The first rule about disagreements in church is no one talks about disagreements in church. But we should.

There are certain things that you grow up with that you don’t realize are weird until you start really noticing the world around you and see that other families don’t do those things your family does. Take one of my friends, for instance, who didn’t realize until well into his twenties that most kids don’t necessarily grow up playing poker and drinking Baileys with their grandparents and their grandparents friends, or another who didn’t realize until adulthood that it wasn’t normal for children to get stiches every few months because of frequent climbing accidents around her house, yard, and neighborhood. In my family we were raised to argue. (I don’t mean fight, my parents didn’t have any patience for that even though heaven knows we still did it plenty.) I mean we love delving. We can sit and argue for hours. We were raised to have lots of opinions and all of them strong. (My brother-in-law would be happy to tell you about the time he came over and listened in horrified fascination as my brothers argued passionately for three hours about the definition of soil. None of them are soil experts.) I always thought this was normal until one day my sister had some friends over for dinner. After dinner it was commonplace for everyone to sit around the table and talk, discuss, and argue, sometimes for hours. One day as we were doing this one of my sister’s…

Redux: Responding to bigoted but famous texts—by Seuss and Doyle

The recent controversy over the decision of the literary estate of Theodore Seuss Geisel to stop selling six of his Dr. Seuss books because of their bigoted depictions of minorities reminded me of a somewhat similar situation. Nearly 10 years ago, I wrote the post Responding to Bigoted but Famous Texts about a Virginia school district and a controversy over a book featuring the beloved literary character Sherlock Holmes. The book was the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and the villains of the story were, of course, Mormons. Like some news stories over the Dr. Seuss books, the few news stories over the Virigina school district and A Study in Scarlet misunderstood the situation. In the latter situation, one resident of Albemarle County, Virginia, suggested that if A Study in Scarlet is used in the school curriculum, it needs to be done with appropriate context and a thoughtful lesson, so that the bigotry against Mormons in the text is blunted. In response to my post 10 years ago, Jim Stern, one of the residents involved in the discussions, explained the situation in detail, and made it clear that there hadn’t been any attempt to censor A Study in Scarlet. In retrospect, Jim’s statements helped me see some of the middle ground in these discussions. It’s very easy to make charges of censorship any time the availability of a literary work changes. But there are, I think, many issues that…

“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…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 27-28 — Sacrament and Supremacy

A function of revelation is clarifying confusion and what isn’t clear. And this function is displayed in the two sections of the Doctrine and Covenant’s covered in this coming week’s Come Follow Me lesson. In Section 27, we learn that it isn’t necessary to use wine in the sacrament (and, in fact, “it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink”), and in Section 28, we are told that who receives revelation matters—that revelation binding on the whole church comes to the Prophet, whose revelations are supreme. As I have for each lesson so far this year (and for many years in the past1), the poems below are suitable for enhancing and embellishing the Come Follow Me lessons.   Sacrament Gems There are, of course, many poems about the sacrament in the universe of Latter-day Saint poetry, and many are as accessible as the nearest hymnal. Those are likely quite familiar, and teachers might want to use a sacrament hymn for this lesson. But I can’t provide something that easy. Instead, let me give 3 examples of a common short poem that our parents and grandparents would have been familiar with: “sacrament gems.” These short poems were meant to be recited as preparation for the sacrament in “Junior Sunday School” — the primary-age Sunday meeting for children when primary was a separate weekday activity, instead of what we have today. As I understand it, gems were recited…

“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…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 23-26

One often forgotten feature of the Doctrine and Covenants is the very personal nature of many of its revelations. This week’s Come Follow Me lesson includes several sections of these revelations, including the unusual compilation of revelations found in section 23, which was given serially to Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Samuel H. Smith, Joseph Smith, Sr., and Joseph Knight, Sr. Two other sections of this group are given to Oliver Cowdery: the first along with Joseph Smith, Jr. and the second in conjunction with John Whitmer. And the final section was given to Emma Smith and is best known as her call to select the hymns for the Church’s first hymnal.   Looking on the Bright Side Let’s start with section 24, given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in response to some of the earliest persecution any church members experienced. It was far from the last. And persecution is a frequent subject of poetry during this time. The following poem is one of the most optimistic responses. Published in England in the Millennial Star, it wasn’t attributed to anyone in the publication. It may have been written by the Star’s editor at the time, Thomas Ward, who wrote many other poems that found their way into the pages of the Star.  Ward was replaced as the editor of the Star in 1846, in the midst of the controversy over a failed company formed to help members immigrate. He passed…

“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…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 20-22

Administrative acts don’t always get the same attention that ordinances and more dramatic events. And in comparison to the First Vision, the Martyrdom and a number of other events, the organization of the Church doesn’t get as much attention. This is also true in poetry. But even so, there are poems that mention the organization of the Church. This week’s Come Follow Me lesson discusses sections 20 and 21, both of which refer directly to the organization of the Church. And the third section covered in the lesson, section 22, makes plain the need for baptism by proper authority, something directly connected to the Church’s organization.   Whitney’s Two Pictures While the Church’s organization hasn’t received as much attention as the First Vision, poet Orson F. Whitney saw an important connection between them. Whitney was not the first of our poets to eventually become Apostles, but he may be the best, and perhaps even the most ambitious poetically (although Parley P. Pratt can also make these claims). Here’s Whitney’s take on these two early events in Church history: Two Pictures by Orson F. Whitney (1886) The foremost is a scene where forests grow, Where flowers bloom and springtime breezes blow, Where sweet-toned birds send up their matin lay And revel in the golden beams of day. Deep in the bosom of a woodland shade, Where solitude her secret home hath made, A rustic lad, his sunburned temples bare, Pours forth…

“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…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 18-19

The sections of the D&C covered in this week’s Come Follow Me lesson are apparently about the calling of the twelve apostles and paying for the Book of Mormon. But they also include themes that don’t directly bear on these purposes. Perhaps the most important theme is the call for repentance, and the subsequent forgiveness. Both sections talk about repentance: section 18 discussing the role of missionaries and members in calling the world to repentance, and section 19 including the oft-cited imploring of the Lord to repent in verse 16:  “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that that they might not suffer if they would repent.”   A Call to Sinners If we ask what language outside of English first received a sustained call to repentance, I think most Church members today would be surprised to learn that the answer is Welsh.  While Orson Hyde published a missionary tract in German earlier, it didn’t represent a sustained missionary effort. Instead, that happened first in Wales, which benefitted from the country’s integration in the United Kingdom. Missionaries first began preaching there in 1840, and saw significant success by 1845, when the well-known missionary Dan Jones began preaching in his native language. In 1846, the first non-English Latter-day Saint periodical Prophwyd y Jubili (Prophet of the Jubilee) began publication, and included the following anonymous poem: Galwad ar Bechaduriaid (1846) O, bechaduriaid, trowch mewn pryd–– Ar bechu mwy na roweh…

“You shall obtain a view of them”

What were the three witnesses promised and what did they claim to experience?  The basics of answering this question seems obvious—they saw the gold plates and other artifacts related to them.  What is less apparent is how the Three Witnesses had that experience, since there are indications that they viewed the plates in vision, rather than experiencing them in a tangible way.  There is often a desire to make their experience out as being more materialistic than it was, perhaps as a result of conflating their experience with that of the Eight Witnesses, contradictory recollections of those who knew the witnesses, or a desire to have the experiences seem more real by being more physical in nature.  Whatever the case, it seems that the Three Witnesses saw and heard in a supernatural setting in a direct contrast to the experience of the Eight Witnesses, who claimed to have touched and handled the plates. Both early revelations and the Book of Mormon itself lay out the promises made to the three witnesses.  The earliest promise of a chance to witness the Book of Mormon was a revelation that was received in March 1829 (now D&C 5). The text states that: “three shall Know of A surety that those things are true for I will give them power that they may Behold & v[i]ew these things as they are.”[1]  Next, while translating Moroni’s writings in the Book of Ether, the promise was made to…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 14-17

This week’s Come Follow Me lesson includes several similar sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: three revelations to David Whitmer, John Whitmer and Peter Whitmer, Jr., who have asked the Lord where they should focus their efforts. The fourth section in this lesson is essentially the call to David Whitmer, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery to be the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. But while these sections have similar purposes and focus on the Whitmer family, they are far from the same. Even the most similar, the revelations to John and to Peter Whitmer, Jr., have some differences. And those differences lead to the discussion of several different principles.   John Jaques and Measuring Arms with God In section 14, a revelation given to David Whitmer, the revelation again uses the “marvelous work and a wonder” phrase that is so common in the Doctrine and Covenants. Often this phrase comes with a bit of a paradox, since it is clear that we are supposed to participate, but that regardless of what we do, God will accomplish His purposes. I like how poet John Jaques catches some of this in the following poem. Born in England in 1827, Jaques joined the Church in 1848, and in addition to serving a mission, he wrote poetry, including several hymns in our current hymnal. He is perhaps best known for “Oh Say, What is Truth?” He immigrated to Utah in 1856, and…

“The keys of the ministering of angels”

One of the persistent questions from Doctrine and Covenants, Section 13 is what is meant by the statement that the Priesthood of Aaron “holds the keys of the ministering of angels.”  Answers from general authorities in recent years have varied, including the idea that the Aaronic priesthood comes with a special privilege to have the visitation and ministering of angels;[1] the idea that when men ordained with the Aaronic priesthood serve other people, they act as ministering angels themselves;[2]  and the idea that when men ordained to the Aaronic priesthood administer ordinances that offer a remission of sins to those who receive the ordinances (i.e., baptism and the sacrament), they open the door to the ministering of angels to all Church members, since spiritual cleanliness is generally a prerequisite of communion with heavenly beings.[3]  The fact that there are a few different answers is an indication, to me, that we don’t really know what is meant by the phrase.  This may be, in part, because it brings up a conundrum that we are generally faced with when discussing the priesthood in the Church—what does ordination to the priesthood offer that is not available to faithful, believing, and righteous members of the Church otherwise? First, however, it is worth investigating what the term “keys” might mean in this context.  In one dictionary that was contemporary with Joseph Smith’s time, there are eleven different definitions for the word “key”, four of which…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 12-13

The two sections of the D&C for the next Come Follow Me lesson are both quite short, but the second covers one of the most significant events in Church history—the visit of John the Baptist restoring the Aaronic Priesthood and the ordinance of Baptism, found in section 13. But before that, in section 12, we find a blessing on Joseph Knight, Sr., who sought to know what he should do to build up the kingdom. Surprisingly, the answer to that is not often found in the earliest Mormon poetry—when this poetry speaks of Zion or of the kingdom, the message is often simply the millennial message that the Lord will bring Zion, regardless of what we do. Fortunately, there are some poems that do suggest that we should work to build up Zion.   Jane Mason On Zion On Zion is the earliest poem I found that mentions that we should be part of building up Zion. Its author, Jane Horby Mason, was born in Louth, Lincolnshire in 1807 and married Thomas Mason in 1840. They had a child, James, in 1841, and several years later Jane joined the Church and wrote a poem titled “Truth” in 1847 and the following poem in 1848. Early the following year, Jane and her son James immigrated to Utah, leaving Thomas behind. In Utah Jane married Levi Savage, Sr. in 1856, and lived in Utah until her death in 1888. I hope to…

“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] …

Deny not the Spirit of Revelation-a reflection on Come Follow Me

The story of the First Vision is one of the most beloved in all the Gospel, and many of us have sat through multitudes of lessons on what truths this vision taught, one of which being that the creeds of all of the other religions are an abomination to God. Sometimes this has been interpreted as meaning that the religions are an abomination, but that is not what God said–it was the creeds that God hated. Weirdly, however, while there are some creeds that teach things that we find abominable, there are many that are perfectly fitting with our doctrine. (I don’t think most Latter-day Saints would find it abominable, for example, that Jesus is the son of God, that he saved us from our sins, that he was born of a virgin, etc.) But God did not distinguish between which creeds were an abomination, they were all lumped together. Joseph Smith’s way of defining the gospel was that “Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of [others].”[1] When explaining what God meant when telling Joseph that the religious creeds were all an abomination, he explained, “I want to come up into…

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…