Monday, July 24, 2017

Brigham Young biography portrays a great leader and an unpleasant man



Closing the book after reading, "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," the biography by George Mason University religious studies professor John G. Turner, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University, causes some swirling emotions for this Latter-day Saint reader.

From reading Turner’s fantastic — and it is by far the best that has been written of Young’s life — biography, it’s easy for a faithful Mormon to agree that God called Young to the task of moving 20,000-plus Mormons across the plains to Utah territory and over a generation-plus, to set up hundreds of Mormon settlements. No man in U.S. history was ever that successful in those endeavors.

On the other hand, while admiring Young’s organizational skills, I don’t much care for Brigham Young the man. Turner’s biography portrays an often unpleasant man, with a foul mouth — his preferred cuss word was "shit" — and a spiteful, vengeful nature. He had a caustic sense of humor, which perhaps mitigates some of his casual comments that seemed to support violence. He ruled the Salt Lake Valley as an absolute dictator, and harbored longtime grudges against apostles who dared to criticize his particular beliefs, such as blood atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, and the United Order.

While no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, his messages to Native Americans that they could steal from non-Mormon settlers, the atmosphere of settler-animus that pervaded 1857 Utah, and Young’s successful efforts to stymie an initial investigation into the massacre, harm the image of the LDS Church’s second modern-day prophet. Indeed, Young’s caustic tongue also inflamed a Mormon bishop to castrate a petty criminal, a Logan member. Rather than feel sympathy for the man or his mother, Young protected the ecclesiastical leader who had ordered it. And, reading accounts of murders of non-Mormons by LDS thugs Porter Rockwell and William Hickman, it seems plausible to theorize that Young ordered those deaths.

 However, Turner’s book overall is not a negative portrayal of Young. It is another example of grizzly bear truth, where a great man’s life is revealed, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults included. The book is on the shelves at Deseret Book, and that’s appropriate because it does justice in recounting the life of the West’s most prominent 19th century colonizer. Turner describes Young’s hardscrabble existence in early 18th century New England, his strained relationship with his father, and his early religious skepticism that was finally counteracted by Joseph Smith’s new religion, Mormonism.

 Before the mid-1840s, Brigham Young was known for his compassion and openness as a Mormon apostle. Turner recounts his tender, love-filled letters to his wife, Mary Angell, and the biography includes accounts of his compassionate tenure as a leader to the Mormons in England. But the murder of the Joseph Smith, the continued harassment of Nauvoo Mormons afterward, and, as important, the internal dissent that swirled within the LDS Church prior to Smith’s murder, all that changed Young. He appears to have turned into a man, a leader, determined to never let that happen again.

Young mercilessly abused the LDS apostles both privately and publicly. Young’s CEO-type behavior, though, achieved its goals. No disagreeing members of the LDS hierarchy were able to achieve the success of the Law brothers, in Nauvoo. Young’s hammering of the Saints in Utah, his public denunciations and calls for repentance, kept the Utah Mormons united in their distrust of outside influences and retained their faith in unity.

His strong opposition to mining, for example, kept Utah free of non-Mormon influences for as long as Young could manage it. Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence.

Young never admitted that he made mistakes. The handcart fiasco was the fault of Franklin Richards and John Taylor; the failure to enact a United Order was the fault of Erastus Snow. Private gestures of compassion and charity to apostles, severely chastened by Young, served to partially mitigate this routine abuse. Young also provided himself a great deal of wealth and luxury, while relegating many of his followers to relative poverty. He tolerated no criticism of this perceived inequality. Young demands respect despite his human weaknesses.

More than even Joseph Smith, he is responsible for the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His shrewd leadership, along with help from the canny, non-Mormon lobbyist, Thomas Kane, managed to keep him as the main source of power in the Utah territory for much longer than anyone would have anticipated.

