Monday, November 20, 2017

The omniscient God from a Mormon perspective

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

The mummy's curse and the Book of Abraham

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mormon folklore as diverse, tragic and humorous as other religions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Orson F. Whitney biography captures the contradictions of faith

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Novel Dream House on Golan Drive, Mormon Thunder Jedediah Grant

A Mormon-themed novel, “Dream House On Golan Drive” (Signature Books), by David G. Pace, a writer of considerable talent and regional note. “Dream House” is not likely to move beyond its genre but it’s extremely well written and thought-provoking.
It involves the lives within a Mormon quasi-celebrity family, the Hartleys, living in Provo in the late 1970s through the 1990s. The dad, Nelson, is the sort, not uncommon in the faith, who is a third spiritual giant, a third motivational speaker, and a third pitchman. Mom Joan is a former Miss Utah. There’s a whole passel of kids, and the story revolves around eldest son, Riley, taking us from childhood and well into his adulthood.
In an interesting quirk, Pace allows one of the Three Nephites, “Zed,” to be a narrator. The old Nephite, who seems to play a sort of guardian angel to Riley as well, also consorts with contemporaries, including The Wandering Jew. Through Riley, most of the traditional rites of passages of growing up Mormon are observed, an we get a peek of the many dysfunctions that accompany a “perfect Mormon family” headed by a ’spiritual celebrity.’”
Pace possesses talent with his prose. For example: “The power of the word is two-edged. It can constrain you, Riley learned. A kind of reverse logos. Back home he was struck by how religion seemed to be spoken into a wide-mouthed canning jar and quickly sealed, but the most amazing permutation of toxins bean in that sterile environment. Morality turned into moralism. Couragebecame obedience. Values were edicts. Self-discipline became mental-subjugation. The WORD became simply an act of preservation, of enduring toward some kind of end.”
There’s a strong passage of mother Joan’s frequent trips to the Provo temple, where she she can sit in solitude, contemplate and grieve for her wayward children’s dysfunctions. The fate of one character, a sort of mentor to Riley, left me in tears. Be warned, this is a grim novel, more concerned with the scabs than applying any balm to the wounds. There are random moments of humor that relieve the tension.
With the renewal of enthusiasm for Mormon history, led by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself, it’s about time that the historical personage of Jedediah Grant was resurrected. Possessed of looks reserved for movie matinee idols, the counselor to Brigham Young was a major player in mid-1850s Utah ... and then he died.
One reason Grant may not get the same publicity as his peers is that he was a fiercely devoted advocate of the Mormon reformation, and spoke favorably of now-taboo doctrines such as blood atonement. Nevertheless, he had a fascinating life. Soon after his conversion, he became brother in law to William Smith, prodigal brother to the Prophet Joseph Smith. He served many missions for the church, worked closely with the Mormons’ non-Mormon ally Thomas Kane, and self taught himself to becoming a powerful speaker.
More than a generation ago, Gene A. Sessions, Ogden scholar, wrote a strong biography, “Mormon Thunder: A Documentary History of Jedediah Morgan Grant” (I have a 2008 edition published by Greg Kofford Books). Sessions captures the personality of this early-Mormon leader, and how a tender familial side could go to a bowery pulpit and strike fear in the hearts of the faithful.
Session writes: “Apparently believing that the bloodstream of the body of the Saints needed purification, he (Grant) openly fought dangerous notions that Restoration had lost its way under its new leadership. The Church, he maintained, could and ought to change, but only under the laws set down by the rule of the priesthood. That must be the unchanging order of the universe.”
Many of Grant’s discourses are in “Mormon Thunder,” and they are treasures. Here’ just one excerpt I enjoyed, particularly Grant’s use of slang for a cat: “... I know some of our milk and water folks thought all the fat was in the fire. ’Brother Brigham has gone rather too far; he might have spoken a little milder than he did. I think it would have been much better,’ &c. This was the language of some hearts; and I feel to say, damn all such poor pussyism. ...
Sessions includes a major tragedy of Grant’s life, losing his wife and infant child on the Pioneer trail. The account includes his return to gather the infant’s body, only to discover the corpse had been picked apart and scattered by wild animals. Overall, “Mormon Thunder” is an interesting account of a remarkable church leader.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardNet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The prodigal Mormon apostle, Thomas B. Marsh

The “Milk and Strippings” story as it relates to Thomas B. Marsh, onetime top LDS apostle turned apostate who came to Utah almost 20 years later a broken, humbled, impoverished supplicant, is one of the pleasant semi-fictions of Mormon history. It probably isn’t completely untrue, but it seems a mostly unlikely fable, which follows: In Far West, Sister Marsh and Sister Harris agreed to share milk and so-called “strippings” in order to make more cheese. Sister Marsh kept too many of the “strippings.” Sister Harris complained to the ward teachers, who decided that Sister Marsh was in the wrong. There was an appeal and the bishop upheld the verdict. Thomas B. Marsh, the senior apostle, appealed to the High Council, who upheld the bishop’s verdict. Apostle Marsh then appealed to the First Presidency, who upheld the High Council. The story concludes with Marsh so angry over what he perceived as an affront to his wife, that, as Apostle George A. Smith relates, “With the persistency of Lucifer himself, he declared that he would uphold the character of his wife, ‘even if he (Marsh) had to go to hell for it.’” (It bears noting that Smith’s recollections are from the 1850s.)

So, Marsh eventually left the church, filed affidavits that Mormon paramilitary organizations were prepared to attack church opponents. According to authors Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, writing in Sunstone, Vol. 6, No. 4, Marsh’s affidavit, which was co-filed by Orson Hyde, an apostle who later returned to the church, contributed to the extermination order of Mormons in Missouri, signed by Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, and the Haun’s Mill massacre, where 17 Mormon men and boys were murdered.
Marsh’s apostasy was damaging to the church leaders. As A. Gary Anderson, writing for the website, notes, Joseph Smith “spent five months in jail as a result of the betrayal of Marsh and the others.”
Both the Sunstone piece and Anderson’s online essay, titled,Thomas B. Marsh: Reluctant Apostate,” rely a lot on the “Milk and Strippings Story” to explain Marsh’s apostasy. Frankly, it seems ludicrous that a dispute over a pint of milk “strippings” would lead to such chaos. But that’s the point of the fable, to point out how something that seems inconsequential can have great ramifications.
But there is a rest of the story to Marsh’s apostasy. He was under a great deal of personal and religious stress. As a senior church apostle, he was confronting rebellions from some of the church’s earliest leaders, including John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, William E. McLellin, John Boynton, Luke Johnson and Lyman Johnson. In fact, Marsh’s efforts to maintain a church led by Joseph Smith were rewarded with his appointment as “President pro tem of the Church in Zion,” writes Anderson.
Nevertheless, history records that by the end of 1838 Marsh was both an apostate and an enemy to the LDS Church and its prophet, Joseph Smith. Casting aside the “Milk and Strippings” story as more legend than fact, John Hamer, writing in the blog bycommonconsent, offers a reason for Marsh’s apostasy that seems to have more curd in it. Hamer casts Marsh as a church leader very concerned over the young faith’s embrace of “Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8) where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000,” Hamer writes. Hamer argues that Marsh’s concern over Mormons wanting Quixotic battles with far superior enemies that would be waged with God’s help “was no small thing. Rather, it was the big thing.”
