Category: Latter-day Saint Thought

Doctrine – Theology – Philosophy

The Ordeal of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel

I’ve talked before about how if we 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. Dr. John Milton Bernhisel is another of those individuals who had a surprisingly large impact compared to how often we talk about him today. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Bruce W. Worthen–author of Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel (University of Illinois Press, 2023)–shared insights on this important character from early Latter-day Saint history. What follows here is a copost to the full interview. Bruce Worthen explained some of why John Bernhisel was so important. Dr. John Milton Bernhisel was a man whose fingerprints are all over early Latter-day Saint history. He was a rare upper-class convert to the faith who negotiated between America’s political leaders and the angry Latter-day Saints residing on the western frontier. From his unsuccessful attempts to save the life of Joseph Smith to his success in securing a presidential pardon for Brigham Young, Bernhisel was in the middle of the Latter-day Saint conflict. As a representative of the Latter-day Saints in Washington, Bernhisel negotiated the boundaries of Latter-day Saint theopolitical ambitions with some of nineteenth-century America’s most influential political figures, including Henry Clay, Thomas Benton, Stephen A. Douglas, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, and Abraham…

VII. The GAEL and Linguistic Typology

The GAEL provides for a mode of interpretation that finds expansive (but not unlimited) meaning in seemingly simple characters. Zakioan-hiash, as we have seen, is both a name, a word with a specific phonetic realization, and the equivalent of at least one sentence.

A Female Journal of Discourses

“Some called her the poetess, the presidentess, and the priestess.” This description of Eliza R. Snow and her titles was shared by Jenny Reeder in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk about the Eliza R. Snow discourses that have been published by the Church Historian’s Press. What follows here is a copost to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In describing who Eliza R. Snow (Smith Young) was and why she is so notable, Jenny Reeder wrote: Eliza R. Snow was one of the most influential Latter-day Saint women of the nineteenth century. She was born in Beckett, Massachusetts; then moved to Mantua, Ohio, when she was 2; then joined the church and moved from Kirtland to Missouri to Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. Some called her the poetess, the presidentess, and the priestess for her work on hymns we continue to use today, following Emma Smith’s role as general Relief Society president, and her work in the Endowment House and the St. George temple. Brigham Young assigned her to assist bishops in organizing Relief Societies in their wards beginning in 1868. She worked with Mary Isabella Horne to organize retrenchment organizations and young ladies’ associations, and she helped Aurelia Spencer Rogers plan out her ideas for Primary. Reeder also shared a welcome President Snow received when she visited Kanab with her counselor wherein the women there stated that: We…

IV. The GAEL and the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a

In his 2009 article, Chris Smith argued for the textual dependence of the Book of Abraham on the GAEL. While Dan Vogel’s recent book about the Book of Abraham and related apologetics strenuously objects to any suggestion that the GAEL was reverse engineered from the translation of Abraham, Vogel nevertheless entirely rejects the basis of Chris Smith’s argument.

Robert Alter’s Translation of the Hebrew Bible

I’ve always wondered how well the talks of different general authorities translate to other languages.  For example, I can imagine that a lot of the alliteration that a few apostles adopt in their addresses doesn’t carry over.  And I know from my work on translating Spanish hymns that translating between languages is an inexact science and involves compromises to keep certain aspects of the original language – rhyme, meter, literal meaning of words, nuances conveyed in idioms, etc.  It’s almost impossible to carry all of those together across from one language to another.  Largely because of this, translations of the Bible have proliferated, with each trying to convey the meaning of the texts from the original languages in different ways.  For example, Robert Alter’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible focuses on carrying the literary forms of the Hebrew texts.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Robert Alter discussed his translation. Robert Alter is a noted scholar who received his doctorate from Harvard University and is a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature.  His doctorate was in modern comparative literature, but he noted in the interview that: “as an undergraduate I spent three years studying biblical texts rigorously with H. L. Ginsburg, one of the leading philological scholars of the Bible of his generation.”  His familiarity with literary forms and biblical texts came together to lead to his translation: In the late 1970s I published…

I. Putting the grammar back in GAEL

Scholars from seemingly every corner of Mormon Studies agree: While working on the Egyptian papyri, Joseph Smith and his associates were either unaware of Champollion’s recent work to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, ­or simply unaffected by the recent advances in Egyptology. Not only is this position untenable, it’s demonstrably incorrect.

Voices of the Wives of Joseph Smith

Plural marriage in Nauvoo continues to be one of the thorniest issues when discussing the life and legacy of Joseph Smith.  One of the major works that helped shed greater light on the roots of plural marriage and the women who practice it with the Prophet is Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness, published in 1997.  Not too long ago, a sequel or companion volume called In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents was published by Signature Books. Todd Compton recently discussed this latest volume in an interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk. In describing the original book, In Sacred Loneliness, Compton wrote that: For those who haven’t read the book, I should mention that it deals with Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Nauvoo. However, it mainly provides chapter-length biographies of his plural wives. The book takes them from birth, through the Latter-day Saint migrations, and into Utah (or California or other states, in a few cases). Their lives were mixed: sometimes very tragic, sometimes generally happy. The women often lived in large polygamous families in Utah, and experienced what I call “practical polygamy.” It could be difficult. It’s very powerful to understand the lives of some of the first women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to agree to practice plural marriage and what they went through. The effort to write a follow-up volume 20 years later came in connections with another writing project.  As Compton…

What You Might Be Missing in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus

“Most readers of Matthew’s Gospel take one look at that first page full of ‘begats’ and impossible-to-pronounce names and quickly turn the page.” So begins Julie Smith’s thoughtful essay “Why These Women in Jesus’s Genealogy?”, which is available free of charge in the Segullah journal (2008) and is reprinted in her book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. “But,” Smith continues, “Matthew was a deliberate writer.” She goes on to highlight that among more than 25 men in Jesus’s line, Matthew includes just four women (plus Mary), and they aren’t the matriarchs, as one might have expected (such as Abraham’s wife Sarah or Isaac’s wife Rebekah). Rather, the women she includes are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Smith goes on to reflect on why Matthew may have included each of these women who were outside of the social mainstream in at least some way. Smith poses a range of hypotheses; readers can, of course, decide for themselves.  I strongly recommend reading the (short, accessible) article yourself. But I’ll share two passages that I marked with exclamation points in my hard copy.  “These women are, as Jesus is, intercessors: Tamar enables Judah’s line to continue; Rahab brings her family into the house of Israel; Ruth brings the Moabites into David’s line; and Bathsheba brings her son Solomon to the throne.” And one more: “Modern readers generally do this Gospel an injustice by skimming over the genealogy as if…

The Emmeline B. Wells Diaries

Emmeline B. Wells is a crucial figure in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was a leader in the Church as a Relief Society president, an advocate for women’s suffrage, a noted periodical editor, an early settler in Utah, etc. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Cherry Silver and Sheree Bench discussed the Emmeline B. Wells diaries that the Church Historian’s Press has published online. First off, the interview shares some information about who Wells was and why she was notable: Emmeline B. Wells was the most renowned Latter-day Saint woman of her generation. She was celebrated as an editor, public speaker, community activist, and defender of her faith. Born in Massachusetts in 1828, she emigrated first to Nauvoo and then from Winter Quarters to Utah in 1848. She edited the Woman’s Exponent from 1877 to 1914, was involved in local politics, and served on the boards of national women’s organizations. She led the Relief Society as its fifth general president between 1910 and 1921 and died in Salt Lake City in April 1921. Emmeline was married three times and had six children. A son with James Harris died in infancy in Nauvoo. Two daughters with Newel K. Whitney were born in Salt Lake City and became civic leaders. Of her three daughters with Daniel H. Wells, two died of illness as young adults. The third, Annie…

Online Christmas concerts: Salt Lake brings inclusiveness and simplicity. Europe does not.

Besides the large public Christmas concerts at Temple Square, the Church also offers a less spectacular, pre-recorded one-hour Christmas concert for online view, worldwide. For 2022 the Church produced “The Promise of Christmas”. Bravo! I don’t know if they employ a Diversity Consultant, but they certainly hit the mark. Opening: immediate focus on two singing non-Caucasian girls, next broadening to the full One Voice Children’s Choir. The kids all casually dressed, naturally moving on stage. Black presenter Stephen Jones, in his warm, easygoing style, sets the tone for an intimate musical journey with church members from around the world. The program features genuine singing from Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, and from a string of joyful groups in the Africa West Area, flashing a modern Africa in urban settings, future-oriented, and thus avoiding the folklorization of aboriginal villages. Heart-warming are the cozy strings of the “Simply Three”, accompanied by a black pianist. A few other groups bring simple, pleasant music for all audiences. All casually dressed: all should feel included. Personally, I would have liked to see more contributions from other countries instead of the noisy Utah Pipe Band, the bubbly BYU Folk Dancers, or the impeccable BYU Vocal Point, but others certainly enjoy those US contributions. At the center of this Salt Lake-based concert is the adorable telling of the nativity story, with very simple, quietly animated drawings in black and white—suitable for all cultures and age groups. No…

Christmas Carols in the French Hymnbook

A few years ago, I talked about Christmas songs that are included in the various translations of the Latter-day Saint hymnbook that are not in the English hymnal.  I’m hoping to share the music and translations of those songs over the next few Decembers, starting this time with the music in the French hymnbooks.  In this case, there are three Christmas hymns in the hymnbook that appear in the French edition that aren’t in the English: “He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and “Sing We Now of Christmas“. He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child “He Is Born” (“Il est né le divin Enfant”) is a relatively well-known carol that is included in the French and Tahitian hymnbooks.  For the translation presented below, I’ve used the Samuel Bradshaw translation paired with the music from the French hymnal. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”) is a well-known German Christmas song frequently sung during the Advent season that leads up to Christmas. It is also one of the Christmas sonsg featured most frequently in Latter-day Saint hymnbooks outside of the English edition.  It is included in the German, Dutch, French, Icelandic, and Swedish editions of the hymnal.  I’ve elected to use the translation that I’m most accustomed to (the Theodore Baker translation) paired with the music from the French hymnal.  Given that the French…

Zion and 19th Century Cross-cultural Missionary Work

How does a faith that claims global reach while being rooted in a specific Anglo-American context in the 19th century interact with cultures that are different from the Anglo-American culture of their time?  Further, how did they approach that issue while also being a pariah among the general Anglo-American culture?  These are some of the types of questions that are examined in Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto discussed some of her study. The book Imperial Zions studies the intersection of missionary work and polygamy while interacting with Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.  As Hendrix-Komoto explained: Imperial Zions is an attempt to understand how the meaning of Latter-day Saint missionary work shifted as they moved between imperial spaces. In Hawai‘i, Latter-day Saints positioned themselves against existing Protestant missionaries and U.S. imperialism. In the Intermountain West, they became the agents of U.S. colonialism. At the same time, I am interested in how Native Americans understood the Church and have analyzed oral histories, personal correspondence, and church records to understand how Native Latter-day Saints created a vision of the faith that centered their experiences rather than those of their white co-religionists. It’s a complicated matrix to explore, since it examines so many different perspectives. For example, on one front there is the attempts at vilification and discrediting of Latter-day Saints by…

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…

Imperial Zions

Latter-day Saints in the 19th century existed at a paradoxical intersection of American history.  When they fled to Alta California to settle the Great Basin, they were refugees fleeing from the United States.  Defiantly practicing plural marriage in the face of federal laws that opposed the principle, they came to face a heavy-handed effort by Americans to colonize their community of Deseret to match the broader American culture.  At the same time, they were colonizers in their own right, settling land claimed by other peoples for hundreds of years by dispossessing the Native Americans, while also launching a missionary effort into the Pacific Ocean.  In Imperial Zions: Religion, Race, and Family in the American West and the Pacific, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto explores these paradoxes and how the Latter-day Saints (Euro-American, Native American, and Pacific Islander) navigated them. In many ways, Imperial Zions itself sits at the intersection of several landmark studies of Latter-day Saint history, synthesizing them together while building on that foundation.  I felt like it brought together W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color (Oxford University Press, 2015), Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females (Knopf, 2017), Darren Parry’s The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History (BCC Press, 2019), and Hokulani Aikau’s A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) together in one place to have a conversation and work out how they all fit together in a larger…