American Zion: A Review

If I were to ever write a single-volume history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hope that it would turn out like Benjamin E. Park’s American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (Liveright, 2024). It is a very nuanced, insightful, and well-written take on Latter-day Saint history in the United States. It takes into account viewpoints from many different groups that have been a part of the Latter-day Saint movement over the years or who have split from the Church into their own faith communities. American Zion also builds upon a lot of important research that has happened since Matthew Bowman published The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith in 2012 (the previous reigning academic history of the Church). Five stars out of five, as far as I’m concerned.

The Church as the Knights Templar and #MakeItATrillion

I tried to get it to show a missionary swimming in a pool of coins like Scrooge McDuck, but it wouldn’t let me produce images that it deemed to be satirical of religious beliefs. Once upon a time there was a devout, hard-working, highly efficient religious organization that started stockpiling and investing money for the glory of God. Because of their business acumen and scrupulosity, the pile grew fabulously large until… King Phillip (the French King in Braveheart) and the Pope collaborated to steal their money and had the leaders arrested, tortured, and executed.  Given the title of this post, you can see where I’m going with this. Now, I don’t think the Church leaders will get burned at the stake or arrested, but it’s a truism that the larger the amount of money you have the bigger the target you have on your back for people to just take your money. Because you really can buy (almost) everything in this world with money and money can make people weird and unscrupulous, with the unscrupulousity increasing with the amount of money at stake.  It’s why super rich people have bodyguards and have to deal with a constant stream of lawsuits and bad-faith friends and relatives (and why I’m okay with Church security being more than a guy with a radio outside President Nelson’s apartment). For the Church I don’t know what the actual mechanism might be, maybe some out of…

Church Concerns and the Command to Mourn with Those That Mourn

Responses to my last post reminding me of something I’ve been thinking recently: the fact that individuals can have quite different experiences with the church. The most extreme form of differences would be the extreme faith crises and a couple of examples serve to illustrate the pain these can cause. Alma 7 says Christ “will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people,” which I see as linked to the command to mourn with those that mourn. Those in faith crises are clearly mourning. The examples in the links are of the more extreme type, but I think we also know that struggling with concerns at a less extreme level is also common, and can also be quite painful as well. For instance, just a few months ago, the new bishop’s wife gave her first talk in the ward as bishop’s wife, saying she’d been assigned testimony. She took the opportunity to give a talk I’ve rarely ever heard and NEVER from a bishop’s wife: how she has been struggling with the church, how she would appreciate people being kind to her during her struggles, and how we all ought to be kind generally to those who struggle. The only other time I’d heard anything like that was about a year earlier from another young couple recently moved into the ward, who addresses…

Diné Latter-day Saints

One often-overlooked aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the interactions of the institution with the Diné (Navajo) peoples in the western United States. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Farina King (an expert in colonial and post-colonial Indigenous studies) discussed some of the fraught history of Diné Latter-day Saints. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Griping about Church Leaders and Policies in Front of My Kids

Griping about religion First of all, I don’t have a lot to gripe about when it comes to the Church or its leaders. This isn’t a holier-than-thou attitude, I’m sure that if I looked hard enough I’d find plenty with an organization as large and with as many moving pieces as the Church, just that with all the demands for my big family I’m saving my gripe energy for the elite charter school that wantonly discriminates against homeschool applicants (ahem). Plus on a local level my bishopric probably puts in 20+ hours of uncompensated work every week, largely to help my children’s religious formation, so I have no desire to look the gift horse in the mouth.  Still, of course, sometimes things come up. I don’t really work for the Church in any significant capacity and I’m engaged with it of my own free will and choice; If they want me to drive out an hour to undergo a multi-hour training that would completely wipe out my precious and rare weekend time with my family, I just tell them no. If Elder so-and-so only seems capable of speaking in cliches, platitudes, and quotes from his superiors I’ll internally roll my eyes and maybe mention something to my wife but will move on; the little gripes are more of an intellectual exercise than anything at this point, and they don’t really affect me personally if I don’t let them.  Still, kids pay…

The Demographic and Financial Future of the Community of Christ

A fun personal anecdote. When I was doing my postdoc at Baylor I was made aware that there was a dataset at the Kirtland Visitor’s Center that had information on early converts that would be useful. After back-and-forthing it with the missionaries there it became clear that it would be much more feasible for me to just go there in person and download the materials myself, so I scraped together some funding and flew out. During my time there I had the opportunity to stay as a guest of Karl Anderson, who is a local Kirtland legend, essentially the Church’s man in Kirtland for decades. He had one of those homes that feels like a temple and makes you want to be a seminary teacher with 20 kids. He graciously drove me around to the different sites, and somehow we started talking about Wallace B. Smith, the last Smith prophet of the Community of Christ who effected its change to a more Mainline Protestant model, and who Brother Anderson personally knew.  As a fellow Brighamite, I was expecting at least a nod to the problems and complications that arose from them de-emphasizing the Book of Mormon and other restorationist claims, but I got none of that. Instead, it was clear that his main emotion was love for the man as a friend, and empathy and sadness of him being in a situation that he clearly did not want to be…

National Treasure – Israel Style

We read in the Hebrew Bible that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house” (2 Kings 24:13). The question of what happened to those treasures afterwards has been a subject of fascination ever since. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Elena Dugan discussed the Jerusalem temple treasure. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

The Refiner’s Fire

“Was the refiner’s fire hot?” my stake president (SP2) asked me on the night he came over to give me my release a little less than a year ago. This was a bit of a surprise since it was at 4.5 years, but SP2 explained that they were reworking the boundaries. His question was in reference to the hard time he knew I’d had as bishop, and I appreciated his acknowledgement of that. Lots of reasons why and I consider an instance I’d had a couple of months before my release to be most indicative of the experience. My wife (Lee) and I were on a date and had stopped to do some grocery shopping. As we sat in the car, Lee cried and expressed how difficult and emotionally exhausting my time as bishop had been and how she couldn’t wait for it to be over. My radiantly positive and confident wife doesn’t do much crying in the car, but was that evening.* SP1, who called me, told me that he hoped my time as bishop would be the very best time for my family; that goal didn’t seem to have been achieved.

The Church Now Owns the Kirtland Temple

As I’m sure everybody is now aware, the Church now owns the Kirtland temple. A few drive-by-thoughts. I looked at the Community of Christ’s financials and posted about what I saw as the inevitable result of their situation (selling off additional properties, perhaps including the Kirtland temple) back in September of 2021, and that was shortly followed by a Salt Lake Tribune piece on the issue. Unbeknownst to either of us, apparently negotiations had started several months earlier in June of 2021.     I questioned whether they were going to rededicate it as a functioning temple or dedicate it as a historical site, seeing it as a sticky issue. It appears they have chosen the latter, which I think is a smart move. The fact is that the temple ceremony was not completely revealed at that point, and architecturally it was not designed as a functioning Nauvoo-era temple. In order to make it one, it would require gutting a lot of historically significant elements.   Besides the basic revisions, keeping it as a historical site and not a temple will help assure that the 19th century workmanship won’t be gutted later down the line (cough, Logan and Salt Lake, cough).   Besides, the Cleveland Temple is nearby, so I doubt there’s a geographic need for a temple in that location.   Anecdotally in the past it seems like the CoC sites were struggling with manpower, and you had to hit them…

Not Really Bishop Material

So Jonathan invited me to come do some guest posting over here, and we talked a bit about some matters related to the series I’d started over at the JI. When Jonathan invited me to share some of the material here, I had a whole lot of ideas. We’ll see where this goes, but by way of introduction to my guest posting here, I wanted to start by sharing some of my experience with having been bishop from which I was released a little less than a year ago. I got some heads up that I could be called as the next bishop very quickly after we moved to the new ward. “You know we’re going to need a new bishop this January,” the bishop’s counselor said to me when he gave me my first calling in July. He said so in a way that he was clearly referring to me. Such a statement was pretty new to me. I was not really bishop material.

“La Obra Ya Empieza”

“La Obra Ya Empieza” was one of the original hymns included in the 1907 Himnario Mormón (the first Spanish-language hymnbook in the Church). Written by the prolific hymn-writing colonist Edmund Richardson, it was originally a text with no tune specified for singing. In the 1940s red hymnbook, it appeared with an unidentified tune for the first time. When the current hymnbook came out in 1992, this hymn was not included.

My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part III

The Price We Paid, by Andrew Olsen For how legendary (in both a good and bad sense) the Willy and Martin handcart companies are in our collective consciousness, it was good to read a scholarly work on the subject.  Oxford Translation of the Bible Everybody should read a solid non-KJV translation (and one that doesn’t lean towards word-for-word literalism like the KJV). Passage by Faith. Exploring the Inspirational Art of James Christensen Maybe my tastes are kitschy and lowbrow, but I find James Christensen’s art to be some of the most straightforwardly inspiring out there.  Gospel Principles I know we don’t have a gospel principles class anymore, but when you’re raising your own kids it’s easy to just think that gospel basics will just be absorbed via osmosis. Embarrassing but fun personal anecdote, despite having been born of goodly parents and having a solid religious upbringing I somehow got to junior high without knowing that Jesus was the literal biological son of God and not just the spiritual son from Joseph and Mary; I wasn’t informed about this fact until my brother started talking about how schmaltzy the conceived-by-the-power-of-the-force Christian reference was in Star Wars, Episode I.  It’s surprising what random holes some people have in their religious education. It’s useful to literally have a list of the basics published by the Church to teach your kids to make sure nothing gets missed.   Life After Death: The Evidence, by…

On John A. Widtsoe

John A. Widtsoe was an influential apostle and theologian in the Church who came from a scientific background. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, biographer Thomas G. Alexander discussed the life and contributions of this apostle-scientist. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part II

A Celestial Library One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day.  I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is part two (of three parts) of my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message.  Columbia Sourcebook of Mormons in the United States, by Terryl Givens and Reid Neilson At the end of the day secondary analyses can only get you so far, which is why primary sources should form a core of any religious education, and this particular collection is as good as any for compiling the essential documents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one location.  The Road, by Cormac McCarthy Again, not explicitly religious, but one of the darkest books you’ll ever read (set in post-Apocalyptic hellscape with a father and his son doing what they need to to survive) acts paradoxically as a hymn to hope and light in the darkness that could almost be described as subtly spiritual.  How Wide the Divide?…

My Religious-Themed Required Reading List, Part I

Depiction of an LDS temple/library combination. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that you have the bandwidth to fine-tune your children’s reading and media diet on a level that would be very difficult to pull off if they were gone for half the day.  I’ve read quite a bit in my day (although I’m not currently reading as much as I used to), and whenever I come across a book that I want to make sure my children read I put it on a particular “shelf” in my Goodreads account. Below is my list of “required reading” books that are religious themed or at least have a strong spiritual/existential message.  The Plague, by Albert Camus  The famous French absurdist’s landmark work is interlaced with religious and existential themes as a town struggles against a deadly plague. Unlike many secular or secular-adjacent authors, Camus is rather bold in confronting the implications of naturalistic, non-religious worldview, and my personal experience with this book was powerful enough that I actually published an article in the Journal of Camus Studies on religious symbolism in The Plague.  The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky This was the book that inspired my wife to go on her mission (in particular, Alyosha’s and the monks’ examples of dedicated holiness). It’s quite long (as Russian novels are), but (IMHO) you can get a lot of the spiritual benefit by reading certain sections. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter is of…

“I Am” Statements of Jesus in the Book of Mormon

When Moses was called by YHWH, he asked the Lord, “when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” In response, YHWH said, “I Am That I Am” (Exodus 14:13–14). This type of “I am” statement is significant and has echoes throughout the Bible. A recent interview with Joshua Matson at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk highlighted the types of “I am” statements that are also found in the Book of Mormon. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

The Doomsday Equation and the Second Coming

The Book of Zachariah has a prophecy about the Lord splitting the Mount of Olives in two in the last days to save Israel at the last battle. I don’t know if that is how it is going to go down, but I like the symbolism of Christ as the second Moses dividing the land to save Israel from its enemies like Moses divided the water to save Israel of old from its enemies.  The Second Coming and the nastiness preceding it is a somewhat passe topic for more intellectual types (although certainly not for the proverbial high priests in conservative small-town branches), I suspect largely because there has been a long history of crying wolf on the subject. Ever since the early Christians people believed that the Second Coming was nigh (although, if we really appreciate deep history of our species and planet and how incredibly long it is, “coming quickly” could be a relatively long time when measured against our lifespans). We certainly have not been immune to this in our own tradition, including with Joseph Smith, who I have the sense personally thought that the Second Coming was coming sooner rather than later (although others who know more can probably chapter and verse that belief in a primary source somewhere). Outside our tradition, it seems like every couple of years somebody figures out a clever, unique way to recalculate the numbers in Revelations that shows that the…

What do Members and Former Members Believe About God? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

A guest post from Josh Coates and Stephen Cranney This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here.  In the 2023 CFLDSS we asked the standard question about belief in God that is also asked in the General Social Survey, an omnibus survey of Americans asked just about every year that has asked a question about belief in God since the late 1980s. “Which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God.” I don’t believe in God I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind  I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it The graph below has the result for our three current member samples, the two former member samples, the 2022 General Social Survey sample of respondents who are “Nones,” and indicated no religious affiliation, and the 2022 General Social Surveys sample of respondents who indicated a religious faith. (And yes, we know that there are agnostics that don’t fit into…