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.

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…

Race and Lineage among early Latter-day Saints

Race is an incredibly sensitive topic, but it is also an incredibly important topic to discuss and understand.  A number of important books have been published about the racial narratives that were adopted by early members of the Church in recent years, including Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Max Mueller to discuss the book in a 10 questions interview.  What follows here is a summary of the interview, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here. Max Perry Mueller is an assistant professor of religious studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies.  He describes himself as “a theorist and historian of race and religion in American history, with particular interest in indigenous and African-American religious experiences, epistemologies, and cosmologies.”  He turned his interest to the Latter-day Saint experience because of the “insider/outsider paradox” that is a part of our culture and the fact that while “Latter-day Saints have been stand-ins for ‘American,’ … in their exceptional-ness, they remain set apart.”  As he went on to say: Race, of course, factures heavily into these historical and cultural understandings of Latter-day Saints. Non-Mormon Americans have projected their own anxieties about race, religion, and gender onto Latter-day Saints since the Church’s founding. And at the same time, Latter-day Saints have responded by projecting…

Seek After These Things

There is a part of me that is deeply drawn to the Christian religions that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years.  Perhaps that comes from my fascination with history (particularly the Byzantine Empire), perhaps from beautiful experiences with choral music written by Christians from the Renaissance up through our own day.  Perhaps some comes from spending the better part of a decade involved in the music ministry of a small Presbyterian Church in northern Utah.  And perhaps some comes from my fascination with theology and learning how different people have addressed the difficulties associated with the subject over the centuries.  Whatever the case, there is something in me that longs for the best that Christianity has to offer in transcending this world and bringing humankind into God’s presence. Yet, on the other hand I feel cut off from that tradition because of my belief in the Great Apostasy. It is one of the ironies of our religion that we seek to be recognized as Christian while simultaneously dismissing Christian religions as apostate.  It is also one of my personal mental tensions to feel drawn to the past and to the best that other religions offer, but to feel unable to fully embrace those things at church without worrying about betraying my own community to some degree. Perhaps Joseph Smith felt something of that same tug-of-war.  On the one hand, he believed that “<mankind> did not come unto the…

Revisiting Sherem

Many of my choices in books this year have been influenced by a decision to try and catch up on literature about the Book of Mormon.  I feel a bit overwhelmed, to be honest, since there’s a lot out there and I have been more focused on the New Testament in recent years.  I recently finished reading Christ and the Antichrist: Reading Jacob 7, a collection of essays on Jacob 7 that resulted from a two-week gathering of the Mormon Theology Seminar.  There are both a published book version and a free PDF version offered through the Maxwell Institute.  It’s a good read, and I felt like there some interesting takeaways that have changed how I see Sherem (the titular antichrist). Sherem is an interesting character.  We don’t know where he comes from, but Jacob portrays him as a no-good, trouble-causing vagabond that shows up on the scene and disrupts Jacob’s congregation and people.  Jacob even goes as far as telling Sherem to his face that: “thou art of the devil,” and still refers to him as a “wicked man” after his repentance and death.[1]  Jacob also structures his telling of the story to present Sherem as a sort of anti-prophet, inverting a trope from the Hebrew Bible where “there came a man of God” who delivers a message to someone in authority, often followed by showing a sign that God’s power is behind him.[2]  Instead, Sherem’s coming is noted…

Resurrection and the Timing of Healing

The Christus

Bear with me as I go out into the theological weeds to explore an obscure doctrinal debate about the resurrection.  As my wife and I studied the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum section on Easter, we discussed Amulek statements about the resurrection in Alma 11.  Our question was: What exactly does it mean to “restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body” (Alma 11:44)?  Does it mean that the body is perfectly brought back to the condition it was when it died (“as we now are at this time”) and may undergo further healing and development or that it is brought back in a perfected, ideal state (“its perfect frame”)? Decades ago, the same question was asked by a priesthood quorum.  According to a Church periodical: It was the opinion of some members of the class that when the body comes forth it will be just as it was when it was laid down.  That is to say, if an arm or a leg were missing or the person otherwise maimed, the body would come forth as it was laid down and the restoration of any missing part would be added later.  Others thought that it would come forth in physical and mental perfection. When they turned to the then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith for clarification, he wrote that: “There would be no purpose whatsoever in having the body of any individual come forth from the dead…

A Tale of Two Statues

There are several statues that exist at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, but two stand out as the most well-known and prominent.  The first is the Angel Moroni, standing at the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple.  Created by Cyrus E. Dallin, the statue of the angel represents the Book of Mormon prophet who finished the record and later delivered it to Joseph Smith.  Regarded as a fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecy of an “angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth,”[1] replicas or variations of the statue have been placed on most Latter-day Saint temples as a symbol of the Restoration of the gospel.[2]  The second is the Christus statue held in the northwest visitor’s center, overlooking a green area and the historic Tabernacle.  A copy of the original sculpture held at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, Denmark, created by Danish sculpture Bertel Thorvaldsen, the Christus statue replica has been located at Temple Square since 1966.  Other replicas have since been used by the Church at the World’s Fair and at visitors’ centers near 16 temples as well as two other locations as a symbol of our commitment to Jesus Christ.  Together, these two powerful statues represent different aspects of our history and belief—the one focusing on the legacy of Joseph Smith, the second on the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth. While the two…

COVID, Conference, and Choir

The world is facing extraordinary times.  With the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide, everyone is (or soon will be) feeling an impact from it in one way or another.  It will likely leave some lasting changes on our society.  Within the Church, it provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on how we have been doing things and to consider how we can change and possibly improve.  In the age of technology that we live in, there are plenty of opportunities available, such as the has been shown with how the Church is handling general conference. In the past, pandemics and epidemics have changed how the Church has done things.  Towards the end of WWI, a the most severe pandemic in recent history spread across the world, infecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population, shutting down many countries for a time, and killing somewhere between 17 million to 50 million people between January 1918 and December 1920.  During the ongoing battle with this H1N1 influenza virus, the spring 1919 General Conference was delayed from April until June.  Beyond the impact on the timing of general conference, the Spanish flu influenced a few other events and policies in the Church.  It was that pandemic that spurred the Church to change the Sacramental water from being partaken from a shared cup to using separate cups.[1]  It was also in this era of massive death due to the Great War and the…

The Way and the Ancient Gospel

The good shepherd

Along with “baby Yoda” memes, Disney’s Mandalorian made two phrases trendy: “This is the way,” and “I have spoken.”  Being a Star Wars fan, the phrases quickly made their way into the lexicon of my household.  So, it was humorous to me to find an entire lesson in “Come, Follow Me” this year entitled “This is the Way,” even though it makes sense in context.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi lays out the Doctrine of Christ in detail and concludes that: “This is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21), which was the focus of the lesson. All Star Wars humor aside, I find it interesting that Nephi concludes his discussion of the Doctrine of Christ with the statement “this is the way.”  The reason why I find that interesting is that early disciples of the Lord in the eastern hemisphere didn’t think of their religion as “Christianity” or call themselves “Christians” at first.  If we believe the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians,’” and the term may have initially been a term of reproach (something like calling a Latter-day Saint a “Mormon” or “Mormonite”).[1]  Before then, their religion seems to have simply been called “the Way,” which is how it is referred to throughout Acts.[2] …

The Olive Tree Restoration

There have been some common underlying themes to several Times and Seasons posts these past few months.  The three themes or questions that I have in mind at the moment are: “What is the nature of the Great Apostasy?”, “What is the nature of the Restoration?”, and “What is the relationship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the broader tradition of Abrahamic faiths?”  I’ve posted about the Church’s Interfaith efforts, about B.H. Robert’s understanding of the Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God, and an attempt on my part to understand the First Vision based on what is presented in the textual accounts of the event.  Steven Smith discussed the comparisons of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and to yeast in the post The humbling of the kingdom?, asked what it means to be the True Church in the form of a conversation, discussed an alternative approach to understanding restoring the church, and also brought up the ideas of the Christian story and the Mormon story as ways to approach our own self-understanding. While the continuing focus on these topics hasn’t been premeditated or coordinated between us, they are apparently weighing on our minds.  And they apparently continue to do so, since I have a few thoughts to share on the subject based on my study of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 this week.…

Embracing Jacob’s Sermon

One of the more awkward moments of my time in graduate school came when I was reading a book about Mormon polygamy while taking a break in the lab.  A visiting scientist from Pakistan who was doing research in the same lab saw me reading the book and asked me: “That looks like an interesting book.  Are you preparing to take a second wife?”, then joked about taking a second wife himself.  A bit flustered, I explained that my wife and I weren’t interested in expanding our family that way, that my church had stopped practicing plural marriage over a century ago, and that I was reading the book to better understand my ancestor’s decisions.  It was an interesting conversation, needless to say. The previous week’s reading in the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum includes Jacob 2, the epicenter for discussing polygamy in the Book of Mormon.  Recently, a good friend who has chosen to leave the Church asked me: “Do you think the church will eventually disavow the polygamous teachings in the Book of Mormon?”  I was somewhat surprised at the question, since the section in the Book of Mormon in question already disavows polygamy, calling the practice “an abomination” that causes “sorrow … [and] mourning” for the women involved.  It also forcefully states that the word of the Lord is that “there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have…

Sacrament Prayers and the Doctrine of Christ

I am always interested in seeing how ideas grow, develop, and take shape of the years.  I suppose that is part of why I find the study of theology so interesting.  As I was studying the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum this last week, it struck me how the sacrament prayers seem to have developed and formulated alongside the Doctrine of Christ in the Book of Mormon. Early in the Book of Mormon, the prophetic triumvirate of Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob propose a controversial change to the traditional Hebrew religion, a change based on their revelations and their understanding of Isaiah that they called the Doctrine of Christ.  Towards the end of his record, Nephi summarizes this doctrine as follows: Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father? … Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.[1] There is the nucleus of the future sacrament…

Resources for Ward Choirs

This week, the American Choral Directors Association is meeting in Salt Lake City, so choral music is on my mind.  While my career isn’t in music, it’s an art form that plays an important role in my life.  I have some training in piano, choral performance, and organ while my wife was trained in vocal performance.  We’ve spent most of our married life in music-related callings as a result.  It’s not a stretch to say that leading a ward choir is, perhaps, the most rewarding and most difficult of the music callings we’ve been involved in.  Few people want to put in the extra time at Church or (especially if young children are involved) feel like they can do so, which means that ward choirs are often small.  Budgets are limited, so finding music that is usable in sacrament meetings can be difficult.  Luckily, however, there is an ever-growing corpus of free or inexpensive choir music available for Latter-day Saint ward choirs online, and my goal here is to gather a good list of those resources into one place here.[1] One of the newest sites to join this list is Ronald Staheli’s sheet music site.  Staheli is an internationally known and respected choral conductor who retired a few years ago from leading choirs at Brigham Young University.  Apparently, he’s spent a fair amount of time during retirement focusing on writing music for ward choirs.  Launched just a few months ago,…

The First Vision-A Close Reading

This year has been marked out as a bicentennial celebration of the year Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision.  President Russell M. Nelson invited us to “immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration,” offering the suggestion to “begin your preparation by reading afresh Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.”  While he specifically mentions the official account of the First Vision as a starting point, President Nelson encourages each of us to go on from that account and do more study: “Select your own questions.  Design your own plan.  Act on any of these invitations to prepare yourself.”[1] As part of my own study of the First Vision, I reviewed all the primary accounts of the event to see what could be gleaned from them about what the messages of the vision were.  Based on documents we have available, my feelings are that the First Vision was primarily a conversion experience for Joseph Smith and a confirmation that a general apostasy had occurred.  In looking at all of the contemporary accounts of the First Vision, the only messages that God presented to Joseph Smith were that (1) God forgave his sins, (2) a general apostasy had occurred, (3) Joseph Smith shouldn’t join any existing churches, (4) Joseph Smith would learn the fullness of the gospel later on, and (5) the Second Coming would occur soon.  There are corollaries that can…

What Has Isaiah To Do With Nephi?

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a yard that had landscaping that baffled me.  It was a grassy plain with a few small trees, and then about a half-dozen boulders scattered among the grass.  The boulders were what baffled me—they didn’t seem to fit in with the landscaping around them and they certainly made mowing the lawn more complicated than it otherwise would have been.  I’m sure they made sense to the person who put them there, but as far as I could see, it seemed like the homeowners had survived a meteor shower and then decided to live around the scattered meteorites rather than remove them from their yard. Up until recently, I felt much the same way about the Isaiah chapters in 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.  They seemed like meteorites dropped into the middle of the text, or perhaps strange filler episodes that didn’t help move the plot forward.  When I came across them, I generally acknowledged that they were Isaiah, skimmed over them and moved on without trying to understand how they fit into the rest of what Nephi was saying.  Watching me read Isaiah in the Book of Mormon would have resembled watching my neighbors mow around the boulders in their yard.  That may be a show of my own failings in approaching the scriptures, but I suspect that I’m not alone in taking that approach. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to…

Saints, Volume 2: A Review

The second volume of the Church’s official history, Saints: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 was released this Wednesday.  I just finished blitzing through the book and wanted to share my thoughts on the volume.  These official histories walk a tightrope, balancing a lot of goals at one time.  This volume, for example, covers approximately 50 years of well-documented history in less than 700 pages in ways that are open, accurate, and truthful while remaining faith promoting and doing so in an engaging and readable manner.  That’s a tall order to achieve all those requirements at one time.  Having finished reading it, however, I can say that I am pleased overall with the end results and enjoyed reading the book. Volume 2 of the series covers the years 1846-1893.  This is the time period when Latter-day Saints left the Midwestern United States en masse and settled the arid region of the Great Basin.  Missionaries went abroad throughout the world and converts worked to immigrate to Utah to join their fellow Saints, make the desert blossom as a rose, and build temples.  Along the way, the difficult issue of plural marriage challenged the faithful, both because it was difficult to embrace the principle and because of stringent opposition from the federal government of the United States of America.  The book explores these narratives through the eyes of individuals who lived at those times, with individuals like Louisa Barnes Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Jane…

Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 3: Christ and the Tree

The tree of life and its fruit mean many things to many different people.  Immortality, eternal life, the presence of God, and Jesus the Christ are all important meanings of the tree in our tradition, but many more could be stated.  Among Christians, one prominent meaning of the tree of life is as a symbol of the Christ.  One way in which this is the case was hinted at when the apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’s death and crucifixion as being “killed by hanging him on a tree.”[1]  The cross is referred to as a tree elsewhere in the New Testament as well, and, as C. Wilfred Griggs wrote, “Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life.”[2]  The tree and its fruit can be seen as a symbol of Jesus the Christ. The New Testament references to the cross as a tree took root and caused some commentary among Christians about the cross being the tree of life.  For example, St. John of Damascus wrote that: “The tree of life which was planted by God in Paradise pre-figured this precious Cross.  For since death was by a tree, it was fitting that life and resurrection should be…

Reconsidering the Lamanites

One of the major points of discussion in recent weeks is over an error in the printed “Come, Follow Me” manual.  A Joseph Fielding Smith quote with racist content was included in the discussion of 2 Nephi 5 and it was only noted that it does not accurately reflect Church doctrine after the manuals were printed.  The decision was made to change the digital version of the material but to send out the manuals as printed, with the belief that most members would be using the digital version.  Church statements to the press have focused on re-affirming that Church rejects racism in any form and disavows racist teachings.  At a meeting of the NAACP in Utah, Elder Gary E. Stevenson expressed that the quote was a mistake and that he wants members to disregard the printed version.  He also stated that: “I’m deeply saddened and hurt by this error and for any pain that it may have caused our members and for others.”[1]  It’s been an issue that has fed into the ongoing discussion of the Church’s efforts to deal with racism. Now, there are many unresolved questions with this error.  For example, what exactly is the review process for the “Come, Follow Me” manuals and how did the quote pass inspection?  Will the official institute manual for the Book of Mormon also be updated to remove the quote?[2]  Will the Church tell members to disregard the printed version via…

Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 2: The Presence of God

Truman G. Madsen once wrote: “Religious literature, ancient and modern, is replete with images of a tree of life that is to be planted in a goodly land by a pure stream.  Some typologies regard it as the link at the very navel of the earth—the source of nourishment between parent and child—and place it at the temple mount in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth meet.  The fruit of this tree is most precious.”[1]  The tree of life is often portrayed as a tree from heaven, a symbol of paradise or of God’s presence itself.  Hence, it is fitting that imagery of the tree of life is often present in the temples—places where heaven and earth meet. The tree of life tends to be found in places where God is present.  An interesting article published in the Ensign years ago observed: “Tree of life symbolism permeates the Old Testament. The tree symbolizes not only eternal life but also God’s presence. For example, Adam and Eve’s exclusion from the tree was also exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Thus, whenever man regained God’s presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion.”[2]  The initial tree of life is found in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking the garden” (Genesis 3:8).  When they were cast out from the garden and the tree, they were “cut off both temporally…

The Impact of a Scholar – Truman G. Madsen

Throughout the twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seen several academic figures who had an impact on the collective thought of church members.  Hugh Nibley and Eugene England are a couple examples of this group, but one other well-known academic figure in 20th century Mormonism that stands out is Truman G. Madsen.  A philosopher and an educator, Truman G. Madsen is best known for his lectures on the Prophet Joseph Smith and some of his other works on Latter-day Saint theology, philosophy, and history, such as Eternal Man, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, and Presidents of the Church: Insights Into Their Lives and Teachings.[1]  After passing away in 2009, his son, Barnard Madsen, was tasked with writing Truman G. Madsen’s biography, which was published in 2016.  Barnard recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for a 10 questions interview about the life and impact of his father, which can be read in full here.  What follows is a summary of his remarks with some commentary. When asked “what is Truman Madsen’s greatest legacy?”, Barnard responded that it was “the character of Joseph Smith, and that he [Joseph Smith] was the clearest window to the Living Christ.  For over sixty years, Dad studied his life and teachings, every original and second-hand source he could find of those who knew Joseph best.”  Studying the life and teachings of Joseph Smith was something that Truman…

The Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God

One of the more controversial aspects of Nephi’s vision of the tree of life is the great and abominable church or church of the devil.  In his record, Nephi states that “there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10).  At times, Church leaders and members have associated “the church of the devil” with specific organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, while at others, they have tried to use it as a metaphor for any organization that promotes evil.  In recent history, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stressed the latter.  Yet, there is also a Church of the Lamb of God that is spoken of by Nephi that is also worth discussing as an opposite counterpart of the church of the devil. In his vision, Nephi reports seeing “the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches” that was founded by the devil and that “they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:5, 26).  What this church of the devil was and how it participated in the Great Apostasy has been a matter of discussion over the years. Most famously, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught…

A New First Vision Podcast

We are now in the year 2020, which is 200 years after the date that Joseph Smith said that he was first visited by God the Father and Jesus the Christ.  At the most recent general conference, President Russell M. Nelson noted this anniversary and invited us to “prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.”[1]  On New Year’s Day, he reiterated this, stating that: “I designated 2020 as a bicentennial period commemorating 200 years since God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in a vision.”[2]  In addition to a special general conference, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has begun releasing other resources to commemorate and celebrate the beginning of the Restoration, including a new six-episode podcast, “The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.”[3]  Kurt Manwaring recently visited with the host of The First Vision podcast, Spencer W. McBride, to discuss the series.  What follows here is a summary of their discussion with some commentary, but I recommend reading the full text, available here. The podcast is a set of six episodes discussing different aspects of the First Vision with historians.  Each episode is fairly short (only one runs longer than 30 minutes).  Topics include the culture of the United States of American that contributed to the First Vision, what question Joseph Smith was really asking, what the location the vision took place…

Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 1: Immortality and Eternal Life

Between reflecting on Mack Wilberg’s choral piece “The Tree of Life,” preparing for the Book of Mormon Come Follow Me curriculum, and studying the Revelation of John the Divine these past few weeks, the tree of life has been on my mind. I thought I might share some reflections on the subject by highlighting possible meanings of the tree of life and its fruit in a series of posts, including immortality and eternal life, the presence of God, and Jesus the Christ. Immortality and eternal life are two of the possible meanings of the tree of life.  In the Hebrew Bible, the tree of life is one of the two most notable trees in the Garden of Eden—alongside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 2:9).[1]  When Adam and Eve transgressed, the Lord God noted that if they happened to “take also from the tree of life, and eat” that they would “live forever” (Genesis 3:22).  This ties the tree of life explicitly to immortality.[2]  We see a similar meaning in the Book of Alma, where Alma preaches about the resurrection of the dead and is challenged to explain the resurrection in light of the tree of life being protected by cherubim and a flaming sword, which his opponent interprets to mean that “there was no possible chance that they should live forever” (Alma 12:21).  Alma responds that “if it were possible for Adam to have…

Women, Priesthood, and Power

There are several hot topics that come up on a regular basis in the Church.  One of those is women’s relationship with the priesthood in the Church.  Concerns over equality in policy making, involvement in the life of the Church, and quite a few other things factor into this issue.  Given that women comprise half (or more) of the membership of the Church, it is of huge importance to all members. One notable voice speaking about women and the priesthood is Wendy Ulrich, who recently published a book on the subject entitled Live Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power and Priesthood (Deseret Book, 2019).  Ulrich is president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, a visiting professor at Brigham Young University, and an author of several books for Latter-day Saint audiences.  She recently shared some of her insights into the topic of women and the priesthood in a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring.  What follows here is a summary of her remarks with some commentary, and I encourage you to read the full text of the interview here. In the interview, Wendy Ulrich begins by discussing how there are several different perspectives among women in the Church about the priesthood. On one end of the spectrum, “some women in the Church assume priesthood is something men have that they aren’t especially interested in” for various reasons. On the other hand, “some women are convinced that women will never…

Latter-day Saints in Law

Latter-day Saints in the United States of America have had an impact in the field of law. Attorney Brian Craig highlighted some of the most important Latter-day Saint Lawyers in a recent 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring, after publishing a book called Latter Day Lawyers. What follows here is a short summary of the 10 questions post, but the full interview can be read here. The basis of Brian Craig’s book is the idea that “a select group of lawyers and judges of a particular religion have influenced the constitutional and legal rights of all Americans under the backdrop of landmark and intriguing cases.” He compared his work to another book, As Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court: From Brandeis to Kagan by David G. Dalin and noted that: “As a lawyer, I wanted to explore more the intersection of law and religion.” His book focuses on “people who have left an impact on the American legal system” and “includes profiles of both conservative lawyers, like Rex Lee, and more left-leaning individuals, such as James E. Faust.” By doing so, Craig has brought the efforts of Latter-day Saint lawyers in the U.S.A. into greater focus. Among the most important figures that Brian Craig highlights is Rex Lee. Perhaps most familiar to many in Utah as the father of Mike Lee or a former president of Brigham Young University, Rex Lee is an important figure in his own right. As…

Church Interfaith Outreach in 2019

One of the most common topics featured on the Church’s news sites this year has been interfaith outreach by Church leaders and members. A list of articles includes: January 17: “How BYU Is Creating an Environment of Respect and Understanding for Students of All Faiths” February 19: “Tennessee Young Women Build Interfaith Bonds with Muslim Friends by Holding a Ward ‘Hijab Drive’” March 3: “Latter-day Saints Join Other Faiths to Change Women’s Lives” March 9: “Prophet Meets Pope Francis at the Vatican” March 16: “Statement of Support for Muslim Communities and All Others Impacted by Christchurch Shootings” March 18: “Church Hosts Interfaith Musical Tribute in Tabernacle” April 18: “President Nelson Pens Personal Note of Sympathy to Pope Francis after Notre Dame Fire” April 30: “Florida Latter-day Saint Youth Host Jewish Friends during Chapel Tour and Get-to-Know-You Night” May 21: “President Nelson Announces Donation to Rebuild Mosques Damaged in Deadly New Zealand Attacks” May 23: “1879 Mass Held in St. George Tabernacle Commemorated by Latter-day Saints and Catholic Leaders” May 28: “Muslim and Christian faiths join effort in promoting interfaith harmony and unity” June 5: “Muslims and Christians in Singapore Collaborate in Historic Iftar” June 6: “In Jerusalem, Apostle Encourages Interfaith Listening and Learning” June 7: “Elder Cook Addresses Commonalities of Latter-day Saints and Jews in Jerusalem” June 30: “Apostle and Catholic Cardinal Speak at Freedom Festival” July 2: “Cardinal Dolan Speaks on Religious Freedom, Meets with Church Leaders during Visit…

Putting the Book of Mormon Front and Center

Elder B.H. Roberts of the Seventy once wrote that: So long as the truth respecting it is unbelieved {the Book of Mormon} will remain to the world an enigma, a veritable literary sphinx, challenging the inquiry and speculation of the learned. But to those who in simple faith will accept it for what it is, a revelation from God, it will minister spiritual consolation, and by its plainness and truth draw men into closer communion with God.[1] It can be difficult to pin down the Book of Mormon due to the many different things that can be used as evidence for or evidence against a divine origin for the book. In a recent 10 Questions interview with Kurt Manwaring, Tad Callister talked about his newest publication, A Case for the Book of Mormon, which discusses some of these evidences. What follows here is a short summary with commentary, but for those who are interested, the original discussion can be found by clicking here. Tad R. Callister is relatively well known at this point. He served as a general authority in the Seventies and might be remembered for giving short but pointed talks in general conference like “The Book of Mormon—a Book from God” and “Joseph Smith—Prophet of the Restoration”. He later served in the General President of Sunday School in the Church, where he was involved with bringing the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum to all age groups. He has also…

Documents and Dialogic Revelations

Joseph Smith began his ministry with a wealth of visions and revelations. Many among these were what have been called dialogic revelations–answers given by God to Joseph Smith in response to questions or specific situations. Written documents phrased as God speaking through Joseph Smith have been treated with particular weight, both by early Latter Day Saints and their spiritual heirs today. For those of us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, most of his successors to the presidency of the Church have not used the same method of giving voice to the will of God. With John Taylor being the major exception, most Church leaders since the death of Joseph Smith have expressed what they believed that God wants to be done through sermons, instructions and policy making, or through group decisions made in the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency. As the second president of the Church, Brigham Young set this trend: he very rarely dictated revelations, with what is now Section 136 in the Doctrine and Covenants being the main exception.  In a recent BYU Studies publication, Christopher Blythe (a Research Associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and a former historian/documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project) shared a document that records a revelation given by Brigham Young much later in his ministry (see here). Brigham Young shared this revelation during a discourse given in St. George during…

Temples, Sacrifices, and Revelations

Temples hold a central place in Latter-day Saint history. The narrative of building the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples and the impact it had on our theology is a dominant theme of the early Church. Even going beyond that, however, much of the history that followed has temples looming in the background, even though it would be decades before another temple was completed in Utah Territory. In one of the recent Kurt Manwaring 10 questions interviews, Richard Bennett discusses some of his thoughts on the subject and his recent publication Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice. This is only a summary with some commentary here, but I suggest reading the full interview. Richard E. Bennett is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He has been deeply involved with Mormon studies journals as a former president of the Mormon History Association, a former Associate Editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and a current member of the editorial board for BYU Studies. Bennett is the author of several historical works, including The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841–1846, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846-1848, Mormons at the Missouri: 1846-1852, and Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice. Bennett’s attention was turned to temples by his studies of the Latter-day Saint exodus: While researching and writing my two books on the exodus … I learned that temples and temple covenants played…

Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, a Review

Cover of Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

Back in June, Clark Goble mentioned that he was going to write a review of Thomas G. Alexander’s new biography Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith. It’s one of many misfortunes among the great losses of Clark passing away that we never had the opportunity to read the review he was planning on writing about the book. As a direct result of Clark’s discussion of the biography, I read the book and thought I might share some thoughts. Thomas G. Alexander was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. Along with an illustrious career in teaching, he has published several works that are important to Latter-day Saint history, including the groundbreaking Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1830 as well as Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff and Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History. Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith was written by Alexander as a part of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series—a collection of short biographies written from published sources. The biography is a fast-paced overview of Brigham Young’s life, covering key events from his childhood, his conversion to the early Latter Day Saint movement, and onward through his time as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The heaviest emphasis is on his time in Utah Territory, both during his tenure as territorial governor and…