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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Apocryphal Hale vision underscores LDS passion for baptism for the dead

With my faith’s practice of baptism for the dead, in my opinion, so misunderstood, it was interesting that this five-page Heber Q. Hale “vision” fell on my desk. It alleges to be a divine vision of the spirit world that Hale, president of the Boise, Idaho, stake almost 100 years ago, received between midnight to 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, 1920. Also, Hale is alleged to have delivered the account of his vision in October 1920 at an LDS “Genealogical Conference” in Salt Lake City.
Journalism has hardened my skepticism, and I was prepared to chuckle over Hale’s account. Instead, the account moved me. Maybe it’s because I have an infant son who died, and Hale offers words that would comfort LDS parents who have experienced the death of a young child. Also, the Hale “vision” provides a traditional representation of how Latter-day Saints perceive the afterlife. The Mormon belief in restored Gospel, priesthood authority, necessity of baptism, confirmation, temple ordinances, and other keys and requirements to eternal progression, are underscored in Hale’ comforting “vision.”
It’s such a fun bit of Mormon lore, the Hale “vision,” that it’s almost a shame to throw cold water on it. BYU-Idaho-approved or not, it’s at best apocryphal second- or third-hand stuff, at worst a deliberate hoax. Contributor J. Stapley at the Mormon blog bycommonconsent does a capable job of investigating the Hale “vision." Read the comments too. There’s no record of this account in Hale family books, no record of a “genealogy conference” in Salt Lake City, and other “supporting” material provides names and titles that don’t check out. As one comment on the blog noted, it’s amazing how often Mormons will ignore the canonized examples of modern-day visions, such as Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the Celestial Kingdom, and obsess over the “White Horse Prophecy,” or our current subject.
Having established that the Hale Vision should not be LDS-approved curriculum, I don’t believe it’s a malicious hoax. It sounds like a dream that a deeply religious individual, very versed in Mormon history and theology, may have had. Whether the dream was Hale’s, who died in 1969, or was simply attached to his name, who knows? Hale was born in 1880, early enough to be influenced by how strongly dreams were attached to religious experiences from the 19th century into the 20th century. The LDS Prophet Wilford Woodruff, as Stapley notes, constantly cataloged his dreams. A denunciation of spiritualism and seances from Hale, who asserts those are wicked spirits toying with the foolish, sounds like it would have come from that era. Frankly, I would not be surprised if there were many Latter-day Saints who experienced dreams similar to the Hale Vision.
But I digress. Whoever penned the vision, there are segments that underscore why Mormons believe so fervently in baptism for the dead. I’ll start with one segment that tore at my heart, when infant children are observed. It reads, “I was surprised to find there no babies in arms. I met the infant son of Orson W. Rawlings, my first counselor. I immediately recognized him as the baby who died a few years ago, and yet he seemed to have the intelligence and, in certain respect, the appearance of an adult, and was engaged in matters pertaining to his family and its genealogy. My mind was quite contented upon the point that mothers will again receive into their arms their children who died in infancy and will be fully satisfied, but the fact remains that entrance into the world of spirits is not an inhibition of growth but the greatest opportunity of development. Babies are adult spirits in infant bodies.”
The concept of life, death, and the spirit world as distinct levels of eternal life is captured here: “I passed but a short distance from my body through a film into the world of spirits. This was my first experience after going to sleep. I seemed to realize that I had passed through the change called death and I so referred to it in my conversation with the immortal beings with whom I immediately came into contact. I readily observed their displeasure at our use of the word death and the fear which we attach to it. They use there another word in referring to the transition from mortality to immortality, which word I don’t recall and I can only approach its meaning and the impression which was left upon my mind, by calling it ’the New Birth.’”
The veil, a term used often by Latter-day Saints to indicate how close, yet separate life’s existence is from the spirit world, is exemplified in this paragraph, “My first visual impression was the nearness of the world of spirits to the world of mortality. The vastness of this heavenly sphere was bewildering to the eyes of the spirit-novice. Many enjoyed unrestricted vision, and unimpeded action, while many others were visibly restricted as to both vision and action. The vegetation and landscape were beautiful beyond description; not all green as here, but gold with varying shades of pink, orange, and lavender as the rainbow. A sweet calmness pervaded everything. The people I met there I did not think of as spirits, but as men and women, self-thinking and self-acting individuals, going about important business in a most orderly manner. There was perfect order there and everybody had something to do and seemed to be about their business.
The concept of family, which lasts forever, far beyond earth, is in this short graph: “As I passed forward, I soon met my beloved mother. She greeted me most affectionately and expressed surprise at seeing me there, and reminded me that I had not completed my allotted mission on earth. She seemed to be going somewhere and was in a hurry and, accordingly, took her leave with saying that she would see me soon again.”
The busyness or Mormon afterlife, the hustle and bustle of making sure that all the required ordinances of the Gospel are met, are found in this segment, which frankly explains baptism for the dead as well as any LDS general authority talking in a conference could: “All men and women were appointed to special and regular service under a well organized plan of action, directed principally toward preaching the gospel to the unconverted, teaching those who seek knowledge and establishing family relationships and gathering genealogies for the use and benefit of mortal survivors of their respective families, that the work of baptism and the sealing ordinances may be vicariously performed for the departed in the temples of God upon the earth. The authorized representatives of families in the world of spirits have access to our temple records and are kept fully advised of the work done therein, but the vicarious work done here does not become automatically effective.
The recipients must first believe, repent and accept baptism and confirmation; then certain consummating ordinances are performed effectualizing these saving principles in the lives of those regenerated beings. And so the great work is going on — they are doing a work there which we cannot do here, and we a work here which they cannot do there, for the salvation of all God’s children who will be saved.”
As doctrine or canon, the Hale vision is, appropriately, officially as inconsequential as the latest “Three Nephites” tale or “Satan as Bigfoot harassing Utah pioneers” account. It could even be a wonderfully moving piece of fiction designed to deceive. But it does a decent job of explaining why we Mormons are running around baptizing all the relatives of so many non-Mormons. I don’t think it would hurt if those outraged over the baptisms read Hale’s “vision.”
-- Doug Gibson
This column was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book of Mormon biography charts its existence, influence