Young was able to manipulate political events, wars, the seasons, weak-willed political appointees, Native American unrest, and petitions for statehood to consistently survive virtually every imbroglio with the federal government or U.S. Army. Turner recounts many incidents of Young surviving as Utah’s leader while "gentile" nemesis after nemesis left Utah as grumbling failures.

 When the railroad connected Utah with the nation, Young’s power slowly decreased the last decade of his life. Perhaps to cheat the spectre of death, Young took a few young wives. He tried to re-energize support for two doctrines he had long espoused, the Adam-God doctrine and the United Order. Those efforts though were lackluster.

Still revered by members, Young seemed a calmer, or perhaps just exhausted, lion. One of his final acts was to dedicate the St. George Temple. Characteristically, he criticized an apostle while doing so.
Brigham Young was a great man. I revere him as a prophet. He was also a man of his times, who carried the savagery and bigotry of that era. Many of his most egregious acts can be explained, and even perhaps excused, by the understanding that he felt himself to be in a war. He believed that his existence, and that of his Gospel, was in danger. That he died as leader of the Utah Mormons was his final victory, and final sacrifice for Joseph Smith.

- Doug Gibson

- This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pratt an early contributor to Mormon media efforts


The rise of Mormonism in its first decades was largely due to the eagerness that early Mormon leaders embraced innovations within media, with press advances that allowed pamphlets, books and newspapers to be published much cheaper than previously, and thereby affordable to the poor.
While missionary work was always a priority, the Book of Mormon, pamphlets, and other works were read by thousands, and shared with others. Perhaps the most prolific user of the printed-press media was Parley P. Pratt, one of Mormonism’s first apostles. An impetuous, emotional, argumentative church leader, he wrote several books, including “Voice of Warning,” the second-most influential Mormon book for almost a century, as well as other books and hymns. A talented propagandist, Pratt is best known for a widely circulated pamphlet that detailed persecutions on Mormons in Missouri. He was also editor of the church newspaper in London.
Authors Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow add that Pratt’s media acumen and enthusiasm still impacts the Mormon faith. “As an essayist and theologian, Pratt shaped the content and language of early Mormon self-understanding. Few Latter-day Saints today read Pratt’s treatises, though his imprint pervades the theological spectrum they have inherited,” the pair note in their biography, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism” ($31.46, Oxford University Press).
That is an accurate reflection of Pratt’s legacy. During the 1830s and into the early 1840s, Pratt had many opportunities for personal discussions with the Mormon founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. He undoubtedly had opportunity to be at the genesis of some of Smith’s unorthodox teachings regarding the pre-existence, the divinity and eternal state of matter, the similarities between man and God, and the relationship between exaltation and marriage and families. As a result, much of Pratt’s early writings take these concepts -- at least to the reading public -- further than they had been publicized previously. He both defined and refined these doctrines.
These include the concepts of matter being eternal, marriage being a contract that lasted for eternity, the multiplicity of worlds, the concept of heavenly parents and spirit children, and a repudiation of the doctrine of original sin, the idea that man entered the world impure. Mormonism, as Pratt maintained, teaches that man is responsible for his own sins, but Christ’s atonement covers Adam’s transgression. Also, Pratt was an early advocate of the idea of an eternal unchanging celestial law that enhances righteous individuals after earthly life and leads them on a path to be heirs of what God possesses. Pratt also wrote that the relationship of a husband and wife would become even more perfect through eternity.
These beliefs are matter of fact to active Mormons today, and some are still fiercely disputed by persons of other faiths, but they were far more radical long ago when Pratt unleashed them into the public debate via the press.
One of the advantages of the Internet is that virtually everything Pratt published is available online. As mentioned, he was an effective propagandist. At OliverCowdery.com, there is Pratt’s first major literary effort as a Mormon leader. It’s titled “A Short Account of a Shameful Outrage Committed by a Part of the Inhabitants of the Town of Mentor, Upon the Person of Elder Parley P. Pratt, While Delivering a Public Discourse Upon the Subject of the Gospel.”
The flowery but combative essay is an account of Pratt’s efforts in 1835 to preach on the steps of a church in Mentor, Ohio, a neighboring town of the early Mormon settlement of Kirtland, Ohio. Mentor was dominated by the Campbellites, a progressive anti-sectarian movement Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon had once ministered to. Campbellites rejected modern-day authority, a dispute that put them often in conflict with the new Mormon religion. The bombastic Pratt no doubt enjoyed preaching repentance to the Campbellites.
As Pratt relates, while he preached on the steps: “I saw a band of men collected about 20 rods from me. Two Bugles, a Base Drum, and several smaller ones, with their Fife, were put in lively motion, and the men in regular file came marching towards that place where I stood speaking. ... The music or noise for a moment drowned my voice.”
The band continued through Pratt’s discourse, making it impossible for him to be heard. He soldiered on, but as he closed the band, he added, “discharged a full volley of eggs at me, some of which struck me in the face and others besmirching me from head to foot.” After Pratt left, he claims in the essay he was followed by the band and threatened. (Pratt’s account, which includes an “eyewitness’ account,” (probably Pratt himself using literary license) is fun reading. It’s here
Besides the public relations points the pamphlet earned, Pratt also scored in a court of law. He filed a complaint against Grandison Newell, a prominent anti-Mormon, in Kirtland before a justice of the peace. According to OliveryCowdery.com, Pratt was awarded $47 in damages that Newell was ordered to pay. The jury came to the conclusion that the band that harassed Pratt was a militia, and that Newell, as a commandeer, was responsible for their actions.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The last son of Joseph Smith understood the power of doubt


The following was written in the late 19th century by a young man familiar with the two Mormon churches: The Utah LDS Church and the Midwest Reorganized LDS Church founded by Joseph Smith III. “’Except you believe, ye shall be damned’ is the first proposition of the church.’ ... In art, in science, in every department of life, intelligence is never required to give credence to or act upon any proposition unless it is capable of demonstration, actual demonstration, or it is based up apparrent (sic) fact, apparent even though their causes and mode be hidden. But in religion another basis is acted upon and we are expected to believe and stake our salvation upon this belief. ... The seeker for salvation must first believe and the vital object, salvation or damnation, hangs thereon. This is absurd.
The author was David Hyrum Smith, the youngest son of the slain LDS prophet, Joseph Smith. Born after his father had been murdered, David was cossetted by his family and lived the life of a writer, artist and missionary. The young father — in his 20s — had returned to a mission in Utah after several requests. Joseph Smith III, whom the letter was addressed to, must have regretted extending the call, writes Valerie Tippetts Avery, author of “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” a fascinating biography of David Smith. To young David, already prone to instability, the mission call served to convince himself of something that tormented, that he had spent years angrily refuting — that his father had preached and practiced polygamy. 

The knowledge, confirmed to David by former plural wives of his father, led to other doubts, expressed by David in these letters to his brother. In the following excerpt, David reasonably objects to the longstanding Christian doctrine that a loving father willfully leaves his children abandoned on earth. David was reflecting on his new fatherhood and the love for his son as he wrote: “I have a child. I keep myself obstinately hidden from him; I make no revelation to him but in an obscure and very doubtful way the requirement of love and obedience comes to him. And death or life hangs in its acceptance. How very unjust if he be ignorant, prejudice guide him, if wise, then reason tells him if I have a father he must come near me first, love me, and teach me to love him. ..; I do not argue the benefit of Faith and trust in God as a general application of moral principle but the attaching of salvation upon such ambiguous grounds is unjust.”
Writes Tippetts Avery, “Fatherhood had taught David to distrust the seemingly deliberate obscurity of God.”
Yet David Hyrum Smith took his newfound skepticism a step further, arguing against the dogma that man can only seek important further knowledge from a selected prophet. This doubt struck at a key doctrine — at that time — of both churches. He wrote: “If faith unto salvation was an eternal principle and true, it could be discovered and demonstrated so as to be of general benefit as the law of gravitation of the rules of mathematics. But as it comes to us it makes us subservient to our falable (sic) fellow Man for eternal life, a most absurd proposition. But you again might speak God has revealed himself. But here again is an absurdity our fellow man brings us a revelation, and we are only guided by our faith in him. We do not know he has had this revelation and eternal salvation depends upon our faith in our fellow man and his revelation. Unjust and absurd.”
In his writings, David Smith further pointed out the inconsistency of ascribing belief based on one man’s claim of divine prophecy. For every Joseph Smith, he told his brother, there were Brigham Young, “Spiritualists,” and “Strangites” ... an offshoot of Mormonism.
Young Smith’s ideas could be dismissed as heresy or apostasy by some believers. The proper term is doubt, though, which is a healthy expression, and a prerequisite toward a mature belief and hope. Any follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any Christian religion, should acknowledge the inconsistencies demanded by Christian theology, which are:
• That belief is required without presentable evidence.
• That our father in heaven has deliberately abandoned us from palpable presence.
• And that for every claim of a Joseph Smith or a Thomas S. Monson, there are thousands of similar claims from prophets with hundreds of millions of adherents.
We cannot prove theology, and we should not try. Beliefs we hold dear may not affect others in the same manner. History exists which alleges those we worship as servants of God as sinners of lust and power.
The mystery of belief, if it can be defined, is that to doubt is to believe. Doubt turns sand into a rock. To not doubt is to omit an ingredient for faith and hope.
More will be written about David Hyrum Smith. There is an irony to his letters. Mental illness overcame him and he spent the last half of his life institutionalized. A melodramatic person might see his fate as God’s punishment. Such supercilious jeering may exist. But we should investigate the questions he shared with his brother. Failure to do so results in churches having a low activity rate.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The last years of William B. Smith a mix of persistent hope and pity


In 1878, William B. Smith, brother to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, apostle to the LDS Church in his early 20s, and briefly LDS Church patriarch in his mid-30s, was essentially forgotten. The most volatile member of the Smith family had not only been kicked out of the Utah Mormon church, he had been tossed from several other offshoots of post-Nauvoo Mormonism. He had even failed as a Baptist preacher. As 1878 began, there was one option left for Smith, now 66. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by his nephew, Joseph Smith III, was preparing a conference in Plano, Ill.
As Paul M. Edwards relates in the Dialogue magazine article “William B. Smith: The Persistent “Pretender,” (here) Smith III, who recognized his uncle’s value as a link to his father’s early church history, visited William. The pair discussed William’s proposed acceptance into the RLDS Church. At first, William demanded that he be inserted in the RLDS Quorum of the 12 Apostles. He also wanted to “be received into the Reorganization on the basis of his former membership.”
Smith III never seriously considered having his uncle be an apostle, but he was OK with William’s previous LDS affiliation qualifying him for membership into the RLDS church. As it was, William B. Smith was accepted into the church as a high priest. William’s official position with the RLDS was as a missionary in Hamilton, Mo. As mentioned, his value was reminiscing of his time with his more-famous late brother. However, the old “lost apostle” hadn’t yet lost his ambition. If he couldn’t be an apostle, William hoped he could become the RLDS Church patriarch. His rationale was that he had been the final “legitimate” patriarch with the Mormon church before its move to Utah.
Edwards includes this letter William wrote to the Saints Herald, an RLDS publication, saying: “that this office of Patriarch is an office that belongs in the Church of Christ; and that whosoever is appointed to fill the place left by the death of Hyrum Smith will hold the right to the same presiding authority. ... Joseph, inherited the patriarchate by lineal descent from Jacob who was the father of the twelve patriarchs; and from father Joseph Smith, the patriarchal office was given, as the revelation of 1841 declares, by blessing and by right, for such is the order of this evangelical priesthood handed down from father to son. ... It is the duty of the First Presidency to select and ordain the Patriarch, that is to fill the space left vacant by the death of Hyrum Smith.” (1881, 82)
A key problem with William’s effort is that the RLDS Church, at that time, had little use for the office of church patriarch. Edwards includes the comment of then-RLDS apostle Jason Briggs, who called the office of patriarch “a ‘wart upon the ecclesiastical tree, unknown in the Bible, or Book of Mormon.’” In fact, as Edwards adds, Briggs wanted to eradicate the office. Joseph Smith III put off William’s request to be church patriarch. Later, he learned that his uncle was considering writing a biography of Joseph Smith. At that time, the RLDS Church, and Smith III, were actively trying to preserve the fiction that Joseph Smith had not practiced polygamy, and that it was an invention of the Utah Mormons.
In Edwards’ article is this excerpt from an 1882 letter to William Smith from his nephew: “I have long been engaged in removing from father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of polygamy, and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And would not consent to see further blame attached, by blunder now. Therefore uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections of Joseph and Hyrum.”
In the letter, Joseph Smith III instructed his elderly uncle to only remember admirable things about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, meaning again, no mention of polygamy. Also, he mentions the possibility of William making money on the book “if the right sort of enterprising men got hold of it.”
As William Smith entered the final years of his life, money became his main goal. In 1891, at the age of 80, living in Osterdock, Iowa, with his wife, on a military pension of $84 a year, he began a correspondence with RLDS bishop, and apostle, William Kelly. Smith, too feeble to maintain ambitions of high ecclesiastical office, merely wanted to make ends meet. Again, these pleas from William were put off, although occasionally stipends of money would be sent to him.
The letters from William Smith include resentment that his requests for additional funds are largely ignored. In late 1891, asking for $8 a month remittance, Edwards notes some of the arguments he used: “William ... asked: Who helped remove the tar from Joseph Smith? Who stood guard for long hours to protect Joseph Smith’s life? Who was driven from his home and forced to move from place to place in the name of the church, sleeping on the ground and in tents, to do the work of the Lord in Iowa and Illinois? He closed the letter by telling Bishop Kelly that ‘I think it due me that you place a salary on my family of eight dollars per month.’”
Writing to Kelly in late 1892, William again criticized the RLDS Church for not having a patriarch: “Then there is the patriarchal office the seed of which was sown in the church among all the prophets, a seed that was planted ... in the church of 1830. ... My nephew is lame on some of these points, the Church under him is not yet perfect in organization ...”
A month before William Smith died on Nov. 18, 1893, Joseph Smith III asked his uncle for more “evidence” that polygamy was a creation of the Utah Mormons. William dutifully obliged, saying that the polygamy taught in Nauvoo was of “the Brigham party,” comprised of apostates.
The last years of William B. Smith were those of an old man who had sown his oats and was in pasture. A man who had more than once behaved like a rake and a thug was toothless. His unrealized desire to become RLDS patriarch was a compromise from earlier higher desires. The condescending deference paid William by his nephew probably met his needs, if not his wants. It is a pitiful, but not unhappy end for the brother of the prophet. After William’s death, the RLDS ordained a patriarch.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, June 26, 2017

Near-death experiences get treatment from a Mormon perspective

I’m fascinated by the pop science/theology behind near-death experiences. I’ve read the “Life After Life” books by Raymond Moody and several similar books. It was interesting to discover another book, “Glimpses Beyond Death’s Door,” by Brent L. and Wendy C. Top, from the publisher Covenant Communications, which strictly follows LDS theology and authority. One can assume that “Glimpses …” has been thoroughly vetted by LDS leaders.

The authors provide a fascinating, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, overview of near-death accounts, using many sources liberally with an emphasis on the “Journal of Near-Death Studies” and the book “Heaven and Hell,” by Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish Lutheran and scientist who claimed to have received access to the afterlife. Also, there are numerous discourses and writings from LDS Church leaders, including “Journal of Discourses” accounts from Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt.

If one had to summarize the “Glimpses …” approach quickly, it’d be, “throw out traditional, man-made concepts of crime and punishment” and “law and order.” Based on a consistency in nature of the NDE accounts compiled, compassion and love are the dominating sensations experienced at death. Whether greeted by family members, a guardian angel, or a life reviewer, death appears to be a very positive experience. Many didn’t want to return and were unaffected by the grieving of family members and friends.

(I will digress here to mention that for this essay, I am assuming that these experiences are real, although other than the amount of professed NDEs out there, they certainly can’t be proven. Belief in divinity, an afterlife, or other theological claims cannot be proven, and that’s why heated debate usually leads nowhere. But even for skeptics, I’d wager the topic has interest.)

LDS theology teaches that after death, we go to a spirit world, which is located here on earth, but in another sphere which we can’t see as mortals. Much of “Glimpses …” is devoted to taking the many NDEs of Swedenborg, Moody and others, and applying what they witnessed as glimpses into an LDS-taught afterlife spirit world. While readers must be aware that the authors can pick and choose sources as they wish, the Tops do make an effort to put most precedence on NDEs from non-Mormon sources.

Based on “Glimpses …,” it’s clear that death, and the subsequent journey into a spirit existence, is not a place where a “true church,” or “true gospel,” is revealed to newly arrived spirits. In fact, the most persons who have had NDEs, the authors claim, experience a jump in spirituality, but not any discernible move toward a particular religion. In fact, the afterlife spirit world, based on many of the NDE accounts, is a place where autonomy, the ability to choose, still exists for the deceased person.

Despite being in a sphere that is more advanced than earth’s (time travel and increased, almost effortless comprehension of reason, memory and why bad things happen have been reported) there is no traditional purgatory or hell. However, most accounts show a separation of spirits based on knowledge accumulated and charitable love expressed for others while on earth. The spirits who might be in a place considered “paradise” are not tethered to their own self interests or to so-called worldly pleasures. They want to serve others. They also appear to shine with a greater light. Spirits who might be considered to be in a “prison” are focused on their own personal needs or worldly indulgences. It is hypothesized that these latter group of spirits, still obsessed with the world and themselves, are those who haunt TV ghost shows, or seances, etc.

Not surprisingly, spirits tend to congregate based on similarities of light and interests. It is hypothesized by many that more self-centered spirits are simply not comfortable within the light that more “righteous” spirits possess. Hence, “hell” or spirit “prison” is defined not as an application of pain, but an inability to comfortably exist with other, more righteous people. (This frequent NDE observation may be one reason that conservative, fundamentalist Christians, who preach a literal hell of eternal pain and fire, are often very skeptical of NDEs.)

In “Glimpses …,” the authors point to these distinctions, personal autonomy, and the absence of a “true church” or “gospel” as evidence that missionary work is active in the afterlife spirit world. This is one main concept, of course, that distinguishes this NDE book from others. What may surprise LDS readers of “Glimpses …” is that missionary work in the spirit world appears to be harder than missionary work here on earth. The Tops quote Swedenborg, who describes an afterlife of spirits waiting to be taught more information, but not until they are ready to receive it.

One of the more interesting concepts of afterlife found in “Glimpses …” is that it is far harder to convert a spirit than it was during that spirit’s mortal existence. That’s because a spirit retains all that he or she learned — secular or non-secular — into the spirit world. Personalities and beliefs are molded in life, as well as passions, biases, prejudices and pride. In other NDEs recounted in “Glimpses …,” persons who had been skeptics of divine authority while on earth were observed still believing what they had once taught, and rationalizing, in a manner favorable to their own self interests, what they were now experiencing.

The idea that persons are assigned in the afterlife based on where they feel comfortable is similar to the C.S. Lewis novella, “The Great Divorce,” where residents of “hell” are taken on a journey to “heaven,” where spirits there minister to those in hell and attempt to convince them to remain with them, endure some discomfort (a metaphor for repentance), and live in heaven. Most of the travelers reject the offer, either because they are still afflicted with self pride and self pity, or, interestingly, believe that they are already in heaven.

That may sum up a key theme of “Glimpses …,” which is that in the spirit world, we end up basically where we are most comfortable. In Mormon doctrine, this requires a Millennium’s worth of missionary work, and the attendant effort to bring everyone to knowledge of God’s plan of salvation. Rather than viewed condescendingly, or as a tool to argue with, “Glimpses …” can be an interesting — and unique — opportunity to learn how Mormon theology views NDEs and how it fits into its doctrine.

-       Doug Gibson
A version of this column was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mormonism’s secret to success is its imperfections



I was watching Richard Bushman on DVD speak at some conference or other, the DVD — bought at alas, a remaindered discount at Seagull — doesn’t say where the conference was, or maybe I missed that information. In any event, Bushman is a valuable resource to learning about Mormon history.

He reminds us that history demands a catholic interpretation. When learning about Joseph Smith, for example, it’s just as important to learn what his critics thought of him as it is to learn what his most devoted adherents thought. And, it’s important to see all sides of an historical figure — the good and the bad.

Unfortunately, too often in politics and religion, many of us are simply unable to grasp that there is an opposing viewpoint worth respecting or flaws in our religious and political heroes. We know these negatives must exist; we live our own lives, with our personal doubts, failures and shortcomings. But the pedestal fantasy still grasps us.

I like this quote from Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling”: “Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an examplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish.”

A secular reason for Mormonism’s success, or staying power, is its lack of perfection. In “Rough Stone Rolling,” all the contradictions and setbacks that accompany a full life are listed: dabblings in money-digging as a youth; vigilante activities; distinct accounts of LDS revelations; political demagoguery; failed financial ventures; and the secrecy of plural marriage.

Moral of the story: Learning, and correcting, builds lasting endurance.

There are many reasons Smith’s church has endured beyond the “God’s work will never stop” rhetoric we hear each Sunday. Bushman cites at least three in “Rough Stone Rolling”:

• One is that the young LDS prophet did not make himself the center of early missionary experts. Since Mormonism was not a cult of personality, it was able to pick itself up and thrive after the shock of Smith’s Carthage martyrdom.

• Also, doctrines such as latter-day revelation, the gathering of Israel and a priesthood authority — all progressive in that era — was a chief appeal of Mormonism to its early converts.

• Another doctrine Bushman cites as having great missionary appeal was the temple endowments, which he opines offered converts the feeling of a “direct access to God.”

Truth is, any review of Mormonism’s early history is replete with as many failures as successes. Large swaths of the early church members, including most of the original Twelve Apostles, left the church. Many people who left the early church were justified in their anger that drove them from Mormonism. We shouldn’t try to deny that.

On the DVD, Bushman is asked how he can write histories that delve into Smith’s treasure hunting and polygamy deceptions and not meet the fate of other LDS historians, who have been disciplined by church leaders. Bushman’s answer: It’s how you conduct and write about your research. If you don’t deliberately poke certain people, your research is better received.

Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek answer, but true. Bushman has found a solution that works for him. As an active Mormon, he treats Smith as a prophet, not doubting his visions or revelations. But he also reminds us that he was a man, subject to imperfections. The result is the best biography of Smith since Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History.”

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, June 12, 2017

1850s LDS publication touts grandeur, threatens celibacy to promote polygamy


I have the privilege to own, hold and read the Saturday, April 9, 1853 edition of The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, published in London. I procured this copy via Ebay. The issue was devoted to an enthusiastic, at times clever, defense of polygamy, which the LDS Church had recently admitted it espoused. It’s interesting, and even gratifying, to read such an audacious defense of a doctrine that was as unpopular then as it still is. Unabashedly, the pub proclaims that without polygamy, husbands and wives are doomed to celibate, servant-like jobs in the hereafter ministering to their polygamous peers with husbands hopscotching between kingdoms while distinct wives sit on thrones raising children who grow in intelligence.
It’s a fascinating piece of history. Can anyone imagine if today’s LDS pubs, which are vanilla-boring compared to the Millennial Star, spoke so boldly to “gentiles” on celestial glory? The lead article was “A familiar conversation between two cousins, on marriage,” featuring Nelly, wife to George, and Abby, wife to Mormon John. It’s very entertaining, and no doubt was persuasive to many working-class Brits of that era. At the beginning, Nelly is contemptuous of Abby’s plans to share her husband with other wives, remarking, “… I would just like to pick one or two women for him that I could select; I’ll warrant that my George would have to be content with his Nelly, ever after! …”
Obviously, this conversation/debate is geared toward Abby persuading Nelly to the virtues of polygamy. Abby suggests that Nelly consider and pray about it. She tells her cousin that neither of them have the right to their husbands if the marriage is not bound by the Lord. Because her husband John has been called by God to be a “Prince Regent,” Abby is willing to share him with other wives. She says, “… Now if God is appointing His sons on the earth to fill thrones and occupy many principalities, and my husband means to be as worthy to fill thrones as others, then I will be content to share with him one throne, and rejoice at the same time to see others share with him other thrones, while my capacity will not allow me to share any more than my own. …”
Later, Abby goes for Nelly’s debate jugular when she tells her cousin that in the matter of sexual companionship in the afterlife, it’s either eternal polygamy or eternal celibacy. “…But dear cousin, the great question is this — will we unite with the plurality Order of Ancient Patriarchs, or will we consent voluntarily to be doomed to eternal celibacy? This is the true division of the question. One or the other we must choose. We cannot be married to our husbands for eternity, without subscribing to the law that admits a plurality of wives. …”
The “conversation” is an excellent polemic. It gets to the major concerns that a “Nelly” and “George” might naturally feel when contemplating an afterlife. Will they be together? Does God have some plan of eternal progression? “Abby” also argues to “Nelly” that polygamy provides more intellectual and physically fit children, grandchildren and future offspring. “Abby” later answers “Nelly’s” concern that other wives would undermine her by saying that larger families, if under the order of Abraham, “…enjoy a greater amount of intelligence, and a greater share of love also, than you possibly could in that single, contracted order which you seem to desire … In the former order your children are all the lawful heirs of thrones and kingdoms, and in your favourite order they are only the heirs of servile inferiority.”
Later in the conversation, Abby tries to persuade Nelly that polygamy provides a more moral and righteous social order than the norm and that it makes men less prone to adulterous behavior. The conversation is continued to the next issue, which I’d love to get a copy of. However, they can be read online at many sources, including from here.
As history reveals, polygamy was not to Abby’s hope. It caused poverty and heartbreak for many Utah women and near ruin for the LDS Church, which has been excommunicating earthly polygamists for 100-plus years. But it conveys the fierce pride in “The Principle,” that motivated so many smart, talented women, such as Emmeline Wells and Eliza R. Snow, to live it. I recently read where the great apostle Parley P. Pratt envisioned an afterlife of limitless Gods rushing here and there, from worlds to worlds, constantly busy creating plans of salvation. From this 1853 relic, I can see where those beliefs have a genesis.
The rest of the issue has an entertaining mix of articles. Their is a segment on the history of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several mission reports, including Burma and Switzerland, a reprint of a New York Herald editorial on the spiritual decline of the U.S. This is accompanied by an editorial comment that blasts the U.S. and assigns the ills mentioned to that nation having “refused the principles of life, and rejected the doctrine of immediate revelation, when they were taught them by a living Prophet of the Lord. …” There is a strong last-days apocalyptic tone to the rebuke. It ends with, “Then let the nations beware, for the Almighty is not trifling with them.”
There is a poem, Palestine, by a J.L. Lyne, more tidbits from other newspapers, notices of recent church publications, financial reports, and a strong essay against adultery, which cleverly points to the Utah settlement as the moral example of the nation. As mentioned, it’s a fascinating bit of history, and I hope to find more publications of that era.
-- Doug Gibson
This column originally was published online as a StandardNet blog post.