Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Backslider reminds us that enjoying sex is part of the Gospel

It’s a pleasure to read Levi S. Peterson’s novel, “The Backslider” every year or two. It’s the tale of Frank Windham, a rural Utah young man in the mid-20th century who is a bit of a hell-raiser but heavily influenced by his Mormon religion. Frank is 20 and “one of those fellows who got bogged down making another man rich,” as Peterson writes on page 4 of the novel.
Out of spite, and soon after he is dumped by the college-gone girlfriend he loved, Frank seduces Marianne, the college-age daughter of his Lutheran employers, Wesley and his wife, Clara. When Marianne gets pregnant, she and Frank decide to get married, give the baby a name, and then eventually part. No one else really takes that pledge seriously except Frank, who has some real issues with enjoying sexual pleasure with a young woman, even if it is within the bounds of marriage.
“The Backslider” is a love story between Frank and Marianne, but it’s also a primer on how to love. Old-fashioned Mormon codes of sex, such as having relations with temple garments on, serve to bridge the old versus the new mores that Frank encounters growing up.
As the late Paul Swenson, writing in Utah Holiday notes, “Guilt, depravity and grace —, Cowboy  themes that Peterson finds fruitful to explore in The Backslider — are not exactly commonplace in fiction peopled primarily by Mormons.” 
“The Backslider” is a frank, sometimes comic novel with incredible depth, that gets into the guilts, resentments, pities, excitement, lust and exaltations that make up high and low points of our lives. Frank’s battles pit his desire to be pious versus his gut-wrenching need to hell-raise makes for wonderful reading, as does his struggle to accept adulthood and take responsibility of himself and his unexpected wife. 
Although Frank’s mother, Margaret, is a faithful Latter-day Saint, both Frank and his brother Jeremy have impressions of the church that are distorted, thanks in part to her, as well as the general culture of the novel’s setting, mid-20th century rural Utah. This leads to tragic consequences for Jeremy. One well-written, amusing passage involves Margaret’s uncomfortable observation that Frank and Marianne’s bed frame needs to be oiled to stop the loud squeaking at night.
Frank, badly affected by his brother Jeremy’s insanity and self-mutilation, finds it almost impossible to reconcile sex with his wife as anything other than a sin. Even her impending baptism doesn’t drive that obsession away until Frank receives a visit from a “Cowboy Jesus,” who tells Frank to stop worrying about these issues, that His atonement has paid the bill up in full. The Cowboy Jesus advises Frank to enjoy his wife and their carnal pleasures and comfort his mother-in-law, who is shook up about her daughter becoming a Mormon.
The whimsy of the final scenes underscore a serious message: pleasure is usually not a sin, although it frequently is assumed to be.
The Backslider can be purchased at many locations. The Signature Books website has it here.
-- Doug Gibson
Portions of this column were previously published in StandardBlogs.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Brigham Young biography portrays a great leader and an unpleasant man

Closing the book after reading, "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," the biography by George Mason University religious studies professor John G. Turner, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University, causes some swirling emotions for this Latter-day Saint reader.

From reading Turner’s fantastic — and it is by far the best that has been written of Young’s life — biography, it’s easy for a faithful Mormon to agree that God called Young to the task of moving 20,000-plus Mormons across the plains to Utah territory and over a generation-plus, to set up hundreds of Mormon settlements. No man in U.S. history was ever that successful in those endeavors.

On the other hand, while admiring Young’s organizational skills, I don’t much care for Brigham Young the man. Turner’s biography portrays an often unpleasant man, with a foul mouth — his preferred cuss word was "shit" — and a spiteful, vengeful nature. He had a caustic sense of humor, which perhaps mitigates some of his casual comments that seemed to support violence. He ruled the Salt Lake Valley as an absolute dictator, and harbored longtime grudges against apostles who dared to criticize his particular beliefs, such as blood atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, and the United Order.

While no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, his messages to Native Americans that they could steal from non-Mormon settlers, the atmosphere of settler-animus that pervaded 1857 Utah, and Young’s successful efforts to stymie an initial investigation into the massacre, harm the image of the LDS Church’s second modern-day prophet. Indeed, Young’s caustic tongue also inflamed a Mormon bishop to castrate a petty criminal, a Logan member. Rather than feel sympathy for the man or his mother, Young protected the ecclesiastical leader who had ordered it. And, reading accounts of murders of non-Mormons by LDS thugs Porter Rockwell and William Hickman, it seems plausible to theorize that Young ordered those deaths.

 However, Turner’s book overall is not a negative portrayal of Young. It is another example of grizzly bear truth, where a great man’s life is revealed, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults included. The book is on the shelves at Deseret Book, and that’s appropriate because it does justice in recounting the life of the West’s most prominent 19th century colonizer. Turner describes Young’s hardscrabble existence in early 18th century New England, his strained relationship with his father, and his early religious skepticism that was finally counteracted by Joseph Smith’s new religion, Mormonism.

 Before the mid-1840s, Brigham Young was known for his compassion and openness as a Mormon apostle. Turner recounts his tender, love-filled letters to his wife, Mary Angell, and the biography includes accounts of his compassionate tenure as a leader to the Mormons in England. But the murder of the Joseph Smith, the continued harassment of Nauvoo Mormons afterward, and, as important, the internal dissent that swirled within the LDS Church prior to Smith’s murder, all that changed Young. He appears to have turned into a man, a leader, determined to never let that happen again.

Young mercilessly abused the LDS apostles both privately and publicly. Young’s CEO-type behavior, though, achieved its goals. No disagreeing members of the LDS hierarchy were able to achieve the success of the Law brothers, in Nauvoo. Young’s hammering of the Saints in Utah, his public denunciations and calls for repentance, kept the Utah Mormons united in their distrust of outside influences and retained their faith in unity.

His strong opposition to mining, for example, kept Utah free of non-Mormon influences for as long as Young could manage it. Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence.

Young never admitted that he made mistakes. The handcart fiasco was the fault of Franklin Richards and John Taylor; the failure to enact a United Order was the fault of Erastus Snow. Private gestures of compassion and charity to apostles, severely chastened by Young, served to partially mitigate this routine abuse. Young also provided himself a great deal of wealth and luxury, while relegating many of his followers to relative poverty. He tolerated no criticism of this perceived inequality. Young demands respect despite his human weaknesses.

More than even Joseph Smith, he is responsible for the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His shrewd leadership, along with help from the canny, non-Mormon lobbyist, Thomas Kane, managed to keep him as the main source of power in the Utah territory for much longer than anyone would have anticipated.

Young was able to manipulate political events, wars, the seasons, weak-willed political appointees, Native American unrest, and petitions for statehood to consistently survive virtually every imbroglio with the federal government or U.S. Army. Turner recounts many incidents of Young surviving as Utah’s leader while "gentile" nemesis after nemesis left Utah as grumbling failures.

 When the railroad connected Utah with the nation, Young’s power slowly decreased the last decade of his life. Perhaps to cheat the spectre of death, Young took a few young wives. He tried to re-energize support for two doctrines he had long espoused, the Adam-God doctrine and the United Order. Those efforts though were lackluster.

Still revered by members, Young seemed a calmer, or perhaps just exhausted, lion. One of his final acts was to dedicate the St. George Temple. Characteristically, he criticized an apostle while doing so.
Brigham Young was a great man. I revere him as a prophet. He was also a man of his times, who carried the savagery and bigotry of that era. Many of his most egregious acts can be explained, and even perhaps excused, by the understanding that he felt himself to be in a war. He believed that his existence, and that of his Gospel, was in danger. That he died as leader of the Utah Mormons was his final victory, and final sacrifice for Joseph Smith.

- Doug Gibson

- This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pratt an early contributor to Mormon media efforts

The rise of Mormonism in its first decades was largely due to the eagerness that early Mormon leaders embraced innovations within media, with press advances that allowed pamphlets, books and newspapers to be published much cheaper than previously, and thereby affordable to the poor.
While missionary work was always a priority, the Book of Mormon, pamphlets, and other works were read by thousands, and shared with others. Perhaps the most prolific user of the printed-press media was Parley P. Pratt, one of Mormonism’s first apostles. An impetuous, emotional, argumentative church leader, he wrote several books, including “Voice of Warning,” the second-most influential Mormon book for almost a century, as well as other books and hymns. A talented propagandist, Pratt is best known for a widely circulated pamphlet that detailed persecutions on Mormons in Missouri. He was also editor of the church newspaper in London.
Authors Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow add that Pratt’s media acumen and enthusiasm still impacts the Mormon faith. “As an essayist and theologian, Pratt shaped the content and language of early Mormon self-understanding. Few Latter-day Saints today read Pratt’s treatises, though his imprint pervades the theological spectrum they have inherited,” the pair note in their biography, “Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism” ($31.46, Oxford University Press).
That is an accurate reflection of Pratt’s legacy. During the 1830s and into the early 1840s, Pratt had many opportunities for personal discussions with the Mormon founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. He undoubtedly had opportunity to be at the genesis of some of Smith’s unorthodox teachings regarding the pre-existence, the divinity and eternal state of matter, the similarities between man and God, and the relationship between exaltation and marriage and families. As a result, much of Pratt’s early writings take these concepts -- at least to the reading public -- further than they had been publicized previously. He both defined and refined these doctrines.
These include the concepts of matter being eternal, marriage being a contract that lasted for eternity, the multiplicity of worlds, the concept of heavenly parents and spirit children, and a repudiation of the doctrine of original sin, the idea that man entered the world impure. Mormonism, as Pratt maintained, teaches that man is responsible for his own sins, but Christ’s atonement covers Adam’s transgression. Also, Pratt was an early advocate of the idea of an eternal unchanging celestial law that enhances righteous individuals after earthly life and leads them on a path to be heirs of what God possesses. Pratt also wrote that the relationship of a husband and wife would become even more perfect through eternity.
These beliefs are matter of fact to active Mormons today, and some are still fiercely disputed by persons of other faiths, but they were far more radical long ago when Pratt unleashed them into the public debate via the press.
One of the advantages of the Internet is that virtually everything Pratt published is available online. As mentioned, he was an effective propagandist. At, there is Pratt’s first major literary effort as a Mormon leader. It’s titled “A Short Account of a Shameful Outrage Committed by a Part of the Inhabitants of the Town of Mentor, Upon the Person of Elder Parley P. Pratt, While Delivering a Public Discourse Upon the Subject of the Gospel.”
The flowery but combative essay is an account of Pratt’s efforts in 1835 to preach on the steps of a church in Mentor, Ohio, a neighboring town of the early Mormon settlement of Kirtland, Ohio. Mentor was dominated by the Campbellites, a progressive anti-sectarian movement Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon had once ministered to. Campbellites rejected modern-day authority, a dispute that put them often in conflict with the new Mormon religion. The bombastic Pratt no doubt enjoyed preaching repentance to the Campbellites.
As Pratt relates, while he preached on the steps: “I saw a band of men collected about 20 rods from me. Two Bugles, a Base Drum, and several smaller ones, with their Fife, were put in lively motion, and the men in regular file came marching towards that place where I stood speaking. ... The music or noise for a moment drowned my voice.”
The band continued through Pratt’s discourse, making it impossible for him to be heard. He soldiered on, but as he closed the band, he added, “discharged a full volley of eggs at me, some of which struck me in the face and others besmirching me from head to foot.” After Pratt left, he claims in the essay he was followed by the band and threatened. (Pratt’s account, which includes an “eyewitness’ account,” (probably Pratt himself using literary license) is fun reading. It’s here
Besides the public relations points the pamphlet earned, Pratt also scored in a court of law. He filed a complaint against Grandison Newell, a prominent anti-Mormon, in Kirtland before a justice of the peace. According to, Pratt was awarded $47 in damages that Newell was ordered to pay. The jury came to the conclusion that the band that harassed Pratt was a militia, and that Newell, as a commandeer, was responsible for their actions.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The last son of Joseph Smith understood the power of doubt

The following was written in the late 19th century by a young man familiar with the two Mormon churches: The Utah LDS Church and the Midwest Reorganized LDS Church founded by Joseph Smith III. “’Except you believe, ye shall be damned’ is the first proposition of the church.’ ... In art, in science, in every department of life, intelligence is never required to give credence to or act upon any proposition unless it is capable of demonstration, actual demonstration, or it is based up apparrent (sic) fact, apparent even though their causes and mode be hidden. But in religion another basis is acted upon and we are expected to believe and stake our salvation upon this belief. ... The seeker for salvation must first believe and the vital object, salvation or damnation, hangs thereon. This is absurd.
The author was David Hyrum Smith, the youngest son of the slain LDS prophet, Joseph Smith. Born after his father had been murdered, David was cossetted by his family and lived the life of a writer, artist and missionary. The young father — in his 20s — had returned to a mission in Utah after several requests. Joseph Smith III, whom the letter was addressed to, must have regretted extending the call, writes Valerie Tippetts Avery, author of “From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet,” a fascinating biography of David Smith. To young David, already prone to instability, the mission call served to convince himself of something that tormented, that he had spent years angrily refuting — that his father had preached and practiced polygamy. 

The knowledge, confirmed to David by former plural wives of his father, led to other doubts, expressed by David in these letters to his brother. In the following excerpt, David reasonably objects to the longstanding Christian doctrine that a loving father willfully leaves his children abandoned on earth. David was reflecting on his new fatherhood and the love for his son as he wrote: “I have a child. I keep myself obstinately hidden from him; I make no revelation to him but in an obscure and very doubtful way the requirement of love and obedience comes to him. And death or life hangs in its acceptance. How very unjust if he be ignorant, prejudice guide him, if wise, then reason tells him if I have a father he must come near me first, love me, and teach me to love him. ..; I do not argue the benefit of Faith and trust in God as a general application of moral principle but the attaching of salvation upon such ambiguous grounds is unjust.”
Writes Tippetts Avery, “Fatherhood had taught David to distrust the seemingly deliberate obscurity of God.”
Yet David Hyrum Smith took his newfound skepticism a step further, arguing against the dogma that man can only seek important further knowledge from a selected prophet. This doubt struck at a key doctrine — at that time — of both churches. He wrote: “If faith unto salvation was an eternal principle and true, it could be discovered and demonstrated so as to be of general benefit as the law of gravitation of the rules of mathematics. But as it comes to us it makes us subservient to our falable (sic) fellow Man for eternal life, a most absurd proposition. But you again might speak God has revealed himself. But here again is an absurdity our fellow man brings us a revelation, and we are only guided by our faith in him. We do not know he has had this revelation and eternal salvation depends upon our faith in our fellow man and his revelation. Unjust and absurd.”
In his writings, David Smith further pointed out the inconsistency of ascribing belief based on one man’s claim of divine prophecy. For every Joseph Smith, he told his brother, there were Brigham Young, “Spiritualists,” and “Strangites” ... an offshoot of Mormonism.
Young Smith’s ideas could be dismissed as heresy or apostasy by some believers. The proper term is doubt, though, which is a healthy expression, and a prerequisite toward a mature belief and hope. Any follower of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any Christian religion, should acknowledge the inconsistencies demanded by Christian theology, which are:
• That belief is required without presentable evidence.
• That our father in heaven has deliberately abandoned us from palpable presence.
• And that for every claim of a Joseph Smith or a Thomas S. Monson, there are thousands of similar claims from prophets with hundreds of millions of adherents.
We cannot prove theology, and we should not try. Beliefs we hold dear may not affect others in the same manner. History exists which alleges those we worship as servants of God as sinners of lust and power.
The mystery of belief, if it can be defined, is that to doubt is to believe. Doubt turns sand into a rock. To not doubt is to omit an ingredient for faith and hope.
More will be written about David Hyrum Smith. There is an irony to his letters. Mental illness overcame him and he spent the last half of his life institutionalized. A melodramatic person might see his fate as God’s punishment. Such supercilious jeering may exist. But we should investigate the questions he shared with his brother. Failure to do so results in churches having a low activity rate.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The last years of William B. Smith a mix of persistent hope and pity

In 1878, William B. Smith, brother to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, apostle to the LDS Church in his early 20s, and briefly LDS Church patriarch in his mid-30s, was essentially forgotten. The most volatile member of the Smith family had not only been kicked out of the Utah Mormon church, he had been tossed from several other offshoots of post-Nauvoo Mormonism. He had even failed as a Baptist preacher. As 1878 began, there was one option left for Smith, now 66. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by his nephew, Joseph Smith III, was preparing a conference in Plano, Ill.
As Paul M. Edwards relates in the Dialogue magazine article “William B. Smith: The Persistent “Pretender,” (here) Smith III, who recognized his uncle’s value as a link to his father’s early church history, visited William. The pair discussed William’s proposed acceptance into the RLDS Church. At first, William demanded that he be inserted in the RLDS Quorum of the 12 Apostles. He also wanted to “be received into the Reorganization on the basis of his former membership.”
Smith III never seriously considered having his uncle be an apostle, but he was OK with William’s previous LDS affiliation qualifying him for membership into the RLDS church. As it was, William B. Smith was accepted into the church as a high priest. William’s official position with the RLDS was as a missionary in Hamilton, Mo. As mentioned, his value was reminiscing of his time with his more-famous late brother. However, the old “lost apostle” hadn’t yet lost his ambition. If he couldn’t be an apostle, William hoped he could become the RLDS Church patriarch. His rationale was that he had been the final “legitimate” patriarch with the Mormon church before its move to Utah.
Edwards includes this letter William wrote to the Saints Herald, an RLDS publication, saying: “that this office of Patriarch is an office that belongs in the Church of Christ; and that whosoever is appointed to fill the place left by the death of Hyrum Smith will hold the right to the same presiding authority. ... Joseph, inherited the patriarchate by lineal descent from Jacob who was the father of the twelve patriarchs; and from father Joseph Smith, the patriarchal office was given, as the revelation of 1841 declares, by blessing and by right, for such is the order of this evangelical priesthood handed down from father to son. ... It is the duty of the First Presidency to select and ordain the Patriarch, that is to fill the space left vacant by the death of Hyrum Smith.” (1881, 82)
A key problem with William’s effort is that the RLDS Church, at that time, had little use for the office of church patriarch. Edwards includes the comment of then-RLDS apostle Jason Briggs, who called the office of patriarch “a ‘wart upon the ecclesiastical tree, unknown in the Bible, or Book of Mormon.’” In fact, as Edwards adds, Briggs wanted to eradicate the office. Joseph Smith III put off William’s request to be church patriarch. Later, he learned that his uncle was considering writing a biography of Joseph Smith. At that time, the RLDS Church, and Smith III, were actively trying to preserve the fiction that Joseph Smith had not practiced polygamy, and that it was an invention of the Utah Mormons.
In Edwards’ article is this excerpt from an 1882 letter to William Smith from his nephew: “I have long been engaged in removing from father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of polygamy, and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And would not consent to see further blame attached, by blunder now. Therefore uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections of Joseph and Hyrum.”
In the letter, Joseph Smith III instructed his elderly uncle to only remember admirable things about Joseph and Hyrum Smith, meaning again, no mention of polygamy. Also, he mentions the possibility of William making money on the book “if the right sort of enterprising men got hold of it.”
As William Smith entered the final years of his life, money became his main goal. In 1891, at the age of 80, living in Osterdock, Iowa, with his wife, on a military pension of $84 a year, he began a correspondence with RLDS bishop, and apostle, William Kelly. Smith, too feeble to maintain ambitions of high ecclesiastical office, merely wanted to make ends meet. Again, these pleas from William were put off, although occasionally stipends of money would be sent to him.
The letters from William Smith include resentment that his requests for additional funds are largely ignored. In late 1891, asking for $8 a month remittance, Edwards notes some of the arguments he used: “William ... asked: Who helped remove the tar from Joseph Smith? Who stood guard for long hours to protect Joseph Smith’s life? Who was driven from his home and forced to move from place to place in the name of the church, sleeping on the ground and in tents, to do the work of the Lord in Iowa and Illinois? He closed the letter by telling Bishop Kelly that ‘I think it due me that you place a salary on my family of eight dollars per month.’”
Writing to Kelly in late 1892, William again criticized the RLDS Church for not having a patriarch: “Then there is the patriarchal office the seed of which was sown in the church among all the prophets, a seed that was planted ... in the church of 1830. ... My nephew is lame on some of these points, the Church under him is not yet perfect in organization ...”
A month before William Smith died on Nov. 18, 1893, Joseph Smith III asked his uncle for more “evidence” that polygamy was a creation of the Utah Mormons. William dutifully obliged, saying that the polygamy taught in Nauvoo was of “the Brigham party,” comprised of apostates.
The last years of William B. Smith were those of an old man who had sown his oats and was in pasture. A man who had more than once behaved like a rake and a thug was toothless. His unrealized desire to become RLDS patriarch was a compromise from earlier higher desires. The condescending deference paid William by his nephew probably met his needs, if not his wants. It is a pitiful, but not unhappy end for the brother of the prophet. After William’s death, the RLDS ordained a patriarch.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs