What Do We Think of the Jews?

I confess to being something of a universalist when it comes to Christianity. Not in any dogmatic sense, but still: I have a hard time believing that the apostasy left Christianity entirely bereft of saving power, and I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t act in a much more immediate way to save (or even exalt) those who He knows have (or would have) confessed His name. If, in the end, after “all we can do” (which I assume includes ordinances), it is the grace of Christ which will save us, it seems not unreasonable to assume that God’s mercy somehow finds its way to all those who piously seek it, regardless of their denomination.

Conversely, I find I have rather stringent views of what lays before most non-Christians. I’ve spent a good portion of my life either dwelling among or studying the ideas of people who practice non-Christian faiths, and I have a lot of admiration for, and have learned a great deal from, many of these people and beliefs. Insofar as developing philosophical systems to address moral and political problems goes, Christianity has been much improved (and could likely be improved even further) by addressing and internalizing many non-Western perspectives. But when it comes to matters of the soul, I become quite the particularist: what these people need to do, I sometimes find myself thinking, is repent, accept Christ as their savior, and be baptized, no two ways about it.

There is one group of believers that doesn’t quite fall into either of these categories, however: the Jews.

What’s different about the Jews, you ask? Aren’t they adherents to just another non-Christian faith? Well, yes–leaving aside the complicated (and controversial) “Jews for Jesus” movement as a possible exception, there is no branch of Judaism which recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Hence they don’t worship Him; hence they are presently outside His covenant and are need in of conversion, right? Right . . . except that doesn’t seem to have been the position taken by Joseph Smith.

It can hardly be denied that the Book of Mormon presents an elaborate theology of the people of Israel. Alongside its strong emphasis upon the centrality of Christ is a nearly equal emphasis on the necessary place of Israel in the history of the world, no matter that the Jews actual spiritual standing. Nephi prophesied (2 Nephi 29:4-5) that it is the legacy of the Jews–“mine ancient covenant people,” according to the word the Lord–which will lead to the enlightenment of the Gentiles; in return, the Gentiles will curse and hate the Jews, for which God promises (speaking, according to the record’s prophetic perspective, to contemporary Gentile readers) “I return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.” Later prophets recorded the words of the Lord regarding how, in the latter days, the Gentiles would fail their stewardship, except for a small remnant that “have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come,” and who will dedicate themselves to aiding the “remnant of Jacob” in returning to the “land of their inheritance” (3 Nephi 16:10, 21:23; Mormon 5:10). Speculation about the “New Jerusalem” has characterized the Christian tradition from the very beginning, but in the context of what Smith and other early members of the church learned from the Book of Mormon, it took on a role less related to Christ’s ultimate triumph and more related to the continuity of God’s chosen people. Isaiah’s prophecy about “the law” going forth from Zion while “the word” goes out from Jerusalem is linked with Ezekiel’s prophecy about the “stick of Judah” and the “stick of Ephraim,” and is made part of extended set of promises which turn upon there being not one, but two foci of God’s power in the world (one in the “old,” one in the “new”). Smith later elaborated upon this in his inspired version of Genesis, writing that Joseph in Egypt had prophesied of a “seer” (presumably Joseph Smith himself) who would correct those who had misinterpreted the promises made to the descendents of Judah, and by so doing “bringing them to a knowledge of their fathers in the latter days.”

This all might seem to suggest that it is the doctrine of the church that, in the end, the Jews will ultimately be brought around to a knowledge of the gospel of Christ. I think that is the right interpretation of our scriptures (D&C 45:51-53, for example). But it is also incomplete, for our scripture also suggests that the postion of the Jews in the eyes of God is distinct from that position to which He has led all the rest of us, us “Gentiles.” There is some confusion on this point. We consider ourselves to be adopted into Israel through baptism and ordination (D&C 84:33-34); we occasionally speak of the “elect” who receive the gospel to have also been God’s chosen people all along, and we have at times made this belief geneaologically literal, such as with the oft-repeated claim that Joseph Smith to have been a “pure-blooded Israelite.” But even the most supersessionist of Mormon thinkers (supersessionism being the Christian doctrine that, with the rejection of Jesus, God’s covenant with the Jews passed on to other, presumably more faithful peoples) can’t deny the scriptural suggestion that, whatever we of the New Covenant are up to, the integrity and purposes of the Old Covenant people remains.

Consider the words and actions of Joseph Smith himself, who when he prayed about the Jews, always identified the church with the “Gentiles,” pleaded for forgiveness for how Jews had been treated throughout history, and took a strictly Zionist line–redemption for the Jews meant returning to the lands of their Abrahamic inheritance (see D&C 109: 60-64). Smith included sympathetic accounts of Jewish life and suffering in his personal writings and sermons, without any reference to their need for converstion; when he took over the editorship of Times and Seasons in February 1842, Smith would regularly run press accounts of Jewish life, articles written by Jews, without any sort of editorial commentary aside from simply assuming the important for the Saints to read about “the feelings of . . . the seed of Abraham upon [these] subjects.” Most revealingly, Smith–who called men on missions to Europe, to Canada and the southern States, to the western frontier and Native American tribes–never once commissioned a mission to the Jews in any part of the world, in direct contrast to the common missionary patterns of most other proselytizing churches in the world at the time. (There were, in fact, whole Christian organizations dedicated to the conversion of Jews to Christianity, like the “London Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Jews,” which Smith wrote mockingly about in the pages of Times and Seasons.) It is not that Smith would have denied any Jewish person an opportunity to convert to the church, but the normally charismatic and determined Smith was uncharacteristically humble when it came to preaching to Jews: when Joshua Seixas came to Kirtland to teach a Hebrew class, Smith discussed religion with him a few ideas, but otherwise refused to, as he put it, “get to prophesying upon his head.”

Smith’s views about the continuity of God’s covenant and purposes through the contemporary Jewish people were not shared by all his fellow Saints–Oliver Cowdery, Orson Pratt and others felt, like the other Protestant churches which made up America’s 19th-century evangelical cutlure, that the present-day Jews were under condemnation, in need of saving, and that their ultimate redemption by the Lord was not so much the fulfillment of a living promise (since the Jews were understood to have rejected the ancient promises made to them) as a sign of His great mercy. But there were more than a few who caught the full spirit of Smith’s unique Christian theology of Israel: Parley P. Pratt, for example, who wrote in A Voice of Warning that “any man who says that the Jews, as a nation, have been commanded to repent and be baptised for the last seventeen hundred years says that which he cannot prove . . . no generation of Jews, which have existed since inspiration ceased, be condemned.” And then, of course, there is the example of Orson Hyde–sent halfway around the world to dedicate the land of Israel for the social and political gathering in of the Jews. His mission, which climaxed with a prayer upon the Mount of Olives on October 24, 1841, had involved no commission to preach to the Jewish people (in fact, Orson Hyde wrote negatively in his journal about other foreign missionaries he met in Jerusalem, with their plans to “gather Israel, convert the heathen and bring in the millennium”; what was clear to him was the need the Jews had for “political power and influence” so that they could regain and rebuild the land promised them). His sole purpose was to call down blessings upon the Jews, so that “Judah’s remnants” would feel inspired to gather together there; upon the Holy Land itself, so that it would be have sufficient resources to support all those who would come; and upon all those nations or kingdoms in a position to help in this work–all with the aim of pleading with the Lord to “restore the kingdom of Israel . . . raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and constitute her people [as] a distinct nation and government, with . . . a descendant from the loins of ancient David, to be their king.”

A millennial prayer, of course: early Mormonism was, through and through, a millennial movement. To the Jews of today, looking back over the past 200 years or so, there probably isn’t much to distinguish one millennialist Christian movement from another. While I think there is good evidence to support that the idea that Mormons have been, throughout their history, particularly conscious of, respectful towards, and open to learning from the Jews, I don’t imagine that many of us have been entirely free of the sort of casual, even sometimes condescending, treatment of the Jews which Smith himself so clearly rejected. For that reason to most Jews, in America at least, fervently support the separation of church and state, and the secularization of society. I can see their concern. I started working on this post entirely in response to a concerned e-mail from a Jewish friend of mine, asking me if I could explain certain entries in Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine which he had run across, some of which suggest that the Mormon church affirms the “blood libel”–that is, the teaching that the Jews have been cursed for having called for the crucifixion of Christ. I can’t speak for McConkie, but a close study of Smith’s own thinking about the Jews (for which this book is an essential starting point) would suggest that any claim about the need for the Jews to repent and receive the gospel will have to be, from a Mormon perspective, seriously qualified. If taking Mormonism seriously will involve a commitment to the remoralizing and religious filling of the public square, let’s hope we can do it in light of Smith’s understanding of his own revelations, which did not conceive of the work God has called those who accept the Restored Gospel to as superceding all the other works He has in progress–especially, most tellingly, that of the Jews.

23 comments for “What Do We Think of the Jews?

  1. So maybe it just was not yet time in the 1830’s for the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews. Just as at first, the gospel only went to the Jews. Is not this in line with the meaning of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”?

  2. Russell, a very interesting and informative post with which there is, I think, little to disagree. I think that strains of Joseph’s approach remain among us, but so do strains of the usual, negative way of relating to and thinking about Jews. I hope that Epperson’s book is widely read.

    But I have a question about this: If, in the end, after “all we can do” (which I assume includes ordinances), it is the grace of Christ which will save us, it seems not unreasonable to assume that God’s mercy somehow finds its way to all those who piously seek it, regardless of their denomination. Isn’t the doctrine of salvation for the dead precisely a recognition that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that God’s mercy “somehow” finds its way to all pious seekers? What does your way of understanding add to that?

  3. Arnie Green’s piece in the issue of BYU Studies to which J. Stapley’s first link takes you (see #3) is an especially good overview.

  4. Russell, I really enjoyed reading your post. It certainly does give one food for thought. But as I read a couple of questions came to me that perhaps you could address:

    1. Which entries did your friend question in Bruce R. McConkie’s MORMON DOCTRINE that caused her concern about the “blood libel” that you mention?

    2. Is the Church still a part of a “millennial movement” as you say it was in the early days? If so, what evidence do we have from the recent teachings of our modern prophets? If not, when do you feel the change took place?

  5. Sorry Justin, I need to see about new glasses. Thanks, J. Stapley, for pointing out my error.

  6. Jim,

    “Isn’t the doctrine of salvation for the dead precisely a recognition that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that God’s mercy ‘somehow’ finds its way to all pious seekers? What does your way of understanding add to that?”

    Clearly, the doctrine of providing ordinances for those who have already died does reflect this sensibility. I guess I would have to say though, without making too strong a point of it, that I am not entirely convinced that God’s saving mercy wouldn’t somehow available to all those who affirm His name even in the absence of that doctrine. But since the doctrine does, in fact, exist, and since God promises turn on His understanding of all things from beginning to end, perhaps my interpretive efforts to clear a kind of “univeralist” space for Christian salvation are really just besides the point.


    Thanks for making those links available; the Epperson article you mention, a review of a Robert Millet and Joseph McConkie book on the priesthood and the lineage of Israel, is both excellent and important. As for Grant Underwood’s review of Epperson’s book itself, it’s harsh, but not unreasonably so. Epperson really does push the statements of Joseph Smith and other early church leaders in an unwarranted direction; the final chapter in his book is titled “Eschatological Pluralism,” and essentially claims that Brigham Young, following Smith’s lead, taught that in the millennium, the Jews would receive salvation as Jews, while Christians would receive it as Christians. This goes to far–and, unfortunately, helps to undermine a better, more careful case that can be made about the concurrent roles which God has apparently planned (or which Joseph Smith at least apparently believed God had planned) for Jews and Mormons to play up until the end. That being said, like Jim, I wish it were the case that Epperson’s book was widely read, because it is just filled with all sorts of historical info on early Mormon thinking about Israel that isn’t available anywhere else.


    1. Hopefully my friend may stop by here to comment himself eventually. But basically, Elder McConkie, in his entries on “The Jews” and “Murder” in Mormon Doctrine, makes statements that could plausibly be read as implying the traditional Christian teaching that all Jews, as a people, have the murder of Christ on their hands, and have been condemned for such.

    2. Not an easy question to answer. Clearly, we aren’t as millennialist in our thinking as we used to be; simply examining general conference addresses from decades past and comparing them to today’s clearly indicates a drop in references to the Second Coming, the signs of the times, the judgment of the wicked, etc. When did this change take place? Some would date it to Wilford Woodruff and the accommodations that had to be made to survive as part of the United States; some would date it much later. Grant Underwood’s book, The Millenarian Worldview of Early Mormonism is the book to read on this point.

  7. “Alongside its strong emphasis upon the centrality of Christ is a nearly equal emphasis on the necessary place of Israel in the history of the world”

    “but in the context of what Smith and other early members of the church learned from the Book of Mormon, it took on a role less related to Christ’s ultimate triumph and more related to the continuity of God’s chosen people.”

    Book of Mormon prophets saw Christ’s glory and the welfare of Israel as one in the same: “for God wills that it shall be done with an eye single to his glory, or the welfare of the ancient and long dispersed covenant people of the Lord,” (Mormon 8:15).

    I get the definate feeling that I’m a Gentile when I read the Book of Mormon, and that God’s work on the earth is very much about his covenant people, not me. I get the feeling that I’m lucky to even have a ticket to the dance, so to speak. I’m just along for the ride, and I should be mighty grateful that I was allowed to participate in the deal. This inspires in me a deep reverence for all those of Israelite descent, one I sense from Joseph as well and one I try to emulate. Thanks for the great post, Russell.

  8. The term “blood libel” generally refers to accusations of ritual slaughter by Jews of Christians or Muslims in order to make use of their blood for various purposes (for example, to make Passover matzoh). It may be that the term is also used to refer to collective Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death, though I’ve never seen it used that way. I just wanted to make this distinction clear, so that we’re very careful here about what it means to say that an LDS apostle supports the “blood libel.”

  9. I often ponder the following verses from the Book of Mormon:

    2 Nephi 29:3-6
    3 And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.
    4 But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles?
    5 O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.
    6 Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?

  10. Hah… this is what happens when I read a post quickly and then don’t answer until the next day. I should have noticed or remembered better that the verses I quoted are mentioned/discussed in the actual post.

  11. Russell,

    I really found your post quite interesting. As a Jew I was completely unaware of the LDS perspective on the Jewish people and I appreciate your insight. However, at the risk of sounding aloof (which is not my intention), as a people, it really isn’t a concern to the Jews whether other religious communities believe we need to find salvation through conversion. As part of our fundamenatl religious doctrine, we don’t believe that we (or mankind in general) are “fallen” or need to be saved. We believe that our covenant with God is forever (as long as we continue to honor it) and, therefore, have no need to form new covenants along the way. In fact, to do so would be a violation of our covenant with God. Rather than sinners who must find redemption, Jews believe that we are fully worthy partners in God’s work and that his task for us is to repair/complete the world through good works, righteous living, and honoring God’s law–a concept known as tikkun olam. I bring this up only to say that, ultimately, whatever the LDS Church or other religious communities believe about the status of the Jewish people in God’s eyes really doesn’t matter to Jews themselves; we simply have a very different paradigm in our understanding of our relationship with God.

    As for the Passover matzoh, I can assure you no blood is used- just cardboard.

  12. Russell. Regarding “it is the grace of Christ which will save us, it seems not unreasonable to assume that God’s mercy somehow finds its way to all those who piously seek it, regardless of their denomination.” Lets follow your advise “let’s hope we can do it in light of Smith’s understanding of his own revelations.”

    Remember what those revelations say. Things like the only true and living Chruch upon the face of the whole earth. In the ordinances is the power of godliness manifest, without this no man can be in Gods presence and live. The dead without us cannot be made perfect. Hence baptisms for the dead.

    Clear direction is given. Ample provision is made. There is no need to go soft on the ordinances.

  13. The first feeling of Christians toward Jews should be gratitude. If we had not had Judaism, Jesus would probably not have been able to give us Christianity. Or to put it another way, the pre-mortal Christ prepared the “soil” in Judaism which was needed to nourish the “seed” he planted in the meridian of time. Christianity was born by the efforts of Christ working within Jewish culture. . Let me quote an author I like very much on this topic:

    “Christianity includes Judaism. There would have been no Christianity had there been no Judaism; no Christian superracial, supernational community bearing the revelation of God, had there been no Jewish racial, national community bearing the revelation of God. Modern Christians tend to forget how Jewish our Christianity is. Our theology has so focused attention upon Jesus as a self-poised figure, and has been so concerned to magnify the originality of his mind (as if thereby
    we could add to his honor), that we have glossed over our indebtedness to Judaism for the structural and constitutive substance of our
    Christian faith. Yet our existence and outlook as a Christian community are not only historically conditioned by, but shot through with, the
    divine revelation which was carried uniquely by the community of Israel.

    “The most obvious evidence of this is the fact that the Old Testament, which is the sacred literature of the Jewish people, is also cherished as the sacred literature of the Christian church. Not only so, but for the first century of its existence Christianity had no other canonical writings. The continuing integral relation of the Old Testament to
    Christianity is illustrated in our worship services by the reading of two lessons, one from the Jewish Scriptures and a second from the specifically Christian Scriptures. . .

    “Moreover, most if not all of the New Testament was written by Jews. The first Christians were all Jews. The synagogue and its organization were
    the model upon which the local Christian churches were at the first constructed The Christian community grew for twenty years on the
    unchallenged presupposition that a Gentile who would become a Christian had first to become a Jew. The Christians had no other thought than that
    their new faith was the fulfillment and glorification of Israel’s faith. Their minds were furnished with no other concepts than those which they
    received by virtue of their membership in the community of Israel. All the unique experiences and events to which they bore witness-the life,
    death and resurrection of Jesus-occurred within the context of Judaism. They could not have occurred anywhere else. And they were interpreted and proclaimed as primarily relevant to Israel. These events and experiences were regarded as the fulfillment of prophecy, and prophecy was not merely the vision of individual seers, but the communal expectations of Israel itself whom God had chosen for the realization
    of his purpose in history. . . .

    “Moreover, the entire conceptual consciousness of Christianity took form within the Jewish community. The great structural ideas of Christianity were received from Judaism. They did not originate with Jesus or with his followers. The conception of one God, Creator of the world, Father of mankind, whose character is morally righteous; the conception of the world as itself good; the conception of the dignity of man as a child of God; made in the image of the Creator, enjoying companionship and partnership with the living and working God; the conception of the absolute sovereignty of God, and its correlate, the creatureliness of man; the conception of the equality of men in a communal brotherhood; the conception of evil as sin against God, and of divine grace available for the humble and contrite spirit; the conception of the active concern of God for the redemption of man through reconciliation with himself-these are some of the basic conceptions which constitute the characteristic ideology of the Christian Community and they were all received from Judaism.”
    “What is Christianity” by C.C. Morrison, pp. 96-98.

  14. Here’s another review of Epperson from FROB 7/2:


    Personally, I really liked Epperson’s book, and I thought identifying the two main strains of Mormon thought towards the Jews–a supersessionist one derived from our Protestant roots, and a more ecumenical one derived from Joseph himself–was instructive. I personally am partial to Joseph’s phil-Semitic thought. Many of Epperson’s reviewers rightly pointed out that his thesis didn’t adequately take into account contrary statements in the literature, but I still like Epperson’s take as an expression of an ideal, even if it is not the total reality.

  15. Kevin (#18), that’s a very good way to explain why I think Epperson’s book deserves a wider audience.

    The FARMS review to which you point seems to me to be very odd as a review. It doesn’t really address Epperson’s fundamental claims, but instead takes a tangent–what the Book of Mormon teaches about the Jews–and argues with Jeppson about that.

  16. AS the Jewish friend in question, I wnat to be lcear that the blood libel, as I have always understood its use, is the idea that the Jews killed Jesus, which McConkie clearly believed and wrote. Don’t think he thought much about matzoh production though. Historically these issues are all tied together, Passion plays, passover (and the attendent questions over matzoh production), and pogroms (to use the term loosely as any localized attacks, anti-Jewish riots) are tied together.

    I want to be clear that as a Jew who works on some aspects of Mormon history since about 1993 I have always been welcomed by LDS scholars and church memebers. Since the baptism of the dead controversey a few months back, I have been trying to bone up on the church’s theology and practice a bit more and came across McConkie in a bookstore. I didn’t buy it. I was also disappointed that besides the Book of Mormon there were no clearly pro-Mormon books or even Jan Shipps (is that out of print?). Lots (out of maybe 13 books total) of crummy anti work though. The whole secton paled in size to fake Native American stuff (aka white shamanism) so it could have been worse.

  17. Russell, I appreciate this topic very much. Although the Book of Mormon ought to give us a better perspective on the Old Testament, and prompt a greater appreciation of it, I think we still find it easy to, a) believe we should be actively proselyting the Jews, and b) confuse the ‘gospel covenants’ and think Christianity is what came after Judaism.

    Judaism technically came after Christianity. From Adam to Enoch to Noah to the brother of Jared to Abraham to Joseph we can see the fullness of the gospel, to a greater or lesser extent. Christians today think O.T. = Law of Moses. I remember being very lucky/inspired when, while on my mission in Texas, remarking to a Church of Christ minister (during a ‘friendly gospel discussion’) that “Abraham didn’t live under the Law of Moses.” His jaw fell open, speechless. Such a concept!

    Ironically, today’s Jews sometimes have a rather narrow view of OT history as well. I recently saw a rabbi on a TV program refer to Moses as a Jew. As far as I know, Israel has yet to celebrate a Jubilee. And they don’t seem to realize that they are not ‘Israel’ — they are ‘Judah.’ We, Ephraim, are Israel scattered among the gentile nations. As Isaiah foretold:

    “One shall say, I am the LORD‘s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the LORD, and surname himself by the name of Israel.” (44:5)

    I think our attitude toward the Jews ought to be the same as our attitude toward the Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and every other people — brothers and sisters of Heavenly Father for whom there is a time and a place to hear the truth. We treat them as neighbors and when the Spirit prompts, we open our mouth. I’m thankful for the insight of Joseph Smith who helped the early saints overcome some of the prevailing antisemitism of their day, which I’m sure was due to simple ignorance. I look forward to reading Epperson’s book.

  18. J. R. Knight (#21)
    Thank you for that insightful reminder. It is interesting how we can “know” some things, but yet not have them really “take hold” until such a reminder.

  19. “Judaism” is just the modern word for Pariseeism. While the Pharisees were generally the adversaries of Christianity, most of them were honorable adversaries.

    Joseph of Arimathea, a Pharisee, gave Jesus his own family tomb for burial.

    Gamaliel, a Pharisee whose teachings are featured in the Talmud, saved the lives of Peter James and John, declaring that Jews should wait and see whether Christianity was of God, and not stand against it.

    The Book of Mormon teaches us specifically in 2nd Nephi that the ancient covenant that God made with Israel is still valid. The Jews are still covenant people.

    We should not commit the error of sectarians and ask when the Jews will be saved. All of us were saved two thousand years ago when Christ took our sins upon him, and we all receive God’s salvation if and when we accept it, whether in this life or in the next. The New Testament speaks of many Jews having their hearts closed to the spirit as part of God’s will. Obviously no one will be damned simply because God’s plan didn’t involve their receiving a spiritual witness of Jesus Christ during this lifetime.

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