Sunday, December 10, 2017

'American Crucifixion' a recap of murder of Joseph Smith


Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist, has penned a new Mormon-themed history, “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church,” 2014, PublicAffairs Books. This relatively slim volume, 334 pages, is not a scholarly book, and its exteriors -- including characterizations of major characters, including Smith and newspaper publisher Thomas Sharp -- lack depth. However, the events in Carthage, Illinois, where Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed by a Warsaw, Ill. mob, goaded in part by Sharp and others, is covered well by the author. Also, the sham trial that exonerated “suspects” who were not among the chief murderers is also well-recapped by Beam.
Beam accurately describes how the enemies of the Mormon Church, once they had Hyrum and Joseph Smith in Carthage, deliberately and patiently lay in wait for the proper opportunity to strike. The courts were on their side; a faux charge was approved by a hostile judge to make sure the Smiths stayed in jail, avoiding a bond release. Thomas Ford, the weak, impotent, self-important governor of Illinois, accurately described by Beam as “pusillanimous,” was easily played by the mob. Ford, a truly ridiculous figure, was traveling to Nauvoo to make a pompous speech to the Latter-day Saints when the Smiths were murdered.
The Carthage Greys, a militia hostile to Mormons, were “guarding” the Carthage jail. One June 27, 1844, the Greys were uncharacteristically slow to defend an attack on the jail by two Warsaw militias. As Beam recounts, the Smith brothers were not in a secure cell, but in a guest room. While companions John Taylor and Willard Richards helped try to keep the mob out, Hyrum Smith was killed by shots through the door. Joseph Smith, who had a small firearm, wounded some of the attackers but was overwhelmed and shot by attackers in the jail and outside firing through a window. Smith, mortally wounded, fell from a second-floor window and was later riddled with bullets. Taylor was badly wounded but survived; Richards suffered only a scratch.
As Beam notes, the murders occurred in minutes, and Carthage was soon emptied of mob participants, now worried that thousands of Mormons would hunt them to avenge the Smiths’ deaths. However, church members were in shock after the violent deaths, and exhortations from Richards not to avenge the murders were overwhelmingly accepted. The Mormons instead focused on a long series of discussions and disputes over who would succeed Smith as church leader. After the murder trial which exonerated Sharp and other Mormon-haters, the anti-Mormon persecution resumed until the majority of Mormons left Nauvoo to go west with Brigham Young.
I have problems with Beam’s portrayal of Joseph Smith and the Mormons of Nauvoo. I’m not looking for a hagiography, and I’m as tired as anyone of the Mormon-themed films that portray Smith as if he has a halo. But Beam casts Joseph Smith as an extreme narcissist, a one-dimensional mixture of lechery, deceit and megalomania. I’m sure many see him that way but one should be allowed a better depiction of an historical figure as complex and gifted as the Mormon Church’s founder. To Beam, Smith appears no better than scoundrels such as Dr. John Bennett, or ill-fated “successor” James J. Strang. They are appropriately historical footnotes, Smith’s legacy includes a church of 14 million.
Smith had faults, and he merits a complex overview. The man who created a city of 10,000 and a church of 20,000, and whose death did not destroy his church, or heartfelt devotion among members to the controversial doctrine of polygamy, needs a deeper study than Beam allows. One tactic used by the author is the “freak show” depiction, in which visitors to Nauvoo who were repelled by Smith are provided as sources; one is a future mayor of Boston, one the son of a U.S. president. This tactic was used often against Utah Mormons in the 19th century, with condescending visitors to Salt Lake City later trashing Young, Parley P. Pratt, or others in articles or books.
Beam does a good explaining the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper, started by Mormon leader turned dissident William Law. Smith’s approval of this unwise act served as the prelude to the murders. Nevertheless, the term “rabid anti-Mormons” is not enough to wonder why the antipathy was so deadly. Much of the blame falls to the yellow journalist Sharp, but his character is never explored in sufficient detail. Beam, in an effort to set the scenario prior to the deaths, includes Nauvoo-strife anecdotes, but they are curiously lifeless, with the characters seeming to play roles rather than acting spontaneously.
Despite my concerns, I recommend “American Crucifixion” to readers. Like the Joseph Smith biography, “Rough Stone Rolling,” it does in part convey the isolation of Illinois, as well as the savage bloodlust that was allowed to flourish. The recap of the murders are terrifying. It captures the deliberate killings, as well as the temporary satiation of deadly impulses that the deaths accomplished.
Beam has included a couple of odd footnotes. On page 98, the author claims that Mormon apologists hid polygamy for decades after Nauvoo. But if the author had merely read easily accessible church publications, he would learn that the Mormons were advocating polygamy openly by 1852. Beam’s source for this claim is from “Elder” Ebenezer Robinson, long after Nauvoo. But he was no longer a Utah Mormon. In short, this source is in no position to support Beam’s claim of a long polygamy cover up.
Also, a key source of Beam’s, one Isaac Scott, is listed as a Mormon missionary in 1844 Nauvoo. Besides other quotes, Scott is used by the author to refute historical accounts that Joseph Smith thought he would not survive his jailing in Carthage. Smith is reputed by stronger sources than Scott as believing both he and Hyrum would be murdered. Also, Scott was a critic of Mormonism by early 1844 and subsequently emerged as an enemy as harsh of Smith as Law or Francis Higbee, former members turned apostates. Scott, who eventually became a follower of Strang, seems a poor choice to comment on Smith’s emotions as his death neared. He would not have had access to such information.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, the book’s account of the murders and the ensuing trial makes it worth a read.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardNet

Sunday, December 3, 2017

B.H. Roberts spent most of his life defending 'The Book of Mormon'


I ran across an interesting article in the Summer 1979 issue of Brigham Young University Studies. It’s “B.H. Roberts and The Book of Mormon,” and was written by Truman Madsen. Roberts was a remarkable man. Born in England, his birth father, and later a stepfather, both abandoned him and his family. He migrated to Utah early in his life and settled through a few rocky years struggling with the Word of Wisdom before straightening out, and eventually became a general authority at the age of 31.
He remained one for the rest of his life, dying in 1933 at 76. He served in World War I as a chaplain and was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1898, although that body refused to seat him because he was a polygamist. He married three wives and had 15 children.
Roberts was unique within the LDS hierarchy for his reasoning that evolution and Gospel doctrines did not conflict. He wrote a book, “The Truth, The Way, The Life,” that was not published due to the objections of creationist Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith. It eventually was published in 1994.
In the mid-1890s Roberts almost left the church over a disagreement on whether church authorities could be active in politics. He eventually apologized for the near apostasy.
Despite his maverick views, Roberts was respected by his colleagues in the church hierarchy. He was fascinated by “The Book of Mormon,” at one point calling it the “fifth Gospel.” He spent much of the second half of his life defending the book. According to Madsen’s piece, the unique doctrines of “The Book of Mormon” — so different from traditional christianity — and the biblical and historical knowledge within “The Book of Mormon” made it impossible for any man as unlearned as Joseph Smith to create it from scratch. “It imposes what Roberts called ‘a greater tax on human credulity’ to say Joseph Smith, or anyone in the nineteenth century, created it,” writes Madsen.
Roberts, explains Madsen, has a different viewpoint of what the book’s translation was like than perhaps the typical Latter-day Saint. Roberts did not regard it as “magical,” or in other words, just viewing the Urim and Thummim, seeing words, and writing them down. “On the contrary, ‘brain sweat’ was required, and preparation, and labor,” writes Madsen.
Besides, word-for-word translation is impossible, Roberts maintained. Smith had to use, in instances, what he had available to translate. That explains near copies of biblical chapters, biblical-like phrases, and even the inclusion of terms such as horses in “The Book of Mormon.”
Madsen lists 10 “attributes that define Roberts’ devotion to “The Book of Mormon.” One bit of information that surprised me was that Roberts enjoyed writing creative fiction based on “The Book of Mormon.” I hope it was better than most of the kitsch published today.
He wrote stories about Moroni, the Nephite nation and even a novel about Alma’s son, Corianton, which is described as “a tale of sneaking indulgence, and remorse and renewal.” I have read it and it’s a kitschy, fun read available for free on the Internet or via Kindle. Madsen adds that Roberts desperately wanted to see a major film based on “The Book of Mormon” produced. A movie was made of the Corianton novel, BYU has the only remaining copy and it was shown several years ago.
One category Madsen describes Roberts in regards to “The Book of Mormon” is the role of “devil’s advocate.” As mentioned earlier, Roberts intellect brought him much respect among general authorities. He spent many of the final years of his life providing church leaders with hypothetical attacks on the legitimacy of “The Book of Mormon.” These efforts, which Madsen compares to a skilled lawyer preparing to better understand a courtroom adversary, have led to claims that Roberts lost or questioned his testimony regarding “The Book of Mormon.”
Madsen doubts these assertions. Roberts told colleagues that these reports were never intended to be balanced. They were intended as tools to increase learning about “The Book of Mormon.”
Roberts’ greatest influence as a church leader is that his example reminds us that our beliefs need to be tested for them to grow. If they remain unchallenged, they stay weak and susceptible to failure in times of stress.
Yet Roberts remained in awe of the personal power “The Book of Mormon” gave him. Madsen writes, “Though renowned for his gifts as a speaker, B.H. Roberts agonized over the fact that he could never communicate the intensity, the power, the consuming white light that seemed to him to shine through the book.”
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardNET

Sunday, November 26, 2017

John Corrill an example of the older Christian primitivist converts to Mormonism


The early years of the Mormon Church are distinct for its young converts, with 20-something apostles embracing the progressive, radical-for-its-time distinctions between Joseph Smith’s Mormonism and the traditional Protestant Christianity. However, there was another type of early LDS convert; an older generation who embraced Christian primitivism, which encompassed a desire to return to strict Biblical principles, disdained “priestcraft,” and had a libertarian streak, mixed with republican ideals, that opposed a centralized church leadership dictating to local church groups. Most importantly, this type of convert would never place a prophet’s opinion over his own personal beliefs.
Given the direction the Mormon Church took over its 14-plus years with Smith solely at its helm, it’s not surprising that a substantial number of the older-generation converts did not stick with Mormonism. Perhaps the best example of this type of early Mormon convert who enjoyed prominence in the young church but later abandoned it is John Corrill, who is mentioned a couple of times in the Doctrine of Covenants. In the book “Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History,” University of Illinois Press, 1994, historian Kenneth H. Winn provides an interesting recap of Corrill’s life and tenure in Mormonism. A Christian primitivist, Corrill, who turned 36 in 1831, initially investigated Mormonism with a determination to expose its follies. However, Corrill, who admired the primitivist teachings of Alexander Campbell, was shocked when he heard Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbell advocate he admired, pitching Mormonism enthusiastically.
As Winn notes, Corrill, a Massachusetts native, read The Book of Mormon and decided he could not declare it a fraud. Also, Mormonism appealed to specific primitivists such as Corrill in that it contained a certainty of belief that they sought, whether with the Book of Mormon or a yearning for “a prophet who could speak for God.” He, as well as his wife and family, joined the church in 1831 in Ohio.
Soon after his baptism, Corrill, after serving a mission, was sent to Missouri to help develop the church’s growth there. He served under Bishop Edward Partridge. It was here that Corrill first clashed with Smith’s leadership. Both he and Partridge favored a more local control than Smith wanted, and both were criticized by the Mormon prophet. Also, Corrill foresaw the problems that would develop with mass migration of poor Mormon converts to land long dominated by non-Mormon Missourians. The combination of religious bigotry among Missourians as well as unwise boasting by saints of establishing a religious and political kingdom led to violence and conflicts that the Mormons would always lose over the years.
Despite the conflict with church leadership, Corrill mended his problems with Smith and according to Winn, had a very strong ecclesiastical relationship with the young prophet through the mid-1830s. In 1836, Winn notes, Corrill was appointed by Joseph Smith to head the completion of the Kirtland Temple. Corrill also developed a reputation of being the Mormon leader who was best able to negotiate with anti-Mormon elements in Missouri. By 1837, Corrill was a leading Mormon settler in Far West, Missouri, ”selected ... as the church’s agent and as the ‘Keeper of the Lord’s Storehouse,’” writes Winn.
But that was the peak that preceded the fall of Corrill’s tenure in the church. As tranquil as events in Far West were, an ill-fated banking endeavor in Kirtland by Smith and other church leaders was leading to apostasy and tense disputes between church leaders and native Missourians. Corrill, Winn writes, regarded the Kirtland monetary failure with “revulsion.” He saw the lust for wealth, and the subsequent fall, as evidence of “suffered pride.” Yet he was as critical of Smith’s dissenters as he was of the banking effort. Also, Corrill still believed that the overall church, with auxiliaries serving as checks and balances, could reform itself and maintain the better relations between Mormons and non-Mormons that still existed in Far West.
That was not to be. The turmoil of Kirtland followed the church to Far West. To cut to the chase, a speech by Rigdon, called the “Salt Sermon,” appalled Corrill. In it, Ridgon, comparing apostates to salt having lost its savor, argued that they could be “trodden under the foot of men.” In short, Rigdon said that the dissenters “deserved ill treatment.”
Corrill warned the dissenters that their safety was in danger. Later, the Danites, a Mormon vigilante group, was organized. The militant group frightened Corrill, who began to work against it in secret. As Winn explains, “The crisis that began in Kirtland and eventually swept Corrill up in Missouri marked a major turning point in early Mormon history, pitting the theocratically minded devotees of the prophet, who regarded opposition to the church leadership as opposition to God, against more libertarian minded dissenters, who rejected the First Presidency’s claim over their temporal affairs and the authoritarian demand for blind obedience.”
Corrill saw the Danites and Ridgon’s call for conflict in direct opposition to the Biblical belief that God is responsible for divine retribution. From this point on, 1838, Corrill was basically in wait to be excommunicated, no longer trusted by the Smith/Ridgon leadership of the church. Nevertheless, church leaders acknowledged Corrill’s reputation for honesty by electing him — with the Danites’ support — to the Missouri legislature. The final break between Smith and Corrill was over the church leadership’s call for a communal structure, which included church leaders being paid for work other than preaching. The communal structure was, Winn notes, allegedly voluntary, although pressure was exercised on members to contribute. “In any event,” Winn writes, “Corrill deeply disapproved of the revelation and readily shared his opinion with others.”
Despite his church status, Corrill worked without success in the Missouri legislature to push Mormon interests and even donated $2,000 of his own money to help the beleaguered saints. By the time his term ended, most of his constituency had fled the area. Ridgon’s rhetoric, and the Danites’ actions, had led to militias overwhelming the church and Smith, Rigdon and others being jailed. Corrill, now without a church and due to be excommunicated in early 1839, left his religion. He wrote a book, “A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in late 1839. It is an interesting read for its historical value. (here ) At the time though, it sold poorly and Corrill spent the last few years of his life in poverty. He died in 1842, leaving an estate of only $265.86. As Winn writes, “His integrity and basic decency were overshadowed by charges that he had betrayed the prophet and the church.” 
Corrill did offer testimony against Smith to Missouri court hostile to the Mormons. Richard Lyman Bushman, in his 2005 biography of Joseph Smith,also describes Corrill as a “the steady, clear-headed Missouri leader” who conflicted over how much free will he had to surrender to stay a faithful Mormon, and witnessing defeat after defeat, finally decided he had been deceived..
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardNet

Monday, November 20, 2017

The omniscient God from a Mormon perspective


The omniscience of God, or Heavenly Father, is a consistent theme in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.As Merriam Webster defines omniscient, it is, “knowing everything: having unlimited understanding or knowledge.” If God is omniscient, the argument goes, one must submit his or her will to God’s will. (Of course the great debate in the world is over exactly what God’s will is.)
In my religion, the LDS faith, the omniscience of God includes our Heavenly Father knowing exactly what choices we are going to make while we are on earth. In other words, if I cheat my neighbor, God knew I was going to do it. If I do something good, God knew I was going to do it. That’s always been a difficult doctrine for me. I accept it as a teaching, but it seems like the deck is already stacked — for or against — us while we are on earth.
The doctrine reminds me of predestination, the John Calvin idea that God has already selected which humans are going to heaven or hell. I still regard that doctrine as very flawed, but it took me years to understand that predestination is, at its heart, just another way for mortals to try to understand why evil things happen. While it’s fair to say — although I’m sure many will argue — that Mormonism teaches a very distant cousin to predestination, the Mormon’s omniscient God is very distinct.
A key distinction is that God’s omniscience arrives, in part, from our premortal existence. As the result of rearing children through a first pre-mortal estate, he knows us well enough to anticipate our decisions as mortals. This Mormon doctrine is well explained in the book, “All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience,” by the late LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell. (Here)
Maxwell writes: “Personality patterns, habits, strengths, and weaknesses observed by God over a long period in the premortal world would give God a perfect understanding of what we would do under a given set of circumstances to come. Just because we cannot compute all the variables, just because we cannot extrapolate does not mean that He cannot do so. Omniscience is, of course, one of the essences of Godhood; it sets Him apart in such an awesome way from all of us even though, on a smaller scale, we manage to do a little foreseeing ourselves at times with our own children even with our finite and imperfect minds.
“Ever to be emphasized, however, is the reality that God’s ‘seeing’ is not the same thing as His ‘causing’ something to happen.”
In Maxwell’s opinion, the “stumbling block” that myself, and others, have with this doctrine derives from a humanistic desire to “equalize everything, rather than achieving justice.” Maxwell goes further, and criticizes individuals who think they need a relationship with God. He asserts we already have a relationship with our Father in Heaven, and our chief responsibility is to get closer to our Father through worshiping him and living as He teaches us. Maxwell also asserts that we don’t own ourselves, rather we are in debt to Jesus Christ for providing a means for us to return to God. It is a debt everyone will acknowledge one day, Maxwell adds.
Mormonism teaches that earth is a second stage of our existence. The first state, premortal, was for cognitive learning. As Maxwell says, it was likely a much longer time frame. He writes: “The second estate, however, is one that emphasizes experiential learning through applying, proving and testing. … We have moved, as it were, from first-estate theory to second-estate laboratory. It is here that our Christlike characteristics are further shaped and our spiritual skills are thus strengthened.”
If God knows me so well that he can anticipate every move I make, he knows that I’m still wondering why billions and billions of his children live lives that are completely divorced from Christianity and any knowledge of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. To my admittedly mortal mind, this can seem anti-egalitarian.
Maxwell stresses in his book that our mortal minds cannot comprehend what God sees and knows. I can accept that, while at the same time understanding why a skeptic would regard that claim as manipulative. And I believe this statement. “Because of His omniscience and foreknowledge, God is, therefore, able to see His plan unfold safely. If He were less than omniscient and did not, in fact, operate out of perfect foreknowledge. His plan of salvation would by now be in shambles.” If one believes in God, one believes that virtue will triumph.
I believe God tolerates, even encourages, minds that want to wrestle a while. To absorb a doctrine without questions seems counterproductive. Ultimately, however, it’s fair to say a believer must submit his will to an omniscient God. To do otherwise is to deny the God’s deity and power over us.
Mormonism is unique in that we also believe that there are 15 men who are called of God as ecclesiastical presidents and apostles. Consequently, we are taught that they occasionally speak the will of God. Unlike the omniscient God, however, His representatives on earth sometimes eventually change their minds, and inspire debate.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, November 13, 2017

The mummy's curse and the Book of Abraham


In 1967, some of the ancient Egyptian papyri that LDS leader Joseph Smith claimed to translate as The Book of Abraham (part of the LDS scripture "Pearl of Great Price") was discovered.
Since even before that time, debate has raged over what the scrolls of papyri really say. Faithful Mormons accept Smith's claims. Most academics who have studied the papyri -- photos of which were made available by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- have concluded that they are funerary texts.
The debate has heated up in recent years with a book, "The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition," published by the Smith-Petit Foundation and distributed by Signature Books, both of Salt Lake City.
It is a complete translation of all of the papyri that we have on what is claimed as The Book of Abraham.
The translator is Egyptologist Dr. Robert Ritner, of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. The book also includes essays, from other scholars, which cover how the Mormons acquired the papyri texts, as well as explorations of subjects associated with the texts.
Ritner does not support Smith's claims about the texts. They are ordinary funerary texts of that era, he maintains, with no relationship to Abraham, Joseph or other LDS doctrines.
"I don't care what people believe, but if (they) are going to say that the papyri say something, then it falls under my expertise," says Ritner.
Ritner's criticisms are sometimes barbed and directed at LDS scholars, such as the late Hugh Nibley and Brigham Young University Egyptologist John Gee, a former student of his.
One critique Ritner has of Smith's translations is that the LDS Church founder "could not distinguish deities from humans, females from males, or even human from animal figures!" (In a footnote, Ritner adds, "Smith mistook Osiris, Maat and Anubis as humans rather than gods, Isis and Maat as male, and the jackal Anubis as human.")
"You can have faith, but you can't have scholarship," says Ritner, who adds that one value of Smith's translations is the connection to how Egyptian artifacts were regarded in the Western world in the first half of the 19th century. A traveling salesman sold mummies and papyri to the young LDS Church in 1835 for the equivalent of $60,000 today.
To Ritner, the "case is closed." What Smith claimed, and the LDS Church claims today, is simply false, he says.
Ironically, that certainty of Ritner's may be the weakest point of his arguments. One can make a case that to draw any conclusion that science is settled can be called unscientific.
With ancient Egyptian-era digs going on in the world, it's an audacious claim to say that part of a book that millions regard as scripture is forever concluded to be a hoax.
Many LDS scholars and academics also provide counter arguments. One LDS scholar, who declined to be quoted in this story, said there are other theories on how to translate grammar in the ancient records.
Also, he took issue with the definition of "funerary texts," arguing that in Egyptology, any scrolls or papyri found in a burial can be called "funerary texts," regardless of the subject matter. Even if it's a pharaoh stealing brides and putting priests to death, if it's found in a burial, it can be classified as a "funerary text," even if that's inconsistent, he maintains.
LDS scholars also believe that the lost papyri contain more information. Ritner disagrees. He says that, based on the several years of research and translation that he completed, there cannot be large texts of funerary text missing. Funerary information isn't that large.
The debate over The Book of Abraham will likely never end. Perhaps the most argumentative position is skepticism with how modern Egyptologists interpret ancient Egyptian texts.
In "A Method for Studying the Facsimiles," from a 2007 FARMS review article, Gee writes, "One temporary conclusion must be stressed: To date there has been no methodologically valid interpretation of any of the facsimiles from an ancient Egyptian point of view."
That's a position that Ritner would, in this case, disagree with. But certainly more will be published.
The debate rages on. Call it "the mummy's curse."
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardNET

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mormon folklore as diverse, tragic and humorous as other religions


A friend loaned me a book published in 1956, "Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore Among the Mormons," by Austin and Alta Fife, that turned into a treasure over the weekend I read it.

"Saints of Sage..." is a collection of Mormon folk tales and tall tales. Anecdotes abound from diverse sources that include prophets and pioneers. The prologue essay, "A Mormon from the Cradle to the Grave," is just plain outstanding. It's folksy and witty, irreverent but never disrespectful. Latter-day Saints, warts and all, are captured in this book, but there's always an affection underneath the banter.

I'd wager that any reader who has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for at least 40 years can recall hearing some of the folklore related in the book. One anecdote on polygamy recalls two LDS apostles on the way to Idaho to attend a church meeting passing a school with children tumbling out of the schoolhouse. A non-Mormon reverend turned to the apostle and asked him if the scene reminded him of his childhood. The apostle replied, "No, it reminds me of my father's backyard."

