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.

The Poisoning of Deseret

One biographer of the famed British composer and ethnomusicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams posted a question – how could Vaughan Williams be both a socialist and a nationalist at the same time?  One tended towards trying to eliminate boundaries and differences while the other tended toward glorying in boundaries and difference.  He answered through two different quotes from the composer himself: I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.[1] Art, like charity, should begin at home.  If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself [the artist], the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. … Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art? … The composer must not shut himself up and think about great art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.[2] His approach was a melding of aspects of both sides – embracing and loving your own culture and community, but not at the expense of respect for other people’s culture and making room for them to do the same. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading about the history and composers of European art music.  (I know, I’m weird.)  One trend of the…

Consecration and Tithing

What do you think of when you hear about the law of consecration?  For me, the initial images that flash through my mind have to do with past attempts in the Church to implement programs like the United Order of Enoch in various communities in the Midwest and Utah during the 1800s.  Yet, I also recognize that there is more to the topic, even if it’s hard to adjust that mental image that I have held in the past.  When I first encountered it, I assumed talk of promising to live the law of consecration today was usually a hypothetical “if the Church reinstitutes the United Order, you’ll live it” type of promise.  However, as historian Steven C. Harper discussed in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk in connection with his forthcoming book Let’s Talk About the Law of Consecration, the Law of Consecration really is something that we can live by today in ways that the temple covenant reflect rather than strictly being limited to the United Order systems.   What follows here is a co-post to that interview. In introducing what the law of consecration means to him, Steven C. Harper had the following to say: It’s the two great commandments. People who love God and their fellow beings consecrate all they have and are to the welfare of God’s children. The Law of Consecration is part of the revelation in D&C 42 known…

The Pony Express Before the Pony Express

Growing up in Utah, I remember a time when my parents took me out to a remote location where there was a reenactment of the Pony Express, a famous mail system in the western United States of America that facilitated fast communication. As noted in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, however, it wasn’t the first time that an attempt was made to create a mail system that used riders passing mail across the western United States. Years before the Pony Express started, Brigham Young initiated his own “Swift Pony Express” system to facilitate delivery from the east. Devan Jensen discussed some of the details about the mail system. What follows here is a copost to the full interview. Called the “Y. X. Company”, the initiative predated the more famous Pony Express by three years. The venture came about because of conditions in the west. As Jensen explained: By the 1850s, fast, reliable delivery of people, food, supplies, and mail became top priorities in Utah Territory, and Governor Brigham Young and other territorial leaders gathered in February 1856 to propose an express line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. … Because so many Latter-day Saint emigrants came from the eastern United States or the United Kingdom, the mail was an emotional lifeline to the families left behind, as well as a source of news that was vital to immigration. Brigham Young proposed…

Relief Society Records

Documents feel like treasures to me.  They give insight into the past and have to be mined to get everything you can out of them.  Because of that, it’s really exciting that the Church has begun to release minutes from the Relief Society General Board.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring interviewed Anne Berryhill about the minutes that have been released.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview. In the interview, Anne Berryhill introduced the meeting minutes as follows: During the inaugural meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith said: “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.” (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842) The Relief Society General Board Minutes contain records of the meetings and work of the Relief Society General Presidency and Board from its inception in Nauvoo in 1842 and can be seen as the constitution and law of Relief Society globally. The records represent efforts to organize and administer Relief Society both at a church-wide and local level. They reflect the work of women who sought to care for one another physically, morally, and spiritually. Early welfare efforts, home industry, discourses, and visits are documented. Collaborative work with national and international organizations is detailed within these records. They cover a wide range of topics and allow one to see how the work of Relief Society…

