Vern G. Swanson, longtime director of the Springville Museum of Art, knows some readers will think he's crazy. Others will be intrigued, and still others may be offended.
That's because Swanson has written a provocative new book theorizing that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, that they bore children and that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith was their direct descendant. Swanson also suggests that this heavenly birthright gave Smith spiritual authority as a prophet and affirms the historical legitimacy of the LDS Church.
Titled Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism's Sacred Bloodline, the book was published in November by Cedar Fort, a Springville-based publisher. The scholarly 540-page tome hasn't yet attracted much attention beyond Utah, but Swanson believes his topic will eventually reach a large audience of Mormons, Holy Grail theorists, and fans of The Da Vinci Code book and movie.
Of course, many books have speculated about a secret Jesus bloodline - especially since Dan Brown's best-selling novel was published in 2003. But few were written by active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And until now, none has proposed that Joseph Smith and other LDS Church leaders can trace their lineage back some 75 generations to Christ.
"My book is the first that really examines the Mormon position thoroughly . . . and is willing to raise new questions," said Swanson, adding, "Not everyone is happy with the central premise."
Swanson's theories on Christ's bloodline are not shared by the LDS Church.
"In the mid-1800s, the belief that Christ was married was held by those of many faiths, including some early LDS Church leaders," said church spokesman Dale Bills last week. "However, the belief has never been official church doctrine, nor is it taught as doctrine by the church today."
Bills declined to comment on the book's assertion that Joseph Smith was Christ's direct descendant.
Swanson has been researching his book since 1978, when he was a doctoral student in London, and claims to have read almost all the texts - more than 400 of them - written about the Holy Grail and Jesus Christ's bloodline. He says he wrote his book partly as a rebuttal to Brown's Da Vinci Code, which Swanson believes is filled with historical errors.
In Dynasty of the Holy Grail, Swanson postulates that Joseph Smith Sr. was descended directly from Jesus, of the Judah tribe of Israel, while his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, was a direct descendant of Mary Magdalene, who was from the tribe of Ephraim. Swanson theorizes that the Smiths' marriage reunited the two tribes and made Joseph Smith Jr. a direct descendant of Christ on both sides.
To support this claim, Swanson cites public statements from 19th-century LDS Church leaders, including Brigham Young, who wrote in 1859, "Hidden in the blood of many LDS runs the blood of Israel from numerous directions, including that of the Savior. But it is specifically through the divine blood-right of Christ through Joseph Smith Jr. that all members of the Church are lawful heirs of the promise."
In 1899, LDS Church apostle George Q. Cannon reportedly told a Salt Lake Temple assembly, "There are those in this audience who are descendants of the old Twelve Apostles - and shall I say it, yes, descendants of the Savior himself. His seed is represented in this body of men."
Swanson suggests that Joseph Smith learned of his holy ancestry through divine revelation and shared his secret with a handful of Mormon leaders. Swanson also believes Smith's famous "no man knows my history" quote was a veiled reference to his sacred lineage.
Swanson admits he can't prove the LDS Church's first president was descended from Christ. He also concedes that if Jesus indeed fathered children, millions of his descendants could be alive today. Swanson says he came to his conclusion by weaving together circumstantial threads from history and hopes to correct errors in a future edition.
"I'm inching towards the truth. I haven't found the truth. I have no hard evidence," says the art historian and scholar. "I wish I could say I had some secret evidence that no one else has."
Reaction so far to Dynasty of the Holy Grail has been mixed. Harold Ethington, an amateur Mormon historian and genealogist, read the book and is impressed with Swanson's research and thesis.
"It's scholarly. It's not sensationalistic. It's presented fairly," Ethington said by phone from his home in Sandy. "I've read very widely on this [topic]. And Vern Swanson's account of it is the most clear, concise and accurate of anything I've read." Ethington said he mailed a copy of Swanson's book last month to Dan Brown's agent but has not received a response.
Australian theologian Philip Johnson, author of several books on Jesus Christ and an expert on new religious movements, was more dismissive of Swanson's premise. Claims that Christ was married have no historical credence, said Johnson, who has not read Dynasty of the Holy Grail.
Johnson, who is visiting Utah to lecture at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, was also skeptical of the suggestion that Joseph Smith was descended from Christ.
"It's one thing to claim that. It's another to prove that this is indeed the case. I can claim I'm the living descendant of Julius Caesar," he said. "It's very difficult to take those sorts of allegations seriously."