Entrenched in Mormon Culture I am a 7th generation Mormon who grew up in Utah County. I attended church all my life, had regular family scripture study and FHE. My dad was a BYU math professor and my mom a devout scripture scholar. I graduated from seminary and graduated from BYU (with all its required religion courses) and married a 5th generation, returned missionary in the temple. And I didn’t learn that Joseph Smith personally practiced polygamy until I was in my 20s. I had heard the story about Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs, causing a miscarriage in her jealous rage. But it was all fabricated nonsense created by anti-Mormons trying to defame the prophet. Like everything else that looked or sounded unsavory. Everyone knew about the public polygamy in Utah. Every year our elementary class toured the Beehive House, complete with all the wives’ bedrooms and fairly open discussion about managing the logistics. Polygamous ancestors were a dime a dozen (or two). Whenever the topic of plural marriage came up it was usually swept away with a Gordon-B-Hinkley-like flick of the wrist. “It’s behind us.” We don’t practice it. Move on. Nothing to see here.
Thomas B. Griffith (D.C. Circuit Court judge and former BYU General Counsel, Senate Legal Counsel, Bishop and Stake President) is teaching an institute class at the Chevy Chase building this fall on early Church history, with a focus on “Joseph Smith as Everyman.” The class starts Tuesday, September 2nd at 7pm and will run every Tuesday night throughout the fall. You can register either upon arrival or in advance at the Church’s Institute site. Please spread the word. Brother Griffith is a fantastic teacher and having a class from him on this topic is a rare opportunity — it is sure to be stellar.
There are at least two potential problems when there is a leadership transition—the transition plan or procedure isn’t always known ahead of time, and those involved don’t always follow the plan or procedures. Mormonism’s initial experience with transition didn’t go well—I suspect for both reasons—and the transitions elsewhere in the scriptures often seem unexpected also. For example, the transition from Elijah to Elisha described in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #29 is unexpected by the Israelites, who search for Elijah for three days after Elisha succeeds him. It is, of course, Mormonism’s difficult initial transition, following the death of Joseph Smith, that led to the following poem.
As the Children of Israel entered the promised land, they also faced a change of leadership, with all that entails. As Moses doesn’t cross the Jordan, Joshua is called to lead the Israelites, cross the Jordan and subjugate the territory promised. Lesson 18 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual portrays this time as a time when the Children of Israel re-commit themselves to serving the Lord behind a new leader. Following the death of Joseph Smith, the nascent Mormon people also had to face a change in leadership, and (although in a somewhat different manner) cross a river behind that leader on their way into a new land. Their similarity to the ancient Israelites was not lost on them, and influenced the following poem.
Today, we Mormons see the “coincidence of names” between Joseph of Egypt, Joseph the son of Lehi and Joseph Smith as anything but a coincidence. They shared names allow us to make connections between the three cases, adding to our understanding of their histories. And Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 12 allows us to revisit some of the parallels, such as Joseph’s separation from Israel, and eventual reunion, as well as his visionary nature. Elder Orson F. Whitney, who served as an Apostle from 1906 to 1931, recognized this connection, and included it in his epic poem Elias in the following extract.
Given how much we talk about Joseph Smith in lessons such as lesson 7 of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith manual used in Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, you might think I would run out of poetry about him. That isn’t likely to happen. Smith is also a common subject of Mormon poetry — but nowhere near as common a subject as Christ. As the prophet who introduced the current dispensation, restoring the gospel to the earth, according to what we teach, Joseph Smith’s role and the restoration he initiated and shepherded is vital to the world today, a foundational element of both Mormon theology and culture. The following poem makes the connection between this event and Mormon culture and history.
There is no shortage of poetry about Joseph Smith, the subject of lesson 23 of the Lorenzo Snow manual. But Snow’s views on Joseph Smith are focused not on his martyrdom or on his role as the initial prophet of this dispensation. Instead, Snow focuses on Joseph Smith’s character—an unusual subject for the early Mormon poetry I’ve collected so far. But the following poem does briefly mention some of Joseph Smith’s character traits:
[I’m sorry for the delay in getting this posted. I’ve been traveling a lot the past week.] The martyrdom of Joseph Smith was a shock to his people and one that, as their successors, we still remember and still feel. But in the days following his assassination, the reaction of Church members was one of outrage. While we today see the martyrdom as “sealing his testimony,” then the members of the Church saw this as a failure of the state, with a feeling that the state was somewhat complicit in these murders. But despite that the brothers were immediately seen as martyrs, equal to those of antiquity. The following poem is perhaps the most immediate poetic reaction, written on July 1st and published that same day in the Times and Seasons. It was subsequently republished in all three of the other existing LDS publications that Fall and was published as a broadside as well. It was later published in other LDS publications, included in the hymnal and published in Snow’s compilation of her poetry.
“In the 1830s, on the western frontier of Missouri, ball was the favorite sport of Joseph Smith, founder of a new religious sect called the Mormons1.” A couple of years ago I received as a Christmas present the Baseball documentary by Ken Burns, the PBS series that as much as anything has driven my current fascination with the game and led to the Mormon Baseball blog. Early in the first of the documentary’s 10 parts, the narrator makes the above claim, something that even today I don’t hear from Mormon historians. Could it be that Joseph Smith played and loved baseball?
Poetry by Joseph Smith? That is certainly not what Joseph Smith is known for, nor is it often claimed that he was a poet in all the writing and studies made about him. [Orson F. Whitney is the exception that comes to mind.] But the following poem, when published in 1843, carried his byline when it was published. As a paraphrase of D&C 76, this poem fits well, I think with the Gospel Doctrine Book of Mormon lesson #41. As Christ teaches to the Nephites in this lesson (3 Nephi 22-26) he focuses on making sure that their scriptural cannon is complete, adding the neglected prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite and the to them unknown teachings of Malachi. And then he expounds all things unto them. Doesn’t section 76 have that kind of “exposition of all things” feel to it?
Perhaps the most striking part of the Book of Mormon covered in lesson 18 is the martyrdom of Abinadi. Like many martyrs who have suffered since his time, Abinadi testified of what he knew to be true only to find his testimony rejected and his life taken for it. He sealed his testimony with his life.
“I was born in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five, on the twenty-third day of December, in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, State of Vermont.” Joseph Smith History 1:3 By Gary Boatright Jr. ___ This picture is part of our ongoing series highlighting Mormon images. Comments to the post are welcome; all comments should be respectful. In addition we invite you to submit your own images to the Mormon Image series. Other images in the series can be found here. Rules and instructions, including submissions guidelines, can be found here.
We’ve been teaching our oldest son Peter that he’s a big brother to our younger son Jeremy. When Peter learned that Joseph Smith also had a big brother, he fell in love with the concept. Now whenever we go somewhere church-related, he asks, “Will there be a picture of Joseph and Hyrum?” By Robert Gibbons ___ This picture is part of our ongoing series highlighting Mormon images. Comments to the post are welcome; all comments should be respectful. In addition we invite you to submit your own images to the Mormon Image series. Other images in the series can be found here. Rules and instructions, including submissions guidelines, can be found here.