Year: 2024

The New Ex-Mormons

We just returned from our yearly-ish pilgrimage to Utah. Trips to Utah are always an opportunity  to stick my finger in the air to get a more subjective, qualitative sense of things are going in the Church. Of course, Utah does not equal the Church in so many ways, but it does act as a sort of financial and membership ballast, and the amount of Mormon-ness in Utah is big enough that one can notice trends and patterns that would be harder to discern from random noise with a smaller sample size. However, here I’m not backing up any of these conjectures with quantitative data, it’s just my own anecdotal sense that may or may not be right, for what it’s worth. Back in my day Utahns could basically be separated out into three groups: members, whether active or not, ex-members, and never members. Typically but not always there were tensions between the first two groups, and ex-members either moved to Salt Lake Valley or left Utah altogether. The ex-Mormon identity was a very reified, concrete thing. It could hardly be otherwise with a relatively high-tension, high demand religion like the Church. Now I’m noticing another group, the second-generation ex-members. Some are what immigration scholars would call “generation 1.5,” or people who are born in one country as children but moved to another country young enough that for all intentions and purposes the UK/the US/whatever is the only country that…

A Review: The Last Called Mormon Colonization

Growing up in Utah, I heard many pioneer stories about my ancestors and their colleagues who traveled west to settle the Intermountain West region. I found, however, that many of the stories focused on the journey itself rather than the years that followed as they established settlements and survived in an arid region. The latter half is just as important, as is the observation that many people uprooted their lives repeatedly to settle more remote areas beyond the Wasatch Front in Utah. One dramatic story of that sort is among the last that could be considered pioneering—the settling of the Big Horn Basin in northern Wyoming in the early twentieth century.

Misuse of the “Lost Sheep” Parable

People often misuse the Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the Lord leaves the 99 to go after the 1, and draw analogies and connections that don’t make a lot of sense given the premises of the Parable, so I thought I’d make a set of guidelines for logically using the Parable. Note: I have wanted to do this post for a while, and it is in no way a critique or analysis of the Church’s recent 99+1 initiative. The motivation for this came from non-Church sources.  If you self-identify as “the lost sheep” the logical corollary is that you should return and join the 99 crowd instead of making the Shepherd come after you.    There is also the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” parable. Sometimes people have to be isolated for the good of the flock, this is part of what Church discipline is for. Jesus didn’t leave the 99 to find the one wolf in sheep’s clothing.   On that note, the point of the parable isn’t that the one lost sheep is in fact in the right and all of the others are in the wrong. The lost sheep is, in fact, lost, and the point is not that they are going to co-opt the role of the shepherd and lead them somewhere else.   Jesus doesn’t leave the 99 to find the lost sheep to only find out that the lost sheep was where everybody should…

A Review: Buffalo Bill and the Mormons

Buffalo Bill and the Mormons by Brent M. Rogers is a fun and interesting book about the intersections of “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s life with the Latter-day Saints. The basic idea is that the American superstar, soldier, bison hunter, and showman launched his acting career at a time when anti-Mormon propaganda had become a profitable and popular area of storytelling. Cody embraced using Latter-day Saints as stock villains in his storylines, portraying Latter-day Saints as enemies of the proper home. Cody was, of course, the defender of the proper home in the plays in which he performed and seems to have initially believed the messages of that propaganda to some degree. 

To Live in Utah or not to Live in Utah? The Grand Debate

I asked Dalle-3 to “Create two images side-by-side, one representing Utah in a good light and one representing Utah in a bad light. Show me images that show bad things particular to Utah and good things particular to Utah, instead of just generic bad and good things.”  In the image it generated “the left side highlights Utah’s natural beauty and outdoor activities, while the right side depicts issues like smog from the Salt Lake City inversion, a dried-up Great Salt Lake, and urban congestion.” For my family living in Utah is the eternal question (“next year in Utah”). Like a lot of members, we have a lot of ties leading back to our homeland. For my children Utah is the land of milk and honey, a Willy Wonka-esque existence of eternal grandparent candy and attention, where the urinals flow with ambrosia and nobody ever raises their voice. They talk about “those East Coasters” with a lilt of disdain despite the fact that they themselves are, in fact, born and raised East Coasters (kind of the flip side of those lifelong Utahns who say they’re “from” the cool state they lived in for a few years as a kid while their parents were in graduate school). As of now we feel that we are where we need to be right now, but we’ve thought through the pros and cons many times.  Con: Housing Affordability Dear Utahns, this is insane. You can’t…

Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers

While Wilford Woodruff has only one canonized document in Latter-day Saint scriptures (Official Declaration 1), he did record a number of visions and revelations of his own. Perhaps the best-known among these is his vision of Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers that led him to do proxy temple work for them and other eminent individuals. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jennifer Mackley discussed what we know about Wilford Woodruff’s vision. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Interesting Wikipedia Articles About Latter-day Saints

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Murderer, Ex-Mormon (according to Wikipedia) James Earl Ray A recent project of mine has been to figure out a way to generate a list of all Wikipedia articles that mention the word “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saint” so that we can generate the comprehensive compendium of all things Latter-day Saint/Mormon on Wikipedia.  This project was inspired in part by an episode of the Omnibus podcast by Ken Jennings and Jon Roderick (incidentally, IMHO the wittiest podcast out there) about a prison breakout by James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr. Ken Jennings, who as most of us know is a member, bemusedly noted that the Wikipedia article on Ray indicated that he had been raised a Mormon. After preliminarily digging into the cited reference, however, Jennings seemed skeptical, and when I checked the page myself that little bit had been removed. (As an aside, given the sensitivities around racial issues given our history, I’m 1000% sure we would all know if the killer of Dr. King was raised Mormon).  Still, it made me curious about other less-known tidbits, plus I thought it would be fun to have a variety of other comprehensive lists: a complete list of all celebrities raised Mormon, a complete listing of all organisms named after Mormons (more than you’d think), etc., which could easily be generated by scraping the meta-tags on the ur-list.   To create such a list I…

The Latter-day Saint Chicago Experiment

The Chicago Experiment was an effort to train some of the best teachers in the Church to the academic standards of Biblical Studies applied elsewhere in Western Civilization during the 1930s. The results were mixed, with some of the scholars going on to improve the Church Education System, while others struggled to reconcile what they had learned with their faith. Casey Griffiths discussed the Chicago Experiment in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saints history blog, From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to the interview. 

The Endowment and the Traditional Latin Mass: Beauty, Holiness, and Structure

Due to some things I’m involved in, I recently attended a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). For the uninitiated, after Vatican II the Catholic Mass was changed to be more user-friendly. It was conducted in the vernacular instead of Latin and was shortened. While in the past the priest traditionally faced towards the East as he was blessing the Eucharist, facing towards God and the coming of Christ, gradually it became more standard for priests to face the congregation. 

All Indians Today Descend From Lehi

As the children of Lehi and Sariah intermarried with first Ishamel’s offspring and then their children intermixed with the natives of the Americas, what has been the result genetically after 2,600 years? Are the American Indians encountered by the Europeans in 1492 and beyond also descendants of Lehi and Sariah?

Sien Hoornik, Vincent Van Gogh, and Making All Things New

Sorrow, a Van Gogh drawing of a pregnant Sien Hoornik Selling only one painting during his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh has become the archetype of the tortured genius not appreciated until after his death. His long-running mental health problems have been the subject of movies and ballads (with one moving example being Don McLean and later Josh Groban’s Vincent). There’s something about the narrative that tickles at our Jungian senses. Somebody who is dealt a bad hand all throughout their life has a deus ex machina glory thrust upon them, sort of a posthumous version of the classic folklore motif of the peasant who finds out that they’re royalty. Much less well known is Van Gogh’s muse during his time in The Hague whose life paralleled his in some ways. Sien Hoornik was a single mother prostitute born into abject poverty who gave birth to four children (two of whom died), and who was wracked by venereal diseases throughout her life. Van Gogh took her and her children in while she worked for him as a model in what some consider to be his only romantic relationship. They considered marriage, but due to pressure from Van Gogh’s family about marrying beneath his social status he eventually turned her out, after which time she probably went back to working as a prostitute to feed her family. She took her own life about twenty years later.  Now that she belongs to the…

The Buddhist Alma the Younger and Forgiving the Unforgivable

While Saul/Paul and Alma the Younger were arguably committing the worst kind of sins by fighting against God, in both narratives they were sincere and possibly even well-meaning, albeit theologically wrong. They weren’t, say, torturing or killing people en masse as far as we know, and it seems like if there is a textbook case for something you could do that crosses the line into never being able to achieve forgiveness in this life, that’s what it would involve. (In the excellent Latter-day Saint film Brigham City *spoiler alert* the person you later find out is the killer asks the protagonist whether he thinks people can be forgiven for committing horrendous murders, with the bishop/detective character simply stating that he doesn’t know. *End spoiler alert*.) In the course of some other reading I’ve been doing, I stumbled across the story of Angulimala (sorry, WordPress is awful at rendering accent marks, so apologies to the spelling purists), a sort of Buddhist Saul figure with a touch of Hannibal Lecter. While well-known in Asia, with several movies made about him in Buddhist countries, to the West he is much less familiar. In a modern moral paradigm where we would see the torturing murderer as being darker and more beyond hope than somebody who has a sincere theological disagreement a la Saul (not to downplay his culpability in throwing people in jail for their sincere theological disagreements), the message of redemption becomes all…

“Digno es de todo loor”

“Digno es de todo loor” by Edmund Richardson is another effort by Richardson to address the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Godhead in a hymn (the other example being Doxologías).

Michael Austin on the Book of Mormon

A fascinating read that was recently published is Michael Austin’s The Testimony of Two Nations. I’ve already done a review of the book, but wanted to highlight a recent interview that Michael Austin did at the Latter-day history blog From the Desk that shared some interesting insights from the book. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

Ancient Horses in the Americas, False Negatives, and the Paleobiology Database

Distribution of Equus fossils in the Americas from the Quaternary, Paleobiology Database The fossil record for horses in the Quaternary in the Americas, a very niche topic, has had particular interest to Latter-day Saints for well-known reasons. At the outset I should lay my cards on the table and state that I hold to a loose translation model of the Book of Mormon production and simply think that horses and maybe even at times the very 19th century Christian language and themes in the Book of Mormon come from that daylight between what was inscribed on the plates and how it came out of Joseph Smith’s mouth after he “studied it out in [his] mind.”  Still, the Pre-Columbian horses idea is intriguing, but I haven’t really seen much in way of a very systematic take on the chance of a false negative: what are the confidence intervals for species extinction in the fossil record? Obviously the farther back you go the broader they are, so this is a very particular niche within a niche. I won’t claim to resolve that question here, but I dove into the Paleaobiology Database to get a sense of the distribution across time and space for fossils from Equus during the Quaternary Era in the Americas.  Huge caveat, this is not my area and while I think my assumptions are valid given the detail given in the documentation, I might have something fundamentally wrong, so…

The State of Israel, Follow Up

So quite the discussion a few weeks ago, and my apologies for returning to it since the last one got a little heated. I did mean the post as a Bloggernacle topic, or how do we interpret the issue of the State of Israel in in terms of our religion? Again, that’s why I brought up my teachers’ quorum adviser’s comments those many years ago. A few commentators said I should not bring up Jesus, but again, the point of the post was to think about this topic in religious terms. The point was our religious constructs and not simply a debate over foreign policy. Like I said a few times on the post, many experts say that solutions aren’t likely, and I have no illusions to solving the problem myself. However, I am against the idea that because solutions are illusive that Israel needs to “defend itself” and keep doing what it’s doing in Gaza. I oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza and I oppose US military support for the State of Israel for the reasons I listed in the previous post.

You Might Be a Pharisee if…

The Pharisees get a bad reputation from their portrayal in the gospels, but it probably isn’t deserved. Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine recently discussed why that is likely to be the case that we are guilty of misunderstanding the Pharisees in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to that interview. To start, Amy-Jill Levine shared some information about who the Pharisees were: In much of the Christian imagination, beginning with the Gospels, the Pharisees (with a few notable exceptions) represent hypocrisy, misogynism, elitism, xenophobia, the letter of the law rather than on the Spirit, and generally everything that Christians, and by extension, everyone, does not like. Conversely, Jews have, since the Middle Ages, recognized the Pharisees as the predecessors of Rabbinic Judaism: The Pharisees encouraged the Jewish people to increase the sanctity of their lives and fully to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Even within the New Testament, however, the picture is complicated: The Gospels show them in synagogues, as hosting Jesus at dinner, and as teaching the people. When Matthew states that the Pharisees “cross sea and land to make a single proselyte” (23:15), the impression is not one of separation but of active engagement with fellow Jews to help them better to follow Torah. Josephus also talks about the popularity of the Pharisees among the masses despite not being a fan. (Josephus…

Joseph Spencer on Bruce R. McConkie’s Legacy

Long-time followers of my blog posts (if any exist) are likely aware that I have a complicated relationship with Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He was hugely influential to me in my teenage years and early twenties before my own views of Latter-day Saint theology began to conflict with his in a few very notable ways. I still have a large amount of respect for him, both for his role as an apostle and his intellectual efforts to create a systematic theology, but I also find that his authoritarianism and some of his views rub me wrong. I don’t seem to be alone in this wrestle, however, as there seems to be a large segment of Latter-day Saints who have downplayed McConkie’s contributions, even while other Latter-day Saints tend to see his work very favorably (hello there, Dennis Horne!). Joseph Spencer has recently offered a reassessment of Bruce R. McConkie in an interview on the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk that has led me to ponder more on Elder McConkie’s legacy. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

From Whence Muhammad?

  Fun fact: One of the most prominent movies about the life of Muhammad (who, out of respect for Sunni Muslim sensitivities, is never actually shown onscreen) was produced and directed by Latter-day Saint Richard Rich, who has also done some Book of Mormon films, and whose aesthetic you might recognize from movies like the Swan Princess.   Muhammed occupies an interesting place in Latter-day Saint thought. On one hand, Joseph Smith was often compared to Muhammad in the 19th century, and there are a lot of points of similarity with the idea of a true faith being restored to an unlearned prophet visited by angelic messengers who was able to create an extensive work of religious literature (or oral recitation that eventually became literature in there case of Muhammad).   On the pro-Muhammad side, there a variety of GA quotes that make the case that Muhammad was inspired by God. Of course, the Church and Islam are theologically incompatible on various important points, so while interfaith dialogue, support, and outreach is important (I’ve been particularly moved by accounts of the Church offering meetinghouse space to Muslims), at the end of the day the two faiths are obviously not going to merge any time soon, so for a TBM to believe Muhammad was inspired would require also believing that there is some slippage between the historical Muhammad and what eventually became Islam. This is a valid perspective (and one that Islam…

Alienation – you keep using that word

I generally have vowed to stay out of specific political discussions online, but this is not about any specific political issue – I have seen this claim too often with many issues or candidates from all side of the spectrum and in different locales (and not just the presidential election in the USA that dominates discussion right now). I am seeing far too many people declare that support for [a specific candidate or law or hot button political issue] is “alienating” (or various synonyms, but mostly that interestingly specific word) them from the rest of the Church membership.

“Dios Te Loamos”

“Dios Te Loamos” by Edmund Richardson was one of the shorter original hymns included in the Mexican Mission hymnals. That being said, I am fond of this text.

“Promesa cumplida”

“Promesa cumplida” by Joel Morales is a fantastic example of hymns about the Great Apostasy and the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Mexican Latter-day Saint literature.

The Cosmological Grandeur of the Restored Gospel: Mining the Journal of Discourses

Worlds Without End in the style of Van Gogh How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. -Carl Sagan One of the unique characteristics of the restored gospel is the expansiveness of its cosmological vision. Traditional religion held a Ptolemaic worldview in terms of existential importance if not astronomical reality. This world was the creation that mattered, and all discoveries beyond its horizon landed in the realm of speculative theology, whereas almost from the beginning and long before infrared space telescopes the restored gospel preached a very fundamental premise that is radically distinct: this world and its inhabitants are only a small part of God’s creations. However, we were only ever given little precious glimpses into this broader scheme. Even the one line from the temple: “I have only been doing that which has been done on other worlds” has a sort of understated power. It’s said in passing, so quickly that you could miss it if you weren’t paying…