Category: Mormon Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

Reading Genesis

The latest entry in the how-to-read-the-Bible genre is How to Read the Bible (HarperOne, 2015) by Harvey Cox, a Harvard divinity prof who has been around since the sixties (his classic The Secular City was published in 1965). The first chapter is devoted to Genesis. He offers some helpful perspectives to go beyond simply plodding though chapter by chapter, verse by verse, trying to follow what is going on or being said. Here are four approaches to shape one’s reading.

Teaching Genesis, Sort Of

A new year of LDS seminary is just starting up, and this year’s course of study is the Old Testament. The first week of lessons gives some Mormon framing: (1) an introduction to the Old Testament (it “contains images, symbols, and teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ” and “in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is known as Jehovah”); (2) a review of the Plan of Salvation (essential elements: Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Atonement); (3) a module on how to study the scriptures; and (4) a lesson on the Bible (with a timeline starting with Adam at 4000 BC). Then lessons 6-16 cover the LDS Book of Moses, followed quickly by three lessons (19-21) on the LDS Book of Abraham. The material in Genesis 1-5 is never studied directly. The student reading chart includes all of Moses and all of Abraham but omits Genesis 1-5. The early lessons use Moses references almost exclusively.

The Love of God

    The Sun by Edvard Munch It’s been one of those weeks. You know, the kind with too many hurried mornings to get to school before the bell rings and too few slow afternoons to help you remember why you hurried in the first place. The kind of week where the laundry will get done and the bills paid and the children raised and the home kept and the dreams stoked. The kind of week where all those true blessings felt a little like burdens. The kind of week where the questions about faith and fact break across my eyes in the morning and sift like so much sand into the the creases of my dreams at night. The kind of week where I overreacted to the kids fighting and undercooked the pork chops…again. And yet. And yet, in the quiet of the night, with music humming across the room and the windows open, I can’t help but rejoice…

Seer Stones and the New Narrative

A week ago, the Church released a suddenly iconic photograph of Joseph Smith’s favorite seer stone, and also posted at LDS.org an article by three LDS historians, “Joseph the Seer,” to be published in the October 2015 Ensign. It seems clear that the image plus the content of the article are going to rewrite the standard (“official”) LDS narrative concerning Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon text. I’m concerned it may also bring folk magic back into that narrative and even back into mainstream LDS culture. That seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Society for Mormon Philosophy & Theology 2015 Call for Papers

The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology will be meeting at Brigham Young University, October 8-10, 2015. This year’s conference theme is “Doers of the Word: Belief and Practice.” From the Call for Papers: The Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology invites paper proposals on any aspect of Mormon belief, including its philosophical ramifications. We particularly encourage submissions on this year’s theme. Religious faith is not merely a matter of belief but of action. Indeed, several passages in scripture suggest that true belief cannot be separated from action. In John 7:17, for instance, Jesus indicates that the practice of faith is a means of acquiring knowledge: “If any man will do [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.” Yet other scriptures seem to emphasize the intrinsic, perhaps independent importance of both belief and practice, as in D&C 131:6, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.” This year’s theme examines the…

A Look at Life on the Trail

On a recent corner-to-corner drive across the state of Wyoming, I paralleled the Mormon Trail for about 200 miles: from where the trail intersects I-25 (about 80 miles north of Cheyenne), through Casper (site of the first Mormon ferry), along Wyoming 220 past Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and Martin’s Cove, then up US 287 past Split Rock to the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater River. I’ve never been much for pioneer tales, but I enjoyed taking in the landscape that was the common experience of the first twenty thousand Mormons who made the overland trek to Utah.

2015 Summer Symposium on Mormon Culture, July 23 at BYU

Participants in the 2015 Summer Symposium on Mormon Culture will be presenting research papers this Thursday, July 23rd, on the seminar theme, “Organizing the Kingdom: Priesthood, Church Government, and the Forms of LDS Worship.” The symposium will run from 10am to 5pm in Room B094 of the Joseph F. Smith Building. The full program is posted on the Maxwell Institute Blog.

Another Proclamation?

For the second week, LDS wards and branches in the USA and Canada were presented with the Letter over the signature of the First Presidency, the Statement over the title of the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the unsigned background material in Q&A form accompanying the Letter. These have all been officially published at the Mormon Newsroom. Social media continues to report a variety of reactions at the local level: some bishops simply read the Statement with no discussion, others conducted a Q&A comment period with considerable discussion. Reported comments (when permitted) following the reading of the Statement range from expressions of love and support for gays to jokes and laughter to complete silence. In a post last week, I examined the text of the Letter and Statement in detail. This week, let’s talk a little more broadly about how it has been…

A Letter From Salt Lake City

The Mormon Newsroom has posted a letter from the First Presidency to area and local leaders. This is unusual: generally letters from the First Presidency are read to members over the pulpit in sacrament meeting, where you hear it once (if you’re lucky) but do not get access to the written text for study or review. And the first line of the letter makes it quite clear what prompted the letter: “Enclosed is a statement by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in response to the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States.” [See Obergefell v. Hodges opinions.] The attached statement is to be read to the membership on Sunday (but not in sacrament meeting). The letter anticipates some discussion following the reading of the statement.

