Category: Book Reviews

5 lessons from Schmidt and Taylor’s book Carried: How One Mother’s Trust in God Helped Her through the Unthinkable

In late 2016, Annie Schmidt went hiking in the mountains of Oregon. When she didn’t reappear, a mix of professionals and amateurs, friends and relatives and strangers, searched for weeks to find her. Annie’s mother, Michelle Schmidt, teamed up with her sister, Angie Taylor, to write the story of Annie’s disappearance, the search, and the eventual conclusion of the efforts of so many in their book Carried: How One Mother’s Trust in God Helped Her through the Unthinkable. Schmidt alternates between the story of the search and the life experiences that prepared her to face this great ordeal. The book is ultimately a tale of joy amidst trial. My normal fare is more historical than devotional, but I have to admit that Schmidt and Taylor’s book carried me along: I learned from Schmidt’s story, and I couldn’t help but be moved by the end. Here are five lessons that I learned (or re-learned). 1. A literal faith in a gloriously happy afterlife affects actual behavior here on earth. On the first day of the mountain search for her daughter Annie, Michelle has a spiritual experience when she hears Annie’s voice, happily speaking to her. She then interprets that experience as meaning that Annie was in the spirit world and that she was happy. Michelle acted according to her beliefs: “When the first search began and the on-camera interviews ensured, which were so surreal and raw, I was unguarded, vulnerable, unscripted,…

The Expanded Canon: A Review

Several months ago, my wife Lissette gave a talk in sacrament meeting on the topic of modern prophets and continuing revelation. She wanted to provide something different, something the congregation could really chew on (no “theological Twinkies“). She ended up discussing how modern-day prophets model the process of revelation for us. Drawing on Elder Bednar’s analogy of revelation as light, she illustrated that revelation could come in a sudden burst of inspiration (like a light switch) or as more gradual, increasing discernment (like a sunrise). Yet, those singular, sudden revelatory events are often incremental steps in a bigger picture. What’s more, future revelations often shed even more light on past ones. As an example, she used Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision. “While Joseph Smith’s vision was a singular event (akin to Bednar’s example of the light switch),” she said, its significance and impact evolved with additional experience and revelation (much like Bednar’s sunrise). The four major accounts of the First Vision differ in their details, with perhaps the biggest one being Joseph’s interpretation of the visitation’s purpose. The 1832 account focuses on Joseph’s forgiveness of sins; a kind of personal conversion story. By 1838, the narrative shifted to concerns regarding religious confusion and the eventual establishment of the Lord’s church. While these purposes are not mutually exclusive, Joseph’s understanding of the experience nonetheless expanded over time. I believe that this example of gradual development should not be seen as an…

Saints, Volume 1: A Review

About a week ago, the first volume of the new official history of the Church was published. I finished reading through it this weekend, and I have to say that it is fantastic. The style of prose reads like a novel (many creative authors were employed as the writers or consultants for the book), but it is very much rooted in some of our best understandings of the events and people who lived in the early period of the Church. The combination of the two results in a very readable, but accurate history. The time frame that this volume covers is the early 1800s through 1846—the year the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo to move west. There are a lot of controversial issues related to that period, but the book tackled most of them head on. Polygamy (including Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger and a small amount about polyandry), seer stones, treasure seeking, Book of Mormon translation, Latter-day Saint pillaging and fighting during the Missouri Mormon War, Danites, the Council of Fifty, Joseph Smith defending himself with a gun in Carthage Jail, and teachings of theosis and a Mother in Heaven are all addressed. Joseph Smith’s character was shown in a more three-dimensional way than most official Church representations of him—his temper and his sense of humor are both shown, as are some of his struggles and missteps. Yet, the history is not one that focuses entirely on the men…

“Saints, Slaves, & Blacks”: A Review

This past May, I went to see Jana Riess present her recent research on Mormon Millennials at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. One of the most interesting (and disturbing) bits of information was her finding regarding Mormons’ opinions about the priesthood/temple ban. As she summarizes online, The 2016 NMS asked whether respondents felt that the ban on members of African descent was “inspired of God and was God’s will for the Church until 1978.” Respondents were given a five-point scale of possible responses, with the upshot being that nearly two-thirds of self-identified Latter-day Saints say they either know (37 percent) or believe (25.5 percent) that the ban was God’s will. Another 17 percent think it might be true, and 22 percent say they know or believe it is false. Overall, then, a majority of Mormons still support the idea that the priesthood/temple ban was inspired by God. Only about one in five say they know or believe the ban to have been wrong. One major surprise in the data was that Mormons of color were actually more likely to say they knew or believed the ban was God’s will than white Mormons were. 70 percent of non-whites affirmed this, compared to 61 percent of whites. That also remains true when we consider only African American respondents in a group by themselves: 67 percent of African Americans know or believe the priesthood/temple ban was God’s will, which is six points higher…

Future Mormon 6: A Radical Mormon Materialism

Welcome to the oft delayed sixth chapter of the once weekly reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. Hopefully we’ll get back to weekly again. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism if they disagree or even just see flaws in the logic. That’s when we tend to all learn the most.

Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

Like a paring knife to a grapefruit, Jonathan Stapley’s new book on the history of Mormon cosmology is slim, sharp, and swift to carve through pith, serving up elegant wedges of history. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) traces the evolution of ritual practice in Mormonism, including priesthood ordination, sealing rites, healing practices, baby blessings, and folk divination. The author’s reticence to extract neat diagrams from his findings is a virtue of the book, and any summary should be offered advisedly. Taken together, however, the chapters show a gradual migration from civic- to kinship- to church-centered forms of ritual soteriology, occurring alongside processes of codification and consolidation that, by the late 20th century, concentrate Mormon liturgical discourse and practice within the male ecclesiastical priesthood. I am no historian, and I leave it to the experts to adjudicate Stapley’s stimulating historical claims. Several points struck my picture of Mormon history–incomplete and idiosyncratic as it is–with particular explanatory power. As I understand them: Early notions of sealing and its connection to the doctrine of perseverance evolved rapidly. Initially, the Saints were “sealed up” in the soteriological sense that their salvation was permanently assured; it would “persevere” all future threats and sweep safely them to heaven. Later in the Kirtland and especially Nauvoo periods, the Saints were “sealed to” one another in a relational bond that was the vehicle of salvation, and the perseverance implied was that of the…

Review: William V. Smith’s ‘Textual Studies of the Doctrine & Covenants’

In October 2007, I returned home to Texas from my mission in Nevada. In April of the following year, the raid on the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, TX, occurred. I didn’t think much about it at the time because, you know, they weren’t real Mormons (as many LDS are wont to say). However, a good (non-member) friend called me soon after the raid and posed some questions about these polygamists Mormons, seemingly bothered that one of his best friends was mixed up in an abusive cult. I was likely too dismissive of his concerns, largely due to the mentality above. I explained the schism between the FLDS and Utah-based LDS Church, pointing out that my church had ceased practicing polygamy long ago. That seemed to satisfy him as we talked about how bizarre the whole situation was. However, just how strange all of this was to outsiders did not fully hit me until a little later at work when a newly-hired woman asked me (something along the lines of), “What church do you go to?” When I told her I was Mormon, she became rather pale. Being used to the reaction (I do live in the South), I expected her to be some kind of evangelical. However, her next question threw me: “So…is there, like…a community of Mormons around here?” I didn’t understand her at first. I pointed out that there was a chapel just down the road from where…

Unwavering Commitment to God and the Dark Night of the Soul

A few years ago, President Rosemary Wixom of the Primary shared a story from the life of Mother Teresa in General Conference: In a 1953 letter, Mother Teresa wrote: “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask Our Lord to give me courage.” Archbishop Périer responded: “God guides you, dear Mother; you are not so much in the dark as you think. The path to be followed may not always be clear at once. Pray for light; do not decide too quickly, listen to what others have to say, consider their reasons. You will always find something to help you. … Guided by faith, by prayer, and by reason with a right intention, you have enough.” This excerpt is from the book Mother Teresa: Come By My Light — The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk. It’s a wonderful book, telling the story of the founding of Mother Teresa’s order in her own words, through letters back and forth between her and her supervisors. The letters begin in 1928, just before her 18th birthday, with her application to become a nun, and extend to 1994, in the last years of her life. Kolodiejchuk complements this correspondence with…

A Credible Case for Universalism — A Review of Givens and Givens’s The Christ Who Heals

In their new book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us, Fiona and Terryl Givens make the case for how “the doctrines and scriptures of the Restoration have enriched our knowledge of the rock and foundation of our faith — Jesus Christ.” The book is a delight: The Givenses draw on a rich cast of characters — from spiritual leaders in the second century after Christ to General Authorities in the present — to map out the evolution of our understanding of the Savior. Each chapter explores a distinct aspect of our restored understanding of the Savior, and I was inspired again and again as I read (okay, listened to) this book. The final chapter, “The Saving Christ,” expounds one of the boldest themes of the book. The Givenses make a credible case that every soul will have an eternity to work their way to exaltation. They suggest that “no loving parent would propose a plan that shuts the door of happiness to any of his or her children” and that “heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” But how then can we have both a “familial heaven” where all our loved ones are with us and “the freedom to reject heaven?” They reject the false dichotomy of either God as a “sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath” who condemns most souls OR God as a permissive being…

Reeder and Holbrook’s At the Pulpit: The book I hope becomes a fixture in Latter-day Saint homes

The first account we have of a woman speaking in General Conference is Lucy Mack Smith, speaking in Nauvoo, Illinois, in October 1845. But women were teaching in the Church long before that, and the continued long after that — not just in General Conference. In their collection At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook have created a wonderful thing. They have brought us the strong, inspired voices of 54 Mormon women (plus 7 more in the e-book), from Lucy Mack Smith speaking a “gathering of emigrating saints at Lake Erie” in 1831 to Gladys Sitati speaking at the BYU Women’s Conference in 2016. The book works elegantly as both a historical document and a devotional reading. From a historical perspective, Reeder and Holbrook provide a biographical sketch of each woman before her talk, and they follow each talk with extensive footnotes providing context. They make it so easy for us: When a speaker alludes to a passage of poetry or a popular quote from the day, Reeder and Holbrook tell us where it came from. Some of the talks highlight a key historical episode in the growth of the Church, such as Judy Brummer’s 2012 fireside talk characterizing her experience translating the Book of Mormon into the Xhosa language.

Inside the mind of the Book of Mormon’s first antagonist — A review of Mette Harrison’s The Book of Laman

In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel often come across more as comic book villains more than fully fleshed out characters. As Grant Hardy put it, “In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel are stock characters, even caricatures.” In her new novel, The Book of Laman (with its cover art a stroke of brilliance), Mette Harrison implicitly poses the question: What might have been going through Laman’s head through all this? What might have led him to act the way he acted? To be clear, this is a work of fiction. Harrison makes no pretense to be doing textual inference; rather, she takes the broad events of First and Second Nephi as given and searches for a credible Laman. Her endeavor reminds me of Geraldine Brooks’s brilliant effort to flesh out David from the Old Testament in The Secret Chord. The Laman that Harrison draws for us is deeply human and relatable. He mostly wants to do right, but he repeatedly fails not in small ways but in disastrous ways (he beat up or tried to kill his brother). She constructs a back story that explains Laman and Lemuel’s ongoing reluctance to trust their father even in the face of Sam and Nephi unwavering confidence. And she plays out what might have happened to Laman and his people after Nephi and his followers left. That time that Laman and Lemuel start beating Nephi in the process of seeking the…

Perspectives on Mormon Theology Review

Dave managed to finish his review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology before I did. To cut to the chase let me just summarize my judgment of the book first. If you’re at all interested in the implications of scholarly considerations of Mormon history, exegesis, or theology then this is a must read book. Blair Van Dyke and Loyd Ericson did a fantastic job selecting the people to contribute. It has so many disparate viewpoints that nearly every position is considered and discussed. Among some, apologetics has come to have a rather bad reputation. While I doubt this book will change many views, I think it does make one think both about the weaknesses and strengths of traditional approaches along with other approaches we should consider. If I have one complaint, it’s a minor one. I do wish there were formal responses to some of the essays. Other books such as Discourses in Mormon Theology have done that to one degree or an other. As is the essays tend to stand alone even though they do address sometimes common arguments. Still that’s an extremely minor complaint and doesn’t undermine the strength of what is here. 

Fiction and Culture: Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife

A good Mormon mystery Novels — particularly good ones — convey a sense of place. This is absolutely true of mystery novels, from Kwei Quartey’s police detective in Ghana to Alexander McCall Smith’s private detective in Botswana. But how much do we really about a place or a culture from a work of fiction? I recently listened to the audiobook of Mette Ivie Harrison’s first mystery novel, The Bishop’s Wife. (There are currently three mysteries in the series.) Here’s the quick: I couldn’t stop listening. Harrison has crafted a page-turner. Early one morning, a man turns up at the home of the bishop, reporting that his wife has gone missing. The bishop’s wife, Linda Wallheim, uses her neighborly kindness to get to the bottom of the case. Linda is a rich, complicated character, with faith and doubt and caring and curiosity all boiled into one. I look forward to reading of her further adventures. I had a few critiques — a few plot twists towards the end struck me as implausible and Harrison really doubles down on a theme — but the other virtues make up for them. If you enjoy mysteries, then I recommend this one.

Mormon Doctrine for Grown-ups: A Review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel

When I was young, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and enjoyed every volume. Then one day, at my neighborhood library, I discovered Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, essentially an encyclopedia of Narnia, and I fell in love. The entries were arranged alphabetically, and there were more topics than I had ever imagined. It was well-ordered and — at least to my child’s mind — exhaustive. Encyclopedias hold that promise. Around the same time, I discovered Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. With short, clear entries, Mormon Doctrine provided definitive answers to a wide range of gospel questions. Only later in life did I learn that Mormon doctrine is not so simple. Enter Terryl L. Givens’s book, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. In some ways, Wrestling the Angel (WTA) seems similar to Mormon Doctrine. Although not alphabetical, it has entries such as “The Godhead,” “Holy Ghost,” “The Fall,” and “Salvation.” But rather than a short, definitive declaration, Givens takes the opposite approach. For each topic, he first situates Mormon thought within a brief history of religious thought on the topic, and he then goes on to give a history of Mormon thinking on the topic. Consider the Holy Ghost. Givens begins with the early Christian church: “Christian doctrine on the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, was relatively late in developing. One of the earliest Christian creeds, perhaps dating to the second century, is…

Review: A Peculiar People, or How Protestants Viewed Mormons in the Nineteenth Century

So I finally got around to reading J. Spencer Fluhman’s book “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. I was expecting another account of “beat up the Mormons” episodes in the 19th century. Instead, it was an entertaining and informative review of how informally established Protestantism worked in the 19th century (hence my subtitle to the post). The focus is not so much on Mormonism as on how everyone else, in particular the Protestant majority, reacted to Mormons and their religion in 19th-century America.

Three big things (and some little things) this lifelong Mormon learned from Matt Bowman’s history of the Church

How do you tell the story of a 200-year-old movement in a single volume? In the summer of 2011, Matthew Bowman received a call inviting him to write such a volume in under three months. The result — The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith — is an accessible, even-handed volume that uncommonly gives as much attention to the modern church as it does to the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Here are three things that I learned from the book: The power of the primary during the correlation reorganization of the 1960s: “The reorganization drained some power from the First Presidency itself and undeniably from the various departments and auxiliaries of the church. Some resisted as best they could; LaVern Parmley, president of the Primary since 1951, retained her position and through sheer force of personality a good deal of independent authority until she stepped down in 1974.” You can read more about President Parmley generally in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. You can read about how she led a movement toward the modern conception of reverence in primary in Kristine Haglund Harris’s Dialogue article. Acceptance of Mormonism in American culture has not proceeded obviously in one direction: George Romney and Mitt Romney both ran for president, father in 1968 and son in 2008 and 2012. With George: “His faith was rarely mentioned in any of his political campaigns, for Mormonism by the 1960s had become unexceptional to most Americans.”…

Telling the stories of the Church’s history

A review of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, by Gregory A. Prince Telling the history of a church can be tricky. Which elements arose from the culture of the time? Which manifest the direct intervention of the divine? Is that even a sensible distinction? On the one hand, some Church leaders have historically seen the principal role of religious history as being to show “the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now” [1]. With this as one’s end, the appropriate means may be a partial telling of history: “Some things that are true are not very useful” [2]. On the other hand, some fear that this will leave believers vulnerable when uncomfortable truths come out: “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their teachers covered up Joseph Smith’s flaws, what else are they hiding?” [3] As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it succinctly, “History is dangerous.” No character in Mormon history is perhaps better placed to illustrate this lesson than Leonard Arrington. In 1972, Arrington became the first — and to date, the only — professional historian to serve as Church Historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (To be fair, Arrington’s PhD was…

Listen to the stories of those who hurt because of the ghost of eternal polygamy

a review of Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men I don’t think about polygamy much. I have no interest in participating in it (in this life or another). It doesn’t come up much in my conversations, except as I discuss my polygamous ancestors from the early Church or the lives of Brother Joseph or Brother Brigham and their contemporaries. I am one of those for whom, as Carol Lynn Pearson writes, “it is not to be taken very seriously.” But Pearson argues that there are others, “a great many, I think,” for whom “it is a blight, rather like the crickets that destroy a crop.” To that I say, but wait, didn’t we — and by we I mean the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — give up polygamy more than a century ago? Well, yes and no. Members of the Church who enter into polygamous relationships today are excommunicated. But the promise of polygamy in the next life lingers, as evidenced by these practices: A widowed Mormon man can be sealed to another wife, and another after that, “secure in the promise that they will be his in eternity.” A widowed Mormon woman cannot be sealed to another man. Wow, that does sound a lot like polygamy, waiting to be lived once we cross to the other side of the veil. And while I hadn’t…

The Nova Effect – Secular Age, round 7

This third section of Taylor’s book is, to me, the most redundant, so I’m going to make up for lost time by condensing these four chapters into one blog post. In fact, I’ll leave Ch. 11 off entirely because it’s mostly an exploration of the section’s themes through case studies in Britain and France. In the last post, we saw the effects of the new “Providential Deism” (and the accompanying sociopolitical and economic trends) on the nature of belief in the eighteenth century. Religion among intellectual elites was naturalized (i.e. seen as non-mysterious, accessible by reason or observation) and circumscribed entirely to the flourishing of human beings and society in the here and now. In this post, we’ll see how Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reacted against the perceived stifling effects of this anthropocentric order, and what new modes of belief and unbelief (and countless hybrids) their reactions first spawned. In chapter 8, “The Malaises of Modernity,” Taylor delves into some of the early “cross pressures” that confronted Westerners who chafed against orthodox Christianity (and its perceived authoritarianism, conformity, focus on human guilt and evil, mystery, etc.) but also the buffered self. Undoubtedly, the buffered self had many attractions—the promise of power to “order our world and ourselves” through reason, self-control, and knowledge; the sense of invulnerability and self-possession or independence, with no need to rely on the power of God or other externals; and a sense…