Monday, May 21, 2018

Martin Harris: gullible, amiable, dedicated, prone to bumbling

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Martin Harris, one of two of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon to die a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To my knowledge, no esteemed biography of Harris has been written, although H. Michael Marquardt has written a strong article of his years in Kirtland 1830-1870 in the Fall 2002 issue of Dialogue. (read) Harris is an important man in Mormon history. Without his farm being mortgaged, publication of The Book of Mormon would have been delayed. But Harris, born in 1783, was also a gullible soul, an amiable, man prone to hyperbole and bumbling, a sort of “Chief Wiggum” of Mormon history; a man who would walk the straight and narrow like a drunk trying to maneuver a policeman’s chalk line.

However, let there be no dispute that Martin Harris believed in The Book of Mormon. Like the other witnesses, he never recanted his testimony. The one-time wealthy farmer remained prosperous until he mortgaged his farm and provided other funds to raise $5,000, a small fortune, to publish the Book of Mormon. To give one an idea of how much $5,000 was in 1831, one can note that $5,000 in 1913 is worth $114,000 today. Not surprisingly, Harris’ wife, Lucy, was opposed to her husband paying the tab for the restored scripture. Mormon lore has it that Harris, the original transcriber, begged Smith for the first 116 pages of translated material, brought it home, and promptly lost it. In my youth, I was always told the “shrewish” Mrs. Harris was to blame. One Sunday school teacher told me she took the pages and burned them in the fireplace? (In the recent “Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold” film, a more mystical, divine explanation was offered — the missing pages disappeared from a locked drawer.) In any event, Harris has always played the bumbling, foolish, dimwitted “heavy” who deprived the world of “The Book of Lehi.”

To add insult to injury, the Book of Mormon received negative reviews and poor sales, and Harris lost his farm, and later his wife.

Harris remained committed to Mormonism, though, and became an early LDS traveling elder. However, like other witnesses Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, he later apostasized from the original LDS Church, the reason was the failure of a church-sponsored financial institution in 1837 Kirtland. That was a stressful time for the young church, as many members lost both their savings and faith as a result of the ill-advised financial venture. However, Harris remained on the pheriphery of the LDS Church — after Lucy’s death in 1836, he had married 22-year-old Caroline Young, a niece of Brigham Young, and had seven children with her.

In 1840, Harris was back in the LDS Church and lived in Nauvoo. When Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844, Harris did not accompany Brigham Young and other members to the Rocky Mountains. By now an old man, he became a Mormonism offshoot-hopper, aligning himself with James J. Strang, David Whitmer, Gladden Bishop, William Smith, and even the Shakers. In one, humiliating instance, Harris, financed by Strang to preach in England shortly after Smith’s murder, was shunned and ridiculed by Mormon leaders. According to Marquardt’s Dialogue piece, an LDS newspaper of that era warned against Harris, saying “his own unbridled tongue will soon show out specimens of folly enough to give any person a true index of the character of the man.”

As he became more erratic, Harris’ slowly descended into poverty and obscurity. In the mid 1850s, his wife Caroline left him and — with their children — went to Utah. Harris became a self-appointed caretaker of the deserted LDS temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and described himself as a Mormon preacher.

For the Harris family, and the LDS Church, the saga of Martin Harris had a happy ending. As 1870 approached, sympathetic Mormon missionaries, feeling compassion for the 87-year-old Harris, raised money for him to join his family in Utah. In an 1881 issue of The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, taken from earlier Deseret News reports, there is an account of Harris’ return to “Zion.” Not surprisingly, it recounts perhaps the last encounter with the supernatural Martin Harris experienced. I quote from the article: “A very singular incident occurred at this time. While Martin was visiting his friends, bidding them farewell, his pathway crossed a large pasture, in which he became bewildered, dizzy, faint and staggering through the blackberry vines that are so abundant in that vicinity, his clothes torn, bloody and faint, he lay down under a tree to die. After a time, he revived, called on the Lord, and finally at twelve midnight, found his friend, and in his fearful condition was cared for and soon regained his strength. He related this incident as a snare of the adversary to hinder him from going to Salt Lake City.”

Harris was rebaptized upon his arrival in Utah. He eventually moved to Clarkston and lived, by all accounts, happily until his death there at age 92 in 1875. To this day, Clarkston hosts The Martin Harris Pageant, a play based on his life that attracts thousands to the small community.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, May 14, 2018

Is Heavenly Mother a headache for Heavenly Father?

(This blog was first published at StandardBlogs in March of 2012)
Listen to these words from the LDS hymn, “O My Father”:  “In the heav’ns are parents single? No, the thought makes reason stare! Truth is reason, truth eternal Tells me I’ve a mother there.” It’s a beautiful hymn, written by Eliza R. Snow. We sang it in our ward yesterday. No doubt it was sung in hundreds of other LDS wards and branches. (link)
It’s clear Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother. So why does she gets so little press? My colleague Cal Grondahl quips it’s because she left Heavenly Father a long time ago. Jokes aside, it may because my faith’s doctrine teaches, or has taught, that while there’s only one Heavenly Father, there’s a lot of Heavenly Mothers. In an earlier blog, I visited an 1853 edition of the LDS publication, The Millennial Star, with an article where “Abby” tries to persuade “Nelly” to the virtues of polygamy. (link) “Abby” argues, “… 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. …”
Blogger Joanna Brooks talked about a hoped-for Heavenly Mother resurgence in a blog last year (Read) It hasn’t occurred in the chapels, although there’s a very interesting discussion about our maternal goddess here. BYU Studies published an excellent piece on Heavenly Mother’s relevance in Mormonism that can be accessed here.
Heavenly Mother was talked about in LDS churches long go, whether by Brigham Young, BH Roberts, etc. What many don’t realize is that Mormonism was once a progressive, eccentric religion that shocked everyone. Much of that history has been toned down, to put it mildly, the past few generations. In fact, a generation ago, members were urged by the church’s First Presidency not to talk about Heavenly Mother. Some believe that was a reaction by church leaders worried about feminist efforts to harness Heavenly Mother.
So, is Heavenly Mother a headache for Heavenly Father? It’s an interesting question. I’d sure like to hear more about her in church. My guess is that the constant fears about revisiting Mormonism’s fascinating history is why there is this “sacred silence,” as some have called it. The doctrine of polygamy, eternal life, godhood, and eternal worlds leads to the conclusions that God is dealing with scores, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of “Heavenly Mothers.”
Nevertheless, My Heavenly Mother, even if she shares my Heavenly Father with a lot of other spouses, is a god. I’d like to learn more about her before I have an opportunity to meet her personally. I bet She can handle it.
-- Doug Gibson

Monday, May 7, 2018

Police, no-knock raid caught an LDS apostle in another woman’s bed

On Nov. 11, 1943, LDS apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee gathered with Salt Lake City police officers, including Chief Reed Vetterli, outside the small Center Street apartment of elderly Anna Sofie Jacobsen. The apostles and officers burst into the home, breaking the door according to some accounts, and discovered LDS Apostle, Richard R. Lyman, 74, in bed with Jacobsen, who was not his wife. After gathering evidence, the two apostles reported back to J. Reuben Clark, first counselor to LDS President Heber J. Grant. Clark, who handled most of the church’s duties because Grant was ill, had ordered the raid. A day later, Lyman was excommunicated “for violation of the Christian law of chastity.”

The case of Richard Lyman is recounted by historian Gary James Bergera in the Fall 2011 Journal of Mormon History. Unlike the case of Albert Carrington, a 19th century LDS apostle also excommunicated for adultery, Lyman’s case is more complex. Unlike Carrington — who seems to have used his power to satisfy his lechery — Lyman appears to have been a victim of his own personal compassion, sexual dysfunctions within his marriage to his wife, Amy, personal tragedy in his family, and a rationalizing that his affair with Jacobsen was part of a polygamous pact that he had made with his mistress. For years, Lyman was bitter over his excommunication and sporadically continued his relationship with Jacobsen, who was also excommunicated.

There is some mirth in the idea of apostles in suits breaking in on the love nest of two senior citizens. However, by Bergera’s account, the affair shook the Quorum. In his diary, Spencer W. Kimball writes, “… To see great men such as the members of this quorum all in tears, some sobbing, all shocked, stunned by the impact was an unforgettable sight. …” In his memoirs, Kimball recounts the years that was spent getting Lyman ready for rebaptism and still lamented that the apostle eventually “… died a lay member of the church without Priesthood, without endowments, without sealings. …”

Bergera, in his article, has recounted trials in Lyman’s life that may have led to his rationalization that a sexual relationship with Jacobsen was not a violation of his church calling. His marriage to Amy Cassandra Brown ceased to have a sexual component after the birth of their second child. As Bergera relates in a footnote, “according to one family member, once Amy had brought forth two children, she informed Richard that their relationship from that point on would be celibate, living in amiable harmony …” Amy Brown’s biographer, David R. Hall, believes the pair’s gradual remoteness and lack of communication may have led to Richard’s adultery, writes Bergera.

In the 1920s, Lyman was assigned to assist Jacobsen in her efforts to return to the LDS Church. She was a Denmark native who had been excommunicated after being involved in a polygamous relationship after the church had banned the practice. In interviews just before he died (in 1963), Lyman recalls Jacobsen as “wonderfully unselfish and helpful.” As he prepared her for her rebaptism, the pair developed a close friendship and Lyman recalls that “she ‘was getting along in years with little or no hope of having a husband even in the great beyond,’” recounts Bergera. In 1925, after she was baptized, Lyman, suggested to Jacobsen, that the survivor among them get sealed to the other. Those preparations, which undoubtedly were a secret to Lyman’s sole wife, Amy, eventually progressed to sexual relations between the pair, who considered themselves “married.”

The death of the Lyman’s son, Wendell, 35, likely contributed to stress that Richard and Amy, with their emotional distance, probably didn’t handle well. Although Wendell’s death from carbon monoxide was reported in the press as an “accident,” it was most likely a suicide. Wendell had been depressed since the death of his young wife several years earlier and had recently clashed with his father over his drinking problems.

Given these trials, it’s not a surprise to consider that Lyman, in need of an emotional affair, allowed himself one that not surprisingly led to adultery. Bergera includes how Lyman rationalized his affair: “This woman had so many virtues and had done so much in an unselfish way for others that she and I agreed that while the present practice of the Church would not permit her to become my plural wife I began regarding her as my prospective plural wife with the mutual understanding that when by death or any other cause it would be possible for her to be my plural wife the ceremony would be performed.”

When Amy Brown Lyman was informed of her husband’s adultery and excommunication, her first words, according to Bergera’s article, were “I do not believe it. I do not believe it.” For Amy, the leader of the LDS Church’s women auxiliary The Relief Society, it was understandably a torturous blow. Bergera recounts that some advised Amy that she would be justified in leaving Richard. However, during this time of intense trial, as well as personal, public, and religious humiliation, Amy stayed with Richard. Frankly, it shows an admirable capacity for love, compassion and forgiveness by her. The pair went into seclusion for a while, in contact with family and close friends.

A comparison of the distinct strengths, temperament and even sensibility of the pair was demonstrated soon after the excommunication, recounts Bergera. Richard, soon after being expelled from his church, went to the LDS Church Office Building and asked to use his office. He was refused and told he had to leave. Amy, who also worked there, was greeted with warmth by future LDS Church President David O’McKay, who escorted her to her offices. Although Amy died four years before Richard, she enjoyed better health than him and nursed him through several age-related illnesses. Her explanation for her loyalty was simple: As Bergera notes in a footnote, Amy told “family members that ‘in every other way been an ideal husband and father ‘ and ‘she was not going to leave him now.’”

As mentioned, it took 11 years for Lyman to be rebaptized. He made many requests but they were defiant gestures, opportunities for him to criticize his former colleagues in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles who had kicked him out earlier. Finally, in the fall of 1956, Lyman’s repentance, couple with his wife’s assurances that she had forgiven him, resulted in his rebaptism. He died, as mentioned, a lay member without priesthood or temple recognitions. Those, Bergera recounts, were restored six years after his death.

As for Jacobsen, she lived the rest of her life in her Salt Lake City apartment. Bergera was unable to learn if she as ever rebaptized. Because the Lyman family, understandably, retreated into silence during crisis, it’s difficult to know why Lyman was defiant to former leaders, or the reasons for his sudden desire to repent and be baptized, or his late-in-life apathy that prevented priesthood blessings while he lived. 

His case is fascinating; it bridged the older church with its polygamy and preoccupation with making eternal plans while on earth, with the modern church and its more PR-friendly responses. Bergera notes that had Amy Lyman not left her husband in the 19th Century, she might have been excommunicated later for adultery as well, because 19th century church leaders considered adultery a dissolution of marital vows. There’s no doubt that the episode really shook up Lyman’s colleagues in the Quorum. Some speculate that the uncompromising message, considered harsh by some, of Kimball’s later, landmark LDS book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” is shaped by his experiences with Lyman’s sin and efforts to return to the church.

