Category: Church History

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…

Method Infinite: On Masonry and Mormonism

The recently-published Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski (Greg Kofford Books, 2022) is an insightful and information-packed volume about a plethora of possible points of contact between Freemasonry and the Restoration of the Church of Christ.   While many studies of Masonry and the Latter Day Saint movement focus primarily on temple rituals, Method Infinite covers the entirety of Joseph Smith’s life and follows the influence of Masonic ideas and rituals into some of the major branches of Mormonism that emerged in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death.  The book starts with a brief history of Freemasonry and its existence in the early United States of America, then discusses how Joseph Smith grew up in an environment saturated with Freemasonry.  It points to ideas that were being discussed or practiced by Freemasons and compares these with strains of Latter Day Saint thought and action, suggesting that Joseph Smith saw himself as the restorer of the pure form of Masonry from the outset and that he viewed the Freemasonry practiced at the time as an apostate or spurious form of Masonry.  Evidences for this idea that are pointed out have to do with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, the way various organizations within or connected to the Church were organized, specific teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders, the ways that the City…

Daughter of Mormonism

Susa Young Gates was an interesting and important personality, and Romney Burke’s recently-published biography Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022) provides a well-researched glimpse into her life. Perhaps the best-known daughter of President Brigham Young, Susa led a life as a prominent figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  She would go on to serve missions in Hawaii, write prolifically about the Church, serve prominently on the National Council of Women in the United States and also participate in the International Council of Women as a feminist advocate, serve in the general boards of both the Young Lady’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society and edit publications for both, teach courses at universities in Utah, and raise a family with children who would go on to make their own significant contributions in the Church.  She could also be outspoken, overbearing, and tactless in pursuing her goals, which could cause her trouble, but also showed herself to be very capable in getting things done and in rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous. Burke’s biography follows her life chronologically at first, then shifts to addressing different aspects of her life and career topically by chapters, then returns to discussing the twilight of her lifetime at the end of the book in a more chronological fashion.  The book is meticulously researched, drawing on a treasure trove of documents that record her life, particularly from a…

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…

The Poisoning of Deseret

One biographer of the famed British composer and ethnomusicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams posted a question – how could Vaughan Williams be both a socialist and a nationalist at the same time?  One tended towards trying to eliminate boundaries and differences while the other tended toward glorying in boundaries and difference.  He answered through two different quotes from the composer himself: I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.[1] Art, like charity, should begin at home.  If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself [the artist], the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. … Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art? … The composer must not shut himself up and think about great art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.[2] His approach was a melding of aspects of both sides – embracing and loving your own culture and community, but not at the expense of respect for other people’s culture and making room for them to do the same. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading about the history and composers of European art music.  (I know, I’m weird.)  One trend of the…

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…

Accuracy of the Journal of Discourses

One of my ongoing dreams is to be able to afford a full set of the Journal of Discourses as part of my collection of Latter-day Saint books (though given the price tag,  it probably won’t happen any time soon). In any case, the Journal of Discourses holds an interesting place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It is not an official Church publication, contains a lot of statements that aren’t regarded as doctrinally sound today, and its accuracy is questionable, but it is also one of the primary sources through which we access the words of earlier Church leaders.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, LaJean Carruth (a professional transcriber of manuscripts written in Pitman and Taylor shorthands and the Deseret Alphabet at the Church History Library) discussed some of her findings from transcribing the original shorthand records behind some of the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses. In the interview, Carruth shared an introduction to the Journal of Discourses: The Journal of Discourses began as a private venture endorsed by the First Presidency. George Darling Watt reported the proceedings of Sunday sermons, general conferences, and other meetings in Pitman shorthand. He then transcribed many of these for publication in the Deseret News. He was not paid for this work, and had a large family to support. It was suggested that Watt publish transcriptions of his sermons in England, and use the profits from this transcription…

The Smith Family and the First Vision

One of the more interesting points of contention about the history of the First Vision is how much Joseph Smith’s family knew about the First Vision.  During his lifetime, only 4 accounts of the First Vision were published in English – Orson Pratt’s “A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions” in 1840, the official history of the Church that began to be published in the Times and Seasons  in 1842, the Wentworth letter (also published in the Times and Seasons in 1842), and an interview with David Nye White that was published in the Pittsburgh Weekly in 1843.  Other contemporary accounts were recorded in private journals, unpublished histories, or were published in German.  The best-known accounts from Joseph Smith’s family were recorded years later and often seem to conflate the First Vision and Moroni’s visit, which has given rise to the thought that he may not have told them much about the First Vision.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, however, Kyle Walker discussed some reminiscences from Joseph Smith’s younger sister, Katherine Smith Salisbury that indicate that he may have told more to his family than was previously thought.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, with excerpts and some discussion. In explaining what the accounts from Katherine say, Walker stated the following: Katharine recalled the persecution directed towards the family that was a direct result from Joseph telling the Methodist minister about his First Vision. She even…

Ghostwriter to the Prophet

I suspect that if we really 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. In a recent From the Desk interview, Bruce A. Van Orden discussed one candidate for that last that tends to get overlooked – William Wines Phelps. Best remembered for his contributions to the hymnals of the Church,  he was also an important publisher and author of Church literature,  sometimes acting as a ghostwriter for Joseph Smith. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and discussions) to the full interview. Bruce A. Van Orden described some of W. W. Phelps’s contributions and background: In D&C 57, W. W. Phelps was called as “printer unto the church” and to dedicate his writings to building the Kingdom of God. More than any other man up through 1845, he was the major writer of gospel themes in the church. He was also instrumental in leading the Missouri saints ecclesiastically from 1832 to 1838 and in being one of Joseph Smith’s key scribes. Consequently, I claim that W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential Latter-day Saints in the Church’s first 15 years. … W. Phelps penned twenty-five hymns entirely by himself. More surprisingly, he adapted in various ways another thirty-seven pieces, making sixty-two in all where his words are…

Susa Young Gates

When I was a child, I heard of Susan B. Anthony, Susa Young Gates, and John Sousa, but had trouble separating them out in my mind because of similarities in name.  The result was that I thought Brigham Young had this rockstar daughter who was featured on a silver dollar for her women’s rights activism and who wrote the “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other popular marches.  Well, obviously that’s not quite true to reality, though at the same time, aspects of it aren’t that far from the truth – Susa Young Gates was Brigham Young’s daughter, was highly involved in women’s rights activism, and was a musician.  In a recent From the Desk interview, Romney Burke (whose biography of Susa Young Gates was recently published) discussed more about this notable woman in Church history.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and commentary). In the interview, Romney Burke introduced who Susa Young Gates is and what she did: Susa Young Gates was a human dynamo. She served on the general boards of the Young Woman’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society. She started the journals for both organizations. She served as an officer in the National and International Councils of Women. Her work in genealogy really established the guidelines we still use today in family history. She knew virtually all the important figures in the women’s rights movement, including Susan B. Anthony. She met…

Considering Emma Hale Smith

Emma Smith isn’t just an elect lady, she’s a complicated one too.  Jenny Reeder, author of First: The Life and Faith of Emma Hale Smith, recently discussed reasons for why that is the case in an interview with From the Desk.  Alternatively vilified or considered an hero of the Restoration in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reeder wanted people to know first and foremost that Emma was a real person, complete with flaws and a very complicated relationship with the Church. One of the more difficult aspects for members of the Church today to consider was Emma’s complicated relationship with plural marriage and her split from the Brighamite portion of the church.  When my wife and I were doing the readings for the “Emma Smith is an Elect Lady” section of Come Follow Me (D&C 25) last year, we decided to read the section of the At the Pulpit that shared thoughts from Emma Smith.  When we read her statement that Relief Society members needed “unite to expose iniquity, to search it out and put it away,” I laughed a little because, as I read it, she was targeting polygamy that was being practiced in secret by her husband and other Latter Day Saints.  Apparently Jenny Reeder was involved in compiling that section of At the Pulpit and had some concerns about that very issue: I knew we had to include something from Emma Smith, but unfortunately that meant cobbling together some…

Collected Thoughts on the Doctrine and Covenants

I spent most of 2021 writing a series of posts to follow along with the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum for the Doctrine and Covenants.  I had a few reasons for doing this.  First and foremost, I wanted to challenge myself to look more closely at the scriptures, to really read and think about what the Doctrine and Covenants says and the context in which it says it to deepen my personal understanding.  Studying the Joseph Smith Papers resources around the earliest versions of the revelations and then writing about an idea or thought that caught my attention is an approach that helped me do that.  Second, there were several ideas that run through the Doctrine and Covenants that I’ve been musing on for years and wanted to take the time and effort to really collect and organize my thoughts on those topics, such as the endowment of power and the development of temple ritual.  Third, I noticed that there was a surprising dearth of literature about the Doctrine and Covenants compared to the other sections of scriptures (that’s not to say that there isn’t literature about it out there, just not nearly as much available as the Bible or the Book of Mormon), so, for better or worse, I wanted to offer my own contribution to that literature in a format that was freely available and which drew on the scholarly analyses that I have read. The results varied from…

George D. Watt’s Journey

I’ve heard it said before that Leroy Anderson was America’s best-known forgotten composer. It could likewise be said that George D. Watt is Mormonism’s best-known forgotten reporter.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring discussed why Watt is important and the recent publication of his 1851 journal with LaJean Carruth and Ronald G. Watt.  What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter discussion with excerpts). In the interview, Ronald G. Watt (a former archivist for the Latter-day Saint Church Historical Department and George’s great grandson) explained that: George D. Watt was born in Manchester, England, on May 18, 1812. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Preston, England, and ran a footrace with at least one other man to be the first person baptized into the Church in the British Isles in 1837. He moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in 1842, and then returned to Britain in 1846 as a missionary. In February 1851, he traveled from Liverpool, England, to Great Salt Lake City with a large group of Latter-day Saint emigrants. The 1851 Journal of Missionary George D. Watt includes his journal of that trip from Liverpool to Chimney Rock, and we have included other items. Watt’s main significance in the Church, though, came through his ability to report the words of Church leaders.  He had learned to use Pitman shorthand, which LaJean Carruth explained is “a form of…

Mormon Doctrine, McConkie, and Modern Mormonism

Bruce R. McConkie stands in an interesting place in the history of the Church. For some, he holds a place in the upper echelons of a pantheon of Latter-day Saint thinkers and writers who have shaped, advocated, and defended the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For others, he is seen as an example of anti-intellectualism who mingled the doctrines of the Church with fundamentalist Protestant beliefs and outlooks.  Regardless of where one stands, mention of Elder McConkie is likely to lead to a strong reaction when it comes to discussing Church history and beliefs.  In a recent, lengthy interview with Kurt Manwaring, Dennis B. Horne (one of McConkie’s biographers) shared some of his perspectives on the influential apostle.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview, focusing in on a small part of what is discussed. One thing that has been an area of ongoing discussion in Latter-day Saint thought is McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine.  Originally published in 1958, this encyclopedic work on doctrine is known for its authoritative tone and topical discussions of Latter-day Saint beliefs.  Controversial for its inclusion of McConkie’s beliefs about people with black African ancestry, evolution, the Great and Abominable Church, etc., it has been an ongoing target of criticism.  Horne responded to some of those criticisms, such as the ones leveled by Greg Prince and Wm. Wright in their biography of President David O. McKay.  For example, one part…

The Constitution of the Council of Fifty

What is the Kingdom of God? If it were a political entity, how would it be organized? What sort of charter would it have? In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk, Nathan Oman discussed an early effort to think through these types of questions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as the Council of Fifty. What follows here is a copost to the full interview, which is available here. Believing that the Last Days were at hand, “Latter-day Saints expected secular governments to fail and that religious community would form the nucleus of a divinely inspired government to replace them,” Oman explained. The Council of Fifty was intended to be that nucleus–a shadow government of sorts to step in and take the place of existing political systems as they collapsed in the final days.  While that sounds like a conspiracy that could lead to some dramatic stories, the reality was much more tame.  “Practically, the Latter-day Saints were facing rising persecution in the United States and needed a forum in which leaders could discuss plans to deal with that persecution—and ultimately to relocate beyond the then-borders of the United States,” and they spent most of their time discussing “practical and political matters related to the Latter-day Saint community, particularly plans to quit the United States and settle someplace in the western interior of North America.” Still, one interesting aspect of this Council…

Saints, Volume 3: A Review

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldy, Nobly, and Independent, 1893-1955 is a fantastic addition to the Church’s official histories.  Picking up after the ending of the previous volume at the dedication of the Salt Lake City Temple, this volume begins with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and wraps up with the dedication of the Bern, Switzerland Temple in 1955.  It covers a time of growth and transition for the Church and discusses shifts and decisions at Church headquarters in Utah that are significant in shaping the institution today; expansion in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia; the development of the welfare programs of the Church during the Great Depression; and the experiences of Church members in the two world wars.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume and look forward to its general release tomorrow, April 22. The writing style of the book is very readable, continuing the approach of being written in the style of a novel with focus characters throughout.  In the early parts of the book, Susa Gates continues to be a central character, along with her daughter Leah Dunford and son-in-law John Widtsoe.  Along with these people, other individuals from Church History are used as the ensemble of characters for the book, such as B. H. Roberts, Heber J. Grant, Hirini Whaanga, and others.  As time passes, the narrative shifts its focus onto other individuals, including…

Saints 3: Thoughts from Scott Hales and Jed Woodworth

I hope by now it’s apparent that I am a fan of the Saints history series and that I’ve been really looking forward to Volume 3, which comes out on the 22nd.  I will say, it’s fantastic, but you’ll get to read more of my thoughts next week.  Today, however, Kurt Manwaring published an interview with Scott Hales (General Editor and lead writer) and Jed Woodworth (General Editor and lead historian) that discusses the volume.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview. In Volume 3, we’re entering an era in the volume where the Church begins to become the modern Church as we know it, and with the growth that comes during that era, it becomes more difficult to capture all the different threads of the Church’s worldwide history.  Hales and Woodworth discussed some of how they deal with that growing complexity in a way that doesn’t bloat down the narrative: Scott Hales: When we’re considering a story for Saints, we look for three things. First, we’re looking for interesting stories—stories that will engage readers. Second, we’re looking for sacred stories—stories that show people making and keeping covenants with God. Third, we’re looking for stories that show change in the Church over time. We look for stories that help us advance the narrative and show how the Church changes and evolves under the Lord’s direction. Since we know we can’t make Saints a comprehensive history of the Church, our aim is to make it…