Relic area

Once when I was a missionary district leader, one call to my zone leader went particularly badly. I was trying to get permission for my district to take a hike in the woods, essentially. (The difference between a hike in the woods, and essentially a hike in the woods, was the sticking point.) During the conversation, the ZL and I figured out that my district was still taking their weekly day off from missionary work on Mondays, when the rest of the mission had moved to Wednesdays a month earlier. My district, on the far southern edge of the mission, at a time when I was trying to keep interactions with my ZL to a minimum, hadn’t gotten the memo. For a month, the “isogloss” of missionary practice of holding P-day on Wednesdays didn’t include us; we were a relic area preserving an older form.

In linguistics as in religion, isogloss boundaries change over time. If two people can communicate with each other, eventually they can end up sharing not only information, but also linguistic habits. The same seems to me true of religious habits within the Church as well; we adopt practices and beliefs not only through indoctrination but also by imitating each other. Correlation is, in a sense, no different than any other innovation in religious practice and belief. From the center of innovation within church administration, correlated practices and teachings propagate effortlessly and completely along the top levels of church leadership, but their progress slows somewhat after that. Eventually most members of the church get the memo, but a few never do, producing relic areas of former practice and belief. Sometimes language barriers hinder transferal of instructions, some people are no longer listening to anything their bishop says, and some places are just remote. (The same feature can be preserved in different places for vastly different reasons, however, so it should not be assumed that relic areas conserving the same feature have any kind of close relationship with each other.)

The borders of Mormonism are much less permeable; the practices of those who are not communicants, whose sacraments we don’t recognize and who don’t recognize our sacraments, will always be viewed with suspicion. The same innovations that make us so different also make us much less receptive for outside influences, with the result that we are conservative in some things where the rest of the Christian world has moved on. For example, like most churches in the 19th century but few in the 21st, the King James translation is our Bible of choice. Whether that changes depends nearly entirely on the needs of Mormons to communicate with each other, and very little on considerations of inter-religious dialogue. The delay in adopting other churches’ practices is only a problem for those who judge the Church by its adherence to the most recent trends in religion, or for those who imagine that it is never affected by cultural influences at all.

24 comments for “Relic area

  1. Wilfried
    October 31, 2006 at 10:48 am

    As always, interesting post, Jonathan, and very much a topic for the international church. One problem is that we are not always sure, when something “different” is happening in a branch, ward, district or stake, if it is a “relic” or something brand “new” we haven’t heard about yet. We lived for 7 years in Provo, now back in Belgium. We see some (marginal) things being done differently, but is it a relic or it is a new directive just fresh from the top? E.g. at our stake conference a few weeks ago in Antwerp it was announced that because of “a since years established rule we need to follow” only the stake presidency and the speakers should sit on the stand. High council and presidencies of auxiliaries: among the audience. But in all the stake conferences I attended in Provo up to early this year, it was the contrary. Who is the relic? Or is there a “rule” uberhaupt?

  2. October 31, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Wow. I always love these posts about LDS culture. So: Wilfried: I’ve never seen in my whole life as a Mormon a Stake Conference wherein anybody but the Stake Presidency, visiting authorities, speakers and perhaps the music directors sits on the stand (although in my last Stake they did have the Stake Patriarch on the stand). Very, very interesting indeed! I’ll have to check it out in my next Provo Stake Conference to see what happens (although I suppose it’s possible in my BYU Stakes the high council sat on the stage, but maybe I ignored that as an aberration, rather than considering it a part of a local tradition).

  3. Last Lemming
    October 31, 2006 at 11:38 am

    In the stake centers of my experience, if the High Council were to sit on the stand, it could only be in the laps of the choir.

    Otherwise, my observation is similar to Wilfried’s. Since my marriage, we have progressively moved from wards where home teaching almost never happened to wards where it happened, but without any message being delivered. In my last ward, however, messages were typically delivered, but rarely the First Presidency’s message. In my current ward, we deliver the First Presidency’s message. Are these differences related to the areas in which we lived–did we live in relic areas–or has there been a general shift in the mode of home teaching over time?

  4. Wilfried
    October 31, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    Of course, there are many stakes in Provo. I can only speak from mine. Our tradition there is also that when the stake officers are being sustained, they stand up on the stand: very visible for all. In the Antwerp stake, none of that.

    Another small difference (relic or not?): the playing of an instrumental interlude between the second and third verse of a hymn. Never done in Provo (and rest of Utah?), but always in all units in our stake in Belgium.

