Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Christmas Meditation

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not... but was grateful anyway.

Shepherd's Carol

We stood on the hills, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Watching the frosted meadows
That winter had won.

The evening was calm, Lady,
The air so still,
Silence more lovely than music
Folded the hill.

There was a star, Lady,
Shone in the night,
Larger than Venus it was
And bright, so bright.

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,
It seemed to us then
Telling of God being born
In the world of men.

And so we have come, Lady,
Our day’s work done,
Our love, our hopes, ourselves
We give to your son.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What a Year

This is the first birthday I've ever had which I didn't really look forward to. For some reason, 25 is just scary. (I know, rationally speaking, that's a ridiculous thing to say, but nevertheless...) In any case, thank you to all who sent birthday greetings by media various and sundry! It was lovely to hear from you. A particular thank you goes to my Grandparents for their kind generosity, to my parents and siblings for the new (and needed) clothing (I'm glad you have good taste, Ashlie!), and to Seth and Adam for a delicious lunch at Tucanos, where we positively drowned ourselves in MEAT! My family and friends are far, far better than I deserve (but it would be unwise to let them know that!).

In any case, everything managed to stay pretty low-key, for which I am very grateful, as I continue to ponder my mortality. ;-)

For those of you who have heard and expressed concern, my shoulder is (finally!) feeling much improved. I'll still wear the sling, but I can now remove it for longer and longer durations during the day. (I don't wear it at night, because––being an active sleeper––I would almost certainly garrote myself. It doesn't matter how carefully I make my bed, in the morning the comforter is on the other side of the room, the sheets have been braided into a kind of Jackson Pollack macrame, and I am either wearing the pillow as a turban or I have managed to swallow it.) In any case, if you were devoting any of your knee-time to intercession on my behalf, I thank you, but would now ask you not to worry anymore about it and apply those minutes to Maddox's account.

* * *

Now, as is my habit, I will devote a few moments to religio-political ranting. (I know that this might not meet with universal approbation, but it is my weakness, and not one I have any inclination to give up. What can I say: some chase the dragon*, some pass l'heure verte** with la fée verte***, I blog.)

Today, I would like to address an issue one hears periodically when spending time with Mormons of a political bent. I want to make it clear that I do not take exception to those who may disagree with my beliefs, if only they admit that insofar as our beliefs differ, theirs are wrong. I am really a most accommodating man, willing to extend compromise even to the gates of hell––but no further!

The comment that aroused my ire is just one of myriad extant variations on a truly nauseating theme. This specific comment was posted today on a Deseret News comment thread. (I know. It's true. I should have never even read the thing. As you are all doubtless aware, the comments on DesNews threads tend to be almost––but not quite––as intelligent as the kind of YouTube comment threads attached to videos depicting extra-chromosomal teenage boys igniting their own flatulence, which are themselves only sad imitations of the level of erudition typically found scrawled on or carved into to the stall walls of public restrooms in cities endowed with literacy rates somewhat lower than is characteristic of Tijuana's more impoverished environs.) In any case, the comment in question was as follows:

You really believe the LDS Church has that much influence over the State of California? The constitutionality of prop 8 was decided in the California Supreme Court by non LDS judges. Explain that.

This particular statement is just one example of an increasingly common (but nevertheless queasiness-inducing) phylum of Mormon political sentiment. Whenever someone complains online about the LDS involvement in California's Proposition 8 campaign during the 2008 election, some Mormons' "persecution sensory glands" become activated and they descend, indiscriminately squirting this kind of comment into cyberspace, like a cat urinating on a piece of furniture or a small child.

When identifying such a statement, it is helpful to look for certain typical characteristics: "Mormons were only one small part of a large, diverse coalition"; "Mormons make up less than two percent of California's population"; "Lots of [insert minority ethnicity members here] voted for it. Why don't you attack them?"; "The Church only donated $180,000.00 to a campaign that raised millions"; et cetera. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Vomit.

Let us be quite clear: when evaluating these comments, it does not matter how you or I feel about Proposition 8, or the results of the 2008 election. Love it, loathe it, puree it and smear it all over your body: COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT!

What is relevant is the fact that these comments are dishonest.

The involvement of the LDS Church was the sine qua non of the passage of Prop 8. Yes, I know, "The Church donated only a tiny fraction of the total funds raised..." Give me a break. The majority of the Yes-on-8 money came from LDS members, who donated at the explicit instruction of the Prophet. His encouragement is theologically tantamount to commandment; Prop 8 practically became an article of faith. (There were a number of incidents reported in which members who said they were not comfortable donating/canvassing/putting a sign in their yard lost their temple recommends or were disfellowshipped. As far as I am aware, most of these incidents were later corrected... after the election was over.) Stakes and Wards were assigned dollar-amounts they were required to raise. Local leaders approached many members with specific figures they were asked to contribute (one particularly memorable account recorded that the amount their Stake President requested was exactly ten times what they had already decided to donate); these amounts were calculated by reviewing members' tithing records. Add to this the Church's built-in communication/networking structure, to say nothing of the vast body of free LDS labor used for door-to-door and telephone canvassing.

When the results of the election were reported, many Latter-day Saints celebrated, justly aware of the part they had played. Now, however, many of those same members try to deemphasize the Church's participation, as well as their own. When did the blood that burned red footprints across a continent cool, dilute, and breed cravens?

Saying that "Mormon involvement was just one little part of a multi-faceted coalition" is as disingenuous as saying that "oxygen is just one element among many in breathable air." Such a statement, while technically true, is calculatedly misleading. Though oxygen is not the most plentiful element in the air, it is absolutely indispensable; without it, we inevitably die–—just like Proposition 8 would have, without the LDS Church.

*A euphemism for using opium.
**Five o'clock, when, at the height of its popularity, many Parisians would gather as devotees of la fée verte.
***Absinthe, a potent, anise-flavored spirit (usually light green in color) with allegedly hallucinogenic properties, which led to its ban in the US by 1915. Its psychoactive characteristics (apart from those associated with its high alcohol content––45%-74% ABV) were greatly exaggerated, and its production within the US resumed in 2007.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Random Rambling Response

A question from a reader*:

Have you read Emma: The Mormon Enigma? I have two brothers and wives who read this book and it drove them to apostasy. They now believe the Book of Mormon is some Egyptian conspiracy.

The book was actually written by a BYU church history teacher, I am not sure if she still works there or not. I mean, to actually believe Joseph had sexual relations with his multiple wives was just too much for them to take. Also, some of those wives who were 14 and 15 were "raped." Its all very interesting but very difficult to watch your dear family members leave the iron rod and embrace the great and spacious building.

I haven't read that book in its entirety, though I did use it as a source for a paper about LDS marriage/family doctrine. Another book on a similar issue (and certainly the most complete and exhaustive study of Joseph's plural wives) is a book called "In Sacred Loneliness" by Todd Compton. It is quite solid from a scholarly standpoint, but it deals with some very difficult subject matter.

When dealing with things of that nature, I think that the Church is altering its approach somewhat. In the past, many things of that variety never made it onto the Mormon radar, because the only folks that wrote about them were anti-Mormons. Today, though, we find ourselves in a situation technologically that makes it more and more difficult not to deal with these kinds of historical issues. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Church got (understandably) defensive about some of its history; pressure was exerted by LDS hierarchy not to bring up some of this information. There were even some excommunications of BYU scholars, and––though the excommunications were not exclusively about scholarship––I suspect if they had published the same things today, there probably would not have been Church discipline (at least for some of them). Church leaders were leaning pretty heavily on professors to publish only "faithful history," which put them in a very difficult position: rigorous scholarship would bother some members and leaders, but "faithful" scholarship wouldn't be objective enough to get published.

In any case, today we can get our hands on loads of information with only the touch of a button. This, I feel, is helping to change the way we approach difficult historical issues. Take for instance the "Joseph Smith Papers Project" that (over the next decade or so) is going to publish critical, scholarly editions of practically everything Joseph ever wrote (or dictated). The 2 volumes currently in print (there will eventually be about 30) have been very well-received in the academic world (one review said that they "set a new standard" in the realm of scholarly publication), and will help to bolster growing interest in Mormon studies. Even now, Mormon studies departments are popping up like daisies in universities across the country. Another example is "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," published only a couple years ago by BYU scholars who were granted unprecedented access to the Church archives. The book was actually commissioned BY THE CHURCH(!) way back in about 2003.

I think our approach is becoming something similar to a vaccination. Nobody likes to get shots; they're undeniably uncomfortable and they can leave you sore for a few days. However, I'll take a needle-prick over a full-blown case of smallpox any day! Similarly, while we don't like some of these issues in our past and they make us uncomfortable, it's better to hear about painful/confusing history within a faithful venue––that way when you get exposed elsewhere, your "spiritual immune system" won't be overwhelmed.

