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.

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #24

So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.   Scholar Fernando Segovia lists seven different scholarly approaches to John 14-17: (1) Historicizing: the discourse is completely accurate, therefore chapter 15 occurs in a different location (because of 14:31). (2) Transpositional: sometime during transmission, the chapters were rearranged. (3) Redactional: there is a second speech (chapters 15–16) which is a different version of the first speech (chapter 14). (4) Symbolic: 14:31 is understood symbolically. (5) Unfinished: the text is a “rough draft;” the author did not finish polishing the text. (6) Compositional: the apparent contradictions in the text were deliberately crafted by the author to provoke the reader to think. (7) Integrative: regardless of the text’s history, we should ask: How does it now read? One example of this is to find a chiasmus:   A love, glory…

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #23

So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises. Some scholars conclude that women were present at the Last Supper. They cite the following evidence:   (1) Compare Mark 14:28 with Mark 16:7. (2) Referring to “one of the twelve” in Mark 14:20 means that there were others present (see also Mark 14:16 and 17). (3) The tradition for Passover was for women to be present and it would have been worthy of mention if Jesus were to depart from this tradition. (4) Women “came up with him unto Jerusalem” (Mark 15:41) and the reason that Jesus went to Jerusalem was to celebrate the Passover. Do you find these arguments persuasive? Why or why not? (How) does it matter if women were at the Last Supper? (adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

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.

New Testament Gospel Doctrine #22

So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises. In what ways is a wedding celebration a good metaphor for the coming of the kingdom (see Matthew 25:1-13)? (adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

Guest Post- Taking Six Years to Teach the Book of Mormon

This post comes from Mom S. Over the last six years, we’ve had many conversations about the relevant books she was reading, questions that arose, and teaching ideas. I asked her to share some thoughts on this class and its effects.  Some time ago, I was asked to teach an adult scripture class in our ward. It was originally an extra activity for the Relief Society sisters but was expanded by the bishop to include any brothers who wanted to attend. I picked the Book of Mormon for the curriculum having learned from personal experience (16 years early morning seminary teacher, 4 years Institute teacher, 3 years stake adult scripture class, etc.), that a serious study of that book changes people.

On Conflation; or, Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater in 1911

Oftentimes, we’re presented with what appears to be a package deal: If you accept A, you accept B-G as well. If you reject A, you reject B-G as well. Just as often, however, what appears as a package can and should be unpacked,  critically and carefully examined to see if it really is so. In 1911 Provo, a controversy erupted over some teachers at BYU. Horace Cummings, the education commissioner, was sent down to investigate and make a report. Telling the entire story is beyond the length and attention span of the average blog, so I’ll just link to it here though it has been written about elsewhere. Cummings’ report is of interest to me because of the packaging of tradition, Old Testament interpretation and issues of miracles, science, and rationality.

Review: Adam Miller’s Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan

Whether you are a student of the scriptures who reads 3-4 versions of the Bible simultaneously (at least one of which is in Hebrew or Greek) or you are so lackadaisical that scripture “study” means learning where the book of Romans is (hint: New Testament), you will want to read Adam Miller’s insightful, thought-provoking and beautifully written “paraphrase” of Romans, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan.

Writ & Vision: Roundtable on Grace

At 7pm on Thursday, May 21, Writ & Vision will host a roundtable discussion on grace. Participants include Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, and Jenny Webb. The discussion will focus on President Uchtdorf’s April 2015 General Conference address, “The Gift of Grace,” Adam Miller’s Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and a close reading of 2 Nephi 25:23 (“for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”). The event is open to the public. Writ & Vision is located at 274 West Center Street in Provo, Utah.

Religion in America: Who Needs a Church?

The Pew Research Center is releasing the results of its “extensive new survey” on religion in America. In “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” it summarized changes for reported religious identification: Evangelical Christians dropped 0.9% (from 26.3% of the US population in 2007 to 25.4% in 2014), Catholics fell 3.1%, Mainline Protestants fell 3.4%, and “Unaffiliated” rose 6.7% (from 16.1% to 22.8%). Overall, adults identifying themselves as Christian dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%. America is becoming less religious and less Christian.

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 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…

The Only True and Living Opinion

So this week, the Salt Lake Tribune sponsored a live “Trib Talk;” the topic was “what Mormon women want.” You can watch it here. Afterwards, there was criticism that there wasn’t a traditional or a conservative or a happy-with-the-status-quo (or whatever term you’d prefer) position represented. (There was also criticism that, at least initially, it was planned as an all-white panel, but that’s a topic for a different post.) I have heard that more-traditional women were invited, but either refused or later backed out. There is also this dialogue you can watch, featuring Melissa Inouye, who identifies as an egalitarian feminist, and Caroline Allen, who identifies as a maternal feminist.  I have a few thoughts about all of this:

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.

A Mormon in the Disenchanted Forest

In a few minutes I’ll be leaving to travel to California, where I’ll be speaking this weekend at the conference of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. I’ll be speaking Friday morning on Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Saturday on Nibley + Terryl & Fiona Givens on atonement theory.   Sunday evening at 7:00 pm, I’ll be speaking to the Bay Area Mormon Studies Council on the topic of “Disenchanted Mormonism: How (and Why) to Be Religious but not Spiritual.” The talk will be at the Berkeley Institute, located at 2368 LeConte Avenue.  This event is open to the public — please come and invite others, or share the invitation. I’ve posted an excerpt of my talk below.    For a sojourner in the disenchanted forest, then, what language might better serve that experience than the trio of doubt, freedom and choice? It would be difficult to match the elegance and appeal of that formulation, and I freely concede that I will fail…

Varieties of Grace

Fig_TreeI’m not susceptible to guilt. I’m sensitive to social pressure, for sure, and can be “guilted into” doing or saying things I don’t really mean. I feel terrible when I’ve failed to meet an obligation or hurt another person. But I don’t really feel that I’ve sinned — I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness. I just want to repair my mistakes, or feel frustrated if I can’t. I sat in an Episcopal Easter vigil a few days ago, and the liturgy dwelled for a time on human sinfulness. I thought for a moment about my sins, and I actually couldn’t name anything specific at first. After a few minutes I lit on a relationship with one of my children that I have been been damaging with my actions, and I began to think of that as real sin, not just my being emotionally inadequate to the task of mothering. But that way of thinking — I’ve sinned, I’m guilty, I need God’s forgiveness and rescue — is not my first reflex. That’s just not the way my psyche works, for whatever reason: maybe my upbringing, or my brain structure, or my life experiences.

I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed of it, either: it’s just how I am. I think it probably hinders my ability to empathize with others in some situations and veils a central part of human experience from me; it probably also makes me less scrupulous about private religious observances. Of course, maybe I’m a horrible sociopath and just don’t see it — I guess you’d have to ask my friends and family about that.  On the other hand, my missing guilt receptors have probably saved me some needless anguish and kept me on a pretty even emotional keel that allows me to serve others and contribute in the community.

All this to say that I listened to Elder Uchtdorf’s Sunday morning talk, “The Gift of Grace,” with great interest and respect, but without the overwhelming emotional response that many people experienced. I felt happy for their sakes, happy that their burdens were lifted and their souls watered. But the talk didn’t really re-frame my own felt relationship to God in a deep way, because sin and forgiveness just aren’t the channels through which that connection flows. William James distinguished between “healthy-minded” and “sick” souls, without attaching moral judgment to either one: the healthy are those who feel fundamentally at home and right with the world, and the sick those who feel fundamentally broken and out of place. I’m a healthy-minded soul.* I would imagine that James’s “sick souls” are those who most fervently respond to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk.

While sin and guilt have scant purchase my soul, death stalks my imagination. I am terrified of death — my own death, the death of those I love, the death of the sun and the scattering of a cold universe. I’m afraid too of the death-seeking drives of human nature, our indenture to fleshly instinct and our lust for status, Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal” and the Preacher’s lament that all is vanity and striving after wind. All flesh is grass. This fear should be assuaged by a robust sense of Christian grace — after all, in the resurrection Christ vanquished hell and death. But this witness has not yet been given to me, or I have not yet allowed it to penetrate my hard heart. I live in hope that it may someday, but for now the veil over my mind is lead.

Maybe my mostly sunny nature seems like a contradiction, then. But it doesn’t feel that way to me: I fear death as I do because life is so fine. I want a thousand miraculous April 7ths, when everything improbably blooms overnight and the air is sweet and velvet. I want to plant a thousand seeds, raise a thousand children, learn a thousand piano concertos. I want a thousand years of mud under my fingernails and fat earthworms slipping through invisible tunnels in the rotting leaves. I want to hike every dry canyon, shovel snow for days, nurse every baby. I want to read every book to my children under every shockingly spring-green tree, and together memorize the exact pattern of the leaves against the sky. I want to fly for miles with the wind in my hair and my son in my arms. The turning of the seasons, the passage of the holidays and the marking of that passage with my children fills me with belonging, at-homeness, connection to past and future and every leaf and stone. I feel that the world was given to me — no, that I was given to the world. I can only interpret this feeling as divine. As grace, in fact.

When Nibley writes about grace, he sets the scene in Eden. But it’s not the Fall he focuses on, it’s the Lord’s gift of creation, a new world in which Adam, male and female, is placed in every sense of that rich, earthy, growing, dying word. Place, for me, is grace. My deepest spiritual perceptions do not take the form of a cross; this probably makes me a poorer disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. They take the form of a tree. But there is grace there, too.



*With the exception of the months after each of my babies were born, when I suffered from terrible post-partum depression and anxiety. These experiences changed me, not least in bringing into focus the well-being that I am fortunate to experience as normal at other times.


A Metaphor & a Plea

I’m pleased to share a post written by my friend Christian Harrison.   I’d like to write a few words about something that was said, during the Saturday morning session of General Conference.I grew up in Spokane, Washington. Living so close to the Canadian border, I frequently came across the random Canadian penny or dime. As a child, I learned that they were easily used to pay at the cashier but they were rejected outright by vending machines.You see, those Canadian coins weren’t counterfeit, they were just foreign. The cashiers knew the difference… but the machines did not. And what separates the cashier from the machine is experience — and the willingness to learn from it. The cashiers knew that the coins were valued the same as their US equivalents by their customers. The foreign coins weren’t part of the official economy, but they were part of mine. I knew that I could use them to get cookies at the grocery…