Now, the second part of the “Milk and Strippings” fable is that Marsh, nearly 20 years later, returned to Utah a broken man, begged publicly for forgiveness, and was reinstated into the church by a forgiving Brigham Young. Again part of that’s true, but it’s much more complex.
As Hamer notes, Young offered this ungracious reply: “I presume that Brother Marsh will take no offen[s]e if I talk a little about him. We have manifested our feelings towards him, and we know his situation. With regard to this Church’s being reconciled to him, I can say that this Church and people were never dissatisfied with him; for when men and women apostatize and go from us, we have nothing to do with them. If they do that which is evil, they will suffer for it. Brother Marsh has suffered. ...
“He has told you that he is an old man. Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congregation that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can any of the young men. Brother Thomas considers himself very aged and infirm, and you can see that he is, brethren and sisters. What is the cause of it? He left the Gospel of salvation. What do you think the difference is between his age and mine? One year and seven months to a day; and he is one year, seven months, and fourteen days older than brother Heber C. Kimball. ‘Mormonism’ keeps men and women young and handsome; and when they are full of the Spirit of God, there are none of them but what will have a glow upon their countenances; and that is what makes you and me young; for the Spirit of God is with us and within us. When Brother Thomas thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say.”
Hamer describes Young as “uncharitable” in his remarks. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s more context to this historical tale, as Van Wagoner and Walker note in their Sunstone article. Prior to the reunion and speeches at the Bowery, Marsh had sent Young what he claimed was a revelation from God. It read in part, as the Sunstone piece records, “Behold I say unto thee Brigham Young! Where is the servant of the Lord, Thomas Marsh, Chief of the 12 to whom the Lord gave the keys of the Kingdom? from whom they have not been taken, who was driven out from among you because of the iniquity of his brethren who hunted for his blood but did not obtain it because his life was hid with Christ in god, because he had made the Lord, who was the God of David, his habitation …”
The letter from Marsh to Young also claimed that God wanted Young, as well as himself, to be part of a “Supreme Council” in which “they shale obtain the word of the Lord through the mouth of Thomas ...”
Brigham Young did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily. Reading the letter, one imagines emotions including contempt, pity and compassion. History does record that he sent for Thomas B. Marsh, and allowed the “prodigal apostle” a place in the church he once abandoned. Young’s tendency to be blunt, one which often extended to cruelty, was also on display on the day the former apostle Marsh addressed the Utah saints. As for Marsh, after spending time in Springville and Spanish Fork, he eventually moved to Ogden. As Van Wagoner and Walker note, he sometimes wrote Brigham Young, requesting clothes. He died in Ogden in 1867, and is buried in the city cemetery.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, October 9, 2017

Pratt's book was must-Mormon reading long ago

I have always wanted to read early Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology,” a book that was heavily read by church members in the 19th century, yet probably would not be placed by most members today. But the book was a must-read 150 years ago.
The book is free electronically, online or Kindle, but it never seemed appropriate to read this tome via technology, and the dead-tree editions were a tad pricey until I found — surprisingly — a 1973 Deseret Book edition in an Ogden thrift store. For $1, I snapped it up and read it one long weekend.
With the exception of Joseph Smith, I find Pratt the most interesting of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders. I can support that claim by merely having skeptics read his autobiography or the recent biography by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow.
He was a force of theological energy, a mixture of piety and randiness. He was that curious blend of frontier independence, New Testament fundamentalist and progressive theologian that Mormonism attracted.
He weathered a major dispute with Joseph Smith and frequently angered Brigham Young, but he stayed a stalwart in Mormonism, eventually being murdered in 1857 by the husband of a convert he had taken as a plural wife. Perhaps more than any other early leader, Pratt understood the power of the printed word and his writings likely brought scores of thousands into the young church.
Pratt’s theme in his book is that every theological occurrence is based on a scientific law that we may not understand but is the norm in a higher, celestial sphere occupied by deity.
To be honest, the book is a tough read. Pratt writes in a ponderous, flowery manner in which a lot is used to say a little. On the plus side, the book’s explanation of Mormonism’s Plan of Salvation, with its pre-existence, distinct godly trinity, the earth being renewed to heavenly glory, and degrees of post-mortal salvation and exaltation, is similar to what is taught weekly in LDS chapels. These were extremely provocative concepts even within Mormonism 150-plus years ago, and Pratt’s mastery of the concepts lend credence to accounts that he and Joseph Smith engaged in long, productive conversations on theology during the last several years of Smith’s life.
There are nuggets of unconventional information that get through, such as his belief that the Book of Mormon prophets Lehi and Nephi landed in what is today Chile in South America. Also, in the book, Pratt opines in detail about life in the spirit world. One can imagine that this passage may have been inspired as a rebuttal to the then new fad of spiritualism and summoning the dead.
Pratt writes: Many spirits of the departed, who are unhappy, linger in lonely wretchedness about the earth, and in the air, and especially about their ancient homesteads, and the places rendered dear to them by the memory of former scenes. The more wicked of these are the kind spoken of in Scripture, as ‘foul spirits,’ ‘unclean spirits,’ spirits who afflict persons in the flesh, and engender various diseases in the human system. They will sometimes enter human bodies, and will distract them, throw them into fits, cast them into the water, into the fire, etc. They will trouble them with dreams, nightmare, hysterics, fever, etc. They will also deform them in body and in features, by convulsions, cramps, contortions, etc., and will sometimes compel them to utter blasphemies, horrible curses, and even words of other languages. If permitted, they will often cause death. Some of these spirits are adulterous, and suggest to the mind all manner of lasciviousness, all kinds of evil thoughts and temptations.
Although there’s a lot of theological fun within the heavy prose (imagine a high priest group lesson extending beyond the lesson’s boundaries), it’s a good idea that this book stays an historical curio to be pored over by church historical buffs. It contains bits and pieces of the biases of earlier church history, some of which extended well into the second half of the 20th century. In this unfortunate passage. Pratt “describes” post-resurrection exaltation, writing:
“The heathen nations, also, will then be redeemed, and will be exalted to the privilege of serving the Saints of the Most High. They will be the ploughmen, the vine-dressers, the gardeners, builders, etc. But the Saints will be the owners of the soil, the proprietors of all real estate, and other precious things; and the kings, governors, and judges of the earth.”
For those with an interest in Mormon history, by all means give Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology” a read. As mentioned, its main point of interest is as an early primer on the LDS Plan of Salvation.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardNET

Monday, October 2, 2017

Brigham Young and Thomas Kane: The Prophet and the Reformer

Mormon leader Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane, bred for wealth, were certainly oil and water at first glance. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Kane, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and the rugged, bred-from-poverty pioneer leader Young enjoyed decades of respect and friendship that endured to death. Indeed, Kane is appropriately regarded as Mormonism’s most influential non-Mormon lobbyist and champion during the time the Saints were most unpopular.
Culled from archives and edited by scholars Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker, “The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane,” (Oxford University Press, 2015) detail a cordial, respectful and candid relationship between the pair. As the authors note, Kane, while having spiritual beliefs, was critical of the conventional Protestant religion of his day, and appalled by the ill treatment the Latter-day Saints received in Illinois. He saw the Mormon situation in terms of a people whose civil rights were being violated. Kane was a frail man, at one point he’s described as weighing 93 pounds. Succumbing to the disease-ridden camps, he nearly lost his life. Perhaps some of his decades-long lobbying for the Mormons stemmed from his appreciation to the Mormon women who nursed him back to health.
I suspect Young viewed Kane as a gift from God; he was indeed grateful and treated Kane with a respect and deference that the candid, hard-bitten leader usually deferred when dealing with others. And Kane was a valuable, productive ally. The son of a prominent Philadelphia judge, he had the ability to talk on even terms with presidents, congressmen, periodical editors, and state and local officials. He used his writing and organizational skills to manufacture favorable public opinion for the Saints, either by anonymously reporting or writing, and on one occasion, delivering a highly influential speech that, in that era, heavily swung public opinion to pity the Mormons for ill treatment received rather than be criticized for alleged sins.
A fascinating tidbit of history gleaned from this book is that Kane’s lobbying actually inspired a series of Easter U.S. fundraising activities for the Mormons as they struggled to migrate West. Indeed, Sara Childress Polk, the wife and first lady to U.S. President James K. Polk, even had a tea party fundraiser for the Mormons in 1846, as did other Washington socialites. As the editors note, even non-Mormon religious leaders participated in this 1846 effort. The genesis of this success was Kane, who produced and circulated a “Meeting for the Relief of Mormons” circular.
Kane rarely visited Utah, and turned down opportunities to be its governor. He primarily represented the church interests with lobbyists from Utah, advising Young on their effectiveness. He was candid, being particularly critical of a profane, Jack-Mormon-type Utah representgative named Almon Babbitt, whom he argued hurt Utah’s chances of territorial autonomy with his coarseness and crudeness. In later years, Kane and Young focused on statehood for Utah, a goal which would elude them until after their deaths. One of Kane’s biggest accomplishments was his skill in negotiating a shaky peace between Utah officials and the federal troops during the tension and conflict that erupted in the late 1850s.
Despite Kane’s talents, there were constant setbacks due to the public’s slow but consistent disapproval of the Mormon religion. Polygamy was an issue that caused Kane some embarrassment. In the years prior to the Saints’ admitting to the practice, Kane echoed the denials. Soon after church leader Jedediah Grant admitted the practice, huckstering a skeptical Kane with the explanation that a majority of Mormon women necessitated the practice, Kane sent a frank letter to Young, expressing his disappointment as a friend. He wrote, in part, “... I have to grieve over your favor to a custom which belongs essentially, I think, to communities in other respects behind your own. ...” 
Young reciprocated the friendship, and took no offense at Kane’s disapproval, replying in part “... Permit me to thank you most cordially for the open, frank, and candid expression of your views and feelings, on one important truth connected with my history ...”
As important as the historical letters are, the complexities of Kane’s mind and intellect is explained through the letters. It was an egalitarian mind, and deeply conditioned to champion the underdog and seek justice. He found a cause in the Mormons, a group he firmly believed were both misunderstood and mistreated. His family respected Kane’s beliefs even while wondering about his close friendship with the polygamist self-proclaimed prophet Young. Kane’s accomplished wife, Elizabeth, recounted meeting Young in 1872, saying, “Vulgarly speaking, I couldn’t abide him. ... He was just as kind and hospitable to me as he could be, but I loathed him.”
As the authors note, though, “her husband, however, prized his relationship with Kane.” Helping the Mormons was his passion. Although never a church follower or member, he received a patriarchal-like blessing from the Latter-day Saints and noted it as he advanced in life; even asking his wife to receive one. She did.
After Young’s death in 1877, Kane, as many others have, reached Ogden by train. As befitting a confidante, he was greeted by a contingent of the Quorum of the Twelve, met with Young’s family, tried to soothe the disappointment of Young’s son, John W., who had been passed over by the church hierarchy, talked with Young’s wives at the Lion House, and visited his old friend’s grave. Kane died December 26, 1883.
-- Doug Gibson
Previously published at StandardNet

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Eternal progression after death is fun speculation for Mormons

A key difference between Latter-day Saints and many other Christian churches is that Mormons believe that there are various post-judgment kingdoms in the outskirts of heaven. There’s the Telestial Kingdom, for anyone from Hitler to that lawyer who’s cheating on his wife. There’s the Terrestrial Kingdom, for those decent folks who said “not now” when the missionaries came by the door. And then there’s the Celestial Kingdom, the jackpot prize.
But even the Celestial Kingdom comes in degrees. According to Joseph Smith, there are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. So, there’s the big leagues, triple-AAA ball and AA ball in the Celestial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is eternal single-A ball while Telestial Kingdom folks are damned to the rookie leagues forever.
And there’s reason I say leagues, because Mormon pop theology has flirted with the idea of progression within the less kingdoms ... and even from kingdom to kingdom. 
I refer to one of the more early B.H. Roberts books, “Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” first written in 1893, but the edition I have read is from 1927. The copy I read was used by an LDS missionary of that era. Roberts was one of the “progressive model” Mormon leaders of the first half of the 20th century. He favored a more expansive interpretation of Mormon doctrine. It was a doctrinal battle that Roberts and others would eventually lose to future Church president Joseph Fielding Smith, who headed the rise of a very conservative church leadership.
Anyway, Roberts, on page 416, parts 19 and 20 of The Restoration of the Gospel section, writes:
(19) “The question of advancement within the great divisions of glory celestial, terrestrial, and telestial; as also the question of advancement from one sphere of glory to another remains to be considered. In the revelation from which we have summarized what has been written here, in respect to the different degrees of glory, it is said that those of the terrestrial glory will be ministered unto by those of the celestial; and those of the telestial will be ministered unto by those of the terrestrial — that is, those of the higher glory minister to those of a lesser glory. We can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father's children along the lines of eternal progression. Whether or not in the great future, full of so many possibilities now hidden from us, they of the lesser glories after education and advancement within those spheres may at last emerge from them and make their way to the higher degrees of glory until at last they attain to the highest, is not revealed in the revelations of God, and any statement made on the subject must partake more or less of the nature of conjecture.
(20) ”But if it be granted that such a thing is possible, they who at the first entered into the celestial glory — having before them the privilege also of eternal progress — have been moving onward, so that the relative distance between them and those who have fought their way up from the lesser glories, may be as great when the latter have come into the degrees of celestial glory in which the righteous at first stood, as it was at the commencement; and thus between them is an impassable gulf which time cannot destroy. Thus: those whose faith and works are such only as to entitle them to inherit a telestial glory, may arrive at last where those whose works in this life were such as to entitle them to entrance into the celestial kingdom — they may arrive where these were, but never where they are.“
Now here is where things get really interesting. For a long time, ”where they are“ is where section 20 ends. HOWEVER, if I go to the 1927 edition of ”Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,“ which is the edition I read, Roberts continues with this fascinating ”conjecture“:
”But if it be granted that the chief fact about Intelligences is that they have power to add fact to fact and thus build up knowledge, and through knowledge have wisdom, and thus make progress; and if to such intelligence there is granted eternal life — immortality — then it is useless to postulate any limitations for them; for in the passing of even a few thousands of millions of years, even if progress be very slow — there will come a time when these intelligences — men and women of even the telestial glory — may become very acceptable characters, and very important personages.“
This is radical doctrine, and very interesting to read. It brings Mormonism back to its most progressive roots. But it’s hard to find the 1927 edition. A newer online ebook restoration (here) also omits the 1927 complete version. Frankly, Roberts’ later speculation is hard to locate. But it was once published. Other early LDS leaders also seemed to believe in a post-mortal progression between kingdoms, including Wilford Woodruff and Franklin D. Richards. 
Since 1927, the idea of eternal progression toward exaltation has become a pariah. I came of age as a young Mormon in the 1970s and I recall more than one teacher telling classes that the idea that you could progress from any of the lower kingdoms to exaltation was damnable to consider. In fact, I recall teachers citing Bruce R. McConkie, who described the idea as one of the ”Seven Deadly Heresies.“ (Here)
What is included in Roberts’ 1927 version was part of Mormonism’s move to more speculation of doctrine, more discussion. It was not to last, though. I have no idea if the propensity to seeing the edited version of ”Outlines ...“ online is due to disapproval of the 1927 edition, but I would not be surprised. 
If you go to to FairMormon wiki page and inquire into eternal progression into kingdoms the answer is more or less, ”there is no official church position on this, but it probably isn’t true.“
Going back to Roberts’ book ”Outlines ...,“ in section 7, page 408 he writes:
”Naturally the question arises why was the gospel preached to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient if there were no means by which it could be applied to them for their salvation. We can scarcely suppose that Messiah would preach the gospel to them if it could do them no good. He did not go there to mock their sufferings or to add something to the torture of their damnation by explaining the beauties of that salvation now forever beyond their reach! Such a supposition would at once be revolting to reason, insulting to the justice of God, and utterly repugnant to the dictates of mercy!“
That part of Roberts’ teachings remains accepted doctrine. It’s a reminder that the LDS belief that God does not have a ”line“ that divides all in a ”heaven“ and ”hell“ is still evidence of the faith’s progressive roots.
So, despite mostly successful efforts to make progression within kingdoms a ”heresy“ to speculate about, Mormons do wonder about these issues, and even discuss them among ourselves from time to time. (To read a fascinating article on Roberts’ and other debates within the LDS leadership go to
-- Doug Gibson
This essay was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book an overview of Joseph Smith's legal encounters

The interest in “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters,” edited by Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch, BYU Studies, 2014, depends on the depth and breadth of your interest in Mormon history.
Some will find this volume of 18 essays — that includes a list of all legal events Smith was involved — dry and just plain boring. Others will delve into the minutia until the wee hours of the morning. I fall somewhere in the middle but give the collection a thumbs up.
The essays provide by-the-numbers appraisals of various legal matters and explore the strengths, and weaknesses, Smith possessed in cases.
The essays, most of which have been published before, are a diverse collection, which include Smith’s witness participation in a routine lawsuit over the sale of horses, to a “disorderly person” charge against Smith, the Book of Mormon copyright, the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, habeus corpus law, a charge of adultery against Smith in Nauvoo, and the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, an act that led to Smith and his brother Hyrum being murdered by a mob. Although the book is favorable to Smith’s religious beliefs (at times the essayists precede his name with “the prophet...”) the legal issues are analyzed — appropriately — from secular perspectives.
In what may be the collection’s biggest strength, the legal issues of the cases are placed in the context of the times they occurred. This is an important distinction, because it allows for legal conclusions that may surprise us today. In the essay, “Legally Suppressing the Nauvoo Expositor in 1844,” by church apostle Dallin H. Oaks and first published almost 50 years ago, he makes a detailed case that the destruction of the press was more or less legal in that time period. Oaks points out that it wasn’t until 1931 that the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a Minnesota court ruling that actions such as the suppression of media by local authorities was unconstitutional. In the 1840s, it was not uncommon for local authorities to take action against entities which were defined as “public nuisances” without judicial approval.
In fact, prior to Joseph and Hyrum Smith being taken to Carthage — with a promise of safety by the governor — and subsequently being murdered, Smith had been acquitted by a non-Mormon judge in regards to the press’ destruction. The pair were unable to be bailed in Carthage only because a charge of “treason” was added. According to Oaks, the only legal blot against Smith in the Expositor case would be the destruction of the press, which would be considered “overkill” as the printed newspaper, and not the printing machine, was the “nuisance.”
Despite the legal introspection, it’s clear that the arbitrary destruction of the press by Nauvoo authorities was a deadly mistake by Smith and other Mormon leaders. Besides the outrage generated by suppressing the press, it provided the means necessary for enemies to get the Smith brothers into a jail, with a feckless governor’s sanction, and eventually murder the pair.
Some of the more interesting essays are “Being Acquitted of a ”Disorderly Person“ charge in 1826,” by Madsen, which argues that Smith was acquitted of charges that were likely related to “glass looking” or claiming to see through a stone. While the subject can be dry, essayist Nathaniel Hinckley Wasdworth in “Securing the Book of Mormon Copyright in 1829” makes the interesting observation that Smith, although obtaining a legal victory that denied a publisher the right to serialize the Book of Mormon, probably didn’t have sufficient copyright claim to win the case. Two essays, “Kirtland Safety Society,” and “Defining Adultery” take charges associated with Smith involving accusations of banking fraud and immorality. In both essays, arguments in favor of Smith’s legal positions rely on what the law’s intentions were in that time period, rather than relying on general disapproval. Another essay by Madsen points out bench mistakes and failures in a court presided by anti-Mormon Austin King that preceded a long jail stretch for Smith and others, including Parley P. Pratt, in Missouri.
In “Defining Adultery,” discussing adultery charges brought against Smith regarding Maria Lawrence, by apostates William and Wilson Law, essayist M. Scott Bradshaw notes that “under Illinois law, enacted in 1833, only open cohabitation of a man and woman not married to each other was punishable by law.” As Bradshaw adds, “Joseph’s relationships with his plural wives did not meet this definition (open).”
Besides the chronology of cases at the end of the book, there are short biographies of judges associated with cases and a glossary of legal terms. As mentioned, the chief strength of “Sustaining the Law ...” is its dispassionate look at the legal realities of the cases examined and its reliance on secular arguments — standard to the era — to overview the cases. The essays argue the law, not doctrine.
-- Doug Gibson
This post was originally published at StandardNet.