    Ah, Last Lemming, as to home and visiting teaching: Twenty minutes in Provo per visit, two to three hours per visit in many cases in Belgium: it would be very impolite to leave after only 20 minutes. Plus, don’t forget the herbal tea and the cake and the cookies and the chocolate… Cultural obligations you know.

  5. CS Eric
    October 31, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    Ah, Wilfried, the interlude.

    When I started my accompanist career (over 30 years ago), I was the Sunday School organist, and I always played an interlude. That was before my mission. I don’t think I’ve played an interlude in either Sunday School or Sacrament meeting since my mission.

    Also, I don’t remember in any stake having authorities other than the visiting authority, stake presidency, and patriarch on the stand. The hight counsel find their seats where they can, just like the rest of us.

    Unrelated, last Friday night we had a fireside with the BYU football team (here to play the Air Force Academy), accompanied by Pres Samuelson, who also sat on the stand. There was no mention of the visiting General Authority presiding at the meeeting; it felt like Coach Mendenhall was the real presiding authority.

  6. Sarah
    October 31, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    We never sing an interlude for any congregational hymn, but the Relief Society and Primary chorister/music leaders both adore the things. We had an interlude in almost every song for the Primary Presentation two weeks ago. Even in “Follow the Prophet.” I bet if we’d sung “The Priesthood is Restored,” we’d have had an interlude there too, and I’m pretty sure that song only has four lines.

    Actually, I think the entire ward may be in love with interludes. I can’t think of a “special musical presentation” in lieu of a rest hymn (whether by a couple of YW, the actual choir, a particular family…) that didn’t have at least one. There’s a handful of YW that have several interludes per song sung — probably because in those cases, there’s a YW playing the piano. I’m already mildly opposed to replacing the rest hymn (which hymn is why I’m always awake for the concluding speaker’s talk…) so these interludes tend to be more annoying than uplifting for me.

    I’ve long wondered how some of these things get started. I’m pretty sure there was some higher-up in the early days of the Columbus Ohio North Stake that decided that pages 219/220 don’t get sung often enough. I can’t remember a North stake conference, from 1995-1999, where we didn’t sing 219 or 220, and only a handful of Galion branch Sundays where we sang neither 219 nor 220; if we as a group escaped it in Sacrament some of us still got it in YW, Relief Society, or Priesthood. The one year that neither 219 nor 220 was given as a congregational hymn for Stake conference… I was part of an all-stake choir that sang an adaptation of 220. It was the first hymn that I had completely memorized. Yes, I had it memorized before I had all three verses of “I Am a Child of God” down. But we almost never sang either one in the East stake, and the newly formed South stake similarly treats them as less-commonly-sung hymns (we sing “All Creatures of Our God and King” about twice as often.) It’s like a relic of someone’s personal leadership focus from the 1960s or something. I don’t even think of them as “Because I Have Been Given Much” and “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” — just as 219 and 220.

  7. October 31, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Explain this one: I have yet to see it, but my parents told me that in their ward (in Salt Lake) they have one sacrament meeting a year where the entire chapel is filled with roses, and then they have a special sacrament where they use a cup that Brigham Young used for the sacrament. I’m guessing that’s not so much a relic as it is just plain weird and wrong. My parents just laugh it off as something the scads of old people started a while ago and refuse to let go. I grew up in Denver and was under the impression we didn’t worship saintly relics. Hey, maybe I’m out of the loop– Brigham Young isn’t a canonized saint, right? :)

  8. October 31, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    Reminds me of how there are still some wards that have Missionary Farewells and open houses or baptism parties.

  9. Mark Butler
    October 31, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    The King James Bible is the one true and living English Bible translation, and always will be. The problems with other translations, especially dynamic translations is that less skilled translators corrupt all sorts of little things that they don’t understand, in much the same manner as the writings of Paul are a mystery to many in our dispensation.

    The KJV on the other hand was prepared by a series of inspired translators and is nearly perfect, even to the very last letter, in much the same manner as the books in the original languages. It it so perfect that if the KJV were the only translation available we could change the eighth Article of Faith to use the word “interpreted” instead of “translated”. The NIV makes a good children’s Bible, but adults should use a literal translation.

  10. October 31, 2006 at 8:11 pm

    Wow, Mark Butler, I never heard any Mormon make such an impassioned case for the perfection of the KJV. Since the KJV was THE English version at the time Joseph Smith wrote the 8th Article of Faith, why do you suppose he used “translated” instead of “interpreted”? And how do you account for his modifying the nearly perfect KJV with work on the JST?

  11. October 31, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    Sorry, Jonathan. After I hit “submit” I realized that my urge to have a little fun was contributing to a threadjack.

  12. jose
    October 31, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    As a missionary in a foreign-speaking mission, the missionaries were directed that we were able to only bring stake/district missionaries to assist in teaching appointments–no more plain members. This, according to the mission president, was a directive from the area presidency. I never heard the mission president make this rule, nor did I hear it from an area authority, but it was relayed by mission leadership and we followed it. The result (since stake/district missionaries were few) effectively ended the advantage of bringing native church members to teaching appointments. Two mission presidents later at a mission conference, an area authority stressed the importance of teaching with native church members. Befuddled at the contradictory guidance, a missionary timidly mentioned that we were not allowed to do that per the “directive” from the area presidency. The area authority questioned the new mission president who had no idea of this de facto policy. Any how, the authority assured us that we were wrong and start teaching with members immediately.

    Where did the directive come from? No one knew–it had become like tradition. But the mission had lived under this relic directive for about a year unneedlessly.

  13. jose
    October 31, 2006 at 9:04 pm

    Interesting point in light of the 8th Article of Faith. Since the Church states that the Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, why does the Church adhere so tightly to the KJV when better, more accurate, more encompassing English translations now exist that weren’t available in JS day?

  14. Jonathan Green
    October 31, 2006 at 11:57 pm

    J. Stapley, holding missionary open houses is the example I should have used. In fact, I think I’ll shamelessly appropriate it for my next linguistically-minded post.

    Jose, that’s a terrific example, too. In the Church as a whole there are few official mechanisms for horizontal communication between wards, but considerable informal possibilities (via family and friends, by moving to another stake, etc.). With missions, however, there is next to no way to hear what goes on in the mission next door, and the usual informal modes of communication are so attenuated that each mission becomes a repository of individual practices for itself. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does promote the kind of situation you describe, where rules and practices can be left in place after the original justification (and the original lawgiver) have disappeared, or where guidelines from a general authority’s talk can be misinterpreted as hard and fast rules. The result is a colorful patchwork of policies where what is absolutely forbidden in one mission can be tolerated or even mandatory somewhere else. Again, not necessarily a bad thing in itself.

    Also, Jose, as for the KJV, it’s a recurring topic about which there nevertheless remains much to be said. If you hang around long enough, the question will come up again. In fact, both Ardis and Mark have it in their power to open up discussions about it, either here or at other popular Mormon blogs. I don’t mind a little back-and-forth about a topic that I included in my original post, especially since it helps one of my linguistics posts finally crack a dozen comments, but a good slugfest about the merits of the KJV really deserves its own thread.

    If the Church were to adopt another English translation, which members would be the last to give up the KJV?

  15. Mark Butler
    November 1, 2006 at 2:08 am

    Ardis (#10),

    As far as reasoning is concerned (and as far as reasoning goes), my experience studying the KJV is that all of the supposed translation errors are more supposed than real. I further find that the originary meanings of the KJV (which were much more strict in Jacobean English) to correspond very closely to those of the original Hebrew and Greek.

    As far as the eighth Article of Faith is concerned, I believe the Lord foreknew that there would be many further Bible translations that were not quite as accurate as the KJV, a translation prepared for the use of his true and living Church on earth, according to his foreknowledge of all temporal things in the estates he presides over, creating all things spiritually before they are naturally upon the earth, according to the heritage of the fathers spiritually manifest in the children, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the heads of the children unto the third and fourth generation that an atonement might be made.

    Thus is the estate of the fathers corrupted and thus it is redeemed, in the due time of the Lord. But far better and easier in this life, than in the next. Spiritual power comes in having a clean, pure and sanctified body, the more tangible the better. Spin up, eternal life. Spin down, e-turn-al damnation.

  16. mark smith
    November 1, 2006 at 2:21 am

    There are certainly a lot of local variations. The white shirt rule in my experience seems far more prevalent in Utah. On my mission in Germany, I noticed that the local members definately prefered to sing the hymns that were written originally in German vs. the ones translated from English.

  17. Mark B.
    November 1, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    Some day I’d like to see the term “rest hymn” flushed out of our vocabulary, along with some of those other relics (like about half of the songs in the hymnal after number 219). I’ll be happy to sing a “rest” hymn the minute we start having “rest” prayers–you know, they’re not very important but they give us a break from listening to a speaker. (See D&C 25:12.)

    And, as to the KJV “relic” that he who shares my name (but little else) is so dogmatic about:

    unlike some others, I love the language of the KJV
    unlike “Mark Butler”, I’m not dogmatic in insisting that it’s the only English-language bible to read.

    For starters, I’m not sure that “translated” in the 8th Article of Faith means today what it did when Joseph wrote it. In a speech Abraham Lincoln gave within a few years of the Wentworth letter, he used “translation” to refer not to a rendering of a text written in one language into a different language, but to the interpretation of an English-language text. (I’m still kicking myself for not marking the reference–it’s somewhere in the first volume of Library of America’s Lincoln: Speeches and Writings.) If that was one of the uses of “translation” then, how do we know that Joseph didn’t use it in that sense in the Wentworth letter.

    In which case, the translation–whether it’s the KJV or the NIV or the RSV or whatever–isn’t anywhere near as important as our interpretation of the text–under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

  18. Rose Green
    November 1, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Wilfried, at our stake conference just a few days ago in Germany, not only did the speakers and the stake presdency and their translators (we have one English-speaking ward in the stake) sit on the stand, but so did the presidents of all the auxiliaries, plus I’m sure the high council. And the choir. Go figure.

    And regarding directives that supposedly come “straight from Salt Lake”–the dress code for Relief Society Enrichment programs sure gets a variety of “official” statements depending on where you live. When we moved from a stake where every activity was supposed to involve dresses to one where the ward leaders running the meeting showed up in sweats, I admit I felt a tiny bit of whiplash.

  19. John Taber
    November 1, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Most of us are old enough to remember that the Church (in general) switched to a January-December curriculum starting in 1982. When I got to BYU in 1990, I found that they (or at least my stake) had not gotten the message on that, and were starting the new year in September, just like in the “good old days”. That meant Gospel Doctrine there was four months ahead of both my home ward, and my grandparents’ ward in Salt Lake that I often attended. Priesthood was a stranger animal, both my freshman (1990-1991) and sophomore (1991-1992) years we used the manual that most of the Church used in 1991.

    When I got back from my mission in June 1994, things were on track.

  20. Mark B.
    November 1, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    An addition to my comment #17.

    I found the passage in the Library of America edition of Lincoln Speeches and Writings. It’s in volume 1, page 283.

    In a speech Lincoln gave to the “Scott Club” in Springfield, Illinois, on August 14 and 26, 1852, he referred to a letter that Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate for President, had written, and to a speech in which Judge Stephen Douglas criticized that letter.

    Quoting Douglas, Lincoln said:

    This is my translation of that part of his letter.

    Lincoln then quoted the portion of the letter as Douglas had, and then made this comment:

    Now it appears to me that the Judge’s translation of this may be called a very free translation–a translation enjoying a perfect freedom from all the restraint of justice and fair dealing.”

    [Emphasis in original]

    So, both Douglas and Lincoln used “translation” in the sense that we would use “interpretation.” And this just ten years after the Wentworth letter was written, and in the same state.

    This raises the question whether “as far as it is translated correctly” in the Wentworth letter had anything to do with the particular English-language translation of the bible one used(especially since there likely was no alternative translation around in 1842 for Joseph Smith to be distinguishing from the KJV). It suggests instead, that Joseph was referring to what we would call “interpretation.” So, to make sense to 21st century ears, perhaps the 8th article of faith should be revised to read “as far as it is interpreted correctly.”

    Then we can stop assuming that the KJV is the “translated correctly” version of the Bible in English, and instead get on to the important business of trying to interpret the bible correctly.

  21. John
    November 2, 2006 at 12:19 am

    Mark (#20) You make a very compelling argument indeed. Although the 1828 Webster’s makes no mention of this possible definition, it figures prominently in the modern version of this dictionary as meaning 2) of “translate.”

    a : to turn into one’s own or another language b : to transfer or turn from one set of symbols into another : TRANSCRIBE c (1) : to express in different terms and especially different words : PARAPHRASE (2) : to express in more comprehensible terms : EXPLAIN, INTERPRET

  22. John
    November 2, 2006 at 12:21 am

    Here’s a link to my favorite site for “translating” the more obscure language of the KJV.

  23. Brenda
    November 3, 2006 at 12:03 am

    When will the three-hour Sunday block become a relic?

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