Of course, none of this ameliorates the pain inherent in a family member's (or one's own) loss of faith. I once read an interesting article by someone who had left the Church, describing how he went through all the same stages of grief that are associated with a loved one's death. I had a somewhat similar experience when a missionary I knew (though we had never been companions) shot himself shortly after he returned home.

There are really only two thoughts that have been of any practical assistance to me in those kinds of painful situations:

1. When dealing with an ugly/confusing issue vis-à-vis Church history (or even current leadership): It's uncharitable to expect others to be any more perfect than I am. I have no reason to feel superior just because I have a different preference in the kinds of sins I like to commit!

2. When facing tragedy in the lives of those we care about, particularly due to someone's poor choices: I have to remember that the sealing power is a manifestation of the atonement; so it's far stronger than I usually recognize.

In the end, I think God will probably surprise us all... (with a cake, I hope––I do love a good cake).

As it happens, the paper I wrote (using "Mormon Enigma" as a source) is posted here on the blog. See here. It does deal with some fascinating (and occasionally troubling) history.

A later piece regarding specifically familial blessings tied to temple worship can be found here. This post is a bit more devotional in nature, and was actually written to be part of a talk; the paper linked above, on the other hand, probably would not be very helpful in an in-Church setting, unless you want to see the Bishop spontaneously combust.

*And just so you're aware, as a reader of this blog you are a member of a very elite, VERY exclusive bunch. (And I wouldn't have it any other way!)

PS––Oh, I almost forgot! Regarding the whole "rape" issue in the question above, I would suggest that our social values are frequently different than those of our predecessors. In that part of the 19th century, age differences between husband and wife were frequently wider than they are today, and it was not at all unusual for wives to be teenagers (even young teenagers) while their husbands were in their middle age. There is a chart (though I don't have time to track it down) that some writer put together that compared the age of Joseph Smith and his wives with the ages of other married couples in the community; 14 or 15 was not at all uncommon. In some matters we can be far more prudish than our ancestors! For instance, can you guess what the age of consent was in the state of Delaware at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed? Anyone? The answer will be in the comments below...

Friday, November 06, 2009

Medical Adventure

Cue boring cliché regarding not knowing what you have until you've lost it –– like a functioning rotator cuff. My left shoulder had been a bit sore after taking a fall while singing in the opera. (The fall wasn't accidental; it was part of the shtick in the aria I was singing –– my character was explaining what a good dancer he (THINKS!) he is. Then, during a cadenza, I go into the splits and my voice breaks –– never fails to get a laugh.) I had rehearsed the song in my costume shoes, which were quite slick-soled, probably a consequence of a lot of use in other productions. Before the opera opened, the costume department had put dancing soles on the bottom, giving them a lot more traction. However, the new soles did not quite reach to the back of the heel. When I went into the splits, my front leg's shoe was only in contact with the stage at the slippery heel. It slid quickly out from under me while my right leg was firmly planted on the ball of my foot. I came down hard on my right knee. (That night, my little yelp wasn't acting!) My knee was sore for a few days but soon recovered. My shoulder, on the other hand, got worse and worse as a result of trying to catch myself during that fall. I saw a doctor today and he thinks it's a torn rotator cuff.


Monday, October 26, 2009

...such is as common to man...

Hooray, its "l'infidélité"!

The last Ensign (September) had a very interesting article on "emotional fidelity." However, I have two quibbles:

1. "[S]top thinking in terms of emotional infidelity and instead use the phrase, 'spiritual fidelity.'" Ten-yard penalty for totally pointless semantic change. Spiritchal fidelity: essenchal vocabilary to priserving your spatial rilashunships. (That text was recorded in the Valley Dialect of the language of Deseret.)

2. "As Paul warned, 'Abstain from all appearance of evil.'" Fifty-yard penalty for repeated and vicious misuse of Thessalonians! Honestly, folks, this mistranslation has been in currency for waaaay too long. Hypothetical: You're driving home from church. It's raining. You see the Relief Society President walking along the side of the road. Do you stop to pick her up? Answer: NOOOOO!!! Your first responsibility is to avoid the "appearance of evil." In fact, just to be safe, run her down with your Suburban. Nothing says "I'm faithful to my spouse" like blood on the grille. Be sure not to miss next week's discussion: Strengthening Your Marriage Through Manslaughter.

Other than that, it wasn't terrible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Touché, Sister Nunn...

From an article* in the Salt Lake Tribune:

LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks called on Mormon faithful last week not to be silenced by post-Proposition 8 intimidation, urging members to insist on the free exercise of religion.

What really is threatening religious liberty, four gay-rights groups countered Friday in a joint statement, is the church's meddling in a political campaign to deny rights to same-sex couples.

"We have always been taught that it is not 'just to mingle religious influence with civil government,' " wrote Cheryl Nunn, executive director of the Foundation for Reconciliation, quoting Mormon scripture. "How can I face my friends in other faiths if I stand by and do nothing?"

Further analysis and commentary may be forthcoming... if I feel like it.

*I remind my readers that while Tribune articles may be interesting and informative, reading the ensuing online commentary will leech IQ points out of your skull like quicklime. Avoid it as assiduously as you do the equally nauseating commentary on the Deseret News website. DON'T FEED THE TROGLODYTE-TROLLS!

Monday, October 05, 2009

A weekend with Saints...

From fellow religionist Rosalynde Welch of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mormons follow no liturgical calendar in our worship services. We celebrate Christmas and Easter with appropriate hymns, sermons and scriptures, but the rhythm and mood of our meetings stay mostly the same year-round. So General Conference is the closest we get to a liturgical feast, a high point in our spiritual landscape and a time of renewal and rededication. It’s characteristically Mormon––and I say this with the greatest possible affection––that a pinnacle of our spiritual lives has such a prosaic name. But General Conference, arriving as it does together with the natural beauty of every autumn and spring, is indeed a beloved event for many Mormons. Many of us have developed family traditions that envelope the proceedings in comforting ritual––special foods, favorite activities, the simple pleasures of being together (emphasis mine––see here for full article).

A blessing of such a two-day Sabbath is that one wakes to a new week to find there are prophets everywhere! Hairshirt-clad, chirping like locusts, but sweet as honey. Here's some scripture (demanding stuff!) from one of my very favorites, Seamus Heaney:

From Death of a Naturalist

Mid-term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At ten o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying––
He had always taken funerals in his stride––
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.
He lay in a four-foot box, as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

From Glanmore Revisited

VII. The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

From Squarings


And lightening? One meaning of that
Beyond the usual sense of alleviation
Illumination, and so on, is this:

A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares
With pure exhilaration before death––
The good thief in us harking to the promise!

So paint him on Christ's right hand, on a promontory
Scanning empty space, so body-racked he seems
Untranslatable into the bliss

Ached for at the moon-rim of his forehead,
By nail-craters on the dark side of his brain:
This day, thou shalt be with Me in paradise.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Excuse me for a moment...

...I just have to go vomit forever. Take a gander at this monstrosity. (Sorry about only including a link; normally, I would try to put at least a thumbnail image on the blog, but this was too horrifying even to steal.)

Do note the ridiculous contradictions inherent in this painting! My personal favorite is the black soldier standing proxy for MLK, while Marbury v. Madison is left on the ground for enabling "activist judges." Never mind that without Marbury v. Madison enabling judicial review, major civil rights victories would have never happened. (Brown v. the Board of Education, anyone?) This is an example of trying to drink your Kool-aid and keep it too! Also, the professor holding "The Origin of Species" is contrasted with the (token black) college student* holding ... wait for it ... "The Five Thousand Year Leap" by Cleon "the Kingon" Skousen**! My eyes are now bleeding.

Well, I've got to go run and try make sure that humanism continues to dominate our educational system, but while I'm gone, see if you can spot Harriet Tubman! (Hint: They initially invited Rosa Parks, but she didn't like her assigned seat.)

Hugs and Kisses,
Your favorite servant of darkness and flunky of the liberal media

*Honestly, that guy gets around; his face is in practically every pamphlet or advertisement BYU prints.

**On sale this week at Macy's: industrial, hat-grade tinfoil -- only $2.00 a roll!

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Generally, complaints about the unfairness of the world do not move me. If it is some particular unfairness, caused and correctable by human beings, sure –– social justice seems a reasonable human goal to aim for. However, broader indictments of the cosmos about how "It's all so unfair!" seem better resolved with backbone and a stiff upper lip (if you're reduced to it) and perhaps a stiff drink (if you can manage it... not for Mormons, sorry –– and no one is more sympathetic on that point than myself!).

