“I saw the hosts of the dead”

President Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead is one of the most recent documents to be included in our cannon (only followed by Official Declaration 2).  Experienced on 3 October 1918 and recorded shortly thereafter, the vision outlines the underlying theology behind proxy work for the dead that we perform in the temples.  Received against a dramatic backdrop of death, the vision gives hope for all of humankind.  Yet rather than breaking new ground, the document is a capstone of years of theological development in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  That doesn’t undercut its significance, however, since its later inclusion in the scriptures canonized those developments for the Church. Received over 100 years ago, this important vision came at a time of wide-spread death and destruction.  WWI was just a month away from its official end, after four years of carnage that resulted in millions of deaths.  Similar to today, a deadly pandemic was raging at that time that would kill tens of millions of people.  Joseph F. Smith himself had experienced loss not long before the vision.  In that year alone, his eldest son, a son-in-law, and a daughter-in-law had all died at young ages.  In addition, as his great-grandson stated: “During his lifetime, President Smith lost his father, his mother, one brother, two sisters, two wives, and thirteen children. He was well acquainted with sorrow and losing loved ones.”[1]  It was…

An Interview with Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal

Have you ever met anyone who, through their example and experiences, leads you to seek deeper for God and Christ in your own life?  Reverend Dr. Andrew Teal (a chaplain, fellow, and lecturer in theology at Pembroke College, Oxford University) is one of those types of people.  Recently, he has been a visiting resident scholar with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU to focus on writing a book about Joseph Smith, and sat down with Kurt Manwaring for an interview about his experiences and life.  For the full interview, follow the link here.  What follows on this page is a co-post (a shorter piece with excerpts and some discussion). One of the early questions Kurt asked was about when Rev. Dr. Teal realized that “his life’s work was going to be centered on teaching about Christ.”  The response was that: I lived with my grandparents as parents divorced at an early age, and they gave stability and direction for which I am really grateful. When I was 13, my grandmother died, and I found to my surprise that everyone at school was suddenly kinder. I wondered why it was that it took someone’s death to make us more human. We were reading Mark’s Gospel at the time, and suddenly the drama and power of the death of the Son of God made immediate and relevant sense. I was confirmed and from that point knew that Charles…

“The Word and Will of the Lord”

There is a story about President David O. McKay where a youth who wasn’t active in the Church flippantly asked him, “When was the last time you talked to God, President McKay?”  President McKay answered in all seriousness that: “It was last week.”  The person who shared the story noted that: “He left everyone wondering what he really meant by that, whether he was praying, talking to God, or whether it was another kind of experience.  But the way it was said, it really left this kid shaken up.”[1] One of the ongoing tensions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is reconciling the belief in ongoing revelations with both the number of written revelations produced by Joseph Smith and the lack of similar documents in our canon from later Church leaders.  As noted in the document about the “Martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his Brother Hyrum” that was added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1844 (now D&C 135), Smith “has brought forth the Book of Mormon … has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men.”[2]  On the other hand, out of the 140 main documents presented in the Doctrine and Covenants, only 2 are revelations or visions from later Church presidents, and 2 are press releases about changes resulting from other Church presidents having revelations.  Even…

The Future of the Church is Orthodox

I recently helped conduct a much-overdue national survey of Catholic priests that, among other things, confirmed what most informed Catholic observers already knew: younger priests are much, much more conservative than their older counterparts. While a significant proportion of older priests disagree with fundamental Catholic Church teachings regarding homosexuality, for example, among the latest generation there are few priests that think that contraception among married people is okay. The gulf is pretty big.  Now, there are fundamental dynamics and background histories at play with the Catholic Church that aren’t relevant to the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I do not want to overdraw the parallels. Still, some comparison is useful.  One explanation for our results is that in the past the clerical collar carried with it a cachet and social esteem among certain communities that they no longer enjoy. (On a related note, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the 12 receive more jeers than cheers when they travel in certain sections of Salt Lake City.) Yes, in the case of the Catholic Church scandals are part of the story, but it is also symptomatic of a broader decline in authority and religion more generally. Consequently, people who join the Catholic priesthood are more likely to do so out of personal devotion, and they will be more likely to choose the Church when its teachings do not comport with modern day norms. Similarly, while…

Are Latter-day Saint Marriages Happier?

A few weeks ago I posted some numbers that suggested that Latter-day Saints have significantly lower divorce rates than non-Latter-day Saints. Fair enough, but are these marriages actually happier, or is this just because the stigma against divorce in Latter-day Saint culture is keeping marriages together that would have otherwise divorced? Unlike the divorce question, I am not aware of anybody else who has tested whether Latter-day Saint marriages are happier. Thankfully, every year the US General Social Survey (discussed in the last divorce post) asks married respondents about their happiness with their marriage: “Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” I pooled the last 10 years in order to get enough Latter-day Saints (although the results don’t substantively change if we include the last 15 years like I did with the divorce post), and scored “very happy” as a 3, “pretty happy” as a 2, and “not too happy” as a 1. If we do this, we have 96 randomly sampled married Latter-day Saints to compare to everyone else (with 159 if we extend it back 15 years). The average non-Latter-day Saint marital happiness score is 2.59, whereas the average Latter-day Saint happiness score is 2.71. While both groups on average indicate that their happiness falls somewhere between “very happy” and “pretty happy,” Latter-day Saints are closer to “very happy.” This difference is…

“There is never but one on the earth at a time”

Polygamy was one of the most divisive and explosive policies that Joseph Smith ever embraced.  In many ways, it was what led to Joseph Smith’s death.  He knew that it would be a cause of contention, both within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and with those who were not members, and he made some efforts to both conceal the practice and to set up rules to keep it controlled.  Key among the latter was the idea of only one individual serving as the gatekeeper to entering plural marriages.  Yet, polygamy was a confusing and messy practice to early church members from the very start and it was difficult to stick to those rules.  As Amasa Lyman once said about the early attempts to practice plural marriage, “We obeyed the best we knew how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance.”[1] Joseph Smith’s Presidency During the 1840s, a series of difficult situations may have led Joseph Smith to centralize the authority to perform plural marriages and eternal marriages to the office of church president. First, Benjamin Johnson recalled that in Kirtland, Ohio in the early 1840s, some church members followed a man who “claimed he had revealed to them the celestial law of marriage.” This led to “men and women of previous respectability” engaging “in free love.”[2]  More significantly, the assistant president of the LDS Church and mayor of Nauvoo, John C. Bennett, seduced women in…

“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,…

*Search, Ponder, and Pray* by Julie Smith: your essential guide to revisiting the gospels

“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” begins the primary song. You’ve read the stories of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You’ve heard them in church lessons and talks. You know the stories; you probably love the stories. But what if you want more? I recently used Julie M. Smith’s Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels to revitalize my study of the first books of the New Testament, and I loved it. What Smith does more than anything else in this volume is ask questions. In Matthew 6, when Jesus recommends giving to the poor in secret, Smith asks: “Why is recognition of good works bad? Is the prohibition for the benefit of the giver or the receiver?” Or in Matthew 22, when Jesus invites Peter to “render … unto God the things that are God’s,” Smith asks: “Are humans the things that belong to God?” and then nudges the readers to take a look at Genesis 1:26 as they consider that question. One question that provoked a strong reaction for me came from Luke 6, when “the scribes and Pharisees watched [Jesus], whether he would heal on the sabbath day; that they might find an accusation against him.” Smith asks, “Do you ever find yourself acting the way the scribes and pharisees do…? What motivates them? How do you guard against developing their attitude?” As I pondered, I saw myself, in my weaker moments, looking…

Brittany Chapman Nash on Polygamy

We’re coming up on one of the most dreaded lessons of the Sunday School cycle—no, not reviewing the law of chastity with teenagers, the lesson that includes D&C 132 (the revelation on plural marriage).  Polygamy is a topic in the Church that is uncomfortable, troubling and, at times, painful to discuss.  Recently, however, the Church published a short book by Brittany Chapman Nash called Let’s Talk About Polygamy that I would recommend to read for anyone who wants to better understand our history with plural marriage (for a longer review of the book I put up a couple months ago, click here).  In addition, Brittany Chapman Nash sat down with Kurt Manwaring for an interview about the book.  For those interested in the full interview, it is available here.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview at Manwaring’s site—a shorter post with excerpts and some commentary. At one point in the interview, Brittany Chapman Nash discussed her feelings as she researched polygamy.  It was connected with her master’s thesis research project, and she: was initially confused and disturbed as I began navigating this foreign view of Church history that did not fit the tidy paradigm I had curated from Sunday School and Institute classes. History was messy! It didn’t make sense! I wasn’t ready to accept that the Church was built by people, not two-dimensional superheroes…. I think I experienced the whole “five stages of grief” as I explored…

Is the COVID Slump in Church Growth “Real”?

In a previous post I discussed how, according to reported baptisms, 2020 was a particularly low Church growth year, presumably due to COVID.  Thankfully, the 2021 General Social Survey data recently dropped, so we can look at whether the COVID slump is “real,” in terms of people identifying as Latter-day Saints, or whether it’s just an artifact of the weirdness of a COVID year.  The GSS is the standard survey used for measuring religious identification on a year-by-year basis in the US. It is not as big as the Pew surveys, but it has the advantage of being taken on a more or less yearly basis.  In the year 2021, the GSS shows that .9% of people in the US self-identify as Latter-day Saint. While this is a decline from the previous year measured (1.2% in 2018), the exact number bounces around a little at about 1% each year, so for all intents and purposes it appears that the percentage of people in the US who identify as Latter-day Saint has been flat for about a decade (the chart below smooths the trend with a 4-year moving average; as always, the code is on my Github page). Now, the GSS is a blunt tool; it is possible that COVID will have longer term effects on the Church’s vitality in the US that we cannot pick up yet. With a larger sample size we could get more precise and possibly detect a…

“This ordinance belongeth to my house”

Throughout this year, I’ve talked about the development of temple doctrine as a braiding of strands from Joseph Smith’s theology and cosmology.  That continues to be true of the 1840s, when the Latter-day Saints were working on the Nauvoo temple.  Previously, when discussing the House of the Lord in Kirtland, I discussed 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).  These threads continued to have a place in the Nauvoo Temple but began to be ritualized and some meanings (such as that of the endowment of power) began to shift.  In addition, priesthood, binding or sealing power, and salvation for the unbaptized deceased were added to the braid of temples by the time that 1842 the epistles we are reading this week (D&C 127-128) were written.  Later, binding or sealing into eternal families and the connected concept of plural marriage would likewise be woven into temple liturgy as well, though those are topics for another day. The endowment of power is, perhaps, the key example of a shift in understanding and ritualization of previous hopes for the temple and priesthood.  Originally, the endowment of power seems to have been considered some sort of blessing from God that would be helpful in missionary work.  In its initial rendition, this endowment seems to have been…

“Instituted for travelling Elders”

If you’ve ever asked yourself what exactly is a Seventy, you’re not alone.  In fact, I’d dare to say that the question is one of the more persistent ones throughout Church history.  Based on two brief mentions in the Bible, the idea of the Seventies is laid out in two separate documents in the Doctrine and Covenants and was organized initially in 1835.  Yet, the exact function and role of the Seventies has varied over the years in the Church. The first major mention of the Seventies in our scriptures comes in the 1835 document “On Priesthood” that is now Section 107 in the Doctrine and Covenants.  After discussing the “twelve apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ, in all the world,” the document states that: “The seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world. Thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling: and they form a quorum equal in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses or apostles, just named.”  It then adds that: “The seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the twelve, or the travelling high council, in building up the church and regulating all the affairs of the same, in all nations: first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews:—the twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and first unto the Gentiles…

Hugh Nibley Will Never Happen Again

During my time as an undergraduate at BYU I noticed there were certain Latter-day Saint scholars that were looked up and aspired to by different groups. These were the days of Rough Stone Rolling when the “New Mormon History” seemed ascendent after a false labor with Leonard Arrington. Various Bushman acolytes aspired to follow in his footsteps and entered training in history, religious studies, or adjacent fields so that they could bring their formal training to Latter-day Saint related fields and become the kind of authority in Latter-day Saint issues that transcended the academy and had a direct bearing on the Church zeitgeist, much as Bushman did.  Similarly, I had the sense that peak Nibley-ism had crested about a decade or so before my undergraduate years, with his acolytes similarly entering ancient languages and history to become the next Hugh Nibley, and while I’m not involved in the humanities I suspect that Eugene England had a similar effect in some circles, with people wanting to write the next landmark essay that was circled around Latter-day Saint intelligentsia. (As a social scientist we don’t really have an equivalent. Valerie Hudson probably comes closest, although there is the fun fact that one of the early Presidents of the American Sociological Association was a grandson of Brigham Young).  Enough time has passed to see the results of such aspirations. Some have found very rewarding careers, but that original aspiration was and will probably…

From the Mouth of Two or Three Surveys

My post a few days ago looked at whether members of the Church in the US reported a lower likelihood of identifying as “divorced” than non-members in Pew data.  However, afterwards some friends raised valid concerns about the fact that remarried divorcees would have identified as “remarried.” Therefore, if Latter-day Saints were remarried at a higher rate or were quicker to remarry after a divorce, both very plausible given our emphasis on marriage, that could explain the difference.  I since discovered that the General Social Survey, a large survey taken almost every year, has a question that asks married or widowed people whether they were ever divorced or separated. Combined with the marital status question, we can use this to create a measure of “ever been divorced.”  Now, the General Social Survey only has a handful of self-identified members per survey, so you have to combine a lot of years to get a large enough sample of members to say anything interesting, so here I combined all survey years from 2004-2018 (the latest year available); this gives us 220 randomly surveyed members.  Of those who have ever been married in the survey, 28% of members have been divorced at some point, while 42% of non-members have been divorced. This difference is highly significant, with a less than one in a thousand chance that it happened by chance. Taking into account age and/or year of the survey does not change things.  Now,…

“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…

Are Latter-day Saint Marriages More Stable?

Various researchers have addressed this question with older (pre-2010 data), and have shown that in general Latter-day Saints have lower divorce rates, but what about more recent years? The largest (relatively) recent survey of Latter-day Saints is the 2014 Pew Religous Landscape Survey which included 661 Latter-day Saints, allowing for a simple comparison of marital status.  Calculating divorce rates is notoriously difficult and complex, because you don’t really know whether the marriage ended in divorce until it ends in either divorce or death. So, for example, we’re just getting the *real* divorce rate of my grandparent’s generation, but there are shortcuts to getting a number that is close to the real rate without having to wait for the entire generation to die off, and there’s a whole methodological debate about how to do that that takes into account age and complete marital history, including remarriages. However, the PRLS allows us to simply identify how many members of the Church identify as divorced. Specifically, they report how many members fit into the categories of married, cohabiting, divorced or separated, widowed, and never married. While this is not going to be as precise as a study using full-fledged divorce rate methods, it’s the best current picture we have about Latter-day Saint divorce. I removed the “never married” individuals from the summary statistics that the PRLS reported so that we’re left with those who had been married at some point. When we do this,…

“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…

A Summary of the Arrington Mormon History Lecture: “A Marvelous Work: Reading Mormonism in West Africa”

What does Mormonism look like when reconstructed from texts in a non-American cultural context?  The self-styled Mormon Churches that developed in West Africa during the 1960s and 1970s (prior to the lifting of the priesthood and temple ban on individuals with Black African ancestry) provide a fascinating glimpse into this question that Laurie Maffly-Kipp explored at the 26th annual Arrington Mormon History Lecture in her lecture “A Marvelous Work: Reading Mormonism in West Africa.”  I didn’t get off work in time to get up to Logan, Utah and attend in person, but they did offer a live-stream of the event, which I was able to listen to, and thought I would share a summary of what was shared during the lecture.[1] Prior to lifting the ban in 1978, the Church had very little established in Africa in the way of missions or congregations.  Through exposure to the Church via Western education, a 1958 article in the Reader’s Digest called “The Mormon Church: A Complete Way of Life,” and dreams, West Africans began to develop an interest in Mormonism and sought out literature about the Church.  Missionary pamphlets, James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith, LeGrand Richards’s A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and a Church magazine known as The Improvement Era were the most studied Mormon literature in the area, and once some individuals had read these sources, they began to preach and form congregations that were styled as Mormonism or…

Is Church Growth Declining?

I’m a Church growth amateur; occasionally I enjoy dropping by Matt Martinich’s blog to look at the latest temple predictions, and I’ll often skim through headlines about the latest data point on Church growth and what it means. However, for some time now I’ve been suspicious that we’re reading way too much into the natural jitters in the data. Church growth was 1.2%, now it’s 1.5%, what does that mean!? What gets credit? In data science this is what we call “overfitting.” Sometimes there’s a random blip in the data that we interpret as meaningful change when in reality, it’s just a random blip. If we’re oversensitive to variations we can read trends into the data that aren’t there, and we’re definitely at a high risk for this when we only look at the data once a year when the latest numbers are announced at spring General Conference.  In reality things like the growth of a relatively developed religion follow slow-moving, long-term patterns. To use a metaphor, some social phenomenon are like a large boat that requires a long time to turn left or right, and short of some nuclear level event like the President of the Church abdicating and declaring the Church a fraud, it is likely that growth trends won’t drastically swing in a real, meaningful sense on a dime.  And even events that might be considered “nuclear level” don’t turn out to be. For example, the Jehovah’s…

“They saw the Lord”

What does Jesus look like?  It’s a question that we can only guess the answer to or speculate about, but one that does come up in a religion that embraces using artistic depictions of members of the Godhead.  In general, the scriptures fail to describe his physical appearance in any detail.  Joseph Smith documented several visions where he described seeing Jesus and God the Father, though nothing definitive about their appearances comes from the documents on the subject.  History and archeology give us some clues, all of which are interesting to explore.  At the end of the day, however, we do not really know what Jesus looks like. Several visions are recorded by Joseph Smith, including the dramatic appearance in the Kirtland Temple recorded in Section 110.  Contemporary, first-hand accounts of the 1820s First Vision include the appearance of Jesus, though little in the ways of details.  In 1832, Joseph Smith wrote that he saw “a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day” and that “the <?Lord?> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”[1]  In 1835, he gave little more detail, only noting that “a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame … another personage soon appeard like unto the first.”[2]  The 1838/39 account that is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price today describes them as “two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air.”[3]  In 1842, he made…