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Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Harvesting of Souls

If you who are reading this are Catholic, or Baptist, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Neo-pagan, or agnostic or atheist, whatever your belief or non-belief, the chances that one of your deceased relatives has recently converted to the Church of Mormon are actually quite high. Deep in the impregnable heart of Granite Mountain in Utah are the high-security archives of the [1]Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally known as the [2]Mormons. These ever-growing archives so far list the names of some ten billion individuals garnered from all histories, cultures and geographies, and are recorded with a conscientious attention to detail that could reasonably be described as obsessive. But what end does this gargantuan exercise in religious bureaucracy serve?

A corridor in the Granite Mountain vaults.
It’s to do with converts. In religion, it usually is. Joseph Smith, the self-styled prophet and founding father of the Mormon Church, realized that if the living could offer potential fertile ground for swelling the numbers of his new religious movement, what possibilities for doing this must exist among the legions of the departed? The dead were, after all, [3]compliantly unresisting to new persuasions. All that would be needed would be to know the specific name of the deceased, then use a living member of his movement to act as a temporary host to the name – and a new [4]convert to the faith was created.

And so this practice of the harvesting of souls has continued, and continues to this day. The moral question of actually asking the permission of that person’s surviving kin does not apparently figure in the Mormon scheme of things. What counts is eventually bringing the whole of the human race who have ever been a part of recorded history into the Church of Mormon. So far, the Church of Mormon is about a sixth of the way there. But before you object to this dubious practice (which, if you care about the moral rights and beliefs of your ancestors, you rightfully should), it might be worth looking at the viability of what is happening with all those billions of names in Granite Mountain, Utah.

The entrance to the Granite Mountain vaults, bored into the mountain itself.
The whole point of conversion, surely, is that the soul in question, whether living or dead, has undergone some sort of an epiphany which prompts the conversion. If such an experience has not taken place, then what does a conversion count for? A forced or unsolicited conversion is a mere hollow thing, a sham made under coercion. The current tragic and shameful plight of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls is a case in point. Their captors claimed that the girls had converted to Islam – a claim which can only be treated with the scorn that it deserves, and yet another example of Islamists shooting themselves in the foot. In this sense, which is the only morally valid sense, the near-century-long Mormon practice of converting the dead by proxy has so far produced exactly zero new members to their faith.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
On the plain below Granite Mountain in the Mormon-founded Salt Lake City is the more accessible Family History Library. Here members of the public can seek out their own ancestral lines, and perhaps discover (which seems to provide a strong motivation) that they might have a family connection with the aristocracy, or even with royalty. But is such a discovered blue blood connection really so remarkable? Not really, as it turns out. Because of the exponential growth of human populations, as long as you go back far enough in time, you almost certainly can turn up some famous name in your lineage. A considerable proportion of the western world apparently can genetically claim the Emperor Nero as an ancestor. Ah, but who would want to? But even this claiming of ancestors is not quite as cut-and-dried as it seems.

We predominantly inherit our DNA through the mitochondrial DNA of our mothers. It makes considerably more sense to trace our lineages through our maternal side than, as is the common practice at least in Western society, through our paternal parentage. A paternal family tree is a thing on paper, a mere compiling of male heirs. When it comes to inherited information, however, it makes little sense to science. But even this is not quite the end of the story.

The towering genius of William Shakespeare or the dark ruthlessness of Cesare Borgia: fragments of both might be contained in who you are.
Although they might not be inherited in a genetic sense, because matter in nature is not destroyed but transformed and recycled, we all have atoms in our bodies that once were a part of Shakespeare or Darwin or Emily Dickenson – or on the downside, one or other of the Borgias. It is a part of our human heritage, and it falls to us to balance these forces within us that make us what we are. And what we truly are cannot be determined by the religious beliefs of someone if those beliefs are not our own, however fervently they might imagine it to be so.

[1] Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder (the anonymous portrait, left), claims to have discovered the Book of Mormon in 1823 in the form of a series of bound gold plates which he alleged that he unearthed from a Native American burial mound. The plates apparently were inscribed with characters in an unknown language, but having been given a device in the form of a special stone by an angel called Moroni, Smith found that he could read the text, which he then dictated as the Book of Mormon. Smith alleged that the angel then claimed the plates back, and no hard evidence for their existence has ever been produced. Having ordered a printing press establishment destroyed that was critical of both his beliefs and his polygamy, Smith, then in jail over the incident, was shot and killed when an angry mob stormed his place of incarceration. He was 38.

[2] Two Angels: Mormon and Moroni were the names of two father-son angels/ancient prophets alleged by Joseph Smith to have been involved in the production of the gold plates that were the original Book of Mormon. In an apparent attempt to imbue the New World with some Old World respectability, Smith claimed a New World scenario for the ancient events related in the Book of Mormon, which claims are unsupported either by the archaeological record or by contemporary DNA mapping.

[3] Baptizing the Dead: This practice of baptizing the dead, known as ‘baptism by proxy’ or ‘vicarious baptism’ has been performed by the Church of Mormon since 1840. The Church claims that the departed are given an option to decline the ceremony, but in all honesty, how can those performing the ceremony possibly know this? Are they communing with the dead to determine this? Such practices are forbidden under Biblical Mosaic law, so an inherent Christian doctrinal contradiction would seem to be present in the ceremony. The entire basis for the practice probably stems from a mistranslation from the Greek of the Old Testament Septuagint, where the term does not actually mean 'baptism' as such, but 'ritual washing', which would be entirely appropriate for the recently deceased. So it seems that the tradition is another example of a religious practice which has been founded upon a misunderstanding.  

[4] A Puzzle for Islamic Law: If your forebear happened to be an adherent of Islam, the curious situation now exists in which, although in Islamic law the prescribed penalty for apostasy is death, your forebear, being already dead, is beyond sentence. What are you going to do? 

Steve Jones: In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny. Harper Collins, 1996. The substance of this post is drawn from the first chapter of Professor Jones’ book, in which the geneticist relates his own experience of his visit to the Family History Library.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything. Doubleday, 2003. At over 600 pages, this particular history is not as short as its whimsically ironic title suggests, but it is a generous gold mine of information, discussing each discipline of science with an entertaining accessibility of language which makes its hefty length flash by. It is the source of the statements in my post’s last paragraph.

The top three photographs are from official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints websites. The Voynich Manuscript is catalogued as MS 408 in the Yale University Library.

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