In “The Book of Mormon: A Biography,” (Princeton University Press, 2012) author Paul C. Gutjahr notes that critiques and evaluations of Mormonism’s most important book have moved simple two-way, primarily theological debates between Mormon apologists and mostly evangelical critics who opposed the book for its claims of being holy scripture. As Gutjahr writes, including his own, slim but scholarly volume as one example, “By the early twenty-first century it was finally escaping the narrow confines of Mormon/non-Mormon religious debate as it increasingly came to be treated as an important text in American culture more generally.”

“The Book of Mormon” has inflamed passions, and interests from the moment the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith announced he was translating scripture that detailed a history of the Americas. Gutjahr charts how the book came to be, while adding some details that will come as news to many. One example: while at the printer’s shop of E.B. Grandin, copies of the Book of Nephi were lifted and printed in a local periodical. Smith warned the publisher of the legal consequences of the printing, and publication of the excerpts ceased.
“The Book of Mormon” was preceded, Gutjahr, explains, by an era when religious leaders sought to get the Holy Bible into as many American homes as possible. Its advertisement as additional scripture, as well as its egalitarian, democratic, and patriotic message, certainly helped it gain adherents in the individualistic, very religious U.S. frontier.
Readers will be interested to know that for the latter half of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, The Book of Mormon’s importance was overshadowed by The Bible. Gutjahr notes in that the Southern States Mission, President Ben E. Rich, an LDS apostle, intentionally featured The Bible over the Mormon scripture, realizing that converts needed to be familiar with scripture that they were comfortable with. However, putting less emphasis on The Book of Mormon turned into a problem for LDS Church leaders in the 20th century as some professors at Brigham Young University, the church-run university, began advocating the theories that scripture, whether Bible or Book of Mormon, was largely fictional accounts designed to teach Gospel concepts. Church leaders, writes Gutjahr, worried that they were failing the Lord’s command to be stewards of The Book of Mormon, re-energized emphasis on The Book of Mormon, removed professors who doubted the book’s veracity from BYU, and gradually through the 20th Century elevated the status of The Book of Mormon to the point that today it is clearly the primary book of scripture of Mormonism. Members are repeatedly urged to read it often.

