Sunday, February 26, 2017

C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce and the LDS Spirit World

A couple of times a year, usually on a Sunday after church, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ marvelous post-mortal novella/fable “The Great Divorce.” It relates a journey of diminutive spirits (referred to as ghosts) to the outskirts of Heaven, where they are greeted by much larger, more powerful exalted spirits, eager to help them take a painful journey beyond the mountains to Heaven. The journey, and its accompanying pain, is a metaphor for repentance and shedding of sins.
Most of the “ghosts,” despite the mild persuasion of loved ones, friends and acquaintances who greet them, refuse the trip to Heaven. They prefer Hell because it allows them to retain their earthly passions and sins, obsessions, earthly pride, angers resentments, self-pity, manipulation, and narcissism. That is the foundation of what Lewis is teaching in his novella; that one must surrender the earth for Heaven.
As Lewis writes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ’Thy will be done,” and those to who God says in the end, ’Thy will be done.’“
”The Great Divorce“ can be called Dante-like. It’s a journey with many experiences, with a narrator and a teacher. Understand, I make no claim that C.S. Lewis saw any similarities between ”The Great Divorce“ and the Mormon concept of the post-mortal spirit world. In fact, Lewis — on more than one occasion — reminds readers that his story is a fantasy, and says, ”The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.“
Personally, I think Lewis had his tongue in his cheek with that remark, because of course ”The Great Divorce“ ”arouse(s) factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.“ And the concept of spirits retaining their weaknesses and more exalted spirits zealously attempting to teach them ”the right“ is a central tenant of Mormonism. But let me backtrack: From my earliest years in the LDS Church, I was taught that after we die, we either go to paradise or ”spirit prison.“ (For many childhood years, I envisioned ”spirit prison“ as a clean jail with bars, where orderly ”wicked“ spirits waited for good spirits to teach them the Gospel ...)
Instead, Mormon theology puts the spirits world as being on the earth. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma taught that — like Lewis’ ghosts — what’s learned and appreciated on earth is carried to the spirit world. In the LDS post-mortal spirit world, there is no confirmation of any ”correct Gospel.“ Spirits congregate where they are most comfortable. The ”righteous“ spirits — like Lewis’ spirits — attend to spirits who need to learn the truth. I imagine much of the ”missionary work“ is without success. (As a lifelong Mormon, it’s impossible not to imagine these spirit ”missionaries“ as wearing dark suits and ties, or sisters in dresses, and carrying flip charts and Scriptures as they knock on doors in ”Spirit Prison.“)
In ”The Great Divorce,“ Lewis talks about many ghosts who are so obsessed with their earthly lives that they return to homes, places of work, etc., and ”haunt“ them. (Now, what I’m saying next is ”Doug doctrine“ and not LDS belief, but one reason I flinch at watching LDS football on Sunday is that I have this feeling a host of spirits — all obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys, etc., are also watching the game. If I turn the tube off and put on a CD of church music, they’ll take off! I also wonder about those kitschy reality ghost-hunting shows on TV. Are the malicious spirits having fun with us humans?)
(Yeah, I’m still being tongue in cheek now but what comes next is serious.) Lewis’s relating that the souls of purgatory/hell were handicapped by their earthly attachments parallels the LDS belief that missionary spirits are attempting to teach other spirits to shed those same attachments. A chief distinction, of course, is that Lewis considers his ”Hell and Heaven“ as the end result, while LDS theology sees the ”Spirit World“ as a far earlier part of our eternal existence. It is interesting, though, that ”The Great Divorce“ envisions active efforts to convert unbelievers after death; a concept that Mormonism can relate to. ”The Great Divide“ also places a person’s humility and true charity as more favorable than excessive religion and excessive charity, reminding the reader that these can become earthly obsessions which consume our other responsibilities.
As former Standard-Examiner cartoonist Cal Grondahl says, religion exists in one part to comfort us about our approaching death. C.S. Lewis, as a Christian, believed in life after death. To the righteous, his novella comforts, as the Mormon Spirit World comforts devout Mormons. I have no idea if Lewis regarded Mormons as Christians, but his novella — in which spirits find themselves more comfortable in dim, dreary, contentious surroundings and resist missionary efforts that offer a more exalted state — connects with LDS doctrine.
Also, it’s very interesting that in Lewis’ ”Hell,“ there are ghosts who have strayed so far away from the ”bus station“ that offers ghosts the opportunity to visit ”Heaven.“ As a result, they can’t go to Heaven’s outskirts anymore. This is similar to LDS doctrine, in which spirits in ”spirit prison“ are separated by those who are still teachable and those who are not. I recommend ”The Great Divorce“ to anyone, of course, but also to LDS readers who will find the unintentional similarities very interesting.
-- Doug Gibson
This column was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Frank J. Cannon a thorn in Mormonism's side 100-plus years ago

