Priestcrafts

February 7, 2004 | 13 comments
By

The Book of Mormon uses the term “priestcrafts” as follows: “priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.” (2 Nephi 26:29) Last weekend, I visited the “local” LDS bookstore (located about two hours away, near the Chicago temple) and discovered a new book about Jesus, written by a man I had met several years ago while practicing law. Although we met only briefly, my impression of this man was very favorable, and I am pretty certain that he could teach me a thing or two about Jesus. Nevertheless, whenever I visit an LDS bookstore, the verse quoted above about priestcrafts pops into my head. Mormons tend to associate that idea with televangelists, but I wonder …

1. Do authors of religious books “preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world”? Hmm. On the one hand, I suspect that most of these authors feel that they are pointing the way to Jesus, rather than setting themselves up for a light. On the other hand, successful authors become celebrities within the Church, regardless of their initial motives. This first part of the priestcraft “test” seems less about motives than about the fact of placing oneself in a position of authority.

2. Are they acting to “get gain and praise of the world” or are they “seeking the welfare of Zion”? These parts of the priestcraft “test” are about motives, and it is probably impossible for us to judge in the individual case. One test might be whether the author uses a pen name and donates all of the royalties to charity (I heard that LeGrand Richards did the latter with A Marvelous Work and a Wonder). Most LDS authors would fail if that were the standard, but that may be too strict. What about those authors who “get gain and praise of the world” and “[seek] the welfare of Zion”? Hmm, again. Pretty strict standards, no?

[P.S. Some of these ideas stem from a conversation that I had a long time ago with an LDS lawyer in Delaware. He is the reason I think about priestcrafts whenever I visit Deseret Book, but I have never been quite convinced that I was observing priestcrafts in action.]

Tags: ,

13 Responses to Priestcrafts

  1. Kaimi on February 7, 2004 at 11:44 am

    Gordon,

    This is certainly an interesting topic to bring up an an onymous Mormon group blog that get ~300 visitors a day. Sometimes I wonder what my own motives are in posting . . .

  2. Adam Greenwood on February 7, 2004 at 11:56 am

    Kaimi,
    Does this mean that your promises of large financial rewards were spurious?

  3. Gordon Smith on February 7, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Kaimi, This is one reason it took me a week to post this entry. So, why do we post here? As Adam’s quips implies, we don’t do this for the money. For the “praise of the world”? I suppose that is possible, but I find myself spending most of my post-writing time striving to avoid embarrassment, rather than seeking praise. I like posting on this blog because it gives me a chance to try out ideas that mostly go unexpressed in Gospel Doctrine or Priesthood. Even when they are expressed, those settings do not provide an opportunity for real exchange. When you think about it, this is an amazing cooperative enterprise. The people who post and comment here are working together to sort out issues that matter to the way we live our lives, that affect the decisions that we make. In short, and hopefully without being overly dramatic, participating in this blog has changed my life for the better in lots of little ways. So I keep coming back.

  4. Julie in Austin on February 8, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    I have been thinking about this topic a lot recently, because I just published a book about the Gospels (written for an LDS audience). I like to laugh it off by thinking that women can’t do priestcrafts any more than they can priesthood, but I know that that isn’t true. I think of this in the context of knowing whether my book is a success: does it depend on how many copies I sell? How much time should I spend ‘marketing’ my book? When I am asked to do a local in-Church training on the topic of my book and the person making the assignment suggests that I mention my book, should I? (I didn’t, after much thought.) But it is already getting bizarre: people in my ward find out months after the fact that I have written a book and seem a little surprised that they didn’t hear about it until now.

    I know that I didn’t write the book ‘for praise;’ I wrote it because researching it was the most fun that I have had in years. But I am not going to pretend that I’m not thrilled when someone tells me how much they are enjoying my book.

    As far as setting myself up as an authority, I know I avoided that one because of the format of the book (it poses questions instead of providing answers), but I wonder how much it is fair to blame authors for the misuse of their books; I think that the larger problem belongs to Church members who read ‘Deseret’ but think ‘nihil obstat.’

  5. Dave on February 8, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    Mormons were not alone in their denunciation of priestcraft. As I’ve read the tale, the political revolution that severed ties with England was also a religious revolution that severed ties with the established Anglican church and its ministry. Newly liberated American churches of all stripes were inclined to repudiate those trained in the ministry (“priestcrafts,” associated with trained Anglican ministers) in favor of homespun American ministers, insisting that the scriptures were self-interpreting and that no specialized training was required to fully understand them.

    Early Mormonism, according to this argument, reflected the attitudes of early America. I recall as a student at BYU thinking Hugh Nibley was kind of brash suggesting a knowledge of ancient languages was necessary to really understand the scriptures. That perspective makes more sense to me now.

  6. Gordon Smith on February 8, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    Julie, You might as well pitch the book here. What is the title? Can you link to an order page?

  7. Julie in Austin on February 8, 2004 at 8:44 pm

    Gordon,

    I can’t do that without choking on the irony of this thread. But I will tell you that my bio on the CES webpage (Austin Institute) will get you the title, and all of the major online bookstores and FAIR have it.

  8. Julie in Austin on February 8, 2004 at 8:44 pm

    Gordon,

    I can’t do that without choking on the irony of this thread. But I will tell you that my bio on the CES webpage (Austin Institute) will get you the title, and all of the major online bookstores and FAIR have it.

  9. Gordon Smith on February 8, 2004 at 9:20 pm

    OK, Julie. You passed the test. ;-)

    As I said in the original post, I have never been convinced that writing a book about religion qualifies as “priestcraft.” Congrats on the book.

  10. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 3:25 am

    Gordon: Very thoughtful post. I have a ‘product’/work on the Book of Mormon (I’ll say no more…no tests please ;). Initially, I wanted the Church to take the rights, or…to put it on the net for people to use for free. However, I was convinced by a partner that I took on that the free market would be a better distribution agent; i.e. I wanted the idea I had to get wide dispersal…cuz I thought it a good idea; not cuz I wanted fame (although I can’t say I would have minded… :).

    I recently noted a family that developed a mormon board game that donates all profits to the Church.

    In contrast, while I often enjoy meridian magazine…I have an intense dislike of how they do what they do…i.e. having people like Julie write articles on subjects that they are currently/were recently published on. I don’t doubt the Proctor’s sincerity and effort to build Zion…but it doesn’t pass my priestcraft smell test.

  11. Melissa on February 9, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Lyle,

    I don’t entirely disagree with your assessment of Meridian Magazine as you know.

    However, I might complicate the matter somewhat. Meridian is a free magazine–no subscription is required. All of the writers write for free. For the first two years the editors of Meridian made little money from their full-time work on the magazine–going into debt for the project, and eventually selling their home. This is hardly a “for profit” endeavor for them. I might also add that the “brethren” don’t see Meridian Magazine as priestcraft. Last month the First Presidency invited the editors to Ghana to cover the opening of the Ghana Temple and even covered some of their travel expenses.

    Having said that, I think the larger question is an important one. If we devote large portions of our time to Kingdom-building activities should we be paid? What if our KB activities are so extensive that we can’t hold another job? If someone feels “called” to do a certain work how much should she be willing to sacrifice to accomplish this work? What if the sacrifice extends beyond oneself? Should one expect one’s family to sacrifice too? How far should that sacrifice extend? Down to the poverty level? In some ways this seems contrary to church counsel. That being the case, some might even say that God wouldn’t “call” someone to do that kind of work. I would disagree with such a response. I think God asks us to be willing to sacrifice everything. If those with whom we live in covenant are willing to make those sacrifices with us (i.e. our family) then I think that someone can and should respond to such “calls.” Decisions of this order are difficult to judge from the outside.

    For the record—I think that very few people in the church write books/create music/give lectures/paint pictures on gospel-related topics with the primary purpose of making money. Unless you are Michael McClean or Greg Olsen the LDS market is so small that I would wager (and I have some reason to believe this) that one could make more money doing almost any other thing.

    The issue is, however, admittedly complex and should give all of us pause.

  12. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 1:09 pm

    Melissa/All:

    PAUSE GIVEN
    by: ‘w’ lyle stamps

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Stamps retracts hasty and reckless priestcraft comment

    Actually, I don’t know…although perhaps I was reckless in not knowing…as I have a sinking feeling that I do now.

    For the record, I admire the editors of Meridian Magazine greatly…and county myself among some of the first individuals who knew of the site and spoke praisingly of it to friends and family in hopes of bringing in more traffic. That admiration is only increased by knowing about the personal sacrifices involved.

    I simply question, perhaps with too much judgment implied, why I read articles that are so inspiring and well written…that have helped me live a more Christian life as a Saint; only to feel somehow let down when I read the author’s bio and see they are selling a book on the subject and feeling like I just ‘read’ a commercial.

    I admit that perhaps my own hypocracy caused me to jump the gun…as I am forming a 501(c)(3) to be used as a central social-zion venture capital fund to help Saints that are seeking to build Zion. Maybe I should just donate my excess to the Church directly and encourage others to do likewise? Am I usurping the rightful role of the humanitarian and PEF? Or perhaps, it is personal sadness that my own work languishes in relative obscurity, when I felt so inspired to sink a year of my life into a Book of Mormon project, only to have the gatekeeper(s) [i.e. All “Mormon” imprints, etc.] of the “Mormon Marketplace” decide that while it was a great idea, and one that would help children stay awake during family scripture study, provide great road show materials, improve personal scripture study, etc…it WOULDN’T be profitable. As Nate has pointed out, DB at least won’t publish if they can’t make money…and perhaps as Melissa pointed out, this is because the “MM” is so small that there are negative costs, as measured in dollars, to printing “Mormon” works.

    Regardless, I am glad that I sunk several thousands of dollars into what I felt was inspired. I am glad that others do likewise. I will now shut up until I’m successful in this field, or have the opportunity to do so, or to make these admittedly complex issues. Pause…

    ———————————
    p.s.
    Note to T&S Editors [Adam? Nate? Kristine oh author of this thread?…if there is anyway y’all can retract/edit my statement in the previous thread…[and I know that some of you do this yourselves for your own threads], please do so. I wouldn’t want to besmirch the reputation of the editors of Meridian Magazine. In the future, I will refrain from specific examples and only use hypotheticals. [maybe there is something to the socratic method afterall]

    p.s. I hate extra buttons on a mouse that do thinks that ‘go back’ and ‘go forward’ a page…and that end up erasing posts mid-write. ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Restoring Lost Comments on November 25, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    [Restoring Comments Inadvertently Lost in the WP transfer] :

    For the record I post here out of a desire for fame, power, and money.
    For more on this see
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000140.html
    Comment by: Nate Oman at February 9, 2004 01:48 PM

    *****

    I think the basic idea is that the people in question are false priests. i.e. they feign being a priest to earn a lot of money. The best examples are various televangelists who perhaps aren’t really believing Christians. i.e. it is a con. There were even more examples in the medieval era when the Catholic faith was the way to power in western Europe. Many went into it for power with no particular concern about religion. (Not all, by any means)
    The same sort of thing went on quite regularly in the ancient world as well. The most obvious example is the famous “test” of Elijah and the altar.
    Comment by: clark goble at February 9, 2004 02:10 PM

    *****

    It seems to me that if you are worried about the problem and you aren’t deceiving yourself (big if, I know), then you probably aren’t guilty of priestcraft. But it is a difficult thing to avoid. Money is very nice to have, and most of us like people’s praise if we can get it. Like power, they are extremely seductive.
    Comment by: Jim F. at February 9, 2004 09:41 PM

    *****

    I recall Pres. Hinckley’s statement in one of his press interviews several years ago:
    Adulation is poison.
    When he said it, it sounded like the voice of experience.
    Comment by: greenfrog at February 9, 2004 11:52 PM