The Spirit of Elijah and the Victorian Family

August 30, 2004 | 34 comments

Priesthood and Relief Society met together yesterday for a fairly exciting family history discussion/call to arms/how-to. We quoted Malachi, of course: Elijah the prophet . . . shall turn the heart of fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers . . . .
We affirmed that this means more than templework. We agreed that temple work is key but that the spirit of Elijah includes learning to love ancestors by learning about their lives. Someone mentioned the widening in genealogical interest post-1836 as evidence of the spirit of Elijah. A brother mentioned the spirit of Elijah as the initial cause of his own conversion; he wanted to find his relatives and have his own family and the Church made sense of that.

I got to thinking. People claim that the Victorians ‘invented’ the nuclear family. I’m a believer in human nature, the same today, yesterday, and forever, but there may be something to it. Apart from the blind drift of culture and events, a believer in dispensations like myself has to think that God’s intermediate purposes and modes change from time to time, and even that different angels with different experiences and personalities take over leadership. Perhaps the Victorians really did invest more sentiment and belief and structure in the family than heretofore. Could this also be the outpouring of Elijah, post-1836? Certainly the Victorian idea of the family and ours have much in common.

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34 Responses to The Spirit of Elijah and the Victorian Family

  1. Braden on August 30, 2004 at 11:05 am

    This is a fascinating idea and I am glad you brought it up. However, I have one question. Elijah restored the the keys that brought the Spirit of Elijah, they didn’t originate in this time. So, if the Victorians responded to the restoration of these keys and the Spirit that came with them, wouldn’t it follow that the family had previously been invented during earlier periods when the gospel was practiced on the earth?

  2. Jim F. on August 30, 2004 at 11:48 am

    To say that the Victorians invented the nuclear family is not to say that they invented the family. Indeed, family in a broader sense seems to have been quite important in most, if not all, ages. Don’t both Adam and Braden equate “family” with “nuclear family”? Or do I misunderstand the point they are making?

  3. Kristine on August 30, 2004 at 11:58 am

    Adam, do you have room in your theory for the fact that the Mormon response to the spirit of Elijah was, at first, to seal everybody to Joseph and Brigham? The nuclear family idea seems to have been slow in dawning among the Saints, despite the Victorian cultural milieu (even leaving aside the rather tricky questions raised by the long experiment with polygamy).

  4. Geoff B on August 30, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    Adam, there is a lot of evidence that past dispensations had a similar concept of the ideal nuclear family. Archeological and historial evidence indicates that Jews during Jesus’ time had a “Victorian” familiar ideal. There was a formal courting process and usually a one-year time between engagement and betrothal. There was an understanding the marriage was for life. (Obviously, there were exceptions, and Jesus scolded the Pharisees for divorcing their longtime wives to marry younger women, but remember the Pharisees were a relatively small part of Jewish society). Jews were known for their modesty compared to the Greeks, for example. There are many historians who will argue that Roman civilization flourished when it had Victorian ideals of the family and began its long decline when it abandoned these ideals.

    Having said that, it is clear to me that there are two countervailing trends going on in society today: on the one hand, there is increasing wickedness and decay; on the other, there is a large and growing group of people in place to maintain traditional values. Having a “Victorian” idea of the nuclear family is part of the traditional values coalition. I think both tendencies are directly related to the rise of the Church, which was a signal that this dispensation is heading for a climactic resolution one way or the other. We already know what side will win in the end, but the battle will be dramatic.

  5. D. Fletcher on August 30, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    Speaking of nuclear families, one of the reasons I can’t vote for Bush is that I won’t empower someone who says “nucular” when they mean “nuclear.”

    It’s pretty clear to me that all Church activities are designed (by God and others) to strengthen and heal those involved in the activity. In other words, missionary work is really all about making adult leaders out of teenagers, more than it is about converting millions of people. And I think the same of temple work for the dead, geneology, the sacrament, speaking in Church, reading the scriptures, Family Home Evening.

    It’s all about us, regardless of the purported “purpose” of the activity.

    I realize this is a digression from your original topic, but oh well, I needed to say it.

    P.S. Victoria wasn’t queen until 1837. I’m guessing that “nuclear” families began being invented far earlier, probably along with democratic vote. As men were given votes, they needed to represent others, hence, father becomes the head of the family, a single voting representative of several people. The more people in his family, the more his vote represents, and therefore, more power to bigger families.

  6. Adam Greenwood on August 30, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    No, Kristine, no room. Therefore I conclude that said sealings were a mistake. All must bow to the almighty theory.

    Seriously, this theory I concocted and launched this morning may be all wet, but it may also be that the sealings to B. Young, etc., were a mistake, or else a good idea but not for Spirit of Elijah reasons. You got me.

  7. Kristine on August 30, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    Aw, c’mon Adam, don’t give up that easily–it’s an interesting idea.

  8. Nathan Tolman on August 30, 2004 at 7:52 pm


    I really do not get what you are trying to say. Interest in genealogy has existed in cultures that did not practice Victorian norms.

    If anything, the Mormon family, with concepts of links through the generations has more in common with Traditional Chinese notions, than with the Victorians.

  9. Adam Greenwood on August 31, 2004 at 1:01 am

    I am saying that (1) the spirit of Elijah may include more than genealogical work. It might also include increased family tenderness and sentimentality, emphasis on family roles and the role of the family, etc., and (2) the increased family tenderness and sentimentality and so forth we see in the Victorian era may be a manifestation of the spirit of Elijah.

  10. kathy on August 31, 2004 at 2:28 am

    D. Fletcher,Moses was not articulate, but yet a great leader.

  11. Jim Richins on August 31, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you Nathan. You were quicker to point out one of the many factual mistakes I have read in this thread. The structure of families varies from culture to culture worldwide, and the concept of a “nuclear family” as being nearly an exclusive invention of Victorian England is indicative of Western-European arrogance and cultural elitism.

    1) Mormons often equate the “Spirit of Elijah” with the idea of “turning hearts”, and use the term to refer to the practice of genealogoy as well as of strengthening families in these latter days full of wickedness. May I submit that although colloquially common, this understanding of the “Spirit of Elijah” is extremely narrow, and in my view, misses the point. In fact, a quick search on confirmed that the term “Spirit of Elijah” only occurs once scripturally, and the context of this use is irrelevent to genealogy (it refers to the mantle of leadership and “Spirit of Elijah” resting on Elisha). The scriptural term is “hand of Elijah”, and interestingly, it is that same hand which was required to restore the sealing keys.

    I believe we can better understand the Spirit of Elijah (which term is an artifact of “Mormon Culture”) when viewed in the context of the keys of the sealing power and the restoration of The New and Everlasting Covenant. (Speaking of which, many Mormons also have a narrow understanding of The New and Everlasting Covenant, thinking that it refers only to Temple marriage. This understanding also is too narrow; The New and Everlasting Covenant is the sum-total of all of the saving ordinances – beginning with Baptism – and encompasses the entire work and mission of the Church).

    2) If the nuclear family were actually an original construction of Victorian England (and it is not), then it would make more sense if it were only a distortion introduced by Satan in a pre-emptive attempt to disrupt the forthcoming Restoration. The nuclear family is not necessarily a great achievement of human society nor a natural evolution of society moving towards Eternal Truth. It was the consequence of the industrial revolution and changing economics and social strata.

    The development of nuclear families also brought the consequence of estrangement and separation from the extended family. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relations had a much smaller influence on the rearing of children and in the lives of couples. Thus, the very conditions that the “heart turning” was supposed to ameliorate was *caused* by the development of nuclear families.

    2a) It is my understanding that the term “nuclear family” was coined during the 1950′s, and referred to families in the nuclear age.

    3) Insofar as our understanding of the Patriarchal Order bears some resemblance to the concept of nuclear families, it is easy to equate a nuclear arrangement with our expectations regarding the nature of Celestial Lives. However, if we think about it for a moment, we will realize that this is not the case. I am certain that the Patriarchal Order will not resemble in any way the current snapshot in time of my family, with children aged 9, 5, and 2. I am certain the Patriarchal Order in Heaven will consist of couples living together, receiving occasional visits from covenant children and their sealed spouse, and also themselves visiting in the mansions of their own parents. (I also hope that we will learn something about a Matriarchal Order in Heaven – something that we can not receive or even comprehend during our sojourn on Earth).

    3a) I quickly looked up the term “nuclear family” on the Wikipedia, and the entry there indicated that nuclear families were developed to facilitate highly mobile families, as in hunter-gatherer societies, as opposed to agrarian families which probably tended towards “extended families”. Thus, anthropologically speaking, it is likely that the nuclear family actually predated the concept of extended families.

    4) If a person can make such a critical decision as to who earns their vote for President based on some contrived offense at the peculiarities of a blended Northeastern/Texas dialect, then I am equally offended by the assertion that missionary work is all about training teenagers to be the future leaders of the Church. Likewise, if vicarious work for our ancestors where “all about us”, then what would be the point of the THREE-fold mission of the Church.

    What an utterly selfish point of view.

    Missionary work is for gathering the elect out from the world. Temple work is to provide the saving ordinances for those who passed before. If a person served their mission solely to receive training for a possible future call as Bishop or RS President, then that person absolutely wasted his/her time in the field. If another person attends the temple, picks up a name at the desk, and never sees past the first name – maybe the last name and date of birth if they are lucky – then that person does not worship with the appropriate spirit of service, and can NEVER expect to be taught the mysteries of the Kingdom unlocked in the Temple.

    I sincerely hope that NO ONE allows themselves to view those people who preceded us as “just another name” – as if he/she were merely some utility to allow us to attend the Temple.

    What an utterly revolting deviation from Truth, and what a terrible example of apostacy. I apologize if my ranting is disproportionate, or if what I understood from that post was not what was intended.

    5) The Proclamation on the Family is an inspired document that explicitly describes the ways in which any family can be most successful in this day and age. It does focus on a nuclear family – one father, one mother, and children, – but it also mentions extended family as a resource for help which should be utilized before seeking the resources of the Church. The Proclamation, therefore, becomes a tremendously positive statement, because as a consequence of today’s social structures and economy, the nuclear family is the best way to be organized and to the rear children and teach them the Gospel.

    However, I am certain that a focus on the nuclear family does not justify a failure with respect to our extended families. In my experience, Mormon families are remarkably aware and concerned with the activities of extended families – perhaps despite the common and exceedingly narrow interpretation of the Proclamation through the lens of “Nuclear Family First!!”

    The Spirit of Elijah connotes much more than genealogy, but also encompasses the sealing keys and saving ordinances. A Victorian heritage is not something to be thankful for, and certainly is not the fabled era from which the concept of “nuclear families” issued. The programs of the Church do not exist solely for the benefit of current members, but rather, the three-fold mission (and especially including “Perfect the Saints”) exists to provide members with ample opportunities to serve OTHERS. The Proclamation on the Family is the best source of accurate information for the formation and disposition of families in the Latter Days.

  12. Kristine on August 31, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    ” I apologize if my ranting is disproportionate”

    Jim, if you feel the need to apologize for something you’re about to post, then you probably shouldn’t post it. In this case your attack on D.’s views is completely disproportionate, and calling someone’s views “utterly selfish,” and “a terrible example of apostacy” is at least dangerously close to a violation of Times and Seasons comment policy.

    Probably most of us think that there is a purpose that goes beyond the healing and growth of the participants in missionary work or temple work, but there’s no doubt that what happens to *us* is also a large component of why we do those things. D.’s statement was extreme (and, I think, on the far side of the truth), but it is also extreme (and also on the far side of truth) to call it revolting and apostate.

    In general, discussion will be more constructive if you can offer your insights–such as your very useful reminder that focus on the nuclear family can weaken larger family ties–as amplification or respectful disagreement with others’ views, rather than as a call to repentance. This isn’t the place for that, and it isn’t your job.

  13. Nathan Tolman on August 31, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks Jim. You said a few things that were bouncing around in my head, but had yet to form a coherent statement I could write upon.

    I agree that any social movement that reinforces the family and strengthens its bonds is in the spirit of “the hearts of the fathers turning toward their children, and the hearts of the children turning toward their fathers. In this regard, few can surpass Confucius, even if he predates Malachi’s prophecy. I can cite examples if anyone wants.

  14. ed on August 31, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    This is a bit off topic, but linguist Geoffrey Nunberg believes that Bush’s pronunciation of “nuclear” is a deliberate choice. It is also often pronounced that way by military people, including some who know more about the physics of the atom than you or I probably do.

    His “Fresh Air” commentary on the topic is at:

  15. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Sorry, Ed, but my father and grandfather are both physicists. My father received his Ph.D. from MIT, and worked on the Manhattan Project. He finds it laughable that Bush would pronounce the word this way, and thinks it might point to a general lack of education, i.e., stupidity.

    If Bush pronounces “nuclear” as “nucular” on purpose, then shame on him for making himself, arguably the most important leader in the world, look quite silly.

  16. Kristine on August 31, 2004 at 2:22 pm

    Well just to follow the train over the edge of the topical cliff: my dad’s a physicist, too, and I can remember him correcting my pronunciation of “nuclear” when I was in kindergarten–it’s really not very hard to learn to say it correctly, and surely with as many speech coaches as the President has, he could get it right if he wanted to. His mispronunciation is deliberate, part of the whole calculated (not stupid) faux populist image he has so successfully sold.

  17. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    I recognize that my viewpoints are somewhat extreme, certainly here in a forum devoted to LDS ponderings. I am not offended by anyone’s righteous indignation at my expressed views, and I welcome you all to try to talk me out them, just as I may try to convince you.

    One reason to “turn the hearts of the children” to “the fathers” is to learn. I assert that the purpose of life is to learn how to love. All the things we do, in our temporal lives and in the Church, is subordinate to this. Learning. An integral part of learning is… teaching. Hence, teaching and learning, fathers and children, Mormons and Gentiles, leaders and followers.

    I’m sorry this is perceived as a selfish viewpoint, it isn’t meant that way at all.

  18. Nathan Tolman on August 31, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    What you are talking about D. is regional bias, not any objective way of looking at intelligence. A Texan will speak as one. Perhaps there are some who think I am uneducated because I speak with a Texas accent. Who says education eliminates prejudice?

  19. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    Nathan, I don’t have any regional bias, and neither does my father. I’m guessing that plenty of people in Texas pronounce “nuclear” properly, even with an accent.

    I concede to Kristine’s point about Bush’s deliberate choice as a populist candidate. He may get the voters he seeks this way. But he may alienate some others. It’s always a risk.

  20. Jim Richins on August 31, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you Kristine for *your* indignation. I’ve calmed down now. I agree that I should have been more temperate in my response.

    However, I want to qualify my “pre-apology” by saying that as I typed that, I was hoping that the intent of the post that irritated me was not what I understood it to be. In that case, the apology would certainly, and sincerely apply.

    However, if the intent of the post was accurately conveyed by the language, then I stand by my statements. Such a view IS utterly selfish, as I suspect you will concede.

    In any case, I admit that I was not clear enough in distinguising my criticisms against the idea that was expressed, and not the man.

    I am absolutely certain that Bro. Fletcher is happy at all oppportunities that come to him to serve others.

  21. Mark on August 31, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    I know we oughtn’t quibble about spelling, but Jim’s typo reminded me of the old “Daffynition” feature in Boy’s Life (is it still in there?)

    1) Mormons often equate the “Spirit of Elijah” with the idea of “turning hearts”, and use the term to refer to the practice of genealogoy . . .

    “Genealogoy” n. The tracing of one’s Gentile family tree.

    “Genealojew” n. The tracing of one’s Jewish family tree.

  22. Nathan Tolman on August 31, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    There are many who do not say it and other things “correctly” with ought first thinking, “I need to say this this way.” I would guess President Bush is one of them. It is a deliberate process for some. It seems you are saying “If someone speaks differently, they must be stupid.”

  23. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Mark, hilarious! LOL

    You know, my comment about “nucular” was a bit of a joke (which nobody got, apparently).

    I’m not NOT voting for Bush because of this.


  24. Nathan Tolman on August 31, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    Sorry if it was a joke. I have heard people around here raise it in seriousness. Perhaps I am too sensitive, being a Texan in Washington state.

  25. Mark on August 31, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    Just as I fight the temptation to consider people people who can’t sing stupid (I just wish they’d sing quietly, at least until the one note they can hit arrives, when they may blast it out in full voice), I also fight, sometimes without much success, the tendency to think that people who can’t pronounce words right are stupid.

    In my charitable moments I assume that they’re just not listening, either to the way others speak or to themselves. I have known some people with remarkable facility in languages, who seem to be able to mimic the sounds of a foreign language easily. Others, just as smart, sound like the Yankees that my high school German teacher used to make fun of: “Wie koennen Sie merken das ich einer Amerikaner bin?”, with every “r” pronounced like a good Utahan, or better yet, “Mommy, mommy, what does Ausfahrt mean?” as the American family drives down the Autobahn.

    I just think that Bush isn’t listening, and doesn’t recognize that he’s pronouncing it differently from how some of the rest of us do. And, who knows, maybe in the Emperor’s New Clothes atmosphere of the White House, everybody else has begun pronouncing it “nuculur” so GWB won’t feel out of place.

  26. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    I agree with you, Mark. I don’t think it’s a choice at all — he’s doing it unintentionally, and no one has corrected him.

    By the way, you are a musician? Singer?

  27. Kaimi on August 31, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    The problem with focusing on nucular is that it plays right into the populist script that Bush uses very well.

    Look at me, I’m a regular guy. I don’t pretend that I know everything. In fact, I don’t pronounce nuclear correctly. That’s really not such a big deal, but what do the liberals do? They call me stupid.

    Tell me, have you ever known anyone who mispronounced a word?


    And is it your experience that everyone who has ever mispronounced a word is a stupid person?


    You remember that snot-nosed kid in the back of the class who used to make fun of other people’s pronunciation? The kid who thought he was better than everyone else?


    Did you like that kid?


    Now, Democrats point their fingers at me and laugh because of my pronunciation. How do you feel about that?

  28. Kristine on August 31, 2004 at 5:14 pm

    “However, if the intent of the post was accurately conveyed by the language, then I stand by my statements. Such a view IS utterly selfish, as I suspect you will concede.”

    Um, no I won’t, actually. It is a view that takes a more limited view of God’s project than is normative for LDS, but it’s certainly possible. I have, for instance, heard more than one returning mission president say that he thought the missionaries were the most important converts; we often talk about temple service as important to our own understanding and growth. Usually we acknowledge that there is another purpose, but it is quite common for people to go to the temple entirely focused on finding an answer to a question, or seeking help with a problem in their own life–in such cases the fact that they are performing an act of service for someone else is surely peripheral to their activity in the temple. Would you call that selfish?

    I think D. was acknowledging that we are fallen beings, that in using us to help others, God is also always concerned with bringing about our salvation and our growth. D. takes that farther than I would by saying that God is solely interested in the server, which I take to be a denial of the efficacy of proxy work or its importance (?). In relation to missionary work, I don’t think it’s so heretical to think that training a kid who will become a leader in the church, inspire youth to become missionaries, teach his own children and send them on missions, etc. is necessarily a secondary purpose to the actual outreach–it’s a parallel and really important function of missionary work. It might even be the primary function, though I wouldn’t, again, go as far as D. does and say it’s the exclusive purpose of missionary work.

    So, no, I don’t think D.’s view is utterly selfish, though I do think he stated it in an especially (and possibly unnecessarily) provocative way.

  29. D. Fletcher on August 31, 2004 at 5:27 pm

    Ooh, beautifully eloquent extrapolation of my much more simplistic and extreme words, Kristine. It isn’t my aim to be provocative here, but to be clear and honest about my ideas and feelings. Which has always gotten me into trouble, truthfully.

    The statement “lose yourself in the service of others” reveals my understanding of the world — that by service, we are ourselves growing into exalted beings. The purpose of the service rendered is the catalyst. But this doesn’t suggest that the service itself is un-useful, or unwarranted.

  30. Aaron Brown on August 31, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    I think the use of “nucular” instead of “nuclear” is no different that spelling/saying “supposably” instead of “supposedly” or “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” That is, it’s an understandable mistake that even educated people make with some frequency.

    Yes, George W. Bush does utter the occasional asinine grammatical faux pas, but I don’t think this one qualifies.

    Aaron B

  31. Jim Richins on August 31, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    Typos happen. So do repeated words. And, mispronounced vowels.

    I remember a story my linguistics teacher from college told (yes, it’s true – that obnoxious computer geek ALSO studied linguistics in college, so he’s got something to say about that as well) about an open forum discussion that occurred on campus once long, long ago (in a galaxy far, far away).

    The details of the story would be instructive, but I write waaaaay to long as it is, so here’s the abstract:

    A professor (of languages, no less) mispronounced the word “ad hoc” as “awd hack” (vowels reversed), which steered the conversation away from it’s stated purpose, and onto an unproductive tangent about what the *correct* pronunciation was (not unlike this thread, I suppose) . As it turns out, this professor’s ears had been so tuned in his childhood, a syllable like “ad” (as in ADDition), really WAS “awd” (as in, “that computer geek is really ODD”).

    Furthermore, vowel pronunciation preference in individuals is a function of more than just regional dialect. It is a complicated mix of influences received largely during the speech-formative years (during infancy and toddler). After that period of brain development, changes are next to impossible to achieve.

    Regarding my opinions of “selfish” service: I admit that many mission presidents have probably said something as has been described. We have all certainly heard the interpretation of D&C 18 that suggests that the “one soul” saved is ourselves.

    Nevertheless, I have also heard GAs react strongly against the suggestion that the Church’s missionary program exists for the benefit of the missionaries. I have also heard Pres. Hinckley explicitly describe the goal of missionary work is to bring other’s to Christ – not ourselves. Elder Ballard’s remarkable conference address about “raising the bar”, and his follow-up on the same subject six months later, suggests that the previous D&C 18 interpretation is incorrect in this context, and that missionaries need to be converted *before* leaving on their missions.

    I know that there is significant “bleed-over” from our service to others, which also blesses our own lives. However, I also know that a gift given grudgingly or in expectation of reward, is counted as no gift at all.

    Finally, I believe that what the Lord expects us to do with those “bleed-over blessings” is not to keep them for our own benefit, but continue to pass them on to others in perpetual service.

    Think Parable of the Talents: The 2 and 5 talent servants received greater because they actively used their talents to generate more – and then (this is the important part) returned the increase to the Lord. The 1 talent servant hoarded his meager treasure, and was sternly punished upon the return of the Lord.

    As I know we are all aware, just because a certain perspective is normative or common among the current membership, does not mean it is scripturally or doctrinally correct.

  32. Mark on August 31, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    In rural Utah where I grew up, all the grown-ups thought it was hilarious that President Kennedy didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Cuba’ correctly. We sure enjoyed looking down our noses at those rubes who said ‘Cuber’.

  33. Jim Richins on August 31, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    I’m sorry – one more point to ponder.

    If you knew that because of some hitherto unknown eternal law, that every sixth person that qualifies would not be admitted to the Celestial Kingdom, and if you knew that you were one of those unlucky six who, despite doing everything right, would not receive exaltation…

    would you still serve God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength?

  34. Adam Greenwood on August 31, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    To make heavy of a joke:
    I also pronounce nuclear the way the President does, about half the time. I’m aware that I am not pronouncing it correctly, according to Eastern rules, but so what?

    the President’s motives may be similar. I disagree that it is entirely a matter of calculation.


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