Long ago, when the church was more interesting (as my friend Cal Grondahl says), devils were frequently cast out of hijacked members and the Three Nephites tended not to be so publicity shy. In one anecdote, one of the Nephite trio is generous enough to show himself to an elderly lady who praised God that late in her life her prayer to see a Nephite perform a miracle had been answered. LDS folklore has it that Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois, who failed to protect the Prophet Joseph Smith, died loathsome, unpopular and in poverty. Another past anecdote involves LDS apostle and Logan Temple president Marriner W. Merrill arguing with Satan himself in his temple office, Old Scratch having visited to request that Merrill stop temple proceedings.

The LDS belief in a pre-existence is noted in the book. Allegedly the LDS Prophet Wilford Woodruff warned in his journal that there were literally trillions of Satan's army on earth doing their best to lead them astray. Woodruff's calculation of the earth holding 1 trillion people at a time seems way too high to this reviewer, though. Nevertheless, the Mormon belief in a pre-mortal existence is very personal to members, who worry that they may have lost friends and family members to Lucifer long ago. It can provide mixed emotions on how to respond to temptation of a personal nature.

No book on Mormon folklore would be any good if there wasn't a section on the legendary, cussing, LDS leader J. Golden Kimball. He has a chapter in "Saints of Sage ..." The former mule skinner once said, "Yeah, I love all of God's children, but there's some of them that I love a damn sight more than I do others."

Kimball also possessed wit: When former LDS U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot wanted to marry, he boasted to Kimball that he had just received the blessing of LDS Prophet Heber J. Grant. Kimball dead-panned, "Well now, I just don't know, Reed. I just don't know. You're a pretty old man, you know. And Sister Sheets, she's a pretty young woman. And she'll expect more from you than just the laying on of hands."

And once, during an excommunication trial for a man accused of adultery, Kimball, after hearing the man admit to being in bed with the married woman but not having sex with her, laconically said, "Brethren, I move that the brother be excommunicated. It's obvious that he doesn't have the seed of Israel in him."

The Mountain Meadows Massacre, and its aftermath, created much darker folklore. The wife of a Southern Utah Mormon, in the brief interlude where the spared young children of the slain settlers were being cared for in LDS homes, recalls a woman coming to her in her garden asking to see her child. She was led into the house. The Mormon wife followed the mysterious visitor, who disappeared the moment she reached the room where the child was.

"Saints of Sage and Saddle" is folklore history that the interested will spend hours poring over. Besides the tales, there are old LDS hymns, period photos and an index for quick reference. I choose to end this column with a song Mormons once enjoyed I encountered in this book, and once sung by Ogden's L.M. Hilton:

The Boozer
I was out upon a flicker and had had far too much liquor,
And I must admit that I was quite pie-eyed,
And my legs began to stutter, and I lay down in the gutter
And a pig arrived and lay down by my side.
As I lay there in the gutter with my heart strings all aflutter,
A lady passed and this was heard to say,
You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses.
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

--Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Orson F. Whitney biography captures the contradictions of faith


