Righteous Gentiles Part 1

RussellMormon 16 Comments

So, in honor of the broad-mindedness that is Mormon Matters, I would like to suggest a list of the top ten “Righteous Gentiles.” In orthodox Judaism, these are known as gerim toshavim, “resident aliens.” These are Gentiles who either formally or informally have associated themselves with the people of the Jews by agreeing to abide by the mitzvot or Noachian laws.

What great men/women among our people have demonstrated similar affinity for our cause, while they themselves remain outside the fray of the Mormon center?

My criteria…

A. They must be well-regarded on either the folk or elite level, and their contributions must be perceived as distinctively Mormon (even if they are not).

B. They aren’t necessary “righteous” by our standards, but their names must have currency among our people as a sympathizer (whether they were actually sympathizers or not is irrelevant)

The List–10th through 5th

10. G.K. Chesterton

A British author and Christian apologist well-renowned for his series of novels, The Father Brown Mysteries as well as his vigorous critiques of secularism and modernity, Chesterton has reached wide audiences amongst all Christians of essentially any Christian faith. Even though he was vehemently opposed to any deviation from Catholic orthodoxy and even levelled a mild critique against Mormons, I rank him #10. Chesterton has been quoted often enough by general authorities and leaders to be comparable with C.S. Lewis. Bruce C. Hafen devoted an entire talk (one of those typically well-worn talks on balancing faith and reason and so-on) to a single quotation by Chesterton. While most of his renown has come from Elder Maxwell’s extensive usage of him, Maxwell alone has made Chesterton’s name worth noting.

9. Richard Muow and co.

The president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Muosw is less known as a person and more known as a symbol. In 2004, Muow declared, at the Mormon Tabernacle, to thousands of LDS that evangelicals “have sinned against you.” He proceeded to provide a mea culpa on behalf of the Evangelical community, stating that they have spread lies and untruths about Mormons and their beliefs. His remarks set off a firestorm within the Intermountain evangelical outreach center, some suggesting that his remarks were only going to empower Mormons more in their wrong-headed beliefs that they were mainstream Christians. This, of course, only increased Muow’s cachet amongst the Utah circles as an evangelical who was finally willing to tell the truth against the roar of the masses. Such things carry tremendous pathos to the Mormons as a people.

Muow’s admission was the culmination for a golden age of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, starting with Stephen Robinson’s collaborative work with Craig Blomberg, a Protestant scholar of the New Testament at the Denver Seminary in Colorado: How Wide the Divide?: An Evangelical and a Mormon in Conversation. In essence, Muow, Robinson, and Blomberg represented the actualization of many Mormons’ hopes—albeit fleeting— that evangelical leaders might finally acknowledge that we do share some core beliefs and that we are *gasp* indeed Christians.

8. Alexander Doniphan

Doniphan should be noted in his own right for his contributions as a military commander during the Mexican War. Indeed, he has been so noted, as the litany of schools in Missouri have been named after him. But Mormons, of course, have other reasons for the soft spot for ole’ Al in their collective conscience.

Doniphan was an attorney living in Missouri at the time of the Saints’ expulsion from Jackson county in 1833. Doniphan provided legal representation for Joseph Smith during the bazillion legal hearings he had to trudge through in the Missouri era. He refused to execute Joseph when General Lucas commanded him to do so—at risk of court martial and perhaps execution himself. As a member of the Missouri state legislature, he worked to create Caldwell County as a settlement for the Saints in the wake of the expulsion from Jackson county. While he never particularly liked Joseph Smith or his religion, Doniphan will be, for the time being, remembered as a lover of liberty and justice to the Mormon mind.

7. Klaus Baer

The Egyptologist extraordinaire who made made himself famous as the great middle-way on matters concerning the Abraham papyri. Baer instructed Hugh Nibley in Egyptian in 1959 and became attached to the Joseph Smith papyri from that point on. When some of the original papyri were discovered in 1966, Baer, as commissioned by Dialogue, provided a highly agnostic translation of the documents. While devoutly agnostic, Baer refused to jump on board with the critics in declaring Joseph Smith to be a fraud. Indeed, in one letter to the Tanners, he instructed them that similar translation difficulties can be found in the New Testament and that these difficulties cannot be used to delegitimize faith. While Baer does not quite constitute a hero for Mormon thought, he demonstrates the cool-headed scholarship that refuses to point fingers—a tendency most Mormon intellectuals appreciate even if they do not agree with.

6. Margaret Barker

A scholar of Old Testament studies who studied at University of Cambridge, Barker has written widely on monotheism amongst the Canaanites. What has made her a Blessed Gentile? Her scholarship has touched all of Mormon gurus’ soft spots: Enoch, temple theology, and questions re: the plurality of gods. Her most famous work within Mormon circles, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God wherein she argues that “the Lord” was indeed seen as a Son of God in early Israelite theology. While her work is certainly unusual in her field, that she is a Cambridge-trained scholar of Old Testament studies has helped Latter-day Saints feel an added sense of legitimacy in their intellectual claims.

5. Jan Shipps

Called “the beloved Gentile” by higher-ups within the Church and the “Jane Goodall of Mormon studies” by others, Jan Shipps almost single-handedly made the study of Mormonism into a mainstream fashion rather than just the niche studies of academics. Before Jan Shipp, few credible scholars indeed commented with any degree of favorability to the Church. Jan Shipps has provided a dominant wherein scholars can understand Mormonism without judging its veracity. It was Shipps who proposed that we stop seeking to determine whether Joseph’s visions were correct or not, but rather, she suggested we look to determine what kind of collective meaning these visions had to the people who experienced them. While Bushman has taken a similar approach, his orthodoxy in the Church has been an obstacle (albeit, one that could be overcome). Shipps has demonstrated that one can study Joseph Smith’s story and still be a sympathetic non-believer.

And if she’s really the Jane Gooddall of Mormons, maybe the Mormon creationists should re-think their position…

Comments 16

  1. Good post, but I think I remember reading somewhere that Klaus Baer later became antagonistic and “sold out” so to speak. Perhaps I’m mixing him up with somebody else.

    I also think that Mormon creationists should re-think their position, but I find myself on the issue of whether man came from God’s literal body or not in a situation of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe that the DNA evidence for evolution of man from lower forms (that is man’s body, not spirit) is compelling to a degree, but it could also be explained to some degree through horizontal gene transfer rather than vertical gene transfer. But my heart want’s to believe that Adam’s body was a descendant of God. so I find myself leaning towards what my heart wants to believe, but I still acknowledge the dissonance. For me, the issue of whether animals and plants evolved from other species is a slam dunk.

  2. Very nice idea for a post, Russell.

    I’m going to be a spoilsport and anticipate your part II of this series with my own list of Righteous Gentiles:

    Thomas Kane-Duh
    C.S. Lewis-Gave ETB his pride theme.
    Abraham Lincoln-Instead of using the Civil War as a pretext to wipe out the Mormons, which a number of other American political figures could have done (his Republican Party was founded to wipe out polygamy just as much as slavery) he tells his messengers to tell Brigham Young that the Mormons are the tree stump in a farmer’s field–he will plow around them.
    Harold Bloom-fascinated with Joseph Smith, predicts that Mormons and Baptists will jointly agree to split the U.S. between them
    John Kennedy-first president to appoint Mormons to cabinet level positions-Stewart Udall as Secretary of Interior and Sterling McMurrin as Commissioner of Education, even though Utah went for Nixon in 1960. Last U.S. president to speak in Tabernacle: http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3378
    William James-first to include Joseph Smith in a major scholarly sympathetic work: The Varieties of Religious Experience. James’s philosophical pragmatism was also close to Mormonism’s concept of a limited God.

  3. Alexander Doniphan deserves to be ranked higher.

    Thomas Kane (of course)

    CS Lewis

    Jimmy Stewart

    @ John Nilsson’s #3, What do you mean John F. Kennedy? Did you forget Eisenhower who appointed ET Benson as Agricultural Secretary?

    Ronald Reagan I think deserves a mention for his refference to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as “America’s Choir”. (maybe give him Doniphan’s spot at #8 and bump Doniphan up to the top ranks).

  4. CS Lewis is a mixed one, to be sure. He was no fan of the Mormons in reality, even though his writing sounds like he was one. He pokes fun at the Mormons in Chronicles of Narnia series.

    Harold Bloom should definitely be on this list.

    I think Larry King, too. He that is not against us is for us. And his wife is LDS.

  5. The only proposed Mormon allusion I had heard of was in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace’s mother is described as a non-smoker, teetotaler, and wearer of strange underwear. However, Douglas Gresham denies the allusion, and suggests that Lewis is just criticizing faddism in general (and he, being Lewis’ stepson, would know).

    We have no direct interp. from Lewis, however; so I suppose we’ll never know.

  6. I’m not  Mormon. I have lived in both Mississippi and now Idaho. I’m grateful to the Mormon community for their values- which make my community a wonderful place to live.

    While living in Mississippi I took a position at a “christian school” run by the Baptists. they didn’t know I was raised Catholic. While there I witness the most vile hatred of Catholics and Mormons. They would tell the young students about “those rotten Catholics and Mormons” and how they would “burn in hell”. the students were horrible. In church singing to jesus and on the classroom cheating and lying non stop.

    You are deluding yourself if you think the baptists will ever be your brothers. They hate you  and like the “murderers” in Missouri in 1833 think less of you than dirt.

    Where Mormons are there is low crime and civility. In Mississippi the crime rates, rates of unwed mothers, rates of murder and all sorts of mayhem are among the highest in the nation. 

    They never accept you because their faith is one of pure emotion and very little focus on personal conduct. i know your longing to be accepted, but these are the last persons on earth you want to break bread with.

  7. That hardly seems an indictment of CS Lewis. To a non Mormon, it would seem Mormons wear “strange underwear”.  As a non Mormon I have such prosaic thought as “aren’t they hot in the summer’ and ‘how do you play sports with them” and “how would they effect the fit of a suit or other clothing.

    “strange” may just mean nothing worse than ” I don’t get it and it seems really uncomfortable”. No real judgment. 

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