Author: Nate Oman

Gender and Priesthood

I think that women should receive the priesthood.  I don’t find the reasons that have been given as to why the priesthood is limited to males very compelling.  I don’t think that motherhood is a good analog to priesthood, or rather I think that motherhood is a kind of priesthood (an exercise of godly power by human beings) but its analog is fatherhood, not the Melchizedek priesthood.  I think that the feminization of religion is an important issue, one that feminist critics dismiss rather too breezily.  I suspect that the all-male priesthood probably mitigates this problem somewhat in Mormonism, but I suspect that we could come up with other ways of dealing with it.  At the end of the day, I simply don’t have any objection to women performing ordinances or holding positions of ecclesiastical leadership.  Indeed, I think that there are a lot administrative and pastoral issues that could be handled more effectively were women ordained. I do, however, think that giving women the priesthood would create enormous problems for Mormonism.  This is…

Seeing the Future of Mormonism

If you want to know where Mormonism going, look at Mormon missionary work.  Mormonism is nothing if not a missionary church.  Indeed, the evangelical imperative of the religion has consistently defined its teachings, theology, and culture.  For example, if one is looking to read Mormon theology in the nineteenth century, you would find little in the way of theological treatises.  Rather, you would find missionary tracts like Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology, or you could read sermons, sermons whose doctrinal content is almost always embedded in an explicit or implicit theological polemic against American Protestantism.  This is because in large part Mormon missionary work proceeded by polemic.  As a missionary, I envied the bygone days when missionary work consisted of public theological brawling with an apostate and hireling clergy, but that is clearly the missionary experience that produced much of early Mormon thought. Likewise, the massive emphasis on families, especially the sanctified nuclear family, that one sees in…

King Benjamin and the Moral Irrelevance of Panhandlers

For many people, being confronted by a panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice. I think that these people are confused. As I understand it, the panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice because he forces us to confront the reality of poverty and our willingness to do something about it. To give money to the panhandler is to act as Christ’s disciple, ministering to the poor. To walk by the panhandler is to ignore the poor and the downtrodden. The text I have most often seen in church for framing this crisis comes from King Benjamin’s address: And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery;…

City Creek and the Choices of Thrift

Jana Riess, a person for whose intelligence and good will I have a great deal of respect, has an article up criticizing the new City Creek mall that that Church has financed in Salt Lake City. You ought to go read Jana’s article. To massively over simplify her point, the mall represents a basic moral failure because the church invested $1.5 billion in the project. This money could have been spent on the poor and rather than a glitzy palace to consumerism. There is a simple and powerful logic to Jana’s claim, but I think that by failing to work through the actual economic trade offs involved in the project, her argument misses the points of moral and practical judgment, thereby obscuring the nature of the choice that Church leaders made with this project. The most fundamental question is whether the Church should save a portion of its revenue. Despite the price tag, from the Church’s point of view the…

How I should like to live my life…

I post here something I recently wrote in my journal: I basically think that Aristotle had it right on how to live a good life: find a proper mean between extremes, be balanced, and live virtuously. So here is what I would like my life to look like: I start with work, the labor I must do to live. I should like to be good at my job. I don’t have any particular desire to be at the very top of my profession. Academic stardom looks like rather too brass a ring to devote all of one’s energy on the greasy pole to achieve. I would like, however, to teach my students well. I would like to write things that help people to think better, to say a few somethings that will still be worth saying and reading a generation or two hence. To the extent that I have other intellectual ambitions, I would like to be remembered as one…

Why folks dislike Mormons

Flunking Sainthood has a nice post up on the recent finding in the book American Grace that Mormons are the third most disliked religious group in the United States. Jana makes some books points, and her call for a bit more Mormon humility is surely a good idea. Although the in-group identification that she cites is not really a proxy for smugness as much as social cohesion, there is no denying that Mormons can appear smug at times. One of the puzzles that Jana puzzles over is why Jews are so well regarded while Mormons are not. I suspect, however, that there isn’t much of a puzzle here. Let me offer a theory. Jews do well among conservative Christians and among liberal secularists. The reason for this is that while there is an anti-semitic strand in Christianity, there is also a philo-semitic strand that continues to see Jews as God’s chosen people in some sense and gives Jews a starring…

A Call For Papers: “Mormonism in Cultural Context”

The friends and former students of Professor Richard Lyman Bushman invite submissions for a conference, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, to be held June 18, 2011, at the Springville Art Museum in Springville, Utah. The summer seminars led by Professor Bushman beginning in 1997 pursued the theme of “Joseph Smith and His Times.” Participants were asked to connect the Mormon prophet to the religions, philosophies, and cultural formations of his period. More recently the seminars have posed the same question for Mormonism as a whole. How is Mormon thought to be situated in its broad cultural environment? For the conference, participants are invited to make comparisons to large cultural systems such as democracy, capitalism, evangelism, or science, or to specific thinkers and movements. The aim is to highlight aspects of Mormon thought or praxis that emerge more sharply when juxtaposed against other cultural formations or intellectual perspectives. Brief analytical reflections of about twenty minutes duration will be most…

Thoughts on the Deseret News, Immigration, and a Mormon Voice

Consider this editorial in the Deseret News.  (I mean it.  Follow the link, read the article, and come back.)  Intellectually there is quite a bit going on in these paragraphs.  First, it is addressing the immigration debate arguing in effect that the rule of law is undermined by both widespread flouting of the laws and attempts to relentlessly enforce laws that are unfair.  Both points are well taken in my opinion and in my mind they point toward a policy of better enforcement of considerably more liberal immigration laws, something I would certainly support.  The interesting stuff, however, comes in the way that the editorial uses nineteenth-century Mormon experience. All the talk of pioneers, of course, is just a polite way of saying Mormons in public, and the point that it makes is correct: The Mormon pioneers in Utah were squatters.  There is a certain amount of tetchiness on this point in the comments at the DN site, but there…

Conference Announcement: “Embracing the Law: A Scholarly Conference on Doctrine & Covenants 42”

Embracing the Law A scholarly conference on Doctrine and Covenants 42 September 10, 2010 • Free Admission Session 1 9:00 – 10:45 a.m., Stonemetz Conference Room Jeremiah John, Southern Virginia University Law and Church in Section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants Nate Oman, William and Mary Law School “I Give Unto You My Law”: Section 42 as a Legal Text and the Paradoxes of Divine Law Discussant: President Rodney K. Smith, Southern Virginia University 1:30 – 3:00 p.m., Main Hall 337 Russell Fox, Friends University “Thou Wilt Remember the Poor”: Liberation Theology and a Radical Interpretation of “The Laws of the Church of Christ” Robert Couch, Willamette University Consecration and the End of the Poor Discussant: TBA 3:30 – 5:15 p.m., Main Hall Ballroom Karen Spencer, independent scholar “To Teach or Not to Teach”: Three Possible Interpretations of D&C 42:12-14 Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought “The Beauty of the Work of Thine Own Hands”:…

Reforming the Church, Angst, and the Spirituality of Democratic Liberalism

t seems to me that what is at issue here is less one’s conduct than one’s emotional and intellectual stance.  In other words, I suspect that there is relatively little in terms of conduct that would differ between folks here.  We’re all interested in remaining faithful, contributing, serving, etc.  I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience). We can all think of changes that we would welcome and that we would be willing to act to bring about.  The difference, it seems to me, lies in the presence or absence of a particular kind of angst and how we interpret it. I can’t help but notice the many places in which James invokes analogies to democratic liberalism.  There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of…

How to write a revelation

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I have been working on a paper looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, and my research has me thinking about how the texts of modern revelation were produced.  I think that there are a lot of Mormons who assume that the words of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated word for word to Joseph.  On this model, the Doctrine and Covenants is rather like the Qua’ran, which also consists of a series of revelations given to a prophet over a period of years in response to concrete historial circumstances.  Pious Muslims affirm that the Qua’ran was dictated word for word in classical Arabic to the Prophet Muhammed and transmitted without error to the present.  Some Islamic theologians have gone farther, declaring that the Qua’ran is uncreated in time.  Rather, it is an eternal emanation of the Divine mind, the Word that was in the beginning with God incarnate in the world.  (There are problems with this story of the…

Zion and the Limits of Intellectual Agrarianism

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There is a strand of progressive Mormon thinking that associates Zion with an exaltation of agrarian virtues.  I am thinking here of folks like Hugh Nibley or Arthur Henry King or my friend Russell Arben Fox who argue that small scale, local economies, ideally based in large part on agriculture provide the best possible model for building Zion.  At least one way of understanding this line of thinking is to see it as a kind of Mormonization of agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry.  It is striking in this regard that Leonard Arrington, whose works on nineteenth-century Mormon communitarianism provide the historical ur-texts for much of this thinking, was trained at North Carolina in a progressive economics department then much under the influence of an earlier generation of Southern agrarian thinkers. I am skeptical.

