Saturday, May 31, 2014

How Heretical Are You?

Why else do you think we Mormons call it a Stake Center?
Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave a devotional speech in 1980 titled "The Seven Deadly Heresies." Here are the titular heresies, presented in the order given by Elder McConkie:
  • "Heresy one: There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths."
  • "Heresy two concerns itself with the relationship between organic evolution and revealed religion and asks the question whether they can be harmonized."
  • "Heresy three: There are those who say that temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation. Some have supposed that couples married in the temple who commit all manner of sin, and who then pay the penalty, will gain their exaltation eventually."
  • "Heresy four: There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation."
  • "Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were."
  • "Heresy six: There are those who believe or say they believe that Adam is our father and our god, that he is the father of our spirits and our bodies, and that he is the one we worship."
  • "Heresy seven: There are those who believe we must be perfect to gain salvation."
Now, I could spend a lot of time dissecting each of these anathema ideas. However, for now I'll simply run through each of them and give a quick rundown of where I personally stand on Elder McConkie's heresy scale.

Heresy one: There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.

If I'm to be counted a heretic for believing that God is progressing in knowledge, then so too is Wilford Woodruff.
If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us. (Journal of Discourses 6:120)
At least I'm in good company. Also, need I point out the fact that insisting on God's absolute omniscience is not only at odds with the teachings of Joseph Smith, but also presents some serious problems when it comes to maintaing a robust theodicy? See this article by David L. Paulsen and Blake Ostler if you don't believe me.

Heresy two concerns itself with the relationship between organic evolution and revealed religion and asks the question whether they can be harmonized.

Not only do I think Mormonism and evolution can be harmonized, I think they should be harmonized. I'm not entirely sure how to do such (I have some thoughts on this, but won't try to articulate them at this time), but, in the spirit of Brigham Young, I'm confident that "our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular" (Journal of Discourses 14:116). The trick, of course, is determining what is true science and what is true religion. Truth is never static, either in science or revealed religion. When these truths are recognized and synthesized by study and also by faith, I'm perfectly satisfied that they will harmonize. In short, my attitude towards this topic is that of one of my favorite apostles, John A. Widtsoe. "The Church, which comprehends all truth, accepts all the reliably determined facts used in building the hypothesis of organic evolution. It does not question the observed order of advancement or progression in nature, whether called the law of evolution or by any other name" (In Search of Truth, 40).

Heresy three: There are those who say that temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation. Some have supposed that couples married in the temple who commit all manner of sin, and who then pay the penalty, will gain their exaltation eventually.

I agree. Being sealed in the temple doesn't automatically guarantee exaltation. The covenants we make, including the covenants in the temple, do not license sin or transgression. The promises the Lord makes to those who keep their covenants are real and binding, but in order for us to realize those blessings we must exercise our agency righteously (cf. D&C 82:10).

Heresy four: There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation.

I agree. The preaching of the gospel to the dead is about equal chances, not second chances. (We can, once again, thank Joseph Smith for sorting out this sticky question of the soteriological problem of evil.) Of course, it's only for the Lord to decide who has had a fair chance to receive the gospel and who hasn't. Does a "chance" mean you get one minute with the missionaries on your doorstep, and if you don't accept the gospel then or there, you're toast? Does a "chance" mean someone who was once a member of the Church, but then fell away and never returned to activity? You see my point. It's for the Lord to decide. Life is filled with too many variables and influences and circumstances, many beyond control, that can shape someone's path for us to say with absolute certainty who has had an adequate chance to accept the gospel and who hasn't. Our job, then, is to do all we can to proclaim the gospel and invite others to come unto Christ, while leaving ultimate judgement in the hands of God. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught:
I will speak first of the final judgment. This is that future occasion in which all of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to be judged according to our works (see 1 Nephi 15:33, 3 Nephi 27:15, Mormon 3:20, D&C 19:3). Some Christians look on this as the time when individuals are assigned to heaven or hell. With the increased understanding we have received from the Restoration, Latter-day Saints understand the final judgment as the time when all mankind will receive their personal dominions in the mansions prepared for them in the various kingdoms of glory (see D&C 76:111, John 14:2, 1 Corinthians 15:40–44). I believe that the scriptural command to “judge not” refers most clearly to this final judgment, as in the Book of Mormon declaration that “man shall not . . . judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord” (Mormon 8:20).
Since mortals cannot suppose that they will be acting as final judges at that future, sacred time, why did the Savior command that we not judge final judgments? I believe this commandment was given because we presume to make final judgments whenever we proclaim that any particular person is going to hell (or to heaven) for a particular act or as of a particular time. When we do this—and there is great temptation to do so—we hurt ourselves and the person we pretend to judge. ("Judge Not and Judging")
But I digress. Moving on.

Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were.

Fasten me to the stake. I'm an absolutely firm believer in this doctrine.

Exhibit A for the truthfulness of this oft-maligned doctrine is D&C 76:88.
And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation.
What exactly is the "administering of angels"? Well, many scriptures attest that one of the main jobs of angels is to declare repentance.
  • "[H]e hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls." (Helaman 5:11)
  • "O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!" (Alma 29:1)
  • "I, the Lord God . . . send forth angels to declare unto them repentance and redemption, through faith on the name of mine Only Begotten Son." (D&C 29:42)
Declaring repentance is evidently a crucial job of angels. So what are they doing going to the Telestial Kingdom? I think it's to declare repentance to those in that kingdom, and thus give them a chance to advance to the Celestial Kingdom and thus "be heirs of salvation." After all, why bother sending angels to these schlubs in the Telestial Kingdom if they are stuck there forever and ever? Doesn't it seem rather gratuitous for God to send angels if this is the case? As with B. H. Roberts, "I can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father's children along the lines of eternal progression" (New Witnesses for God, 1:392).

But what have other General Authorities said about this? My favorite quote comes from Elder James E. Talmage.
It is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that, in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for. But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank will not be stopped in their progress; and thus we may conclude, that degrees and grades will ever characterize the kingdoms of our God. Eternity is progressive; perfection is relative; the essential feature of God’s living purpose is its associated power of eternal increase. (The Articles of Faith, 1st edition, 420–421)
But wait, there's more!
I attended the Prayer Circle in the evening … In conversing upon various principles President Young said none would inherit this Earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods and able to endure the fullness of the presence of God, except they would be permitted to take with them some servants for whom they would be held responsible. All others would have to inherit another kingdom, even that kingdom agreeing with the law which they had kept. He said they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom, but it would be a slow progress. (Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 5 Aug 1855)
Hiram [Smith] said Aug 1st [18]43 Those of the Terrestrial Glory either advance to the Celestial or recede to the Telestial [or] else the moon could not be a type [viz. a symbol of that kingdom]. [for] it [the moon] "waxes & wanes". Also that br George will be quickened by celestial glory having been ministered to by one of that Kingdom. (Franklin D. Richards, August 1, 1843)
The Savior tells us that the terrestrial glory, or kingdom, is likened unto the glory of the moon, which is not of the brightness of the sun, neither of the smallness nor dimness of the stars. But those others who have no part in marrying or giving of marriage in the last resurrection, they become as stars, and even differ from each other in glory; but those in the terrestrial kingdom are those who will come forth at the time when Enoch comes back, when the Savior comes again to dwell upon the earth; when Father Abraham will be there with the Urim and Thummim to look after every son and daughter of his race; to make known all things that are needed to be known, and with them enter into their promised inheritance. Thus the people of God will go forward. They will go forward, like unto the new moon, increasing in knowledge and brightness and glory, until they come to a fullness of celestial glory. (Franklin D. Richards, Journal of Discourses, 25:236)
So clearly McConkie's isn't the only view on this; and, once again, if I'm a heretic, then at least I'm in good company.

In fact, if what Terryl Givens recently reported is true, then not only am I a heretic, but so too are some of the modern Brethren.
I know with pretty good authority that at least some of the Brethren on the Quorum today are universalists. They believe there’s no question, everyone will progress through the kingdoms until we’re all saved. (Source)
Speaking of Terryl Givens, he and his wife Fiona have this to say about the Christian (and, by extension, Mormon) view of salvation. "[W]e have a dilemma. Granting opportunity only to those who accept Christ in the flesh seems patently unfair and inefficient. Giving amnesty to all the rest of humankind makes of Christ's life and sacrifice a magnificent gesture but a superfluous or redundant one. A reasonable conception of God and His plan for us demands a third possibility" (The God Who Weeps, 96).

What is this third possibility? According to the Givenses, this third option is the Mormon concept of what I like to call the "Open Invitation" theory of universalism or progressive salvation. In other words, God has an open invitation to the Celestial Kingdom for everyone, and will never impede you from returning to Him because of your religion, creed, culture, or honest beliefs that might be contrary to the gospel or might land you in a lower kingdom. He doesn't automatically grant you amnesty willy-nilly, but he does grant you an eternal chance to improve, increase, grow, progress, and eventually reach him. Hell and damnation exist, but is not an eternal roasting pit. It is rather "a stunting of one's infinite potential" (The God Who Weeps, 99). As my professor Richard Holzapfel put it, "In LDS doctrine, to be damned means to be stopped, blocked, or limited in one's progress. Individuals are damned whenever they are prevented from reaching their full potential as children of God. Damnation is falling short of what one might have enjoyed if one had received and been faithful to the whole law of the gospel" ("Damnation," in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).

To be damned is to stop progressing. It is to retard oneself in a lower kingdom, refusing to accept further light and knowledge and refusing to repent and make covenants that will save and exalt you into a higher kingdom. This isn't because God says you're not allowed to progress, but because of your own stubbornness to change and progress. If you refuse to live a godly life, then you won't want to live with God at all, as Moroni explains.
Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Mormon 9:3–4)  
So damnation does not come because God says you can never return to him, but because of our own refusal to improve. The Givenses say it perfectly: "God has the desire and the power to unite and exalt the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny" (The God Who Weeps, 77).

I am convinced, as Nephi was, that even though "I do not know the meaning of all things," I do know "that [God] loveth his children" (1 Nephi 11:16). And, as with Joseph, I acknowledge that "it is not all to be comprehended in this world," and that it will be "a great thing to learn salvation beyond the grave."

Heresy six: There are those who believe or say they believe that Adam is our father and our god, that he is the father of our spirits and our bodies, and that he is the one we worship.

I'm actually pretty ambivalent about this one. I don't deny that Brigham Young and others taught the so-called Adam-God doctrine, but I don't exactly know what to do with it, or if I really believe it or not. So I'm agnostic on this issue. Adam-God stuff is on my proverbial shelf, and I hope one day to better understand it. I will say that I think some of the usual apologetic answers ("Oh, Brigham Young must've been mis-recorded by his scribes or something") are pretty lame. I am intrigued with Matthew Brown's approach to this puzzle, but that's as far as I'll go with it.

I also think it's remarkable that Elder McConkie would so blatantly throw Brother Brigham under the bus on this point, but that's just me.

I suppose because I won't outright condemn this teaching that still makes me a heretic. But if that's the case, then I'm only a lukewarm heretic, so it only counts as half a point on my Heretic-O-Meter.

Heresy seven: There are those who believe we must be perfect to gain salvation.

I can't say one way or the other, since I suppose whether I agree with this depends on what Elder McConkie means by "perfect." Clearly, if by "perfect" he means "sinless" or "never make mistakes," then's he right. But this is the modern, colloquial understanding of "perfect." The scriptural use of "perfect" is a bit more nuanced. D&C 76:69–70, for example, seems to use "perfect" as a synonym for "saved," in the sense of inheriting the Celestial Kingdom.
These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood. These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.
If this is what one means by "perfect," i.e. made clean from sin through the atonement, then I'd say one absolutely must be perfect to gain salvation in the Celestial Kingdom. But I get the feeling this isn't what most people, including Elder McConkie, mean in this instance. Elder McConkie, for example, observes, "If men had to be perfect and live all of the law strictly, wholly, and completely, there would be only one saved person in eternity." In this sense he's right. But the problem I see here is equivocation in the use of the word "perfect." The word, both in the scriptures and in modern parlance, is not always used consistently. The Hebrew Bible employs no less than four different words (tamim, nekhon, shalem, and kalil) that are all translated as "perfect" in the KJV, but each words ranges in meaning from "blameless" to "whole" to "healthy" to "firm," etc. Likewise, the Greek New Testament employs such words as teleios ("completed," "initiated"), katartismos ("to train," "to equip"), artios ("qualified"), and katartizo ("to mend," "to restore") that are indiscriminately translated in the KJV as "perfect."

My point here is just to make sure we're all taking about the same thing when we use words like "perfect," since the shifting lexical meaning of the word can potentially create confusion. I suppose if I had to choose a solid word to describe the kind of "perfect" spoken of in D&C 76:69–––the kind of "perfect" that comes with "salvation"––––that word would be the hearty German adjective vollkommen, which essentially means "complete" or "accomplished." This is the "perfection" that comes with salvation. One doesn't need to be sinless or never make mistakes to be "complete" in the sense that one can, in this life, accomplish one's calling and election, and, as Joseph taught, "have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time, and even He will manifest the Father unto him, and they will take up their abode with him, and the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him, and the Lord will teach him face to face, and he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God" ("Calling and Election Made Sure").

Total Score

So what's my heretic score? Let's see. Heresy one: check. Heresy two: check. Heresy three: safe. Heresy four: safe. Heresy five: check. Heresy six: half-check. Heresy seven: N/A.

That's 3.5 out of 6.

Not too bad. 3.5 divided by 6 is 58%, so I'm 42% away from being a total heretic.

Now it's time for you, dear reader, to take the heresy challenge and see how heretical you are!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

LDS Doctrine Discussions in Idaho

For anyone living in the vicinity of Rexburg or Idaho Falls, my father will be hosting a series of discussions on LDS doctrine at the Madison Library in Rexburg.

My father has intensely studied LDS doctrine and history for nearly forty years. He's an independent and enterprising thinker when it comes to this stuff, and is not afraid to dive into the meat of Joseph Smith's theology. It's a real treat to study with him, so anyone interested in this stuff who lives up there in that area should check it out!
Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Putting Together an Awful Story

[Cross posted from the FairMormon Blog.]
An anonymous author* writing at the MorningStar Post blog "had an awful time putting [a] story together" on "the number of Latter Day Saints [sic] that are actually considered active," and that Mormons are, per the title of the post, allegedly "leaving their religion in record numbers around the world." (Link) What is the cause of this dire situation for the Church, and why was it so awful for the author to write on it? According to the article, which quotes an unnamed "high-ranking leader in Salt Lake City," it is because "of unprecedented scrutiny of our doctrines and beliefs and stemming from the white washing of our own history, and the rise of social media sites where members and potential converts can learn of our hidden problems."
This claim has been made before on many websites critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a common trope for critics to say that the Church is nearing extinction because of the supposedly damning real history of Mormonism it has been hiding from its unsuspecting members. Instead of revisiting these claims in general, I want to focus specifically on the content of the blog post published by the MorningStar Post. To put it bluntly, and very charitably, the article is highly problematic. The author's use of anonymous sources is extremely questionable, and both factual errors and blatant plagiarism also plague the article. In short, the article makes totally dubious and unsubstantiated claims about both LDS Church hierarchy and Mormon history.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Church History Purpose Statement

I've been working as a student intern with the Joseph Smith Papers for a few weeks. It's been a fantastic experience, and I've come to learn and appreciate, from personal experience, the amount of time and energy those working on the project put into ensuring that each volume of the Joseph Smith Papers is done as professionally and scholarly as possible. What's more, it's been a blast researching the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri as part of my work on the forthcoming volume 6 of the Documents series. I've been doing some really interesting research on such topics as the Danites and their activities during the war, including hunting down and collecting the affidavits written to Lilburn W. Boggs by those who were on the receiving end of Danite vigilantism.

But what also impresses me is the unassuming faith in the Restoration that those working on the project possess. Consider, for example, the simple yet power "purpose statement" of the Church History Department, which houses the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

This picture I snapped in one of the conference rooms in the Church History Library after a brief devotional and staff meeting. I've seen this same plaque, and ones like it, posted elsewhere throughout the building.

Notice especially the final way in which the Church History Department and its employees try to fulfill it's purpose of helping God's children make and keep sacred covenants: "Witnessing to and defending the truths of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ." That's a cause I'm more than happy to contribute to, even if in just a small way as a dopey student intern.

I've heard some on the Internet (including one vocal nominal Mormon who is also the proprietor of a popular podcast series) say that the Church is backing away from apologetics, especially what is typically (and disparagingly) called "classic FARMS apologetics." While I won't presume to speak for the Church as a whole (I'll let the Church's recent series of First-Presidency-and-Quorum-of-the-Twelve-approved essays on the Gospel Topics website speak to what the Church thinks about apologetics), I will say that it has not been my experience working with the Church History Department, limited as it may be, that the Church is backing away from defending the faith.

The purpose statement above, I would say, supports my own experience and my hunch that the Church is still very much concerned with defending the faith.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

From the Joseph Smith Papers

Volume 1 of the Journals series of the Joseph Smith Papers, published in 2008.
I continued to be very impressed with the work being undertaken by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. In case you haven't had a chance to, I'd recommend that you be sure to check out the introductory material in volumes 1 and 2 of the Journals series. Here are some of the things you'll read about.

1. Concerning Joseph Smith's treasure seeking activities.
In their search for contact with the divine, the Smiths were susceptible to the folk magic still flourishing in rural America in the early nineteenth century. Harboring the perpetual hope of the poor for quick riches, Joseph Smith Sr. searched for lost treasure, often with the help of Joseph Jr. Like many of their neighbors, the family combined the use of divining rods and seer stones with conventional forms of Christian worship. In his early twenties, Joseph Jr. had to extricate himself from the local band of treasure seekers before he could focus on his calling to translate the Book of Mormon. (1:xix)
2. Concerning Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage.
At times revelation became a burden as well as a blessing, at no time more than when plural marriage was revealed. Plural marriage was the final component of the logic of restoration. Smith had prayed for an understanding of Old Testament polygamy and was commanded to do the “works of Abraham.” Although he hated adultery and was deeply loyal to his wife Emma, he believed he was to take additional wives as had the ancient patriarchs. He went about it carefully, one woman at a time, usually approaching her relatives first and going through a prescribed wedding ceremony. During his lifetime, he was married to approximately thirty women. Although conjugal relations were apparently involved, he spent little time with these women, the need for secrecy and the demands on his time keeping them apart. At first aghast at what her husband was doing, Emma eventually agreed to a few of the plural marriages but then pulled back. She oscillated between hesitant submission and outright opposition to the practice, but according to Maria Jane Johnston Woodward, who worked for a time as a servant in the Smith household, Emma told her, “The principle of plural marriage is right. . . . [I]t is from our Father in Heaven.” After her husband’s death, Emma refused to go west, where plural marriage would be practiced. She never admitted to her children that their father had been involved. (1:xxx-xxi)
3. Concerning Nauvoo polygamy, including polyandry.
By December 1842, the end of the first year covered in these journals, Joseph Smith had explained the doctrine of plural marriage to a few of his closest associates and was practicing it himself. Glimpses into the reasons for introducing the practice and his understanding of the doctrine behind it are provided in some of his translations and revelations. The Book of Mormon, for example, taught that monogamy was the rule but that it was permissible for one man to have multiple wives when God commanded. A revelation recorded 12 July 1843—the general outlines of which were reportedly understood much earlier—accordingly taught that Abraham, who was married to Sarah, was under no condemnation for taking Hagar as a second wife because the Lord had commanded him to do so. According to the revelation, other ancient prophets in addition to Abraham had the keys or authority from God to participate in or perform plural marriages, and those who received plural wives under the direction of these prophets stood blameless before God. The stipulation of prophetic direction meant that the practice was carefully controlled, however, and those who took plural wives on their own initiative faced serious consequences. Joseph Smith believed that this ancient authority had been conferred upon him as part of the latter-day restoration of the keys and power of the priesthood and that his authorization of plural marriages was justified before God. With these checks in place, a man might legitimately take plural wives “to multiply & replenish the earth, . . . & for thire exaltation in the eternal worlds,” while plural relationships that were undertaken without Joseph Smith’s direct approval were unauthorized and adulterous. 
The nature of the extant sources precludes a thorough understanding of the extent to which Joseph Smith and others practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo and the nature of the relationships between the men and women in these marriages. Most of the information on the practice during this period comes either from later affidavits and reminiscences or from reports of disaffected members of the church at the time—none of which, for a variety of reasons, can be considered entirely reliable historical sources for delineating how plural marriage was understood and practiced by those involved at the time. William Clayton provides the best contemporaneous evidence that at least some plural marriages in Nauvoo during Joseph Smith’s lifetime involved conjugal relations—just as they did later in Utah—and nothing in the 12 July 1843 revelation on plural marriage provides any doctrinal reason for why any authorized plural marriage could not have included such relations. At the same time, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that all Nauvoo plural marriages or sealings were consummated. Although Joseph Smith had many children with Emma, no progeny from any of his plural marriages have been identified. 
Given the sensitivity of the topic, it is no surprise that clear references to plural marriage are virtually absent from Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo journals. Some entries, however, may be best understood—or at least partially understood—in light of the practice, although a significant amount of ambiguity remains even after a careful examination of the context and supporting sources. For example, a revelation dated 2 December 1841 for Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde (recorded in a 25 January 1842 entry of Smith’s journal) closes by counseling her to “hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her, and it shall be a blessing upon her and upon her children after her.” Decades later, Hyde reported that this revelation had been delivered to her shortly after Joseph Smith had taught her the “doctrine of celestial marriage” and that she “followed the council of the prophet Joseph as above instructed” and continued to hope for “the fulfilment of the promises and blessings” contained in the revelation. In addition, a 1 May 1869 affidavit signed by Hyde attests that she was “married or sealed” to Joseph Smith in May 1843. Assuming Hyde’s memory accurately reflects events of 1841–1843 and that the “doctrine of celestial marriage” about which she learned included plural marriage, it would be reasonable to conclude that the revelation’s reference to “all things whatsoever” Smith would teach her included a marriage or sealing to the Mormon leader. But Joseph Smith could have counseled Hyde about many other issues in 1841 as well. Her husband, Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve, for example, had left on a mission to Europe and the Middle East in April 1840, leaving Hyde and her children to rely on others for much of their support until his return in December 1842. 
Several later documents suggest that several women who were already married to other men were, like Marinda Hyde, married or sealed to Joseph Smith. Available evidence indicates that some of these apparent polygynous/polyandrous marriages took place during the years covered by this journal. At least three of the women reportedly involved in these marriages—Patty Bartlett Sessions, Ruth Vose Sayers, and Sylvia Porter Lyon—are mentioned in the journal, though in contexts very much removed from plural marriage. Even fewer sources are extant for these complex relationships than are available for Smith’s marriages to unmarried women, and Smith’s revelations are silent on them. Having surveyed the available sources, historian Richard L. Bushman concludes that these polyandrous marriages—and perhaps other plural marriages of Joseph Smith—were primarily a means of binding other families to his for the spiritual benefit and mutual salvation of all involved. (2:xxiv-xxvii)
4. Concerning the Mormon quest, beginning with Joseph Smith, to harmonize reason and revelation.
He was, moreover, no enemy of learning. An early revelation explained that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come,” and his followers were urged to seek that kind of truth. They were to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion.” A revelation commanded them to open a school, where, among other things, the students studied grammar as well as theology. In that same spirit, they established a school at which the students studied Hebrew under the tutelage of a Jewish instructor. “Teach one another,” they were enjoined, “words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom: seek learning even by study, and also by faith.” The Nauvoo City Council moved to establish a university soon after the charter was granted. Godly knowledge, to be sure, outranked secular learning in Smith’s thinking, but revelation was not set in opposition to reason. “The glory of God is intelligence,” one revelation declared, “or, in other words, light and truth.” Among his many superlative qualities, God was the most intelligent of all beings. Church members were told to seek knowledge as part of their salvation. “If a person gains more knowledge in this life through his diligence & obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” Combining a set of apparently conflicting impulses, Smith left a complex legacy for his people. His revelations sustained a literal belief in scriptural inspiration yet promoted learning and knowledge as if religion and the Enlightenment were compatible. He never wavered in his belief that God had spoken to him but made it an article of faith to let all men “worship how, where, or what they may.” While reviving traditional Christian faith, he was equally a prophet of the coming age. (1:xxxiv-xxxv)
These are just some of the things that the Joseph Smith Papers are shedding further light on.

What an exciting time for those interested in Mormon history. I can't wait for additional volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers to be printed!

A Day Trip to Spring City

Das Café in Spring City, Utah.
A week or so ago I read an article in the Deseret News on a small restaurant named Das Café in Spring City, Utah.

The article caught my attention, and so, living only an hour away from Spring City, I decided to grab two of my friends (one from Germany, and one who served his mission in Germany) and check it out.

The ride to and from Spring City was great, with the bright, warm sun illuminating the beautiful snow-tipped mountains and spring Utah landscape.

We began our day trip with lunch. I had a vegetarian sandwich with sauerkraut. The meal was excellent. I also tried what's called a Mormon Mocha, which is pero mixed with coco and whipped cream.

After that we checked out many of the art galleries in the small town. I was surprised at the artistic talent in the town, and enjoyed the many landscapes and portraits painted by local artists.

In addition to art, Spring City also has some interesting history, including 19th century and early 20th century Mormon architecture.

As we explored the town we discovered a local potter who sells handmade cups, bowls, and other pottery. I bought a mug, which I used to drink out of the actual spring of Spring City.

As an added bonus, the potter was, as he called himself, the only Democrat in all of Sanpete county. We spent some time chatting about politics and being Mormon Democrats. I also complimented him on his awesome bumper stickers, which he told me he put on his car just to make his neighbors upset.

We concluded our afternoon of adventure by visiting an old schoolhouse that was being restored and running into some random llamas.

It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It was made even better when I got back to Provo and purchased a 44 ounce "Jojo's Mojo" soda at the local soda shop Sodalicious. A "Jojo's Mojo" is made up of Dr. Pepper, pomegranate flavoring, and half & half. It's exactly as good as it sounds.

If you ever get a chance, make sure to take a trip to Spring City and check it out!

Downtown Spring City.
A plaque detailing a brief history of the town.
An LDS meetinghouse built in 1902.

Orson Hyde's home. 
A pottery shop where I bought a handmade mug. 
Not a typical bumper sticker for Sanpete county, but still awesome. 
The spring of Spring City.
An old school that's under restoration.
A bishop's storehouse from 1905.

Llamas on a farm.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints

A 19th century depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, printed in T. B. H. Stenhouse's book The Rocky Mountain Saints (1873).
A new essay on the Gospel Topics website went up this morning. It is titled "Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints" and covers, among other things, 19th century vigilantism and violence among Latter-day Saints.

The article begins by emphasizing that the Church strives to emulate Jesus' call to peace.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The virtues of peace, love, and forgiveness are at the center of Church doctrine and practice. Latter-day Saints believe the Savior’s declaration, found in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, that “blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” In Latter-day Saint scripture, the Lord has commanded His followers to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” Latter-day Saints strive to follow the counsel of the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin, who taught that those who are converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ “will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably.”
But, given the religious persecution perpetuated against the Saints in the 1830s and 40s, and given the historical context of vigilantism in 19th century America, the article goes on to discuss lamentable moments of violence and retaliation that the Saints committed. During the 1838 Missouri War, for example, "some [Mormon] leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians." While the Danites may initially have had noble intentions, as the war escalated their actions quickly turned violent and aggressive.
Danites intimidated Church dissenters and other Missourians; for instance, they warned some dissenters to leave Caldwell County. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were apparently absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints. These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.
But violence among 19th century Mormons did not end in Missouri. As the Saints settled the Rocky Mountains, vigilantism and violence cropped up in some instances of conflict with Native Americans. As relationships between some Mormons and Native Americans strained, "A series of battles in February 1850 resulted in the deaths of dozens of Utes and one Mormon. In these instances and others, some Latter-day Saints committed excessive violence against native peoples."

During this time was also the so-called "Mormon Reformation" of the mid-1850s.
In the mid-1850s, a “reformation” within the Church and tensions between the Latter-day Saints in Utah and the U.S. federal government contributed to a siege mentality and a renewed sense of persecution that led to several episodes of violence committed by Church members. Concerned about spiritual complacency, Brigham Young and other Church leaders delivered a series of sermons in which they called the Saints to repent and renew their spiritual commitments. Many testified that they became better people because of this reformation.
One aspect of this "reformation" was the proliferation of violent rhetoric or imagery in the sermons of some Church leaders, such as Brigham Young and Jedediah M. Grant.
Nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise. Throughout the century, revivalists had used violent imagery to encourage the unconverted to repent and to urge backsliders to reform. At times during the reformation, President Young, his counselor Jedediah M. Grant, and other leaders preached with fiery rhetoric, warning against the evils of those who dissented from or opposed the Church. Drawing on biblical passages, particularly from the Old Testament, leaders taught that some sins were so serious that the perpetrator’s blood would have to be shed in order to receive forgiveness. Such preaching led to increased strain between the Latter-day Saints and the relatively few non-Mormons in Utah, including federally appointed officials.
Commonly termed "blood atonement," this rhetoric, while mostly just that, also appears to have led to violence in some instances.
While many of the exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature [about blood atonement] are easily disproven, it is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric. Nevertheless, most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.”
Violence committed by 19th century Mormons reached its bloody apogee in 1857 with the terrible massacre of a group of emigrants from Arkansas at the site of Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. The history of this event, besides being summarized by the new essay, has been discussed in an article published in the Ensign and in the 2008 volume Massacre at Mountain Meadows. As explained by the essay, "while intemperate preaching about outsiders by Brigham Young, George A. Smith, and other leaders contributed to a climate of hostility, President Young did not order the massacre. Rather, verbal confrontations between individuals in the wagon train and southern Utah settlers created great alarm, particularly within the context of the Utah War and other adversarial events." So then who was ultimately responsible for this crime? "A series of tragic decisions by local Church leaders—who also held key civic and militia leadership roles in southern Utah—led to the massacre."

The essay concludes by acknowledging violence committed by 19th century Mormons but also emphasizing a need for caution in outright condemning the early Saints as a violent people.
Many people in the 19th century unjustly characterized the Latter-day Saints as a violent people. Yet the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, in the 19th century as today, lived in peace with their neighbors and families, and sought peace in their communities. Travelers in the 19th century often noted the peace and order that prevailed in Mormon communities in Utah and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the actions of relatively few Latter-day Saints caused death and injury, frayed community relationships, and damaged the perception of Mormons as a peaceful people.
The violent actions committed by early Mormons should not be excused or justified, but should be understood in proper historical context. Thankfully, the tumultuous early years of the Church, which saw violence being committed both against and by Mormons, are behind us. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes of the past while also tempering rash judgement with sound historical understanding.

For more on the topics discussed in the new essay, be sure to check FairMormon's articles on the Mormon Reformation, crime and violence in early Utah, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and blood atonement. Also, as you're browsing the new Gospel Topics essay, be sure to click on the links on the right of the page, such as on the link to the new Doctrine and Covenants and Church History seminary manual, for further reading.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Noachide Creation Story

Here is a clip from the new movie Noah portraying the creation.

Is it just me, or does this seem to have an eerily Mormon flavor to it? Take out the reference to creation ex nihilo and I'd swear this is right out of the Pearl of Great Price, with perhaps some allusion to B. H. Roberts' pre-Adamite theory thrown in for good measure.

I love how the sequence begins. "Let me tell you a story," the prophet Noah says as he looks at the audience. That's what our scriptural creation accounts are: stories. Myths that plumb deeper metaphysical truths about our existence, our relationship to God, and our purpose on earth. But these creation stories being myths make them no less true or beautiful.

Also notice that Noah never actually describes things like the Big Bang or evolution, even though that's what's going on in the sequence. He just describes what was happening during these "days" in general terms, like the earth forming, life beginning, and everything multiplying after its own kind, etc. Could it not be that our scriptural creation accounts are doing the same thing? They're not concerned with giving precise scientific descriptions of "how," per se, but rather are using mythic language to discuss the "why" and the "so what"?

Also, theology aside, the visuals of this clip just rock!


Truth and the Utility Thereof

Elder Boyd K. Packer (b. 1924).
Elder Boyd K. Packer gave an address ("The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect") at a CES symposium in 1981 where he said, "Some things that are true are not very useful." This soundbite has been gleefully reproduced by anti-Mormons as evidence that Elder Packer was promoting dishonesty and lying. When his remarks are taken in context, however, it's clear what Elder Packer was getting at. "Teaching some things that are true, prematurely or at the wrong time, can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning." To illustrate, Elder Packer gave the example of chemistry.
No responsible chemist would advise, and no reputable school would permit, a beginning student to register for advanced chemistry without a knowledge of the fundamental principles of chemistry. The advanced course would be a destructive mistake, even for a very brilliant beginning student. Even that brilliant student would need some knowledge of the elements, of atoms and molecules, of electrons, of valence, of compounds and properties. To let a student proceed without the knowledge of fundamentals would surely destroy his interest in, and his future with, the field of chemistry 
I doubt many teachers or professors would object to this reasoning. If you overload the student with too much advanced knowledge of a subject before building a solid foundation or imparting the prerequisite knowledge needed to grapple with ambiguity and nuance, things probably won't go well for the student's education.

Relating this principle to how to teach in the Church, Elder Packer continued:
What is true with these two subjects is, if anything, doubly true in the field of religion. The scriptures teach emphatically that we must give milk before meat. The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively, and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy. It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it. Be careful that you build faith rather than destroy it. 
Given the context, I don't think Elder Packer's initial soundbite above is at all that damning. It actually makes perfect sense. There's a time and a place for everything, and one must be cautious how one discusses sensitive, nuanced, or complex issues, including historical issues. On the flip side, one must also be careful in determining when it is appropriate to discuss positive, uplifting, or beautiful truths and experiences.

Imagine my delight when I discovered what Immanuel Kant had to say about this. Kant, one of the foremost thinkers in Western philosophy, had revolutionary ideas about the nature of truth, being, ethics, and reason. Here's what he had to say about teaching truth to those unprepared to fully grasp it.
So wie ein weiser Lehrer vieles Schönes, was er weiß, verbirgt, sich deßen entäußeret, wenn er weiß, daß der Zuhörer ihre Gemüther also beschaffen sind, daß sie an die Speculationen gewöhnt, und dadurch vom practischen abgewendet werden möchten, und eben also muß man wiederum in gewißen Fällen oft vom practischen abstrahieren bei einer, oder der anderen Sachen. Viele Sachen können wahr, und doch dem Menschen schädlich sein. Nicht alle Weisheit ist nützlich. (Blomberg Logik, § 31, p. 59)

Just as a wise teacher conceals much that he knows that is beautiful, disclosing it when he knows that the minds of his listeners are so constituted that they want to become accustomed to speculations and to be turned away from the practical[;] and just so too, in certain cases, must one often abstract from the practical in one thing or another. Many things can be true and yet harmful to man. Not all truth is useful. (Lectures on Logic, trans. J. Michael Young [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 43.
If I didn't know any better, I could swear that Elder Packer was quoting Kant. Although the two were approaching this principle somewhat differently, both of these teachers basically understood the fact that truth, in order to be understood and appreciated in all of its complexity and nuance, must not always be assumed to be immediately useful or expedient to impart to others.

How might this apply to Mormon history? Elder Packer gave the example of "a historian [who] gave a lecture to an audience of college students on one of the past Presidents of the Church. It seemed to be his purpose to show that that President was a man subject to the foibles of men. He introduced many so-called facts that put that President in a very unfavorable light, particularly when they were taken out of the context of the historical period in which he lived." Elder Packer was not pleased with this, and reasoned, "Someone who was not theretofore acquainted with this historical figure (particularly someone not mature) must have come away very negatively affected. Those who were unsteady in their convictions surely must have had their faith weakened or destroyed."

Said another way, to paraphrase Joseph Smith, "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all critics of the Church, as soon as they get a little historical knowledge, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise poor historiography." Case in point: Joseph Smith's marriages to young women like Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Maria Winchester. It has become a standard trope among websites or individuals critical of the Church to proclaim, "Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls!" with the obligatory accompanying charges at the Prophet of pedophilia and sexual deviousness.

