Author: Chad Nielsen

Chad’s three great intellectual passions in life are science, history/religious studies, and music. He has pursued a career in biotechnology, but maintains an active interest in both of his other passions on the side. Chad is a four-time winning contestant in the Arrington Writing Award competition held at Utah State University for his essays on Mormon history and has presented at the Logan Institute of Religion scholar’s forum and the annual meeting of the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology. He is a faithful Latter-day Saint who has served in a variety of music, teaching, and clerical callings at his church as well as in the music ministry of a Presbyterian church. Currently he is serving as a music missionary as a member of the Bells on Temple Square.

Reconsidering the Curse of Ham

In a candid moment in January 1858, an early Church leader named Zerah Pulsipher told his family that: “Most of you are young therefore you have the advantage of me because [yo]u have less Gentile Traditions to over com[e].”[1]  This is an interesting observation from Pulsipher—all of the early Church members (including leaders) were converts to the Church and they brought much of their previous beliefs and traditions with them into the Church, including many good and correct beliefs, but also some incorrect beliefs as well.  In the latest volume of the official history of the Church, an example of the latter is brought up in a discussion about the position early converts to the Church that were Black, such as Jane Manning James, found themselves in.  We read: “Jane … knew that white Saints generally accepted black people into the fold. Like other groups of Christians at this time, however, many white Saints wrongly viewed black people as inferior, believing that black skin was the result of God’s curse on the biblical figures Cain and Ham. … Brigham Young shared some of these views.”[2]  It is significant that this Church publication brings this issue up and to state, point-blank, that the early Saints (Brigham Young included) were wrong to believe this traditional idea.  Likewise, Elder Quentin L. Cook recently stated that Brigham Young “said things about race that fall short of our standards today.”[3]  I have discussed one part…

“Come, Follow Me” and The Family: A Proclamation to the World

The “Come, Follow Me” manuals for 2021’s course of study are available online now.  Looking ahead to the next year, I have been curious to see if they were going to stick strictly to the scriptures related to the history of our modern dispensation (Doctrine and Covenants and parts of the Pearl of Great Price), or if they were going to focus on our Church’s history via the Saints volumes and have relevant sections of the scriptures discussed along the way.  The authors the manuals chose to go with the former, focusing on the scriptures—with a major exception.  On the week of December 13-19, 2021, rather than studying canonized sections of the Doctrine and Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price, we’re studying “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”  The implications of the proclamation being the one of only two documents that is not part of the Standard Works being studied as the central text for a week sends a signal—the manual’s authors seems to feel that the proclamation is on par with the canonized scriptures in importance.  Yet, the proclamation is not officially accepted as part of our canon at this time.  To me, this indicates that either someone in Salt Lake City has possibly set a goal for the document to join the Standard Works by the end of next year or this is a move in a process of essentially canonizing the proclamation without actually putting…

Calls to the Quorum of the Twelve: An Analysis

For something relatively out of the blue, I want to take a moment to consider potential future candidates for the Quorum of the Twelve.  The Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency are the highest in authority in the Church and are important in policy making and in defining the doctrine of the Church, so the people who are chosen to serve in these quorums are important to Church members.  I believe that it’s best to not talk about these types of things in the aftermath of a death in their ranks (or when the possibility of such is likely in the near future), so I figure now is as good of time as any to discuss the issue. In the modern Church, most things are run by councils where several individuals have the ability to express their thoughts and often have an opportunity to accept or reject a proposal. That is a part of the administrative genius of the Church that Joseph Smith put in place to insure that things could continue after the death of charismatic leaders, such as himself, and to increase the likelihood that things are being done in accordance with God’s will (more people checking something, the more likely they are to catch errors). This system seems to carry over to the selection of a new apostle. President Hugh B. Brown (1883-1975) recalled that: In calling a new apostle the president of the church…

The Rise and Decline of the Angel Moroni

If you were to ask someone what the founding vision of the Restoration was at different points in our history, I suspect that you would get different answers.  Certainly, for us today, the First Vision stands out.  Throughout much of the nineteenth century, however, it seems that the visit of the Angel Moroni was what came to mind for Latter-day Saints.  While the First Vision was spoken of and appeared in some Church publications from the 1840s onwards, the visit of Moroni was more central to Latter-day Saint thought and proselyting efforts.  Yet, it was eventually eclipsed by Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son in importance, taking a secondary role in the story of the Restoration.  Today, we seem to be seeing a similar transition take place in the symbolism of the Church, with the formerly dominant image of Moroni taking a backseat to Jesus the Christ. Early Latter-day Saints seem to have looked to the story of Moroni visiting Joseph Smith and the resulting Book of Mormon as the beginning of the Restoration.  For example, when Oliver Cowdery wrote a brief history of the Church in 1834, he described the earliest vision of the Restoration as the visit of the Angel Moroni.[1]  Even when Joseph Smith told the story of the First Vision to a visitor in 1835, he described it as merely part of “the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the book of…

Thoughts on the Gold Plates

We round out the 10 questions interview series on Joseph Smith’s translation with a discussion between Richard L. Bushman and Kurt Manwaring about the gold plates.  We’ve had a good run of interviews with scholars who have worked hard to examine the essential historical records surrounding Joseph Smith’s translation projects in order to find a greater understanding of what Joseph Smith and his colleagues said and did as they worked on the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Bible, and the Book of Abraham.  These interviews include two interviews with the editors of Producing Ancient Scripture, an interview with Samuel Brown about his understanding of Joseph Smith’s translations, an interview with Thomas Wayment about the Joseph Smith Translation, an interview with Matthew Grey about the Book of Abraham, and now this one about the gold plates and the Book of Mormon.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview at Kurt Manwaring’s site—a discussion with quotes and commentary—but I also recommend taking the time to go over and read the full 10 questions interview with Richard Bushman here. In the interview, Kurt Manwaring probed into one of the biggest concerns about the gold plates these days in different ways with his first three questions—what role did the plates play in the translation if Joseph Smith revealed the text of the Book of Mormon through seer stones?  As a bit of background to these…

Hebrew Studies and the Book of Abraham

We’re continuing our discussion of Joseph Smith’s translations and the recently-released volume Producing Ancient Scripture today, turning to the Book of Abraham in an interview with Matthew Grey.  This is a co-post to Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matthew Grey, where he discusses his research about the ways in which Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew affected the translation of the Book of Abraham.  To read the full interview, which I highly recommend, follow the link here. Last week, we discussed how Joseph Smith seems to have drawn upon contemporary scholarship (the Adam Clarke commentary) as part of his translation of the King James Version of the Bible.  In that interview, Thomas Wayment made the interesting remark that: “Clarke may be part of Joseph’s heritage of coming to understand how ancient languages work,” since the study of both Hebrew and the Kirtland Egyptians materials followed his main work on the Bible revision project.[1]  Matthew Grey adds his insight in this week’s interview that the major catalyst for both the Egyptian materials and Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew seems to have been the translation of the Book of Abraham.  This seems to show, in the words of Grey, “a recurring pattern in Joseph Smith’s translation projects, in which he was inspired by ancient objects (including gold plates, the King James Version of the Bible, and Egyptian papyri) and proceeded in his translations by blending his revelatory gifts with his best academic efforts (such as…

Translation and the Adam Clarke Commentary

Kurt Manwaring has continued his interviews focusing on Joseph Smith’s translations with a discussion with Thomas Wayment about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  In the interview last week, some of the editors of recently-published volume Producing Ancient Scripture made a point of discussing the findings of Thomas Wayment and Hayley Wilson-Lemmón about the influence of Adam Clarke’s Bible commentary on the Joseph Smith Translation.  We’re excited to share a co-post of an interview with Dr. Wayment this week, where he shares more details about their research.  What follows here is a summary with some commentary on the interview, but the full interview is available for reading here. Now, the summary of Wayment and Wilson-Lemmón’s findings are that when Joseph Smith was working on his translation of the Bible, he seems to have relied on a commentary written by Methodist theologian Adam Clarke in making decisions about some of his changes.  Thomas Wayment has spent years working with the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) and first became aware that something of the sort might have happened shortly after he finished his doctoral work.  As he noted in the interview, when analyzing the changes Joseph Smith made, he “saw that in a very few instances the text of the JST agreed with known textual variants. I could not account for this phenomenon at the time.”  In general, as Wayment worked with comparing the JST to “what we believe is the closest…

Joseph Smith’s Studies and Translations

It has been a big year for volumes that discuss Joseph Smith’s translation projects, with contributions ranging from Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid’s The Pearl of Great Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture last October, to William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon this April, to Samuel Brown’s Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism in May, and a few other notable works.  One book in particular, however, has recently been billed as groundbreaking and potentially one of the most foundational contributions to the subject:  Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee and Brian M. Hauglid.  The volume is a collection of chapters written by many notable scholars of Mormonism, discussing a variety of topics related to Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and the Book of Abraham.  Recently, Kurt Manwaring sat down to interview Michael Hubbard MacKay and Mark Ashurst-McGee (two of the general editors of the book).  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, a summary with quotes and commentary on the interview, but to get the full treatment, I recommend going to read the interview here. It is relatively common to describe Joseph Smith’s translations as being revelations.  For example, at the most recent general conference, Elder Ulisses Soares stated that the Book of Mormon “was…

Reconsidering the Curse of Cain

Eugene England once shared an experience he had with the prominent Latter-day Saint Church leader, scriptorian, and doctrinaire Joseph Fielding Smith.  President Smith had written extensively on the subject of the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry, offering rationales for the ban that have since been disavowed by the Church.  During that time, England sought out the opportunity to meet with President Smith and recorded that: I told President Smith about my experiences with the issue of blacks and the priesthood and asked him whether I must believe in the pre-existence doctrine to have good standing in the Church. His answer was, “Yes, because that is the teaching of the Scriptures.” I asked President Smith if he would show me the teaching in the Scriptures (with some trepidation, because I was convinced that if anyone in the world could show me he could). He read over with me the modern scriptural sources and then, after some reflection, said something to me that fully revealed the formidable integrity which characterized his whole life: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to to be in good standing because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”[1] The story is…

The Metaphysics of Translation

Understanding the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts is an important part of understanding his ministry and the religions that have emerged from the early Latter Day Saint movement.  Whether the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the Book of Abraham, or (as some might argue) the temple endowment ceremony, his translations are both very important and very controversial.  Kurt Manwaring has begun a month-long series of 10-questions interviews with people who are researching and writing about those translations, beginning with Sam Brown, who recently published Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism with Oxford University Press.  What follows here is a co-post to the 10 questions interview with Sam Brown, summarizing some key points and adding some commentary.  For those who want to read the full interview (and I suggest you do—it’s very interesting), follow the link here.  Note that this is not a review of his book (something that may come later for this blog), but a discussion based on the interview with Kurt Manwaring. Sam Brown should be familiar to much of our readership at the Times and Seasons.  He’s a believing member of the Church who is a physician-scientist by profession and a scholar of Mormonism by avocation.  He has published several books, essays, and journal articles in the Mormon studies field, including In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death…

A Small and Simple Quote

As I’ve been studying the “Come, Follow Me” material lately and talking about it with family, I’ve had a quote from Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park come to mind a few times.  There are a few statements in this section of Alma that have brought it to mind. The first is found in Amulek’s words to the Zoramites.  He tells them to not delay repentance because: “Behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God’ yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors” (Alma 34:32).  While I’ve discussed before that there are a few ways of viewing our ability to labor and repent in the afterlife, I feel like there is still a sense of urgency to actively shape our destiny and to learn and grow during this mortal life rather than letting too much of our time and energy slip away, thinking that there will always be more time.  As President Lorenzo Snow put it: “Though we may now neglect to improve our time, to brighten up our intellectual faculties, we shall be obliged to improve them sometime. We have got so much ground to walk over, and if we fail to travel to-day, we shall have so much more to travel to-morrow.”[1]  There do seem to be certain things that are best learned and experienced during this mortal life as we work to “brighten up our…

The Wagon Box Prophecy and the Temples

History is a fascinating world to explore, with many twists and turns along the way as we come to understand more about the narratives we have received and how they were formed.  Each generation of historians has the opportunity to try and peel back the world we live in and get at the truth of what happened in the past.  A fascinating example of this was discussed in a recent 10 questions interview with Gary Boatright, the operations manager for Church historic sites.  What follows here is a co-post to Kurt Manwaring’s interview—a summary with some commentary and quotes from the original, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here. An important story of Church history for Latter-day Saints living in southern and eastern Idaho is known as the “Wagon Box Prophecy.”  According to the most frequent rendition of the tale, in 1884, Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant visited southern Idaho and comforted newly-relocated Saints that were facing difficult times there.  While visiting one small group, Elder Woodruff preached from a wagon box, and said that: “The spirit of the Lord rests mightily upon me and I feel to bless you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He then went on to bless the land and prophesy of homes, schools, churches, and temples. “Yes,” he proclaimed, “as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples. …”  Now, my in-laws live in…

Zerah Pulsipher: A Pioneer Day Reflection

In the movie version of the popular Harry Potter series, a father-figure to the titular character tells Harry that: “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters [henchmen of the main villain].  We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us.”  While a fantasy film, there is a kernel of truth in the statement—we are all complex people, with goodness and evil in each of us.  Whether intentional or not, we have failings and blind spots and we fall short being the best person we could be.  Sometimes it is difficult to realize that to be true within ourselves, but it is also sometimes just as difficult to realize that the same holds true for our heroes and ancestors.  With Pioneer Day this week, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my own pioneer heritage and wanted to share my journey in coming to understand one of my ancestors in particular—a man named Zerah Pulsipher. Growing up in the Church, I saw the pioneers as spiritual heroes—unblemished saints who did brave and amazing things in the name of serving God and the Church.  Among my own ancestors, Zerah Pulsipher was pointed out because, as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy, his name made it into the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 124:138) and because some of his early missionary efforts contributed to Wilford Woodruff’s conversion (a story which was featured in Our Heritage: A…

First Vision Special Edition

Before I move on from discussing the First Vision, I wanted to share something that I find exciting.  Once in a while in Mormon studies journals, special volumes focus on the First Vision—such as the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies and a 1980 volume of the Journal of Mormon History.  These volumes, along with a few other essays, books, and articles published from time to time form the backbone of the academic discussion about Joseph Smith’s earliest visionary experience.  The latest volume of BYU Studies, as it turns out, is the next volume to focus on the topic of the First Vision, featuring papers presented at the conference “The First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr.: 200 Years On”, held at the Huntington Library earlier this year and a few other notable articles as well.  It’s a stellar issue with authors that run the gamut from general authorities to notable Latter-day Saint scholars to academic Evangelical Christians, etc., and builds upon previous scholarship to flesh out the context and our understanding of the First Vision in some interesting and satisfying ways. Many of the papers featured in the journal focus on the context of the culture in which the First Vision occurred.  For example, Richard L. Bushman wrote about how Joseph Smith’s words reveal his reaction to modernism and skepticism in the cultural milieu of his time.  George M. Marsden wrote about how Joseph Smith’s understanding of the Millennium fit within the various premillennial, postmillennial,…

Memory and the First Vision

How do we account for differences between the various accounts we have on record of the First Vision?  What role does memory play in how it was presented over time?  How have we viewed those accounts since they were first recorded?  These are big questions that are central to our understanding of Joseph Smith’s experience.  Steven C. Harper took a look at these questions and more in his book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press, 2019) and also sat down recently for a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring to talk about his book and the First Vision more generally.  What follows in this co-post is a summary of his remarks with some commentary, but I recommend taking the time to read the full interview here. Dr. Harper’s book is divided into three parts, the first of which delves into the issue of autobiographical memory.  In his interview, Harper talked about how the field of memory studies needs to be taken into greater account by historians of the First Vision: There are many untested, unproved assumptions about memory that are taken for granted in scholarship about the First Vision. It’s common, for example, to see the assumption that memories decay at predictable rates. It’s a maxim that recent memories are accurate and distant memories are inaccurate. Those are reassuring things we tell ourselves, but they are unfounded. Memories are much more unpredictable than that. They are based…

All Are Alike Unto God

I’ve been thinking about the issue of race in the Church (and the history of the temple and priesthood ban in particular) a lot lately.  As part of that thinking, I am working on a series of posts wrestling with the oft-proposed idea of an apology for the ban, but I did have something I wanted to share as a middle of the road approach before I get into the more in-depth discussions. One thing that could be done to help address the issue of both historical and ongoing racism within the Church would be to publicize a brief document treated with similar weight and importance as “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” or “The Living Christ: The Testimony of The Apostles” during general conference.  The positive aspects of this approach are that: a) It doesn’t require Church leaders to say anything they haven’t already said, b) It makes it clear that they what has been said before is authoritative rather than a series of PR stunts, c) It gives members a concise resource to draw upon in understanding and representing the Church’s stance on issues of racism, and d) It sidesteps the thorny issues surrounding the idea of releasing an apology for the ban.  As an exercise in curiosity, I tried to compile many of the most important statements of Church leaders and official statements of the Church on the subject into a document with a similar word…

Fundamental Principles of Mormonism

Today marks the 176th anniversary of the day that Joseph Smith died in an untimely fashion.  As I’ve been pondering on what his legacy means to me personally, I wanted to write about three topics that were central to Joseph Smith’s ministry, at least according to his own words.  As far as I am aware from the records I have searched through, he only used the term “fundamental principle” to describe aspects of our religion on three occasions.  The first was in 1838, when he wrote that the “the fundamental principles of our religion” were focused on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and “all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”[1]  The second occasion was in 1843, when he declared that, “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.”[2]  The third occasion was also in 1843, when the Prophet stated that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.”[3]  Together, these three fundamental principles form the heart of Joseph Smith’s message and, perhaps, help us to understand how Joseph Smith has done “more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).[4] Atonement and Resurrection The first of the three fundamental principles is the Atonement of Jesus the Christ. The full quote, written by Joseph Smith in 1838, is as follows: “The fundamental…

Touring the Kirtland Temple… In Utah

I finally achieved a long-term goal of mine.  For years, I’ve been trying to talk my wife into going out on a Church History pilgrimage, with the Kirtland Temple being one of the highlights of the trip we’ve been talking about, but it hasn’t happened until now.  Well, it kind of happened, anyway.  You see, a couple days ago, I took a tour of the Kirtland Temple from the comfort of my basement via Zoom. As part of the Community of Christ’s response to the current pandemic, the Kirtland Temple has remained closed to in-person visitors, but they have started offering online tours on weekdays at 2 p.m. EST.  For the small price of $10 per screen, you get as close of an experience to an in-person tour as you can without actually being there.  It is possible for many people to register for each tour, but in my case, there was only one other group that had registered beforehand, and they didn’t show up, so it was just my wife and me going through the house of the Lord with the tour guide (who also happened to be the site director). The tour was a neat experience for me.  We started out in the entryway space of the building (the vestibule), talked there for a minute as we got going, then worked our way through the building—going the court (or assembly hall) on the second floor, looking into the…

Statues in the Balance

One of my favorite episodes of the science fiction TV series Firefly is the “Jaynestown” episode.  In it, a self-serving mercenary of questionable moral character ends up visiting a planet he has been to before.  In the past, he’d attempted to rob the local aristocrat, but in the process of making a get-away, he had to jettison the money, dropping it over a village of oppressed laborers in the process.  The villagers didn’t know, however, that it was an accident or that Jayne had fully intended to keep the money for himself rather than sharing it with them, so by the time the Firefly crew visits the town, Jayne had become a local hero, a Robin Hood figure honored by a statue.  Distressed by this undeserved adulation, Jayne tries to convince the local folks that they shouldn’t look up to him, but they refuse to accept that he is not the legend they have made him out to be, with one of the villagers even sacrificing his life to save Jayne’s life.  At the end of the episode, once the crew has left the planet, Jayne discusses his distress with the captain, Mal, who tells him that: “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sommbitch or another.” These days aren’t particularly good times to be a statue.  With the recent renaissance of the civil rights movement working to root out…

A Lake of Fire and the Problem of Evil

I remember talking to an atheist on the riverfront walk in Dubuque, Iowa one day while serving my mission.  He told my companion and me that he couldn’t believe in God after some of the things he had seen, and went on to describe (in a fair amount of gruesome detail) visiting a Catholic church in South America in the aftermath of an attack by a militant group of some sort and seeing the mutilated bodies of the Christians laying scattered about.  If God existed, he reasoned, God would have not allowed such horrific act to take place.  I was taken aback and was uncertain how to respond to his expression of disbelief rooted in such deep trauma.  We talked with the man for a little while longer and moved on in with the day.  His comments got at one of the most difficult and complex philosophical issues of Christian religion—the theodicy, the question of why evil exists if God exists, is good, and is all-powerful.  That evening, I remember talking about the incident with my companion and thinking (somewhat naïvely): “I should have just opened up the Book of Mormon to Alma 14, where Alma and Amulek watch their converts burn and discuss why they can’t do anything about it.  That would have shown him how we have all the answers.”  Looking back, however, I’m grateful we didn’t turn to that section of the Book of Mormon during our…

Review: 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction

I think one of the most repeated refrains I see in comment threads in the bloggernacle is that our Church meetings generally lack the vibrancy and ability to deeply engage with the scriptures and ideas in ways that can stimulate interest and growth.  As Terryl L. Givens put it in a recent interview, “one of the main reasons we’re losing people is that we’re boring them to death.”[1]  The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is one organization that is working to provide resources that provide thought-provoking discussions, deep thought, and spiritual growth to members of the Church.  One of their most ambitious projects this year has been the production of a series of short books discussing the Book of Mormon—the Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series.  I recently finished Terryl Givens’s 2nd Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, and really enjoyed the experience of reading it. I suspect that the purpose of the series is partly two-fold—to excite people about the richness of our scriptural cannon and to introduce the work of some of the great minds at the Institute’s disposal to a broader audience. (Though certainly not all of those great minds—I was disappointed to realize that Philip Barlow would not, in fact, be giving us a 467 page discussion of Amaleki’s 18 verses, for example.)[2]  Terryl Givens is certainly a heavy-weight hitter in that category, having published significant volumes about both the Book of…

Hasten to Prepare

At the “Be One” celebration in 2018, President Dallin H. Oaks discussed the frustration he experienced as a member of the Church before the ban on individuals of black African descent holding the priesthood or receiving saving temple ordinances was lifted.  He said that he “observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them.”  As he “witnessed the pain of black brothers and sisters,” he “longed for their relief.”  When that restriction was lifted in 1978, he wept for joy.  At the “Be One” celebration, he acknowledged that “the hearts and practices of individual members did not come suddenly and universally,” with some embracing the revelation and its implications of racial equality while others, to this day, have “continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world.”  He went on to state that, “as we look to the future, one of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is its divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. … As servants of God … we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions—institutionally and personally—to abandon all personal prejudices.”[1]  This was (and is) a weighty and important call to both members of the Church…

A Prophet for President

Imagine that when you check the news tomorrow morning you see that Russell M. Nelson has announced that he is running for the office of the President of the United States.  Now imagine that later the same day, you receive a call from your bishop, and he extends a calling to you to serve as a missionary—specifically for the purpose of campaigning for President Nelson across the country.  What would your thoughts be?  How would you react? While the idea might seem a bit farfetched today, there was a time when Joseph Smith did start a campaign to become President of the United States and used missionaries to campaign for him.  Derek Sainsbury spent years working to uncover the details of Joseph Smith’s campaign and the 600-plus political missionaries who answered the call to canvass the nation, resulting in the book Storming the Nation: The Unknown Contributions of Joseph Smith’s Political Missionaries (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2020). Sainsbury recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for a 10 questions interview and shared many interesting insights from his research.  What follows here is a brief summary of the interview with quotes and commentary, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here.  It’s a fascinating glimpse into an oft-overlooked part of our history and how it impacted the Church for years to come. In the interview, Sainsbury explained a bit about why Joseph Smith ran for president.  He said:…

Saving Alvin

How we approach the scriptures affects what we see in them. In other words, our assumptions, our traditions, our cultural baggage that we carry with us as we enter the world of scriptural texts are lenses that give meaning and shape to what we find inside those scriptures.  Two approaches that I would like to examine today are looking at the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets as a unified, static monolith of doctrine vs looking at them as a dynamic collection of texts written by individuals who each had their own limited view.  I intend to look at those views using the doctrine of salvation for the dead as the focal point. In 1823, Alvin Smith (Joseph Smith’s oldest brother) suddenly became ill. He died a short time later in great pain. Alvin seems to have been considered the brightest and best of the Smith brothers, even within his own family.[1] Yet, according to William Smith, at Alvin’s funeral, a local Presbyterian minister “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it.”[2] Apparently, this did not sit well with Joseph Smith, Jr. either. Throughout his life, he grappled with the question of what became of people like Alvin—uncatechized and unbaptized individuals who were good people. Grappling with the question resulted in an evolution of theology concerning redemption of…

When You Believe: An EP Review

Last Friday, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square released a new extended play record (EP), “When You Believe: A Night at the Movies.”  I bought and downloaded the music this weekend and I have listened to it several times since then.  The EP is short (totaling five tracks and about 23 minutes), but it is a lot of fun and displays a high quality of performance.  My biggest complaint is that there isn’t more. One of my first thoughts with the idea of the Tabernacle Choir recording soundtrack pieces was the question of whether the choir can bring something to the pieces that the original soundtrack recordings do not have.  With the two pieces from blockbuster sci-fi films featured on the EP (Avengers and Star Wars), it feels like having a 300+ member choir combined with a virtuosic performance by the Orchestra at Temple Square packs a punch that added something extra to the tracks.  While I enjoy the originals, I think I enjoy these recordings more because of that added umpf.  The choir has also cultivated a lighter, younger sound in recent years that worked well for a softer, angelic tone at the start of “I’ll Fly Away” (though I felt like they had a difficult time making the transition to the rowdier, gospel-style singing I that I feel like the piece asks for later on in the arrangement) and makes for a pleasant rendition of “When You Believe.” …

Reflections on Meetings in the Church of Christ

One of my favorite quotes of all time about Mormonism focuses on the concept of Zion.  “Zion-building is not preparation for heaven.  It is heaven, in embryo.  The process of sanctifying disciples of Christ, constituting them into a community of love and harmony, does not qualify individuals for heaven; sanctification and celestial relationality are the essence of heaven.  Zion, in this conception, is both an ideal and a transitional stage into the salvation toward which all Christians strive.”[1]  Fiona and Terryl Givens have captured here what I find to be one of the most essential parts of my religion—the development of a community based on love and discipleship to Christ.  That, to me, is one of the core reasons for the Church—to provide a place where we can begin to learn and practice the things that are necessary for us to live in a heavenly community, even though the lived experience often falls short of that goal. Now, there was something profoundly ironic about studying the founding of the Nephite Christian church during a time that we are unable to attend worship services in the modern Church in last week’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum.  I was grateful for the chance to do so, however, since there will come a time, sooner or later, that the current situation stabilizes enough to return to regular Church meetings and each of us will need to make the decision about returning to those meetings. …

Art and Christ in Church Buildings

Yesterday, the Church released new guidelines about the appearance church meetinghouse.  The latest in the series of Christocentric reforms during President Nelson’s tenure, the intent of the guidelines is to help “create a feeling of reverence and dignity” in the spaces that “establish the first impression and feelings that individuals receive when entering a meetinghouse.”  In line with the recent strong emphasis on Jesus the Christ’s role in the Church that began with insistence on using the Church’s full name and continued with the shift from using the Angel Moroni to the Christus statue as the Church’s primary symbol, “framed artwork that focuses on the Savior should always be displayed” in these meetinghouse spaces.  Steps are to be taken to remove artwork, furniture, display cases, etc. that do not fall in line with these requirements (either to other parts of the building or from the building altogether) and a list of approved artwork has been issued. In many ways, I feel that this is a good move on the Church’s part.  As indicated in the First Presidency letter, the entrances and foyers are the first impression people have of the meetinghouse interior and set the tone as they come in.  Removing some of the clutter provides a neater appearance.  The artwork will help focus attention on Jesus Christ.  Those will both be a good thing as we enter the building and are mentally preparing ourselves for the sacrament and other…

Monotheism and Mormonism

One of the most central and difficult issues of Christian theology is how to fit together a commitment to monotheism with a belief that Jesus is a divine being.  While we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have resolved some aspects of this in our own ways, we still have areas that are unclear when it comes to working out this theological knot.  While I’m aware that we are looking at scriptures and doctrines that represent ideas that have evolved over time, my hope today is to muse on what we currently believe as a community based on the scriptures and the teachings of Church leaders and try to work towards a better understanding of the issue (as much for myself as for any readers). We have several competing commitments in our doctrine that complicate the issue of the Godhead and Jesus’s status in our theology, including a commitment to monotheism.  We are part of the Judeo-Christian religious family and Israelite theology committed itself to belief that there only existed one God—their God—known at various times as Yahweh/Jehovah/the Lord, Elohim, El Shaddai, and a few other names as well.  Think, for example, of the proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”[1] This commitment to believing that there was one God passed on to Christianity, as indicated when Paul wrote that: “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in…

Seer Stones and Grammar

Book of Mormon translation is one of those interesting subjects that is central to the ongoing Book of Mormon wars.  As well, to me, one interesting aspect about the Book of Mormon is how self-aware of its own creation it is.  For example, in Mosiah 8 (part of this week’s “Come, Follow Me” discussion), there is a discussion about seership and the use of “interpreters” that allow the owner to “look, and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13).  In the case discussed in the scriptures, the seer is King Mosiah II and the record is the Jaradite plates that Zeniff’s colony discovered.  While it doesn’t explicitly link this to the future translation of the Book of Mormon, it is interesting to be given a glimpse into the same method that Joseph Smith said he used to produce the Book of Mormon being used within the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, we don’t know much about the process by which the Book of Mormon was brought to us or the role of seer stones (interpreters) in that process.  There is a mountain of conflicting evidence to sift through in trying to pin down a viable theory of translation.  As Grant Hardy wrote: “There is still no consensus among LDS scholars as to how the translation process worked.  Some think that Joseph received spiritual impressions through the seer stone that he then put into his own words, while…

Review: Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Michael Austin’s book, Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is a quick, insightful and though-provoking read about the Book of Mormon.  The book began its life as a series of blog posts at By Common Consent, documenting some of Austin’s thoughts as he read the Book of Mormon in-depth for the first time in decades (after spending a significant amount of time during those decades focused on literary criticism and Biblical studies).  The book, published by the By Common Consent Press earlier this year, takes the form of a collection of short essays that, as put by the author, are “not scholarly articles, or even well-thought-out personal essays; rather, they are the record of a deeply personal experiment upon the word.”[1] A bit of background on the author: Michael Austin is a former English professor who currently serves as an academic administrator in Evansville, Indiana.  He has published several books and articles, with the subjects of political discourse in the United States of America and literary criticism of the Bible and Mormon Literature being some of the notable topics.  A few of his published books include Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, Inc., 2014), That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Prometheus, 2012), and Reading the World: Ideas that Matter (W. W. Norton & Company).  He also has written for the By Common…