Frank J. Cannon, son of the LDS leader, George Q. Cannon, Mormonism’s most famous apostate, led the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial assault on the LDS Church, Sen. Reed Smoot, and particularly President Joseph F. Smith from the years 1904 to 1907.

Historians Michael Harold Paulos and Kenneth L. Cannon II have done a great job preserving Cannon’s contributions. Even those Latter-day Saints who agree with his most fervent critics should acknowledge FJC’s many contributions to LDS history.

He was more than a writer and editor. FJC was a paradox: An educated, accomplished advocate and diplomat, editor and founder at the Ogden Standard, missionary to the Sandwich Islands, LDS Church authorities utilized his many talents to negotiate statehood for Utah. Later, FJC served as the Utah territory’s U.S. senator.

However, FJC also was a man of many personal weaknesses. His vices included drinking and patronizing brothels. These weaknesses in following LDS Church laws were tolerated, or at least partially forgiven, while his dad, George Q. Cannon lived. But after his father died, FJC saw his influence within the church’s hierarchy wane quickly. The result was an antipathy toward his longtime faith’s leaders that would last the rest of his life. In fact, his anger, while always eloquent, would sometimes be so over the top as to backfire and generate sympathy for his targets.

FJC’s editorials during the Smoot hearings, between 1904 and 1907, are masterful polemics, designed to amuse, humiliate, sneer, attack, moralize and infuriate LDS Church supporters. One who was very often infuriated was then-LDS Prophet Joseph F. Smith, who not surprisingly, seethed at the savage pen of FJC, which accused the LDS leader of being a traitor to the United States, a traitor to the original LDS Church, a dictator in Utah, and an unrepentant polygamist. In public, Smith mostly avoided mentioning FJC. In private, he called him many names, including a “son of Perdition,” which is an LDS term for those consigned to hell.

Besides attacking Senator Smoot, FJC also enjoyed taunting Deseret News editor — and LDS apostle — Charles W. Penrose, as a toady for the LDS Church. An example: “Probably the only person in Utah who doesn’t know the Mormon Church is in politics up to its very eyebrows, is Apostle [Charles W.] Penrose, of the Deseret News. The Church has to keep things secret from Penrose. He is a new apostle, and, like President Smith blats out everything he knows. … Penrose ought to wash windows. He takes to soapsuds.”

But FJC saved his harshest criticism for the prophet. He mocked the LDS leader’s claim on Capitol Hill that he had never received revelation and later called him “God’s Appointed Liar” after Smith justified his testimony to many perplexed Latter-day Saints as a way to avoid being trapped by hostile questioners. For example, FJC editorialized: “Gentiles and Mormons, you are front to front with the proposition. Either you must accept Joseph F. Smith as the prophet of God, ordained to speak falsehoods or truth at his pleasure, ratified by God as a liar or a truth teller to meet the prophet’s needs; or, you must consider him a false, deceiving, lying, hypocritical old man, who clings to his power with selfish hands, and who fain would live out the balance of his life with his five wives …”

Why FJC hated Joseph F. Smith so fiercely is still debated by historians. FJC’s father, George Q. Cannon, whom Frank loved, had a long in-depth business relationship with the prophet. Historians opine that JC may have blamed President Smith for cutting him off from the church’s hierarchy after his dad’s death.

I favor the theory that FJC blamed President Smith for the death of his brother, apostle Abraham H. Cannon, who died in the mid-1890s shortly after marrying another wife, years after polygamy was abolished. In FJC’s opinion, stress from the secret marriage harmed his brother’s health.

Cannon was excommunicated by the LDS Church long before the Smoot hearings concluded. His barbed editorials continued until Smoot was eventually cleared by the U.S. Senate. Soon afterwards, Cannon left Salt Lake City and worked at the Post and the Rocky Mountain News.

His sabbatical as an anti-Mormon crusader would resume soon, and “Round 2″ would continue for a generation, both as author of a best-selling “expose” on Mormonism and his longstanding gig at chautauquas, a series of lectures, dances, debates, plays and music offerings then popular across the country that Paulos and Cannon describe as the forefront to modern adult education. At one chautauqua event where Cannon lectured, he was confronted by a group of outraged LDS priesthood holders.  (To read more about FJC's editorials, read this Journal of Mormon History article by Paulos).

-- Doug Gibson

This essay was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

From LDS apostle to spiritualist: the journey of Amasa Mason Lyman

By Doug Gibson

In the spring 1983 edition of Dialogue, author Loretta L. Hefner recounts a sermon Mormon prophet Brigham Young delivered in 1867. Young said that doctrinal deviancy was not limited to the church rank and file. In fact, Young continued, among the present 12 apostles, “one did not believe in the existence of a personage called God,” another “believes that infants have the spirits of some who have formerly lived on earth,” and the third “has been preaching on the sly ... that the Savior was nothing more than a good man, and that his death had nothing to do with your salvation or mine.” 

Young was a sometimes caustic, even sarcastic LDS president, who once said that he kept the apostles in his pocket to take out when needed. He was not shy of public denunciations. The first two apostles mentioned by Young were Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde. Although Young used his influence late in life to make sure neither would be in a position to lead the LDS Church, Pratt and Hyde remained apostles.

The third apostle Young mentioned, Amasa Mason Lyman, would not survive his “heresy.” Lyman, baptized by Orson Pratt at 18, served 16 missions, spent months in a filthy Missouri jail cell with Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and attained the rank of apostle, only to lose it all in the final decade of his life. 

As Hefner relates in the Dialogue article, “From Apostle to Apostate: The Personal Struggle of Amasa Mason Lyman,” the LDS apostle proved his commitment to Mormonism countless times, but never seemed to shake an eccentric interest in spiritualism. In the 1850s, while establishing a branch of the church in San Bernadino, California, Lyman participated in seances.

The apostle’s interest in spiritualism might have remained a tolerated hobby — and of no danger to his church standing — had he not embraced “what later historians have termed the golden age of liberal theology,” writes Hefner. During this time, Lyman seems to have embraced “universalism,” or a belief that man, being derived from God, was inherently good and did not need Christ’s sacrifice to attain salvation.

In separate speeches — in 1862 in Dundee, Scotland and 1863 in Beaver, Utah — Lyman preached that Christ was only a moral reformer, and that man could redeem himself by correcting his errors. In short, Lyman denied the need for a savior.

To continue reading this essay, go to the Standard-Examiner web article, where the essay was previously published. It was first published on the now-defunct StandardBlogs.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The 1917 anti-Mormon penny dreadful film that was a hit

"A Mormon Maid" is an intensely fascinating time-capsule silent melodrama. It is very. anti-Mormon, a filmed polemic against the unpopular religion. Remember its era: Professional anti-Mormon apostate Frank J, Cannon was peddling his book to magazine installments and big sales; he was also a draw on the Chautauqua circuit.

Even that more famous anti-Mormon silent, "Trapped By the Mormons," was still several years away. "Trapped ..." had played in SLC as an historical novelty. I saw it about 25 years ago at the Tower Theater. Frankly, "A Mormon Maid," -- a link to watch it is at the end of this post -- merits more ink than "Trapped ..." which was peddled more or less as an independent (meaning it was not a major release).

"A Mormon Maid" was a bigger release, with a major company of the time, Lasky. It has name stars in Noah Beery Sr. and then-popular starlet Mae Murray, who takes the title role. Murray's the type of silent star who prompted tens of thousands of teenage girls to dream about moving to Hollywood and being discovered.

"A Mormon Maid" jabs at the church are more personal and cutting. Some church avengers are styled after the Ku Klux Klan ("Birth of a Nation" seems to have been an influence.) The avengers, and faithful Mormons, wear garb that is distantly related to temple garb that Mormons consider sacred. Perhaps the most jarring sight is an apron with pictures of plants sown on the aprons. I'll leave things at that. The garb, though, also looks silly at times, with a large "all-seeing eye" in the middle and the men with cloaks over their heads.

Mormons who view this in 2016 will appreciate that the LDS Church 99 years ago was still very unpopular. The long 20th century effort to make Mormonism more palatable to the public, other churches and businesses, was in its early stages.

The church leadership did protest "A Mormon Maid" quite vigorously, and may have had some success. According to the AFI films page on "A Mormon Maid" it reads: "that Paramount decided not to distribute the film due to pressure from the Mormon Church. Papers in the Cecil B. DeMille Collection at Brigham Young University indicate that Lasky did not feel that the film was up to company standards." Also, AFI claims that its original 8-reel production was cut to six reels, which puts it a little over an hour.

One more thing is that the Director General of "A Mormon Maid" is Cecil B. DeMille. This was long before he became one of Hollywood's greatest directors. I'm not quite sure what a director general is, but his name is prominent in the credits. The director was Robert Z. Leonard.


I'll provide a quick recap of the film: It's a classic "penny-dreadful" melodrama of the era, a dime novel translated to screen. There are virtually no characterizations; we don't get to know the characters beyond the faintest personalities. The only emotion effectively conveyed is lust, which Beery's evil apostle, Darius Burr, the power behind a surprisingly weak "Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young (Richard Cummings).

Burr lusts after the beautiful, non-Mormon tom-girl Dora Hogue (Murray). I'm digressing; the plot: We open with a faux book intro, accompanied by films of the Mormon pioneers. It's commendable at first, and there are some nice scenes of pioneer wagon teams. But eventually we learn the pioneers are exploited by Young (Cummings plays him as a constipated looking Puritan), the evil apostles, of which Burr is the most evil, and the avenging forces, which prevent any opposition and track down disillusioned members who want to leave.

In the middle of nowhere live the Hogue family, dad John (Hobart Bosworth), mom Nancy (Edythe Chapman) and Dora. A Mormon scout, Tom Rigdon (Frank Borzage) from Salt Lake City informs the Hogues, who are not members, that Indians are about to attack. Dad Hogue wants no help from the Mormons but after the Mormons save the family from an Indian attack (well filmed) they accept an offer to move to Salt Lake City.

Fast forward a couple of years. The Hogues are successful residents, and Dora and Tom are in love. But Apostle Burr wants Dora to be his polygamous bride, so oppression sets in. At a secret meeting with the avengers, family membership in the church is "offered" and Frank can either take a polygamous wife or Dora has to marry Apostle Burr. To save his daughter, Frank takes a second wife. A grief-stricken Nancy commits suicide (rather shockingly shown on screen).

Naturally, evil Burr still lusts for Dora and the remainder of the film involves the Hogues, and Tom, fleeing from, or fighting, the Mormon avengers and the leadership. I'll mention that in one scene Dora rather shrewdly avoids (for a time) coerced marriage with Burr by lying and saying she's not a virgin.

This is a fun film to watch because it shouldn't be taken seriously. It's a history lesson, a silent film polemic that focuses on an easy target. Church members should not be offended. It's a case of the film's theme revealing the vacuousness of its proponents. Because it's 1917, much of the film plays like a stage play; all of the action is comprised on a screen and the camera work is often static. However, there are impressive shots of wagon trains and the heroes trying to escape the Mormon avengers.

"A Mormon Maid" has not been ignored by recent scholars. LDS history blogger Ardis E. Parshall mentioned the film in the Keepapitchinin blog, Parshall writes: "1917’s A Mormon Maid was a rude introduction to popular motion pictures supposedly about Mormonism. Heavily advertised and extremely popular, it played for months in the United States, and was exported to Europe where it also played well."

Parshall's blog is worth a read. It includes newspaper ads for the film. I searched Google for similar ads and one is shared above this post. In 2009, Parshall also wrote about the film, and included a review of a 1987 scholarly appraisal of the film's propaganda value. It was titled "Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of 'A Mormon Maid,'" by Richard Alan Nelson, Film History, Vol. 1, No. 2.

A snippet: "The author examines why this particular film, of so many similar ones produced at approximately the same time, was even more successful than the rest and deserves special study. He describes the extremely high production values, the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor – a powerhouse crew of early movie talent which included Cecil B. DeMille. The skillful direction, filming, and editing of A Mormon Maid created practically a new genre, the docu-drama, which made the tale it told especially believable to a national audience and especially distressing to the Saints. ..."

 So there's just about all you need to know about "A Mormon Maid." I'd like to learn more about it, what DeMille thought of the film, and it'd be fun to see it on the big screen; maybe Salt Lake Film Society or The Egyptian Theater might do that?

Readers can watch the film via YouTube here.

(This post by Doug Gibson was originally published at the Plan9Crunch film blog.)