Now, while it's true to say "Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls," it's also not very useful. Why? Because it neglects to inform the listener of the reality of 19th century American marriage culture, to say nothing of the lack of historical evidence for sexuality in Joseph's marriage to 14 year old Helen and 14–15 year old Nancy (see here).[1] The charge of "Joseph Smith was married to 14 year old girls," while strictly true as it so stands, is thus not only problematic in its presentism, but also in its incompleteness. In this way it is a "truth" that is not very useful.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that one should intentionally lie to or deceive others. Nor am I saying that the Church should just ignore or sweep aside troubling aspects of its history. What I am saying is that, for example, trying to cram the details of a topic as complex as Joseph Smith's polygamy into a 45 minute Sunday School class filled with people with varying degrees of interest or expertise in Mormon history wouldn't be nearly as useful as taking plenty of time to carefully explain it one bit at a time, building on the engaged listener's knowledge and gradually increasing openness to new information and ways of critically engaging a subject as ambiguous and intricate as this. Related to this point, the anti-Mormon "shotgun" approach to sensitive issues in Mormon history is also a decidedly un-useful way of trying to impart historical knowledge, and it would be best to eschew it.

Granted, I think the Church could do a lot more to better teach our history, including controversial and sensitive aspects of our history. I think the Church has come a long way, but improvements could still be made. Happily, I see very positive changes in this regard in places such as the Church's new curriculum and Gospel Topics. Hopefully this is evidence of the Church taking steps to provide a more useful account of Mormon history.


[1]: Craig L. Foster, "Doing Violence to Journalistic Integrity," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 169–173, online here; Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 152–183; Todd M. Compton, "Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?" in Persistence of Polygamy, 184–232; Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History and Theology, 3 volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 2:286–300.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Roll for Charisma

And thus another D&D fan was born.

Sent to me by my friend Gregory Smith.

Thankfully, the charisma of my elf cleric is actually pretty good. It has served me well, as I have been able to sweet talk my way out of some hairy situations during my questing.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Happy Star Wars Day!

Ever since I was a kid I've loved Star Wars with a passion. Growing up I was a Jedi every year for Halloween and bought nearly every Star Wars lego set I could get my hands on. Star Wars has captured my imagination and continues to be my favorite series of films. I'm a shameless Star Wars geek, having played many of the video games, watched every episode of all six seasons of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, read many of the comics and novels, corrected Conan O'Brien's pronunciation of Admiral Ackbar's name, and having even contributed to articles on Wookiepedia. (I can neither confirm nor deny that I have also written Star Wars fan fiction.)

So enjoy Star Wars day, and May the Fourth be with you!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Stephen Colbert and Mesopotamian Divination

Stephen Colbert – American Hero and Prophet of Shamash.
As Ann K. Guinan explains, many forms of divination were especially common in ancient Mesopotamia. The rationale behind ancient divination was the belief that the gods had encoded their will or the fate of the world in signs found in everyday objects or occurrences, and so by reading these signs one could determine the future.
According to a first millennium text from Assurbanipal's library, Enmedurannki, an antediluvian king of Sippar, learned oil and liver divination – the secrets of heaven and earth – directly from Shamash and Adad. He in turn taught these arts to learned men in the cities of Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon. While the sources that attest to Mesopotamian divinatory practices span three millennia, it was not until the second millennium that a written Akkadian literature developed around the observation of omens. Once the recording of omens was instituted, divination began to evolve into a complex, literate, and highly venerated discipline. By the first millennium Mesopotamian scholars applied much of their intellectual energy to the practice of divination and the scholarship associated with the omen collections. They produced a vast written record consisting of lengthy omen compendia, commentaries, instruction manuals, reports, correspondence related to divination, rituals and prayers. (Context of Scripture 1:421)
Extispicy, also known as haruspicy, is one such ancient form of divination that seeks to understand the will of a deity by reading the entrails of a slaughtered animal, usually a goat or sheep. "Extispicy, divination from the examination of entrails, derives from the ritual of animal sacrifice. The offering provides a mode for soliciting the gods and a medium on which they could respond. The practice had a complex and lengthy tradition developed over three millennia and was widely disseminated throughout the ancient Near East" (Context of Scripture 1:423). Extispicy is even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, where it is said of the king of Babylon, "[He] stands at the parting of the way, at the fork in the two roads, to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the teraphim, he inspects the liver" (Ezekiel 21:21).

Here is an example of extispicy from an ancient Mesopotamian omen text that I read for a class last semester.
1. If there is a Hal sign at the emplacement of "the well-being" the reign of Akkad is over.
2. If the entire liver is anomalous - Omen of the king of Akkad regarding catastrophe.
3. Omen of Ibbi-Sin when Elam reduced Ur to tell and rubble.
4. If the "rise of the head of the bird" is dark on the left and the right there will be pitrustaWhen you make an extispicy and in a favorable result there is one pitrustu (the extispicy is) unfavorable; in an unfavorable result (the extispicy is favorable). (Context of Scripture 1:423)
Last semester an Akkadian professor even brought in a sheep's liver for students to inspect and see if they could discern the will of the gods. I was not present for this exercise in extispicy, but my friends who were there told me it was a riot.

You can thus imagine how excited I got when Stephen Colbert resorted to extispicy on his show last night to find out the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. My inner Ancient Near Eastern Studies nerd squealed with delight when I saw this ancient Mesopotamian art of divination resurrected on Colbert's show. Good stuff!