Waiting Outside the Temple

This story in the Arizona Republic got me thinking. It recounts the temple wedding of a Mormon convert. His mother opposed his baptism, and when it came time for him to be married she was devastated by her inability to attend the ceremony. The article was, I thought, a poignant telling of the story, one that nicely captured the mother’s pain. Among other things, the article notes that in countries where marriage must be a civil ceremony Mormons are allowed to be sealed immediately after a non-temple wedding. But not so in the United States, where a couple must wait a year before they may be sealed. Relaxing this policy strikes me as a good idea. I think that the church should continue to emphasize temple marriage and can even continue to teach that civil marriages followed by temple sealings are disfavored. Providing the option of a civil marriage followed by a temple sealing, however, would give families in difficult…

Polygamy, Natural Law, and Imperialism

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first polygamy case, on and off for several years.  For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN.  Reynolds is an important case in American constitutional history, because was the first time the U.S. Supreme Court ever passed on the meaning of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion.  Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction.  The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West.   I offer a new interpretation.

Truman Madsen

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Truman Madsen died earlier today.  For those who don’t know, Madsen was a long-time professor of philosophy at BYU.  His intellectual influence, I think, came in two forms.  First, he produced a series of popular lectures on Joseph Smith and other gospel topics.  These were not academically rigorous productions, but I think that they opened a window into a much broader and intellectually exciting vision of Mormon history and theology for many members.  Madsen’s lectures were also a wonderful link back to an earlier, more oral Mormonism, one that placed a real premium on powerful preaching.  He was a powerful preacher.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, he provide two or three generations of BYU students with a role model of a man who remained absolutely committed to the Restored Gospel while at the same time willing to grapple with the hard questions of philosophy.

“Jerusalem”

One of my favorite hymns is not in the hymn book. No, it’s not “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” although that is one of my favorites as well. Rather, I am talking about the hymn “Jerusalem,” one of the great anthems of the Church of England when it gets low-churchy enough to sing hymns rather than letting the chior do all the work. The words are taken from a poem by William Blake:

Mormons as Minorities

Today I gave a presentation to the William & Mary chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Society on “Mormons as Minorities” in which I discuss some of my research on Mormon legal and political history (and other stuff). If you are interested, you can listen to the presentation here.

What I Learned about Mormon Courts (and the Writing of Mormon History)

For those who are interested in Mormon legal history, my article “Preaching to the Court House and Judging in the Temple” was just published in the most recent issue of the BYU Law Review. (You can download a copy of the article here.) This article provides my own take on the rise and fall of civil cases in church courts in the nineteenth-century. Of course the story of how nineteenth-century Mormons took lawsuits over broken contracts, wandering cows, disputed property lines, and the like to their local bishops has been told before, most elaborately in Ed Firmage and Collin Mangrum’s book Zion in the Courts, which was published about twenty-years ago. Here is where my take differs from previous interpretations.

The Double-Minded Essence of Mormonism

A while ago I was reading some sermons from the 1880s in the Journal of Discourses.  The 1880s, of course, is the decade when the anti-polygamy crusades were at their most intense.  Thousands of Mormons were incarcerated, the Brethren were in hiding from the law much of the time, and every time you turned around there was a new law confiscating Mormon property or disenfranchising Mormon voters.  Hence, I was surprised to come across a sermon in which George Q. Cannon spoke unironically of his admiration for George Edmunds.  Edmunds was a Republican Senator from Vermont, and the chief proponent of harsher anti-Mormon legislation in Congress.  Cannon noted that he disagreed with Edmunds and thought him mistaken.  Nevertheless, he said in effect that he thought Edmunds an admirable man of principle.  Cannon’s remarks reveal a deep double-mindedness in nineteenth-century Mormonism, a double-mindedness whose preservation surely counts as one of the triumphs of the modern Church.