Category: From the Desk Co-posts

When Was Jesus Born?

When was Jesus born?  While not consequential to our salvation or daily choices, it’s an interesting question to explore.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey R. Chadwick discussed his research into the question: When was Jesus actually born?  What follows here is a co-post to that discussion (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). When a non-expert Latter-day Saints approach the question of “When was Jesus born?”, they often draw upon a traditional interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants, 20:1 to claim that it happened on 6 April.  Elder James E. Talmage’s widely read Jesus the Christ reinforces this interpretation.  As Chadwick explained: Growing up as a Latter-day Saint boy, serving a mission, and entering service as a seminary teacher 45 years ago, it was axiomatic in our conversation that Jesus had been born on April 6th of 1 BC, as stated by Elder James E. Talmage in his classic work Jesus the Christ. … Generally, and also quite specifically, many Latter-day Saints take at face value the statement of Elder James E. Talmage that Jesus was born on April 6 of 1 BC, a position Elder Talmage linked to the passage in Doctrine and Covenants 20:1 which notes the organization of the Church on April 6 of 1830, being that many years since the “coming of … Jesus Christ in the flesh.” This seemed to Elder Talmage a specific dating tag…

Documents and a House Full of Females

Primary sources like journals and diaries are the backbone of a lot of historic research.  In a recent interview with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Ulrich discussed some of the documents she used and how she used them while writing A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870.  What follows here is a copost to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Close readings and use of primary source material is central to Ulrich’s work.  As she noted in the interview, A House Full of Females is a bit like a quilt: Nineteenth-century quilts were often made by stitching together small fragments of fabric. My book is also built from fragments, day-by-day accounts found in diaries, letters, autograph albums, poems, and minutes of meetings. I privileged records created in the heat of events, not because I consider those records more truthful than later recollections but because I wanted to understand how people behaved when they had no idea how things were going to turn out. I treasured every scrap of women’s writing I could find, even using the dated squares on an actual quilt as one of my sources, but I also found important material in the diaries of several men, including Wilford Woodruff, whose consistent daily diaries provided a kind of sashing to hold my story squares together. In fact, it was one…

Susa Young Gates and Joseph F. Smith’s Vision

The vision that we have printed as Section 138 was received by Joseph F. Smith in the last few months of his life.  Among the very first people he asked to have review the document was none other than his friend, Susa Young Gates.  In one of the excellent essays presented in the Revelations in Context book, Lisa Olsen Tait talked about Susa’s experience with the revelation.  More recently, Lisa Olsen Tait discussed more about Susa and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). Why was Susa one of the first people to read the vision?  Part of it has to do with her personal friendship with Joseph F. Smith.  As Tait described: Joseph F. Smith was over seventeen years older than Susa Young Gates. … They became friends in Hawai’i in 1885-87. Susa accompanied her husband, Jacob F. Gates, on a return mission to the Sandwich Islands, and their service overlapped with the time that Joseph F. Smith and his wife Julina were there, basically keeping a low profile during the anti-polygamy crusade. (Smith was a highly-wanted man due to his church leadership position and his knowledge of the records.) A few letters between them from that time survive, and, in my reading, evince a progression from friendly but formal acquaintances to deep…

Clare Middlemiss and David O. McKay

In a church hierarchy made up of humans, it is possible for people who we don’t usually think about to have power and influence in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.  During the David O. McKay administration, his personal secretary (Clare Middlemiss) was one such person who has not commonly been discussed, but who had an impact on the Church.  President McKay’s biographer, Gregory Prince, recently discussed Clare Middlemiss in an interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion. David O. McKay originally took on Middlemiss as his personal sectary in 1935, but his choice to retain her in that role when he became president of the church in 1951 was unusual.  As Greg Prince explained: It was unprecedented [to have Middlemiss stay on as his secretary]. Joseph Anderson had been the personal secretary to George Albert Smith and, I think, Heber J. Grant, and he assumed he would have the same role when David O. McKay became president. But, immediately upon moving into the president’s office, McKay announced that Clare would continue to be his secretary, she having filled that role for 16 years by that time. (Joseph Anderson was the secretary to the First Presidency, and as such, he sat in on First Presidency meetings and took minutes of those meetings. Clare never attended those meetings.) It was the only…

Latter-day Listicles

The Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk is approaching its 5-year anniversary.  With those 5 years of content in mind, they have gathered snippets of information from their interviews into compilations, one each featuring the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Brigham Young.  They’re pretty fun and interesting to peruse to see what has been shared at From the Desk about those topics over the years. For example, with the Book of Mormon, there is a lot of information to look through.  Some if it is relatively well-known already, such as that the Book of Mormon helps Latter-day Saints Isaiah, the process that Joseph Smith went through wasn’t exactly a language-to-language translation in the sense we generally think of today, and Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote the current section headings.  Other parts are less commonly-known, such as the fact that Jane Manning James held Joseph Smith’s seer stone, that there’s a lot more to the Martin Harris story than is commonly told, and that Emma Smith took efforts to protect the gold plates.  For example, in discussing the seer stone story with Jane Manning, the following is shared: Jane Manning James had the opportunity to handle Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Biographer Quincy Newell said that the priceless opportunity occurred while living in the Nauvoo Mansion House. In the words of Jane Manning James: One morning I met Brother Joseph coming out of his Mother’s room he said good morning and shook hands…

The Rise and Fall of the ZCMI

Growing up in the Salt Lake Valley, one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions was visiting the ZCMI storefront in Salt Lake City to see a display of large ornaments decorated with candy. While that tradition is carried on by Macy’s Salt Lake City store, ZCMI is gone. But the story of how ZCMI came to be is fascinating in its own right, with its ties to the United Orders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 19th century. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jeffrey Paul Thompson discussed some of that history. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). While the department store I grew up knowing as ZCMI was a department store located in Salt Lake City and other major cities in the Intermountain West, the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution at its height was a series of institutions and stores across Utah Territory. Thompson explained their origins as follows: Joseph Smith had repeatedly tried to bring economic parity to the Saints but, for various reasons, the attempts had failed. It appears that Brigham felt that this was one thing he needed to accomplish before he died since one of the hallmarks of a Zion society is that there are “no poor among them.” The organization of ZCMI really prepared the way for the United Order movement of…

Ann Madsen and Spencer W. Kimball

While Ann Madsen isn’t as well-known as her husband, Truman Madsen, she is a notable woman who has been described as “every bit the disciple-scholar” that her husband was.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Ann discussed some of the events in her life, focusing particularly on a few interactions with Truman Madsen and Spencer W. Kimball.  What follows here is a co-post (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). Ann Madsen notes in the interview that Spencer W. Kimball “was like a father” to her and her brother.  She explained that: “I grew up two houses away from President Spencer W. Kimball. Even though he was an apostle, I grew up calling him ‘Brother Kimball.’ My father and I would often come out of the house each morning just before President Kimball. He’d come out of his house and call down the street to my father, ‘Barnard, hold the bus!’”  She went on to share a story from her childhood: When I was about 10 years old, I was watching my 7-year-old brother when my parents went out. The last thing my mother said was: “Do not walk up to 21st East to get ice cream at Duffin’s. Do not do that.” As soon as they left, my brother said, “I think we can go up there. We’d be alright. We only need a nickel for ice cream cones and…

Choosing Faith and Into the Headwinds

Belief in religion is something that can be hard in Western culture.  Yet, it is something worth working towards.  This idea is something that Terryl and Nathaniel Givens discussed in a recent interview on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.  The context of their discussion has to do with a book they recently published called Into the Headwinds: Why Belief Has Always Been Hard–and Still Is (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2022).  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion). The publisher of Into the Headwinds describes their book as follows: Acclaimed author Terryl Givens and his son, Nathaniel Givens, combine their respective areas of expertise to offer a fresh take on religious belief through the lens of contemporary research on psychology, cognition, and human nature. They also address two of faith’s foremost modern-day antagonists: rationalism, the myth that humans can or should make the majority of their choices based on logical thought, and scientism, the myth that science is the only reliable means of discovering truth. After reckoning with the surprising fact that people often don’t even understand their own beliefs and are influenced in ways they seldom perceive, the authors go on to describe genuine faith as an act of will—an effortful response to the deepest yearnings of the mind and heart—that engenders moral responsibility, the ability to embrace uncertainty, the motivation and means to relate to others, and…

Mexican Pioneers

Back in 1997, M. Russell Ballard spoke about how we should take the “opportunity to honor … the remarkable efforts of our pioneers in every land who have blazed spiritual trails with faith in every one of their footsteps.” (M. Russell Ballard, “You Have Nothing to Fear from the Journey,” Conference Report, April 1997.)  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, F. LaMond Tullis discussed some of the stories of Latter-day Saint pioneers in Mexico. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). F. LaMond Tullis recently published a book covering the stories of 19 pioneering members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In the interview, he discussed some of the reasons that led him to write Grass Roots in Mexico: First, I had a long and abiding interest in Latin America triggered by college friends who taught me Spanish. I also had an academic focus on the area at Harvard University, where I wrote several articles about the Church in Latin America, and published my book Mormons in Mexico (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1987). I’ve also struggled over the years to say to an insular Latter-day Saint population that becoming a world-wide church entails attention to cultural matters at home as well as sending out missionaries abroad. He added that he hopes that people who read the book gain “a realization that…

Looking at the Prophet Anew (Brigham Young edition)

How we understand and view President Brigham Young as the second prophet of the Restoration is often in a much more negative light than how the Prophet Joseph Smith is viewed.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Chad Orton discusses some of why that is and offers additional thoughts on how to view the man who led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they colonized the Great Basin region.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview – a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion. Much of the interview centers on the book that Chad Orton co-authored entitled 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man (Deseret Book, 2008).  Early on in the interview, Orton explained the non-traditional approach that was taken in writing that biography: 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is subtitled, “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man.” Unlike traditional biographies that largely look at their subject chronologically, i.e. from birth to death, 40 Ways is a topical biography. Each chapter—and there are 40 of them—focuses upon a major theme or event from his life. For example, one of the chapters talks about how faith was one of Brigham’s predominate characteristics. Stories from the 1830s to the 1870s have been brought together into one chapter. In a traditional biography they would have been interspersed throughout multiple chapters and would have only been…

To Ezra or not to Ezra…

Ezra is an important figure in the Hebrew Bible, but there are some concerns that have been raised over the historical record around him and some interesting places where he is missing in that record.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, the Biblical scholar Charlotte Hempel discusses some of the theories and thoughts around Ezra, with a particular focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). One of the central questions in the debate is whether or not Ezra was an actual historical figure.  Charlotte Hempel explained that: This is a great question and has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ezra appears in 6 chapters of the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 and 12. He is described as a priest, a skilled scribe who has his heart set on the study of the law and its promulgation among the people, as well as a social reformer. On the more radical end of the spectrum there are those, including C. C. Torrey, who suggest Ezra was a fictitious creation. For most scholars today Ezra is a historical figure whose literary record was amplified by subsequent authors and editors. There is a spectrum of thought on how accurate the records we have are in relation to Ezra’s life. Ezra and Nehemiah are portrayed as contemporary individuals,…

Shaking the Dust from Your Feet

Have you ever performed a ritual shaking of the dust from your feet?  I never have (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was specifically instructed to not do that as a missionary), though as a 20-year old, I was somewhat tempted while serving a full-time mission on a few occasions.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Weber discussed some of the intentions behind the ritual in the first place and also why it is no longer performed in the Church today.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In the interview, Samuel Weber explained the ritual of shaking dust from feet.  As he put it: Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual practice common in the early Latter-day Saint movement. The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel. Similar to other Latter-day Saint rituals and ordinances, it was a practice intended to call down God’s power on behalf of His servants. Although no longer practiced today, ritual cursing is found in scripture and church history, making it a topic of continued interest for Latter-day Saints. So, the ritual was one of cursing against those who rejected the Gospel or missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As mentioned by Weber above,…

Women and the Priesthood with Lisa Olsen Tait

“Do women have the priesthood?”  You would think the answer would be a simple yes or no for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The reality, however, seems to say differently, with people arguing for a whole spectrum of answers while discussing this topic of perennial interest.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Lisa Olsen Tait shared her historical perspective on how we arrived at the current state of women’s relationship to the priesthood in the Church, drawing on her research that was presented in an article in BYU Studies’ “Yet to Be Revealed” issue.  What follows here is a co-post, a shorter post presenting and discussing excerpts from the interview and related materials. In the original article, Lisa Olsen Tait divided the history into sections with inflection points between them, as follows: 1840s: “The Ancient Priesthood” 1850–1900: “In Connection with Their Husbands” 1900–1940: “The Blessings of the Priesthood” 1960s: “The Home Is the Basis” 1970–2000: Feminism and Responses Twenty-First Century: Priesthood “Power” and “Authority” In the interview, Tait explained some of the evolution through those eras, specifically related to the temple.  To quote in relation to the 1840s: The revelation commanding the Saints to build the temple (Section 124) repeatedly spoke of it in terms of priesthood. “Therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained,” it said. In the House of the Lord the “fulness of…

A Time When Tithing was Almost Done Away

In the aftermath of the US Civil War, the Church faced a heavy tax settlement that led to a contemplated hiatus in requiring tithing.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Brunson discussed how that situation came about, what the leaders of the Church tried in order to work through the situation, and the surprising resolution to the whole incident. Federal income tax was something that first began to be used in the United States during the U.S. Civil War.  As Brunson explained: “The Civil War was expensive. And it turned out that tariffs weren’t going to be enough to fund the war effort, so the North decided to engage in a 10-year experiment with income taxes.”  In the midst of that, John P. Taggart, the Internal Revenue Assessor for Utah Territory, assessed that the tithing collected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was taxable income and, as such, the Church (more specifically, Brigham Young) needed to pay $59,338.51.  His reasoning was that: Taggart believed that tithing was obligatory, not just a free-will offering, both because the church occasionally kept a ledger of how much people owed and how much they had paid and because he claimed that nonpayment of tithing was punishable by death or expulsion which, in his mind, was basically the same thing for Mormons in Utah. (It’s worth noting that the pioneer church was on the…

Three Degrees

Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when someone says a word, it can mean something very different to them than it does to us. This can be particularly true when that person is from the past and the exact meaning of a word changes over time. In a recent interview with Bryan Buchanan about an article by Shannon Flynn at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk discussed a major example of where this seems to have happened in our understanding of the afterlife about divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. What follows here is a copost – a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion. The concept that there are three subdivisions within the Celestial Kingdom is based on one section in the Doctrine and Covenants (131). In the current edition of the scriptures, it reads as follows: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” The assumption is that “celestial glory” is precisely equivalent to the Celestial Kingdom-the highest degree of glory announced in Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision (D&C 76). As it turns out, that may not be a great assumption. The word in question is “celestial”. Buchanan explained that: If we look at contemporary dictionaries (like Webster’s 1828 dictionary), “celestial” was simply a synonym for “heavenly.” In other words, Joseph Smith may have been expressing the idea that “in the heavenly glory (or just, heaven), there are three gradations.” … If we argue…

Was Jesus Married or Not?

An enigma that has been explored repeatedly over the years, both in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in Christianity more broadly, is the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little to reliably indicate either way in the established canon of the New Testament, but that hadn’t stopped people from discussing the topic. And in organizations like the Church that emphasize marriage, there are some theological reasons to want to say that he was indeed a married man.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Christopher Blythe discussed the issue in connection with a recent article published in BYU Studies. What follows here is a copost to that interview. In addressing how Latter-day Saints have approached the question “was Jesus married?” over the years, Blythe described how it has shifted within the Church. It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married. Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process: First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married. Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it). And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position. For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not…

Masonry and Mormonism

The relationship between Freemasonry and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a subject of controversy for members of the Church.  In the near future, two important studies of that relationship are slated to be published – Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski, which will be available on 9 August from Greg Kofford Books (which discusses possible influences of Freemasonry on Joseph Smith’s ministry throughout his life) and Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, which is anticipated to be released the same day by the Interpreter Foundation (and which analyzes the relationship of Freemason rituals and Latter Day Saint temple rituals).  Last week, two interviews related to these books (one with Cheryl L. Bruno and one with Jeffrey M. Bradshaw) were published on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to the two interviews. Jeffrey Bradshaw summed up the crux of the concern that members of the Church have when approaching Freemasonry.  He wrote: There are elements of the Nauvoo temple ordinances—for example, some of the signs and tokens and related language—that are almost identical in form to those used in Masonic rites. Since Freemasonry is an 18th century creation, similarities like these seem to undermine Joseph Smith’s claims that the temple ordinances are ancient. The same applies to the Restoration…

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…