Grace, Works, and Becoming

Since at least the time of Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius, western Christianity has been embroiled in a debate about salvation and grace. The two extremes have been represented as salvation by grace alone and earning salvation by our own works.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Terryl Givens described the need to shift our paradigm about how we approach this issue in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In the interview, Givens brought up his concerns that we have focused too much on fitting in with more mainline Christians in our efforts to improve faith relationships.  As he put it: For a long time, many Latter-day Saints have felt inadequate—or like newcomers at the table of interfaith relations. Some have been persuaded that we have neglected the role of grace in our theology and discourse alike. That may be true, but in overcompensating, we have at times neglected to recognize distinctions between our understanding of grace and that of fellow Christians—distinctions so essential as to render them incommensurate terms in our respective contexts. Context matters, and our system of belief works differently than most other Christians.  And, frankly, western Christianity’s obsession with grace vs. works is a bit off the mark within the context of the Restoration.  I’ve noted before that I find that the Eastern Orthodox…

Accuracy of the Journal of Discourses

One of my ongoing dreams is to be able to afford a full set of the Journal of Discourses as part of my collection of Latter-day Saint books (though given the price tag,  it probably won’t happen any time soon). In any case, the Journal of Discourses holds an interesting place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It is not an official Church publication, contains a lot of statements that aren’t regarded as doctrinally sound today, and its accuracy is questionable, but it is also one of the primary sources through which we access the words of earlier Church leaders.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, LaJean Carruth (a professional transcriber of manuscripts written in Pitman and Taylor shorthands and the Deseret Alphabet at the Church History Library) discussed some of her findings from transcribing the original shorthand records behind some of the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses. In the interview, Carruth shared an introduction to the Journal of Discourses: The Journal of Discourses began as a private venture endorsed by the First Presidency. George Darling Watt reported the proceedings of Sunday sermons, general conferences, and other meetings in Pitman shorthand. He then transcribed many of these for publication in the Deseret News. He was not paid for this work, and had a large family to support. It was suggested that Watt publish transcriptions of his sermons in England, and use the profits from this transcription…

The Smith Family and the First Vision

One of the more interesting points of contention about the history of the First Vision is how much Joseph Smith’s family knew about the First Vision.  During his lifetime, only 4 accounts of the First Vision were published in English – Orson Pratt’s “A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions” in 1840, the official history of the Church that began to be published in the Times and Seasons  in 1842, the Wentworth letter (also published in the Times and Seasons in 1842), and an interview with David Nye White that was published in the Pittsburgh Weekly in 1843.  Other contemporary accounts were recorded in private journals, unpublished histories, or were published in German.  The best-known accounts from Joseph Smith’s family were recorded years later and often seem to conflate the First Vision and Moroni’s visit, which has given rise to the thought that he may not have told them much about the First Vision.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, however, Kyle Walker discussed some reminiscences from Joseph Smith’s younger sister, Katherine Smith Salisbury that indicate that he may have told more to his family than was previously thought.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, with excerpts and some discussion. In explaining what the accounts from Katherine say, Walker stated the following: Katharine recalled the persecution directed towards the family that was a direct result from Joseph telling the Methodist minister about his First Vision. She even…

Ghostwriter to the Prophet

I suspect that if we really knew and experienced the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for ourselves, we might be surprised by who were the most influential members in shaping the developing Church. In a recent From the Desk interview, Bruce A. Van Orden discussed one candidate for that last that tends to get overlooked – William Wines Phelps. Best remembered for his contributions to the hymnals of the Church,  he was also an important publisher and author of Church literature,  sometimes acting as a ghostwriter for Joseph Smith. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and discussions) to the full interview. Bruce A. Van Orden described some of W. W. Phelps’s contributions and background: In D&C 57, W. W. Phelps was called as “printer unto the church” and to dedicate his writings to building the Kingdom of God. More than any other man up through 1845, he was the major writer of gospel themes in the church. He was also instrumental in leading the Missouri saints ecclesiastically from 1832 to 1838 and in being one of Joseph Smith’s key scribes. Consequently, I claim that W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential Latter-day Saints in the Church’s first 15 years. … W. Phelps penned twenty-five hymns entirely by himself. More surprisingly, he adapted in various ways another thirty-seven pieces, making sixty-two in all where his words are…

Juneteenth and Utah Territory

Tomorrow is Sunday, June 19, which is celebrated as Juneteenth National Independence Day in memory of the day that the Emancipation Proclamation began to be enforced in Galveston, Texas by the Union Army (19 June 1865).  In Utah, this also doubles as the anniversary of the day that Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law that banned slavery in United States territories (19 June 1862), ending slavery in Utah Territory: CHAP. CXI.–An Act to secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. APPROVED, June 19, 1862. Prior to this bill passing, Utah Territory was a slave territory.  While the practice of slavery was relatively small in Utah (from what Sally Gordon was saying at the Mormon History Association Conference, most Latter-day Saint enslavers moved to the California colony of San Bernardino), it was present in Utah and had been made legal by the territory legislature in 1852, with Brigham Young’s encouragement.  In fact, three slaves, named Green Flake, Hark Lay, and…

Of Flags and Symbols of the Church

The state of Utah is looking into creating a new flag.  I was interested, so looked into best practices for flag making (vexillology) and found a handy guide from the North American Vexillological Association that suggested five basic principles of flag design: Keep it simple (the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory) Use meaningful symbolism (the flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes) Use 2-3 basic colors (limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set) No lettering or seals (never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal) Be distinctive or be related (avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections)[1] An example of a good flag is New Mexico, with two colors (red and yellow) and very simple (sun symbol) while Utah is a bad example, with a complicated seal on a blue background (just like 14 other states in the United States of America).  I enjoy pondering, and after designing a few ideas for a Utah flag, I’ve been musing on what a flag for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could look like. Obviously, the most likely path forward would be to just use the official symbol of the Church (the Christus with the arch around it and the cornerstone beneath) and use that as a flag.  The simplified…

Susa Young Gates

When I was a child, I heard of Susan B. Anthony, Susa Young Gates, and John Sousa, but had trouble separating them out in my mind because of similarities in name.  The result was that I thought Brigham Young had this rockstar daughter who was featured on a silver dollar for her women’s rights activism and who wrote the “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other popular marches.  Well, obviously that’s not quite true to reality, though at the same time, aspects of it aren’t that far from the truth – Susa Young Gates was Brigham Young’s daughter, was highly involved in women’s rights activism, and was a musician.  In a recent From the Desk interview, Romney Burke (whose biography of Susa Young Gates was recently published) discussed more about this notable woman in Church history.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and commentary). In the interview, Romney Burke introduced who Susa Young Gates is and what she did: Susa Young Gates was a human dynamo. She served on the general boards of the Young Woman’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society. She started the journals for both organizations. She served as an officer in the National and International Councils of Women. Her work in genealogy really established the guidelines we still use today in family history. She knew virtually all the important figures in the women’s rights movement, including Susan B. Anthony. She met…

Jesus in Recent Latter-day Saint Art

At the Mormon History Association conference this weekend, Anthony Sweat shared a funny story during his presentation on “A White Jesus and a Global Church.”  Apparently there were some individuals who were visiting BYU from Saudi Arabia to observe teaching at the institution.  During a class that Dr. Sweat was teaching, the Saudis saw a print of the famous Del Parson Jesus the Christ painting.  They asked through an interpreter who the painting was depicting.  Dr. Sweat explained that it was Jesus, and the Saudis busted up laughing and started chattering.  Confused, Sweat asked the interpreter what they were saying and the interpreter explained that they were laughing about Jesus being portrayed as a white American mountain man.  Dr. Sweat asked them about what they thought Jesus looked like and they responded that he probably looked like them, which probably isn’t far from the truth.  In his presentation, Anthony Sweat went on to discuss the history of how Jesus has been portrayed and ultimately made the point that the traditional European iconography of Jesus as European in appearance is well-established and doesn’t need to go away, but that there does need to be more diversity in depictions of Jesus available for a global church. I’m not going to rehash the whole issue of Jesus’s complexion again, but I am interested in some of the artwork that has been produced in the Church in recent years that provide a different vision…

Considering Emma Hale Smith

Emma Smith isn’t just an elect lady, she’s a complicated one too.  Jenny Reeder, author of First: The Life and Faith of Emma Hale Smith, recently discussed reasons for why that is the case in an interview with From the Desk.  Alternatively vilified or considered an hero of the Restoration in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reeder wanted people to know first and foremost that Emma was a real person, complete with flaws and a very complicated relationship with the Church. One of the more difficult aspects for members of the Church today to consider was Emma’s complicated relationship with plural marriage and her split from the Brighamite portion of the church.  When my wife and I were doing the readings for the “Emma Smith is an Elect Lady” section of Come Follow Me (D&C 25) last year, we decided to read the section of the At the Pulpit that shared thoughts from Emma Smith.  When we read her statement that Relief Society members needed “unite to expose iniquity, to search it out and put it away,” I laughed a little because, as I read it, she was targeting polygamy that was being practiced in secret by her husband and other Latter Day Saints.  Apparently Jenny Reeder was involved in compiling that section of At the Pulpit and had some concerns about that very issue: I knew we had to include something from Emma Smith, but unfortunately that meant cobbling together some…

Collected Thoughts on the Doctrine and Covenants

I spent most of 2021 writing a series of posts to follow along with the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum for the Doctrine and Covenants.  I had a few reasons for doing this.  First and foremost, I wanted to challenge myself to look more closely at the scriptures, to really read and think about what the Doctrine and Covenants says and the context in which it says it to deepen my personal understanding.  Studying the Joseph Smith Papers resources around the earliest versions of the revelations and then writing about an idea or thought that caught my attention is an approach that helped me do that.  Second, there were several ideas that run through the Doctrine and Covenants that I’ve been musing on for years and wanted to take the time and effort to really collect and organize my thoughts on those topics, such as the endowment of power and the development of temple ritual.  Third, I noticed that there was a surprising dearth of literature about the Doctrine and Covenants compared to the other sections of scriptures (that’s not to say that there isn’t literature about it out there, just not nearly as much available as the Bible or the Book of Mormon), so, for better or worse, I wanted to offer my own contribution to that literature in a format that was freely available and which drew on the scholarly analyses that I have read. The results varied from…

The King Follett Discourse

The irony of the King Follett Discourse is that it is the most famous discourse given by the Prophet Joseph Smith, but still rarely quoted in general conference or other official publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a recent From the Desk interview, James Falcouner discussed some of the reasons why that may be. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and some commentary).   In the interview, James Falcouner explained what the sermon was: The King Follett Discourse is a sermon delivered in April of 1844 by Joseph Smith, during a General Conference, as a memorial for an early convert to the Church, King Follett. It was a lengthy sermon, and one in which the Prophet touched on many doctrines which had become important in recent years. The main topics were the following concepts: “God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto yourselves.” The Father once dwelt on an earth as Jesus Christ and we do; so Jesus Christ did what he saw the Father do before him. The Father “found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest . . . could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.” The world was not created ex nihilo. “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as . .…

What is the Church?

I recently finished a review of the April 2022 general conference, and one of the talks that stood out to me most was Reyna Aburto’s talk, “We Are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  I love the vision she articulates of feeling more ownership within the Church—that it isn’t just the institution—with its hierarchy of leaders and physical buildings—but mostly the members who are the Church. In the talk, she explains this as follows: From the beginning, God has sought to gather and organize His children “to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life.” With that purpose in mind, He has instructed us to build places of worship where we receive knowledge and the ordinances of salvation and exaltation; make and keep covenants that bind us to Jesus Christ; are endowed with “the power of godliness”; and gather together often to remember Jesus and strengthen each other in Him. The Church organization and its buildings exist for our spiritual benefit. “The Church … is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families.” While talking to a friend going through a difficult time, I asked how he was surviving financially. In tears, he replied that his bishop was helping him using fast-offering funds. He added, “I don’t know where my family and I would be if it wasn’t for the Church.” I replied, “The Church is the members. They are the ones who willingly and joyfully give fast offerings to help those of us in need.…

Women of the Hebrew Bible

In a culture that is often male-centric, it can sometimes be easy to overlook women in the scriptures. While very few are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, the Bible has many women who are mentioned by name and featured in the stories therein. In a recent From the Desk interview, Camille Fronk Olson discussed some of what she has learned about the women of the Old Testament over years of studying, teaching, and writing about them. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with done excerpts and commentary). I learned a fair amount from reading what Camille Fronk Olson said in the interview. One interesting point had to do with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Olson stated that: The Dead Sea Scrolls contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). In the King James version of the Bible, Hannah’s husband Elkanah tells her, “only the Lord establish his word” (1 Sam. 1:23), indicating an understanding that Hannah was free to make daily decisions as she deemed best, except when they violated a promise to the Lord. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, Elkanah tells Hannah, “May the Lord establish that which cometh out of thy mouth” (4QSama), showing that Elkanah believed that Hannah spoke the words of God—and that God was working through her. This same wording also appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.…

George D. Watt’s Journey

I’ve heard it said before that Leroy Anderson was America’s best-known forgotten composer. It could likewise be said that George D. Watt is Mormonism’s best-known forgotten reporter.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring discussed why Watt is important and the recent publication of his 1851 journal with LaJean Carruth and Ronald G. Watt.  What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter discussion with excerpts). In the interview, Ronald G. Watt (a former archivist for the Latter-day Saint Church Historical Department and George’s great grandson) explained that: George D. Watt was born in Manchester, England, on May 18, 1812. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Preston, England, and ran a footrace with at least one other man to be the first person baptized into the Church in the British Isles in 1837. He moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in 1842, and then returned to Britain in 1846 as a missionary. In February 1851, he traveled from Liverpool, England, to Great Salt Lake City with a large group of Latter-day Saint emigrants. The 1851 Journal of Missionary George D. Watt includes his journal of that trip from Liverpool to Chimney Rock, and we have included other items. Watt’s main significance in the Church, though, came through his ability to report the words of Church leaders.  He had learned to use Pitman shorthand, which LaJean Carruth explained is “a form of…

Mormon Doctrine, McConkie, and Modern Mormonism

Bruce R. McConkie stands in an interesting place in the history of the Church. For some, he holds a place in the upper echelons of a pantheon of Latter-day Saint thinkers and writers who have shaped, advocated, and defended the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For others, he is seen as an example of anti-intellectualism who mingled the doctrines of the Church with fundamentalist Protestant beliefs and outlooks.  Regardless of where one stands, mention of Elder McConkie is likely to lead to a strong reaction when it comes to discussing Church history and beliefs.  In a recent, lengthy interview with Kurt Manwaring, Dennis B. Horne (one of McConkie’s biographers) shared some of his perspectives on the influential apostle.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview, focusing in on a small part of what is discussed. One thing that has been an area of ongoing discussion in Latter-day Saint thought is McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine.  Originally published in 1958, this encyclopedic work on doctrine is known for its authoritative tone and topical discussions of Latter-day Saint beliefs.  Controversial for its inclusion of McConkie’s beliefs about people with black African ancestry, evolution, the Great and Abominable Church, etc., it has been an ongoing target of criticism.  Horne responded to some of those criticisms, such as the ones leveled by Greg Prince and Wm. Wright in their biography of President David O. McKay.  For example, one part…

The Constitution of the Council of Fifty

What is the Kingdom of God? If it were a political entity, how would it be organized? What sort of charter would it have? In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk, Nathan Oman discussed an early effort to think through these types of questions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as the Council of Fifty. What follows here is a copost to the full interview, which is available here. Believing that the Last Days were at hand, “Latter-day Saints expected secular governments to fail and that religious community would form the nucleus of a divinely inspired government to replace them,” Oman explained. The Council of Fifty was intended to be that nucleus–a shadow government of sorts to step in and take the place of existing political systems as they collapsed in the final days.  While that sounds like a conspiracy that could lead to some dramatic stories, the reality was much more tame.  “Practically, the Latter-day Saints were facing rising persecution in the United States and needed a forum in which leaders could discuss plans to deal with that persecution—and ultimately to relocate beyond the then-borders of the United States,” and they spent most of their time discussing “practical and political matters related to the Latter-day Saint community, particularly plans to quit the United States and settle someplace in the western interior of North America.” Still, one interesting aspect of this Council…