The importance of The Book of Mormon to Mormon culture and theology, explains Gutjahr, is underscored by how it is translated. The book is translated in literally dozens of languages (there is a list of translations in the book). The LDS Church trains all of its translators to use the conservative formal equivalency method of translation, which dictates a precise, word-by-word translation. Not used is functional equivalency translation, which is designed to capture the spirit of a book being translated. As Gutjahr writes, “The Church wishes each of its Book of Mormon translations to retain as much as possible the sentence structure, phrasing, and idioms of the original language.”
There is a direct contrast between the biographies of the larger Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church and its Midwestern brother, the formerly named Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the Reorganized Church maintained a greater emphasis on The Book of Mormon, as well as Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, than the Mormons did for well more than a century, the past couple of generations have seen a reversal: With the LDS Church doubling down with its emphasis on The Book of Mormon and the reorganized church, while remaining fond of Smith’s discovery, downgrading its importance and doubting its veracity. In fact, the reorganized church has abandoned most Mormon-specific theology, opened its offering of the sacrament to non-members and has changed its name to Community of Christ, joining mainstream Protestantism.
Gutjahr devotes parts of the book to the Mormon Church’s challenges of apologetics of The Book of Mormon. This has become difficult, as expeditions and DNA studies have failed to yield evidences that support the scripture. However, there is scholarly research devoted to defending the Book of Mormon’s claims. Its central hub is the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU. One evolutionary theory that differs from past defenses is that the entire Book of Mormon occurs in a very small portion of the Americans, primarily in Mexico and Central America, and does not deal with events in other parts of the continent.
Gutjahr includes chapters that deal with the Book of Mormon’s influence on art and film. Readers won’t be surprised at reading commentary on the iconic, masculine images created by Arnold Friberg but the more feminine Book of Mormon art of Minerva Teichert (1888-1976) is also discussed. Teichert’s softer depictions, which placed more emphasis on women (almost ignored in The Book of Mormon) and children, were largely ignored during her life but have recently gained prominence due to their display at BYU.
The chapter on films is fascinating. Readers will wish they could find a copy of the lost 1915 silent, “The Life of Nephi:” a still is shown from the book. And I would love to see a print of the 1930 film, “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love.” This film, which dramatizes the sexual sins of Book of Mormon prophet Alma’s son, Corianton, included songs from The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. However, church leaders were distressed to discover that the pre-Hays morality code film contained nude shots of the actress who portrayed the harlot Isabel. (Alma: chapter 39)
The recent film, “Book of Mormon Movie Vol. 1, The Journey,” is examined. Gutjahr posits that the box office failure of the film — no sequel was filmed — is due to its direct faithfulness to the book. On the screen, formal equivalency, without nuance or character expansion, leads to dullness. This reviewer’s take on BOM’s “The Journey” is footnoted by Gutjahr, who writes, “One reviewer found the movie so boring that he parodied Mark Twain’s famous characterization of The Book of Mormon by calling (director Gary) Rogers’s motion picture ‘chloroform on film.’” Alas, it was. The LDS Church needs a Cecil B. DeMille to make a great Book of Mormon film adaptation.
In Gutjahr’s opinion, the best adaptations of the Mormon scripture are on the stage, where the enthusiasm of the actors are evident. He cites the many pageants that LDS faithful have produced, noting the famous Hill Cumorah Pageant. He also cites the success of the irreverent but widely acclaimed “Book of Mormon: The Musical” Broadway play.
The Broadway success of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible,” completely divorced from any Mormon involvement, stands as the best evidence that The Book of Mormon, while treasured by the LDS faithful, now belongs to the rest of the world. “The Book of Mormon: A Biography,” is a suitable serious secular introduction to this iconic book.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs

Sunday, March 11, 2018

LDS doctrine on gathering of scattered Israel has shifted

In Sunday School class, there was some debate, and mild concern, when the teacher explained to students that there is not a specific physical transfer of the lost tribes of Israel to one location in the USA. One student, a former bishop, pointed to The Articles of Faith, number 10, which reads, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”
Another elderly student pointed out that the Lord had revealed that the waters of the earth would open up and allow the gathered tribes of Israel to walk on dry land to the American continent for the final gathering.” He’s right; if one reads Doctrine and Covenants, Section 133, Verses 26 and 27, which read, “And they who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence.
“And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep.”
Let me backtrack a bit now and explain a piece of Mormon lore that every active Mormon over the age of 30, as well as many others who are younger, has heard. It’s that one day, the Lord, through the prophet, will call on ALL the Saints to put aside their lives and with their families gather in Jackson County, Missouri, to await the Second Coming of Christ. In my lifetime, I have heard countless discussions about the future global migration and speculations about how many of the Saints will have the faith to follow the prophet and head to Jackson County.
In fact, I’d place the restoration of scattered Israel and the ensuing migration as one of the most appealing doctrinal beliefs of Mormonism. It provides a preview of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and specific instructions on how to receive the return of the Lord. It’s a testament to its popularity that several years after the restoration of Israel doctrine shifted in its interpretation, that many of the church’s members still adhere to the migration belief, and are unaware of, or fail to remember, an important LDS General Conference address, in 2006, by LDS Apostle, and future church president, Russell M. Nelson.
The discourse, titled, “The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” subtly shifts the participation in the Gathering as “A Commitment by Covenant.” Nelson explains near the end of the address:
The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” without leaving their homelands. True, in the early days of the Church, conversion often meant emigration as well. But now the gathering takes place in each nation. The Lord has decreed the establishment of Zion in each realm where He has given His Saints their birth and nationality. Scripture foretells that the people ‘shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise.’ ‘Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.’ The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” Zion is wherever righteous Saints are. Publications, communications, and congregations are now such that nearly all members have access to the doctrines, keys, ordinances, and blessings of the gospel, regardless of their location.
“Spiritual security will always depend upon how one lives, not where one lives. Saints in every land have equal claim upon the blessings of the Lord.
It’s interesting that Nelson uses Scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon, as support for his statements. I have no problem with Nelson’s re-interpretation of the Gathering of Scattered Israel. With the international growth of the church over the past three generations or so, the migration of millions of Saints to one portion of the USA is impossible. (I also understand that many of my fellow LDS believers will argue that the doctrine has not changed, that the literal migration will occur during the Millennium, or that the literal restoration was always meant to be a spiritual one.)
That’s bunk, though. Scriptures and doctrinal revelations are meant for our religious comprehension, and often cannot be relied on for scientific or historical verification. And, in a church that claims continuous revelation, the meaning of doctrines can shift. It is a fact that the migration of the scattered tribes was taught as one that would be a a specific physical trek from across the world to the United States.
Here’s a excerpt from the once-popular LDS religious book, “Prophecy and Modern Times,” by W. Cleon Skousen. The publisher was Deseret Book. The book’s forward was written by then-LDS Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, a future LDS Church president and prophet. On page 56, it reads:
Mountains, ice and a continent of water will stand between the Ten Tribes and the land of Zion when they first appear, but they will ‘smite the rocks. and the ice shall flow down at their presence.’ As they come to the great body of water, dry land will be cast up in the midst of it so that a mighty highway will spread before them.”
Footnotes for that section include Doctrine and Covenants, Section 133, Versus 26 and 27, which prophesy of the mighty highway through the seas.  In “Prophecy and Modern Times, the need for a migration to America is considered urgent. Skouson later writes on page 59:
“”… They (special ambassadors) must go into the mountains and deserts, the cities and hamlets, among caves and rocks, hunting out the Saints and warning them to gather to America.”
Mormon history, as well as its doctrine, is extremely interesting to read and write about. Perhaps one day I’ll have time to look for views –from the same time period — that publicly contested Skousen’s (and by extension, Benson’s) viewpoints of the gathering of Israel.
While Nelson, in his speech, clearly reaffirms the Gathering of Israel, the interpretation has shifted in a manner that makes its fulfillment much easier to accomplish.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs

Sunday, February 25, 2018

John C. Bennett was the Lucifer of early Mormonism

John Cook Bennett: most Mormons probably know him from LDS Church Almanacs as “assistant president of the LDS Church” for a year or so during the Nauvoo era. Those who know a bit more about church history know him as a proclaimed “Judas,” or “Lucifer,” who slithered into Nauvoo, deceived the Prophet Joseph Smith, seduced several women, married and single, was cast out, then made considerably more than 30 pieces of silver vilely blasting Smith at lectures and in a best-selling book. 

