Category: Church History

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

Humildad: Mexican Mission Hymns, Part 3

Oh, beloved brethren! Let us always remember the teachings of the prophets, let us always remember the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ which he brought us in the meridian of time.   Let us remember also his exhortations to our people here in the Americas, which are recorded in the Book of Mormon; let us keep watch so that these great treasures which have been left to us will not be buried as they were during the time of the great apostasy.  Strive to preserve them, to cultivate them, to convert our families into strong units in Zion.[1] ~Guillermo Torres   Note: This is a part of an ongoing series.  To start at the introduction, follow the link here. Hymn Text: Humildad by W. Ernest Young was originally published in the 1912 editions of Himnos de Sion, and was included in the 1927 and 1933 editions of that book before being cut in subsequent editions. According to the 1912 edition, it was intended to be sung to the tune of hymn 223 in Songs of Zion, which was “Beautiful Isle” by J. S. Fearis.  It is notable as the only one of the 23 original hymns in the Mexican mission hymnals to have a verse-chorus structure. Figure 1. “Humildad,” in the second 1912 edition of Himnos de Sion.  Note: The author’s name is switched around slightly in the published text (Ernest W. instead of W. Ernest). The author, Walter Ernest…

Padre Nuestro en el Cielo: Mexican Mission Hymns, Part 2

“Doing good often means getting one’s hands dirty, engaging in unpleasant things, and coming out of the battle worn and scarred.  The battle for the public good is neither about holding onto or giving up everything, it is about knowing when to do much, when to hold back, a little, and when to do nothing at all.”[1] ~Ignacio M. García   Note: This is a part of an ongoing series.  To start at the introduction, follow the link here. Hymn Text: Padre Nuestro en el Cielo by Manrique González was one of the earliest-published Spanish hymns in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was published in the 1907 Mexican Mission Himnario Mormón (p. 57, see Figure 1) and in the 1912 editions of the Himnos de Sion (p.44).  It was cut from subsequent editions of the hymnbook (1927 onwards).  Textual changes between the two editions it was included in are minor, consisting solely of punctuation alterations (see Table 1).  According to the 1912 edition, the hymn was to be sung to the tune of hymn 37 in the English-language Songs of Zion, which was “We are Sowing” by H. A. Tucket (8.7.8.7 D).  Oddly, the hymn tune fits two verses of the hymn at a time, but there are 5 verses of the hymn, which doesn’t work out math-wise.  In addition, the syllables do not completely align with the music as written.  As a result, I wonder…

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…

La Proclamación: Mexican Mission Hymns, Part 1

“I know for myself that Joseph Smith was a prophet because I have applied the simple promise in the Book of Mormon: ‘Ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ’ (Moroni 10:4). In simple words, look up.”[1] ~Adrián Ochoa   Note: This is a part of an ongoing series.  To start at the introduction, follow the link here. The Text La Proclamación, by José V. Estrada G., is one of the few hymns original to Mexico that have survived up to the present (1992) Spanish-language hymnbook in the Church.  Also called “La voz, ya, del Eterno”, it was was initially included as hymn 51 in the 1912 Himnos de Sion (Mexican Mission) (see Figure 1), and was included in all subsequent editions of that collection, the 1942 Himnos de Sion that was published by the Church (Hymn 252), and the 1992 Himnos (Hymn 145).  In the original hymnal, it was intended to be sung to hymn 53 in Songs of Zion, which was “Improve the Shining Moments” by Robert B. Baird (the tune still used today).  The text itself has had a few edits over the years, particularly for the 1992 Himnos (see Table 1).   Figure 1. “La Proclamación” in the 1912 Himnos de Sion.   Table 1. Variations in text of La Proclamación over the course of Church Publications.  Changes from the 1912 edition are bolded. 1912 1942 1992 1. La voz, ya, del Eterno, Nos llama…

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,…

Grass Roots in Mexico

Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints by F. LaMond Tullis (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2021) was one of the books I was most excited to see on the lists of books coming out in 2022.  Released in early July, Grass Roots in Mexico offers an important glimpse into the Church’s history in Mexico.  The first two chapters give a brief overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  These are followed by 19 chapters of short biographies or vignettes of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  The selection includes a range of different people—from indigenous converts to Euro-American colonists from Utah, both men and women, relatively well-known stories (i.e., Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales), and some about people who are largely unknown.  The book is not, by any means, comprehensive, but it does provide snapshots of various experiences of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. One thing to know going in is that the book does have a devotional dimension to it.   It is a history of the Church written by and primarily for faithful members.  Within the vignettes (the 19 short biographies), the majority of them follow a pattern of focusing on conversion stories followed by brief overview of some way in which they contributed to the Church and then a note on how many descendants they have in the Church and what high-profile Church callings those descendants have held.  A few chapters…

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…