Category: Mormon Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

Sent Back


In the latter half of the 19th century, the principle role that New York City filled for Mormonism was as a transit point—more than 75,000 Mormon converts entered the United States through New York City during those years while several thousand missionaries sailed for Europe from New York’s port. But beginning with the Page Act in 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S. began restricting immigration, beginning with Chinese and also including convicts, lunatics, and “others unable to care for themselves.” And in the late 1880s, attention on polygamy prosecution in Utah led to a provision of the Geary Act of 1892 which prohibited entry by polygamists. If you were restricted from immigrating, you were sent back.

Single Moms and Adoption — Another Perspective

I have been fascinated by the idea of adoption for a long time. Growing up, I knew a few people who were adopted, and the idea of bringing home your baby from Korea or the Ukraine always seemed exotic to me. But my obsession really took off when I got my Patriarchal Blessing. After gushing about the children that would be born to me, a totally out-of-the-blue paragraph began with the words, “I bless the love of your family to extend to other children . . . ” Suddenly, adoption was part of my envisioned Mormon “happily-ever-after,” and I embraced the idea delightedly. When my husband and I were newly married and trying for a baby, I recall telling him that if we didn’t have a baby before we went on our field study to the Philippines the next year, we were adopting one there. Two biological children later, my compulsion to adopt has only increased, and we’re finally preparing…

In Memoriam

I spend the morning with my children at the cemetery. The high school band played, the mayor placed a wreath at the war memorial, and servicemen, including a veteran of Pearl Harbor, spoke to us. We bought red paper poppies to pin to our shirts. We didn’t talk about Memorial Day in sacrament meeting yesterday. The only mention was that the scouts would be placing flags on lawns. It seems that we should want to remember and honor those who have fought and fallen in our worship services. How many times in the Book of Mormon are the people exhorted to remember and always retain a remembrance of the the faith of their forefathers and the mercies God has shown to them? I am not a huge fan of the war chapters of the Book of Mormon; I’m not terribly interested in battles and strategy in general. But I do love the passion of Captain Moroni and his bold and…

You and Your Righteous Religious Mind

righteous mind

Psychology has come a long way the last couple of decades. Instead of seeing us coming into the world with a mind like a blank slate, psychologists and cognitive scientists are discovering through cleverly designed empirical research that we are born with a preloaded mental operating system. It predisposes us to see the world like emotional, opinionated, tribal human beings rather than like rational, logical robots. You can get the whole story, with special emphasis on how moral systems and individual moral convictions are formed, in Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012; publisher’s page; official book page).

Mormon Talks, Christian Sermons

Krister Stendahl, the noted Swedish theologian who was unusually considerate of the LDS Church, listed “holy envy” as one of his three rules of religious understanding. Let’s see if comparing Mormon talks with Christian sermons doesn’t create for us a bit of holy envy. I think there might be something we can learn from how other Christian denominations preach from the pulpit on Sunday.

Adventures in Family History, part 2

One Sunday evening, several months ago, I was playing around on FamilySearch, clicking back through my father, his father, his mother (or something like that), etc. After twists and turns—twists and turns I recorded so that I could get back there again—I discovered that I have ancestors from Jersey.[fn1] No, not that Jersey, the one famous for Bruce and the MTV show. Its namesake, the one in the English Channel. Through my clicking, I learned that my great-great-great-grandmother was born in Jersey in 1838 and died in West Bountiful in 1912. For most, this probably wouldn’t be remarkably meaningful. I didn’t do the work to get back these generations, and I have absolutely no knowledge of these ancestors’ lives.[fn2] But . . . . . . but Jersey is a tax haven.[fn3] And I’m a professor of tax law, a researcher of tax law, and, frankly, pretty darn interested in most things tax. And so, learning that I’m descended from residents…

Mahana, You Ugly!

