Category: From the Desk Co-posts

Art and Latter-day Saint History with Anthony Sweat

Some years ago, an institute teacher in a Church history class I attended said with some levity that: “I bear my testimony that Church media is not true.”  He said this hyperbolic statement in the context of a class where we talked about Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon, and he went on to discuss how there seem to be many different approaches that Smith took during over the course of the translation process.  The class took place around the time that the Gospel Topics Essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon had been published, in which the Church openly acknowledged that Joseph Smith spent at least some of the time looking at a seer stone in a hat.  Many of class members had felt that it was a bit jarring to learn that their perceptions about the translation process were not completely accurate, and as part of the discussion in class, they had realized that a lot of those perceptions had been adopted through viewing artwork depicting the translation process, and the teacher was trying to address that issue.  He added his comment in jest as a way to drive home the point that while artistic representations of Church history can be beautiful and useful, they aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be understood as sources that define doctrine and history in the Church. In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring, Anthony Sweat—an Associate Professor of Church History…

Louis Midgley on Hugh Nibley, the Maori, and More

In an interview ranging from discussing Hugh Nibley to missionary work in New Zealand to systematic theologies to the dedication of the Swiss Temple, Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Latter-day Saint apologist (and retired professor of political science) Louis C. Midgley.  What follows here is a co-post to one at Kurt Manwaring’s site, where I’ll focus in on a couple points of particular interest, but for those interested in reading more, hop on over to the full interview here. Louis Midgley was a friend and colleague of Hugh Nibley and has worked hard to defend Nibley’s career and to share his writings with the world.  At a few points throughout the interview, he shared stories about Hugh Nibley.  One humorous one from Nibley’s mission was that: When Hugh Nibley was a missionary in Germany before WW II, a local branch took up a collection for someone who really needed a suit. Hugh chipped in with some money. He did not realize that he was the one for whom they were raising money—it was his suit that was in rags. A more poignant story was about Nibley at the end of his lifetime: Phyllis called me and urged me to visit her husband. I did. And we talked. Hugh was in a hospital bed. He could hardly speak. He’d mumble and we’d talk back and forth. We talked a bit about New Zealand and the Maori. Since he had heard…

Keith Erekson and the Scholars of Pajamalot

In a recent interview with Keith Erekson (the director of the Church History Library and a member of the editorial board of the Church Historian’s Press), Kurt Manwaring discussed a variety of topics, including the forthcoming publication of the William Clayton journals, the impact of Mark Hofmann on the Church History Library, and a moniker for the current era for the Church History Library.  It’s an interesting interview, so I recommend reading the full text here, but what follows below is a co-post, covering the highlights with some quotes and discussion. First things first, the item that will probably be of most interest to many of our readers is information about the William Clayton journals.  There have been several holy grails from the Church archives that historians have wanted to get their hands on but have been unable to do so until recently—the Council of 50 minutes, the George Q. Cannon journals, and the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book being a few examples to go alongside the William Clayton journals.  About three years ago, Matthew Grow caused a stir by announcing that William Clayton’s Diaries were going to be published.  As J Stuart explained at the time: “The Clayton Diaries … [are] one of the best sources to understanding Joseph Smith’s personal life, thoughts, and activities in Nauvoo.”[1]  Erekson also explained in his recent interview that: “The journals are significant because they contain contemporary information about plural marriage in Nauvoo…

Kent P. Jackson on the Joseph Smith Translation

Joseph Smith’s translation projects have been a hot topic this year.  Among many others, earlier this fall we did two posts that discussed the possibility that Joseph Smith relied on the Adam Clarke commentaries for some of the changes he made in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.  Recently, Kent P. Jackson (a retired professor of religion at Brigham Young University) published a response to the articles that we were discussing, which share evidence of Joseph Smith using the Adam Clarke commentary.  In his article, published in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, Jackson expressed his conclusion that “none of the examples they provide can be traced to Clarke’s commentary, and almost all of them can be explained easily by other means. … The few overlaps that do exist are vague, superficial, and coincidental.”[1]  Kurt Manwaring sat down with Kent Jackson for an interview to discuss his viewpoint, and what follows here is a co-post—a summary with some quotes and commentary on the interview.  To read the full interview, click here. As is often the case when we discuss the issue of Joseph Smith’s translations, the issue of whether or not they can actually be called translations came up in the interview.  Called the “New Translation” by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries (Jackson explains that the term “Joseph Smith Translation” was devised for the Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible in the 1970s because they needed…

Terryl Givens on 2nd Nephi

Terryl Givens—one of the foremost Latter-day Saint authors, theologians, and apologists of our time—recently penned a short volume on 2nd Nephi as part of the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series the Maxwell Institute has been publishing this year.  I wrote a review of the book earlier this year, but recently Kurt Manwaring recently did a 10 questions interview with Dr. Givens that is interesting and worth reading.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a summary with excerpts and some commentary), but I do recommend going to read the full interview at Kurt Manwaring’s site here. Terryl Givens states that he chose to focus on 2nd Nephi when he was approached about contributing to the series because “the teachings of Lehi and Nephi are … some of the richest in the Book of Mormon” and because “the Isaiah portions are substantial and daunting.”  In particular, Givens was drawn to the covenant theology expressed in the book of scripture: The nineteenth century religious landscape was saturated with thematic treatments of covenant theology. Joseph frequent invocation of the New and Everlasting Covenant fits squarely into that context. But his version of covenant theology, culminating in his temple theology, is the master framework for all his work of Restoration. I was surprised to realize how much of his theology is implicitly sketched—and the rest foreshadowed—by 2nd Nephi’s treatment of covenant theology. It’s an important insight into understanding…

John Turner on Brigham Young

John Turner’s well-known biography Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard University Press, 2012) provides one of the most well-rounded and in-depth look at the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It remains today one of the definitive biographies of an incredibly complicated man and leader.  Recently, Kurt Manwaring sat down with the author to discuss the book after eight years of time to reflect on the volume and on the prophet it discusses.  What follows here is a co-post, with excerpts and commentary on the interview.  For the full effect, however, I recommend going over and reading the interview here. In the interview, Turner discussed some of his thoughts about his biography on Brigham Young.  He noted that he was “incredibly gratified by the book’s reception,” including many complimentary reviews across the board.  He noted that there were “a few dissenting views, but I regard those in much the same way that Brigham regarded dissenters.” When asked if he would write the book differently today, Turner stated simply that “I wouldn’t change anything of significance,” just “a few very minor errors that careful readers brought to my attention.”  He also stated that Brigham Young probably wouldn’t “like it very much,” but noted that he (Turner) “wouldn’t want someone to write a warts-and-all biography about me either.”  Overall, John Turner still seems happy with how the biography turned out. One aspect of his biography that I appreciated…

Thoughts on the Gold Plates

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

Hebrew Studies and the Book of Abraham

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

Translation and the Adam Clarke Commentary

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

Joseph Smith’s Studies and Translations

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

The Metaphysics of Translation

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

The Wagon Box Prophecy and the Temples

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

Memory and the First Vision

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

A Prophet for President

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

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…