Brian David Mitchell is in. But questions—about polygamy, prophecy, and insanity—still haunt.

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 7:00 AM EST

When Joseph Smith was a boy, circa 1820, his family moved from New Hampshire to the "burnt over district" of western New York. The area earned this name because it was so full of Christian evangelists preaching revivalism as to have no fuel (people) left to burn (convert). Joseph, age fourteen, went to the woods, knelt down, and began to pray to God, asking Him which religion is true. God appeared to Joseph as a light brighter than sun and told him all religions had become corrupted, and that he, Joseph, had been chosen to be the new prophet and restore the true gospel. Ten years later, in 1830, Joseph published the Book of Mormon, establishing a new church and a new people, the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

The Salt Lake Temple: WikimediaThe Salt Lake Temple. WikimediaIn the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith taught his followers that there was only a thin veil separating this temporal plane from the celestial realm, and that by praying in the proper manner and performing certain rituals they could part the veil and have magical and mystical experiences with angels and gods and demons who had human bodies filled with white spirit fluid instead of blood. Yes, according to Joseph Smith, there was and is more than one god and more than one devil. He said we have only one Heavenly Fatherc and he is a god, but there are many other gods with their own planets in other places of the universe. Joseph told his followers, in essence, "There are gods and angels among us, and I have contacted them; they are my friends. You can know them, too, if you only follow my instructions."

Lots of people at the time—living on the frontier, surrounded by stumps and mud, so alone on the big continent—thought it was a good idea. Joseph's followers began speaking in tongues and healing the sick and having visions and revelations. They pitied members of other faiths who did not have these experiences, and thought this alone was proof Joseph Smith had indeed restored the gospel on earth.

Everything went fine until Smith's right hand man, his "assistant president," Oliver Cowdery, began speaking directly to God, our Heavenly Father, and God told him how Joseph Smith had become corrupt and now he, Oliver Cowdery, was the new prophet who held the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Joseph responded by saying Cowdery had not been speaking to God but to Satan, and he excommunicated him.

After that, Joseph prophesied that a member of the church can only receive personal revelation concerning matters within his own "stewardship," his own domain of authority and control. Therefore, if a man has a wife and children, he may receive revelation from God concerning decisions he must make about his wife and children, and they must obey him—just as he must, in turn, obey those men in higher positions of the church hierarchy, all the way up to the Prophet, who has stewardship over every member of the church.

Brian David Mitchell's father, Shirl Mitchell, not only received word from God that he is the Christ, but then transcribed visions and revelations revealing an entirely new cosmology, which he combined into a 900-page manuscript called "Spokesman for the Infant God or Goddess." 

In this way, obedience to authority became the flip side of prophesy, visions, and speaking in tongues. This is the razor's edge of Mormonism. You are supposed to seek the truth by having direct mystical experiences with spirits and supernatural forces, while at the same time blindly following orders coming down through a social bureaucracy. Many, especially in the early days, didn't like these lines of authority and control and chose to contact the spirit world directly. In 1909, the sixth president of the Church, Joseph F. Smith, wrote:

There never was a time, perhaps, when there were more false prophets than there are today,... We get letters from them, and commands and threats from them, and admonitions and warnings and revelations from them, nearly every day. .. some calling themselves "deliverers of Israel," some calling themselves "the one mighty and strong, who is to deliver Israel out of bondage."... We have these letters —those that we have not destroyed—stacked up almost by the cord. Some of these false prophets, these men to "deliver Israel," and these foolish, unwise, unstable creatures, led about by every wind of doctrine have risen right in our own midst. (LDS Conference Report, October 1909, p. 9)

In the modern Mormon Church, contact with the spirit world is managed through rituals enacted in the temple. Inside, there are rooms depicting the world before and after the Fall of Man. Then there is the Celestial Room, which depicts the highest realm of heaven. Inside the Celestial Room there's a smaller room called the Holy of Holies, and when the Prophet of the Church wants to talk to God, he goes inside the Holy of Holies. There he receives revelation concerning Church doctrine and affairs. Everyone else stays in the Celestial Room and performs the sacred ritual of being "pulled through the veil."

There's an actual veil there, and live actors portraying God, resurrected beings, and the apostles John, Peter, and Paul. They reach through the veil and pull patrons across to the other side, the Celestial Kingdom. This is a very sacred and very real thing for Mormons, like a trip to heaven and back. However, in order to get into the temple you have to have a recommendation from your bishop, and to get a recommendation you have to be a member in "good standing," and to be in good standing you must follow a lot of rules. Most Mormons try to follow the rules, and most can get a temple recommendation, if they want.

Mormons still believe in personal revelation, but Church authorities now tend to downplay direct communication with God and instead encourage communion with the Holy Ghost, a warm and fuzzy experience sometimes described as a "burning in the bosom." In order to survive and grow, the Mormon Church has become progressively more mainstream and status quo; for instance, they now allow black men to hold the priesthood and no longer practice "blood atonement" rituals in the temple. In 1996, President and Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, "We're reaching out across the world. We're not a weird people."

Still, sometimes there are "weird" ones among them, such as Brian David Mitchell's father, Shirl Mitchell, who not only received word from God that he is the Christ, but then transcribed visions and revelations revealing an entirely new cosmology, which he combined into a 900-page manuscript called Spokesman for the Infant God or Goddess. According Mormon historian John-Charles Duffy (perhaps the only person who's ever read the manuscript):

Shirl teaches that human beings collectively constitute the body of an infant deity, just as cells constitute our own bodies. The infant deity—the offspring of the sun, who is a goddess, and a male companions star—has been gestating over the last several million years of human evolution and is now ready to be born. This birth will occasion a radical transformation in society. In the new age following the birth of the infant deity, people will follow an all-natural vegetarian diet. Children will engage in erotic play without repression; teenagers will freely copulate for the purpose of procreation; and adults, having sexually satiated themselves during childhood and adolescence, will live in celibate ecstasy. ... Shirl writes of the "addictive voyeurism" that had him fondling young girls as a child and peeping into women's windows as an adult. He complains that every woman is a manipulative nymphomaniac whom no husband could possible satisfy; he fears that his penis could be "strangled" during sex; he is fascinated by a recurring dream in which a shaft of light penetrates his anal chakra. Accused by his former wife of rape, Shirl defends himself by insisting that when rape occurs in marriage, it's because wives withhold sex from their husbands and that there can be no "illegal rape" in a marriage anyway. ("The Making of lmmanuel," Sunstone, Oct. 2003, p. 36.)

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