Category: Features

Sunday School lessons – Book Reviews – Interviews

Imperial Zions

Latter-day Saints in the 19th century existed at a paradoxical intersection of American history.  When they fled to Alta California to settle the Great Basin, they were refugees fleeing from the United States.  Defiantly practicing plural marriage in the face of federal laws that opposed the principle, they came to face a heavy-handed effort by Americans to colonize their community of Deseret to match the broader American culture.  At the same time, they were colonizers in their own right, settling land claimed by other peoples for hundreds of years by dispossessing the Native Americans, while also launching a missionary effort into the Pacific Ocean.  In Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto explores these paradoxes and how the Latter-day Saints (Euro-American, Native American, and Pacific Islander) navigated them. In many ways, Imperial Zions itself sits at the intersection of several landmark studies of Latter-day Saint history, synthesizing them together while building on that foundation.  I felt like it brought together W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color (Oxford University Press, 2015), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017), Darren Parry’s The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History (BCC Press, 2019), and Hokulani Aikau’s A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) together in one place to have a conversation and work out how they all fit together in a larger…

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

The Maxwell Institute at BYU recently published Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, and it is a fantastic journey into early Christianity geared specifically to Latter-day Saints.  Through a collection of 14 essays dealing with topics ranging from praxis and worship to scripture and theology, the key elements of Christianity during its first several centuries (and beyond) are addressed in an accessible way.  The discussions are punctuated by a large collection of artwork produced by early Christians, spread throughout the book in beautiful detail. When approaching Latter-day Saint writings about early Christianity, I’m generally concerned that it will be an effort to convince people that the ancient Church was identical to the modern one in a polemic effort to reinforce the traditional apostasy-restoration narrative.  Ancient Christians quickly dispatched that concern, with Jason R. Combs discussing this at length in the introduction.  He notes that: “rather than dismissing entire epochs as corrupt … today we work to understand ancient Christians on their own terms.”  He added that: “We cannot assume that today’s Church is a template for what the first-century Church must have been, or vice versa.  For that reason, in this book, our authors acknowledge the differences between ancient Christians and Latter-day Saints without automatically assuming such differences to be evidence of apostasy.”  In this way, Ancient Christians both compliments and expands on some of the concepts discussed in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (Oxford University…

Susa Young Gates and Joseph F. Smith’s Vision

The vision that we have printed as Section 138 was received by Joseph F. Smith in the last few months of his life.  Among the very first people he asked to have review the document was none other than his friend, Susa Young Gates.  In one of the excellent essays presented in the Revelations in Context book, Lisa Olsen Tait talked about Susa’s experience with the revelation.  More recently, Lisa Olsen Tait discussed more about Susa and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). Why was Susa one of the first people to read the vision?  Part of it has to do with her personal friendship with Joseph F. Smith.  As Tait described: Joseph F. Smith was over seventeen years older than Susa Young Gates. … They became friends in Hawai’i in 1885-87. Susa accompanied her husband, Jacob F. Gates, on a return mission to the Sandwich Islands, and their service overlapped with the time that Joseph F. Smith and his wife Julina were there, basically keeping a low profile during the anti-polygamy crusade. (Smith was a highly-wanted man due to his church leadership position and his knowledge of the records.) A few letters between them from that time survive, and, in my reading, evince a progression from friendly but formal acquaintances to deep…

Clare Middlemiss and David O. McKay

In a church hierarchy made up of humans, it is possible for people who we don’t usually think about to have power and influence in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.  During the David O. McKay administration, his personal secretary (Clare Middlemiss) was one such person who has not commonly been discussed, but who had an impact on the Church.  President McKay’s biographer, Gregory Prince, recently discussed Clare Middlemiss in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion. David O. McKay originally took on Middlemiss as his personal sectary in 1935, but his choice to retain her in that role when he became president of the church in 1951 was unusual.  As Greg Prince explained: It was unprecedented [to have Middlemiss stay on as his secretary]. Joseph Anderson had been the personal secretary to George Albert Smith and, I think, Heber J. Grant, and he assumed he would have the same role when David O. McKay became president. But, immediately upon moving into the president’s office, McKay announced that Clare would continue to be his secretary, she having filled that role for 16 years by that time. (Joseph Anderson was the secretary to the First Presidency, and as such, he sat in on First Presidency meetings and took minutes of those meetings. Clare never attended those meetings.) It was the only…

Latter-day Listicles

The Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk is approaching its 5-year anniversary.  With those 5 years of content in mind, they have gathered snippets of information from their interviews into compilations, one each featuring the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Brigham Young.  They’re pretty fun and interesting to peruse to see what has been shared at From the Desk about those topics over the years. For example, with the Book of Mormon, there is a lot of information to look through.  Some if it is relatively well-known already, such as that the Book of Mormon helps Latter-day Saints Isaiah, the process that Joseph Smith went through wasn’t exactly a language-to-language translation in the sense we generally think of today, and Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote the current section headings.  Other parts are less commonly-known, such as the fact that Jane Manning James held Joseph Smith’s seer stone, that there’s a lot more to the Martin Harris story than is commonly told, and that Emma Smith took efforts to protect the gold plates.  For example, in discussing the seer stone story with Jane Manning, the following is shared: Jane Manning James had the opportunity to handle Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Biographer Quincy Newell said that the priceless opportunity occurred while living in the Nauvoo Mansion House. In the words of Jane Manning James: One morning I met Brother Joseph coming out of his Mother’s room he said good morning and shook hands…

The Rise and Fall of the ZCMI

Growing up in the Salt Lake Valley, one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions was visiting the ZCMI storefront in Salt Lake City to see a display of large ornaments decorated with candy. While that tradition is carried on by Macy’s Salt Lake City store, ZCMI is gone. But the story of how ZCMI came to be is fascinating in its own right, with its ties to the United Orders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 19th century. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey Paul Thompson discussed some of that history. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). While the department store I grew up knowing as ZCMI was a department store located in Salt Lake City and other major cities in the Intermountain West, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution at its height was a series of institutions and stores across Utah Territory. Thompson explained their origins as follows: Joseph Smith had repeatedly tried to bring economic parity to the Saints but, for various reasons, the attempts had failed. It appears that Brigham felt that this was one thing he needed to accomplish before he died since one of the hallmarks of a Zion society is that there are “no poor among them.” The organization of ZCMI really prepared the way for the United Order movement of…

Ann Madsen and Spencer W. Kimball

While Ann Madsen isn’t as well-known as her husband, Truman Madsen, she is a notable woman who has been described as “every bit the disciple-scholar” that her husband was.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Ann discussed some of the events in her life, focusing particularly on a few interactions with Truman Madsen and Spencer W. Kimball.  What follows here is a co-post (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Ann Madsen notes in the interview that Spencer W. Kimball “was like a father” to her and her brother.  She explained that: “I grew up two houses away from President Spencer W. Kimball. Even though he was an apostle, I grew up calling him ‘Brother Kimball.’ My father and I would often come out of the house each morning just before President Kimball. He’d come out of his house and call down the street to my father, ‘Barnard, hold the bus!’”  She went on to share a story from her childhood: When I was about 10 years old, I was watching my 7-year-old brother when my parents went out. The last thing my mother said was: “Do not walk up to 21st East to get ice cream at Duffin’s. Do not do that.” As soon as they left, my brother said, “I think we can go up there. We’d be alright. We only need a nickel for ice cream cones and…

Choosing Faith and Into the Headwinds

Belief in religion is something that can be hard in Western culture.  Yet, it is something worth working towards.  This idea is something that Terryl and Nathaniel Givens discussed in a recent interview on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.  The context of their discussion has to do with a book they recently published called Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard–and Still Is (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2022).  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). The publisher of Into the Headwinds describes their book as follows: Acclaimed author Terryl Givens and his son, Nathaniel Givens, combine their respective areas of expertise to offer a fresh take on religious belief through the lens of contemporary research on psychology, cognition, and human nature. They also address two of faith’s foremost modern-day antagonists: rationalism, the myth that humans can or should make the majority of their choices based on logical thought, and scientism, the myth that science is the only reliable means of discovering truth. After reckoning with the surprising fact that people often don’t even understand their own beliefs and are influenced in ways they seldom perceive, the authors go on to describe genuine faith as an act of will—an effortful response to the deepest yearnings of the mind and heart—that engenders moral responsibility, the ability to embrace uncertainty, the motivation and means to relate to others, and…

Mexican Pioneers

Back in 1997, M. Russell Ballard spoke about how we should take the “opportunity to honor … the remarkable efforts of our pioneers in every land who have blazed spiritual trails with faith in every one of their footsteps.” (M. Russell Ballard, “You Have Nothing to Fear from the Journey,” Conference Report, April 1997.)  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, F. LaMond Tullis discussed some of the stories of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Mexico. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). F. LaMond Tullis recently published a book covering the stories of 19 pioneering members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In the interview, he discussed some of the reasons that led him to write Grass Roots in Mexico: First, I had a long and abiding interest in Latin America triggered by college friends who taught me Spanish. I also had an academic focus on the area at Harvard University, where I wrote several articles about the Church in Latin America, and published my book Mormons in Mexico (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1987). I’ve also struggled over the years to say to an insular Latter-day Saint population that becoming a world-wide church entails attention to cultural matters at home as well as sending out missionaries abroad. He added that he hopes that people who read the book gain “a realization that…

Mormon Women at the Crossroads

Caroline Kline’s Mormon Women at the Crossroads: Global Narratives and the Power of Connectedness (University of Illinois Press, 2022) is an important contribution to studies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 21st century. The book is based on a series of oral interviews that Kline did with women of color in Mexico, Botswana, and the United States, both presenting excerpts from those interviews as well as analysis.  The introduction begins by discussing how her initial lens of gender equality proved insufficient in understanding the stories, perspectives, and priorities of the women she interviewed.  Recognizing that overlapping identities of race, social class, sexual identity, etc. shape people in different ways, Kline strives to capture and represent the voices of these women through focusing on the stories they wanted to tell.  In her efforts to analyze the interviews through their lenses and priorities rather than strictly through her own lenses and priorities, Kline came to focus on the perspective of non-oppressive connectedness, a worldview that blends elements of female empowerment and liberation with a broader focus on fostering positive and productive relationships.  The first three chapters focus on the women interviewed in each of the three different regions (Mexico, Botswana, and the United States) while the fourth is an effort at bringing together and synthesizing theological reflections from the women who were interviewed, focused on a theology of abundance.  All told, the book is very rich with insight…

Looking at the Prophet Anew (Brigham Young edition)

How we understand and view President Brigham Young as the second prophet of the Restoration is often in a much more negative light than how the Prophet Joseph Smith is viewed.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Chad Orton discusses some of why that is and offers additional thoughts on how to view the man who led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they colonized the Great Basin region.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview – a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion. Much of the interview centers on the book that Chad Orton co-authored entitled 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man (Deseret Book, 2008).  Early on in the interview, Orton explained the non-traditional approach that was taken in writing that biography: 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is subtitled, “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man.” Unlike traditional biographies that largely look at their subject chronologically, i.e. from birth to death, 40 Ways is a topical biography. Each chapter—and there are 40 of them—focuses upon a major theme or event from his life. For example, one of the chapters talks about how faith was one of Brigham’s predominate characteristics. Stories from the 1830s to the 1870s have been brought together into one chapter. In a traditional biography they would have been interspersed throughout multiple chapters and would have only been…

To Ezra or not to Ezra…

Ezra is an important figure in the Hebrew Bible, but there are some concerns that have been raised over the historical record around him and some interesting places where he is missing in that record.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, the Biblical scholar Charlotte Hempel discusses some of the theories and thoughts around Ezra, with a particular focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). One of the central questions in the debate is whether or not Ezra was an actual historical figure.  Charlotte Hempel explained that: This is a great question and has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ezra appears in 6 chapters of the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 and 12. He is described as a priest, a skilled scribe who has his heart set on the study of the law and its promulgation among the people, as well as a social reformer. On the more radical end of the spectrum there are those, including C. C. Torrey, who suggest Ezra was a fictitious creation. For most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors. There is a spectrum of thought on how accurate the records we have are in relation to Ezra’s life. Ezra and Nehemiah are portrayed as contemporary individuals,…

Shaking the Dust from Your Feet

Have you ever performed a ritual shaking of the dust from your feet?  I never have (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was specifically instructed to not do that as a missionary), though as a 20-year old, I was somewhat tempted while serving a full-time mission on a few occasions.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Weber discussed some of the intentions behind the ritual in the first place and also why it is no longer performed in the Church today.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In the interview, Samuel Weber explained the ritual of shaking dust from feet.  As he put it: Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual practice common in the early Latter-day Saint movement. The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel. Similar to other Latter-day Saint rituals and ordinances, it was a practice intended to call down God’s power on behalf of His servants. Although no longer practiced today, ritual cursing is found in scripture and church history, making it a topic of continued interest for Latter-day Saints. So, the ritual was one of cursing against those who rejected the Gospel or missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As mentioned by Weber above,…

Grass Roots in Mexico

Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints by F. LaMond Tullis (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2021) was one of the books I was most excited to see on the lists of books coming out in 2022.  Released in early July, Grass Roots in Mexico offers an important glimpse into the Church’s history in Mexico.  The first two chapters give a brief overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  These are followed by 19 chapters of short biographies or vignettes of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  The selection includes a range of different people—from indigenous converts to Euro-American colonists from Utah, both men and women, relatively well-known stories (i.e., Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales), and some about people who are largely unknown.  The book is not, by any means, comprehensive, but it does provide snapshots of various experiences of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. One thing to know going in is that the book does have a devotional dimension to it.   It is a history of the Church written by and primarily for faithful members.  Within the vignettes (the 19 short biographies), the majority of them follow a pattern of focusing on conversion stories followed by brief overview of some way in which they contributed to the Church and then a note on how many descendants they have in the Church and what high-profile Church callings those descendants have held.  A few chapters…

Women and the Priesthood with Lisa Olsen Tait

“Do women have the priesthood?”  You would think the answer would be a simple yes or no for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The reality, however, seems to say differently, with people arguing for a whole spectrum of answers while discussing this topic of perennial interest.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Lisa Olsen Tait shared her historical perspective on how we arrived at the current state of women’s relationship to the priesthood in the Church, drawing on her research that was presented in an article in BYU Studies’ “Yet to Be Revealed” issue.  What follows here is a co-post, a shorter post presenting and discussing excerpts from the interview and related materials. In the original article, Lisa Olsen Tait divided the history into sections with inflection points between them, as follows: 1840s: “The Ancient Priesthood” 1850–1900: “In Connection with Their Husbands” 1900–1940: “The Blessings of the Priesthood” 1960s: “The Home Is the Basis” 1970–2000: Feminism and Responses Twenty-First Century: Priesthood “Power” and “Authority” In the interview, Tait explained some of the evolution through those eras, specifically related to the temple.  To quote in relation to the 1840s: The revelation commanding the Saints to build the temple (Section 124) repeatedly spoke of it in terms of priesthood. “Therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained,” it said. In the House of the Lord the “fulness of…

A Time When Tithing was Almost Done Away

In the aftermath of the US Civil War, the Church faced a heavy tax settlement that led to a contemplated hiatus in requiring tithing.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Brunson discussed how that situation came about, what the leaders of the Church tried in order to work through the situation, and the surprising resolution to the whole incident. Federal income tax was something that first began to be used in the United States during the U.S. Civil War.  As Brunson explained: “The Civil War was expensive. And it turned out that tariffs weren’t going to be enough to fund the war effort, so the North decided to engage in a 10-year experiment with income taxes.”  In the midst of that, John P. Taggart, the Internal Revenue Assessor for Utah Territory, assessed that the tithing collected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was taxable income and, as such, the Church (more specifically, Brigham Young) needed to pay $59,338.51.  His reasoning was that: Taggart believed that tithing was obligatory, not just a free-will offering, both because the church occasionally kept a ledger of how much people owed and how much they had paid and because he claimed that nonpayment of tithing was punishable by death or expulsion which, in his mind, was basically the same thing for Mormons in Utah. (It’s worth noting that the pioneer church was on the…

Three Degrees

Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when someone says a word, it can mean something very different to them than it does to us. This can be particularly true when that person is from the past and the exact meaning of a word changes over time. In a recent interview with Bryan Buchanan about an article by Shannon Flynn at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk discussed a major example of where this seems to have happened in our understanding of the afterlife about divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. What follows here is a copost – a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion. The concept that there are three subdivisions within the Celestial Kingdom is based on one section in the Doctrine and Covenants (131). In the current edition of the scriptures, it reads as follows: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” The assumption is that “celestial glory” is precisely equivalent to the Celestial Kingdom-the highest degree of glory announced in Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision (D&C 76). As it turns out, that may not be a great assumption. The word in question is “celestial”. Buchanan explained that: If we look at contemporary dictionaries (like Webster’s 1828 dictionary), “celestial” was simply a synonym for “heavenly.” In other words, Joseph Smith may have been expressing the idea that “in the heavenly glory (or just, heaven), there are three gradations.” … If we argue…

Method Infinite: On Masonry and Mormonism

The recently-published Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski (Greg Kofford Books, 2022) is an insightful and information-packed volume about a plethora of possible points of contact between Freemasonry and the Restoration of the Church of Christ.   While many studies of Masonry and the Latter Day Saint movement focus primarily on temple rituals, Method Infinite covers the entirety of Joseph Smith’s life and follows the influence of Masonic ideas and rituals into some of the major branches of Mormonism that emerged in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death.  The book starts with a brief history of Freemasonry and its existence in the early United States of America, then discusses how Joseph Smith grew up in an environment saturated with Freemasonry.  It points to ideas that were being discussed or practiced by Freemasons and compares these with strains of Latter Day Saint thought and action, suggesting that Joseph Smith saw himself as the restorer of the pure form of Masonry from the outset and that he viewed the Freemasonry practiced at the time as an apostate or spurious form of Masonry.  Evidences for this idea that are pointed out have to do with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, the way various organizations within or connected to the Church were organized, specific teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders, the ways that the City…

Daughter of Mormonism

Susa Young Gates was an interesting and important personality, and Romney Burke’s recently-published biography Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022) provides a well-researched glimpse into her life. Perhaps the best-known daughter of President Brigham Young, Susa led a life as a prominent figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  She would go on to serve missions in Hawaii, write prolifically about the Church, serve prominently on the National Council of Women in the United States and also participate in the International Council of Women as a feminist advocate, serve in the general boards of both the Young Lady’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society and edit publications for both, teach courses at universities in Utah, and raise a family with children who would go on to make their own significant contributions in the Church.  She could also be outspoken, overbearing, and tactless in pursuing her goals, which could cause her trouble, but also showed herself to be very capable in getting things done and in rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous. Burke’s biography follows her life chronologically at first, then shifts to addressing different aspects of her life and career topically by chapters, then returns to discussing the twilight of her lifetime at the end of the book in a more chronological fashion.  The book is meticulously researched, drawing on a treasure trove of documents that record her life, particularly from a…

Was Jesus Married or Not?

An enigma that has been explored repeatedly over the years, both in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in Christianity more broadly, is the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little to reliably indicate either way in the established canon of the New Testament, but that hadn’t stopped people from discussing the topic. And in organizations like the Church that emphasize marriage, there are some theological reasons to want to say that he was indeed a married man.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Christopher Blythe discussed the issue in connection with a recent article published in BYU Studies. What follows here is a copost to that interview. In addressing how Latter-day Saints have approached the question “was Jesus married?” over the years, Blythe described how it has shifted within the Church. It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married. Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process: First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married. Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it). And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position. For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not…