Category: Mormon Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

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

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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

council of fifty

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

martin-luther3

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.

Losing Our Youth?

So I stumbled upon a Rod Dreher article at Beliefnet, “The Church’s Lost Generation” (and by “Church” he means generic Christians). It is clear from General Conference themes that senior LDS leaders are now aware (finally) of our youth retention problem and the broader faith versus doubt problem that seems to be on everyone’s mind lately. Dreher makes it clear we are not the only ones worried about the problem. Everyone is losing their youth, it seems.

The Unwritten Order of Things, Revisited

At last night’s Stake Leadership Training Meeting, the stake president announced the first two speakers, both bishops. The second was assigned the topic “the unwritten order of things.” Hard to think of a topic more likely to spin out of control — I braced for the worst, and prepared myself for the upcoming train wreck by Googling up a copy of Elder Packer’s actual remarks at the 1996 BYU devotional and (#3 on the Google search) Julie’s 2009 post “The Problem with the Unwritten Order of Things” and the 103 spirited comments to that post.

On Not Reading the Book of Mormon

Having heard nice things about the odd little book by Pierre Bayard How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (ht: someone out there), I finally found it. And read it. Summary: You read a very, very small slice of all published books. You forget most of what you read, so you retain only a small part of the few books you actually read. Worse yet, you bend and twist what you do remember to fit your own personal matrix of ideas and experiences. So what is in your head after reading a book, even more so for a book you read years ago, likely bears little or no similarity to the actual text of the book. Maybe we should forget books, forget any claim to link to some text that we supposedly read and remember, and just talk creatively and imaginatively about our own ideas and experiences. The author draws a lot out of that simple set of claims.…

Practical Apologetics: The First Vision

It’s not surprising that the First Vision has become one of the faith issues that gets kicked around the Internet these days. Visions are personal experiences of one particular person, so little effort or justification is needed for a third party to doubt or disbelieve another’s account of a vision. Most Mormons find it easy enough ignore or reject visions recounted in other Christian traditions without much reflection. As Steven C. Harper notes, “It is vital to recognize that only Joseph Smith knows whether he experienced a vision in 1820. He was the only witness to what happened and therefore his own statements are the only direct evidence. All other evidence is hearsay.” [1] But if accepting or rejecting Joseph’s accounts of his vision is so straightforward, why has the First Vision become so contentious for some people? Let’s consider a few possibilities.

DC Institute Class

Thomas B. Griffith (D.C. Circuit Court judge and former BYU General Counsel, Senate Legal Counsel, Bishop and Stake President) is teaching an institute class at the Chevy Chase building this fall on early Church history, with a focus on “Joseph Smith as Everyman.”   The class starts Tuesday, September 2nd at 7pm and will run every Tuesday night throughout the fall. You can register either upon arrival or in advance at the Church’s Institute site.  Please spread the word. Brother Griffith is a fantastic teacher and having a class from him on this topic is a rare opportunity — it is sure to be stellar.

FAIR Conference, Day 2

Below is the agenda for Day 2 of the FAIR Conference in Provo with brief bios of the speakers. I will be adding summaries of some of the sessions as the day goes by. (Disclaimer: these are on-the-fly summaries for general information and discussion. Please consult audio recordings or the transcripts that FAIR releases in a week or two for accurate details.) Full bios are available at the speakers page. You can get online streaming of the conference sessions.

FairConference, Thursday Afternoon Sessions

Bob Rees A review of Earl Wunderli’s Imperfect Book   Started with this Card Colour changing trick video (http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/colour-changing-card-trick-outtakes/) to illustrate that too much focus on one thing can cause you miss the many other things that are going on. What aren’t you noticing? Emerson said,  “Tell me your sect, and I’ll tell you your argument.” How we approach the Book of Mormon will determine what we find within it.  Rees was impressed with Earl’s thoroughness. He has read extensively and carefully. He approached as though cross-examining it in a court of law, and like any good lawyer making a case, he has been selective in choice of witnesses. Wunderli’s book does not give a balanced presentation, although it gives an impression of having done so. And he does raise important questions about the Book of Mormon, from the use of KJV language, internal stylistic consistency, anachronistic scientific understanding, mythology, and so one. Wunderli sees himself of side of reason,…

A Baseball Team in Every Ward

Second_Ward_baseball_team

In the late 16th century Henry IV of France expressed a desire that everyone in his realm would “have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” That idea showed up again in Herbert Hoover’s promise of a “chicken in every pot”—the politician’s promise of prosperity. I’m not sure whether “a baseball team in every ward” is a promise of prosperity or programming gone awry, but that is essentially what leaders of the MIA suggested in 1922—some years before Hoover made his ill-fated promise. They wrote: “Each ward should have an organized baseball club, and each stake should have an organized baseball league…”

Literary Worship – Miracle

Miracle

I find the story of the woman with the issue of blood, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, both odd and beautiful. Like most of the recipients of Christ’s miracles, she excites sympathy within me. Twelve years is a long time to be sick, especially with an illness that renders you and anyone who touches you perpetually unclean. She must have been lonely. It makes me wonder how many times she did get touched during those years–how many people braved the social and religious taboo to offer her a bit of human care or comfort. Did she have a family? Was she abandoned because of her affliction? Did her ritual uncleanness make her feel personally and spiritually unworthy? The Scriptures tell us that she had spent “all her living” on whatever passed for medical treatment in her day. Not only did the treatment fail to heal her, but she actually grew worse. The resultant poverty must have added to her…

As Instructed

On Tuesday, Ally Isom, Senior Manager of Public Affairs with the LDS Church, encouraged listeners to have respectful conversations about their concerns with and faith in the Church.