Orson F. Whitney, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for almost a quarter century in the early part of the 20th century, is perhaps best known today for a 1929 speech delivered a little more than a year before his death.
As Dennis Horne, author of the biography, “The Life of Orson F. Whitney,” Cedar Fort Inc., notes, at the April 1929 LDS General Conference, Whitney promised faithful parents that their wayward children would be saved if they, the parents, remained faithful to their spiritual covenants. “Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, ’till you see the salvation of God,” Whitney promised in his discourse.
As Horne mentions, Whitney was certainly thinking of his eldest son, Horace “Race” Whitney, who had strayed from his parents’ faith. Race Whitney, a journalist and hopeful playwright, had been married and divorced twice -- to the same woman -- before he died of causes related to alcoholism at age 28.
Whitney is frankly more of a Wikipedia entry than a well-known historical figure of Mormonism.
Horne has affectionately focused on a life that bridged early Utah Mormonism to 20th century growth of the religion (1855-1930).
Using mostly the subject’s diary entries and autobiography, the author has constructed a life story interesting as much for its contradictions and secrets as for Whitney’s several-decades devotion to Mormonism. After a rocky start to adulthood, Whitney -- the son of Horace K. Whitney and Helen Mar Kimball, plural wife to Joseph Smith Jr. -- served a mission to Ohio and Pennsylvania at the age of 21. 
Now entrenched in his family faith, a new Salt Lake City bishop, Whitney married his first wife Zina Beal Smoot, and a year later, the new father was shipped to a second mission across the Atlantic Ocean to England where the first contradictions and secrets of Whitney’s life are revealed.
As Horne notes, Whitney was an emotional man, susceptible to praise and flattery. He also was a literary man, who would later write a four-volume History of Utah, two novel-size poems, and ghost write many articles for LDS leaders.
In England, Whitney entered a mission that was rife with dysfunctional behavior. The mission president, LDS apostle Albert Carrington, was later excommunicated for adultery while serving as mission leader and another missionary, Charles W. Stayner, was preaching a version of Mormonism that included reincarnation. During the mission, Whitney apparently made an energetic attempt to make a 16-year-old girl convert his plural wife, but was stymied by her mother’s objections.
As Horne relates, Whitney became a convert of Stayner’s theories for almost two decades, and was a driving force of a semi-secret Mormon group that discussed reincarnation and devised strategies to make Stayner the eventual prophet of the LDS Church. In fact, as his devotion to Stayner increased, Whitney partially supported his friend at the expense of his own family, and even lobbied LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow on reincarnation and Stayner.
During much of this time, Whitney was both a bishop and assistant church historian, as well as a noted author and poet in Utah. While it’s likely his long flirtation with reincarnation delayed his calling as an apostle, it never seemed close to harming his church membership, even as apostles and others publicly denounced the reincarnation doctrine.
It’s hard not to compare Whitney’s late 19th century obsession with changing the church’s position on reincarnation with the current Ordain Woman movement. The former, of course, did not lead to excommunication. Eventually Stayner, still a member of the church, died and soon afterward Whitney recanted his divergent beliefs, which essentially paved his way to an apostleship.
Horne’s biography is hampered because Whitney destroyed and edited large portions of his diary as he grew older. Examples of tampered diary entries include his relationships with Stayner, the English convert teen, some entries on reincarnation, and emotional affairs with some women (most notably Mary Laura Hickman) that Whitney would have clearly chosen as plural wives had he been allowed.
After the Second Manifesto of 1904, the LDS church hierarchy cracked down on polygamy, severely disciplining those who continued the principle. After he became an apostle in 1906, Horne notes that Whitney had the unpleasant task of disciplining longtime church members for polygamy, including former apostle and mentor John W. Taylor.
Whitney still believed in polygamy privately. There also is another confidante of Whitney’s, named “Dick,” who may have had the same Svengali-like effect on the apostle that Stayner once had. As with other potentially controversial aspects of his life, much of that subject was self-censored.
Before his first wife died in 1900, Whitney had one plural wife, Mary (May) Minerva Wells, the sister of a woman he had loved as a youth who had died. They had two children quickly but then were childless, although they stayed married until Whitney’s death. Frankly, there is not much of May in the diaries that Horne shares in his biography (Mary Laura Hickman is far more often on Whitney’s mind, for example) and one suspects that the couple’s relationship may have been strained.
Whitney’s health began to fail when he was called to be the LDS European Mission president in the early 1920s. The strain of dealing with a media assault on Mormonism in that country and added health problems to his prostate and kidney left him an invalid who could not even read by the time he returned to Utah. He regained his strength and served admirably as an apostle for the rest of his life.
In another example of his life of bridging generations, he was one of the first LDS leaders to often speak on KSL Radio. He died of pneumonia about a month after giving his final conference talk in April 1930.
Horne’s biography is an affectionate account of a man who deeply loved his religion and the men who led it. A bishop for three decades and apostle for 24 years, he expended all his talents, including writing and speaking, for his faith. As the book notes, he had failings and crisis of faith. That makes him real, and much preferable to the plaster saints that are sometimes constructed in hagiographies.
The biography is available here.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardNET