One of the more awkward passages in the Book of Mormon (at least from an ecumenical perspective—there’s much worse in there) is in I Nephi 3:220-222, where an angel has this to say with Nephi, the current narrator of the book:
“Behold, there are save two churches only: the one is the church of the Lamb of God and the other is the church of the devil. Wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.”
I remember covering this passage as a BYU freshman enrolled in my first Book of Mormon class. The professor invited us to discuss whether the “great and abominable church” (as its referred to earlier in I Nephi 3) was a reference to the Catholic church (the traditional—and probably intended—interpretation, thanks to 19th century anti-Catholicism and Bruce McConkie’s explicit criticism of Catholicism in the first edition of his influential Mormon Doctrine) or simply a reference to “all churches except The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” From where I stand now, neither of these answers is great, and while I hadn’t thought about this passage in a long time, I would have had trouble finding anything meaningful in it if you had asked me a week ago.
However, I recently read a passage in Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You that seemed like it could offer an alternative interpretation:
No matter how strange this may seem, the churches, as churches, have always been, and cannot help but be, institutions that are not only foreign, but even directly hostile, to Christ’s teaching. With good reason Voltaire called the church “l’infâme”; with good reason all, or nearly all, the Christian so-called sects have recognized the church to be that whore of whom Revelation prophesies; with good reason the history of the church is the history of the greatest cruelties and horrors.
This offers an interesting way of interpreting Nephi’s angel’s insistence that there are only two churches. Previous to this passage, Tolstoy had strongly critiqued religious exclusivism (including Mormons in his list of religions that have erred in this way), so his hermenuetic would clearly not recognize the angel’s two churches as “one correct one” and “all the mistaken ones” (or even just “a particular mistaken one”). Rather, Tolstoy’s method of distinguishing the church of Christ would likely be whether a given church (perhaps in a given moment) is embracing Christ’s teaching. For Tolstoy, this includes in particular non-violence and allowing for freedom of belief. In contrast, we might imagine Tolstoy arguing that any church that is accumulating power and carrying out cruelties and horrors joins itself with the great and abominable church.
In this way, the passage in I Nephi becomes not a prooftext for one church’s own special status but rather a measuring stick against which any religious body at any time could ask themselves whether they are faithful to the teaching of Christ or whether they are carrying out cruelties and horrors. By making this passage introspective rather than outwardly critical, maybe there’s something that we could make of it after all.
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