Church Discipline: A Comparison

From Socrates in Athens to Galileo in Rome to John Scopes in a small town in Tennessee, trials make great drama. So it is not surprising that LDS disciplinary proceedings, essentially mini-trials, get so much attention, especially in the age of blogs and Facebook. I shared my thoughts on the topic three years ago in Church Discipline in the Internet Age. This post takes a different approach. Ever heard of Mars Hill Church?

Stirring Up the Saints: The Mormon Reformation

So I read Bigler and Bagley’s The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-58 (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2011) last week. It will certainly convince you that the Utah Territory of the 1850s was the Wild Wild West as much as it was Zion. Checking the footnotes, it seems like the narrative is built primarily on reports from dissenters, which I suppose is where you turn for facts if you think Mormons were all liars, thieves, and murderers. There wasn’t much historical context provided, say about levels of violence in other western settlements or maybe something about that Second Civil War that was just around the corner. It seems misleading to paint General Johnston, commander of Johnson’s Army that marched on Utah, as a paragon of patriotism in contrast to Brigham Young’s alleged treason without noting that, shortly thereafter, Johnston was in open rebellion against the United States as a Confederate General and died from a Union bullet at Shiloh…

The Rise of Biblical Criticism and the Mormon Response

“The rise of biblical criticism” is the title of a section in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (Viking, 2005). Those pages are a short and objective introduction to what is variously called biblical criticism, historical criticism, higher criticism, or the historical-critical method. This discussion is sort of a set up for my upcoming review of David Bokovoy’s new book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis — Deuteronomy (Kofford Books, 2014), which I will be posting in two parts over the next couple of weeks.

The Book of Mormon as Literature

One can read the Book of Mormon as canonized scripture, to guide the Church and its members in doctrine and practice, or as a sign of Joseph Smith’s calling to bring forth new scripture and establish a restored church. Then there is the possibility of reading the Book of Mormon as literature, to enlighten, uplift, and inspire the reader. So, how literary is it? How exactly does one read the Book of Mormon as literature?

Congratulations, OW: Now It’s A Conversation

A conversation in two senses: First, everyone is talking about Ordain Women (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; a four-part response here; earlier T&S posts here and here). Second, because, almost without noticing its own success, Ordain Women achieved a significant milestone this week as the LDS Church opened a public conversation with the group by publicly posting an official letter addressed to four of the organization’s “official spokeswomen” (as they are identified on the OW website). The LDS letter responds to earlier private communications from the group and, predictably, elicited a publicly posted response at the OW site. Successfully initiating an official conversation with the Church is no small accomplishment.

A Conversation About Letters to a Young Mormon

letters

This is a discussion T&S permabloggers Julie and Dave had last week about the new book Letters to a Young Mormon (Maxwell Institute, 2014) by Adam Miller (also a T&S permablogger). Dave: Three things a reader should know about Letters to a Young Mormon: It is short, 78 pages if you count the title page. It is published by the Maxwell Institute, part of their Living Faith series (each volume in the series is an “example of faith in search of understanding” by “a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart …”). And it is written by a philosopher, which is always a plus. But I wonder how young a Mormon needs to be to be part of the intended audience. My sense is that anyone from twelve to a hundred would enjoy the book and profit from reading it. Julie: Good question. An interesting bit of reception history here: I’ve seen reviewers mocked for assuming that the book was actually…

Openings and Beginnings

beginning

When we read scripture, we generally start at the beginning. This is one reason why openings — first lines, first paragraphs — are so important. They set the scene for what is to follow. They set the context and frame our understanding for entire chapters and books to follow. Terry Eagleton has a lot to say about openings in his How to Read Literature (Yale Univ. Press, 2013). While his focus is on literature, not scripture per se, his comments are helpful because scripture is a form of literature. And when it comes to how to read our scriptures, we Mormons certainly need all the help we can get.

Two Churches, Two Gospels

As a Mormon, you belong to two churches: your local congregation, be it ward or branch (the Local Church), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Institutional Church). While something similar may be true for members of other denominations, it is more true for and has more effect on Latter-day Saints. You may draw strength from both your Local Church and from the Institutional Church; I do, and I think most Mormons do. But they are surprisingly distinct units, with rather different, if complementary, agendas.