Monday, July 24, 2017
Closing the book after reading, "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," the biography by George Mason University religious studies professor John G. Turner, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University, causes some swirling emotions for this Latter-day Saint reader.
From reading Turner’s fantastic — and it is by far the best that has been written of Young’s life — biography, it’s easy for a faithful Mormon to agree that God called Young to the task of moving 20,000-plus Mormons across the plains to Utah territory and over a generation-plus, to set up hundreds of Mormon settlements. No man in U.S. history was ever that successful in those endeavors.
On the other hand, while admiring Young’s organizational skills, I don’t much care for Brigham Young the man. Turner’s biography portrays an often unpleasant man, with a foul mouth — his preferred cuss word was "shit" — and a spiteful, vengeful nature. He had a caustic sense of humor, which perhaps mitigates some of his casual comments that seemed to support violence. He ruled the Salt Lake Valley as an absolute dictator, and harbored longtime grudges against apostles who dared to criticize his particular beliefs, such as blood atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, and the United Order.
While no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, his messages to Native Americans that they could steal from non-Mormon settlers, the atmosphere of settler-animus that pervaded 1857 Utah, and Young’s successful efforts to stymie an initial investigation into the massacre, harm the image of the LDS Church’s second modern-day prophet. Indeed, Young’s caustic tongue also inflamed a Mormon bishop to castrate a petty criminal, a Logan member. Rather than feel sympathy for the man or his mother, Young protected the ecclesiastical leader who had ordered it. And, reading accounts of murders of non-Mormons by LDS thugs Porter Rockwell and William Hickman, it seems plausible to theorize that Young ordered those deaths.
However, Turner’s book overall is not a negative portrayal of Young. It is another example of grizzly bear truth, where a great man’s life is revealed, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults included. The book is on the shelves at Deseret Book, and that’s appropriate because it does justice in recounting the life of the West’s most prominent 19th century colonizer. Turner describes Young’s hardscrabble existence in early 18th century New England, his strained relationship with his father, and his early religious skepticism that was finally counteracted by Joseph Smith’s new religion, Mormonism.
Before the mid-1840s, Brigham Young was known for his compassion and openness as a Mormon apostle. Turner recounts his tender, love-filled letters to his wife, Mary Angell, and the biography includes accounts of his compassionate tenure as a leader to the Mormons in England. But the murder of the Joseph Smith, the continued harassment of Nauvoo Mormons afterward, and, as important, the internal dissent that swirled within the LDS Church prior to Smith’s murder, all that changed Young. He appears to have turned into a man, a leader, determined to never let that happen again.
Young mercilessly abused the LDS apostles both privately and publicly. Young’s CEO-type behavior, though, achieved its goals. No disagreeing members of the LDS hierarchy were able to achieve the success of the Law brothers, in Nauvoo. Young’s hammering of the Saints in Utah, his public denunciations and calls for repentance, kept the Utah Mormons united in their distrust of outside influences and retained their faith in unity.
His strong opposition to mining, for example, kept Utah free of non-Mormon influences for as long as Young could manage it. Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence.
Young never admitted that he made mistakes. The handcart fiasco was the fault of Franklin Richards and John Taylor; the failure to enact a United Order was the fault of Erastus Snow. Private gestures of compassion and charity to apostles, severely chastened by Young, served to partially mitigate this routine abuse. Young also provided himself a great deal of wealth and luxury, while relegating many of his followers to relative poverty. He tolerated no criticism of this perceived inequality. Young demands respect despite his human weaknesses.
More than even Joseph Smith, he is responsible for the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His shrewd leadership, along with help from the canny, non-Mormon lobbyist, Thomas Kane, managed to keep him as the main source of power in the Utah territory for much longer than anyone would have anticipated.
Young was able to manipulate political events, wars, the seasons, weak-willed political appointees, Native American unrest, and petitions for statehood to consistently survive virtually every imbroglio with the federal government or U.S. Army. Turner recounts many incidents of Young surviving as Utah’s leader while "gentile" nemesis after nemesis left Utah as grumbling failures.
When the railroad connected Utah with the nation, Young’s power slowly decreased the last decade of his life. Perhaps to cheat the spectre of death, Young took a few young wives. He tried to re-energize support for two doctrines he had long espoused, the Adam-God doctrine and the United Order. Those efforts though were lackluster.
Still revered by members, Young seemed a calmer, or perhaps just exhausted, lion. One of his final acts was to dedicate the St. George Temple. Characteristically, he criticized an apostle while doing so.
Brigham Young was a great man. I revere him as a prophet. He was also a man of his times, who carried the savagery and bigotry of that era. Many of his most egregious acts can be explained, and even perhaps excused, by the understanding that he felt himself to be in a war. He believed that his existence, and that of his Gospel, was in danger. That he died as leader of the Utah Mormons was his final victory, and final sacrifice for Joseph Smith.
- Doug Gibson
- This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Monday, June 26, 2017
I’m fascinated by the pop science/theology behind near-death experiences. I’ve read the “Life After Life” books by Raymond Moody and several similar books. It was interesting to discover another book, “Glimpses Beyond Death’s Door,” by Brent L. and Wendy C. Top, from the publisher Covenant Communications, which strictly follows LDS theology and authority. One can assume that “Glimpses …” has been thoroughly vetted by LDS leaders.
The authors provide a fascinating, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, overview of near-death accounts, using many sources liberally with an emphasis on the “Journal of Near-Death Studies” and the book “Heaven and Hell,” by Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish Lutheran and scientist who claimed to have received access to the afterlife. Also, there are numerous discourses and writings from LDS Church leaders, including “Journal of Discourses” accounts from Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt.
If one had to summarize the “Glimpses …” approach quickly, it’d be, “throw out traditional, man-made concepts of crime and punishment” and “law and order.” Based on a consistency in nature of the NDE accounts compiled, compassion and love are the dominating sensations experienced at death. Whether greeted by family members, a guardian angel, or a life reviewer, death appears to be a very positive experience. Many didn’t want to return and were unaffected by the grieving of family members and friends.
(I will digress here to mention that for this essay, I am assuming that these experiences are real, although other than the amount of professed NDEs out there, they certainly can’t be proven. Belief in divinity, an afterlife, or other theological claims cannot be proven, and that’s why heated debate usually leads nowhere. But even for skeptics, I’d wager the topic has interest.)
LDS theology teaches that after death, we go to a spirit world, which is located here on earth, but in another sphere which we can’t see as mortals. Much of “Glimpses …” is devoted to taking the many NDEs of Swedenborg, Moody and others, and applying what they witnessed as glimpses into an LDS-taught afterlife spirit world. While readers must be aware that the authors can pick and choose sources as they wish, the Tops do make an effort to put most precedence on NDEs from non-Mormon sources.
Based on “Glimpses …,” it’s clear that death, and the subsequent journey into a spirit existence, is not a place where a “true church,” or “true gospel,” is revealed to newly arrived spirits. In fact, the most persons who have had NDEs, the authors claim, experience a jump in spirituality, but not any discernible move toward a particular religion. In fact, the afterlife spirit world, based on many of the NDE accounts, is a place where autonomy, the ability to choose, still exists for the deceased person.
Despite being in a sphere that is more advanced than earth’s (time travel and increased, almost effortless comprehension of reason, memory and why bad things happen have been reported) there is no traditional purgatory or hell. However, most accounts show a separation of spirits based on knowledge accumulated and charitable love expressed for others while on earth. The spirits who might be in a place considered “paradise” are not tethered to their own self interests or to so-called worldly pleasures. They want to serve others. They also appear to shine with a greater light. Spirits who might be considered to be in a “prison” are focused on their own personal needs or worldly indulgences. It is hypothesized that these latter group of spirits, still obsessed with the world and themselves, are those who haunt TV ghost shows, or seances, etc.
Not surprisingly, spirits tend to congregate based on similarities of light and interests. It is hypothesized by many that more self-centered spirits are simply not comfortable within the light that more “righteous” spirits possess. Hence, “hell” or spirit “prison” is defined not as an application of pain, but an inability to comfortably exist with other, more righteous people. (This frequent NDE observation may be one reason that conservative, fundamentalist Christians, who preach a literal hell of eternal pain and fire, are often very skeptical of NDEs.)
In “Glimpses …,” the authors point to these distinctions, personal autonomy, and the absence of a “true church” or “gospel” as evidence that missionary work is active in the afterlife spirit world. This is one main concept, of course, that distinguishes this NDE book from others. What may surprise LDS readers of “Glimpses …” is that missionary work in the spirit world appears to be harder than missionary work here on earth. The Tops quote Swedenborg, who describes an afterlife of spirits waiting to be taught more information, but not until they are ready to receive it.
One of the more interesting concepts of afterlife found in “Glimpses …” is that it is far harder to convert a spirit than it was during that spirit’s mortal existence. That’s because a spirit retains all that he or she learned — secular or non-secular — into the spirit world. Personalities and beliefs are molded in life, as well as passions, biases, prejudices and pride. In other NDEs recounted in “Glimpses …,” persons who had been skeptics of divine authority while on earth were observed still believing what they had once taught, and rationalizing, in a manner favorable to their own self interests, what they were now experiencing.
The idea that persons are assigned in the afterlife based on where they feel comfortable is similar to the C.S. Lewis novella, “The Great Divorce,” where residents of “hell” are taken on a journey to “heaven,” where spirits there minister to those in hell and attempt to convince them to remain with them, endure some discomfort (a metaphor for repentance), and live in heaven. Most of the travelers reject the offer, either because they are still afflicted with self pride and self pity, or, interestingly, believe that they are already in heaven.
That may sum up a key theme of “Glimpses …,” which is that in the spirit world, we end up basically where we are most comfortable. In Mormon doctrine, this requires a Millennium’s worth of missionary work, and the attendant effort to bring everyone to knowledge of God’s plan of salvation. Rather than viewed condescendingly, or as a tool to argue with, “Glimpses …” can be an interesting — and unique — opportunity to learn how Mormon theology views NDEs and how it fits into its doctrine.
- Doug GibsonA version of this column was previously published at StandardBlogs.
Monday, June 19, 2017
I was watching Richard Bushman on DVD speak at some conference or other, the DVD — bought at alas, a remaindered discount at Seagull — doesn’t say where the conference was, or maybe I missed that information. In any event, Bushman is a valuable resource to learning about Mormon history.
He reminds us that history demands a catholic interpretation. When learning about Joseph Smith, for example, it’s just as important to learn what his critics thought of him as it is to learn what his most devoted adherents thought. And, it’s important to see all sides of an historical figure — the good and the bad.
Unfortunately, too often in politics and religion, many of us are simply unable to grasp that there is an opposing viewpoint worth respecting or flaws in our religious and political heroes. We know these negatives must exist; we live our own lives, with our personal doubts, failures and shortcomings. But the pedestal fantasy still grasps us.
I like this quote from Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling”: “Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an examplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish.”
A secular reason for Mormonism’s success, or staying power, is its lack of perfection. In “Rough Stone Rolling,” all the contradictions and setbacks that accompany a full life are listed: dabblings in money-digging as a youth; vigilante activities; distinct accounts of LDS revelations; political demagoguery; failed financial ventures; and the secrecy of plural marriage.
Moral of the story: Learning, and correcting, builds lasting endurance.
There are many reasons Smith’s church has endured beyond the “God’s work will never stop” rhetoric we hear each Sunday. Bushman cites at least three in “Rough Stone Rolling”:
• One is that the young LDS prophet did not make himself the center of early missionary experts. Since Mormonism was not a cult of personality, it was able to pick itself up and thrive after the shock of Smith’s Carthage martyrdom.
• Also, doctrines such as latter-day revelation, the gathering of Israel and a priesthood authority — all progressive in that era — was a chief appeal of Mormonism to its early converts.
• Another doctrine Bushman cites as having great missionary appeal was the temple endowments, which he opines offered converts the feeling of a “direct access to God.”
Truth is, any review of Mormonism’s early history is replete with as many failures as successes. Large swaths of the early church members, including most of the original Twelve Apostles, left the church. Many people who left the early church were justified in their anger that drove them from Mormonism. We shouldn’t try to deny that.
On the DVD, Bushman is asked how he can write histories that delve into Smith’s treasure hunting and polygamy deceptions and not meet the fate of other LDS historians, who have been disciplined by church leaders. Bushman’s answer: It’s how you conduct and write about your research. If you don’t deliberately poke certain people, your research is better received.
Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek answer, but true. Bushman has found a solution that works for him. As an active Mormon, he treats Smith as a prophet, not doubting his visions or revelations. But he also reminds us that he was a man, subject to imperfections. The result is the best biography of Smith since Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History.”
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs