Category: General Doctrine

“That they may bear the souls of men”

My wife is 37 weeks pregnant, and she is ready to be done.  She’s started writing down a list of reasons she doesn’t enjoy pregnancy for me to use in reminding her next time we start thinking about having another child.  She has also assured me that if creating spirit children in the next life involves pregnancy, we’re not going to have a high population on any planets we create. With our family growing and the “Come, Follow Me” texts for this week, Section 132 has been on my mind.  It is both one of the most important and most uncomfortable documents that has been canonized from Latter-day Saint literature.  It is important as the textual basis for the idea that: “Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”[1]  As stated in the revelation: if a man marry him a wife, in the world, and he marry her not by me, nor by <?my?> word; and he covenant with her, So long as he is in the world, and She with him, their covenant and marriage is not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world therefore they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world … And again verily I Say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word which is my law,…

“All these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good”

For a long time, I underestimated the depth of the trauma experienced by the Latter-day Saints in Missouri and the impact that it had on their psyche.  I think I started to grasp it more when I was researching for an essay about Latter-day Saints and their relationship with the US Government (which was an earlier version of the “The constitution of this Land” post I put up on this site in September).  What they endured was horrific and that left deep scars on the Latter-day Saints.  In the midst of all of this, however, Joseph Smith began to write general epistles to the Church, portions of which were later incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as Sections 121, 122, and 123.  Within those epistles, he began to explain a theology of suffering that grappled with what they had endured. The fallout of the 1838 Missouri-Mormon War was terrible (trigger warning that this section of the post may be distressing).  Parley P. Pratt famously recalled how while Church leaders were in prison: We had listened for hours to the obscene jests, the horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards … as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder, robbery, etc., which they had committed among the ‘Mormons’ while at Far West and vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force wives, daughters and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of…

“Adam shall come to visit”

Charles Darwin’s niece once told her son (the famed British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) that: “The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.”[1]  While it is wonderful either way, since the early 20th century, what scientists have come to understand through their studies of evolution has become increasingly important to people to discuss in terms of understanding religion and creation.  Literal readings of the Bible and the histories presented in Genesis underly the idea that organic evolution is not compatible with Judeo-Christianity.  And, for better or worse, a literal understanding of Biblical narratives is a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, influencing the translations and revelations that Joseph Smith produced.  Yet, as the best understanding of the process by which life as we know it was created based on the evidence found in the world around us, evolution is difficult to dismiss.  The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has both features that help with the acceptance of evolution and concepts that make it difficult to embrace the scientific theory—perhaps most notably the concept of a literal Adam. In an 1838 editorial written as a series of questions and answers with Joseph Smith, the Prophet remarked that: “We are the only people under heaven” that believe the Bible, adding that Latter-day Saints…

“Concerning the building of mine house”

The temples of the early Latter Day Saint movement were a place where several strands of Joseph Smith’s theology and doctrine were braided together.  In the summer of 1833 (in the revelations we are studying this week for “Come, Follow Me”), we can see that braiding happening.  Referencing some major topics we’ve already discussed this year, we can see the idea of beholding the face of God, an endowment of power from on high, preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ, the Zion project, and some practical functions of the temples (in connection with building Zion).  Each of these had become a component of how the House of the Lord in Kirtland and Zion were meant to operate. The endowment of power from on high was one area of particular concern to the early Saints.  They had been promised in early 1831 that when they relocated to Kirtland, Ohio, they would be blessed with the law and an endowment of power akin to the one that the early Christians received on the day of Pentecost.[1]  The law was given in a series of revelations that spring, but the endowment of power proved more elusive.  Ordination to the high priesthood at a conference in 1831 and the meetings of the School of the Prophets functioned as earlier endowments of power, but the Saints continued to look forward to the construction of the House of the Lord as a place…

“That you may understand and know”

“The world is changed. … Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it. … And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.  History became legend.  Legend became myth.  And for two and a half thousand years, the [true Gospel] passed out of all knowledge.  Until, when chance came, it ensnared another bearer.” While not the same, the overall character of the opening monologue for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is compatible with the Latter-day Saint view of the Great Apostasy.  It was, after all, a time of loss and change.  As B. H. Roberts summarized: “The time came when through a combination of circumstances—through the bitter and relentless persecutions which came upon the early Christians, both from the heathens and from the Jews, by which persecution, continuing through three long centuries, the servants of God were slain,” leading to a time when individuals did “engraft upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ heathen notions of God, and accepted part of the heathen mythology and blended this with fragments of Christian truth still held by them, until the plain and simple Gospel, as delivered to the people by Jesus and the Apostles, lost all semblance of its former self.”[1]  As a result, “nothing remained but fragments of the gospel; here a doctrine and there a principle, like single stones fallen and rolled away from the ruined wall; but no one able to tell…

“A word of wisdom for the benefit of the Saints”

One of the paradoxes about the Word of Wisdom is that the name (drawn from the opening line of the text from the 27 February 1833 revelation) indicates that it is good advice while it’s treated as a commandment in the Church today.  I’ve discussed this in detail in the past, so I’ll leave the full subject to that treatment as well as the historians of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, but the short version is that it’s not clear when the revelation became a commandment for members of the Church.  It may have been intended as a commandment all along, it may have been accepted as a commandment by Church membership in general conference in the past, or it may have become a commandment at the time it began to be enforced as part of temple recommend interviews. The interesting part of the history is that all three of these versions of commandment-ification are rooted in the others.  The Word of Wisdom began to be enforced during the early 20th century because Church leaders believed that it had become a commandment in the time of President Brigham Young, mostly pointing to a vote at a conference in 1851.[1]  That vote was used to legitimize the belief that the Word of Wisdom had been declared to be in force as a commandment to Latter-day Saints as it became a requirement for temple recommends in the early 20th century.  Yet, when…

“This is the light of Christ“

As one of Joseph Smith’s largest revelations, Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88 (or, as Joseph Smith called it, “the Olieve leaf which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise”) has a lot of different talking points.  As historian Richard Lyman Bushman wrote: “Nothing in nineteenth-century literature resembles it.  … The ‘Olive Leaf’ runs from the cosmological to the practical, from a description of angels blowing their trumpets to instructions for starting a school.  Yet the pieces blend together into a cohesive compound of cosmology and eschatology united by the attempt to link the quotidian world of the now to the world beyond.”[1]  The majority of this Olive Leaf revelation was recorded on 27-28 December 1832, with the end section being recorded as a separate revelation on 3 January 1833 that became so closely associated with the December revelation that they were eventually combined into one document.  Among the topics that moved beyond the mundane world of the now is a metaphysical discussion towards the beginning of the December revelation about Jesus the Christ and light. This portion that discusses Jesus and light has given rise to the idea of an interesting entity in Latter-day Saint through—the light of Christ or Spirit of Christ.  The revelation states that: “I now send upon you another comfortor, even upon you my friends; that it may abide in your hearts, even the holy spirit of promise.  … This comfortor is the promise which I give unto…

“Bodies Terestrial and not bodies Celestial”

As I was working on my previous post, I had a thought I wanted to explore, but not enough space there: If we believe in eternal progression but also want to argue that there are limits to upward mobility in the eternities, we run into the question—why?  Why wouldn’t it be possible to continue repenting and progressing after resurrection and judgement?  While there’s a lot of potential answers (God said so, lower motivation to work on things in this life, etc.), one of the more interesting answers from Church leaders caught my attention as something to ponder.  That answer was that the bodies we are resurrected with determine the level of glory in which we can dwell. During his efforts to state that God doesn’t believe in opportunities for second chances in the afterlife, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that: The true doctrine is that all men will be resurrected, but they will come forth in the resurrection with different kinds of bodies—some celestial, others terrestrial, others telestial, and some with bodies incapable of standing any degree of glory. The body we receive in the resurrection determines the glory we receive in the kingdoms that are prepared.[1] Thus, according to him, the type of body you receive at resurrection determines which kingdom you’re locked into forever. In teaching this doctrine, McConkie draws on the language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.  In that epistle, Paul discusses the resurrection and states…

“They cannot come worlds without end”

One of the methods that paleontologists use to understand the age of a fossil in relation to other fossils at a site is by looking at layers, or strata.  The basic idea is that layers build up over time, with organisms becoming part of the sediment layers as the organisms die and get buried while the sediments continue to build up, then become fossilized over time.  Since layers build upwards, older layers will generally be found lower in the strata levels, with the newer layers being superimposed on top.  Thus, each layer provides a snapshot of what was living (and dying) at a given time period, with fossils found deeper in the layers coming from earlier periods and fossils found higher in the layers coming from more recent eras.[1]  A question that become important in interpreting Joseph Smith’s revelations is whether we can approach studying the ideas presented in them in a similar way—with each revelation functioning as a fossilized snapshot of a dynamic and evolving theology—or whether every revelation should be treated as an individual presentation of a unified, unchanging theology. A doctrinal debate in the Church that is heavily impacted by which route you take in interpreting Joseph Smith’s revelations is the idea of progression from kingdom to kingdom in the afterlife.  In other words, after resurrection and judgement, can individuals who were assigned to the Telestial Kingdom continue to progress and repent to the point that they…

“When moved upon by the Holy Ghost”

At this point in the year, we’ve finally caught back up with the context of where we began—Section 1.  The conference in early November 1831 (at which Sections 1, 67 and 68 were recorded) was focused on publishing the revelations that Joseph Smith had been—a project which would come to be known as the Book of Commandments and later The Doctrine and Covenants. It is, perhaps, inevitable in a religious movement that believes in both being led by prophets and that everyone can receive revelation that there are going to be tensions about who is able to speak for the Lord.  From a revelation sparked by the Hiram Page incident in September 1830, we have the statement that: “No one shall be appointed to Receive commandments & Revelations in this Church excepting my Servent Joseph for he Receiveth them even as Moses.”[1]  This placed the burden of receiving revelations for the Church squarely on the shoulders of Joseph Smith as the prophet of the Church.  At the November 1831 conference, however, members of the Church expressed concerns about whether the revelations were the Lord’s words or whether they were Joseph Smith’s words.  Section 67 issued the challenge to “appoint him that is the most wise among you or if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it then ye are Justified in saying that ye do not know that is true” as a way to rebut those concerns.[2]  Section…

Lit Come Follow Me: Easter

While no Come Follow Me lesson will be taught at church this coming Sunday, there is a lesson in the manual, meant for home study. So, I’m providing some poems to go with that lesson, which focuses on three aspects of the mission of Jesus Christ: that he was resurrected (i.e., He Lives), that because of him we will all be resurrected, and His atonement. Of course, these are not strange concepts in our poetry; they appear many times in our hymnal alone. So I’m presenting a few poems that are less familiar.

“The gathering of mine Elect”

Change and continuity create an interesting tension in the Church.  I explored this in a previous post as the tension of believing in an everlasting, unchanging gospel that we have had restored to us and the belief in ongoing revelation and changes to adapt and evolve the Church to our current circumstances.  Changes can be disconcerting with the first of those two beliefs in mind because it demonstrates that the Church’s beliefs and practices are not unchanging and static.  One of the ways we minimize the perception of change, however, is to continue to use terminology that was important—words and phrases that were previously used—but to collectively change what we mean when we use that terminology.  The concept of gathering the Elect to Zion is a case study in the process of shifting use of terminology. The September 1830 revelation that we are studying this week (now Section 29) demonstrates how gathering was understood in the earliest days of the Church.  The revelation opens with an announcement that Jesus Christ “will gether his People even as a hen gethereth her Chickens under her wings even as many as will hearken to my voice & humble themselves before me & call upon me in mighty prayer.”  It discusses missionary work and prayer, then states that the elders the revelation is addressing “are called to bring to pass the gethering of mine Elect … wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the father that they shall be gethered in…

“For he Receiveth them even as Moses”

Several years ago, I had a conversation with co-worker from outside of Utah about various Mormon churches that existed in Utah.  He had been doing some research and we were discussing fundamentalist Latter-day Saint groups (ones like the FLDS or the Apostolic United Brethren that promote polygamy and other doctrines from the early Utah era) when he made the remark that those groups had stayed more true to early Mormonism.  I paused for a moment, then explained that it depended on how you looked at it.  They had stayed true to specific beliefs and practices from the Church from that time, while we had stayed true to others—with accepting revelations from the prophets who lead the Church (such as the one that led to the end of plural marriage) being one of the key points that our religion valued over staying the same in belief and practice.  In a way, it could be said that there is a paradox at the heart of our religion that causes the tension displayed in that conversation—the belief in a restoration that has recreated the primitive Church of Christ, and the belief in ongoing revelation that leads to changes from time to time. On the one hand, we have the concept of a restoration, which leads to conservatism in how we view our religion.  The term restoration, at its heart, means a return to a former condition—a recovery, a re-establishment, or a renewal of…

“All things shall be done by common consent”

Within the corpus of J. Golden Kimball folklore, there is a story of Elder Kimball getting bored during a long process of sustaining officers at a stake conference somewhere south of Provo, Utah.  Noticing that most of the congregation was nodding off or had fallen asleep while mechanically raising their hands for every name read, he continued in his usual voice, stating: “It is proposed that Mount Nebo be moved into Utah Lake, all in favor manifest by the usual sign.”  The majority of the people raised their hands.  Then, Elder Kimball paused, looked around, and screeched in his magpie voice: “Just how in the hell do you people propose we get Mount Nebo into Utah Lake?” I enjoy the story because it does highlight some interesting things about the nature of sustaining votes in Latter-day Saint culture.  By raising our hands to sustain officers or policies in conferences in the Church, we fulfil the instructions found in the July 1830 revelation (now Section 26) that “all things shall be done by common consent in the Church by much prayer & faith.”[1]  At this point in our history, however, these sustaining votes are largely perfunctory and a manner of routine rather than truly seeking common consent among Church members, hence the boredom and subsequent trickery during the stake conference with Elder Kimball.  In a way, that seems to have to do with a shift in the way we understand the…

“It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine”

If the Book of Moroni is an instruction manual to “build a church,” as Michael Austin suggests, with the “nuts-and-bolts how-to-run-a-church stuff that anybody trying to reassemble what the Nephites built will need to know,”[1] then Doctrine and Covenants Section 20 represents an effort to take that manual, adapt it and expand on it for the restored Church of Christ.  Known as the Articles and Covenants, the section is something like a charter for the Church in the early 1830s, capturing how to function as a church and the basic information about the Church (with occasional updates up to the time of publishing the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835).  Want to know the Church’s history?  Read verses 1-12.  Core doctrines and beliefs?  Read verses 13-36.  Requirements for baptism?  Go to verse 37.  Basic ecclesiastical offices, their functions and how to be ordained?  See verses 38-67.  Expectations for church members after joining?  Verses 68-71.  How to perform core ordinances?  Read verses 72-79.  How to handle inter-congregational gatherings and Church discipline?  See verses 80-84.  Several key sections in Section 20 are drawn from Moroni’s writings, including, notably, the sacrament prayers. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the way we approach those sacrament prayers in Section 20 (and Moroni) has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  When gatherings of church members were suspended worldwide on 12 March 2020, instructions were given that “bishops should counsel with their stake presidents to determine how…

“It is not written, that there shall be no end to this torment”

Years ago, I attended a testimony meeting that began with a counselor in the bishopric talking about how grateful he was to be a part of a religion where believed that God was full of grace and would save almost every individual in one degree of glory or another.  He quoted from the Vision in Section 76, and discussed how all but a very few would be saved in the Telestial, Terrestrial, or Celestial Kingdom and how grateful he was that God loved His children enough to make a plan that allows pretty much everyone into heaven in some form.  What was interesting was what followed—the bulk of the remainder of the testimony meeting was dominated by adults in the ward getting up and rebutting his testimony by “clarifying” that being in a place outside of the top tier of the Celestial Kingdom is still damnation, so we need to work hard to gain eternal life instead of believing that we will have it good in the end, no matter what.  In a way, that meeting captured the complicated relationship Latter-day Saints have with universalism. Joseph Smith lived in a context where Universalism was a major part of the religious discussion.  Universalists argued that God is a benevolent and generous being whose attributes of love and justice were incompatible with widespread condemnation and permanent torment. They also held that God would not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and…

“I will establish my church”

Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 is interesting in its discussion of the Lord’s church because it seems to use the term in two different ways.  One definition is the institution that we’re most likely to think of when we hear the term—the one we call Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The second is what has been loosely termed the “church without walls” or the “invisible church”—the collective group of people who are in tune with the Holy Spirit and do God’s work in the world.  Both definitions are important to understand and think about in our relationship to the world today. The first definition to be brought up is the institutional Church of Christ that would be established in April 1830.  The revelation paraphrases an earlier revelation in stating that the Lord had said: “If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them.”[1]  This seems to alluding to either an unknown revelation that we don’t have today or a revelation given to Martin Harris in March 1829 about the Three Witnesses, which proclaimed that they would receive their testimony “in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” and that “their testimony shall also go forth unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden their hearts against them.”[2] …

At Home with Nothing to do? Try a Zion Project

I am currently serving as the RS president in our ward. Basically I have spent the last almost year pining and waiting for things to get back to normal, but lately I have been thinking that maybe that is not at all what I want. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait until we can leave the house without masks and can be with people without it, you know, ending in death. But I’m also realizing, what better time to shake things up a bit? Firmly believing that if you’re going to do something you might as well do it big, and in honor of this year’s study of the Doctrine and Covenants, our Relief Society is going to put forth a concerted effort this year to create a Zion community, and we want to think outside of the box to do it. For example, many people think Zion is a place where everyone can be accepted, but it’s also a place where people are not free to hurt each other. There have to be some firm boundaries of accepted behavior. How do you see boundaries being implemented while at the same time appreciating diversity? What problematic behaviors do you think are deserving of patience and what ones cannot be tolerated under any circumstances? I have a million questions and I would love to get some ideas from you all. I would truly love to know what you picture when…

“Let God Prevail”

I share here a sacrament meeting talk I delivered recently in my St Louis congregation. I suspect there have been many other such sermons on the same topic delivered in wards around the globe over the past three months. President Nelson’s October address seems to have made a powerful impression on our people in this time of spiritual hunger. I endorse President Nelson’s message and am grateful to have reflected on it at length here.  In one of the most enigmatic scenes in the Old Testament, a man stands alone on the bank of the Jordan river at midnight. The man is Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, a hard-driving trader in a hurry from the moment he was born grasping his twin brother’s heel as if to drag him back into the womb. Jacob has been on the move for many years, first leaving home to escape the wrath of his twin Esau, from whom, after the failed heel-grab, he eventually did manage to take the coveted birthright blessing. Now Jacob has fled from his father-in-law Laban, from whom he has won two daughters and much property. The Lord is calling him back to Canaan, the land of his father, and Jacob is on his way home.  At the threshold of return, the Jordan river, Jacob finds himself at an impasse. His family has crossed, but Jacob himself stays behind. At his back is Laban, before him is Esau; in…

Ein Ruf aus der Wüste: title page

The first non-English Latter-day Saint work, Orson Hyde’s Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, was published in 1842 in Frankfurt. The section recounting the life of Joseph Smith and the translation of the Book of Mormon has been translated multiple times and is available at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, in Dean Jessee’s 1989 The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings vol. 1, and in Dan Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents vol. 1. That leaves around 100 of the 115 total pages still untranslated. As a first step toward making this source more widely available, a translation of the title page and a few notes follow. To accompany this year’s “Come Follow Me” focus on the Doctrine and Covenants and church history, I’m planning to post additional sections in English translation as a way to look at how an early church member understood the restored gospel and presented it to others. * * * A Cry in the Wilderness, a Voice from the Bowels of the Earth. A short overview of the origin and doctrine of the church of “Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” in America, known to many by the designation: “The Mormons.” By Orson Hyde, a priest of this church. Read, reflect, pray and act! Frankfurt, 1842. Self published by the author. * * * One thing that immediately sticks out is that Ein Ruf aus der Wüste provides an early example of using the First Vision…