Category: Mormon Studies

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…

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…

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…

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…

Temples, Sacrifices, and Revelations

Temples hold a central place in Latter-day Saint history. The narrative of building the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples and the impact it had on our theology is a dominant theme of the early Church. Even going beyond that, however, much of the history that followed has temples looming in the background, even though it would be decades before another temple was completed in Utah Territory. In one of the recent Kurt Manwaring 10 questions interviews, Richard Bennett discusses some of his thoughts on the subject and his recent publication Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice. This is only a summary with some commentary here, but I suggest reading the full interview. Richard E. Bennett is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He has been deeply involved with Mormon studies journals as a former president of the Mormon History Association, a former Associate Editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and a current member of the editorial board for BYU Studies. Bennett is the author of several historical works, including The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841–1846, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846-1848, Mormons at the Missouri: 1846-1852, and Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice. Bennett’s attention was turned to temples by his studies of the Latter-day Saint exodus: While researching and writing my two books on the exodus … I learned that temples and temple covenants played…

Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, a Review

Cover of Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

Back in June, Clark Goble mentioned that he was going to write a review of Thomas G. Alexander’s new biography Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith. It’s one of many misfortunes among the great losses of Clark passing away that we never had the opportunity to read the review he was planning on writing about the book. As a direct result of Clark’s discussion of the biography, I read the book and thought I might share some thoughts. Thomas G. Alexander was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. Along with an illustrious career in teaching, he has published several works that are important to Latter-day Saint history, including the groundbreaking Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1830 as well as Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff and Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History. Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith was written by Alexander as a part of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series—a collection of short biographies written from published sources. The biography is a fast-paced overview of Brigham Young’s life, covering key events from his childhood, his conversion to the early Latter Day Saint movement, and onward through his time as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The heaviest emphasis is on his time in Utah Territory, both during his tenure as territorial governor and…

Review: Foundational Texts of Mormonism

Here’s the shortest review possible. If you’re even moderately interested in Church history or theology or even just in close reading of scripture you should get Foundational Texts of Mormonism. If it’s not already in your library, ask for it for Christmas.

The Expanded Canon: A Review

Several months ago, my wife Lissette gave a talk in sacrament meeting on the topic of modern prophets and continuing revelation. She wanted to provide something different, something the congregation could really chew on (no “theological Twinkies“). She ended up discussing how modern-day prophets model the process of revelation for us. Drawing on Elder Bednar’s analogy of revelation as light, she illustrated that revelation could come in a sudden burst of inspiration (like a light switch) or as more gradual, increasing discernment (like a sunrise). Yet, those singular, sudden revelatory events are often incremental steps in a bigger picture. What’s more, future revelations often shed even more light on past ones. As an example, she used Joseph Smith’s multiple accounts of the First Vision. “While Joseph Smith’s vision was a singular event (akin to Bednar’s example of the light switch),” she said, its significance and impact evolved with additional experience and revelation (much like Bednar’s sunrise). The four major accounts of the First Vision differ in their details, with perhaps the biggest one being Joseph’s interpretation of the visitation’s purpose. The 1832 account focuses on Joseph’s forgiveness of sins; a kind of personal conversion story. By 1838, the narrative shifted to concerns regarding religious confusion and the eventual establishment of the Lord’s church. While these purposes are not mutually exclusive, Joseph’s understanding of the experience nonetheless expanded over time. I believe that this example of gradual development should not be seen as an…

Three Heavens in Joseph’s Environment

We all know that revelation frequently requires study. Many of the key doctrines of the restoration came from revelations given to Joseph as he was going through and modifying the Bible by way of command. Some of these were treated as modifications of the Biblical texts (such as in our Book of Moses) while others were treated as independent visions or revelations (such as D&C 76). The key part though was studying. (See D&C 9:7-8) We even know that during the work on the New Testament that Joseph began consulting a copy of Clarke’s Bible Commentary and using some of its suggestions. (Probably more interesting than where he followed Clarke are the places where he differs greatly from him) While we know that the command to work on a Bible “translation” was the catalyst for many aspects of these revelations, there were other influences as well.

Review Essay: “The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology”: Materiality and Performance

Like a paring knife to a grapefruit, Jonathan Stapley’s new book on the history of Mormon cosmology is slim, sharp, and swift to carve through pith, serving up elegant wedges of history. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology (Oxford, 2018) traces the evolution of ritual practice in Mormonism, including priesthood ordination, sealing rites, healing practices, baby blessings, and folk divination. The author’s reticence to extract neat diagrams from his findings is a virtue of the book, and any summary should be offered advisedly. Taken together, however, the chapters show a gradual migration from civic- to kinship- to church-centered forms of ritual soteriology, occurring alongside processes of codification and consolidation that, by the late 20th century, concentrate Mormon liturgical discourse and practice within the male ecclesiastical priesthood. I am no historian, and I leave it to the experts to adjudicate Stapley’s stimulating historical claims. Several points struck my picture of Mormon history–incomplete and idiosyncratic as it is–with particular explanatory power. As I understand them: Early notions of sealing and its connection to the doctrine of perseverance evolved rapidly. Initially, the Saints were “sealed up” in the soteriological sense that their salvation was permanently assured; it would “persevere” all future threats and sweep safely them to heaven. Later in the Kirtland and especially Nauvoo periods, the Saints were “sealed to” one another in a relational bond that was the vehicle of salvation, and the perseverance implied was that of the…

Review: William V. Smith’s ‘Textual Studies of the Doctrine & Covenants’

In October 2007, I returned home to Texas from my mission in Nevada. In April of the following year, the raid on the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, TX, occurred. I didn’t think much about it at the time because, you know, they weren’t real Mormons (as many LDS are wont to say). However, a good (non-member) friend called me soon after the raid and posed some questions about these polygamists Mormons, seemingly bothered that one of his best friends was mixed up in an abusive cult. I was likely too dismissive of his concerns, largely due to the mentality above. I explained the schism between the FLDS and Utah-based LDS Church, pointing out that my church had ceased practicing polygamy long ago. That seemed to satisfy him as we talked about how bizarre the whole situation was. However, just how strange all of this was to outsiders did not fully hit me until a little later at work when a newly-hired woman asked me (something along the lines of), “What church do you go to?” When I told her I was Mormon, she became rather pale. Being used to the reaction (I do live in the South), I expected her to be some kind of evangelical. However, her next question threw me: “So…is there, like…a community of Mormons around here?” I didn’t understand her at first. I pointed out that there was a chapel just down the road from where…

Helaman 12:15 and Astronomy

Helaman 12:15 reads, “according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” If you’re like me you’ve always just read that as Mormon (or possibly Nephi) just having a knowledge of heliocentric astronomy (everything orbits the sun rather than the earth). The author appears to be alluding to Joshua 10:12-13 where the moon and the sun stand still.[1] The last week I’ve been discussing the verse with some other people which have made me rethink the verse.

Perspectives on Mormon Theology Review

Dave managed to finish his review of Perspectives on Mormon Theology before I did. To cut to the chase let me just summarize my judgment of the book first. If you’re at all interested in the implications of scholarly considerations of Mormon history, exegesis, or theology then this is a must read book. Blair Van Dyke and Loyd Ericson did a fantastic job selecting the people to contribute. It has so many disparate viewpoints that nearly every position is considered and discussed. Among some, apologetics has come to have a rather bad reputation. While I doubt this book will change many views, I think it does make one think both about the weaknesses and strengths of traditional approaches along with other approaches we should consider. If I have one complaint, it’s a minor one. I do wish there were formal responses to some of the essays. Other books such as Discourses in Mormon Theology have done that to one degree or an other. As is the essays tend to stand alone even though they do address sometimes common arguments. Still that’s an extremely minor complaint and doesn’t undermine the strength of what is here. 

Church Endorses Apologetics, Sort Of

Here is a clear positive step for the Church: posting an online resources page with almost 30 links to pages or sites with information on LDS doctrine and history. Each link gets zero, one, or two asterisks, depending on if it is within the domain (zero), if it is a Church-related site like that is not within the domain (one), or if it is a third-party site not directly affiliated with the Church (two asterisks). The page is actually under the Seminaries & Institutes umbrella as part of the Doctrinal Mastery program (the upgraded Scripture Mastery). And what are they linking to, you ask?

Future Mormon Reading Club

The person who probably comes closest to my own views on many matters is Adam Miller. Back in the heyday of LDS-Herm we had tons of fantastic discussions on theology and philosophy. Ever since Adam’s last book came out I’ve wanted to do a reading club on it but just hadn’t had the time. One nice thing about this book is that it engages with a lot of the core theological topics where we disagreed. I’ve found I learn the most from disagreements. In agreements I’m usually just either confirming my biases or else I don’t read as closely as I should since I already agree. With disagreement I pay much closer attention. It forces me to rethink why I think the things I do think. Sometimes I find more reasons for my beliefs, but at other times I find myself reconsidering them.

Some Thoughts on Trends in Apologetics

First let me say upfront that I simply don’t read that many apologetic papers anymore. That’s less about any problems with the genre so much as just a lack of time. I have to be a little pickier about what I read than I used to. One day when little kids aren’t waking up all hours of the night that may change. Second let me say I’m not really interested in doing apologetics in the below. I’ll do my best to refrain from answering tangents that head in that direction. Rather, what I’m more interested in is the theoretic scaffolding behind different eras and trends in Mormon apologetics. I’ve been thinking about this a lot primarily in reaction to some of Dave’s post and Brad L’s comments to it last week. Brad in particular justifiably called me out on staking out a stronger position than I could defend. That said, I’m not sure I agree with taxonomy of apologetics many took for granted in that discussion. Please take this in the spirit it was intended. A loose set of categories that I see in the history of apologetics. Further I’ll say up front this is pretty preliminary. I may be completely wrong in some points. I look forward to your critiques.

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Secular Age Round 3

(Links to Rounds 1 and 2) These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the  “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” [1]. According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable. Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had to be removed for exclusive humanism to emerge. One was the belief that the natural world was divinely orchestrated—part of a semiotic cosmos that pointed beyond to an order and force beyond itself (God). Secondly, society was embedded in a higher time and higher reality: collective rituals, holy days, and other practices brought society into contact with the “higher” dimension of time or existence, as well as protected them from malevolent forces. The “higher reality” —the Kingdom of God— made…

Changing of the Guard at Dialogue

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought gets a new editor every five or six years, and that time is now upon us. As a subscriber and supporter, I wanted to get a sense of where the incoming editor, Boyd Jay Petersen, is going to take the journal, so I bought a copy of his Dead Wood and Rushing Water: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family (Greg Kofford Books, 2013) to get the lowdown. After all, Kristine is a hard act to follow. After reading the book, I am optimistic. To offer a few comments, I will highlight one essay from each of the three sections in the book.

Seer Stones and the New Narrative

A week ago, the Church released a suddenly iconic photograph of Joseph Smith’s favorite seer stone, and also posted at an article by three LDS historians, “Joseph the Seer,” to be published in the October 2015 Ensign. It seems clear that the image plus the content of the article are going to rewrite the standard (“official”) LDS narrative concerning Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon text. I’m concerned it may also bring folk magic back into that narrative and even back into mainstream LDS culture. That seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Historians Saying Interesting Things … About Mormonism

Between the new polygamy essays at and the new religion curriculum at the BYUs, there has been a lot to argue about this week. Let’s try something a little friendlier: The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years (U. of Illinois Press, 2006). It has been on my shelf a couple of years now. I recently pulled it down as part of my new plan to actually read the LDS books that I buy. The book contains 21 articles, all variations on “Mormonism and X” but all terribly interesting. That template derives from MHA’s format for the lecture series: an accomplished historian (all non-LDS as far as I can tell) who works in a field related to LDS history but who has not studied Mormonism directly is invited to research and present something interesting about “Mormonism and X.” Here is what three of these historians talked about.

FAIR Conference, Day 2

Below is the agenda for Day 2 of the FAIR Conference in Provo with brief bios of the speakers. I will be adding summaries of some of the sessions as the day goes by. (Disclaimer: these are on-the-fly summaries for general information and discussion. Please consult audio recordings or the transcripts that FAIR releases in a week or two for accurate details.) Full bios are available at the speakers page. You can get online streaming of the conference sessions.