Sunday, April 30, 2017

'The Mormon Jesus' -- a history of Christ within the LDS faith

Several years ago, John Turner, who holds a Ph.D. in American History and Masters of Divinity, wrote “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” a candid, warts-and-all biography of Joseph Smith’s successor, who moved the Latter-day Saints across America and oversaw its growth in the western United States.
His interest in Mormonism has not waned, and this month Turner published “The Mormon Jesus: A Biography,” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). It provides an overview of Christ’s role in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Besides that, it also compares how Christ has been perceived since Joseph Smith and what influence that has had on the LDS faith. Most who walk into a Mormon chapel view Christ as a handsome, clean, bearded man, one with compassion but strength. How that scenario evolved is an interesting read.
Turner provides the cultural history of these portrayals of Christ and even mentions the era of Arnold Friberg, whose art still influences how Mormons view Book of Mormon personalities. Apparently, Friberg’s depiction of macho Christ (The Risen Lord) was a bit to much for LDS Church leaders, who sought a less-muscled savior. 
The move for a muscular Christ was an era of Christianity in which Protestant pews were not filled with many males. There were outside influences to Mormonism, despite its Christ who is considered our literal elder brother, distinct from Heavenly Father, and composed of a body of flesh and bone.
While the Mormon Christ has remained white and tall, there have been some inroads toward a more delicate Christ. Minerva Teichert, and her Christ in a Red Robe, is an example. 
Turner begins the book by guiding readers through the church’s annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, and its portrayal of Christ. He rejects claims from some evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians with many examples, the easiest is The Book of Mormon’s central message, which is a belief in Christ. Turner is not a Mormon, a trait which provided necessary objectivity in his Young biography.
The same applies with “The Mormon Jesus.” Turner guides readers through Young’s attempt to instill the Adam-God doctrine to 19th century members, an idea that never really caught on and was eventually downplayed, if never repudiated, by a frustrated prophet.
Also, the racist belief that blacks and native Americans were inferior to whites is discussed. Turner recounts influential church teaching, not scriptural, which advanced these ideas, such as blacks being less valiant in the pre-existence. This racist theory expounded from interpretations of Noah’s son, Ham, in many non-Mormon interpretations.
Turner also includes the much-believed idea of generations past that Native Americans would see their skin color change if they embraced the Gospel. It’s jarring to learn that many Latter-day Saints assumed this to the point of church leaders pointing to Native Americans, claiming their skin had whitened.
This is our history, for better or worse, and it plays a role in how beliefs evolve. But there is much to favor, as well. Turner clearly is impressed by Mormonism’s belief that man can aspire to be like God, that Christ’s perfection is a goal for mankind. The Mormon conception of Jesus is personal, with a deity that stands for us not only as the means to our atonement, but as a source of strength. 
Interestingly, even this perception of Christ has been shaped through decades of competing ideas. Near the end of the book, Turner contrasts the beliefs of the late LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who viewed Christ as a more formal deity, one who provided a path toward exaltation so long as obedience and formal rites were followed.
This is contrasted with the more-recent popularity of Stephen Robinson’s “Believing Christ,” which describes the atonement with a parable of a young child having less than a dollar to buy a sought-after bicycle. Her father gives her the rest of the money because she already gave all that she had. As Turner notes, Robinson’s ideas that mortals, despite their liabilities, can enter exaltation with Christ’s unlimited power is closer in spirit to the idea of salvation by grace.
While McConkie’s grasp of exaltation remains doctrine — and anyone who watches his last conference talk, delivered shortly before his death, wouldn’t doubt his belief in Christ — in recent years the rhetoric of Robinson has gained traction. An example is this month’s LDS general conference, where LDS apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf told listeners, “If you cannot muster faith right now, begin with hope.
“The Mormon Jesus” is an example of excellent Mormon scholarship that can be found from authors outside the faith. Turner’s devotion to his subject and his passion for LDS people and history are strong. It stands with members Terryl and Fiona Givens’ “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life” as a worthy look at the LDS faith.
-- Doug Gibson
This review was first published at StandardNET.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

John D. Fitzgerald is Utah's Mark Twain

There was a brainy, scheming little Mormon capitalist who roiled the early 1900s "town" of Adenville, Utah, with his exploits. The books are The Great Brain series, written by the late John D. Fitzgerald, a roving Gentile reporter/adventurer who spent very little time in Utah after his 18th birthday in 1924, but kept tucked into his mind an endless trove of fond memories.
My son has already eagerly read all The Great Brain books. He even had me dust off an old VHS taping of The Great Brain movie, filmed in Utah in the 1970s and never released to video or DVD. We watched it.
Fitzgerald’s memories, along with a strong talent for writing and a healthy dose of literary license, produced three novels for adults and eight “Great Brain” books for kids. You can buy the novels easily. The books also served as introductions to Mormonism for hundreds of thousands of readers. “The Great Brain” series features Tom D. Fitzgerald, the smartest kid in Adenville, who puts his great brain to work trying to separate cash from the other kids, and many of the adults, in town. The books are narrated by Tom’s younger brother, John, who provides colorful commentary.
Fitzgerald completed and published seven “Great Brain” books. After his death in 1988, a near-complete manuscript for another book was discovered, and it was polished and published several years later. The books, still popular today, and read in schools, were wildly popular in the 1970s.
I recall my fifth-grade teacher reading “The Great Brain at the Academy” to us in Long Beach, Calif. The easy-to-read prose, Fitzgerald’s sense of comic timing, and the morality tale found in each chapter no doubt contributed to the success.
Utah historian Audrey M. Godfrey, in a 1989 essay, “The Promise is Fulfilled: Literary Aspects of John D. Fitzgerald’s Novels,” correctly pegs Fitzgerald as a regional writer, a sort of Utah Mark Twain, who stresses authenticity through characterization and very detailed settings. This is particularly evident in Fitzgerald’s creation of Adenville. Witness this descriptive excerpt from “More Adventures of the Great Brain”: ” … I looked at the trees planted by early Mormon pioneers that lined both sides of Main Street. Adenville was a typical small Mormon town but quite up to date. There were electric light poles all along Main Street and we had telephones. There were wooden sidewalks in front of the stores. Straight ahead I could see the railroad tracks that separated the west side of town from the east side. Across the tracks on the east side were two saloons, the Sheepmen’s Hotel, a rooming house …”
The books are crafted as short stories, strung together to both tell a good tale and teach a lesson. “Every chapter has a moral lesson,” says one Utah teacher I interviewed several years ago (she uses the books in her classes).
Tom’s youthful urges to gain are generally tempered by a serious plot twist requiring charity, or an authority figure that moves the children to a more altruistic stance. Tom’s newspaper editor father often serves this purpose. In one example, he tempers his son’s eagerness – and success – in publishing a competing newspaper by pointing out that most of his “news articles” were in fact gossip designed to hurt subjects and appeal to readers’ baser instincts.
Another moral lesson, appropriate to today’s political climate, involves the persecution a Greek immigrant named Basil receives at the hands of jingoistic townspeople. His persecutors, including the father of a friend of Tom, complain immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born Americans. The chapter ends with the bigotry resolved – at least among the kids – as Tom teaches Basil how to assimilate. True to his character, the Great Brain tries to profit from the endeavor.
Godfrey, in an interview, says the moral lessons in Fitzgerald’s tales were likely influenced by the good feelings he experienced toward the Latter-day Saints growing up as a gentile in Utah. A consistent virtuous character in Fitzgerald’s works is Bishop Ephraim Aden, the tolerant, gentle, elderly leader of Fitzgerald’s Adenville.
However, the ecumenism prevalent in Fitzgerald’s works may owe more to his idealized, fond memories of growing up in Utah than to reality. Price, Utah, where he lived, perhaps was a less tense place for Mormons and non-Mormons than Southern Utah, the setting of his novels. The guilt and secrecy, of, for example, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is not found in Fitzgerald’s novels.
“He had good feelings towards Mormons,” says Godfrey. Bishop Aden, she adds, is representative of the larger role a bishop assumed in a Utah community 100-plus years ago. “In a small town there was a lot more give and take” between Mormon and non-Mormons,” she says.
The accidental series The “Great Brain” series came about almost by accident. One night Fitzgerald and his wife were entertaining friends for dinner. Fitzgerald’s fiction writing career had peaked after the publications of “Papa Married a Mormon,” “Mama’s Boarding House” and “Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse.” The author recounted some long-ago tales about his older brother, Tom. The guests loved the stories so much that Fitzgerald was motivated to write his first “Great Brain book.
The series, published by Dell, offered a second literary career for Fitzgerald and likely provided him and his wife Joan a comfortable retirement. The writer Fitzgerald enjoyed an adventurous life through most of the past century. He left Utah at 18 to try his hand at being a jazz drummer. Early in his career, he was a pulp fiction writer and likely authored more than 100 lowbrow novels and short stories. If any survive that describe “Adenville” or his Utah youth, they have not surfaced.
He worked as a staff writer for the New York World-Tribune and labored on the foreign desk for the United Press wire service. He was also a bank auditor and even tried his hand at politics, working on the staff of Republican Wendell Wilkie’s failed 1940 presidential campaign. He conceived the idea for “Papa Married a Mormon” while working as a steel purchasing agent in California in the 1950s.
His sister Isobelle, although not listed on the title, was active in the novel’s creation. Fitzgerald’s novels, including the “Great Brain” series, were inspired by his mother, who asked him to one day write about “the little people” who founded the West, bankers, laborers, mother, merchants, newspapermen, the clergy, etc.
Besides his better-known works, Fitzgerald wrote two other children’s novels and a book on how to craft a novel. He freelanced extensively, contributing more than 500 articles. “To thousands of youthful readers in the United States, England, and Germany he is a well known author. The Great Brain’s character in Fitzgerald’s series for children is as familiar as Tom Sawyer to these young people,” wrote Godfrey in her 1989 essay.
Despite his literary achievement, much of Fitzgerald’s life remains a mystery. Besides Godfrey’s essay, there is little independent research on Fitzgerald. In fact, his death in 1988 was barely mentioned by Utah media.
Perhaps Fitzgerald encouraged the secrecy. His books are crafted as if they include real places and real people. In “Papa Married a Mormon,” there are even photos of the main characters. Yet, while many of the tales related may have occurred in part and characters existed, the books are clearly fiction. There is no Adenville. Papa Fitzgerald is not a newspaper editor. There was no Jesuit academy in Salt Lake City 100 years ago (the setting of “The Great Brain at the Academy”).
This literary license has led to confusion. Some libraries have placed “Papa Married a Mormon” in the biography section. There was once a Web site devoted to trying to locate the “Southern Utah locations” of “The Great Brain” novels. On a personal note, I spent a long afternoon as a young teen dragging my parents through back roads of Southern Utah searching for the non-existent ruins of Adenville.
A perusal through long-filed away records in Carbon County and Price, Utah, unveil some of the mystery of the writer Fitzgerald’s life. Most of the characters existed. Most are interred in Carbon County.
The “Great Brain” himself, brother Tom Fitzgerald Jr., lived his entire life in Price. He died in 1988, the same year as his writer brother. By the way, the Great Brain was not a Mormon, but a lifelong Catholic. Tragedy dogged the real-life “Great Brain.” In 1925 his young wife Fern died while pregnant and their daughter was stillborn. Fitzgerald’s father, Tom Fitzgerald Sr., was a well-known businessman who served as a Price City councilman. At his funeral, future Utah Gov. J. Bracken Lee was one of the pallbearers.
Fitzgerald’s mother was a Mormon who married a Catholic – that much is true. Her name was Minnie, not Tena, her name in the novels.
There is still much more to unearth in Carbon County and other areas should a biographer one day tackle John D. Fitzgerald’s unique life. It has been two decades since historian Godfrey wrote her essay on John D. Fitzgerald. His “Great Brain” series is still in print, and remains popular to enough readers to keep it circulated. Nevertheless, “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and other series are read today in far greater numbers than “The Great Brain” was read even during its most-popular era.
“(Most) kids don’t even know about it. They are into more modern subjects, like fantasy, escapism,” says Godfrey.
The Great Brain has proven to be immortal, and perhaps more importantly, he has managed to turn a tidy profit for The Fitzgerald family for half a century.
A postcript: For Mormon-themed cinema, the Great Brain seems ideal for adaptation. Although few know this, it was made into a film in 1978 and starred Jimmy Osmond! On Osmond’s Web site are stills from the film. It's never had a DVD release, or VHS, but I own a personally taped copy from about 1980 (TV). You can now access it at YouTube, various locations. Here's one link.
-- Doug Gibson
Note: A version of this post was published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper in 2009. This column is also published at StandardBlogs.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Adam-God debate, or how an apostle bested a prophet

(Can't find the Cal Grondahl cartoon that went with this post, so until I do, enjoy this Cal "Culture of Mormonism" classic.

We Mormons shy away from the old relic called the Adam-God doctrine. In recent years, the late prophet Spencer W. Kimball denounced it from the pulpit, as did the late apostle Bruce R. McConkie in “Mormon Doctrine.” McConkie added that those who said that Brigham Young pushed it had taken Mormonism’s greatest leader out of context.

But the later denials are, to be frank, historical revisionism. Brigham Young did believe Adam was the god of our earth, and that doctrine was pushed with fervor by Young and many church leaders for decades. It was debated by LDS apostles as late as the 1890s. Apostles Heber C. Kimball and George Q. Cannon believed Adam was our God.

Why the Adam-God doctrine never gained enough traction in the LDS Church and was eventually ruefully de-emphasized by Young is mostly due to one man, the LDS apostle, Orson Pratt, who just as fiercely opposed the Adam-God doctrine and backed up his opposition with LDS scriptures. Supporters of the Adam-God doctrine were finally forced into vague defenses along the lines of “God has not revealed the details of this wondrous doctrine.”

The Adam-God debate that flourished for so long among the LDS faithful and hierarchy is detailed in the spring 1982 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The article, by BYU graduate David John Buerger, is fascinating reading, and makes me wish the LDS Church would offer more information about this historically interesting period of its development. On April 9, 1852, Young said this during a general conference speech: “Now, hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and Sinner! When our Father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. … He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”

Young added that Jesus Christ was a spiritual son of Adam: “Jesus, our Elder Brother, was begotten in the flesh by the same character that was in the Garden of Eden, and who is our Father in Heaven. …” Young added that this doctrine would matter in the salvation or damnation of listeners.
As Buerger recounts, leading Mormons, including future prophet Wilford Woodruff, clearly understood that Young had decreed Adam as our God.

In later dispatches, published in The Millennial Star, the church strengthened its Adam-God doctrine by listing a geneology for the creators. In a school of the prophets class, Buerger writes that it was taught that Elohim was Adam’s grandfather, followed by Jehova, Adam’s father, and our God, Adam. Christ, as mentioned, was classified a spirit son of God Adam.

Of course, LDS doctrine today teaches that Jesus Christ is Jehova and that Adam was created out of the dust, as was Eve. Adam-God ran into trouble immediately; members could not find it in the scriptures. Nevertheless, Apostle Willard Richards had a succinct reply to doubters. He wrote, “If, as Elder Caffall remarked, there are those who are waiting at the door of the church for this objection to be removed, tell such, the prophet and Apostle Brigham has declared it, and that is the world of the Lord.”

In an 1854 general conference speech, Young went further: “I tell you more, Adam is the father of our spirits. He live upon the earth; he did abide his creation and did honor to his calling and preisthood (sic) and obeyed his master or Lord, and probably many of his wives did (the same) and they lived, and died upon an earth, and (then) were resurrected again to immortality and eternal life …”

However, one apostle, Orson Pratt, did not buy this new doctrine. He pointed to scriptures, including to what is Section 29, verse 42 in the Doctrine and Covenants and also Moses 4:28 and Moses 5:4-9. In defense, Young claimed that Joseph Smith had taught the Adam-God doctrine. Buerger’s research points to anecdotal evidence from third parties that Smith believed Adam was far more than his peers on Earth (a belief shared today by the current LDS Church) but past sermons of Smith’s also clearly show the first LDS prophet regarded Adam as an inferior to Jesus Christ, which puts him at odds with Young’s beliefs.

Other scriptural problems with the Adam-God doctrine include references to Adam’s death (Moses: 6:12 and Doctrine and Covenants 107:53) Also, Buerger cites Alma 11:45 in the Book of Mormon, where Amulek teaches that a resurrected body can die no more. How, Pratt reasonably wondered, can Adam have a resurrected celestial body and later die?

There were other contradictions to the Adam-God doctrine in theological books penned by apostles Parley P. Pratt and future prophet, John Taylor. Eventually, Young began to slowly abandon efforts to push the controversial doctrine, although he defended it often, sometimes with caustic remarks that skeptics were “yet to grovel in darkness.”

There is one recorded deviation by Young from Adam-God; as Buerger recounts, in an 1861 address to a non-Mormon audience, Young refers to Adam and Christ being created by a Supreme Being. However, this may be an example of the prophet speaking more simply to people — gentiles — he felt too naive to understand the doctrine. According to Brueger’s research, Young continued to teach the Adam-God doctrine, but mainly in more exclusive settings, such as teachings to general authorities.

In 1870, Young, quoted in the Deseret News, again said that God had revealed Adam’s celestial status to him. However, the doctrine’s steam slowly ebbed away. Eventually, Charles W. Penrose, editor of The Deseret News, signaled the church’s rejection of claims that Adam is our God. At first, Penrose said that Young’s personal views were not church doctrine; however, within a few years a church article stated that the debate over Young’s views were of no real value. Eventually, that changed to a view — held today — that Young had been misinterpreted.

The misinterpretation claim, as evidenced, does not survive historical scrutiny. It’s a shame that more information is unavailable on the fierce debate between Young, Pratt and others over the Adam-God doctrine, which comprised one of the most interesting eras in LDS Church history. The decades long controversy is an example of the progressive, brainstorming, exciting nature of the 19th century LDS church, where ideas — polygamy, new scriptures, Christ visiting America, celestial godhood, temples, priesthood revival, prophets, etc. roiled the theological world. It’s evidence of a uniquely American religion that still appeals to inquisitive minds.

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Diary of LDS apostle includes tales of bribing a Supreme Court justice

The diaries of the late LDS Church Apostle, Abraham H. Cannon, stretching from 1889 to the end of 1895, is interesting church history reading. Signature Book’s “Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle,” edited by scholar Edward Leo Lyman, provides readers glimpses into the wary, sometimes turbulent LDS history between the Manifesto against polygamy, the church’s desperate efforts to avoid financial destruction due to polygamy, the dedication of the Salt Lake temple, the financial panic of 1893, and efforts toward statehood for Utah.

Cannon, who had several wives, died in 1896 at age 37 from complications of an ear infection. The scion of a prominent Mormon family — his father, George Q. Cannon, was a fellow apostle — his diaries show how his high standing in the LDS Church encompassed not only religious duties, but high-stakes business, chicanery and politics. A thorough diarist, regular meetings of the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles are meticulously recorded. Governing the young church’s business empire and dealing with the real threat of imprisonment and government harassment due to polygamy occupied as much time — if not more — than religious duties.

Example: Cannon’s diary entry of Dec. 17, 1892, records that at the apostles’ meeting “… the brethren were told that our success in the Church suits was in a great measure due to the fact that we have a partner of Justice {Stephen J.} Field of the Supreme Court of the United States in our employ, who is to receive a percentage of the money if the suits go in our favor, and the property is returned to us. …” Given the times, this is not as shocking as it sounds today. Justice Field was not the only person of influence tempted by the church. President Benjamin Harrison’s secretary was helping the church. The diaries reveal how federal attorneys were routinely bribed through third parties. Church leaders spent considerable energies covering up the crime of an embezzler because that man — sympathetic to the church — was in a position to be a receiver of assets the church needed. In fact, Cannon records entries where the apostles were counseled to “keep secrets” from their enemies.

But even with the help of a high court justice, Cannon’s entries detail how the church was boxed in politically and in danger of financial ruin due to overall public disgust of polygamy. The Manifesto from President Woodruff against polygamy was originally intended to grandfather in current polygamous relationships, but Cannon’s diaries detail how political powers forced the LDS prophet to make later, tougher statements that forbid already-married polygamists from co-habitating. Apostles, including Cannon, were constantly threatened with imprisonment if they even visited their plural wives.

Cannon details how busy the life of an LDS apostle was. Although most details of his family life were omitted by Signature’s editors, Cannon was constantly taking trains up and down the state, speaking at stake conferences, settling church feuds, selecting new bishops and stake presidents. Cannon must have given hundreds of church-related talks a year. As is today, the LDS priesthood hierarchy was stressed. Leaders, from apostles downward, were urged to change their opinions if a superior took an opposing stance. Cannon also describes, in detail, prayer circles and the rarely-mentioned second anointing, where church leaders and spouses are guaranteed exaltation, or the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. Cannon himself received a second anointing.

Politics was often discussed and apostles were assigned to research and lobby for or against legislation. Cannon’s disgust for the anti-Mormon Liberal Party is not shy. The First Presidency and Apostles engaged in serious efforts to control local press coverage and counter the Tribune. Pages of the diaries recount local campaigns. Eventually, Cannon became part owner of the LDS-friendly Deseret News. Politics at times would tear the apostles’ unity, particularly when the Democrats and Republicans set up parties in Utah. Apostle Moses Thatcher, a Democrat, would often quarrel with apostle, John Henry Smith, a Republican.

Cannon details special meetings of the quorum where the apostles would speak frankly about their feelings for each other and address cases of gratitude and their struggles against resentment. The reader catches the religious spirit and commitment that bonded these men. These are fascinating, partially because even today, the LDS Church leadership is silent on the spirit and topics of the meetings of its hierarchy. A key difference from today’s LDS leadership is that the church’s highest officials — 120 years ago — were more likely to go out politicking. Today, church politics is more subtle. Preaching was far more conservative: Apostle John Henry Smith is recounted warning members that sexual intercourse for any purpose other than bearing children is the same as adultery, according to the Lord.

Glimpses of a high-level meeting are very interesting for history buffs. In one apostles’ session, Cannon recounts a debate over the Adam-God doctrine. The apostles disagree, but Cannon believes Adam must be more than just a spiritual brother. In another, the apostles discuss the status of the Holy Ghost — is he a son of God, only without a body? There was a discussion of whether there were “daughters of perdition.” The apostles also stressed the LDS doctrine that faithful parents would be assured of the salvation of their wayward children. The bohemian atmosphere of the early LDS church still remained. President Woodruff and the apostles freely discussed visions, conversations with the slain Mormon leader Joseph Smith and even a glimpse of the modern-day Cain was described.

Cannon was often without enough money to keep his many businesses healthy. He was a good businessman but had his hands in too many endeavors, although near the end of his life, his efforts in a railroad were paying off. Much of the 1893 entries involve his desperate attempts to meet payrolls and keep a bank he co-owned afloat during that year’s financial panic. In one instance, Cannon, after becoming a partner in a mine, promised the Lord a fifth of his profits if the mine was successful.
Ogden is mentioned often — Cannon frequently spoke there — as is the Standard-Examiner a few times. Much of the diaries cover mundane, administrative tasks that will interest history buffs. One tidbit of interest: church leaders, including President Woodruff, were fans of horse racing in Salt Lake City.

Cannon lived in Salt Lake City, on the northwest corner of 900 South on 800 West. His diaries may be uncomfortably candid, but they can also inspire LDS readers today who want more than Pablum. We are in Cannon’s debt for leaving records that bring to life an era in the Top of Utah usually recollected in dry history texts. Some excerpts are here.

-- Doug Gibson
Originally published on StandardBlogs.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Evolution of LDS prayer circles mirrors church’s move from eccentricity

It’s been two generations since LDS prayer circles were cast out of the world and relegated to temple-ritual status. Its members-only status ironically has robbed the prayer circle of the spontaneity it once enjoyed. About nine score years ago, the original prayer circles, organized by LDS church prophet Joseph Smith, underscored the early 19th century personal-relationship-with-God theological progressiveness that shaped Mormonism. 

As D. Michael Quinn related in the Fall 1978 issue of Brigham Young University Studies, the first prayer circle, part of the 1833 School of the Prophets, imitated the protestant prayer rings. Quinn writes that participants sought visions of angels, and when that wish was granted, some shrank in fear of what their eyes beheld.

Eventually, Smith’s prayer circle began to have ritualized language resembling the prophet’s revelations that concerned future temple ordinances. As Quinn relates, the Nauvoo Prayer Circle eventually encompassed more than 65 church members, male and female. Some of the participants were members who had received the “second endowments” that are still around today but rarely, if ever, discussed at church gatherings. 

According to Quinn, the prayer circle under Smith, called the Quorum of the Anointed, was not a group that made church policy, such as the Council of the 50. Smith’s easy acceptance of women into the prayer circle provides evidence, in my opinion, of his egalitarian ideals for that time period and degree of tolerance of women’s roles in the church. After his death, prayer circles would eventually close to LDS women for a long time.

Prayer circle participation at that time was considered a somewhat elite status, writes Quinn, and that didn’t change after Smith’s death. Only about 10 percent of the heavy influx of endowed Mormons were included in circles after 1845, but still numbers swelled considerably, and more circles had to start. By 1846, it was church policy to not have women in prayer circles with LDS men. As Quinn relates, women were encouraged to meet with other sisters in Relief Society prayer gatherings. Such all-female circles were further restricted in 1896, when church leadership advised against any sisters in prayer circles. As Quinn writes, “Rarely privileged to join their husbands in the separate prayer circle meetings after 1846, Latter-day Saint women also discontinued even occasional Relief Society prayer circles by the early twentieth century.”

Quinn writes that prayer circles, still a practice with elite status, were of two states during the middle of the 19th century. There were ecclesiastical prayer circles, that included inclusion by priesthood rank, and special daily prayer circles, headed by priesthood leaders that could include men of diverse stations. Interestingly, Quinn relates, the First Presidency prayer circle sometimes functioned in a special prayer circle manner, with guests outside the church hierarchy included. Eventually, the special prayer circles, which were spread out over the church, were put under the guidance of the LDS apostles, who continued to assign priesthood subordinates to head other circles and help recruit members. Final membership to a prayer circle was decided by the First Presidency.

This arrangement for special prayer circles lasted for several decades. The “elite status” of being in a prayer circle became even more exclusive as the LDS Church grew in membership. As Quinn writes, “By 1929 the growing membership of the church had highlighted the inequity of having such special prayer circles for the privileged few.” They were soon discontinued.

However, ecclesiastical prayer circles of lower areas of the LDS Church continued well into the middle of the 20th century. These included stake prayer circles, although it was the decision of a particular stake president to have a stake prayer circle, which of course had to be approved and overseen at the highest level of the church. According to Quinn, the largest stake prayer circle was in Alberta, Canada, stake from 1948 to 1950, which had about 80 participants. There were also ward prayer circles in operation as well, notes Quinn.

The purpose of the prayer circle, according to official church doctrine, has always been to teach “the true order of prayer.” Incidents such as an 1846 prayer circle that claimed to witness counsel from the late Prophet Joseph Smith would have been greeted with skepticism 100-plus years later. The decision to restrict prayer circles to a part of the temple endowment ceremony, according to Quinn, was an administrative decision spurred by the difficulty of a worldwide church to deal with future stake and ward prayer circle requests.

Discretion and respect for temple ordinances prevents me from mentioning what occurs in a prayer circle, but in my opinion, it would not look out of place in other Christian gatherings. The history of prayer circles once being a male-only procedure is quite ironic, since it is my experience that many of today’s prayer circles are populated by men only after they have received a stern, nodding beckon from their wives.

(Quinn's article can be downloaded for free here.)

-- Doug Gibson

This column was originally published at StandardBlogs.