Review: First Principles and Ordinances

I’m going to say some nice things about Sam Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple, published in 2014 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. But first some background. This short book (153 pages of text) is part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series, which also includes Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon. What I like about both books is that they take a relentlessly positive approach to the LDS doctrines and principles they discuss but avoid the oversimplified discussion that has become the norm for the LDS curriculum and mainstream LDS books. These are books directed at the intelligent Mormon reader.

Review: Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy

Merina Smith’s Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy: The Introduction and Implementation of the Principle, 1830-1853 (USU Press, 2013) does a very nice job summarizing scholarship on the LDS practice of polygamy during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and for the decade following his death. The focus of the narrative (which is based on the author’s recent PhD dissertation) is on the development of a theological narrative to support and justify the early practice of LDS polygamy. The author makes the point that a convincing theological narrative or justification was a necessary prerequisite for the acceptance and practice of polygamy by Joseph’s associates and of course by the women who participated. Later the practice was broadened to a much larger percentage of the membership of the Church. And this is a key point: it took years for Joseph to develop that theological narrative and to get others to accept that theology. This book tells that interesting story.

Day of the Lamanite, Deferred

Lamanite: An increasingly dated term that now rubs many people the wrong way when heard in public Mormon discourse. But the category lingers on despite LDS attempts to move toward a post-racial approach to priesthood and salvation. Lamanites, Nephites, children of Lehi, Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians — whichever term you choose, it’s clear the doctrinal category is still with us. There is still a racial component to the Mormon view of past, present, and future history. Let’s explore this a bit.

Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding

You have probably heard about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015; publisher’s page) by Brian C. and Laura H. Hales. It has been getting a lot of attention, coming as it does in the wake of the recently released polygamy essays at LDS.org. Furthermore, the book follows the three-volume treatment of the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, authored by Brian C. Hales and (for volumes 1 and 2) Don Bradley and also published by Kofford. Not having read the three volumes, I assume the 100 pages of narrative text in this shorter volume, along with the 75 pages of biographical sketches of the 35 women who were, in one sense or another, plural wives of Joseph Smith, are something like a summary of the material discussed at greater length in the three longer volumes. An abridgement, if you will.

Review: For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013

It’s time for a discussion of Russell Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism: 1830-2013 (Greg Kofford Books, 2014; publisher’s page). I bought my copy at a book signing at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake. Deseret Book is carrying the book, but if you live in Utah County go pick up a copy at Writ & Vision, Brad’s new operation (on West Center in Provo, used to be Zion’s Books). We are fortunate to have Russell presently doing a guest blogger stint here at T&S, so I look forward to his responses to my review and to your observations or questions in the comments. For the Cause of Righteousness is both comprehensive, as it takes a global view of the topic for the entire history of the LDS Church, and timely, coming just after the Church’s publication of the definitive Race and the Priesthood essay. And the issue of race and the priesthood is…

Polygamy: Demise

This is the third and final post on B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice and Demise (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007). The simple story of the end of LDS polygamy is that it ended in 1890 with the Manifesto. The not-so-simple story involves a Second Manifesto in 1904, which raises the obvious question, “If the First Manifesto ended polygamy, why the need for a Second Manifesto?” The First Manifesto did not end the officially sanctioned LDS practice of polygamy. In fact, it took twenty years to fully execute that momentous institutional change of course.

Polygamy: Public Practice

In my prior post, I looked briefly at the origins of polygamy. Again using documents from B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Arthur H. Clark, 2007), I will now look at the public practice of polygamy in early Utah. How did the Saints in Utah explain it to the world and what did visitors to Salt Lake City say about what they observed?

Polygamy: Origins

Once upon a time, no one except critics wanted to talk about LDS polygamy. But TV shows, court cases, and four Gospel Topics essays on the subject — which run to 32 pages of material when I printed them out — have changed the game. Now everyone is talking about polygamy. The current LDS position, however, is still as murky and convoluted as ever. Historical explanations, doctrinal justifications, and even simple factual descriptions of LDS polygamy remain controversial (see earlier posts at T&S, BCC, JI, M-Star, FMH, and most recently Kiwi Mormon). To this expanding conversation on polygamy, add the new aggressiveness some bishops are showing to threaten or initiate discipline based on posts or comments on Facebook or blogs (see here for a recent example) and it is clear we have a problem. This is particularly true given that the average bishop really doesn’t know much about the history and practice of LDS polygamy, and half of what he…

Questions and Doubts

An article in the March 2015 Ensign is stirring up all kinds of discussion: “When Doubts and Questions Arise.” Read the article and you will see what the fuss is about. On the positive side, this and other recent articles and talks addressing faith questions at least provide acknowledgement that many faithful Mormons have issues with certain features of LDS doctrine and history. The new essays in Gospel Topics at LDS.org likewise provide groundbreaking official responses on several troubling topics. But the Ensign really has to do better than this polarizing and dispiriting discussion.

Practical Apologetics: Historicity

Over the holidays I borrowed a copy of Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001). Turns out the full book is available online at the RSC site. The book features articles by the usual cast of religion profs and scholarly apologists, plus an apostle and a philosopher. Given how central the historicity issue has become of late (as evident in the Book of Abraham essay, for example) this seems like a good topic for my occasional series on practical apologetics. At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I am going to suggest that LDS writers who address historicity take one of two approaches, which I will label “no middle ground” and “it’s not so simple.”

Incredulous About Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

Incredulous About Joseph Smith's Polygamy

Entrenched in Mormon Culture I am a 7th generation Mormon who grew up in Utah County. I attended church all my life, had regular family scripture study and FHE. My dad was a BYU math professor and my mom a devout scripture scholar. I graduated from seminary and graduated from BYU (with all its required religion courses) and married a 5th generation, returned missionary in the temple. And I didn’t learn that Joseph Smith personally practiced polygamy until I was in my 20s. I had heard the story about Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs, causing a miscarriage in her jealous rage. But it was all fabricated nonsense created by anti-Mormons trying to defame the prophet. Like everything else that looked or sounded unsavory. Everyone knew about the public polygamy in Utah. Every year our elementary class toured the Beehive House, complete with all the wives’ bedrooms and  fairly open discussion about managing the logistics. Polygamous ancestors were a dime a…

Laughing through General Conference

No one comes to General Conference for the jokes. And yet, some of the conference moments I remember most clearly involve laughter. In 1997, after Elder Nelson gave a laudatory talk about President Hinckley, President Hinckley took the stand and said, “I thought we were conducting General Conference. It’s turned out to be a funeral.” He went on to challenge Elder Nelson to a duel in the basement of the Tabernacle. Later in the session, he postponed the duel. It was a fabulous moment in conference history. What does humor in General Conference do? First, the spiritual tide of General Conference can feel overwhelming at times and humor can break it up, making it easier to be attentive to the rest of the counsel we’re receiving. Second, it can teach a subtle lesson, as with the humility implicit in President Hinckley’s embarrassment at being praised. Third, it can make a story that teaches a lesson more memorable, as when President…

Book Review: The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History

I don’t have time to do a proper review of the 490 pages of The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Signature Books, 2014), edited by Jedediah S. Rogers, so I am just going to start writing and see what happens. The book hits the bookshelves today, so it’s a potential Christmas gift for the Mormon history fan in your life.

The Mormon Challenge, Part 1: Creation

Continuing with my project to actually read the LDS books I buy, I’m now reading The New Mormon Challenge (Zondervan, 2002), a serious book about Mormonism by a bunch of Evangelical scholars, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen. Apart from our mere existence, two things about us really trouble Evangelicals: our relentless growth (which has apparently leveled off since the book was published) and our huge corps of missionaries (which has ballooned since the book was published). We are a threat. That perhaps explains why Evangelicals feel justified in disparaging Mormons from their pulpits, classrooms, and publishing houses. But this book is by academics, not pastors, and is a serious discussion, not a slam. So I was a little disappointed with Chapter 3, the first meaty chapter, which defends ex nihilo creation and critiques the LDS belief in creation out of preexisting but unformed matter.

Teaching Like The Prophets

I think the recently announced changes to the CES and BYU Religious Education requirements could be really great. Far from paying less attention to the scriptures, as some have worried, I suggest the new model pays more attention to the scriptures, in what might be the most important way. In the scriptures, Christ and the prophets focus their teaching on true doctrine above all, and refer to prior accounts to support this goal. The scriptures are designed to teach us spiritual truths, and these should be the primary focus of teaching today. The scriptural texts are one of the main ways we learn these truths, but they are the vehicle through which we learn, the lens through which we see, not the focus themselves. The point of the Book of Mormon, as described on its title page, is “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” D&C 1 and Luke 1 announce similar purposes. When we…

Historians Saying Interesting Things … About Mormonism

Between the new polygamy essays at LDS.org and the new religion curriculum at the BYUs, there has been a lot to argue about this week. Let’s try something a little friendlier: The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years (U. of Illinois Press, 2006). It has been on my shelf a couple of years now. I recently pulled it down as part of my new plan to actually read the LDS books that I buy. The book contains 21 articles, all variations on “Mormonism and X” but all terribly interesting. That template derives from MHA’s format for the lecture series: an accomplished historian (all non-LDS as far as I can tell) who works in a field related to LDS history but who has not studied Mormonism directly is invited to research and present something interesting about “Mormonism and X.” Here is what three of these historians talked about.

A Crazy Wild Reformation Day

For some reason, kids in my neighborhood don’t celebrate Halloween: they do Reformation Day instead. Right around 5, the little tikes start pounding on doors, dressed as characters of the Reformation and absolutely clamoring for people to tell them more about the big event.

Two Approaches to Isaiah

This is going to be a post about Isaiah that does *not* talk about Second Isaiah. After addressing the transmission of the text of Isaiah, I will contrast two different approaches to reading and understanding that book and, more generally, any scriptural book.