This morning, then, I find (again) that I am a dreadful hypocrite: Yesterday I was up at 3:00 AM and got horizontal again, exhausted, at 1:00 AM. I just awoke spontaneously at 5:00 AM, forty minutes ago, and the sandman is long gone, (I'll have a brick in a stocking waiting for the next time he stops by!), and though I am tempted to say, "It's all so unfair!"... well, my mother doesn't live here, so I will restrict my comments to the only thing that seems appropriate: "Damn."

(And now I'm off to go jury-rig a still in the bathtub!)


(The following is intended for those who have a stomach for earnestness and sincerity. To all others, my apologies.)

Of course, my little complaint is nothing in comparison to that of my sister and her family. I am not big enough to deal with those challenges; I think none of us are. Perhaps I am up early because the Lord knows I'll need some more "knee time" this morning. If you're up, feel free to join me.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Da lesson wot I taught,
The Relief Society: Insights for Priesthood Quorums

Howdy-do, friends. Sorry it's been a while. Here are some slightly expanded notes from a lesson I taught in Elder's Quorum yesterday.

1) Introduction
Morning, brethren. I have to confess that I accepted this assignment with no little sense of concern. First, when I am asked to teach, I immediately begin to think that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Why are we scraping the bottom of the barrel? Second, when I asked Drew (my roommate and a member of the EQP) what the subject of the lesson was, he replied (and I quote): "Oh... MWUHAHAHAHA! The Relief Society." Now, I'm not sure what was intended by the evil laugh, but as you sustained him last week, I thought you all ought to know. Finally, I was worried about how I could possibly make this subject really applicable to a priesthood quorum. What could I tell you? I once had an assignment in a RS lesson––there are no dark, esoteric secrets I can reveal to you. There was no animal sacrifice. (I can't say how disappointed that made me.)

However, as I did a little research on the subject matter, I started to see that there were some very interesting tidbits to be found.

2) Historical Background
Manual Reading 1: (p. 449)
In the spring of 1842, members of the Church in Nauvoo were busily occupied with the work of building the Nauvoo Temple. Two such members were Sarah Granger Kimball and her seamstress, Margaret A. Cook, who, while talking together one day, decided to combine their efforts in order to help the temple workmen. Sister Kimball said that she would provide fabric so that Sister Cook could make shirts for the men. The two women decided to invite other sisters to join them in forming a ladies’ society to further their benevolent efforts. Sarah Granger Kimball recalled: “The neighboring sisters met in my parlor and decided to organize. I was delegated to call on Sister Eliza R. Snow and ask her to write for us a Constitution and By-laws, and submit them to President Joseph Smith prior to our next Thursday’s meeting.”

After looking over the proposed constitution and bylaws, the Prophet pronounced them the best he had ever seen but then said: “‘This is not what you want. Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written Constitution. I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren … next Thursday afternoon.’”

Manual Reading 2: (p. 451)
Sarah Granger Kimball recalled that shortly before the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society, he said: “I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood. … The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”

When I read these two comments, I was a bit intrigued. First, we should note that the organization was woman-initiated. They went to the prophet, not vice versa. Second, the Prophet's comment about the "pattern of the priesthood" seemed a very interesting thing to say. I did a little digging on the subject, and found that it got more interesting yet.

On 30 March 1842, in a RS meeting, Joseph taught “that the society must move according to the ancient priesthood,” and that he would “make of this society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day––as in Paul’s day...”

On 28 April 1842, he recorded in his diary: “At two o'clock I met the members of the ‘Female Relief Society,’ and after presiding at the admission of many new members, [I] gave a lecture on the priesthood[, showing] how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings and gifts of the priesthood.”

Question: Why is this significant? Why this repeated focus on the priesthood? What does this mean? What does this mean, especially for us as priesthood holders? [Discussion ensued. Some of the thoughts shared: the priesthood represents an eternal pattern, godly in character; the organization is itself particularly suited to service; the organization is a sign of God's involvement, etc. Why is this important to us as Elders? At the very least, we might learn (by watching the RS) something about honoring our priesthood––about what our responsibilities are and how we ought to carry them out.]

3) The Great Naming Debate
The first reading mentioned writing a constitution for the organization, but that (though very good) it was not used.

Question: Why was it rejected? What replaced it?

On 17 March 1842, in a Relief Society meeting, the Prophet instructed: “Let this presidency serve as a constitution.”

Question: What does this mean? [Led by revelation. This is part of the priesthood pattern.]

And boy, did they ever lead––right from the start. There was actually a debate on the day of the organization of the RS about what it’s name would be. During the course of it, John Taylor actually recommended the organization change its name to the “Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society.” Having barely been made President, Emma started to argue against this suggestion pretty strongly. A number of objections were raised (even some by Jospeh). This discussion culminated in Eliza R. Snow, who (though in favor of “Relief") said that

“One objection to the word “Relief” is that the idea associated with it is that of some great calamity––that we intend appropriating on some extraordinary occasion instead of meeting the common occurrences.”

Emma had a brilliant reply:

Manual Reading 3: (p.450)
"We are going to do something extraordinary. … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls."

Question: What is extraordinary about the RS? And what is this “extraordinary” need that they meet? [Extraordinary in scope; perhaps not huge individual projects, but meeting widespread and constant needs; the Society makes extraordinary women; extraordinary compassion. "Keep this question in mind. We'll be coming back to it."]

In any case, both the Prophet and Elder Taylor said that they could not "stand in the face" of Emma's logic, and that they were compelled to "concede the point." The name would be the Nauvoo Female Relief Society.

Well, enough history. The RS was organized, and has since made many, many centerpieces. (I would have said "resin grapes," but the class members are of the wrong generation.)

4) Prophetic Teachings & Theology
Let's bear in mind that some of JS’s comments in this section seem to be both prescriptive and descriptive. They address what the RS (and we) should do, and also what the RS does do.

Manual Reading 4: (p. 452)
“Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work, which ye see me do.’ [See 2 Nephi 31:12.] These are the grand key-words for the society to act upon.”

Question: Have any of you seen Jesus recently? Maybe coming out of a Starbucks? (The minute I said "Starbucks" I knew I had stepped in it, due to the coffee association. Luckily, they laughed. I then suggested it might have been a better and less-caffeinated restaurant.) If not, then how do we see Christ? How do we see him in the RS? [We see him him in those that emulate him. We see him in the faces of those that serve. Also, let's not forget, "inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these..." We see the "suffering Christ" in the sick and the infirm, in the broken-hearted, in the despairing and hopeless, in those we ought to visit in prison. "Again, keep this question in mind. We'll be returning to it."]

Manual Reading 5: (p. 452)
“I attended by request, the Female Relief Society, whose object is the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes. … There was a very numerous attendance at the organization of the society, and also at the subsequent meetings, of some of our most intelligent, humane, philanthropic and respectable ladies; and we are well assured from a knowledge of those pure principles of benevolence that flow spontaneously from their humane and philanthropic bosoms, that with the resources they will have at command, they will fly to the relief of the stranger; they will pour in oil and wine to the wounded heart of the distressed; they will dry up the tears of the orphan and make the widow’s heart to rejoice."

Question: What words stand out here? [Eventually, we got to "stranger," "oil," and "wine."] Why these words? What is significant? [They are references to the parable of the Good Samaritan.]

5) The Hermeneutic of The Good Samaritan
What Joseph has given us here is an interpretive key––a lens through which we can understand the RS and their calling (and, consequently, our own).

A class member then summarized the parable (Luke 10:25-37), and we began to discuss its meaning.

Three Variations on a Theme by Jesus:
I) Historio-critical Reading––
-Jewish culture was deeply ordered by boundaries regarding one's duties. What were the limits of being a neighbor? To whom?
-The road was notoriously dangerous. 17 mi, descends 3,500 feet. Man traveling alone. What a moron. Even in the 4th century writers mentioned what a dangerous road this was and, how common it was to be robbed on it.
-Levite and Priest: Why did they pass by? Temple service? Ritual cleanliness (couldn't touch the dead)? Fear? Irony: they are ostensibly heading to temple to seek face of God, which they then miss in the face of their suffering fellow man.
-Samaritan: according to the storytelling "rule of three" (things go the same way for two iterations, and then change on the third; common in folklore and fairytales) the third character should have been a common Israelite male. (There is an interesting parallel here to the structure of the Jewish temple (Herod's): the Priests could approach the Holy of Holies most closely; the Levites could approach not quite as close; Israelite males could enter the next courtyard out; then women, then gentiles.) By making this character a Samaritan, Jesus is really exploding boundaries (as mentioned above). The Samaritan owes this man nothing, no allegiance whatsoever.
-Scholar and preacher, Ronald Knox, said:
"Is it for you, the beneficiary for all time of that unique act of charity (Christ's coming among us, to be our Good Samaritan) to haggle over obligations and to weigh out mercy on a scale? The world is your neighbor! Your enemy is your neighbor! The people who annoy you, bore you, rub you the wrong way, are your neighbors! Whoever needs your help, however unworthy, however ungrateful, however unwilling––that one is your neighbor!"

II) Patristic/Allegorical Reading––
-Man = Adam. He has left the garden (Jerusalem, the holy city), and fallen among thieves.
-Priest and Levite = the Law and the Prophets, which cannot save him.
-Samaritan = Jesus Christ.
-Inn = the Church.

III) A Modern Retelling––
[The following is taken from an essay published in Dialogue (Winter 1991), by Neal Chandler. It is called Book of Mormon Stories that my Teacher Kept from Me.]

When Jesus of Nazareth was asked [some important question], he did not quote from Mormon Doctrine nor from Answers to Gospel Questions. Instead, he told a story. And we, who have never very well understood why he did this, have ourselves long since lost the skill of storytelling. Jesus' stories to his first audiences were unheard of, striking, disquieting, unorthodox. To us, however, they ... have become the very soul of orthodoxy; we know the central ones by heart, and because we know them so well, we hardly know them at all. They are, to borrow a simile from Nietzsche, like coins so long in use they have lost their imprimatur and circulate among us as smooth blank metal. We know they are a unit of value, but no longer remember clearly what that value is.

[I]n order to be faithful to a story, sometimes it is necessary to be not quite so faithful to the text. I am not a Jew in ancient Israel. I am a [twenty-first century] Mormon, [so let us], for instance, speculate [the following]:
[The rest was read by various class members. It is presented here lightly edited. In the lesson, it was more heavily edited, both for time and not to cause trouble (i.e.: the bits about the High Priest and General Authority). I have retained those portions here, because you aren't bound to read this blog like my quorum members were bound to attend that meeting, and because I think it better preserves the really shocking character of Jesus' story.]

There was once a certain man, [living in Cleveland, Ohio,] who on a Saturday evening went into a part of the city into which respectable men normally do not go. Why he went there has not been determined, though this is a matter of concern to many among us who think his reason makes all the difference in the world. Still, whatever the reason, his trip ended in misfortune. He was attacked by thugs who took his money and credit cards, his dark blue blazer, and his late model car with the Bush bumper sticker. They left him beaten and filthy and unconscious in the gutter.

And then by chance a certain high priest drove by, (a former Mormon bishop and member of the stake high council), who was taking a short cut through that part of town because he was late for the priesthood session of stake conference. And when he saw the man lying in the gutter, he shook his head and said to himself with not a little disgust, Look at that, would you. Just look at that. The things people do to themselves. And because there were other men, black men, standing on the sidewalk staring at him, he pulled into the center lane and ran a yellow light at the next intersection.

Not long after, there also came that way a General Authority, traveling from the airport. He was a well-known official from a well-known family, and when he saw the man in the gutter, he too was troubled, though in a different sort of way, and asked, “Shouldn't we stop to help?” But the security man who was driving, and who was an experienced man who knew his business said, “That's not a good idea. This is a bad part of town. Anything could happen here, and besides, he's probably just sleeping it off. If you want to pick up this one, sir, what about the one on the next corner, and the next? You'd need a semi to pick up all of them.” So the General Authority sat quietly back while his driver moved into the center lane and got up speed to get him to conference on time, where he told the assembled brethren he'd been impressed by an experience he'd had that very evening to set aside his prepared text and speak instead about the importance of the Word of Wisdom in the last days.

At about this time, a certain aging hippie drove the very way the General Authority and the high priest had just come. He was a kind of middle-aged adolescent with a pony tail and an earring, who played lead guitar in a local rock 'n' roll band and drove a rusting VW van covered with bumper stickers promoting abortion rights, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and the making of love not war. And when he saw the man in the gutter, he put down his joint and stopped the van. And when he could not revive the unconscious victim, he dragged and lifted him inside the van and drove several miles to an emergency treatment center in the suburbs where the pretty girl behind the desk asked if he and the injured man were related. “No,” he said. And she frowned and asked what the patient's insurance carrier was. “Who knows?” he said. “I found him in the street. Maybe he doesn't have one.” To which she replied, while filing her fingernails, that in that case, unfortunately, they couldn't take him in, not without insurance. She was sorry, but it was policy, and there were no exceptions.

But the lead guitarist with the earring and pony tail lost his patience, and he yelled at the girl behind the desk, and at the physician on call, and at an administrator on the telephone until they became mute and embarrassed and agreed to do what they could if he would just quiet down and go away.

So he left, leaving his van in the parking lot and his wrist watch and van keys on the desk as a kind of unsolicited guarantee, and he promised to come back Sunday night right after his gig was finished and pay what he could of the charges. He took off down the street walking and whistling and smoking a cigarette and balancing his electric guitar on his shoulder like a ghetto blaster.

It was almost Sunday, and the Sunday School question which hovered in the air (and always has), though it's not often asked very well nor answered very carefully, is just this: who in that story was neighbor to the man who strayed into a bad part of Cleveland?

[The full essay (and the story in its unedited form) may be found here. Caveat lector: it may be a bit bitter for some of your tastes, though I found it interesting and periodically insightful nevertheless.]

Question: Why would this author (not to mention Jesus!) choose such a shocking character to be the wounded man's savior? What purpose could this have? [Also, let's remember that while the man in the story could only have been made more repugnant to LDS members had he been a registered Democrat, he still was not as shocking as a the Samaritan was to the original audience. The Samaritans had abandoned the covenant; they carried out apostate temple ceremonies on Mount Gerizim; they were both religious and political enemies; even during Christ's lifetime (ca. 6 - 9 AD), during the Passover itself they entered the Jerusalem temple and strewed its courtyards with the bones of the dead––the most terrible violation imaginable. However annoyed and angry we might be about unnamed demographics protesting outside LDS temples, we should reflect that they only use signs and shouts, and that they stand outside the fence. They have not forced entry, nor perpetrated gross desecration within the sacred precincts.]

6) Application
Ah, the hard part. This story constitutes a brilliant pincer attack on the comfortable, demanding a perfect balance (unattainable without grace). We are called to be Samaritans, little christs, for one another––to save both our own tribe and the stranger; also, we must be prepared to find Christ in “the other,” to have salvation reach out toward us from directions we do not expect, to see the Lord watching us even through the eyes of our enemy.

Question: How on earth do we do this? How can we meet this daunting call? [There are no silver bullets for this, only hard work; greater observance is required, we must strive (guided by the Comforter) to learn to look on the heart, to see what is needed; we need to show greater compassion and abundant charity. Taking a cue from "wine" and "oil," we have a particular responsibility to ensure that blessings and ordinances are made available.]

7) Conclusion
We have covered a lot of territory, and now return to our two guiding questions:

"What is this 'extraordinary' need for which the RS exists?"
And, "How do we find the face of Christ?"

We are led to the answers by another question: How did people know the resurrected Christ? What did he look like? Was he [cue Scottish accent] 7 feet tall, and apt to consume the English with lightning from his eyes? How did they know it was not Braveheart, but Jesus Christ?

In the New Testament, and (particularly) in the Book of Mormon account, we find that the disciples knew him when they touched his wounds.

So: The extraordinary need is simply our neighbor. It is every one of us. We are all fallen among thieves, all wounded. The scars are deep, and often unseen and unseeable. It’s mortality: nobody gets out alive! For some reason that I do not understand, there is violence and pain written deep in the fabric of our universe. Christ himself did not escape this brutality. Because of this, as Elder Holland has taught, SALVATION IS NOT CHEAP.

It comes only at the dearest price, and it answers our second question, because we only gain it when we find the face of the Lord.

We will see Christ as we serve like him. We see find him in the faces of those we serve, and those with whom we serve. And, one day, we will see him as he is... and on that day we will know that he knows us. We will know that he understands the terrible pain and the depth of our unseen wounds, because––in his hands, and in his side, and in his feet––he wears our scars for us. He wears them in token of promises he has kept, and promises he will yet keep.

Until that day then, let us watch the Relief Society. I hope that we will be observant, that we will strive to emulate, and that we will be grateful. Doing that, we cannot fail to remember the instruction the Prophet’s mother gave at one of their earliest meetings:

“We must cherish one another, watch over one another, [and] comfort one another ... that we may all sit down in heaven together" (Manual, p. 450).


I hope you find some of this at least interesting. If not, feel free to print it out and use it to start fires.

Note: I am (as usual) particularly indebted to Fr. Peter for sharing some of his insights (and the Ronald Knox quote) regarding the meaning of The Good Samaritan. He sent me that info way back in 2007, and I am pleased to be able to pass some of it along!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Inimitable Ineptitude
I know why the caged bird PR rep sings weeps

(UPDATED! See below.)

The Church has got a gift.


It's just uncanny.

How can they take any situation, consider all possible courses of action, and then––nine times out of ten––choose precisely the one that seems perfectly calculated to make the rest of the population hate and fear the Church? Now, to be fair, "the Church" is not a precise term. It rarely refers to "the Brethren" or "the Leadership"; it's not as though we can put all of this insanity on the shoulders of some individual or group of general authorities. However, the fact remains that a black eye for one is a black eye for all. Every member's action, fair or not, tends to reflect on all members.

Here's our newest example in a nutshell:

-Gay couple begins to stroll across Main Street Plaza.
-At one point during the crossing, one man kisses the other on the cheek.
-Church security tells the men to leave.
-Gay couple is offended and challenges that request.
-Church security handcuffs them both and calls police.
-Police charge men with trespassing, and then release them.

So, a kiss on the cheek leads to an arrest. This is problematic on a number of levels.

1. It was a kiss on the cheek, not public sodomy.
2. The men were crossing the plaza; had security done nothing, they would have finished crossing and left Church property.
3. The Church had guaranteed "public access" on the plaza, even though there is currently no public easement.
4. It was JUST A KISS ON THE CHEEK!!! (See 1.)

Church spokesperson, Kim Farah, commented with the following little gem: "Two individuals came on church property and were politely asked to stop engaging in inappropriate behavior––just as any other couple would have been." Having lived on a farm for some years, I know bull when I smell it, and Sister Farah is redolent. Either she is lying (that is, she knows that couples frequently kiss in the plaza––many in the context of wedding photos), or she is an idiot. Perhaps the reality is a mixture of the two.

Of course we must remember, the property is owned by the Church. They were acting within their legal rights. They are allowed to limit behavior on their own property. Aspects of the trespassing charge are unclear in this case; in Utah, trespassing is defined as "substantially interfering with the owner's use of the property," and I am not convinced that this situation qualifies. Perhaps time will offer legal clarification, but for the moment, let us assume that the Church was 100% within the law.

Being within the law, however, is not the only important consideration. Hypothetically assume, for a moment, that because of some strange confluence of circumstances, you can legally beat a nun to death with a tire iron. THAT STILL DOES NOT MAKE IT A GOOD IDEA!!! If the membership (and the employees) of the Church could but internalize this idea, I suspect the Church would have to spend less money paying to treat the ulcers of the PR firms in their employ.

For more information see here and here.


Just take a look at the reader comments on this Deseret News story. It's really amazing to see the unfounded vitriol and poor reading comprehension skills. It's true that the Salt Lake Tribune can often be a forum for anti-Mormon trolls, but––even at their worst!––they do not come close to the willful ignorance, bigotry, and general bastardry of Deseret News trolls. The irony inherent in their stunning blend of persecution complex and smug self-righteousness is comical in a "Please-God-give-me-cancer-now!" kind of way. I cannot possibly find words that would do justice to my reaction to all this; suffice it to say, I would rather have Ed Decker and the dessicated corpse of Gerald Tanner installed as the exclusive representatives of the Church. They would do less damage then even the most garden-variety example of DesNews troglodyte.

It's true, folks: we DO worship different Jesuses. Theirs must be a real jerk.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The more things change...

...the more they stay the same.

This is really fascinating stuff--particularly so, because in the 1930s there was a survey taken of the student bodies on theological issues. They repeated the survey in the late 1960s-70s. Interestingly, the later survey reflected a much more "fundamentalist" mindset in relation to LDS doctrine. (This might play into my theory that at the time of Joseph Smith the Church was incredibly radical, and we have just been getting more stodgy as the years roll on.)

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Here's a Whitsunday miscellany:

1) Insights from Pope Benedict XVI's homily:Jesus said in Luke 12, "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!" (From the RSV, because the KJV translates this poorly). Thus, Pentecost is an actualization of the mission of Christ. This gift of "fire" shows Christ as the true Prometheus—reversing the myth, because Jesus' fiery love can only be ours because he broke free from bondage! He gave a token of this "mighty wind" when he breathed on his apostles.

The scriptural account begins while the disciples are gathered together in an upper room (hearkening back to the Lord's supper). (A) They are probably frightened; all this is new and their responsibilities are daunting. (B) They are gathered together in unity, and, significantly, (C) Mary is in their midst. So now, in Acts, we witness the arrival of Love Himself. (A') This Love casts out all their fear and the Apostles begin their work with boldness, (B') their previous (spatial) unity is rewarded, and they remain in (spiritual) unity throughout their work, and (C') Mary's presence reminds us that the Annunciation to the Virgin was a kind of "little Pentecost": the fire of Love came to her from heaven, and she was moved to speak (with fearless faith!) the ecstatic, holy hymn, the Magnificat. So the birth of Christ comes again; this time, it is the nativity of His mystical body, the Church.

As mentioned, the two important images of Pentecost are "the tempest" (or wind), and "the fire." These images draw the mind to Sinai; this is dangerous stuff. Wind = breath = life: it is only the Spirit that can give life to the church. Fire = a powerful element, and (as in Prometheus) a godly gift: separated from God, it cannot be used safely. (The Prodigal can only fail when separated from his Father.)

The Wind (which bloweth where it listeth) drives us, and the Fire lights our way. In Pentecost the Church is renewed and moved.

2) Thoughts from Father Peter:In yesterday evening's Vigil of Pentecost, the first reading is the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). Babel prepares for the Acts reading of the Day Mass: the Spirit does not create unity by restoring pre-Babel uniformity. Rather, Pentecost’s Spirit creates unity-in-diversity: people of many languages hear the one message of God’s salvation in Christ, but each in his/her own tongue! Exodus (19:3–8a, 16–20b) foreshadows Acts’ wind and fire. Ezekiel (37:1–14) comforts those distressed by the gulf between the Spirit’s promise and the community’s reality. Joel (3:1–5) heralds an evangelization transforming the world, but beginning with a “remnant” of spent energies and failed visions.

Paul (Romans 8:22–27), echoing Ezekiel, reassures all who wrestle with the gap—in the Church and ourselves—between promise and fulfillment, the boundless potential envisioned by the prophets and Jesus and the disappointing reality of our communities and personal lives.

Traditionally the “Birthday of the Church,” Pentecost mirrors nature as the Church’s spring, refocusing our faith on birth, not death; on the womb (image of the baptismal font), not the tomb. In the Easter Vigil Gospel, a young man in white greeted the women at the tomb and commissioned them: “Go, tell” (Mark 16:6–7). Instead, they “fled, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). Today, “the last and greatest day of the feast” (John 7:37), Jesus reassures us: he will satisfy our thirst, lead us beyond fear, strengthen us to live our baptismal mission.

In this morning's Solemnity of Pentecost
, in Acts (2:1–11), the Spirit seems, at first, to reverse Babel’s confusion of tongues. But the Spirit’s unity is not uniformity, but unity-in-diversity. The gospel is one, but its manifestation diverse: “we hear them speaking in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11). Contrasting different/same (three times in three lines) and many/one (twice in two lines), Paul challenges the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:3b–7), and us, not merely to tolerate but to celebrate the Spirit’s manifold gifts in our unity of faith.

The Sequence, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, a gem of Catholic tradition, deserves to be heard in its original Gregorian beauty, the melody dubbed by medievals “the Golden Sequence,” in Latin or an English translation fitting that melody. Where the Spirit breathes, the arid, rigid and frigid are transformed, the sordid cleansed, the wayward restored.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.

Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.

Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes animae,
dulce refrigerium.

In labore requies,
in aestu temperies
in fletu solatium.

O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.

Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.

Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.

Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.

Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.

Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,

da perenne gaudium,
Amen, Alleluia.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.

Come, father of the poor,
come giver of gifts,
come, light of the heart.

Greatest comforter,
sweet guest of the soul,
sweet consolation.

In labor, rest,
in heat, temperance,
in tears, solace.

O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.

Without your divine will,
there is nothing in man,
nothing is harmless.

Wash that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,
warm that which is chilled,
make right that which is wrong.

Give to your faithful,
who rely on you,
the sevenfold gifts.

Give reward to virtue,
give salvation at our passing on,
give eternal joy.
Amen. Alleluia.

Today's Gospel (John 20:19–23) repeats the Gospel prescribed annually for the Second Sunday of Easter, thus “closing” Eastertime’s circle. Jesus breathes his recreating Spirit on the disciples, shows them his wounds, vulnera, from which derives vulnerability, true love’s most poignant quality, then sends them, and us, forth to love as he loved, to forgive, to reconcile. He adds, “whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (20:23). But, like the disciples, forgiven our own sins of denial, desertion, and cowardice, what sins would we dare not forgive?

3) A lovely meditation on fruits of the Spirit:
My Gifts, by Russell Arben Fox.

4) A timely criticism of a growing practice:
Assigning GC Talks to Sacrament Speakers, by Kevin Barney.

My comment on this awful stuff:
The “regurgi-talk” phenomenon is loathsome and abhorrent. It finds traction within the leadership style you see sometimes in the Church that tries to suggest that banal = virtuous. (As though the Lord desires suicidally boring Elder’s Quorum lessons, because it is His way of testing the faithful.) Give me interesting false doctrine any day; at least there would be something to discuss after church.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Three Thoughts: Familial Blessings of the Temple

The following are some thoughts I scribbled down after my mother asked me, in preparation for her talk, how I felt my family had been blessed by the temple.

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

1) Anciently, and even in the earlier part of this dispensation, temples were oriented spatially along the cardinal directions. (For instance, the first cornerstone laid was often at the South East corner, because this was the point of greatest light.) We can learn from archaeology that many early temples in pagan systems were actually elaborate heavenly observatories, oriented according the movements of the sun and the stars. In short, temples were a point where it was possible to get one's bearings within the universe to a high degree of precision. They represented a point of sacred space in which all of space could be brought into order.

The same is true for us today. The temple is the only place I know of where what is inside is larger than everything outside. It is a microcosm of the universe and of the plan of salvation which shows us where we truly are, and where we need to go. By entering the temple, we step –– in a way –– out of space and time. As we keep our covenants when we leave the temple, we carry with us both physical and mental reminders. These, if we are valiant, can make all space and time sacred for us.

2) In the temple, we are given a foretaste of things to come. Just as the emblems of the sacrament are in some ways a promise and a preparation for partaking of the fruit of the tree of life, the temple can offer hope in the future blessings the Lord has for us. At the same time, we begin to feel within holy walls a bittersweet kind of homesickness. Passing into the Celestial Room, amid all the beauty, the sweet peace of the Spirit, and the loving faces of family members, we must recognize that our Father is not present in His fullness. We yearn more deeply for our real Home, and we seek more truly for those we love to come with us. Just as the temple can show us the arrangement and order of the universe, this ache and longing we feel can draw us to True North.

3) The Atonement of Jesus Christ is available for us within the House of the Lord. There, the wells of living water are deep. We are taught, as Paul instructs us in Hebrews, that He opened a way for us through His rent flesh (Hebrews 10:20). Thus, we may only approach the Father through Christ and His sacrifice. Sacred vestments, the veil, even the sealing power exercised at holy altars –– these are all facets of the Atonement we seek to make us whole.

We often underestimate the true scope of Christ's healing power, and what He intends for us. In the Temple, we may have clearer glimpses of what this all means. Too sacred to speak of in anything but generalities, we may say that the ultimate expression of the Atonement possible in mortality is had only within those dedicated precincts. As the prodigal could only know how well he was loved by returning home –– embraced, blessed, and clothed by his father in an act of immeasurable mercy –– so we can only know our Father truly as we come running to Him on the road Home: that road always passes through the temple, where we will feel His arms about us, we will be nourished by the Lamb slain for our sake, and we will hear Him whisper of a love stretched "wide as eternity" (Moses 7:41).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An American Classic, Revisited

The other day, I again read William Carlos Williams' famous poem, The Red Wheelbarrow. It is an interesting piece of work:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

However, upon reading it, I found that it was not strictly true. Thus, I have decided to edit it as follows. I hope you will find my new, critical edition helpful.

[not] so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

[apart from
hauling poo].

In all seriousness, I do quite like this poem, but I think that some of the interpretations of it ("whoa, that's heavy, dude") dig way too deep.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I Vote for Marlin K! (UPDATE!)

UPDATE: As Loyd reminded me, gently, in the comments below, the quote in this post was filched unashamedly from his excellent and insightful blog, Project Mayhem. Check it out. (Family, he is somewhat left-leaning, but check it out anyway! It'll be good for you.)

Here's an interesting quote I read on a blog post about Big Love (the quote is only tangentially related to the main post):

A few months ago I asked Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen about the lack of historical accuracy in Church productions and manuals. He replied that in the last couple decades there has been virtually no communication between the Church’s curriculum and film departments with the historical department, and that rather than going to historians they have rather depended on historical myths that the culture of the Church has developed over the years.

As an example, he pointed out that the makers of the new Joseph Smith movie did not communicate with the Church History department until nearly all of the filming had been completed. When they saw a rough cut of the film, it was “full of bad history.” He said that, unfortunately at that point, too much money had been spent and that significant changes could not be made to the film.

One of his primary goals as the new Church Historian is to develop a level of communication between the curriculum, media, and PR departments with the history department to try to get so many of our historical myths corrected.

Quick, someone make this man an apostle! Please, oh please, won't someone shake up the correlation department––I will pray a novena to St Cleon of Skousen if necessary! Seriously, how could you not want this man making policy?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Variation and Evolution in Latter-day Family Doctrine

Here is a paper I have just written for my School of Family Life Class. What a pain, but it was fun doing the research.

The LDS document, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, states that “the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother...” However, it would be incorrect to conclude that this doctrine’s [1] eternal nature means that it cannot accommodate variation. The history of the Church demonstrates that the Mormon doctrine of family has undergone an evolution impressive in its breadth. The idea of family, both in doctrine and praxis, has been applied in such varied forms that outliers at either end of the spectrum are scarcely reconcilable as belonging to the same religion.

The Family as Central to Mormonism

As a Utah sociologist commented over half a century ago, “Society in both the Book of Mormon and Old Testament is conceived as an extended kinship group. All members thought of themselves as descended from a common ancestor.” [2] This view has deep resonance within the belief and practice of Latter-day Saints. From focus on genealogy and temple sealings to the commandment to hold Family Home Evenings, LDS members are steeped in a culture of family.

It is no surprise, then, that the ward is considered an extended family unit; the Bishop is often referred to as the “Father of the ward.” So too, the priesthood is thought of as inherently “Patriarchal,” and in rituals that offer Mormons a lens through which to view the world and all of life, they are powerfully reminded of the charge given to Adam and Eve to “multiply and replenish the earth.” However, the family, as currently understood, was not the initial model adopted by Latter-day Saints in the turbulent beginnings of the Nineteenth Century.

An Early Focus

The world in which the Church was restored was an unsettled one. The industrial revolution was beginning to force drastic change in society. Commenting on the predicament of the early Saints, sociologist O. Kendall White states:

The instability in their personal, family, and social lives was reflected in their fear that changes in the agrarian extended family portended extensive social disintegration. [They] failed to recognize the rise of the nuclear family as a form of kinship more compatible with [...] market forces, separation of work from the household, and the necessity of geographic mobility. [3]

Indeed, contrary to modern LDS family custom, the nascent Mormon ideology allowed the early Saints to resist the “trend toward the nuclear family,” presented as the model for Saints today.

The early Saints instead participated in a working theology that attempted to bring about the city of God, or Zion––a society that bridged the gaps between any individual families, and, more radically, between the living and the dead. In a sometimes violently changing world, nothing gave them “more [permanence] than the family.” [4]


It is during the Church’s Ohio period that one can observe the first major departure from the familial/marital norms of the day. It is likely that Joseph Smith’s first polygamist relationship took place sometime between 1831 and 1835, when he became involved with a young woman called Fanny Alger. (She would have been between 14 and 19 in this period.) It is difficult to ascertain the facts precisely, due to “conflicting accounts.” [5]

Todd Compton suggests that Joseph began to practice polygamy (in this case, with Fanny) about 1833, ten years before the revelation on polygamy was written and promulgated. Their relationship was short-lived; in 1836 Alger left for Indiana, where she remarried and bore her new husband nine children. [6]

Evidently, this relationship was shocking to contemporary sensibilities. Oliver Cowdery referred to it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” It was for this comment and others on the subject that he was excommunicated. Joseph Smith was very careful before the excommunication proceedings that Cowdery should clarify that Joseph had never “termed the Alger affair adulterous,” though he did not deny that he had a relationship with the girl. [7]

In the mid-1870’s, Martin Harris gave an interview, during the course of which he said that he,

[...] supposing that Joe was innocent [of the rumors about the Alger relationship], told him to take no notice of the girl, that she was full of the devil [...] but Joe Smith acknowledged that there was more truth than poetry in what the girl said. Harris then said he would have nothing to do in the matter, Smith could get out of the trouble the best way he knew how. [8]

Harris went on to explain that he believed that “God had rejected” the church, though he did feel “Mormonism was the pure gospel of Christ when it was first revealed.” The extent to which he thought the Alger affair entered into God’s rejection of the Saints remains unclear.

It seems unlikely that the truth of Joseph’s relationship with Alger was widely known within the body of the Saints, though they were doubtless aware of rumors (which concerned not only the Prophet, but the entire community). Perhaps in an attempt to quell such gossip, the body of the church canonized a “Chapter of Rules for Marriage Among the Saints”:

Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.

This section was appended to the end of the Doctrine and Covenants, though it is no longer found in the standard works, having become “obsolete” when the Church, in 1852, declared that it “had been practicing plural marriage [officially] for nearly a decade.” [9]

In any case, this relationship, sensational though it may seem to the modern reader, presaged more transgressions of Victorian social mores, as the Saints continued to build a culture steeped in their unique view of the scriptures.


Polygamy continued during the years the Saints spent in Nauvoo. In a period of two and a half years, “Joseph married about thirty additional women, ten [10] of them already married to other men[!]” [11] (There are eight further wives who are disputed, and only one of these was unquestionably married to another man at the time.) What can explain or justify this strange, and––to the the 21st Century mind––highly objectionable practice of polyandry? [12] Several arguments have been posited:

Some have suggested that the current husbands were either non-Mormon or had apostatized. Historical evidence, however, shows that only three husbands were not Latter-day saints, and only one was a disaffected Mormon. “All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives.” Others have opined that these ten (or eleven) women were in unhappy marriages. Actually, most of these women “stayed with their ‘first husbands’ until death.” Still others have theorized that these were marriages-in-name-only, never consummated. [13] Sylvia Sessions Lyon, however, one of the polyandrous wives, claimed that Joseph was the father of her child, Josephine Lyon Fisher. There is, of course, clear evidence that Joseph’s relationships with his other wives were in fact sexual. Further, a non-sexual marriage flies in the face of the rationale of polygamy, as will be explained. [14]

It was during this Nauvoo period that “the focus of Mormon [...] discourse shifted from the concept of salvation to that of exaltation. [...] including the imperative to achieve godhood.” [15] This notion is key to understanding these mysterious marriage arrangements. Joseph’s revelations tied the concept of godhood to progeny. If a person does not abide God’s “law, [...] they cannot be enlarged [that is, bear children in the eternities], but remain separately and singly, without exaltation [...] to all eternity.” Contrarily, those who are sealed and so marry by God’s “law” and are “sealed [...] by the Holy Spirit of promise,” will become gods, and will receive “exaltation and glory in all things [...] and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” [16]

Even more significantly, Joseph promised to those already-married women that agreeing to marry the Prophet would “ensure [their] eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household. & all your kindred.” To the fathers of these women he promised that the union would “be crowned upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house both old and young.” [17]

This, more than any other consideration, is the material point. Joseph thought of himself and his calling in terms of kingship. In 1844, in a meeting of the Council of Fifty, Joseph was declared “King and Ruler over Israel,” and, indeed, over the whole earth. Ultimately, then, the Prophet’s marriages were dynastic in nature; he was creating a monarchical kinship structure. “Joseph’s kingdom grew with the size of his family, and those bonded to that family would be exalted with him,” including, ostensibly, his wives’ first husbands. [18]

Realizing this may begin to explain why, often, the first husbands of such a match approved. That is not to say that these marriages were without struggle. Emma Hale Smith, understandably, had a difficult time accepting plural marriage. Likely, she was able to cope by telling herself, and others, that her husband’s “plural wives were ‘celestial’ only, that he had no earthly marital relations with them.” [19] When faced with evidence to the contrary, she reacted. In an oral tradition of the Snow family, LeRoi C. Snow recounts:

...the Prophet and Emma [came] out of a room upstairs and [walked] together toward the stairway [...] Almost at the same time, [...] Eliza R. Snow [who was pregnant] came out and walked toward the [...] stairway. Joseph [...] kissed Emma goodbye, and [then] walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came down the stairs [...] [A]s he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and [...] Eliza came tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. [...] “Her hip was injured and [...] she always favored that leg,” said Charles C. Rich. “She lost the unborn babe.” [20]

Further Developments

After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Church, under the direction of Brigham Young, continued to pursue a course regarding marriage and family that was deeply at odds with the prevailing culture. “For example, after Joseph Smith’s death, some women, who were originally sealed to him, married Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball for time. [...] [T]heir offspring [would] belong to Smith in the hereafter. Thus, Young and Kimball would contribute to Smith’s eternal progression.” [21]

It was also apparent that President Young would safeguard Brother Joseph’s familial interests in other ways. Joseph had married a woman named Zina Huntington, who, a few months earlier, had been wed to Henry Jacobs, a faithful member of the Church serving in the office of Seventy. Zina had continued to live with Jacobs, and would do so throughout the Prophet’s life. She would eventually bear Jacobs two sons. After Joseph’s death, however, she was approached by Brigham Young who told her that “‘if she would marry him she would be in a higher glory.’ [...] Zina was already sealed to Joseph Smith, so it is not clear how being sealed to Brigham for time would improve her chances for eternal salvation.” Nevertheless, she married Young for time in September 1844. As had been the practice with all of Joseph’s polyandrous wives, she continued cohabiting with her first husband, Henry, who had stood as a witness to both of Zina’s other sealings. [22]

They traveled west with the Saints, living together as husband and wife, but when the company reached Mt. Pisgah in Iowa, Brigham Young

“announced that ‘it was time for men who were walking in other men’s shoes to step out of them. Brother Jacobs, the woman you claim for a wife does not belong to you. She is the spiritual wife of Brother Joseph, sealed up to him. I am his proxy, and she, in this behalf, with her children, are my property. You can go where you please, and get another, but be sure to get one of your own kindred spirit.’” [23]

This announcement surely devastated Henry, who was then called by President Young on a mission to England, where he served faithfully. He later settled in California, where he wrote to Zina, now living as a plural wife of Brigham Young, “O how happy I should be if I only could see you and the little children, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. [...] I am unhappy, [...] there is no peace for poor me. [...] O Zina, can I ever, will I ever get you again[?]”

In a Valentine (undated) he added later:

Zina my mind never will change from Worlds without Ends, no never, the same affection is there and never can be moved[.] I do not murmur nor complain of the handlings of God no verily, no but I feel alone and no one to speak to, to call my own. I feel like a lamb without a mother [...] May the Lord our Father bless Brother Brigham and all purtains unto him forever. Tell him for me I have no feelings against him nor never had [...]

Though Henry and Zina’s story was unusual in detail, even for the time and culture within the Church, they demonstrate––painfully––the level of sacrifice and dedication required for membership in this new kingdom and culture.

The practice of polygamy was defended by various arguments on the part of Brigham Young and his fellows. One of the champions of plural marriage, George Q. Cannon, belittled the practice of monogamy saying,

[...] I wonder how man, standing up in the face of heaven, dare look at woman and talk about being her protector. Read the history of the sex and of the frightful evils which have been brought upon our sisters [...] If it were to be told to another people differently situated to us, with different traditions to us, they could not believe that intelligent man would entertain for one moment, or that women themselves, in view of what their sex has suffered, would cherish and cling to the wretched traditions [that is, monogamy] that have prevailed in Christendom [...] [24]

This rhetoric is a far cry from more current teachings about marriage, but it was not unusual for its time. In fact, a resolution approved by an assembly of Mormon women declared that polygamy was, “the only reliable safeguard of female virtue and innocence [...]” [25]

It is also interesting to note Brigham Young’s encouragement of women to pursue employment outside the home. This is another indication that the industrial-era concept of the nuclear family had not yet been assimilated by the Church. He taught that:

We have women here who [...] would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; [...] We believe that women [...] should stand behind the counter, study law or physics, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house [...] [26]

The Law of Adoption

One of the fascinating outgrowths of Joseph Smith’s promises regarding polyandry, was a practice that came to be known as The Law of Adoption. In Joseph’s day, the marriage of a daughter or a sister to the Prophet could guarantee one’s own salvation; it was helpful in the final reckoning to be well connected. Similarly, early Saints felt that it would be beneficial to be related to other notable priesthood leaders. As the solemnization of polyandrous marriages began to wane, this was accomplished by the practice of

adopting individuals into one’s spiritual family. Although not a literal process by which fatherless children were taken into other families, in a symbolic and religious sense that is exactly what happened. In order to complete the chain of family connections back to God the Father, grown men were spiritually adopted in a special ordinance to prominent church leaders. If the adopted man was a head of a family of wife and children, the entire family was considered linked to the earthly-spiritual father, usually an apostle [...] [A]dopted sons and families considered themselves under the dominion and protection of their surrogate father [...] often [assuming] the surname of their new father as their own, even though they themselves were grown men with children. [27]

This practice was ended by President Wilford Woodruff in April 1894. When he encouraged the Church members to begin researching their genealogy and doing temple ordinances for the ancestors in their family line. This preserved the practice of sealing, but did so within a new context, reaching across the boundary of death. [28] Here we see another shift in the Mormon understanding of family––this time, moving nearer to embracing the concept of the nuclear family. Being sealed to prominent members of the Church took a back seat to being sealed to one’s own biological ancestors. This practice reemphasizes the idea that the Saints cannot “without [their] dead[,] be made perfect.” [29] Thus salvation for Mormons is tied to relatives who may not have even been members of the Church during their lives.

The Manifesto and Aftermath

In 1890 Wilford Woodruff promulgated a document now known as The First Manifesto. This “signaled the official end of polygamy” within the Church. [30] It was a difficult issue for the Saints to face. On the one hand, “the principle” had been taught as absolutely necessary to exaltation; [31] on the other, now the major barrier preventing Utah’s gaining statehood had been hurdled. What were the members currently practicing plural marriage to do? Abraham H. Cannon recorded in his journal that President Woodruff “expected polygamists to continue to support their wives [...] this support included cohabitation.” [32]

In 1891, President Woodruff stated publicly that “the Manifesto was intended to apply to the Church [...] everywhere in every nation and country,” and that the Church was “giving no liberty to enter into polygamous relations anywhere.” Cannon noted in his journal that Wilford Woodruff had explained his statement, saying that “he was placed in a position on the witness stand [and] could not answer other than he did.” [33]

Though ended officially, the Church solemnized some few polygamous marriages for several years. This began when George Q. Cannon suggested to President Woodruff that such marriages might be performed in Mexico and Canada (ostensibly because they were legal in those countries, though, in fact, this was not the case). Joseph F. Smith later reported to Reed Smooth that the President agreed, “letting Cannon direct the new polygamy so that he [Woodruff] would not participate directly as Church President.” In 1897, the last of Woodruff’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in these quietly authorized marriages, perhaps because Utah’s new statehood would minimize “federal interference.” [34]

During Presidency of Lorenzo Snow, there was a general reaffirmation of the Manifesto. As a result, new polygamous marriages nearly ceased. However, during the tenure of Joseph F. Smith, the practice experienced a resurgence, with his approval. Admittedly, the President had to walk a fine line. In 1904, during the Smoot hearings, he said that from the time the manifesto was introduced “there never [had] been, to [his] knowledge, a plural marriage performed with the understanding [...] or permission of the presiding authorities of the church [...]” However, in 1911, in a telegram to the then-Senator Smoot he wrote: “If the president inquires about the new polygamy tell him the truth [...] the men occupying presiding positions who became polygamists [in Mexico and Canada] since the manifesto did it in good faith.” [35]

This change in the Church’s official attitude signaled another decisive shift in the direction of the nuclear family. (Though it is appropriate that plural marriage, a practice begun in secrecy, should end that way.) By the end of Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, polygamous marriages had ceased being solemnized with the sanction of the Church, and Mormonism was moving in a direction that would win it widespread approbation.

The Modern Era and Beyond

As the Church continued to move into the 20th Century, public opinion began to look brighter. Jan Shipps has written that a new “positive trend in the Mormon image” began in the 1930’s and eventually began to replace the backward, negative impression that had characterized most “gentile” press until that point. The “scattering of the gathering” also helped non-members to see that Latter-day Saints were not a threatening element to society, as Mormons moved away from Utah and rubbed shoulders with their non-Mormon neighbors. [36]

This tendency also likely had an effect on the culture of the Church. Now, as the Saints dispersed, stakes gave way to districts, and wards to branches. The number of fellow religionists an LDS person could call on shrunk. As a result, Mormons had to rely on the structure of the immediate family to a greater degree.

By the 50’s, the Saints were seen as “neat, modest, virtuous” and, above all, “family-loving.” Part of this positive image was likely aided by the contrast between Mormons and the burgeoning hippie culture. [37]

So modern Mormonism’s family doctrine had undergone a further shift. Where the Saints were once mistrustful of the government, they became its model citizens––reflections of exactly the family model that their culture and doctrine had initially resisted. New understandings had to be reached––storing the old wine in new bottles––but in the process preserving all that could be saved. Family was still central, but perhaps at the cost of some sense of community. Polygamy was still doctrinal, but for most Latter-day Saints, plural spouses are only for the life to come. 19th Century rhetoric about God and His “wives” gave way to other, now more familiar words: “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.”

It is impossible to know what permutations the Church, and the Church’s notion of family may take in the future. Again, the Saints find themselves in a position increasingly opposed to modern sentiment. We are preserving a model that today’s culture finds outmoded and backward. In any case, whatever accommodations we make for the future, we can be sure that family will remain central, no matter how we reinvent it.


[1] It is notoriously difficult to pin down exactly what is meant in LDS discourse by the word “doctrine,” to say nothing of deciding what “the doctrines” of the Church actually are. For the purposes of this paper, “doctrine” is considered any teaching that, coming from a sufficiently high authority, carried enough force to be brought into practice by the Saints. Thus, “doctrine” will be seen to change throughout the history of the Church.

[2] From Herbert Ray Larsen, “Familism in Mormon Social Structure,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1954, 156. Quoted in Quinn, 163.

[3] White, 290, emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 290-93.

[5] Bushman, 323.

[6] Bushman, 326-27. Also see Compton, 4-5.

[7] Ibid., 324.

[8] Martin Harris Interview with Anthony Metcalf, circa 1873-74, Vogel, 348.

[9] Van Wagoner, 69-70.

[10] By Compton's count, eleven of the wives were already married. See Compton, 15.

[11] Bushman, 437, emphasis added. Indeed, as Compton explains, chronologically, of the "first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous." In this period, "polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly" p. 15.

[12] This is not precisely “polyandry” as the sociologists would define it. However, the term has been used frequently in the literature on the Nauvoo period, so it will suffice for the purposes of this paper.

[13] Bushman, 439.

[14] Compton, 12-16.

[15] Ibid., 4-9. White, 292.

[16] Doctrine and Covenants 132:17, 19.

[17] Quoted in Bushman, 439.

[18] Ibid., 439, 523.

[19] Compton, 12.

[20] Newell and Avery, 135.

[21] White, 295.

[22] Compton, 20, 80-84, “There were no divorces as a result of [Joseph’s] polyandrous marriages.”

[23] Van Wagoner, 79.

[24] Journal of Discourses, Vol. 20, 198-199.

[25] Quoted in White, 298.

[26] Ibid., 299.

[27] Quinn, 174.

[28] White, 301.

[29] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15.

[30] Cannon, 28.

[31] “‘What will become of those individuals who have this law taught unto them in plainness, if they reject it?’ asked Orson Pratt at the official announcement of plural marriage as a doctrine and practice of the LDS church in 1852 [...] ‘I will tell you: they will be damned, saith the Lord God Almighty’ [...]” See Quinn, 181.

[32] Cannon, 28.

[33] Ibid., 28.

[34] Ibid., 28.

[35] Ibid., 28-31.

[36] Shipps, 58.

[37] Ibid., 59.


Works Cited

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Knopf: New York, NY 2005.

Cannon, Kenneth L., II. “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy 1890 - 1906.” Sunstone. January-March, 1983.

Compton, Todd. In Sacred Lonliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997.

Newell, Linda King, and Valleen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.
University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL, 1994

Quinn, D. Michael. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997.

Shipps, Jan. “Surveying the Mormon Image Since 1960.” Sunstone. April, 2001.

Van Wagoner, Richard S. “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Fall, 1985.

Vogel, Dan. Early Mormon Documents: Vol. 2. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1999.

White, O. Kendall. “Ideology of the Family in Nineteenth Century Mormonism.” Sociological Spectrum. June, 1986.