Monday, February 20, 2017

"Whose Fruit was Desirable to Make One Happy": The True Story of José Almerich

José Almerich (left) with my uncle Matthew Stevens (right) circa 1973–1976.

This account was written by my mother Jill Stevens Smoot. The following transcription has standardized and corrected some grammar, spelling, and punctuation. 

This is the true story of José Almerich.

From 1973–1976 my father, Robert V. Stevens, along with his wife Sue Stevens and their five children, presided over the Spain Mission. My parents would, as often as possible, take us children with them as they traveled all over Spain to various missionary zone conferences. These were wonderful opportunities for us as children. Often we were overwhelmed by the Spirit and would be strengthened by the talks and powerful testimonies shared in these meetings. It was no different for my younger brother Matthew. At eight years of age, Matthew found himself sitting in on the morning session of a Valencia zone conference. Anxious to be like the missionaries, Matthew arrived for the morning session wearing a white shirt and tie.

Excited at the lunch break, Matthew begged our mother to let him go outside with some of the missionaries so that he could pass out a Book of Mormon. Reassured by the missionaries that they were happy to watch over my little brother, my mother gave her permission.

Handing Matthew a Book of Mormon in Spanish, my mother asked him, "What do you want to say to someone in Spanish when you give them this book?" Matthew answered, "Would you like to learn how to be happy?" And so my mother taught him how to say ¿Quieres aprender a ser feliz? Matthew replied, "If the gospel makes me happy, then it cane make someone else happy too."

Matthew waited on the street corner that day for over an hour for just the right person to come along to give his copy of the Book of Mormon. Waiting as patiently as an eight year old child possibly could, Matthew soon spotted a young twenty year old man by the name of José Almerich crossing the street with a letter in his hand. José was headed for a mail box located on the same street corner where Matthew was standing. Before José could drop his letter into the mail box, Matthew approached him, handed him the Book of Mormon, and asked him if he wanted to learn how to be happy.

Surprised, José said thank you and took the book home with him. Enclosed was the address of the local meetinghouse along with the schedules for Sunday services. It was not long afterwards when José showed up to church having already read the Book of Mormon. He began taking the discussions and in time found that he was ready to be baptized.

José told my father on the day of the baptism the rest of his story. José had had a painful childhood. He was sent off to an all-boys boarding school at a very young age, rarely seeing his family for many years to come. Consequently, he received no help, support, or counselling for the physical and emotional abuse he suffered while attending school.

Following graduation he went straight into the armed services. After completing the required two years of military duty, José found himself all alone and extremely lost. Soon he began looking for some kind of meaning or direction to his life. He studied various religions but found no real satisfying answers.

José told my father that having finally come to the lowest point in his life and having given up all hope for finding family or answers that might help him work through his painful past, he found himself writing a farewell letter to his only friend in the world. He showed the letter to my father and said, "President Stevens, I had no more desire to live. The pain I was suffering was too great, and so I had made the decision to end my life. I wrote my kind friend this letter asking for his forgiveness and said my good-byes. On the day I met your Matthew, I was on my way to mail this letter with the plans of returning home quickly to do just that. As I was crossing the street to approach the mail box, I remember physically wiping the tears away from my eyes with the thought that I had never been so unhappy."

"And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy." (1 Nephi 8:10)

Postscript: the Book of Mormon speaks of "the great plan of happiness" (Alma 42:8), and describes a time when Nephi's people "lived after the manner of happiness" (2 Nephi 5:27). Lehi taught, "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). Reading and living the doctrinal and moral precepts narrated in the Book of Mormon will not only lead to an increase of worldly joy, but will ultimately draw men and women to God, who thereby shall have a "fulness of joy" in His kingdom (3 Nephi 28:10). 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Christian Hypocrisy in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's "Die Judenbuche"

A portrait of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1837).

I wrote the following in the Fall of 2014 for a course at Brigham Young University 
on Deutsche Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts.
Introduction
The specter of anti-Semitism in German history looms large in today's post-Holocaust world. The great past works of German literature, ranging from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan der Weise to Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Die Judenbuche to Heinrich Heine's Hebräische Melodien, that have touched on themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and religious pluralism in Germany have since the end of the Second World War enjoyed renewed critical attention. Recent critics have emphasized the significance of anti-Semitism in German culture and the role these works played in shaping or (re)defining Jewish "Otherness" in German consciousness.
Much of the criticism of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's 1842 novella Die Judenbuche has focused on the depiction of anti-Semitism in the text. As we will see, this literature has largely ignored what I believe is an example of the depiction of an arguably hypocritical Christian character. I believe the opening scene of Frederick Mergel and his seemingly pious mother taking shelter from a winter storm is ambiguous enough in the narrative to suggest religious hypocrisy on the part of Frau Mergel without explicitly depicting such. This ambiguity in turn brings more nuance to the portrayal of at least one non-Jewish character in the text.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Make America Great Again! (By Protecting it from the Mormons)

It's important that we protect America from lawless criminals and religious fanatics. (Source Wikimedia)

That there could be any Mormons who espouse Islamophobia truly baffles me. Like, seriously. I cannot wrap my mind around it. If anyone should by sympathetic to the plight of a denigrated and (often maliciously) misunderstood and misrepresented religious minority in the United States, it should be us.

And here’s why. What follows is a basic reconstruction of the popular 19th century American view towards Mormons and Mormonism. This captures the essence of what you find 19th century Americans were saying about Mormonism in newspapers, popular media, academic literature, sermons, and even government reports. 

See if it sounds at all familiar to what you hear today about Muslims and Islam in some circles.


* * *

You are living in America's Gilded Age. Just a few years ago America tore itself apart with civil war. But since then the nation is starting to heal itself and is binding up old wounds. A new national identity is being forged that will unite Americans once again. Your nation has made unbelievable advances in industry, technology, culture, and commerce. Through American ingenuity and by Divine Providence you can truly be proud of your place at the pinnacle of modern civilization. Your culture is the epitome of white Protestant capability. 

But there remain threats to this Pax Americana. Threats to white Protestant American identity and stability.

Not just Chinese and Irish immigrants and Roman Catholics, mind you. Out in the desert wasteland of Utah are the Mormons. Sure, they talk about being a Christian religion that values freedom and peace, but make no mistake about it. This is not a benign religion. The Mormons are a very real and immediate threat to America.

Within living memory they have introduced anti-Christian superstitions and humbugs with their blasphemous talk of modern revelations and new scripture. Led by their fanatical false prophet Joe Smith, an American Mahomet, the Mormons have not just blasphemed God, but have usurped the law, have attempted to forcibly seize power, have robbed and pillaged American settlements, have murdered innocents, and continue to deceived gullible dupes day by day. They were so violent and unlawful, in fact, that that they had to be forcibly exterminated from states such as Missouri and Illinois to maintain the peace and keep American citizens safe. 

Now they have set up a theocracy in the desert where their prophet controls every aspect of their lives. Economic and political power rest in the hands of a few men who claim direct inspiration from God. And the Mormons blindly follow these sinister prophets. They are authoritarian and vote en bloc according to the commands of their leaders. Brigham Young and others preach blood atonement, which allows for the murder of dissenters and apostates. They oppress women by practicing polygamy, a vile, immoral corruption that was introduced by the lecherous Joe Smith. This monstrous affront to any sense of civilized Christian morality has no place in America, and must be put down by law. (Which is why, thankfully, the Supreme Court upheld anti-polygamy laws in 1878, thus protecting traditional marriage and society at large.)

Their missionaries travel far and wide to trick people, especially gullible women, into joining their cult. Then they steal any of their property or money by their “law of consecration” (which is really just a scheme for Mormon leaders to become rich). Yes, that’s right. Mormons have a religious law that they one day hope to impose on all Americans. Just read their scriptures, which speak of this law (as well as other religious laws) being imposed when Jesus returns and the Mormons claim our lands for themselves. (They tried that in Missouri in the 1830s, but were thankfully stopped.)

When non-Mormon “Gentiles” came through their territory, the Mormons massacred them. That’s how intolerant and bloodthirsty the Mormons are. The Mormons are so restless that the army had to send an expeditionto Utah to pacify them. Civilly disobedient to the extreme, the Mormons openly defied the army and federal laws that were enacted to stop their theocratic madness from claiming more victims. They are a pack of lawless thugs terrorizing our country.

America won’t be safe from the Mormons if they were to gain any power. American democracy will perish if Mormon fanaticism is allowed to flourish. Mormonism is an assault on the very moral fabric of society. That’s why “President Rutherford B. Hayes' secretary of state William Evarts wrote to US diplomats asking them to seek help from European governments to keep Mormon converts from traveling to the US. And in 1883 President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to 'prevent the importation of Mormons into the country,' according to 'Immigration and the 'Mormon Question' by William Mulder.”

And why not? After all, scientists and medical authorities have proven that “Mormons [are] racial outsiders,” and more racially comparable to inferior races such as blacks and orientals than to us whites. Mormons are “not merely a theological departure from the mainstream, they [are] racially and physically different.” We need to stop our white Protestant culture from being overrun by the racially inferior Mormons. We need to stop the white genocide happening in this country.

That’s why we are going to strip Mormons of their rights (right to vote, hold office, hold property, worship as they please, etc.) for our own safety and protection. We need strong leaders who know how to be tough negotiators and who can restore law and order in our country. We need secure boarders from Mormon immigrants until we can figure out what’s going on here.

It's time to make America great again!


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

On Hugh Nibley and His Footnotes

After receiving a PhD from UC–Berkeley in 1938, Hugh Nibley fought in World War 2 as a member of military intelligence for the 101st Airborne Division. (Photo from hughnibley.net)
On his blog John Gee has some comments on the legacy of Hugh Nibley, the godfather of modern Latter-day Saint scholarship of the ancient world. Among other things, Gee commented briefly on his personal history with Nibley:
I knew Nibley pretty well, for someone who was my grandfather's age. I took six classes from him. I spent years not only reading just about everything he wrote, but actually looking up thousands of his footnotes. I edited two volumes in his collected works, and source checked on all but three of those volumes. I also had many personal encounters with him over a twenty year time period. I learned many of the same languages he did. I have seen first hand his strengths and weakness both as a person and as a scholar.
The mentioning of Nibley's footnotes, of course, brought to my mind the claim made by some that Nibley simply fabricated his footnotes. This claim can be easily refuted (and indeed has been).

It was not long after reading Gee's blog last night that I encountered the following in the English translation of Heinrich Schäfer's monumental achievement Von ägyptischer Kunst. Schäfer, next to Adolf Erman and Kurt Sethe, was a preeminent fin-de-siècle German Egyptologist. His work on Egyptian art is yet standard reading for students a century after its appearance.

But John Baines, the translator and co-editor of the English edition of Schäfer's work, noticed something as he worked with the text.
The German edition of the book is editorially unsuitable for an English-speaking public because of the condensed and complicated form of its citations, and because some of the works referred to are inaccessible and others have since appeared in translations or in new editions. The book also departs to a surprising extent from norms of citation in modifying or paraphrasing passages quoted, yet retaining quotation marks, and in failing to acknowledge other quotations. A fair number of references are simply wrong, especially in the list of illustrations–I only hope not too many errors have crept into this edition.
(John Baines, "Translator's Introduction," in Heinrich Schäfer, Principles of Egyptian Art, ed. Emma Brunner-Traut [Oxford: Griffith Institute, 2002], xvii–xviii.)

As far as I'm aware, nobody has attempted to wave away Schäfer's pioneering work because he wasn't as careful with his footnotes or citations as he should've been. I therefore find it rather perplexing that many have tried to do such with Nibley.

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of Nibley's scholarship. Many of his assumptions and methodological approaches can rightly be questioned, and a number of Nibley's arguments have been rendered obsolete due to subsequent scholarship and new information. (Nibley himself was well aware this would eventually be the case, and famously quipped, "I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago.") But that is not the same as dismissing Nibley out of hand because he was sometimes sloppy with his citations and sometimes employed questionable readings of his sources.

I can only suspect Nibley has been the target of these attempted dismissals for ideological and polemical rather than scholarly reasons.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Latter-day Khumrot and "Fences Around the Law"

Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over matters of the Law of Moses on a number of recorded occasions. (From LDS.org)
In Judaism exists the concept of the khumrot (חומרות), or proscriptions that are implemented to safeguard the halakhah (הלכה)–––the body of Jewish religious laws–––from being transgressed. The khumrot of Orthodox Judaism are not the laws themselves, but are instead measures taken to ensure the faithful do not even come close to breaking the laws.

Jewish khumrot have been articulated over time in response to a law given in Deuteronomy. "If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it" (NET Deuteronomy 22:8). The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1.1) puts it this way:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah. (ועשו סיג לתורה)
No less than the great Rabbi Akiva himself is quoted in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 3.13) as insisting, "Tradition is a safety fence to Torah" (מסורת סייג לתורה). 

That believers would want to make "safety fences around the law" is completely understandable, and even commendable. It is wise to set boundaries and parameters that help us keep God's commandments. Jesus himself did exactly this with the commandments prohibiting murder (Matthew 5:21–26) and adultery (Matthew 5:27–30), in how we make oaths and vows (Matthew 5:33–37), in how we pray (Matthew 6:5–15), and with a host of other issues. 

At the same time, however, Jesus was not afraid to break down "fences around the law" that he felt were troublesome, burdensome, unnecessarily proscriptive, or missed the point of the original law entirely. For instance, Jesus and his disciples healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10–13; Mark 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17) and worked for food on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–9; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–12) in direct contradiction to the "fences around the law" (of keeping the sabbath holy) that his religious rivals and antagonists had established.

(To be sure, the rabbinical articulations of the khumrot postdate Jesus by some time, but the basic idea is still essentially the same.) 

While the impulse to build "fences around the law" is understandable and has merit, the problem believers quickly encounter is when they mistake the fences for the laws they are protecting. This was the problem Jesus had with his interlocutors who accused him of wrongdoing or transgressing God's commandments. Jesus' normal response was to point out their hypocrisy, since they themselves were, in his mind, no longer keeping the commandments out of devotion to God as much as they were obsessing over the man-made minutiae they themselves had accrued over centuries of tradition. 
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! (NET Matthew 23:23–24)
This impulse to build fences around the law, as well as the attending dangers of doing such, exists today. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have over time built their own "fences around the law." Individually, culturally, and institutionally.

A few examples will suffice. 

First, there is the cultural proscription against watching R-rated movies. This may doubtless seem pedantic to mention, but nowhere in the scriptures is watching R-rated movies condemned as sinful. Rather, the scriptures teach us to "stay away from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" (Article of Faith 13). 

In order to protect these scriptural teachings, Mormons have built a fence around the law by enacting cultural prohibitions against R-rated movies. Some enterprising Mormons have even devoted no small amount of time and labor to provide filtering services for movies that do all the work for you. With the click of a button you can remove all of the R-rated content found in movies. 

The rationale, of course, is that "anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" won't include vulgarity, violence, sexuality, or other challenging or offensive content not deemed "wholesome" enough for viewing. Thus, R-rated movies are intrinsically off limits.

I need not spend too much time pointing out the many questions, problems, or ambiguities with this particular Mormon khumra. Others have done that already. (See the discussions, from different angles, here, here, here, here, and here.) What's important to point out for now is that many who raise the khumra against watching R-rated movies are confusing it with the scriptural teachings themselves.

Second, the Church has produced a pamphlet for teenagers that perfectly encapsulates both the wisdom and pitfalls of building fences around the law.



For the Strength of Youth could almost be read as a rabbinical tractate. It is filled with rules, regulations, and proscriptions for the Church's youth that, in theory, are meant to help them keep or otherwise interpret the commandments and live godly lives. These latter-day khumrot range from how and when to date, how to prevent situations where one might break the law of chastity, what media to watch (but notice it says nothing about R-rated movies!), what dress and speech is preferable and when, and how to observe the sabbath (sound familiar?).  

I want to emphasize that much in For the Strength of Youth is wise and helpful. I am by no means advocating that Church members just chuck the entire thing out the window. However, I personally know many members of the Church who have, it seems, mistaken the guidelines and counsel given in this publication for the commandments themselves. Additionally, I have read many accounts (including many that are horribly awkward or outright disturbing) of those who have had negative experiences in the Church because of members or leaders who demanded exacting or pharisaical interpretations of publications such as For the Strength of Youth (or the Church's Handbook).

If we are not diligent, we, like Jesus' antagonists, are at risk of confusing the weightier matters of the law with institutional and cultural accumulations that, while well-intended, can alienate and distress more than help.

To put a fine but quick point on it, I'll simply direct readers' attention to this blog post by a gay BYU alumnus. It's difficult for me to see how this particular fence around this particular law (the Law of Chastity) is helpful more than hurtful when it comes to LGBT members of the Church. 

Ultimately, I think the message of Jesus is to move beyond making fences around the law and become the kind of disciple where the fences aren't even necessary. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:48). Of course, as fallible human beings living in a fallen world this will not be possible to do all at once, and not without the Saviour's help. 

But we can at least strive for it. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Deification in Ancient Egyptian and Mormon Theology

Detail of an image inside the tomb of Sennedjem, discovered at the necropolis of Deir el-Medina and dating to the 19th dynasty. Here Sennedjem is accompanied by his wife Lyneferti and wields the "sekhem-scepter, a symbol of power." (Image and description via Tour Egypt.)

The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann has some interesting observations about the ancient Egyptian conception(s) of death and the afterlife in his volume Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (trans. 2005). In one section of his book Assmann discusses how death for the ancient Egyptians was in part conceived as social isolation both here and in the hereafter. Relationships, including relationships between family members and familial generations, were meant to endure beyond the grave. Separation or isolation from the family as well as the gods was a form of death that the Egyptians combated with an phalanx of myths and rites.

"As the ancient Egyptians understood it," writes Assmann, "a person lived in two spheres." These spheres were the "physical sphere" and the "social sphere," respectively. "In both spheres, the principle of connectivity worked to confer and maintain life, and correspondingly, the principle of disconnectivity threatened and wrought death" (p. 39).

Accordingly, the ancient Egyptians were obliged to maintain mortuary cults for their dead. This included not only performing careful and proper burials that equipped the dead with the appropriate funerary paraphernalia (funerary texts, amulets, shrouds, mortuary chapels, canopic jars, etc.), but also retaining the memory, dignity, honour, and especially name of the deceased through the maintenance of the funerary cult.

This, of course, is where modern people have (understandably, yet also erroneously) received the impression that the ancient Egyptians were "obsessed with death." Actually, the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life and resurrection, and ensuring that life (including all the perks and benefits of having a physical body) would continue eternally beyond death.

As Assmann explains, this relationship between the living and the dead not only had precedent in the mythological realm with the relationship between Osiris and Horus (the latter being obliged to maintain the funerary cult and memory of the former), but was reciprocal in nature (pp. 41–52). That is to say, "Father and son are dependent on one another. They stand by one another, the one in the afterlife, and the other in this life. Such was the form of the contract between the generations" (p. 47). As the son maintained the funerary cult of his deceased father, and thereby ensuring the memory, honour, and name of the father would endure through endless generations, the father in return would intercede for his son on behalf of the gods.

This is most clearly seen in an Abydos temple inscription commissioned by Rameses II for his father Seti I. The text includes a dialogue between the father and son that includes the following (p. 51).

First, Ramesses says:
See, I keep your name alive, I have acted on your behalf!
... May you now say to Re:
"Grant a lifetime filled with jubilee festivals to King Ramesses."
It is good for you when I am king.
A good son is he who commemorates his father.
Seti replies:
Rejoice, my son, whom I love, King Ramesses!
...I shall say to Re with a loving heart:
"Grant him eternity on earth like Khepri!"
I repeat to Osiris, as often as I appear before him:
"Grant him double the lifetime of your son Horus!"
As such, Assmann stresses that death, at least on a metaphysical level, for ancient Egyptians included some idea of social and familial isolation. (Well-known are the wonderful Egyptian tales of the Shipwrecked Sailor and Sinhue, who both fear that their deaths in foreign, strange lands will separate them from their families and kinsfolk and will thus affect them negatively in the afterlife.) He explains:
It is easy to see that this concept of the person corresponded perfectly with the structure of a polytheistic religion. Deities, too, existed as persons in reciprocal relationships in which they acted on and spoke with one another. They were what they were as persons only with respect to one another. Constellative theology and anthropology mirror and model themselves on one another, stressing the ties, roles, and functions that bind the constituent members of the group. What they view as the worst evil are the concepts of isolation, loneliness, self-sufficiency, and independence. From their point of view, these are symptoms of death, dissolution, and destruction. Even for godhood, loneliness is an unbearable condition. (p. 57). 
Little wonder, then, that, as another Egyptologist has explained, "for the Egyptians, their relationship
with spouse, siblings, parents, children, ancestors, and descendants was of greatest consequence," and as such the Egyptians carried the "conviction that the family structure would continue after death." In short, Assmann contends, the ancient Egyptian mortuary cult had "the aim of reintegrating the deceased into a community that will take in the one who has been torn from the land of the living (p. 63).

All of this of course should resonate to Latter-day Saints. Drawing from the biblical tradition (Malachi 4:5–6; Hebrews 11:40), the Prophet Joseph Smith taught of "principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation" (Doctrine and Covenants 128:15). The entire purpose (the ultimate good or summum bonum as Joseph called it [v. 11]) of temple ordinances that seal and bind generations through work for the living and the dead (by proxy) was to effect a communal exaltation for God's children.
For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. (v. 18).
Hence the Prophet's insistence that exaltation could only be achieved through celestial marriage, or through the creation of eternal families that would see "a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever" (D&C 132:19; cf. 131:1–4).

And why not? After all, if "that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the post-mortal world], only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy" (D&C 130:2), then the only anthropology and cosmology, it would appear, that could reasonably accommodate such would be ones that saw the perpetuation of families and kinships sealed together in eternal bonds.

This is of course a very hasty description of ancient Egyptian mortuary religion as well as Joseph Smith's Nauvoo-era theology concerning the role and purpose of sealings. Much more could be said about how practices such as plural marriage and the law of adoption factored into Joseph's sealing theology and praxis, for instance, to say nothing of the seemingly endless stream of research Egyptologists have written on almost every aspect of Egyptian funerary religion. Hopefully my description of both has been good enough to sufficiently illustrate the discernible parallels. To be sure, considerable differences in both theology and praxis exist between the two. And many of these ideas can be found elsewhere throughout the world. Ancestor worship, cults for the dead, reciprocal relationships between the living and the dead, intercession for the living by the dead, and so forth are present in many theological systems. These elements are not unique to the ancient Egyptians and modern Mormons. Nevertheless, enough parallels do exist to warrant mention and to invite consideration into how these two systems compare and contrast.

Inasmuch as Joseph Smith professed to be a restorer of primeval ordinances and lost truths, it is always exhilarating to hear faint echoes of the Prophet's teachings in the tombs and temples of Egypt. (Just ask Hugh Nibley!) Yet another reason, I suppose, to "become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people" (D&C 90:15), and "to obtain a knowledge of history" (D&C 93:53).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: Joseph Smith's Seer Stones

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones (2016)
At a church conference on October 25–26, 1831, the topic of the translation of the Book of Mormon arose and Joseph Smith was pressed to furnish the details pertaining thereto. According to the minutes taken at the conference, "Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c."

While Joseph Smith may have been reluctant to divulge too much about the nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon beyond affirming it was accomplished "by the gift and power of God" (perhaps in part because he considered it sacred, and perhaps in part because even he couldn't fully explain the miracle), there has survived a splendid corpus of historical documentation from the eyewitnesses involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, as well as from those who interviewed and interacted with said eyewitnesses. Letters, interviews, journal entries, personal histories, and other types of documentation detail the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to such a degree as perhaps no other sacred text in the world enjoys. While the historical record is lamentably patchy in some places, historians of early Mormonism nevertheless have access to a deep well of sources to draw from.

Building on recently published work on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book have co-published a superb new volume titled simply enough Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. Written by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, this new monograph is an extremely valuable contribution to not only Book of Mormon studies, but also to such subjects as Joseph Smith's involvement with "folk magic" and the religious worldview of Mormonism's first generation of converts.

The appearance of this volume is timely. In conjunction with the publication of a facsimile edition of the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, just one year ago The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time published photographs of a seer stone once in the possession of Joseph Smith and widely considered by historians to be the stone used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Two months later the Ensign published an article on the topic of Joseph Smith as a seer, including the now-famous photo of the stone. Subsequent commentary by authorities such as Richard Bushman and even President Dieter F. Uchtdorf once again ignited interest in Joseph's seer stones.
Joseph Smith's brown seer stone

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones can easily be read as picking up where the initial wave of last year's enthusiasm and interest left off. It dives into not only the history of Joseph Smith's seer stones themselves (where and when they were discovered, how they were used, which hands they passed through after leaving Joseph's possession, etc.) but into a wider discussion of folk magic, the supposed "magic world view" of Joseph Smith and the early Saints, the translation of the Book of Mormon, what the Book of Mormon itself has to say about seers and seer stones, and other related topics. The book is richly illustrated with original artwork from Anthony Sweat and other artists. Additionally, graphs, charts, appendixes, and an enormously helpful selected annotated bibliography of primary sources on Joseph's seer stones compliment the historical and theological analysis offered by MacKay and Frederick.

Much of the story told by MacKay and Frederick would undoubtedly already be familiar to students of early Mormonism. Those acquainted with the work of D. Michael Quinn and Mark Ashurst-McGee, for example, will be greeted by familiar topics: folk magic, money digging, seer stones, Indian lore, Book of Mormon translation, etc. However, where MacKay and Frederick stand out is both in in their thoughtful critique of once-prevailing paradigms and their careful look at the provenance of Joseph Smith's seer stones down to the present day.

For instance, chapter 2 ("Money Digging and the Second Great Awakening") of the book argues that looking at "the broader religious cultural context" of early 19th century America "helps to demonstrate why Joseph interpreted the recovery of his seer stones as fundamentally religious in nature" (p. 6). Despite the past efforts of some to demarcate "magic" from "authentic" religious experience, MacKay and Frederick (along with some others) convincingly critique "the idea that money digging was a nonreligious endeavor, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was decidedly religious in nature." They continue, "These are labels imposed by the modern perspective, and they ignore that both treasure seeking and translating were likely perceived by Joseph's early converts as supernatural events. Early believers did not necessarily struggle with the fusion of Joseph the treasure seeker and Joseph the translator" (p. 9). MacKay and Frederick thus recommend a healthy dose of historiographical humility in approaching this topic, as a sloppy polemical approach (as seen on some questionable Internet sites today) can easily make one stumble into a presentistic ditch.

Most fascinating is MacKay and Frederick's treatment of the provenance of Joseph Smith's seer stones, including the brown stone brought to the public's attention last year and a white stone possessed by Joseph beginning sometime in the early to mid-1820s. Despite "numerous gaps" in provenance, the brown stone can be relatively easily traced from Oliver Cowdery's possession in 1830 to the First Presidency's private collection in 1970, where it has resided since (pp. 66–77). The provenance of the white stone has been more difficult to ascertain, but it appears to have been handed down from prophet to prophet beginning with Brigham Young. "This stone may have remained in the hands of the Presidency for decades," write MacKay and Frederick, and "it is apparently in the possession of the First Presidency" as of today (p. 84). Unfortunately, much less is known about the white stone beyond that it was shown to members of the Quorum of the Twelve in Nauvoo and was eventually consecrated on the altar of the Manti Temple by Wilford Woodruff in 1887 (pp. 79–80).

Perhaps future research will uncover more on the provenance of Joseph Smith's white seer stone. Perhaps, assuming it is in fact in the possession of the First Presidency, the white stone will also be photographed and published along with the brown stone at some future time. It may even turn out that the white stone was used in the translation of the Book of Mormon all along, as MacKay and Frederick draw attention to some historical sources that suggest such (pp. 77–82). At this point, however, we must be content with speculation until further sources come to light. "If the Presidency's papers do not include more historical information about the white stone, they . . . face the problem of not knowing its provenance with certainty." While the brown stone appears to be a "better candidate" for being the stone used in the translation, and thus was selected for publication, some uncertainty remains, and caution should therefore be exercised (pp. 84–85).

To conclude, I think it's important to not overlook the significance of this book's mere existence. To see a book published by Deseret Book that dives right into the heart of this topic is a testament to the growing maturity of the Church's institutional historical consciousness. It is an encouraging sign that Church leaders and members are not afraid to face inquiries raised by both sympathetic and hostile questioners. It is also promising evidence that Elder M. Russell Ballard's challenge given earlier this year to "raise the bar," as it were, in producing institutionally-sanctioned works on Church history is being answered.

Seriously, read both of these.
I would strongly recommend every thoughtful Latter-day Saint who has in interest in the history of his or her religion (which, of course, should be every Latter-day Saint!) to pick up a copy of Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. Along with From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, MacKay and Frederick's new volume is indispensable in understanding the foundation of the faith of the Saints and is an excellent addition to the growing number of works that are bringing the miracle of the Restoration out of obscurity.