Let me tell you a little story. Not long ago, we moved to a new ward. After a few weeks, my husband and I were invited to come early to church to meet with a member of the bishopric. We figured, of course, that he wanted to extend a calling to one or both of us. When we arrived, he asked my husband to come in and speak with him first. So I assumed that my husband was getting the calling. To my surprise, after I was ushered into the room, the bishop’s counselor extended a calling to me. He explained that it was church policy to obtain the husband’s permission before his wife even found out about the calling. When my husband remarked dubiously that this is the first time he’d ever encountered such a policy, the counselor said (somewhat defensively) that they had been instructed to do it that way by the stake president. According to him, it’s…

Review: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia

historical encyclopedia

It is published as a reference work, but you can read it like a book, albeit a book of essays: Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2010; publisher’s page), edited by W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall. Listing at $85 ($68 on Kindle), it might not find its way onto your bookshelf until a trade paperback version comes out in a few years, but at the very least it puts a very accessible LDS history reference on the shelves of America’s libraries and newsrooms, featuring 140 entries covering individuals, places, events, and issues. I stumbled across a library copy that was in the stacks and could actually be checked out rather than being secured behind the librarian’s firewall (that is, placed in the reference section). If you are so lucky, do the right thing and take it home for a few weeks.

Troubling Dreams

I keep my visions to myself.Have you any dreams you’d like to sell? Mormons tend not to keep their visions to themselves. In his recent General Conference talk “How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life,” Elder Richard G. Scott seems to be inviting Mormons to do the same with their dreams.

International Bibliography 2011


This year I’ve again managed to put together a bibliography of international works on Mormonism. While I thought the list was substantial last year, it is much larger this year, at least in part because I think I’ve gotten better at finding what has been published. With any luck this will help call attention to the international nature of Mormonism today and to the study of Mormonism outside of the U.S. The list includes any work that talks about Mormonism more than just in passing (as far as I can tell without actually having the work in hand) and that is set or discusses areas outside of the U.S. It also includes every work about Mormonism I could find that is not in English.

Esoteric Mormonism: Marginal or Mainstream?

in heaven as it is on earth

I recently finished reading Samuel Brown’s In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2012; publisher’s page). It’s an impressive book, although I disagree with the implicit argument of the book that the esoteric branch of Joseph Smith’s eclectic and diverse theology is central to his thinking and, by extension, should be central to present-day Mormonism. It is a book anyone interested in Mormon Studies should read (twice), but probably not the first or even second book on Joseph Smith that a practicing Mormon should read.

Mormon Doctrine: Confusion or Clarity?

Mormon doctrine is showing up in unlikely places lately, including the campaign trail, where earlier this week Mitt Romney squelched a questioner’s short speech that started off quoting from the Pearl of Great Price. I suspect that will not be the last doctrinal question of this campaign. But the glare of heightened publicity and attention that comes with having an LDS candidate on the presidential ticket is making it evident that Mormon doctrine — simply what it is and what it isn’t — is just not all that clear.

Notes: Mormonism and the Internet

Below are notes from today’s live-streamed presentations at Utah Valley University’s Mormonism and the Internet conference. I will bold particular comments that stand out as I listen. Readers are welcome to make additional observations in the comments. Any reader attending in person?

All History is Local: A Review of Tiki and Temple by Marjorie Newton [minor update]


Newton, Marjorie. Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958. Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012. Paperback. 343 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58958-1210. $ 29.95. Former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, is well known for saying All politics is local. By that he meant that voters choose who they support based on how it effects them locally, instead of on major national ideological issues. While how true this is may be debatable (don’t here, its off topic), I think it extends to history also. All history is local.

Call for Papers: IV Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference

IV Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference Annual Conference of the ABEM (Associação Brasileira de Estudos Mórmons) Theme “The Relationship between Headquarters and Periphery in the LDS Church” January 19, 2013 São Paulo, Brazil   Call for Papers In 1830, Joseph Smith organized the Church of Christ in Manchester, New York State, when the movement had only three distinct congregations: one in Manchester / Palmyra, another in South Bainbridge (NY) and third in Harmony (PA). In just over a year, Smith consolidated the three congregations in the area of a fourth and new congregation, directing all his followers to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A few years more and Smith founded another congregation in Missouri, and began to gather new converts to both of these two sites. Adverse events forced them to abandon Ohio, and then Missouri, and Smith founded a new city to which all Mormons would migrate, Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1847, after the murder of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young Saints relocated…

Policing Submissions for Baptisms for the Dead

And it’s in the news again. We have Elie Wiesel’s name slated for baptism, baptisms performed for Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s parents, baptism performed for Anne Frank (for the ninth time!), baptism performed for Daniel Pearl (who was killed in part, at least, because he was Jewish), and baptism performed for Gandhi. This in spite of the Church’s agreement (in 1995!) to remove Holocaust victims from the database.[fn1] And, apparently, the Church has now sent out a strongly-worded letter to be read in Sacrament meetings.[fn2] In the letter, the Church (strongly) reiterates the prohibition on submitting celebrity and Holocaust victim names, with potential penalties to follow for improper submissions. Will this work? Hopefully.[fn3] But I’ve been thinking about possible ways to police the submissions as a backstop.[fn4] Note that I’m perfectly aware that there is debate over whether we should, as a normative matter, care about others’ perception of baptisms for the dead.[fn5] And there’s debate among those not of our…

Taxing the United Order


The United Order appears (for now, at least) to be a relic of the 19th century; since them, the mainstream Mormon church hasn’t attempted to institute any large-scale communal economic structure based on Acts 2. And, frankly, I don’t have any reason to think that it will in the 21st century; the Law of Consecration seems to be something different than economic communalism (though economic communalism fits within the Law of Consecration).

Mormon Intellectuals Part II: Jim’s Comments

I had previously intended to post some of Jim’s comments from an email. Instead, I’m re-posting his response to Part I here in order to further highlight what he has to say. I’ll follow this up with one more post tomorrow. Jim’s comments are as follows: I cannot tell you how touched and flattered I am by your piece, both by the kind things you say in the beginning and by the very fact that you’ve thought something I wrote worthy of such a careful, thoughtful response. My response to your essay is that I disagree with almost nothing. I think there is perhaps a minor difference between us, but most of the difference is occasioned by the difference between a column of restricted length that, therefore, requires a rhetorical stance as much as a philosophical one. I deliberately took a rhetorical stance that I knew would be bothersome because I wanted to raise an issue that I had been thinking about…

Mormon Intellectuals: A Response to Jim Faulconer

I disagree with some important parts of Jim’s recent piece on intellectuals in the Church (please read what he said first). By the end, I hope it’s clear that it is (in part) for “Faulconerian” reasons that I disagree with him. To begin, I’m going to indulge in a bit of biographical narcissism in order to make a point about the nature of my disagreement. The semester recently began, and as I do at the beginning of nearly every course, I told the students a story about Jim Faulconer, or rather about my undergraduate self in one of Jim’s classes. Philosophers believe deeply in the intrinsic and instrumental good of criticism, argument, candid evaluation – in the overall value of dialectic. As an outside observer recently put it, “philosophers honor each other by disagreeing with each other.” For new philosophy students, however, the transition can be a bit rough; and I was no exception. One of my formative educational experiences involved…

The Not-So-Great Apostasy

great-apostasy 2

I have seen several notices publicizing an upcoming conference at BYU, Exploring Mormon Conceptions of the Apostasy. Sounds interesting, particularly in light of the one-paragraph blurb stating goals for the conference, which challenges rank and file members of the Church as well as scholars to reconsider LDS views of “the Great Apostasy”: Examining claims of historical apostasy is a pertinent task for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the last hundred years, the Great Apostasy narrative has shaped Latter-day Saint historical assumptions, contributed to the construction of Latter-day Saint social and theological identity, and impacted the ability of the Church to develop ecumenical relationships. The contributors want to raise awareness about the influence of this narrative as well as to reconsider some of the assumptions made by this narrative. We hope to cultivate scholarly discourse among the contributors as well as the Latter-day Saint community about the challenges and consequences of simultaneously acknowledging complexity, causality,…

The Real World of the Book of Mormon

bible book of mormon

This is the fourth in a series of posts taking a broad look at the Book of Mormon. This post continues the discussion of the prior post, The Book of Mormon as Narrative, by considering verisimilitude. This term refers to how faithfully a text represents the real world or, to various degrees, depicts events that do not conform to the readers’ view of the real world. First, a tighter definition of verisimilitude [Note 1]: The semblance of truth or reality in literary works; or the literary principle that requires a consistent illusion of truth to life. The term covers both the exclusion of improbabilities (as in realism and naturalism) and the careful distinguishing of improbabilities in non-realistic works. As a critical principle, it originates in Aristotle’s concept of mimesis or imitation of nature. The verisimilitude issue presents two questions, one for the author of a text and one for its readers. The Problem for Authors and Historians To what extent…

Conference Report: 3rd Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference

Captain Moroni?

I returned yesterday from attending the 3rd annual conference of the Associação Brasileira de Estudos Mórmons (Brazilian Mormon Studies Association) inspired with the fascinating subjects covered during the conference and ready to dive into another year of research in preparation for next year’s conference. In particular, one presentation was groundbreaking, changing the perception of Mormonism in Mexico before WWII.

The Book of Mormon as Narrative


This is the third post in a series taking a broad view of the Book of Mormon (first, second). In this post I will discuss aspects of narrative encountered in the text. Not all scripture is narrative: consider the lengthy legal codes in the Torah and the moral exhortation found in James. Not all historical accounts are in the form of a narrative, although most history books written for the popular market are narrative histories. Most novels are in the form of a narrative, including historical fiction, which adds authorial speculation to large chunks of authentic history, often mixing fictional characters with actual historical figures and events.

Snow, Citizens, and Stewards

It has recently been announced that Steven E. Snow will replace Marlin K. Jensen as the new Church historian. Elder Jensen has been a wonderful historian for our church, bringing both compassion and honesty to the work.I expect this good work will continue under Elder Snow’s direction. I am curious to see what his areas of emphasis will be. I wonder if one of those areas might deal with the pioneers’ settling of West and environmental issues because in the past, Elder Snow has written on this particular stewardship topic.Elder Snow wrote an essay published in New Genesis entitled “Skipping the Grand Canyon.” In it, he reflected on the struggle to survive his grandfather Erastus faced when colonizing the St. George Valley under the direction of Brigham Young. He wrote that although those “early settlers didn’t appreciate the beauty of southern Utah, they preserved it” (243). That preservation was done out of necessity, not out of an aesthetic appreciation. Without careful…

Institute Report: Genesis, Week 1


If there’s sufficient interest,  I will post some general notes, handouts and materials here instead of mailing out everything to my class. Handouts are pdf format and have live links embedded. I felt the first week went well; in contrast to the last time I taught this, few students had a science background, and only 1-2 had previous experience with me. I introduced myself and established some formal bona fides. The more important informal trust that comes from personal experience and knowing someone will come over time, I hope. I had students introduce themselves, give a bit of their own background in terms of studies and interests (only one with hard science, several in literature and humanities, a few in business/finance), and express what had brought them to the class, what they hoped to discusses, or nagging questions or issues in Genesis. As expected, questions ran the gamut, but no one expressed a desperate struggle trying to “square evolution with…

The Book of Mormon: What has it done for you lately?

Julie is posting detailed commentary and Kent is providing literary reflection; I’m afraid all I have to offer on the Book of Mormon is general observations. This week let’s talk about situating the book as a whole, not so much in terms of content and form (which I’ll address in later posts) but in terms of function and use. How does the Church use the Book of Mormon? How do you use the Book of Mormon?

Scripture Unchained: A New York Institute Announcement


After taking off 18 months or so, I’m returning to teaching Institute in my free time. Beginning January 12, 8 PM in the Union Square chapel of Manhattan, I’ll be teaching a class called “Genesis, with an Introduction to Studying the Bible in Hebrew.” The Institute Director added the last part, but I don’t mind one bit. I’m quite looking forward to it. Institute can really be a breath of fresh air, especially for those who are looking for a deeper exploration of the scriptures than Sunday School allows. After all, there’s no schedule to follow, no manual to adhere to, none of the constraints that people argue over. Instead of 45 minutes with ambivalent mostly non-readers, I get 75 minutes with a self-selecting group of slightly less ambivalent reading-a-bit-more. This is not to say there are no constraints; in a lesser implementation of Helaman 10:4-5, teachers generally get vetted one way or another, and then are simply trusted to…