-- Doug Gibson

-- Originally published at StandardBlogs.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Short Stay in Hell is an odd, compelling novella about an eternity of the mundane

I read — mostly during Sacrament meeting — the novella “A Short Stay in Hell,” (Strange Violin Editions) by BYU professor Steven L. Peck. It’s one of the oddest book I have read, but it’s also so compelling that you can’t stop reading. That’s a reflection of the human urge to hope that a likable character achieves an impossible task.
But I’m ahead of myself. The plot: Soren, a recently deceased 45-year-old Mormon husband and father who lived in Utah County, finds himself in an office, with other dismayed dead persons, with a sardonic demon with an office window that shows demons throwing the “damned” in a lake of fire. It all turns out to be a practical joke. There is no lake of hell. The demon explains that the true religion is Zoroastrianism, a faith and philosophy from Iran.
Zoroastrianism, the demon says, will provide a type of hell, or purgatory, with a test for the “damned” souls, if they pass it, they eventually get into heaven.
In an clever plot twist, Soren, who loved books, is sent to a “hell” derived from the famous short story, “The Library of Babel.” The hell contains finite, yet infinite to the human mind, rows and floors filled with books. Every book that could ever be written is located there, all the same words and pages, etc. Soren’s task is to find the book that contains his life story, stick it in a slot, and enter “heaven.” Given that Soren, our narrator, is speaking after spending infinite billions of years there, the task is more or less impossible.
Soren’s religion, and the expectations he had on earth (spiritual body, perfect body, exaltation, becoming a God) all create interesting dilemmas. Although his body is perfect, it bleeds, and it needs food and drink (there is a kiosk that provides any food or drink and rows of beds on the floors, and showers). This brings consternation to Soren as he realizes that his new God allows coffee and alcoholic drinks. Each floor is populated with the same type of persons, all white, all from the United States, all having died within a certain span of years. As Peck writes, Soren wonders: “I began to think how strange it seemed that I never met a single person of color. Not an Asian, not a Hispanic, not anything but a sea of white American Caucasians. Was there no diversity in Hell? What did this endless repetition of sameness and of uniformity in people and surroundings mean?
Over time, Soren, realizing he’s unlikely to encounter his earthly “eternal companion,” begins a series of sexual relationships with various women. Some relationships are more intense than others, but they all end. Soren joins “universities” with others confined there, and great excitement ensues whenever one of the books, which mostly contain illegible babble, contain a few words of English.
There is free agency within the confines of Soren’s library hell. One can die, but is always resurrected the next day. One can throw one’s self into the chasm and hope to get to the bottom of the library, but as Soren learns, the bottom is both finite and basically infinite to the human mind. Religious fundamentalism can spring up, and there is a disturbing interlude in Soren’s existence in which a fanatic, appropriately named “Dire Dan,” creates a religion that blends the Inquisition with today’s Islamic terrorism. The fanatics kill and torture others to death, and then resume the beatings when the victims awake healthy the next day. During this terror, Rachel, a companion Soren spent 1,000-plus years with, leaps into the chasm to escape.
Much of Peck’s novella, at this point, focuses on Soren’s own descent into the chasm, and his impossible search for Rachel, and later another woman, Wand. The searches in this hell are fruitless. The area is bigger than can be comprehended. At the end of novella, Soren is a shell of what he was. His search for a meaningful, permanent lover is impossible. It doesn’t fit in with the dimensions there. It’s telling that there are no children in Zoroastrianism hell. That would create chaos that might stay permanent.
At the end, he feels virtually nothing, and admits to having periods when he’s senseless. Living in a finite infinity, even sexual affairs lasting 1 billion years, mean nothing to him. Soren has succumbed to “this endless repetition of sameness and of uniformity in people and surroundings.”
Readers are advised not to look for any deeper meanings to the Zoroastrianism hell created by author Peck. It’s just there, it somehow all matches together, and it just happens, over and over and over. By the end, with every question drained out of him, Soren concedes his sole emotion, his sole motivation, is the search to find his life history book.
My favorite passage in the novella is near the end, in which Soren, spinning through space in the chasm, with his latest love, Wand, and still retaining a hopeful attitude for escape together, is intimate with his woman. Peck writes: “We made love twice, before making our attempt. We had both fallen so often and so long that we were like creatures of the air, and it seemed as natural as in a bed. For a day I glimpsed what heaven must be like.”
I like this novella, and I’ll likely read it every year or so, searching for meaning in a hell of the mundane. A hell that contains an eternity of the mundane, whether it’s books that make no sense, stairs and floors that never end, mundane mumbling and threats from the other side of the chasm, mundane evil, or relationships that last so long that they become mundane. That’s a pretty effective hell Peck has constructed.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Orson Pratt Jr., Erastus Snow, apostasy and excommunication

(Above, Orson Pratt Jr., from Pratt Family Photo Project)

I’ve been reading a lot about Orson Pratt, the early Mormon apostle and leader who almost left the young church over allegations of seduction and adultery involving his wife, Sarah M. Pratt, the prophet Joseph Smith and Smith’s assistant, John C. Bennett. Later, after reconciling his wife’s accusations against Smith and Bennett with his belief in Mormonism, the apostle Pratt often clashed with Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, over doctrines, including who God was and His attributes.
His disputes with Young cost Pratt a chance to be president of the church. His dispute with Smith, and the way he resolved it, ultimately cost him his relationship with his first wife, her belief in the church he sacrificed so much for, and the belief of the children he bore with Sarah, save one. That brings us to Orson Pratt, Jr., the eldest son of Orson and Sarah.
Orson Jr. was a lot like his father. Like his dad, he was an intellectual man who applied reason and evidence with faith. He was also an accomplished musician, talented enough to teach at the university level. Unlike his father, though, Orson Jr. was not able to reconcile his theological doubts with his respect for reason. He became a disbeliever of Mormonism, and in a very public forum in southern Utah, where he had been a member of that area’s theological hierarchy, Orson Jr. told a large crowd that he no longer believed Joseph Smith was a prophet or that Mormonism was the true church. His discourse took place in September 1864, the same month he was excommunicated at the urging of LDS Church Apostle Erastus Snow, who had supplanted Orson Sr., on a mission to England, as sole leader of the southern Utah LDS cotton mission.
In Orson Pratt Jr.: Gifted Son of an Apostle and an Apostate,” published in the journal Dialogue, Richard S. and Mary C. Van Wagoner provide more insight into Orson Jr.’s decision to leave Mormonism. Orson Jr. claims to have disbelieved Mormonism at an early age. This is supported by his brother Arthur telling a reporter that his mother, Sarah Pratt, would secretly teach the children — while Orson Sr. was away on his many missions — to disbelieve in Joseph Smith, polygamy and Mormonism.
Nevertheless, Orson Jr. lived the life of a favored young Mormon son. He married Susan Snow, the daughter LDS leader Zerubabel Snow, was appointed to a Salt Lake City alderman and LDS high council member in his early 20s, played organ concerts privately for Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders and became a prominent music teacher. In the early 1860s he followed his father to the southern Utah mission and was quickly elected St. George city alderman and LDS high councilman.
However, in 1864 Orson Jr. refused a mission call from President Brigham Young, and action that in those days, explain the Van Wagoners, “was tantamount to an announcement of personal apostasy.” Later that year, Orson Jr., writing in the literary journal, “Veprecula,” under the pen name, “Veritas,” argued that faith could not derive from the supernatural, but “must be a careful and patient exercise of reason.” Young Pratt’s reasoning was similar to his father’s earlier declarations that evidence must support faith, but Orson Jr. took a step his father never did — he applied that reasoning to reject his father’s teachings.
There is a certain irony to Erastus Snow — Orson Jr.’s uncle — leading the excommunication of Orson Jr., given that Orson Sr. had helped convert Snow to Mormonism 30 years earlier in Vermont. In his discourse, Orson Jr. denounced Snow as a man who had actively, but secretly, tried to convince his wife, Susan, to reject him. As Gary Bergera explains in his book, “Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith,” Snow’s beliefs on how to treat unbelieving family members may have played a large role in his desire to punish Orson Jr. with excommunication. In an 1857 LDS general conference address, Snow’s harsh beliefs on how to handle in-family apostasy were recorded: “…Sometimes we may err by being remiss in duty — too lenient in our families, and some of us may be under condemnation by being too careless about transgressors in our families; for if we hold fellowship with transgressors and spirits that are in rebellion against God and that will not repent and humble themselves — if we close our ears to it and go to sleep while wickedness is stalking unrebuked through our habitations, we become partakers in that transgression, and the consequences thereof will stick to us. …”
Snow went on to urge LDS families to send siblings and spouses who rejected the LDS Church teachings away from their families and out into the world, “better this than to harbour them where they were like a viper … corrupting and corroding in the midst of … family.”
The idea that members should cast out every young adult who rejects the Gospel of their parents fit the times of 1857, a time when the LDS church was at its most orthodox, and apostles such as George Albert Smith were sent to all corners of Utah to preach “us against them” fire-and-brimstone speeches; of such rhetoric was the Mountain Meadows Massacre wrought. But it hardly applied to the mild, academically talented, gifted musician, Orson Pratt Jr., who in more civil times would have been quietly released from his callings and left to live his existence outside the LDS Church without the theological stain of excommunication. Orson Pratt, Jr., by the way, lived a quiet, distinguished life in Ogden and Salt Lake City before dying in late 1903. He is buried in Salt Lake City and received a respectful obituary in the church-owned Deseret News. As late as September 1903, the ailing Pratt, who had moved to Ogden for his health, advertised in the Standard-Examiner for music students.
Mentioned in Bergera’s book is the suggestion that Orson Jr.’s excommunication was an attempt to embarrass his father and weaken his influence in the Quorum of the Twelve. According to Bergera, Orson Jr. initially refused to resign from his church position because he feared a “possible backlash for his father.” Also, Brigham Young blamed Orson Sr. for his son’s apostasy, calling his then-senior apostle “at heart an infidel.”
-- Doug Gibson
-- This post was originally published at StandardBlogs