Bennett was so anathema to LDS Church leaders that in response to his death in 1867, an LDS Church publication released a scathing, false obituary which read, in part, “… He dragged out a miserable existence, without a person scarcely to take the least interest in his fate, and died a few months ago without a person to mourn his departure. …”

In reality, Bennett died in Polk City, Iowa, a fairly well off and respected man. He had recently served as surgeon in the Third U.S. Infantry during the Civil War. Yet, the Mormons’ loathing of Bennett was not without cause. Despite Bennett’s many talents and skills, he was often a scoundrel during his life. He was a serial adulterer and grifter at times, selling “diplomas” from a medicine school diploma mill. He may have even been a sociopath, albeit one who could remain fairly prosperous even after alienating many. 

I was surprised to discover a biography of Bennett’s life, “The SaintlyScoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John C. Bennett,” by Andrew F. Smith, published in 1997 by University of Illinois Press. It’s an interesting read. Bennett, born in 1804, grew up in southeastern Ohio and became a doctor in the early 1820s, learning medicine from his uncle, a prominent doctor and scientist. After marrying, Bennett practiced in several different areas and also was a lay preacher, favoring the reformist Campbellite doctrines. In fact, he had already met many prominent Mormons long before moving to Nauvoo.

Bennett enjoyed teaching and lecturing in medicine, and he tried setting up colleges and medical schools in several frontier states. This is also where much of his grifting began. At one college, Christian College, Bennett was hounded out by peers for blatantly selling diplomas. In fact, as author Smith surmises, Bennett may have been the first man to ever set up a diploma mill.

In the early 1830s, Bennett gained some prominence by touting the supposed health benefits of tomatoes, a fruit that many Americans didn’t eat at that time. Although Bennett’s and others’ claims about the healing powers of tomatoes were wildly overstated, for scores of years tomato pills, etc., were popular. Bennett also was an early advocate of Chloroform as a sedative for operations, although ether would prove to be a better alternative. During the 1830s, Bennett’s marriage collapsed due to his infidelity and allegations of spousal abuse.

His tenure as a Mormon leader, and its aftermath, is what Bennett is best known for. He ingratiated himself with Joseph Smith and into the highest levels of the Mormon Church, serving as mayor of Nauvoo, leader in the military Nauvoo Legion, town doctor, lobbyist for the city, and assistant president of the LDS Church. Like much of Bennett’s life, though, it was a short rise and fall. By his own admission, Bennett engaged in several affairs with Nauvoo woman. Whether the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was a participant with Bennett in this behavior is debated. At the time, the Mormon doctrine on polygamy was being taught in secret. Did Bennett try to convince women to marry Smith? Given his past, it’s likely Bennett exploited the issue for his carnal pleasure. Whatever the circumstances, the scandals roiled the Mormon Church. 

Among the women reviled for their charges against Smith and Bennett were Sarah Pratt, Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton. LDS leaders Sidney Rigdon, George Robinson and Orson Pratt publicly opposed Smith amid the charges of adultery, fornication, “spiritual wifery” and abortion.

What’s clear is that after Bennett was kicked out of Nauvoo, he was angry enough to turn his claimed betrayal by Smith and Mormon leaders into a cottage industry where he lectured against the Mormons in major cities, wrote articles for newspapers calling for Smith’s arrest, and penned a best-selling novel, “The History of the Saints.” As a professional anti-Mormon, author Smith recounts that Bennett was often greeted with skepticism even by enemies of the church. Derided was his claim that he had never embraced Mormonism, but had infiltrated Nauvoo to expose the wickedness of “Joe Smith” and the church.

Smith recounts a final episode in Nauvoo — after Bennett had turned anti-Mormon — where Bennett went to Joseph Smith’s store and paid a longstanding debt. It’s an interesting anecdote that invites speculation that Bennett may have asked Smith for another chance. In any cases, neither the Mormon prophet or Bennett left a written record of the encounter.

Not many know that Bennett, a few years later, rejoined an offshoot of Mormonism, entering the hierarchy of James J. Strang’s church in Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, Bennett was eventually kicked out of Strang’s church but later, Strang — who was eventually assassinated — embraced polygamy. It’s possible that Bennett, tomcatting as usual, swayed Strang toward polygamy. With Strang, Bennett also helped set up a secret “Order of the Illuminati” within that church.

In his post-Nauvoo years, Bennett married a second time and as he got older, his life became less controversial and more sedate. He gravitated toward Iowa and gained a measure of fame for his work breeding chickens. He wrote a well-received book, “The Poultry Book,” that was very popular. Bennett was fortunate, as he developed this interest in breeding during a “poultry craze” that swept the U.S. a decade prior to the Civil War. As Smith relates, Bennett gave a copy of the book to U.S. President Zachary Taylor, who thanked him for the gift.

Although a military surgeon for the North during the Civil War, Bennett’s health prevented him from full activity. His health failed rapidly in the middle 1860s and he died in August of 1867, soon after having a stroke, Smith surmises. A large, prominent grave in Polk City marks his final resting spot.

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Willard Bean, Mormonism’s ‘Fighting Parson,’ did have an admirable pro boxing career

A lot of Mormon lore has surrounded Willard Bean, a professional boxer  around the turn of the 20th century who, in 1915, was called with his new wife, Rebecca, and his two children by a previous marriage, Paul and Phyllis, to a mission to Palmyra, N.Y. Although the area, which includes the Hill Cumorah, is prominent in Mormon history, it was accurately described in 1915 as very hostile to the Mormons. Bean and his family lived in the Joseph Smith Sr. farm, which had been purchased by the church.
As an article by David F. Boone, in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, notes, it was a tough but ultimately successful mission that lasted 24 years. Bean was no stranger to missions. He had served a southern states mission, another area hostile, and at times dangerous, for LDS missionaries of that era. One major success was Bean’s purchase, for the church, of the Hill Cumorah.
Bean was known as the Fighting Parson,” as well as the “Mormon Cyclone,” and much lore has been related about his success as a professional boxer. In a 1985 Ensign article, “Willard Bean: Palmyra’s Fighting Parson,” author Vicki Bean Zimmerman claims that Bean was the U.S. middleweight boxing champion. I cannot verify that information, and it seems very unlikely, as Bean, in his late 40s, was long retired when he and his family accepted the Palmyra mission call.

That Bean may have used his fists occasionally to get respect in Palmyra is plausible. Boone, in his JBMS article, records an incident where Bean, after being drenched with a neighbor’s hose, beat up the man. According to Boone, who cites Bean’s wife as a second-hand source, the two men later became friends. Bean Zimmerman, in the Ensign article, claims that Bean arranged a boxing exhibition in Palmyra and fought seven men in one day, knocking out all seven opponents. Because the author is a granddaughter of Bean, one has to assume that at least elements of it are accurate, as it likely has been passed down through the family. (There is also a biography of Bean, written by another granddaughter, out of print but a copy can be purchased here.)
I’m a huge boxing fan, and I needed to find out if the Willard Bean of LDS boxing lore was accurate. Was he a top fighter, or just one of many middling pugilists who traveled the West 110-plus years ago fighting? The answer is favorable to Bean. He was not a top contender, but he was a better-than-average fighter for his era. The boxing record site,, provides Bean a record of 5 wins, 5 losses, 1 draw, 1 no decision and 1 no contest (here). The time frame covers 1897 to 1902. While a 5-5 “record” may seem mediocre, boxrec only gathers the fights it has recorded. Like silent films, the results of many old fights are “lost.” Bean was born in 1872. Based on the caliber of his opposition, it’s clear that he must have had at least another 20-plus fights, of which he likely won most. Perhaps some day an energetic researcher (myself?) will spend weeks scanning through 19th century Utah newspapers to locate the lost fights.
Two opponents of Bean’s provide evidence that he was a well-regarded above-average boxer. On April 17, 1899, Bean fought a 10-round “no decision” bout with Joe Choynski, who is regarded as one of the elite fighters of that era.  Choynski was a former world light heavyweight champion before he fought Bean and later won the U.S. 170-pound championship. He fought a draw with future heavyweight champ, James J. Jeffries. In short, to fight Choynski, as Bean did, proved he was a good pro boxer.
The April 18, 1899 Salt Lake Tribune provides a long account of the Choynski, Bean fight. The article regards the match as relatively one-sided — in Choynski’s favor — but also compliments Bean. “In part, it reads above the small type: “Utah Man Gets Experience:  Choynski Allows the Local Fighter a Number of Liberties, and Apologizes When He Gives Him an Unexpectedly Hard Knock. Bean was in Good Form, and the Faith of His Admirers Has Been Strengthened — Gives a Giddy Whirl at the Close.”
In the article, Choynski, who clearly dominated the bout, calls Bean a good prospect, but adds that he’ll need to leave Utah to become a world-class boxer. Given Bean’s devotion to Mormonism, that was not to occur, although a year later he fought in San Francisco, Choynski’s home, against Phil Green on March 30, 1900. In the scheduled 20-round bout, Green stopped Bean in round 7.
The second most notable opponent on Bean’s record is Fireman Jim Flynn, a heavyweight contender during the first two decades of the 20th century. Flynn would fight heavyweight champ Jack Johnson for the world title on July 4, 2012, losing by a 9th round knockout. The “Fireman” is best known for scoring a first round KO over future heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey in Murray, on Feb. 13, 1917. The Salt Lake Telegram’s Feb. 14 headline on the bout was a laconic “J. Dempsey forgets to duck,” and noted that the fight lasted about 25 seconds. (A year and day later, Dempsey would get his revenge, destroying Flynn in the first round.)
However, when Bean met Flynn on April 7, 1902, in Salt Lake City, the “Fireman” was a highly regarded prospect who outpointed the “Fighting Parson” over 20 rounds. The April 8, 1902 Salt Lake Tribune provided a long article, with a photo of both fighters. The above-the-type recap makes it clear that Flynn was the better fighter. It reads in part: “Bean puts up a game battle, but is outclassed by heavier opponent. Flynn proves himself a “Comer.” The reporter notes that the fight was even for four rounds but after that, Flynn dominated with “Only Bean’s excellent boxing, clever head and footwork, his ability to stand punishment and wonderful recuperative powers prevented a knockout.“Boxrec tabs the Flynn loss as Bean’s final fight. Again, that may not be true.
Although I can’t prove this, it’s my hunch that the Choynski fight spurred Bean to try to make it to a higher echelon of boxing. He appeared on higher-level cards that were saved for history books, and fought tougher opponents with varying success. He may have retired after losing to Flynn, at the age of 30. Or he may have picked up some more wins against lesser opposition in “lost” fights.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no evidence that Bean was U.S. middleweight champ, as the Ensign magazine claims. However, he did fight Jack Christy on March 21, 1902 (18 days prior to Flynn) for the Utah middleweight boxing championship, in Provo. However Bean lost that bout via a disqualification in the 12th round for hitting Christy on the break. It must have been a frustrating loss for Bean, as news reports say he was on the verge of knocking out his opponent when the bout ended. From the March 22, 1902 Deseret News: “In all probability the blow that lost the fight was the result of carelessness on the part of Bean, in his anxiety to finish Christie, (sic) who was helpless from the head blows …” Here’s a newspaper reports of one of Bean’s wins. On May 6, 1897, the Tribune reported on Bean’s win in Provo over Salt Lake City boxer Sam Clark. In “Provo Glove Contest,” the Tribune, noting that Bean was a Brigham Young Academy athlete, wrote that “Bean demonstrated his superiority” over Clark, adding that “in the ninth round Bean floored Clark with a stiff punch with his right …” (It’s worth noting that Bean, according to boxrec, was also a frequent boxing referee in the first 15 years of the 20th century. He refereed three fights involving Flynn, by the way. He also refereed a fight with Battling Nelson, a world lightweight champion.)
So that’s a part of the pugilistic history of Mormon boxer Willard Bean. There’s likely much more to be unearthed. He was certainly a colorful character, and the perfect man to restore the LDS Church to respect in Palmyra, with his preaching skills backed up by a good left hook and fair straight right hand.
A final note: The newspaper accounts are located at Utah Digital Newspapers, (here), a valuable tool for historians.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs.