Monday, June 26, 2017

Near-death experiences get treatment from a Mormon perspective

I’m fascinated by the pop science/theology behind near-death experiences. I’ve read the “Life After Life” books by Raymond Moody and several similar books. It was interesting to discover another book, “Glimpses Beyond Death’s Door,” by Brent L. and Wendy C. Top, from the publisher Covenant Communications, which strictly follows LDS theology and authority. One can assume that “Glimpses …” has been thoroughly vetted by LDS leaders.

The authors provide a fascinating, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, overview of near-death accounts, using many sources liberally with an emphasis on the “Journal of Near-Death Studies” and the book “Heaven and Hell,” by Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish Lutheran and scientist who claimed to have received access to the afterlife. Also, there are numerous discourses and writings from LDS Church leaders, including “Journal of Discourses” accounts from Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt.

If one had to summarize the “Glimpses …” approach quickly, it’d be, “throw out traditional, man-made concepts of crime and punishment” and “law and order.” Based on a consistency in nature of the NDE accounts compiled, compassion and love are the dominating sensations experienced at death. Whether greeted by family members, a guardian angel, or a life reviewer, death appears to be a very positive experience. Many didn’t want to return and were unaffected by the grieving of family members and friends.

(I will digress here to mention that for this essay, I am assuming that these experiences are real, although other than the amount of professed NDEs out there, they certainly can’t be proven. Belief in divinity, an afterlife, or other theological claims cannot be proven, and that’s why heated debate usually leads nowhere. But even for skeptics, I’d wager the topic has interest.)

LDS theology teaches that after death, we go to a spirit world, which is located here on earth, but in another sphere which we can’t see as mortals. Much of “Glimpses …” is devoted to taking the many NDEs of Swedenborg, Moody and others, and applying what they witnessed as glimpses into an LDS-taught afterlife spirit world. While readers must be aware that the authors can pick and choose sources as they wish, the Tops do make an effort to put most precedence on NDEs from non-Mormon sources.

Based on “Glimpses …,” it’s clear that death, and the subsequent journey into a spirit existence, is not a place where a “true church,” or “true gospel,” is revealed to newly arrived spirits. In fact, the most persons who have had NDEs, the authors claim, experience a jump in spirituality, but not any discernible move toward a particular religion. In fact, the afterlife spirit world, based on many of the NDE accounts, is a place where autonomy, the ability to choose, still exists for the deceased person.

Despite being in a sphere that is more advanced than earth’s (time travel and increased, almost effortless comprehension of reason, memory and why bad things happen have been reported) there is no traditional purgatory or hell. However, most accounts show a separation of spirits based on knowledge accumulated and charitable love expressed for others while on earth. The spirits who might be in a place considered “paradise” are not tethered to their own self interests or to so-called worldly pleasures. They want to serve others. They also appear to shine with a greater light. Spirits who might be considered to be in a “prison” are focused on their own personal needs or worldly indulgences. It is hypothesized that these latter group of spirits, still obsessed with the world and themselves, are those who haunt TV ghost shows, or seances, etc.

Not surprisingly, spirits tend to congregate based on similarities of light and interests. It is hypothesized by many that more self-centered spirits are simply not comfortable within the light that more “righteous” spirits possess. Hence, “hell” or spirit “prison” is defined not as an application of pain, but an inability to comfortably exist with other, more righteous people. (This frequent NDE observation may be one reason that conservative, fundamentalist Christians, who preach a literal hell of eternal pain and fire, are often very skeptical of NDEs.)

In “Glimpses …,” the authors point to these distinctions, personal autonomy, and the absence of a “true church” or “gospel” as evidence that missionary work is active in the afterlife spirit world. This is one main concept, of course, that distinguishes this NDE book from others. What may surprise LDS readers of “Glimpses …” is that missionary work in the spirit world appears to be harder than missionary work here on earth. The Tops quote Swedenborg, who describes an afterlife of spirits waiting to be taught more information, but not until they are ready to receive it.

One of the more interesting concepts of afterlife found in “Glimpses …” is that it is far harder to convert a spirit than it was during that spirit’s mortal existence. That’s because a spirit retains all that he or she learned — secular or non-secular — into the spirit world. Personalities and beliefs are molded in life, as well as passions, biases, prejudices and pride. In other NDEs recounted in “Glimpses …,” persons who had been skeptics of divine authority while on earth were observed still believing what they had once taught, and rationalizing, in a manner favorable to their own self interests, what they were now experiencing.

The idea that persons are assigned in the afterlife based on where they feel comfortable is similar to the C.S. Lewis novella, “The Great Divorce,” where residents of “hell” are taken on a journey to “heaven,” where spirits there minister to those in hell and attempt to convince them to remain with them, endure some discomfort (a metaphor for repentance), and live in heaven. Most of the travelers reject the offer, either because they are still afflicted with self pride and self pity, or, interestingly, believe that they are already in heaven.

That may sum up a key theme of “Glimpses …,” which is that in the spirit world, we end up basically where we are most comfortable. In Mormon doctrine, this requires a Millennium’s worth of missionary work, and the attendant effort to bring everyone to knowledge of God’s plan of salvation. Rather than viewed condescendingly, or as a tool to argue with, “Glimpses …” can be an interesting — and unique — opportunity to learn how Mormon theology views NDEs and how it fits into its doctrine.

-       Doug Gibson
A version of this column was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mormonism’s secret to success is its imperfections

I was watching Richard Bushman on DVD speak at some conference or other, the DVD — bought at alas, a remaindered discount at Seagull — doesn’t say where the conference was, or maybe I missed that information. In any event, Bushman is a valuable resource to learning about Mormon history.

He reminds us that history demands a catholic interpretation. When learning about Joseph Smith, for example, it’s just as important to learn what his critics thought of him as it is to learn what his most devoted adherents thought. And, it’s important to see all sides of an historical figure — the good and the bad.

Unfortunately, too often in politics and religion, many of us are simply unable to grasp that there is an opposing viewpoint worth respecting or flaws in our religious and political heroes. We know these negatives must exist; we live our own lives, with our personal doubts, failures and shortcomings. But the pedestal fantasy still grasps us.

I like this quote from Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling”: “Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an examplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish.”

A secular reason for Mormonism’s success, or staying power, is its lack of perfection. In “Rough Stone Rolling,” all the contradictions and setbacks that accompany a full life are listed: dabblings in money-digging as a youth; vigilante activities; distinct accounts of LDS revelations; political demagoguery; failed financial ventures; and the secrecy of plural marriage.

Moral of the story: Learning, and correcting, builds lasting endurance.

There are many reasons Smith’s church has endured beyond the “God’s work will never stop” rhetoric we hear each Sunday. Bushman cites at least three in “Rough Stone Rolling”:

• One is that the young LDS prophet did not make himself the center of early missionary experts. Since Mormonism was not a cult of personality, it was able to pick itself up and thrive after the shock of Smith’s Carthage martyrdom.

• Also, doctrines such as latter-day revelation, the gathering of Israel and a priesthood authority — all progressive in that era — was a chief appeal of Mormonism to its early converts.

• Another doctrine Bushman cites as having great missionary appeal was the temple endowments, which he opines offered converts the feeling of a “direct access to God.”

Truth is, any review of Mormonism’s early history is replete with as many failures as successes. Large swaths of the early church members, including most of the original Twelve Apostles, left the church. Many people who left the early church were justified in their anger that drove them from Mormonism. We shouldn’t try to deny that.

On the DVD, Bushman is asked how he can write histories that delve into Smith’s treasure hunting and polygamy deceptions and not meet the fate of other LDS historians, who have been disciplined by church leaders. Bushman’s answer: It’s how you conduct and write about your research. If you don’t deliberately poke certain people, your research is better received.

Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek answer, but true. Bushman has found a solution that works for him. As an active Mormon, he treats Smith as a prophet, not doubting his visions or revelations. But he also reminds us that he was a man, subject to imperfections. The result is the best biography of Smith since Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History.”

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

Monday, June 12, 2017

1850s LDS publication touts grandeur, threatens celibacy to promote polygamy

I have the privilege to own, hold and read the Saturday, April 9, 1853 edition of The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, published in London. I procured this copy via Ebay. The issue was devoted to an enthusiastic, at times clever, defense of polygamy, which the LDS Church had recently admitted it espoused. It’s interesting, and even gratifying, to read such an audacious defense of a doctrine that was as unpopular then as it still is. Unabashedly, the pub proclaims that without polygamy, husbands and wives are doomed to celibate, servant-like jobs in the hereafter ministering to their polygamous peers with husbands hopscotching between kingdoms while distinct wives sit on thrones raising children who grow in intelligence.
It’s a fascinating piece of history. Can anyone imagine if today’s LDS pubs, which are vanilla-boring compared to the Millennial Star, spoke so boldly to “gentiles” on celestial glory? The lead article was “A familiar conversation between two cousins, on marriage,” featuring Nelly, wife to George, and Abby, wife to Mormon John. It’s very entertaining, and no doubt was persuasive to many working-class Brits of that era. At the beginning, Nelly is contemptuous of Abby’s plans to share her husband with other wives, remarking, “… I would just like to pick one or two women for him that I could select; I’ll warrant that my George would have to be content with his Nelly, ever after! …”
Obviously, this conversation/debate is geared toward Abby persuading Nelly to the virtues of polygamy. Abby suggests that Nelly consider and pray about it. She tells her cousin that neither of them have the right to their husbands if the marriage is not bound by the Lord. Because her husband John has been called by God to be a “Prince Regent,” Abby is willing to share him with other wives. She says, “… Now if God is appointing His sons on the earth to fill thrones and occupy many principalities, and my husband means to be as worthy to fill thrones as others, then I will be content to share with him one throne, and rejoice at the same time to see others share with him other thrones, while my capacity will not allow me to share any more than my own. …”
Later, Abby goes for Nelly’s debate jugular when she tells her cousin that in the matter of sexual companionship in the afterlife, it’s either eternal polygamy or eternal celibacy. “…But dear cousin, the great question is this — will we unite with the plurality Order of Ancient Patriarchs, or will we consent voluntarily to be doomed to eternal celibacy? This is the true division of the question. One or the other we must choose. We cannot be married to our husbands for eternity, without subscribing to the law that admits a plurality of wives. …”
The “conversation” is an excellent polemic. It gets to the major concerns that a “Nelly” and “George” might naturally feel when contemplating an afterlife. Will they be together? Does God have some plan of eternal progression? “Abby” also argues to “Nelly” that polygamy provides more intellectual and physically fit children, grandchildren and future offspring. “Abby” later answers “Nelly’s” concern that other wives would undermine her by saying that larger families, if under the order of Abraham, “…enjoy a greater amount of intelligence, and a greater share of love also, than you possibly could in that single, contracted order which you seem to desire … In the former order your children are all the lawful heirs of thrones and kingdoms, and in your favourite order they are only the heirs of servile inferiority.”
Later in the conversation, Abby tries to persuade Nelly that polygamy provides a more moral and righteous social order than the norm and that it makes men less prone to adulterous behavior. The conversation is continued to the next issue, which I’d love to get a copy of. However, they can be read online at many sources, including from here.
As history reveals, polygamy was not to Abby’s hope. It caused poverty and heartbreak for many Utah women and near ruin for the LDS Church, which has been excommunicating earthly polygamists for 100-plus years. But it conveys the fierce pride in “The Principle,” that motivated so many smart, talented women, such as Emmeline Wells and Eliza R. Snow, to live it. I recently read where the great apostle Parley P. Pratt envisioned an afterlife of limitless Gods rushing here and there, from worlds to worlds, constantly busy creating plans of salvation. From this 1853 relic, I can see where those beliefs have a genesis.
The rest of the issue has an entertaining mix of articles. Their is a segment on the history of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several mission reports, including Burma and Switzerland, a reprint of a New York Herald editorial on the spiritual decline of the U.S. This is accompanied by an editorial comment that blasts the U.S. and assigns the ills mentioned to that nation having “refused the principles of life, and rejected the doctrine of immediate revelation, when they were taught them by a living Prophet of the Lord. …” There is a strong last-days apocalyptic tone to the rebuke. It ends with, “Then let the nations beware, for the Almighty is not trifling with them.”
There is a poem, Palestine, by a J.L. Lyne, more tidbits from other newspapers, notices of recent church publications, financial reports, and a strong essay against adultery, which cleverly points to the Utah settlement as the moral example of the nation. As mentioned, it’s a fascinating bit of history, and I hope to find more publications of that era.
-- Doug Gibson
This column originally was published online as a StandardNet blog post.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lost Apostles an interesting history of Mormonism's originals who left the quorum

Signature has a Mormon history book, "The Lost Apostles: Forgotten Members of Mormonism's Original Quorum of Twelve," that provides a valuable look at the early years of Mormonism. Authors William Shepard and H. Michael Marquardt outline characteristics of the original apostles. They were mostly frontier men, chosen for their candor, stamina, independence, testimonies and personalities. These 12 were not administrators; they were young action-oriented men, sent out with virtually no assistance to study during the day, preach at night and try to baptize enough new members to form a small branch. If they were rejected, they left the "unbelievers" with a curse. If an apostle encountered a comely, unattached young woman, it was not uncommon for him to marry her, enjoy a quick honeymoon, and then go back to the mission, with a young wife waiting for his return.
The "Lost Apostles" are John Boynton, Lyman Johnson, his brother Luke Johnson, Thomas Marsh, the first president of the 12, William Smith, brother to the church's founder, and William McLellin. To those with at least an acquaintance of Mormon history, perhaps only Boynton and Lyman Johnson are historical strangers, no more than pictures in a church almanac. They are the two who managed to divorce themselves emotionally from Mormonism. Of the others, two -- Marsh and Luke Johnson -- returned to the now-Utah church, one, McLellin, skipped from Mormon offshoot to offshoot, never content, and William Smith, the legitimate rogue of the outfit, was finally allowed into the reorganized LDS church led by his nephew, ... so long as he behaved himself.
"Lost Apostles," is most interesting when it details the passions, strife, successes, setbacks, celebrations and violence that characterized Mormonism's growth in the 1830s, prior to the emigration to Nauvoo. As Joseph Smith moved the Mormons into the frontier, there were inevitable clashes between the unified newcomers and the older settlers, who didn't cotton to a large new voting bloc roiling the land. A lack of tact and propensity toward violence from both sides inevitably led to outnumbered Mormons being forced out. These exoduses were conducted under duress, in dangerous situations, and innocents died. Although the apostles were supposed to be separate from administrative duties, in reality they were not. They were often caught in the conflicts, internal and external, that roiled Mormonism.
What led most of the "lost apostles" from Mormonism was the 1838-1839 years in Ohio and Missouri. Besides the increasing violence, which became deadly, church leaders made the common mistake of wanting to get rich quick. They started an "anti-bank," due to not being able to get a charter, and created their own money (this could be done 180 years ago). During a brief real estate bubble, investors imagined themselves rich. The bubble broke, sellers and investors wanted their money, and the "currency" of the financial institution became worthless. As the authors detail, there's nothing like disputes over money to destroy harmony. Boynton, the Johnson brothers, McLellin, and later Marsh, left the church during this period. Other prominent church leaders who left were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Others who came close to long-time estrangement include apostles Parley P. Pratt, his brother Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde. William Smith, a product of nepotism, clung to the quorum due to his familial relationship. However, after Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, his thuggish behavior was not tolerated much longer.
There is a paradox in this account. All of these men witnessed what they believed were heavenly manifestations, they believed that Jesus Christ had blessed them through revelation and assigned them to be apostles.So why was the quorum shattered by greed and violence in only several years? The authors do note that despite disagreements that flared into violence, all of the men were either cordial to, or even confidantes toward one another for the rest of their lives. They were generally kind to the members of the faith they had left. Even John Boynton, who became a celebrated physician and inventor in the mid-1800s, took time out of a tour to visit his old friends in Salt Lake City. Boynton was a man who made pains to avoid mention of his youthful adventure with Mormonism, but decades later, was drawn to reminiscing with his old companions. The short answer to the paradox is that most of the early leaders of the "Mormonites" retained their belief in the Book of Mormon, as well as the early appeal that it was a book designed to usher in the return of Christ, within a generation. Their reasons for leaving, or being forced out via excommunication, were probably close to what the loquacious McLellin often said; in their opinion, the leaders, Joseph Smith, etc., became corrupted, and fell short of the principles they believed the church required.
The "Lost Apostles" is a sympathetic account of the six, but not hagiographies. The commitment to Mormonism that drove these men to be early-Mormon historical figures is acknowledged. Most of the book covers various episodes of Mormon history as the apostles related to them. Late in the book the apostles' lives post-1844 (Smith's death) are covered. As a scholarly offering of Mormon history, it's another of a series of books, including biographies of Parley P. Pratt and Brigham Young, that are part of an ongoing process of shedding "teddy bear" accounts of Mormon history with more detailed, accurate, and fulfilling, "grizzly bear" accounts. The book contains a few 1830s' journalistic accounts of the apostles' missionary efforts that are fascinating to read.
I'll conclude the review with brief recaps of the six apostles and how their lives ended:
John Boynton: Like Lyman Johnson, he was one of two apostles able to shed Mormonism. He became a legitimate celebrity of the 19th century, with inventions, 4,000 lectures and fame as a naturalist doctor. His ultimately unsuccessful marriage to a much younger woman in 1865 was illustrated in Harper's Weekly. He died in 1879 in Syracuse, N.Y.
Lyman Johnson: He stayed close to the roots of Mormonism, and was involved in legal cases of interest to the church in the 1840s. Cordial to his former apostles, he never returned to the LDS church. Tragically, he died Dec. 20, 1859, when the frozen Mississippi River broke while he and another man were crossing on a sled. He had just rented a nearby hotel to run.
Luke Johnson: Even as an excommunicated member, Johnson, as a marshal, helped the Smiths escape from lawmen seeking the Mormon prophet. In 1846, he returned to membership in the church. He emigrated to Utah, where his skills as a dentist helped the pioneers. In Utah, he assumed a respected standing west of Salt Lake City, but was passed over when a spot in the Quorum of the Twelve opened. He died in July 1861, somewhat broken by the recent murder of his son. His younger wife, America, outlived him by 39 years and is buried in Ogden.
Thomas Marsh: Many Mormons know Marsh through the myth of him "leaving the church due to his wife's fight with another sister member over milk strippings." That is nonsense. Marsh left the church in Far West, Mo., because he opposed the violence of some church members' retaliation against anti-Mormons. He testified against the church in hearings. Some blame Marsh's testimony for the extermination order against Mormons issued by Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs. When, almost 20 years later, Marsh, poverty-stricken, in ill health, abandoned by his wife, and virtually friendless, requested to be admitted to the Utah church, it was granted. Marsh died in Ogden, a pauper, on Jan. 25, 1865. Despite his return to Mormonism, Brigham Young and other church leaders frequently mocked Marsh in his last years, even when he was on the stand with them preparing to deliver a penitent lecture. This cruel behavior indicates that the circumstances of Marsh's apostasy must have had bitter roots.
William McLellin: Thanks to his legacy of diaries, McLellin is a well-traveled figure in Mormon history. Considered a learned but temperamental man, McLellin, perhaps engaging in historical license, created a history of himself joining a church of pure christianity, anchored by the Book of Mormon, without priesthood, apostles, etc. The mercurial McLellin, who lived a very long life, stayed in contact with his former colleagues, frequently reproving them. He joined several offshoots of Mormonism, often as a leader, but eventually became disenchanted and would leave each, usually within several months. He died in 1883.
William Smith: As the authors note, Smith was a legacy apostle, chosen over Phineas Young because brother Joseph Smith requested William. Although the authors note that William Smith was devoted to his brother's church, he was a scoundrel. He was a lecher, a chronic adulterer, a man who enjoyed the company of criminals, and was easily capable of abandoning a wife and young children. He skipped to many offshoots of Mormonism, only to be thrown out of the groups as soon as his character was revealed. In the later years of his life, Joseph Smith III, first president of the Reorganized LDS Church, allowed a chastened William to lecture about his father's early years, but kept his uncle on a very tight leash. William Smith died on Nov. 13, 1893, a few days after catching cold during an RLDS speaking engagement.
Information on “The Lost Apostles ...” is available here. An interview I conducted with Marquardt is here.
-- Doug Gibson
This post was originally published at StandardNET