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sidney Rigdon: A brilliant orator who failed as a leader

I have a great deal of respect for Sidney Rigdon. A minister, he was a gold-standard convert for the young Joseph Smith and quickly rose to a leading position in the new Mormon Church. Rigdon walked the talk of early Mormonism. He was a great orator and led many to Mormonism. He also suffered in jail cells with Smith and others and the abuse caused him mental breakdowns.

And, like other converts, he was deeply distressed over the secret polygamy doctrine, more so after Smith allegedly attempted to make his daughter, Nancy, 19, a spiritual wife. This led to severed stress on Rigdon and a rift with Joseph Smith that was never fully healed before Smith was martyred in 1844.
After Smith’s death, Rigdon attempted to take control of the LDS Church. Suffice to say he failed in a power struggle with Brigham Young and was excommunicated in September 1844.

Despite that setback, he still enjoyed a following and in 1845 started the Church of Christ in Pittsburgh, Pa., where most former Mormons there followed him. Despite that positive beginning, within two years, Rigdon’s church would dwindle away, finally dying in a scraggly farm/commune in Antrim Township, Pa. After that, Rigdon, along with his wife Phebe, would live mostly in obscurity, resurfacing late in his life with one more feeble effort to start a church that migrated to Iowa and then dwindled away to nothing several years after Rigdon’s death in 1876,

Why did Sidney Rigdon fail the leadership test? It’s very possible that Rigdon, despite his knowledge of theology, the scriptures and church administration, suffered from mental illness and depression. He was devastated by the death of his daughter, Eliza, and quickly lost high-profile alliances with prominent Mormon dissidents, including William McLellin.

When the ailing church moved from Pittsburgh to Antrim Township, Rigdon tried to organize a six-month religious conference, but history tells us that he preached some bizarre doctrines, including a prediction Christ would return to the earth. Before that occurred, the farm was seized.

Rigdon’s last church was called The Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion. The church included female members of its priesthood. Rigdon wrote a pamphlet, an appeal to the Latter-day Saints, but it was directed at members of the Reorganized Church under Joseph Smith III, not the Utah Mormons.

Like many of the original, early church members who apostasized, Rigdon never lost his testimony of The Book of Mormon or the early visions that these church leaders claimed. He spent much of his later life condemning Joseph Smith, Emma Smith — who he called a she-devil — and the doctrine of polygamy. But even then, Rigdon was such an enigma of contradictions. He denounced Smith and his wife vociferously in letters late in his life, but sought Joseph Smith III’s approval soon after leaving the main Mormon church. It’s likely that the rejection he received from the Reorganized church hardened his animosity toward the Smiths.
Another fascinating contradiction of Rigdon’s is his feelings on polygamy. He condemned it as “ruinous to society,” yet it appears that the 1840s’ church Rigdon organized and conducted wife-swapping, according to some members’ recollections.

To a faithful Latter-day Saint, there’s an easy answer to Rigdon’s decline: he apostasized from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But that’s a cheap answer that requires no thought. He apostasized, but his future life was shaped by his experiences as an early Latter-day Saint. The trauma and betrayal he thought he received must have presented difficult contradictions for a man who shared what he believed to be revelation from God and later saw him lust after his daughter. That would be a tough dilemma to reconcile for anyone. The stress certainly turned Rigdon into a man unfit to lead thousands. (Research for this article includes Richard S. Van Wagoner’s “Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess,” and “Sidney Rigdon: Post Nauvoo,” by Thomas J. Gregory, BYU Studies, Winter 1981.)

-- Doug Gibson

-- Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, April 2, 2018

Emma Hale Smith Bidamon remains an enigma to most Mormons

In the biography, “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith,” a visit to Nauvoo from Hannah Tapfield King, a Salt Lake City Mormon, to the widow of Joseph Smith is related: “Mrs. King found … “Her mind seemed to me to be absorbed in the past and lost almost to the present … neither does she seem to desire to form any intimacy. … She did not even seem to respond to kindness, but she looked as if she had suffered and as if a deep vein of bitterness ran through her system. I felt sorry for her. ...”
As condescending as Tapfield King’s recollections were, they were kinder than Brigham Young’s, who frequently railed against Joseph Smith’s wife, describing her to Reorganized LDS Church missionaries in 1863 as “a wicked, wicked woman and always was. …” Emma loathed Young perhaps equally. Both polygamy, a doctrine that Emma clearly detested, and disagreements over the resolution of ecclesiastical matters and business dealings involving the wounded Nauvoo church and martyred prophet resulted in permanent animosity between the two.
Emma Hale Smith Bidamon has been rehabilitated in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The crowning occurred several years ago with the release of a film, “Emma Smith: My Story,” which captures the humanity and compassion of Joseph Smith’s widow but pointedly ignores the disagreements and heartaches that left her estranged from Mormonism and an opponent of the Utah LDS Church. Last week, I read “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith,” the almost 30-year-old biography by Linda King Newell and the late Valeen Tippetts Avery. In light of the slow but steady efforts of transparency by LDS leaders over the past generation it’s almost quaint to recollect that it took a meeting with LDS apostles to lift a mid-1980s ban on having the authors speak to wards and stakes about the biography. When I was a kid Emma Smith was spoken of with a touch of sadness, as a person who had fallen away from the Gospel but would one day receive her full blessings, nevertheless.
Even today, there’s much of Emma Smith that remains an enigma to Mormons. Reading her biography, watching her film, that realization sticks. We know that she married Major Lewis Bidamon a few years after the martyrdom. The film “Emma Smith: My Story,” is eager to inform that 20 years after their marriage, the major, through adultery, fathered a child that Emma eventually raised as her own, even having the mother work in her home. However, if you read “Mormon Enigma,” one learns that Emma’s compassion was extended to her husband. The adultery did not extinguish the pair’s love for each other. In fact, shortly before Emma Bidamon died, she urged her husband to marry the boy’s mother after her death, a request that the major honored.
It’s impossible not to connect Emma’s capacity to forgive her second husband with her recollections of the polygamy that swirled through Nauvoo in the final years of Joseph Smith’s life. As the authors of “Mormon Enigma” relate, her husband was duplicitous to her, repeatedly “starting” and “stopping” polygamy, promising one thing one day and being caught in a lie another day. This is not a condemnation of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who believed that he was commanded, on the threat of death, to initiate polygamy in the new church.

But despite occasional vacillations, Emma strongly opposed it. She endured humiliations, learning that women she provided charity to within her own home, including Eliza Snow, had intimate relations with her husband. As the leader of the new “Relief Society,” she would teach lessons on fidelity between husband and wife to audiences full of women secretly living polygamy. The strength that allowed her to cope with these trials was learned early in her life. As the authors note, “… as a young woman, Emma was physically and emotionally strong, with a streak of independence. ...”
Emma never ceased to love her first husband, nor disbelieve in the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Given what she endured, it’s not surprising that she would forgive her second husband for an offense she must have regarded as similar to offenses committed by her first husband.
If there is a theme to Emma Hale Smith’s life in “Mormon Enigma,” it’s one of endurance and sacrifice. Emma sacrificed her parents mere months after the Mormon Church was formed. That is related in the film, but the biography adds the information that her embittered father, Isaac Hale, contributed information against her husband in “Mormonism Unvailed,” the very first anti-Mormon book.
The degree of anger, and violence, against Joseph Smith and the young church is related as effectively in “Mormon Enigma” as it is in “Rough Stone Rolling,” Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith. Whether in Kirtland, Far West or Nauvoo, there was something about the LDS faith, its bloc of members, and its charismatic first prophet that elicited passions — pro and con — beyond the norm. Whether it was Doctor Philastus Hurlburt, former apostle William McLellin, or former Nauvoo insiders John Cook Bennett or William Law, the disagreements that led them to leave the church resulted in angers that cried out for violence against Smith, his church and its members, leading to murders, spats between armed men, and forced expulsions. In fact, it was a common newspaper editor, Thomas Sharp, of Warsaw, Illinois, who is chiefly responsible for whipping up the sentiment that led to the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Their martyrdom did not satiate his anger. Years later, when the Nauvoo temple was torched, Sharp, who likely arranged payment for the arson, described it as a “benevolent act,” recounts “Mormon Enigma.” (In another anecdote from “Mormon Enigma,” Emma encounters the detestable McLellin — part of a mob — stealing valuables from her home. When Emma asked why the former apostle is stealing, he replies, “Because I can.”)
Through all these trials, Emma Smith endured. The trials led to the early deaths of several of her children. Fleeing mobs, she led her family over frozen rivers to safety, visited her husband in jails, took in LDS refugees, and frequently handled business matters in her husband’s frequent absences. “Mormon Enigma” details a quiet, determined stoicism and a self-confidence among Emma that led to her easily taking responsibility and leadership of the newly formed Relief Society. As noted in “Mormon Enigma,” LDS women provided testimonies and blessings for the sick. As “Mormon Enigma” notes, Joseph Smith did not seem to disapprove of these priesthood-parallel activities by the Nauvoo women.
After her husband’s death, “Emma stayed aloof from public debate over the question of leadership in Nauvoo,” write the authors of “Mormon Enigma.” She probably favored Nauvoo stake president William Marks, who opposed polygamy (and sealed his own fate when he defended the exiled Sydney Rigdon). As the authors note, there had been no serious disagreements between Emma and Brigham Young prior to the martyrdom. However, the business dealings, resolution of church assets and debts (Joseph Smith died leaving Emma $70,000 in debt) and squabbles over the Nauvoo holdings, including the hotel, initiated the animosity between Emma and Young.
Polygamy sealed the separation. The Utah Mormons, eventually called Brighamites,” resented Emma for not following the main body of Saints to Utah. Her re-marriage to Bidamon, a non-Mormon, was akin to blasphemy to Young and others.
Emma, in turn, resented Young for maintaining polygamy in the church. It was a doctrine that Emma eventually regarded as false, and likely she blamed it as the chief cause of her husband’s death. After a brief hiatus from Nauvoo, she returned to the city, placated anti-Mormons, such as Sharp, who regarded her with suspicion, and resumed her life, taking care of her children, regaining control of meager but needed assets in Nauvoo, taking care of her slain husband’s ailing mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and marrying Bidamon, who despite his infidelity apparently enjoyed a loving relationship with Emma and her children. He was referred to as “Pa Bidamon.”
As the authors note, Emma regarded her oldest son, Joseph Smith III, as an heir to her first husband’s ecclesiastical honors. She supported the founding of the Reorganized LDS Church and her eldest living son assuming its leadership. Living in Nauvoo, as “Mormon Enigma” notes, she greeted “Brighamite” visitors from Utah cordially, but retreated to a cooler atmosphere if they wished to debate Mormonism with her.
Late in her life, she had to deal with the mental illness of her youngest child, David Hyrum, born a few months after his father was martyred. The realization that plural marriage in Nauvoo had been a reality, something David Hyrum apparently learned while on a RLDS mission to Utah, may have exacerbated pressures to his already-ailing mind.
In her later years, Emma denied completely the existence of polygamy in Nauvoo. This further angered Utah Mormons, who knew she was not telling the truth. Newell and Avery posit that Emma may have been using code words to separate polygamy from “the true order of marriage,” which they note, LDS leaders who secretly practiced polygamy once used. In any event, her denials were accepted by her sons, including Joseph III, although they certainly later discovered the truths of polygamy in Nauvoo. As the authors note, the RLDS leader received letters from the hectoring McLellin on his father’s polygamous past, telling Joseph III that his mother Emma could verify them.
Emma Smith, the movie, barely spends 30 seconds discussing polygamy. It’s like a spot easily wiped away. But, despite the best efforts of “Mormon Enigma” and other research, how polygamy led to Emma Hale Smith Bidamon’s life after her husband died still leaves much to be discovered. Certainly, her many experiences before Nauvoo, including helping her husband translate a significant portion of The Book of Mormon, motivated her positive reactions to persecutions and caused pro-and-con turmoil after the introduction of a church doctrine that repelled her.
In short, what we know of Joseph Smith’s wife is that she was a compassionate woman, a leader, with a stoic independence who endured much without losing her essential humanity and ability to react, love, and reform unfortunate situations. She merits her current rehabilitation in Mormon circles and we need to learn more about this fascinating woman, and consider that in the case of polygamy, she was correct 45-plus years before the LDS Church leadership on the subject.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs